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The Fulfillment of Human Life

July 29, 2018 Speaker: David Gough Series: Ecclesiastes: The Search for Meaning

Topic: Meaning of Life Passage: Ecclesiastes 11:1– 12:14


Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:14


Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, as well as a Second World War Holocaust survivor.  It was in light of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp that he developed a theory known as “logotherapy,” which was based on the premise that there is reason to live and there is meaning to life to be found in every circumstance of life, even the most brutal ones.  

Frankl’s later lectures were warmly received, given his personal experience of having suffered as he did.  He had been married but a year when he and his wife were arrested and deported, eventually landing at Auschwitz where she, along with his mother and brother were executed.  His father had died of untreated pneumonia earlier in a different concentration camp.  Only he and his sister survived the brutal and lengthy ordeal.

Following the war and his liberation, Frankl gained international notoriety mainly through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which had been originally titled, Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.  His thesis was that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanizing situations, life has potential meaning.

While Frankl’s story is intriguing and in some sense even inspiring, it is also tragic.  One must search far and wide in his writings and lectures to find any reference to God and any definitive criteria to what might be called “ultimate meaning.”

Wise King Solomon struggled with that same elusive goal throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes.  We have seen occasional “flashes of insight” and the recognition of God’s providence sprinkled throughout its chapters.  In fact, in terms of its theological significance, the writer has consistently affirmed the value of revering God, the need for obeying God’s commands, and the certainty of divine judgment, even though he personally has been intent on pursuing life “under the sun."

This morning, as we come to the book’s conclusion, we are able to note that Solomon has actually taken us further than the theories of Frankl or any other human being in proposing a purpose to life apart from Divine revelation.  Even so, he has not yet realized that God made us empty, in order that our meaning would be found in Him.

In the back of all our minds, we know that we are headed for the “finish line” in terms of this life’s duration.  Without being morbidly preoccupied with that thought, we do well to think about our brief span of time on this earth.  And as we do, the meditation of our end should take us back to the God who was “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).

In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Michael Eaton has referred to chapters 11 and 12 as “the call to decision.”  He writes,

The whole section is a sustained call to decision, presented in such a way as to call attention to the nature of that decision. We must respond to God without delay, in whole-hearted faith, whether life is adverse or comfortable, for we are marching towards the day of our death.

Solomon’s “call to decision” can be divided into three parts: the unpredictable nature of life, the inevitable pattern of aging and death, and the undeniable value of truth.  Let’s take them one at a time, beginning with

The unpredictable nature of life (11:1-6).

Follow along in your Bibles as I read the first six verses of Ecclesiastes 11:

 [11]:1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
           for you will find it after many days.

2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on the earth.

3 If the clouds are full of rain,
they empty themselves on the earth,
  and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.

4 He who observes the wind will not sow,
and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

The first thing we notice about these verses is that Solomon has retained the poetic form that was begun in chapter 10.  We noted earlier in our study that poetic verse is often a way to emphasize what the writer wants us most to remember.  There are four direct commands given here: “Cast your bread” (verse 1), “give a portion” (verse 2), “sow your seed” (verse 6), and “withhold not your hand” (verse 6).  Given that we are three thousand years removed from Solomon’s day, plus the fact that very few of us have much firsthand knowledge of an agrarian economy, these words may initially strike us as odd.  But in each case they imply being diligent and discerning in how we invest ourselves and what is ours.

Some commentators believe that “the Preacher” is speaking of showing generosity rather than investing.  That may be the case, and possibly to ambiguity of these verses intentionally allow for both interpretations.

What is most important to see, however, is the uncertainty of outcome associated whenever one “cast(s),” “give(s),” “sow(s),” or does not “withhold.”  Four times within these six verses we are told, “you do not know.”  And isn’t that true?  We can never be certain of outcomes in this life.  There are no “sure things” in terms of investing.

Verses 3 and 4 suggest that certain things in life are predictable, such as rain clouds bringing ran and fallen trees being too heavy to pick up and move.  But, as verse 5 points out, there are other things that are simply beyond human comprehension.  For example, exactly how is it that a baby is formed in a mother’s womb?  Some of us have found explaining that very thing to our children a difficult assignment...much less understanding it ourselves.

Given the variable nature of even the most predictable circumstances, verse 6 implies that a certain degree of “chance” or “risk-taking” is always in play.  I came across these words from an anonymous source recently:

The only constant in life is change; everything else is up in the air. Uncertainty is a natural part of life and something that almost everybody feels on a daily basis. Being uncertain or unsure does not mean that you are lost; it simply means that you are living.

