Ecclesiastes is a very modern book in the sense of speaking to the dilemmas and frustrations that strike us as so contemporary to our own experience while providing very practical and pastoral answers to those dilemmas.
The thesis of the preacher, that’s what he calls himself, is that life lived apart from God is empty; that life in this world is frustrating and void of delight apart from a relationship with the living God. He’s put the life of unbelief, the life of indifference, life apart from God in the scales alongside the life of faith. He’s weighed them and he has found the life of unbelief and indifference lacking. It’s lacking intellectually, it’s lacking rationally and logically, it’s lacking spiritually, it’s lacking emotionally, it’s lacking practically; it doesn’t work.
In chapter 12 he sets forth the alternative: a life of trust in the living God, a life that is a full life, a life of joy despite all the difficulties of life in a fallen world.
We’ll parse this chapter into three sections. First, serve God early.
Serve God Early – vv. 1-8
In verses one through eight, the preacher challenges us, exhorts us to serve God early. That doesn’t mean that older people cannot serve. It means don’t wait, serve God right now. Serve Him early. Serve Him from your first days. This life is brief; therefore we ought to serve God with joy and energy from the very first of our days, and if the first of our days are over start serving Him now.
In these eight verses the preacher is putting before you two realities that we all face in one way or another: the deterioration of our bodies and the death of our bodies. Those two things he presses home, and vv. 2-7 vividly – and a bit humorously – describes the deteriorating human body.
This section points out to us the grand finale of death. In light of the fading body, and in light of people who have come to the point that they no longer desire to live, and in light of the ultimate certainty of death, he presses home this call to live for God now. Live for God with joy and energy now!
Remember, behind this call is the assertion throughout the book of Ecclesiastes that the life of joy and fullness and happiness and true blessedness is the life of faith. The world doesn’t believe that. The world believes that if you’re really going to have fun you’ve got to ditch this God stuff. You’ve got to be free to do what you want in order to get pleasure and satisfaction and meaning in life, you have to ditch God. That’s where you find the real marrow of life. When you leave behind this oppressive, strict religion and you’re free to do whatever you want.
Ecclesiastes proves that philosophy to be one of the biggest cons that has ever been perpetrated on humanity. No solid joys and lasting treasures are found in departing from God, in neglecting God, in living life for self and not worshipping the living God. In fact, the only solid joys and lasting treasures that are to be experienced in this life are experienced by the children of God. That’s the life of joy, that’s the life of fulfillment, that’s the life of meaning.
The preacher says, “Start that life now! Don’t wait until the peak of your capacities and energies and abilities have left you; start now living that life of joy with God.” This exhortation is illustrated in vv. 3-7 as he pictures for us old age.
- V. 3 – You’re losing your strength, your teeth, and your eyesight!
- V. 4 – Now your hearing is gone! You’re always up early, and the voice is weak.
- V. 5 – There’s increased anxiety and fear, maybe even paranoia. If you have any hair, it begins to turn gray and white. Movements are slow and awkward, and appetites and desires wane.
- V. 6 – illustrates a sudden death
- V. 7 – the deteriorating body and finally death.
- V. 8 – All is vain and empty unless you live for God before you get there.
Live for God now. Live for God from the very earliest days. A full life must be lived in light of these coming realities. We’re going to get old. We’re going to die. Live for God now. If you won’t live for your Creator in the days of your youth, chances are you’ll never, ever live for Him.
This is a timely word for us, isn’t it? The current attitude is to sow your wild oats when you’re young. Go ahead, act like pagans while you’re in high school and college. Go ahead, do all those things that you know are dishonoring to God. Get it out of your system. Live it up. Have some fun. Sow your wild oats now. Later on in life, when you’re in your mid to late 30’s, you can become a respectable, upstanding citizen and marry a nice girl and have a family and settle down.
The Preacher is saying the opposite: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” Worship Him now in the way you live. Worship Him by honoring Him with the care of your body. Worship Him by honoring Him in living as an upstanding young woman or young man. Worship Him in all areas of life:
- Colossians 3:17 – “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus”
- 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
Live your life in light of the ugly realities to come, trouble and death; the difficult realities of life in this fallen world. Serve God and delight in Him now and thus experience the fullness of what this life can be. You’ve heard the saying, “youth is wasted on the young.” The Preacher is saying, “Waste your youth on God.” Don’t waste it on something that’s denigrating to Him and to your own dignity.
Before the famous journalist, writer and editor Malcolm Muggeridge came to Christ, he was for years a dedicated Marxist and atheist, a left-wing columnist for the liberal media. When he wrote his biography he titled it, Chronicles of Wasted Time. And the Preacher is saying, “Don’t waste your life. Live if for God because the life lived for God is the only life of delight in this world and if you won’t live for God then you will neither experience delight in this world or the next. But if you’ll live for God now you’ll know the only solid joy and the only lasting delight that can be experienced here or hereafter.
Verses 1-8 teaches us to serve God early, and verses 9-12 admonishes us to use knowledge wisely.
Use Knowledge Wisely – vv. 9-12
Use knowledge wisely. Use knowledge rightly. Understand the use and the purpose of knowledge. Knowledge isn’t just there so that you may know a few more things, or to make you smarter, or so that you may be considered to be wise. It’s there to be put into practice, it’s there to work, and it’s there for life. The Preacher says that the believer must understand the right use of knowledge if they are to effectively wield that knowledge.
