Making the Most of Life
(Ecclesiastes 11:7-Ecclesiastes 12)
By David Feddes
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
There’s an old saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Why is that? Why does it look so much more appealing to be in some other situation than the one you’re in? Well, the answer is simple. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence because the grass on the other side of the fence isn’t grass at all; it’s artificial turf. It looks greener than green, but it’s not real. A cow that leaves its grassy pasture for that greener-than-green carpet across the fence will end up with a mouthful of plastic and a big bellyache. One of the surest ways to miss out on happiness is to be so busy looking across the fence at unreal fantasies that you never enjoy what’s right under your nose.
For some of us, the other side of the fence is the future. We’re waiting for some future event to make us happy. If you’re a student, you may tell yourself, “Life isn’t much fun right now, but once I graduate and spread my wings, then I’ll be happy.” But once you finish school, you say, “I’m not very happy yet—but I will be if only I meet the right person and fall in love.” Once you’re married, you say, “I’m not happy, but I will be once I get a better job and a nicer house.” Once you have the house and the job, you say, “I’m too busy to really enjoy life, but once the kids move out and I retire, I’ll relax and have a good time and enjoy life.” And once you retire, you find that the green grass of the golf course isn’t enough to make you truly happy.
Then you start having more and more health problems, and you find yourself going to more and more funerals of friends and relatives, and you find that you’re no longer waiting for some future change to make you happy. Now the other side of the fence is the past. Now you’re looking back to the good old days: “If only I could be young again! If only I could go back to those carefree school days when life was so much simpler! If only I could have that thrill of first love all over again! If only the children were small again—they were so cute back then! If only I could have a job instead of being retired and useless!” And so it goes. We spend much of life living for a future that won’t make us as happy as we think, and we spend the rest of our life longing for a past that wasn’t as happy as we now imagine it was.
Instead of always looking ahead or looking back, try looking up! Focus on God. Trust him. You can’t find satisfaction chewing artificial turf. But when you look to the Lord Jesus and trust him as your Good Shepherd, he makes you to lie down in green pastures and fills you to overflowing. The Bible book of Ecclesiastes shows over and over that unless God fills us, we’re bound to be restless and empty. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher’s last word, is an appeal to relish life as God’s gift and to base everything on a relationship to the Lord.
Enjoying the Gift
The Teacher begins his closing statement by saying what a gift life is. Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 says, “Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all.” In other words, be positive! Don’t waste your life worrying: “What if my grades aren’t good enough? What if I can’t find a good job? What if I can’t find the right person to marry?” What if, what if, what if! What if you stopped worrying over all those what ifs? What if you simply notice how sweet and pleasant life can be and decide to enjoy each moment as God’s gift?
If you’re in your prime, enjoy the energy and drive that you have. And even if you’re older, enjoy whatever health and zest for life you still have. I’ve known people in their mid-eighties who went on overseas trips and did other exciting things, even though some people told them they were too old to handle it. If your body tells you you’re too old to do certain things, fine—live within your limits. But don’t let other people or society tell you when you’re too old to relish life. Use your time to really live; don’t just sit around trying not to die.
Be positive—but also be realistic. “However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all, but let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.” Children sometimes wish it could always be Christmas, or always their birthday. They wish their favorite moments would never end. Sometimes grownup think that way too. But that’s not how life works. Every good thing comes to an end. After sunshine come days of darkness. A moment ago we saw that you shouldn’t be so worried about bad times that you can’t enjoy the good times, but neither should you be so wrapped up in the good times that you’re not ready for the bad times when they come. Be realistic.
The next word of advice: Be free! Ecclesiastes says, “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see” (11:9). Be free! Be yourself! Some people may pressure you to be prim and proper and boring; others may pressure you to be stupid and self-destructive by smoking or drinking or doing drugs. You may feel pressure to get A’s in school like your sister, or to go into the same line of work as your father, or to make as much money as a couple down the street, or to do your job exactly the same way as the person who held the position before you. But if you live to meet all those expectations, you won’t really live, and you won’t really be you! You’ll just be a hodgepodge of other people’s projections. Follow your heart. Be the person you’re created to be. Be free!
