Note to the reader
I preached this sermon at the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (L.T. Marangu campus) on Thursday, May 30.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 (New Living Translation)
This year, our theme is “With Christ on the Way.” If we could step into a time machine and travel back and join Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, what would he teach us?
We know that Jesus loved the Scriptures. Often, he cited Deuteronomy. What we call the New Testament didn’t yet exist. For Jesus, the Scriptures were the 39 books of our Old Testament.
Today, I’d like to look at a passage from one of those books in Jesus’ Bible. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiastes 7:1-12. From this portion of the Jewish Wisdom Literature, we draw the title for this message: “Solomon’s 8 Lessons for the Journey.”
Lesson # 1 – Guard your reputation.
Verse 1 ends with a depressing statement: “The day of death is better than the day of birth” (1b, NIV). Here’s a good example of the Bible not requiring that we always have to be in a cheerful mood. The Bible is real; sometimes we’re just discouraged, and that’s O.K. With God’s help and the help of others, work through those tough times. Things do get better!
But what I’d like to focus on is the first half of the verse. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “A good reputation is better than fine perfume” (Ecc. 1:1a).
I’ve worn a white shirt before and spilled spaghetti sauce on it. It takes a lot of effort to get rid of the stain. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the best policy when it comes to white shirts and spaghetti sauce is to cover myself first with a towel or serviette.
And so it is with our reputation. Once it’s stained, it’s hard to get the stain out. We all need to think twice before we join in activities that will tarnish our reputation.
Lesson # 2 — Tough times have a way of refining us.
There’s a little ditty that I learned somewhere along the way:
Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you!
Verses 2-4 sound very much like that song. In v. 2, Solomon recommends funerals over parties. In v. 3, he ranks sorrow above laughter, then in v. 4, he compliments the person who thinks about death as being wise, while the fool thinks only about having a good time.
For the record, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about having a good time. Proverbs 17:22 says that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (NASB) and Ecclesiastes 3:4 insists that there is a time to laugh. It’s always a danger for Christians to take themselves too seriously. Laughter isn’t a sin.
So what is Solomon getting at? He’s reminding his readers that God allows death and sorrow as a means to strengthenus. Tough times have a way of refining us.
Poet Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a poem entitled “Along the Way.” Here’s what Browning observed about sorrow:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!
(cited by Stephen J. Bennett, Ecclesiastes/Lamentations: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 123.
Lesson # 3 — Accept a critique given in love, but beware of fawning.
A third lesson appears in verses 5-6: “It is better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool! Indeed, a fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. This also is meaningless.”
I looked up the word “fawning.” The Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “displaying exaggerated flattery or affection; obsequious.”
And sometimes that comes in the form of laughter. You tell a joke, and this is the person who laughs longer than anyone else, and you wonder why. Finally, you realize that there’s some kind of a hidden agenda. It’s not that you’re so funny, it’s that they’re for some reason trying to get on your good side.
But there is a kind of criticism that is healthy. It’s a critique given from someone because they have your best interest in-mind. Solomon calls this being criticized by a wise person.
I can think of times when I was growing up that my parents offered words of critique. They saw something in my character that they knew was not healthy and that would limit my own success in-life. It was love that motivated them to speak up.
It can be painful to hear those kinds of words, but if we listen and take them to-heart, God can use them to refine us.
Lesson # 4 — Don’t extort money or offer/accept bribes.
Corruption has existed for thousands of years, yet we talk about it as if it’s something new. Solomon writes: “Extortion turns wise people into fools, and bribes corrupt the heart.”
When I lived in West Africa, my job was to teach pastors. Often, we would hold a two week intensive seminar. Once the pastors arrived, things were fine, but the tricky part was the travel. Some would come from two countries away, which meant crossing borders. The law required no visa, yet border guards and customs officers refused entry unless the pastor paid a fee, a fee for which they never were given a receipt. This was a form of extortion, forcing a payment that is unauthorized by any higher authority. Our pastors became the victims.
A bribe, on the other hand, is a payment made to influence a decision in your favor. Maybe you’re stopped by a police officer because your car has a headlight that’s not working. To avoid a large fine, you give a small amount of money to be let go.