Wisdom and folly are contrasted at numerous points in Ecclesiastes, but vv. 9-12 point out the practical purpose and function of truth. In v. 9 the Preacher provides a brief bio of himself. It’s not just that he was considered a wise man; it’s that he had pursued wisdom in order to teach people knowledge. The reason that he weighed diligently and arranged carefully his teaching is so that people’s lives would be changed. He didn’t learn what he learned just so that he could be considered smart. He didn’t learn what he learned so that he could know a few more things.
He learned it because he wanted to impact people’s lives with the truth. He knew that God’s truth is for God’s people, and so he tells us in v. 10 that he chose His words carefully in order to have a maximum effect. The Preacher sought to find acceptable, upright, and true words because he knew that well considered words were more apt to have the maximum effect as opposed to ill-considered, unprepared words. So he was careful with the words, but the reason that he was careful was not to tickle our ears, but because he wanted our lives to be changed by the truth conveyed in those words.
Verse 11a proves that His words were designed to do two things: to be goads and nails. Goads are prods. Not only to prod you in the right direction but to prick your conscience, to goad your conscience, to convict the conscience and nails help to anchor the truth. Prods point you in the right direction. The prods convict and direct. Nails keep things in place. The nails anchor you in the truth.
The end of v. 11 confirms that ultimately these words were not the Preacher’s, or this preacher’s words. They came from where? They came “from one shepherd.” The Preacher’s father had said, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Here Solomon said “my words are not my words, they’re the Shepherd’s words.” This is the doctrine of inspiration – the doctrine of God’s good breath – every word of this book proceeds from the mouth of God. It’s all given by inspiration. They are ultimately God breathed words!
The warning in Ecclesiastes 12:12 may at first appear strange, “be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Is the Preacher admonishing us to not read and to avoid study? NO! Is this a practical observation about how writing and reading books is hard? No. The Preacher is warning his young son, his student, his disciple; he is warning us about one of the dangers of study.
Ecclesiastes 12:12 does not condemn a genuine search for truth, and it is not a contradiction of 2 Timothy 2:15. The former verse is a warning for the individual who is always inquiring yet never finding answers. The type of person whose favorite song is U2′s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” That person’s life is one long search for truth but never any discovery of it. Paul describes this person in 2 Timothy 3:7. Instead of asking questions to get answers and apply what is learned, they ask questions because it has become their way of life. in 1946 C.S. Lewis masterfully described this type of individual in his fantastical book on heaven and hell The Great Divorce. The “Episcopal Ghost” is on the very edge of heaven, but he wants to enter by his own agenda. He is told by the White Spirit (Harper Collins, pp. 40-41):
W.S.: “I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”
E.G.: “Ah, but we must interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”
W.S.: “If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for…Listen! Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”
E.G.: “Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”
W.S.: “You have gone for wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth.”
The preacher is warning us. Calling us to be careful how we pursue the reading of books, and to be sure we know why we’re learning.” God’s word is meant to change our lives. God’s words are not meant to interest or amuse us but to change us. True knowledge of God is fellowship knowledge. It is both personaland propositional. It comes in a personal relationship with God, and God speaks it in words and sentences which are objectively true. It comes from God. It is spoken by God. It is therefore objectively meaningful and true but it can only be fully understood in a relationship with Him because it is designed not simply to bemind-expanding but life transforming. That is what the preacher is saying in his warning in verse 12. But he’s not done.
Live Life Joyfully – vv. 13-14
According to vv. 13-14, the life of joy all boils down to the realization of the greatness of God and obedience to the word of God. “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Be in awe of God’s justice and power because He will judge one day.
In Acts 17:31 Paul said that we know that God will judge because He’s raised His Son from the dead.
“Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
God will judge. All men know that; they have God’s proof. He will judge the world in the resurrection of His Son. He’s promised it, and we’re to fear, to be in awe of this God who will judge and who will bring about everything which is hidden under His judgment. We’re to be in awe of His power and justice; as well as His hope and mercy; grace and forgiveness. We are to walk by His word because that is the key to the blessed life in this fallen and frustrated world. The Preacher’s main message is that life apart from God is empty, but the happy life, the blessed life is realized here by everyone who fears God.
What does it mean to fear God? It means to be in reverential and grateful awe of God and to know and to obey God’s Word. Fear God and keep His commandments, that is the mandate we are given, and the cultivation of an abiding fear of God leads to obedience.
But there’s a big difference between truly fearing God and cowering in a corner for fear of Him. C. S. Lewis illustrates this wonderfully in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy, Susan, and Peter are asking Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan, and Susan asks,
“Is he…quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
Then Lewis adds this:
People sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes and they found that they couldn’t look at him and they went all trembly…His voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them and they now felt glad and quiet and it didn’t seem awkward to them to stand and say nothing.
Hear the prophet Habakkuk (2:20), “the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” That’s the fear of God. Awe and reverential respect for His majesty and this fear of the Lord is the soul of religion and the soul of godliness. This controlling sense of the majesty and holiness of God and the profound reverence which this apprehension elicits is the thing that drives and brings joy to life in this fallen world; a joy-filled reverence and awe for the one true God which shakes you to the core and brings forth a response of faith and love and obedience.
This is the only solution to an empty life. It is the only solution to any life, and it is only found in Jesus Christ. He is the King, I tell you. If you will trust Him and love Him you will know not emptiness but fullness twice, in this life and the life to come. This is the end of the matter at the start of the year.