I had the good fortune to preach this message to the fine people of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (EPC), Erie, Pennsylvania, the morning of Sunday, March 26, 2017.
Our text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, the entire chapter. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Feel free to follow along with whatever version you prefer.
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.
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.
Let’s pray. Oh Lord, You have shown us so clearly that a life well-lived is one that is lived unto You. Every moment spent serving our own desires or living in delusion is one robbed from both You and from our own truest good. When we turn to You in repentance and faith we see that clearly, and regret it profoundly. And yet “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to [Your] purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Our sins and our wanderings are not greater than Your limitless love, power or wisdom. And no matter how many years we wait to come to You, You stand ready to redeem us and use our lives for Your glory. We thank You for that. We pray for the grace to grasp the wonders of Your grace and to respond gratefully by living out obedient service to You. In Christ Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a good friend. I said something like this to him: “I really regret all those years before I was a Christian, particularly those years I threw away on that whole ‘freak lifestyle.’ I am glad I fully committed to Christ when I was still a fairly young man.” His reply, which I will again roughly paraphrase, was along these lines: “I disagree. Even with all the bad stuff that happened, I learned a lot and my experiences help me to be more understanding and compassionate about what others go through.”
The fact is, we were both right. I have often dwelled on this seeming paradox in looking back over my life, and I am sure many of you have as well.
On the one hand, God clearly calls us to turn our lives over to Him, the earlier the better. He is our Creator. He owns us and we are accountable to Him to use the life He has given us for His purposes. He loves us, and wants us to delight in the life He has given us at the deepest and most honest levels. We cannot do that if we are living as if what is “under the sun” is all that there is. This is what the Preacher is telling us here in verse 1.
When we truly repent, we will experience, and express, profound regret for our years apart from God; walking through life as if He is not our Creator. We will recognize that we have offended God, but also that we have harmed ourselves, and others, by living as if we are not accountable to God. For many of us, the damage that we did, or might have done, by doing this could be terrible, and in some cases permanent. The regrets we might have to live with could be awful.
For example, we can repent for leaving someone permanently disabled because we were driving drunk during our prodigal years, but how many would argue that it would not have been better for us, and him, if we had never done it. What person experiencing guilt before the Lord over something like this would not change history if they could do it all over again? While Jesus Christ is our Savior, and He fully satisfies the penalty for our sins, He is not our heavenly bus boy, responsible for cleaning up every mess we leave behind, fixing every consequence.
For all of us, evil days are coming, days of decline, weakness, deterioration and inevitably, death. We should turn to God before those times are upon us. Then our years serving God will have fully prepared us for those declining years. We will be able to look back on a life in which we used the strength and optimism of our youth, the experience and realism of our middle age, and the wisdom of our grey and balding heads, for His service and His glory, enjoying and delighting in Him through all of it.
On the other hand, what do we do with that passage from Romans, Chapter 8 verse 28 that I excerpted during our prayer? Does the term “all things” there not really mean “all”? Or what about this passage from Joel, Chapter 2 verse 25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” If you look at that statement, in context, it is God’s wonderful promise to those who have brought terrible things upon themselves and others in rebelling against God. They are reassured that, once they turn wholeheartedly to God, the good things to follow will more than make up for what they lost during their wayward years. Moreover, I can attest with others that, many times, my past failures have sometimes uniquely enabled me to identify, empathize, encourage, and advise others, not to mention helping me to be humble and more appreciative of God. As Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, in Luke Chapter 4, verse 42, and I am paraphrasing a bit here: “Those who are forgiven much, love much.”
Although it does appear that people who have determined for decades not to follow God do not typically turn to Him in old age, wonderful exceptions abound, both in our own experience and in Christian history. Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena turned from Roman paganism to Christ at the age of 60 in the year 309, lived another twenty years, and saw her son converted later. She encouraged him as he made decisions that extended and secured Christianity in the West, and radically changed the course of history. Or there is Olga, princess of Kiev, a brutal, awful woman who was converted to Christianity in the year 954 at the age of 75. In her remaining years, through extraordinary efforts, she brought Christianity to the Ukraine. In these cases, as in so many others, we see how the experiences of living outside the faith gave folk like these certain advantages of bringing others into it.
