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Joyful Realism Under the Sun

June 9, 2024

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 6:1–9:10

Joyful Realism Under the Sun
Eccl 6:1–9:10 – Joy in the Toil: Ecclesiastes – Daniel J. Baker – Jun 9, 2024


“If you’re able, please stand.” Reading Eccl. 7:1–14. “Thanks be to God.”

Last fall published an article called, “Pessimism Versus Optimism: Achieving A Balance To Hope For The Best While Preparing For The Worst.” Written by an Emotional Intelligence Executive Master Coach.

The author weighs the pros and cons of being an “optimist” vs. a “pessimist.” She notes some of the benefits of being a pessimist. If something really isn’t going to end well, the pessimist can think through the effects and how to respond. “When the stakes are high, pessimism can help us prepare.”

But for her, the “clear winner” is optimism. An optimist is generally more productive, proactive, and resilient. So, “Limit pessimism and invite optimism into your life to learn from the past and experience a brighter future.”

Not terrible advice. But King Solomon in Ecclesiastes would tweak her answer.

I think he would say, “Both optimism and pessimism are too simplistic. Somewhere we need a heavy dose of ‘realism.’ But he would add, a raw realism is not the answer either—living by statistical probabilities and mathematical models, never latching on to something if it’s less than 50% likely to happen.

Solomon might say “joyful realism” is the answer—the ability to be utterly realistic as we live life “under the sun” but holding on to “joy.” Joy is optimistic, but joy is more about seeing things fully and accurately, so it’s also realistic. 

Our text this morning is from Ecclesiastes, an Old Testament book written by King Solomon, King David’s most famous son. Ecclesiastes feels like a book written decades into his reign as king, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Our series is called “Joy in the Toil.” Trying to capture the way the book is brutally honest about our toil, but it also calls us to true.

In Ecclesiastes the phrase “under the sun” pops up dozens of times—10 times in our chapters this morning, 6:1–9:10 (6:1, 12; 8:9, 15 twice, 17; 9:3, 6, 9 twice). It means life in the here and now, life as we experience it, life East of Eden where sin is real and death is a fact. He makes occasional glances at eternity past and eternity future, but this book is much more about life as we experience it.

How do we live out our days? That’s what he’s wrestling with.

The sermon big theme: Joyful realism under the sun. To unpack it, we’ll look at (1) wisdom, (2) death, and (3) joy.


I. Wisdom

In thinking about life “under the sun,” Solomon returns to the theme of “wisdom” often.

The words “wise” (chākām) and “wisdom” (chākmāh) occur 53 times in Ecclesiastes. 13 times in chapter 7 alone.

It’s a reminder that Ecclesiastes is one of the “Wisdom” books of the Old Testament. These include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Called that because these books are concerned with “wisdom,” skill in living in God’s world.

Skill in living in God’s world is not about raw business sense or scientific knowledge. Remember, Solomon is the one who wrote:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Prov 9:10)

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are dealing with the same issue: wisdom. Ecclesiastes talks about it in the context of the hard edges and tough realities of life. These aren’t fortune-cookie truths: “Tomorrow has something good in it.”

Ecclesiastes reminds us that God’s wisdom is skill in living in God’s world, but this world is fallen. It’s not what it was in the Garden of Eden. It’s not what it will be in the new heavens and new earth.

Chapter 7 points to his search for wisdom:

I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. (Eccl 7:25)

His search began as soon as he begins his reign as king. He prays to God for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:9), knowing it will be essential to reigning well.

This initial gift of wisdom wasn’t the end of his pursuit, just the beginning.

Our chapter gives us many nuggest of wisdom, very similar to Proverbs.

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. (Eccl 7:1)

Proverbs tends to link similar metaphors or make clear contrasts. But here, what is connection between “a good name” and “the day of death”? Both are better than something.

“A good name” is something truly “good,” whereas “ointment” is really something that only smells or looks or feels good. It’s superficial.

He seems to be making the point that “the day of birth” is a day filled with potential, but it’s “the day of death” where you can really tell who a person is and whether they are more like “a good name” or more like “precious ointment.”

This is so often true, isn’t it?

Sometimes a person who seems fairly unremarkable dies. Then people begin to really start thinking about how he lived, the simple goodness of his life, the faithful Christian witness he had, his kindness and generosity. The funeral then becomes a great celebration of a great man in the faith. Not great in the history books. But great where it matters, before the Lord.

Another nugget:

Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. (Eccl 7:7)

Solomon here proves an insightful psychologist. He sees the effect of cruelty and sin on a person.

The verse reminds us that souls are not made of diamond, some kind of impenetrable, unbreakable substance that nothing else can hurt.

Souls are affected by cruelty and sin. “Oppression” is a pattern of taking advantage of someone in a weaker or more vulnerable position. Over time the wise person can begin to crack and start to act like the fool.

In certain situations, escaping the madness requires escaping the oppression.

