A Hard Tune to Hear

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Let me play a song for you. Here are some of the lyrics:

We have to conceive it on the inside before we’re ever going to receive it on the outside. . . . You must conceive it in your heart before you can receive it. In other words, you must make increase in your own thinking, then God will bring those things to pass.

Okay, it’s hard to imagine those words to a tune, but they are a sort of song, mentioned in today’s text.

It is better to listen to rebuke from a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools,
for like the crackling of burning thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of the fool.
This too is futile.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Prosperity Foolishness

If you didn’t recognize the words of the “song of fools” above, they came from a book by Joel Osteen, a man who guides his church to pledge their allegiance to the Bible just before he preaches a message that directly contradicts the plain meaning of the Word.

Without belaboring the foolishness of the Osteen passage above, let’s just consider which of these biblical figures conceived in their heart what they later received: Abraham or Moses? Gideon or Samson? Peter or Paul? I could go on, but you get the picture. When we’re limited to receiving only what we can conceive, then we’ll never see the best from “him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

What if Simon Peter had read a copy of Joel’s book before Jesus came strolling down the shores of Galilee? He might have envisioned himself as the greatest fisherman on the lake. He might have conceived piles of fish and a fleet of boats. He might have imagined scores of employees. And we would have never heard of him.

The Wise Rebuke

Do we think that Simon Peter ever sat there in a quiet moment in the boat and dreamed of helping to feed 5,000 people? Did he envision healing his mother-in-law? Did he conceive in his mind the Transfiguration or the vision on the rooftop or bringing the gospel–what gospel?–to Gentiles? These were all things that were “beyond all that we ask or think.”

But in the course of experiencing all those things, Simon had to hear some unwanted words:

  • Truly I tell you, a rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times.–John 13:38
  • So, couldn’t you stay awake with me one hour?–Matthew 26:40
  • Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.–Matthew 16:23

If Simon had not opened himself to the things that were beyond all he could ask or think, if he had not gone beyond the song of fools, then he would have remained forever Simon and never Peter. The rebuke of the wise made him a rock on which Christ could establish his church.

Getting in Tune

And so the question that I need to ask myself today and that you should ask yourself is, what words to you heed most readily? Do you welcome the rebuke of the wise, or do you sing along to the song of fools.

The song of fools is much more pleasing to the ear. It will tell you that you should have all those possessions and liberties that you really want. It’ll assure you that you’re just great the way you are.

The rebuke of the wise hurts. It tells us that we aren’t “all that.” It points out our vanities and selfishness. It grates on the ear in a way that the smooth sound of the fool’s song doesn’t.

But only those rebukes will help us to grow to be more like Jesus. I surely don’t have to tell you what the song of the fool will help you grow toward.

The Winning Team

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

In 2008, I watched as my beloved KU Jayhawks basketball team won their fifth national championship. Mario Chalmers sank a clutch three-point shot at the end of regulation against the heavily favored Memphis Tigers. Then in overtime, the Jayhawks put their foot on the accelerator and won the game 75-68.

Not surprisingly, I was elated when I watched Chalmers’ shot pass through the net, delighted that it didn’t rattle around and out like Kirk Heinrich’s similar opportunity five years earlier. But then, as the Tigers fell apart and the outcome became clear during the overtime, I had strange thoughts pass my mind. A couple of these valuable players were seniors and others, the heart of the team, would almost certainly jump to the NBA.

Before the victory was in the bag, I found myself getting down about the next season. That’s where my mind goes as I consider the proverbs in today’s slice of Ecclesiastes:

Grief is better than laughter,
for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.
The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

Eeyore Has It Right

Perhaps nothing illustrates the truth of these verses better than sports. Just a few years ago, in 2015, all of Kansas City went berserk when the Royals won the World Series. Today, a scant four years later, that victory seems like a fantasy story as the current crew is steaming toward another 100-loss season.

