In this sermon, Pastor Dave Capoccia examines the epilogue section of Ecclesiastes. Pastor Dave explains how, in these last verses, Solomon provides five final clarifications so that you will not miss the message of Ecclesiastes but instead put God’s wisdom into practice:
1. These Words Were Carefully Prepared by a Discerning Teacher (v. 9)
2. These Words Were Written Both Attractively and Accurately (v. 10)
3. These Words Are Consistent with True Wisdom (v. 11)
4. These Words Are Sufficient for the Subject (v. 12)
5. These Words Direct You to the Essence of Life (vv. 13-14)
It’s good to get to share the Word with you again from a pulpit. It’s actually been a while since I’ve gotten a chance to do this because of our time away. In some ways, it feels like a long-expected party. To invoke a statement from Lord of the Rings, we come to the last passage in Ecclesiastes today. So I actually want to start by reading the sermon text. Please open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 12:9-14. The last word from Solomon, our author, in this book. The last word from God in this section of Scripture. Let’s hear the Word of the Lord to us this morning,
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. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
Let’s ask God to open His word to our minds. Father in heaven, reveal to us this Word. Let it find its way deep into our hearts. Help us, God, to be those that tremble at Your Word and are not too familiar with it, in the sense, God, that we no longer are struck by the amazingness of it, the power of it, the fearfulness of it, and of the One who gives it. You are God. You speak to us from heaven. You speak to us even right here in this church. Help me to be able to declare this Word as is proper, and let Your people put them into practice. Amen.
When I was little, I was a pretty avid reader. I liked to read a lot about history, especially World War II. I also read some fiction, especially science fiction. I was really into Star Wars. But I still remember when I encountered something in a book for the first time, something I’d never seen before, and it was an epilogue. Immediately, I felt some excitement. I thought the story was over. There’s more? But I also felt a little uneasy. Wait a second. Why is this part separate from the main part? Is this unofficial? Should I even read it? Truly there’s something about epilogues in books or stories that makes them hard to figure. If the information is important, why is it not included in the main part? But if it’s not important, why is it included at all? How are we supposed to relate what’s in an epilogue to the main text or the main part of a story?
This is the same puzzle we face today as we examine the epilogue of Ecclesiastes. I think epilogue is a good term for it, even though our english translation uses the word conclusion in verse 13. I would argue that we’ve actually already seen Solomon’s conclusion in verse 9 of Ecclesiastes chapter 12. Just as Solomon basically began the book with a certain phrase or phrases. Ecclesiastes 1:2 he says,
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
He ends his discussion with almost the exact same words. In Ecclesiastes 12:8,
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!”
You can see there’s this pleasing symmetry here, two equal bookends to Solomon’s discussion. Though if you remember from the last sermon, which was a little bit of time ago, I argued that the tone and context of these two statements is different. Whereas vanity of vanities, or literally vapor of vapors, in the beginning of the book it’s a depressing statement. It’s something that destroys our confidence to find any lasting or ultimate gain in the world and in the things of the world. But at the end of the book, vapor of vapors is a call to action. It is actually optimistic, a charge to make the most of our brief lives while we can.
We already saw that conclusion from Solomon. Furthermore, there’s a clear shift in the text as we cross over to 12:9. In this last section, we see the author again referring to himself in the third person, the Preacher. For most of the book, he’s been referring to himself as I. I saw this under the sun. I concluded. He also switches from that empowering carpe diem message in 12:8 and before to talking about himself and the book.
Giving more background information, there’s actually some symmetry in this even to Ecclesiastes 1:1, where we also got background information. Ecclesiastes 1:1 says,
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
This is extra information. It’s not the main message. Plus, I would argue Ecclesiastes 12:9-4 is an epilogue to the book’s central teaching. The great question is why? Why this separate extra word if the message, the main message, is already complete?
The answer from many modern biblical scholars is that the epilogue was written by someone else. Not Solomon or whoever they say the book’s main author was. In the minds of these modern interpreters, some pious editor wanted to protect the teachings of an ancient Hebrew sage, but felt the sage was a little too disgruntled and unorthodoxed to just present all by himself. Therefore this editor or some comically say editors, more than one. He not only cleans up some of the main message of Ecclesiastes, but he also tacks on this epilogue to counter the ancient sage’s cynicism. This is a very popular view today. Yet it is fundamentally flawed, as I tried to share with you before, because it fails to pay close attention enough to the united message of this book. Yes, Solomon has examined some extremely difficult realities and some provocative words in Ecclesiastes, but nothing he’s said in this book is truly unorthodox. I’ve tried to show you as we’ve gone through, the other scriptures agreed, even with some of these seemingly extreme statements from Solomon.
