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Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12) Spoken on: October 2, 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: 都在神手中/In the hand of God
Date: 2nd & 16th Oct 2016
Preacher: Rev. Enoch Keong

Anyone remembers which day in the second half of this year did Singapore had the worst haze situation? To the best of my recollection, it was on Friday 26th August. It was the day before Matthew Zone’s outing to Kranji countryside. Itinerary had been drafted, signing-up done, registration fees collected, bookings and down payment to vendors made, and, all of a sudden, the sky which had been clear for months turned dense and the surrounding looked blurry. At 2pm that afternoon, the 1-hr PM2.5 reading released by NEA was 133-167 µg/m3. This pastor here started getting fidgety, wonder or not to cancel the tour, especially since about 1/5 of the bus load will be young children.

Thankfully, one of our leaders who had more faith than her pastor decided to seize the opportunity and proceed just as planned. This was how the actual day looked like. Clear skies, beautiful weather, what’s more, the air in Singapore remained in the healthy range for many days thereafter.

What’s the moral of the story? Life is unpredictable and even precarious. We plan and we do, but we won’t know what comes next. In that case, the best way forward is to seize the moment, seize the day, give it a shot and try our best in life. This is much of what The Preacher is trying to get across in this morning’s passage.

But what does he mean by life being precarious? And what does seizing the day means for us as Christians? Let’s read the passage and find out.

The first verse of the passage goes, “…the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God”. Sounds good doesn’t it? The righteous and the wise having God to watch over them? Maybe or maybe not, according the Preacher, and we soon see why he thinks that it is so.

The rest of the first verse reads, “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.” This is a cryptic saying. I understand from my reading that it means this: ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ refers to human emotions. But these 2 words in the Old Testament describe not just emotions, but also attitudes that generate actions. [1].

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Pb 10:12).

“though his hatred be covered with deception,
his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly” (Pb 26:26).

With this background understanding in mind, the saying may be understood to mean that although the righteous and the wise are clear about what they themselves are doing and thinking, they are in no way able to predict the outcomes of their efforts. They being upright, their attempts wisdom filled is no guarantee for good results. This is The Preacher’s first comment on the unpredictability and precariousness of life, but things only gets worse as we read on.

“It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath”(v.2). In other words, life is precarious also because of the ways in which God repay human efforts and intentions. From the list, let’s consider only the offering of sacrifices. The standard paradigm tells us that God loves and blesses a true worshipper. The book of Leviticus took no less than 17 chapters to list in detail the procedures and occasions for making sacrifices, the number of chapter on the subject goes to highlight the great importance of worship. But here, The Preachers says that to worship or not makes no real difference after all, both the pious and the impious probably ends up the same.

So, not just that the future is unknown, but God is also just as incomprehensible and He appears capricious at times. Yet our lives are in the very hand of this God. No wonder The Preacher cries out that life is totally unfair and full of danger . We in Singapore put much effort into building capabilities and potentials. I was told of an elderly hawker, whose primary means of transport was a pre-war bicycle. When his son began his career, he got for the son a Toyota Camry, while he continued going around on his bicycle. When his grandchild came and when it was time for the little one to go school and attend enrichment classes, this ah gong purchased another Toyota Camry to fetch the kid to and fro. We in Singapore invest in learning, training and upgrading, which is good to do. But The Preacher wants us to know that possessing skills and good qualities may not mean much, because life remains precarious. We never know what comes next. Time and chance seems to determine everything, and anyone anytime may just share the same fate of the fish and the bird in the net.

There is however one thing that we do know. That is, we will all die (v.3, 5). And what is said here concerning death only further upsets our standard paradigm. The standard paradigm says that evil brings about death and righteousness gives life. In Genesis chapter 6, it was the fullness of evil that brought about the flood that wiped out the world. Only Noah, his family and some animals were allowed to survive, because, Noah was righteous. The Preacher challenges such a paradigm. He doesn’t think that it is evil that brings about death. To him things should be understood the other way around. Why so? Death is undesirable. Death certainly looks more like a punishment than a blessing. Death should therefore happen only to the bad guys. Yet death happens to everybody, both the good and the bad. In other words, whether to do good or to do bad make no real difference at the end of the day, everyone dies anyway. The Preacher hence sees the injustice in this common fate of death as being the reason that fuels human evil. And who controls life and death? The only candidates being named are time and chance and God.

Honestly, I dread expounding on these few verses. They are filled with such negativities about God and about life. But thankfully, The Preacher’s observations do not translate into his attitude toward life and on the way he thinks how life should be lived.

Let’s read on , “4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (v.4). This verse is optimism with a ton of qualifications. The Preacher is saying to be alive is great, however…; and his however is bold, italicized and highlighted. What do we mean? Dog here represents life while lion represents death. Dogs in the Old Testament are compared to pigs: uncleaned, not to be offered for sacrifice. Dog, which represents life, is viewed upon as the most despised of creatures in the bible, and it is here compared to lion, the most admired of animals. Not only so, Israelites uses dogs as an image to depict death and the underworld. We start to get it right? The Preacher is saying that life is good, but he’s like at the same time trying to moderate our excitement about life.

