Urgency, Sobriety, and Joy
Passage: Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:7
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7.
I’ve heard it said that every preacher or public speaker has only ten speeches or sermons that he rotates between. In other words, there are ten core ideas that work their way into just about every sermon or speech that he ever gives. If that is true, then this lesson would probably be one of my ten sermons. I find this passage liberating and invigorating and sobering, all at the same time. It’s one of my favorites.
I’d like to form my outline this morning around the answer to a question; and the question is this: what should be the believer’s attitude toward life? Should I be happy? Should I be sad? Should I be serious? How would you answer that question? Based on this particular passage, I would say that believers should be characterized by urgent sobriety and joy. So let’s read the passage, and then we’ll flesh that out.
[Read Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7]
So, if we’re to be characterized by urgent sobriety and joy, then let’s unpack those words one-by-one.
Joy: Believers Are Commanded to Be Happy (11:7-10).
In the NKJV, 11:8 says, “But if a man lives many years Andrejoices in them all, Yet let him remember the days of darkness…” but I don’t think that’s the best translation, so let me give you another option. The NASB translates the first part of v. 8, “Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all….” Do you see the difference there? The NASB translates the first part of v. 8 as a command, and I think that’s exactly right. (And by the way, the ESV and NIV handle that verse in the same way.) So Solomon begins his conclusion to this book–11:7-12:14 (one commentator referred to it as the “grand finale” of Ecclesiastes) with yet another “carpe diem” (or “sieze the day”) passage! Solomon says that we are to rejoice! In v. 9, he goes so far as to say, “Walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes.” One commentator refers to the eyes and heart as “organs of desire.” God wants you to be happy! Now, He doesn’t want you to be happy-go-lucky. There’s a big difference between “happy” and “happy-go-lucky.” Any sane reader of Ecclesiastes should get that point. But God wants us to have joy.
But rejoicing is just for young people, right? (no!) Based on this passage, who is supposed to rejoice? (Everyone!) Verse 8 says, “if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all!” Every new day is a new cause for rejoicing! Why? Because it’s another day “in the light,” as Solomon puts it; and as he says in v. 7, “the light is good.” In other words, “life is good.” God’s mercies are new every morning, and that means that as long as you are alive, you have reason to praise Him! Can I speak to the older folks in the room for a minute? (You decide who you are.) I know there are some days when you don’t feel well. But you ought to praise God every day that He gives you.
However, I also want you to see that in this passage, Solomon is specifically telling young people to rejoice. He says in v. 9, “Rejoice, O young man in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” And in v. 10, it is the young man whom he tells to avoid unnecessary pain. Why is it specifically important for the young man to rejoice? Because, as Solomon says in v. 10, “childhood and youth [or “the prime of life”] are vanity”–they’re fleeting. In other words, Solomon recognizes that childhood and the prime of life are particularly happy times that we ought to take advantage of.
Can I speak to the young people in this room for a moment? (You decide who you are.) You ought to enjoy the simple pleasures in life and to follow your emotions and impulses once in a while. I’m not talking about sin. I’m talking about the types of things Solomon talked about: hard work and its benefits, companionship and particularly our spouses, food and drink, etc. Why is it important that we enjoy God’s gifts? Because when we do so, we are glorifying God. God is not glorified in miserable people who complain about what He has given them. He is glorified in happy people who thank Him for everything He gives them. And by the way, sometimes He gives us trials. We thank Him for those, too.
So Solomon wants us to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but he also instructs us to avoid unnecessary pain (11:10). The word “heart” in this verse stands for the inner man; and the word “flesh” stands for the outer man. Also, the word for “evil” in v. 10 probably just means “pain.” So Solomon is telling us to avoid unnecessary physical and emotional pain. Now we all know that some pain is necessary and good. In fact, we have a famous saying about that. You fill in the blank: “no pain, __________.” But some pain is completely unnecessary. What do you think Solomon is talking about when he refers to unnecessary pain? Is he referring to misfortune? No, because misfortune is unavoidable. You can’t stop yourself from experiencing injustice or oppression or a downturn in the stock market. Is he talking about the self-inflicted pain of self-discipline? No, because Solomon praises those who are self-disciplined–for instance, as he says in chapter 11, people who work hard and feast at the proper time, for strength and not for drunkenness. In fact, he calls that “wisdom.” The pain associated with self-discipline is necessary if we are going to be happy. So what kind of pain is Solomon talking about? I can only think of one answer: he is talking about the pain associated with sin. When we arrogantly assume that we can control our lives or achieve meaning in life through our own efforts, we needlessly subject ourselves to all kinds of torture that we could have avoided simply by receiving life as a gift from God’s hand and resting in His sovereignty.