Additionally, a shift in the text, like we see here, does not necessarily mean a shift in authorship. Biblical author might have good reason and certainly good ability to shift his subject or style, especially at the beginning or ending of a book. We see this in other books. For example, the book of Habakkuk, which ends with the song, or the book of John, which has its own epilogue, or the book of Revelation. We should not be surprised that we see something like this.
Finally. There’s nothing in this last text that is fundamentally new to this book. If we’ve been paying attention to what Solomon has been saying throughout Ecclesiastes, we should not be surprised at all at what we see in the epilogue. So no, this final section is not some effort to save an otherwise problematic or uncertain book.
What then is the purpose of this epilogue? I think it’s simple. It’s to provide some final clarifications so that you and I don’t miss or ignore what Solomon has already written. After all, Solomon knows that he has written true but sometimes difficult words. And he knows that some might be inclined to dismiss them by saying, well this is just one perspective. I feel differently, and let me see what other people say, other wise men. Or he meant well, but he just couldn’t find the right words, couldn’t find a real answer. Or this author doesn’t even believe in God or an afterlife, so why listen to him? And this is what people say about the book of Ecclesiastes today, what some people say. Just like Peter says about Paul’s writings in 2 Peter 3:15-16, even today the untaught and unstable distort the wisdom of Ecclesiastes because of some things that are hard to understand. Solomon is aware of this possibility. And so to help prevent this, he adds this final section, an epilogue or we could call it an “in case you missed it” section.
This is where I get the title for today’s sermon – in case you missed it. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, here’s the main idea. Solomon provides five final clarifications so that you will not miss the message of Ecclesiastes but instead put God’s wisdom into practice. I’ll say that again. Solomon provides five final clarifications that you will not miss the message of Ecclesiastes, but instead put God’s wisdom into practice.
Let’s look at this. Let’s take a look at these five clarification, starting with the first in verse 9. Number one – Solomon says about this book, these words were carefully prepared by a discerning teacher. Number one, these words were carefully prepared by a discerning teacher. Look at verse 9,
In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out, and arranged many proverbs.
One of the easiest ways to dismiss someone’s word is to attack his character and credentials. What is He? Just a senile old man, disgruntled wannabe teacher. Forget about him. Such unkind and unreasonable attacks are unfortunately common in public discourse today, and I’m sure they were back then. But Solomon has been keen throughout Ecclesiastes to underscore his credibility as the consummate wise man. Just to remind you what he said in the beginning in Ecclesiastes 1:16-17,
I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.
He already was the wisest, and he did everything he could to be wiser still, more than anyone before or since. He says also the same in Ecclesiastes 7:15 and Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 and in other places. No one has pursued wisdom or knowledge like Solomon did, but even he could not discover the fundamental scheme or secrets of the world and confirmed that no one. So Solomon knows what he’s talking about in this book and he reminds us of such here at the end. Our author, he says, is a wise man, full of knowledge and skill for life. But he’s more than that. Notice here in verse 9. He again refers to himself as the Preacher. This has been his preferred title in Ecclesiastes when he speaks about himself, not king, but preacher, someone who is the speaker of the assembly, one who preaches, one who teaches.
Actually Solomon further draws attention to his teaching role here in verse 9. It says the Preacher also taught the people knowledge. You see, Solomon is no ivory tower intellectual with little experience of the real world or people. He’s also not someone who just doesn’t care, a grumpy old but smart hermit who just tells you like it is and is very blunt with you. No, Solomon is not only a wise man, but he’s an experienced teacher. He’s quite familiar with the world and with people. He knows how to teach. Furthermore, he’s quite familiar with various teachings and sayings and advice that passes for wisdom. Notice here it says that Solomon pondered, searched out, and arranged many proverbs. The word translated pondered here probably more literally means weighed. You can imagine weighing something. He not only knew various proverbs, but he weighed just how helpful they were. Is this really true? Is this really helpful? And he did not content himself merely with the proverbs he happens to know or came up with. It says that he searched them out. He scoured the landscape for any bits of real wisdom.
