May 14, 2014
Ecclesiastes helps us to bridge the gap between the world of the Bible and our contemporary context. Drawing from the Preacher’s wisdom, Alistair Begg reminds us of life’s opportunity, life’s frailty, and death’s reality. Proper enjoyment of this life, he affirms, is possible only within the moral boundaries established by God. Indeed, the final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does—for God will judge the earth. We must remember our Creator.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Ecclesiastes, and we’ll go to chapter 12. That way we can feel as though we finished the book. Having never started it, that is quite a remarkable achievement, I’m sure you would agree.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they[’re] few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors [on] the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
“Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there[’s] no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole … of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Now, just a brief prayer. An old Anglican prayer:
Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we said on Monday that dealing with Ecclesiastes provides us with an opportunity to bridge some of the clear gaps between the world of the Bible and our contemporary world. And I want to essentially pick up from there and ease into this twelfth chapter by saying a number of things.
First of all, just in terms of speaking and preaching all the time, but particularly, I think, when we have in mind the conversion of unbelievers—please God—it is good for me, and I’m sure for you too, to remember that there are various categories of people who are listening to us as we preach. The person who has helped me most with this is William Perkins. He lived a long time ago in the sixteenth century. And he said that preaching should be shaped to seven categories of listeners. And I’ll just point them out to you. Number one, non-Christians who know nothing about the gospel and don’t care. Two, non-Christians who know nothing about the gospel but are teachable. Three, those who know what the gospel is but have never been humbled to see their need of a Savior. Four, those who have been humbled, some in the early stages of seeing their need, others who see that they need salvation, not merely improvement, and are convinced that only Christ can save them. Five, genuine believers who need to be taught. Six, backsliders who are in that condition either as a result of failing to be taught or as a result of failure to live consistently in the light of what they have been taught. Seven, a mixed congregation of believers and nonbelievers. I think it’s Tim Keller who says if you preach imagining that the three neighbors who live closest to you in your street are actually listening to you, it will probably constrain you and restrain you in ways that will prove to be helpful.
So, I mention that just because I think when we are in our pulpits—I know it’s true for me—sometimes, if you have a certain constituency there, you may deliver material in such a way that is very absorbable by the mainstream, and yet the very way in which that takes place is isolating people. Not the truth of the Bible is isolating people, but our approach. Okay?
That’s why our reading, as we said in the Q and A thing this morning, is so very, very important—and our reading beyond the confines of theology as well. So that our understanding, depending on our bent—art and literature and so on, or science, if you have that kind of background—is all very, very important. Not reading to find sermon illustrations but reading in order to become a more rounded person in our coming to the text. And that involves reading newspapers as well, I think. And if you have a good filing system, then you will be able to retrieve material. If you don’t, then I feel very sorry for you.
So, for example, I can go to my retrieval system and tell you that on the thirteenth of August last year, Henry Allen, who’s a journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal which began with this sentence:
For the first time in my 72 years, I have no idea what’s going on. …
I doubt that anyone does. Is our democracy turning into a power vacuum? What will fill it?
Will organized religion die? I got talking to a girl from an Episcopal[ian] youth group in Missouri. “Episcopalianism is great,” she said. “You don’t have to believe anything.”
Like most people I used to think the world would go on the way it was going on, with better medicine and the arrival of an occasional iPad or an earthquake. [But] that was when I knew what was going on.
I worry that reality itself is fading like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only a smile that grows ever more alarming.
Without the humor and in a similar vein, George Weigel, in his introduction to a book, The Light of the World, written by Joseph Ratzinger—that is, Pope Benedict XVI—in his foreword to that book, he says here we are, and we are living in
a world that … has lost its story: a world in which the progress promised by the humanisms of the past three centuries is now gravely threatened by understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.
It’s kinda gloomy isn’t it?
And Stephen Hawking, who is one of the great champions of essentially nihilism, every so often gets downright honest. And in his Brief History of Time, he writes these words. He’s talking about some kind of understanding of the universe and of existence. He says,
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it[’s] just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the [equation] and makes a universe for [these models] to describe? The usual [scientific] approach … of [constituting] a mathematical model cannot answer the [question] of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.
And then he asks this: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” That’s a fair question.
