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Choose the ‘better than’ to do

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16) Spoken on: July 17, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev Enoch Keong
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: Ecclesiastes, 传道书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev Enoch Keong: Rev. Keong is currently serving as a pastor in the youth and young adult ministries, as well as the John zone pastor in Jubilee Church.

Title: Choose the ‘better than’ to do
Date 17 & 24 July 2016
Preacher: Rev Enoch

We are looking this morning at a passage that talks about 5 life situations. We’ve heard and read the verses. Do we see clear connections between these life situations? Probably not. The 5 situations include the presence of oppression in our world, the advantages of belonging to a community verse being alone, and the glory of a king. These are different topics. Why are they put together? Is the preacher trying to talk about 5 different things or using 5 areas in life to lead us to think in one single direction? For this morning’s meditation, I suggest we begin by tackling this question. And I believe we will see in while why there’s a need to do so.

When the content of a piece of writing seems to be shooting in different directions, we can try to look for common features in the different sections. If we spot something, then we may have found the clue toward understanding the passage. Take for example the song “Don’t worry, be happy”. The stanzas always start with something about life, and then we come to the famous chorus. And in no time, we know that it’s the axiom “Don’t worry, be happy” and not the different life situations that the song is talking about.

Our passage this morning uses a technique similar to the song “Don’t worry, be happy”, only that it does it in a more subtle and complex manner.

If we are careful readers, unlike me that need bible commentaries to see this, we would have noticed a feature in the passage. The words ‘better than’ keep appearing, we find them in verses 3, 6, 9 and 13. And this is something interesting since the passage is composed with 5 sections talking about 5 different life situations. From the slides, we see that these verses with the feature appear at the closing of the first 2 sections and the opening of the last 2 sections. The repeated pattern is here sending a message. The Preacher is exhorting us to make wise choices in life. This, better than that, so we?

But there’s an even more subtle message that the Preacher is sending here, the English word ‘good’ and ‘better’ are translations of the same Hebrew word tob. And when we rewind to the last verse of the previous chapter, this is what we see, “there is nothing better (Hebrew: en tob) than that a man should rejoice in his work.” So, what we have here is the Preacher first says that there’s nothing better, and then went straight to give a list of ‘better than’ sayings. The same thing happens again in chapter 6 and 7. Chapter 6 ends with, “For who knows what is good (Hebrew: tob) for man while he lives the few days of his vain life…” What is ‘good’, says the preacher, no man knows, not even himself. And then, with no idea of an absolute and basic starting point to make comparisons with, he went on in the following 12 verses to give a list of ‘better than’ sayings.

Bad logic on the Preacher’s part? Probably not. He is trying to say in a poetic way that since the absolute good is not known to anybody, then, although whatever we find worth our salt is valuable, and we are to invest ourselves in obtaining and achieving them, yet, they are not the be all and end all of life. Winning in a sporting event, getting and keeping our boyfriend or girlfriend, obtaining a salary raise and promotion, starting a family, buying a car, grab hold of the latest smartphone, start playing Pokémon Go; these are some of those ‘must achieve’ and ‘must buy’ that captivate many in the different stages in life. The preacher says, go for them, enjoy them, but don’t be so sucked in by them till we start to loose ourselves, because as good and important and fun as they can be, they just ain’t what life is about after all.

And talking about life, we are so far touching only on things obtainable and the positive sides of it. How about the negative sides of life? How are we as God’s people to respond to them? Take oppression for example. Oppression is happening all the time, small scale oppression such as bullying in schools and unreasonable demands at work. I shouldn’t say that, any oppression is big scale and big time when we are the ones going through it. But there are indeed bigger scale oppression. For example, CNA has a news report last month on human trafficking, and said in the report that 8 more countries have been blacklisted by the US for failing to combat the crime. [1] The list of oppressive acts simply goes on.

We don’t find suggestions on how to counter oppression when we read the Preacher’s writing. This is because his focus is not on particular cases and their solutions. His business here is to state plainly that oppression is a norm in human life.
The conclusion he draws in reflecting upon the matter, “It is therefore better not to have been born than to see the evil doings”. Well that is an impossibility. Why say it? I take it to be a poet’s way of conveying something positive by saying the reverse. The preacher is using an irony here: Since not be born is an impossibility, then face life as we are born into, and enjoy the life as and when possible amidst setbacks and achieve what we can.

