For months now we’ve been looking at one of the most interesting books ever written. I mentioned last week what Bono of U2 thinks of this book:
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything.
He is not alone in his admiration for this book. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called Ecclesiastes “the truest of all books.” Thomas Wolfe described it as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence and truth” and “the greatest single piece of writing I have known.” If you’ve been here these past few months, I hope you’ve had glimpses of why this is such an important book.
But we need to be honest. It’s not an easy book. It seems depressing at times. Other times it’s peppy. There’s lots of controversy about how to interpret the book and how it’s written. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle Ecclesiastes is because it has a lot to say to us. But one of the reasons I wanted to tackle this book is because I’ve preached through it before, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do better. I wanted to really understand the message of this book and what it means for us today.
So this morning we come to the end. And as we get to the end, a couple of things are going to happen. First: we’re going to see why we need to listen to Ecclesiastes; why we shouldn’t skip over this book. Second: we’re going to see the core message of this book, and how our lives should change as a result.
First: why should we pay attention to this book?
As we get to the end of chapter 12, the tone shifts. It looks like verses 9 to the end are written by an editor, or by the Teacher himself as he steps out of his role and reflects on what he’s doing. At first glance it looks a little self-congratulatory, but it really isn’t. Verses 9 to 12 give us insight into what the author has been doing in this book and how we should interpret it.
Verses 9 to 12 say:
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Here’s why we need to pay attention to this book. The comments here put the entire book into perspective and help us understand what the Teacher has been trying to do. We’re told that this book has five qualities that make it important for us to consider.
It’s written with logical clarity. The Teacher, we read, considered all the wise sayings that he had heard with great care. He weighed them and considered which ones were useful and important. Not only that, but he then arranged them in this book logically. This book hasn’t been thrown together at random, but carefully constructed as a piece of literature. This is a book that is clear, logical, and carefully arranged.
It’s also written with literary artistry. It’s not just logical; its put together with artistry. As someone’s put it, whether you agree with the Teacher’s message or not, nobody criticizes his writing style. This guy knows how to write. It’s a work of literary beauty. It’s designed to “please the ear, inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind, and delight the soul” (Phil Ryken).
So it’s written with logical clarity and literary artistry; it’s also written in alignment with reality. Verse 10 says “he wrote words of truth.” You’ll have noticed that the Teacher doesn’t sugarcoat things. Some of us like to be a little careful in how we say things. I heard of a Christian leader who fired someone. He did it so nicely that the guy showed up for work the next day. He fired the guy so gently that the guy didn’t even know that he had been fired. The Teacher doesn’t do this. He tells it like it is. We can always count on the Teacher to tell us the truth.
It’s also written with a practical purpose. Verse 11 says they’re like goads, like firmly fixed nails. Goads are one of the tools that shepherds use to drive oxen down a road. A goad is a long, pointed stick used to prod and poke oxen so that they go in the right direction. I think we can all agree that Ecclesiastes has somewhat of a poky feel to it. It certainly feels like a long pointed stick poking us in places we’d rather not be poked, but we need it. If we pay attention to this book, it will save us from going down some roads we may take if there wasn’t somebody standing there with a sharp stick telling us not to go that way.
Ultimately one of the most important reasons we need to pay attention to this book is because it’s given to us by one Shepherd, according to verse 11. It’s the first time that the word shepherd has been used in this book. It could be a reference to the Teacher who wrote this book. But it’s not usually used this way. It’s most often used of God in Scripture. The only other times the term “one shepherd” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to the promised descendent of David who will come one day. It seems likely that the “shepherd” mentioned here is none other than God himself, which is why it’s capitalized in most versions. This means that Ecclesiastes are not just the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they’re part of God’s revelation to us. As our Shepherd, God uses this book to prod us in the right direction with our lives.
This is why verse 12 says:
My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of books come out. You can’t keep up. You can’t even try. I’m an avid reader, but even the really committed readers I know only read about 100 books a year. That means they’re reading only a fraction of a percent of what comes out. You can’t even keep up with the book reviews!
So how do you keep up? Verse 12 tells us we don’t have to. There’s room for other books, but Ecclesiastes warns us to be careful. Beware of going beyond the “collected sayings” that God has provided. What God has revealed in his Word is enough. There is no need to go beyond what he’s provided. By far the most important book we have is the Bible, including the book of Ecclesiastes. We need to pay attention to this book more than all the others.
That’s why this book is so important. This book has logical clarity. It has literary artistry. It’s aligned with reality. It’s practical and it can prod us in the right direction. It’s God-breathed Scripture. We need to pay attention to this book. That’s the first thing that this passage tells us.
Secondly, we discover the core message of the book.
In case you’re confused about what the Teacher’s been saying – and then a summary of the conclusions of the book.
