The Brevity of Life
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The Brevity of Life

Ecclesiastes 12:1–14  (ID: 1987)

Through the eyes of a college student, the years ahead can seem limitless. Death, however, is certain, and so is the ultimate judgment that will follow. In a world that embraces “safe” promiscuity, Alistair Begg instructs a student audience to stand up and acknowledge that there is no such thing as safe sin. The Bible teaches that we live our brief lives facing the reality that we will ultimately stand before the bar of God’s judgment.

Series Containing This Sermon

Lessons for Life, Volume 1

Biblical Wisdom for Young Adults Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26701

Encore 2020

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25911

Sermon Transcript: Print

We’ll turn in our Bibles to Ecclesiastes chapter 12. And I want to focus our attention on these verses in the time that we have. They’re well-known verses; they’re well-known to you, and they’re well-known to me. And anytime we turn to something that has familiarity to it, we need a special measure of God’s grace to prevent us from immediately saying, “Oh yes, I know that.” Because the proof of our knowing it is our living it, not our being able to recite it or verbalize it.

In 1978 our first child was born; it was a momentous occasion. Happened sometime in November—I think the 19th. And for those of you who are doing mathematics here, you will have already worked out that if he was born in ’78, then that means he became thirteen just a few weeks ago. So I became the father of a teenager. Now, the reason I mention that is because it seemed like yesterday that I sat where you sit. And people used to come and stand on platforms like this and tell me what I’m now about to tell you—namely, that life goes past an awful lot quicker than we imagine. And already you’re saying, “Oh yes, we’ve already heard that about forty times, and it doesn’t seem to be going past quick enough for me, and I wish I could be beyond these next set of exams,” etc. But it would appear that, somehow, there’s a kind of exponential propulsion to time, and suddenly we wake up and we’re forty years old. I haven’t woken up as forty years old, but suddenly I will—more suddenly than many of you.

In the ’60s, through which I lived—although I was not allowed to listen to Beatles music in my home, I lived through the ’60s. And they regarded the ’60s as “a decade of idealism.” The ’70s were “a decade of disillusionment.” The ’80s were referred to as “a decade of terror.” And the jury is out as to what the ’90s will be described as, although the first edition of Newsweek in ’91 referred to it as “the age of anxiety.” And many of the people who are reflective of our generation display the fact that they have virtually no hope in the age of tomorrow. And many of them would be well served by reading through the book of Ecclesiastes and realizing that here is an individual who sets out on a quest to solve, as it were, the riddle of life. And he ransacks the world to do so. He sets himself within the parameters of “under the sun,” and he determines that “everything” from that vantage point is “meaningless.”[1] Every so often he penetrates beyond it and brings eternity into the framework of time, but by and large, he’s just going down dead-end street after dead-end street.

When man sets out to glorify God, he begins to make sense of life; in failing to do so, he makes no sense of life—or nonsense of life.

When he comes to chapter 12, he comes to “the conclusion of the matter,” and you’ll see that in verse 13 if your Bible is open before you. And he says that the conclusion of the matter is that we should “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” The Shorter Scottish Catechism, seizing on that, answers the first question, “What is the chief end of man?” and replies, “[The chief end of man] is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[2] When man sets out to do that, he begins to make sense of life; in failing to do so, he makes no sense of life—or nonsense of life.

In this final chapter the writer, then, draws to a conclusion his thinking. And I would like to remind you of four things this morning that stand out to us in this text as he comes to draw all the various threads together in this great conclusion.

The Brevity of Life

The first is the truth of the brevity of life. That’s why he begins, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” He says,

Before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you … say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and … clouds return after … rain.

He is stressing here the fact that life is really very brief. James the brother of Jesus said, “For what is your life? It’s a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”[3] .rhb

And the scene which is depicted as you trace a line through chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes is a reminder of the fact that as life goes on, our physical powers fade, as do our mental powers; old friends pass away, familiar customs which have been routine disintegrate, and long-held ambitions no longer will be actualized. The longer you live your life, the less chance there is of you fulfilling certain ambitions. When you’re a kid growing up in Scotland, you want to play for Scotland at international rugby or international soccer. By the time you reach my age, you can only look back twenty years and wonder if your children—at least your son, not your daughters, at rugby—will have the opportunity to fulfill some of your dreams.

