Tuesday, October 19, 2010

All's Well That Ends Well



Part 11 of a series through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 8:1-17


WISDOM’S SMILE

In Ecclesiastes chapter 8, we find the word "vanity" three times (vv. 10, 14). The Hebrew word for "vanity" (hebel) literally means "vapor." Vapor is something that cannot be grasped with our hands. And many things that happen "under the sun" cannot be grasped with our minds. Life is full of mysteries. One big mystery: Why is life unfair?

Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed (v. 1).

True wisdom comes from God. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10).

"Wisdom lights up a person's face" (NLT). How can our faces "shine" when we know that this world is filled with injustice? "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (7:15).

I'm a big fan of the Boston Red Sox. Back in 2004, the Red Sox were trailing the New York Yankees 3-0 in the American League Championship Series. It looked like Boston would once again lose to New York. Red Sox fans were depressed. No team had ever come back to win a seven-game series after losing the first three.

Amazingly, the Red Sox went on to win games 4, 5, 6, and 7 to beat the Yankees. They then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, which was Boston's first World Series title since 1918.

Recalling the dramatic comeback in that series always brings a smile to my face. I have always wanted to re-watch that series because now I could really enjoy it. When I watched game 6, I was so tense that I couldn’t even watch the game while the Yankees were batting. I had to change the channel. Since I now know the end of the story, I could watch with joy, not stress.

The wise person smiles because he/she knows the end of the story.


BE WISE ABOUT GOVERNMENT

Verses 2-9 deal with the need for wisdom when interacting with the king. In ancient Israel, the king had absolute power over the people. There was no democracy. "He does whatever he pleases" (v. 3).

Even though "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20), we have been commanded by God to obey our government. When asked about paying taxes to the Roman government, Jesus answered, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25).

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2; cf. vv. 3-7). Our obedience to government is part of our obedience to God.

But there are limits to our obedience to government. If obedience to government causes us to disobey God, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).


THE END OF THE STORY

When life is unfair, remember these three truths:

1. Justice delayed is not justice denied.

Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God (vv. 10-13).

Delayed justice leads people to think there are no consequences to sin.

When MLB didn't have testing and suspensions for steroid use, players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens thought they were getting away with their cheating. But now that most fans believe Bonds and Clemens took steroids during their careers, their accomplishments have become tainted. There are always consequences to unrepented sin—if not in the life, then in the afterlife.

Delayed justice is caused by the patience and kindness of God.

Many people scoff at the promise of future judgment, but, as Peter wrote (concerning the prophecy of the second coming), "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9; cf. vv. 3-8). The Bible says that God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6).

Delayed justice is intended to lead people to repentance.

In this life, there often seems to be a reversal of retribution and reward. But the story doesn’t end in this life. "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side" (Luke 16:22-23). Paul asks, "Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4).

When I was a child (perhaps seven-years-old), two of my friends climbed a tree and grabbed a power line. They said to me, "Jonathan, climb up and touch it. Nothing will happen." Thankfully, I had enough sense to say no. Probably nothing would have happened to me on that occasion, but we all know that if we touch enough power lines, eventually we will die.

Just because judgment hasn't come to the world yet, doesn't mean it's never coming. Jesus declared, "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:41-43).

"The fact that there will be a final judgment assures us that ultimately God’s universe is fair, for God is in control, and he keeps accurate records and renders just judgment" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1147). This is one reason why we can endure mistreatment in this life. Paul wrote, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'" (Romans 12:19).

"Those who fear God" (v. 12) are those who put their faith in Him. "By grace you have been saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). Our works condemn us, but God’s grace saves us. It will not be well with us unless we turn from our sin (repentance) and turn to Christ (faith).

2. There is joy in the confidence of faith.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun (vv. 14-15).

This is not the “eat, drink, and be merry” of arrogance (Luke 12:19). This is not the “eat, drink, and be merry” of despair (1 Corinthians 15:32). This is the “eat, drink, and be merry” of faith.

How can we be joyful when life is unfair? The wise person of faith says, “I am going to trust God. I know He is in control, and I believe in the end there will be justice. So right now I will ‘eat and drink and be joyful.’”

3. It’s OK that you don’t understand everything.

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that I done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (vv. 16-17).

We know the end of the story, but we don’t know all the details before the end. God works in mysterious ways. (The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did!)

We must be humble enough to admit that there are some things that we can’t know. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29). "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Romans 11:33 NIV). As someone has said, "When you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart."


FACING INJUSTICE LIKE JESUS

Jesus was perfectly righteous, but He was hated, betrayed, abandoned, and crucified. (By the way, this disproves "prosperity theology.") "One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!' But the other rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for war are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong'" (Luke 23:39-41). Nothing changed for Jesus until after His death and resurrection. "...who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 13:2; cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:22-23).

Jesus endured the cross because He knew the end of the story.

We can endure the injustices of life because we know the end of the story—in the end there will be justice.