Tracing the Argument of Hebrews, Daniel Wallace

Daniel Wallace’s tracing of the argument of the book of Hebrews:

The epistle to the Hebrews, which is really a homily with some final epistolary material tacked on to the end, divides naturally into two parts.  First is the doctrinal section in which the author(s) detail(s) the theological basis for Christ’s superiority over the Old Testament (1:1–10:18).  Second is the pragmatic section in which the practical effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life are enumerated (10:19–13:17).

Throughout the epistle, however, the writer(s) punctuate(s) the argument with warnings to the readers.  After all, this letter is not a mere piece of academia: it is written to a Jewish house-church which is in danger of defection from the gospel of grace. In many respects, then, these warnings are what the author(s) wish(es) to get to; they are his climax, application.  Because of the wording of these warnings, coupled with the author’s use of Galatians and our historical reconstruction, it seems evident that the warnings are not dealing with loss of reward (contra Zane Hodges in BKC), but are addressing the possibility of not obtaining a professed salvation.

The first section, the theological basis for Christ’s superiority (1:1–10:18), involves five parts.  First, Christ is seen as superior to the OT prophets (1:1-4) in that they were mere servants or spokesmen (1:1), while the quality of the mediator of God’s revelation has now stepped up to the level of sonship (1:2-4).

Second, Christ is superior to the angels (1:5–2:18).  The author transitions into the section on angels by showing that, as God’s Son (in contrast to the prophets), Christ “has obtained a more excellent name than [the angels]” (1:4). This is demonstrated by a catena of OT quotations (1:5-14).

At this point the author inserts his/their first warning passage (2:1-4), which addresses the superiority of the message of Christ over that of angels. In essence, the point is, “Don’t drift” (2:1).  Whoever rejects the proofs of the message of salvation (2:3-4) in favor of an inferior message of judgment mediated through angels (2:2) will, in fact, face even worse judgment than what was described by angels (2:3).

The argument about Christ’s superiority over angels is resumed in 2:5-18.  Christ is seen as superior to the angels by his humanity (as opposed to the view which the ascetic-Jewish heretics were teaching).  This is demonstrated by the scriptures which describe his exaltation over the angels (2:5-9), and it is even shown by the necessity of his suffering (2:10-18), for by this he brings us salvation.

Third, Christ is superior to Moses (3:1–4:13).  The author bridges the topic by showing how, by Christ’s humanity, he has become a sympathetic high priest (2:17-18).  But before he can get to a comparison with the high priest, Aaron, he must first deal with his brother, Moses.  The author, not wishing to alienate his audience, points out that Moses, like Christ, was faithful to God (3:1-2).  But unlike Christ, Moses was merely part of the house which Christ built (3:3-4), and a mere servant in the house while Christ was the Son over the house (3:5-6a).

This discussion about Moses leads naturally into the second warning based on Israel’s wilderness experience (3:6b–4:13).  The point essentially is, “Don’t defect.”  The author(s) is quite tactful here: only once, and only in a subtle way, does he implicate Moses in Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness (3:16).  The audience should draw its own conclusions as to who was more faithful!  Unlike the first warning—which dealt with Christ’s superiority to the angels’ message—this warning has to do with the nation’s failure to believe in God (3:6b-11).  The readers are urged to believe in the promise of God to give them the Sabbath rest which the nation never obtained (3:12–4:11).  What is at stake, however, is not an earthly, transient rest, but an eternal rest—rest from the works which are not based on faith.  This warning is concluded with a somber note about God’s piercing Word (4:12-13), illustrating the fact that though some may profess faith, God knows those who possess faith.

Fourth, Christ is superior to Aaron (4:14–7:28).  The transition from the cold steel of God’s Word (4:12) to Christ’s superiority over Aaron is made by way of a gentle reminder: whereas God’s word is sharp and harsh, cutting through the flesh to the intentions of the heart, Christ our high priest is sympathetic with the weaknesses of our flesh (4:14-16).  At this point the author(s) begin(s) what will become a characteristic motif throughout the book. Immediately after a strong warning section, he softens his tone so as to encourage the readers.  The point of this softening seems to be that he is not expecting an unwavering faith in order for salvation to take place (as such might be the misunderstanding from 4:12-13).  But he is expecting the readers to know in whom they should place their faith.

The priesthood of Aaron is first mentioned (5:1-5), followed by scriptural proof (based especially on Psalm 110) for the priesthood of Christ (5:6-10) after the order of Melchizedek (5:6, 10)—proof which is necessary since Jesus Christ was not from the tribe of Levi.

The third warning then commences (5:11–6:8): “Don’t degenerate.”  Dealing with such subtle typology may be too much for the readers, for they are still immature in the faith (5:11-14).  They are to move forward in their spiritual growth (6:1-3) if the seed of salvation is ever to take root.  In light of the tremendous exposure they have had to the truths of salvation, it had better take root—or else they are in danger of apostasy (6:4-8).  In this passage the author may well be thinking of the parable of the sower (6:7-8) in which good works (productivity) are the evidence of genuine faith (6:7; cf. 5:14; 6:10).  Further, he may have in mind someone such as Judas who would clearly fit his description in 6:4-6.  If any of his readers, who had been in such a growing congregation and had seen the evidence of God’s Spirit working in their lives (6:4-5), fall away, they “crucify afresh the Son of God” (6:6), making it impossible for them to obtain the salvation which they had professed.

Again, as in 4:14-16, the author(s) softens his tone after a strong warning section.  In 6:9-20 he reminds them of the promises of God, and points out his confidence that they are among the productive seed (6:9-10).

The discussion about the Aaronic priesthood is then resumed with an elaboration on the order of Melchizedek (7:1-28).  Not only was Melchizedek greater than Abraham—and by implication, all his descendants including the tribe of Levi (7:1-10), but his priestly order is greater than the Aaronic order (7:11-28), by virtue of the fact that its necessity was predicted while the levitical order was in effect (7:11, 17).  Its superiority is seen in various other ways: it involves one priest while the levitical priesthood involved many, since death prevented them from continuing (7:23-24); and this new order involves a single, perfect sacrifice, while the old order involved daily sacrifices (7:26-27).

Fifth, Christ’s ministry is superior to the old covenant ministry (8:1–10:18).  The transition between the Aaronic priesthood and the discussion of the covenants is hinted at in 7:12: “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the Law as well.”  Christ’s ministry is seen to be superior to the old covenant ministry in three ways: in its covenant, in its sanctuary, and in its sacrifice.

After a brief introduction of all three aspects (8:1-6), the author begins by contrasting the old covenant with the new (8:7-13).  The inadequacy of the old covenant is demonstrated by scripture (8:7-9), and likewise the adequacy of the new covenant is so demonstrated (8:10-13).  In essence the new covenant involves knowing God internally because of the indwelling Spirit rather than having a revelation of God’s will externally.  The implications of these are two: (1) believers are now organically united to God in the body of Christ and (2) the eschaton has dawned and the kingdom has been inaugurated in the first coming of Christ—two implications which the author(s) will pick up on in the “practical” section (cf. 12:28; 13:3, etc.).

Then, the two sanctuaries are contrasted (9:1-12), in terms of imperfection vs. perfection and original pattern vs. replica (9:11; cf. v. 24).

This portion of the epistle concludes with contrasting the old sacrifice with the new (9:13–10:18).  Though both sacrifices required blood (9:13-22), Christ’s sacrifice is better because it has purified the original, heavenly sanctuary (9:23-28), and it was done once for all (10:1-18).

Having completed the theological section of the epistle with a strong note on the sufficiency and substitutionary nature of Christ’s death, the author(s) now turns to the pragmatic effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life.  This section includes four exhortations, with a warning and the great “Hall of Faith” chapter wedged in between.

First, the readers are exhorted to completely enter the new sanctuary (10:9-31).  The idiom is not necessarily meant to indicate that all the readers were unbelievers; rather their faith needed strengthening (10:19-22).

Nevertheless, not all were genuine believers: hence, a fourth warning section (10:26-31) comes on the heels of this exhortation.  In essence, the point is “Don’t despise.”  This one sounds very much like the one in 6:4-8, though this time the point is not related to the sown seed of the gospel, but specifically to profaning the blood of Christ (10:29).  In the context of the new covenant community the author speaks of such a person as already “sanctified” (10:29): this should be compared with the covenant community of the OT in which some were not believers, yet were set apart as a peculiar people by virtue of the sacrificial system (10:26-28).  It is clear that the man in the new covenant community is not necessarily saved: note such phrases as “fearful prospect of judgment,” “a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries,” (10:27), “worse punishment” (than physical death), “outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29), capped off by “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

Second, the readers are exhorted to endure persecution (10:32-39), especially in the light of the promises of God (10:36).  This is followed by yet another word of comfort to the readers regarding the previous warning: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls” (10:39).

Third, having just argued that the readers should endure as they had in the past (“recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured” [10:32]), the readers are reminded of others who have endured—and kept the faith (cf. 10:39).  Chapter 11 has often been called “The Hall of Faith”—and with good reason.  For in this chapter the author(s) show(s) how God’s people in the past had endured hardship, pain, and death—and yet their faith kept them going.  There is a subtle polemic in this chapter against the inability of the Law to help in this task: no one of the OT saints is commended for his faithfulness to the Law.  That this is part of the author’s purpose can be seen by the fact that, as he marches through chronologically, the bulk of his illustrations are about pre-Law individuals (pre-patriarchs in 11:4-7; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in 11:8-22).  In fact, when he discusses Moses (11:23-29), his faith is seen up until the time of the Passover (11:28) and the crossing of the Red Sea (11:29), though nothing  is said about him after the giving of the Law.  In the space of two verses (11:30-31) the author(s) then addresses the faith of the Israelites when Jericho fell (11:30), and Rahab’s faith which helped the event to take place (11:31).  Thus, even though the period of the Law is dealt with, the author produces no example of anyone demonstrating faith in relation to the Law.

The chapter is then hurriedly concluded with the mere mention of names, mostly of prophets and warriors (11:32-33), followed by the sufferings they anonymously faced (11:34-39).  What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of an OT priest, Ezra, or other person known for his law-keeping abilities.  The author has done a masterfully subtle job of getting his audience to focus on examples of faith entirely apart from obedience to the Law, obviously antithetical to the heretical teaching which they were considering.

Fourth, the readers are exhorted to endure the chastening hand of God (12:1-29).  This exhortation is similar to the one in 10:32-39, but now it is more specifically in light of the fatherhood of God (12:7-11).  A transition is made from the “great cloud of witnesses” of chapter 11 to the supreme example of the Son’s faithfulness in his suffering, that our faith might be perfected (12:1-4).  Just as Christ is God’s Son, so are believers (12:5)—that is to say, because he is a Son, so are they; hence, God will deal with them as a Father does his own children (12:5-11).  In the midst of the severe warnings comes this note of encouragement: even though the readers are suffering, since they are sons they are saved.  This discipline from God is a proof that they are indeed sons (12:8)—in fact, unless they are disciplined they will not grow in grace (12:12-17).  Such growth is essential evidence that they will obtain heaven as their eternal home (12:14).

The fifth warning of the book comes on the heels of this note on chastening.  In essence, it is “Don’t deny.”  The author implores the readers not to deny God by refusing to heed his voice (12:18-29).  Once again, as with previous warnings (2:1-4; 10:26-29), the author argues a minor ad maior: from the minimal punishment (physical death) for disobedience in the OT to the maximal punishment for disobedience now (eternal hell).  He contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion (12:18-24), showing that the awesome power of God shakes mountains, but it cannot shake the kingdom in which true believers dwell (12:28).  The warning is concluded with the somber note that “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

Fifth, the readers are exhorted in very pragmatic areas with respect to the community of believers (13:1-17).  They are instructed not only to show love for one another (13:1-6), but also respect for the leadership of the church (13:7-17).  No doubt such respect was overdue since these Jewish Christians had gone off on their own and were being led away by the heresy of the Judaizers (13:9-15).  They are consequently encouraged to get back into the fold (rather than separate in their own house church) and provide for the leaders’ needs, as a Christian sacrifice which is pleasing to God (13:15-16).  Finally, the author gets blunt: “obey the church leaders” (13:17), and with this he ends the body of his epistle.

Concluding instructions which formally turn this exquisite homily into an epistle, are given to the readers (13:18-25).

https://bible.org/seriespage/19-hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline#_ftn33

Daniel Wallace has excellent introductions to each book of the New Testament at bible.org.  Check them out and be blessed.

An Introduction to Hebrews, part 1

Today we’re going to start a new study, a study of the book of Hebrews.  As always, it is good to get some background information before we begin a verse-by-verse examination of the meaning of the text.  It is good to know who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, from where it was written, the purpose for writing and some of the overall characteristics of the book.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes opens the introduction to his magisterial commentary on Hebrews with some insights into this very enigmatic book:

If there is a widespread unfamiliarity with the Epistle to the Hebrews and its teaching, it is because so many adherents of the church have settled for an understanding and superficial association with the Christian faith.  Yet it was to arouse just such persons from the lethargic state of compromise and complacency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to persevere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict, that this letter was originally written.  It is a tonic for the spiritually debilitated.… We neglect such a book to our own impoverishment.

