Jesus: God’s Best and Final Word (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The author of Hebrews begins by describing how Jesus Christ is superior to the angels.  Jesus is God’s final and definitive revelation (surpassing the OT, vv. 1–2), for he is the Son of God (v. 2), the agent of creation (v. 2), the very glory of God (v. 3), and the one who purifies from sin (v. 3). In all this he is superior even to angelic beings, especially in his unique sonship (vv. 4–14). This leads to a warning to attend to the words of salvation, since they are from and about the Son (2:1–4).

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

Verses 1-4 in Greek forms a single, multiclause sentence, built around the main clause in verse 2, that God “has spoken.”

There is a God who speaks that we might know him and love him and live in joyful obedience to him.  God spoke.  God spoke.

“God has spoken” is basis to the whole argument of this sermonic letter, as indeed it is to the Christian faith.  God has not remained silent and we are duty-bound to listen and obey.]

The author does not delay in getting right to the point.  This is his opening introduction.  He wants to tell us that Christ is superior to everyone and everything.  God communicates, and He has spoken His last and best word in His Son.

Using the properties of light as an illustration, we may say that God spoke in a spectrum in the Old Testament.  Jesus is a prism that collected all those bands of light and focused them into one pure beam.

“The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.”  This famous statement by Saint Augustine expresses the remarkable way in which the two testaments of the Bible are so closely intertwined with each other.  The key to understanding the New Testament in its fullest is to see in it the fulfillment of those things that were revealed in the background of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament points forward in time, preparing God’s people for the work of Christ in the New Testament.  It makes sense, then, that this is now God’s final revelation.

Hebrews is a book deeply rooted in the Old Testament.  Hebrews has 29 quotations and 53 allusions to the Old Testament, for a total of 82 references. 

Verses 1 and 2 show the contrasting periods of God’s revelation between the Old and New Testaments.  “Long ago” contrasts to “in these last days” in verse 2.  Two similar Greek words (polymerōs and polytropōs) emphasize the many times and many ways in which God has spoken in the past; now he has spoken to us singularly through His Son. 

Another contrast is that the Old Testament revelation came through the prophets, and although New Testament revelation came through the apostles, it is in Jesus Christ that the final revelation has been spoken.  All these other men were “go-betweens,” but Jesus is the ultimate revelation. 

Jesus is not a mere prophet, as Islam mistakenly assumes.  Jesus is a prophet, but much more than that.  He is the Son of God.  The writer of Hebrews will unpack all that means in vv. 3-4.

The recipients of the former revelation was “our fathers,” in particular the patriarchs, while the recipient of this new and final revelation is “us,” the 1st century Christians.

Since God has spoken finally and fully in the Son, and since the NT fully reports and interprets this supreme revelation once the NT is written, the canon of Scripture is complete. No new books are needed to explain what God has done through his Son. 

If God seemed ready and eager to communicate himself in the Old Testament, how much more is he ready to communicate in the sending of His Son!

So verses 1 and 2 are contrasting two periods of God’s revelation.  But even before the prophets of Old the cosmos was filled with God’s eloquence, leaving every person without excuse.

Psalm 19 begins

1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

According to verse 3 this revelation is without words, but it is clear and present.  Paul in Romans expresses it this way…

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

The cosmic eloquence of God is deafening, but many will not hear it.  They “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), Paul says.  So even those who hear, hear partially.  As Job said, “Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14).

This is what theologians call general revelation.  It is universal, so every single person throughout history has had access to it, but it is not complete.  It shows us some truth about God.

But fortunately we have more than the eloquence of the heavens to speak to us.

The Reformers and Puritans spoke of two books—nature and God’s Word.  Psalm 19 goes on to speak of God’s Word as His special revelation to us…

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

God spoke.  He did not leave us in the dark.  He didn’t abandon us to our best guesses about who He is and what He is like and who we are and what our problem is.  He spoke.  He spoke to the prophets in ages past and completed His revelation in Jesus Christ.

The words “many times and many ways” emphasize the diversity of God’s communications in the Old Testament. God spoke to Moses at Sinai in thunder and lightning and with the voice of a trumpet. He whispered to Elijah at Horeb in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12 KJV).  Ezekiel was informed by visions and Daniel through dreams.  God appeared to Abram in human form and to Jacob as an angel.  God declared himself by Law, by warning, by exhortation, by type, by parable.

