Theological Realism
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Theological Realism

From Series: Encore 2021

Ecclesiastes 8:14-17  (ID: 3425)

Many experts claim to have the answers to life’s most difficult questions. God’s Word, however, teaches that we are limited in our understanding and that God’s ways are inscrutable. Indeed, the writer of Ecclesiastes observed that “all is vanity.” But we are not to grow bitter and sullen. Instead, Alistair Begg encourages us to heed Scripture’s advice, taking joy in life’s simple pleasures and applying our hearts to know wisdom as it’s been revealed by God.


Sermon Transcript:

Well, I invite you to turn with me to your Bibles, to the Old Testament and to the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes chapter 8, and I’m going to read the whole chapter, beginning at verse 1:

“Who is like the wise?
 And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
 and the hardness of his face is changed.

“I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble[s] [lie] heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

“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. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 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. 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.

“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

Now, Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be found acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.[1]

Well, last time we were helped by Habakkuk. At least, I hope we were helped by Habakkuk. We were helped by the fact that in a world where people have all kinds of responses to the circumstances that press upon us, we said that Habakkuk provided for us a wonderful picture of theological realism—that in the face of difficulty, in the face of loss, he had learned to declare his trust and his confidence in God, not because he knew everything that was taking place or could explain it all, but because he trusted God. It was his theology that was the basis of his confidence—and in this respect, akin to the psalmist. David, in the Sixty-Second Psalm, says,

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
 from him comes my salvation.
He [only] is my rock and my salvation,
 my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.[2]

And so, this morning I want to think along these lines, along the lines of theological realism. And I come to this as a result of my reading, which will be similar to many of yours if you use the Murray M’Cheyne reading plan for working through your Bible. And if that is the case, then part of your reading this past week will have included the eighth chapter of Ecclesiastes. And I wonder, were you struck, as I was, by the heading that is given to the concluding verses in the English Standard Version? It simply reads, “Man Cannot Know God’s Ways.” “Man Cannot Know God’s Ways.”

Now, I found that striking because in all of the uncertainty of the things that we’re facing, in all of the potential chaos of our time, all of us are keen to have the answers. Who caused this pandemic? What will fix it? When will it end? Where is God in all of this? And why has this come about? Now, there is no shortage of experts with answers—medical answers, social answers, mathematical answers, political answers, and so on. And actually, I have found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the inadequacy of the answers offered to me. And I have also been on the receiving end of questions along these lines. Therefore, I found it wonderfully liberating to be reminded that God’s ways are inscrutable. Inscrutable. In 8:17, three times this point is made by the writer. “Man,” he says, “cannot find out the work …. He will not find it out. … He cannot find it out.”

“Well,” you say, “this is a bit of a forlorn deal, is it not?” No, it’s wonderful, and I hope to show you just why that is. When Cowper, in the hymn that we sang last time, I think without this verse, was expressing these sentiments, he was not running from reality. He was facing reality head-on. And his realism was a theological realism when he penned the words,

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.[3]

What this does, of course, is challenge the kind of Enlightenment thinking which remains to our day, which goes along these lines: “If you just give us a little more time, we will be able to figure it out”—the kind of expression that says, “Well, we have this covered. We’ll let you know as soon as we have the details.” This little section at the end of Ecclesiastes 8 causes us to think along different lines.

Now, perhaps you will find it helpful to notice that he begins in verse 14 with an observation; he then, in verse 15, provides us with a recommendation; and then, in 16 and 17, we follow his application of his mind to the matter at hand.

An Observation about the World

Now, we daren’t take time to set this in a much wider context. Suffice it to say that the writer has set out his stall to view life, to try and make sense of life, under the sun. He recognizes that it is filled with riddles and paradoxes, and all of his considerations are set within the parameters of the fact of God as a sovereign creator and the reality of man in the eventuality of his death.

The providence of God is worked out in life in ways that cause us to wonder at his purposes.

And what he’s doing is, of course, pointing out here in verse 14 that as he looks at the world in which he lives, “there is a vanity.” Now, “vanity” comes thirty-eight times in this book, and the context in which it is used helps us to understand what it means. When he says “there is a vanity” here, what he’s talking about is the incomprehensible nature of things. We just can’t figure this out when we realize what’s happening. And what is it that’s happening? “Well,” he says, “prizes are going to the wrong people. And the same is true of the punishments. This is a vanity that retribution and rewards are now reversed.”

Now, of course, this is not a novel observation on his part. Right up until the present time, people wrestle with this issue. And I would think in the last twenty-five years there’s been more than half a dozen books, different titles, but all addressing this same question: Why is it that bad things happen to good people, and why is it that good people have to endure bad things? Well, that’s his observation right here: the “righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked” and the “wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.” His observation is, “This is strange. It doesn’t seem right. It’s troublesome.” Man is left searching for some kind of rhyme and reason, and not just in the events of history in its broadest sense but in the very private experiences of our individual lives.

