part 14 – practicing patience in the present (Ecc 7:7-14)
Let’s open to Ecclesiastes 7.
This section, stylistically, is different. He doesn’t reflect and ponder as much as he gives solid, concrete advice about what is better. As I mentioned last week, the teacher uses the term better five times in the first five verses. And as we will see in this morning’s text, he is not done with this pattern. Sure, you can live life as you wish. But here is some advice, here is some proverbial wisdom that will help you to live better. After all, the goal is the good life.
Last week we discovered that the good life is one that lives with the end in mind – that while we can sterilize death and avoid the fact that we will die one day, it is better to reflect on the reality that at some point we will die and consider, when we do reach our final days and look back, what kind of life will we wish that we have lived? Let’s, therefore, live that life now. I think a good summary statement of last week’s message would be that the good life is one with minimal regrets. That also serves as a good transition to today’s text.
7 Extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
and patience is better than pride.
9 Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools.
10 Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
and benefits those who see the sun.
12 Wisdom is a shelter
as money is a shelter,
but the advantage of knowledge is this:
Wisdom preserves those who have it.
13 Consider what God has done:
Who can straighten
what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
anything about their future.
The good life is one of peace and patience, with the ability to say, “it’s worth the wait.”
Humanity is wired in such a way that we want what we want and we don’t want to wait for it. We want what we want and we want it now.
- That’s why we have fast food.
- That’s why we have credit cards.
When I practice patience and I prepare a meal for myself at home it may take longer, but I use healthy ingredients and in the end, I appreciate the meal much more than if I run through the Wendy’s drive through and there’s a bag hanging out the window when I pull up.
When I practice patience and I save up money for something I want, it may take longer to get it, but in the end, I don’t have a debt with interest to pay and I appreciate it more.
ANIKA AND THE FURBY.
My oldest daughter just celebrated her 7th birthday. She got $50 in the mail from some relatives. She wanted to take that money and go buy a Furby. But she already asked for a Furby for Christmas and what she doesn’t know is that somebody already bought that for her and she will be getting it for Christmas. We had a family get together where she opened presents and one of the presents came in a box about as big as I suppose a furby would be. She made a comment that she thinks it’s a furby. I said probably not and she said that’s okay, if it’s not, I can use my money and buy one. She opened the gift and it was a really sweet remote controlled car. She also got a few other gifts – some pj’s and a journal. Do you think she enjoyed those gifts? Nope. Focused on the Furby. She wants what she wants and she wants it now and her desire has eclipsed her ability to appreciate and enjoy what she now has.
Now, our text isn’t about fast food, credit cards, or Furbies. And those things aren’t necessarily bad although I’m aware that there are people with strong feelings about those things. My point in mentioning them is to call to our attention our inclination toward impatience and our desire for instant gratification. We tend to say, I don’t want to wait until later for what I want now. We tend to take shortcuts.
But there is something to be said for delayed gratification, for patience. To transition into the point of the text, more specifically, there is something to be said for patiently waiting and doing something the right way, the moral way, the ethical way instead of taking shortcuts that we might regret, shortcuts that usually lessen our appreciation, shortcuts that in the end aren’t really in our best interest.
That is what our text is about – it is a warning against taking immoral shortcuts instead of practicing patience and doing things the right way, with moral integrity.
The opening verses have to do, specifically with money. They pertain to the get rich quick concept. The Teacher has already shown us that the good life is not bound up in the pursuit of wealth. Wealth is fleeting, it’s a vapor, it’s hebel, so pursuing wealth is chasing after the wind. Now, he intensifies this by showing the folly in taking immoral shortcuts to get rich quick.
7 Extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.
Extortion is defined as the crime of obtaining money or some other thing of value by the abuse of one’s office or authority. Oppressive or illegal exaction as in excessive price or interest. I want to get rich quick and take a shortcut, so I will take advantage of others and charge extra because I am in a position to do so.