And when God’s seers prophesied, they utilized nearly every method to communicate their message. Amos gave direct oracles from God.  Malachi used questions and answers.  Ezekiel performed bizarre symbolic acts.  Haggai preached sermons.  And Zechariah employed mysterious signs.

God primarily spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament, through the apostles in the New Testament.  This process is called “inspiration,” which is the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of Scripture so that their writings were an accurate record of the revelation of God, thus resulting in the Word of God.

2 Peter 1:20-21 describes it like this.  Actually, let me start back up in verse 16.  Peter is telling his readers why it is so important that he remind them of certain biblical truths.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

Peter is talking about the experience he James and John had with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

He says that this was a glorious experience of the glory of Christ.  However, he goes on to say that even more significant than this glorious, face-to-face experience with Christ, is the fact that we have this prophetic word:

19 And we have something more sure, [what’s more sure than any experience we have?] the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Notice again that last line, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  Like the wind fills the sails and directs the ship, so the Holy Spirit carried along the minds of the prophets so that they were directed to write the very mind of God into Scripture.

How wonderful it is that we have in our hands today the very word of God, the Bible.  At any time, whenever we need it, we can take it up and read it and it becomes our comfort, the joy and rejoicing of our hearts.

So God had communicated throughout the ages past, but now something new has come.

The point the writer is trying to make here is that God’s previous revelation was fragmentary and partial compared to the final and complete revelation of the Son.  John Calvin points out that this is like the sun coming out of the shadows, that the revelation now in pointing us to Christ is for the more mature.

The Old Testament prepares one for Christ, the New Testament presents Christ.  As F. F. Bruce aptly remarks, “The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond Him.”

This revelation comes in the “last days,” a very familiar concept to the Jews.  It would have a distinctive Messianic and apocalyptic flavor. 

For example, even the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, told Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called the Christ); and when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”  She was expecting a fuller and more complete revelation to unfold when Messiah came.

It is important to see that for the author of Hebrews, this revelation was final.  There would be no more revelation after Jesus Christ.  This is why Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, ends with this injunction neither to add to nor to take away any words from this completed revelation.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Adding to or taking away from the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments carries severe penalties and should make us think twice before holding up any ancient or current “word from God” as authoritative.

The final revelation did not come through Muhammed or Joseph Smith, or any modern-day prophet or apostle, but it came through Jesus Christ.

“The aim of the writer is to prove that the old Covenant through which God had dealt with the Hebrews is superseded by the New; and this aim he accomplishes in the first place by exhibiting the superiority of the mediator of the new Covenant to all previous mediators” (Marcus Dods, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:247).

The Greek puts the emphasis on the quality of God’s final revelation.  It is literally “in Son.”  It is not “in a son” as an indefinite person, nor even “in the Son.”  The emphasis is the quality of this revelation through the One who is infinitely related to the Father.

“… Jesus, the Son of God, not merely declares unto us the message of the Father, but He Himself is the message of the Father.  All that God has to say unto us is Jesus.  All the thoughts and gifts and promises and counsels of God are embodied in Jesus. (Adolf Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1:38)

William Newell adds: “… the fundamental truth set forth in Hebrews is that Christ Himself, the Son of God, is God’s message, His voice to us.” (William R. Newell, Hebrews Verse by Verse, p. 4).

And I love the way that A. W. Pink puts it:

“God might have spoken ‘Almightywise,’ as He did at Sinai; but that would have terrified and overwhelmed us.  God might have spoken ‘Judgewise,’ as He will at the great white Throne; but that would have condemned us, and forever banished us from His presence.  But, blessed be His name, He has spoken ‘Sonwise,’ in the tenderest relation which He could possibly assume” (An Exposition of Hebrews, p. 27).

As “Son” he reveals the Father-heart of God.

Jesus Christ, the Son, is the perfect revelation and explanation of the invisible attributes of God and completely communicates to us the very nature of God.

Jesus is God’s final word.  Jesus is God’s complete word.  Jesus is God’s best word.

John 1 begins…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Then in verses 14 and 18 John says this about this eternal Word:

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In John 14, when Jesus was preparing His disciples for life without His direct presence, answered Philip’s question of “How can we know the way?” by saying…

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

In other words, there is no better display of who God is than Jesus Christ, and no other.