Does that mean anything goes? No, be happy and follow the ways of your heart, says Ecclesiastes, “but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (11:9) In other words, be accountable. Have fun—but make sure it’s godly fun. Use your energy and enthusiasm to enjoy God’s gift of life, not to misuse it. You don’t have to answer to all the self-appointed judges who try to run your life, but you do have to answer to one Judge: the Lord God himself. Don’t think you can sow your wild oats and then hope for crop failure. Be accountable.
“So then,” adds Ecclesiastes, “banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless” (11:10). The word which our English Bibles translate as “meaningless” or “vanity” appears often in Ecclesiastes. In the original Hebrew, it simply means “vapor” or “mist.” Life is a mist. It lasts a short while, then it melts away. So enjoy the gift of life and health while you can; don’t make yourself miserable if you don’t have to. Let God’s peace rule in your heart, and treat your body as a temple for his Holy Spirit.
From Youth to Old Age
Indeed, says Ecclesiastes, make it your number one priority in life to focus on the Lord—and do it while your body is still strong and your mind is still clear and your life is still enjoyable. You may think faith is mainly for old people. But the Bible appeals over and over to people who are young and in their prime, because faith is a challenging, exciting adventure that occupies all of your energy. Aged people need the Lord too, of course, but even they are best able to handle old age if their relationship with God started way back in their youth. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes, chapter 12, opens with these words:
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 men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire is no longer stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets. Remember him—before the silver cord is severed or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or 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. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!” (12:1-8)
The years of old age and approaching death can be very hard. Things keep getting darker. The storms of life seem to block out the light. Just when one storm ends, “the clouds return after the rain,” and another storm starts. Just when you’ve made it through one health problem, another starts. Just when you’ve buried one loved one, another one dies. When you were younger, you perhaps went to a funeral here or there, but now it seems everybody’s dying. Your generation is vanishing, and your own health isn’t getting any better.
It’s hard to endure what aging does to your body. “The keepers of the house tremble”: your hands become unsteady and shaky. “The strong men stoop”: your sturdy shoulders hunch over, and your straight, muscular legs become scrawny and bent. “The grinders cease because they are few”: you lose teeth and you can’t chew your food very well. “Those looking through the windows grow dim”: your eyesight gets worse and worse. “The doors to the street are closed”: you don’t get out much any more. “The sound of grinding fades”: you become hard of hearing. “Men rise up at the sound of birds”: even though you’re almost deaf, the slightest chirp wakes you up; you can’t get a good night’s sleep. “Their songs grow faint”: your voice, once strong and clear, now quivers and cracks; you can’t speak out or sing on pitch like you once could. “Men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets”: you once loved excitement and risks; now you’re fearful. “The almond tree blossoms:” your hair—if you still have any—blossoms into whiteness. “The grasshopper drags himself along”: you used to hop energetically from here to there and bound up steps two or three at a time; now you shuffle along, barely lifting your feet, hoping you won’t fall and break something. “Desire is no longer stirred”: your bodily appetites shrivel to nothing.
Technology tries to deal with some of these problems. For toothlessness, there are dentures. For failing eyesight, there are bifocals and trifocals and cataract surgeries. For hearing loss, there are hearing aids. For sleeplessness, there are pills. For worn-out knees and hips, there are joint replacements.
Technology can relieve some problems, and people today are living longer than earlier generations, but that doesn’t change the fact that the final phase of life is still hard, and it doesn’t change the fact that no matter how long you live, the time still comes when you must die. You’re either going to get old and die, or else you’re going to die young. It’s that simple.
Ready to Die
Ecclesiastes speaks of a gold-plated lamp hanging from a silver cord or chain—precious but fragile. All it takes for the lamp’s golden bowl to be smashed to pieces is for just one link in the chain to snap. So, too, all it takes for the precious and fragile gift of life to be smashed and snuffed out is for just a single blood vessel to snap in a brain aneurism, or for a single organ to become cancerous.
Or think in terms of a well. Each day the well’s mechanism does its job and cranks out the water of life—and then one day it falls to pieces. The pitcher is shattered, the wheel that controlled the rope is broken, and there’s no way to get more water. Once the well stops working, everything turns to dust. So too, once the heart stops pumping blood, the body turns back to dust. “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
In light of all this, says Ecclesiastes, remember your Creator when you’re young. If you know your Creator and have a living relationship with Jesus Christ, he blesses your younger years by giving you a joy and purpose to channel your vitality and energy, and he blesses your last years by giving you inner strength to sustain you when your body starts to fail. As the apostle Paul once put it, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day… we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven” (2 Corinthians 4:16, 5:1).
