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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:A Light to Every Sober Dark Cloud
Text:Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 663 - O God Eternal, You Are My God
Psalter 213 - Lessons from the Past (Stanzas 1-6)
TH 524 - Thy Works, Not Mine, O Christ
Psalter 204 - God Our Only Good


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

We’ve all gone through tough times and rough patches. Friends may try to comfort us and give us hope. As they talk to us, they use clichés to encourage us - “when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Perhaps you didn’t get the job you applied for, they say, “good things come to those who wait - every dog has his day” Or“keep your chin up, every cloud has a silver lining.” And for Christians, what are the usual clichés? “Did you pray? God will make a way!” When something tragic happens, like a loved one dies - “All things work to the good of those who love God. At least she’s no longer in any pain.” These people mean well, but such counsel can be completely frustrating. What if I’m not tough? Where’s silver lining? How long do I have to pray? She’s not in pain anymore, but I am! 

Yes, we have to be wise in giving counsel. But as hollow as such counsel may seem, especially at the darkest hours, there’s wisdom. In this passage, Solomon gives us the same clichés. While our journey may be difficult; life is broken and filled with suffering, yet there’s light at the end of the tunnel; there’s a silver lining to each dark cloud.

As believers, we shouldn’t be too black and white. Yes, there are good and bad days. But to believers, even in bad days, there’s good. As John 1 says, there’s darkness in the world, but Christ has shone his light into it. So in our pilgrimage, while life can be dark, there are bright ways of walking through the darkness. That’s a vital phrase - while life is dark, there are bright ways of walking through it. There a silver lining to each dark cloud.

There are 2 facts of life that Solomon articulates. Firstly, the clouds of life can be very dark. Secondly, the lights behind the darkness give hope.

Firstly, the clouds of life can be very dark. We see in these verses a total of 4 dark clouds. These are clouds that each one of us will experience in life. And the purpose of Solomon writing these things; the purpose of God inspiring him to write these things is to sober us and hope in him. All people in the world, even Christians, will go through them.

The first dark cloud is oppression by others. Verse 1 says -“So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” In the last chapter, Solomon had spoken about injustice. Here, we see the result of injustice. If a work place or a nation or a home - or even a church has much injustice, it will lead to oppression. And the cause of oppression is people - because under the sun all are sinners. Some sinners who are put over you are stronger than you, and they will exercise their strength. They hold the decision making power and when they’re opposed to you, you’ll feel it. That’s what Solomon means - “on the side of their oppressors there was power.” This happens everywhere. It takes place with law-makers and judges; in school with teachers and principals; and in church - with elders. Anyone who has authority, can have the strength and sinfulness to oppress. Sometimes, we have recourse. There are appeals against oppression and injustice; but sometimes there is no recourse. And even with recourse, our appeals may result in nothing.

Dearly beloved, this is the effect of total depravity in the world. Things are broken, people are broken, and in their brokenness, they will oppress others and break them. And when there is oppression, Solomon witnessed tears - “behold the tears of such as were oppressed.” Why were people crying? Because there was no one to comfort or defend them. In their helplessness, they cried. Their oppressors had power, but they had none. Their oppressors had supporters, they had none. Repeated twice is the phrase - they had no comforter. That’s why they cried - not only because there was oppression - but they had no one to stand on their side. That’s one dark cloud.

The second dark cloud is the evils of work. Verses 4-5 say, “Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit. The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.” Solomon speaks about how frustrating work is. Now, he speaks about the goodness of work in other parts - especially proverbs. The Bible commends work. We were created to work. God cares for us so that we can work. When we forget God, we misuse work - we work too hard or not hard enough. 

In verse 4, Solomon noticed that some people worked hard due to a wrong motive — envy. Now, this is an interesting verse. It could either mean that we work hard to achieve because we envy our competitor. Or it could mean that our achievements are envied by others. Both are true. It’s true we strive harder and produce better to beat others. And our achievements can make people jealous. A great deal of progress is driven by envy. We work hard to beat others. No matter what they say, in school, you’re not competing against yourself but others. It’s the same with jobs. We work hard to get the attention of our bosses - that we may shine brighter than others. We work hard to show others who always doubted us. We work hard not to disappoint others. All this makes us tired. We make others tired too. This is the way of the world and people think it’s good. But the Bible calls it vanity and vexation of spirit.

On the flip side, there’s sloth. Verse 5 says there are those who won’t work hard. The fool folds his hands — hands meant to plow — but he’s not using them. And this causes problems. Verse 5 says he eats his own flesh. If he doesn’t work, he becomes thinner. But also emotionally. A slothful person has aspirations. But because he won’t work to fulfill them, his desires eats at him. Proverbs 21:25-26 says, “The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labor. He coveteth greedily all the day long.” His sloth also eats at everyone else. Everyone must work harder to compensate. Proverbs 10:26 says, “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him.” This is the evil of exhausting work. We work hard out of envy — but we’re not satisfied. Others make us work hard — we’re also not satisfied. We take God’s gift of work and rest, and we fill them with sin. That’s a dark cloud.

