PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST
Week of September 18, 2005
Bible Passages: Ecclesiastes 3:10-14; 12:13-14; Mark 12:28-34.
Biblical Truth: Humanity properly relates to God by being in awe of Him and by obeying His commands, foremost of which is to love Him supremely.
View God Correctly (Ecclesiastes 3:10-14)
 I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.  He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime;  moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. [NASU].
The logic of these verses may be described as follows:
Our labor is a lifelong affliction with no eternal results (10).
Yet every aspect of life is appropriate in its time and should be accepted as such (11a).
But we long for eternity and cannot be content with time alone (11b).
People prefer the joys of life to the sorrows (12).
But the ability to enjoy life is itself a gift of God and thus under his control (13).
Only God’s work has the perfection and eternal worth for which people long (14 a,b).
God uses time and mortality to humble the human race (14c).
The Preacher returns to the thought of 1:13, where he spoke of the burden God had placed upon man, and explains further. Man needs to know why his toil – indeed, his whole life – can be of some profit in a world beyond his personal control. The problem is that the idea that there is a God who orders all their “times” and “seasons” is a more perturbing threat to their self-image than the concept that they are alone in a dying universe. Against such practical atheism, the Preacher offers three answers in verse 11. (1) Everything is appropriate in its time. The eye of faith sees the beauty in God’s ordering of the times. The key to this perception is in the redemptive purposes of God for his people. For every believer, the gracious purposes of the Lord shine through the darkest passages of these times and, far from being a source of gloom, these become a fount of encouragement and joy in the Lord. (2) Eternity within. Being aware of our creaturehood carries with it a sense of the reality of the Creator. The suppression of this consciousness of God is at the core of sin and estrangement from God. (3) This unfathomable life. Even though there is an awareness of eternity in our hearts, we cannot fully grasp its meaning. Indeed, we even resist the pull of eternal and spiritual matters. We look in the opposite direction for satisfaction. We imagine that secular knowledge and carnal pleasure will answer our deepest needs. We look for answers in the wrong places. How desperately we need to be found by the one whom we do not seek (Isaiah 65:1). In verses 12-14, the Preacher uses two “I know” statements where he affirms his most deeply held conclusions. First, life is from God. Life is both a privilege and a pleasure for the friends of God. The pursuit of God-centered and God-honoring happiness is a legitimate goal for God’s people. It is God’s gift. And therefore it is our calling. Second, the works of God endure forever. They are complete and we can neither add to, nor subtract from, their ultimate perfection. Seeing how awesome his works are, men should fear Him. The practical fruit of God’s sovereignty will be a worshipping people, exulting in the security of their Savior-God.
Fear God Obediently (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. [NASU]
These verses form the conclusion of the Preacher’s search for meaning: fear God and keep His commandments. It is very important to understand what it means to “fear God”. Sinclair Ferguson has an excellent discussion of this topic in his book, The Pundit’s Folly (it can also be found in his book, Grow in Grace, chapter 3). I will attempt here to summarize his teaching on the fear of God.
The statement in v. 12 (Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man) acts as a goad to us. It makes us sit up; to take notice. Here is the secret of life. Here is a fear which can deliver us from all other fears. It is a powerful divine immunization which builds up resistance in our hearts enabling us to reject and overcome the anxieties which plague our lives and destroy our peace. But what is this fear? And how does it make such a difference? The fear of God is not terror. Terror of God is the reaction of guilt in the face of his holy power. It desires only to run from him in despair. Through every aspect of his character God means to show us his glory. This he loves to do more than anything else. Moreover, he loves his people so much that he will let nothing stand in the way of them coming to share in this glory. The person who sees this learns what it means to fear God. It means to be filled with a sense of breathtaking awe at his character. It means to realize with shame that although we have been made to live as his image, we have forfeited by our sin our privileges and our destiny. It means also that we have begun to realize the costly way in which he restores that glory to us. The fear of God in some ways defies our attempts at definition, because it is really another way of saying ‘knowing God’. It is a heart-felt love for him because of who he is and what he has done; a sense of being in his majestic presence. It is a thrilling awareness that we have this greatest of all privileges, mingled with a realization that now the only thing that really matters is his opinion. To fear God is to be sensitive to both his greatness and his graciousness. It is to know him and to love him wholeheartedly and unreservedly. To fear God, to trust God, to love God, and to know God – these are really one and the same thing. In fact, the fear of God about which the Pundit speaks arises from the discovery of God’s love for us in our sin and weakness. It is the sense of awe that results from the discovery that he knows me through and through, means to destroy all that is sinful in me, and yet does so because he loves me with an intensely faithful love. That stretches my mind and emotions to their limit. At least, that is how fear is seen in the Bible. It is those who fear the Lord who say, ‘His love endures forever’; it is only those who confess their sinfulness who discover that ‘With you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared’ [Ps. 118.4; 130.4]. Often the poetic spirit captures this best:
They love Thee little if at all
Who do not fear thee much
If love is thine attraction, Lord,
Fear is thy very touch. (F.W. Faber (1814-63) in ‘My God, how wonderful Thou art’.
