What's the Answer?
Eccl. 11:1-5,9-10; 12:13-14
Tom J. Nettles
Solomon gives some final observations about authority, submission, foolishness, generosity, the deceitful nature of youth, the quickness with which age advances and its aggravating debilities, the nature of revelation, judgments and the fear of God. One must bear in mind the progressive nature of revelation and how the observations presented here are given even greater clarity as we progress in the canon and see the fulfillment of all in the work of Christ and the preaching and writing of the apostles.
I. Chapter ten deals with several different areas in which patience, deference, and wisdom provided positive advantages.
A. In political relations, the dynamic between the governed and the governors should be marked by an understanding of the proper spheres of action, and to relate so that the greatest advantage accrues to all. 10:4-7, 16, 17, 20. Folly and arrogance on the part of those that are not given authority or who have no gift for it will result in damage to them and to those ruled by them. Those that do rule must guard against the corruption and arrogance that authority breeds so as not to give rise to the unsettledness that dissatisfaction breeds. In addition, appointments of unworthy and unqualified people as rulers is a burden for the entire country (5-7)
B. Efforts to overturn just arrangements in human relations for purely selfish reasons will turn to harm for those that pursue them—either here or hereafter. 10:8
C. When a person has an intrinsic propensity for foolishness, it is impossible not to hear it in his manner of talking or see its bad fruit in his deportment. 10:1-3, 12-15, 18
D. Even in the common labors of life we can be destroyed. If not pursued with care and a sense of efficiency, our livelihood can become our downfall. In the use of unusual gifts, wisdom makes one’s tasks much more pleasing, safe, and easy to perform. The common elements of life give joy in their proper, though limited, sphere. 10:9-11, 19
II. Chapter 11, verses 1-6 - In matters of generosity and a joyful stewardship of opportunity to do good, one must not be slow to take advantage or overly cautious about how it is to be used by its recipient.
A. Verse one – It might appear to be a foolish thing to cast bread on the waters and expect any return from it or any good to result. But, in the providence of God things that are given out of a generous heart, simply in light of an observed need, with no expectation of personal benefit will find their way back to the giver in incorruptible blessings. That bread cast upon the waters that return to its distributor has an enduring quality, transformed from its original temporal nature into that that the destructive elements of this age cannot destroy.
B. Verse two – Meet as many needs as you can in manifest love to your neighbor—distribute as widely and to as many ministries as you see to be focused on gospel truth—while the opportunity presents itself. An open door may soon be shut; a needy child may soon be dead; a famine may soon sweep away a massive population; a publishing venture for the distribution of godly literature may not have another opportunity to materialize; the window of opportunity for that Bible study in the prison may soon shut. Slow and deliberate—hesitant—investigation of what is a clearly observed need or opportunity is just sinful procrastination. Solomon enforces this with observations about inanimate nature and human nature.
1. When the clouds are abundant with moisture and the condensing coolness of an air mass approaches, the rain falls, and it does so on the just and the unjust. It does not hold the back the life-giving water that thrills the plants and the animals of the earth and sustains the life of all humans, whether good or bad.
2. When a tree falls, it does not inquire if that was the right place to fall, not does it seek to reposition itself for a greater advantage either to itself or to its surroundings. “Where the tree falls, there it will lie.” It will provide food for worms and insects of various sorts, safe shelter for forest rodents, and eventually become humus to beautify the forest with extra green plants or a source for fertile soil in a gardener’s tomato patch. Even so, where God has planted us and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
3. verse four - The one that always takes unnecessary, and often irrational, precautions and can think of a thousand possible interruptions of the good intention will either not do the thing at hand, or be so hesitant that the propitious opportunity passes. “The wind probably will be too high tomorrow, so I will not plan to sow. It probably will rain next week and I will not be able to reap. No one will want to come, so we should not invite our neighbors in for a meal. There could be an uprising among the tribesman, so we should not plan that evangelistic trip.”