The phrase “in son” is the fulcrum of Hebrews 1:1-4.  It concludes the contrast of God’s old revelation, which was fragmentary and temporary, with the revelation of the son, which is final and complete and has lasting significance, and it also introduces seven descriptions of this Son.  These descriptions show why He is the ultimate revelation of God.

What is the author of Hebrews telling us?  He is telling us that the final, complete revelation of God resides in His Son, Jesus Christ, and we’d better listen to Him.

Hebrews 12:25 says…

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.  For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

The question today is, have you heard the word of God in the person of Jesus Christ?  If not, I encourage you not only to read and study the book of Hebrews, but the Gospels as well.  Seek Christ.  If you seek Him, you will find Him.

Introduction to Hebrews, part 2–Themes

Last week we began a study of the book of Hebrews.  Admittedly, Hebrews can be a difficult book, so today we want to look at some of the characteristics that set this book apart.

First, it is a book of evaluation.  I remember a saying, I think I heard it in college, “Good, better, best, never let it rest, ‘til you make the good better and the better best.”  I think that is the American way.  We want to be the best, have the best (or at least better than our neighbors) and pursue the best.

When it comes to Christianity, Joel Osteen offers Your Best Life Now.  But more important than anything we can experience or accomplish or earn with our efforts is that we recognize that Jesus Christ is the best.  He is not just “the best thing that’s ever happened to me” as James Brown sang but He is objectively the best Savior.  None can compare.  In fact, there really is no other.

The Jewish people believed that their way of religion, through the sacrificial system, was the right way to approach God.  Indeed, it was the approach that God laid out for them in the Pentateuch.

But then Jesus came.  He came to fulfill the moral law through His perfect obedience and to fulfill the ceremonial law through his sacrificial death.

Thus, one of the key words in the book of Hebrews is the word “better.”  It occurs 13 times in 12 verses (Heb 1:46:97:19228:6 (2x); He 9:2310:3411:416354012:24).  The writer of Hebrews reveals the superiority of Jesus Christ over the angels (Heb. 1:4), over Moses (Heb. 3), over Joshua and Aaron (Heb. 4).  He came with better promises (Heb. 8), opens a better sanctuary (Heb. 9), is sealed by the better sacrifice (Heb. 9) and achieves better results for those who believe (Heb. 10).

Another word that is repeated in the book is “perfect,” occurring 14 times.  It means a perfect standing before God—what our guilty hearts crave.  This perfection could never be accomplished by the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:11) or by the law (Heb. 7:19), nor could the blood of animal sacrifices achieve it (Heb. 10:1).  Jesus gave Himself as one offering for sin, and by this He has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

The writer makes it quite clear that the Jewish religious system was both temporary and a shadow of a deeper, truer, eternal reality to come.  It could not bring in the eternal “better things” that are found in Jesus Christ.

“Eternal” is a third word that is important to the message of Hebrews.  Jesus Christ is the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9).  Through his death, Christ secured “an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12) and He shares with us believers “the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).

So, Jesus Christ is better because His blessings are eternal instead of temporary and they give us a perfect standing before God.

The reason the writer of Hebrews emphasizes this is that he knew that the Jewish believers to whom he was writing were in danger of reverting back to Judaism.  Certain Judaizers were saying that the old system was “better.”  It certainly was more familiar to them, thus more comfortable.  Plus, it would protect them from the current wave of persecution.

Unfortunately, these Jewish believers had come to a standstill in their faith.  They should have grown stronger by now, to have a more firm hold on theology and its application to their lives.  But they weren’t making progress.  They were stuck.  Some of them were no longer even participating in Christian fellowship.

So the author is calling them to take stock and to realize that Jesus Christ really is better than their former religion.  The author of Hebrews exalts Jesus Christ and His work as better than the old sacrificial system and the legalistic code of the law.

Second, this is a book of exhortation.  Remember that the writer calls this book “my word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22).  That word parakaleo, is the idea of giving positive encouragement.  The Holy Spirit is called the paraclete in John 14.

Here in Hebrews this is expressed through five passages often called the “warning passages,” but in fact they are positive encouragements to trust God and obey His Word.

