A time to be humble – Ecclesiastes 3:16-22

As we have seen so far, the book of Ecclesiastes is a book of questions. Solomon’s goal in writing Ecclesiastes was to make people think, and that’s why we see over 30 questions in his book. And believe me, by the time you think through all of these questions, if you take them seriously, it won’t leave you hanging, but will foster in you convictions on how to live and how to think.

The way we answer his first question, “is there gain in earthly labor?” defines much of how we live. By having a right perspective on work, we understand better our place on earth before God. By seeing how short-lived the results of our labor are, we have but one application: to depend on God through faith.

The way we answer his second question, “is there gain in human wisdom?” defines much of our thinking. By understanding how limited human wisdom is, we are drawn to the same application: to depend even more on God and on His revelation.

The way we answer his third question, “is there gain in pleasure?” defines much of our attitude and priorities. As we understand how many diverse pleasures God has given for man to enjoy righteously, we are reminded that our God is good even in the simple things of life, and that excesses are not necessary to find happiness. And so we are lead to the same application again: to be dependent on God and His Word to know what pleasures should rightly be enjoyed and in what measure, keeping in mind what is the most important.

Finally, the way we answer Solomon’s fourth question, defines if we understand the first part of the book or not. This fourth main question, “is there gain in independence?” defines the level of submission and dependence that we will be willing to give. See, Solomon was a king. He thought he could do whatever he pleased, whatever his heart desired. And he did so, only to realize after the fact that all his excesses, all his pursuits, and his mad schemes, were only what were expected from kings. To accumulate riches, to have many wives, to build nice buildings and gardens and to enjoy nice food…that’s what kings do. And he thought he had grasped some kind of freedom only to look back and see that he was caught in a system that was much bigger than him. There was nothing new that he could do. He only had the freedom to do what the system let him do.

You know, gangsters might think there are free in their rebellions. But believe me, when you are a gangster, you do what gangsters are supposed and expected to do. Your rebellion to one system only makes you the slave of another system. Gangsters walk like gangsters, talk like gangsters, and act badly like gangsters. There is no such thing as a freedom of independence. We are all trapped into a system in which we have absolutely no control.

And so the application becomes once again the same: because we are powerless to create our own freedom, we must submit to God to enjoy the real freedom that He has given us.

And this pattern continues through the whole book, and we know there is a common thread because there is a conclusion that ties everything together: to fear God, living by faith and dependence, and to obey His commandments.

So first Solomon starts provoking us with those questions, but then he slaps us with a question even more difficult to answer: if we are not in control and God is in control, then why the world is messed up like it is? That’s a fair question to ask, isn’t?

And so he begins to answer this question in chapter 3. There is a time for everything, he says. God has a plan that is beyond our understanding and that will work for good. And this plan encloses everything, from the best to the worst.

Well, this might sound good, but when you are caught in the middle, what lesson is there to learn? I mean, who cares if a movie has a happy ending if we don’t get what’s happening from the beginning to the end, or if we can’t relate to any of the characters?

And so Solomon pushes the issue. How should we live, knowing that God is in control?    

And Solomon answers: Live with humility. Live with humility because God is bigger than anything you could ever imagine, contain or measure; and live with humility because by yourself, without God, you are more insignificant than anything you can imagine, contain or measure.”

Ecc 3:16  Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. [17]  I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. [18]  I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. [19]  For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. [20]  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. [21]  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? [22]  So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

And as we look at this passage today, we will investigate 3 realities that should lead us to a humble attitude.

I.                    The Reality of God’s Retribution

The first reality is that of God’s retribution. Solomon writes:

Ecc 3:16  Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. [17]  I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. [18]  I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.

The reality of our world is that often, evil comes from a place that is expected to uphold what is good. Very often wickedness comes from the place where we should expect righteousness. We live in a world filled with injustice.

There are things that are happening now and that happened in history that are unjust and evil.

God has given me a big heart for the country of France, and often when I think about the country, I wonder why God let the evils that happened there take place. 400 years ago there were more believers in France than there are now, even though the population might have been 3 times smaller!

And if you know anything about the history of the Huguenots, it is sobering. When you take into account the massacre of St Bartholomew when the houses of believers where assigned to mobs who killed entire families, thousands of people, in just a few days for political reasons. And the great exodus of the Huguenots happening in France 2 centuries later because of Louis the XIV. Some speculate that the king decided to overthrow the Huguenots after a civil war broke out. A seditious group rose against the king, and the Huguenots sided with the king to protect him. Seeing how strong and powerful they were, after he used their help he saw them as a threat and in one generation the number of believers in France fell from half a million or a one million to one thousand only, according to the king himself.

