“Say not thou, what is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this” (Ecc. 7:10). What does this verse mean?
Solomon cannot mean it is unwise to learn from past mistakes, either our own or those of others. The prodigal son certainly remembered that his life was better before he began his wild living (Luke 15:17). The Jews in Babylon longed for the good days they had before in their homeland (Psa. 137:1-6). Comparing the present to the past may help the sinner to see that his sins are responsible for the difference.
Life is a mixture of good days and bad days. Any period of your past was neither all good nor all bad. In some ways your life may have been better, but in other ways it was probably worse. We tend to forget this when times are hard. When we are burdened by pain and affliction, we sometimes long for the good old days, not remembering that there were many bad old days as well.
One of the first things Solomon wrote in this book is that life doesn’t really change. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). We may think that times were better before, and in some ways they may have been, but overall life is the same because people are the same. They have the same needs, drives, problems, and temptations they have always had. In past generations certain societal restraints held the sinful tendencies of man in check. The stability of homes, the prevalence of Bible teaching, and the civil laws which reflected the moral precepts of the Bible provided a cultural conscience that did not allow public or widespread expression of the dark thoughts of man. But underneath people were basically the same. The difference between people now and people then is that today men have more opportunities to sin without the curbing influences that were once in place.
There is some merit in trying to figure out how we got to where we are. We often do this as we look at the condition of our country. Things have definitely changed since the invention of automobiles and televisions. The Great Depression and World Wars I and II permanently changed America. The Civil War and the Revolutionary War set the stage for a different culture. But we need to be careful about focusing too much on this chain of cause and effect. One danger is that we may give so much time to discovering the past cause of a present problem that we have little time left to deal with the problem itself. But there is also the danger of forgetting God’s part in all of this. Do we forget that God sometimes brings hardships as well as blessings upon nations and individuals? Are we so busy trying to connect historical dots that we overlook the hand of God in human affairs? Do we not realize that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men and sometimes sets up the lowest men in positions of great power for reasons unknown to us (Dan. 4:17)? We may put our finger on events and decisions of the past that changed our lives for the worse, but we sometimes fail to consider the possibility that God may have wanted that change.
It is not true that every generation is worse than the previous one, and it is not wise to leave God out of the study of history.