But what is Solomon telling us? These kinds of actions are not just neutral. When we participate in them, they’re like acid that corrodes our heart. In other words, our external behaviour damages our internal well-being. Bad actions corrupt good character.
Here at Africa Nazarene University, we have three core values: community, competence, and character. “Nazarene” has earned a positive reputation in the community because people have realized that our graduates are different, that our graduates have integrity. Several years ago, the President of Equity Bank spoke at an ANU graduation. He praised the caliber of our graduates, and said:
Give me 100 of your ANU graduates. I’ll hire them tomorrow. ANU graduates are different.
If he were here today, would the President of Equity Bank say the same thing? A good reputation takes years to build, but can be quickly destroyed. In a short while, you will go out from this University. What kind of image would your employer or co-workers have of ANU if you were the only ANU grad they know? More importantly, as a follower of Jesus, what kind of an idea would they have about Christ if you were the only Christian they knew?
Don’t extort money, and don’t offer bribes. Keep your heart and your conscience clean before God.
Lesson #5 – Finish what you start.
Listen to v. 8 – “Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride.”
Boldt Castle is a tourist attraction in the famed 1,000 islands region of Upstate, New York. George Boldt was a millionaire businessman who drew up plans for a lavish mansion as a gift for his beloved wife, Louise. The plans called for a 6 story, 120 room castle. Beginning in 1900, 300 workmen – including stonemasons, carpenters, and artists went to work. Boldt spared no expense to make the castle a masterpiece with Italian gardens, tunnels. swimming pools and even a children’s playhouse. But in 1904, George Boldt received word that Louise had suddenly died, and he ordered all work on the castle stopped.
As a young man, I visited the castle, and tried to imagine what it would have been like if it had been finished. It had deteriorated over the decades, as bandits came in and stole furnishing, threw litter everywhere, and marked up the walls with grafitti. That was 1980 when I visited.
Fast-forward to 2018. Last summer, Mrs Crofford and I visited Boldt Castle again, and I was amazed to see the transformation. Several organizations had banded together to fundraise, and they decided that they would restore the Castle and finish the work according to the original plans. The Castle is still not finished, but it’s about 70% done. What had been abandoned and decrepit now is becoming a thing of beauty.
Some of us can identify with this story. We started so well, and plans were going forward, but somewhere along the way, we gave up. It could be that it’s the same for your life with Christ. You had a vision for how it would be, but somewhere along the line, you gave up. Solomon has a word for you today: “Finishing is better than starting.” Paul gives us hope when he writes in Philippians 1:6 (NIV):
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
Ask God to give you the patience, the staying power so that you can finish what you started, whether it’s an academic project, a personal goal, or even re-booting your relationship with Christ.
Lesson # 6 — Watch your temper.
Ecclesiastes 7:9 cautions: “Don’t be quick-tempered, for anger is a friend of fools.”
Some people are like volcanoes. You never know when they’re going to erupt and scald those around them. Anger can isolate us since people may avoid being around us, not knowing when the next time will be that we explode.
Yet there is a place for anger. If we never became angry, we wouldn’t be human. Still, Paul cautions us in Ephesians 4:26-27 (NIV): “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
When anger boils over, others can get hurt. What’s more, if we nurse that anger, it easily turns to bitterness. In that bitterness, we have opened up our lives to the work of Satan.
Take a lesson from Solomon: Watch your temper.
Lesson # 7 — Live in the present, not the past.
King Solomon continues dishing out sound advice. Let’s read v. 10:
Don’t long for the ‘good old days,” for you don’t know whether they were any better than today.
God had used Moses to miraculously lead the children of Israel out Egyptian slavery. However, they weren’t in the wilderness very long when they began building up in their minds the advantages of their life back in Egypt. They complained to Moses in Exodus 16:3 (NLT):
‘Oh, that we were back in Egypt,’ they moaned. ‘It would have been better if the LORD had killed us there! At least there we had plenty to eat. But now you have brought us into this desert to starve us to death.’