Bribe is defined as money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person. I want to get rich quick and take a shortcut, so I will accept a bribe and as a judge, I will acquit a clearly guilty criminal. I could do the right thing and live off of my salary alone, but that is a slow road – I want the fast track, the shortcut; I’ll take the bribe.
The good life is one of fairness, equity, and patience; it says I will make money the right way and it will take as long as it takes. I will not harm others in the process and in the end I won’t look back and regret the way I treated others in the process.
The long haul, the straight and narrow path of practicing patience and moral integrity is better than the crooked path of immoral shortcuts.
Don’t misunderstand me here – not all shortcuts are bad. Only the bad shortcuts are bad. There are perfectly acceptable shortcuts in life. There’s Ctrl+A, C, V, and my favorite of all ctrl+z.
Since we can’t ctrl+z in life let’s not take shortcuts that will lead us to regret.
The teacher continues in v9 Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
This verse is connected to verse 8. The end of the matter is better than the beginning. What happens when you jump to conclusions? Sometimes they are wrong and we can get angry over nothing. Have you ever done that?
Our culture has this saying, “you know what happens when you assume? You know that that makes out of you and me?” It’s better not to assume, but to patiently wait until the end of the matter to assess the situation, to suspend judgment until you know all of the facts. Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
Once again, the Teacher is encouraging patience. The first couple of verses dealt with taking shortcuts in attempt to get rich quick; the broader theme is a lack of satisfaction. I want what I want and I want it now. What happens when we don’t get what we want, when we fail to practice patience? We get angry.
We have a perfect opportunity to put this wisdom to good use and put this into practice. Here we are in the midst of the Christmas season, a time in celebration of peace on earth and good will toward men, in which we give gifts in the name of Jesus. That’s the intention but if we aren’t careful, we can be quickly provoked in our spirit and show anything but peace on earth and good will toward men because the parking lots and the stores are jam-packed with crazy people who all want something at the same time that we do.
But one thing that will hinder the peace of the good life is impatience, the inability to delay gratification.
What happens when we call in to a service department? We want to talk to a person, the right person, right away and we want our issue handled. But first we have to wait for the automated service to list all the options, and the one we need is the last one they list, then we get put on hold forever with some terrible music, then somehow the wrong person answers and we get transferred around four or five times, put on hold for 15-30 minutes and then we can’t really understand Kevin, who is taking the call from Pakistan? If we fail to practice patience in the matter, we can get quickly provoked in our spirit; we can get angry.
Once again, the good life is one that practices patience and knows how to accept delayed gratification, knows how to wait until later for what we want now.
The teacher continues 10 Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.
I believe that collectively, vv8-10 communicate the folly of dissatisfaction with the present.
Not only does the teacher encourage patience and warn against trying to bring to the present what belongs in the future, he also warns against trying to bring the past into the present.
As we have already noted, the good life is a balanced life. The good life knows how to reflect on the past in order to avoid making the same mistake twice, have hope for the future but live in the present. The one who lives the good life seizes the day, says carpe diem. It isn’t paralyzed by the past or hypnotized by the future.
As the Victorian essayist Hilaire Belloc wrote, “While you are dreaming of the future or regretting the past, the present, which is all you have, slips from you and is gone.”
This supports one of the driving themes of this book, the enjoyment of life. The good life is one that enjoys life instead of chasing after the wind.
Every stage of life has its perks and problems, its pros and cons and we will never enjoy the perks of the present if we conveniently forget the problems of the past and the future and long for their perks.
The couple with a crying baby at 2:00 am can say I miss the days when we didn’t have kids and we could sleep through the night (focus on the past) or I can’t wait until this kid is out of diapers (focus on the future). But what happens when the future comes? Terrible twos come around and that same couple can say I miss the days when he was just a baby. Constantly rushing the future, don’t enjoy the present.
Teenage years come and they don’t hug and kiss you anymore and they would rather be with their friends. Then you blink an eye and they’re out of the house and you say, I miss the good old days when our baby had us up at 2:00 am. Every stage of life has its perks and problems, its pros and cons.