If I were a lot brighter, perhaps I would figure out how both sides of this apparent paradox—that we regret the years apart from God and yet God uses them and restores much that we have lost when we turn to Him—can be fully logically reconciled. I must confess that I cannot. I am content to affirm both things because the Bible and my own experience makes both clear: it is best to turn to God in our youth, and follow Him for as many days after as He chooses to give us. When and if we come to Him, we will miss, and regret, every minute that we delayed embracing Christ as Lord and Savior. However, we can offer the Gospel freely and with a full heart to all human beings of every age, right up to the moment of their death, promising them that in Him all things will be made whole, and right, and good, and that He will use them in productive service for Him, in their remaining time.
We can consider this apparent paradox as we approach Good Friday. In Luke Chapter 23 verses 42 and 43, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus asked simply “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That poor man was clearly, in that context of facing certain and imminent death, placing his hope in Christ and in eternal life through Him. What was Jesus’ reply? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” On that very day, God washed away every bit of that dying man’s failure, degradation, filth and regret. Every promise of God became his. But as he embraced the offer of Christ, I am certain his dissolute life flashed in front of him and he was intensely sorry for the life he had led, wishing he had known this wonderful Savior all his days, and was not just encountering him at the moment of death.
Following this opening verse, the Preacher lays out, in beautiful poetry, what the young person is going to face even if God should bless him or her with the longest and best life they could hope for; namely old age, and death. This is unfolded in verses 2 through 7, employing the metaphor of a house to describe old age. This Scriptural metaphor—the broken old house we have to leave behind at death—was the inspiration for a famous folk gospel song that I hear elderly people in nursing homes often love to sing—“This Ole House.” The lyrics of this song, written by Stuart Hamblen, fit the details here in Ecclesiastes amazingly well, from the characteristics of old age, but also the implications of sure hope that, though “the dust returns to the earth as it was,” we have assurance that “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Please indulge me as I recite the words of this song. I will lay out the stanzas, then at the end I will give you the refrain that is sung after each one.
This ole house once knew his children, This ole house once knew his wife
This ole house was home and comfort, As they fought the storms of life
This ole house once rang with laughter, This ole house heard many shouts
Now he trembles in the darkness, When the lightning walks about.
This ole house is getting shaky, This ole house is getting old
This ole house lets in the rain, This ole house lets in the cold
Oh his knees are a’ getting’ chilly, But he feels no fear nor pain
Cause he seeks a new tomorrow, Through a golden window pain
This ole house is afraid of thunder, This ole house is afraid of storms
This ole house just groans and trembles, When the night wind flings it arms
This ole house is gettin’ feeble, This ole house is a’ needin’ paint
Just like him it’s tuckered out, He’s a’ gettin’ ready to meet his fate
(Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no longer, Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no more)
Ain’t got time to fix the shingles, Ain’t got time to fix the floor
Ain’t got time to oil the hinges, Nor to mend no window panes
Ain’t gonna need this house no longer, He’s gettin’ ready to meet his fate
It is fun and enlightening to break Ecclesiastes’ poem on old age into parts, especially verses 2 through 5, to consider what each of the figures within the larger house refers to. The missing teeth, the dimming sight, the trembling limbs, bent back, weak legs, creeping deafness, crippling fears, bones that break easily, elusive sleep. That’s wonderful, but we then can miss the larger picture.
And what is that larger picture? That the most fortunate among us will eventually decline, and then we will die—the silver cord will snap, the golden bowl will break, the pitcher will be shattered; no longer will it carry water. The wheel will be broken, and our bodies will return to the ground from which they came, mourners carrying them to the grave, while our spirits will return to our Creator.
We must turn to God before that. If we do not, the life we have lived, verse 8 tells us, will have been vanity. It will have been vapor, meaningless, futile, mere breath. It will have been hebel. It will have been a long life, but lived entirely under the sun, apart from God, and then never redeemed at the end.
Hearkening back to Ecclesiastes Chapter 6, verses 2 through 5, such a person will have come in vanity and left in darkness, then have been covered by total darkness. Verse 6 of that chapter points this out to everyone who believes our existence can be justified by prosperity, great deeds, and excellent health: “Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?”
