Ecclesiastes 12: What Life is Really all About
During the Spring we have been exploring Ecclesiastes together.
We have discovered Ecclesiastes does not allow us to escape on Sunday evenings into a religious Disney make-believe world where the blood is only tomato ketchup, where everyone rides off into the sunset, and everyone living happily ever after.
A hard look at life can be very disconcerting. Have you noticed the way the TV news typically ends? The news will move from a story about army casualties through a road side bomb in Afghanistan, to a suicide bombing of a mosque in Pakistan, to the latest revelations of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme to a devastating cyclone in the Philippines, then, almost without a pause, we move to the latest football scores, and then with a smile and a shuffle of papers we end "on a lighter note" with a trivial or eccentric story with a happy ending... and in a millisecond, we are back safe again in the make-believe world of the adverts. T.S. Eliot rightly warned that "humankind cannot bear very much reality." But bear it we must if people are to realise Jesus Christ is good news. You cannot save a drowning man if he does not realise it. This is the stance that Ecclesiastes has taken. Solomon has dragged us through the pointlessness of life without God, often with great humour.
But we greatly misunderstand this book, however, if we imagine that Solomon is merely a cynic. He never lets us forget that the posture he is taking is not a divine perspective. Rather it is the rationale of a secular person looking at the world with all its problems, as Solomon puts it 27x from "under the sun." He does not accept these secular assumptions. He is deliberately putting on the mantle of the secular mind to force us to think the way the world thinks. In so doing he takes us to the logical end of such a world view. That life is meaningless. It may have been uncomfortable, even disconcerting, to imagine the world without God, but we need to do if we are to identify with our family and friends who avoid God. “What is the point of life?” Solomon has been asking over and over again in eleven chapters.
Now in Chapter 12 he brings his investigation to a close, and gives us the answer, and it comes in three parts.
He reveals three truths about God. There is absolutely no meaning in life unless and until we find it in God our Creator, our Shepherd, and our Lord. Without Him, there really is no meaning in life.
1. We all know God as Creator through Creation (12:1-8)
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
You know you're getting older when you feed your dog Science Diet instead of McDonalds.
When MTV News is no longer your primary source for information.
When you actually eat breakfast food at breakfast time.
When over 90% of the time you spend in front of a computer is for real work.
When the local pharmacist becomes a really good friend.
When they begin playing your favourite tune in the elevators.
When your idea of a night out is sitting on the patio.
When happy hour is a nap.
When you're on vacation and your energy runs out before your money does.
When you say something to your kids that your mother said to you, and you always hated it.
When you step off a curb and look down one more time to make sure the street is still there.
When you bend down and wonder what else you might as well do while you’re down there.
When everything hurts, and what doesn't hurt, doesn't work any more.
When you have a lot more patience because you just don't care anymore.
When you wonder how you could be over the hill when you don't even remember being on top of it.
When thankfully they stop showing repeats on TV.
When your idea of weight lifting is standing up.
When it takes more than two tries to get up from the couch.
And when you sit in a rocking chair and you just can't get it going.
Then perhaps you can identify with Solomon’s moving description of the aging process.... in Ecclesiastes 12:2-7.
“Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7)
The silver cord, golden bowl, pitcher, and the wheel symbolize life's fragility. How easily death comes to us.
How swiftly and unexpectedly we
can return to the dust from which we came. Therefore, says Solomon, remember
life is a precious gift from your Creator. Invest it wisely and not squander it
frivolously. Life is perishable, it's fragile, so handle with care. When we
don’t remember our creator what happens? A life without God can produce a
bitter, lonely, and hopeless old age. A life centered around God our Creator
and sustainer, however, is energizing no matter how old your body says you are.
He makes the "days of trouble"--when disabilities, sickness, and
handicaps cause barriers to enjoying life—nevertheless satisfying.
Because we have the assurance of God’s presence, of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life. Make your strength available to God when it is still yours. Bitterness, scepticism and cynicism will easily rob it. These lethal substitutes probably rob more people of their sense of the Creator than anything else.
When we are young, we are more aware of the wonder of creation in all its beauty, we love playing with animals and plants, climbing mountains and swimming streams. Creation is bursting with life and intelligence but as we grow older we can become blind to what was so obvious when we were young.
Perhaps that is why Jesus said,
“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
Creation is sufficient proof to
start our spiritual journey.
But it is insufficient to tell us what God is like, and who He is.
For that we need further revelation. And Solomon provides it.
2. We can only know God as Shepherd through Scripture
“Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11)
The second term used to describe God is "the One Shepherd".
It is a welcome personal complement to the majestic but distant title of verse 1 "Your Creator". The God who is on the one hand Infinite and far off, is at the same time personal and near.
A God who knows and can be known. A God who has created us in His image and yet who also speaks to us with a human voice. Christianity is a revealed faith, its not a philosophy. It is not based on unsubstantiated theories or speculations, or a series of religious mystical experiences. We don't come to church for a weekly fix. We believe in a God who has come into our world, who has revealed Himself in space time history objectively and authoritatively, and supremely in the one who said:
"I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep."
(John 10:11). Not only that, He has provided an inspired, infallible account of that revelation about what He is like, what he has done, how we can know Him, and why we are here. These three verses 9-12 tell us a great deal about that Revelation.
