The Whole Duty of Man (Ecclesiastes 12:9–14)


Today, we conclude our study of Ecclesiastes with, fittingly, a meditation on “the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:9–14 is a summary of all that the Preacher has tried to teach us in the previous eleven-and-a-half chapters. His lessons can be summed up simply enough: “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

By what authority does the Preacher sum up our whole duty in this way? It is not by means of prophetic authority, for the Preacher does not claim to be a prophet. It is not by means of priestly interpretation of the Law, for the Preacher is not a priest. Although the Preacher is a king (1:1), he does not use his royal power to promulgate his message. No, the authority of the Preacher’s message is the authority of common sense. He is “wise,” “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.” His authority is the authority of reason. Many people mistakenly try to oppose faith to facts, revelation to reason. But the Bible teaches us that both can be avenues to truth, if our hearts are pure. Both reason and revelation are “given by one Shepherd,” that is, God.

Wisdom such as the Preacher displays is an inherently good thing. It is a “goad,” encouraging us through “words of delight” to live well and truly before God. It is like “nails firmly fixed,” providing an indispensable, unchanging support for the good life. Wisdom both initiates change, in other words, and conserves blessings.

Wisdom also is simple and eternal. The Preacher contrasts wisdom and “making many books.” Making many books refers to man’s ongoing effort to understand himself and the world he lives in. Such learning is necessary. Often, as with the realm of the hard sciences, we make many new and exciting discoveries. But while knowledge of our DNA changes (thus requiring new books), knowledge of our moral nature does not. You would be a fool if you went to a doctor who studied only seventeenth-century medical textbooks. You would be an even greater fool if you ignored a moral writer like the Preacher, though he has been dead for millennia. Scientific knowledge changes; moral wisdom does not.

So, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” The notion of fearing God frightens us. We like to think of God as the God of love, not fear, and in a certain sense, he is. But God is so great and majestic, so holy and awe-inspiring, that we small creatures would do well to remember our place in the universe and show due respect for him and for his Word. Why? “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” A wise person always keeps this truth in mind.

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with a statement about the world that is, “vanity of vanities” (1:2), and ends with a statement about the world to come, the “judgment.” We live between these worlds and must make choices in the former to prepare us for the latter, so choose well. If you follow the Preacher’s common-sense advice, you will.

Advertisements

Are You Prepared for Death—and Life? (Ecclesiastes 12:1–8)


In Ecclesiastes 12:1–8, the Preacher calls you to worship God now, while you can, before advancing age and declining ability rob you of the power to do so.

He does this by painting a vivid portrait of the negative aspects of aging. (We should always remember, of course, that aging has many pluses: the joy of a life well lived; the wisdom of experience; the pleasures of a lifelong companion, children, and grandchildren, to name just a few. But the Preacher’s focus does not fall on the positives, in this passage, only the negatives.) Consider the images:

  • Aging is a storm that blots out the sun (verse 2).
  • Aging is accompanied by weakened arms (“keepers”), legs (“strong men”), loss of teeth (“grinders”), and blinded eyes (“windows”), according to verse 3.
  • Verses 4 and 5 associate aging with increased isolation (shut doors), deafness (low sound and low song), and restless wakefulness (rising at bird chatter), fear, white hair (almond blossoms), stiff walking (the dragging grasshopper), and decreased sexual appetite (“desire fails”).

At one level, the Preacher’s call is depressing. Who wants to consider his own mortality, after all, or make present choices in light of future death? No one, as far as I can tell; probably not you—certainly not I.

But the Preacher’s call is a rational one. We live in the day and age of strategic planning, long-term initiatives, and step-by-step processes for reaching your life’s goals. Surely you cannot plan your life without considering its end. And surely, if you are going to die, it would be wise for you to consider how to enter eternity. Too often, we make the mistake of thinking that our seventy-odd years on earth are all that matters. The Preacher wisely reminds us of the life to come: “man is going to his eternal home” (verse 5).

At the end of the day, you see, all things in heaven and earth go “Poof!” There will come a day when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (verse 7).This present life is a vanity of vanities. Only God, and those who choose to love him in this life, endure in happiness forever.

So, the obvious question is this: Are you prepared, not only for life, but also for death and the life to come?

Young at Heart (Ecclesiastes 11:7–10)


Several years ago, I taught the Open Bible Class, a Sunday school class for senior citizens. Now, I must admit that I had a few preconceptions about seniors when I first began teaching them. I thought they were, like, you know, “old.” And they were. The class has its fair share of eighty- and ninety-year-olds. What I did not expect, however, was the lesson I learned from close contact with those wonderful people: Just because you are old does not mean you have to act like it. A few of those eighty- and ninety-year-olds led a more active life than I did; they knew how to really enjoy the day.

Thinking about my friends in Open Bible, and reflecting on Ecclesiastes 11:7–10, I cannot help but think that God wants us to be young at heart, even if our bodies are old.