So all that said, believers are commanded to pursue pleasure. This is not the same as Disney’s famous line, “follow your heart.” In fact, what the world means by “follow your heart” is often strikingly similar to the philosophy of life that Solomon condemns in chapters 1-2. The world says, “You can be happy if you get what you want.” Solomon says, “You can be happy if you learn to enjoy what God has given.” Do you see the difference between those two philosophies? Believer, if you think need something else in order to make you happy, then you will never be happy, because everything you need to be happy is already yours in Christ! That means that your work, important as it is, will never be fulfilling until it is squarely rooted in grace. That’s one of the primary lessons of Ecclesiastes.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to wax philosophical for just another minute. I think that we start to get uncomfortable with statements like Solomon makes here when we equate pleasure with sin. But to do so is to commit a very serious error, because it is to assume that sin is more pleasurable than God! God forbid that we should ever believe that lie! After all, that’s the lie that got us into this whole mess in the first place, wasn’t it? Adam and Eve became convinced that it would be worth it to eat the fruit, and the result was the fall of humanity. The pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of God are the same pursuit. To choose sin is to settle for the trash of this world when God has offered us true riches! It is to turn down a Ruth’s Chris steak and try to fill up on cotton candy instead, only to make yourself sick. Sure, there’s pleasure in sin, but it’s only for a season! That’s why God’s Word constantly calls us to the long look–to delayed gratification and eternal joys. So we ought not squirm in our seats when Solomon tells us to enjoy our lives. Instead, we must recognize that in order to be happy, we must also be holy.
So that brings us to the end of our first word: “joy.” Believers are commanded to be happy. But this happiness must also be mixed with a serious attitude that sets us apart from the world around us. And so, our next word is “sobriety.” Believers are commanded to fear God.
Sobriety: Believers Are Commanded to Fear God.
We see joy and sobriety juxtaposed in v. 8. Solomon says, “And if a man lives man years, let him rejoice in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.” We’ll talk about what “the days of darkness” means later; but for right now, I just want you to see that joy does not exclude sobriety and sobriety does not include joy in the Christian life. We’re supposed to have both. I’d like to read a quote from the MacArthur study Bible on this topic, because I think it is very well-put. MacArthur says in the notes on this passage, “Solomon crystallizes the book’s message. Death is imminent and with it comes retribution. Enjoyment and judgment, though strange partners, come together in this section because both clamor for man’s deepest commitment. Surprisingly, one does not win out over the other. In a world created for enjoyment but damaged by sin, judgment and enjoyment/pleasure are held in tension…. In the final analysis, both are prominent themes of life that are resolved in our relationship to God, the primary issue of life and this book.”
So we see joy and sobriety juxtaposed in v. 9, as well (v. 9). When Solomon says, “Know that for all these God will bring you into judgment,” he is calling on young people to reflect on the fact that one day, they will answer to God for their actions. This idea is not new to Solomon. He mentioned judgment day in 3:17, and he’ll refer to it again in the last verse of the book. Solomon says to the young man, “Go ahead and rejoice, but also remember that you will give account to God of your actions, so make sure you keep your enjoyment of life falls within God’s prescribed boundaries.”
Society is constantly telling us that we do not have to live within any boundaries–that we can do and be whatever we want and that no one should be able to tell us otherwise. But that simply isn’t true. I do not have the authority to veto God’s sovereign plan for my life, and disobeying His commands will never make me happy.
When was the last time that you reflected on the fact that you will answer to God for your actions, including the things you do in secret? At one time or another, all of us have probably done something we shouldn’t have done, but then thought to ourselves after we got in trouble, “Ya, but it was worth it.” You will not be thinking when you stand before God, “Ya, but it was still worth it.”
So be sober, and remember the judgment. But also, remember your Creator (12:1). The word “remember” in this verse is a figurative expression meaning to honor and obey. It’s obviously more than just stopping to think, saying, “Oh ya, I remember God,” and then going about your business. No, this is a knowledge of God that changes your life. Has your understanding of who God is changed your life? Jesus died for your sins not just so that you could go to heaven, but so that you could have a relationship with God. Jesus said in John 17:2, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Paul said that he counted everything as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord. Do you have that kind of passion to know God?
So we’ve seen what believers are called to do. We’re called to be joyful and to fear God. But next, let’s take a look at the how. And so, our third word is “urgency” because the brevity of life makes these commands pressing.
Urgency: The Brevity of Life Makes These Commands Pressing.