The letter to the Hebrews isn’t casual bedside reading.  Dense and deep, complex and compelling, profound and practical–it requires mental focus and spiritual motivation to grasp its content and grapple with its application.  But the return on this big investment has benefits that pay off in eternal dividends.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Hebrews, 3)

So who wrote this complex but compelling book?

The simple truth is, we don’t know.  When questioned about the authorship of Hebrews, the third-century theologian Origen said, “But who wrote the epistle, to be sure, only God knows.”   He was arguing that it wasn’t Paul.

And that was in A.D. 225 and we haven’t made much progress towards certainty since then.

Unlike most other books of the New Testament the author of this work does not state his name, though he assumes that the audience knows who he is (cf. 13:19, 22, 23).  The author clearly knew his recipients and longed to be reunited with them (Heb. 13:19). They had a mutual friend in Timothy (13:23).  We also know that he was a dynamic preacher, that he has an extremely knowledgeable understanding of the Old Testament in its current interpretation, that he was highly educated in Greek culture and language and that he was deeply committed to Jesus Christ and deeply concerned about the welfare of this spiritual community.

It has been suggested that Paul wrote Hebrews.  It has a Pauline flavor with literary and theological depth.  Not only this, but (1) the epistle closes in a typically Pauline fashion (13:25); (2) Timothy is associated with the author (13:23); (3) the macro-structure of the epistle is similar to Paul’s style (doctrinal, followed by practical portion); and (4) there are several strong hints both of Paul’s point of view and even his wording in this letter (especially when compared to Galatians).

However, Paul normally signs his letters.  Also, the Greek is actually better than Paul normally used (although he could have used a secretary).  The logical development is more tightly woven than Paul’s norm.  Also, Timothy’s imprisonment (Hebrews 13:23) simply does not seem able to fit within Paul’s lifetime, since he is mentioned repeatedly both in Acts and in Paul’s letters and always as a free man.

A candidate put forward by Tertullian and still a favorite of some modern writers was Barnabas.  Some arguments in favor are that (1) he was a Levite, therefore very familiar with and interested in the sacrificial system; (2) there is perhaps a word-play on his name in 13:22, the “word of consolation).  Remember that he was originally called “the son of consolation (Acts 4:36).  (3) Being from Cyprus may find expression in the Hellenistic thought patterns and polished Greek.  Also (4), Barnabas was a mediator being Jewish Christians and Paul in Acts 9, in which capacity the author seems to carry on.

Against this identification is the fact that the work is both anonymous and its authorship was so quickly forgotten.  Thus, Homer Kent says, “The fact that the name of the prominent Barnabas should have been so thoroughly lost from an epistle he actually wrote (when it was falsely attached to an apocryphal one) . . . argues against assigning the authorship to him” (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, p. 21).

However, this argument would exclude all the other candidates which we shall now name.

Some think it was Apollos, who was certainly very educated, know the Scriptures well, was eloquent and knew Timothy.  But the most that can be said is that it is a plausible conjecture.

Several other names have been suggested which are much less likely, including Clement (who quotes from Hebrews, but takes an entirely different slant than this epistle in his letter to the Corinthians); (2) Luke (based on the similarities in the polished Greek style of Luke-Acts and Hebrews); (3) Priscilla (Harnack’s suggestion, due to the enigma of anonymity given she is female); (4) Silas (because he was an associate of Paul’s and perhaps functioned as the amanuensis of 1 Peter which bears some literary affinities with this work); (5) Philip (so William Ramsay thought); and the list goes on.

Daniel Wallace suggests a dual authorship.  The author consistently uses “we,” whereas Paul may start out using “we” but later revert to “I” before he gets halfway through his epistles.

He concludes:

In light of these data, we propose that this work was co-authored, though one writer was more prominent than the other.  The credentials of Barnabas and Apollos have always been the most impressive, though it is quite difficult to tell which one would be the leading spokesman.  This is answered largely by the question of audience—which in itself is disputed.  At this stage, our best guess is that Barnabas was the main author with Apollos as the assistant (https://bible.org/seriespage/19-hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline#_ftnref11).

[All other quotes from Daniel Wallace are from this excellent source.]

When was Hebrews written?

The earliest possible date must surely be the death of Paul (summer of 64 A.D.), as can be inferred from 13:7 and 23.  Further, these are now second generation Christians (2:3).

The latest possibility is late in the first century because 1 Clement (an early Christian book) quote extensively from Hebrews.  Although this is normally dated around 96 A.D, but Robinson dates as early as 70 A.D.  Most New Testament scholarship opts from sometime between 64-95 A.D.

J. A. T. Robinson also points out that the entire sacrificial system is spoken of in the present tense through the book (cf. especially 5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27, 28; 8:3, 4, 13; 9:6, 13; 10:2-3, 11).  Also, it is incredible that the author does not point out the destruction of the temple and the virtual end of the sacrificial practices with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Again, Wallace concudes

Thus 65 CE seems to be the best date.  We can add further that the spring or summer of 65 is most probable, because in 13:23 the senior author indicates that he will come visit his audience, with Timothy at his side, “if he arrives soon.”  Travel would be quite difficult (overseas, virtually impossible) during the winter.

The congregation could have been around for some time.  Their understanding of faith and Jesus was second hand (Hebrews 2:3-4).  They had had some time to mature, but had not, according to Hebrews 5:12

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,

To where was this epistle written?  What is its destination?

Once again, we have to confess ignorance.  Somewhere in Palestine and Rome are the most popular suggestions.  But others have been made: Alexandria, Colossae, Ephesus, somewhere in Asia Minor, Cyrene, Antioch, Syria in general, Corinth, and Cyprus.  None of these places are for certain.

Wallace suggests it was written to a house-church in the Lycus Valley (near Colossae and Laodicea).  Wherever it was, they had been heavily influenced by Judaizers and had consequently split off from the main body of believers (cf. 10:25; 13:17). 

Who is the audience?

The audience most definitely would be ethnically Jewish.  Not only is the title “To the Hebrews” found as early as the middle of the second century, but “only those who were already convinced of the greatness of Judaism would see the point of the author’s attempts to show the supreme worth of Christianity by means of its superiority to Judaism.”

By way of contrast, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians does not refer to the Galatians’ defection as a “regression” but as chasing after a “different” gospel, while Hebrews presupposes that the audience had come out of Judaism (cf. 13:13, etc.).  

The author uses concepts that were popular in Greek-speaking synagogues of the day.  They include the veneration of Moses as one having special access to God and angels as mediators of the Older covenant revelation.  He also has a tendency to quote from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Clearly, the audience is Jewish, many of whom had become Christians, but probably not all.  They had been attracted to Christianity, but were not committed.

The practices of Judaism, which they had known all their lives, held a tremendous attraction to them.  Life under the law, with its sacrificial system, was comfortable and predictable.  It was hard to make a clean and definite break, so they were always in danger of mixing the two.

Legalism is a handy default for all of us.  We would like to think that we had something to do with our salvation.

Why was this epistle written?

We call this the occasion and purpose of the letter.  The occasion is that some Judaizers were influencing some of the Jewish Christians to move back into Judaism, with its emphasis on law and sacrifice.

These Judaizers had almost certainly gained strength after the death of Paul and arrest of Timothy, for their influence, based as it was in Ephesus, had a powerful effect on all of Asia Minor. 

This church had already separated themselves from the main body of believers and were beginning to defect back into Judaism.  They appear to have grown less attentive to Christian instruction (5:11–14); and some apparently have ceased regular attendance at their meetings (10:25).  The pressure was on—not just from the Judaizers, but also from the reports from Rome about Nero’s pogrom against Christians.  The author reminded them of their past faithfulness and communal love even in the midst of persecution (10:32-34).

The purpose of this letter then was to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy back to Judaism.  The author argues throughout that Christ is better than any part of the Old Covenant, and illustrates the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant.

Daniel Wallace suggests that the author is perhaps employing the book of Galatians, but refining Paul’s statements about the law as an intentional vindication of Paul’s interpretation of Christianity, what Christianity is.  These Jewish Christians needed to know that this is true Christianity.

The theme of the book is “the absolute supremacy of Christ—a supremacy which allows no challenge, whether from human or angelic beings” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 2).

John MacArthur summarizes the book of Hebrews with this theme (adapted): “Ours is the High Priest of high priests, and He is now seated.  His work is done, completely finished for all time and for us.  All we must do is rest in his finished work.”

What kind of literature is it?

I’ve been referring to this book as an epistle, but it is actually a sermon turned into a letter.

The book is without an introduction or other early indications that it is a letter. Yet the final verses do pass on greetings and blessings (13:23–25), and the author speaks of having “written to you” (13:22). 

The author identifies his work as “a word of exhortation” (13:22). The careful rhetorical progression of the book, along with its frequent practical exhortations, has led many to consider it a single sermon. Perhaps Hebrews is best understood as a sermonic letter.

Hebrews frequently encourages the audience to endure and warns them five specific times against leaving Christ (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29).

These warning passages are interspersed throughout the book and have noticeable structural similarities (esp. in terms of exhortation and threatened consequence).

Around these passages the argument of the book progresses carefully. Moreover, these specific exhortations themselves flow out of the surrounding material.  Thus, the book is unified in both structure and intent.

The warning passages exhort church participants to remain faithful, to continue to trust in Jesus Christ alone.  The more expository sections of the epistle show the superiority of Christ and his new covenant work to angels, Moses, the tabernacle priesthood, and the sacrificial system.  The implication is that these are so much more inferior to Christ that it is futile to return to them (or to go anywhere else).  Thus, the book encourages the church to hold fast to its faith, because that faith is grounded in the most superior revelation.

The key themes in Hebrews are…

1. Jesus is fully God and fully man.1:1–14; 2:5–18
2. Jesus as Son of God reveals God the Father, is the agent of creation, and sustains all creation.1:1–14
3. Jesus serves as the eternal high priest, who as a man sympathizes with human weaknesses, and yet who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin.1:3; 2:10–18; 4:15–16; 9:11–10:19
4. Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses and the Mosaic covenant, and to the earthly tabernacle and its priesthood.1:4–2:18; 3:1–6; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18
5. All humanity faces eternal judgment for sin.4:12–13; 9:27–28; 10:26–31
6. Faith is necessary to please God and to participate in his eternal salvation promises. Faith requires conviction about the unseen realities of God and his promises. Such faith produces perseverance.4:2–3; 6:1, 12; 10:22, 38–39; 11:1–40
7. Perseverance is necessary in the Christian life, and thus church participants are warned against a lack of endurance.2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29
8. God’s promises are trustworthy, including his promise of eternal salvation.6:13–20
9. With the advent of Jesus Christ, the last days have begun, though they await consummation at his return.1:2; 2:5; 4:9–11; 9:9–28; 12:22–29
This chart is from the ESV Study Bible

This book is written by a church leader who is eager to help his people maintain their commitment to Jesus Christ in the face of opposing arguments and persecution.    The question faces us today.  Will we remain true to Jesus Christ when others contend that we don’t have to?  Will we remain true to Jesus Christ when it costs us something, maybe even our lives?

The introduction to Hebrews challenges us as the point of seeing the powerful life and ministry tool offered in sound theology.  That is what this author gives his congregation.  Right theology, orthodoxy, laws an important foundation for a Christian life robustly lived.  A neglect of theology, on the other hand, has detrimental effects on the church and individual Christian lives.

Learn Your Lessons Well, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

[This is our last week in the study of Ecclesiastes. Next week we will start Hebrews.]

Last week we looked at this last paragraph of the book of Ecclesiastes found in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.  We see that Solomon is explaining to us why he wrote this book.  He wants us to learn wisdom.  He hopes that we have learned a few lessons along the way and that God’s Word has changed us.

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.

We saw that Solomon knew that God’s Word, when taught in the right way, would bring pleasure (v. 10), but also would bring pain (v. 11).  It brings pain not for the purpose of injuring, but for the purpose of correcting.  The Shepherd’s words (the word of God) guides us and goads us into right living.

But we have to be careful.  Not just any information, not just any book will do.  We must be careful not to “go beyond” (v. 12) these writings.  Not every source of information out there is worth listening to.

The final two verses of Ecclesiastes 12 bring Solomon’s message home and give us two more reasons for the Word of God.  Not only does it bring pleasure and pain, but it brings perspective (v. 13) and preparation (v. 14).  It brings perspective on life now and it prepares us for eternity.

The book’s final words provide an ethical and eschatological conclusion:

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.

Notice that Solomon tells us that this is his conclusion.  After all has been taught in the earlier parts of Ecclesiastes, this is the end.  This is his conclusion.