How many times have we seen crowd shots at sporting events with screaming teen boys holding up an index finger: “We’re number one. Woo!” Never mind that their currently winning team is a perennial loser, mired in a lackluster conference, and almost guaranteed to lose the next contest. These fools are having a great time ignoring reality and hanging out in the house of pleasure.

Of course this transcends sports. Every birth is a necessary prelude to a death. Every rise to dominance comes before a decline and defeat. The zenith of every career suggests the inevitable end of the same. Even someone who triumphantly assumes the office of U.S. President has to know that in eight years the keys to the White House will be handed to someone else.

Aside from the pyramids, pretty much nothing that is built lasts. For us to exult in the well-built career, the well-weeded garden, or the well-coiffed hair as if any of them might last forever is foolish.

Getting in Tune

If all of what I’ve said here is correct, if every good thing under the sun is truly going to decline and decay, then what is the sensible follower of Jesus to do? Let me be clear that while I suggested above that Eeyore has it right, I do not advocate his attitude.

When I pin my hopes to my favorite sports teams, I’m doomed to disappointment far too often. When I depend on a house or a job or another person or anything else under the sun, I am guaranteeing that my happiness, if it comes at all, will be temporary.

That doesn’t mean that I need to go around moping and failing to enjoy the moment. If the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl next year, I’ll celebrate like a madman, but I’ll keep in mind that it is only for the one year and means very little. I’ll know that in the midst of all that “yes” is the seed and root of a great deal of “no.”

We need to set our sights on the team whose winning streak will never end, whose players will never decline or depart, whose player-coach is always the MVP. Anything else is just a moment.

You Smell Good

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Here comes the bride. If she’s the typical, wedding-obsessed woman, she’ll have spent eons choosing the perfect dress. An army of family and attendants will have labored over her hair and makeup for hours. After all, it is her wedding day and she has to look perfect. Never mind that the guy waiting at the end of the aisle could see her in an off-the-rack sundress with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and go weak in the knees. She still wants to look great.

Everybody looks good–or at least as good as they can–on their wedding day. They want to project an image, an aura that says, “I’m fabulous.” In fact, although I haven’t done any research, I’d guess that nearly everyone smells good on their wedding day. The reason isn’t hard to understand.

A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
since that is the end of all mankind,
and the living should take it to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Real Reputation

The purpose behind all that fixing-up for the wedding kind of baffles me. From the bride’s side, it essentially says to the groom, “You’ve never seen me look better than this, and you’ll never see me this good again.” Am I being cynical?

We all know that the typical wedding attempts to project an image that isn’t particularly attached to reality. If you doubt me on that, then how many times does the bride obsess that much over a million details? The wedding, including the participants’ appearance, seems to say, “This how I want you to think that I am, but we all know that I’m not.” Frequently, I find, something will undercut that whole attempt at name-projecting. There’s the bride, hair, makeup, and dress perfect, but she’s chewing gum.

Just like perfume can make people seem more attractive than they really are, all that wedding fussing and fretting can put on a fairly convincing veneer. Such an image, however, just can’t last. For some people the wedding image they attempt to project doesn’t even survive the reception.

I have nothing against weddings, but I’m much more impressed with marriages. Weddings are perfume, but marriages, which have survived the ups and downs, are the proof, the good name. The day of our death is the day that we can no longer mess up our marriage.

Getting in Tune

What does all of this have to do with your life and with Ecclesiastes? Hopefully you can connect the dots that I’ve laid down. We all spend time in our lives applying perfume, doing things that are intended to make us look, sound, and smell good to those who are around. Just yesterday, I spent a good part of the afternoon mowing my grass, which can be a major “perfume” action.

These aren’t bad things. We shouldn’t go about our lives stinking, after all. But if we attend to these surface matters and ignore the things that create an enduring reputation, a good name, then people will think that we stink, no matter how good we smell.

As believers in Christ, inhabited by the Holy Spirit and created in the image of God, that stink doesn’t just reflect on us.

Avoiding Clay Feet

When I decide to retire from my job, I wonder if some of my coworkers will hear the news and say, “It’s about time!” Who knows, some of them might think that I already checked out.