Those of us who believe in the sovereignty of God may give pause at hearing that statement, but when understood from a purely human perspective, we would all likely agree.  Solomon suggests that human effort is futile because the results are never permanent.  In our unpredictable world, “chance” and “risk” are unavoidable, and outcomes are at best uncertain.  Such are the “ground rules” of this present life.

As we move forward into verse 7, we see that Solomon has shifted his focus from the uncertain nature of life to something much more predictable, namely,

The unavoidable pattern of aging and death (11:7-12:8).

There are actually two sub-sections that fall under this heading.

In verses 7 through 10 of chapter 11, we notice that Solomon is making his appeal to a “young man” (perhaps, if not probably, his own son), and encouraging him to live and enjoy life with the understanding that there is a “day of accountability” coming.  He writes,

7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

8 So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

The repeated reference to “youth” is noticeable.  Although the adolescent years can be quite turbulent while going through them, very few of us who have grown older do not look back with some degree of nostalgia and wish we could recover a portion of the energy we expended “way back when.”  How frustrating the inverse relationship between strength and wisdom can be for us at times.

It has been pointed up that Solomon’s advice to the “young man” can be summarized by three words, all beginning with the letter “R.”  In verse 8, he tells him to “remember,” in verse 9 to “rejoice,” and in verse 9 to “remove.”

  • “Remember” that life is short and death is long.
  • “Rejoice” in the days of your youth and enjoy them while you can.
  • “Remove” anger and sorrow from your life.

The reason is because, in the second sub-section beginning with the opening verse of chapter 12, “the days of adversity” (CSV) will come soon enough.  As we read verses 1 through 7, I want you to observe that this is one very long sentence.

[12]:1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;  2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain,  3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed,  4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low--  5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets--  6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern,  7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.  

In our early days of ministry, Terry and I worked with a group of senior adults, who were a constant source of joy and encouragement to us.  Together we shared some wonderful times with them.  She and I were still in our thirties, while most within that group were in the seventies and eighties...one well into her nineties.  It was during a church service in which they were honored that I first preached on this passage.  At the time, I viewed Solomon’s words as lighthearted and gentle.  I see them much differently today, and I take them far more personally.  They describe growing older and no longer having the ability to do what one was once able to do.

Nearly every commentator agrees that this lengthy sentence is a figurative, yet graphic, description of the aging process that—should we live long enough—will in time describe us all.  We are all growing older by the moment...and how quickly those moments add up.  None of us will ever be any younger than we are right now.  Therefore, Solomon’s counsel to “Remember...your Creator” is applicable to us all.  “Before” another day passes, “remember” Him...now!

To “Remember your Creator” certainly implies more than to recall that there is One who has made us.  It surely means to allow that “remembrance” of Him to shape our conduct.  He is, after all, the Author of our being and, thereby, has a complete and absolute claim on our lives.  We are to acknowledge Him by our yielding full allegiance to Him.

Depending on how one counts, there are as many as seventeen descriptive phrases found in verses 3 through 6.  Because the language is highly symbolic, not everyone agrees as to its interpretation.  So, rather than offering a detailed explanation of each phrase mentioned here, it may be more helpful to look at them as a unit.  When we do, we are forced to admit two things about this present life: it is broken and it leads to death.

“The Preacher” provides quite a few examples of what our bodies go through as they age:

  • These arms and hands of ours grow weaker as we grow older.  
  • Our legs move more slowly under the weight they have to support each day.  
  • Our teeth become fewer and require greater attention. 
  • Our eyesight begins to fail.  
  • The older person sleeps lightly and awakens at the slightest sound.  
  • We withdraw from groups of people, preferring to spend more time alone.
  • There is little remaining of the courage and bravado of youth.
  • Our hair begins to turn gray, and then white...if we are able to keep it at all.
  • A little trouble becomes a great weight.
  • Energy is gone, replaced by a perpetual feeling of tiredness.
  • Blood circulation is hindered as the heart grows weak and beats more slowly.
  • We become more and more aware of death and its inevitable arrival.

And that is just the list Solomon has compiled.  It doesn’t include the many television reminders that we are “growing old before our time,” and that we had better go out and buy the latest “anti-aging” product or make an appointment to see our doctor right away.

