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Quest for the Best challenges us to live in fear of the Lord to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment because our Creator alone holds the answers to our most profound questions about life and eternity.
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Let’s take our bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 7. And we’re going to continue to work our way through chapter 7, verses 1 through 14, and we’ll just get to a better place in the passage this morning. I’m going to read from the New Living Translation. That’s not usually what I do, but this is a section, as we said last week, that’s very proverbial in nature. And I love the way the New Living Translation captures the proverbial nature of this passage. Let’s just read through to verse six, starting at verse one.
“A good reputation is more valuable than the most expensive perfume. In the same way, the day you die is better than the day you are born. It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it while there is still time. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks much about death, while the fool thinks only about having a good time. 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 meaninglessness.” So reads God’s Word.
I come back this morning to the subject “we live and learn”. The story’s told of a young bank executive who was about to get to the point of the pyramid in terms of the company’s structure, and before he took the job over, he decided to talk to the leader whose mantle he was now about to carry, a man who was wise in years, experienced and successful in executive leadership. Young man asked him a series of questions, and it began with this question. He says, “What would you attribute your success to?”
The older executive said to the younger executive, “Two words: good decisions.” Young man said, “That’s good. I understand that. I want to be that kind of leader. I want to make good decisions, but I’ve got a second question.” He said, “How do you make good decisions?” He said, “One word. One word: experience.” “Yeah, I get it. That’s true. You know, if you’re going to make good decisions, you got to be experienced. But here’s my last question to you. How do you get experience that allows you to make good decisions?” And the executive looked at him and he said, “Two words: bad decisions.”
There’s little doubt that we live and learn even from our bad choices. Let’s be honest, life is one great classroom in which experience becomes the best teacher. Over time, the wise person comes to see through observation and experimentation what works and what doesn’t work, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s vain and what’s permanent, what God blesses and what God curses.
Over time, through experience and experimentation and observation, the wise person will get it. They’ll come to see that there are some things that are better for us than other things. And that’s why when you go to the Book of Proverbs, you go to the Book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll find the wise men or the sages of Israel often presenting their material in better than comparisons. Proverbs that are better than comparisons. They’ve lived long enough. They have observed enough of life. They have experienced enough of life rooted in the fear of God to help others see that some things are to be chosen over other things in life. The better than proverbs points to what is good for us, and you’ll find them in a number of places in the Bible. Proverbs 17, verse 1, “Better a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” Proverbs 25, verse 24, “It is better to live in a corner on the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” Let’s move on.
But there’s these proverbs everywhere in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and here we have them in chapter seven. Solomon’s back on form. This is him at his best. We’ve got a whole slice of proverbs better than comparisons to help us make wise choices. And I want to come back into this passage because remember what we said. There’s a question hanging at the end of chapter 6. What’s good for man? And in chapter 7, Solomon answers that. What is entailed in living well during one’s few and fleeting days on earth? Well, the answer to the question of chapter 6 is in the first 14 verses of chapter 7. Solomon is not about to leave any one of us at the crossroads of life going “eenie meenie miney mo.” No, he would rather point us in a direction.
Given your choice, here’s the path you ought to take. It’s the path to sanity. It’s the path to success. It’s the path to spirituality. And so we come back into these opening 14 verses. Last week we covered verses 1 through 4. If I was to break up the passage, I would outline it like this: In verses 1 through 4, Solomon encourages us to live and learn when bereaved. In verses 5 and 6, he encourages us to live and learn when berated. And in verses 7 through 14, which we’ll look at next Sunday, he encourages us to live and learn when bewildered. What do you do when you’re bereaved? What do you do when you’re berated? What do you do when you’re bewildered? Well, there’s some things you ought to do, and in doing them you’ll find out that it’s better than doing something else.
Last week we saw that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than go to the house of feasting. Solomon would encourage us to contemplate our own death and our own demise. Often it renders a kick in the pants like nothing else does, along with the sorrow that’s attendant with it. It has a refining influence on us to borrow the words of the New Living Translation. There’s just no way, given the shortness of life, that we can loiter on our way to heaven. One of the ways that you’ll pick up the pace is by thinking about your death, by hearing the tick of the clock every day as it winds down. We must make every day count. We must be done with trivial pursuits. I don’t have time to develop this.