The “whole duty of man,” or “the purpose of life” is to fear God and keep his commandments.  Like the greatest commandment of the New Testament (love God and love your neighbor) this simplifies life under the Old Covenant—an attitude and an action—fear God and keep his commandments.  Both of these are necessary.

What strikes us here is the comprehensiveness, the universality of this mandate.  In all of life, we are to fear God and keep His commandments.  We dare not compartmentalize our lives and live for God on Sunday but not Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  We cannot give God our church life but keep our family and work and leisure lives to ourselves.

The Preacher is saying, in every area of life we are to fear God and obey Him.  Nothing is off limits.

Abraham Kuyper, a Christian theologian and one-time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, once said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

He is literally Lord of all.

You have never seen anything in your life that God did not create (Rev 4:11), and Christ is intimately involved in upholding in existence the very things that are in your field of vision at the moment (Heb 1:3).  These same things, along with you who are looking at them, were made by and through Christ, and were made for one supreme reason: to belong to or to ‘be unto’ Christ (Col 1:16)

Christ is the origin and the destiny of every object you have ever seen, every person you have ever heard or encountered, every idea you have ever contemplated.  Without his express immediate and personal sustaining this very instant, the objects you see in front of you right now would cease to exist before you could finish reading this sentence, and you would not outlast them.  Furthermore, God’s plan for the whole universe, including you, is to bring it all under Christ’s rule (Ephesians 1:22).

And the amazing thing is that God wants to use us, not that He needs us, as His agents in the world.

So because of His greatness, we should fear and obey Him.  Put that way, it seems most natural.

This is not the first time that Solomon has told us to “fear God.”  To fear God is to hold Him in highest respect and honor.  It is more a fear of not wanting to displease Him than a fear of being punished by Him.

Luther distinguished between a servile fear and a filial fear.

The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner.  It’s that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person.  Or it’s the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave.  Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.

Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family.  It refers to the fear that a child has for his father.  In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them.  He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love. [https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-does-it-mean-fear-god]

We know he’s our father. We know he’s good. But we also agree with Mr. Beaver in the book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Speaking of the lion Aslan (who represents the Lord), he says:

Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.

If we are living in sin, then yes, we may have a fear of punishment.  Hebrews 10:31 says “It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”  But our normal motivation should be to so want to please God that we fear falling short of that.  We have such an earnest desire to do everything we can to bring him glory and honor that we fear missing the mark.

The “fear of God” that brings God pleasure is not our being afraid of him, but our having a high and exalted, reverential view of him.

Derek Kidner says, “Fear God is a call that puts us in our place, and all other fears, hopes, and admirations in their place.”  Fearing God means that we recognize that we are the creature and He is the Creator.  He is great and majestic and all-powerful, and we are small and weak.

Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “There is the natural fear which the creature has of its Creator, because of its own insignificance and its Maker’s greatness.  From that we shall never be altogether delivered.  With holy awe we shall bow before the divine majesty, even when we come to be perfect in glory.”

Fear of the Lord is something the Bible talks about from beginning to end as absolutely central to having a right relationship with God and having a life that represents that. 

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…”  Proverbs 9:10 says it is “the beginning of wisdom.”

“If it is the ‘beginning of wisdom’ it is also the end, the conclusion; no progress in the believer’s life leaves it behind.”

So when we start with the right view of the majesty and holiness of God and recognize him for who he is, we’ll say with Isaiah, “Woe is me. I am undone. I’m a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5), or Peter when he sees the glory of Christ and his power says, “Depart from me. I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

This is the sort of “fear” that expresses itself in [good] trembling and amazement and an overwhelming sense of personal frailty and finitude.

So Sam Storms defines the fear of the Lord as

To fear God means to live conscious of his all-pervasive presence, conscious of our absolute, moment-by-moment dependence on him for light and life, conscious of our comprehensive responsibility to do all he has commanded, fearful of offending him, determined to obey him (Deut. 6:1-2,248:6Pss. 112:1119:63Malachi 3:5), and committed to loving him (Deut. 10:12,2013:4).

He goes on to helpfully distinguish…

It is not to be frightened of him in the sense that we live in uncertainty as to whether he might one day turn on us and lay upon us the condemnation that our sin deserves.  It is not to be afraid of him in the sense that we live in doubt about his intentions or whether or not he plans on fulfilling the promises of his Word.  It is not to be terrorized and paralyzed at the prospect of having our transgressions visited yet again upon us, in spite of the fact that they have been fully and finally visited on our Savior, the Lord Jesus.  It is not to live in anxious dread that divine wrath will yet find us out and bring death and eternal destruction to our souls.

After all, Psalm 130:3-4 says…

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

We do not fear God because forgiveness may be withheld, but because it has already been given!  The unshakeable knowledge that God will never “mark iniquities” (v. 3), which is to say, the assurance that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God.  There’s no escaping the force of the psalmist’s language: fearing God is the necessary fruit of forgiveness!  This alone demands that fearing God entail something altogether other than being afraid of judgment.

But that forgiveness reveals His incomparable greatness in mercy and majesty, thus thrilling our hearts and overwhelming our hearts.  It is that bone-shattering realization that it is by mercy and grace alone that we are not forever consumed by divine justice.  One can thus simultaneously “taste” the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and “fear” him (Ps. 34:9a) at the same moment.

“Surely one of the reasons in these day for low moral standards is the lack of awareness of the majesty and holiness of God and of our accountability toward him.   To a certain degree the same deficiencies can be seen among professing Christians.  One of the marks of spiritual decline is that “there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps 36:1).  Instead we fill ourselves with confidence in our own sufficiency.  This is the complete antithesis of holiness.” (Kenneth Prior; The Way of Holiness, 21)

Not only will the godly man fear God, but will also obey every command.  Fear is the attitude; obedience is the action of a man who fears (and loves) God.  The fear of God without obedience is only a sham.

Interestingly, Doug Eaton notes that “This is the only place in Ecclesiastes where the commands of God are mentioned.”

The fear of God is the inspiration and impetus for our obedience.  Abraham’s obedience demonstrated his fear of God.  It was because Abraham feared the Lord that he obeyed God’s voice (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 239).

Matthew Henry said, “Wherever the fear of God is uppermost in the heart, there will be a respect to all his commandments and care to keep them.  In vain do we pretend to fear God if we do not make conscience of our duty to him” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1052).

The commandments of God are the concrete expressions to us of God’s glory and will.  If we are committed to him in devotion and love, we shall love his commandments, too.  The fear of God and the love of God are but different aspects of our response to him in the glory of his majesty and holiness (cf. Dt 6:2, 4, 14) (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 242).  If we fear God we will gladly submit to Him and His will in every area of our lives.

At various points the Preacher has told us to fear God because his work is eternal (3:14) and because he demands holy worship (5:7).  He has told us to fear God in times of adversity as well as prosperity (7:14–18).  He has told us that if we do fear God, it will go well with us (8:12).  Now we are told to fear God and to obey him because one day we will stand before him for judgment.

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

This is the reason why we should fear and obey God.  We will be held accountable.  Six times in his discouragement, Solomon has told us to enjoy life while we can; but at no time did he advise us to enjoy sin.

Why does Ecclesiastes tell us about the final judgment here?  Because it means that everything matters.  The Preacher began and ended his spiritual quest by saying that everything is vanity and that without God there is no meaning or purpose in life.  “Is that all there is?” he kept asking.  “Isn’t there more to life than what I see under the sun?”  If there is no God, and therefore no final judgment, then it is hard to see how anything we do really matters.  But if there is a God who will judge the world, then everything matters.  (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 281)

The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does.  What we did, how we did it, and why we did it will all have eternal significance.  The reason everything matters is because everything in the universe is subject to the final verdict of a righteous God who knows every secret.  (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 281)

It’s so striking that while Ecclesiastes tells us there is no “gain” to be had under the sun, the apostle Paul says that there is in fact one thing to gain: dying. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).  The more we live for Christ now, the greater will be our gain in eternity.  The less we live for Christ now, the less death will be gain.  If we don’t live for Christ at all now, if we have nothing to do with him, then death will not be gain, but loss.

Unfortunately, Solomon did not live up to the wisdom he had learned and which he teaches us here.  1 Kings 11:6 tells us that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done.”

With this, we are invited to consider one last truth in this vain life under the sun.  And that is this:  every human wise man has fallen short of his own true wisdom.

The Preacher is not the Savior.  He cannot save the oppressed and the oppressor whose plight he has so deftly and humanly entered.  The Preacher cannot even save himself.  Knowing wisdom and avoiding folly has not power in itself to rescue us.

So we thank the Preacher for mentioning the Shepherd back up in verse 11, “the one Shepherd.”  In that one word Solomon points to the amazing reality that his father had experienced.

As we look at all the wants, the pastures, the paths, the deadness of soul, the valleys of death’s shadow, and the enemies surrounding us, we are encouraged to engage in these realities under the sun in the presence of God as our shepherd.  This Shepherd is the Lord, the want provider, the rest giver, the pasture and path leader, the soul restorer, the one who is with me in the presence of death and enemies, the head anointer and cup filler and the One who chases me with goodness and love every single day of my life, and then finally secures for me an eternal place in his house.

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, comes to our wreckage under the sun.  He knows and calls and tends and protects His sheep by name.  He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  In him all that is wrecked in this world under the sun will one day be restored.

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.


Forever Young, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 12:1)

Last week we began talking about the reality of aging and death from Ecclesiastes 12.  We ended up talking mainly about vv. 2-8 and the indications of the breakdown of the body prior to death.  Those verses said:

2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut–when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low–5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets– 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

Today we want to add two more practical points to this, focusing less on what happens to us and focusing more on what we are to do about it.  That is primarily found in verse 1 of Ecclesiastes 12:

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’”

Now, before we get to Solomon’s important command that begins chapter 12, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves how we should treat the elderly.  Shamefully, our valuation of old people is not very high in our culture.  Very often we stuff them away in nursing homes and forget about them.

But the Bible is very clear that we are to treat older adults with respect and honor.  The fifth commandment tells us to honor our parents, our moms and dads.  Not just when they’re young but elderly too. 

Exodus 20:12 says, “”Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

The book of Proverbs, another book full of God’s wisdom for everyday life, says there’s something special about the elderly—that there’s a kind of glory about them. 

Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone who has gray hair is good, but that gray or white hair may be a sign of a life of wisdom and obedience to God.  Another book full of wisdom born out of trial is from the man Job

“Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days,” he says in Job 12:12.

Job is saying that those who have seen a lot of years, and made it through the fire, have something to offer us…wisdom (Deut. 32:7).  He’s saying they deserve our attention.  One way we can respect the elderly is by listening to their stories and advice. 

Now, what is to be our response to aging?  How should we live today, knowing that one day (Lord willing), we will grow old?  Let’s go back to verse 1.

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” (12:1)

Now for the grand object set before him–thy Creator.  For he who created the universe is the Creator of man–not only of the first man, but of all men, whose birth–however natural–was only wrought by his Omnipotent and Sovereign influence.  For not only did he “form the spirit in man” (Zech. 12:1), but his body also–so fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14-16). (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 284)

It was George Bernard Shaw who said: “Youth is such a wonderful thing.  It is a shame to waste it on young people.”

And this is essentially the point Solomon is making:  Don’t waste your youth.  While you are in the prime of life, employ all your energies and abilities in serving your Creator.  This is the time to do it.  Don’t waste it.

Years ago, at the Passion Conference in 2000 John Piper gave a message that “moved a generation.”  He was speaking to young people.

This is the transcript from seven minutes of that message.  I would encourage you to look it up on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sIqvQmT5IU)  and catch his passion.  Piper said:

You don’t have to know a lot of things (referencing Phil. 3:8) for your life to make a lasting difference in the world.  But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them.  The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things.

If you want your life to count, if you want the ripple effect of the pebbles you drop to become waves that reach the ends of the earth and roll on for centuries and into eternity, you don’t have to have a high IQ or a high EQ.  You don’t have to have good looks or riches.  You don’t have to come from a fine family or a fine school.  You just have to know a few great, majestic, unchanging, obvious, simple, glorious things, and be set on fire by them.

But I know that not everybody in this crowd wants their life to make a difference. There are hundreds of you — you don’t care whether you make a lasting difference for something great, you just want people to like you. If people would just like you, you’d be satisfied. Or if you could just have a good job with a good wife and a couple good kids and a nice car and long weekends and a few good friends, a fun retirement, and quick and easy death and no hell — if you could have that, you’d be satisfied even without God.

That is a tragedy in the making.

Three weeks ago, we got word at our church that Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards had both been killed in Cameroon. Ruby was over eighty. Single all her life, she poured it out for one great thing: to make Jesus Christ known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick. Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing eighty years old, and serving at Ruby’s side in Cameroon.

The brakes give way, over the cliff they go, and they’re gone — killed instantly.