Now, at the very baseline of our culture, this just pops out. Baby boomers, of who I am one, the oldest of us hit sixty-five the beginning of last year. And a commentator, identifying what we’re all really like, said these individuals “are living longer, working longer and, [the] researchers say, nursing some disappointment [at] how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.”
But it’s not only old fogies like me. The younger ones too! The successful ones. The folks who have had a good background and a nice home and a good education are part of what the commentators referred to as “the American paradox”: individuals who grew up being told that they could be anything they wanted to be, but they don’t know what they want to be. There seems to be no cause for their unhappiness, which makes them unhappy. They are more connected to more people through the internet than could ever have been possible in all of history, and yet they have never felt more alone. They want to be accepted, but they feel so dreadfully alienated. They have never had so much, and they have never had so little.
Now, I say to you that into that world the book of Ecclesiastes really packs a punch. They are, he says here in the little editorial piece that we’ll deal with first, in 9–12, if you just cast your gaze to that, he says that the words of the wise are like a sharply pointed stick. That’s what a goad is. The words of the wise are like a sharply pointed stick. In other words, they have the capacity not only to prod and to unsettle, but also, like nails, they’re able to fix themselves in the mind of the listener. And he tells us that the force of these words is on account of the source of these words. Because these are the words… These collected sayings “are given by one Shepherd.” And you will notice that in the ESV, “Shepherd” is capitalized, making the point that the source of these words—this is a statement, actually, on the doctrine of inspiration and the nature of Ecclesiastes in the scheme of inspiration—that these words are the words of the Shepherd of Israel. “Give ear” to the “Shepherd of Israel.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” He’s begun chapter 1 with the Creator in all of his majesty; here is this Creator who is from afar, who is also the Shepherd who speaks personally and purposefully.
And these words, verse 10, are delightful words. They are truthful words. They have been weighed, they have been considered, and they have been arranged “with great care.” Their unity and their clarity and their finality are such that, he says in verse 12, a continual learning without actually ever arriving at a knowledge of the truth will render all your study eventually wearisome and fruitless. These words of truth have the capacity to irritate or to annoy, or as Sinclair Ferguson observes, they have the capacity to make the listener say, “Ouch!” And some of us, our words are maybe a little too pointed, and others of us, our words are like wet spaghetti noodles. A good “Ouch!” coming from the congregation would be at least an indication that people are paying attention, rather than we’re just pouring these wet noodles over their heads.
It’d be very difficult, I think, for people to forget the imperative to which he draws things to a conclusion: “Fear God” and “do what he tells you.” “Fear God” and “do what he tells you.” That’s striking. That’ll hang in there. They’ll be sitting on the plane, and they’ll be saying to themselves, “What was that thing he said the other day? ‘Fear God’ and ‘do what he tells you.’ I wonder if I do fear God. I certainly don’t do what he tells me.”
Now, that little editorial section there, 9–12, I’ve isolated, because I want to work through the rest of the passage in the balance of the time, and to just follow along, noticing first of all what we’re told about the opportunity of youth. “Youth” here is a fairly broad category, and so you could include yourself in it if you choose. But what he’s doing here is very straightforward. Last Saturday, I conducted a funeral in the morning, and as I was driving there along 306, much further north, I passed a high school, and the folks in the high school had positioned a badly wrecked car in full view of everyone. It was obviously there. In fact, it had a sign warning all who passed—and particularly, I think, the graduating seniors—warning them about the folly of drinking and driving. And essentially, it is there to say, “Don’t let this happen to you.” “Don’t let this happen to you.” And in a similar manner, that’s what the Preacher has done. He has described in the balance of these chapters the futility of life lived under the sun—the emptiness, the sheer triviality, of life without God. And he has been saying to his readers, “Don’t go down these paths. Let me save you the expense. Let me save you the energy. I have gone down these various roads, and I have discovered them to be dead ends.”
But now, positively, he says, “I’ve told you all of these places that it’s a worthless adventure to embark on, but now let me say this to you: remember also your Creator.” Now, once again, as we were reminded last night, he’s not saying, “Remember that there is a God.” But he’s actually calling for his readers to think in terms of God no longer from the perspective of self-sufficiency but now from the perspective of dependency, from the perspective of discovery—discovering that this God has made them for himself purposefully, so that when Eric Liddell understood it, he was able to say, “Aye, Jenny, he made me for himself—for China, I know. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” That’s what the writer is doing here. He’s saying, “I want you to come to an understanding of this, so that you will remember the Creator.” It’s interesting; he doesn’t say that you will just remember God or remember Yahweh, but that you will remember your Creator. He created you.
