January 5, 2003
When we’re young, it’s easy to allow life’s excitements to obscure the contemplation of our own brevity. In wisdom, the writer of Ecclesiastes addressed the need to reflect on this reality so that we will remember our Creator while we still have time. Alistair Begg reminds us that tomorrow is not certain and urges us that now is the accepted time to pursue a right relationship with God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, as we come to Ecclesiastes 12, we’re almost at the end of our studies that we’ve been engaging in, in these mornings. And I kept, purposefully, chapter 12 over into the new year, and although we won’t finish it this morning, at least we can make a good start at it.
There is in the transition from one year to another an almost inevitable emphasis on the nature of time itself. And I’m sure that many of you will have noticed, as I have done, that there have been in the press in the last ten days, two weeks, a significant number of articles relating to the issue of time, whether it is simply the question of our calendar and the accuracy of it or whether it should contain more days or less days; various theories have been propounded. There was in the last week a significant amount of debate about Einstein’s theory of relativity and whether because of fresh discoveries in quantum physics, that this was going to have to be changed with the passing of time—and all kinds of articles along these lines, many of which I frankly didn’t understand at all. Theories of quantum uncertainty I know nothing of, but I was intrigued to ponder it.
And many of these discussions are indicative of a deep-rooted inclination on the part of men and women, I think, to try and emulate some of God’s supremacy over time. It’s an attempt on the part of men and women to get their hands around that which they know is passing through their fingers. Because there’s probably nothing that confronts us with our creatureliness more than the wristwatch which many of us are wearing right now as I speak, or the clock which ticks inexorably in our hallway, or whatever mechanism we employ on a daily basis that marks the passage of time.
Western culture, more than African or Asian culture, is virtually preoccupied with time, dominated by considerations of time, so much so that probably the clock is rivaled only by the printing press as the most influential invention in the whole of the last millennium. Think how many times this morning you’ve inquired about the issue of time. In fact, you can’t imagine this morning without thinking about time. Try and think about no time. Try and think of a life without the passage of seconds and moments. It’s virtually impossible for us to do.
Augustine, in his Confessions, admits the same. He says, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. But if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” So, though we instinctively know what time is and we can sense that it is passing, we actually have extreme difficulty in defining it.
And the Bible addresses this issue from start to finish. Our purpose this morning is not to do some thematical study on the issue of time, but suffice it to say, to make clear—and your own investigation will either confirm or deny this—the Bible declares that time as we experience it does not automatically exist, but as with the rest of creation, time was dependent upon God’s creative act for its beginning. In other words, God, who exists in eternity, created time. When he began to create the universe, then and only then, time was initiated, and the succession of moments and the passing of events commenced. And indeed, if our wristwatches speak to our creatureliness, then the fact that God exists outside of time speaks to the fact of his creation.
And the Bible says that he exists eternally; he exists beyond the bounds of time: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” From eternity to eternity, God is. Therefore, by definition, the familiar speculation about what came before God is actually futile. God is “from everlasting to everlasting.” Therefore, to ask and seek to delve into the question “What came before God?” is a completely futile exercise. It doesn’t stop people from doing it.
Now, if that seems a little rarified for our taste, let’s just allow the late Erma Bombeck to give us a little help. “Time,” says Bombeck. “It hangs heavy for the bored, eludes the busy, flies by for the young, and runs out for the aged.” And we understand that, don’t we? The brevity of life is to be faced. We don’t like to face it, but the Scriptures call us to face it—not in the posture of morbidity, not in order to manipulate us or to create undue alarm, but in order that we might just be sensible. When you were five and your birthday came around, it seemed like an age waiting for it, because as that birthday came around, 20 percent of your life had passed. When you turned fifty and your birthday arrived, it seemed that it came hot on the heels of the last one, because only 2 percent of your life has passed.
And there’s something within the biological clock of man that addresses this and understands this, although he cannot fully define it and declare it. And it is for this reason that the Scriptures speak always in the now. Read your Bibles and check. “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Now is the time to think this out. Now is the time to be reconciled to God. Now is the time to take care of these things, not tomorrow. Calls us not to live with the regrets of yesterday or with the anxieties of tomorrow but to face the fact that the future comes in at the rate of sixty seconds a minute. And so it’s no surprise that the writer, who has been going up and down the corridors of life to solve the riddle of life itself, should end in this way: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”
Now, when he says “Remember,” he’s not calling us to some kind of perfunctory mental exercise—to remember in the way that we tried to remember irregular French verbs when we were at school. Someone said, “You know, you need to remember these,” and so we wrote them down on a card and we memorized them. They were extraneous to every other part of our lives, but they were important in some little, special way, and so we did as we were told. Is that what it means to remember God—to remember that somehow or another, there is a concept, there is a notion, there is a something that is largely extraneous to all the rest of our lives? No, not at all!