And France never recovered from this blow.

Injustice is what defines our history. We look at the last centuries and the world wars, and the millions of killings based on unjust philosophies and ideologies.

Not only history shows us how much injustice takes place, but the reality of our own government.

How can we justify 55 million babies aborted in the US? While justice should rest in the arms of the government, it is often the opposite.

I have a friend who is a cook in the area. He has worked in all sorts of context and has done quite a bit of catering. Once we were working on preparing a meal together for a church event, and I asked him what had been the worst place he ever had to go serve. He told me that the scariest events he ever catered for were for the police, because of the amount of drugs that was consumed and the fact that many used their guns to randomly shoot in the sky. I mean, who breaks the traffic law more than anyone else? The police does it all the time.

Not only that, but the way the government spends money is often an insult to those who pay their taxes.

And it’s the same all around the world. I had a friend in who was working for the government in France. He told me that it would only take him 1-2 hour a day to complete his task. He spent the other 6-7 hours of his time studying the Bible or surfing on the web.

Once I saw him at church and he looked really tired. And so I asked him, “what happened?” He answered, “I got a new boss!” “Does he make you work?” I replied. “No, he snores.” That’s just a joke of course, but too often true of those working for the government.

And not only in the government, but even in the church and within Christian families. So many fathers and elders abuse their authority and give to people injustice instead of righteousness.

And we could keep going, of course. But that’s not too helpful. And we know these things are happening, and as Solomon said, God will judge everyone for these things.

But why does he let these things happen?

Ecc 3:17  I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. [18]  I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.

God allows these things to happen to keep us humble. To keep us at the right place. At a place of dependence, and of humility. So that we can see with our own eyes that we are but beasts.

Not this is an interesting statement for Solomon to write.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, again and again, Solomon speaks of searching to see what is going on in the world.

Ecc 1:12  I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. [13]  And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. [14]  I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

 Solomon searched to see anything that he could find with his human senses to make sense of this world. You can trace the verbs such as “searching” “seeing” “perceiving” “considering” “seeking”…it’s all over the book. Solomon was on a quest to find out the depth of life. And this is what he finds out:

God has already made plain for us what he wants us to see. Namely that God is testing the children of man that they may see that they are but beasts.

Compared to God, we are but beasts. Compared to His greatness and His glory, we are nothing but insignificant mosquitos, dirty worms, brainless birds and foolish fishes.

Answering the question of evil is not an easy one. But one thing is certain. When we go through suffering, injustice, or oppression, there is one good thing that can always be produced from these circumstances, and it is humility.

This is why the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:71 “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.

But here is the truth: the reason why suffering still exists in our world is because for God, this temporary suffering creates humility. And the height of blessing that comes from this humility is worth it, becomes in light of eternity it makes any well of suffering look like a kiddy pool.

And in the context of Ecclesiastes, the humble person is the one understood as the one who accepts God’s sovereignty and control in obedience, joy and faith.

To be humble is not to be weak and lazy and without conviction like the world often portrays it. To be humble is to live a life fueled and energized by a dependence on God in faith that is not satisfied until God shows up in all His glory. Because when we understand how weak we are and how strong He is, then of course we want to see more of Him and less of us. And that’s what humility does.

II.                  The Reality of our Feebleness

God has planned for man to go through these seasons of life, that there would be a time for everything, because God wanted man to see how little control he had and that humility was the correct path. The reality of God’s retribution points to that, and secondly, the reality of our feebleness points to this.

Ecc 3:19  For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. [20]  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. [21]  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Solomon reminds us in this passage of the reality of our feebleness. We are made of the same dust that the animals are made of, and the dust that constitutes our frames will all end up in the same place. We are made from dust and we will all return to dust.

Now this is where Solomon as a scientist helps us a little bit. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them out of dust says the Word. But never before was it written that animals were created from the dust. But Solomon has seen enough animals and eaten enough of them to know that they were made of the same stuff that constitutes our beings. Like us most of them have some sort of skin, and blood vessels, and organs, and now with modern science we can even know that the DNA information that shapes our beings is made of the same kind of code.

At the end of the day we are made of the same molecules and the same dust as the animals are.

By constitution we are not that different. And not only that, but our end is also the same. We die just like they die, we breathe just like they breathe, and Solomon eve writes, “man has no advantage over the beasts.”

I mean, think about it. Who works harder, the men and women of this world, or the cats and dogs? Who do you thing has it easy? I can guarantee you there are plenty of dogs in this world that are much happier than you are.