The epistle of Hebrews opens with the words “God spoke” (Heb. 1:1-2).  At the end of this epistle he writes “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (Heb. 12:25).  In other words, since God has spoken, you better listen and obey.

Each of the five passages encourages us to hear and heed God’s Word.

The first passage in Hebrews 2:1-4 encourages us not to drift from the Word through neglect.

The second passage, in Hebrews 3:7-4:13, tells us not to doubt God’s Word and develop a hard heart.

The third passage, in Hebrews 5:11-6:20, encourages us not to have dull minds and hearts towards God’s Word.

The fourth passage, in Hebrews 10:26-39 encourages us not to despise God’s Word through willful rebellion.

The fifth and final passage, in Hebrews 12:14-29, encourages us not to defy God’s Word by stopping up our ears and refusing to listen.

Warren Wiersbe notes:

“If we do not listen to God’s Word and really hear it, we will start to drift.  Neglect always leads to drifting, in things material and physical as well as spiritual.  As we drift from the Word, we start to doubt the Word, because faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).  We start to get hard hearts, and this leads to spiritual sluggishness, which produces dullness towards the Word.  We become “dull of hearing”—lazy listeners!  This leads to a despiteful attitude toward the Word to the extent that we willfully disobey God, and this gradually develops into a defiant attitude—we almost “dare” God to do anything!” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: NT, p. 803).

You can see the downward, dangerous progression in these passages.  But in each God speaks encouragement, then chastens us if we don’t listen and obey.

The dangers inherent in these negative attitudes towards God’s Word are serious.  While they don’t threaten the loss of salvation, they do threaten divine discipline and possibly even the loss of life.  The last passage, in Hebrews 12:9, says “Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?”  The inference is that if we don’t submit, we may die.  We know from other passages that “there is a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Cor. 11:30).

It is clear that most of the congregation were believers.  The author calls them “brothers” in Hebrews 3:1.  It is possible, however, that the congregation was mixed, with some professing believers in their midst, just like in any church.

Third, the book is a book of examination.  It calls us to examine ourselves.  Like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.”

This book is about where we put our faith.  Am I trusting fully and only in Jesus Christ for my salvation?

This book was written right before the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.  The sacrificial system was still being utilized in the temple with daily sacrifices.  So at this time it was a tantalizing offer to go back to the Levitical system.  But soon the temple would be destroyed, the Jewish nation would be scattered…God was indeed “shaking” the order of things.

The same is happening in our lives, in our culture, right now.  Traditional religion in the Bible belt South, so comfortable and aligned with conservative politics, last lost its mooring in Jesus Christ.  It many cases it is more like a country club.

But that kind of shallow “faith,” with more real trust in the world and its strategies than in Jesus Christ, will not stand up to the testing that is here today.

God wants our hearts to be “strengthened by grace,” to be solidly grounded in what really saves us from the wrath of God.

You don’t want to be on the wrong path to heaven.

There is a story of a conductor who got on the train, began to take tickets, and told the first passenger whose ticket he punched, that he was on the wrong train.  When he looked at the next ticket, he told that passenger that he was on the wrong train.

“But the brakeman told me to get on this train,” the passenger protested.

“I’ll double-check,” said the conductor.  He did, and he discovered that he was on the wrong train!

I fear that there are many who have a false faith, a faith in themselves and their own goodness.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard hospice patients say “I hope I am good enough.”

The reality is, we aren’t good enough.  By far.  The only one good enough was Jesus Christ.  That is why he submitted to the cross.  He was the only perfect sacrifice worthy to avert the wrath of God against us and make it possible for us to be forgiven.

Hebrews is a book that helps you examine yourself to see where your faith really lies.

Hebrews is also a book of expectation.  It focuses often on the future.  The writer informs us that he is speaking about “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5), a time when believers will reign with Christ.  Like the patriarchs lauded in Hebrews 11, we are looking for that future city of God (Heb. 11:10-16, 26).

Right now we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).  Thus, we shouldn’t get too attached to this world and its toys.

Abram and Lot illustrate these two opposing attitudes (Genesis 13-14).  When they returned from Egypt they were both wealthy and their servants were quarrelling.  As the elder statesman Abram could have had his pick of the properties, but he gave Lot the choice and Lot chose the area of Sodom and Gomorrah.