Cecil Frances Alexander, an Irish lady—and we’ve given the Irish some bad press, so I think I want to redress the balance just a little—a wonderful Irish lady, the wife of a clergyman, wrote hymns for young people to teach them Christian doctrine. So, in order to teach the incarnation, she wrote, “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,” and so on. To teach the atonement she wrote, “There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall.” To teach the doctrine of creation, she wrote,
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has [done] all things well.
“All things bright and beautiful.”
Our young people—the ones that are in our churches, the ones to whom we preach, hopefully—are bombarded consistently, relentlessly, with views of the world which dismantle, deny, create distrust in the doctrine of creation. And I’ll say this quickly and try and move on: it surely is of some significance if we accept that—I want to believe, at least—that Paul when he gets his chance at the Areopagus, says, “I’m gonna use some Ecclesiastes in this.” And where does he begin? “The God who made the world and everything in it…” So our young people have been nurtured, perhaps, singing those songs, being taught in Sunday school, and now they go out into the world. And so, we want to prepare them, and we want to do well by them. But listen, brothers, and listen carefully: Is it not more than a little alarming to find that when our university students are now most in need of our support and encouragement in relationship to the doctrine of creation, that some of us are tempted now to engage in intramural discussions which would have made our forebears turn in their graves? I’m not talking about different views on whether it’s a day or twenty-four hours or stuff like that. I’m talking about the very nature of it himself—the nature of a true historical Adam and so on.
I think that it’s time for us to be respectful, obviously, of the people who wear the white coats, the scientists. But I think it’s time also for a little bit of A. W. Pink. We need to unearth him every so often, and it’s just so good. He’s talking now about Genesis. He says,
What follows in the remainder of Genesis 1 is to be regarded not as a poem, still less as an allegory, but as a literal, historical statement of Divine revelation. We have little patience with those who labor to show that the teaching of this chapter is in harmony with modern science—as well [as] ask whether the celestial chronometer is in keeping with the timepiece at Greenwich. Rather must it be the part of scientists to bring their declarations into accord with the teaching of Genesis 1, if they are to receive the respect of the children of God. The faith of the Christian rests not in the wisdom of man, nor does it stand in any need of buttressing from scientific savants. The faith of the Christian rests upon the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture, and we need nothing more. Too often have Christian apologists deserted their proper ground.
And then he goes on to say if science actually turns something up that’s really good, they will discover that it’s in accord with the Bible, and that what we need to do is be respectful and be scientific and work according to those things. But brothers, either we’re gonna allow the Bible to adjudicate on things or we’re not.
“Remember your Creator.” God is not a construct. Before there was time, before there was anything, there was God. He is the Creator and the Sustainer of everyone and everything. And our students need to be able to get to grips with that, and we need to be able to help them. And I don’t think the answer is in providing them a series of proof texts but enabling them to think biblically about everything. So that if they do study art, or whatever it might be, being able to see that when Gauguin, the Postimpressionist painter, writes on one of his manuscripts, which is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he writes out of his Roman Catholic background where he was catechized, but a catechism that has left him bereft, and now he is exploring life in an entirely different way. And the only canvas, apparently, on which he wrote, he wrote three questions:
D‘où Venons Nous
Que Sommes Nous
Où Allons Nous
What is he writing? “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Well, the writer says, “This is where we start: the God who made the world and everything in it. Drop your pretense at self-sufficiency. Commit yourself to God. Don’t let the excitement of being young cause you to neglect God. Honor him while you have your whole life in front of you. Don’t fall for the line that the serious stuff can wait. Beware of allowing the best years of your life to pass while you’re waiting for them to begin. The evil days are coming.”
“Evil days are coming.” If you can’t help them to encourage them, then scare the young rascals. Scare them with the prospect of the evil days! What are these evil days? I think the NIV’s helpful: “before the days of trouble come.” In other words, he’s saying, “There’s gonna come a time—and I’m going to describe it for you,” he says, “I have a little poem for you—when the springtime of life has passed, and you’re gonna be swallowed up by the chill of a gloomy winter. That will happen. It will happen ever so quickly.” So it is a wonderful thing to hear the gospel when we’re young. It is a wonderful thing to make it clear to our youngsters to labor hard over these things so that they are able to begin to process and to absorb the instruction of Scripture.