The Preacher begins with a simple statement: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” Since only the living can see light and enjoy it, what the Preacher is really saying is that life itself is sweet and pleasant. All things being equal, life is preferable to death. The gospel promises us eternal life rather than soul sleep or spiritual annihilation precisely because in the biblical worldview, God is a living God who offers his creatures a good life, if they will receive it from him with faith.

Life being good, the Preacher goes on to point out that we ought to rejoice in it, especially as we age: “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all.” But that rejoicing has a tinge of sadness with it because of the tainting effects of sin: “the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.” As Christians, we cannot rejoice fully in this life precisely because it is marred by sin. But the gospel holds out the promise of creation’s restoration, as well as our own.

Not surprisingly—given his basic optimism about life—the Preacher counsels young people especially to live with gusto: “Rejoice…in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” It almost seems as if the Preacher counsels too much gusto, to tell you the truth: “Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes,” in other words, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But, he quickly reminds the young to be guided by wisdom in their hedonism, for “God will bring you into judgment.”

The final verse sums up the Preacher’s advice: “Remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” The young can be carefree and pain free because, well, they are young. For the rest of us, living without pain and anxiety is a conscious, intentional choice. Chronologically, our youth comes and goes. It is a thing that goes “Poof!” Spiritually, however, we can choose to be young at heart and always to enjoy the life God gives us.

The Abundance Mentality (Ecclesiastes 11:1–6)


God wants you to develop an abundance mentality.

In the early nineteenth century, the Rev. Thomas Malthus argued that “population tends to increase faster than the supply of food available for its needs.” Consequently, human beings face a perpetual shortfall of necessities and must act with a scarcity mentality, focusing on how to increase their slice of a limited pie. Malthus’s argument influenced Charles Darwin and his followers, the latter of whom especially saw life as a struggle between species over limited resources in which only the fittest survived.

The abundance mentality is the exact opposite of this scarcity mentality. It begins with the assumption that there is an abundance of earthly goods to be enjoyed by all people, rather than a scarcity to be snatched up by a fortunate few. Rather than selfishly hoarding goods, a person with an abundance mentality selflessly shares them with others who are in need. And a person with an abundance mentality is generous precisely because he knows that one day he may have need too.

In Ecclesiastes 11:1–6, the Preacher extols the many virtues of the abundance mentality using this arresting image. “Cast your bread upon the waters,” he exhorts us, “for you will find it after many days.” Be promiscuously generous, in other words, for by doing so, you will be treated generously in turn.

Now, such a motivation to generosity may seem selfish, as if your altruism is really egoism, as if by helping others you help yourself. Well, yes, that is the case. And so what! God wants us to be generous to others with the blessings he has given us. If we reap generosity in return, I do not think he minds too much. The main thing is that we are channeling his blessings to others through our gifts. Or rather, through his gifts.

By acting generously toward others, you see, we create a community of sharing and goodwill that will stand us in good stead during difficult days. Notice that the Preacher emphasizes our ignorance and the uncertainty of the future: “you know not what disaster may happen on earth,” “you do not know the work of God who makes everything,” and “you do not know which will propser, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” We neither know nor control the future, but we can still act in the present to create a beloved community in which generosity and kindness to the less fortunate prevail.

So, develop an abundance mentality, and give generously. Such gifts have the habit of returning to their sender.

Government, Good and Bad (Ecclesiastes 10:16–20)


We recently held a national election, which gets me thinking about politics.

Does the Bible have anything useful to say about government or citizenship? Absolutely! But it usually speaks in general principles rather than offering detailed policy guidelines. Take, for example, what we read in Ecclesiastes 10:16–20.

The Preacher begins by noting how unpleasant it is for citizens to live under a bad regime. More precisely, he points out how cursed it is for “the land” to live under the unwise (child kings) and self-indulgent (feasting princes). Obviously, the land includes all the people who live on it, and so the land refers to citizens. (We call our own country “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” for example.) And yet, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that in the century just past, bad government has been bad for the environment too. The countries of the former Soviet Union are still dealing with the sludge left by that totalitarian regime. And the worst famines of the last century (1930s Ukraine, 1950s China, 1980s Ethiopia) were government-engineered, to a certain degree. Under bad government, the land and its people both suffer.

By strong contrast, good government promotes the commonwealth. What are characteristics of good government? Two things: The best people govern, and they do the right thing at the right time and for the right reason. America, of course, is a democratic republic, so the Preacher’s praise of aristocracy (“the son of nobility”) does not apply to us straight across the board. But the basic principle—that the society’s leaders should be the best trained—still makes sense.

The Preacher then turns his attention to two side topics: the danger of laziness and the value of material possessions. A house falls apart if it is not constantly cleaned, maintained, repaired, and painted. So, quite frankly, does a country, if its leaders and citizens neglect the spiritual, moral, and physical infrastructure of the nation. But we should never forget, as we work hard, that life is more than maintenance. God did not merely put us on earth to work, but also to enjoy. “A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.”

