I have heard people openly question why Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. Some people think it is pessimistic (as if the Bible had some obligation to be optimistic), others think it is gloomy, still others even think it contradicts the gospels. I have even heard clergy, who should know better, state that Ecclesiastes is preserved in scripture as a model for how we should NOT think!
All of these theories come from gut reactions and not from careful study. The words of Ecclesiastes are exceedingly wise and are not pessimistic at all. It’s straight talk about life—and straight talk is always sobering and doesn’t always give you goose bumps. Often I find that if I am overwhelmed with futility and discouragement, reading Ecclesiastes from beginning to end in one sitting—it doesn’t take long—can be a cleansing tonic. When I am in such a mood, Ecclesiastes speaks my language and clarifies my vision.
Since the very first time I read it, Ecclesiastes has been my favorite book of the Old Testament.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.
Ecclesiastes 7:2, NIV
Shall we go to a party or to a funeral? Which is better?
Most of you will choose the party, because many people are there, the mood is upbeat, and the music is loud. People get silly and there is much laughter. But what eventually comes from a party? Some people get drunk and do foolish things that result in wrecked cars or wrecked marriages. Others say foolish things or do foolish things. Most get a hangover, all lose sleep and have trouble making it through the following day. Everyone has a mess to clean up the morning after, especially the host. Once, fifteen years ago, I was lonely, so I threw a party and invited all my friends. They came, we partied, I laughed, and when they all left, I was even lonelier than before and had a messy apartment besides.
Then on another occasion I went to a funeral home to view the remains of a friend who had died. The cause of death was murder and the relatives were disconsolate. I remember how confused and distraught they all looked as the coffin was lowered into the ground in the churchyard. I even remember the gloomy weather. On that day I thought many hard thoughts and came to many painful conclusions. I resolved to change the way I lived. I saw death as unpredictable and inevitable, and I dedicated myself to a closer walk with God. Many of the things that had troubled me intensely suddenly seemed to be so trite. I could view my life from a calmer viewpoint. I cleaned up my life. I became a better friend to my friends, a better relative to my relatives, and a better employee to my employers.
Now indeed the party was fun and the funeral was unpleasant, but which was better for me? No question in my mind: the funeral was better. I can’t even remember what happened at the party, but the funeral still affects my life for the good today.
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Ecclesiastes 7:10, NIV
I’ve heard people tell horrifying stories about personal calamities, when the person listening impatiently interrupts, “Well, obviously you got out alive, or you wouldn’t be telling me this; but how did you do it?”
The old days seem better only because we know how they turned out. The only reason the present day seems worse is because we do not fully trust God for how it will turn out. If you trust God for all things in life and beyond life; if you truly trust that no matter how complex or messed up things are, God’s justice—and more importantly, God’s mercy—will prevail, then you will not yearn for past times so much.
Jesus commanded you not to worry about tomorrow. It wasn’t a suggestion. Therefore anxieties are a form of disobedience. If you are experiencing anxiety, expose it to God. Tell Him about it, and ask for His reassurance. When I was little, I played with a cactus with predictable results. It was painful and I cried, but my first reaction was to go straight to my mother to get the thorns pulled out. In the same way, if you are plagued with anxieties, don’t hide in shame. March yourself straight to God in prayer, and get those thorns pulled out.
When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.
Ecclesiastes 7:14a, NIV
Remember hidey-peek? Mothers play this game with their children to teach them that just because Mommy cannot be seen, it doesn’t mean she’s gone for good.
There are people who think that because they are experiencing bad times that God is not with them. They either blame themselves for wandering or accuse God of abandonment, depending on their disposition. But in truth, God is neither closer nor farther away when times are bad. If you can’t see God in your life, it is probably because you have your hands covering your eyes.
There is no promise that you will not go through bad times. The children of Israel entered the promised land only after 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering in the desert. On the contrary, there is a promise that you will go through bad times—and the key word here is ‘through.’ God will not abandon you in your bad times, but will lead you through them to the other side, to a better place. That better place can only be reached by way of those bad times.
Remember Jesus, who was betrayed and abandoned by His friends, who was publicly humiliated and crucified, and who died as a common criminal on a cross. Yet He is exalted above all things! Jesus went through bad times, but God was in those bad times. Jesus even prayed a prayer of submission to God’s will in those bad times. The path to Jesus’ glory took Him through those bad times.
So if God let His own Son go through bad times, who are you to claim an exemption? And if Jesus promised that you will be where He is now, what should your attitude be towards bad times?