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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Ways to Get Ahead in Life
Text:Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 207 - Zion's Glory and Safety
TH 484 -  I Hear Thy Welcome Voice
TH 462 - Grace! 'Tis a Charming Sound
Psalter 2 - The Righteous and the Unrighteous

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

What does it take to get ahead in life? What guarantees success? Some search it from outside themselves. Some search for endless life. For centuries, people have sought the potion of life. Crusaders searched for the Holy Grail. Chinese emperors searched for elixirs to prolong life. Ironically, their alchemists prescribed mercury and arsenic. Others sought endless love. Some look for auspicious dates for weddings. Others seek witchdoctors for love potions. Others seek endless riches. Explorers traveled to find El Dorado or King Solomon’s mines. But what happened? Just as the Chinese emperors died searching for life; many explorers became poor searching for wealth.

Other people look inwardly for success. They look to morality. They think if they’re kind, do good, and don’t do evil, they’d succeed in life, or their gods would bless them. But life is not always like that. The moral aren’t always blessed. In fact, the wicked may prosper even more. As a result, many give up morals and resort to their worldly wisdom and schemes to get ahead. They cheat and commit crime. But that also doesn’t guarantee success - many are caught and punished.

In this passage of Ecclesiastes, Solomon deals with this idea - how can a person get ahead? Is it by his morality? Is it by his schemes? Now, this chapter is not easy to interpret. I encourage you to study it deeper for yourselves. But from my study of the passage, Solomon gives 4 truths to understand about success in life. Firstly, morality does not get you ahead in life. Secondly, immorality also does not get you ahead in life. Thirdly, people also do not get you ahead in life. Fourthly, only one man guarantees the way to get ahead.

Firstly, morality does not get you ahead in life. Verse 15 - “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.” It’s common for people to think - if I’m good, moral, and religious, I will get ahead. If I’m not good, I’ll be punished. This is essentially karma. If you do good, you’ll live long; if you’re bad, you steal, hate, and treat others spitefully, then you’ll get in trouble and die young. It’s like math - you put in A, you should get B. There are religious people who also do religious things to get ahead. They go to church, give tithes, offer food and incense to idols, fast a whole month, and pray with prayer beads. They believe that religiosity or morality will get them ahead.

But this is not the case. Karma is not true. Morality does not guarantee success. In verse 15, the preacher saw that good young people die but wicked people have long life. This was the sad fact - a good man dies despite his goodness; but the wicked live to do evil. In fact, some of the worst tyrants live the longest. Pol Pot lived to his mid-70s. Fidel Castro was 90 when he died. Kim Il Sung lived until 82. The preacher has seen the opposite of karma. So have we. That’s why we think life is unfair. But yet, we’re still naive. When a young man with potential dies - we say, “but he had so much potential, he was so young.” Since when do youth and potential prevent death? They don’t. They don’t guarantee you’ll get ahead in life.

Maybe it’s because we hear moralistic tales like the boy who cried wolf - they teach that if you’re bad, you’ll come to a bad end. But not always. In his short story, Mark Twain wrote about a bad little boy named Jim - instead of getting in trouble, he was always successful. He climbed an apple tree to steal apples, but the branch didn’t break, he didn’t fall or break his arm, he didn’t get bitten by the farmer’s dog, he didn’t get in trouble, neither did he find himself reflecting and repenting and then becoming good. No! Rather, after he stole the apples, he ate them, and they tasted good. Jim also went fishing on the Lord’s Day - but he didn’t drown, nor get caught in a storm, nor struck by lightning. He was bad and he brought home delicious fish. Jim got ahead in life. Morality doesn’t always guarantee success. That’s reality.

Solomon responds in verse 16 - don’t be overly good or overly wise in your own eyes! You’ll destroy yourself. Now, to be clear, Solomon is not telling us to be wicked. He’s not telling us not to be holy. Rather, he’s addressing people who have this mindset - if I’m good or religious, then I will succeed. This is a selfish and pagan mindset. They do good things in exchange for blessings. And this is why the prosperity gospel is wicked. At its core, it’s pagan. Give to the church and believe that God will bless. But this is not the wisdom of the Bible. This is human wisdom. The key to understanding this is the phrase in verse 16 “neither make thyself over wise.” It’s a reflexive verb. It means “don’t be wise in your own eyes.” As Proverbs 3:7 says - “Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.” This means their hyper morality to achieve blessings was done in their own wisdom. Solomon was warning them against such a mindset. The morality principle will not get you ahead. Unfortunately, people don’t understand this. There are many disillusioned people because of this. “I follow God, I’m good, but I don’t get ahead!” So they swing to the other extreme. They resort to wicked schemes instead. 