Finally, the Preacher returns to the topic of government. In a highly authoritarian society, which is what monarchies tend to be, it is important not to think ill of the ruler. In a totalitarian society, doing so can get you imprisoned or killed. So, writing in the context of a monarchical society, the Preacher warns citizens to watch their mouths, lest their words occasion royal wrath. In America, of course, we have a First Amendment right to say what we want—however negative or positive—about those who govern us. Our government, thankfully, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—in Lincoln’s lapidary phrase. Still, although it is legitimate to criticize those who govern us, we ought to do so in a respectful way, if not of the officeholder, then at least of the office. Whether our government is monarchical or democratic, we citizens should mind our manners.

In sum, good governments govern wisely, and good citizens act respectfully. Those are two general and common-sense principles for both governors and the governed.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

No Duh! (Ecclesiastes 10:8–15)


Much of the Bible, and most of its so-called “wisdom literature,” is common sense. Wisdom literature—a few Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, James—is known for its simplicity and practicality. When you read it, you are more apt to say, “No duh!” than you are to say, “Huh, I never thought of that.” The genius of wisdom literature lies in its ability to remind us of truths that we already know—or should know—and to encourage us to take appropriate action.

Take, for example, the little proverbs the Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 10:8–15. The first two concern the risks that are inherent in even the simplest human endeavors: You might fall into a pit you have just dug, or encounter dangerous creatures in a home you have just demolished, or be harmed by quarried stone or flying wood chips. The Preacher’s point is not that we should refrain from all activity, lest we experience harm, but that we should safeguard ourselves from harm, to the degree that we can plan for safety.

Or take the proverb about the blunt iron. One time, while I was out on a date at a really nice restaurant, I began to cut into my filet mignon, but did not make any progress. I thought that either my meat was too tough or my knife too dull until I realized that I was sawing away with the wrong side of the blade. Funny how that works! If you want to cut something efficiently, use the serrated side. The Preacher’s point is simple: Work smart, for if you work dumb, you’ll end up working more. This is also the point about the fool’s toil, which is in vain, because he doesn’t know in which direction he is heading.

Then there’s the Preacher’s little gem about snake charming: “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” No duh, Preacher Man! But how many times have you and I turned in work that was inadequately researched or poorly thought through or badly presented? A wise person knows when the work is done. Fools, on the other hand, rush in where angels fear to tread.

Speaking of fools, there is nothing that reveals a fool more than speaking. Keep quiet and be thought a fool, runs the adage; open your mouth and remove all doubt. That is the spirit of the Preacher’s proverbs about words. A wise person is known for clear thinking and speaking the right word at the right time. The mouth of a fool is like Denny’s, however; it’s open 24/7. “A fool multiplies words.” A wise person subtracts them.

So, have you learned anything new from the Preacher today? Probably—hopefully—not! But have you been reminded of some common sense ideas that you need to put into practice? I hope so. I certainly have.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

A Little Idiocy Goes a Long Way (Ecclesiastes 10:1–7)


As a minister, I work hard to keep politics out of the pulpit. Of course, like most Americans, I have more than my fair share of strong opinions about what happens in my state capital and Washington DC, but it’s wrong for me—or any other pastor—to use my church position as a platform for launching partisan rants at you. Politics is neither my vocation nor my area of expertise. Now, don’t worry, I do not intend to rant today, either, but I want to use a political example from a few years ago without implying some hidden partisan intent. So, here goes.

Bill Clinton could have been a great president. I say “could have been” because, despite the overall peace and prosperity our nation experienced during his administration, President Clinton will always be remembered for his affair with Monica Lewinsky which, in the fullness of time, led to his impeachment and contributed to the general lassitude of his final two years in office.

A little idiocy, you see, goes a long way. Or, as the Preacher puts it, “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench.”

The Preacher offers several examples of how fools destroy themselves through folly. “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.” In almost all traditional societies, the right hand is the hand of power, authority, and majesty. On the other hand—pardon the pun—the left is the hand of weakness, submission, and disgrace. In Latin, the right hand is dextra, from which we get the words dexterity and ambidextrous. The left hand, however, is sinistra, from which we get the word sinister. A fool always acts a bit suspiciously.

A fool is also self-evident: “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense.” If that weren’t enough, when he opens his mouth, he removes all doubt that he’s an idiot: “he says to everyone that he is a fool.”

Unfortunately, a small folly casts a long, disproportionate shadow. In the hands of a politician, foolishness destroys opportunity and elevates the undeserving to places of influence. “Folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.” Foolishness inverts the moral order of things, elevating the bad and bringing low the good. And when that happens in government, only the people suffer.

So, what should you do when a little idiocy is making its rounds? Stay clam. “If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.” The ruler’s anger that the Preacher speaks of is not righteous anger at an injustice, but rather the hotheaded rage of a stupid leader. When everyone around you is losing his head, the better part of wisdom dictates that you work hard to keep yours.

You see, a little idiocy goes a long way, but wisdom patiently waits it out.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.