August 30, 2002
God, the creator of all, gives us life and sustains us. The world tells us to use this gift to live life to the fullest and to seek our best life now. Instead of encouraging us in this pursuit, Alistair Begg challenges us to remember that life is short, death is real, and judgement is coming. In light of these very real truths, we should ask ourselves, “What will I do with this wonderful gift from God?”
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, just a word from me, as it were, to wrap things up before I go. I’d like you to turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 12. Ecclesiastes chapter 12.
My father, who’s now in heaven the last four years, when he listened to me preach, always said the same thing. He said, “If you would reduce the length of your addresses by ten minutes, you would do yourself and everybody else a great favor.” And he used to say that anybody can ramble on for forty-five minutes, some can speak for thirty minutes, but it takes great skill to be able to say something in the space of twenty minutes—or to bring, as he would say, “a wee word.” And so this is a wee word in parting.
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they[’re] few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver chord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!”
Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there[’s] no end, and much study wearies the body.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
I spoke with one of your professors, and unknown to you, there’s going to be a book or a study guide coming out on the subject of remembrance and all of the things that we are called in the Bible to remember. And one of them, of course, is here in this final chapter of Ecclesiastes—an intriguing book, a not particularly easy book to expound, one in which the writer sets himself within the context of the thoughts of secular man “under the sun,” as it were, only every so often piercing through into the issues of God and eternity. And he’s going about the world, as it were, ransacking the world, looking for the piece of the puzzle that will explain existence. And then he finally comes, as he says here, to “the conclusion of the matter,” and he ends by calling his listeners to remember.
And I want to call you to remembrance this morning. Your whole career is going to be about remembering things. Already you’ve got things you need to remember for the start of your classes next week. There are dates and positions and views and arguments that will take up your memory and your time. But in the course of it all, it is absolutely vital that you remember with a faithful remembrance, with a dependent remembrance, the fact that you were individually fashioned by the creator God.
Remember when Paul in Athens speaks to the religious crowd of that community, the intelligentsia of the day, he says to them, “You know, I can see that you’re a very religious group. You even have a shrine to the unknown God.” And then he says, “And this God that you don’t know, I want to tell you about.” And he begins not with the cross of Christ, but he begins with the doctrine of creation: “[This] God who made the world and everything in it … does not live in temples [made] with hands.” And from the doctrine of creation he then proceeds through to the revelation that is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning, as I stumbled my way down the path, it was early enough to see the sun come up out over those wonderful cornfields. It was down, only showing about that much, and then it came. Some of you, I think, were there and saw it. It was magnificent. And the sun rose again this morning, not by chance but by order of the creator of the universe—he who by his providential care has ordered your steps and brought you to this place, and he has plans and purposes for you. Of all the things you forget, do not forget the wonder of the fact that the creator God has come to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, in working this out in this chapter, he, in speaking of the finality of his quest, confronts us with four things, and I simply want to draw your attention to them.
First of all, he confronts his readers with the brevity of life. And verses 1 and 2 are a forcible reminder of the fact that life doesn’t go on forever. I can only tell you this this morning. You may know of it because you’ve lost a loved one. You may have confronted death, but chances are you won’t have. And so it’s a bit like me telling you you will fall off your motorbike: you don’t believe me, but one day when you skid along the ground—and I hope it isn’t fatal—you’ll say, “Aha! That’s what he was referring to.” And one day, when you become old like me—or like your president—then you will realize, “Aha! That’s what Begg was on about that morning in the final study. He said we’re going to grow old.” You can’t conceive of it. So just take it for what the Bible says. Your life is a vapor; it appears for a little while. Your life is faster than a weaver’s shuttle. And Isaiah says such is our lives. They are passing so quickly.
Now, the point that he’s making—and this will be my final point—he’s making the point that we need, then, to seize the opportunities which are ours in the fledgling nature of our days. And he provides in a poetic fashion the crumbling destruction of life. It’s a little bit like Shakespeare’s piece that ends, you know, “sans teeth … sans everything,” you know—without teeth, without the whole deal. I’ve forgotten it, but you can look it up.
