Ecclesiastes 12 – The Sum of Wisdom

Discussion question:

What difference does knowing Jesus make?

Read Ecclesiastes 12

Context

We are in the final Chapter of Ecclesiastes. The book opened with the Teacher introduced (nameless) and then his resolve to test everything under the sun and come to a conclusion. His endeavour has been to find comprehension of everything. He hoped to find meaning. His conclusion is: meaningless! Everything is utterly meaningless. The book has explored the corners of knowledge that he went to in order to see that his conclusion is logical.

But we’ve seen along the way, as receivers of the full book of God that he does not have the whole picture. We see Jesus and Jesus has shown us the hope for the future – a life beyond this life under the sun.

The Teacher has talked about the toil of labour and the certainty of death and how we cannot know what goes on after us. But we have more knowledge of the future than he does. We know the resurrection and the promise of eternity without toil. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has taken us so far, but the Ultimate Teacher has taken us to the end and beyond.

Chapter 11 ended with the advice to enjoy life while it lasts but ‘know that God will bring you into judgement’.

Observation

Structure

  • 1-7 Remember your Creator
    • In your youth (1)
    • Before old age (2-5)
    • Before death (6)
  • 8 End of the Teacher’s message
  • 9-14 Regarding the Teacher

1-7 Remember your Creator

Verses 1-7 bring the Teachers teachings to an end with a poem about the fear of the Lord. In all of the meaningless toil under the sun, do whatever you want (see Chapter 11) but be mindful that God will bring everything to account. This is the motive behind these Verses in Chapter 12 now.

In your youth (1)

“…in the days of your youth…” When you are young and full of vigor (11:10). These are days classed by the Teacher as able to enjoy the good things of this life.

“…before the days of trouble come…” He speaks of aging. The inevitable process of diminishing enjoyment !? Rather than the trouble being about enemies or world disasters, it is the universal experience of aging. The final phrase in Verse 1 gives us this insight. ‘When you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”. The ‘before’ in this Verse is echoed again in Verse 2 and 6 thus the breakdown of the poem.

Before old age (2-5)

“Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark…” Verse 2 picture everything gloomy like a persistent overcast day/evening. Not bright lights and beauty but veiled by cloud and perhaps even sight. The sun, moon and stars appear a number of times together in the bible to demonstrate the glory and power of God. When they are darkened in Revelation 8:12 they coincide with the trials of humanity (ie, life on earth under the curse). I am not intending to draw a direct line to Ecclesiastes 12 but it is worth listening out in the bible for familiar phrases. The poetry of Ecc 12 is pointing us to the end of life that is, according to the Teacher, full of trouble.

“…the keepers of the house tremble…the strong men…” Verses 2-5 provide poetic imagery of old age. It is best to soak in the poetry rather than having each phrase decoded. The grinders is literally a grinding mill where grain is ground into flour but is perhaps a metaphor for the grinding of teeth and the teeth are wearing out. The whole picture is of an aging house and the interaction with the world is becoming scary and faded. The grasshopper no longer has spring in its legs to get to the blossoming tree.

“Then people go to their eternal home…” There is a destiny after death which is final but not described. Life goes on after the dead are buried.

Before death (6-7)

“Remember him before…” It is too late to consider God after the grave. The poetry of Verses 6 and 7 are of things that once shined and worked that are broken.

“…the dust returns to the ground…” A recalling of Genesis 3:19.

“…the spirit returns to God who gave it.” There is a salute to humans being more than just dust or animals. See Ecc 3:21. Does the Teacher know what goes on beyond the grave?

8 End of the Teacher’s message

“Meaningless!” Empty. Futile. Misty. The curtain closes on the life of a person and that’s all folks. The final act is not thrilling. The conclusion is not inspiring. What does the editor of this book, Ecclesiastes, say about the teacher…

9-14 Regarding the Teacher

“Not only was the Teacher wise…” The voice we hear now is not the Teacher but the compiler of this piece. 

“…but he also imparted knowledge to the people.” This analysis of the Teacher was shared with others. He voiced his understanding so that others would benefit. The Teacher would want others to grasp some understanding without the need to do the hard work of investigating.