And then he says he arranged many proverbs. Literally, he made straight many proverbs, which is an interesting choice of words because twice that idea of making straight has come up in Ecclesiastes, but in reference to correcting something that’s crooked. He says what’s crooked cannot be straightened, especially if God has made it crooked. What this likely means here, by Solomon using that phrase again, is not merely that he came up with the correct order, the best order for presenting proverbs and wisdom, but actually that he corrected a certain amount of judgement and revision on the proverbs that he found. He was able as a truly wise man to judge what was correct and to revise what wasn’t.
All this is true of Solomon’s teaching ministry in general and we hear more about that in the book of Kings and certainly we see it in the book of Proverbs. It certainly must also be true of the book of Ecclesiastes as well, and he wants us to remember that. Solomon is telling us, don’t miss the main message that I’ve written. I know what I’m talking about. I searched out the world and its wisdom. I’m quite familiar with other strands of thinking. Nothing truly new occurs under the sun. And I tell you this, this is it. I’ve long been a teacher. I’ve weighed everything before I put together this book. Therefore, listen, this is the fundamental wisdom that you are to put into practice into your life. Now such words are poignant in and of themselves, but we know that they are also spoken by the Spirit of God. So we must pay even more attention. This is Solomon’s first clarification.
Let’s now look at the second. In verse 10, we see number two – these words were written both attractively and accurately. These words were written both attractively and accurately. Look at verse 10,
The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.
Here Solomon reminds us that his words were not only the result of a life dedicated to studying and teaching wisdom, but also that they were purposefully chosen for their aesthetic and trustworthy qualities. Solomon says that he’s sought to find delightful words, words that evoke or inspired joy. Now you may ask, now wait a second, I remember some of the things Solomon said in Ecclesiastes. What about Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 that says, paraphrasing, those who suffer injustice without any comforters are better off dead or never having been born. Are those delightful words? That’s a fair question. I think the answer is you have to consider the work as a whole. It’s kind of like the line of that song we sing, Christ the sure and steady anchor. A line near the end says, and the calm will be the better for the storms that we endure. Want to really enjoy the kingdom of God with Christ? You’ll enjoy it more, you’ll appreciate the beauty more, if you’ve endured storms, if you’ve dealt with hardship and suffering and sin in your life.
It’s similar in this book of Ecclesiastes. To appreciate the bright and beautiful and inspiring parts, we also have to walk through the dark and painful parts, the hard reality. Furthermore, the form of this book, the words, the sentences, the paragraph, the structure as a whole, has been put together in a pleasing way. I’ve mentioned already that satisfying symmetry at the beginning and end. But also, how about that famous poem in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 about the various times and seasons of life. It’s ponderous. It’s a little sad, but it’s also obviously beautiful. And we may not understand all of Solomon’s aesthetic choices, and this is a work of translation so some of it is obscured for us. Just like we do not understand all of God’s choices for what happens in the world under His sovereignty, we will confess in the end that the author has made everything beautiful, appropriate, even delightful in its own way. Solomon sought to do this and he accomplished it.
But perhaps the most pleasing quality of this work is that it’s true. Notice verse 10, he says the author sought to write words of truth correctly. It’s a double emphasis on reliability here. Do you see that? Words of truth, words about what is actually right and real and correctly, or we could translate it honestly, uprightly, straightly. Our author and teacher Solomon hasn’t written out some exaggerated fantasy for us. He’s written about what is really true, and he wrote it in a way that is itself fair and faithful to that truth. You see, the words of Ecclesiastes are not some kind of unhappy accident, as some assert today, the confuse meditations and ravings of an agonized wise man. No, rather, Solomon is reminding us they are words carefully crafted to be both enjoyable and instructive in truth. Now shouldn’t all teaching and preaching be that way, the form complimenting and recommending the function to the audience. So my brothers and sisters, let us not miss just how right these words are for us to hear and put into practice. They, again, come not just from an excellent teacher who purposely arranged them and decided all, but they come from the Spirit of God. It did so in an even deeper way. God is the ultimate authority on what is both delightful and true.