There was a time—and may still be for some of you—when this discussion seemed remote...applicable to others, perhaps, but certainly not to you.  I assure you, as one who now studies this passage from a different perspective than the one I had more than thirty years ago, that these descriptions are increasingly real.  I used to laugh about the inevitability of aging and boast that I refused to “grow old,” but no longer.  Now my life feels more like the little rhyme that says...

I get up each morning and dust off my wits;
Pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is missing, I know I’m not dead;
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.

Some of us can identify with the one who wrote...

You know you’re getting old when...

...your dreams are all reruns;

...the waitress offers you coffee, tea, or Milk of Magnesia;

...you sit in a rocking chair and can’t get it started;

...everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work;

...a pretty girl prompts your pacemaker to lift the garage door;

...and you sink your teeth into a juicy steak, and they stay there.

Humorous lines, but more truth than fiction.  When we read in verse 7 that “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” we are forced to realize just who we are, what we are made of, and to Whom it is that we are accountable.  What is being described for us here is the common fate of us all.  Is it any wonder that “The Preacher,” sadly refrains in verse 8, “Vanity of vanities...all is vanity.”

But wait!  Is it actually true that life is “meaningless,” “void,” and “empty”?  “Upon further review” all may not be lost after all.  By admitting that “the spirit returns to God,” there is at least given to us the prospect of life beyond the grave.  In fact, these words are reminiscent of Job who, under far more adverse circumstances, struggled to find meaning and purpose to his suffering.  Speaking classically in the midst of his affliction and search for answers, Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).

That brings us to Solomon’s final words.  In these two chapters he has spoken to us about the unpredictable nature of life and the inevitable pattern of aging and death.  Now as he closes this unique book, he takes pains to leave with us a recognition of...

The undeniable value of truth (12:9-14).

Look with me at verses 9 through 14, where he writes,

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.  10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

It has been suggested by some that Solomon did not write this conclusion, and that someone else did.  But I find no support for that argument.  “The Preacher” has referred to himself in the third-person throughout the book, so there is no reason to think that he would not continue that pattern to the end.

Verses 9 and 10 reveal both the manner of his investigative research as well as his purpose in writing.  It was mentioned in an earlier message of this series that Solomon “spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005” (1 Kings 4:32).  It would be an understatement to say that he was a learned man and sought to pass along “wisdom” to those who would come after him.

He found value in the pursuit of truth.  Verse 11 suggests that “truth” prods and provokes a person to follow a “wise” course and to make good decisions in life.  He describes “truthful sayings” as “nails firmly fixed”...permanently attached to the character of those who are “wise.”

David Hubbard has pointed out that “Ours may be the first generation in civilized times that has not raised its young on proverbs.”  He’s probably right, but that certainly wasn’t the case in the home I grew up in.  My mother had a saying fit for nearly every occasion.  It was more on the order of “home-spun advice” than Solomonic “wisdom,” but memorable expressions nonetheless.  Many of her “proverbs” have remained with me to this day.  In fact, to a lesser degree, I have come up with a number of my own.

Benjamin Franklin was noted for his collection of proverbial sayings known as Poor Richard’s Almanack.   A century earlier Blaise Pascal began his own collection of wisdom sayings that were published posthumously under the title Pensées.  But far more reliable than any of those are the wise words of Scripture.  We are told that “They are given by one Shepherd”...the very One to whom Solomon’s father David referred when he wrote, “The LORD is my shepherd” in Psalm 23(:1).

In later years, that same One would be proven to be none other than Jesus Christ.  Jesus even referred to Himself as “the good shepherd” (cf. John 10:14-15), who both knows and is known by those who are His.  It is He, in fact, who surrendered His life for the sake of His own.  Others would call him “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20) who was alive from the dead; and still others “the chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4) who is coming to receive and to reward His Church.

His identity, of course, remained cloaked in a mysterious veil to Solomon...and yet he looked ahead and wrote prophetically of what he was able to see.  In verse 12, he appealed to his “son” to remain fixed on the “truth” as God was progressively revealing it. “Beware of anything beyond these.”  The end of this verse seems to suggest that many other texts and teachings would arise to compete for the attention and allegiance of man.  But, “My son,” do not deviate from the “truth.”

