Climb the Ladder: Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 (Click Here for Audio)
Growing up, my family was one that played sports and watched television more than playing various games. My wife Grace, on the other hand, grew up in a family that played all kinds of board games. Our kids like to play games. Sometimes, they even invent new games to play.
In Western culture, the adults have invented a new game that I like to call “Climb the Ladder.” In Climb the Ladder you look at those people who are above you on the rungs of success. You spend so much time looking at life on their rung – such as the car they drive, house they live in, clothes they wear, food they eat, and social events they enjoy – that when you look down at your rung beneath them you find yourself unhappy. You try your best to get up to their place on the ladder, only to repeat the entire process once you get there and realize there is always something that looks “better.” Some people play this game until they go broke and fall off the ladder. Other people who “win” at the game, get to the top of the ladder only to jump off because they feel miserable being criticized, stolen from, and attacked by everyone on the ladder below who are fighting for their place.
Discontent and envy go together like gas and a match. Both are dangerous, and when combined they are deadly.
Discontent happens when we are not satisfied with the life that we have. Discontent is not always a bad thing. For example, a married couple may feel discontent about the condition of their marriage, which compels them to work wholeheartedly on their friendship. That kind of discontent happens when we compare how our life is, in comparison to what it could be if we walked in obedience to God and the fullness of what he has for us.
Discontent is always a bad thing when it is accompanied by envy. Envy is what happens when we start to covet the life of someone else, a life that God has not intended for us. For example, a married couple may feel discontent and envy about the condition of their marriage, which compels them to start comparing their spouse to other people they would rather be with. This can lead them toward emotional and/or physical adultery, which can happen slowly as they allow the feeling to grow privately. Feelings like this need to be repented of quickly so it doesn’t provide opportunity for destruction in the marriage.
The age in which we live has more intense opportunity for discontent and envy than any time in the history of the world. Every day, we are bombarded with advertising seeking to make us discontented enough to spend our money. Every day, we are bombarded with social media where people share with us everything from the house they live in, to the clothes they buy, car they drive, and food they eat.
If King Solomon were alive today he would dominate social media with photos of his thousand female entourage, palace, and gold stacked up in mountains large enough to ski down. King Solomon had everything he wanted, and envied no one. Yet, even he was discontented. In this, we find that wealth externally does not bring peace internally.
We live in an age when prosperity is seen as always a good thing and a blessing from God. Conversely, adversity is often seen as a bad thing and possibly even a cursing from God. As Ecclesiastes painfully and continually reminds us, prosperity is not always a good thing and adversity is not always a bad thing (6:1-2).
How many miserable celebrities are there far above us on the ladder of success? We follow them on social media, hear about them on tabloid television, talk about them, obsess over them, and imitate them. Then, we hear that they are getting divorced, entering rehab, depressed, or even taking their own life. It makes you wonder if being a normal person, living a normal life, with some normal friends would not be a better option than an abnormal life that is crushing.
Have you ever stopped to ponder who might be at your funeral? It’s a bit of a morbid thought, but also clarifying. After all that is your life, who will even care enough that you are gone to show up for an hour? That’s basically the question Solomon asks (6:3-6).
Sometimes, we find ourselves in a dark place where life seems like more trouble than it’s worth. If we stay in that kind of dark place we move from cynical to suicidal. But, if we never ask the dark questions about whether or not life is really worth all the hassle, we are probably living a shallow life absent of any meaningful reflection and maturation.
Are you in a dark place? Have you been in a dark place?
This happens when you stop working hard at your job for long enough to pull back and ask whether or not continuing to press forward is even worth it. The same goes for your marriage, health, kids, friends, family, and even church involvement. We tend to be driven by a concern for our family, reputation, joy, and legacy, but what if no matter how hard we try those things never come together? Or what if they come together only to fall apart? Is it worth continuing to try and press forward, or are we just being silly trying to do the impossible? Have you ever thought, if it’s impossible to put life together and keep life together, then why not just end life altogether and end the charade?
When I was a little kid we would play hide and seek at the home of another kid. His house backed up to a large wooded forest. We spent many days running around the woods. One evening we decided to go play hide and seek in the woods during dusk as the sun was setting. Before long, the forest was pitch black and we were separated into small teams. Truth be told, we were lost, confused, and scared. During the day we could see the pathways and look up to find our way out of the woods. But as the night got darker and we got deeper into the forest, we were lost. For a while it was scary, but eventually one of the kids who knew the forest best lead us out.
This is a dangerous and dark place that Solomon has brought us to. He ventures to lead us further into the darkness before showing us the way out. The paths he leads us down are well worn, as many have ventured down them in vain. In taking us down these dead end paths, he is wanting us to not be fooled and instead take the only way out of a meaningless and lost life that God provides.
The opening pages of the Bible reveal to us that God worked and created us to work. Work is a good thing and can be an act of worship. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with work as a part of our life. But many things go wrong when work defines the purpose of our life. Our identity can get so wrapped up in our work that work begins to overtake our life, resulting in little to no time or energy left for anyone or anything else. Solomon says that what often drives us to work more is the constant need to pay our bills and fill our fridge (6:7). The problem is, it seems that no matter how hard you work or how much you make there is always a deficit and temptation to work even more, but with the same failed result. Working hard is a good thing but does not always lead to a contented life. This is why some of the hardest working people are unhappy.
