Death is not the end. There's still God's judgment.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 12
At the end of Ecclesiastes, the editor who compiled Solomon's wisdom gave his own judgment, acknowledging that seeking truth and wisdom apart from God is futile. Instead, we should simply live to obey God knowing that after we die, we will face His judgment. (True, but it leaves us just a little lacking.)
Fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. (12:13)
We are having our joint Bible study/breakfast this Sunday morning, so my post will be shorter than usual. This passage is about as self-explanatory as they come, so it's as good a week as any to be brief!
Getting Started: Things to Think About
What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?
I love to think about the Big Picture (whatever that means) and ask the question What's It All About? (whatever that means). And at the very end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon leaves us with just about the biggest picture we could want to ask about.
But before we get there, I want you to stop and identify your biggest Big Picture? What are those deep-meaning questions or topics you keep coming back to, and why?
You should know by now that I'm a huge Charlie Brown fan, so I tend to have one way of asking this question and one topic that it focuses on. In 1983, Charles Schultz released a Peanuts Special called What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? It immediately follows the ridiculous (but still underrated) Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (where they are unsupervised exchange students in France). On the way home, they get lost and end up on Omaha Beach.
They then walk down the road to Ypres where Linus recites "In Flanders Fields". (Hey, kids - if you don't know what I'm talking about, please stop what you're doing and look those up.) It ends with Linus asking the titular question.
It's the ultimate question, one that I don't think enough of us have tried to answer. And Schultz leaves it appropriately unanswered (even rhetorical?). (Schultz does like to pick on the American war machine from time to time, wondering what they've learned.)
By the way, you can apparently watch the episode online.
So, with that context, what is your Big Picture topic, and what have you learned from it? If you need help getting started, just go through the outline of Ecclesiastes. I'm sure one of these topics dug into your brain!
Everything seems to be futile (1:1-11)
Wisdom is futile if you don't heed it (1:12-18)
Pleasures are futile if you're looking for meaning in them (2:1-11)
Folly is futile because ignorance is not bliss (2:12-16)
Toil is futile if you think your accomplishments will last (2:17-26)
Time is futile (fighting against time is futile) (3:1-22)
Relationships are futile if you think they will solve your problems (4:1-12)
Advancement is futile if you forget where you came from (4:13-16)
Vows are futile is you don't plan to keep them (5:1-7)
Riches are futile if you think money equals happiness (5:8-6:12)
Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)
Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)
Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)
Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)
Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)
Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)
Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)
Did anything in particular resonate with you? Really, we might be better off rephrasing this as "What's your favorite Ecclesiastes nugget of wisdom?" and let this serve as our transition.
On Sunday morning, I'm going to ask for everyone's most surprising lesson from Ecclesiastes. Please come with some answers in mind!
Part 1: The Twilight (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)
So remember your Creator in the days of your youth:
Before the days of adversity come, and the years approach when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; 2 before the sun and the light are darkened, and the moon and the stars, and the clouds return after the rain; 3 on the day when the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, the women who grind grain cease because they are few, and the ones who watch through the windows see dimly, 4 the doors at the street are shut while the sound of the mill fades; when one rises at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song grow faint. 5 Also, they are afraid of heights and dangers on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper loses its spring, and the caper berry has no effect; for the mere mortal is headed to his eternal home, and mourners will walk around in the street; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the gold bowl is broken, and the jar is shattered at the spring, and the wheel is broken into the well; 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
8 “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.”
The first time I was in seminary, I worked with a project that was restoring old Jonathan Edwards sermon manuscripts. He had a funny handwriting and shorthand style, and I picked up on it pretty quickly. One of the sermons I transcribed was on this text, and I was absolutely captivated by it.
(Here's a great side lesson in futility -- while a number of sermons I transcribed did get published, that one did not. It was a lot of late nights, and as far as I know, it's sitting in a computer somewhere never to be read. Anyway.)
As far as I'm concerned, this is the most beautiful description of aging ever written.
You have access to what these metaphors mean, so I won't duplicate them. (This is a picture of an almond tree.) Here are a couple of notes:
Verse 2: "clouds return" is actually "clouds desist" and probably means "clouds disappear" -- i.e. they've done their job and they're used up.
Verse 3: "women who grind grain" is just "grinders" and is a metaphor for teeth, specifically molars.
Verse 5: "caper berry" is an ancient aphrodisiac.
Verse 6: I've seen people try to relate these to specific body parts (i.e. spine, skull) but I don't think that's necessary. I think it's just an image of how precious life is and how temporary it is.
Verse 7 is amazing, don't you think?
Verse 8 jumps out as a very undignified response to a very dignified description of aging. What do you think is going on there?
I liken it to the phrase, "What a waste." Let me explain exactly what I mean and what I don't mean. What I don't mean is that life itself is a waste. What I do mean is that both life and death can be wasted. I think about the incomprehensible death toll of war. The young people lost to gang violence and drug overdoses. And so many other tragic circumstances that lead to life lost before its time. What a waste. And I think about the number of people who grow old naturally and maybe even accumulate a lot of money, and die having done absolutely nothing of consequence with their life. What a waste. Yes, life and death can be wasted.
But that's giving Solomon too much credit to think that's what he means. Solomon is simply an old man who has realized that his time is short and is coming to grips with the possibility that all of his accomplishments and riches and wisdom will die with him.
