BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE
by Steve Zeisler
The book of Ecclesiastes is the record of an impressive royal adventure.
I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And
I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been
done under heaven.
Solomon marshaled all of his considerable resources, and from the heights
of his regal authority in Jerusalem set out to take on life and make things
happen. In our final study today we reach the end of the book. Here we will
discover that the perspective is very different from the beginning. Solomon
continues with the counsel which we saw last week, that life should be seized
and lived with joy, but the thought which dominates this closing section
is that we grow old and die. The clouds cover the sun, darkness sets in,
our bodies deteriorate, and we die. These are not the findings of the youthful
man meeting life head-first. Solomon is old and failing. He is still offering
counsel, but now his advice is quite different indeed.
ADVICE TO THE YOUNG
We begin with verse 7 of chapter 11 :
The light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the
sun. Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all,
and let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. Everything
that is to come will be futility. Rejoice, young man, during your childhood,
and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow
the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God
will bring you to judgment for all these things. So remove vexation from
your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime
of life are fleeting. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, "I
have no delight in them..."
Earlier this month I ministered at the funeral service of a woman who had
been married for 62 years. I talked with her 82-year-old husband in their
home, and listened as he reminisced about his wife and their many years
together. Even as I was preparing to speak at her funeral, I was getting
ready to teach our high school students Sunday School hour. I hoped to urge
them to prepare for a lifetime of service to God. As I studied for this
morning's message I remembered my preparation for these other speaking engagements.
Solomon is now an old man, long past his prime, and in this closing section
he urges young people to consider his words of advice while they yet have
opportunity. I find myself somewhere in between these two age groups. I
have high school children of my own, and I minister among some older folk
who are nearing the end. (Ogden Nash measured his own progress toward old
age in these words: "Old age begins and middle age ends,/The day your
descendants outnumber your friends".) It is important that young people
hear the wisdom of their elders.
"REJOICE, YOUNG MAN"
The aged Solomon gives two words of advice here to young people. First,
enjoy life, he counsels. Put away vexation; avoid making life unduly difficult
while you are young. Nowadays young people are under constant pressure to
act older than their years. From first grade on they must contend with pressures
toward higher education and academic achievement. Divorce forces some children
to take on adult roles, with resultant emotional damage to their personalities.
These are just some of the ways in which young people today must contend
with pressure toward early maturity. Solomon's word, however, is that young
people should enjoy being young. There is so much to experience, so many
skills that can be acquired, so much adventure to be enjoyed. Thus, he counsels,
"remove vexation from your heart." Enjoy your youth.
When I look back, I must admit that there are I things I wish I had done
in my teen and college years. I was in college during the Vietnam war years
when students felt the burden to change the course of the nation. Other
generations of students enjoyed more time for relationships and learning.
As a student at Stanford, I could have played on the beautiful Stanford
golf course any time I liked, for instance, but I rarely did. I regret not
doing so because it's almost impossible to get on the course now. I wish
I had learned to snow ski when I was younger. Once when I was invited by
a friend to be in his wedding I declined because I felt I could not afford
to travel the long distance required. I wish I had done this. I feel that
our friendship has been damaged by my frugality.
I know people who regret giving themselves over to dissipation when they
were young. They regarded pleasure as a god and gave themselves to rebelliously
serve that god. On the other hand, I know others who regret taking on excessive
responsibility, duty and hard work at an early age. But I don't know anyone
who looks back and regrets having made good friends. I don't know anyone
who regrets seizing the moment to enjoy fellowship, joy and accomplishment.
Thus, Solomon counsels the young to enjoy life.
But he gives two boundaries to his advice. First, God will judge what you
do. We should not make a god of pleasure. Our joy in living should be informed
by righteousness. But most of what God approves of is delightful and joyful.
So the first boundary is to recognize that God will judge what you do. Then,
says Solomon, the prime of life is fleeting. Youth does not last forever.
Later you may not have opportunity to do some of the things you perhaps
should be doing now. Sitting in Ron Ritchie's office this morning was a
good reminder to me that God has given us much to enjoy in life. The walls
of Ron's office are covered with photographs of people he knows and places
around the globe where he and his family have visited. He has taught me
much in this area.
"REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR"
Solomon's second word of advice to young people is contained in the words
of 12:1: "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before
the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have no
delight in them'." If you are excited and joyful at the created world,
then take time to appreciate the Creator also. The day is coming, as your
body deteriorates, when pain and restriction will cloud the beauty around
you. The word "remember" here is not referring to a recollection
of a list of things, but rather it is a call to know and grow to love God.
As we walk with him and listen to him, he will explain his world to us.
Solomon's advice to youth then is, rejoice in the created world, and know
the Creator. As time goes by and you become set in your ways, as resentments
are built, as distractions, pain and pressures grow, it is much more difficult
to know and delight in your Creator. We could say that Solomon is advising
against self-love. One of the ways we can succeed in doing this is to love
what God has made, and also to love him.
