Sermon prepared by Rev. Clifford Hoekstra, Rock Rapids, Iowa
Keywords: meaning, purpose, happiness, true life, life in Christ
Dear People of God,
If there’s no God, then there’s no ultimate meaning. Without a God, there is no Judge and no final judgment. Without a final judgment, nothing really matters. In a book titled After the Fall by Arthur Miller, a character (Quentin) argues that when you’re young, you can prove how brave or smart or powerful you are. But each one is moving on a path where we will be justified or condemned. There is a verdict. Yet it would be a disaster to finally reach that point and discover that there is no judge. Then one would be left with an endless argument with yourself and that would lead to despair.
The Preacher who wrote this book would have agreed with that assessment. Meaningless, meaningless…everything is meaningless OR vanity of vanities…all is vanity. Those are the first and last words of the Preacher. That’s the way he begins and ends the book. Meaninglessness or vanity is his way of expressing the futility of life in a fallen world without God. It’s like steam rising from a boiling pot. That’s life. It’s impossible to grasp and, before you know it, it’s gone. It vanishes into thin air.
There’s an old saying: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Why does it often look so much more appealing to be in some other situation than the one that we are in? The answer is simple. We only see the good things and don’t see the difficulties. In fact, the green grass on the other side of the fence might actually look green because it’s artificial turf. It’s plastic. It’s not real. One of the surest ways to miss out on happiness is to be so busy looking across the fence at fantasies that you never enjoy what’s under your nose. That can sometimes be the case with sports teams that keep trading for that perfect player and then find that this isn’t the answer.
For some, the other side of the fence is the future. We’re waiting for some future event to make us happy. When I get that new job, when I get that car or house or promotion, then I’ll be happy. I’m not happy yet, but I will be when I meet the right person. Or those who are married think they’ll really be happy when children come along. Then they dream about when the kids move out so that they can relax and enjoy life. But even green grass on a golf course isn’t enough to make you happy.
Those who are aging find that they have more health problems and far more funerals to attend than they ever expected. Then they start looking back to “the good old days.” If only I could be young and carefree. If only I had a job again. So it goes. We can spend our lives living for a future or past that we think will make us happy. But instead of always looking ahead or looking back, try LOOKING UP. Focus on God. He is the Good Shepherd and He can make us lie down in green pastures.
Verse 7 actually reminds readers that life is a gift and when we die “the spirit returns to the God who gave it.” So don’t waste your life worrying about the negatives…what if I don’t make this deal, what if I lose money… Stop worrying so much and notice how pleasant life can be. If you’re younger, enjoy the energy. If you’re older, enjoy the zest for life you still have. If your body tells you you’re too old to do certain things, live within your limits. But don’t let others tell you you’re too old to relish life. Use your time to live – rather than just waiting to die.
Be positive, yet realistic. Favorite moments don’t last. That’s not life. After sunshine comes darkness. Verse 8 even speaks of vanity or meaninglessness. We seem to end up where we started the book. However, the Preacher doesn’t bring us back to the same place where we began. He isn’t just repeating himself. We are NOT the same people. This book gives us a bigger picture. We have seen how vain life is, so we know that things of this world will pass away…pleasure, knowledge, wine-women-and song, power, or money. Nothing on earth like that will satisfy our souls.
Yet there are still things we can laugh about and enjoy while we have life. Above all, we can’t leave the Creator out of His universe. Even the vanity of this earth won’t have the last word. In verses 9-12, the Preacher is saying that the believer must understand the right use of knowledge. We need to know what truth is for. We need to understand the purpose of wisdom. He tells us about himself in verse 9. It’s not just that he was called a wise man. He pursued wisdom in order to teach knowledge. If this is King Solomon, then this book also helps us understand the book of Proverbs.
He arranged his teaching so that people’s lives would change. He didn’t learn what he learned so that he could be called smart. He wanted to help people. This is the book that uses phrases like “to everything there is a season,” “eternity in the hearts of men,” and “cast your bread upon the waters”. There is beauty in the way the book is written. Yet it isn’t enough to write well. One must also write with the truth in mind.
God’s truth is for God’s people. It changes lives. Truth makes life better. He tells us in verse 10 that he chose His words carefully in order to have the most effect. He had tremendous knowledge and also a great way with words. He doesn’t want us living to meet all the expectations of others. Be the person God created you to be. Be happy. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. You don’t have to answer to all the self-appointed judges who try to run your life, but you do have to answer to the ONE Judge.
Enjoy life while you can. Don’t make yourself miserable if you don’t have to. And live for the Lord while your body is strong and your mind is clear. The Bible appeals again and again to those who are young and in their prime, because faith is a challenging and exciting adventure. Older people also need the Lord, but it’s still best to handle old age if elderly people’s relationship with God started when they were young. It’s tough when everybody in your generation is vanishing and your own health isn’t getting any better.
Technology tries to help us. There are dentures and eyeglasses and cataract surgeries. There are hearing aids. There are pills to help you sleep or get you going again. For worn-out knees and hips, there are replacements. We may live longer, but the final phase is still hard. No matter how long you live, the time comes when you must die. It’s that simple. In light of all of these things, we are told to remember our Creator.
He says in verse 11 that his words were designed to do 2 things: to be goads AND nails. Goads were sharp sticks, cattle prods, used by farmers to drive oxen. They’re not designed to hurt, but to cause enough pain to get cooperation. Goads are meant to prod you in the right direction. They prick your conscience, convict your conscience, and stimulate action. Goads point you in the right way. They are meant to direct you.