David Patterson, who was a Free Church minister in Scotland, was a fund of unbelievable stories—and I use the adjective somewhat purposefully. And this was one of his great stories. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s so good I want to tell it to you so you can use it again. All right? The scene is London, it’s The Mall, and a significant funeral procession is taking place. In the crowd, as they watch this procession heading towards Westminster Abbey, a gentleman stands, and next to him a tramp, a bum, very poorly dressed. He removes his hat, and as the cortege passes, the gentleman hears him saying, “Aye, you were right, Davey. You were right.” And he said it again. The stranger turned to him and he said, “Why do you say that?” “Well,” said the tramp, “this is the funeral procession of David Livingstone. “Well,” the man said, “we all know that. That’s why we’re standing here.” The man says, “Yes, but what you do not know is that David Livingstone and I were both born in Blantyre outside of Glasgow, we both went to the same Sunday school, and on a particular Sunday, the Sunday school teacher called for us to bend our knees to the lordship of Jesus. And Davey did, and I didn’t. And that’s why I say today, ‘You were right, Davey. You were right.’”
“Remember your Creator.” Children can trust Christ. We’re not praying for young people to be interested in religion, to be “churched.” To be praying for them to be converted. And the writer says that’s what it means to remember: to give up a sense of self-sufficiency and self-adequacy and the fact that I can find the answers down all these streets, to say, “No, they’re dead-end streets, here in the opportunity of youth.”
Secondly, and more quickly, recognizing what he then points out concerning the frailty of life. And in this we have some of these delightful words that he’s referred to in verse 10, these “words of delight,” these truthful words. And what he’s saying is that the time to reckon with these prospects that he’s about to describe is while you can still remember. It’s while you still have the opportunity to do something about it, so that you might minimize a sense of regret. And what he describes—and some of you will have preached from this, I’m sure—is simply the fading of physical and mental powers, the passing of old friends, the conclusion of routine customs and trips and long-held ambitions. If you have been living your life hoping to break eighty on the golf course, you’ve now reached the point where there’s more chance of you breaking your leg on the golf course than of breaking eighty. It’s over. It’s over. We don’t need to hear about when you were great triple jumper. You can hardly get in and out of your car. It’s obvious to everyone.
How did this happen so quickly? He’s using these amazing powers of language to make the point. And those who have helped us best in contemporary songwriting, at least in the twentieth century, have been masters with words—none better, of course, I think, than Paul Simon. So, for example,
They sit on their park bench like bookends,
And a newspaper blowing through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends.
The old men,
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sun.
The sounds of the city
Sifting through trees
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends.
Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears.
Now, you see, the Bible never addresses these things in order to be morbid but in order to be honest, in order to be realistic. Victorian society had sex as a taboo. Sex is mainstream in contemporary society, and death is a taboo. Here is one of the hot buttons of the church: How do you address the hot button of the fact that that one out of one dies? How do you address the fact that Ernest Hemingway was true to his worldview when he writes, “Life is a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness”? By turning to the Bible and saying, “You know, the Bible has a whole bunch of stuff in there about this kind of thing.”
And so, the Preacher with poetic skill pictures for us the body of an aging man. Some of us might want to suck our tummies in just for a moment. He describes it as a house in decline, a great house in decline. Kidner says don’t fiddle around with the details; just take it as the big picture. But it’s so much fun fiddling around with the details, especially if you’re talking to young people.
And I think quite legitimately there’s a way here to engage young people as you go through with the humor that is represented in this. So, for example, here you have a group of young people. They think you’re an ancient clown to start with; they can’t believe that you know anything about anything at all. And then you’re going to tell them, “There will come a day for you—I might not be around to see it—when the keepers of your house tremble. When your hands become shaky, your hands and your arms become shaky. When you find yourself saying to your wife, ‘Do you have any Advil? I don’t know what these bumps are on my fingers. What is it that does this?’” Well, I guess it’s some form of arthritis. I thought the other day as I looked at my hand, I thought, “I wish I’d taken a photograph of my father’s hand. I think this is my father’s hand. How did I get my father’s hand? His hand was the hand that shook when it held the Bible. Why would my hand shake when I hold the Bible?” Oh yeah, your hand will shake.