But here, Solomon warns that immorality also doesn’t get you ahead in life. That’s the second point. Verse 17 says, “Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?” In other words, don’t be overly wicked. Now, by saying this, Solomon’s not saying it’s okay be a little wicked. You see, in order to get ahead, realistic people will say this - if there’s no guarantee that being good gets you ahead, then you need to scheme. If bad people get ahead, then you need to be bad at times. Immorality is very attractive. Look out for number 1. Be smart. Protect yourself. Promote yourself. If you don’t look out for yourself, then who will? You need to be a bit clever! Cheat a little.

People think it’s smart. And we all do this from time to time. At MacDonald’s, we ask for and take a stack of paper napkins home so we don’t have to buy any. It’s free - you’re silly if you don’t take it. When parking coupons were a thing, some people don’t tear the exact tab, but gave themselves 10 more minutes. We get our stationery supplies from work! It’s there anyway, they don’t keep track of it. We feign ignorance when we make a mistake, another takes the blame. “Who asked them? They didn’t protect themselves.” And this is the same with Christians. In the church of Corinth, members of the church would come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and the Love Feast. But what did they do? Chiong ah! They went to eat all the food and get drunk on the wine. Free food. We’re wicked and smart. So Solomon gives simple advice to those who think this way. Your smarts won’t get you ahead. Your evil schemes won’t guarantee success. Don’t be so foolish.

Verse 17 says, don’t be over wicked…“neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?” What happens when you scheme? What happens if you cut corners and do little bad things? What happens if you give yourself to a life of crime? It doesn’t pay to be immoral. You may die prematurely. But not just that - the consequences of crime can be far worse than a premature death. Verse 26 - “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.” Worse than death is living in sin. The Bible describes sin and temptation as a woman who seeks to seduce a man. Now, this is not sexist because the Bible describes wisdom as a woman too. This is just a poetic expression. But Solomon’s point is this - if you want to live a life of scheming and sin to get ahead, be careful. Because you’re not actually using your schemes; rather, your sins are using you. And when you scheme, you’re enslaved. 

The one who schemes and succeeds will resort to it again and again. I got away with it many times! And it becomes a pattern of life. It enslaves. It’s like Samson and Delilah. She seduced him, cajoled him, pleaded to find out his secret. He thought he was strong, and could trick her. But finally he gave up the secret. We might think - how foolish is Samson? But that’s what we’re like. We give in until we’re controlled by sin. His eyes were eventually gouged out. He was forced to be a slave - a fate worse than death. So Solomon says schemes can’t guarantee success; don’t live a life of crime. People want to get ahead. And they think these two ways will help them - either by being moral or religious or by having wicked schemes. Solomon’s advice in verse 18 - pay attention to these instructions; if you really fear God, then avoid or escape both these extremes. 

So how else do we get ahead? Some people rely on others, on their wisdom. But what did Solomon find? People are not always reliable - neither is their ability and wisdom. That’s the third truth. Verse 19 says, “Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.” Solomon cautions his readers against having unrealistic expectations of people - even very reliable people can fail us. He shows this by examining rulers. Verse 19 says that one person with wisdom is better than 10 mighty rulers of a city. It doesn’t come across clearly in our version, but clearly it’s 1 versus 10. A city with one good leader is already very fortunate. But imagine a city with 10 good leaders! Decision-makers for a city government need lots of information and expertise in order to govern. 10 is better than 1. But they are not as good as one man with true wisdom. Even 10 mighty rulers will fail. We cannot hope too much from sinners. Why? Verse 20 - “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” 

This is why, dearly beloved, we as the citizens of heaven must pray for our earthly government. As wise as they are, they are not wise enough. Even Solomon, the wisest governor of them all, admitted that he himself made mistakes. Verse 23 says, “I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.” And we shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not wise. We have different political leanings; some governments are better than others. But all will fail in one way or another. How many of us trust in this or that government or party to propel the nation forward? How many place our hopes on them? 

