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Who Defines “Good”?


We have already covered Ecclesiastes 1-6.  It is a book about wisdom from the standpoint of the teacher. He has bought everything that money can buy and enjoyed every experience that his heart desired.

But now, looking back on life, he is thinking about meaning, purpose and what is truly good.

The overall conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that we should both Enjoy Life and Fear God, and the two work together.

Ecclesiastes 6:10 starts the second half of the book.  

Ecclesiastes 6:10–12HCSB

Whatever exists was given its name long ago, and it is known what man is. But he is not able to contend with the One stronger than he. For when there are many words, they increase futility. What is the advantage for man? For who knows what is good for man in life, in the few days of his futile life that he spends like a shadow? Who can tell man what will happen after him under the sun?

But he is not able to contend with the One stronger than he

Who are we to contend with God?  Who are we to interrogate the creator about how he has made the world?

MAIN IDEA – This world is bigger than we can see.  There are so many variables that we can’t control. There is history before our lives and there will be much more history made after our lives.  In all of this, who defines what is good?

-Do we look to our culture’s definition?

-Do we look to the philosophers definition?

-Do we look to our own hearts and minds to define what is good?

The teacher eloquently points out, we don’t have the ability to define good, because we are limited in our knowledge and our authority.

The one who defines what is good is the one who is outside of time, the one who can see the end from the beginning. But do live according to what God says about what is good?

Setting up the Wise Sayings “Proverbs” in vs 7:1-12

-More than one way of reading these.

•     Solomon is saying that even though we can’t define good, we can still see make decisions and have confidence based on what is better.

•     ex: Wisdom is better than folly

•     2nd Way of reading these is that Solomon is showing that all of the wisdom in the world is insufficient to show what is good

•     so he states a point that is wise (and widely accepted), and then he circles back to show the logical conclusion and how at its end, we still don’t truly know what is good.

•     I’ll try to show a balanced way of looking at these proverbs from both perspectives, because i think that they can actually work together to help us understand the passage.

•     The main point is to continue asking the question, “Who Defines Good”?  At the end of the day, we must make the decision, whose definition of Good will we live by?  

Ecclesiastes 7:1–2HCSB

A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of one’s death 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.

A Good Name is Better than…

What is the value of a good name?  How far can a good reputation take you?

In business, just being connected to somebody with a good name is valuable.  They can give you a reference, and based on someone else’s good name, you can get an opportunity.  It’s easy to see the case for the value of a good name, even in this limited example.

The Day of one’s death is better than the day of birth?

I’ve got the question mark on the slide so that you will ask the question, “Is the day of death better than the day of birth?”

Birth is filled with joy and excitement, (especially for the mothers AFTER the baby is born =)

It is wonderful and awe inspiring to hold a brand new baby, a miracle in your hands.

Is the day of death better than that.  Loss of life is in view, there is the pain of separation, why is that better than the day of birth?

Ancient sages taught that there was a way to beat the system, a way to gain an immortality.  How? you ask, by the power of your name.

Do good things, have a fantastic legacy, let their be honorariums, scholarships and awards that all bear your name.  Then long after you die, people will still be talking about you.

For example, think about the Nobel peace prize or The Stanley Cup. These men have their names living on, well after they have passed.

I think that what the teacher of Ecclesiastes wants for us to consider is that 

Your life is worth more than your reputation.

Yes, a good name is valuable, but is that where you put your identity and your worth.  Is it worth all that effort to live now so that people will think well of you later?

Clearly, there is some good there.  

There is great value to a good reputation.  

But don’t lose sight of the fact that what’s most important is what God thinks of us, our reputation in heaven is what we should be living for.

We do what God asks and trust our earthly reputation to him. Because in the end, who cares what people say about you if God doesn’t call you good.

Ecclesiastes 7:3HCSB

Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.

Life is full of contradictions.  Grief isn’t all good.  Laughter isn’t all bad.  Sometimes the laughter happens with the grief.   

Even when we are happy, we can still have an awareness that it wont last.  Hardship is coming, trials are coming.  And so we laugh, but if we step back to think about it, we are still living in a fallen world with all sorts of variables that we can never control.

Proverbs 14 says it this way…

Proverbs 14:13HCSB

Even in laughter a heart may be sad, and joy may end in grief.

Life is composed of moments, and although all moments last for different lengths of time they all eventually come to an end.

Maybe that give you hope today.  Your sadness can turn to joy! 

Here is the thing, we can’t live for moments.  We have to live for something bigger than a moment.

It’s like the couple who is getting married and the big day is approaching.  

Should they put all of the effort into the current day?  Should the focus everything into the wedding ceremony itself?  Should they be preparing for married life after the ceremony?