Simon, many, many years ago—that is, Paul—writes of going “up a narrow flight of stairs” to his “narrow little room,” where he lies upon his bed “in the early evening gloom.” And he says, “Impaled upon the wall my eyes can dimly see the riddle of my life and the puzzle that is me.”[4] Now, this is what he’s observing. Back in the fifteenth verse of the previous chapter, he says, “In my vain life I[’ve] seen [it all]. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.”

Now, you see, the Bible addresses this. We’re not left just to wander around. This is where theology comes into play. This is life in a fallen world. What the Bible tells us is very straightforward: that God created Adam and Eve. He created them for himself, in the enjoyment of his presence. He made them in order that they might live with him and live for him. But when you read the early chapters of the Bible, you discover that they doubted his goodness, they rejected his wisdom, and they rebelled against his authority. And as a result of that, sin has spread into every aspect of our human existence. God has still shone his light into our darkness, the heavens declare his glory,[5] and in his love, even though we are by nature rebellious, he still comes to seek us out. I was thinking about it just as I drove here this morning. The line from the hymn came to mind:

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
[And] yet in love he sought me,
And on his shoulder[s] gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.[6]

Now, this observation is not unique, as I say, to the writer, nor is it unique to the book of Ecclesiastes. We won’t go here, but for homework I can assign a rereading of Romans chapter 8. And you will discover there that in Romans 8:20, Paul is making the observation that the whole of creation is “subjected to futility.” What I find interesting is that that Greek word there for “futility” is the exact same word when the Hebrew word is translated into Greek thirty-eight times in the book of Ecclesiastes. And what we discover is that we inhabit a fundamentally disordered state of reality. “Well,” says somebody, “well, if we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now.” A fundamentally disordered state of reality. And still the questions come: “When will this end?” “Who’s in charge of this?” “What are we supposed to do?” and so on.

Well, that is the observation. And I hope you are helped by the fact that the Bible recognizes these things. It doesn’t shy from them. It acknowledges the fact that the providence of God is worked out in life in ways that cause us to wonder at his purposes.

A Surprising Recommendation

So, a straightforward observation. And then, in verse 15, we come to what I would say is a surprising recommendation.

Notice the opening four words there: “And I commend joy.” “And I commend joy.” This I found greatly encouraging as well. There’s “nothing better,” he says. There’s “nothing better under the sun.” This is all taking place on earth, you see: “There is a vanity that takes place on earth.” “I’m making sense of the world,” he says, “under the sun.” There’s “nothing better.” And incidentally, he does this a number of times. I’m quoting 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” After he has spoken of the nature of God setting eternity in our hearts,[7] he says in 3:12, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” It’s quite wonderful. It’s along the lines of Psalm 118, isn’t it? “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”[8] The answer to the first question in the Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”[9]

I wonder, have you said to anybody recently, “Are you enjoying yourself?”—especially to a Christian person? Sometimes the Christians have joined the ranks of the gloomy and morose. This should not be. When Paul is giving a warning to rich people to make sure that they don’t find their confidence in riches, which is a good warning, he also goes on to say—and this is in 1 Timothy 6:17—he says that in the context of a “God, who richly provides us with [all things] to enjoy.” “To enjoy.” Observation: things are upside down; the world seems to be broken. Of course, it is broken; we live in a fallen world. Directive, recommendation: well, instead of the difficulties turning us sour or making us sullen, the writer is recommending entering into the joys of simple pleasures. Simple pleasures.

And again, notice that he’s addressing these things “under the sun.” “For man has nothing better under the sun.” God has also set eternity in our hearts, and as a result of that, we are inevitably plagued by a sort of sense of homesickness—that we live every so often drifting into a weird sensation of unbelonging. But our response to those sensations is not to be like the pessimist—simply a shrug or a “Who cares?” or the approach that says, “Whatever.” And how many times do you find that word cropping up? “Well, whatever,” or “Who knows?” No. The fact that there is no ultimate satisfaction in these things is not to say that there is no satisfaction in these things. I am already looking forward to my lunch. I am already looking forward to the benefits of friendship. I am already looking forward to reading. I am already looking forward to listening to music. All of these have been given to us, the children of men, as gifts within the context of this observation. It is right for us to enjoy these temporal mercies. A foolish person deals with the predicament in one way, the disillusioned in another, and the Christian man or woman in this way.