And what the writer is going to affirm is the opportunity of youth, which actually is the point with which we will conclude. But let me underscore for you the significance of this poetic description here in verses 3–5. If we’re going to appreciate them, we need to realize that the body of an old man is presented to us under the figure of a house. And so he says, there’s going to come a time “when the keepers of the house tremble.” He’s referring now to the arms and to the hands, which in youth are vigorous—they’re strong, they’re active, they’re able—but often, with increasing age, they’re just not as strong as they once were, and indeed, they shake and they jiggle. Some of you will, perhaps, have grandparents for whom to sit opposite them in a restaurant or at your dining room table is a major anxiety attack in the making. Because as your grandmother lifts her cup of tea from the saucer, you don’t know how much of it is actually going to make its way into her mouth. You love her, you’re not laughing at her, but you’re living every movement with her. Why is it? It is because with the fading of physical abilities “the keepers of the house” have begun to “tremble.” And the possibilities of getting the tea into its destination are as remote now as it once was when that grandmother was once a seventeen-month-old infant, with that same shaking, trembling inability.

The “keepers of the house,” then, are the arms and the hands. The “strong men” in verse 3 are the legs that are no longer upright, but they have begun to arc, they have begun to stoop. And we needn’t do any kind of dramatic representation of that. We know what it means.

“When the grinders cease”—namely, the teeth, which can no longer chew because of inadequate occlusion. That is, there aren’t enough on the top to reach the few on the bottom. And suddenly soup becomes a standard meal—“No, just soup for me, please”—because it is impossible to grind up the food in the way we once did.

The eyes or “the windows” through which we look have grown dim, and suddenly we’re not as alert as we once were in seeing. I drove with a lady like that out of a parking lot yesterday. I avoided her with great dexterity. She could not see above the steering wheel, she obviously could not see through the steering wheel, and it is questionable whether she could see at all. But she was propelling a red Chevrolet all over Cleveland. And her eyes had grown somewhat dim. There was a failure at “the windows.”

If you’re waiting till tomorrow to begin to live for Jesus Christ, tomorrow’s too late.

“The sound of grinding fades” because we are now growing deaf. They’re going to give us one of those things for one of our ears, perhaps even for two of our ears. We once used to hear the grinding of the mill, but now it grows faint. We could sleep at the drop of a hat, but now we “rise up at the sound of birds.” We have become insomniacs with old age. We don’t need to sleep the way we once did. But even when we wake up at the sound of birds, “all their songs grow faint.” When we walk in the streets, we’re afraid of being jostled by the crowd—verse 5. We’re afraid of heights, and suddenly “the almond tree” has begun to “blossom” on top of our heads—simply a picture of beginning to grow gray. And we now begin to drag ourselves along like grasshoppers.

Now, some of us, actually, may find that this is a pretty accurate description of us, and we’re only twenty-two years old. In which case, you’ve got a major problem, I want you to know. But the way some of you drag yourselves to classes could be described as “the grasshopper drags [itself] along.” I mean, you may want to take that as your life verse: “The grasshopper drags himself along.”

And “desire [is no longer] stirred.” The desire to which he refers here is the desire for the things that fill our lives as youth—the desire for marriage, the desire for the fulfillment of marriage, the desire for acquisitions, the desire for power; the desire for all these things suddenly begin to go away.

Now, I affirm that for you this morning, as an old man speaking to young people. All right? You’re sitting there, saying what I said when I was your age: “It’ll never happen.” Believe me, it happens. It is a reminder to us of what Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s, wrote, when he said,

Old friends
Old friends
They sit on their park bench
Like bookends
And the newspapers blown through the grass
Fall on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends

Old friends
Old friends
Lost in their overcoats
Waiting for the sunshine

Can you imagine us
Years from today?
How terribly strange
To be seventy

Old friends[4]

Now, young folks, this morning I’ve already gone screeching past the halfway mark. And it happened to me in a moment. If you’re waiting till tomorrow to begin to live for Jesus Christ, tomorrow’s too late. If you’re waiting for when you graduate, for when you get married, for when you settle down, for when you sort yourself out, the Bible never encourages us to live like that. The Bible always encourages us to live in the awareness of what James says, that “we will not say, ‘Tomorrow we’ll go here or go there and get gain and do this and all these things,’ but ‘If the Lord wills, we will do this or that.’”[5] And today, this moment, is the only moment that you have to live for Jesus Christ, because life is very brief.

