Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ecclesiastes: Does Anything Really Matter? Day 24, Don't Ignore The Lord While You're Young, Part Two

Estimates of Solomon's age at death vary, but most scholars think he was anywhere from his sixties to about eighty when he died. It's believed he wrote Ecclesiastes and Proverbs during the final years of his reign. We don't know what his health was like in the latter years of his reign, but he has already told us that for most of his life he denied himself nothing. He indulged in alcohol, in feasting, and in the pleasures of this world. Today he speaks like a man who feels old. I know lots of people who are as old or older than Solomon was when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, and many of them are still very active and in wonderful health, but Solomon is beginning to feel like an old man. He lived in a time before modern medicine. He lived in an age when he couldn't go to the doctor and have his cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides, or blood pressure checked. He could have been suffering from one or more health problems. This is why he warned us yesterday not to waste our youth by waiting to serve God when we're older. He wishes he'd done more for the Lord while he still had the unlimited energy and the strength of body of his youth.

We are going to reread verse 1, which we studied yesterday, because it's a vital part of a thought that runs from verse 1 to verse 5. "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, 'I find no pleasure in them'---before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire is no longer stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets." (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5)

Verses 1 through 5 are a metaphor for the failing strength of old age. Solomon skillfully and poetically paints us a picture of what happens as our bodies begin to show the wear and tear of life on earth. He says, "Serve God now while you're in good health. Don't wait til your eyesight begins to fail. Don't wait til your hearing becomes dim. Don't wait til your joints hurt and you can't straighten up all the way anymore. Don't wait til your hands tremble all the time. Don't wait til you can't sleep through a whole night but instead rise with the birds but are unable to clearly hear their songs. Don't wait til you're feeble enough to be constantly afraid of falling, afraid of driving, afraid of going about your business in the city. It's said that in the springtime man's heart turns to thoughts of love, but even that will leave you as you grow old. Youthful desires of the flesh won't matter to you anymore. You will take no more joy in the arrival of spring than you did in the arrival of winter. And when you reach the point of enjoying nothing at all, can the grave be far away?"

The picture he paints is gloomy, but we must keep in mind that these words come from the pen of a man who is clinically depressed. These words spring from a heart that never properly learned how to love the Lord. God can use us at any stage in our lives. Of course it's better to begin serving Him in our youth; this will help us avoid making a number of mistakes and having to live with regrets. But if we are committed to living for God, this is what He promises us at every stage of our lives, "The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green." (Psalm 92:12-14) The Lord is not necessarily saying we will enjoy good health all our lives, but that the person devoted to Him will be able to do something fruitful for His kingdom during every decade of life. It's a fact that our bodies are going to age, but it's also a fact that God will honor a willing spirit. As the Apostle Paul said in the latter years of his life, "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." (2 Corinthians 4:16) The activities we are able to participate in may change as we grow older, but we can still be mighty prayers warriors of God even if we can no longer get down on our knees in the floor. We can still set a godly example for the next generation. We can still pass along godly advice. We can still give testimony to all that Lord has done for us.

Solomon doesn't realize it yet, but in his older years he is beginning to produce fruit. In his despair he wrongly believes the best years of his life are behind him. He thinks nothing is ahead of him but the grave. So he urges us to turn to the Lord before it's too late, before we waste our youth and energy chasing after all the wrong things like he did, "Remember Him---before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and 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." (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7) 

The king looks back on his life and is grieved that he didn't do much for the Lord. Everything he did apart from the Lord failed to satisfy him. The years of his life look like a hundred miles of bad road and his regrets cause him to utter these words: "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Everything is meaningless!'" (Ecclesiastes 12:8)

We don't know how many years Solomon had left on the earth after he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, but at some point he was able to say this about the final years of his life, "Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people, He pondered and searched and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true." (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 Does this passage sound like it was written about a man who had nothing behind him but regrets and nothing ahead of him but the grave? Or does it sound like it was written about a man who found his way back to the Lord, a man who bore fruit in his old age? The depressed and almost suicidal king we find in the book of Ecclesiastes didn't remain in his woeful condition. He became "upright and true" through his relationship with the Lord. He was able to pass on advice for godly living to the next generation. The lessons he learned the hard way became lessons he could write in the form of proverbs to prevent us from making the same mistakes. He couldn't go back and undo the past and change the things he was so ashamed of, but with the Lord's help he was able to take a godly pleasure in the years that remained to him. Because he had the Lord in his life, he finished strong with no need to be ashamed of his final years on earth.

Solomon's son Rehoboam grew up watching the poor example his father set, but the king hopes it isn't too late to prevent his son from going down the wrong paths, so he says, "The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails---given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them." (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12a) He cautions his son, "Heed the words of the wise. Like a goad pointing cattle in the right direction, they will point you in the right direction. Like a nail driven so firmly into a post that no amount of weight on it can cause it to fall, godly wisdom will keep you from falling into sin. The Scriptures should be studied and followed, for they are spoken by the Shepherd. Do not corrupt them by adding worldly wisdom to them. They are perfect just as they are because they come straight from the Lord. There is nothing we could ever add to them."

"Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." (Ecclesiastes 12:12b) The king spent his youth and middle age reading and learning and listening to philosophers and puzzling over enigmas. But none of that profited him because he ignored what was right under his nose: the holy Scriptures. His studies exhausted him because they weren't able to lend his life the meaning he so desperately craved. This doesn't mean we should be ignorant and not obtain an education if it's available to us, but if we neglect the word of God and seek meaning in everything else but Him we are going to end up as depressed and full of regrets as Solomon. Life will seem as meaningless to us as it once did to Solomon.

All his studies, all his activities, and all his riotous living did nothing for Solomon. He felt empty and tired, almost unable to go on with life. He finally sees the light and realizes it all comes down to this: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) The king began this book by asking, "Does anything really matter?" Now he answers his own question, "Yes! Everything matters! There is a God in heaven and He has a purpose for every one of us. He has His eye on us at all times. We owe Him our praise. We owe Him our lives. We owe Him our faithful service. We may not always see the righteous rewarded in this world or the wicked punished on the earth, but we have eternal souls that will stand before the Judge someday. He will certainly set things straight then. Knowing that our lives have a purpose, and knowing that we have eternal souls, what should we do? We should live our lives for the Lord. He gives meaning to everything we do. He helps us to produce godly fruit at every stage of our lives. He gives us the strength to live honorable lives, lives we don't have to be ashamed of. Everything I've said in the book of Ecclesiastes can be summed up like this: God alone gives meaning to our lives."

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