And I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico. No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Again, Solomon said:

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” (12:1)

Remembering is a conscious act of keeping God in mind.  Atheists forget about God, they don’t like to retain the knowledge of God in their minds (Romans 1:28).  We are not to be like them, but keep our minds focused on God.

Like David says in Psalm 16:8, “I have set the Lord always before me.”  In other words, I keep my eyes on him, my ear is attuned to His voice, my heart is affectionate towards him, my mind just keeps thinking about him.

That isn’t easy to do.  The Scripture calls this meditation.  We are to meditate upon His Word and His works.  As we inform our minds we inflame our hearts.

Ecclesiastes 12:1 is Solomon’s version of Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…” Make it your priority, Jesus is saying.  Solomon is saying, make it your priority to remember your Creator.

“How easy it is to neglect the Lord when you are caught up in the enjoyments and opportunities of life.  We know that dark days (11:8) and difficult days (12:1) are coming, so we had better lay a good spiritual foundation as early in life as possible.  During our youthful years, the sky is bright (11:7), but the time will come when there will be darkness and one storm after another.” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1143).

J. Vernon McGee insightfully said: “In view of the fact that nothing under the sun can satisfy the human heart, Solomon says, ‘Get back to God.’”

Ultimately God is the only satisfier of our wants and desires and heaven is the place where we will fully experience it.

Psalm 16:11 says, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

We experience some joys now, but our experience rarely reaches our expectations and no joy in this life lasts forevermore.  But our joy in heaven will be complete and constant, full and forever.

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, says it like this:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.  (C. S. Lewis; Mere Christianity, 120)

A life without God can produce a bitter, lonely, and hopeless old age.  A life centered around God is fulfilling; it will make the “days of trouble”–when disabilities, sickness, and handicaps cause barriers to enjoying life–satisfying because of the hope of eternal life.  Being young is exciting.  But the excitement of youth can become a barrier to closeness with God if it makes young people focus on passing pleasures instead of eternal values.  Make your strength available to God when it is still yours–during your youthful years.  Don’t waste it on evil or meaningless activities that become bad habits and make you callous.  Seek God now.  (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1149)

A life of obedience and devotion to God is the only way to lasting happiness.  When a young person combines the enthusiasm, idealism, and energy of youth with a deep devotion to the Lord, he has all the ingredients for a wonderful life.  Free from feelings of guilt and fear, he is at peace with himself, God, and the world.  He experiences a sense of fulfillment as he does the will of God, and looks forward to a lifetime of joyous service followed by eternal glory with his Savior.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 149)

Just as Solomon reluctantly remembered that God would judge his life (11:9), now he remembers that God is his creator, the source of everything.  Both realities remind us that we are not our own.  God made us and expects of us that we live our lives in a way that would honor and glorify Him.  He has a right to expect that.

After chapters filled with dissatisfaction and despair, Solomon finally tells us the necessary ingredient for experiencing joy in our lives—remember your Creator.  Meditate upon Him, His glory, His power, His will, His lovingkindness.

Although there will be “evil” days and you will have “no delight in them,” if you have Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you can find delight in Him.

Celebrate the good things of life, but remember that they are from your Creator and are on temporary loan.  Don’t pretend that you are self-made or self-sufficient; you have a Creator.

Here Qoheleth is calling us to live a God-centered life, making the God who made the universe our first and highest priority. In fact, this is the key to all the other things that he has called us to do in this passage. The reason we are able to rejoice in our long years of life or else in our youth and strength is because every day is a gift from our Creator God. The reason we need to walk in holy ways is because our Maker is also our Judge. The best remedy for any pain or vexation is to cast our care upon the God who made us and knows all about us. Everything that the Preacher says in this passage assumes and requires the close presence of God.

To remember God is to live our whole lives for him. It is to be mindful of God in every circumstance — including him in all our plans, praising him for all his blessings, and praying to him through all our troubles. Such remembrance, writes Derek Kidner, is “no perfunctory or purely mental act; it is to drop our pretense of self-sufficiency and commit ourselves to Him.”

Commit yourself fully to God.  That is the way to find joy and meaning in this life, and eternal joy throughout eternity.  The joy of living can continue throughout life, even into the debilitations of old age, but only if you keep remembering your Creator, only if you keep your heart set upon Jesus Christ.

If we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior before we die, then our life beyond death will be more exhilarating than we could ever imagine (Rev. 21:1-22:5).  However, if we die before placing our faith in the Messiah, then our earthly life will have been lived in vain (Eccl. 12:8), and our life beyond will be one of torment in hell (Matt. 8:11-12, 13:49-50; Luke 16:22-28; 2 Thess. 1:8-9; Rev .20:10-15).  This is not a pleasant thought, but it is nonetheless the truth.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 121)

The best time in life to do this is when we are still young enough to give a whole lifetime to God’s service. Do not wait until you are so old that you do not have much desire to do anything because life has lost its pleasure. Rather, give your life to God now, while you still have enough passion to make a difference in the world. Remember God when at home and at school. Remember him when outside in his creation or indoors in the kitchen or the bedroom. Remember him at work and at play — playing baseball or playing the violin. Do not forget about God, but remember him in everything you do.

The call to place God and His will uppermost in your thinking during childhood stands in sharp contrast to the philosophy of many.  All too often people say they will sow their wild oats in their youth and then turn over the rest of their lives to the Lord.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 148)

I love what Letty Cottin Pogrebin said in her book Getting Over Getting Older: Why hope to live a long life if we’re only going to fill it with self-absorption, body maintenance and image repair?  When we die, do we want people to exclaim “She looked ten years younger,” or do we want them to say: “She lived a great life”?

Hopefully you will want people to say, “She lived for Jesus Christ.”

So make that decision to live for Christ now.  Don’t keep putting it off.

Be encouraged by this as well:  your Creator remembers you, even if you do not always remember him.  The security of our salvation does not depend on our remembrance of God but on his promise to remember us.  So, the psalmist prayed, “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.  So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me” (Ps 71:17-18).

Philip Ryken tells this story from his past:

By the time he was in his early nineties, my grandfather found it hard to remember much of anything, including, on occasion, who he was.  This was extremely distressing for him because he knew that he was confused but didn’t know why.  “I can’t remember who I am!” he said to my mother.  “That’s okay, Dad,” she said, “I know who you are, and I can take care of everything you need.”  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 271-72)

Your Creator has a hold of you and will take care of you.

Forever Young, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 12:2-8)

Nobody wants to grow old.  We want to be “forever young.”  We try to ward off old age and all its problems as long as possible.  We don’t like being called “old” because it is viewed as negative.

How many of us think we are old?  When I was a teenager, a 60-year-old was OLD!  Now that I’m 63, a 90-year-old is OLD.

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, surgeons perform more than ten million cosmetic procedures each year, almost none of them medically necessary.  Journalist Beth Teitell worries about all that plastic, not because it is unsafe or unwise, but because it will make her look older than women her own age.  In a book called Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth , Teitell comments that no one is safe from this fear, not even the rich:

I know women who worked hard to get into good colleges, worked their connections to land enviable jobs, married well, produced children who could pose for Ralph Lauren ads, vacation on the right islands with the right beach towels and the right heiresses — they have fractional ownerships in Cessnas, for heaven’s sake — and yet if they have furrows and hints of upper-lip lines and puppet mouth when those around them are smoother than freshly ironed Pratesi linens, what’s it all worth?  In a word, nothing.

Whether she knows it or not, Teitell is confronting one of the reigning idolatries of modern times — the cult of youth.  For people who know they are getting older, worshiping this god or goddess demands endless efforts to stay young. But many young people worship the same deity.  Rather than respecting their elders, they look down on people or ideas that seem old-fashioned.  They want everything new and trendy.  It is hard for them to imagine that they will ever grow old.  Given the choice, some would rather die first.

Now, the passage we’re looking at in Ecclesiastes 12 is addressed to those who are still young, so that they will live right while they are young before old age sets in.

The first verse goes: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’”

2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut–when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low–5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets– 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

It is obvious that the theme of these verses is aging and death.  It begins by describing the opposite of the bright days of youth as “days of evil” and ends with the body in the grave and the spirit returning to God.  The topic pictured here is the debilitation of old age.

So we’re going to look at this passage and answer three questions today and next week:

  1. What is it like to grow old?
  2. How should we treat the elderly?
  3. How should we live today, knowing that one day (Lord willing), we will grow old?

So what is it like to grow old?  Starting in verse 2 Solomon uses metaphors to describe the body as it ages.  In general, what we see here is a picture of a house falling apart.  Paul picked up on this metaphor in 2 Corinthians 5 by saying that the human body is like a “tent,” a temporary dwelling and taking down the house (or tent) is a metaphor for death.

A literature professor would call this poem a “character sketch” — “a generalized and figurative description of old age in its physical manifestations.”

First, in verse 2, he describes the loss of sight. 

“before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain.”

Remember that Solomon has already said:

“Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:7–8).

Verse 2 compares the troubles of old age to a gathering storm.  Both night and day are darkened by clouds, and after the rain falls, the storm clouds gather again.  This is what happens as people grow old.

When we are young, there is still time for the sky to clear, but when we are old, we suffer one trouble after another, with little or no time to recover.  The light of life grows dim.  Derek Kidner says that this scene is:

somber enough to bring home to us not only the fading of physical and mental powers but the more general desolations of old age.  There are many lights that are liable then to be withdrawn, besides those of the senses and faculties as, one by one, old friends are taken, familiar customs change, and long-held hopes now have to be abandoned.

As we approach old age, our insight dims.  Cataracts develop. 

According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), “Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.”

This image is carried on in v. 3 when Solomon says that “those who look through the windows are dimmed.”

Verses 3-5 compare the aging of the body with the deterioration of a house.

3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut–when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low–5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets–

The keepers of the house, the hands, begin to tremble.  Once strong backs are bent over; legs and knees begin to sag.

What are your grinders?  Your teeth.  Your gums recede, your teeth look longer, and your teeth even fall out.  Did you know “By the age of sixty, people in an industrialized country like the United States have lost, on average, a third of their teeth.  After eighty–five, almost 40 percent have no teeth at all.” Being Mortal (pp. 29-30).

“The doors” are ears that are deaf or hard of hearing and thus closed to the hustle and bustle of a noisy street. 

“The daughters of song” are vocal cords that no longer have the elastic strength to make sweet music.

One thinks of old Barzillai’s lament when King David invited him to the royal palace in Jerusalem: “I am this day eighty years old.  Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks?  Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women?” (2 Samuel 19:35).

Since almond trees are pale in the springtime, the phrase “the almond tree blossoms” indicates that someone’s hair has turned white with age.

Nor are these the only problems that come with growing old.  According to verse 4, old people have trouble sleeping; they are up with the first songbirds, before dawn.  According to verse 5, they are afraid — afraid of falling or of being attacked along the road.  Because they are stooped over, they have extra wariness.  “One need only think of how the loss of balance, the unsteady feet, and the stiff legs of an old person can make a simple flight of stairs a frightful prospect, especially on the descent…One little fall can have an air of finality to it, as it sets in motion a sequence of events well-known to pastors and families of the elderly: a fall, a broken hip, being bedridden, the onset of pneumonia, and death”” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 415-416).

The “almond tree” blossoms white like the hair of an old person, and the hair falls off as he or she ages, like the almond tree casts it white flowers.  It may be a tight race between hair growing grey or falling out.

They suffer from diminished desire, which may include sexual desire but is not limited to that.  Even the will to live grows weak.  The caperberry was an ancient aphrodisiac, meant to stimulate sexual desire.  “In general, that used to generate interest in a person’s life finally can no longer capture his attention.  The sunset years do become years about which a person is left to conclude: ‘I have no delight in them’ (12:1)” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 416).

We might add other desires which fail with advancing age: the urge to learn, the many desires of the will and emotions.  All desires, including even the will to live, cease.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 122)

Then one day the crumbling old house will collapse.  The Preacher prepares us for this with the image of the grasshopper in verse 5.  Typically, grasshoppers spring up in the air. So a grasshopper stiffly scraping itself along the ground is a goner.  Grasshoppers also appear to be nothing but skin and bone.

In his book Being Mortal Atul Gawande describes what happens to the body as it ages into these later years. It doesn’t sound pleasant. He writes (page 30):

Even as our bones and teeth soften, the rest of our body hardens. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart, and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Under a microscope, the vessels and soft tissues display the same form of calcium that you find in bone. When you reach inside an elderly patient during surgery, the aorta and other major vessels can feel crunchy under your fingers. Research has found that loss of bone density may be an even better predictor of death from atherosclerotic disease than cholesterol levels. As we age, it’s as if the calcium seeps out of our skeletons and into our tissues. 