Now let's look to Solomon himself and what he has to say about the aging
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before
the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, "I have
no delight in them"; before the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars
are darkened, and clouds return after the rain; in the day that the watchmen
of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle
because they are few, and those who look through the windows grow dim; and
the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low,
and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and the daughters of song will
Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road;
the almond tree blossoms. the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry
is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about
in the street. Remember him before the silver cord is broken and the golden
bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the
cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and
the Spirit will return to God who gave it.
Solomon uses a variety of metaphors to describe an old person's body as
well as the aging process: the clouds and the heavens, a great estate whose
building is dilapidated and whose staff are old and weary, a lamp, a well,
the insect world, etc. All of these metaphors testify to the certainty of
growing old and losing one's faculties.
Stuart Hamblin, a Christian songwriter of some years back, made similar
observations about age with these lyrics,
I ain't gonna need this house no longer,
I ain't 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
Or fix a broken window pane.
Ain't gonna need this house no longer,
I'm gittin' ready to meet the saints.
Let us consider in detail Solomon's observations. He begins in 12:2 by referring
to the heavenly bodies becoming darkened and the clouds returning after
the rain. Here is what Derek Kidner says about this in his helpful little
book A Time To Mourn And A Time To Dance::
There is the chill of winter in the air of verse 2, as the rains
persist and the clouds turn daylight into gloom, and then night into pitch
blackness. It is a scene somber enough to bring home to us not only the
fading of physical and mental powers but the more general desolations of
old age. There are many lights that are able to be withdrawn, besides the
senses and faculties, as, one by one, old friends are taken, familiar customs
change, and long-held hopes have to be abandoned. All this will come at
a stage when there is no longer the resilience of youth or the prospect
of recovery to offset it. In one's early years, and for the greater part
of life, troubles and illnesses are chiefly set-backs, not disasters. One
expects the sky to clear eventually. It is hard to adjust to the closing
of that long chapter: to know that now, in the final stretch, there will
be no improvement: the clouds will always gather again, and time will no
longer heal, but kill.
The light fades, the clouds gather again after the rain. Our hope that things
will be different, that a new door will open, is lost in great old age.
THE LOSS OF STRENGTH
Solomon goes on to describe the failing physical body. The "watchmen
of the house," the hands, begin to tremble. The "mighty men stoop":
the legs become bent and bowed. The "grinding ones stand idle because
they are few": many teeth are missing so chewing is difficult. "Those
who look through the windows grow dim": the eyes grow dim and seeing
clearly is impossible. "The doors on the street are shut as the sound
of the grinding mill is low." This may be a reference to the failure
of the digestive system. "One will arise at the sound of the bird,
and all the daughters of song will sing softly": the faintest sound,
even a bird singing, awakens the old from their sleep. But, paradoxically,
their hearing is not as good as formerly; everyone's voice seems fainter.
"Men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road": the
old are fearful of losing their balance and falling; they are fearful of
venturing outside because of the dangers involved. "The almond tree
blossoms": the white heads of the old resemble the white blossoms of
the almond tree. "The grasshopper drags himself along": the one
who formerly had a sprightly gait, who hopped and skipped along, now must
drag himself along. "The caperberry is ineffective": in ancient
times a caperberry was thought to have been an aphrodisiac, thus here we
have a reference to diminished sexual desire in old age.
"For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about
in the street. Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden
bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the
cistern is crushed."
One picture here describes a beautiful lamp hanging by a silver thread.
The thread breaks and the lamp is crushed. A second metaphor describes a
pitcher being lowered by a wheel into a well, and both pitcher and wheel
are broken. Pictured here are our mental faculties and our ability in old
age to think clearly: the light from the lamb, the water drawn up from the
well. Remember God, says Solomon, before your mind fades in its ability
to do what you call on it to do .
Ray Stedman made some humorous observations on this passage in his study
in Ecclesiastes Solomon's Secret:
Just when your face clears up, your mind begins to go!
Your knees buckle when your belt won't!
Let us acknowledge that modern technology has helped solve many
of these problems. We can buy wigs when our hair falls out and dentures
when our teeth rot. Glasses, contact lenses, even glass eyes will help with
vision problems. Artificial legs, hands and arms can be fitted. All of these
are great devices. With all the help that modern technology avails, it must
be quite a sight when some people get ready for bed. It would be like watching
the demolition of a house.
Young people therefore should seize the opportunity and rejoice in the creation
and love the Creator. The aging process, according to Solomon, is negative.
For the purposes of this book he is not able to testify, as we can, that
there is life beyond the grave. So he gives the good advice to young people
to know the Creator. We can add much more to this. The New Testament tells
us that we should seek out and know God because we can have a relationship
with him that can last forever.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS
The last section of Ecclesiastes is in many ways the most important. Verse
In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the
people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.