The phraseology which is used here, to “remember” in this way, is to drop every sense of self-sufficiency and to cast ourselves unreservedly on God as our Creator and Sustainer. It is, if you like, to offer to God the same kind of passionate and intense loyalty that the psalmist felt towards Jerusalem, towards his homeland. In Psalm 137, written during the period of the exile, the psalmist says, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and we wept, and we hung our harps on the willow trees, because after all, how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” And then, speaking of the passionate commitment to Jerusalem, he says,
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Now, he is explaining the nature of “remember” by the phrase which follows it. “What would it mean to remember you?” he says. “It is to know you as my highest joy.”
Okay. “Remember your Creator.” Know him, love him, serve him as your highest joy.
Now that’s the call, that’s the exhortation. The time frame is explicit, you will notice. When should we do this? Well, we should do it “in the days of [our] youth.” “Well,” you say, “I am no longer a youth.” Well, let me say two things. First of all, the Bible is far more flexible concerning youthfulness than the twenty-first century is. And therefore, many of us who think we’re past it are not as past it as we think we are. For example, when Paul writes to Timothy and he says, “Let no [one] despise [your] youth,” it is estimated that Timothy was probably, at that point in his life, somewhere in his early forties. So, if you are thinking of immediately exempting yourself from the remainder of this study, don’t be so quick to do so.
There is no question, however, that youthfulness brings its own peculiar designs for opting out of serious thought. For that reason, Kenneth Taylor, when he paraphrased the Bible, in the Living Bible, he wrote, “Don’t let the excitement of being young cause you to forget about your Creator. [Instead,] honor him in your youth.” Now, we might actually paraphrase to make sure that nobody jumps out of this. We might say, “Remember your Creator while you’ve got the chance, while you have the opportunity.” And particularly, if you’re young, beware of saying, “Well, I’ll get to the serious stuff, you know, when the serious time comes.” Don’t be silly! This is the serious time, and it is now. Beware of allowing the best years of your life to pass while you’re waiting for them to begin: “I’ll get round to that.”
In my files, under “Time,” I discovered that I had photocopied some time ago now, under the heading “Do You Have a Moment?” this little piece:
Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening it deletes whatever part of the balance you fail to use during the day. What would you do? Well, you would draw out every cent of course!
Each of us has such a bank. Its name is Time. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night, it writes off as lost whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day, it opens a new account for you. Each night, it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.
Now, that is in keeping with what the writer is saying here: “You have just this moment to tackle this issue. You dare not presume upon the future. You daren’t get tangled up in your past. Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. Because let me remind you,” he says, “that as you proceed, you’re going to encounter the fact of life’s frailty and death’s certainty.”
You say, “Well, what a morbid beginning to the new year. Couldn’t we have had something far more uplifting than this? Seems to me”—and you’ve already fastened onto what I’m saying—“is that the message this morning is ‘Wise up! You’re going to die.’” That’s it! You’re a bright group. I know how bright you are. And you’ve already got there. How gracious of God to exhort us in this way, to issue such an invitation.
“Remember your Creator” while you have the opportunity—notice—“before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’” In other words, when the springtime of life is swallowed up by winter. There’s a kind of chill here in verse 2 that settles over life, when the rain and the clouds have turned daylight into gloom—somber picture, describing for us the winter scene where you long at least for the sun, for a moment or two, to penetrate the clouds, depicting not only the fading of our physical powers but also of our mental faculties. It is a picture, if you like, of the general desolation of old age. The general desolation of old age.
Now, not everybody ages in the same way. Some people are spritely well on into their chronology. Some are old people before their time. Some possess their hearing to the end; they can hear anyone whispering in the room. Others are deaf before they should be. And so the process goes. But you neither have to be a genius or a particular inquirer to discover that things run down as life goes by, and the lights go out. The lights are withdrawn—our senses, our faculties.