To maintain the same volume of blood flow through our narrowed and stiffened blood vessels, the heart has to generate increased pressure. As a result, more than half of us develop hypertension by the age of sixty-five. The heart becomes thicker-walled from having to pump against the pressure, and less able to respond to the demands of exertion. The peak output of the heart therefore decreases steadily from the age of thirty. People become gradually less able to run as far or as fast as they used to or to climb a flight of stairs without becoming short of breath. 

As the heart muscle thickens, muscle elsewhere thins. Around age forty, one begins to lose muscle mass and power. By age eighty, one has lost between a quarter and a half of one’s muscle weight.

Growing old isn’t for sissies.  It’s hard to grow old.  It’s hard on our biology and also mentally and emotionally.

This too is a reason to remember our Creator while we are still young: “because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets — before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:5–7).

Our lives are advancing, inexorably, toward our eternal home.  All of the images in verses 6-7 speak of the end of life—the snapping of the silver cord, the breaking of the golden bowl, the shattering of the pitcher and the breaking of the wheel.  The fragile cord of life is snapped and the light of life goes out.

Echoing the curse of Genesis (3:19), “dust returns to the earth as it was.”

This is the same curse that Jesus suffered on the cross, for in the psalm of the God-forsaken servant we hear him say to his Father, “you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).

We too are made of dust (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 103:14), and to the dust we shall return.

But the essential part of us will be going to our eternal home and keep on living, or as he says at the end of verse 7, “the spirit returns to God who gave it.”  This also echoes the Genesis account of our creation, because there in Genesis 2:7 it says, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

“This speaks of the continuance of existence for the spirit, despite the failing of the flesh.  The awareness of this reality speaks to the importance of recognizing the eternal significance of all activity through the proper perspective of and relation to God.  Such awareness is innate (3:11) if we will but listen, and represents a marvelous contrast to the naturalistic “under the sun” viewpoint that can boast no certainty about anything.” (Cone, 416).

At some point the heart stops pumping, the blood stops circulating through our organs, and death has come.  The spirit leaves the body (James 2:26; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59), the body begins to decay and turns to dust.

The Old Testament expectation is that the spirit would go to Sheol, the holding place of the dead until the resurrection.  Our current New Testament expectation, according to Paul, is that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) and “to depart and be with Christ” is “better by far” (Phil. 1:23).

Today we are young and strong, but already we are getting older, and tomorrow the mourners will carry our bodies out for burial.

The point of this text is that death is coming, maybe sooner than we would imagine.  Therefore, the time to get right with God is now, while you still have opportunity.

Our lives pass quickly, as the following poem says:

“When as a child, I laughed and wept, Time crept;

When as a youth, I dreamed and talked, Time walked;

When I became a full grow man, Time ran;

When older still I daily grew, Time flew;

Soon I shall find in traveling on, Time gone.”

Anonymous, quoted in McGee, 3:139.

McGee also includes this anonymous prayer for elderly people to pray:

“Thou knowest, Lord, I’m growing older.

My fire of youth begins to smolder;

I somehow tend to reminisce

And speak of good old days I miss.

I am more moody, bossy, and

Think folk should jump at my command.

Help me, Lord, to conceal my aches

And realize my own mistakes.

Keep me sweet, silent, sane, serene,

Instead of crusty, sour, and mean.”

Again, Solomon, writing about a millennia before the first Easter, makes the grave seem eternal in that there is only a one-way ticket and no returning from it.  But since Jesus rose from the dead, we know that we will rise from the dead.  Jesus said in John 14:19, “Because I live, you will live.”  Death isn’t the end for us, but a new beginning in the most wonderful place with the most wonderful Savior, Jesus Christ.

The end result of this, if you don’t have an “above the sun” perspective, is recorded in verse 8: “Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher, “Everything is meaningless.”  Everything!

Solomon’s presentation ends where it began, striking a note of universal vanity of everything apart from God and his Gospel.

Solomon is preparing us for the final, and best, answer that he could give us to this conundrum of life lived under the sun—remember your Creator and fear Him (12:1, 14).

Be Joyful! (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10)

As we’ve gone through this depressing book of Ecclesiastes, one thing Solomon has circled back to time and time again (2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-10) is the idea that life is a gift from God and we should enjoy the small stuff of life.  In order to do this, we need to rejoice (11:7-9), remove (11:10) and remember (12:1-8) (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible OT, p. 1142).  Today we will deal with verses 7-10 of Ecclesiastes 11.

7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. 8 So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. 9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. 10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

The first call is to rejoice in the goodness of life, even though we know that life is vanity.  The Preacher says, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.  So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:7–8).

The first reason we should enjoy life now is that we cannot do so after we die.  The metaphor of verse 8 refers to the light of life vs. darkness, which represents death.  We will die, but for now the “light” of life is “sweet” and “pleasant.”

The goodness of life is portrayed by light which, as elsewhere in the OT, is used to denote ‘joy, blessing and life in contrast to sorrow, adversity and death’ (cf. Gn 1:3f.; Jb 10:22; 18:5f.).  It is being joyfully alive (cf. Jb 3:20; Ps 49:19).  ‘Since life is not…truly life unless it can be enjoyed, “light” often designates the pleasures of life’ (e.g. Jb 10:22; 30:26; Ps 97:11; Isa 45:7; 60:19-20; Amos 5:18, 20).  Similarly, to see the sun means not merely ‘to live’ but ‘to live joyfully.’  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 144)

When God said, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3), there was light, and that light has been shining ever since.  According to the prophets, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).

As Christians we realize that life beyond the grave will be much better for believers than life on this earth.  Solomon would not have disputed this had he known what we do as a result of revelation given after his lifetime.  For Solomon, the future after death was unclear, enigmatic, and therefore vaporous (Heb. hebel, “futility” in v. 8) in this sense (cf. 8:10, 14).

This call is especially for old people — people who have lived “many years.”  It is good to find joy in the pleasures of life.  Solomon recommends that we “rejoice in them all”—all the years, even though the good life of “light” will be interspersed with the difficult days of “darkness.”

Sooner or later we will suffer loss, disappointment, injustice, and grief.  “All that comes” — including the years when we are old and gray — “is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:8).  At the beginning of Ecclesiastes we were told that “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).  If life overall has no unmitigated joys or undiminished pleasures, then why should our later years be any different?

Some commentators think the Preacher is confused here, that he is “giving the contradictory advice that his reader should both enjoy life but also remember that he is going to die.”  This is not confusion but clarity.  Ecclesiastes gives us a realistic view of life that is joyful about its happy pleasures while at the same time sober about its many sorrows.  The book steadfastly refuses to show us anything less than the whole of life as it actually is.

When the Preacher tells us that we will have many dark days, he is not being cynical or trying to rob us of all our joy.  Instead, he is telling us to enjoy life as much as we can for as long as we can.  “The days of darkness” qualify what he says about rejoicing in the light, but they do not negate it.  To the end of our days there is sweetness in the world, and therefore we are called to rejoice.  Do not take life for granted.  Do not complain about all your problems, the way older people sometimes do.  But greet each new day the way the Psalmist did, saying, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

So, once again Qoheleth affirms the goodness of creation and the rightness of enjoying all that is gifted to us by God in it.  The young person is to make the most of it all.

This is not an invitation to hedonism, which has already been disproven as a way to joy in chapter 2.  Proper enjoyment of life is possible only within the moral boundaries established by God, who will evaluate all human deeds according to his righteous judgment (cf. 12:13–14).

In all his writings, Solomon never advocated sinful self-indulgence, only the enjoyment of life’s legitimate pleasures and good gifts.

Whatever woes or ailments one has, one should not dwell on them excessively, but rather enjoy the moments of goodness and beauty.

What a joy it is, therefore, to live for many years — not only because we have more time to serve the Lord in sowing and reaping (see Ecclesiastes 11:1–6), but also because we have more opportunity to enjoy the goodness of life.

Qohelet’s advice is to start early on this pathway of joyful existence before God. . . in the sure knowledge that life will only ever become more challenging as time passes and as we move inexorably toward the darkness of death: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come” (12:1).  (Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 213)

The call to rejoice is not just for the elderly but also for youngsters.  While old people are to praise God for the length of their days, young people are to praise God for the energy of their youth.  Hence the Preacher’s second call: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes” (Ecclesiastes 11:9).

While you are young, rejoice in your youth.  Your body is strong, your cares are few.  Your future is full of possibilities.  Don’t waste them.

And don’t think only about yourself.  Don’t just live for the moment.  Realize that every choice has consequences.

Solomon balanced his counsel to the youth to follow his or her impulses and wholesome desires, with a reminder that God will judge us all eventually.  Solomon probably thought a lot about God’s judgments before death (cf. 2:24-26; 7:17).

God knows that we all—young and old—face temptations.  Solomon reminds us that God will hold us accountable for our choices.  He says, “Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Eccl. 11:9).

One of the weaknesses of youth is that we rarely consider our mortality and the reality of future judgment.  We will be held accountable for our thoughts, affections, words and deeds.

The Hebrew refers to “the judgment,” that day when “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).  That day may seem afar off, but it will come.

Life speeds on and may be cut short by tragedy.  Ray Stedman says, “When you are young, life seems to stretch endlessly before you.  It seems that you will never grow old.  But as you live through the years, life seems to speed by more rapidly, and at last it seems as if it is very brief.  Suddenly you find yourself looking and feeling old.  As someone has said, “About the time your face clears up, your mind begins to go!”  That is how brief life seems to be.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 175)

That day, that judgment day, will ultimately arrive.

Martin Luther said, “There are only two days on my calendar:  This day and that day.”  He was referring to the judgment day.  That day guides what I do and how I live today.  We would all be better off if we took seriously the fact that yesterday (with all its regrets) is gone and tomorrow (with its potential worries) is unknown to us.  Thus, we need to focus our attention and efforts on today…but in light of that day, the day of judgment.

Uncle Screwtape, a fictional demon from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, concurs with “the Enemy’s” (God’s) priority of the present.  He writes to his nephew Wormwood,

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. (75)

Knowing this, the senior demon advises his young nephew to tempt humans with the past and the future as a way to keep them from the present — this day.  But to live “this day” rightly, we must live it in view of “that day”; we should allow the reality of future accountability to shape the way we live life today—every choice we make, every word we speak, every deed we do.  It should guide what we do and how we do it.

If we live in light of this truth, then the legitimate pleasures of life can be enjoyed in the best sense.  As Derek Kidner says, “In this frame of mind we can now turn to the delights of life … not as if they were opiates to tranquillize us, but as invigorating gifts of God.”

This, by the way, is “above the sun” living, it is keeping in mind that there is a God above and we are made for eternity and will give account for these lives when we meet God.Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, a great Christian educator and president of Morehouse College, wrote a classic poem that’s worth memorizing.  It’s entitled “Life Is Just a Minute.”

Life is just a minute–only sixty seconds in it.

Forced upon you–can’t refuse it.

Didn’t seek it–didn’t choose it.

But it’s up to you to use it.

You must suffer if you lose it.

Give an account if you abuse it.

Just a tiny, little minute,

But eternity is in it!

(David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 289)

God “looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens” (Job 28:24).  This means that everything we do and everything we decide matters for eternity.  How we spend our money, what we do with our bodies, the way we use our time, what we decide about our future, how we handle our relationships–what we touch, taste, hear, and see–all of this matters to our Judge and therefore ought to matter to us as well.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 266)

Rejoice responsibly. Enjoy life’s pleasures, but not in sinful ways.  Celebrate the gift of youth, but at the same time follow God’s command to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).

Enjoyment has its limitations.  It is circumscribed by God’s commands.  Many a youth has sown wild oats, only to live with the consequences for a lifetime.  And beyond this life there is the judgment to come. 

The Almighty reveals clearly in His Word that He is pleased with the laughter of children and the special joys of the young.  In Zechariah’s graphic portrayal of Jerusalem during the millennial age, we read, “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing” (Zech 8:5).  In fact, the Bible frequently praises the strength and beauty of young manhood and womanhood.

After encouraging the young to enjoy the legitimate pleasures of their carefree years, the Preacher concludes with the statement, “Childhood and youth are vanity.”  These words are not to be taken as minimizing this period of life, but as declaring that its freshness and vigor will not last very long.  Therefore, its joys must not be considered an end in themselves.  Delight in youth, but do not overlook the whole picture, including judgment and eternity.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 146-47)

Solomon’s counsel in light of the shortness of life, however, is to “remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body” (Eccl. 11:10).  Try to eliminate those things that trouble the heart and the body when you can.

A “vexation” is any problem that causes us worry and concern, that “angers, grieves or irritates” (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 146).  It is “the bitterness provoked by a hard and disappointing world” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 99).

We could list a lot of things can cause vexation today and it differs from person to person.  Solomon says, “remove it.”  Do what you can to minimize vexation to your heart and pain to your body.

This is not a call to deny the very real suffering that everyone experiences.  Nor is it a call to escape pain by living for pleasure.  Rather, it is a call to take care of our mental and physical health.