This is what Christians call ‘filial fear’. It is different from ‘servile fear’, the terror of the slave who knows that his every wrong move will bring punishment. ‘Filial fear’ is the reverential love which a child has for his or her father. Thus the child who truly fears his or her father gains greatest joy and pleasure in his presence, and knows great security. If this ‘filial fear’ is the fear of God about which the Pundit enthuses, certain questions press themselves on our attention. Why did he – and why do we – fear it? What effect does it have? How can we come to experience it? The answer to the first question is this: we try to evade the fear of God because we want to make man great and God small. So long as the Pundit wanted to make ‘man the measure of all things’, he had to try to reduce God to manageable (and therefore non-fear-able) proportions. If we do not fear God we do not really know God. For to know God is to be stunned by his presence. Then we learn that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all true wisdom [Ps. 111.10; Prov. 9.10]. How is it that to fear God is ‘the whole of man’ as the Pundit says? Because it brings meaning, purpose and significance to a life which otherwise is ultimately brief, empty and meaningless. We have followed the Pundit’s attempts to find satisfaction that would last: in the pursuit of knowledge, of pleasure, of work, of success. How does the fear of God make a difference? When we look at life ‘under the sun’, excluding God, something happens to our understanding and our learning. We try to explain the world without reference to the essential explanatory factor: God’s creating activity and his sustaining presence. The result? An endless pursuit of learning which can never bring a knowledge that satisfies [12.12]. That is what Paul calls a ‘futility’ in our ‘thinking’ [Eph. 4.17]. But the fear of God reverses this, placing him at the center of our universe. He is at the center of life. We see everything in the light of his creating and sustaining activity. Then things begin to make sense: ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him’ [Ps. 25.14]. What difference does the fear of God make? It transforms everything we do, no matter how mundane, no matter how grand. How? Because it invests all work with the higher dimension of honoring God, seeking his glory, reflecting his character as the Original Worker in everything we do. The fear of God gives us courage to oppose what is wrong and do what is right, whatever the consequences. Because we have this promise: ‘Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!’ [Ps. 34.9]. But how can the child-like, loving fear of the Lord be born and grow within us? Filial fear is a characteristic only of those who have a filial relationship. You will never fear God until you know yourself to be his child. It is, first of all, essential that, like the Pundit, you see the truth about yourself and about your life: left to yourself, it will be meaningless and empty. The reason? You have lost all spiritual life. You have sinned against him and are actually under his judgment. Penitent faith involves seeing the truth staring me in the face: my sins are not out-of-character actions. They are revelations of the truth about my twisted, God-less heart. Thus the first step in learning the filial fear of God is to be brought into His family. God does this by his Spirit, in an act so sovereign and powerful that the New Testament calls it a new creation, a new birth, a spiritual resurrection. If the wisdom and knowledge of God has already become part of our life, a further question needs to be answered here. How can we grow in the fear of the Lord? Here are the biblical counsels we need to follow: (1) Use the helps God has given: worship with the family of God, prayer, the exposition of Scripture, the ongoing disciplines of a fellowship of God’s people, the physical signs he gives – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – to mark you out as his and to encourage you in faith. How do these help us? They keep our eyes fixed on God’s glory. (2) Value the friendship and fellowship of others who fear the Lord. (3) Reflect on the providence of God in life. (4) Learn to live in the shadow of the cross of Christ. Here is a deep awe and fear of the Lord; but here, too, is the joy of forgiveness. At the cross of Christ both faith and fear begin and grow.
Love God Supremely (Mark 12:28-34)
 One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?”  Jesus answered, “The foremost is, Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord;  and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”  The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; you have truly stated that He is one and; there is no one else besides Him;  and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions. [NASU]
29-31 For Jesus the whole Law is summarized in the will of God which calls for the love which is a whole-hearted response to God and to the neighbor. Jesus combines a quotation of Deut. 6.4-5 with Lev. 19.18. Mark alone reports that Jesus introduced his answer with the opening words of the Shema which was used by the pious Jew as a prayer and confession of faith every morning and evening. They indicate that the command to love God is an obligation which stems from his uniqueness as God and his gracious favor in extending his covenant love to Israel. It is the Lord our God who is to be loved with a completeness of devotion which is defined by the repeated ‘all’. Because the whole man is the object of God’s covenant love, the whole man is claimed by God for himself. To love God in the way defined by the great commandment is to seek God for his own sake, to have pleasure in him and to strive impulsively after him. Jesus demands a decision and readiness for God, and for God alone, in an unconditional manner. Clearly this cannot be the subject of legal enactment. It is a matter of the will and action. The love which determines the whole disposition of one’s life and places one’s whole personality in the service of God reflects a commitment to God which springs from divine Sonship. This commitment finds expression in a similar commitment to mankind. A whole-hearted love for God necessarily finds its expression in a selfless concern for another person.
Questions for Discussion:
1. What three answers concerning the meaning of life does the Preacher offer in 3:11?
2. What conclusions does the Preacher make with the two “I know” statements in 3:12 and 3:14?
3. Discuss the questions that Ferguson raises concerning fearing God.
Why do we fear “the fear of God”?
What effect does the fear of God have on us?
How is it that to fear God is “the whole duty of man”?
How can this “filial fear” of God be born in us?
How can we grow in the fear of the Lord?
4. Ecclesiastes 12:13 instructs us to “fear God” while Mark 12:30 commands us to “love the Lord your God”. How does “fear” and “love” relate to each other? John Murray writes: “The fear of God and the love of God are but different aspects of our response to him in the glory of his majesty and holiness (Principles of Conduct, p. 242). Does the fear of God and the love of God mean the same thing?
5. Why is love for our neighbor a necessary expression of our love for God? In the July, 2005 issue of Tabletalk, John Jefferson Davis writes: “The command to love your neighbor is in itself inherently related to the image of God, since equal respect for the person, despite differences of social and economic status, is ultimately based on the presence of the divine image in all people.” Do you agree that the image of God is the basis for the command to love our neighbor?
The Pundit’s Folly, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust.
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Duane Garrett, The New American Commentary.
Ecclesiastes, Charles Bridges, Geneva Series of Commentaries.
The Gospel According to Mark, William Lane, Eerdmans Publishing.
Tabletalk, July, 2005, volume 29, number 7, Ligonier Ministries.