In his book, Remember Death, Matthew McCullough writes, “Three hundred years ago it was impossible to avoid death, because death was everywhere. . . . It happened within the walls of every home. And it happened not only to your grandparents. It happened to your daddy. It happened to your little brother. It happened to your new bride. It happened to your children.” Contrasting that time with our own day, he continues, “Death has not just become invisible, swept away into the alien world of hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Death has become unmentionable. . . . If you admitted to thinking often of your own death you’d be labeled morbid[.] Or what if, over Thanksgiving dinner, you asked your father how he was feeling about his death in light of his stage 4 cancer? Would it not seem at best impolite, at worst cruel? We don’t often talk about death anymore.”i
He’s right, isn’t he? That is, of course, unless your pastor attempts to preach through the book of Ecclesiastes. Then, you get sermon points like, “We’re all going to die and likely be forgotten,” which has become, so it seems, the most remembered sermon point I’ve ever made. But maybe that’s a good thing. After all, death is an inevitable reality, and it’s terrible, isn’t it? The Bible refers to death as an enemy, and it’s easy to see why. It removes us from all the people we love. Even our marriage vows are made with the humble realization that, if nothing else does, death will one day tear us apart. It tears at our dignity as it does its decaying work, often reducing a strong, able man, to one who can no longer care for himself. It takes our great joys in life and snatches them away. And, as Solomon has reminded us in this book, it is a “head-on assault” against our significance as humans in this life “under the sun.”ii
Yet, as Christians, we have an answer for this, don’t we? The reality of death that so many around us are trying to ignore with every last ounce of their ability to do so doesn’t have to be a haunting reality in our lives. For the believer, we know that just as death wasn’t the last word for our Savior on that Friday, so it won’t be the last word for us. Easter Sunday morning will come for all of us, just as it did for him. Therefore, instead of attempting to ignore death, pushing it as far out of our minds as possible, we (of all people) can be honest about death—about the fact that (unless the Lord returns) it is certain for all of us—and allow the reality of death to help us see and treasure what we have in Christ and shape how we live our lives.
I think that is what this fourth section of the book of Ecclesiastes is about. Now, as you can tell, I’m taking a look at a longer section of the book than we’ve looked at the previous three weeks. I guess you might say that you could see it coming. We looked at eleven verses in week one, a chapter and a half in week two, and a bit over three chapters in week 3. And that escalation continues this morning as we will look at a little over five-and-a-half chapters (6:10-12:8).
But the reason I wanted to take this large section in one sermon is because if you pull back for a second from reading the book and allow yourself to gaze on this portion of Ecclesiastes from a higher altitude, if you will, you’re able to see a certain symmetry, I believe, to this section of text that has at its center another reminder of the inevitability of death that has dominated so much of this book. We see it in 9:2-3, as the Preacher writes, “It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.” That “event” he’s referring to is our death. It happens to all of us.
The glorious thing about this news, however, is that Ecclesiastes teaches us how to live in light of it. So, this morning, I want to start with a consideration of a truth that we see throughout this section and then give us three points of application. First, the truth: Life is unpredictable, but death is certain.
Life is unpredictable, and death is certain
One of the things that Solomon has noted throughout this book but notes again in this section is that life is unpredictable, but death is certain. He writes, for example, in 7:15, “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” We have this inherent idea that good things in life should happen to the righteous, and evil should happen to the wicked. This is why the book of Job shows us Job’s friends being so confounded. Surely Job must have been a wicked man, so they figure, for all this evil to come upon him. But that’s not how life works on this side of Genesis 3. Sometimes good things happen to those who pursue wickedness and evil things happen to those pursuing righteousness. Life is simply unpredictable from our vantage point. He mentions this truth again in 8:14, writing, “There is a vanity that takes place on the earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.” And there’s no use disputing with God about it (6:10), for who can make straight what God has made crooked (7:13)?
Finally, he once more reminds us of the unpredictable nature of life while also reminding us that the one thing we know for certain is that all of us will die. He writes, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (9:11-12).
We don’t know when, but death is coming for all of us. This is the truth that has given the substance of Solomon’s thesis. Because we’re all going to die and likely be forgotten, don’t spend your life trying to chase lasting significance on this side of eternity (“under the sun”). It’s a meaningless pursuit, like building sandcastles on the beach, because life is a vapor, a mist that is here today and gone tomorrow. A generation comes and a generation goes, and the earth remains. So, all your pursuit of lasting meaning and significance and gain in this life are like chasing after the wind, the Preacher tells us. And he knows because he’s tried it. So, how do you live in a world that is utterly unpredictable, where often glorious things happen to the wicked and evil things happen to those pursuing righteousness, and the only predictable thing is death?
