Learn Your Lessons Well, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12)

A few years ago, I was in a musical at Ouachita Little Theatre called Godspell.  At intermission I sang a duet with another performer which went like this…

I can see a swath of sinners sittin’ yonder
And they’re actin’ like a pack of fools
Gazin’ into space they let their minds wander
‘Stead of studyin’ the good Lord’s rules
You better pay attention
Build your comprehension
There’s gonna be a quiz at your ascension
Not to mention any threat of hell
But if you’re smart you’ll learn your lessons well!

Every bright description of the promised land meant
You can reach it if you keep alert
Learnin’ every line and every last commandment
May not help you but it couldn’t hurt
First ya gotta read ’em then ya gotta heed ’em
You never know when you’re gonna need ’em
Just as old Elijah said to Jezebel
You better start to learn your lessons well!

Well, that seems to be the theme of the last section of the book of Ecclesiastes: make sure you have learned these lessons.  The Preacher sits down and, for the last time, tells us to be sure we understand his lessons.  These verses are a mini-commentary on the whole book

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Solomon had ended the previous section saying, “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.”  Essentially, what Solomon has done is that he has revealed to us that life without God is meaningless.

By the time we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, we have to admit that he has proved his case. “Nothing in our search has led us home,” says Derek Kidner; “nothing that we are offered under the sun is ours to keep” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 104).

But fortunately, “vanity” isn’t the last word.

By the way, you might have noticed that this last section refers to the Preacher in the third person.  Some believe that this section was written by another author, giving a new perspective.  I believe this is still Solomon speaking, but instead of telling us what he wants us to know, now he is telling us how he had communicated it.

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The Preacher communicates with logical clarity.  Out of his own wisdom and the “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” he seeks to teach the people knowledge.  He shares what he has learned, not only through books but through experience, to help others gain knowledge and wisdom.

He looked at life and saw that, often, little pithy sayings, proverbs, perfectly captured the complexity and bewilderment of life, and he wrote them down.  That is why he wrote the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Solomon finishes this book by telling us that these observations about life are meant to bring us four things.

First, pleasure.  The teaching of wisdom should be pleasant.  Notice that the preacher “sought to find words of delight.”  How do you know that you know God?  By listening to his words of delight and by finding them pleasurable.  God isn’t a killjoy.  He’s not a curmudgeon.  He’s certainly not puritanical in how he wants us to live in the world.  God delights in us delighting in the beauty of words.

Ecclesiastes itself fits this description.  The famous American writer Tom Wolfe described Ecclesiastes as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth” — “the greatest single piece of writing I have known.”  This is the book that gave us phrases like “the sun also rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5, NKJV), “to everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), “eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV), “cast your bread upon the waters” (Ecclesiastes 11:1), “the almond tree blossoms” (Ecclesiastes 12:5), and “man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).

Proverbs speaks to this issue of words that bring delight.  Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”  God knows just the right thing to say.  Gracious, pleasing words win the attention of listeners.  Pleasing words have a penetrating effect, they reach the heart.

However, at no time does Solomon dilute his message and merely flatter his congregation.  He always used “words of truth.”  To be of real help, it is not enough to write to the delight of the ears, but one must also write (or teach) the truth.

If there is one thing we can always count on the Preacher to do, it is to tell us the truth — not just the truth about God but also the truth about life in a fallen world.  Whether he is talking about the agonies of old age or the anguish of losing a fortune, the Preacher never holds back from telling us what life is like under the sun.

Both beauty and truth are needed.  To be upright but unpleasant is to be a fool; to be pleasant but not upright is to be a charlatan.

The Bible works by being beautiful because it is true, and by being true because it is beautiful.

But the truths of the Bible not only bring pleasure, they sometimes bring pain.

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd” (12:11).

Goads were employed by herd drivers in the ancient world to keep animals on a straight path. They were staffs with sharp nails embedded in them and were used to poke and prod the animal. If it went to the left, there would be pain; if it went to the right, pain; if it stopped, more pain. The only way the animal could avoid pain was to go the way the shepherd wanted to go. 

The purpose was not the injure the animal, but to inflict just enough pain to get his full attention and cooperation.  Solomon’s words are goads to the conscience, making us uncomfortable enough to turn from our sin.

In the days of the early church, Gregory Thaumaturgos said, “the mind is roused and spurred by the instructions of wise people just as much as the body is by an ox-goad being applied” (quoted in Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 280).

God gave Adam and Eve the path to life, a straight line to walk in, and they veered off to the left to graze on different food.  God shows us the path to life in his Word, a narrow way to walk in with Christ as our King—and we veer off to the right to graze for a while.

Left to our own devices, we will not choose what is right.  Left to myself, I will end up going in the wrong direction to where I should be.  As the hymnwriter said, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

Good feelings aren’t enough, past learning is not enough, we need God’s present Word to guide and goad us into the right path.  Sometimes that will be a painful reminder.  It involves rebuking and correcting (2 Timothy 3:16).

Does Koheleth cause you offense?  Then face the fact, says this man, that he does so because he is telling the honest truth, and the truth is often uncomfortable.  It is not the function of the wise to leave you undisturbed in your prejudices.  The words of the wise are like “goads” (v. 11), there to spur you on, to dig into you; like “nails driven home” (NEB).  Hurtful, maybe, but necessary for your own good.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 89)

“The Preacher’s words push us not to expect lasting satisfaction in money or pleasure,” says Philip Ryken, “but only in the goodness of God.  They steer us away from foolish rage and mocking laughter” (Ecclesiastes, p. 278).

