“All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.” — Proverbs 15:15
Maybe some of you have seen the question floating around Facebook: what if tomorrow you only had what you were thankful for today? It’s a good question and it makes us think about how we pray each day and our daily attitude. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and it’s a good day to reflect on God’s blessings. Yet it’s rather pathetic if we only do that on one special day of the year. Isn’t it true that the whole life of a Christian is to be shaped by an attitude of thankfulness? Human beings in their sinful state are typically turned in on themselves. They only think in terms of thankfulness despite themselves. Ingratitude is typical for the unbeliever. But for us who believe in Christ, we have been turned outward as part of our regeneration. So thankfulness should characterize our lives all the time.
Constancy is at the heart of our text for this morning. We’re considering what God’s Word says to us as we celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend. This passage of Scripture is about stuff that goes on constantly in our lives. You can see that right away with the words “all the days” and “continual.” This is about stuff that happens in our lives on an ongoing basis – what we experience – but then also how we react to that – our attitude. So I proclaim to you the Word of God this morning and we’ll hear how God gives wise teaching on the right attitude in all circumstances.
One of the key things we need to remember about the Proverbs is that they often give us observations or descriptions of the way things typically are. When Solomon wrote the words of our text, he was not giving a command, but telling us what he has seen. Then what he has seen will be what we wisely work with to direct our lives in God’s service. So it still has application to our lives, but it’s the kind of application where we have to think deeply about what is being said. We have to wrestle with it and try to understand it. Because of the compact nature of most proverbs in the Bible, this can be challenging.
The first part of this verse says that “All the days of the oppressed are wretched…” The first few words are easy enough to understand. Solomon is describing a situation that, from his observations, is always the case. But what does it mean that the “days of the oppressed are wretched”? We could also translate that as “all the days of those lacking are miserable.” All the days of the poor are awful.
There is poverty and want in this world. We think of the extremes. Today or tomorrow we might be enjoying a turkey dinner with friends and family. Even if we can’t or don’t enjoy such a dinner, we’ll still have enough food on our table. Yet in parts of the world there is genuine poverty. Thousands of people have die in poverty each year and millions are at risk, many of whom are helpless children. It’s easy to forget about this as we enjoy our comfortable standard of living here.
It’s true that some of us here face financial pressures. It isn’t always easy to make ends meet. Many of us make sacrifices for the sake of Christian education. We forego luxuries so our children can be educated with a biblical worldview. While all this pales in comparison to what’s going on in the rest of the world, there’s no doubt that we still feel the pinch. We sometimes get stressed because of worries about money.
Having a lack and going without, especially when it comes to the necessities of life, is miserable. Putting up with that day after day wears on you. Why it like this? Why is there all that misery in other parts of the world? Why do we have stress in our lives over our lack? The Bible gives us a root explanation. It tells us the ultimate cause. Ultimately the days of the oppressed are wretched because of sinful choices made by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There is human suffering and poverty in this world, because human beings forsook God. They have done so not only in their first parents Adam and Eve, but also personally in their own lives. There is original sin, but there is also actual sin. That’s not to say that all human suffering relates to particular sins committed by particular people. It’s only to say that our miserable condition in this world is because of sin in general. We suffer because we are a race of traitors.
The misery that gets experienced in this world is a reminder about the wages of sin. Unbelievers experience physical poverty or mental anguish and stress. That points to the fact that there is something far worse waiting for those who rebel against their Creator. God has not left himself without a witness. There is trouble in this world, but even more trouble in the hereafter if you don’t turn from your sin and believe his Word.
You see, there is physical lack and that can be bad, but even worse than that is spiritual lack. Of ourselves, we are lacking the righteousness that God’s law requires. God requires perfect obedience to all his commandments. He requires that from all people. Every single commandment must be obeyed in its entirety – not only what he commands us to do, but also what he commands us to refrain from doing. Not only the external actions, but also what the commandment says is to be going on in our hearts and minds. God demands 100% compliance to his law with regard to our thoughts, words, actions, desires, affections – everything. He wants it all. And we have nothing of ourselves to offer. We are lacking. That’s why the Catechism says in Lord’s Day 51 that we are “wretched sinners.” ‘Wretched’ there means that we are poor, we have empty hands. We don’t have the obedience that God’s law requires. That’s reality.
The reality comes into sharper focus when God’s Word reminds us that not only do we not have the obedience, we have nothing with which to make up for our disobedience. We have nothing with which we can make atonement for ourselves. We have no native means at our disposal to turn away the wrath of God and turn his favour towards us. We are entirely poor when it comes to effecting our own propitiation of God We just can’t do it.
What is the right attitude then as we live in this world? Surely it has to begin with humility. An accurate and realistic understanding of our plight will bring us to our knees before God. We have nothing to boast in, nothing to be proud of. By ourselves, all of us are miserable, wretched sinners.
And as we are reminded of that, then we’re also in the right frame of mind to look for help. Then we are ready to hear the gospel. In the gospel, we hear of a Saviour who gives everything that we lack. We need obedience to God’s law in order to be accepted by him. Jesus says, “I give it to you. All my obedience is yours. I kept all the commandments in your place. All my law-keeping is imputed to you.” As our Belgic Confession says in article 22, “…he imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” In the gospel, we hear of a Saviour who also paid for all our lack of obedience. On the cross, he made the payment that we could not make for ourselves. He offered his body and blood. He took the wrath that we deserved. Through all this, he has filled us with his blessing. Through Christ, God now looks at us as those who have everything they need to be in fellowship with him.
