Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 12:8-14
I love epilogues; don’t you? Often an author will close the last chapter of his or her book with a bang–which is great–but sometimes, you’re left longing for closure. The epilogue is where all of those “loose ends” get tied up.
The same is true of Ecclesiastes. The last “chapter” of Solomon’s book is the passage we studied last week: Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7. And Solomon certainly goes out with a bang. [Read vv. 7-8.] That’s powerful, and very effective. But that would be an unsatisfying way to end. So I’m so thankful for these last seven verses, because they really tie everything together.
Technically, we should probably call this passage an “afterword” rather than an “epilogue” because it refers to the author in the third person and makes comments about the book whereas an “epilogue” would be more used more to wrap up a narrative, but you get the point. This passage is helpful because it gives more information about the author and nature of the book and summarizes how we should respond to its message.
[Read Ecclesiastes 12:8-14]
Solomon begins the afterword be restating the theme of the book (v. 8).
The Theme: “Everything Is Vanity.”
Do you remember what the word “vanity” literally means? It means vapor. But obviously, Solomon is using the word symbolically. So here’s a quiz for you: what does the word “vanity” symbolize throughout Ecclesiastes? In other words, what are its various shades of meaning
The word “vanity” can symbolize that which is empty, in the sense that it cannot make good on implicit promises. Remember, the Old Testament uses the word “vanity” this way when it refers to idols. They hold out certain promises to you (peace, rain, etc.), but in reality, they are lifeless and worthless. It’s like trying to grab ahold of a puff of steam and then realizing there’s nothing there. And that’s how Solomon felt when he idolized education and work and hedonism and even prudent living. None of those things, in and of itself, was enough to satisfy Him. Satisfaction is a gift that comes only from God.
The word “vanity” can symbolize that which is fleeting. Childhood and the prime of life are vanity in the sense that they are here today and gone tomorrow. Nothing lasts or is permanent. Everything within creation is constantly changing. Do you like change? Sometimes change is good; but often, it’s unsettling. Certainly the destination we’re headed for is unsettling, because that destination is death! And yet Solomon gives indication that He does not see death as the end for us, because he talks about our spirits returning to God for judgment. And that judgment, along with the brevity of life, is what motivates us to work hard and to enjoy life while we still can.
The word “vanity” can symbolize that which is difficult to understand or mysterious. Just like it’s hard to see in a fog, it can be difficult for us to make sense of life in this sin-cursed world. Even more unsettling, it can be difficult for us to make sense of God’s providence. As the great hymn writer William Cowper famously said, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.” And yet Solomon does not leave us without hope in this, because he says in 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” As Cowper went on to say, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.”
Finally, the word “vanity” can symbolize that which is frustrating, because that which is empty and fleeting and mysterious is also frustrating to us.
Why is creation like this? Didn’t God create everything good? Isn’t He in control? What happened? Romans 8:20 says that God subjected the world to vanity, and that is a reference not to the original creation (because God made everything good) but to Genesis 3 and the curse that God placed on mankind and on creation because of sin. You see, this is our fault. And even the curse, unpleasant as it is, is actually a blessing in disguise, because it serves to humble us and show us our need for God. The same could be said of Ecclesiastes. Depressing as it may seem at points, this book is a grace, because it reminds us how much we need God.
Next, Solomon tells us a little bit more about himself and his book. First, he talks about himself.
He says in v. 9 that he was wise. We knew that. But notice, not only way he wise, but he also taught the people knowledge. And the word for “taught” is in an iterative piel (I’m earning brownie points with Dr. B.), meaning that the teacher continually taught the people knowledge. It’s one thing to be wise; it’s another thing to devote yourself to passing on that wisdom, and that’s what Solomon did.
Of course, Solomon’s forte was proverbs. Not necessarily the book of Proverbs, but that genre. And so v. 9 tells us that Solomon “pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs.” By the way, this verse indicates that Solomon probably borrowed from other sources to write this book. Now, there was certainly heavy editing going on! And inspiration ensures that these are God’s words. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that Solomon incorporated other writings into his book. It reminds us little of the New Testament author Luke, who did extensive research before writing Luke and Acts.
But next, Solomon tells us a little bit more about his book itself. I want you to notice its qualities.
Verse 10 says that the Preacher sought to find acceptable words. Does anyone have a different translation there? What does it say? The idea behind the word “acceptable” or “delightful” is “compelling.” Solomon sought to say things in a way that would attract and hold our attention. He wanted to make his message memorable. He wanted to create something that was artistically beautiful. He wanted to make it stick. Did he accomplish his purpose?