“Bribes” can do something similar in a “heart.” A good heart can go astray with a “bribe.” It’s hard to resist a large gift of money or promotion or flattery.

The verse isn’t telling us that integrity is impossible when we’re oppressed or there is an attempted bribe. Remember our study of Joseph in Genesis.

But Solomon here reminds us that how we treat a person affects them at a very deep level.

Another nugget:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Eccl 7:10)

Maybe they were better, maybe they weren’t. Either way, don’t go there in your thinking. Yes, some things were really good. But some things were really terrible. Every decade, every generation, small towns or big cities, every new technology has some great aspects and also some terrible ones.

Appreciate the good part of “the good ole’ days,” but don’t miss that these, too, are “the good ole’ days.”

***Joyful realism under the sun leads to a life of wisdom. A fear of the LORD that leads to skillful living in the world as it is—between the Garden of Eden and the new heaven and new earth.

II. Death

A second aspect of life “under the sun” is death. Death is inescapable. As they say of aging athletes, “Father Time is undefeated.”

“The Preacher” returns to this idea often. And in our chapters he looks at the grim reality of it from several angles.

First, let your heart and mind be trained by the reality of death. Don’t live as if death isn’t real or isn’t coming to you and all those you love. That doesn’t mean it’s coming today, but it’s an immovable reality.

Since the fall, death is as much a part of this fallen world as gravity.

Solomon writes in chapter 7:

2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Eccl 7:2-4)

Why is it “better”? Because “this is the end of all mankind” (Eccl. 7:2). Good to live aware of “the end of all mankind.” It would be one thing if death was like getting hit by lightning—possible but really unlikely.

But death isn’t like that at all. Death is a certainty. The day of our death is unknown to us. But “the end of all mankind” is the same. “Lay it to heart.”

Second, there’s something offensive about it, too. In chapter 9:

2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Eccl 9:2–3)

Death is “the same for all” (Eccl 9:2) and “this is an evil” (Eccl 9:3).

Apex Cemetery across the street. A huge variety of people. The Brown family:

  • Andrew J. Brown - 1877-1940
  • Annie Louis Winston Brown - 1878-1937
  • Cornelia Josephine Hunter Brown - 1854-1887
  • James Gaston Brown 1847-1918
  • Lllian F. Brown - 1873-1947

Two men who fought in WWI:

  • Private James Alderbaran Cash Jr. - 1899-1991 (91 yrs old) - Private in the Army fought WWI and then lived another 70 years. But...
  • Pvt Charles Dickerson Dearen - 1888-1918 - 168th Infantry - Died in Lorraine, France in a French hospital during the war. Initially buried in France. His body was returned to the US and buried in Apex in 1921.

Their histories were different, the length of their lives differed. But the end was the same. Knowing that some of them likely lived terrible lives and some lived glorious Christian lives, Solomon says there’s something that that’s “evil.”

But Solomon also considers “the wicked buried” more specifically. Yes, it’s true death “is the same for all,” but that’s not the whole story.

Chapter 8:

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. (Eccl 8:10-13)

He doesn’t elaborate, but here the voice of faith breaks in: “it will be well with those who fear God, because they before him” (Eccl. 8:12), and “it will not be well with the wicked...because he does not fear before God” (Eccl 8:13).

Death for the Christian is the beginning of bliss. Death for the unbeliever is the beginning of endless punishment. It makes all the difference whether you “fear God” or “don’t fear God.”

***Joyful realism under the sun means thinking rightly about death and “laying it to heart.”

III. Joy

Like the other sections we’ve hit in Ecclesiastes, this section ends with a refrain of joy. These are like chapter dividers that break up the book. The last refrain of joy was at the end of chapter 5. So, Eccl. 6:1–9:10 is our major section.

Read Eccl. 9:7–10.

These refrains are like rest stops along the way. Like places marked “scenic view” on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Reminders that yes, I’m in the mountains and this is beautiful!

The joyful refrains are like these scenic views. Ah, now I see. Yes, joy.

First, “Go, eat your bread with joy! Drink your wine with a merry heart!” (Eccl. 9:7). These are commands to enjoy God’s good gifts, God’s simple gifts of food and drink.

***Las Fortunitas Organic Flour Tortillas package. “Do you get excited about tortillas as much as we do? If not, we have a feeling that after just one tast, you’ll discover pure joy.” Go on to describe them. “Are you jumping for joy yet? Tortilla lovers, rejoice!” Maybe the company read Ecclesiastes?!?!?

Back to Solomon. Notice the reason he gives for our joy. It’s a gospel promise right there in Eccl. 9:7: Enjoy these simple gifts “for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl. 9:7). It’s a “because” statement. Enjoy our food and drink...because God has already approved what you do.”

You fear the LORD and so God has “ALREADY approved what you do.” For those who fear the Lord, they don’t work to earn God’s approval. They enjoy their work because they HAVE God’s approval.