Now, while I was thinking along these lines, I had an email from a friend from far away in the middle of the week. And after he had referred to the way that many lives were being touched by deepest loss, he continued in this way, and I quote:

God’s witness of creation around us faithfully continues to bring us inspiration and wonder. The birds seem to be singing louder and better songs that announce and embroider the new day. Or maybe it’s because we have time and space to listen to what has always been there, what was always being sung. The night stars also seem to have a new brightness, a deeper illumination.

And then, in a wonderful PS, he says, “I’m also beginning to miss people I don’t like.” Fantastic! Wonderful. What is this? Well, the hymnwriter had it:

Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
That Christless eyes have never seen.
And birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
And earth with deeper beauty shine,
When I know, as now I know,
That I am his and he is mine.[10]

You see, the writer here is not asking, “Why are these things as they are?” His theology is such that he knows why they are what they are: because we live in a fallen world. One day all cancer, all death, all tears, all sighing, all viruses, will be banished forever in a new heaven and a new earth.[11] That is the reality of the story: the plan and purpose of God.

And so, it’s a good recommendation, and it’s a clear recommendation. Observation: life is unmanageable. Recommendation: go out and be joyful.

Application of the Heart to Wisdom

And then we come to his application. The application of his heart, he says: “to know wisdom.” “I [was applying] my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on the earth, [and] how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep.” The second half of that verse is quite difficult, and there are a variety of ways in which it is explained. Don’t stumble over it.

The way we think about everything is impacted by the fact that we think wrongly about so much. And so, the world as it comes to us is clearly distorted, and even our view of its distortion is itself distorted.

Derek Kidner observes that the enjoyment of simple pleasures only makes it possible for us to shelve the big questions; it doesn’t enable us to settle them.[12] You see, that’s the difference, again. And someone says, “Well, let’s just go out and get something to drink. Let’s just go out and have a meal. Let’s just open things up again, and we’ll be able to deal with everything.” No, we won’t be able to deal with everything, because the deepest longings are not answered by food and by drink and by parties. That’s why he says in chapter [7], “It’s better to go to a funeral than to go to a party, because death is the destiny of everyone, and the living should take it to heart.”[13]

And what he’s really doing here in this fifteenth verse is repeating what he said earlier. His investigation has already led him down a series of dead-end streets. “What has a man from all [his] toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” he asks in chapter 2. “For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”[14] And I think there’s something of that there in what he is expressing: this idea how “neither day nor night do one’s eyes … sleep.” You picture him turning on his bed, asking where his business is going, where it is taking him, as he asks himself, “What does this all mean, if it means anything at all?”

And, of course, in the heart of all of this is this matter of theology: because “I was seeing the work of God, all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.” And what he’s giving expression to is the fact that the ways of God are inscrutable, that it is baffling. Because the desire to understand these things, and also our limited ability to understand these things, both are ordained by God. So he has created within us the capacity for investigation, for the development of science, for research, and for all these things—which is an amazing gift, and it’s evidence of his creative power—but at the same time, he has also limited our ability to unravel all of these questions.

The ways of God cannot be fathomed by men and women because of our fallen state. What the Bible says is that sin has pervaded every part of our existence. It doesn’t mean, when we talk about the depravity of men and women, that we’re as bad as we could possibly be. What it means is that there is no part of our humanity that is unaffected by sin. And therefore, it is obvious that it would affect our minds. So the way we think about everything is impacted by the fact that we think wrongly about so much. And so, the world as it comes to us is clearly distorted, and even our view of its distortion is itself distorted.

Now, this ignorance is traced to an understanding of things that is impacted, as I say, by the fall. It’s not uncommon for people to say, “Well, if this was so obvious, why can’t I see it?” Well, the answer is, it’s not so obvious. You remember in that film Chariots of Fire that I mention—interminably, unrelentingly—you know that great moment where Abrams says to his girlfriend, “You know, if I can’t win, I won’t run.” And she says, “You know, if you don’t run, you can’t win.”[15] And along those lines, a person says to me, “You know, if I can’t see, I won’t believe.” To which I think the Bible has to say, “If you won’t believe, you’ll never see.”

You see, it is the Word of God itself that we’re looking at now, which is light in our darkness. After all, in the midst of the observations about our world today and the inability of us to understand the end from the beginning, it is the entry of the Bible that gives light into our darkness. That’s the claim that Scripture itself makes. Psalm 119: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”[16] “Oh,” says somebody, “well, that’s the problem, you see, because I’m not simple. I’m actually very clever.” Well, let me tell you that the pathway is reason humbled to the obedience of faith. Reason humbled to the obedience of faith.

You see, genuine humility admits to being unable to figure out all that God is doing. How could we know all that God is doing? The revelation of God has to be—has to be—beyond us. If we were to have the fullness of all of his revelation, it would be as hard for us as looking up directly into a very, very bright sun. It impacts us. And when we read the Bible, we realize that God does things in ways that are beyond our comprehension. Says [Butler], God “may cast clouds and darkness [around] him, for reasons and purposes [for] which we have not the least glimpse or conception.”[17] God may choose to do this.

