Someone has once described the task of preaching in this way: 1) tell the people what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them, and 3) tell them what you told them. I’m not sure if that’s the best approach for preaching or not, but I do think that’s a pretty good summary of what the Preacher (again, mostly likely Solomon) does in Ecclesiastes. The book begins with a prologue in which the Preacher tells us what he’s going to argue, namely, that there is nothing to gain under the sun. It’s impossible to get from this world lasting gain because it’s like a vapor that is here one moment and gone the next. Then, throughout the book, he shows this to us again and again, showing us that he speaks from personal experience, accumulating proverbial sayings, and recording his observations, all in support of this thesis. And finally, as we’ll see this morning, in 12:8-14 we have the epilogue, in which he tells us once more in summary fashion what he has told us.
What’s hard to tell is if this is the Preacher or a later editor. It reads like a later editor in the sense that he speaks of “the Preacher” as if it’s another person. One could note, however, that Solomon has referred to himself as “the Preacher” throughout, but in the texts before this one he’s made clear that he’s the Preacher. For example, he writes in 1:12, “I the Preacher . . .” Yet we don’t see that in this text, leading to the thought that this could be a separate narrator. Then again, it could just be some literary technique Solomon is using as he summarizes his writing, making himself sound like he’s a separate narrator at the end of his book.
Either way, this epilogue gives us a helpful summary of what we’ve studied over these first four weeks, and I think this is good for us to have such a summary for a few reasons. First, it’s been a few weeks since we last looked at Ecclesiastes, and a reminder of what we’ve seen can’t hurt too much. Second, what we’ve looked at has been spread over twelve chapters, so this allows us to pull some key threads together in just a few verses. Third, some of you may not have been present for the first four weeks of our study, and so a summary of what we’ve seen doesn’t leave you in the dark concerning what has been argued in the previous chapters. And, finally, it’s helpful because this summary focuses on the nature of the Word of God itself, which is always a helpful focus when we’re starting a new year.
Let me show you what I mean. If you look through this epilogue, you’ll see the author writes as if speaking to his son (v. 12). And as he’s summarizing what has been taught and speaking of the nature of the book of Ecclesiastes, but what he says relates to all of Scripture as well. For example, he speaks of the words being “words of truth” (v. 10) “given by one Shepherd” (v. 11), which can be applied to the whole of Scripture. Therefore, as we start this new year, looking at this text allows us to re-center our focus on the blessing that is God’s Word, while also reminding ourselves of some of what we have seen throughout our study of the book of Ecclesiastes. What is it then that the narrator wants his son (and us) to see about the book of Ecclesiastes (and the whole of the Bible as well)? Let me list three things. First, Scripture is beautifully true and delightful.
Scripture is beautifully true and delightful.
If I were to ask you, as an exercise, to think of something beautiful or delightful, I wonder how many of us would think of the Bible. My guess is that even if we did, it may not be in the top three on our list. We perhaps think of beautiful scenery or a person, maybe a delightful taste or smell. But I know in my own life (and I’d imagine the same is true for many of you), some of the greatest beauty I’ve ever beheld and greatest delight my soul has ever tasted has been when I’m reading or hearing the preaching of the Bible. It is in those moments that I’ve found my soul itself delighting and overwhelmed with joy. And, when the Bible speaks of itself, it presents itself in this way of being beautifully true and delightful. Just think, for example, of the way David writes in Psalm 19, speaking of God’s Word as more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10).
But we don’t have to leave our text this morning to see the Bible speak this way about itself. When the author speaks to his son about what he’s just read in the in the book of Ecclesiastes, he speaks in this way as well. He says, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people with 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” (vv. 9-10).
In other words, what we’ve seen in the book of Ecclesiastes isn’t a rushed, haphazardly put together collection of sayings or ramblings from the Preacher. It is the product of his weighing what to say, arranging sayings with great care, seeking words that are delightful, and communicating truly and pointedly. In other words, Ecclesiastes is beautifully true and delightful.
And I think we can testify to that as we think back through our quest over these chapters. Solomon doesn’t simply say that when we get old, we can’t sleep, become afraid of falling, lose our teeth, and become shaky. He uses the metaphor of a house with the foundation shaking. He speaks of rising at the sound of a bird and our “grinders” ceasing because they are few. He doesn’t simply say that God is exercising his providence over all the events of life. He writes a poem that tells us there is a “time to be born, and a time to die . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1-8). And he doesn’t merely tell us to enjoy life (though he says that often!) but says to us, “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head” (5:8), referencing the party attire of the day. And I could go on with many other examples.