Following this, verses 9 and 10 describe the character of the wise Preacher who wrote this extraordinary book. He cared for the people. He took great care in how he wrote and ordered his wisdom, so as to provide the best guidance possible. It is clear his goal was godly instruction for the good of his people, not extolling himself or showing off his brilliance. The Preacher spoke truth, and sought delightful words with which to express it. Whom among us reading the poem on seasons we considered last week, or this poem on old age and death we have considered today, would deny that he achieved that?
Verse 10 then reminds us that the words of the wise are like both goads and nails. “Goad,” you may recall, is both a noun and a verb; you goad cattle with a goad, that is, you drive them with a sharp stick. Wisdom should push us away from the wrong, and toward the correct, places. Words of wisdom are also like nails in that they are firm, fixed, we can hang things on them. In our case, we can hang every element of our lives on these words, and each will be secure there. In this verse, the Preacher also tells us that all words of true wisdom, everywhere, come from one Shepherd, for the benefit of His flock. Proverbs Chapter 2, verse 6 reminds us that “…the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding…” The Apostle James, in Chapter 1 verse 5, instructs believers who are looking for true wisdom to seek it from God and God alone. Then, in Chapter 3, verse 17, like the Preacher, he notes that this wisdom will be obviously lovely, pure, delivering true peace and good fruit.
This “goad and nail” applies to our lesson today. What the Preacher has told us about turning to God before the evil days come, of the certainty of what lies before us if we do not, is a nail. It is unshakable truth. We might say that we can “hang our hat on it.” It is also a goad. It is a sharp stick driving us away from disaster and toward life. It is the loving admonition of our Good Shepherd, in fitting and lovely words, given through a man who has experienced all that life brings, and knows of what he speaks.
Finally, in verses 13 and 14, the subject returns once again to what all people must do in order to have a meaningful life, and to enjoy the good things of this earth, in all their simple glory, as we were meant to do so if we are to be fully and deeply satisfied. Fear God. Hold Him in reverence and awe; do not play games with Him. Keep His commands; seek to live a holy and good life as He has defined it. Study His word diligently and love it intensely, as the writer of Psalm 119 repeatedly admonishes. That is the whole duty of every man and woman. He expects nothing more, nor less. Prioritize those things that are of eternal significance, so that your life will withstand the judgment of God. Love your spouse. Love your children. Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Visit the prisoners and the shut-ins. Cast your bread upon the waters. Be generous. No matter how young we are, how healthy or safe, we must never forget the brevity of life, the unpredictable and often very inconvenient coming of death, and after that, the final account we must all give to God. Live as if it is true, because it is true.
In sum, show reverence to God and follow Him earnestly, at every point in life remembering that at the Judgement Day you will give account of everything you did in this life.
Consider the life of Christ Himself. He followed the Lord from his earliest days, and we find Him engaging the teachers in the Temple at the age of 12 in Luke Chapter 2, verses 41 through 52. In Matthew Chapter 4, verses 1 through 11, we find Him in the wilderness spurning the temptation of Satan, rebuking that old trickster by citing and honoring God’s scriptural commands. In his agonizing prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, we find Him clearly taking responsibility for every commandment that God the Father had issued to Him, for example, He had cared for, taught and protected every single soul that the Father had given Him. He behaved as the good servants did in His Parable of the Talents recorded in Matthew Chapter 25, verses 15 through 30; not as the one who hid his talents in the ground. We often find Him enjoying the simple, good things of this world. Sleep, friendship, embrace, perfume, bread, fish, wine. He lived His life with an eye toward His death, even though He did not live to old age. As in all things, He is a model for living that life which the Preacher of Ecclesiastes commends to us.
In closing today, here is the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians Chapter 5, verses 1 through 10, telling us the same things:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Let’s pray. Oh Lord the life that we have is a gift from You and belongs to You. You have called us here, at whatever stage of life we are in, to give it all to You. You have promised that what we entrust to You will be secure and realize its greatest fruit in You. We see that in Christ, in His perfect life and His death in which He took upon Himself all our sins and sorrows, we have the perfect realization of what we are shown here in this venerable Book of Ecclesiastes—to live a good life before You, be prepared for difficulties to come, and step off this earth and into Your arms when death comes for us. In Jesus name. Amen.