Most of this passage consists of a sober warning from the now aged Solomon to his young, eager readers. And what is he warning them about? (old age and death) Look with me at 11:7-8. Notice the two contrasts in this verse. First, there’s a contrast between light and darkness. In v. 7, Solomon says, “Truly the light is sweet [speaking of life], and it is pleasant to see the sun.” But then in v. 8, He says that we are to remember the days of darkness.” So what would the days of darkness be? (death) Also, there’s another contrast in these verses that’s a little bit more hidden. Solomon refers to the many years of a man’s life at the beginning of v. 8 and then to the many years of darkness at the end of the verse. The idea seems to be, “No matter how long you live, you’re going to be dead longer!” And then Solomon throws this in. He says, “All that is coming is vanity.” Now remember, Solomon already said in the first verse of this book that everything is vanity. So when we come to this verse, I don’t think we should overemphasize the vanity of the future. Solomon is just saying that in terms of life under the sun, it doesn’t get any better as you approach old age and death.
And because it doesn’t get any better, the commands to rejoice and to remember become all the more urgent. Look with me at v. 10. What is the reason Solomon gives for removing sorrow and pain? (because childhood and youth are vanity) Here, that word “vanity” simply means, “fleeting,” like a puff of smoke that’s gone in an instant. You won’t stay long forever! Childhood and the youth, or “the prime of life” are fleeting. Those of you who are my age, just think of this. You know how short your childhood seems, now that you look back on it? The period of life you are in right now will seem even shorter when you look back on it. And so now is the time to rejoice and enjoy life! Because as you get older, your capacity to enjoy many of those pleasures that we talked about earlier will decrease!
But also, now is the time to remember your Creator. Look with me at 12:1. What are these difficult days and the years in which you say, “I have no pleasure in them”? I think it’s worth noting that the Hebrew word translated “pleasure” in this verse is used quite broadly in Ecclesiastes. For instance, in 3:1, 17, it is translated “purpose,” and in 5:8 and 8:6, it is translated “matter.” So I don’t think we should press this word too much, as if Solomon is saying that old age is completely devoid of joy. As we’ve seen, he’s already said that I should rejoice as long as I am living. However, Solomon is also a realist; and in this case, he’s just pointing out that in the final years of one’s life, it is often difficult to accomplish or enjoy very much. So, as he’s already done before, he’s urging his young readers to make the most of their time. I asked this question before when I preached on this passage. How many of you got saved later in life, and you would say, “I would give anything to go back and redo those early years and start living for God while I was young.” Would you raise your hand? Young people, I want you to look around right now. Knowing God is a pleasure to be taken advantage of to the full extent of one’s ability, not a duty to be put off for as long as possible. Remember God now, because the older you get, the fewer opportunities you will have to serve Him.
Of course, this takes us right into the poem in vv. 2-7. I’d like to say a couple of preliminary things about the poem before we get into it in detail. First, the purpose of the poem seems to be catch the attention of young readers, so that they will think about old age and death. Solomon knew that it’s hard to get young, healthy people to think about old age and death. Even if we would agree mentally that those things are going to happen, we tend to resist thinking about it because we’d rather just live in the moment. The only problem with that is that we have to think about death in order to live correctly. We’ve talked about that before in our study of Ecclesiastes. So in order to wake his young audience up and make the message stick, Solomon uses symbolic, memorable language.
However, because of the fact that Solomon uses so much symbolism, this poem can be a little bit challenging to interpret. For instance, we find ourselves asking what some of these metaphors refer to or exactly how much to read into each one. That said, I think it’s pretty clear that most of these metaphors refer to the breakdown of the physical body in one way or another. So let’s take a look.
Verse 2 refers to a time when the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain. In other words, there are dark, foreboding clouds on the horizon. Death is coming. Now, we may face times of darkness and storms during youth, as well. But according to this verse, what is different about the storms that we face in old age? (They keep coming back. “The clouds return after the rain.”) In other words, the calamities and sorrows of old age, especially as they relate to the physical body, are repetitive. The older person does not “bounce back” like the young person does. Have you ever not known how to pray for an elderly person whose health is declining? You would love for God to heal them, but at the same time, you know that God is not going to reverse the aging process! By all earthly indications, that person is going to face continued physical difficulties right up until the he goes home to see Jesus. Solomon says, “Remember your Creator before you get to those years, because once you’ve gotten to that point, you will be limited as it relates to your ability to serve Him.”