Now, this entire section of proverbial wisdom in chapter 7, as I pointed out last week contains a series of “better” statements.
- A good name is better than fine perfume (v1)
- the day of death better than the day of birth (v1)
- It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting (v2)
- Frustration is better than laughter (v3)
- It is better to heed the rebuke of the wise than listen to the song of fools (v5)
- The end of the matter is better than the beginning
- and patience is better than pride (v8)
Now he says don’t say “why were the old days BETTER than these?” You know why? Because they weren’t.
We have this good old days mentality. We tend to think that the 1950’s was a time when everything was grand and glorious. I came home one time and my wife was watching a show called Mad Men. She explained that the show sought to capture the essence of office life back in the late 50’s and to the degree that this one episode was accurate – the good old days is a misnomer.
I’m not trying to put words in the teacher’s mouth, but I would suggest that perhaps he is saying that the present is better than the past. You can’t change the past, you can’t rewrite history, but you do have a say in what happens today.
Another reason that it isn’t wise to ask such things is that we have selective memory when it comes to nostalgia. Have you ever been listening to a song from the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s and it just flooded your mind with memories that made you miss some time of your life? We remember certain times and we remember the good things about that timeframe and conveniently forget that those days had their own problems, struggles, issues.
Another reason it isn’t wise to ask such things, is that at one point, the good old days were the present. One day, ten years from now you will look back on today and say, remember the good old days, back in 2013?
311 has a song called never ending summer; the refrain of that song is “These are the good old days. I don’t care what they have to say.”
11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. 12 Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it.
So, back to money. There is a reason people fall into the get rich quick trap. Money is a shelter for many of life’s storms. In many cases, if you have a problem money will fix that problem, but it doesn’t fix everything. It can fix a broken down car, a broken air conditioner, or just about any broken thing. But it doesn’t always fix broken relationships or a broken heart.
While money can be a shelter, a good thing, once again, in line with his better statements, the teacher implies that wisdom is better than money. In fact, in Proverbs, he explicitly states that wisdom is better than money.
This passage is printed in your bulletin for convenience if you’d like to follow along:
13 Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Wisdom is better than money.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.
The one with wisdom can use wisdom to obtain and properly use money, but money can’t buy wisdom. It can pay for a college tuition, but that does not equate to wisdom, nor does it guarantee wisdom.
The teacher started this section with a warning against shortcuts to obtain money through immoral means and now he is saying, by the way, the money that you want in the end isn’t even as good as wisdom. Wisdom is better. Hold fast to wisdom and don’t allow extortion to turn you, o wise man into fool.
This section concludes with:
13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? 14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.
Once again, God is in control, he is Sovereign. He is the maker of straight things as well as crooked things. He gives the blessing of good times as well as what we perceive to be bad times.
In this life under the sun, there is a sense in which God is Sovereign and in control and there are things that he set in place that are outside of our ability to influence and yet on the other hand there are things that we can change and influence. There isn’t always a clear line of demarcation. It takes wisdom to draw that distinction and act accordingly.
This truth is reflected in the popular
Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)
God, give us Serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
Courage to change what should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
You want to live the good life? According to the Teacher:
- enjoy your life, while
- practicing peace and patience
- Learn to wait until later for what you want now
- delay gratification
- don’t take immoral shortcuts that will lead to regret
- Don’t assume or jump to conclusions
- or get easily angered, practice peace and patience
- Don’t long for the days of old to the neglect of the present
- These are the good old days
- enjoy the present and seize the day before you
- Live in the present by wisdom
- doing what you know to be good and right so far as you have the ability
- and trust God for the future, whether he brings good times or bad.
- For He is ultimately in control.
I came across a poem that ties this entire passage together beautifully and I will end with this:
“With patient mind thy course of duty run:
God nothing does, nor suffers to be done,
But thou wouldst do thyself, couldst thou but see
The end of all events, as well as He.”