But not just rulers - servants too. Some of us have people under us. Servants are those who are supposed to help us. And a lot of us have subordinates under us in one way or another. But if we really knew what they thought of us. Verse 21 - “Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee.” People are going to despise you. Don’t be bothered about what you hear - you’re not going to be everyone’s best friend. They’re not going to respect you. And you’re no different. What they do, you do too. Verse 22 - “For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.” 

Sin has affected everyone. We’re not reliable. Solomon had observed all this by his wisdom. And he himself concluded that he was not wise enough. Verse 23 - “All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.” He concluded that wisdom was hard to find, verse 24. He searched why things were the way they were, verse 25. And he said in verse 29 - there’s no good person. “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.” While God had made man good in the beginning, they have followed their schemes. 

Now to be clear, God is not against success. Many of God’s people have succeeded in life. And there are promises in the Bible that God blesses those who love him. But remember, people like Abraham, Job, David - they did not consider success in life their chief goal. So our vision must not be clouded by what is on the earth. Abraham was looking for a better country - eternal life, true love. And things people look for, thinking that morality and smarts can obtain for them - these are found in one man. This, lastly, is the one man principle - only he guarantees success.

In this passage, we learn that there were 2 interesting thing that Solomon couldn’t find. Verse 20 says, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” It was impossible to find a righteous man. Also, he couldn’t find a wise man. He spoke about how one wise man was better than 10 capable rulers. It’s already difficult to find a city with 1 capable ruler, much less 10; so one wise man in comparison was even harder to find. But there was one thing that he found only when he searched long and hard. Verse 28 - he found one righteous man out of a thousand but one righteous woman he has not found. Now, this sounds a tad sexist but he was using a hyperbole. In verse 27, he decided to investigate what the solution to true happiness was. But it was very hard to find - almost impossible, even though he was using deduction and elimination and examining the situation from every angle. But he finally found what he was looking for - a needle in a haystack - only one man - no other man or woman - that was upright. Solomon was making a point and comparison. The numeral 1 is important - not only is this one man unique (no other man or woman compares) but he is upright and wise. Hard to find a capable person, but even harder to find a wise person. But in the midst of fools an schemers, one man was upright and wise.

Who is this one man? Now, we don’t know if Solomon was referring to one particular person. We don’t know if there was even a person in his mind. We don’t even know, if he was referring to Christ - which of course the Spirit intends for us to draw from this. We do know however, that from the whole history of mankind until Solomon, there was only one person - Enoch - that was different. Genesis 5:24 says he was upright and he walked with God - he trusted and believed God. And what was the result? God took him to heaven without dying. Immortality was his reward - not success on earth. But the secret for guaranteed material success is not given. God may bless - in your uprightness, like Job and Abraham - you move up in life. But God may not - in your uprightness, you may die poor like Paul. There’s no guarantee. In your wisdom, you may be blessed like Solomon. But the point we take from this is simple. These men of God did not look for happiness on earth. They looked for happiness in the life to come. We don’t look to morality, or schemes, or wisdom, or people to help us get ahead in life on earth.

But whatever it is, look instead to that one man who guarantees us eternal life, everlasting love, wealth and wisdom beyond our wildest imaginations in the land to come. Yes, Enoch was upright and God took him. The earth was not worthy of him. But the one who was truly wise and upright, that earth was not worthy of him was Christ. And what did Christ say? Luke 12:15 - “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” We need to be reminded over and over again, what is important. Not life here, but the life to come. He said in John 17:3 - “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” 

In life, there is no secret to guaranteed success or long life. God blesses whom he blesses. There is however, the open secret to eternal life - and that is only found in Christ. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1 - for our sakes, God made him to be our wisdom, righteousness, and redemption. And that was Solomon’s conclusion. Are you searching for eternal life? True love? Success and abundance? Your morality and wisdom are insufficient. You will only have them in Christ. Maybe in this life, but definitely in the life to come. The Bible doesn’t stop at life is messy under the sun, it ends with - “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” 

Sermon Outline:

1. Morality Does Not Get You Ahead in Life

    A. Karma is false

    B. “Over morality” is unwise

2. Immorality Does Not Get You Ahead in Life

    A. The attractiveness of immorality

    B. The enslavement of immorality

3. People Do Not Get You Ahead in Life 

    A. People are unreliable

    B. People are unwise

4. Only One Man Guarantees the Way to Eternal Life

    A. One man among many

    B. Who is that man?

* 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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