Verse 3 through the middle of verse 5 deals with the deterioration of different parts of the body in old age. “The keepers of the house” in v. 3 are probably the hands. Your hands tremble or shake. Also, the strong men bow down. In other words, you stoop. “The grinders” in v. 3 are probably the teeth. You’ve lost so many teeth that it’s difficult to chew, and perhaps your diet even has to change! What are “those who look through the windows”? (the eyes) Your eyes grow dim. You need glasses or maybe bifocals. Or maybe you get to the point where not even glasses help anymore because you’re completely blind! What do you think v. 4 means when it says that the doors are shut in the streets? It probably means that you become hard of hearing, so that you can no longer make out “the sound of the grinders,” as it says in the next phrase. However, the cruel irony of it is that even though you can no longer hear well, the tiniest noise still wakes you up–that’s how light of a sleeper you are! So it’s difficult for you to get a good night’s rest, and you always wake up very early in the morning. Not only that, but “the daughters of music are brought low.” The music that you used to love to listen to and participate in is no longer very enjoyable. You’ve lost your ability to sing or play an instrument or read music or even hear it very well! You’ve developed a fear of heights, v. 5 says. There are pictures of you sitting on the edges of cliffs dangling your legs off the side while you munch on a sandwich; but now, it’s daunting just to climb up on a step stool to get something off of the shelf! The pathway or the road has become a scary place. There are “terrors in the way.” When you go to a public place, you’re afraid that someone might bump into you and knock you down. Of course, it goes without saying that you stay as far away as possible from the busy highways! You used to drive in rush hour traffic every day, but now, you’re afraid to drive down the hill for a family get-together! Your hair has become white, like the blossoms of an almond tree. That phrase about the grasshopper in v. 5 could also be translated, “the grasshopper drags itself along.” In other words, you used to be spritely, like a young grasshopper. You’d run, jump, even dance–just for the fun of it! But now, when you walk, you’re as awkward as a grasshopper that can no longer hop! You sort of just drag yourself along. You walk with a limp. And desire fails. Some translations say, “the caperberry is ineffective.” It was believed in ancient times that the caperberry stimulated the physical and sexual appetites. Your appetite has decreased dramatically, and you’re no longer interested in sexual relations.
Of course, all of this is leading up to that climactic moment in which you die. You go to your “eternal home,” as v. 5 puts it; and the mourners go about in the streets because you are dead. Verse 6 consists of what seems to be two pairs of images that both picture death. The first pair of images seems to describe a silver cord that is holding up a golden bowl–perhaps a lantern. When the cord is loosed or removed, the bowl falls and is broken. Now, we know that a golden bowl would not typically break in that way, but that is not the point. The point is that you have something of great value (a golden bowl held up by a silver cord) that is all of a sudden broken irreparably. The same is true of death. At the time of death, something of great value (you) is suddenly broken beyond repair. The second pair of images seems to describe a wheel that was used to draw water out of a fountain by means of a pitcher that was attached to the wheel with a rope and then hung over the well on some sort of wooden structure. When the wheel is broken, it can’t hold up the pitcher any longer, so the pitcher falls down into the well and is shattered. It’s a sudden, dramatic moment in which something that used to be very useful is broken beyond repair. There is no pulling the pieces of that pitcher out of the well and fixing it. And this is a good picture of death, because when you die, something very useful (you) is broken beyond repair.
So that’s what happens when you die. But what happens after that? Verse 7 describes what happens after death in two parts. First, it describes what happens to your body and then it describes what happens to your spirit. Your body returns to the dust. As God says to Adam in Genesis 2:19, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” However, death is not the end of the story as it relates to your spirit. When you die, your spirit will return to the God who gave it. This is not some sort of pantheism or concept of being reunited to the world soul. This is the idea of returning to God for judgment. It’s very similar to the phrase, “Prepare to meet your maker.” Now, Solomon is very unclear on the chronology of all of this. When does this judgment take place? Where do we go after the judgment? There are lots and lots of questions that Solomon doesn’t answer, probably because he didn’t know the answers to those questions! The New Testament indicates that there were lots of things that the Old Testament writers didn’t fully understand! God reveals truth to human beings over time. We call this progressive revelation.
Progressive revelation doesn’t mean that the newer revelation contradicts the older revelation, because God never changes! We’re going to talk about that in children’s church today. However, the newer revelation often clarifies the older revelation. Specifically, we know based on the New Testament that God is going to do a miracle and resurrect all of our bodies on day. Believers will be resurrected to spend eternity with Christ, and unbelievers will be resurrected to spend an eternity in a real, physical hell. But either way, our spirits return to God to be judged.
Do you see how this description might jolt a young person out of his slumber, so to speak? It’s like, “Wake up! You’re going to get old and die, so start living in light of that reality! Stop wasting your time; and enjoy life, do right, and get to know God!”
May God grant that we may be people of joy. But may we not be joyful like the world is joyful–in a very thoughtless, flippant way. May we be joyful, and yet sober. And may we live all of life with a sense of urgency. Do these three words characterize you?