An elderly member of the family asking when we’re having lunch. She just had lunch. It’s only twenty minutes since you took the plates away, and she said how much she enjoyed pork cutlets. They were her favorite. But now she’s inquiring, “When is lunch?” She can describe for you in detail her wedding dress, which she hasn’t worn in fifty-two years, but she’s forgotten that she had lunch twenty minutes ago.
The light has gone out on the front porch, because he no longer has the key, the widower. He called his pastor to say, “A stranger has been coming to my house and locks me in at nights.” The pastor visits to say, “That’s your daughter, and she loves you. And she has kept the key for your front door purposefully.”
“Why can’t I drive my car? Where is my driver’s license? Why don’t we go to the zoo the way we always did? Where’s James? Where’s Sybil? They haven’t been around in ages. Where are all my friends?”
How terribly strange to be seventy, eighty, ninety, to sit on a park bench like a bookend, to watch the newspaper blowing through the grass, to try and reach for it, at least in your imagination. You’re not within fifteen feet of it, and you thought you almost had it. It “falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends”; and “the old men, lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun[shine],” saying to their grandson, “You know, I need to get a coat in my size.” “Grandpa, this coat was your size when we got it. It’s not that the coat’s getting any bigger, Granddad. It’s that you are getting smaller.”
“Remember your Creator” while you have the opportunity—not in a perfunctory, mental way but in a way that gives up my self-dependence and trusts only in God. For the days of trouble come. Better to remember now than to spend eternity with regret.
One of the books that I enjoy as much as any is the book that was given to me some time ago of Ronald Reagan’s speeches. I know that they were written by Peggy Noonan or someone, or a group of people. But nevertheless, he delivered them very well, didn’t he? And it was profound when on the fifth of November 1994, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he did what you would expect him to do as a man of stature: he stepped forward and he said, “Here I am. I want to say this,” he said, “so that I can help others who are going to go down this pathway.” And then, in those immortal words, which became the sound bite, he looked the camera in the eye, and he said, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
Listen: you and I have begun the journey that leads us into the sunset of our lives. And we began it the day we were born. That is why hellos are sad. You look forward to the arrival of your girlfriend. She’s coming in x days, she’s coming in x hours, she’s coming on flight y. The plane has now landed, it has pulled up to the gate, the door is opened, and finally, in that great moment of embrace and of welcome, there is an immense pathos in it, and a sadness in it too. Because you know that the minute you say hello, you have opened the door to goodbye—that all of your expectation for that moment is now somehow or another shrouded in the dust which settles over it that says, “Oh no, she’s come! That means she has to leave!” “Remember…”
Now, he explains these days of trouble in poetic fashion in verses 3, 4, and 5, doesn’t he? A picture of decay—of a house in decay or of a life in decay. A foretaste of our future. As I read these verses again this week, it made me think of the drugstore aisles—particular drugstore aisles.
You can gauge the passage of time, actually, by the way in which you approach a drugstore. As a small child, you go to the drugstore, you go to the comic section, the candy section, whatever it is. You have no interest in anything else at all. Razor blades hold no appeal. Deodorant holds no appeal. There is nothing really of remote interest to you at all except “Give me the candy,” or “Give me the toy section,” or whatever else it is. You move into your teenage years, and all of sudden, acne has become not simply a word but a reality. And so you’re going down corridors you never looked at before. You’re finding things that were of no concern to you before. And as life progresses, there’s still always two or three aisles out there that are like no-man’s-lands, you know. You see people up there, but you just see them: “Wonder why they go up there? What is up there?” You look, but you don’t really want to go, because you’re going to have to go. So you don’t want to go before your time. (And some of you are already up there. I’ve seen you. We were up there together, weren’t we?)
The house of our lives is breaking down. It makes sounds in the night, thwarts us in the day. “The keepers of the house tremble.” Our arms shake. Suddenly, carrying Dunkin Donuts coffee, a briefcase, and a newspaper has become an exercise of gargantuan proportions. Whereas before, you could handle it all, now, for some reason, the coffee has got jumping beans in it. It’s decided to go places! No, you’re shaky.
Your “strong men” are stooping. Your legs are going. Oh, you can pretend, but they’re stooping. Every visit to the doctor, now, he’s knocking off inches. You say his scales are wrong; the little wooden thing they drop down on the top of your head is bent. No, it’s not. You’re stooping.