“…the right words…upright and true.” The statements of Verses 9 and 10 simply state that the Teacher intended to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was to be considered, prepared and delivered with meaning. This is a good statement about the whole bible. But has he been successful on another front: helpful.

“…like goads…like firmly embedded nails…” The goad is a long stick with a pointy end used to push an animal in the direction you need them to go. The words of the Teacher are intended to push us and are fixed in place. They are not to be trifled with. They are not whimsical words but words of instruction, teaching and warning.

“…given by one shepherd.” It is not conclusive to declare this shepherd as the LORD. The rulers and elders of Israel were referred to as the shepherds of Israel. The book named the Teacher as the king in Jerusalem. This book contains the wisdom of one such king over Israel. But the book begins and ends with ambiguity about the teacher. While he is a king in Israel and a son of David, which one? And while he is described as the one shepherd, is he really speaking the full wisdom of God in this book? Or is the book proclaiming the best an earthly shepherd of Israel can do? The One True Shepherd is Jesus. He does not use a goad to direct us but his words (John 10:27).

“Of making many books there is no end…” The weariness of knowledge is reminiscent of Ecc 1:18.

“…all has been heard; here is the conclusion…” The conclusion from all that has been said is this: “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” This statement certainly comes from all that the Teacher has said. He has shown depression, frustration, limitation, exhaustion, beauty and humility but has consistently remembered the judgment of God and never questioned His authority. Keeping the commandments has not been clear from the Teacher. Fear God, yes, but keeping God’s commandments is a new feature in this book! 

“For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” How does that feel as an end to the book? The Teacher has certainly instructed us to beware of God’s judgment and that He will judge us according to what has been done. This very chapter has been a call to remember the Lord before your life fades away. This final statement is to be applied to all humanity, even the king in Israel. With his mission to explore everything and not withhold from himself anything that his eye desires. There is only one king and wise person under God who will stand up to the benchmark of full righteousness.

Suggested questions for running this study.

Q1. Chapter 12 begins with a poem (carried over from the last chapter). Take time to soak in the imagery. What is the Teacher describing?

Q2. Verse 8 closes the instructions from the Teacher in a similar way to its beginning in Chapter 1 Verse 2. Do you have a fuller sense of what he means after finishing his observations?

Q3. How is the Teacher described in Verses 9-11? Has he been a good Teacher? Discuss.

Q4. How does the compiler of this book summarise the teaching in Verses 13 to 14? Is it a good summary?

Q5.  Use Ephesians 5:1-20 to critique the conclusion of the book (Ecc 12:13-14) as well as the method the Teacher has used to get us there. You may like to use the Application section to flesh this out.

Meaning

The Teacher has served us well in highlighting the limits of life under the sun while calling on us to remember the Lord. The brightness of this life will fade for all but the wise person will keep their minds attentive to God. This has been the Teacher’s goal. The life we live is meaningless as it cannot be captured and kept. But the eternal home for us all will be decided by the judgment of God. This conclusion is right and true. No further study will reverse it. But a future king can bring the matter to an assured end. Life in Christ is full of meaning. The shadows of this world will give way to the brighter glory of eternity. Wisdom comes from listening to the words of the True Shepherd who does not direct us with a goad but by his voice.

Application

Challenge#1 The goad of the gospel

Ephesians 5:1-2 talk of following God’s example in Jesus. This Good Shepherd does not poke us with a stick but gave himself up for us. We are directed to walk in love. Fear gives way to joy as we understand the love that God has for us. This takes the ignorance of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and gives us certainty of forgiveness when we listen to the voice of the One Shepherd.

Challenge#2 Find out what pleases the Lord

Rather than seeing what can be done and finding joy in this life under the sun, Ephesians 5:10 challenges us to find out what pleases the Lord. The answer is not about following the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see! (Ecc 11:9). The fear of the Lord is not merely the keeping of the commandments but it is relational. Wisdom is about comprehending the days that we are in and living accordingly. The sun is setting on this world and so investing in eternity is wisdom.

Challenge#3 Live wisely

Ephesians 5:15-20 challenges us to be single minded in our walk in this world. ‘Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything…’ That is a commitment to seeing this world through the lens of God the Father and through Christ. Life is a gift from God. That was taught to us by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. So living life with a thankful heart but also a thankful mouth. This world has meaning – to live life through Christ and bring glory to God through Him.