Now Solomon knows that some of his words have been painful. Overall it is pleasing, but there has been pain involved. But the pain actually was purposeful, as Solomon remind us in the next verse and in the next clarification. Number three – these words are consistent with true wisdom. These words are consistent with true wisdom. And we see this in verse 11,
The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.
Notice immediately in verse 11 that Solomon broadens his discussion here beyond himself and beyond this specific book to wise men and their words in general. And by doing this, Solomon is implying something, that whatever is true about wisdom and wise men is also true about Solomon and what he’s written for us. Now which aspect of wisdom does Solomon highlight as applying to his own work here? Well look at the beginning of verse 11. He says the words of wise men are like goads.
What’s a goad? When you think goads, think cattle prod. In ancient times, a goad was a long stick, either sharpened on one end or fixed with a nail. What was it for? For poking animals, to remind and encourage them to go to the right direction. Now, this goading cuts a little bit, just like cowboy spurs do as they dig into the side of a horse. But the goad is ultimately for the good of the animal and for the good of the animal’s owner. Solomon reminds us that this is actually consistent with the way wisdom works and is meant to work. Solomon’s wisdom and wisdom, in general, true wisdom is like a goad, and it includes some wounding. The wounds have a purpose – to move the listeners, even us, to right action and the blessed path. To use a goad is not unkind, for wise man to speak as if using a goad is not unkind. That is true kindness and it’s like the verse we mentioned in Sunday school this morning. Proverbs 27:6,
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.
And don’t we see this truth illustrated even when it comes to discerning true and false teachers. Do false teachers want to wound you with the truth? No, they want to soothe you, even tickle your ears with what is not true. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Now true wisdom is not only wounding, let’s not misunderstand, but it is partly wounding, even as it heals and helps.
So consider Solomon’s work in Ecclesiastes. Did you find some of his words like a goad? Did any of Solomon’s words ruffle your feathers, challenge your expectations for life, confront false beliefs, even sin in your heart? Well don’t dismiss him on that basis. Rather, gain the benefit that was meant for you in that wounding by changing. Notice by using this metaphor, Solomon indicates that the wise Solomon included are not merely interested in educating you but to move you, to cause you to change, to cause you to walk in a new direction after God and in the path of blessing. You haven’t and I haven’t really profited from Ecclesiastes until we’ve actually been goaded into new and good action. So we should ask ourselves – have we changed? Have we changed the way that we live and act and think based on this book? Solomon meant for you to do so, and of course God did also.
The words of the wise not only pierce you to move you to good action, but also notice the second part of verse 11, where he says masters of these collections are like well driven nails. Your Bible translation might be a little bit different. I’m using the New American Standard. You might see something along the lines of the collected sayings are like well driven nails. Why is there a difference? The reason has to do with the choice by some Bible translators as to whether the text should be amended or not. The Hebrew text that we have today does indeed say masters of collections. That does seem odd in the context, especially where everything else is talking about the words of wise men. Also, when you infer the Hebrew parallelism, which is apparent in the text, some would say, whatever masters of collections is, it must have something to do with the words. It must be maybe collections of sayings.
I understand the argument. I’m not sure there’s enough evidence to make that kind of emendation. I’m going to go with what the NAS says here. It may seem a little odd to say that masters of wise sayings, that is wise men, are themselves like well driven nails, but it is true. It’s true that there’s often a close association between a teacher and what he says. And when we really take a particular teaching the heart, it’s almost like we take the teacher himself with us, almost like he’s still there talking in our heads. Have you ever felt this way or had this experience with your first teachers, i.e. your parents? Even if they’re not with you, even if they’re long gone, you can still hear them in your mind, approving, advising, reproving you based on what you do or don’t do. And you know what, Solomon says that such is consistent with the nature and purposes of true wisdom.
Solomon alters the goad metaphor in the second half of verse 11. Rather than a temporary wound to move you to action, Solomon says that wise men themselves are like well driven nails, literally planted nails. Your teachers by their words are driven into your heart, into your mind, and meant to stick with you, planted in you, not just a goad to drive you in a direction once, but to keep you going in that direction. A good teacher wants himself by his words to stay with you. And isn’t this true in a more profound way of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why is it that we want to take in the Word of Christ into our hearts, have that planted within us? So consistent with that, we want Him to be there. There’s such a direct connection between a person and his words.
Notice the intriguing last phrase of verse 11,
they are given by one Shepherd.
