The Former Days
Some Bible Trivia to begin: How much time was there between the reign of Solomon and the United Kingdom of Israel, and the reign of the most evil ruler recorded in the Old Testament, King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel?
Do you know off the top of your head, or if you were to take a guess, what would you think? Did you think a hundred years, a couple hundred years? Would it surprise you to find out that it was only 58 years? It surprised me, even though I could have easily worked out those numbers at any time in the past. I think I just assumed it had to have been longer.
There were people living during the reign of Ahab who were also alive during the reign of Solomon. Have you ever considered that? Imagine how much change they had seen in a lifetime. Not only had they experienced the division of Israel into two separate kingdoms, but in the Northern Kingdom, they had already experienced the end of three dynasties, the violent deaths of three kings replaced by usurpers. Religiously, they had gone from worship at the temple in Jerusalem, to Jeroboam’s golden calves, to the normalization of the worship of Baal by the time of Ahab. This all happened within the course of one lifetime.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone say (or perhaps you’ve said it yourself in recent days), “We live in strange times.” While that certainly is true, the more I think about that, I think it probably is true for any person living at any time. All times have their particular strangeness. To acknowledge we live in strange times is to acknowledge that we’ve merely lived long enough to notice. The situations of life can rapidly change in a lifetime, and what used to be normal and taken for granted can vanish into the past never to return.
I think it is important to understand that this is always happening in history, these profound shifts and movements in history. If we only think our own time is different, then we can get stuck in a depressed funk. We can be left wondering, “Why have things changed so drastically from what they used to be?” We’ll convince ourselves that the world is going in an irreversible downward trajectory, and we’ll be tempted to ask, “Why were the former days better than these?” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
I want you to notice that quote from Ecclesiastes 7:10—There were people during the time of Solomon thinking their time was worse than the past. But if you were living during the time of Ahab, you might look back fondly on the time of Solomon as the best time there was. The truth is, that this thought is deceiving. Every person at every time is tempted to think that the former times were better. That is (at least partly) why Solomon says in full: “Do not say “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
Why is this not from wisdom, for it certainly seems true to all of us? Certainly, is it not the case that the time of Solomon was objectively better than Ahab’s? Is it not the case that the 1950s, or the 1980s, or the early 2000s were better than today? In some ways, but not in all ways. Consider what Ecclesiastes says a few verses later in 7:13-14:
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Solomon tells us to consider a few things about the days we live under the sun. First, that God has created them, both the days of prosperity and the days of adversity. We cannot merely accept one and not the other. As Job said during his days of adversity, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Just as Job did not know or understand the purpose of his adversity, we too do not know all the reasons behind why our days are the way they are.
One of the reasons that God made both days of prosperity and adversity, Solomon goes on to say, is so that “man may not find out anything that will be after him.” That is a difficult saying, and it requires a great deal of meditation and contemplation. I think, in part, it means that God gives us both of these things so that we will not become so certain of ourselves that we will abandon God and simply trust in ourselves. If we knew for certain what would or would not happen, how pretentious we might become!
Along those lines, we don’t seem to have the capacity to fully comprehend or appreciate the good that can come out of adversity. In the time of Ahab, which was certainly a spiritual time of adversity, the prophet Elijah arose and did great works and proclaimed the glory of God to the people. This too may be a time of adversity, but God can use this time for his greater glory as he used Elijah in the days of King Ahab. Let us not wish for a time different that we’ve been given by God, but let us use it for his glory. As the Hebrews author says: “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (3:13)