It is a gloriously, delightfully written book that is true in everything it says. It is beautifully true. Something can appear delightful and not be true. Just ask Eve in the garden in Genesis 3 (who saw that the fruit was a delight to the eyes and desirable to make one wise). But this is both delightfully written and beautifully true. And, brothers and sisters, I wonder if you feel and see that in all of Scripture, for Ecclesiastes is no exception. To launch into the reading of the Scripture is to dive into a book that is God’s very own revelation of himself to us. He’s put it together carefully, in all kinds of different literary forms, in a way that is aimed to show us what is beautiful and delight our souls with truths that are overwhelming at times.
It’s as if he’s packaged for us a gift that is not only itself glorious but is gloriously wrapped, and he’s imagining us diving into it as we read it, hear it read, and hear it proclaimed to us. If you don’t think of the Bible as beautiful and delightful (as it tells us it is), I want to encourage you to read it more. The Bible is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet that only makes you want to eat more (not less) with every bite. In other words, your appetite for the Word is increased by reading it not by keeping yourself from it. So, this new year, dive in and see its beauty and delight that God has graciously given us this gift. It is beautifully true and delightful, but it is also painful and piercing.
Scripture is painful and piercing.
The narrator adds in verse 11 that “the words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings.” And my guess is the reason that verse may not appear beautiful to us is because we have no idea what goads are and how they relate to nails being firmly fixed. So let’s start there. Goads were staffs used by shepherds in the ancient near east that had nails firmly fixed in them.i And apparently the way they would use these staffs is to extend them along the side of the animal. If the animal were to go in the direction the shepherd desired, all would be well. But if the animal attempted to go off course, against the desires of the shepherd, then that goad, with its firmly fixed nails, would poke into the animal’s side, causing it to correct and get back on course.
The narrator, in this last section, says to his son that these words of Ecclesiastes are “like goads, and like nails firmly fixed.” In other words, they can be painful and piercing to us, especially if we desire to push against them or think and live differently.
And we can testify to this, can’t we? Solomon’s words have been painful and piercing. If you’ve been living your life in pursuit of finding lasting gain and value and greatness in this world, really leaving your mark, then he has said to us, “a generation goes, and a generation comes . . . there is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (1:4, 11). In other words, we’re all going to die and likely be forgotten. And if you were to say, “Well, I’ll just leave everything to a generation after me, and that will be my legacy,” Solomon answers by telling us of individuals who exercise much wisdom only to hand off everything to one who foolishly squanders it. He tells us that the righteous man and the wicked man die the same, and oftentimes, it is the righteous who suffers and the wicked who prospers. And, though we could add many more piercing words, he gives us a painful picture of what old age does to us as we’re on the road to death.
It’s been painful at points, hasn’t it? But it is painful because it is true and it is painful because these words that are like goads in the shepherd’s hand come from our good Shepherd. That’s how the narrator ends verse 11. He writes, “The words of the wise are like goads and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.
In other words, these painfully piercing words that wound us—and perhaps have wounded us over the last four weeks—are God’s words to us. In other words, don’t simply think, “Wow, Solomon can be piercing.” Think, “God can be piercing.” After all, they’re his words. Why then make them so painful to our souls? Why does Scripture have to been painful and piercing like a goad? Well, for the same reason any shepherd uses a goad; God wants to keep us on the path that is best and best for us.
At the beginning of our study in Ecclesiastes I said to you that if you find the truth that you’re going to die, likely be forgotten, and not be able to extract lasting gain from this world to be crushing to you, I wanted you to hold on and walk with me through the entire study. Well, here we are at the end. And if these words, still feel like goads to you, piercing your side painfully, then let me one more time try to show you how this book works. God has given us Ecclesiastes with all of its painful truths about life under the sun because he doesn’t want us to settle simply for what death will one day snatch away. He wants us to pursue those things that death can’t touch. Just think of the way Jesus speaks in Scripture. He knows that everything we enjoy in this life we enjoy temporarily. We eat food that perishes and only leaves us hungry again. We drink water and delight in it only to thirst again. We accumulate wealth that can be snatched away with a downturn of the economy, by thieves, or simply by death. We pursue greatness that ultimately leads to us being forgotten. We hold on to life that will one day be swallowed up by death, and all those photographs we post on social media will be a testament to what has been lost as much as anything.