When the “strong men stoop.” When people see you walking along the road, they say, “He’s not standing up the way he used to stand up.” Well, you can’t, because you no longer have the capacity to do so. Your “grinders.” For all of those of you who love the dentist, I wonder, is this a description of inadequate occlusion? You’re gonna end up with a day where somebody said, “Well, I made a little puree for you, honey. Yes. I made it nice and soft for you. I don’t want you to choke, for goodness’ sake. Because if you choke, I mean, you’re so decrepit I won’t be able to get you to the hospital. I can’t carry you.”
And there you are, the ones “looking through the windows.” “Have you seen my glasses? Where did I put my glasses?” And “the doors to the street”: “Pardon? What was that you said?” The ears are no longer what they were doing. The songs of the day beginning: I take that to be “the grinding”; I think it must be that grinding was one of the elements of a town or a village starting to move into the day. You’re not hearing that anymore. And yet you’re up with the lark because you can’t sleep, but you can’t actually hear the sound of the lark, so it’s kinda funny that you’re up with them. And so Kidner says, “With old age, these cheerful evidences of a living world about us grow remote and faint,” and “one [no longer feels] fully part of it.”
Verse 5, he builds the picture. You find that now you’re “afraid … of what is high.” I mean, this is so apropos, isn’t it? I mean, I’d have to just think a little bit if I want to jump from here down to there. You say, “You’re a crazy person.” No, I’m an honest person. I would have jumped from up there when I was a teenager. I might not jump down there now. How did this happen? Are you afraid of being jostled at a football match? You never used to think about that before: “We’ll have to get out early; I’m frightened of the crush.” And somebody says, “You know, I saw old Begg the other day. He’s looking more like a grasshopper every time I see him.” I’m not a grasshopper, because grasshoppers go like vwoo! Right? They’re just like vwoo! a grasshopper. But no, this is a grasshopper that drags itself along. This is a grasshopper on his last legs. And there you have it. There he goes. What a wonderful picture. Isn’t it encouraging? Here’s your future, staring you in the face. I want to send you out with a great encouragement. You go home and tell your wife that you just dragged yourself in.
Actually, you go home and tell your wife that you’re very keen to see her, and hopefully desire has not failed. Actually, it reads, “When the caper berry fails.” Caper berry was a stimulant, regarded in some arenas as an aphrodisiac. Did you ever imagine there would come a day when you thought of a bed as a place to sleep? You get married, and then you’re married, and married, and married, and you’re like, “Man, I’ve gotta get some sleep!” Think it out.
Advertising in golf tournaments are pitched to about my age; I’m convinced of it. And what advertises most? Financial stuff about how you’re gonna run out of money and you won’t be able to care for your grandchildren, so you’re sittin’ there sweating bullets, ’cause you don’t have enough money, and you’re trying to watch the golf. And then at the same time, they’re advertising routinely for Cialis and Viagra. That’s what they do. That’s what they do. It’s all in the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s all in the Bible. That’s exactly what it says.
The opportunity of youth. The frailty of life. Thirdly, the reality of death. The reality of death. Verse 6, verse 7. These things are indications to us of the fact that one day “the silver cord” will be “snapped.” There’s an old hymn that that actually picks that picture up, isn’t there? “Some day the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing.” That’s what he’s saying here. A golden lamp may be on a silver chain that immediately becomes obsolete with the loss of one link. Or the pitcher, the earthenware pitcher, shattered at the fountain. Or the wheel that is now broken at the cistern: the wheel lies there as a silent testimony to what once was and a chilling indication of the fact that there will be a last time for every journey. We will lay down our pens for the last time one day. And the implications of the fall of man will once again be made clear by death. Verse 7: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was.” Wasn’t that the verdict of God on Adam and Eve? “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Now, there’s work to be done in this if we’re going to be teaching in a series. And I commend that to you. We’ll have the opportunity to affirm what the Bible has to say about death. America is very, very concerned not to deal with death. Most funerals here do not follow the thing through to its logical conclusion. The people are covered up and hidden away or dealt with. And the Christian church has an opportunity—not, again, to be morbid in these things, but to say, “We are the people who have an answer to this question. We know the one who has conquered death and has made a way for you to conquer death. We’re able to tell you about this great Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, who declared that he was the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believed in him, even though he died, he would live, and whosoever lives and dies will live on.”