Well, that’s what this section of Ecclesiastes teaches us. It teaches us what to do on this side of eternity, while we live in this broken world. But before I get to the specific application that Solomon provides for us, let me encourage you to remember what you have in Christ.
For some of you, this message of seeking everlasting gain and remembrance in this life being an empty pursuit has been freeing. I know it has. I’ve talked to many of you. You’ve told me how much you need this reminder because this meaningless pursuit can often feel so tempting. But some others of you have felt this book to be more crushing than freeing. And it may be for one of two reasons. It may be because it’s crushing your pursuits that you’ve yet to see are empty. Maybe you’ve lived your life pursuing a lasting name or memory or accomplishment or pleasure, and this news that you’re going to die and likely be forgotten pushes against you in a way that you simply don’t want to hear. You want to hear that a thousand years from now they’ll still be whispering your name in the streets. But that’s simply not the case.
In fact, as I’ve thought about it more, I realized that I don’t know the names of six of my great grandparents. Now, think about that. There are four couples who have had a pretty profound impact in my life in that they bore my grandparents, who bore my parents, who bore me, and I don’t even know most of their names!iii And what this means is that if this pattern holds, my kids’ grandchildren will not know my name. I mean, we’re not talking thousands of years before I’m forgotten, just a couple more generations. So, if that’s what you’re pinning your hopes on—significance and being remembered in this life on this side of eternity—and that’s why this message has felt crushing, then maybe your response needs to be to repent. You’re living no differently than an unbeliever who hopes in this life only.
But there may be a second reason you’ve felt this message to be crushing, and it’s because you’ve taken your eyes off of what is yours in Christ. In other words, you hear this note that you’re going to die and be forgotten, and you think, “Then my life holds no value. I am meaningless. What I do matters to no one in any real way.” But what you need to do if that is you is lift up your eyes beyond the sun. Brother or sister, it may be that your name will not be engraved on any building—and even if it were that building would one day be grazed to the ground and your name forgotten—but there is one who tells us in Isaiah 49:16 that he will never forget you because he has engraved your name on the palms of his hand. There is one who says, “You’re valued because you’re my adopted child, whom I love, and for whom I sent my Son.” So, do everything, even tasks that seem empty, so as to bring glory to him, to the one who loves you and gave himself for you. You hold more value to him and will be remembered by him in a way that this world (“under the sun”) can never give you. So, quit chasing things under the sun and look to the one who made the sun. That’s my encouraging word to you who have perhaps attempted to turn from idolatry in this life but still feel despair. Lift your eyes to heaven.
But I also want to give us some very practical applications for how to life day-in and day-out in this world that is full of unpredictable realities and the certainty of death. Let me name a few, starting with this:
The Preacher writes in 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” Let the fact that one day you won’t be around encourage you to work now. In other words, if you’re thinking, “Well, one day I’ll be dead and forgotten, so what’s the use the doing anything now?” you’re thinking unbiblically. Instead you should say, “Since I don’t know how long I’ll be alive, I’m going to get to work and work hard right now.”
“But,” you could say, “You’ve only mentioned the certainty of death. What about the unpredictable nature of the world? My work may be destroyed. My work may fail. Shouldn’t that paralyze me?” But the Preacher addresses this as well in 11:1-6. He writes, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
Do you see what he’s saying? You don’t know whether or not it’ll rain. You don’t know whether or not a tree might fall or what other disaster might happen. But if you don’t sow, you’re not going to reap. So, put your hand to the plow and get to work. Sure, diversify (i.e. “cast your bread upon [many] waters”). Plan for contingencies. But don’t be idle.
Let this influence how you live as individuals, and let’s let this influence how we work as a church. It may be that Cornerstone Community Church as we know it won’t be around fifty years from now. I don’t know. But we’re going to labor as if it will be. We’re going to put money into the building if we have to, expand the parking lot, keep investing in training pastors and planters, keep planting churches, put documents in place intending to help keep the church orthodox a hundred years from now, and on and on. Now, yes, it may be that a couple of generations later this church won’t exist. That’s okay. As Solomon says, I don’t know what the work of the Lord will be. But right now, let’s work hard and labor faithfully.
Another thing the Preacher stresses that we need to do amidst the unpredictability of life and the certainty of death is to enjoy the life God has given you.
Enjoy the life God has given you
This has been a theme throughout the book, but the Preacher greatly stresses it in these chapters once more. In 8:15, “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.” Once more, he commends joy. Just enjoy your lot in life, your toil, and the fruit of it. This is a gift that the Lord has given you in this life, under his providential control.
But the Preacher actually does more than commend enjoying our lot in life, he actually commands joy. He writes in 9:7-9, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”
Now, when he says let your garments always be white and let not oil be lacking on your head, that might not communicate clearly to us in the twenty-first century, but what helps is understanding that white garments and oil in one’s hair would have been how one would adorn himself for festive occasions. Thus, he is saying, “Don’t simply make enjoyment of life restricted to certain occasions. Enjoy the life God has given you in each moment.”