Jesus knows that. So, again, think of how he speaks. He offers to us bread that will lead us never to hunger again and living water that will keep us from ever thirsting again. He offers us the opportunity to store up treasure and wealth that can’t be snatched away, eaten by moths, or destroyed. He offers us greatness that will last into eternity. And he holds out to us life that death can’t touch. In other words, Jesus was more in tune with the piercing reality of death that Ecclesiastes so painfully holds up than anyone who ever walked the earth. That’s why he constantly points us to things that death can’t touch.ii
Do you see then why our Lord gives us words in Scripture generally and Ecclesiastes specifically that can be so painful and piercing? It’s not because he wants us to know pain but because he wants us to pursue those things that we simply won’t pursue without a painful goad here and a firmly fixed nail piercing us there. He knows that if the Spirit doesn’t inspire Solomon to write as he has, many of us will settle for pursuing only those things that death can snatch away. And Jesus wants more for us than that.
But this doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the temporary things. In fact, he’s commanded it throughout this book. He has told us to enjoy our life under the sun. Enjoy the wife of your youth. Enjoy your youth itself. Enjoy all things as gifts from God. And enjoy them, knowing that they’re a pale reflection of what your heart will one day have when death itself is swallowed up in victory. In other words, let the fact that they’re temporary lead your heart to hunger for what is eternal. Enjoy them as you do appetizers in a multi-course meal. They’re going to leave you hungry but only because their purpose is not to fill your stomach but to whet your appetite for what is coming.iii So enjoy life now, knowing that even our richest joys are pointing us to something even more glorious, something that isn’t temporary. And as we grieve, remember that there is coming a day when—in the words of Revelation 21:4—there shall be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. One day every joy will be out of the reach of death’s claws. That’s why the saints have cried throughout the ages, “Lord, come quickly!”
But it’s hard to keep our focus on what is now unseen and eternal, isn’t it? We’re all the time pulled toward what we see in the here and now as if all of these things are the primary things. But God, in his grace, as we move that direction, allows the goad—the words of Scripture—to pierce our sides with the gentle reminder, “Don’t settle for that. Don’t pursue the fleeting pleasures of sin. Don’t pursue lesser things. Obey the words of the Shepherd who has laid down his life for you.” What a gift the painful and piercing Scriptures are to us! And this brings us to a find note in our summary, namely, that Scripture is to be obeyed with an eye toward judgment.
Scripture is to be obeyed with an eye toward judgment.
In the last three verses, the author gives us one final summary statement. He first says in verse 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.” This isn’t the Scripture’s way of forbidding the writing and publishing of books. Rather, I think it’s the author’s way of saying that we should not come to Ecclesiastes (or the Bible itself) as a book which provides us a foundation from which we can launch into writing what really can change people’s lives. No, it’s the Bible itself that can change people’s lives. We simply need to commit to the Bible, which leads us to verses 13-14.
In these last two verses the father says to his son, “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” (vv. 13-14).
And that really is such a beautiful summary and finale to this book. Ecclesiastes has been written in order to push us to lift our eyes above the sun, if you will. It’s been written to say, “Stop living like unbelievers who try to extract from life and the world here and now what can only be found through a relationship and walk with our God.” Fear him. Keep his commandments. Live life under the recognition that judgment is coming.
Brothers and sisters, live your life for God’s sake. Let everything you do be done in light of him and his commandments. Do everything because you love him. Going back to our last message, work hard because he has given you the gift of being able to work. Enjoy all of his good gifts because you want to honor the one who has given them to you. Serve God while you can because he’s your Creator and Redeemer before whom you’ll stand on the last day. In other words, make your life all about Jesus Christ.
Earlier in the service we heard a reading from Philippians 1:21 where Paul says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In the New Testament there is no better summary of Ecclesiastes than that statement. That’s what the Preacher has been saying throughout and what the father says to his son now in this last section. Make your life about fearing God and keeping his commandments. Let us say with the apostle Paul that for us to live is Christ. That’s the foundation and content of our lives. We live to love him, serve him, obey him, and worship him. We live with faith in him as the one who lived for us, died for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day. May we be able to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ.”
And if we live by faith in the crucified and risen Lord, then death—which snatches away every relationship and everything we love and have accumulated in this life—will only be a doorway to real and lasting gain for us. It will be the means by which we take hold of a life and eternal blessings that death will never be able to snatch away from us again. May we, this year, be able to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And may we remember why that is possible now as we give thanks in coming to the table. Amen.
i David Gibson, Living Life Backward, 156.
ii Matthew McCullough has a very helpful section on this point in his book, Remember Death, p. 141.
iii McCullough uses this illustration throughout the final chapters of his book, Remember Death.