That is a major message that is coming to us today.  COVID lockdowns and getting COVID have played havoc on the mental health of us all, but especially our youth.  Anxiety, depression, drug abuse, domestic abuse and suicide have skyrocketed during these past two years.

During the pandemic, a larger than average share of young adults (ages 18-24) report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (56%). Compared to all adults, young adults are more likely to report substance use (25% vs. 13%) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%).

If we are getting discouraged by various vexations, and if we are tempted therefore to become depressed or disillusioned, we should do what the Preacher says and remove those vexations from our hearts.  This starts with refusing to feel sorry for ourselves.  Rather than dwelling on all the things that are going wrong, we should count our blessings.  Gratitude is sweet medicine to souls weighed down with worries and anxieties, with discouragement and depression.

Another way to “remove” these vexations is to put them in God’s hands through prayer.  Paul commands “Do not be anxious about anything ” — or vexed about anything, we might say — “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  This command is then followed by a promise: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).  The Biblical way of removing vexation is to cast our cares on God.  Peter tells us to “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

God always cares for us, but we can feel that more deeply when we are deeply anxious and believe that no one else cares.  Then we can cast those anxieties upon his shoulders.  He is big enough to handle them all.

If our sufferings are physical, it is right and good for us to do what is necessary to remove the pain.

When the Bible tells us to put away pain, it is not giving us license to drown our sorrows in alcohol or to use life-destroying drugs.   This can be a challenge when the pain is great.  Some people don’t want to use painkillers because they can be addicting, or because they make your mind hazy and confused.  I can understand that.

So be wise in the use of painkillers, but Ecclesiastes 11:10 does give us the option of using medicine that will “put away” the pain.

One of the reasons why the Preacher tells us to remove pain and vexation is because he knows that we cannot stay young forever: “youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10). 

This does not mean that youth is meaningless.  The Preacher has already told us to rejoice in our youth and to enjoy its many pleasures.  But youth is vain or empty (hebel) in the sense that it is elusive and ephemeral.  It is like smoke that disappears into thin air or mist that vanishes with the morning sun.  One day we are young and strong, but almost before we know it, those days are gone.  Thus, the Preacher advises us to live free from care as long as we can.

This isn’t cynicism or pessimism, just reality.  Enjoy your youth while you are young.  It won’t last forever.  We should celebrate and enjoy the blessings of being young, and celebrate and enjoy the blessings of growing older.  (Notice I didn’t say, “getting old.”)

Recognizing that the potentials of youth are not given to us forever can help us to enjoy them more while we have them.  It can certainly cause us to appreciate them more.

Celebrate life, rejoice in it.  Remove vexations and pain as far as possible.

Remember that life has an expiration date.  Remember that there will be a judgment afterwards.  Live life now so that you will be rewarded at that judgment.

A life of obedience and devotion to God is the only way to lasting happiness.  When a young person combines the enthusiasm, idealism, and energy of youth with a deep devotion to the Lord, he has all the ingredients for a wonderful life.  Free from feelings of guilt and fear, he is at peace with himself, God, and the world.  He experiences a sense of fulfillment as he does the will of God, and looks forward to a lifetime of joyous service followed by eternal glory with his Savior.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 149)

Be Bold! part 2 (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6)

“You hope for the best and work with what you get,” so said Nick Fury in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Marvel’s universe is the master of planning, hoping, and then dealing with whatever the situation throws at him.  In the Marvel universe of movies, you see Nick Fury pop up at various points with the reminder to work the situation and not be paralyzed by what you don’t have.

In some ways, the Bible’s wisdom is congruent with the seemingly unpredictable Nick Fury. 

Solomon starts out Ecclesiastes 11 with these words…

1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

What Solomon is doing in this paragraph, in light of all that he has said about the unpredictability of life, is that it can’t paralyze us.  Wisdom says that just because we don’t know what will happen in the future doesn’t mean we can’t act and find, at least some, success.

We noted in vv. 1 and 2 that Solomon recommends diversification and patience.  Try many things, or take many opportunities, and some will pay off.  It may be “many days” before we experience the reward, however, so we must be patient.

Verse 3 reemphasized the unpredictability of life.  They couldn’t predict the rain, nor where a tree would land.  But that was no excuse for not working.  Just watching the weather will not result in crops.

We cannot predict the future, the rise and fall of the stock market, what ventures will be successful or failures.

So be bold.  Take chances.  But hedge your bets by diversifying your projects.  In unsettling uncertainty, take appropriate action.

The temptation in the face of unsettling uncertainties in life is to make excuses and go back to bed.  That is what the sluggard does.  According to Proverbs 26:13, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!  There is a lion in the streets!”

Verses 3-6 seem to have to do with farming.  Most people in Israel lived by growing their own food.  This was very common throughout the world and history until the industrial revolution.

Daniel Webster called farmers “the founders of civilization” and Thomas Jefferson said they were “the chosen people of God.”  Farming has never been easy work, especially in the dry, rocky soil of Israel.

Verses 3 and 4 speak of the unpredictability of the weather for farming, but still encouraged farmers to sow the seeds.  Just watching the weather for optimum sowing or growing reaped nothing.

Just as nobody knows the “way of the wind” or how the fetus is formed in the womb, so nobody knows the works of God in His creation.  God has a time and purpose for everything (3:1-11), and we must live by faith in His providence and use each day wisely (v. 6).  Certain aspects of God’s world are mysterious, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to go on about our work.

The word “spirit” (ruach) might just as well be translated “wind,” as in verse 4.  In that case the Preacher really draws two analogies.  The first analogy points to the wind as an analogy for the mysterious purposes of God: we do not know which way the wind will blow.

Jesus used the same analogy when he was teaching Nicodemus about the born-again mystery of regeneration: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Yet it is just as likely, if not more so, that the Preacher is talking about the human spirit and the way it animates the human body.  What divine mysteries unfold when a child grows in his mother’s womb!

By the way, this is a great proof of the sanctity of the life of the unborn in the womb of the mother.  Notice that she is “with child.”  What is growing inside her is a person.

We know more, perhaps, than Solomon did about the growth of a child from conception to birth, but this knowledge should not diminish our sense of wonder.  In fact, the more we know about life in the womb, the more amazing it should seem to us.  

One whole new person (sometimes more than one) grows inside the body of another person.  I say “person” because the Preacher clearly states that the child in the womb is not merely a body but also a living spirit.  Who can possibly explain the mystery of how the life of a soul animates flesh and blood and bone?  We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

This is not the only work of God that goes beyond our understanding, however.  The Preacher uses the mysteries of the womb as an analogy for all the other wonders that are beyond human thought — the mysteries of creation and the providence of God.

When we consider the extraordinary human body, the animal and vegetable world, and the amazing galaxies of stars surrounding us, we cannot help but be astounded.  They are so intricate and complex that even our best machines and best minds cannot replicate what God has done.  The end result is that we “do not know the work of God who makes everything.”

This mystery of life still results in the same command in v. 6 to get to work.  We should work humbly, in amazement of God’s works, but we should still work.

Certain aspects of God’s working on earth defy explanation.  The mystery which shrouds our very origin underlies the whole of reality (cf. Isa 44:24ff.).  In its context this verse drives the reader to a sense of need and warns against an unwarranted optimism in life.  The life of faith does not remove the problem of our ignorance; rather, it enables us to live with it.  Faith flourishes in the mystery of providence; it does not abolish it.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 143)

Verse 6 says “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”

“Despite human ignorance about reality and especially about what is going to happen, one cannot remain inactive.  Paralysis is out of the question” (Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, p. 110).

Since the future is in God’s hands, the wise person proceeds with his work diligently, hoping his efforts will yield fruit, as they normally do.

We do not know the end results, so we must humbly trust in God for the outcome.  Our responsibility is to work diligently, both morning and evening.  We don’t know whether only part, or all, of our work will be profitable.

In other words, get cracking, redouble your efforts:  you cannot guarantee results, but you increase your chances if you are diligent and make the most of the chances that come your way.  There is nothing more sad than looking back on life and seeing it as a series of missed opportunities and thinking, “If only I had done that.”  Do what you have to do, do what you can do–now.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 80)

As Tommy Nelson says, “The purpose of the sovereignty of God is not to cause you to lean on a shovel, praying for a hole.”  The sovereignty of God is not an excuse not to give our own effort.  Instead, we are to maximize our effort, seven or eight times, morning and night.

Philip Ryken says: “Ecclesiastes teaches us to take the opposite approach.  It may be true that, to paraphrase this passage, “you never know,” but it is equally true that “you will never reap if you never sow.”  So work hard for the kingdom of God. Live boldly and creatively.  Try something new!  Be a spiritual entrepreneur.  Even if you are not completely sure what will work, try everything you can to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel.  Work hard from morning till night, making the most of your time by offering God a full day’s work.  Then leave the results to him, knowing that he will use your work in whatever way he sees fit.

The Preacher’s practical exhortation to sow good seed is not just for farmers, of course. It applies to many areas of life. But the Bible most frequently uses the imagery of sowing and reaping to talk about what we do with the Word of God. Jesus told a famous parable about a farmer who sowed his seed on four different types of soil.  When he explained this parable to his disciples, he told them that “the sower sows the word” (Mark 4:14).  Of all the things that we ought to be sowing, therefore, the most important is the living Word of God.

We sow the Word when we read it, study it, and memorize it for ourselves, listening to the voice of God.  We sow the Word when we teach it to our children at bedtime or around the family dinner table.  We sow the Word when we give someone a Bible or use a simple verse from Scripture with a friend who needs to know Jesus.  We sow the Word when we take it to the prison, the nursing home, and the college or university campus.  We sow the Word when we support sound Biblical preaching in our own local congregation, as well as through missions and ministries that broadcast the gospel around the world.  There is no one single way to share the gospel; the best way to do it is every way we can.

From time to time we may wonder whether any gospel ministry ever accomplishes anything.  But the Bible encourages us with many wonderful promises about the work that the Holy Spirit will do with the Word of God:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10–11)

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

Jesus Christ is the Lord of the harvest, which will come at the proper time.  This was true in his own life and ministry.  Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Jesus was talking about his own death on the cross and burial in the ground, as well as the resurrection that followed.  It was not just words that Jesus sowed but his very life itself, when he offered his blood on the cross for our sins.  The gospel harvest of his saving work is forgiveness and eternal life for everyone who believes in him.  Jesus does not offer this grace in portions to seven, or even to eight, but to millions and millions of sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance.

Now Jesus sends us out to do a little sowing of our own.  He is the Lord of the surprising harvest (surprising to us, not to him).  We do not always know what God will do with what we sow.  But if we keep sowing, the day will come when God will reap a harvest of salvation.

So cast your bread upon the waters.  Give a portion to seven, or even to eight. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand.  What God will do with it, you never know; but you will never reap if you never sow!

We hope for the best but work with what we’ve got.  We plan well and work hard knowing ultimately the Lord is in control.  Life is an adventure with many twists and turns. 

Life may be unpredictable.  It may be an unsettling uncertainty.  But we can know that God is in control.  His ways may be mysterious to us, but they are known to Him.

Although we may not know the exact outcome of all our choices and labors, we can know that we partner with God as believers and that he will “work all things together for our good.”

The 5th century church historian Theodoret tells a story about the mysterious work of God in the world.  It is a story about a Christian monk named Telemachus.  Now, for whatever reason, Telemachus was present one day at a Roman gladiatorial battle.   Now Christians generally hated the gladiatorial battles.  If you don’t like the violence of a football game, understand that when someone gets injured in a football game, everyone stops and it’s a big deal and they all clap when an injured person leaves the field. In a gladiator battle the point was to fight until blood was shed and people were left dead in the arena.  They would cheer and clap when people were killed.  So Christians hated the gladiatorial games.

One day a monk was there and he saw what was happening was so horrified by the violence and the bloodshed that he ran out into the arena.  Now the accounts, there are different accounts, it’s unclear exactly what happened, except that we know that he died in the process of this.  This monk was either killed trying to get between the gladiators or he was killed when the crowd thought, who is this who has the audacity to interrupt our entertainment?  And they then demanded his death.  Or maybe the city prefect demanded that he die.  Something happened which brought about the death of Telemachus in the arena.  You think about all the gore and the bloodshed and the violence and the disregard for the sanctity of human life that Christians should oppose and it couldn’t get any worse than this.  Now a Christian’s blood was shed as he was trying to stop the barbarism.

But in the mysterious working of God, the story of this got back to the Christian emperor Honorious, who from this point on January 1st in the year 404 forward took stock of this and made a ban on the gladiatorial game, so they were stopped from that day forward.  One man didn’t know what to do.  What can you do when there’s nothing you can do?  One man did the only thing he could think to do, and it was a terrible plan.  It was the only thing he could do, and it had no chance of success and he was killed in the process of this.  The risks were high and the odds were low, and he lost his life.  But you never know how God might work.  You never know how God might work.  That’s the kind of boldness the preacher is urging us on toward in this passage.