Yes, the days of the oppressed are wretched. That’s a general observation. Even as Christians, when we suffer want, it can be hard. But having Christ does change the equation, especially when we put things in eternal perspective. This life is but a passing moment. As Moses said in Psalm 90, our days quickly pass and we fly away. We’re like grass in the desert – in the morning it sprouts up, but a few short hours later it’s withered and dies. Whether or not you have all the latest toys and luxuries is not going to matter then. What matters then is only one thing: do you have Christ? Are you clothed in his righteousness? If you can answer that with a “yes,” then everything else gets into the right perspective.
That brings us to the second part of the verse where Solomon says that “the cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Let’s start by asking what it means to have a cheerful heart. What is a “cheerful heart”? It means to be in good spirits. It means to be having a positive and joyful attitude. Sometimes it’s helpful to think in terms of opposites. If I think of the opposite of what Solomon says here with “cheerful heart,” I think of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Everything is dark and miserable. Nothing has a bright side. The glass is not merely half empty, it’s completely empty. The “cheerful heart” is the polar opposite.
And this cheerful heart “has a continual feast.” This is metaphorical language, not literal. In other words, Solomon was not saying that the person with a cheerful heart always has a huge table full of awesome food and drink in front of them. His observation instead is that for the cheerful heart, life always has joy.
Now someone might read this and think that this is just the Bible’s equivalent of “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s easy for you to say, Solomon. I mean, you had it easy. You were one of the richest men of your day. You had it all. Your life was a continual feast. So these words are lacking in credibility coming from you.
But brothers and sisters, Solomon wasn’t writing about his own experiences. These are his observations of others. He’s observed those who are poor and who are lacking. But among them he has seen those who have a cheerful heart. Those with the cheerful heart are those who are having a hard time. But in spite of that, they have the cheerful heart with the continual feast.
What gives? How can someone have a cheerful heart despite those terrible circumstances? See, here’s the mystery of Christian joy. The joy of a Christian doesn’t hang on his circumstances. True joy in the Bible isn’t so much tied to the ups and downs of this life. Neither is it the superficial cheeriness of an optimistic unbeliever. True Christian joy is knowing that we are loved deeply by God because of Jesus Christ and nothing can separate us from that love.
The classic illustration of that joy is found in the New Testament in Philippians. In that epistle, the apostle Paul shows us a cheerful heart enjoying a continual feast. If there’s any of Paul’s letters where we might expect to hear the apostolic equivalent of Eeyore, surely it would be Philippians. After all, Paul was in prison. Canadian prisons aren’t a great place to be, but Roman prisons were much worse. Paul was in chains for the gospel. Moreover, he wasn’t sure whether he would live or die. There was a good possibility that he was getting to the end of his life. He had every reason to be a gloomy Gus. Yet this is the one book of the New Testament characterized by joy. Repeatedly Paul speaks of how he is rejoicing and he encourages the Philippians to do likewise. “I always pray with joy…” “I will continue to rejoice…” “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord…” “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And those are just a few examples. Paul was chained up in prison, yet he had a cheerful heart that had a continual feast.
How could he do that and how can we do the same? We can have a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow because surely we can see the Lord’s goodness and give thanks. But what about a month or two from now? The days will get shorter and darker. Winter can be gloomy. Stresses pile up in our lives. The future may be uncertain. What is going to give us a cheerful heart that has a continual feast then?
Loved ones, the answer has been made clear to us in Scripture. It’s all about perspective and attitude again. The perspective and attitude of faith in Jesus Christ. That’s how Paul could have that cheerful heart in his jail cell. That’s how the people whom Solomon witnessed in his day could also have a cheerful heart. It’s true that they lived before the coming of Christ. But yet they had the promises of God that pointed ahead to Christ. As they trusted God’s promises, and trusted God himself, for them that was the same as us trusting in Christ. They could have cheerful hearts because they had a gracious God who promised to redeem them. He is our God. Paul’s God and Saviour is ours too. And so it is possible for us too to have the same attitude in all circumstances, both good and bad.
The thing is that we are often accustomed to looking down. We get a form of tunnel vision where we no longer see the big picture. We don’t see the big picture that includes the vertical element. We only see the horizontal and this is a picture where God is not involved. It’s just me and my problems. God becomes a sort of fairy tale for Monday to Saturday. And increasingly the fairy tale creeps into Sunday as well. We struggle to believe and live with him as really real or relevant for our lives. With that attitude or perspective, it’s no wonder that we become more miserable. Because life without God’s fellowship here on this earth is miserable. That’s the message that Solomon preached in the book of Ecclesiastes. Life under the sun is not just vain and pointless, it really stinks.
This again is why we need the gospel to reorient us time and again. We need to be reminded “all the days” of our life that the gospel is real. God is our real Creator. Jesus Christ is our real Saviour. The Holy Spirit really lives in us to comfort us and remain with us forever. These are gospel truths and do you remember what “gospel” means? It means “good” news. It’s news that is meant to cheer our hearts and lift our spirits. Life is not pointless or purposeless. We are God’s children and he is our Father. He has promised to help us through the storms and all the difficult days.
And at the end of it, what does he hold out for us as his promise? Isn’t it a continual feast? Doesn’t Scripture promise that we will be forever at the marriage feast of the Lamb, eating and drinking and enjoying God’s presence? We have a blessed hope in Jesus Christ and that too should give us reason for cheer today already.
Where does that leave us? With this challenge: the gospel is God’s good news to cheer our hearts. What about with you? We’ve heard the gospel again this morning. Does it cheer you? Does it also give you the greatest reason of all to be thankful, not only today and tomorrow, but all your days? Brothers and sisters, let’s continue looking in faith to our Saviour Jesus and then we can answer these questions in the right way. We can be sure that we have a cheerful heart too and we’ll also enjoy feasting on God’s goodness forever. AMEN.