Verses 13 and 14 bring us at last to the summary and conclusion of the book.  “The end of the matter; all has been heard.”  Here it is...hear it carefully: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

To “fear God” is the central concept of the entire Bible.  It is said to be “the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) and “the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).  A reverential awe of God is the foundation of faith itself.   And the deepest expression of humble acceptance of what it means to be a human being before a holy God is to keep His commandments.  And even though this is “the whole duty of man,” there is only One who was and ever will be able to do that perfectly: the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And because there is a “judgment” which awaits—a “judgment” in which “God will (expose) every deed...(with) every secret thing”—“wisdom” requires that you and I live responsibly and accountably now.  But to do that we need the imputed righteousness of Another...namely that of Jesus Christ, the only One who has ever and could ever live sinlessly and fulfill the righteous demands of a holy God.  The very reason for His coming was to redeem us from the curse of sin that had badly marred God’s glorious creation.  Humanity was created by God to image God and to reflect His glory.  Instead man sought to become like God by disobeying Him, and in doing so lost the one thing that had made him truly human.

The writer of Hebrews (9:27) tells us that “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”  You and I don’t like to think about our own death, and yet it is the most certain fact about our existence.

“The Preacher” leaves us pondering this thought.  His message is not complete because he lived before the full light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He saw “afar off,” we might say, and leaves us with lingering questions.  How can God accept us as we are?  What is the explanation for the “vanity” of this life?  On what grounds can he be confident that a future judgment will makes all things right?  Is there not something—Someone—missing?  The missing link is Jesus Christ, the Savior and sin-bearer, so that God can now say that “in Christ (He) was reconciling the world to himself” and He is calling sinners to respond to His offer and “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).

“He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  When the Apostle Paul preached those words, we are told that “some mocked...others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’...and some...believed” (Acts 17:31-32).   What is your response to Him today?


If you recall any Greek mythology from your high school days, then the name Sisyphus may be familiar to you.  He was a legendary king who was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a mountain only then to release it when it neared the top, watch it roll back down the mountain, and repeat the process again...and again... throughout eternity.

With this ancient story in mind, the philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay that he entitled that he entitled The Myth of Sisyphus, wherein he argued for what he called “the philosophy of the absurd.”  Similar to the tone of Ecclesiastes, he wrote of “man’s futile search for meaning...in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternity.”  But unlike Solomon’s conclusion, Camus argued that our response to this reality should be to accept the absurdities of life.  He claimed Sisyphus was the ideal absurd hero and that his punishment is representative of the human condition.  Like Sisyphus, he believed, we too must struggle perpetually without the hope of ever finding success.  As long as we accept that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, therein is found the meaning to life.

In other words, “turn that frown upside down”...“put on a happy face”...or, as some misguided preachers will tell you, “practice the power of ‘positive thinking.’”  And while such notions may have their temporary appeal, they are shallow substitutes for what we learn from God’s Word about the reality of who we are and what we were made for.

The solution is neither to rebel against reality, but rather to embrace ultimate reality.  It is not to deny God, but rather to enter into relationship with Him.  As one pastor recently said, “There is no straight line to happiness; one has to go through—and stay with God—to get there.”  In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Walter Kaiser has written a fitting conclusion to the message of Ecclesiastes:

The purpose of life cannot be found in any of the in any one of the good things found in the world. All the things that we call the “goods” of life—health, riches, possessions, position, sensual pleasures, honors, and prestige—slip through man’s hands unless they are received as a gift from God and until God gives man the ability to enjoy them and obtain satisfaction from them. God gives that ability to those who begin by “fearing,” that is, believing, Him.

Perhaps you observed that the phrase “under the sun” does not appear a single time in these final two chapters, whereas we find it repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.  It has represented that “horizontal” plane along which Solomon has searched for the meaning to life.  But now his gaze is being lifted upward to a higher plane.  It is to that perspective that God calls us.  And when we respond, we discover that the beauty of life “under the sun” is only experienced only when it is being directed by the One who is the Son (S-o-n).

The mundane march through this passing world becomes a dance of eternal significance when it is lived to the glory of God and to the satisfaction of our souls. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father, “that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3).

Whatever you think it is that you are searching for in terms of giving meaning and purpose to your life, I assure you, can only be found by that One whose “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)...the One who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is (now) seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). 

Knowing Jesus Christ not only adds meaning to our lives.  He is the meaning to life, and it was for His glory that you were created.  If you are living for anything or anyone else, you have deviated from the path that leads you to the path and the purpose He has marked out for you.  May the Word of God resonate within our hearts and accomplish its intended purpose with each of us today

More in Ecclesiastes: The Search for Meaning

July 22, 2018

The Futility of Human Wisdom

July 15, 2018

The Futility of Human Achievement

July 8, 2018

The Futility of Human Endeavor

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