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Monday, June 13, 2011

"Live Dogs Versus Dead Lions" - (06/12/11)

Ecclesiastes 9 (Message #9 in Series)
June 12, 2011

·         “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
·         “Better to be a live chicken than a dead duck.”
·         “Better dead than Red.”
·         “Hotter than a penny fire-cracker.”
·         “Busier than a beaver.”
These are some well-known and overused old comparative sayings.  Can you think of any others offhand?
            There is one in our text for today that you may have heard along the way, but you may not have known that it comes from the Bible.  It’s found in Ecclesiastes 9:4 and it says, “A live dog is better off than a dead lion.”  What does Solomon mean by that?  We’ll find out in just a minute, but first, let’s start at the beginning of the chapter so that we understand the context.

            Thus far in our study of the Book of Ecclesiastes we have heard Solomon say some pretty troubling things.  Taken out of their historical context and separated from the intentions of the author we could come to some very bizarre conclusions based on some of Solomon’s remarks.  That’s why I think it is so important to reemphasize the purpose of this book and explain why God saw fit to include it in the holy canon of Scripture.  Solomon was not a godless heretic and Ecclesiastes was not included in the Bible by mistake.
            So what was Solomon, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, trying to accomplish?  To put it simply, he was trying to give us a glimpse into the thoughts and attitudes of a person living his life apart from a relationship with God.  He did that by giving us a window into his own life and his own screwed-up thinking when he was away from God.  Even with all the blessings of being the crown prince of Israel and being raised in the king’s palace, it wasn’t enough for Solomon.  When he got the chance, after he became king, for many years he abandoned the Lord and the faith of his father, David.  Instead, he ran after wine, women, and song, build his fortune, searched for sensual pleasures and generally lived his life according to his own rules and values.  By his own admission he took this on as a project, a kind of psychology experiment, to seek out life’s ultimate meaning.  He ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines.  He became the wealthiest and most powerful man of his generation.  He built huge projects and raised fine horses.  He built up the city of Jerusalem so that it was considered the pearl of the Middle East for many years.  Solomon had it all, did it all.  But it left him hollow and dissatisfied.  Nothing that he possessed and nothing that he accomplished was sufficient to give real meaning to his life.  In the end he discovered that only God can do that for us.
            Ecclesiastes is the story of his search and of his dissatisfaction and depression along the way until he finally made his way back to God, who had been there all along, just waiting for Solomon, the prodigal son, to come home.  The Book of Ecclesiastes examines life “under the sun,” that is, the natural life of a person who leaves God out of the equation.  Much of the book does not present the Christian viewpoint, nor does it represent God’s viewpoint.  For this reason, this has long been the favorite Bible book of atheists and skeptics.  That’s because when they read it they can actually relate to it.  It makes perfect sense to them.  For example, both Volney and Voltaire quoted from it frequently.  It fit in perfectly with their pessimistic philosophy of life.  For example, the gloomy fatalist would conclude that
(a) Since God’s ultimate purposes are unknowable (8:15-17), and
(b) Since there is no visible proof of an afterlife (9:1-10), and
(c) Since the length of life is uncertain (9:11-16),
(d) Then, the wisest and only logical course of action is to enjoy oneself here and now.  
However, here in chapter nine of Ecclesiastes Solomon explores the futility of this “here and now, this world only” philosophy of life.  By that I mean he looks at the meaninglessness of life if what we see now is all there is to human existence. 

            The first section of the chapter includes verses 1-6 in which the author outlines the fatalistic attitude in general.
Verses 1-6: 1So I reflected on all this [in my wanderings under the sun] and concluded that the righteous and the wise [i.e. the righteous wise] and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.  2All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good [morally] and the bad, the clean [ceremonially] and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices [like King Josiah who offered sacrifices to God] and those who do not [like King Ahab who stopped the sacrifices to God].  As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.   3This is the evil [i.e. bad thing] in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all [i.e. death and the grave].  The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.  4Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!   5For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.  6Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.
  • In verses 1-2 Solomon parrots what many claim, that men seem to be mere pawns in the hand of the Almighty.  He rightly points out that you can’t know through observation what God thinks about a person by His present dealings with them.  The love and hatred of God are not to be measured and judged of by men’s outward condition or the apparent physical/financial/material blessings of God.  These are know by that which is within us if we love God with all our heart, and will ultimately be known by that which shall happen hereafter, by men’s everlasting state.
  • Furthermore, in verse 2 Solomon points out that goodness often goes unrewarded in this life.  Look at the pairs he mentions: good/bad, clean/unclean, etc.
  • Then he says in verse 3, ”The same destiny overtakes all.”  Speaking as a fatalist he asserts that both the good and the bad finally end up in the grave, putting an end to their earthly existence.  “The dead know nothing,” i.e. so far as their bodily senses and worldly affairs are concerned.  Also, they know no door of repentance open to them, such as is open to all who are still alive on earth.  (By the way, this is a favorite passage of the 7th Day Adventists.  It is from this text, especially verses 3-5, that they draw the idea for their doctrine of “soul sleep.”)
  • In verse 5 “dog” is a metaphor for the vilest kind of people (cf. I Sam. 24: 14).  You have to remember that for the Jews dogs were considered to be “unclean” animals, at least as far as eating them.  Moreover, most Jews would not keep one for a pet.  The “lion” on the other hand was considered to be the noblest of animals (Prov. 30:30).  So the expression in verse 4, ”Even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” means that even the noblest person who dies unconverted has no hope; while the vilest sinner, so long as he has life, still has hope.
  • In verses 5-6 Solomon says that there is at least some profit on earth in this life from a man’s labor, and he is at least “somebody," while the dead person is not even a memory.  “They have no further reward.”  Notice that he’s talking here not about the righteous, but the wicked, who with all the pains to perpetuate their names, are soon “forgotten.”
  • Indeed, death seems to be the final leveling agent for the good and bad alike, but is that so?  Solomon is not saying that these cease in a future world absolutely, but as the end of this verse shows, relatively to persons and things in this world.  What a man is found to be at death he remains forever.  The man who dies an unbeliever, separated from God, will remain so forever.