But even more important than the fact that Ecclesiastes is compelling is the fact that it is true (v. 10). By the way, I hope that you hold all of the books that you read up to this test. We ought to look for books that are compelling, artful, and objectively well-written. But the most important question you can ever ask yourself when evaluating a book is, “Is this true?” What argument is the author making? What worldview is he putting forward? And do those truth claims coincide with or contradict the Bible? And that refers to the way in which we evaluate movies, as well.
So those are the book’s qualities; now, what is its effect (v. 11)? Solomon uses two images in this verse.
First, he refers to goads. What’s a goad? How are the words of the wise like goads? Personally, I’ve never been poked by a goad before, but I imagine that it doesn’t feel very good. However, sometimes we need to be spurred into action. It’s very much fun to read about how I’m going to get old and die. But I need to read that so that I will be motivated to work and enjoy life while I still have a chance. It’s not necessarily exciting to read about the effects of folly, but it motivates me to be wise.
Second, Solomon refers to nails. What’s the use of a well-driven nail? How is that like the words of the wise? The words of the wise stabilize our thinking. It’s like everything is a little “loosey-goosey” in there, and then Solomon comes along and goes wham! And pounds a nail right into our heads. And that just firms everything up and gives our thinking and philosophy some structure.
By the way, “the words of the wise” is not just Ecclesiastes. It refers to the biblical wisdom literature, but it could also be applied to all of the Bible! It’s not just Ecclesiastes that solidifies our thinking and spurs us along–it’s all of Scripture! So we ought to read it and study it, because we need that!
Finally, I want you to notice the book’s uniqueness.
Solomon says that the words of the wise are “given by one Shepherd.” Who is that Shepherd? It’s God! So Ecclesiastes is unique because it is inspired. As much as it is correct to say, “There are the words of Solomon,” it is also correct to say, “These are the words of God.”
But I want you to see that Solomon immediately turns that thought into a warning.
He says in v. 12, “And further, my son, be admonished by these.” Now that’s a difficult phrase to translate. But several translations have taken that phrase differently than the NKJV and NASB do. For instance, listen to the ESV. It says, “My son, beware of anything beyond these.” Beyond what? Beyond the words of the wise that are like goads and nails, given by one Shepherd. In other words, I think that this is a warning about extrabiblical philosophy.
Now when you think about it, that’s sort of ironic, since Ecclesiastes is one of the most philosophical books in all of Scripture! But what’s the difference between Ecclesiastes and the books Solomon seems to be admonishing his son about? Ecclesiastes was written by God; those books weren’t.
There is certainly a place for scholarship and research, don’t get me wrong. And yet it is an undeniable fact that the world of higher academia is a very dangerous place for a Christian. Not because the Bible cannot stand up to logic and research. It has proved time and time again throughout the centuries that it can! In fact, it was the Bible that built western civilization as we know it and laid the groundwork for all of those advances in scholarship (although that is a fact that secular academia would like to forget). Higher academia is a dangerous place for a Christian because it is such a worldly place. It is filled with the lies of Satan, and there is tremendous pressure to conform. So be careful. As Solomon said, be warned.
There are two pitfall of scholarship, according to this v. 12. First, you cannot possibly know everything there is to know. So if you make scholarship your life’s pursuit, you can only be disappointed. Second, scholasticism will totally wear you out. In other words, scholarship as it relates to extrabiblical writings is vanity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t study. But reading books, writing books, and studying can never satisfy.
Before we go on, I need to mention sort of an aside.
You might have noticed that starting in v. 8, a different perspective shows up. For over eleven chapters, the character introduced to us as “the Preacher” in 1:1 has been speaking. Now, he steps aside, and some other character refers to the preacher in the third person. So what is going on here? I believe the best answer is that this is a rhetorical device. In other words, Solomon wrote the whole book, but in the prologue and epilogue, he steps into the role of narrator for dramatic effect. Of course, some have argued that the book has multiple authors and cast doubt on its inerrancy, etc., but we don’t need to get into all of that.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s move on to Solomon’s conclusion (vv. 13-14).
The Conclusion: “Fear God and Keep His Commandments.”
The first part of v. 13 literally reads, “The end of the matter. Everything has been heard.” Solomon’s final word is, “Fear God and keep His commandments.” What does it mean to fear God and keep His commandments? I think it starts with two things: understanding who God is and understanding who I am.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, God is presented as the Creator. He is presented as completely sovereign. 3:14 says, “Whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, And nothing taken from it.” God is presented as the judge. And He is also presented as good. He makes everything beautiful in its time, and no one can enjoy life without Him. That’s a big picture of God!