The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth
correctly. The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections
are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this,
my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion
to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard,
is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.
Because God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden,
whether it is good or evil.
These verses are a postscript to the book of Ecclesiastes, which comes to
an end as it began with the words
of 12:8: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is
vanity!" Solomon stuck to the ground rules with which he began his
observation of life lived "under the sun." He gathered truth and
expressed it beautifully in eloquent words and observations. He did not
cheat and ask God for answers.
So we have this remarkable document describing life without benefit of revelation
from God. As he comes to the end of his literary work, however, Solomon
realizes that there is more to say. What he has tried to do is awaken hunger
for God by leaving God out of the analysis, by talking of hopes and joys
that fade after a time, by recognizing the difficulty of having self-worth
if we are no different than the generations which preceded us, by acknowledging
the repetitious nature of life. All of that has a way of making us hunger
for answers. "Eternity has been set in man's heart," says Solomon.
The life that ends in the manner he describes in the first part of this
chapter, in the degeneration of the body and the mind, does not answer the
call for hope that rises up inside. There must be more. This is why he wrote
this book: to make us anxious for more information which comes from beyond
the natural world. He had a plan to carefully, truthfully and beautifully
say what he had to say so that we would engage ourselves by seeking deeper
THE WORK OF THE SHEPHERD
Then in verse 11 he begins to point to something much greater:
"The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these
collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.
But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless,
and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body."
Solomon is saying that there are places where nails have been driven, where
pegs have been set that are sure and will not change. He has talked about
life being an endless cycle where nothing lasts forever; there is no secure
thing to take hold of. But then he refers to well-driven nails given by
one Shepherd, places where we can hang on. But we also have the goad of
a Shepherd who uses his words to prick us and guide us back to where we
should be found. These goads will not let us settle for phony answers. They
poke at us and stir us, making us face things which we would not otherwise
see. The Shepherd who cares for us is the one who awakens us to something
that is more than this book reveals. There are better answers. There is
sufficient hope. There is truth that goes farther than what we see "under
"The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God
and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. Because
God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether
it is good or evil."
Solomon's quest "to explore by wisdom all that has been done under
heaven" (1:13) partook of an arrogance that kept him from finding answers.
At the end he advocates humility. If you are going to ask questions, be
willing to receive the answers. This is the point in his warning on excessive
devotion to books. You can become so enamored with the process of observation,
and your own ability to articulate the nuances, that you will never come
to any conviction about anything. C. S. Lewis in his book The Great
Divorce described a man who stood at the gates of heaven and was
offered answers to all his questions, but the thought of this was so distasteful
to him he responded, "Let the winds of free thought blow." He
went back to hell to join a discussion group because he did not want final,
definitive answers to his questions.
HUMILITY IN OBEDIENCE
Solomon's conclusion here is, fear God, humble yourself before him, and
keep his commandments. Live as God has directed. If we would have life,
we must not be so arrogant as to insist that we can live life alone.
"God will bring every act to judgment, everything which
is hidden, whether it is good or evil."
God, not us, is the one who evaluates everything. Things which we think
are hidden, concerns that we are not adequate to judge are all brought to
light and judged. In him and in him only does the whole process of being
human make sense.
Solomon asked all the questions and looked squarely at all of life, its
hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows. In the last analysis he declares that we
must cease asking questions and worship God. Our most important choice is
to bend our knee before God and receive answers from him.
Jesus Christ is the answer. He has paid the price of our debt. We have truth,
knowledge and awareness of life eternal, not just life "under the sun."
Here we recognize that although our bodies deteriorate we are destined to
receive new bodies one day. God speaks from heaven and he can be known in
the great message of the gospel. "Fear God and keep his commandments,"
Solomon concludes. The heart that obeys these commands is the heart will
find its way to faith in Christ.
In Romans 8, Paul speaks about the end of futility, vanity, uselessness,
weightlessness, the same word used in Ecclesiastes. Here is how the apostle
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are
not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For
the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the
sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own
will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself
also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of
the glory of the children of God.
Creation has a futility about it. There are vain, frustrating elements to
life. The children of God are waiting for their final redemption, their
new bodies. Our intimacy with God is waiting for a fuller expression when
we behold him face to face, no longer through a glass darkly. It is the
heart that fears God and obeys his commandments that comes to know Christ.
In him we have certain hope. The vanity and foolishness of life on a rebel
planet is only temporary. The day is coming when the glory of the children
of God will be revealed.
Lord, young and old alike, we want to hear your truth. Although
we see and feel the process of deterioration taking place, we need not fear
it. Keep us from the arrogance that refuses to bend the knee before you,
the insistence that we can understand and master life alone. Make us humble
men and women who desire to live as you have given us to live, who look
forward to the day when we and creation both no longer have to partake in
futility, but in life itself. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Catalog No. 4088a
November 27, 1988
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