I believe there are 2 points that he is making here. First, that it is still better to be alive then to be dead even though life and God can appear rather scary at times. “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Eccl 11:7), says The Preacher. In short, he is affirmative of life.

But there’s a second point that he is making: The classic biblical framework (cf. Deuteronomistic Theology) suggests that life is good and a blessing and that death is a form of evil and curse. One is really good, the other really bad, and the two are poles apart. But The Preacher’s by comparing life to a living dog and death to a dead lion means to say that the two are in fact not so different. To him, life is actually less ideal than how most people like to imagine it to be. The difference between life and death is not between good and evil or blessing and curse, but simply possibilities and impossibility.

So the question for us becomes, “how are we to cherish and maximize the limited window of possibilities given to us by God?”

To enjoy thoroughly our life and our work is The Preacher’s answer?

He first urges us to enjoy food and wine, I guess no expansion is needed on this point for Singaporeans.

Next, to look clean and fresh at all times. What sort of people is able to do so? Not the down-and-out, but those who are capable of up-keeping their image. In other words, we are urged to strife for a good life. Exam period is not yet over for some of us, give it a good shot. Most of us will return to the market place tomorrow morning for a new work week, likewise, give it a good shot, and we be able to look clean and fresh at all times.

The Preacher carried on by saying, “Let not oil be lacking on your head”. Oil symbolizes gladness. A familiar verse, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Ps 23:5). The Preacher, I believe, is asking us to think like another one of our Matthew Zone leaders. I heard this leader said with enthusiasm a few time, “I choose to be happy.” Who is this person? I’ll let him, ya it’s a he, I will let him tell us himself.

The fourth on the list is to enjoy family life. On this, I have something to share. What we see on the screen is my wedding bulletin cover. For the three and half decades of my vain life that I have lived up to that point, I think this is one of the very few wise things that I have ever said – Given to Cherish – the wedding theme printed at the bottom right hand corner of the bulletin cover. The wedding theme is self-explanatory: I don’t know what holds tomorrow, all I know is that the number of tomorrows that I have on earth is limited. What is limited and good is precious and the logical response is to cherish it. Given to Cherish acknowledges that my better half is God’s gift to me, and within the limited window of possibilities and opportunities, I want the Cherish the gift.

By sharing this, I am also saying, and pardon me for this, that I echoed the words of wisdom given by the Preacher herein. I came up with the theme 10 years ago. I already knew what The Preacher is saying here 10 years before I have to struggle with the difficult passage in order to stand behind this pulpit. Question: since we already know the importance of enjoyment in life, why do we still need to read Ecclesiastes? I say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ because I am confident that we all know that life is to be cherished and enjoyed. Try click on the Facebook page and the Instagram posts of our members, especially the photos on food and travels, and I am quite sure we will concur that people in general know the importance of enjoyment. Then, let me ask again, do we still need to read Ecclesiastes?

If we are able to recall, this is already the 5th time in the Book of Ecclesiastes where we are told to seize the day and to enjoy life, the same encouragement appeared in chapter 2, 3, 5 8 and here. And The Preacher will push the same point yet again in chapter 11. Why is he doing this?

Further, when scholars check against Babylonian and Egyptian writings, they found passages very similar in those literatures. What is even more surprising is that the order of The Preacher’s encouragements in this chapter is exactly the same as the Babylonian version: feasting, fresh clothing, washing one’s head and family life[2]. Have we just spotted a copycat? Certainly not. The Preacher is communicating here Hebrew theology, or the way the Hebrews see how life is to be lived with and to God.

There’s a word that may have become familiar to us after sitting through this many of sermons on this ‘chim’ Book. I am referring us to the word ‘portion’. True enough, that based on observations, the ways of God and the way things go in life remains an unknown to a large extent. But what we know is that God has us in mind, and has given each of us a portion to enjoy amidst our toil.

Our calling is to make the best of it, seize the moment, seize the opportunities, seize the day. I therefore submit to us, that to seize the day, seize the opportunities is Hebrew and Christian spirituality. We are not to be kiasu, but whatever that God has given, seize it and enjoy it to the fullest.

And if to seize the day is spirituality, then there should no dichotomy being set up between spiritual and secular. To study, to work, to worship in church, to relate to people is spirituality. And by extension, spirituality is a not to intentionally project a certain godly looking demeanor, although we are to strife to be holy. Spirituality is primarily to seize the day, the portion that God is giving us , to live in it and to enjoy it.

Christianity sees every moment of life as worship. And this morning’s passage demonstrate to us that it is indeed the case, since to be spiritual is to seize the day, that is, to live life and do so by trying our best with God help at all times. And how else can it be for us who are people of grace? Since, “I [we] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I [we] who live, but Christ who lives in me [us]. And the life I [we] now live in the flesh I [we] live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me [us]and gave himself for me [us]” (Gal 2:20).

[1] Seow C. L., The Anchor Yale Bible: Ecclesiastes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 303.
[2] Ibid., 305-6.