I came across a sermon this week by the Puritan William Perkins who ministered in Cambridge in England. He has a sermon on this very passage, and he encourages Christians to spend their life meditating on their death. He points to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea had his own grave in his backyard, and he wants to make this application. Whatever Joseph of Arimathea was doing, he didn’t get very far from the thought that someday they’re going to put me in that hole in the wall. And so was my language with my wife appropriate? Is the way I’m raising my kids appropriate? Am I spending my money appropriately? Am I investing my time appropriately? Am I on track in the light of eternity? That’s the kind of thought that William Perkins has.
I love this statement in this sermon. Quote him: “Whatever a man would do when he’s dying the same he ought to do every day in his living.” That’s the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 7, 1 through 4. So we live and learn when bereaved, but let’s move on to verses 5 and 6. We ought to live and learn when berated, criticized, called on the mat.
Let’s read verses 5 and 6 again. “It’s better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool.” Or, as maybe the new King James would put it, “Better to receive a rebuke by a wise man than the laughter of fools.” Verse 6: “Indeed a fool’s laughter is quickly gone like thorns crackling in the fire. This also is meaningless.” If we might tie these verses to verses 1 through 4, there’s a theme that continues. You see, Solomon the wise writer has taught us to face death fully. There’s no ducking the issue. He says, “If you’re going to live life successfully, then face the hard facts of life.” You can’t do otherwise. It’s folly to ignore what must be faced. Don’t be pretending. Pretending is no way to live. Don’t pretend that death isn’t coming. Don’t pretend that eternity is not around the corner, for it is, and it’s long and your destiny is set at the moment you depart this earth.
Let those weary issues weigh upon you. Don’t duck the hard facts of life. And he goes on then. “Then don’t dodge the criticism of a wise man.” He’s basically saying this, the mature don’t run from the thought of their death, nor do they run from a deluxe shellacking from a good person who wants them to be better. Nobody likes to go to a funeral, right? But then we’re told it’s better to go to the funeral than to the house of feasting. Nobody likes to be called onto the mat, but it’s good for us. It’s sanctifying and helpful. See, better to be scolded by a wise man than serenaded by a fool. Solomon has lived long enough to know that it’s better to receive a meaningful slap in the face than a meaningless slap on the back with an empty, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
Solomon says, “Don’t fall for that.” The laughter of a fool, the back slapping that’s so much part of the party scene and the culture where there’s so much meaningless talk, devoid of reality and honesty and transparency. He says, “That’s like thorns crackling on a campfire. They make a lot of noise, but they don’t burn for very long. They’re not like a good log. They’re not like a good lump of coal, and so’s the laughter of a fool.”
There’s people that just want to laugh their way through life. They don’t want to take anything seriously. They don’t want to look at themselves. They don’t want to look at death. They don’t want to think about eternity. That’s the kind of person’s going to tell you, “You’re great. You’re good to go.” And then someone’s going to come into your life and burst your bubble. How are you going to react? Well, Solomon says this, “Hey, listen to me. I’ve lived long enough. I think this is a true statement, rooted in the fear of God, proven by time, tested by experience. It’s better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool.”
It’s good stuff, isn’t it? Constructive and not destructive. Criticism can have a wonderful ministry in each of our lives. Let me just give you some verses that reinforce this. Proverbs 10 and verse 17, here’s what we read. “People who accept correction are on the pathway to life, but those who ignore it will lead others astray.” Chapter 12, verse 1: “To learn, you must love discipline. It is stupid to hate correction. 13, verse 18: “If you ignore criticism, you’ll end up in poverty and disgrace. If you accept criticism, you’ll be honored.” Chapter 17, verse 10: “A single rebuke does more for a person of understanding than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool.” Then my favorites. Proverbs 27, verse 5: “An open rebuke is better than hidden. Love wounds from a friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.”
I remember studying that verse in a series I did on Proverbs, and the interesting thing about that verse is the Hebrew parallelism. Each thing is set up in contrast. You talk about the friend, and you talk about the enemy. The friend is faithful; the enemy is deceitful. The friend is faithful through his wounds and his rebuking and his criticizing. The enemy is deceitful through his kisses and his empty laughter. And the amazing thing is some of us, to escape pain, to escape taking ourselves to the woodshed, to escape change and humility and repentance, we would rather have the kiss of the enemy than the blow of the friend. Solomon’s saying, “Hey, I’ve watched it, and I’ve watched it in people’s lives to their utter cost.” Listen, most of us would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. That’s the way we’re bent.