The third dark cloud is loneliness. Verse 8 - “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.” All of us have experienced loneliness - but some are lonelier than others. And this can cut deeply. There are those who are alone - no children or siblings. There’s no one to walk with them in their journey under the sun. They work and may be rich, but they have no one to share it with. This is why they cry out - why do I slave away when I have no one to share with? This is frustration. And dearly beloved, I know that some are lonely. You wish for friends or a companion. You wish to have someone to come home to. You desire to share your life with someone. But to be fair, married persons can also be very lonely. Loneliness is a dark cloud that can loom over many of God’s people.

The last dark cloud and hardship is seen in verses 13-16. It’s fickleness. Solomon tells a story. In verse 13, there’s a king - he’s foolish and old - and doesn’t listen to advice - he will not be admonished. But also in the same verse, there’s a young man - he’s poor, but he’s wise. And in fact, verse 14, this poor young man is a prisoner. He comes out of prison and becomes king. It’s a rags to riches story. He deposes the foolish king. It’s a revolution! The king goes from riches to rags. There are exciting stories like this of revolution. But then verse 15. After the young man takes over power, there’s another young man that will rise up to replace him - “the second child that shall stand up in his stead.” And the story keeps going in verse 16 - endless crowds stand around him to support the new guy, but then another generation comes and rejects him. Isn’t this what happens? There’s no permanence, there’s no loyalty - there’s fickleness.

People will like you one day and the next, they will dislike you. This is in politics. Joe Biden was elected - people were relieved. Now they’re calling him incompetent with Afghanistan. Wasn’t this also in the Bible? Solomon knew this well. Saul was chosen as king - he was so good looking; he was a head taller than everyone else. He was so humble, when he was anointed king.. Then — Saul has slain his 1000s; David slain his 10,000s. Then — Absalom was more popular than David. People’s allegiances change. The leader they once loved, they now hate. There’s no permanence, people are fickle. This is a dark cloud. Even you will be favored one day, and hated the next day. 

These are dark clouds everyone faces - oppression, evils of work, loneliness, and fickleness. These are the facts of life. But despite these shadows, lights behind the darkness give hope. That’s the second fact of life. God does provide pockets of goodness and hope. They are better. And this phrase is used throughout the chapter. Verse 3, “better is he that was not born.” Verse 6, “better is a handful with quietness.” Verse 9, “two are better than one.” Verse 13, “better is a poor and wise child.” Despite shadows, there are good and hopeful things - things that are better. What are these things?

Firstly, there’s relief in death. There’s oppression and tears under the sun, so Solomon says in verses 2-3 that sometimes, it’s better to be dead. Dearly beloved, believe it or not, that’s a silver lining. If you were suffering because of painful sickness, or cruel oppression, is it not better to have relief through death? Godly saints have cried out to God to take them. Death is at times a good release. It’s a silver lining. Now, we want to be clear - Ecclesiastes is not saying that death is better than life, nor is it condoning suicide. Chapter 9 says that life is preferred over death. But sometimes, death is preferred over life. For Christians oppressed through persecution; death is preferred over continual torture. When the Lord sees fit to take people away, there can be appropriate relief. That’s the light in the shadow of suffering. Even Paul said - to remain alive may be good, but to die is far better. Why? He was suffering in prison. It was far better to die because he would be with Jesus. 

Secondly, there’s the blessing of rest. Solomon spoke about the hardship of sinful work and sloth. But then he revealed something better in verse 6 - “Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” There’s a silver lining. It’s good and right to work hard - God calls us to work. But there’s a level of work that’s sinful. Some work out of selfish ambition or envy to succeed. And sometimes, we work because of the selfish ambition of others. So what does Solomon - who worked hard - say? He says that in life, we must look forward to rest. We must have rest. We can’t be working like that. Why occupy yourself excessively and sinfully in work, and vex yourself? There’s rest! If all you do is work, and have no time for anything else - that’s vain. We have a calling to work - but we have a calling to rest. As difficult as work is, it is a gift, but remember too, that rest is also a gift. Psalm 127:2 says, “It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.” Enjoy rest - even leisure. They’re from God. That’s a good way to approach the evils in life. Rest is a silver lining. It is true that our hard work may be caused by the ambition of others, or the sloth of others. The Israelites were oppressed - they were made to work hard; they had to make bricks without straws. The Egyptians worked them hard. They had no rest. They cried out of deliverance. Sometimes, we are the victims of the ambition of others, or the culture of sinful labor. Under such injustice, let us cry out to God who delivers.

