THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
SUBTITLE: How to live a meaningful life in a meaningless world.
TEXT: Ecclesiastes chapter 12
You might think that this is the end of our series on Ecclesiastes; I assure you it isn’t. This is a conclusion that isn’t a conclusion because in the Sundays to follow Pastor Andrew and Pastor Twister intend to preach some more from this book. On the other hand, it is a conclusion because our text is the last chapter of the book and verse 13 says very clearly, “The end of the matter; all has been heard.” And also we’ll be dealing with the subject of death, which is very much the conclusion of life under the sun. So “The Conclusion of the Matter” seems a most apt title for today’s message.
Now by way of introduction, let me remind you that Ecclesiastes is a pre-evangelistic book because it leads people to despair of life under the sun. And despair is either a good or bad thing: bad if you stay there, good if it leads you to seek after God. But Ecclesiastes is also for those who are already Christians, because it helps them to be realistic about life, and it disabuses their minds of the misconception that the Christian life is a bed of roses. It isn’t. Suffering and injustice afflict the righteous and the unrighteous alike, and Christians should therefore patiently endure life under the sun, make the most of it, and remain steadfast in the hope that God will make all things beautiful in his time.
Secondly, by way of introduction, it should be noted that Ecclesiastes chapter 12 is addressed to young people, at least the first part of it, and I find it quite interesting that the thrust of the chapter is to remind those who are young – i.e., people who are just starting out in life, who are at the height of their powers physically, if not mentally – that death will be here soon. So remember God while you’re still young, while your whole life is still ahead of you, while you still have the strength to serve him, before old age and all its disadvantages overtake you. Imagine that! Young people, this is what you have to be reminded of: old age and impending death! So, taking my cue from this, I think it is not inappropriate to meditate on death even when the setting is not that of a funeral service. Besides, preachers are duty-bound to preach the word in season and out of season. And Ecclesiastes chapter 12 is still part of God’s Word. Moreover, we’re here to learn wisdom, and nothing puts us more in the mood to receive wisdom than when we’re staring death in the face, so to speak. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.” (Ecc. 7:4)
Just this month I got the chance to go to two houses of mourning: the first was the wake of a 12-year-old boy who died of kidney failure. The other a woman in her mid-fifties who was undergoing a kidney-removal surgery only to go into arrest and die on the operating table even though she had no previous history of heart attack. The one so young, the other so unexpected. You never know when death will strike, although we do know whom it will claim: all of us. It’s just a matter of time.
So we’re going to be meditating on death this morning. But how does that jibe with the sub-title of this message, how to live a meaningful life in a meaningless world? Well, when you think about it, what makes the world meaningless is death. We die, and all our wealth, all our accomplishments, all our pleasures, and all our wisdom come to nothing. Death is coming soon. It makes everything meaningless. How do I live a meaningful life in the face of impending and inevitable death.
Well, three things by way of answer:
- You’ve got to remind yourself that you’re mortal;
- You’ve got to realize that you’re accountable; and lastly
- You’ve got to realize that at the end of the day you’re either doomed or delivered (which is another word for saved).
Today I will focus only on the first point.
- YOU ARE MORTAL
Let me address the young people first. Those who are young are especially prone to ignore the fact that death is also coming for them. Death seems so far away. But those of us who are much older know that time flies by so quickly. 40 years ago seems just like yesterday. I still find it hard to accept that I’m almost half a century old. I find it hard to believe that I’ve been married for almost two decades. (Every time I remind my wife of how long we’ve been married she starts to cry – tears of joy, I presume, over her good fortune in marrying me.) Time flies so swiftly! Soon I’ll be having my own Senior Citizen card.
So enjoy youth, it’s a precious season of life that won’t be coming back. But know that old age is coming and death is coming. Don’t live as if you’re exempted from humanity’s common fate. Don’t abuse your body. Don’t waste your time. And above all, while there’s still time, remember your Creator and serve him with all your might. Live for what really matters, while you still can. Because soon you’ll no longer be able to do what you find so easy to do now and have the opportunity to do. It is said, “Old age is full of regrets,” but if ever that is the case it is often because we’ve misused our youth, and misspent our time, and wasted our opportunities. It is also said that the saddest two words in the English language are “If only”.
Some of you may be young now, but not for long. But young or old, all of us are mortal. We should always remember this. Old age is going to overtake many of us. Some are already there. That includes me – more or less. I’ve been living in a state of denial for many years now. But white hair on your head and arthritis in your knees eventually force you to accept the things you cannot change. I look in the mirror and the irrefutable evidence of my mortality stares back at me. On the other hand, some don’t even make it to old age. Some die young. Everyone dies. Death will overtake all of us – young or old – sooner or later, that is, if Christ doesn’t come back soon.
And here the Preacher gives us an idea, expressed in beautiful poetic imagery, of what old age feels like. By the way, I read somewhere that this chapter is the most beautiful poem ever written about old age.