You know what? Our old man doesn’t like to be exposed. He doesn’t like to be called on the mat because he’s proud, and he’s protective of himself. He sees himself better than he is. He’s not very honest with himself. He’s always in good standing with himself. You go back to the very fall of man, and you see Adam blaming Eve, and you see Eve blaming the serpent. There was an old preacher said, “Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on.” But you see, we have an aversion to admonition because apart from being humbled at the foot of the cross, apart from living under the lordship of Jesus Christ, apart from being filled and submitted to the Holy Spirit, you and I will see ourselves better than we are, and that’s why we’re always open to the folly of listening to the laughter of fools and rejecting the wise rebuke of a wise man.
For a few moments, let’s drill down into this. Let’s get practical. Let’s get pastoral. We all bear the bites of unfair criticism. We can all point to them, and we all have the scars from the wounding of a friend that has now healed and been good for us. What are we to make of this whole issue of rebuke, admonition, criticism? It’s hard to escape it, isn’t it? Jesus didn’t escape it. Paul didn’t escape it. None of us will escape it. I wrote down a number of things to myself when I first studied this passage some years ago and then come back to it this week. Five things that we’ll move through very quickly, but if you’re dealing with criticism or you’re thinking of giving it, here’s some things to bear in mind.
Number one, some people criticize because it’s easier to see the fault of others. Some people criticize because it’s easier to see the faults of others. Jesus tackles that, doesn’t he, in Matthew 7, 1 through 4? He doesn’t say you can’t judge, which is often how that verse is interpreted, but he does say, “If you’re going to judge somebody, you need to first judge yourself.” What’s the standard? Because it’s not one standard for you and another standard for them. If it is, you’re a hypocrite, and it’ll come back to bite you. And then Jesus paints this hilarious, humorous picture. Don’t be like someone pulling a toothpick out of somebody’s eye while at the same time there’s a 6-by-4 sticking out of your own. Jesus warns us here, condemns the censoring of others for their perceived shortcomings, while all the time you are blind to your own faults? As someone has so memorably said, “Faults are like the headlights in a car. Those of others seem more glaring than our own.” Isn’t that the truth?
I want to be mindful of that. Some people criticize because it’s easier to see faults in others, and by the way, when you smoke somebody like that out, then you don’t need to lose a lot of sleep over their criticism. If you dig down deep enough into any criticism, you might find a kernel of truth in it, but if they want to define your life by it, they want to make it a Supreme Court case, when you look at them and see the hypocrisy or the lack of standards in their own life, then you can pull the mat from out under their feet because when they want to call you onto the mat. Because some people live in a critical condition. Their predisposition is against someone or someone or even you. They’re never going to give you a first shake. They’ve already made their mind up. The agenda’s set, and you’re part of it.
Dismiss the criticism based on the critic. I always remember what Vance Havner said. He was talking about this kind of scenario. He said, “You know, it’s not worth fighting with a skunk because even when you win, you lose.” And that’s a good word of wisdom in life, you know. Sometimes it’s just not worth defending yourself, worth engaging the criticism, because, you know, the person’s a skunk.
Some people criticize because they don’t know the whole story. It’s another thing to bear in mind. There’s almost two sides to a story, but if we’re not careful, any one of us can quickly attach ourselves to one side of the story, maybe out of self-interest, maybe out of a connection with that person, maybe out a sense of self-preservation one’s self, and we can act impulsively. And the book of Proverbs warns us not to do that.
Go over to the book of Proverbs again, chapter 18 and verse 13. This is good wisdom, time-tested and proven wisdom. 18:13: “What a shame. What a folly to give advice before listening to the facts.” You better make sure you’ve done your homework. You better make sure what you’re about to say to that person or about that person is actually true. You’re not going on assumptions, presumptions, tidbits, sound bites. So we’re warned here to be careful. Look at verse 17 of the same chapter. “Any story sounds true until someone sets the record straight.” How many times have you and I have been embarrassed, you know? Oh, I didn’t know that, so I’m sorry for what I said. Well, maybe you’d have zipped it, you wouldn’t have to make the apology, but we’re all human. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Got to be careful.
In fact, this is particularly true when it comes to criticizing leaders in the church. Go over to 1 Timothy, chapter 5. 1 Timothy, chapter five in verse 19: “Do not listen to complaints against an elder unless there are two or three witnesses to accuse him. Anyone who sins should be rebuked in front of the whole church so that others will have a proper fear of God.” Paul is reminding Timothy here to be careful.
