Considering the Point
Passage: Ecclesiastes 12:9–12:14
Considering the Point
November 16th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. A Common Search
During the early 1940's Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl found himself fighting for his life as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The horrors that he and so many others endured drove him to think deeply about human existence, about this thing that we call "life".
The ultimate result of his many years of suffering, observing, and considering was a book he published after the war entitled, "Man's Search for Meaning".
In that book he wrote this about what he observed: "We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."
Victor Frankl's book title is not surprising, because when men and women come to grips with the contradictions of life that fill this cruel world, our basic response is to ask "why"; our basic response is to search for meaning.
Thousands of years before Frankl wrote his book on "Man's Search for Meaning", another man wrote his own work on this same subject. His book is the book we call Ecclesiastes, and this morning we come to the end of our six-month study of his words. So what did the Teacher in Ecclesiastes discover about meaning in life?
If you've been with us for any part of our study in Ecclesiastes, then you might know that the theme of this book seems to be found in that phrase repeated over and over again throughout the book: "all is vanity", or "all is meaningless".
But if that's true, if the Teacher's search for meaning ended with this conclusion that life was "meaningless", then what good is it to us? Why is it in the Bible?
Let's think about that question as we turn over the final six verses of the book in 12:9-14.
II. The Passage: "All Has Been Heard" (12:9-14)
What we find in the closing verses of Ecclesiastes seem to be the words, not of the Teacher, but of some sort of compiler who prepared and transmitted the book for his own son (notice verse 11) and for future generations like us.
You might remember from last week that in 12:8 we saw that shift from the Teacher or Preacher speaking in the first person to the Teacher being referred to in the third person.
So whoever this compiler is, he obviously felt the Teacher's message was important enough to pass on. But based on what we know of the book at the Teacher's conclusion, it would be easy for people to misunderstand the point of Ecclesiastes. This is why the compiler adds some final thoughts.
What we will find in verses 9-14 are ways in which the compiler is encouraging the reader to take the book seriously. He does that in three ways.
A. Considering the Source (12:9, 10)
Look first with me at verses 9-10:
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.
The first thing this compiler wants us to do is consider the source of the book.
The Teacher was not some disgruntled crank who was wallowing in his own despair and cynicism. No, remember what we learned about this Teacher in the first chapter of the book:
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 15 What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (1:12-18)
This is why the compiler is sure to remind readers at the end of the book that the Teacher was a wise man. But he wasn't simply some wise man who lived out in the desert in isolation from the world. No, he was a Teacher of the people. He imparted knowledge. He collected and arranged proverbs. He looked for and made available "words of delight". He was a man of truth who cared about his people understanding the truth.
While Ecclesiastes may be difficult to understand at times, even hard to swallow at times, the book never ceases to be a book of wisdom.
What the Teacher is saying here is, "Look, I know you might be raising an eyebrow at this point because of all this talk about meaninglessness and death and suffering and injustice and futility, but if you are tempted to write him off, you need to know the kind of man the Teacher was."
Who are your ‘teachers'? When you consider the source of the knowledge and wisdom coming into your heart and mind, can you really make the same defense? Aren't all of us tempted at times to listen to the advice, the counsel, the guidance of those who really are not wise, those who really do not care about THE truth?
There are a lot of "teachers" out there who are quick to share what they feel or what seems acceptable according to our culture, teachers who "tickle the ears" as Paul would later declare in II Timothy 4, but they, unlike the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, do not truly care about "words of truth".
B. Considering the Value (12:11, 12)
But look at what the compiler goes on to say in verses 11 and 12:
11 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. 12 Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh
What the compiler wants his son to do here is consider the value of this book. Books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, these "words of the wise", these "collected sayings", are valuable because, first, they are like goads. What is a goad? A goad is a long, sharp stick used to drive and direct an animal like a cow or an ox.
Though these words can sting like a goad, they drive us forward in the right direction.