C. Verse 5 – Divine providence contains as many secrets as does his wisdom and power in creation. He has made the miracle of procreation as an astounding mystery. In the womb of a woman a child is formed, not only in its matter, as amazing as that is, but in its spirit, all the consequence of the union of the sperm and the egg. Originally created from dust in his material aspect, and receiving from the very breath of God his spiritual personhood, man is indeed a psych-somatic being. How these two diverse realities compose the single person and how the single person with both realities is propagated in reproduction cannot be fathomed by us, but it does not stop the process of bearing children from one generation to another. So does providence hold deep mysteries that transcend our understanding; if, in seeing an opportunity to be generous in mercy, to be exorbitant in support of the word of truth and its proclamation, we suspend our duty to do good on our ability to predict God’s providence then forever we will be at a loss as to what to do. “You do not know the work of God who makes everything,” and so how can you base your decision to do the right thing on an exhaustive knowledge of his providential purposes?
1. verse 6 - both in the morning and the evening, therefore, do not withhold your hand from doing good. This sowing, both in the morning and the evening, is a sowing to the Spirit. “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:6-8).
2. An abundance of sowing will mean that every opportunity has been taken, so the one that could bear fruit is not missed.
III. Enjoy the strength for legitimate pleasure in this life, but always with a knowledge of the final appearance before God – 11:7-12:8
A. 7, 8 - A comparison of the joy of light with the certainty of the day of darkness. Light is truly a lift to the spirits. It was created first, even before the sun. The eye was peculiarly adapted to receive light as it reflects off all other created things so that their form and beauty delight the whole person through the eyes. We “see the sun” in the light of all things around us and they remind us of the goodness of life and the pleasantness of the created order. All that we can enjoy, we should, for when God created it he pronounced it as “good.” It will not always be so, for in this fallen world, our ability to enjoy decreases, and the assault of nature wearies us and leads finally to many dark days. Even the goodness of this fallen world is temporary, will soon pass, as will this entire earth. So, in terms of eternity, this too is vanity.
B. An ironical admonition to young people who have very little concept of the shortness of life or of the accountability they must render to God for the use of their time and strength.
1. Young people have a tendency to feel invincible because the time of death seems so far away. So, in irony, Solomon encourages them to think of themselves in terms of eternal youth. Rejoice in your youth, let your heart cheer you in your youth. Take no thought that each day moves you toward the time of old age, and then weakness, and then death. Let your own ignorant obliviousness to the fact that every person that dies had at one time been filled with all the dreams and energy and cheer of youth.
2. Give your self to the desires of your heart. Allow all the things that tantalize your eyes to give a goal for your energies. Because of the strength of your desires as a young person, perhaps you will be excused.
3. Ah, No. There are no ages in humanity in which the moral law of God does not apply; “The hearts of the children of men,” Solomon already has observed, “are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts” (9:3) None of the things you do nor the motives behind the things you do will escape the eye of God. “For all these things, God will bring you into judgment.” As you pursue, therefore, your carnal appetite and your godless attempt at happiness, remember that you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)
4. Verse 10 - Mortify the flesh, therefore, in light of the divine standard of righteous judgment. Those things that vex your heart to selfish and godless pursuit, put them far away from you. Those things that urge the body to a sinful desire for illicit fulfillment, avoid. They do not bring joy, only frustration and emptiness here and the frown of God hereafter. “Youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” “Since, therefore, Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1, 2)
C. chapter 12:1-8. A serious admonition concerning the eternal accountability of the young and the necessity of using their strength to God’s glory before they have very little and ever-decreasing strength to use. Note the repetition of the word before. Verse one it is used as a general introduction to the idea of declining strength and ability to use for the glory of God. Verse 2 it introduces a series of distressing and aggravating failures of physical function as age progresses. Verse 6 it introduces metaphors for the final destruction of this life as death intrudes.
1. Instead, therefore, of living for dissipation, with the vain conceit that one’s physical vigor is an invitation to purely sensual and earthly pursuits, remember that you are a created being; not having self-existence but utterly dependent moment by moment on your maker and sustainer; the creator made you for his own glory that he might receive praise and honor from you. Nothing is better than to love God and to be the recipient of his love eternally. “Give of your best to the master; give of the strength of your youth. Throw your soul’s fresh glowing ardor into the battle for truth.”
2. Soon you will have less strength with which to serve God and increase in the riches of the knowledge of spending one’s energy for an immutable eternal good. At the same time one will find that the ability to squeeze joy from physical vigor begins to diminish rapidly. Soon evil days will come, and much time will be spent in seeking to overcome the encroaching weakness, tiredness, lack of ability to concentrate, and the fear of mental , emotional, or physical calamity.
3. Solomon gives a poetic description filled with humorous images about the increasing restrictions of creeping age. Serve God before this happens, or if you have observed that such decline already has begun, serve God before it increases.