According to Philip Ryken, the nails could also have the point of something that is driven into the mind.  It stays there, like a nail pounded deep into a block of wood.  Life may be like a vapor, but wisdom can help us secure it, giving us a place to hang our experiences.

Derek Kidner remarks: “Here then are two more qualities that mark the pointed sayings of the wise: they spur the will [the goads] and stick in the memory [the nails].”

It is all too easy, says the author, to use even wisdom completely foolishly in this way and to utterly, utterly miss the point.  Wisdom must be allowed to do its painful work on our lives, as the goads bite; we must resist the temptation to reach for the painkiller, which is scholarly success, especially in publishing.  The “ordering” of things is all well and good, so long as chaotic disruption to our lives is not thereby excluded–that is, so long as we do not arrange things in order to keep God’s Word at arm’s length, rather than with the intention of hearing it yet more clearly and obeying it.  (Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 231)

Solomon’s acknowledgement that these wise sayings are “given by one Shepherd” is taken by many to refer to God Himself, as the One who reveals Himself and His will in the Scriptures.  He seems to be distinguished from the Preacher, Solomon.  Furthermore, “Shepherd” is one of the noble titles for God in the Old Testament, not only in Psalm 23 but also in places like Psalm 80, where he is called “Shepherd of Israel” (v. 1).

This would affirm the verbal inspiration of Scripture in general, but Ecclesiastes in particular, that God “breathed out” (2 Timothy 3:16) the Scriptures so that they are part of the inspired, infallible, inerrant revelation of God.

Therefore, we admire not only the beautiful artistry and strict integrity (v. 10) of God’s Word, but must also submit to its authority.  The reason that its words are delightful and true is that they are God’s words.  The reason that we submit to its goading and prompting is because it is God’s Word.

And Philip Ryken reminds us under the New Covenant:

What Ecclesiastes says about the Shepherd’s words takes on even greater force when we remember that our Shepherd is also our Savior.  Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (see John 10:11).  Thus the words that we read in Ecclesiastes are really his words. Jesus is the one who calls us away from the vanity of life without God to find joy and meaning in his grace.  We are not just living “under the sun.”  We are living under the Son — the Son of God who “loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

Verse 12 is a curious verse.

12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

At first blush it seems to be a negative view of learning.  However, the first statement is a warning to students not to go beyond what God has written in His Word.  “Beware of anything,” and that includes podcasts, books, YouTube sermons or any other information you find “beyond these” (referring to the words of instruction Solomon has amassed, and by extension, to the words of the Bible itself).

We should build our lives on the words of the Shepherd.

The world is full of information and full of books.  Even the ancient world had libraries full of books.  Today, more than a million new books are published every year.

So what Solomon says is true: of the making of many books there is no end, and studying even some of them is enough to wear anyone out.

Solomon is NOT saying that we should not read (or write) books.  I highly recommend that you DO read books.  There are many good and worthwhile books to read.

But we must always remember that human wisdom and man-made philosophy are extremely limited.  By far the most important book for us to study is the Bible, including everything written in Ecclesiastes.  Therefore, be careful of trying to go farther than the Word of God.

I recommend, therefore, that you read the Bible first and foremost.  This is where your Shepherd speaks to guide and goad your life towards godliness. 

We know that books can greatly affect us.  Paxton Hood has said: ““Be as careful of the books you read, as of the company you keep; for your habits and character will be as much influenced by the former as the latter.”

I would also recommend that you spend time reading some old books.  None other than C. S. Lewis recommended the same.  Even though he was writing “new books” in the mid-20th century, he recommended reading old books.  He said…

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.

And

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Of course, there are new books that are good books to read.  There are some old, trusted books and new books that are yet to be proven.

Man’s word (v. 12) can be overwhelming and take up so much of our time.  Just think of how much time you spend reading posts on Facebook, email messages, tweets, and blogs.  Then think of how many videos you watch.  All of it can be overwhelming and time-consuming.

A Forbes magazine article is titled, “How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read.”

Let me share one quote…

“[The] pace [that we create data] is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet.  Over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated. This is worth re-reading!”

Over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated.

If Solomon lived in our day, here’s how he might write verse 12…

Of making many blogs…and podcasts…and online summits…and emails…and Facebook posts…and Twitter feeds…and Zoom meetings…and interviews…and news stations…and Instagrams…and Snapchats…and LinkedIn feeds…and YouTube channels…there is no end, and much studying…and watching…and reading…and listening is a weariness of the flesh.

Man’s word also (v. 12) often goes “beyond” the Word of God.  In fact, it often boasts of going beyond God’s Word, as being more relevant and contemporary.

Man’s words might be true and accurate, but might not.  We’ve faced that in the past few years with all the information about COVID and the fake news about political issues.

Fortunately, we have a word more dependable, the Word of God.  Back in vv. 9 and 10 the Preacher tells us that God’s Word is delightful, true and helpful—helpful in the sense that it makes us uncomfortable enough to change.

So, spend your time reading and obeying God’s Word.  Turn off the news, turn off your notifications and spend time in God’s Word.

So, I would encourage you to read the Word of God first and foremost.  By listening to, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on God’s Word, we gain the wisdom we need to make good decisions in life.

God’s Word will always open up new treasures to those who read it and meditate upon it.  It is relevant to our lives and able to make us competent for every good work.


Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

One thought on “Learn Your Lessons Well, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12)”

  1. Thank you Lamar…today’s “lesson” was particularly helpful! Just the jolt I needed to push me back into my schedule with reading and meditation in the Word!

    Like

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