Anytime we see a pronoun in the biblical text, we want to make sure we understand to whom or to what it refers. Who are the they here, or what is the they? The most logical antecedent to the pronoun they in the context would be wise words. That’s the main topic of verse 11. The wise men themselves could also function as the antecedent. Wise words makes more sense. We also must determine the identity of this one shepherd. The assertion of a singular source, one shepherd, is odd here for at least two reasons. First, Solomon has not mention a shepherd anywhere else in this book. And second, Solomon was just talking about a plurality of wise people, the words of the wise men. Why is he suddenly restricting the source of wisdom to one? From these few observations, I think there’s only one possible identity for this Shepherd. And as many have concluded, it’s not Solomon. It’s God. Even the New American Standard capitalizes the S for shepherd. There’s only one way to make sense of multiple wise People all having one source and one consistent message, and that is they speak the wisdom as given by one Shepherd – God. Many Bible verses emphasize that God is the ultimate source and giver of wisdom. Job 12:13,
With Him are wisdom and might; to Him belong counsel and understanding.
Speaking of God. James 1:5,
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
Or even right here in Ecclesiastes 2:26,
For to a person who was good in His sight, He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy,
So what is Solomon saying in all this here in verse 11? Namely this – I may have written some goading words and intended my words and myself to remain with you, but I did not do it according to my own opinions and knowledge. I stand with all the other wise men who pass on the wisdom given to them by God from the one Shepherd. Therefore my words are not unique or contradictory to what other truly wise men have said, including the other writers of Scripture. We speak, Solomon says, according to the one source of wisdom that there is for this life, God. Now brethren, since this is true, are we letting the words of the one Shepherd goad us to right and blessed action? Are He and His word planted in our minds like nails? They were not given to us in cruelty but in sincere pastoral care. David, as you know, calls God his Shepherd in Psalm 23. Jesus claims the title of good Shepherd in the New Testament. God knows how to shepherd. Like sheep who look to their shepherd, we should trust and abide by the words of our God enough to remember them and do them.
But perhaps we’re looking for more. Yeah Solomon’s wisdom is good. God’s wisdom them is good, but I need something more. Solomon’s fourth clarification has a response to that thought. We see this in verse 12. Number four, these words are sufficient for the subject. Number four, these words are sufficient for the subject. Look at verse 12,
But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.
Ecclesiastes is, of course, the favorite verse of those were tired of doing school work. Look, he says it’s wearying to the body. Why are you making me do all this work? I’m sorry you young ones who are still in school. This verse is not warning against learning in general or demeaning the value of gaining practical knowledge for life. You still need to do your school work. Rather, this verse is a warning against looking for greater or more ultimate wisdom for life than what God has provided through the Scriptures, even through Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. Again, this reminder in the epilogue should not surprise us because Solomon has been saying the same thing throughout the book. To remind you, Ecclesiastes 6:11-12,
For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life?
What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it?
Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?
Those are all rhetorical questions. We should understand the answer. Nobody can do these things. Yet there will always be those who think they can. Always be those who think they have discovered or will discover what Solomon could not. They can figure out the fundamental scheme of the world, the way to sure success and security in every situation of life. But Solomon tells us again, addressing this time even tenderly as children by saying my son. He says – my son, don’t believe it. Don’t waste your time, and don’t be one of those people wasting other people’s time. If you really want to be wise, recognize the farthest that our wisdom can take us and facing the hevel nature, the vaporous nature, of this life is what’s written here. Notice the way Solomon expresses this in verse 12. He says, beyond these be warned. These are the words of wisdom given by wise men, by the one Shepherd God, even what’s written in Ecclesiastes. Beyond these be warned, he says. be careful. Be on guard against what? He tells us the writing of many books is endless and excessive devotion to books is wearing to the body. There is always more to say, more to learn, more proposed solutions for the fundamental frustrations and problems of this world that people are suggesting and trying to implement. But remember Ecclesiastes 1:15,
What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Therefore, just one more reminder in case we missed it, don’t try to search through all the books, all the blogs, all the podcasts and movies, to discover some kind of grand truth or complete knowledge that’s somehow Solomon and God have missed. You’re never going to find it, and you’ll just weary yourself in the search. Don’t misunderstand, learning is good and useful. Solomon has show us that. But remember learning’s limits. Recognize the limits of what knowledge can do for you. We’re facing the hevel reality of this life, including frustrations, utter frustrations like death and uncertainty. There is no greater wisdom than what God gives us in His wise word. Even in Ecclesiastes. So, listen to this book and put it into practice. Don’t keep searching for other opinions or offering your own. These words are sufficient for the subject.