Now what does Ecclesiastes have to say about me? Well, it says that I am God’s creation. It says that I am mortal; I share that in common with the animals. It says that I will die. It says that everyone is a sinner. 9:20 says, “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.” It says that I am subjected to vanity, just like everything else around me. It says that I am unable to make myself happy. I’m like that little baby crying her play pen because she doesn’t know how to make herself happy or fix her own problems. It says that I am unable to fathom the mysteries of God. It says that I can’t fix this world. For instance, I can’t bring about complete justice. It says that I am unable to control my circumstances. No matter how carefully I plan, bad stuff may happen to me. That’s a pretty low view of humanity, isn’t it?
So let’s do the math. A high view of God + a low view of myself = what? The fear of the LORD! It equals humility, reverence, faith, and submission.
So when we view this command to fear God and keep his commandments in light of entire framework that Solomon has erected, it should become abundantly clear that this is not some form of arrogant self-righteousness. Rather, as commentator Duane Garrett put it, it is “the deepest expression of humble faith.” Garrett went on to say, “Solomon… has anticipated perhaps the deepest mystery of the gospel: The just shall live by faith.”
So that is what we are called to do, but now why are we called to do it? First, we must obey God and keep His commandments because this is man’s all. Now, in an effort to be clear, the old King James translated this phrase, “This is the whole duty of man.” But I think that is actually misleading. Solomon doesn’t just say that this is our duty; he says it is our “all.” It is our life. It is not only our duty, but also our delight. In fact, it is possible that Solomon intended this verse as an answer to the question he raised all the way back in 1:3 and echoed several more times throughout the book (1:3). Do you remember what we said that question means? It has to do with the desire that burns within each of us to do more than just subsist. We have “eternity in our hearts,” as 3:11 puts it, so we aren’t content with living like the animals. Perhaps you remember this quote: “Work and life have a strange reciprocal relationship; only if man works can he live, but only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible.” Of course, Solomon went on a quest to find meaning and purpose in life, and it was a huge waste of time except that he learned this: he learned that satisfaction is a gift that only God can give, and He gives it to those who are good in His sight. And so Solomon says, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.” Not just his duty (although it is that), but that this is the sort of relationship with God in which joy and satisfaction are found! DO YOU WANT YOUR LIFE TO COUNT? FEAR GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS!
But that’s not the only reason Solomon gives for fearing God. We also ought to fear Him because judgment is coming (v. 14). Everything you do will be judged. We talked about this last week. But before we conclude, I want you to see this, because it’s really cool. Surprisingly, Solomon concludes his book, not by claiming that nothing matters (because everything is vanity), but by claiming that everything matters, because God will bring every work into judgment. In fact, one commentator named his book on Ecclesiastes, “Why Everything Matters.”
Ecclesiastes points us to our need for God, which can only be met by means of the gospel. If Solomon seems salty at times, his purpose is merely to make us thirsty for grace. Does Jesus know what it’s like to live in a world subjected to vanity? Of course He does! In fact, He even knows what it’s like to die. That’s why Hebrews says that He can sympathize with my weaknesses. But Jesus offers far more than sympathy. Isaac Watts said it beautifully: “He comes to make His blessings known far as the curse is found.” How far is the curse found? It’s everywhere. That’s the point of Ecclesiastes–everything is vanity. And it’s vanity because God made it that way–not originally, but when He cursed creation because of sin. However, He did not leave us to rot. Romans 8:20 says that the creation was subjected to vanity in hope. What is that hope? It is that the creation itself will be delivered from bondage into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Who are those “children of God”? They are the redeemed. You see, Galatians 3:13 says that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He suffered under the full weight of the curse so that we could be free from it. Those of us who have trusted Christ have already experienced our freedom from the curse in part; but at the same time, we are also waiting–waiting for the day when our freedom will be fully realized. That’s why Romans 8 makes such a big deal about hope. You see, the Bible teaches that there will be a day when those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. We will all stand before God to be judged. And what will make the difference in that day between everlasting life and everlasting contempt will not be how hard we have worked. Ecclesiastes is clear that our works can’t satisfy, so how could they save? No, what makes the difference between heaven and hell is whether we have received God’s gift. Have you received God’s gift of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross? If so, then you have the ability to live joyfully in this life of vanity. And you of all people have a reason to work: to please God when you stand before Him, because life under the sun is preparation for life beyond the sun; and because of that, everything matters.