But what he’s saying here is this: that here we have the body of an old man. And “the keepers of the house tremble”; the arms and the hands that were once strong and active, they’re now shaky. If you hold this hymnbook, you can’t hold it steady. It does this. “And the strong men stoop”; the legs are no longer upright. They’ve begun to arc. And “the grinders cease because they[’re] few.” He starts to say, “Could I just have the soup, please? And could I have a proper spoon with that?” He has inadequate occlusion; there’re not enough on the top to meet the few that are left on the bottom. The eyes, the “windows,” have also grown dim. And “the doors to the street are closed”—a picture of deafness. And even loud noises, like the sound of grinding, grow faint. But with that there is insomnia, and the same man who can’t hear the telephone ring “rise[s] up at the sound of birds.” Explain that to me. “What? What? What?” And then he says, “Yes, I heard the birds this morning.” What’s going on here? I don’t know. But it happens. It’s happening. And “all their songs grow faint.”
He’s “afraid of heights.” He doesn’t like being jostled in the streets. He leaves early for everything so that there’ll be nobody around him, so that he goes to the airport seven hours before the flight leaves, driving everyone in his family completely insane. And “the almond tree” has blossomed, and his hair has turned white, if he has any left at all. “And the grasshopper drags himself along.” Now you’ve got this dreadfully decrepit picture of this old guy just finally making it along the road. And the worst of it all in the final phrase: “And desire no longer is stirred.”
“Would you like cereal?”
“I’d guess so.”
“Would you like to go to the park?”
Sat on their park bench
And the newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends.
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sun.
Can you imagine us,
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy,
To be old friends.
And the finality of the picture brings with it the mourners in the streets. And the people stand and remove their hats, and they say, “There he goes to his eternal rest.”
So the brevity of life is then commented on in light of the reality of death—verses 6 and 7. A vivid reminder of both the beauty and the frailty of our lives. Again, wonderful pictorial language: “Before the silver cord is severed, [remember him].” Or “before … the golden bowl is broken.” A beautifully fashioned golden lamp suspended by a silver chain. It will take only the snapping of one link for it to fall and be spoiled. And he says, “That’s how fragile your life is. You exist in this finite moment between time and eternity, and in an instant we may cross to the other side.” The hymn writer picks this very picture up and says, “Some day the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing.” That day will come.
Now, this is not morbidity. This is not a call to feel morose about things. He has earlier said in the book, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than into a feast of fools.” Because in the feast of fools it’s superficial and it’s ephemeral; it’s transient. But in a house of mourning people say, “Wait a minute, we better think seriously about things.” Thinking about the fact that God made me: “Aye, Jenny, he made me for himself, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” That kind of thinking. That’s why he made me: for his glory and for his purpose. And so as I look towards the end of my days—and the Bible always does this, always sets the issues of time in light of the end: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” because you’re gonna end up like a faltering grasshopper, and people will stand and say, “Old Joe is dead.” Why? So that you might seize the opportunities that are before you now.
The brevity of life, the reality of death, and the certainty of judgment. The certainty of judgment. Verse 13: “All has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: You need to fear God, keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man. Because God is going to bring every deed to judgment.” He’s gone down, oh, a whole number of avenues. He’s gone the way of wisdom—you can go back and read this for your homework—and he finds himself frustrated by his inability to reform his character or to transform his circumstances. As vital as the academy is, as important as your education is, you young people with a Christian worldview know that education doesn’t solve hardly anything at all. Where is the worst graffiti you can ever find? I’ll tell you where it is: in the highest places of learning. Where do we find the worst forms of gang rape emerging in our media? The naval college of the United States’ finest. The brightest and the best, the most educated on the way of wisdom, unable to reform their characters or transform their circumstances. For there is a great distinction between the wisdom which emerges from the fear of the Lord, which is offered to you in a worldview that exists within this place, and simply the amassing of knowledge, which may be nothing more than a form of celebrated folly.