What brings this to mind is something that happened at my church recently. The pastor, near the beginning of his sermon, announced that a new addition was being made to the staff. What makes this hire different from pretty much any that we’ve ever had is that the lucky guy, Clay, has already worked at the church in the past, having departed about six years back. In fact, Clay grew up in our church

When the pastor made the announcement, there was an audible and very positive gasp. Obviously, a large number of people in the room remembered Clay and welcomed his return to the fold. Having been privy to the announcement ahead of time–because I’m just super important, you know–it gave me great pleasure to hear that positive response. I’m sure there’s somebody in the membership who thinks that Clay’s return is a disaster, but they did not make themselves known that Sunday.

This got me to thinking about the legacy that we leave behind. What will people think about me when I hang up my teaching hat for the last time? Will they be relieved or will they think that I should have done it earlier? When I shuttle off this mortal coil, will my children and grandchildren be relieved not to have to mess with me anymore or will they legitimately grieve?

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon speaks to these questions, offering one proverb that seems obvious and another that causes confusion:

A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

It’s obvious that Clay has a good name. He left a good taste in the mouths of the people who knew him at our church on his previous stop. But what about this idea of the day of death being better than the day of birth? I think what this verse is trying to say is that on the day we die, we don’t have any more chances to mess things up, while on the day we’re born, our opportunities for foul-ups are virtually limitless.

To put this in the context of Clay, he, like many ministers, probably started well. People typically give the new guy the benefit of the doubt. They want him to succeed. The day of one’s occupational birth should be good, but if you’ve held things together until the day you leave, the day you retire, then you’ve really accomplished something. We don’t have to hang around churches very long to see people who did great things, sometimes for years, only to fail spectacularly at the end of their run.

I’d like to think that people will feel about me the way that they feel about Clay at the end of my course on this earth. I don’t really need their approval. I don’t need that audible response, but that sort of response would indicate that I’ve probably done something good along the way.

So when I choose to retire from Johnson County Community College, I pray people won’t respond by saying, “Finally!”

Crashing the Helicopter Parents–Ecclesiastes 7:16-18

Do not be overrighteous,

    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
    and not let go of the other.
    Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
—Ecclesiastes 7:16-18
Bubble wrap parent
The most careful parent on the planet hovers over the child like a helicopter, spawning the term “helicopter parent.” This parent invests in every piece of protective gear for junior, effectively wrapping her in bubble wrap for every activity. This parent carefully rations the child’s television usage and ensures that the little one does not sit too close to any device that might emit harmful and as-yet-unidentified radiation. Don’t even ask about vaccination, because this parent won’t take any chances, lest an MMR booster kick junior over into the autism spectrum. Smoke alarm batteries are changed religiously when daylight savings time begins, and background checks run on each and every adult who crosses junior’s path. This is a careful parent.
How surprising then when that child became the victim of a freak, unpredictable accident.
When Solomon speaks of someone being “overrighteous” or “overwise,” I think he might be speaking of the helicopter parent. The overrighteous person is obsessed with doing the right thing in absolutely every situation. The overwise person thinks things through perhaps a bit too much and believes himself possessed of all the right answers.
Solomon doesn’t suggest ignoring the right thing. He doesn’t think that the helicopter parent ought to land, hand the kids a box of razor blades, and tell them to play on the Interstate. Instead, he’s pointing out the uncertainty of human life and the inability of individuals to control that life.
Happily as stewards of our own bodies and as guardians of the growing bodies of our children, we don’t have to be perfect. We—or our children—can eat a little bit of junk food, engage in a  bit of dangerous play, and expose ourselves to a moderate amount of contagion without utterly ruining our lives.
Both obsession and neglect destroy life, in Solomon’s view. In between those extremes lies a wide swath of acceptable and healthy behavior in which we can be happy and make the best of things.
We’re all going to die, he continues to remind us. We might as well enjoy matters and please God until then.