Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
Solomon exhibits in this passage, as always, a keen insight into human nature. He knows the pride that resides in our flesh. He knows that there is nothing that hurts our pride more than when we are shown our weakness and helplessness. And he knows that there is no, greater way our weakness is revealed than through adversity or calamity in life. This is something no man can avoid. Neither can he overcome it in his own strength. How often this results in frustration and rebellion against God, even in the life of one of His children!
To set us on a straight course when dealing with adversity, Solomon instructs us in verse 13, “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?” This is where it all begins, is it not? Everything that takes place in our lives is a work of God’s hand and has been ordered for us before the world began. Already in His counsel, from eternity, God has determined every little detail in the unfolding of history. There our lives in all their perfect plan have been ordered by God. Nothing happens to us outside of that which God has decreed from eternity. And it is according to that counsel of His will that God also works all things in our lives.
By His sovereign power God directs all the affairs of this world. As almighty God of heaven and earth, who upholds and controls all things, He makes sure that every detail of His counsel comes to pass. Providentially God controls the details of our lives. Not one thing takes place in our lives that He does not direct – and that exactly as He has planned it from eternity.
This includes, first of all, the good times in life, or the “day of prosperity,” as Solomon calls those days in verse 14: God gives to us our labor, wealth, strength, and earthly joy. And He gives us as well those days or times of our lives when we truly enjoy all these gifts. These are times when all seems to be running smoothly; without any snags – or at least without any major ones. Solomon speaks of these ways as “straight” ways – ways when our pathway in life runs straight and smooth with no sudden turns for the worse. There are no major problems in our personal lives, in the lives of those who are close to us, or in the churches in which we are members. We experience the comforts of life, we are not struggling financially, we are not laid low by any serious sickness in our lives or the lives of our loved ones, we can go out and enjoy ourselves, and even spiritually we seem to be on the mountain top in our struggle against sin. These are good times in life, prosperous times, times which make our hearts joyful and happy. And God gives us these times!
But God also sends us what we would consider evil times or the bad times. We must not forget that under God’s sovereign control are sickness and death, poverty and desolation, and even sin. And God Himself determines and sends those times or days in our lives when we experience these “evils.” This Solomon refers to in verse 14 as the “day of adversity.” During these times our pathway is crooked and rocky. There are trails and crosses we are given to bear. We experience sickness and suffering, pain and sorrow. And these can last for long, long periods of time in our lives.
There are other times of difficulty which can arise due directly to sin. There are times when we as God’s children, or perhaps our loved ones, fall into the deep way of sin. These times disrupt our whole lives, the lives of our families, and the life of the church. They are crooked ways down which we are led – long, hard, twisting ways of strife and struggle that leave one hurting and weary. These ways are good only when they have ended. When we walk this way we say with Solomon in verse 8, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof!” We are glad to see it over and ended!
But if we are going to learn to deal with such adversity in life in a positive, spiritual way it is necessary that we understand God’s hand in it all. Adversity is not the work of some cold, cruel fate. It is not simply an accident that things occur the way they do in our lives. Neither do we say, “Well, we cannot avoid these hard times anyway, so we might as well put our nose to the grindstone and bear it.” This is not the conclusion to which Solomon leads us in this passage.
Neither ought we to think that all adversity is sent by Satan and not by God. For some reason this has definitely become a popular notion in our day. God would not do these things to us! He is a loving and a caring God and would never do anything to hurt anyone! All calamities that befall us in this life must be sent by Satan, surely not by God! Satan is the one who wants to hurt us. Satan wants to bring misery in our lives.
So the reasoning goes. But any: one who believes this does not believe the Word of God we receive in this passage of Ecclesiastes. Consider the work of God: He makes crooked. He sets adversity over against prosperity. God does this! Not Satan. Is Satan a force equal to God? Is he so powerful that God cannot hinder him from doing well? And if God could hinder him but chooses not to, is not God just as guilty as Satan by allowing, him to do these terrible deeds? Satan is not a power that God must reckon with. He is a power who is under the direct control of our sovereign God! And although it is true that Satan is there tempting us to sin in times of adversity, it is equally true that he tempts us in times of prosperity, too. Adversity is a work of God.
Do you believe all this? If you do, then you will be comforted by the Word of God in this passage.
This knowledge, that God sends adversity as well as prosperity, is the beginning of the wisdom we are encouraged to possess in this whole matter. Solomon writes in verses 11 and 12, “Wisdom is good with an inheritance? and by it there is profit to them that see the sun. For wisdom is a defense, and money is a defense: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.” The wisdom of which Solomon speaks here is the spiritual wisdom given by God with salvation. It therefore belongs only to those who believe that God is the center and purpose of all things. We are told that by such wisdom there is profit “to them that see the sun.” There is another phrase, used often in the book of Ecclesiastes, which sheds light on the meaning of this expression. Oftentimes Solomon refers to those who are “under the sun.” By this phrase Solomon speaks of those who refuse to acknowledge God as the end and purpose of all things. They are unbelievers who refuse to fear God in their ways. If this is true, then those who see the sun are those who do acknowledge God as the beginning, the center, and the end of all things. They believe in God and fear Him. The wisdom of our text, therefore, is that which belongs only to those that fear God. This virtue is worked in their hearts by the Spirit of Christ, who is the wisdom of God. Through the cross Christ has lifted us from the darkness of unbelief and given us eyes to see the sun. That is to say, He has given us to know and understand the things of the kingdom of heaven. In that knowledge of spiritual things, we are given to know that it is truly God Himself that controls all things in this world and in our lives. We are given to know freely by God’s grace that God sends adversity as well as prosperity.
