The School of Hard Knocks
(Ecclesiastes 7)

By David Feddes

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. (Ecclesiastes 7:14)

What times in your life have done the most to make you a better person: the easy times when everything was going your way, or the tough times, the crisis points, the hardships? Be honest now. I suspect most of us would have to admit that many of our deepest changes and moments of growth have come during times of stress and trouble and humiliation and heartbreak.

Some folks claim that God has nothing to do with the bad times in life, that only the happy times come from God. But that’s not what the Bible says. Right at the center of Ecclesiastes 7, the chapter we’re going to look at on today’s program, comes this statement: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other” (7:14). So don’t try to avoid thinking about the hard side of life, and don’t pretend God has nothing to do with it.

God often teaches us things in the school of hard knocks that we don’t learn anywhere else. And what’s the toughest and most effective teacher in the entire school of hard knocks. Death. The deepest, wisest people around are those who face death squarely instead of trying not to think about it. Listen to the first four verses of Ecclesiastes 7.

A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

In other words, if you’re smart, you won’t spend all your time on movies and parties and escapist entertainment. You won’t avoid places that remind you of sickness and death. You’ll visit people in hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes. You’ll do it for their sake but also for your own sake. A party tickles your feelings, but a funeral grips your heart. It moves you to think about the big picture. What matters most isn’t whether you’re a cute baby at the time you’re born, but what your life amounts to by the time you’re buried. So don’t be so shallow that your highest goal is to have fun and be in style and wear the right perfume. Look ahead to your own death. The name you build over a lifetime, the identity you carry with you into eternity, matters far more than the momentary smell of perfume.

I know what it’s like as a nineteen-year-old to crawl out of a wrecked car, knowing how close I came to being killed. I realized as never before that my life is a precious and fragile gift and that I had better make the most of it. I know what it’s like as a young father to visit a hospital for months on end and then to hold my own dead child in my arms and dig her grave with my own hands. Never have I felt so strongly the desire for eternal life and for Christ’s return, and never will I take any of my living children for granted. I’ve heard people with terminal illnesses express faith and longing for God that were stronger than when their bodies were healthy.

Having seen and heard and experienced these things, I’m still not nearly as wise as I should be, but I’m wiser than I would be if I had never walked into a hospital or nursing home or funeral parlor. Looking squarely at sickness and death isn’t fun, but it clears away the fluff on which we waste so much time and energy and forces us to focus on what really counts.

Sadness often does more than gladness to make us better people. That’s true of places we’d rather not go and things we’d rather not endure, and it’s also true of words we’d rather not hear. We don’t enjoy being confronted about something we need to change, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need. “It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke,” says Ecclesiastes, “than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless” (7:5‑6).

If a friend or spouse insists that you have a problem with alcohol, you might rather just listen to the laughter of your drinking buddies—but it’s better to listen to a wise rebuke than to the song of fools. When someone at work points to problems in your performance, you may not enjoy hearing it, but that rebuke might make you a better worker and save your job. Flattery makes you feel better and become worse; an honest rebuke makes you feel worse and become better.

Four Sick Strategies

We can learn valuable lessons from hard times and hard-hitting words. But the learning doesn’t come automatically. Hardship can improve us, but it can also make us more depraved. Criticism can set us straight, but it can also make us more stubborn. Trouble can bring out the best in us if we trust God to mold and shape us, but it can bring out the worst if we ignore God and follow our own sick strategies for coping. As we read on in Ecclesiastes 7, we see four such strategies: dishonesty, shortsightedness, anger, and wishful thinking.

Verse 7 speaks of dishonesty: “Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.” If you don’t have faith, a harsh world can make you cynical and dishonest. If you fear people more than you fear God, you may cave in to threats and extortion and do what you know is wrong. If tough times make you feel you’re not getting as much as you deserve, you may try to get money any way you can, even if it means corruption and taking bribes. Dishonesty is one way of coping in a harsh world.

A second bad reaction to hardship is to be shortsighted. Verse 8 reminds us, “The end of a matter is better than the beginning, and patience is better than pride.” Patience waits on God’s timing; pride wants it all at the beginning. If you live by faith, the school of hard knocks makes you more patient and more sure than ever that some things are worth waiting for. But if you’re proud, delayed gratification makes no sense to you. You don’t want to wait for anything: you don’t want to wait for marriage to have sex; you don’t want to wait for heaven to enjoy perfect happiness. Why should you have to wait? Why should you be denied anything, even temporarily? With pride you want what you want, and you want it now. If you have to go through things you don’t like, you get more impatient and shortsighted than ever.