Then “firmly embedded nails” keep things in place. Nails anchor you to the truth of God. Life may be like a vapor, but true wisdom can pin us down to something solid. Nails give us something on which to hang our experience. Listen to some of those wise sayings from this book: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong… two are better than one…a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” These wise sayings are meant to be nailed to our hearts and stuck in our brains. You don’t have to worry about this book.
Ultimately, the writer reminds us that these weren’t his words. The father of the Preacher (King David) had written: the Lord is my shepherd. The words came from the true shepherd. This is the doctrine of inspiration, that the words of this book come from the mouth of God. It’s breathed-out words from God. We don’t just admire the words, but must submit to their authority. Then there comes a strange warning in verse 12 to be careful with what you read. Today more than a million new books are published each year. Yet it’s not about how reading books or reading lots of words can be hard. It’s deeper than that. He is warning students: make sure you know why you are learning what you’re learning. Make sure you read the Bible.
Most authors of books don’t warn the readers not to read their books. But this verse is saying that what you are reading is holy and heavenly truth. These words are good for the soul. It’s not the one who reads the most words who necessarily gets the benefit, but the one who meditates upon these words. Be content with what you read in God’s book. It’s not just the reading person, or the talking person, but the covenant-doing person who will be blessed. Jesus even said: If you know these things, you’re blessed if you do them.
He knows that there are many who call him Lord and then betray him. Their words may profess him and their works deny him. They may bow the knee but not the heart. They call him Jesus and don’t obey His word. There comes a time to set aside the books and papers, turn off the TV and computer, take the phone off the hook or shut off the cell phone—and pay attention to what matters most. Make space in your life for God’s Word.
Bertrand Russell was a philosopher who also won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. He was born into a Christian home, but he rejected his training and became an outspoken atheist. His daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him, “Somewhere at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his souls, there was an empty space that needed to be filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.”
The Preacher’s words aren’t meant to amuse or just make people smarter. They are meant to change lives. A relationship with God is meant to be life-transforming.
In the CONCLUSION of verses 13-14 the Preacher shows that the life of joy boils down to the realization of the greatness of God and of the word of God. Fear God and keep His commandments. Be in awe of Him. He is the One who will judge us one day. How do we know that? It’s because He raised His Son from the dead. So we are to be in awe of His power and justice and walk by His word. That’s the key to a blessed life in this fallen world. When everything is said and done, the main message is that life apart from God is empty. The happy life, the blessed life, is realized by those who fear God.
And what does it mean to fear God? It is to live in grateful awe and to keep His commandments. It is the worship of God which produces the Christian life. Good conduct is to follow our worship of Him. The Bible reminds us: The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silent before Him.” That’s the fear of God. It is a sense of the majesty and holiness of God. A joy-filled awe of the one true God shakes each of us to our very core and is to bring a response of faith, love, and obedience.
That’s what life is all about. The truth is that every one of us will stand before God for judgment. This means that everything does matter. If there’s no God, then nothing matters. If there is a God who will judge the world, then everything matters. This life is not all there is. One day even the dead will be raised and every person will stand before this God. It will matter what we did with our lives and what we did for others. Even the household jobs and homework assignments will matter. Everything matters.
What matters most is the personal conclusion that each person makes about Christ. Ecclesiastes doesn’t end with a promise of grace but with a warning of judgment. The book has the gracious purpose of pointing us to the gospel, to the one hope that we have. If it’s true that God does judge, then we want to be found righteous on that awesome day. The only way to be sure is to entrust our lives to the Son. He suffered and died and on the third day he arose. And He will come again.
Do you have that kind of faith? Do you have the assurance of heaven? If so, you can face death like the poet who wrote: “Some-day the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing. But oh, the joy when I shall wake – Within the palace of the King. And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story – Saved by grace.” If you’re young, remember your Creator. If you’re old, remember your Creator. Fix your mind on God while you have a mind. Entrust your life while you have life.
God may give us many good things. However, Ecclesiastes is all about restlessness, weariness, and emptiness and how God uses it all to turn us toward Him. He has put eternity in our hearts. We can only find satisfaction in Him. What’s at stake isn’t just satisfaction. What’s at stake is how you’ll spend eternity. One day the frustrations of this life will seem trivial compared to an eternity without God. On the other hand, the joys of this life will seem like a vapor compared to the joy of eternity. Remember your Creator. Fear Him and keep His commandments. Now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).
That’s the solution to an empty life. It’s only found in relationship to Christ. He is the King. There is a big difference between fearing God and just being frightened by Him. In C.S. Lewis’ story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is a dialogue between the children and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. They ask about Aslan the great lion, who represents Christ. Lucy asks if he is safe. Mrs. Beaver says that anyone who can appear before Him without knees that are knocking is either braver than most or just silly. He isn’t safe, but he is good. He is the King.
Then Lewis describes how people sometimes think that a thing can’t be good and terrible at the same time. The children catch a glimpse of the lion’s royal mane and solemn eyes, and they find that they can’t look at him without trembling. Yet His voice is so deep and rich that it takes the “fidgets” right out of them. Now they feel quiet and glad. It doesn’t seem awkward to stand and say nothing, but just to be in awe. We don’t just live under the sun…s…u…n….We live under the SON, the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2).
Lord Jesus, we thank you giving our life true meaning, purpose and joy. You are the one who came to give us life in abundance. Teach us to follow your ways, to walk in your paths and know that you are the One who gets us through life on earth with joy and peace and grace and strength. May we glorify you from youth to old age and live in the confidence that we will stand before you as our judge one day and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Guide us by your word and Spirit until that day. We pray in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.
Song of Response: PsH #288 Take My Life and Let It Be