He’s gone down the pathway of pleasure, and it’s opened doors to disillusionment. He’s seen the futility of folly; when everything’s worth laughing about, nothing’s worth the bother of a laugh. He’s seen the tyranny of toil. He’s pictured in earlier chapters the man who’s all alone, going round his house and looking at the emptiness of his children’s bedrooms and realizing that he’s given them everything they could to wear, everything they could to listen to, everything they could to drive, but they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. And he said, “What a futility!”
And as this man walks down all these avenues, he’s under the misapprehension that when you come to the end, it’s the end—that there are no eternal consequences. And so the writer says, “Don’t do that. God will bring every deed to judgment.” That’s where Paul goes in Athens as well, doesn’t he? He says, “‘He’s appointed a day when he will judge the world, and he has given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead.’ And then some sneered, and some said, ‘Later.’ And a few, including prominent women, believed.”
Finally, you have the brevity of life, the reality of death, the certainty of judgment, and the opportunity of youth. All of these facts are not to drive us, as I say, to despair. As Derek Kidner puts it, wonderfully, “Death has not yet reached out to us: [but] let it rattle its chains at us and stir us into action!” On average, your life will last about 36,792,000 minutes. 36,792,000 minutes. You’ll sleep for about 12,300,000 of them. Eating will consume another 3,000,000. Work will take care of the best part of 13,000,000. That leaves you with about 8,000,000. Once you deduct time for washing, you’re down to 6,500,000 million. If you’re eighteen, then you’ve already used a quarter of your allocation, in which case you’ve probably got about 5,000,000 discretionary minutes left. What are you going to do with them? What are you going to do with this wonderful life of yours that God has given you? Your life is powerful. It’s passing. It’s purposeful. And the Bible always speaks in the present tense. It always speaks about now—offering our lives to God now.
I don’t know what this little thing is here. It’s very nice; I think it’s a beehive. Oh yes, it is. It’s very nice. And the flowers are very nice. I don’t know how real they are? Very real! Very nice indeed. Pardon? … The wife’s flowers. Sorry, I would never say anything unkind about your wife. About you, yes, but about your wife, no. It’s a tribute to Pat, isn’t it? There’s not a dead one up here. They’re all beautiful and ready for display. Be a strange thing to come up here, wouldn’t it, and have them all dead, hanging over, limp? Who would do that? Would you buy flowers for your girlfriend, keep them in your trunk for three and a half weeks, wait till they all fall into disrepair, and then say, “I’ve been thinking about you”? She said, “Yes, obviously. But not very much.”
Think of your life, as it were, in the full bloom of your youthfulness, with all the opportunities before you, in light of the fact that life is brief, death certain, judgment’s real. And then just come and bring your life to Christ. Just in the silence of your own room and in your own journey through your days here, just tell him that you love him, that you want to serve him, that you want to live for him. You don’t know what that means, you don’t know where it means, but you want to say in this opening week of this particular academic year, “I want to live for Christ, and I want to live for others, and I want to do it forever.”
That was just a wee twenty-minute word.
Father, I thank you this morning for the clarity of the Bible. I thank you for the fact that it leaves us with no loopholes, that it speaks to our circumstances. I thank you again for the privilege of these days and commend into your care each of these young people, asking that in the full bloom of their youth they may not forget you, their Creator, and that they may lay their lives down before you, and that you will exalt them in due time. For we ask these things in order that the Lord Jesus might be honored and praised in all that we are and all that we do. And we pray that as we continue from this place, and as we think of one another and pray for one another and hear of one another, that we will always be a help and never a hindrance to the other as we follow Jesus. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
 Acts 17:22–23 (paraphrased).
 Acts 17:24 (NIV 1984).
 See James 4:14.
 See Job 7:6.
 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7.
 Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Fanny Crosby, “Saved by Grace” (1891).
 Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (1981). Paraphrased.
 Mark 8:36 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 16:26.
 Acts 17:31–32, 34 (paraphrased).
 Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1976), 104.
 See 1 Peter 5:6.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.