One thing is sure, their lives will be full of all sorts of moments, time of laughter and sorrow.  And through all of the times, we must keep in mind that God is over all.  

Ecclesiastes 7:4HCSB

The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.

One of the commentators that I used in my research (Anchor Yale Bible Commentary) says that these are absurd sayings.  It poses the question, Who can really make those claims.

Is it a rule that a house of mourning is full of only wise hearts. Is there a sign on the house of pleasure saying, “Fools Only”?

This way of seeing the passage claims that 

No one can reduce the realities of life and death, or happiness and sadness, to a set of propositions.  The realities of life are simply too contradictory for one to be governed by axioms.

-Anchor Yale Bible Commentary

The other way of looking at this is to say that the house of mourning is a classroom for life.

We are reminded of our mortality.  In the house of mourning we are given a stark reminder that life needs to be considered, and thought through.  If not, we can  go from one good time to the next without thinking about eternity.

Sure, enjoy the good times.  But treasure the trials, consider them joy.  

James 1:2–4HCSB

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Who defines “good” in your life?  

What is the good that we are living for?  is it what feels good in the moment? Or are you living with the big picture in mind, for a good life is full of more than just “good” moments.

Ecclesiastes 7:5–6HCSB

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.

The thing that really makes verse 6 neat is the way that it sounds in the original language. 

šÓr kĕsÓlÓm kÓ kĕqÙl haššÓrÓm taḥat hassÓr kēn śĕḥÙq hakkĕsÓl.

Remember, The Teacher is comparing the laughter of fools to the crackling of thorns in a fire.  

The “s” sounds will be like hissing of a fire.

The “k” (and “q”) sounds like the crackling.

So even words used to describe fools speech would sound like the crackling of thorns in a fire.

When thorns burn, all sorts of weird popping’s go on with occasional miniature explosions.

Much better is the sustained heat of coals.

Fools words are similar, there is hissing along with other weird sounds and even, the occasional miniature explosion.

Rebuke is hard to listen to.  I appreciate rebuke from a wise person, I need to grow, but that doesn’t make it a fun experience.

But the words of wise, the loving rebuke, the words last for a while in our hearts.  We think about them, we consider the person who has spoken, we appreciate the content and message, and there is a sustained heat and help for us.

So it sounds like now, the Teacher is agreeing with wisdom. He once again shows its advantage over foolishness.  Thats why the last sentence in verse 6 might catch you off guard, 

“This too is futile.”

Why, are not the words of the wise to be cherished.  Sure they are, but they aren’t foolproof.  Wise words are not enough to build a life on.

Each of the sayings had wisdom as an ingredient, but here the sum total is futility, empty talk.

Would it be fair to say that our secular world has many of these proverbs figured out, but still don’t have meaning in life? Where does true meaning come from? The ups and downs all lead toward the same end for each of us, how then should we approach wisdom?

We need one who can define good for that.  Who defines good?

Ecclesiastes 7:7HCSB

Surely, the practice of extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe destroys the mind.

Now we are seeing the limits of wisdom.  There are things that can turn a wise person into a fool.

Extortion makes of fool of the wise.  A bribe destroys a good mind.

Other translations say that a bribe “destroys the heart”.

Oppression can be a great temptation for even the wise.  

Even the wise, those who know better, can become fools on the promise of riches.  

You might know the phrase, “Everyone has a price”.  That’s what comes to my mind when I read vs 7 about the bribe.  You are wise until someone names a reward or a price that you want over and against what you believe is good and right.

What is the safeguard of goodness for the wise?

Surely Solomon wanted to know the answer to that.  He is writing Ecclesiastes at the end of life.  He’s enjoyed wisdom, riches, honour, pleasure, but at the end of it all, was it a good life?

In the next verses we see some caution for those who are wise.

Ecclesiastes 7:8–9HCSB

The end of a matter is better than its beginning; a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit. Don’t let your spirit rush to be angry, for anger abides in the heart of fools.

Is it better to make a good plan with hopes and dreams, or to be at the finished stage of the project, looking back on what you have accomplished? Yes, the end is better than the beginning.

Patience is for better than pride.  Patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a mark of God’s goodness on the Christian’s life.  Opposed to patience is pride, for when you are prideful you learn that God opposes the proud.  

Anger can be the result of broken pride.  Patience doesn’t rush to anger.  For anger lives in the heart of the foolish.

Do you know anyone who is easily angered?  Do you find yourself walking on eggshells when they are around, not wanting to set off the anger?

You won’t walk on eggshells around a person who is humble. When you are with a humble person, there is a freedom to be yourself, to open up, to share your heart.

God help us to be patient and humble.

Here is another temptation that faces us all.

Ecclesiastes 7:10–12HCSB

Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” since it is not wise of you to ask this. Wisdom is as good as an inheritance and an advantage to those who see the sun, because wisdom is protection as money is protection, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner.

