Content taken from Living Life Backward by David Gibson, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org. Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year.
Words do things.
I vividly remember the changing facial expressions among some of the congregants as I preached through Ecclesiastes. It happens all the time as we interact with one another. The words we speak can make someone weep, blush, rage, or roar with laughter. Words birth emotions.
Words change things, too. With two little words—“I will”—lives change forever. Words of promise spoken in a wedding ceremony aren’t describing marriage, or commenting on it; they are creating it. Something exists after their words have been spoken that didn’t exist beforehand.
Because of what words do, we have the book of Ecclesiastes.
God gave us words because he loves creating things. He loves seeing something come into being that didn’t exist beforehand. He spoke and, with a word, created everything. Just as he spoke like that, so he speaks here, now, in these words, so that something will happen to us as we hear them.
To know God, we need to be able to hear him. Ecclesiastes helps us to see that the ear is the Christian organ.
Because of what words do, we have the book of Ecclesiastes.
In the conclusion, the Preacher sits us down and, for the last time, tells us to be sure we understand how his words work. In this final section, he answers two questions: how do I remember my Creator, and why should I remember my Creator? How and why should I live wisely in God’s world?
The Preacher concludes by reminding us about his message throughout the whole book. Ecclesiastes 12:9–12 provide a mini-commentary on his book. These verses explain how and why the Preacher did what he did with words, and they explain their intended effect on us.
He wasn’t an ivory-tower scholar, shut away in the university library with his books. He was wise, that’s true, but he “also taught the people knowledge” (v. 9). He shared it. He used his wisdom to make others wise. He looked at life and saw that, often, little pithy sayings, proverbs, perfectly captured the complexity and bewilderment of life, and he wrote them down.
He finishes by telling us that these observations are meant to bring us four things.
It’s a sad irony that many find Ecclesiastes to be a gloomy and pessimistic book. It was actually written to bring us pleasure. “The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (12:10). He searched to find “words of delight”—words of pleasure—and because he had found such choice words, what he wrote was also upright and true.
How do you know that you know God? By listening to his words of delight and by finding them pleasurable. God isn’t a killjoy. He’s not a curmudgeon. He’s certainly not puritanical in how he wants us to live in the world. God delights in us delighting in the beauty of words.
We often look at the Bible through the lens of the last word in 12:10: “truth.” We want to know if the Bible is reliable. Can we trust what it says? Is it true? That’s fine. But the Bible works by being beautiful because it is true, and by being true because it is beautiful.
It’s a sad irony that many find Ecclesiastes to be a gloomy and pessimistic book. It was actually written to bring us pleasure.
Now that you’re about to finish Ecclesiastes, read on into Song of Solomon. It’s one thing for God to tell us what marriage is—one man, one woman, joined together—but quite another for him to give us poetry to express what it’s like to be in love and to make love. The truth of the words isn’t detachable from the beauty of the words.
“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd” (12:11). Goads were employed by herd drivers in the ancient world to keep animals on a straight path. They were staffs with sharp nails embedded in them and were used to poke and prod the animal. If it went to the left, there would be pain; if it went to the right, pain; if it stopped, more pain. The only way the animal could avoid pain was to go the way the shepherd wanted to go.
The Preacher’s words are like nails. They wound. Some of them may have come to you with a sharp tip indeed. But they’ve come to you directly from God, from the one Shepherd. It may be hard to learn that if you want to know and love and walk with God all your days, then you’ll need some pain. Some words to make you sit up and take notice.
God gave Adam and Eve the path to life, a straight line to walk in, and they veered off to the left to graze on different food. God shows us the path to life in his Word, a narrow way to walk in with Christ as our King—and we veer off to the right to graze for a while.
Remember your Creator by letting his Word dispel your illusions and confronting your folly even if it hurts—and it may often hurt. Left to your own devices, you will not choose what is right. Left to wander along myself, I’ll end up going in the opposite direction to where I should be. Because we’re prone to wander, the Preacher’s words—God’s words—are intended to prick us, to keep us on the right path.
Why should we delight in the Bible and allow it to wound us? One answer is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
Because we’re prone to wander, the Preacher’s words—God’s words—are intended to prick us, to keep us on the right path.
What strikes me here is the comprehensive totality of the statement—my “whole duty”—is to fear and to keep.
We don’t tend to think like that. We compartmentalize our life. We have hopes and dreams and aims and ambitions, and in the midst of that we think of our responsibilities to others: spouses, children, parents, work colleagues, friends. But the Preacher reminds us that every single duty or responsibility we have toward anyone or anything else, we have toward God first and foremost.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes agrees with Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). To fear the Lord is to remember the Creator, and vice versa, and this is the pathway to wise living. Fearing the Lord and remembering our Creator makes us wise, because it teaches us to live on our knees: it humbles us as the creature and exalts God as the Creator who knows what is best.
As we’ve seen so many times, simple wisdom is preparing for the end: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14).
One of the hardest things about Ecclesiastes is letting it instruct us that there are no immediate answers for some things in this life: “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them” (4:1).
What do you say to that? What do you say to people who have experienced exactly those circumstances in life? There’s ultimately only one answer—God will put it right. And we should prepare to meet him. Death and judgment are coming. The Preacher’s words are meant to be like the hand on the shoulder that rudely shakes us from our slumber and ends the dream, bringing us back down to earth.
The Preacher’s words are meant to be like the hand on the shoulder that rudely shakes us from our slumber and ends the dream, bringing us back down to earth.
But for the believer, death and judgment aren’t things to fear. There is a time when the terrors of this world will give way to the glory of the new world, as Berkouwer writes:
No longer will evil be called good and good evil; no longer will darkness be turned into light and light into darkness; no longer will bitter be made sweet and sweet bitter (Isa. 5:20). The conflict between good and evil will come to an end, as will all arguments about motives, intentions, and the nature of good. . . . Error will be exposed; real error, turning away from the Lord.
It’s so striking that while Ecclesiastes tells us there is no “gain” to be had under the sun, the apostle Paul says that there is in fact one thing to gain: dying. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Paul knew that in Christ, living and dying mean win-win. We can labor for Christ while we live, and we can live with Christ when we die.
Your death and the judgment to follow—the great fixed points of your life—are the very things that can reach back from the future into today and transform the life God has given you to live.