Part of the sufficiency of these words has to do with Solomon very clearly giving us the most important advice that we could hear. And he’s going to remind us about it one more time before the book ends. Here’s the fifth and final clarification as Solomon closes Ecclesiastes, that you and I don’t miss the message of this book or fail to put into practice. Number five, these words direct you to the essence of life. These words direct you to the essence of life. Look at verse 13 just to start,
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.
Solomon has said much in this book. But now that we’ve arrived at the end, literally the end of the matter, all being heard, what is the most important takeaway point? He tells us – fear God and keep His commandments. Now, as I said, this concluding advice should not surprise us. Oh that’s it, Solomon, I didn’t get it until now, until you said it. Wait, if you’ve been paying attention to Solomon’s words throughout Ecclesiastes, you know he’s been telling this to us the whole time. Solomon has constantly been showing us in this book God’s greatness and our smallness so that we would fear God and order our lives rightly. He tells us. He shows us – you cannot overcome death. It equalizes even the kings and the paupers, but God has power over life and death. So what should you do? You should fear Him. You cannot discover the secrets of the world, even though you want to, but God knows them all. So what should you do? You should fear Him. You are not in control of the time, seasons, and circumstances of your life. One change and all of a sudden and you don’t even know what was coming. But guess who is in control – God. So what should you do? Fear Him. Solomon even directly speaks about the wisdom of fearing God explicitly, directly at different points in the book. Ecclesiastes 3:14,
I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it. And God has so worked, that men should fear Him.
That’s the whole point. Why has God done what He has done? So that you would fear Him. Ecclesiastes 5:6-7 exhorts us to fear God rather than prattle to God in prayer. Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 says the one who fears God avoids the perils of both simple living and over-righteous living. The whole book has been a drive, a goad to get us to fear God.
What does it mean to fear God? We’ve talked about this, but let’s consider it again. It is such a central concept in both the Old and New Testaments. To fear God is not merely being frightened of God’s power or terrorized by His wrath or judgment, though that is included in godly fear. To fear God is, in the more basic sense, to rightly regarded God for who He is and all that He is. This is always a danger for us as Christians, right? We get so familiar with the Bible’s language and the concept of God that we forget that God is God, so different from us, so great, so transcendent and unreachable, and yet somehow mysteriously right near to us, caring about our lives, sovereignly arranging every circumstance of our lives. We can become too familiar with these things. We have to stand back and say, wait a second. Let me consider. This is God? This is the God with whom I have to do, and with whom we all do? I need to regard Him rightly. So what does that mean? It is a fear of His power, a terror of His judgment, but also a reverence for Him, a respect for Him, awe of Him, love for Him, reliance on Him, trust in Him, worship of Him, belief in Him, treasuring of Him, and of course obedience to Him. There’s a direct connection between fearing God and obeying His commandments, and we see it right here in verse 13 so explicitly from Solomon. He says fear God and keep His commandments. That’s the one summary bit of wisdom.
I can’t understand the commentators who look at this and say, oh, the author never talked about keeping commandments before, only fearing God. So this must be a different author. Come on. Keeping commitments is implied in fearing God. What, you’re going to fear God without keeping His commandments? What kind of fear is that? Solomon doesn’t need to mention commandments every time he talks about fearing God, but he does here. Why? For emphasis, so that we won’t miss it. Solomon says, if you’re wondering what the wise way to live life is in a vaporous world, let me make it clear for you so that you don’t miss it. The greatest wisdom for life comes down to this – fear God and keep His commandments. Rightly regarded God in your heart and then let it show up in your actions. Faith without works is dead. Fear without keeping commitments, that ain’t fear.
Love God and obey Him, that’s another way to say it. That’s sum of the Law and the prophets. And notice the reason. We get two reasons, but notice the first reason Solomon gives for this commanding advice at the end of verse 13. It says because this applies to every person. Or more literally in the Hebrew, and this is very intriguing, for this is all of man, or we could say for this is every of man, or for this is whole of man. Now that doesn’t sound totally great in English. The Hebrew phrasing is a little ambiguous and need some extra words in the translation for us to understand the meaning. And that’s why we see in the New American Standard “this applies to” in italics. The translator is saying, here’s some extra words to understand the meaning.