Does that mean that the Preacher supports our penchant to compete and to achieve? The next section quickly answers with a ‘no’. Even our government seems to think competitiveness is something to be addressed. We just heard the announcement on the new grading system for PSLE. The purpose according to the news is to reduce “the pressure students face in competing against their peers’ performance.” [2] The Preacher is not trying here to support or promote competitiveness. Instead, he is trying to tell us that competitiveness is in our blood. And he is probably right to some extent since we now see that competitiveness is something to be addressed among children. We all have honest and healthy motivations, no doubt about that. Still, the preacher is probably not totally off the mark. Do we feel from time to time a sense of failure? Do we have sour grape feelings when people around us achieve more? Why do we feel this way, if not because we want to be better than the Jones?

If competiveness and rivalry is not the way to go, neither are we to be dropouts. So what are we to do? “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” In other words, the better thing to do in life is this, with one hand we work, with another we hold onto the One who give us peace and rest that every human soul needs. And as much as the change in PSLE grading to reduce competitiveness is something intentional and purposeful, I don’t suppose it take any less for us to live life with a handful of work and a handful of quietness, which the Preacher put bluntly, is against our competitive nature. What might be helpful for us?

One important source of help is highlighted in the verse where we find the next ‘better than’ saying, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” In other words, the community is a valuable source of help, even when our aim is to live life with a handful of quietness. This section of the chapter talks about travelers in the olden days who need protection, support, companionship and encouragement, ‘same same’ I would say for us on our spiritual pilgrimage.

As a member of Jubilee for 2 years, I must say I long to see our community being more closely knitted then it is today. As a pastor, it really pains me especially to know people who belong to the same cell group for a year or more, but have probably never said “hi” to each other outside cell group time. In life, there will be setbacks, complains to make, doubts, questions and struggles with our weaknesses, I hope we would know each other deep enough to talk straight and help each other embrace the biblical way in such times. Theologian tells us that when the bible is diligently preached, it will make us uncomfortable, challenge our values, flip our thinking, lead us to repentance and rejoice in God’s way. But how many in this community - especially in our cell groups ¬- are able to speak to you and to me openly, and give us Godly counsel? Godly counsel we need, but before that we might need to first build stronger relationship and trust. Would we be the ones to take the first step? The Preacher asks the readers to be in a community because of the benefits, but communities are also the place where we benefit others. Christians, how about we doing it?

The giving and listening to counsels lead us to the final ‘better than’ saying. “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.” The idea of community continues here, or how else would there be advice being given?

The verses in this section call for some explanation. They tell of a prisoner – a criminal - became king, the number 1 ruler of the country. Doesn’t sound right, I am quite sure PAP won’t take such a guy. What’s happening here is this: in olden days, people were locked up not only because they had been convicted of crimes, but also because of financial and political reasons. The prison was a cheap labor factory; hence any debtor (and sometime the whole family) can be thrown into prison just because they can’t pay up.

In that case, this section is about a wise pauper, who rose all the way up to the very top, and replaced the foolish king. This new king enjoyed a great following, but when the new generation came, he lost popularity and is no longer celebrated.

The proverb and the example that ensues seems to be saying, “What’s so great about achievement and glory since they don’t last?”, better is to have a listening heart that takes counsel and acquire godly wisdom, or should we say a listening heart that help us to grow in godliness?

And brothers and sisters in Christ, godliness is what we all will grow into more and more. That’s an assertion, but does our passage back it up? Let’s turn to the section that we have left untouched till now.

This section refers to a person who has no son, no brother, and by implication, no community that he calls his own. He works so very hard, till the point he that he asks himself, "For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?"

In short, the section is about one who is alone. And unlike other sections where the Preacher will take the situation and compare it with another and then give a recommendation on a better alternative, being alone seems to be a situation so bad that making comparison and recommendation is not even possible. But since when has loneliness been regarded to be such a bad thing? We have many who are happily singles. To appreciate the Preacher’s point, we would have to stop thinking about loneliness from a social perspective, and start thinking about it from the way Bible uses the word and the examples it gives. When God created the world, everything was declared as good, even house files and cockroaches, but one think God says that is not good, that is for man to be alone.

Loneliness was not a problem that Adam was left to fend for himself; God intervened. And the Preacher by not supplying a humanly possible improvement to the problem of loneliness seems to be opening up an avenue, calling for God to intervene. The New Testament tells us how that intervention happens; Jesus came to be a friend. And we dare call him our friend only because he first called us friends, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” His friends include the disciple who responded readily to his calling, but failed to grow spiritually even after 3 years of apprenticeship. His friends also include the tax-collectors and the sinners, even Judas the one who betrayed. And to all who received him with gratitude and devotedness, he made them saints in his time. And this why we say godliness is what we all will grow into more and more.