A third bad way of coping with hard knocks is to get angry. Verse 9 says, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” When you go through something painful, don’t flare up right away. You may want to blame other people for your problems; you may get angry at life in general; you may even rage at God. But if you’re too quick to anger, you won’t learn the lessons you need to learn, and you’ll be a fool.

A fourth sick strategy for coping with tough times is wishful thinking. Verse 10 says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” It’s been said that the good old days are a combination of a bad memory and a good imagination. Often the good old days weren’t nearly as good as we make them out to be. But even if your past really was happier than your present, the fact is that you’re not living back then. You’re living now. Learn what God is teaching you now. No more living in the past!

If you’re going to learn from the school of hard knocks, don’t give in to dishonesty, shortsightedness, anger, or wishful thinking. Instead, seek wisdom.

Gaining Wisdom

Ecclesiastes says, “Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter like money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor” (7:11-12). Money can be useful, but true wisdom can enrich and protect your very life, even through hardship.

And what is true wisdom? It is to see your life in the light of God’s rule over you. Listen to verses 13 and 14, the center of Ecclesiastes 7. The Teacher says, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore a man cannot discover anything about his future.”

Even if you can’t know what the future holds, you can know who holds the future. In the school of hard knocks, the heart of wisdom is the awareness that God is in charge and that good times and bad times alike are under his control. This wisdom helps us to know our limits and to depend on him. God sends enough twists and turns into our lives to keep us from thinking that we’re on a straight track to a future we’ve got all mapped out. There’s a lot we don’t know or control, but God knows and controls it all.

Once we know the truth about God, the school of hard knocks can teach us a lot about ourselves. At first we may not like what we learn, but we need to face it. The second half of Ecclesiastes 7 shows that the entire human race is limited and sinful.

When you believe that God is in charge, you might be tempted to think that you can measure up to God’s standards and guarantee a happy life for yourself by doing everything right: clear thinking and clean living guarantees God’s favor. But the school of hard knocks destroys any such idea. Real life shows that some of the finest people go through some of the worst things, while some of the worst people enjoy good things. The Teacher says, “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (7:15).

When it comes to the question of being righteous, you can’t guarantee your own prosperity through proper behavior. Still, you should beware of two extremes.

One extreme is to be a holier-than-thou know-it-all. You pride yourself on being a cut above the crowd. You’re never wrong. If you’re playing Scrabble and make a word which can’t be found in the official Scrabble dictionary, you simply assume that the dictionary must be wrong! If you get in a dispute with someone, it’s always the other person’s fault. When it comes to religion, you assume that your own goodness will send you soaring straight to heaven—if you don’t overshoot it!

At the opposite extreme, you can be a person who doesn’t really care about moral behavior or sound beliefs at all. You don’t pretend to be a goody-goody, and you don’t claim to be sure of anything when it comes to religion and morality. You figure you don’t have a pipeline to God, and neither does anyone else. Your motto is, “I do what I please and believe what I want—no apologies, no excuses.” No behavior is too perverted, no belief is too outrageous. Whatever works for you.

In the face of these extremes, Ecclesiastes says, “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time. It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (7:16-18).

Fear God. Take the Lord seriously. That’s the way to keep your balance and avoid extremes. You can’t possibly be holier-than-thou or a know-it-all in light of the infinite holiness and mind-boggling wisdom of God; but neither can you pretend that holiness and wisdom don’t matter. When you revere the holy and wise God, you know that holiness and wisdom matter enormously—and you also know that you don’t have a corner on these things. God does. So instead of being an overrighteous, overwise hypocrite, or being an unrighteous, unwise fool, seek the kind of righteousness and wisdom that only God can give.

Verse 19 gives another quick reminder of the great value of wisdom: “Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city” (7:19).

The Sin Factor

Ecclesiastes then goes on to show how, of ourselves, we lack such wisdom and goodness. In verse 20 he says, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (7:20). Nobody is guiltless.

Ever hear the story about the judge who visited a prison? He talked to various inmates, and they all insisted either that they hadn’t broken the law or that it really wasn’t their fault. Finally, the judge met one prisoner who admitted to some awful crimes. The judge summoned the warden: “Let this man out of this prison. I wouldn’t want him to corrupt all the nice, innocent people that live here.” That story may not be true, but many of us behave exactly like those prisoners who claimed innocence. We hate admitting we’re wrong; we’d rather pretend we’re just fine.