Actually, there’s some debate as to what the best sense is here. Interpreters generally fall into three different camps. What does it mean for this is all or the whole of or every of man? First we have the what is consistent with the New American Standard translation the sense of this is the duty of every man. Every man must do and is being called by God to do this, to fear God and keep His commandments, to emphasize the universality of the commandments. A second campus is along the lines of this is the whole duty of man, So rather than emphasizing this applies to everyone, that this is the entire duty. This is everything right here. Then you have the third group, with the sense of along the lines of this is the whole of humanness. This really is what it means to be truly human, to fear God and keep His commandments.
Now these senses aren’t all that different from each other. No matter what you take, you kind of get the general idea. But I think the sense that best fits here is the third. Fearing God and keeping His commandments is the all of man. It’s what life is all about, for all creation but especially man. It’s what we were designed for. It’s the way we were created. It is essence of life. Therefore, of course it applies every man and is man’s entire duty. You know, in Ecclesiastes we’ve seen this theme of man so frequently, even Solomon himself trying to live like gods and even create their perfect Edens in this fallen world. In a way that’s what we all do outside of Christ. We’re trying to be God and create our own perfect paradise. But what is the result of this effort? Is it true and lasting profit for men and women? Is it full satisfaction in this life? No, rather it is dissatisfaction followed inevitably by death, proving once and for all that we are not gods.
But you see, man was never meant to be his own god. He was never meant to find life and lasting satisfaction in pretending to be a god. True life, man’s all, instead consists of what? Knowing God and living in right relationship with Him. And don’t the other Scriptures say the same? I’m going to quote it again – John 17:3. Jesus says,
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
What’s the essence of life? That’s it right there – eternal life. What does David say about God in Psalm 16:5?
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;
Solomon in Ecclesiastes has been trying to get us to embrace our portion in this life. Again and again, he’s been urging us to embrace your portion and embrace your portion and enjoy life. What is your portion? Rather, who is your portion? God. If you’re in Christ, it’s God. And part of embracing God as our portion is, of course, fearing Him, keeping His commandments, and enjoying all the good gifts He’s given us in our brief lives.
Consider how simple but profound this one commanded philosophy is from Solomon to us at the end of the book. Again, it’s not new. He’s been telling it to us the whole time, but he’s made it very emphatic right here at the end. Consider how simple and profound it is after lifetime of wisdom, all sorts of experiences and searching, when Solomon must share what he has found to be the wisest, most soul satisfying way to live. He does not say become a king and have all your wants and desires fulfilled. Self-actualize. Help create utopian society that abolishes private property and the police. He does not pedal any philosophy or theory like we hear from the world in ancient or modern times. But what does he say instead? Here’s your portion. Here’s the full essence of life, fear God and keep His commandments. As we read earlier from 1 Corinthians, has not God made the wisdom of the world foolishness by what is true wisdom? Do you want profound wisdom? You want to get real deep, discover the ultimate secret for life. Guess what? There’s nothing beyond this. Fear God and keep His commandments. Beautiful, simple. And because this is true, Solomon is good. The Spirit of God is good to direct us to not let us miss this essential wisdom.
But have we listen to it? Solomon’s words direct us to the essence of life. Do we listen, do we change, do we heed them, or do we rebelled against them? We still insist – no, I’ll be my own God. I think I’ll find satisfaction that way. It’s not going to work. You can’t go against God’s design and win. You’ll only hurt yourself and hurt others.
Now there’s one more truth from Solomon, one additional reason to fear God and keep His commandments. It is the essence of life, but along with that look at verse 14,
For God will bring every act of judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
You see, depending on whether you embrace God as the essence of life or not, that will determine whether verse 14 is a comfort or something frightening to you. God will bring about a full and final judgment one day. And Solomon is sure about this, and he’s told us multiple times in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 3:17, to remind you,
I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,” for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.