2.1 The Divine Inspiration behind the Man
Read Ecclesiastes 12:9. The word of God has come to us through inspired people. In the Old Testament, through the Prophets, in the New Testament, through the Apostles. In between periods of revelation in the Old Testament, it was for the Levites to instruct the people in the Law of God and lead them to the One Shepherd. The title "The teacher" in 12:9 is used to describe Moses (Deut 6:1), David (2 Sam 1:18), Ezra (7:10), and of Jesus extensively in the Gospels. It describes the person ordained by God to reveal the Word of God. Since the Apostolic period, that role has been fulfilled by pastor teachers who serve as under-shepherds of the One Shepherd. Our role is not to reveal the Word of God but to apply it. At the ordination service clergy are given a bible with the instruction to teach it. We are not given a chalice to drink from, nor a filofax to organise, nor a baton to orchestrate, but a bible to feed Christ's flock. God speaks to us today, principally through the Word of God as it is read, studied, taught and applied.
But for the grace of God, the burden of this role - to communicate the Word of God - the greatest responsibility bestowed on us - is impossible to bear. Impossible without divine inspiration. The Divine Inspiration behind the man,
2.2 The Divine Imperative Behind the Message
Reread Ecclesiastes 12:9. Wisdom is a sacred responsibility. It says, "because he was wise he teaches". The Ordination Service includes this declaration.
"In the name of the Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge,.... You are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord. You are to teach and to admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord's family, to search for His children in the wilderness of this world's temptations and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved through Christ for ever."
In a sense this verse applies to us all. God has given us His Holy Spirit to place that same imperative in our hearts, to motivate us to tell others of Jesus. When Peter was threatened and told to shut up, what did he say? I can't help it...I must tell others what we have seen and heard about Jesus"......
The Method in Preparation (12:9-10)
Any notion that the pastor can just get into the pulpit with a few notes scribbled on the back of an envelope believing the Lord will give inspiration is naive and irresponsible.
We cannot teach the Word of God without careful study and preparation. Notice the words Solomon uses to describe the process of preparation.
Pondered 12:9 = "weighed" = honesty, caution, balance.
Searched 12:9 = thoroughness and diligence
Arranged 12:10 = "skilfull orderliness" = logical presentation
The Medium of Presentation (12:9-10)
Many Proverbs = riddles, parables, pictures. A good communicator will use appropriate illustrations
Right words, upright and true = pleasing words. If they were true but unpleasant = foolish; If untrue but pleasant = immoral. When and how we speak can be as important as what we say. The method of preparation, the medium in presentation, and,
The Impact of Proclamation (12:11)
Two very graphic words are used to describe the effective use of Scripture, whether coming from the preacher, or you as you're sharing it with a friend.
Goads = spur, or stick used to stimulate into action, or change direction.
Firmly embedded Nails = establish teaching in memory and way of life.
A goad was a sharp metal tip
attached to a handle and used to keep oxen or cattle moving. Like a goad, a
wise word or important truth might be unpleasant when first applied, but it
will keep us moving in God's direction. Someone said recently they found the
sermon painful. I took him to mean that God had spoken to him through it. We
should not be surprised if the Scriptures seem like goads or firmly embedded
nails for this isn't any ordinary book.
It is God's Word. It is the sword of the Spirit, living and active, sharper than any two edged sword. J.B. Philips said that translating the Bible was like rewiring a house while the electricity is still on, periodically you get a shock...
Although written by many different scribes, over 1000's of years it has one Author. These are the words of the One Shepherd, with one purpose, to lead us back to God and create one new people of God – of all races, tribes, languages and peoples.
We all know God as Creator through Creation; We can know God as Shepherd through Scripture. And one day,
3. We will know God as Lord through Judgment
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every human being. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
I said in the E-News we would answer all your outstanding questions in life tonight and we will. Here is the answer to every unanswered question. Solomon presents his antidotes for the two main ailments presented in this book. Those who lack purpose and direction in life should fear God and keep his commandments. Those who think life is unfair should remember that God will review every person's life to determine how he or she has responded to him, and he will bring every deed into judgment. Have you committed your life to God, both present and future? Does your life measure up to his standards?
The book of Ecclesiastes cannot be interpreted correctly without reading these final verses. No matter what the mysteries and apparent contradictions of life are, we must work toward the single purpose of knowing God. God shows us here that we should enjoy life, but this does not exempt us from obeying His commandments. We should search for purpose and meaning in life, but they are not found in human endeavours. We must acknowledge the evil, foolishness, and injustice in life, yet maintain a positive attitude and strong faith in God.
Here is the purpose for which we have been created. To live in a right relationship, with God, to know Him through Jesus Christ, with respect and love, for He is the Good Shepherd. The last verse of all drives home the point just made, with a final blow that is sharp enough to convict, but shrewd enough to jolt us out of apathy. It kills complacency to know that nothing goes unnoticed or unassessed....and one day will be revealed and redressed, if it is not already laid at the foot of the Cross.
Stripped of God's Spirit, our bodies return to dust. Stripped of God's purpose, our work is in vain. Stripped of God's love, our service is futile. We must put God first over all we do and in all we do because without him we have nothing. Knowing that life is futile without God motivates the wise person to seek God first. This perspective transforms life. If God cares this much, nothing can be pointless. For God loved the world so much that He went further than the truth contained here in Ecclesiastes.
He loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Solomon identifies with the person whose world view is limited to life under the sun. Life under the sun is indeed meaningless. Meaningless that is, until we take account of life over the sun. Only then can life under the sun be seen in its true light. It is all a question of perspective. So let me ask you, are you still living under the sun or over the sun?
I love children's stories and one of my favourites is Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. Rat and Mole’s encounter with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn sums up what happens when we recognise God as our Creator, as Shepherd and Lord.
'This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,' whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. 'Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!'
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground.
It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; … All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?' 'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!'
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship. Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn. (Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows, chapter 7)