Now, it's possible that Solomon is speaking out of the regret of "I could have done more". If that's the case, then we can all jump right back on board with him because that's true of all of us. Every one of us misses opportunities to do something good in the name of Jesus. Every one of us, from Paul the Apostle to Billy Graham, could have done more. The difference is that Solomon seems to have let those regrets define his view of the world, whereas those of us who find our identity in Jesus Christ can lament those missed opportunities but then immediately turn our attention to today and ask God for new opportunities, appreciating every moment God gives us on this earth.
If you're still here, then God still has something important for you to do. And that should be a comfort and an encouragement to all of us!
Here are some quotes from celebrities about getting older (I believe celebrities have a unique perspective on age because the whole world is constantly reminding them how old they've become) (I hope these are properly attributed):
“Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” – Chili Davis
"Growing old in age is natural, but growing old with grace is a choice." - Billy Graham
“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Nobody ever said that growing old would be easy. It’s tough on the ego.” – Geoffrey Rush
“Growing old on screen is not for the faint of heart.” – George Clooney
“Youthful pleasures last until old age, and then they become old treasures.” – Anthony T. Hincks
“Today is the oldest you’ve ever been, and the youngest you’ll ever be again.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
“Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” – Mark Twain
“Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.” – May Sarton
“At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” – Ann Landers
“I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to.” – Albert Einstein
“You’re never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” – C.S. Lewis
“It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” – Andy Rooney
“Wisdom is the reward for surviving our own stupidity.” – Brian Rathbone
Part 2: The Truth (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11)
9 In addition to the Teacher being a wise man, he constantly taught the people knowledge; he weighed, explored, and arranged many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find delightful sayings and write words of truth accurately. 11 The sayings of the wise are like cattle prods, and those from masters of collections are like firmly embedded nails. The sayings are given by one Shepherd.
So, here's an interesting conclusion to the matter. Someone other than Solomon compiled this book, and now this editor (narrator) comes back to wrap everything up. He starts with what modern Christians know: Solomon wrote a lot of Proverbs. Those Proverbs are meaningful and valuable.
On Sunday, I'm going to ask you for your favorite Proverbs, and it is completely acceptable to bring nuggets of folk wisdom (like my favorite: "a hornet flies faster than a tractor drives"). Here are some of my favorite Proverbs:
A chattering fool comes to ruin (10:8)
Love covers over all wrongs (10:12)
Hopes placed in mortals die with them (11:7)
Whoever hates correction is stupid (12:1)
Fools show their annoyance at once (12:16)
Wisdom is found in those who take advice (13:10)
A gentle answer turns away wrath (15:1)
Better a small serving of vegetables with love (15:17)
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam (17:14)
A brother is born for a time of adversity (17:17)
A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city (18:19)
The tongue has the power of life and death (18:21)
Gray hair is the splendor of the old (20:29)
As we said when we studied Proverbs, the things Solomon says are useful to all people in every culture. They are a "practical wisdom". And verse 11 is a proverb about proverbs.
"Cattle prods" is ye olde "goad", the sharp stick used to keep oxen working together. (Resisting God's words is like "kicking against the goads" cf. Acts 26:14.) A "firmly embedded nail" could be used to hang workshop or kitchen implements. The Lifeway material identifies "shepherd" as God "the Good Shepherd", which is certainly possible. But remember that Solomon is not David.
Part 3: The Conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14)
12 But beyond these, my son, be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body. 13 When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.
So we finally come to how the Narrator wraps up everything Solomon said, and it's tepid.
Really, it's a warning. The Narrator picked up on all the same concerns we've had throughout our study: when you try to find meaning in life based solely on your own brain (and not in the fear of the Lord), you will always end lacking. You can write all the books you want and study as hard as you can, but eventually you will run out of energy and someone else will write a book based on your book. (Maybe they'll have further insight; maybe not.) Solomon is proof that searching for ultimate meaning in your own power will leave you wanting.
So the Narrator gives us his final conclusion. And this is similar to how Jesus answered the Jews who were testing Him with a "sum up the Law" question:
Matt 22:37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
The Narrator summarizes Solomon's wisdom with
Fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity.
Just ask Solomon's proverbs should be put to use by all people everywhere, so should this conclusion: we were created by God, and we should be subject to God.
Note that Westminster's Shorter Catechism blends these together:
Q. What is the chief end of man? A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
These are blanket statements for all people in all places.
What do you think? How does the conclusion of Ecclesiastes line up with the words of Jesus? What did you learn from studying this very challenging book?
Oh -- I guess I should comment on the final verse. It pastes one more very important layer on what we talked about last week.
Knowing that we're going to die should change the way we approach every day we are given. Check.
Knowing that after we die we're going to face God's judgment should even more change the way we approach every day we are given. Checkmate.
Don't you think?
But let's pay close attention to this: the Narrator doesn't give us a whole lot of encouragement. He's writing to a Jewish audience, so I guess he can assume that his readers know all about the law and the sacrificial system. But it still leaves us kind of empty, thinking that our best hope in the afterlife is to "do our very best to be good" in this life.
We can say that Solomon has given us some helpful wisdom to make the most out of this life -- practical wisdom for day-to-day living. And it is good wisdom! But it is empty (futile, even) without the God-given wisdom of making the most out of the next life. Jesus Christ came to reveal the mystery of salvation to us, so we can live our life in the context of death and judgment (and fear neither).