If only we could see our own sins the way we see other people’s sins! Here’s one area that the school of hard knocks can knock some sense into us. When people insult or offend us, we tend to be oversensitive and outraged. But instead of paying so much attention to their faults and getting upset at them, we should let hard knocks remind us how often we do the exact same thing to others. In verses 21 and 22 of Ecclesiastes 7, the Teacher advises: “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.”

Deep within our sinful nature is the tendency to maximize the sins of others and minimize our own sins. We need to stop pretending we’re soaring to new heights of wisdom and purity. We need to face the truth about ourselves. We need to admit how warped and self-absorbed and limited our thinking is and see the seriousness of sin. As the Teacher puts it in verses 23-25, “All this I tested by wisdom and I said, ‘I am determined to be wise’-but this was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound—who can discover it? So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.”

In the school of hard knocks, one classroom which drives home the stupidity of wickedness is the classroom of male-female relationships. The Teacher says, “I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare” (7:26). A wicked woman, says the Teacher, is almost harder on a man than death itself. Of course, looking at it from a woman’s point of view, it would be just as true to speak of how a sinful man enslaves and wounds a woman. Either way, notice the sobering observation: if you were perfectly pleasing to God, you’d escape such a trap. If you’ve been hurt by someone of the opposite sex, don’t just get angry and bitter. Let it remind you of your own sin as well.

Look, this is what I have discovered: Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—while I was still searching but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all. (7:27-29)

Upon reading those words, women may protest and men may feel smug. Every man tends to think he’s that one man in a thousand! But this countdown from one to zero is really just a method of Hebrew poetry to say that nobody is perfect. After all, the Teacher just got through saying in verse 20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”  But just suppose that you (mistakenly) took the one in a thousand literally. It would still mean that a man has 1/10 of 1% chance of being better than a woman. Some superiority! Anyway, the point is that sin is everywhere, and sin is especially hurtful in the way men and women mislead and manipulate and mistreat each other.

The upshot is not to rage against the opposite sex but to see that humanity is sinful, and that I am no exception. Men and women are indeed equal: equally sinful. Is that the way God made us? No, we’ve done it to ourselves. Ecclesiastes 7 closes by saying, “This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes” (7:29).

Our Only Hope

The chapter began by speaking of death, and it ends by talking about sin. The connection isn’t accidental. The Bible says that “death came to all men, because all sinned… The wages of sin is death” (Romans 5:12, 6:23). Sorrow is good for the heart because it shows us our sin and misery apart from God.

When the Teacher wrote, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins,” he was speaking the truth. But then one upright man did appear, a righteous man who lived on earth and did what was right and never sinned. Jesus of Nazareth went through a school of hard knocks that made our lives look like easy street. But he remained perfectly obedient to his heavenly Father, all the way to death on a cross. Jesus was holy but not holier-than-thou, perfect but not a perfectionist, good but not too good to associate with others; he became known as a friend of sinners. Jesus knew all things but wasn’t a know-it-all; he was wise but never overwise; he never looked down on others who were less knowledgeable. Instead, he used plain words and stories from everyday life to convey his message; he even welcomed children. Jesus lived a perfect life; he died to pay for the sins of others; and then he arose again in triumph over death. He is the one righteous man we all need.

The best thing about the school of hard knocks, then, is that it drives us to Jesus. God uses the hard times to make us give up on ourselves and ask hard questions. We wonder where pain and death come from, and God drives us to the conclusion that though he made us upright, we’ve sinned and run off in pursuit of schemes which lead to misery and death. At that point, we long for a Savior. We long for someone to replace our stupidity with his wisdom, our sin with his righteousness, our death with his eternal life. And who can do that but Jesus? “If we claim to be without sin,” says the Bible, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

But what if we already know Jesus? Well, we still haven’t graduated from the school of hard knocks. God often uses trials to teach and shape his children. “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” Bad times remind us to keep trusting a God we haven’t figured out, a God who works all things for the good of those who love him. Bad times teach us to hold on to Jesus tightly and everything else loosely, to love this world less and heaven more, and to keep believing that the day of death is better than the day of birth, for at death we leave our sin-stained existence, graduate from the school of hard knocks, and go to eternal joy with Jesus.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.