Your “grinders cease.” You have inadequate occlusion, according to the dentist. The few that you have left on the top aren’t meeting the group that are down on the bottom.
Suddenly, you’re shut in, in a way that you weren’t before: “The doors to the street are closed”—the limitations of mobility, the dimness of sight.
You don’t have to sleep as much as you used to. Is that the good news or the bad news? “Men rise up at the sound of birds.” They’re always up in time for the dawn chorus. Trouble is, they’re so deaf, they can’t hear the dawn chorus. They “rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint.”
“Did you hear the birds?”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“Well, you were up, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was up, but I didn’t hear them. I think I saw them.”
Why is that? The answer is there.
“The almond tree blossoms.” Suddenly, your hair is a different color from what it once was. Now, some of you have already taken care of that in a variety of ways—chosen your own particular color. But if you just let things go under this normal process, then eventually, it either falls out or turns white.
And if you think you look particularly good when you’re standing in the mirror, don’t stand there too long, because you look like a “grasshopper drag[ging]” itself along. Not very nice, is it?
Not only that, suddenly, the ladder seems a lot taller than it was. Suddenly, the streets seem far fuller than they were. “And desire no longer is stirred.” Actually, that translates—that’s a dynamic equivalence—it translates, “The caper berry fails.” The caper berry was a highly regarded stimulus for appetite, and also as an aphrodisiac. And so, as remarkable as it may be to us, eventually, everything shuts down. That’s what he’s saying.
Psychologists say that women peak sexually in their thirties. They tell us that men peak in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. But there comes a point where it’s over and “desire no longer is stirred.” That’s why when David says to an old guy, about coming up to Jerusalem, in 2 Samuel chapter 19, Barzillai—he says, “Why don’t you come up to Jerusalem with me?” He replies, “I am [this day] eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is good and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women …?” In other words, “I’m not what I was.” “Remember…, before the days of trouble come.”
And he makes it even more specific, doesn’t he? Before the “mourners [move around] the streets.” Verse 6: “Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken.” In other words, remember him before you die.
Now, the poetry here is descriptive of the beauty and of the fragility of life—a shattered lamp as a result of just one little piece of the cord fracturing. Our lives are held between time and eternity by very, very tender mechanisms, aren’t they? The physicians here this morning can testify to that. It is a remarkable thing that we’re all still compos mentis and functional. And it only takes one very, very small shift in tiny mechanisms for the cord to sever, for the bowl to shatter, for the pitcher to fall into the spring and be rendered useless, for the wheel that has been used to bring the bucket up from the well to find itself propped up against the well; the rope is gone, the bucket has departed, and it stands there as a silent testimony to the fragility of our lives—an eloquent description of the transience of the most basic things that we do, reminding us that there’s going to be a last time for every journey, a last time for every routine task.
And so verse 8. No surprise: his refrain remains, doesn’t it? “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’” We shouldn’t see in verse 7 some testimony of hope: “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” We’re not at the conclusion yet. That comes in verse 9. What he is simply saying here is that as sin entered into the world in Genesis 2, God comes, and he says, “On account of sin, from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” The writer has already mentioned this. He says God has made everything perfect, and man has made crooked and cannot straighten what he has made a mess of. And therefore, when you view life from the framework of futility, then the conclusion is reasonable.
Now, that, my friends, is what makes the exhortation with which the chapter begins so wonderful. “Death has not yet reached out to us,” so “let it rattle its chains … and stir us into action.” We’re not in the final stage of man yet, most of us, as described by Shakespeare in As You Like It—the childishness to which we return, the oblivion, without teeth, without eyes, without taste, without anything. And so it is a day of opportunity.
It’s the first Sunday of a new year. Some of you have listened for a month of Sundays, and for months of Sundays, about the claims of the Bible and the work of God on our behalf and the sending of Jesus as the Savior, as the one who would bring life into our death and light into our darkness. But still you do not believe.