Verse 2 compares old age to a time of darkness, a gathering storm.
Verse 3 compares it to a decaying house. The keepers of the house are the arms, which were once strong but are now trembling; the bent strong men are the legs; the windows are the eyes that now grow dim.
In verse 4, the doors are the ears that are now becoming deaf. We also find that people have difficulty sleeping. They can no longer sing as beautifully as they used to.
In verse 5, we find that old people are more afraid now than when they were young: afraid of heights, and afraid that someone might attack them in the streets. Because they know that they’re weak and no longer as strong as they used to be.
On TV I saw two sisters in their 70’s who were rescued during the recent flood in Manila. They had no strength to go out of their house and save themselves.
“The almond tree blossoms” refers to the white hair of the elderly.
The grasshopper, which used to jump high, now drags itself along.
Desire fails, especially sexual desire. I was talking to a catholic priest yesterday who was sharing with me the struggles of a celibate person. I felt like telling him, “Don’t feel bad, Padre. Even married people, when they grow old, are more or less celibate too.”
Finally, we have death itself: “Man is going to his eternal home, mourners go about the street.” In verse 6 the preacher compares death to a silver cord that snaps, a golden bowl that breaks. Some think this refers to a lamp that’s hanging by a string. The string snaps, the bowl falls and breaks, and the light is snuffed out. Silver and gold. Precious. But, in a sense precious no longer, because broken.
A shattered pitcher. A broken wheel. Useful things. But then useful no more.
In verse 7 we return to dust from which we came. “Dust thou are, and to dust thou shalt return.” (Gen. 3:19) At the end of the day, this is the destiny of our bodies, which used to be so young, strong and beautiful – dust. And the spirit – the breath of life – returns to God. Life is a gift of God, which God can take away any time. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away.
In verse 8, the Preacher ends by repeating the words by which he began his book: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Yes, as far as life under the sun is concerned, everything is vanity, because death ends everything. As ch. 9 of verse 10 says, “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave to which you are going.”
Now before those of you who are old become terribly depressed by all this, let me just remind you that the Preacher was speaking of life under the sun. For those who are in Christ Jesus death does not end everything. The preciousness of their lives remains and extends into eternity. The Bible also says that “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) And Psalm 73:28 says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Also –
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Psalm 92:12-15 ESV)
Now we go back to the subtitle of this message. How does the realization of my mortality help me to live a meaningful life? The answer may be found in Psalm chapter 90.
In this Psalm we find Moses praying –
“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12 ESV)
Numbering our days helps us gain a heart of wisdom because it makes us realize what is important and what isn’t. It makes us appreciate what you have previously ignored and taken for granted. So what is truly important?
A friend of mine, a nurse in a Home for the Aged, shared with me his experience of seeing a 90 year old Christian on his death bed, with all his family around him, including grandchildren and even a great grandchild. And his family was praying for him while he was on his deathbed. And my friend said he died a peaceful and beautiful death. On the other hand, he also witnessed the death of another person, who he heard used to be very rich, and who left his wife for a younger woman. He died raging, swinging his arms violently here and there till he no longer had strength to do so. Right after he died my friend called his son. And the son replied, “I told the other nurse not to call me if he dies.” My friend said he was shocked. He called the other woman. She came and told my friend, “I came just to get his stuff.” My friend said there were no tears in her eyes, no expression of sadness. She didn’t care. I told him, “This just shows that at the end of the day what is most important is relationships.” My friend agreed.
What is most important in this fleeting life are relationships. First and foremost, your relationship to God. Then your relationship to your family. And of course your relationship to your neighbor. My friend found the death of the first person whose story he shared with me peaceful and beautiful because that family had God in their lives, and as a result they had a wonderful family. This might sound cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to the saying, “The family that prays together stays together.”
At any rate, let’s jump now to verse 13. The conclusion of the matter, according to the Preacher, is “Fear God and keep his commandments. This is the whole of man.” (Not the whole duty of man.) This is what we were made for, to love God and to love our neighbor. Love and relationships. That’s the sum of the commandments. Loving God and loving people, especially the members of your own family, both physical and spiritual, is what make life meaningful in this meaningless world. And if you belong to God’s family, love and relationships last forever.
So I’d like to end by asking how’s your relationship to God? Have you put your faith in him and in his Son as your personal Lord and Savior? And how’s your relationship to your family? To your parents? To your children? To your spouse? One of the resolutions I’ve made recently is to have a special date with my wife and daughter at least once a month. It’s expensive but it’s worth it. A friend of mine told me to make sure that when your child is growing up she’ll have special memories of you, so that when you’re gone, she’ll have these memories to comfort her and give her joy. I agree with Pastor Andrew’s sermon last Sunday. Relationships are what matter. Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. This is what it means to fear God and keep his commandments. This is the conclusion of the matter. Amen.