Remember the good ol’ days?

Everybody has good old days, when thing were great, “the golden years”.  

Well, hard fact, those days aren’t going to help you on the day of adversity.  And when the hard time comes, we need to do better than just wish for the good ol’ days to come back.  

It’s not wise to live in the past, complaining about the present and losing hope for the future.

Wisdom is a good as an inheritance.

Two views.  One, an inheritance is not as reliable as you think, and therefore wisdom is not as reliable as you think.

You do all the right things, you use wisdom, but there are still variables outside of your control.

Second view, the inheritance could be thought of as land. When the Israelites moved into the land Promised to them by God, each family was given an inheritance, a piece of land.  No matter what good or bad decisions were made with that land, it would always go back to the original family in the Year of Jubilee.  This Jubilee year was to happen every 50 years according to the Law of Moses.  Taking this view, we might conclude that through wisdom, we can survive whatever adversity comes our way, because there is always a year of Jubilee on the horizon.

Moving along, 

Wisdom is a protection in the same way that money is a protection.

Money is a protection?  Now we are starting to question things.  Jesus himself teaches us that we can’t put our confidence in our money. What is the Teacher saying.

How are wisdom and money similar?

Both wisdom and money provide protection, but it is not as reliable as we would like to think.

If all of our confidence is in money, we are in trouble.

If all of our confidence is in wisdom, we are in trouble.

Do both have value, yes.  Are both worth building your life on?

You know the answer, no.  We have to build our lives on something much better than wisdom and money.

Ecclesiastes 7:13–14HCSB

Consider the work of God, for who can straighten out what He has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man cannot discover anything that will come after him.

I was going to call this message “Wisdom in the Ups and Downs of life” because of these verses. 

In Ecclessiastes 6:10-12 we are reminded that humans are not able to dispute what is happening in the world.  Only one who stands outside of time, outside of creation can give a proper perspective and understanding.

We have all these different wise sayings to help us learn things that are better, but at the end of it all, Who defines what is good?

If all that we were to learn today was from this passage, we could conclude that human beings can only take things as they come.

We can’t straighten what is crooked. Some things just can’t be fixed. And that’s hard, we want for things to be right.  Yet there are trials, adversity and things that we would rather not live through, that we must live through.

When things are wonderful, we should rejoice and enjoy those things.  But when it’s hard, how do we respond?  Can we get perspective from the one who defines what is good?

All throughout this message, I have tried to present two different views on the passage.  

One view says that Solomon is challenging wisdom, by saying that it has its limitations.  At the end of wisdom, he still says that it is futile.

The other view says that Solomon is showing that there still are things that are better.  And there are some things that we have learned, proverbs and principles to help us make decisions and live better lives.

Why am I doing this, because there is a main point that I want to illustrate.

Who defines what is good?  Who gets to interpret the Scriptures, who gets to be our primary teacher here? 

Jesus alone defines “good”.

Jesus has the authority, because he is outside of time.  He can see the end from the beginning.

Jesus has the authority to make good happen, because he is the one who has victory over sin and death.

Matthew 5:17–18HCSB

“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished.

What follows in Matthew 5 are a series of teachings that all start like this, “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you.”

There had been people teaching God’s law, but Jesus now here as God himself teaching God’s law.  God himself fulfilling God’s law.

Jesus is saying that he gets to define good.  Of Course he does, he is fully God and fully man, who else has the words of life, to who else could we go to get our answers from.

Our challenge is to not define Good for ourselves, we must place our entire confidence in Jesus Christ.

There are all sorts of things yelling at you, “I’m good, do what I say”.  There additional voices subtly whispering, is God good?  Can you really trust him. Would a “good” God let you go through that?

But Jesus is the only person who ever lived a truly good life. The rest of us are the sinners, he is spotless, pure and good.

His words, every single one of them, are life.  

The Pharisees were trying to tell the people what was good. But these were not helpful things that the Pharisees were teaching.  It was legalism, having to do things to prove yourself to be good.

Jesus called them thieves.  They were stealing peoples lives.  What is whispering good into your life that isn’t from God?  What is trying to steal your life from you.

John 10:10HCSB

A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.

We need the goodness of Jesus every moment of our lives.  We need his definition of good every for every breath that we breath, and every thought that we think.

Will you let Jesus define good?  All of scriptures points to Jesus.  He fulfilled what was written before him.  Everything that was written after goes on to explain the implications of his salvation on people’s lives. Will you live according to his teachings, he is the good shepherd.  He has died so that through him, we could be called good. 

If we repent of our sin, and trust him with our entire life, he will prove his goodness over and over and over again. In this life, and in the one that is to come.