Since diving into Ecclesiastes, we have a new statement that has entered our home. It is, “This too is a gift from the Lord.” I say it (either out loud or to myself) when we’re sitting in front of the fireplace watching a good movie as a family, when we’re eating a good meal around the kitchen table, when I’m blowing up leaves in the yard and mowing them for what feels like the hundredth time. And, Lord-willing, I’ll say it if the HVAC unit goes out or the car needs repair. I say it for a few reasons. One of them is that I want to remember that even the dark days (which the Preacher references in 11:8 – “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many”) are God’s appointed lot for me in life, and I need to recognize that he is working for my good in them. Another is because I don’t know if I’m going to be around next week. I could drop dead tomorrow or live another forty years. So, I want to learn to try to enjoy each moment along the way, for sitting in front that fireplace on a cold evening with my family is a gift to be cherished, is a moment that God approves of, and is something which honors the Lord as I enjoy his good gifts. Enjoying the moments of life as gifts from God and giving thanks to him for them isn’t pop-psychology. It’s a command from Scripture.
As we’ve seen in Ecclesiastes, if you make life about pursuing lasting gain, meaning, and significance (“under the sun” – on this side of eternity only), then you’ll be greatly disappointed. It’s like chasing after the wind. But if you move from gain to gift, then you can take things as they are—gifts from God, not to make you finally mean something, but to enjoy and thank God for, in these few days which we live. Let’s move from gain to gift and be a people who enjoy and give thanks to God for our lot in life.
And finally, as practical as ever, the Preacher exhorts us to serve and obey God while you’re young.
Serve and obey God while you can
Youth is passing, so serve God now. That’s the message of the end of our text this morning. In 12:1-8, the Preacher gives us an honest and painful look at what can happen to our bodies as we age. Solomon uses metaphors in verses 2-7 to describe the elderly one seeing his legs get shaky, starting to hunch over, losing his sight, losing his teeth, losing his hearing, becoming afraid of falling, getting gray hair, losing sexual desire, not sleeping well, having his heart and mind give out, and ultimately dying. And, sadly, many here today can confirm these realities.
So, what’s the Preacher’s practical advice? He says, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (12:1). Let me say this differently, “If you’re able to serve God now, serve God now.”
In other words, if you’re starting to see some of these things happen in your body, just go ahead and keep serving and obeying God now. There may come a time when your mind doesn’t work well enough to pray for your brothers and sisters, but if you can do it now, do it. There may come a time when you can no longer instruct others in biblical truth, but if you can do it now, do it. There may be a time when you can no longer speak the gospel to others, but if you can speak now, do it.
And let me say one another thing, especially to those who are on the younger side of things. Don’t live your life planning to really obey God when you get old. Don’t say, “When I get older and really established, I’ll start giving like crazy.” You may be dead before that day comes. Give of your treasure now. Store up treasure in heaven now. Serve others now. Our deacons tell me they could use help with people running slides, the sound board, the video camera, ushering and communion each week, and each of those things are things that so many of us can do right now. Tomorrow you might not be able to serve the Lord in ways you can serve him today, so don’t wait to serve and obey the Lord.
Last week I attended the funeral of Dr. Kent Jones. And I was encouraged and challenged by so many things. Mostly I was encouraged that his faith was in the one who lived, died, and was raised for him because that meant that he is with the Lord, and the testimony of the Lord’s transforming work in his life was powerful. But I was also encouraged by the testimony of a man who worked hard, enjoyed life and thanked God for it, and served the Lord while he was able. I met Dr. Jones when he started attending a class I was teaching at Union. He told me that night that he’d had a stroke while undergoing a procedure where the chances of having a stroke were only one percent. And so he’d had to walk away from his profession as a surgeon. And then he battled Parkinson’s disease that crippled his body, until he died and went to be with Christ a few weeks ago.
So as I sat up in the balcony last Saturday, listening to this powerful testimony from his sons who shared in his funeral, I couldn’t help but think of Ecclesiastes 6:10-12:8 and how well he had lived out these truths. And I also thought about my own life. Solomon writes in 7:2, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” He’s right. So, I drove home determined to be more grateful for the Lord’s daily gifts in my life, until the day when he comes to take me home, to work hard, enjoying God’s gifts, and serving him while I can. And my prayer for us is that as we realize this world is not our lasting home, we will live in such a way that Christ is honored, as Solomon says, for the few fleeting days of our lives.
Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Downers Grove, IL: Crossway, 2018), 34, 45-46.
The only reason I even know the names of my maternal grandmother’s parents is because my grandmother had children really young as did my mom. If each of them had waited a while to have children, all of my great grandparents would have been dead and unknown by me before my birth.