Big Idea: Listen to the message of Ecclesiastes. Fear God and obey him through Jesus.
For months now we’ve been looking at one of the most interesting books ever written. Bono of U2 says this about Ecclesiates:
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.” I hope you’ve had glimpses of why this is such an important book as we’ve studied it.
Today 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, we see why we should 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 Preacher 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 11 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.
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 Preacher has been trying to do. We’re told that this book has four qualities that make it important for us to consider.
- It’s written with logical clarity. The Preacher, 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. It is clear, logical, and carefully arranged.
- It’s also written with literary artistry. As someone’s put it, whether you agree with the Preacher’s message or not, nobody criticizes his writing style. This guy knows how to write. It’s designed to “please the ear, inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind, and delight the soul” (Phil Ryken).
- It also aligns with reality. Verse 10 says “he wrote words of truth.” The Preacher doesn’t sugarcoat things. He tells it like it is. We can always count on the Preacher to tell us the truth.
- Finally, it’s 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. Ecclesiastes pokes us in places we’d rather not be poked, but we need it. It’s like he’s standing at the entrance to dead-end streets 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 Preacher 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. You can’t even keep up with the book reviews!
But verse 12 tells us we don’t have to try and keep up. 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.
Second, we discover the core message of the book.
In case you’re confused about what the Preacher’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 how life is so unsatisfying. He keeps saying things like:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
The word vain or vanity appears some 35 times in this book. It means that everything is like a breath or a vapor: it’s temporary and passing. He doesn’t just say that bad things are like a vapor. He says that good things like pleasure, popularity, youth, work, wealth, and achievement are all less than satisfying. Nothing meets our expectations. Everything is unsatisfying. Everything is fleeting, and it will soon be forgotten.
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 Preacher says are meaningless. It won’t work. We look for meaning in a lot of things, but none of give us the satisfaction we’re looking for.
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 Preacher 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 that we stop trying to be our own little gods, that we stop trying to seek fulfillment in other things, and put God first instead. “It means an inner state, an inner condition of awe and amazement and wonder before the magnitude of the love and the power and the greatness of God” (Tim Keller). Start treating him like he’s more real and more beautiful than anything else in the world.
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 not a separate thing. This is what it looks like to fear God. We obey him. 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 a vapor 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.
If you’ve ever wondered what the meaning of life is, you’ve just found it.
The Preacher began this book by saying that everything is ultimately unsatisfying. There’s nothing new under the sun. If we look to money, relationships, success, power, reputation, sex, or anything like that, we’ll get a hit of pleasure, but it won’t give us what we’re looking for.
But the Preacher ends the book by saying that there is a God in heaven who rules this world, that everything matters, and that meaning is found in putting him first and obeying him. And because we’ve all failed, the good news that we all need is that Jesus opens wide his arms to anyone who’s failed. The only way to fear God and obey him is to come to Jesus and say, “I’m not just sorry for my sins; I’m sorry for trying to be my own savior. Accept me because of what Jesus did.” And he will change us and make it possible for us to live this way.
Listen to the message of the book. Fear God and obey him through Jesus.
Lord, may we hear the message of this book so that we can find meaning and joy in our lives, and enjoy you now and for eternity. In the name of Jesus our Savior we pray. Amen.