The Bible frequently compares and contrasts the wise and the foolish. Wise people live their lives according to God’s Word and ways. Foolish people live their lives according to worldly “wisdom”. You would think that the wise people who live their lives in obedience to God would look better off than foolish people who live in rebellion against God. But it does not always work out that way, Solomon says (6:8a). Sometimes, the bad guys “win”, the fools “prosper”, and the evil “emerge victorious” (by the world’s standards). To be sure, wisdom is better than folly, but it does not always lead to a contented life. This is why some of the smartest people are unhappy.
Some people are winsome – the life of the party with an engaging personality and high social IQ. These people get invited to parties, elected to offices, and never lack for friends. Other people are wearisome – the party pooper with a grating personality and low social IQ. These people have to sneak into parties, don’t get elected to anything, and think that making a group feel awkward is in fact friendship. As a general rule, life is more enjoyable for people with social skills, but sometimes even their friends turn on them and crowds abandon them. It’s better to have social skills than not, but in the end being well liked and networked does not always lead to a contented life, Solomon says (6:8b). This is why some of the nicest people are unhappy.
What do you make plans for? We can know what dreams we have based upon the plans we make. The Bible, particularly in places such as Proverbs, speaks highly of planning. The only problem with planning is that when we are always dreaming of what is next, it can create a discontent with today, Solomon says (6:9). Dreaming and planning can get us so focused on the future that we never really enjoy the present. We live under the myth that when we get what comes next – a season of life, spouse, child, house, income level, job etc. – then we will be content. Either that future never comes, or it comes and we remain restless and yearning for more, so that we are always dreaming and discontent. This is why some of the most driven and vision oriented people are unhappy.
The key to becoming content on whatever rung God has us is to accept our destiny (6:10-11). Some theologies stress the loving and gracious goodness of God. Other theologies stress the sovereign control and power of God. The truth is, God is a Father who is both sovereign and good. He’s in charge, but not like a dictator. He’s loving, but not like a jellyfish with no spine.
God has a destiny set for each of us. That destiny includes our rung on the ladder. By thanking God for whatever rung on the ladder we find ourselves on goes a long way. Rather than looking up at the person ahead of us in envy, it’s a good idea to look at the person below us and be thankful for all we have. No matter which rung we stand on, we are blessed in some way. By walking in the destiny God has for us, we are free from trying to be sovereign over our lives or control every circumstance and outcome to pull us up the ladder. We are free to work our job, learn our lessons, enjoy our friends, and make our plans, but in the end we have to surrender to his will if that ends up being different than ours, even if we fall to the bottom run. Arguing with God is an exercise in futility. If we remember that he is good, we will trust him with our future, even if it does not look like we would have hoped. This is simple to say, and a strain to do. If we are honest, most of us want God to follow the script we wrote for our lives without any edits. Although if we remember that God has a view from past, present AND future we can rest in his ultimate wisdom more easily.
Life moves fast. Before you know it, the finish line is a lot closer than the starting line. The truth is, none of us know what tomorrow holds, or has any real control over our legacy after we have left this world. We think we know how to best spend our days, but God truly knows better than we. He sees the future and knows everything in detail from beginning to end, Solomon says (6:12).
If you really consider the options simply, either we are the master of our fate and captain of our destiny, or Satan is, or God is. Out of those three, the wisest course of action is to let God be God and be grateful that we do not have to do God’s job.
For me, this timeless word is very timely. The dreams, visions, and plans I had for my life were pursued by me with great energy for around a total of 20 years. I enjoyed climbing a number of rungs and today life is not what I had thought was my destiny. Rather than arguing with God, I’m learning to accept my destiny and be thankful for my rung on the ladder. I’d rather not have what I want if my Father decides that is not what he wants for me. My Father is good, and he knows what it good for me. Therefore, whatever rung he assigns to me on whatever ladder he has for me, I will just assume is a good place for me and be thankful for what I have and get to do. Rather than being envious of what I used to have, or others have, I can honestly say I am grateful for both and not envious of either. In no way is this easy or simple. Rather, it is deeply personal and practical. This contentment gets tested whether we go down a rung, up a rung, or settle in for the long haul on the rung we are on. Why? Because Solomon, the guy who got to the top of the ladder, was unhappy and did not have a wife who loved him or kids who knew him like I do. There’s a lot to be thankful for. The best things money cannot buy, like contentment!
Jesus is of course the greatest example of perfect contentment. He went from the veritable top of the rung in heaven, seated on a throne, worshipped by angels down to being laid in a feeding trough by his poor teenage mom. God worked a job swinging a hammer with his dad for 30 years. God never got a wife, never had a kid, and, insofar as we can tell, did not own a home but was homeless on occasion. God was content even when he was broke, hated, despised, and homeless. God was even content when he had to get betrayed by a friend and die on a cross for his enemies. We can all be very thankful for Jesus and glad he was content. A discontented Christian forgets that if Jesus was like us, he would have never stepped off his throne. They are not thinking or acting like a Christian or remembering that without his contentment in taking the cup of suffering he kept us from eternal torment. It’s good to thank Jesus, and even better to join him by being content with whatever mission on whatever rung he has us on.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 6:1-12
- Why do you think the “Climb the Ladder” game is so perennially popular?
- How do the people you know best play the “Climb the Ladder” game?
- How have you played the “Climb the Ladder” game?
- What have you learned playing the “Climb the Ladder” game?
- In what areas of your life are you content?
- In what areas of your life are you discontent?