The Reality of Death

The brevity of life is matched by the reality of death. You’ll notice in verses 6 and 7 we have this vivid picture of the beauty and the frailty of life:

Remember him [our Creator]—before the silver cord 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.

Just poetic descriptions of what it means to die. A beautifully fashioned golden lamp suspended by a silver chain will take only one snap in that chain and it’s gone for a moment—and it is actually gone forever.

I spoke, in an earlier part of the year, at the spiritual emphasis week in Houghton College in New York. And in the occasion of some questions and answers, I was affirming for the young people there the fact that life is very brief. I reminded them that they had a monument out in their quadrangle with six golden eagles, a reminder of a motor accident that had happened some seven or eight years prior to this time. A number of young people came to speak to me afterwards—some whose faces I can recall, others whose names I wrote down. And within three weeks of having been there to speak, they needed to add another two eagles to their monuments, ’cause two more young men in a fatal car crash were ushered into eternity.

Death is a reality. The world has no explanation for it. The Bible explains it very clearly. The hymn writer affirms it: there’s going to be a “day [when] the silver cord will break, and I no more as now [will] sing.”[6] Why is that? Well, the Bible tells us—Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all [have] sinned…” Our friends, in their secular mindset, have no explanation for why life is as it is—at least, no explanation that will work. And we need to think these issues out, because they impinge upon the culture in which we live, the places that we’re going to be employed, the people with whom we’re going to rub shoulders, even today and tomorrow. We need to be clear about the brevity of life, about the reality of death.

The Certainty of Judgment

Thirdly, about the certainty of judgment. There’s going to be a payday one day. That’s what the Bible says. That’s what he is affirming here as he brings this to a conclusion. “For”—verse 14—“God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or [it is] evil.” And this is something that we need to affirm in our generation also, in a world that has embraced a kind of no-holds-barred philosophy of life, where basketball stars can be heroes for proclaiming safe promiscuity. We need to stand up and say, “There is no such thing as ‘safe sin.’” Sin by definition is never safe. And the Bible says we live our lives, brief as they are, facing the certainty and reality of death, in the awareness of the truth that we will stand before the bar of God’s judgment.

There is no such thing as ‘safe sin.’ Sin by definition is never safe.

Now, Solomon has already walked down a few dead-end streets. You would need to go back and reread Ecclesiastes in order to affirm this. But let me tell you four, in particular, down which he walked, and they were dead ends, and they’re still dead ends.

Number one, the way of wisdom. You can even go back to chapter 1, and you’ll see this. He was frustrated. He said, “If only I could become really bright, then I would understand life.” He became really bright, and he was unable to transform his circumstances. Really bright people know that. Clowns don’t know that. It’s straight A students that understand that.

In Durham University, there is within its precincts Durham Cathedral. And Durham Cathedral has a high tower, and the high tower of Durham Cathedral is closed in the time running up to finals in the university calendar—the reason being because they have had a number of suicides from the high tower of Durham Cathedral. And who was it that launched themselves to their death? The flunkers? The people who were straight Cs? No, the people who were straight As. Because they were bright enough to realize, as they saw to the conclusion of the chess game of life, that wisdom in and of itself could not unscramble the puzzle that represented them.

Again, Paul Simon—this is kind of a disease:

Through the corridors of sleep
Past [the] shadows, dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion
I don’t know what is real
I can’t touch what I feel
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
[That] my life will never end
And [that] flowers never bend
With the rainfall[7]

A futility! And the wise youth understands it.

And we are living in a generation where your peers have been brought up to believe that they were born without reason, they prolong themselves by chance, that Hemingway was right, that “life is … a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.” Therefore, can we blame them when they say, “If this is all there is, I’m out of here!” And to you and to me, as we embrace the truth of Christ, the reality of Scripture is given the privilege and the responsibility of challenging that kind of mindset.

If the way of wisdom was the key to life, then people would be taking their vacations on university campuses all across the Western world. Dads would be coming home and saying, “Hey, guess what, kids? We’re going to the University of Illinois for our vacation!” And the children would say, “And why is that, Dad?” And he would say, “Because it’s such a tranquil place, it’s such a lovely spot. All these students are so filled with peace and with joy because they’re on the way of wisdom.” The very picture is stupidity.