But not only that, Solomon even adds: Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

So yes, on one side some animals live well and peacefully on earth, but then, do you even know what happens after death? Do you know if the souls of animals go to hell or to heaven or stop to exist? You don’t even know that. But if God welcomes the souls of dead animals, and then on the other side some other humans go to hell, then I can guarantee you that some animals will for eternity be much happier than humans.

And yet we boast! And we are prideful! And we think so highly of ourselves, so much that we often think that our ways are even better than God’s ways! And we can be so prone to look down on others, and to exaggerate our abilities and convince our own minds that we are worth more than what people are ready to pay for.

Do you know how to get rich quickly? You buy a human at his true value and you sell him at the value he estimates himself.

Our frame is so feeble, it’s not even funny. Do you know that the human body starts dying around 18 years of age? It spends less than 2 decades growing, and the rest of the time it is dying and there is no turning back. I mean what a sobering truth. We spend more time dying than growing.

And guess what. God has willed it that way. Because in this fallen world, if we can’t understand what dying is, we will never understand what it means to die to self. Without the reality of that barrier of death, how could we ever understand the immeasurable breach created by sin and the need to get rid of it?

That’s why Solomon says that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a feast. Because death is one of the best teachers that we have on earth. It is direct, solemn, unequivocal, and universal.

And it teaches this: that we need to be humble. We need to find our place on earth, which is one of submission and dependence towards God, and elevate God with as much energy as possible to give Him the glory due to His name.

Because one thing is certain: if there are many points of convergence between us and animals, there are none between them and God. While our resemblance with animals may suggest that we are feeble, it should also remind us that God is completely different. He is spirit, immortal, invincible, without weakness, in perfect control, and He will reign forever!

III.                The Reality of our Lot

So first: we must learn humility from the reality of God’s retribution, secondly from the reality of our feebleness, and thirdly from the reality of our lot.

Ecc 3:22  So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

Listen. There are things on earth that you can do and others that you can’t. Some of my friends can play music well enough to make a living off of it. Some others, no matter how much they’ll try, will only make money with music if they start singing when people pay them to stop. God has given to each one unique and diverse abilities, and there are things that we can do and be good at it, and others things we will never be able to do. For me, I know I would never be able to be a good business man. I am horrible at making money, it’s just not my gift.

But God has given to each one to work according to the abilities He has given, and that is our lot. We can accept this lot with resentment, when we are prideful and believe we deserve better, or else we can embrace humility and accept our lot with joy.

Do you know what the hallmark of a humble person is? Solomon tells us here: it is a thankful heart and a joyful spirit.

Being humble and dependent to God does not necessarily make life easier or simpler. But it creates within people a spirit of contentment and joy that this world is incapable of imitating.

And I have already shared this with you, but it is one of the reasons why I respect and admire my wife so much. When I met her she was on a wheel chair and she didn’t know if she could ever walk normally again because of her joint problems. But yet I would see her at church in her wheelchair encouraging people, worshipping with all of her heart, and challenging the younger generation with love and perseverance. And I am telling you, we’ve been married over two years by now and never had a single fight, even when physically things are not easy, because she has learned to accept her lot with joy, even being married to a crazy Frenchman.

But the truth is that we are not really in control of our lot. Who knows whether poverty or wealth will strike? Who knows whether there will be health or illness? Who knows whether there will be fruit or division in relationships? We are not in control of these things. All we can know that there is a season for everything. And if we can accept this with humility, it will create joy.

As a well-known pastor often says, the cheapest package you could ever find is a man all wrapped up in himself.

I mean on a scale of 7 billion men and women walking on earth, where do you think you fall? Even if you were a little above average in terms of intelligence, there could still be another 2 billion people smarter than you in any given area. And as a friend of mine often says, for every gift or ability that you may have, there is a 10-year-old Asian kid somewhere that is 10 times better than you at it.

Conclusion

So yes, because of the reality of God’s retribution, of our feebleness and of our lot, all things outside of our control, we must be humble.

And why does God do that? Why did he make us so close to beasts that we should be so insignificant without Him? Simply so that we would find our significance in Him. And as we depend on Him, once more, we become bearers of His greatness.

Listen. There is no competition between our greatness and God’s greatness. It would be like trying to have a death match between an angry elephant and a sardine out of water. You can fight that battle if you want, trying to be in control of your own life, or otherwise humbly accepting God’s lot for you with joy.

And yes, hard times will come, I am sure for many of you hard times are already here, but truth is that you don’t have to be alone. And if you learn to trust the God who is in control, you will find joy, no matter what your lot is.

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