But we have sufficient light to leave us without excuse.[18] The light of the gospel shines out. The light of creation shines out. And as I say this to people in these days, often they will come back to me and say, “Well, you know, I don’t find reading the Bible very easy at all.” And I would say I agree with that. I don’t find reading the Bible very easy. In fact, parts of the Bible are jolly difficult!

And again, this is where our theology comes into play. Here is the Westminster Confession, the first section on the nature of Holy Scripture, paragraph 7:

Not all things in Scripture are equally plain in themselves or equally clear to all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly stated and explained in one place or another in Scripture, that not only the educated but also the uneducated may gain a sufficient understanding of them by a proper use of the ordinary means.[19]

Well, what does that mean? Well, it simply means this: that we should encourage each other to come to the Scriptures humbly, expectantly, consistently, so that we might then discover the light that is provided, recognizing that our understanding of Scripture will not ultimately be purely, in the sense that our own incapacities cloud our comprehension; we won’t understand it purely, nor will we understand it entirely, but we may understand it sufficiently. Because it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that we only see the surface view, that the depths of the providences of God are beyond our vision. And so the writer is making it clear, as he’s very honest in his observation and in his recommendation and in his searching and in his wondering: God will, in his own time and in his own way, bring perfect order out of seeming confusion, and he will complete his purpose from all of eternity to call to himself a company that no one can count.[20]

“However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” When Paul, again, gives expression to the magnificence of God and his dealings, he eventually comes to the same place. How could we ever know? “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’”[21]

Our heavenly Father knows what he’s doing, knows what’s best, and loves us with an everlasting love.

This was never said of me—it could never be said of me—but I heard my teacher say to people around me, “You know what, Colin? You’re too clever for your own good.” And that’s the problem with some who are within earshot of me this morning. If you’re prepared to face yourself and face the Scriptures, you discover that you’re actually too clever for your own good. That the wisdom of God explained in the cross is a foolishness to you; to those who are being saved, it’s the power of God.[22] That the love of God is rejected by you. That the patience of God you ought to be very thankful for, for his patience is in order that those of us who think we know the answer to everything, who think we can explain ourselves without him, who think that we can live our own lives and please ourselves, discover that his patience is there to lead us to repentance.

And for me, the fact that I live inevitably with so many of these questions that remain not neatly cut and dried and put together but remain daunting and baffling and uncertain, I say to myself, “This is good. This is good.” In that wonderful hymn:

God holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad;
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he [offered] it to me,
I might be sad.

My favorite verse goes like this:

The very dimness of my sight
Makes me secure;
For, groping in my misty way,
I feel his hand, I hear him say,
“My help is sure.”[23]

Have you ever felt his hand reach out to you, lay hold upon you, as you observe the craziness of our world, as you engage in the benefits of life in our world, and as you ponder the vastness of God’s purposes, revealed in Jesus? Well, today, take hold of his hand and trust him.

Father, thank you that the Bible has an honesty and a clarity to it that helps us—saves us from undue dogmatism and helps us when the very incapacity of our minds to grapple with the big picture are before us in a way that we find unsettling. Thank you that just when we do a jigsaw puzzle, we often decide that we’re gonna deal with the four corners before we try and work out the middle; thank you that the Bible very clearly gives to us, if you like, the parameters of your grace. And yet, in the dimness of our sight and in the cloudiness of your purposes, we may rest secure, convinced, as was Habakkuk and the writer here in Ecclesiastes, that all in all, our heavenly Father knows what he’s doing, knows what’s best, and loves us with an everlasting love. Thank you. In Christ’s name. Amen.


[1] See Psalm 19:14.

[2] Psalm 62:1–2 (ESV).

[3] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).

[4] Paul Simon, “Patterns” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.

[5] See Psalm 19:1.

[6] Henry W. Baker, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (1868).

[7] See Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[8] Psalm 118:24 (ESV).

[9] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1. Paraphrased.

[10] Wade Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine” (1890). Lyrics lightly altered.

[11] See Revelation 21:1–4.

[12] Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1976), 78.

[13] Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).

[14] Ecclesiastes 2:22–23 (ESV).

[15] Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (1981). Paraphrased.

[16] Psalm 119:130 (ESV).

[17] Joseph Butler, “Upon the Ignorance of Man,” in Sermons (Cambridge: Hilliard and Brown, 1827), 207.

[18] See Romans 1:20.

[19] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 1.7.

[20] See Revelation 7:9.

[21] Romans 11:33–35 (ESV).

[22] See 1 Corinthians 1:18.

[23] Joseph Parker, “God Holds the Key” (1887).

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.