· Everything gets darker and even after the rain it still seems cloudy
· The legs, the arms, the teeth (decreasing in number) the eyes, and the ears all begin to fail.
· Loud sounds are muffled (“the sound of the grinding is low”), or perhaps, continuing the metaphor, food is chewed very slowly and deliberately, without gusto, because eating has become a chore;
· Sleep is light, and though hearing is hard, nevertheless, the chirping of birds wakes one from sleep.
· Vocal Music, (cf 2:8) a delight in youth both in its production and in listening, becomes less distinct. One of the vexing things of old age is the loss of resonance and timbre and range in the voice so that what once was a great joy has become a reminder of the corruption of the body, a vexation to one’s own spirit, and a burden to those that must listen to such scratchy croaking. This is but one of the vanities of this life but drives us to the hope of joining in the singing of the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3.
· Heights are intimidating and travel becomes more of a fearsome proposition.
· The hair becomes white (The almond tree blossoms) and even nature, once lively and ever new and fascinating, seems to be panting and groaning. [That is the way I take “The grasshopper drags itself along.” We are more aware that the creation itself is under a bondage to decay (Romans 8:21).]
· Desire fails. Those bodily appetites that at one time seemed to rule our perspective and demand fulfillment if life were to have any meaning—sexuality, food, exercise, physical competition, contests of speed, strength, and agility—have declined;
· Solomon describes all this with depressing detail in order to enforce his admonition to “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” for in that way the Pauline truth stated in 2 Corinthians 4:16 may be ours, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” If we have looked to the Creator as the summum bonum, and have seen him as worthy of all our energies both now and to eternity, then “these light and momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.”
· See to this before “the mourners go about the streets.”
4. Now death steals over us. “Man is going to his long [eternal] home” and only death will end this process of corruption in this life. Solomon gives six phrases describing the moment when this corruption of life finally culminates in death.
· Body and soul now are separated; that mysterious union between the physical temporarily is broken: “the silver cord is snapped.”
· The golden bowl is broken—that body and all its physical processes so fearfully and wonderfully made, the eyes, the ears, the nerves, the skin, the heart, the brain, the lungs-this marvel of creation and indescribably ingenious vessel for intellect and spirituality goes. Paul called this the “tent”, our earthly home, being destroyed—not an inviting prospect, for he did not want “to be found naked.” But, having a revelation far in advance of Solomon’s, Paul looked to that day when “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
· The pitcher is shattered at the fountain. In one moment we are alive and then the next we are dead as to any further business or preparation in this life. While were are engaging the things necessary for the body, the body is shattered and that that has occupied so much time, energy, and even emotional turmoil and anxiety, which has been the manifestation of so little faith from time to time, now has no existence and no more earthly demands.
· Wheel broken at the cistern – going about daily tasks, functioning within the sphere of usefulness as we find it possible at any stage of life, we are then gone. Our place soon will be taken by another—a new wheel must be attached to the mechanism of the cistern if water is to be drawn for those yet living, but we are there no longer.
· The body, the vehicle of all activity in this life, the thing that has made such unreasonable demands and has been the irrepressible source of the powers of the world to infect our minds and draw us away from God, the thing that in the last days has damped our spirits, and made us consent to the vanity of temporal existence, ceases to be and returns to dust. How inglorious at last is that fallen wonder—how inviting is the reality that we will receive glorified bodies, made like to the glorious body of Jesus our Savior.
· The Spirit returns to God who gave it. In the beginning he breathed his image into humanity thus giving him a nature far above all other animate creatures. This spirit, bearing the moral and intellectual image of God, now returns, sans body, to God who gave it. We then will see the infinite importance of remembering our Creator in the days of our youth.
· Life thus ending, everything that served only the interests of time and was done without any investment in the interest of God’s glory is vain.