Let me briefly summarize what the book has said. His basic message has been about meaninglessness. He keeps saying things like:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
The word vain or vanity or meaningless, depending on your transition, appears some 35 times in this book. It doesn’t mean that everything is worthless. It means that everything is like a breath or a vapor: it’s temporary and passing. Throughout the book he’s examined our lives and concluded that everything in this life is vanity. The surprising thing is that he doesn’t just say that bad things are meaningless. He says that good things like pleasure, popularity, youth, work, wealth, and achievement are all meaningless. Everything is fleeting, and it will soon be forgotten. Ultimately, death makes everything meaningless if it wasn’t meaningless already.
It reminds me of the news story:
JACKSONVILLE, FL– “Aladdin,” a greyhound that races at the Jacksonville Dogtrack in Jacksonville, Florida, was bitterly disappointed when he finally caught the rabbit he’s been chasing all these years and discovered it was mechanical. “Boy do I feel stupid,” said the greyhound. “I feel like such a fool. I’ve completely wasted my life chasing around this… mechanical rabbit.” Aladdin had been running at the Jacksonville track for many years and chasing various mechanical animals along the way. The notion that they all may have been fake was a huge blow to him and the other dogs. Many of them paused to ponder the meanings of their lives, and wondered what the future would be like with no animals to chase. “All my life I’ve been chasing this rabbit around thinking someday I’d be able to catch it and have a…good meal,” Alladin said. “I became obsessed with it. I admit it. It was unhealthy, but that rabbit represented something to me. And now, to find out it wasn’t even a real rabbit after all, well that’s just devastating.”
That’s the main message of Ecclesiastes, and it’s an important one for us to hear. Thousands of years later we’re still tempted to try to find meaning in all the things that the Teacher says are meaningless. It won’t work. One Christmas all the children in a family gathered around in great anticipation of opening the gifts. The gifts had been voluptuously wrapped with ribbons, and the kids were excited. Paper began to fly everywhere as they hurriedly unwrapped all of their gifts. The gifts had cost a lot and they had been well packaged. With great vim and vitality, the children began the process of unwrapping them. However, when all the gifts had been unwrapped, one of the children ask, “Is this all there is?” Evidently, some of you have experienced that. Many of us have unwrapped life and we want to know if this is all there is. The Teacher wants us to know that you can unwrap all that you can find in life, and that indeed is all that there is.
But he doesn’t leave us hopeless. He says in verses 13-14:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
When you consider everything that the Teacher has written, you get down to the essence of living. That’s actually what “the whole duty of man” means – it’s the essence of life. It’s taking away everything that’s extraneous and boiling it down to what’s at the core. Two things.
First: Fear God. It’s something that he’s said all throughout the book. To fear God isn’t to cower. Fearing God means that we know who he is and where we stand in relation to him. It means taking him seriously, acknowledging him in our lives as the highest good. It means revering him, honoring him, and worshiping him. Tony Evans puts it best:
The old belief, centuries ago, was that the sun revolved around the earth. As we now know, this belief was wrong. The earth revolves around the sun. Many of us have got it wrong in our spiritual lives. God doesn’t revolve around us. We revolve around Him. We know that we fear God when we have made Him the centerpiece of our lives.
Second: Keep his commandments. This is what life is about. The most important thing for anyone to do is to worship God and obey his commandments. According to Charles Bridges it is “his whole happiness and business – the total sum of all that concerns him – all that God requires of him – all that the Savior enjoins – all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.” We were made to worship and obey.
Verse 14 gives us a reason, but it also gives us meaning. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If what Ecclesiastes says is true, and there is no God, then life really is mad, and nothing does matter. If everything is meaningless and this life is all that there is, then life would be completely absurd. But at the end of this book we’re reminded that this is not all that there is, and that life does matter. Because we will stand before God our judge, everything matters. This isn’t all there is. As someone’s said, “The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does” (Phil Ryken).
So here’s the point of the whole book. Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments.
So let me ask you three questions.
One: are you taking any of the dead ends that the Teacher talks about? Do you need to be poked with any of his prods so that you don’t go down the wrong road in your search for meaning? There’s nothing wrong with work or pleasure or money or accomplishment, but they make terrible idols. Don’t take the dead ends. Learn from what the Teacher has taught us.
Two: have you experienced the Copernican revolution and oriented your life around God? That’s what it means to fear God. God does not revolve around our puny lives. The best discovery you can make is that we exist for God’s glory, and that we need to orient our lives around him and make his glory our priority. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Finally: are you demonstrating your love for him by obeying his commandments? Better yet, have you discovered the one who loved God perfectly and obeyed his commandments on your behalf? Jesus is the only one who has obeyed verses 13 and 14 perfectly. He came and offered his life for us. Graeme Goldsworthy says:
The gospel is saying that, what man cannot do in order to be accepted with God, this God himself has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be acceptable to God we must present to God a life of perfect and unceasing obedience to his will. The gospel declares that Jesus has done this for us. For God to be righteous he must deal with our sin. This also he has done for us in Jesus. The holy law of God was lived out perfectly for us by Christ, and its penalty was paid perfectly for us by Christ. The living and dying of Christ for us, and this alone is the basis of our acceptance with God.
Our obedience is then a response to what he’s done for us rather than an attempt to get something from him.
Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments. Put your trust in Christ, worship, and obey.