The occasion for complaint against a leader is multiplied. That’s why they need some extra protection. Unlike someone in the congregation, the sphere of their influence is pretty narrow, or people speaking into their life or looking at their life may be limited, but not the pastor, not the pastor or his family. He’s exposed to the whole congregation, and so the opportunity for complaint, for misunderstanding, for misreading is multiplied, and that’s why the pastor is protected here in this passage. And no complaint against him should be listened to unless it can be established clearly by witnesses, and if it is established and his sin is there to be seen, he’s to be rebuked in public because you see his ministry’s public. Unlike anybody else in the congregation, he’s got a platform and a leadership platform that makes the exposure of his sin necessary.
Some people, thirdly, criticize because it’s about them, not about you. People are perceived as a threat, and so out of a desire for self-preservation, they attack the one who is perceived to be muscling in on their territory. This was certainly the case with David and Saul. Saul became very critical of David, very jealous, very envious and went to hunt David down, and the reason was that ultimately he perceived that the people were shifting, that there was coming a new administration. He knew his days were numbered, that a young man had been set apart, whose heart was after God. And so according to 1 Samuel 18, verse 8 through 9, Saul began to envy David, and he had his eye on him.
Happens to Paul, doesn’t it, in Rome? Tells us about it in his letter to the Philippines, chapter 1, verse 12 says, “Hey, things are going well here, believe it or not. I am in prison. I’m not sure whether I’m going to get out of here and get back to you guys or not, but that’s okay. To be with Christ, far better. I can live with that and I’m here to tell you that things have fallen out for the furtherance of the gospel. There are people in Caesar’s house who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. How cool it that? Although I got to be honest, when it comes to brethren, some of them look at my example and they go, ‘We got to follow Paul’s example. We got to man up and be more bold in the presentation of the gospel.’ Others, sadly says, out of selfish ambition, out of vain glory, they’re kind of using this time in my life with limited access to the church. They’re using this time to kind of shove me to the side, promote themselves.”
Paul gets above it. Often thought about that passage. So easy to get dragged down into stuff. Gets above it and says, “Christ has preached. God’s sovereign. Let’s keep going.” But it’s interesting, the critics of Paul, it was about them, not about him. When it came to Saul and David, it was about Saul, not about David. And you see it. You see it when new pastors come into churches. You see it when there’s a leadership change in a company. The old guard who don’t want change, don’t want that to be happening or perceive that the change is going to affect them detrimentally, they often begin to criticize, but the fact is they’re not criticizing the person really. It’s not about the other person. It’s about them.
Number four, some people criticize because it’s easier to complain about problems than solve them. Wow, how true is that? So easy to complain, point out the problem, but you have no solution? These people lack faith. They lack vision. They lack perseverance. They want the old back. This is the crowd that longs for Egypt. Read about them in Numbers, chapter 14: 1, following the naysayers, the grumblers. I mean, how can any Israelite in their right mind say, “I want to go back to Egypt”? Good night. Come on. Slavery, brick making. Doesn’t make sense. They want to go back to what they didn’t want in the first place? But it often happens. The naysayers can be like that. The grumblers can be like that. They don’t make sense. Someone has said this, “Some people have enough steam to blow the whistle but not enough to pull the train.” Some people are good at blowing the whistle but not moving things forward, and they’re often the loudest voices with the heaviest criticism, the naysayers, the grumblers.
I love the story of D.L. Moody, who was kind of innovative in his day. We wouldn’t see that looking back, but he introduced Sunday schools and boys and girls meetings and all sorts of things going on that kind of upset the traditional apple cart. And so he was attacked for it, and one woman attacked him to his face one day. Said, “Mr. Moody, I don’t like your methods.” And Moody said, “Well, I don’t particularly like them either, but they’re the best I’ve got. Tell me, what methods have you got? Maybe I can learn.” She said, “Mr. Moody, I’ve got no methods. I just don’t like yours.” To which he said, “Then I like my methods better than your methods.”
People like that. I’ve been a amazed across my ministry to find people who want to tell a pastor how to lead a church and preach a sermon, but they couldn’t lead a group of children across the street if they had to and couldn’t preach their way out of a paper bag if they had to. But then you know what? That’s Adam, isn’t it? That’s the old self. We’re all capable of fighting with that.