The way of wisdom’s a dead-end street; the path of pleasure only opened doors to disillusionment. You can read it in chapter 2. Basically, he did the hedonist trip: wine, women, and song. Lived it up, laughed it up, boozed it up—and it was a dead end.

I was in Chicago to speak at Moody Bible Institute a few weeks ago and was delighted to stand there on Michigan Avenue and look and see the crumbling empire of Hugh Hefner and all his proud boasts. The tragedy is that where that tree falls, worse arise in its place. But at least that man, if he would be honest, has to admit that hedonism does not solve the riddle of life.

The futility of folly—you read it also in chapter 2, verse 12. Black humor, Monty Python’s Flying Circus—again, the ’60s and the ’70s. You can laugh at everything, and when you can laugh at everything, nothing is worth laughing about. Therefore, nothing’s funny anymore; everything is only sick. And the writer says, “I went down that street, and that had a dead end also.”

Fourthly, he went down the street the tyranny of toil. And you can find described there in 4:8, it says, “There was a man all alone; he had neither father or mother or brother or sister. He had no children around him.”[8] He is the classic picture of the ’90s man, the acquisitive wizard that represents Western culture. He is able to buy his children everything, and he has. But now, he walks around their bedrooms in the silence, and he looks in vain for those children. And he longs to hold their hands, and he longs to hear their voices. But there is a man all alone.

He’s a real nowhere man,
[living] in his nowhere land,
[and] making all his nowhere plans for nobody.[9]


Now, the writer began to think that he could do all these things, walk all these paths, with impunity. And he brings himself back to the realization that, in actuality, what was true was what Paul affirmed when he spoke to the crowd in Athens, when he said to the crowd, “[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”[10] The judgment of God will be fair, and the judgment of God will be final.

The Opportunity of Youth

And we live our lives in the awareness of this truth: the brevity of life, the reality of death, the certainty of judgment, and finally and more optimistically, the opportunity of youth. The facts that are presented here are not to drive us into despair; they’re not to send us out crawling on our hands and knees. But they’re actually to stimulate us. Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, says, “Death has not yet reached out to us: let it rattle its chains at us and stir us into action.”[11]

We only need to walk around with open eyes to realize that death is a reality. But youth is a great opportunity.

I wonder if you’ve ever pondered the fact that, on average, your life will last about 36,792,000 minutes—36,792,000 minutes. You will sleep for approximately 12,300,000 minutes. You will eat for another 3,000,000 minutes—and a vast quantity of food, simultaneously. You will work for approximately 13,000,000 minutes. That leaves us about 8,000,000. Once you deduct time for taking showers—which is something that the ladies tend to do more than the men, especially in a college context, I’ve observed—but anyway, you’re down to about 6,500,000 minutes. If you’re eighteen years old, you’ve already used a quarter of your allocation. So get this: you got 5,000,000 minutes left unaccounted for. So what are you going to do with them?

Young people, this morning, Jesus said that we should lift up our eyes and look on the fields, because they’re white already for harvest.[12] I just came back from Bolivia, spent most of my time in La Paz, 1.9 million people. There might be—there might be, and it is a big “might”— 600 evangelical Christians out of the whole 1.9 million. Your lives are here before you today; you’re at the crossroads of opportunity. You can do what you like with what I’ve said about it being brief, but you can’t stop it coming at you at the rate of sixty seconds a minute. You know, if you know your Bible, that judgment is a certainty. We only need to walk around with open eyes to realize that death is a reality. But youth is a great opportunity.

As I have the opportunity to talk with you tonight, some of you, and then tomorrow morning, I want to follow on from here having, I hope, in some measure stimulated your minds along this line of thinking. And as you walk around the campus today, and as you go to bed tonight, remind yourself of what has been written down and we found it in books many times: there’s only one life, and it will soon be past, and only what’s done for Jesus will last.

[1] See, for example, Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14 (NIV 1984).

[2] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.1.

[3] James 4:14 (paraphrased).

[4] Paul Simon, “Old Friends” (1968). Paraphrased.

[5] James 4:13–15 (paraphrased).

[6] Fanny Crosby, “Saved by Grace” (1891).

[7] Paul Simon, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” (1965).

[8] Ecclesiastes 4:8 (paraphrased).

[9] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Nowhere Man” (1965).

[10] Acts 17:31 (NIV 1984).

[11] 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.

[12] John 4:35 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.