Ecclesiastes 8:12-13. I’m paraphrasing here. Solomon says, one day it will be well for those who fear God, even if their lives are not good right now, but it will not be well for those who do not fear God, even if their lives are great right now. And then one more – Ecclesiastes 11:9. Again I’m paraphrasing here. Young man, enjoy your life, do whatever you want. But know that God will bring into judgement for all these things. This is not some new thing that an editor supplied at the end. It’s been all throughout Ecclesiastes. Solomon knows. There’s a lot of things he doesn’t know, a lot of things we don’t know. But he knows there will be a judgment one day. And this we all sense. It’s deep in our hearts. God imprinted it there. There will be a judgment, and consider what that means. It means, on the one hand, that if you persist in trying to live as your own god, serving your self, serving false gods, craving and striving after the treasures of the world in contradiction to your duty and design from God to enjoy Him as the essence of life. If that’s your path, then not only will you fail to enjoy the essence of life as God designed you to, but God will bring you to judgement. For everything you did or refused to do, everything you said or refused to say, everything you thought or refused to think, it says here he will judge what is secret. He will even judge the secret thoughts and intentions of your hearts, and actions that seemed good on the outside, maybe ones that you’re even trust in. Yeah I’m a pretty good person. Actually you just seemed good on the outside, but really weren’t because of what’s going on in the inside, God will know and God will judge accordingly.
The rest of the Scriptures are quite clear that if you have lived kind of life and have never come by faith and repentance to find salvation in Jesus Christ, the one Savior. His life, death, and resurrection save all those who believe in Him. If you live that kind of life and never come to Christ, then when you go to the judgment, and you will, it will not go well. It will not go well for you in the end. Rather, the Scriptures say you will be thrown into eternal fire. Do not exalt yourself before God. Humble yourself and He will exalt you.
For those of us who are in Christ, however, who fear God and keep His commandments, who live lives of righteousness, not perfectly but in an increasing direction, and not to save themselves or to keep themselves saved, but because Christ already saved us once and for all. For such persons, even for you dear brothers and sisters here, there will be a judgment for us as well, but not a judgment of punishment, but of reward and vindication, a judgment where all injustices will be set right, and every secret act of righteousness be rewarded. Didn’t Jesus say that? Your Father who sees what is done in secret, He’ll take note and He will reward you. If you fear God in Christ, a judgment is coming, but you know what? It’s going to go well. It’s going to go well for you by God’s grace. Therefore, fear God, keep His commandments.
Consider all that we’ve heard in this final section of reminder clarification. We must not miss the message of Ecclesiastes or fail to apply it. After all, number one – these words were carefully prepared by a discerning teacher. Number two – these words were written both attractively and accurately. Number three – these words are consistent with true wisdom. Number four – these words are sufficient for the subject. And number five – these words direct you to the essence of life.
Let’s ask ourselves today – do we fear God and keep His commandments? Do we enjoy God and whatever He’s decided to give us as our portion during our vaporous lives on earth? This is not the ultimate end, but we can fear God and enjoy Him now. If you’ve been doing that, keep on. Don’t grow weary. Excel still more. If you’ve not been doing that, it’s time to change. God is speaking to you this morning, even through my mouth. It’s time to change. Let this goad from a wise ancient author, also from the Spirit of God, let it prick you. Let it cut you for your good, to move you to action, to move you to repentance and then be transformed to walk with Christ in the path of blessing. You may not experience all the blessing in this life, but you will one day when God’s judgment is revealed. May you be transformed. May our whole church be transformed and moved to holy zealous action for the Lord while we still have time.
This is the end of the matter. We have finished looking at the book of Ecclesiastes and yet we’re not quite done. We will take one more last look at Ecclesiastes next week. One last special look to help make sure that Solomon’s nail of wisdom, given by God, really is well-placed in our hearts before we move on.
Let’s close in prayer. Thank You, God, for this kind word. Thank you for this book. What an amazing book – 12 chapters, very carefully chosen, put together, to cut us but also to delight us, to instruct us and to move us to action. But God, how sad if we could be exposed to all this preaching, exposed to this reading, and never change. That would only increase our judgment. Lord, how good to take these words just as you’ve urged us to, and other Scriptures and to do them. It’s not mere hearers who are justified but those who do them. So God help us to do them, to take real stock of our lives and say, does this accord with wisdom, even the wisdom of God. Lord, You are good to want to give us the best. You do that even through Your Word and through Yourself. Thank You, God, that You are our portion and we embrace You everyday. Amen.