Some of you have been delivered from terrible things, from addictions, from unhealthy habits, from patterns of life that were demeaning and oppressive. Don’t let the devil play with your mind, and make you think that those were the “good old days.” In fact, whatever challenges you might be facing now, remember that Jesus is with you. The solution is never to put the shackles back on your wrists. Proverbs 26:11 (CEB): “Like a dog that returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats foolish mistakes.”
When I was a second year student at Eastern Nazarene College, I remember the night when “Jeff” (name changed) knocked on the door of my dorm room. “Greg,” he said, “can I just talk for a while?” He came in and told me what was going on. Jeff had been addicted to drugs, what he called “acid.” That particular night, he had an overwhelming craving to go buy more drugs. Instead, he came and talked to me. We prayed together, and the craving passed. The next year, he became a counselor in a resident drug program, helping others get off drugs.
Some of you hearing this today have known addictions to alcohol or other drugs. Hear me now: Don’t go back to your vomit. You have classmates, lecturers and others here who can pray for you. The devil is a liar. The past was not better. Take hold of the present moment; believe God for a better future.
Lesson # 8 – Value wisdom above money.
The 8th and final lesson comes from Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 (NIV):
Being wise is as good as being rich; in fact, it is better. Wisdom or money can get you almost anything, but it’s important to know that only wisdom can save your life.
Money is a valuable servant, but a terrible master. I used to think that only those who are rich could be mastered by money, but I was wrong. The only difference between the rich and the poor when it comes to money is that the rich person can be obsessed with not losing what he or she has, while the poor person may obsess over gaining what he or she lacks. In both cases, they don’t control money. Money controls them.
Jesus had a lot to say about money. He warned in Matthew 6:24 (NIV): “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the others, or else you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
In 1 Kings 3, God asked Solomon what he wanted. Instead of asking for riches, he asked for wisdom to lead God’s people well. God answered his prayer, and King Solomon became known all over the world for his wisdom.
Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 7:12b (NIV): “Only wisdom can save your life.” But let’s not forget where wisdom comes from. Proverbs 9:10 (NIV) points us to the source:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Paul ties it all together wonderfully in 1 Corinthians 1:24 (NLT), where he insists that “Christ is the mighty power of God and the wonderful wisdom of God.” Do you want wisdom? Follow after Christ. Money is fleeting, but the wisdom that comes from God in Christ endures.
Summing it all up
God’s instructions for us are incredibly practical. As we walk with Jesus on the way, he gathers up for us God’s truth. Today, from the wisdom of Solomon, we learned 8 lessons:
Lesson # 1 – Guard your reputation.
A positive reputation takes long to build but is easily ruined. Ask the Lord to help you avoid the compromises that can tarnish your good name.
Lesson # 2 – Tough times have a way of refining us.
Laughter and wholesome good times are not sin, yet it is in challenging times and seasons of sorrow that God shapes us into people of character.
Lesson # 3 – Accept a critique given in love, but beware of fawning.
We must remain open to the criticism of the wise. God has much to teach us through them, if we have ears to hear and hearts to obey.
Lesson # 4 – Don’t extort money or offer bribes.
Our is a corrupt world, but Jesus calls us to follow him with integrity and character. By refusing to participate in extortion or bribery, we keep our hearts clean before God and guard the good name of Christ and of Africa Nazarene University.
Lesson # 5 – Finish what you start.
What are the loose ends in your life? What is the unfinished business? God will help you complete what you began, if you ask him.
Lesson # 6 – Watch your temper.
It takes discipline to hold our tongue. Anger can feel good at the time, but in the end, uncontrolled anger will isolate us.
Lesson # 7 – Live in the present, not the past.
God wants to do something good in our lives today. Don’t fall for the devil’s lie that we were better off before we knew God. Let the past be the past. Keep moving on.
Lesson # 8 – Value wisdom above money.
Some of the world’s richest people are also the most foolish. God want to give us widsom, and wisdom in embodied in Jesus Christ. Let’s keep following him!
Sheba visits Solomon: Wikimedia Commons, Lucas de Heere [Public domain]
Judgment of Solomon: Wikimedia Commons, Master of Boucicaut