But thirdly, what’s the alternative to loneliness? There’s companionship. In verses 9-12, the preacher is giving a picture of a journey. 2 are better than 1 - why? 3 reasons. Verse 10, on a journey, if you fall, your companion can pick you up. Verse 11, on a journey, if you’re cold at night - especially in the Judaean wilderness, your companions huddle together and this keeps all of you warm. Verse 12, on a journey, if you’re attacked on the road, your companion can help fight off your attackers. Companionship is a silver lining in this life. Yes, it’s true - not all of us will have a bosom friend, a spouse, or very close friends. But despite the loneliness, there’s still companionship - acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and if you’re fortunate, a best friend. Make friends - some may not be close, many may be busy. But companionship exists. And not just in marriage - where there could be unhappiness. Yes, there’s companionship in the midst of loneliness. Maybe not the kind you crave; but you’re not alone.

And fourthly, even in fickleness, there are minor victories. Yes, the foolish old king was taken over by a wise young man, but the wise young man, would lose favor and be taken over by someone else. But what an amazing thing! That a poor young man from prison, can actually rise up and become king! This is amazing. There are little victories like that in life. 

These are all truths that make the clouds of life a little less dark. While there is oppression, there’s relief in death. While work may be unbearable, there is rest. While there’s loneliness in the world, there’s also companionship. And while there’s fickleness, there are little victories for the small guy.

For all the hardships, for all the things that are bad, for all the shadows, there is light in the world - God has given these little pockets of goodness. But how does this affect us as believers? Yes, these things are good. These are the things that unbelievers also experience. These are pockets of universal goodness. But the light in the world is nothing compared to the greater light in Christ. 

Are you oppressed by those stronger than you? But who else was oppressed? Christ suffered on the cross because of his oppressors. And he did it because of the joy that was set before him - of pleasing God. And so when we suffer, we can identify with Christ when we receive that injustice. We are counted worthy to suffer for his name. 

Are you working too hard? Are you a product of ambition and envy? Rest. Some of you are not resting hard enough. And that’s why the Lord has given us a rest day. If you truly understood the Lord’s Day, you would never give up this handful of quietness - to spend time in public and secret worship. It’s because we neglect it, that we are consumed by our work and have no strength. So even though we go through tough times at work we find refuge in the worship of the Lord. Are you sad? Pray. Sing. Perhaps, you working hard because of the ambition of your bosses and industry? Work for Christ, not for self. Not out of eye service, but fearing the Lord. And sometimes, it may be necessary to say “no” as hard as it may be. Remember that Jesus is your master. Faithfulness to him first. 

And while we may encounter loneliness, we know the communion we have in Christ and with fellow believers. We’re not alone. And better to be alone with God’s people, than to get married in sin. We who belong to Christ have family - those who are traveling on this journey together with us. When we fall, our brother in Christ picks us up. When we’re spiritually cold, our sister warms us by encouragement. When we’re spiritually attacked, our church family helps defend us. It’s not always like that. Unfortunately, the source of our troubles may be the church. And that’s why, church of God, we must do better. If we have not given you our friendship, if we have not met your needs as we should, please forgive us. We must do better. But you are the church too. Give of your love, and your time, and persevere to make friends of God’s people.

And fickleness in the world reminds us that there is no perfection here. Government, political candidate, this party or that - it won’t solve a thing. You’ll be happy for a short time anyway. And if you’re in office anywhere, God bless you. 100% votes one year, the next not so. But we know that Christ already reigns. And though the church will falter at times, we know that his kingdom and his throne shall endure. There are many silver linings here on earth - they’ve been given by God. Be encouraged. But what gives us hope is not life under the sun, but life beyond the sun. As messy as life is here; as much as we are oppressed, exhausted, lonely, and disappointed; Jesus said in Matthew 19 - you have followed me, in the new world - when heaven and earth are one - we who have forsaken friends on earth because of Christ, will be surrounded by friends as we rule with Christ forever, in a place where there is no sun - where we are in Christ’s light forever. 

These clouds here drive us to him. So while things are broken and oppressive in this life, we cling to Christ, to his life, his rest, and sweet communion, and to him who is king of kings. So for all those who struggle with the shadows in this life, “Keep your chin up, every cloud has a silver lining.”

Sermon Outline:

1. The Clouds of Life Can Be Very Dark

    A. Oppression

    B. Evils of work

    C. Loneliness

    D. Fickleness 

2. The Lights Behind the Darkness Give Hope

    A. Deliverance by death

    B. Blessings of rest 

    C. Companionship exists

    D. Little victories

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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