IV. The importance of strict attention to the written wisdom given by God – 12:9-14
A. verses 9 and 10 – Solomon was conscious of his employing all the talent and method at his disposal in writing this book. This is generally true of all the writers of Scripture. They do research, reason on the basis of divine providence, and seek proper interpretation of already-certified scripture, and look to their own encounters with God and his truth. Though many of the things that they set forth as revealed truth utterly transcend both the experiences and their self-conscious gifts, they know that on the whole they were not merely unconscious amenuenses but were being used by God as he employed their peculiar gifts and experiences. Solomon, in this task given him by God was “weighing and studying and arranging . . . with great care.” From a literary standpoint, he “sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”
B. Though engaged in the project as a conscientious literary artist, or closely reasoning philosopher, in the end he does not doubt that his product would be “words of truth.” He presented the image of goads and nails “firmly fixed.” This particular labor, though all others that he described were “chasing after the wind,” was of sober purpose and enduring value. These words, taken in the whole, embodied truth. Even as Paul before Agrippa and Festus, Solomon could use such language, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25). The writers of inspiration were aware both of the use of their labors and capacity as well as the perfect truth and authority given their writing by the Spirit of God. See Luke1:1-4; Romans 14:14-21; 16:25-27; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; Ephesians 3:1-13; 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Peter 3:1, 2; 1 John 1:1-4; Revelation 22:18, 19.
C. Solomon was also conscious that this book was superintended by God and that its teachings, understood correctly, are sure guides as part of a larger collection of inspired literature. The “collected sayings” were given by one Shepherd.
1. When combined with other inspired writings, this contemplation of Solomon as the Preacher gives depth and contour to the entire picture of the divine purpose of God in glorifying Himself through the wisdom of the plan of redemption
2. Though many people will write books, one must make sure that the teaching of another does lead him away from the truths revealed in Scripture—“Beware of anything beyond these.” Many, many books, and a virtually infinite presentation of opinions will flood the world as author after author desires an audience either for material gain or for philosophical or political fame. Seeking to grasp all these opinions and understand the nuances of the thought of so many varying and contradictory opinions is indeed a “weariness to the flesh.” If an infatuation with such vanities and the thoughts of persons with such limited scope of understanding drives us away from the fullness of truth contained in divine revelation, then the warning is intensified for us, “Beware of anything beyond these.” For this reason Paul told Timothy, “Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3, 4)
D. Solomon concludes his writing with a final statement of its purpose and a concomitant warning
1. Solomon has concluded his presentation of his observations about wisdom and foolishness, righteousness and unrighteousness, legitimate pleasure and dissolute living, this short life and the long home of death, authority and submission, freedom and judgment, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, time and eternity. Now he gives the conclusion that he has reached, under the guidance of the “One Shepherd.”
2. All of these things, considering the final vanity of everything when viewed from the perspective of this life only, resolve into this infinitely important and compelling single duty: “Fear God and keep his commands.”
· This is a confirmation of all the Law and the prophets, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. To fear God includes viewing him with a sense of awe and wonder in light of his holiness, a holiness that is seen as the essence of beauty and loveliness. When viewed in this way, an accompanying affection is love, for one cannot look upon infinite holiness, impeccable righteousness, and condescending mercy with the proper sense of fear and wonder, without at the same time being engulfed with a complacent love for the perfection of the character of such a Being.
· “Keep his commandments” brings us immediately into the realm of the purpose of the Law. God requires an absolute obedience to his law for those that will enjoy eternal life in his presence. “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Deuteronomy 27:26 cited in Galatians 3:10) and “If a person does them, he shall live [achieve the goal of eternal life] by them.” (Leviticus 18:5 cited in Galatians 3:12) Paul says “For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”
· Solomon also has established the fact that the single great reality of the present human condition is his sinfulness. It is original, it is personal, it is progressive, it is destructive. (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ,29; 8:11ff ; 9:3) We are, therefore, in consistent violation of the supreme duty that is absolutely incumbent upon us.
3. None of our actions, our thoughts, will be invisible to God in the day of final reckoning. “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14) Though at times, Solomon’s language seemed to despair of any meaning to anything, he now sets forth this great truth, that, viewed from the standpoint of eternity and the perfection of God’s moral nature and the legitimacy of his law to his creature, nothing in the view of eternity is empty but all will come before him for commendation or blame. His perfect standard will not be compromised but will be the inflexible guide and will be viewed as holy and just so that every mouth is stopped and the whole world held guilty before God.
4. In this light, we again see that the Law is a schoolmaster, or guardian, to lead us to Christ in whom alone is that perfection of righteousness called for by the Law. The Law, this law approved by Solomon, holds before us both righteousness and judgment until “Christ came in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24) In his coming he accomplished righteousness and received our judgment so by submitting with perfect resignation to his atoning work, we are given union with him for both the removal of judgment and the imputation of righteousness.