Then in Eccl. 9:8, “Let your garments always be white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.”

Don’t walk around unkempt. Disheveled. Take care of your appearance. Take a shower, do your laundry. Not because you’re conceited but “God has already approved what you do.” You can walk in joyful realism.

And then the simple joy of a happy marriage: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl. 9:9). It’s not a command to love your wife. It’s a command to “enjoy life with your wife WHOM YOU LOVE.” It’s almost like he’s reminding this husband, “Remember, you love her.” “Wife, remember. You love this man.” “So, enjoy life with each other.”

The phrase “enjoy life” is literally “see the life” in Hebrew. That’s helpful. Sometimes our problem is that we don’t “SEE” what’s right in front of us. There’s this life right there in front of us with the wife we have, and we don’t “SEE” it.

And because we don’t “SEE” it, we feel like we don’t have it. Solomon is reminding us this “life” we want, it’s right there in front of us. 

Solomon hasn’t forgotten what he’s already told us, and right here we know that. Look at how he finishes Eccl. 9:9. Our lives are still filled with “vanity”—meaningless, a breath, morally offensive at times. We still “toil under the sun.”

It’s all still true. But, have a happy marriage. Enjoy your spouse.

And then he speaks about our toil.

Toil: Eccl. 9:10 – “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” Throughout Ecclesiastes he’s been telling us similar things:

  • 2:24 – “Find enjoyment in his toil”
  • 3:22 – “Rejoice in his work”
  • 5:18 – “To find enjoyment in all the toil”

Interesting but twice where the English says, “find enjoyment in the toil” (2:24; 5:18), the Hebrew says, “see the good in the toil.” “See the good” in what you’re doing.

See the good in it—and now Eccl. 9:10 adds, “do it with your might.”

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, do it with care, with passion, with your energy.

Now remember Eccl. 9:7, “God has already approved what you do.” Don’t work with the fear of a slave trying to earn approval. Work with the energy of someone who knows their work is approved and important.

Your work might be missed by your earthly master. But here we see your work is seen by the King of all kings.

Zack Eswine’s book on Ecclesiastes captures the heart of this passage really well. To do so he imagines being a struggling pilgrim in a conversation with “the Preacher,” Solomon. It’s very effective:

My toddler son would always ask if he could get a cup of water. “You never have to ask if you want water,” I’d say. “You can just go ahead and drink it.” Similarly, we needn’t wonder if God approves of our paying attention to our little portion and our ordinary lot with him. We needn’t ask if he approves.
“But we are all going to die!” we counter.” I know, make a sandwich, cook a fish,” the Preacher responds. “But the sky is falling,” we shout. “I know, have some tea, enjoy this wine with me,” he says. “God is here.”
“But everything is meaningless!” I know, go ahead and wash your clothes. “But injustice racks the broken world!” I know, go ahead and take a bath or clean your face when you can. “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head” (Eccl. 9:8). “God hasn’t quit.”
“But what do you mean? Nothing satisfies us! It’s all vanity!” I know, listen to your wife’s voice, hold her hand, wash the dishes together, plan your life, learn to make wondrous love, work redemptively through your pains together, help the kids, do not deny how much you love her, embrace this. “But death is coming!” I know; “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl. 9:9). “God is here.”
“But wisdom gets us no favors here!” Yes, so go ahead and start your day. “But life isn’t fair!” I know. The grief is terrible. But try to do what you love as you are able. Do it passionately with all of your heart even if you are stuck doing some work that is beneath your dreams. Still, God can meet you there. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl. 9:10).
Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes[1]


Wisdom, death, and joy under the sun. There’s no naïve optimism here. But there’s no cynicism or pessimism either. It’s a faith-filled, joy-filled realism.

But now we need to remember the cautionary tale of Solomon himself. Wiser than all men, his heart strayed from the LORD. Given every possible advantage, he squandered it and turned from the LORD.

It’s not enough to KNOW what to do. We need grace to DO IT.

In Jesus’ teaching he reminded his listeners about the effort the Queen of Sheba went through to see Solomon. She traveled far and brought great treasures to give to him.

And then he simply said,

“Something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31).

It’s not enough to know what WISDOM knows, and to learn lessons from the reality of death. It’s not enough to know that we are to seek after simple joys from the simple gifts God gives.

To truly live such a faith-filled and joy-filled realism, we don’t just need the wisdom of Solomon. We need something greater than Solomon.

If the life Solomon is describing feels out of reach, maybe it’s because you’re not connected to the One “greater than Solomon.” The Lord Jesus Christ is the One “greater than Solomon.”

But if you do believe in him—you are his and he is yours—then learn the lessons he’s teaching:

  • Take care of yourself
  • Enjoy your food and drink
  • See the life God has given you with your spouse
  • Do your work with a proper focus and energy

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col 3:23–24)


Special members only meeting in a half-hour.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor 13:14)

[1] Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 109–110.

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