Here’s the fifth thought, in closing, and coming back to the text here. Some people criticize because there is a fault to be corrected. There is a sin to be confronted, and wise is the person who hears the rebuke of the wise man who’s none of these things we’ve talked about. At times, there are things about us and about me and about you that need to be straightened out. Sometimes the criticism is right on target. We stand guilty as charged.
In fact, you read about that in Galatians 2, verse 11 when Paul confronts Peter because he’s kind of caving into the Judaizers that are wanting gentile believers to be circumcised, who want gentile believers to come under the bondage of Jewish laws and Levitical laws, and Paul says, “No way. That’s to puncture the cross. That’s to undermine the gospel. We’re free from that.” And he meets Peter, and he confronts him. You know what the old King James I think says, “Because he was to be blamed.” No getting around it. Peter, you did wrong. It seems that Peter may have received that rebuke wisely. Albert Einstein said, “Don’t tell me what I do right. I know that. What I need to know is what I do wrong.” I think we all need that ministry, don’t we, in our lives?
Back to Proverbs. Proverbs 9, verses 8 and 9, beautiful verses: “So don’t bother rebuking mockers. They will only hate you, but the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more.” I know it’s a little stretch, but, you know the wise man goes, “There. Lay it there. Right there. I can take it.” And they’ll love you all the more. As long as you don’t have a biased agenda. As long as you’re going to love them and the rebuke. As long as we’ve gone through some of the things we’ve talked about. It’s a good thing when we are disciplined, rebuked. Have you ever read this verse in Psalm 141 verse 5? Psalm 141, verse 5. This is David. “Let the Godly strike me. It will be a kindness.” Wow. If they reprove me, it’s soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.
You made that, Lord; help me with this. I’m not good at this. And help me to understand. There will be times in my life when a Godly parent, when a Godly pastor, when my boss at work or a policeman on the street call me on the mat and say, “That’s wrong. Stop it, change, repent, desist, be this, become this.” Lord, help me to see that as a kindness, and if you and I are going to get involved in that kind of ministry, the issue needs to be clear. It needs to be sin, not some debatable issue, not some motive that can’t be weighed.
The end in view is to win your brother, not score a point. It ought to be direct, preferably face-to-face, and specific. It ought to be gracious and humble in its application. Friends and family are not there to reinforce us, but to sanctify us, mature us, and act as sandpaper smoothly smoothing away the rough edges of our lives.
Finish with this story. You’ll find it in a book by William Sangster, Pure in Heart. William Sangster was a great Methodist preacher in London during the Second World War. And then he tells an interesting story about Alexander Whyte, very famous for a book on biblical characters. He was a pastor in Edinburgh, in Scotland, native country of my wife. And one particular evening, a friend of Alexander Whyte comes in and tells him that a visiting evangelist in the city was rather scathing of a friend of theirs, a Dr. Hood. In fact, this evangelist had almost inferred that Dr. Hood was not a converted man, and Alexander Whyte goes ballistic. “Dr. Hood not a converted man?” Gets pretty uptight about it. And the friend says,” Alexander, that’s not all he said. You’re not a converted man.” According to William Sangster, Alexander Whyte encourages his friend to leave, and as his friend is leaving, he turns around and he sees Alexander Whyte putting his face into his hands in a bowed position, and he said, “Please leave. Leave, leave, leave. I must examine my heart.” That’s striking, isn’t it? That’s humility.
Very quick to defend another, but very slow to defend himself, wanting to see if there’s any kind of truth in the rebuke. Better, the rebuke of a wise man than the laughter of fools. Batter to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. There’s a better way to live, and there’s two paths that Solomon encourages you and I to take. Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you for this time, this morning and your word for its rebuke of us. We thank you for its challenge. Lord, we’re so quick to point out the sins of others, so slow to see our own sin. So easy for the church to judge the world and society. We’re so slow to repent ourselves. We become pompous and pious, Pharisaical. Oh God, we pray that you would work on us. Take the sandpaper of your word, smooth off the rough edges. Make us more like the Lord Jesus, who when he was reviled, reviled not again, and when he had to rebuke, he did it in a measured, gentle, firm, biblical way. Lord, help us to hear Solomon’s criticism of criticism and learn from it. Lord, lead us along the way. Point us in the right direction. For we ask and pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.