Now, Solomon encourages us to take that knowledge and adapt it to our lives in such a way that when we experience adversity we can use it for our profit. That is true wisdom! We must take a hard look at the hard times in life and evaluate them in light of the fact that our God sends them. We must ask the “why” of life, Why does God send us hurtful times, gainful times, times that so often bring sorrow to our hearts and tears to our eyes? Why?
When we ask that question in wisdom (not in rebellion), then the answer we receive is: “God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.” God sets adversity and prosperity one against the other in our lives. God makes sure that all of us experience at one time or another both prosperity and adversity. He offsets the one with the other. He gives us joy and laughter, but He also gives us sorrow and crying. God tempers the one with the other. All that “to the end that man should find nothing after him.” This phrase simply means that God sets the one over against the other in order that we might never determine what the future holds for us. God offsets the one with the other in order that we might be unable to discover what the morrow brings. Our life can change so suddenly from one day to the next. God teaches us by this of the transitory character of life: If we cannot be certain of what will befall us on any certain day of our lives, no doubt we will be driven to look upon God alone who is our Rock. The wise child of God who sees the sun, therefore, learns from all this to take no thought for the morrow, but to leave it in the hands of almighty God. That we must learn!
Listen: is not this mighty God of heaven and earth our God? Does He not love us from all eternity? Has He not shown to us His great love in the very death of His only begotten Son? Are not we saved in the blood of Jesus Christ? Are not we adopted in that .blood to be Gods very own children? Well, if all of this is true of us, then we need never fear that whatever God sends us in this life might not be for our good. Ought not we then, when we are troubled with a load of care, or overwhelmed with the burdens of this life, simply trust in our heavenly Father? He will never leave us or forsake us in our times of need. And is it not true that it is exactly during those times of adversity that we learn all of this the best? When in prosperity we have a tendency to look to our own arm of flesh for strength. We are apt to forget God. But when God offsets this with adversity in life we are again drawn to Him, for when we are weak then He is strong. Ah, to be able to learn that in our lives!
To know all this and to apply it to our lives, especially when adversity strikes, is the greatest of all wisdom! That wisdom is as good as an inheritance. It is something that is sure, that cannot be taken away, and is of the greatest value to us. In fact, its value is found in this: wisdom is a defense just as money in an earthly sense is a defense. We can run under the shadow of this wisdom and hide there for shelter and protection in the hard times of life; just as many in this world hide behind money for protection. But wisdom is of greater value than all the money in the world, for its knowledge gives life-eternal life something which money cannot do!
When we apply to our lives this knowledge that God is in control, then we will be given patience. Patience is the end of wisdom. “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit,” Solomon teaches us in verse 8. And in verse 9 he commands, “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry; for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.” One who is proud in spirit is one who rebels against God in adversity. He fights and struggles and is discontent in these ways. He is quick to grow angry and frustrated with life and everyone in it: it is the doctor’s fault, or the family’s fault, or the church’s fault. He will blame the hard knocks of life on everyone else – when perhaps he ought to be blaming himself for not quietly resting in his God. How often is it not true that one who experiences hardship in life becomes bitter, angry, and resentful with everyone around him save himself. And ultimately he comes out and blames God. “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” (v. 10). Why cannot my life be as it was before, when times were good? Why send me these adversities, since I do not deserve them any more than anyone else? This man considers not that he inquires not wisely, but all his anger rests in his own bosom, the bosom of a fool.
Better than a man who is proud and hasty in spirit is the wise man who is patient. When we rightly consider the work of God in our lives, and when we are quick to apply this, then we are going to be patient. A patient man is one who bears hard and long under the burdens of life. He is a man who will not be quick to open his mouth and complain, but will cheerfully carry his burden to the Lord and receive grace to go on – and even be blessed by his burden. Such patience can only result in contentment. And that contentment is the greatest of all gain! Applied to this life of adversity and trouble it is perhaps the greatest of all gifts. We are told that wisdom gives life. This is true because when one is wise he is also patient. And when one is patient he will not curse God in adversity, but will confess His God and humbly bow before Him and adore Him.
The excellency of such wisdom and patience therefore is this: it tends toward eternal life! What better way to secure damnation than to curse God and die. What better way to secure salvation than to say with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord, has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” That must be our confession in the worst of calamities. And it will be, too – but only when we realize that God controls every event in our lives!