But second, these words also are like "nails firmly fixed". This wisdom not only drives us forward but it also holds us steady. Sound like a contradiction, doesn't it? Well these are just two different ways of describing how wisdom helps us to live in truth.
This is why the compiler is quick to warn his son and the readers of Ecclesiastes to be careful about going beyond books like these. Verse 12 confirms that human being make a lot of books. There is always someone somewhere writing about something. Especially today, in the information age, we need to listen to this warning: "much study is a weariness of the flesh".
Now, the compiler is not discouraging the seeking out of wisdom or reading books. What he is warning us about is study that is not firmly fixed by the nail of wisdom.
The British writer Malcolm Muggeridge once said, "One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything."
And isn't that the point the compiler wants us to see when he says in verse 11 that these words of wisdom are given by one Shepherd? These are not simply the words of men. They are the words of God. These are the words that our heavenly Shepherd uses to guide and ground His people.
In looking over Ecclesiastes, we believe that these are more than just the words of the Teacher, this man who was struggling to understand life. God made these words a part of His word, didn't He? We believe that the Teacher's reflections here were God-breathed.
The "much study" the compiler is warning us about here is that search for meaning through the words of men without reference to the words of God.
And so as the words of "one Shepherd", God himself has something to say to us through this book. But what? What's the point God wants us to understand from the book of Ecclesiastes?
C. Considering the Application (12:13, 14)
Look with me at the final two verses of the book, verse 13 and 14 of chapter 12:
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.
Notice how the compiler concludes his final thoughts. He wants his son and the Teacher's readers to consider the application of this book. What are we to take away from a book that consistently declares, "everything is pointless"?
Well, when all is said and done, or as the compiler puts it, since we've reached "the end of the matter; all has been heard", at this point, what we have to take away is "the fear of God", which in turn reminds us to "keep his commandments". Why should we revere and obey God. Because, verse 14, God will bring every deed into judgment, even secret things, all things, whether good or bad. We will have to give an account at some time in some way for life here "under the sun".
Isn't this what the Teacher talked about at the end of chapter 11, and the beginning of chapter 12?
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Ecclesiastes 11:9)
This is why the Teacher tells us to: Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth... (12:1a)
This book is in God's word because it ultimately points us back to God. If we do not leave Ecclesiastes with a clear sense that we must look to God and live for Him, then we have missed God's intention for this book.
But how can the Teacher come to one conclusion in 12:8 and the compiler to another conclusion in verses 13 and 14? How do we make sense of on the one hand, "everything is meaningless", and on the other hand, "fear God and keep His commandments"?
III. When You Only Look Around
The tension between these conclusions, the tension that we sense throughout the entire book stems from the position of the Teacher's eyes.
This question brings us full circle, back to the opening verses of Ecclesiastes. And what we discovered there is that the Teacher, in his search for meaning, was only focused on the thing around him: the struggles, the fears, the senselessness and apparent contradictions of life.
But what we talked about way back in chapter one, in light of the whole book is that yes, when you only around you life seems meaningless. But when we look above us, it's only then that we begin to understand.
So the tension in Ecclesiastes is ultimately rooted in the tension between what we can know from looking at our sin-stained, broken world and what we can know by listening to the God who speaks into our darkness with words of light.
Apart from what God has revealed, life does seem pointless; a search for meaning seems pointless.
Of course, trying to understand life without God has been what most of humanity in the West has been doing for the last 150 years. And what have they concluded? Vanity of vanities. Everything is meaningless.
All the science, and progress, and innovation, and contemplation have failed to provide any meaning for life. The great sociological and scientific sages, the political priests and prophets of the press have failed to discern and communicate to us any real meaning about why we're here, our purpose on this planet.
But our Creator has spoken hasn't He? Ecclesiastes speaks about God with the assumption that the readers know who God is. To be specific, this book was written in Israel for Israelites. And the identity of those Israelites was historically rooted in the revelation of, the communication of God the Creator.