When God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, he sent angels to rescue Lot and his family.  But Lot lost everything—his wealth, his wife, his respect and influence—everything he had invested his heart in.

Abram, however, saw himself as a stranger and alien.  He held the things of this life loosely.  Martyred missionary Jim Elliot said it best:  He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

We have been promised a future reward.  Will we live as if that is a reality worth sacrificing this life for?  Abram and Moses (and all the heroes of Hebrews 11) did.  I love what it says about Moses

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

Moses was looking to the future.  He could give up the treasures of life in the here and now, because he believed that he would be rewarded with greater treasures in heaven.  We can give up the fleeting pleasures of sin now, because we can know that there will be greater pleasures in heaven.

It was this same attitude of future realities that motivated Jesus to go to the cross.  Hebrews 12:2 says, Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…”  He endured terrible things on the cross because he was looking forward to something, the “joy that was set before him.”  What was that?  I believe it was his knowledge that through the excruciating pain of dying on the cross that he would bring “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).  I think this is also predicted in Isaiah 53:10, which says “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring…”  Jesus sacrificed pleasure in the here and now, for the sake of future reward.

And that’s what the author of Hebrews encourages us to do—to live for future reward, to realize that we won’t always experience the best in the here and now.  In fact, sometimes here and now will be hard and harsh.  But the future is bright and blessed for those who believe.

Abram chose the right world and became the father of the faithful.  Lot chose the wrong world.  Abram became a friend of God, but Lot because a friend of the world—and lost everything.  Lot was “saved, yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) and lost his eternal reward as well.

Don’t let that happen to you.  Believe in the future reward and live for that.

Finally, Hebrews is a book of exaltation.  What this book focuses upon is exalting the person and word of Jesus Christ.  The first three verses of chapter 1 establish this theme, which is then maintained throughout the book.

As to His person, Christ is superior to the prophets.  He is God very God.  He is described in Hebrews 1:3 as the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…”  That radiance refers to the Shekinah glory, which dwelt in the Old Testament tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10) but even more fully (though not as visible) in Jesus Christ.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“Christ is to the Father what the rays of the sun are to the sun.  He is the radiance of the Father’s glory.  As it is impossible to separate the rays from the sun, it is also impossible to separate Christ’s glory from the nature of God” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: NT, p. 805).

“Express image” carries the idea of an exact imprint.  Thus Jesus could say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

As to His work, Christ is also superior to the prophets.  He created the universe (Heb. 1:2) and sustains it (Heb. 1:3).  Paul, in Colossians 1:17 confirms that “in him all things hold together.”  Were Christ not actively holding the universe together, it would devolve back into the original state of being “formless and void.”

There are several contrasts here between Christ and the prophets.  He is “God the Son,” whereas they are mere men called by God.  While there are many prophets, there is only one Son.  His is the final and complete message, whereas theirs was fragmentary and incomplete.

Jesus Christ was God’s “last word,” His final revelation.  None else was needed.

Thus, Jesus Christ is the source, the center and the aim of everything that God has to say.

Not only was Jesus a prophet, He was a priest.  He made “purification for sins” through His death on the cross.  This aspect of His ministry is explained in great detail in Hebrews 7-10.

Finally, Jesus is king.  He has “said down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”  He sat down because His work of redemption was complete with the crucifixion and resurrection.  He now sits in the place of highest honor, at the Father’s right hand.  He sits where no other could sit.  He can because He is God.

Creator, prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ is superior to all the other prophets and servants of God that have ever appeared on the pages of Scripture.  It is not wonder, then, that God the Father said at His transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).  While the disciples were enamored with Moses and Elijah—two of the greatest men in the Old Testament—God the Father was claiming the unparalleled superiority of His Son.  “Listen to Him,” He’s got something important to say.

So, as we continue our study of Hebrews, let’s have listening hearts.  Let’s open up our minds and hearts to what God has to say about His Son.  May we have the attitude of the Greek seekers in John 12, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).  This should be our deepest desire.

Augustine spoke of this great, undeniable restlessness of the human heart, until finding its rest in God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Moses, seeking to leverage God’s remarkable favor on him, was so bold as to ask to see God’s glory. God permitted him a glimpse of the afterglow of divine beauty, not his face.

But the apostles saw it, and we can “see” it by faith in God’s Word.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

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)