You don’t have to risk your life necessarily, but you do need to take risks in life.  It’s so easy to look at this world and throw up your hands in despair.  It’s so easy to look at this world and be discouraged by everything happening in politics, in our culture in our neighborhoods, everything happening in our personal lives and in our work.  It’s so easy to just open up the newspaper or watch the news and find a thousand new reasons to be discouraged.

Solomon encourages us to take action.  We don’t know which action will be the one that makes the difference, that gets a return.

As Christians, we live “above the sun,” from a heavenly perspective.  We know the end of the story—that Jesus wins in the end.  In fact, we know that He has already won over Satan through the cross and resurrection.

Even still, we live right now in a world that is unpredictable.  Our responsibility is to prayerfully and wisely take action, and to keep taking action until something works.

Jesus took the preacher’s message, and he says, this is about the Kingdom of God. In Mark 4:26-29 he tells this parable, for example. Jesus said,

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Our responsibility is to scatter the seed.  So much of our progress in the gospel ministry may seem to be in vain.  We see so little produce from our efforts.  But we have to be patient and keep working and trust God for the outcome.

Don’t wait for perfect conditions.  Invest in the gospel, share the gospel, in as many ways and as many times as you can.

Be Bold! part 1 (Ecclesiastes 11:1-4)

As we approach Ecclesiastes 11 we are nearing the climax of the book.  “We cannot see God’s whole plan, and there is nothing in this world that we can build on so as to find satisfaction or the key to the meaning of things.  Yet we are to fulfill God’s purpose by accepting our daily lot in life as from him and by thus pleasing him make each day a good day.  But how can we please him when there is so much we cannot understand?  The Teacher has already shown that certain things stand out as right or wrong, and a sensible conscience will see these as an indication of what God desires.  This section gives further wise advice in the light of an uncertain future.  We must use common sense in sensible planning and in eliminating as many of the uncertainties as we can” (J. S. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” pp. 1188-1189, emphasis mine).

Even though we cannot predict the future, this should not lead to despair, but rather diligence.  Don’t let the uncertainties of life paralyze you.  Be diligent in your work, diversify in your opportunities, enjoy life and leave the rest to God’s providence.  Someone has said, “Do your best and let God take care of the rest.”

The limits of our wisdom are a catalyst to industry not despair.  Verse 6 is the counterpart to verses 1-2: both speak of hedging against the ups and downs of life that we “do not know” about and cannot control (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 229).

Sometimes it is tempting to wonder whether anything we do for God, or even in general, will matter.  Whether in our prayers, or giving, or ministry, does it really make any difference?  The reality is, in this life we may not be able to see the impact we have in other people’s lives.  Warren Wiersbe starts off his comments on this section of Ecclesiastes with the question, “Is life worth living?”

Even when we do not know how God will use our work to advance his kingdom, we should continue to pray, continue to serve, and continue to hope, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

This seems to be the attitude that the Preacher has here in Ecclesiastes 11, verses 1 to 6.

1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

Derek Kidner believes Solomon is summing up the message of Ecclesiastes in three parts: Be bold! (11:1-6); Be Joyful! (11:7-10); and Be Godly! (12:1-8).

If chapter 10 could be summed up in the command “Be sensible!” here Solomon says, “Be bold!”  Caution must give way to enterprise.

Having emphasized the unpredictability of life from chapter 9, verse 11 and following, Solomon doesn’t want us to be paralyzed, but to act in faith.

The ESV Study Bible entitles this paragraph “wise practices in light of the unpredictability of life.”  Another way of summarizing this paragraph is that dividends don’t come without risks.

Solomon’s first bit of wisdom is to “cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”  This bit of wisdom seems to be carried on in verse 2 as well: “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

But what does this mean?  Soggy bread?

Three suggestions are most common: (1) It refers to maritime commerce.  (2) It refers to taking steps to spread out one’s financial resources in multiple directions (diversifying one’s portfolio).  (3) In older Jewish and Christian interpretation, it was taken to refer to giving to the poor, in which case finding it again represents others being kind to you in return.

For example, some commentators draw a comparison to an ancient Arabian proverb: “Do a good deed and throw it into the river; when this dries up you shall find it.”  Others remember the words of Jesus: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38).

“When you see people in need, though you do not know how they may use your money—it may not be apparent that they will even use it wisely—nevertheless, be generous….take a chance, for in the wisdom and purpose of God it may very well return to you someday when you need help” (Ray Stedman, Is This All There is to Life?, p. 163).

Similarly, the portions of seven or eight mentioned in verse 2 may be offered to the poor.  In Biblical times it was customary for a family to share a feast with neighbors in need. For example, when Ezra read the Law of God in Jerusalem, and the people celebrated, Nehemiah told them, “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10).  To give a portion, then, is to share the good things of this life.  To share seven portions would be the height of generosity.  To share eight is to do even more: it is to do everything we can to help others, not using the fear of some coming disaster as an excuse to be stingy, but giving and giving and giving some more.  

Martin Luther said, “Be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:171).

Walter Kaiser explains this text well.  Observe what he says: “‘Be liberal and generous to as many as you can and then some,’ is the way we would say it.  So, make as many friends as you can, for you never know when you yourself may need assistance.  Instead of becoming miserly just because you fear that the future may hold some evil reversal of your fortunes, leaving you in poverty and want, you should all the more distribute to as many as possible so that you can have the blessing of receiving in the event of such reverses (Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, 114). 

More likely, however, is the interpretation which sees Solomon as talking about sea commerce.  We are told twice in 1 Kings that Solomon himself, the author of Ecclesiastes, was engaged in that very work. In 1 Kings 9:26-28 and 10:22, we read twice that Solomon himself put his bread, his goods, his tradable items onto ships and sent them overseas to trade. Now think about the uncertainty of overseas trade in those days. You couldn’t get real time updates about where your cargo was. You couldn’t even get delivery notification. You wouldn’t find for many days whether the ship had successfully sailed somewhere, made the trade and come back with your profits until many days. The preacher saying it’s still worth it, even though it’s going to take many days account for those delays but be bold in your life.

To “cast [one’s] bread upon the waters” is to engage in international trade, sending one’s grain or other produce out to sea and then waiting for the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands.  To “find it after many days,” therefore, is to receive the reward that eventually comes after taking the risk of a wise investment.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Generally speaking, investing in the future is not wasted—whether it be financially, educationally or relationally.

The idea is that it is wise and good to work for a return which cannot be immediately seen.  Eaton says, “The allusion is to the element of trust in much ancient business. Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted.”

According to Philip Ryken:

Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted. Yet one’s goods had to be committed to them.  Solomon’s fleet which brought back “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22) sailed once in three years.  Similarly the preacher has called his readers to take life as from the hand of God, and to enjoy it despite its trials and perplexities.  Such a life contains within it the elements of trust and adventure (“Cast”), demands total commitment (for your bread is used in the sense of “goods, livelihood,” as in Deut. 8:3, Prov. 31:14), and has a forward look to it (“you will find”), a reward which requires patience (“after many days”).

Verse 2 then continues the same thought.

“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

Rather than speculating about such uncertainties (see note on vv. 1–6), it is financially more prudent to explore multiple avenues for making one’s living and investing one’s resources (vv. 2, 6), which could involve giving a “portion” or “compensation” to several different areas (seven, or even to eight), because such diversification gives protection against unforeseen disaster in one or two of the areas (ESV Study Bible).

We have the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The phrase “to seven, or even to eight” Hebrew numerical formula called X, X + 1.  It occurs frequently in Proverbs (chaps. 6, 30) and in the first two chapters of Amos.  Here it is not to be taken literally but means “plenty and more than plenty,” “the widest possible diversification within the guidelines of prudence…”  Seven means “plenty,” and eight means, “Go a bit beyond that.”  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)

One of the main reasons for adopting this strategy is that “you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” Once again Qoheleth reminds us of the mysteries of the future and the many misfortunes of life — war, pestilence, famine, and financial collapse. Rather than simply taking our chances, we will plan for an uncertain and possibly unfortunate future. If we are wise, we will invest widely. Hopefully, if one investment does poorly it will be counterbalanced by another source of revenue that is doing somewhat better.

Misfortune and calamity (here as usual in Ecclesiastes called “evil”; see on 2:21) are part of life.  Who knows what crop will fail, what ship will be seized by coastal pirates, what merchant will abscond with the profits?  Spread your investments (“serving” is lit. “lot” or “portion”; see at 2:10) widely–to seven or eight places–so that no one or two tragedies can wipe you out.  That advice was crucial to the path to prosperity.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)

There are ways to apply this sound financial advice to the spiritual business of God’s kingdom. Qoheleth’s concern, writes Michael Eaton, is “that the wise man will invest everything he has in the life of faith” (Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 140.)  Rather than holding on to what we have, hoarding it all for ourselves — which is the error that the man with one talent made in a parable that Jesus told (Matthew 25:24–28) — God invites us to be venture capitalists for the kingdom of God.

This is not exclusively or even primarily about money. It is about having the holy boldness to do seven (or even eight) things to spread the gospel and then waiting for God’s ship to come in.  Some of the things that we attempt may fail (or at least seem to fail at the time) — some of the ministries we start, for example, or the churches we plant, or the efforts we make to share the good news of the cross and the empty tomb.  But we should never stop investing with the gospel in as many places as we can.  Whenever we engage in kingdom enterprises, we offer the Holy Spirit something he can and often will use to save people’s souls.

Verses 3 and 4 continue with the idea of the unpredictability of life, but also with the need to act instead of being paralyzed.

3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

The clouds follow their own rules.  Our weather prognosticators try to tell us the chances of rain, and most of the time get it right, but the weather follows its own rules.  Also, the falling tree doesn’t consult us as to the direction it falls.  These things are inevitable, but unpredictable.

The point seems to be, with these inconveniences in life, we have to accept what is and do what lies within our reach.  “Few great enterprises have waited for ideal conditions; no more should we” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 97).

There is nothing the farmer can do about either the rain or the tree; these natural and seemingly random events are far outside his personal control.

The one thing that the farmer can control is when he will sow his seed and harvest his crops.  But this particular farmer seems to be just standing there — watching the wind and the clouds, rather than farming his field.

The implication is that he is trying to guess when he can safely cast his seed or harvest his grain.  Although there is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), apparently this man is not sure what time it is!  Back in chapter 10, the Preacher introduced us to a foolish homeowner who was too lazy to fix his roof (v. 18).  The farmer in chapter 11 also refuses to work, but he is a different kind of fool.  He keeps watching and waiting, but never sowing or reaping.  Why not?  Because rather than getting on with his work, he keeps hoping for better conditions.

Do not wait until conditions are perfect before you go to work, but labor diligently even though conditions may appear foreboding.  After all, God controls these conditions, and we cannot tell whether good or bad conditions will materialize.  Likewise, F. B. Meyer says, “If we are always waiting for favouring conditions, we shall resemble the farmer who is ever looking out for perfect weather, and lets the whole autumn pass without one handful of grain reaching the furrows.”

Though planning and foresight, and some caution, is definitely needed to avoid pitfalls (10:8), and in this fallen world, whatever can go wrong probably will go wrong (Murphy’s law), it is also possible to be too cautious and to suffer from an unhealthy inertia spawned by fear.  Be forewarned that if you wait for the perfect moment when there will be no obstacles or dangers, such a time will never come (11:4).

“In summary, the life of wisdom involves holding back and going ahead, being pessimistic and being optimistic, being cautious and throwing caution to the winds, being prepared for anything in the future and actively preparing oneself for the future, which will include death (unless the Lord returns first).  In each case, pray, meditate on God’s Word, consult wise counselors, and then take the most prudent action (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 380).

When favorable conditions come, they are the blessing of the Lord and guided by God’s will.

Interestingly, it was Ecclesiastes 11:3 which was instrumental in the salvation of R. C. Sproul.  Apparently R. C. and his childhood buddy Johnny, now collegians, were on their way to Youngstown, Ohio, to a bar.  When they got in the car, they realized they were out of cigarettes, so they went back into the lobby of their dorm to get a pack of Lucky Strikes from the vending machine.

While retrieving the cigarettes, they noticed a couple of guys sitting over at a table.  They motioned R. C. and Johnny to join them.  One of them was the star of the football team, so they were intrigued.  They were hunched over a book.

“What are you doing?” the football star asked.  “Nothing,” R. C. demurred—not about to confess their plans.  So Johnny and R. C. were invited to join them.  The bars of Youngstown would have to wait.

The book they were reading was the Bible.  This was the first time R. C. had ever witnessed a Bible study.  The two upperclassmen talked about Christianity and the things of God and the Bible for well over an hour—all new territory for R. C.