So the struggle for the Teacher, as king over Israel in Jerusalem, was making sense of the senseless of life while not letting go of what God had revealed about Himself.
I think we struggle with this as well, don't we? We struggle with eyes set more on the things below than the things above. What do you see, this morning?
Maybe it looks as though your job search is coming to a dead end and yet there are still mouths to feed and bills to pay. But what has God revealed?...seek first the Kingdom of God and He will provide for all of yours needs.
Maybe it looks like there is no hope of reconciling your disintegrating marriage. But what has God revealed?...our God is a god of resurrection, of lives and marriages; all things are possible with Him.
Maybe it appears that those around you who have more money and more stuff are happier and more fulfilled people. But what has God revealed?...people who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap, and that it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. God wants to be your portion forever.
Maybe it looks as if your failures in life are confirming your worthlessness. Maybe your career doesn't appear to be as fulfilling as it should. But what has God revealed?...if have trusted in Christ as your only hope, then you are a son or daughter of the Most High God. You are His priest, His servant, His disciple, His subject, His child, and yours is the most important work in the universe.
Maybe it appears that there is absolutely no reason why your child, or your parent, or your friend should have died so tragically. Maybe it looks as if fate has played some cruel trick on you. But what has God revealed?...God is in heaven and He does as He pleases, and that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him And are called according to his purpose.
Maybe you look around and see that people continue to hurt and kill one another, that day after day corruption and injustice continue to infect our government and society, that there appears to be no end to the suffering and sorrow in the world. And maybe you look around and see that the daily grind never seems to end, and so you get comfortable going through your routine, day after day after day. And maybe it appears that no one could ever know about the things you do and who you are when no one is looking.
But what has God revealed?... 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.
What is the point? This is the point: We must feed ourselves on the bread of revelation, and not the bread of worldly experience. We must be transformed by what God has revealed and not simply by what we perceive. In a world that constantly bombards us with the mantras of meaninglessness, we must cling to God's word as our true north.
We must perceive reality through the lens of eternity.
Even thought we can't always make sense of life by looking at the creation, we must hold on to what is certain by listening to the Creator.
IV. Liberation from Pointlessness
Did you know that the book of Ecclesiastes in never mentioned or quoted from in the New Testament? But there is one place in the New Testament where we do find what could be an allusion to the Teacher's reflections.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:18-22)
What is not clear from reading this in English is that the word "frustration" is the Greek word mataiotes. And in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version that the New Testament writers often used, this word mataiotes is found 11 times in the book Ecclesiastes. How is translated there? "Vanity", as in "all is vanity" or all is "meaningless".
You see, what Paul is telling us in Romans 8, as one familiar with Ecclesiastes, is that there is a day coming when what we see around us will not be marked by pointlessness, but purposefulness and perfection.
There is a day coming when the meaning of life will shine more brightly than the sun, and every eye will see and every heart will understand.
All of life here "under the sun", the creation as Paul describes it, all of it will one day be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
But we don't have to wait for that day, do we? Liberation is available now. Are you free? Do you want to be free?
Listen to the opening words of Romans 8 as you keep in mind the closing words of Ecclesiastes 12. Listen to what Paul writes in light of what the compiler wrote about obedience to God's law and God's judgment:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.ï»¿ 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set youï»¿ free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,ï»¿ he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit...14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sonsï»¿ of God. (Romans 8:1-4, 14)
The glorious freedom that will one day free all of creation from the futility that the Teacher wrestled, this freedom begins right now with the children of God.
This morning I pray all of us are looking, not simply around us, but above us to Jesus Christ. As the one who, on the Cross, paid the price for the futility that came because of my sin, and your sin, Jesus is the only one who can forgive us, set us free, and restore the freedom of genuine meaning to our lives.
In your search for meaning, look no further than the cross of Jesus Christ, where the apparent pointlessness of life was completely overturned by the very certain purposes of God.