This week, as I was thinking of these things, I went to Alec Motyer’s Look to the Rock. I was looking for something else, and I found three little statements that he makes concerning death. And they’re important for this reason: increasingly, it seems to me—you can check and see if this is accurate—it seems to me that people’s perspective is that death means extinction. Right? That’s essentially what they say. That’s how they live: “Well, it’s over, and it’s done, and we’re finished.” The Bible says, “No, that can’t possibly be the case, because God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” And when you read the Bible, it becomes obvious that death does not terminate human existence. “The dead … experience a change of ‘place.’” Hence David and his concern over the loss of his boy, and finally his statement: “He will not come to me, but I will go to him.” That child is not extinct. That child lives.
So the dead experience a change of place. The dead experience “an altered state.” Their state will be altered. The separation of spirit from body, as in Ecclesiastes 12:7 here, is a reality. And also, “the individual person continues.” You see why it is that the agenda of so many contemporary worldviews are to disengage our friends and neighbors at the front end in the doctrine of creation and then also to provide them with all kinds of stories about how life will finally end. And we, when we teach the Bible effectively, have a chance to enter into this.
Christopher Hitchens I’ve quoted, and I must say that he was my favorite atheist. I wept when he finally died. I know people said horrible things about him, but… And the thing about him—well, there’s so many things about him. But let me just give you a little flavor of Hitchens. He’s writing in a chapter on “Something of Myself” in his biography. He doesn’t say much about himself, but he allows himself about fifteen pages. And he’s talking about the joy of children and the becoming of a father and so on. And he says,
Many writers, especially male ones, have told us that it is the decease of the father which opens the prospect of one’s own end, and affords an unobstructed view of the undug but awaiting grave that says, “you’re next.” Unfilial as this may seem, that was not at all so in my own case. It was only when I watched [my boy] Alexander being born that I knew at once that my own funeral director had very suddenly, but quite unmistakably, stepped onto the stage.
And he then references a conversation that he’d had with one of his friends some years previously when his friend had reminded him of a poem by Rossetti. And this man had said to him, “Do you know this?” Hitchens said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “Then, well, let me quote it to you, and I wager you will never forget it. You will remember,” said his friends, “the lines I will now speak. Delightful, truthful; you will always remember them.” And then he recited the following:
What man has bent o’er his son’s sleep, to brood,
How that face shall watch his when cold it lies?—
Or thought, as his own mother kissed his eyes,
Of what her kiss was when his father wooed?
This is Hitchens. We don’t have to go grappling around to try and find clever things. Just read!
But you say, “It looks as though we’ve just come all the way back to the beginning. Look at verse 8. This is where we started, and now this is where we end: vanity or emptiness or meaningless; it’s all vanity.” Well, no, we’re actually not. And that’s why what he says in 9, 10, 11, and 12 is important, and then finally—and with this we close—verses 13 and 14. The context is no longer “under the sun.” The context is now in the presence of the Creator, the God who made the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on. “Here,” he says, “is the end of the matter,” and that’s the final point: the certainty of judgment. The opportunity of youth, the frailty of life, the reality of death, and the certainty of judgment. And what he’s pointing out is this: that proper enjoyment of life is possible only within the moral boundaries established by God.
The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters; it is, rather, “Everything matters.” It all matters. Again, Kidner: “It kills complacency to know that nothing goes unnoticed and unassessed, not even the things that we disguise from ourselves. But at the same time it transforms life. If God cares as much as this, nothing can be pointless.” So the very judgment that we’re fearful of talking about is actually an essential element in pointing people to the one who bore that judgment, who entered into all that emptiness, in order that we might be set free.
Now, this ending, I suggest to you, presents a challenge to us as preachers. Because it sounds very Old Testamenty, doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like our usual close to the sermon: “And I’d like you to come forward, or come around the back, and get a copy of John’s Gospel.” Here we are, oh dear, oh dear: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and do what he tells you, for this is the whole of man.” You thought that I misread that, didn’t you? But no, actually… I’ll check with Gary later, but I don’t believe that “duty” is actually in the original. It doesn’t say “the whole duty of man”; it says, “This is the whole of man.” That’s better. Because the “duty” could immediately send us in the wrong direction, and probably has. It says, “I want you to fear God and to do what he says, for this is the whole of man. This is what it is about. This is what it means to be a man. This is what humanity is about. This is the purpose of your existence,” and so on.