The psalmist, in Psalm 90, with which we began this morning, says, “Teach us to number our days aright, [so] that we might gain a heart of wisdom.” “Teach us to number our days aright.” Think of all of the abilities, mathematically, that is part of our existence. Some of you return tomorrow to the world of insurance and to actuarial tables, which are a process involving calculus and discovery that is of vital importance and is used strategically every day. Some of you return to the world of investments, some to engineering, some to laser technology. Some of you go back into the world of research, thinking about the distance between ourselves and the moon, the speed of light, the issues of quantum physics, and so on, and you’re able, by means of computer programming, to put together all kinds of calculations. But many of you have never calculated your life! You spend all your time working out these puzzles, and you haven’t dealt with the puzzle of your life. It is a picture to us, isn’t it? It’s a clear confession of the fact that without divine grace, we are utterly foolish people concerning the plainest things.
Well, there’s more, of course. We’re going to come to it in verses 9–14: “Not only was the Teacher wise, … he [also] imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered,” he “searched” these things out, he looked for “the right words,” “he wrote” what “was upright and true.” And he used them as little “goads,” like sticks with sharp points on the end, to prod, in the same way that a farmer would prod his cattle to protect them from taking a wrong turning and to urge them to go in the right way.
It matters little, really, in the great scheme of things, whether any of you that are listening to me now remember that on this first Sunday of 2003, I said what I said or I urged you as now I seek to do. But it is of immense importance that you realize that God, by his Word, on the first Sunday of 2003, didn’t ask you to do something particularly difficult—didn’t ask you to start a charity organization, didn’t ask you to walk the length of Kilimanjaro, didn’t ask you to run round the block forty-seven times and say manifold prayers. On the first Sunday of 2003, the word of God came to the congregation at Parkside, saying, “Remember me while you still have the opportunity”—not the perfunctory recollection of irregular French verbs but the setting aside of myself and the giving all of my life and all of my future and all of my opportunities to God.
Have you ever done that? Will you do that? Will you do that now?
Do you like these flowers? I do. Fresh flowers are wonderful! Most of us would be thrilled with such a gift. However, few of us would be enamored with this: “Darling, I thought so much of you…”
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come.” Are you going to offer your life to God like this: all bent up, smashed up, and worn out? Is that your plan? God, who loved you so much to send Christ to be your Savior, and your Friend, and your Guide, and your Lord, and your Master?
Now. It’s always now is the accepted time. Today is salvation’s day.
Let’s pray together.
“Well,” says somebody, “this makes perfect sense to me. The only thing I need to do now is settle the issue. What do I do? What do I say? Where do I go?” Well, we’d be glad to talk with you in the prayer room, through the doors to my right and your left—give you literature, help you. But all you need to do is cry out from your heart where you are. God is not interested in your phraseology. He knows your heart.
Tell him, “Lord Jesus Christ, I thank you for this day of opportunity. And I thank you that you have preserved my life and blessed me and helped me in so many different ways, and I haven’t always appreciated and realized that I owe it all to you. I’ve been fairly self-assertive and self-dependent. In that sense, I haven’t remembered you. I’ve been foolish. Forgive me my foolishness, and help me to trust in you, to love you in response to your amazing love to me. I don’t want to end my life like a worn-out plant, offering the remnants of my days to you. I want to offer my youth to you. All the life I have left, I bring it to you today, Lord Jesus Christ.”
And remember that the dying thief gave all of his life to Christ. He could have said, “Well, I made such a hash of it right up until the end; I might as well go out the way I came in.” No, he said, “[Lord], remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And so God comes and says, “Remember me.” And so we come to God and say, “Remember me.”
May the love of Jesus draw us to him. May the peace of Jesus guard our minds. May the joy of Jesus fill our lives. And may grace and mercy and peace from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and all the days of life that you give us, until Jesus comes or calls us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.
 Augustine, Confessions 11.14.17. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 90:2 (NIV 1984).
 Erma Bombeck, “But Seriously, Folks…,” in I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, in The Best of Bombeck (New York: Galahad, 1987), 528.
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV). Emphasis added.
 Psalm 137:1–2, 4 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 137:6 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV).
 Ecclesiastes 12:1 (TLB).
 Marc Levy, If Only It Were True (New York: Atria, 2005), 208. Paraphrased.
 Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968).
 Ronald Reagan to the American People, November 5, 1994, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/reagans/ronald-reagan/reagans-letter-announcing-his-alzheimers-diagnosis.
 2 Samuel 19:33 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 19:35 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 3:19 (paraphrased).
 See Ecclesiastes 7:13.
 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.
 Psalm 90:12 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 23:42 (NIV 1984).
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.