Then one of them turned the open Bible in R. C.’s direction, and he instructed R. C. to take a look.  It was Ecclesiastes 11:3.  Again, the second part of that verse reads:

“If a tee falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”

It cut R. C. in two.  He saw himself as that tree.  He saw himself in a state of torpid paralysis, fallen, rotting, and decaying.  He left the table and returned to his dorm room.  When he entered he didn’t turn on the light.  He just knelt beside his bed, praying to God, asking God to forgive his sins.

God used that verse to show R. C. the true state of his own soul and life.  R. C. had felt dead.  Now he knew that his true spiritual condition was death.  He had considered himself a Christian.  He went to church, after all.  Now he knew what Christianity was truly about.

He saw himself as he truly was—a sinner, unforgiven and dead in sin.  That night he prayed for forgiveness.

We never know what verse of the Bible will convict us of our sin and our need for salvation.  What verse has God used in your life to lead you to acknowledge your sin, your need for a Savior, and to move you to trust in Jesus Christ?

Foolish Leaders (Ecclesiastes 10:16-20)

In order for nations, churches, even families to function well, leadership is vital.  Everything comes down to leadership.  When there is no good leader to direct a team, a department, or an organization, then the following scenarios are inevitable: delayed decisions, conflicts, low morale, reduced productivity, and success is difficult.

Good national leaders exhibit a personal independence, maturity, wisdom, and self-control. Selfish, arrogant, and pleasure-seeking leaders bring trouble to any nation.

Solomon speaks to this issue of faulty leadership in Ecclesiastes 10, verses 16 to 20:

16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!  18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

To this point, the Preacher has been talking about the way we employ our words.  In verse 16 he turns to consider another area where spiritual wisdom is badly needed but is usually in short supply — the exercise of political leadership. 

Leadership, or government, has been a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes.  Here Solomon says wise leadership is a blessing, while foolish leadership is a curse.

Derek Kidner reminds us that “The wise man cares very much about the way his country is governed, and about the way to rule himself and his affairs, in a world that is at once demanding (v. 18), delightful (v. 19) and dangerous (v. 20)” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 93-94).

These verses tell the story of a national disaster, with someone completely incompetent in charge.  The word “child” may indicate that the ruler is a youngster, like a boy king.  

On rare occasions this can turn out to be a blessing.  A notable example is King Josiah, who ascended to the throne of Judah at the tender age of eight.  The Bible says that when he was only sixteen, Josiah “began to seek the God of David his father” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  Josiah must be the exception that proves the rule, however, because more often than not, inexperienced leaders cause all kinds of trouble.

The word “child” (na’ar) is not limited to people under a certain age, however.  It could well refer, especially in a political context, to someone older in age but who is still immature.  King Solomon used the word this way when he first took the throne of Israel. “I am but a little child,” he said, acknowledging his lack of experience before asking God for the wisdom to rule (1 Kings 3:7).

Solomon’s son Rehoboam was not nearly as wise.  Although he was forty-one when he began to reign (2 Chronicles 12:13), Rehoboam had no idea what he was doing.  His court was corrupt, his judgment was unsound, and soon his kingdom was fell apart.

Little did King Solomon know that after his death his own son Rehoboam would “reject the advice the elders gave him and consult the young men who had grown up with him” (1 Kgs 12:8).  So, Solomon’s words proved prophetic, although he did not mean them that way.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 110)

“Verses 16 and 17 remind us of the influence the seeps down from the men at the top, to set the tone of the whole community….The first picture shows a ruler without dignity or wisdom, surrounded by decadence; the second, a leader who is readily accepted, surrounded by responsible men. (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 94).

To show how much trouble a country can get into when it lacks mature leadership, Qoheleth describes a kingly court where gluttonous princes feast every morning.  The Preacher is not talking about having a hearty breakfast but about a royal banquet that includes enough alcohol to get wasted.  Instead of getting up in the morning to improve and defend their country, these princes lie about in a drunken stupor.

Drinking at an early hour is a sign of debauchery (Isa 5:11) and a breakdown in leadership (cf. Isa 5:22–23).  Drinking in the early hours of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on luxury and personal indulgence.

Solomon is picturing a leader who uses his office to pander to his own desires rather than leading for the good of his people.  This is a self-indulgent leader.

A notable example from European history is Charles XII, who became the king of Sweden when he was only a teenager.  The wild behavior of Charles and his friends included riding on horseback through his grandmother’s apartment, knocking people to the ground in the city streets, and practicing firearms by shooting out the windows of the palace.  In response, the leading preachers of Stockholm all agreed to preach from Ecclesiastes 10:16 on the same Sunday, pronouncing woe on a land with a child for a king and princes that feasted in the morning.  (The story of young Charles XII is recounted by Dale Ralph Davis in The Wisdom and the Folly: An Exposition of the Book of First Kings (Fearn, Ross–Shire: Christian Focus, 2002), p. 188)

The point of both verses is driven home by the prophecy of social breakdown in Isaiah 3:1-5, where the men of weight in the community were to be ousted,

1 For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; 2 the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, 3 the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. 4 And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. 5 And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. 

The Preacher is not saying there is anything wrong with a proper feast at the proper time and for the proper purpose.  Verse 17 praises the courtiers who sit down to a good dinner and gain strength for their kingdom work.  After all, the king’s table is supposed to be set with a royal feast, which Solomon knew as well as anyone.  But the Bible everywhere condemns the kind of bad behavior that is described in verse 16: excessive feasting, especially in the morning (e.g., Isaiah 5:11), and drunkenness on any occasion (e.g., Proverbs 23:20).  It also condemns people who use their position of privilege for selfish pleasure.

The real contrast between v. 16 and v. 17 is not so much the age of the leader, but the behavior.

The beatitude (v. 17) is the only glimmer of light in a gloomy scene.  It pictures the way the court functions if the body politic is to maintain its health: (1) the “king” is born and bred to the manner (for “nobles” or “free men,” see Neh 2:16; 4:14, 19; 5:7; 13:17) and therefore trained to cope with the high demand and wide range of royal responsibilities; (2) the political and military leaders (see “princes” at 10:7) engage in their festivities “at the proper time” (in the evening not the “morning”, v. 16) and for the right reason–“strength” (Heb. frequently has martial overtones,  “Strength to fight,” 9:16) not carousing (“drunkenness” is lit. “drinking” whose aim is not merely to slake thirst).  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 218-19)

So notice that the same activity is undertaken—eating—but done at the proper time and in the proper amount for the purpose not of enjoyment but of strength.  This not only empowered the leaders but would be imitated by the people, to their benefit.

Ray Stedman tells us that “In Hebrew culture the morning was to be used to judge the needs and problems of the people.  Late afternoon and evening were the times for feasting.  But here were men who indulged themselves all through the day; thereby neglecting their duties” (Is This All There is to Life?, p. 159).

The words of the Preacher call us to wise government.  We can apply his words to nations and kingdoms.  Politicians who rule for personal advantage bring disaster to the people they lead.  Woe to any nation characterized by sinful entertainment, lazy self-indulgence, and the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs, especially among its national leaders.

We can also apply the same principles at the personal level.  There is a time and a place for feasting and celebrating in the Christian life.  But there is also a danger of wasting our lives by living for our pleasures.

“So the picture begins to emerge,” writes Derek Kidner, “of a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity.”

Although vv. 18-19 speak to the issue of work, the context seems to apply this primarily to the bad rulers.

18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 

Kidner says, “It seems likely that the proverbs of verses 18 and 19 were placed here especially for their bearing on the ways of the powerful: their rule and misrule, their use and abuse of God’s gifts, as seen in the previous verses” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 94-95).

Certainly the “sloth” (v. 18), which silently destroys a neglected house, is as fatal to a kingdom (or a business) as to a building.  Nothing else is needed to bring it down, and nothing is more devastating.  Whatever kinds of damage can be safely overlooked, decay is not among them: time is on its side.

In Eaton’s words, “If attention is not paid to the everyday details of life, the results become a crippling liability.”

In Proverbs 18:9 Solomon had said: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.”  In other words, the end result is the same whether one actively tears something down or passively neglects it.  Ultimately it is ruined.

The rulers and princes, given to sensual indulgences, will slumber in the affairs of state.  The nation will fall from lack of attention and effort.  The damage, small at first, increases rapidly through neglect.

We often focus on the sins of commission, but the sins of omission can be just as damaging and we must take them seriously, especially those of us in leadership.

J. Oswald Sanders, in his Christian classic book Spiritual Leadership points out that the way a leader uses his time, in particular his leisure time, is what makes the biggest difference.

The way we employ the surplus hours after provision has been made for work, meals, and sleep will determine if we develop into mediocre or powerful people.  Leisure is a glorious opportunity and a subtle danger.  Each moment of the day is a gift from God that deserves care, for by any measure, our time is short and the work is great.

Minutes and hours wisely used translate into an abundant life.  On one occasion when Michelangelo was pressing himself to finish a work on deadline, someone warned him, “This may cost your life!”  He replied, “What else is life for?”

Hours and days will surely pass, but we can direct them purposefully and productively.  Philosopher William James affirmed that the best use of one’s life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.  Life’s value is not its duration but its donation–not how long we live, but how fully and how well.  (J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, pp. 93-4)

Some believe that verse 19 comes from the mouths of the foolish leader and his princes.  Given to self-indulgence, their aim is laughter and good feelings.  They believe that “money answers everything.”  Their aims are selfish and they will ultimately be let down.

Others believe that this speaks to the fact that foolish leaders are money hungry.  Warren Wiersbe points out: “In recent years, various developing nations have seen how easy it is for unscrupulous leaders to steal government funds in order to build their own kingdoms.  Unfortunately, it has also happened recently in religious organizations” (The Wiersbe Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1140).

Others believe that the point of verse 19 is not that every man has his price, but that every gift has its use.  Bread, wine and money are good gifts and can be used for good…or bad.  God’s wholesome gifts are good, and their proper gifts are delightful and perfectly sufficient.

In contrast to a lazy fool, a hard-working individual has everything that he or she needs.

Bill Barrick notes: The opposite of laziness is diligence.  The lazy will suffer loss, but the diligent will enjoy the fruits of their labors.  They enjoy food enough, drink enough, and money enough to take care of every need (v. 19).  This positive interpretation of the verse depends upon associating it with the appropriate behavior of wise rulers in verse 17, rather than connecting it with the irresponsible feasting of foolish officials in verse 16.

According to Garrett, “The point is that at least some money is essential for enjoying life, and steps must therefore be taken to insure that the economy (be it national or personal) is sound.”

Money does have its limitations, of course, which is why the Bible often warns us not to trust it (e.g., Hebrews 13:5) or worship it (e.g., Matthew 6:24).  But from the practical standpoint, what the Preacher says remains true: if we have enough money, we can buy anything else we need.  Bread is a daily necessity.  Fine wine is a delicious pleasure.  But if we have the money, we can buy both bread and wine, plus anything else that we need or want. 

Generally, that comes from being industrious in our work, the opposite of what we see of the leaders in verse 16.  They do nothing but party and everything falls apart.

Now, if we find ourselves under the reign of such a foolish government, what is the wise thing to do? Shouldn’t we curse the king and his cronies? If that is what we think, then we might not like Solomon’s suggestion. In fact, we might be ready to write him off when it comes to his political advice. “Stick with the pithy proverbs,” we might say to Solomon the sage, “and let someone else handle political affairs.” For in Ecclesiastes 10:20 we read,

20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Cursing a ruler comprises a violation of the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:28).  Paul instructed Timothy to pray for “kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).  “Cursing” a ruler is wrong because we should respect the position that he or she holds, even if we cannot trust them because of their decisions or behaviors.  We should respect the position.

As the old sayings go, “Even the walls have ears.”  Long before bugs could be planted in offices to listen to private conversations, leaders had spies or supporters who would “rat out” those who spoke against them.  Thus, Solomon is urging restraint in our tongues, even in our thoughts.

Our American way seems to have just enough patience to give a President 100 days to change the nation to our liking and spend the remainder of his four years complaining that he can’t change anything.  All in all, that complaining does nothing except make us more angry.

This doesn’t mean that we should never speak out against injustices.  It is possible that Solomon has in view situations in which the possibility of speaking out would effect no change for the better, only get one in trouble.

Solomon seems to be saying, when you live in a bad government, to survive is the first step, though by no means the last.  Solomon will continue to help us apply wisdom to our situation.

Eaton says, “Everything that has been said about wisdom and folly points again to the main lesson of Ecclesiastes: the need to face life as it really is, and take our life day by day from the hand of a sovereign God.”

“This also concludes the second part of his discourse.  He has reviewed the four arguments presented in chapters 1 and 2, and has decided that life was really worth living after all.  The best thing we can do is to trust God, do our work, accept what God sends us, and enjoy each day of our lives to the glory of God (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10).  All that remains for the Preacher is to conclude his discourse with a practical application, and this he does in chapters 11 and 12.  He will bring together all the various strands of truth that he has woven into his sermon and he will show us what God expects us to do if we are to be satisfied” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1141).