And don’t stumble over this notion of judgment. “‘Fear God’? Oh dear, I don’t want to talk about that. It gets people so upset. It’s so Old Testament.” Is it? Wasn’t there another one? Wasn’t there somebody we’ve spoken about a lot this couple of days who said, “Do not be afraid of those who [can] kill the body and after that … do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after [the killing of the body] has [power] to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” You see, the fear of God puts all the other fears in their place. The fear of God deals with it all. It’s not a servile fear. It’s not some terrorized existence. It’s a filial fear. It’s the respectful love of a child for his father. It is a heartfelt love for God, because the individual has finally discovered who God is and what God has done. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Let me just give to you a quote from Sinclair, because he does this so well, and it helps me to finish quickly. His little section on the fear of God at the end of The Pundit’s Folly is worth the investment. And this helps me so much that there’s no point in me trying to fiddle around rewriting it or make it sound like it’s mine—which, I’m very good at that, but I’m running out of time:
To fear God, to trust God, [and] to love God, [and] to know God … are really one and the same thing. In fact, the fear of God about which the Pundit speaks arises from the discovery of God’s love for us in our sin and weakness. It is the sense of awe that results from the discovery that he knows me through and through, means to destroy all that is sinful in me, and yet does so because he loves me with an intensely faithful love. That [says Sinclair] stretches my mind and emotions to their limit[s].
… This is how fear is seen in the Bible. It is those who fear the Lord who say “His love endures for ever”; it is only those who confess their sinfulness who discover that “With you there is forgiveness; therefore you are to be feared”.
So it does what we would expect it to do: Turns us to Christ in every instance, as the one who is able to transform our work, transform our leisure, transform our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. It explains the nature of real happiness. Because I haven’t met a single person ever in my life who didn’t say—unless they were deranged—who didn’t say that of all the things that they would like in life, they think they would like to be happy. “I’d like to be happy!” Secular friends, they want to be happy. And Ecclesiastes is a wonderful way of helping them to discover that—to discover that it is only in that which is unseen and eternal that our deepest needs can be met, that we are not to be surprised when the joys of life have left our souls unsatisfied, that C. S. Lewis was really good when he said, “Aim at Heaven and you … get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you … get neither.”
Thanks for your patience.
Father, what a lot of talk! So many words. And you have a wonderful way—this is our confidence—you have a wonderful way of matching phrases and concepts and ideas and truth to our listening ears. And so we pray that the cumulative impact of all that has been said and done and sung and shared and thought about will remain with us as we go on from here. And we pray, Lord, that you will make us increasingly able and adept at preaching between two worlds—not building barricades behind which we can just hide and sing songs to one another but bridges over which we are able to walk. Help us, Lord, to this end, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson (1606; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 56–63.
 Henry Allen, “The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist,” Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578626314130514522.
 George Weigel, foreword to Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times; A Conversation with Peter Seewald by Benedict XVI (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), x.
 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 10th anniv. ed. (New York: Bantam, 1998), 190.
 Dan Barry, “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65,” New York Times, December 31, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/01/us/01boomers.html.
 David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 22–23.
 Psalm 80:1 (ESV).
 Psalm 23:1 (ESV).
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly: Chronicles of an Empty Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 72.
 Ecclesiastes 12:13 (MSG).
 Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (1981). Paraphrased.
 Cecil Frances Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City” (1848).
 Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1847).
 Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (1848).
 Acts 17:24 (ESV).
 Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1922), 11.
 Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968). Lyrics lightly altered.
 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), 102.
 Ecclesiastes 12:3 (NIV).
 Ecclesiastes 12:3 (NIV).
 Ecclesiastes 12:4 (NIV).
 Kidner, Message of Ecclesiastes, 103.
 Fanny Crosby, “Saved by Grace” (1891).
 Genesis 3:19 (ESV).
 See John 10:11.
 See John 11:25–26.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 140.
 See 2 Samuel 12:23.
 Motyer, Look to the Rock, 140.
 Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York: Twelve, 2010), 340.
 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Sonnet LXIII: Inclusiveness,” in The House of Life (1881), lines 5–8.
 Kidner, Message of Ecclesiastes, 107.
 Luke 12:4–5 (NIV). See also Matthew 10:28.
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 John 14:15 (ESV).
 Ferguson, Pundit’s Folly, 74.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 134.
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.