            In the next section, verses 7-10, Solomon gives a somewhat more optimistic point of view concerning human existence.  But for some reason the NIV which I have been using this morning does a poor job of translating these verses, giving to them a dark undertone that I do not believe Solomon intended.
Verses 7-10: 7Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do [your works].  8Always be clothed in white [purity/holiness], and always anoint your head with oil [health and blessing].  9Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless [NASB “fleeting”] life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless [“fleeting”] days.  For this is your lot [reward] in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun [NASB is better: “…for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.”].  10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead [lit. Sheol], where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge [added by NIV, not in original] nor wisdom.    
  • These words are spoken to the “righteous wise” addressed up in verse 1.  Solomon says in 7-9 that we should live life joyfully as unto God.
  • Dressed in white, like Solomon at his inauguration, stands for the purity and holiness of the believer.  The NT tells us that one day we, the redeemed, will stand before God clothed in the spotless righteousness of Christ (Rev. 3:18; 7:14).  The anointing of the head with oil speaks of God’s blessing of health and healing [cf. Psalm 23, “…he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over…”].
  • I find verse 9 ironic and somewhat sad.  He speaks of sharing your life with your wife (1, not 700).  God’s plan was for marriage to be between one man and one woman.  He did not have a Plan B, and still doesn’t.
  • In verse 10 he says that we should live our lives with zeal, energy, and vitality, pointing out that the grave will not give us these opportunities.
  • The ancient Hebrews thought that Sheol was a pit deep under the earth where the dead reside (cf. Deut. 32:22).  It is almost always depicted as the place to which both righteous and unrighteous went after death, and where there were no punishments or rewards (cf. Eccl. 3:19-20; 6:6).  To them it was a “land of forgetfulness” (Psalm 88:12) and darkness (Job 38:17), where men existed as shadowy replicas of their former selves (cf. Isaiah 14:9-10).  Of course, when we turn to the NT we have a much fuller picture of what awaits both the believer and the unbeliever.  But in the OT God did not see fit to give out much descriptive information about the afterlife.

In verses 11-12 Solomon recognizes the fact that wisdom is not always properly appreciated.
Verses 11-12: 11I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance [seemingly just dumb luck, but really Providence] happen to them all.  12Moreover, no one knows when their hour [of death] will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.  
  • In verses 11-12 Solomon shows us that “cause-and-effect” is not always operative.  In fact, the element of “chance” often seems to affect the results.  But we must ask: “Is that true?”  NO!  In the NT, in Romans 8:28-29 we learn that God “…causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  For the Christian there is no such thing as chance—just God’s divine sovereign providence.
  • For us as believers luck does not exist.  Rather, we have a loving Father who works behind the scenes to carry out His plans and purposes, which will result in glory for Him and blessings for us.  It’s true that it appears that we sometimes are overtaken by “bad luck” in the form of illness, financial collapse, or even death, but things are not always what they seem.  God is still in charge and in control.  Never forget that!

In verses 13-16 Solomon tells us again that wisdom is better than folly.  This has been one of his recurring themes.
Verses 13-16: 13I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14There was once a small city with only a few people in it.  And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it.  15Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom.  But nobody remembered [acknowledged] that poor man.  16So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.”  But the poor man’s wisdom is despised [looked down on, thought to be of little value], and his words are no longer heeded.  
  • In this example Solomon points out that the rewards of wisdom are sometimes reaped by the undeserving.  The people of the city were saved through the application of the poor man’s wisdom [possibly through skilled negotiation, or extraordinary military stratagems].
  • The man described in verse 15 was financially poor in spite of possessing true wisdom.  And although he saved the city he received little or no reward for his service.  That’s because he was neither rich nor great.  He was only wise.
  • Generally speaking poor people are not heard, no matter how good or wise they might be.  They are generally overlooked and unappreciated.  That’s because the world does not value wisdom highly, unless it accompanies power, money, and influence.

In the last two verses of the chapter Solomon tags on this reminder that we should pay special attention to wise people.  When they speak we should listen.  This proverb seems to have been added to suggest that what was said up in verse 16 is not always true though it is often true.
Verses 17-18: 17The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.  18Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. 
  • In verse 17 Solomon says that the counsel of wise men is more often heard in quiet words, while fools, even foolish leaders, tend to shout. 
  • But then in verse 18 he goes on to point out that while wisdom is better than powerful weapons of war, the diabolical power of sin should not be underestimated.  He says that “…one sinner destroys much good.” 

            I have watched the power of evil at work.  I have seen what one sinner can do.  There can be a tremendous influence exerted by the life of one individual, for good or for evil.  The Bible is full of examples: Achan sinned, and because of him and entire nation went down in defeat.  They had to deal with the sin of Achan before they could achieve a victory.  Rehoboam’s sin split the kingdom of Israel.  Ananias and Sapphira brought the first taste of judgment into the early church.  Moreover, secular history is replete with examples: Chairman Mao and his little Red Book, Marx & Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. just to name a few.
            When your life comes to an end are people going to have to lie or exaggerate at your funeral?  What will be the spiritual legacy that you leave behind?  When I was a boy, growing up at home, my mother had a little wooden plaque that always hung on the wall in our living room, wherever we happened to be living.  It said: “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will last.”  That’s as true now as it was back then.  How will you be remembered?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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