Do you have that kind of faith? Do you believe in Jesus? Are you being inwardly renewed? Do you have that assurance of heaven? If so, you can face death like the Christian poet who wrote:
Some day the silver cord will break,
and I no more as now shall sing.
But oh! the joy when I shall wake
within the palace of the king.
And I shall see him face to face,
and tell the story: saved by grace.
I pray that you can echo those words.
If not, then I urge you: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”—and if you’re not a youth anymore, remember him anyway, because you’re not getting any younger. Fix your mind on him while you still have a mind. Entrust your life to him while you still have a life. Remember your Creator—or your life will be a waste and your death a disaster.
Human Genius, Divine Revelation
But why should you believe all this? How do you know it’s true? The Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes (probably King Solomon) gives two reasons to believe his words and take them to heart. One is simply his own brilliance. According to Ecclesiastes 12:9-10, “Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” Some people know a lot, but they can’t quite put it into words; others are good with words, but they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re dishonest. The Teacher, however, had both: he had tremendous knowledge, and he also had an amazing way with words. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Ecclesiastes is lightning. The author had such a brilliant mind, such a vast range of experience and learning, such a skill for choosing just the right words, and such an unwavering commitment to telling the truth, that only a fool would ignore what he says.
But there’s a second reason to take Ecclesiastes to heart: these are more than just the words of a human genius; they are words given by God himself. Verse 11 says, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.” That Shepherd is none other than the Good Shepherd himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. The message of Ecclesiastes is God’s message. Like the rest of the Bible, the words of Ecclesiastes are goads that jab and jolt us out of thoughtless complacency and drive us toward God. At the same time, these words are firmly embedded nails that fasten things in place. God’s Word in the Bible provides assurance and certainty; Scripture nails down the truths we need to know.
No other words can compare to words from God. Ecclesiastes says, “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.” Don’t listen to anything that contradicts the Bible or that claims to go beyond it. The Bible is God’s last word on why we’re alive; it’s God’s last word on what happens after we die; and it’s absolutely trustworthy. As for all the other books out there, be careful. Be careful that they don’t lead you into error, and be careful that the sheer amount of information doesn’t distract you or wear you out.
“Of making many books there is no end,” says Ecclesiastes 12:12, “and much study wearies the body.” Now, if there were already so many books back in those days of clay tablets and handwritten scrolls, what about now? With our flood of books, newspapers, magazines, radios, televisions, and computers, there is truly no end to information and opinions. Trying to keep track of it all will wear you out. There comes a time to put down the books and newspapers, turn off the TV and radio, set aside the homework, shut down the computer, silence the phone, and pay attention to what matters most. Make space in your life for God’s Word. Don’t let the other stuff distract you.
The writer of Ecclesiastes urges us not to ignore his message, and then, just in case we somehow missed the main point of that message, he closes his book with a short, blunt, no-nonsense summary of what it’s all about. “Now all has been heard,” writes the Teacher, “here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
The original Hebrew puts it even more strongly than the translation. The original doesn’t say, “This is the whole duty of man.” It simply says, “For this is the whole of man.” That’s it. That’s what it means to be truly human: to have a relationship with God that shapes our attitude and directs our actions. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man.”
The poet George Herbert captures the thrust of Ecclesiastes in one of his poems. Herbert says that when God first made man, he had a glass of blessings standing by. From that glass God poured one blessing after another: strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasure. When he had poured out almost the whole glass, God stopped. At the very bottom of the glass lay one last blessing, the blessing of rest—contentment, satisfaction. The Lord decided not to pour that gift with all the others, but to hold it back. For if man found restful contentment in God’s gifts, he would adore the gifts and not God the Giver. So God let him keep all the other riches, but he left man restless. That way, even if goodness wouldn’t lead him to God, restlessness and weariness and emptiness would toss him into God’s arms.
Ecclesiastes is all about that restlessness, that weariness, that emptiness, and how God uses it to hurl us back toward him. God has put eternity in our hearts, says Ecclesiastes, and we find joy and satisfaction only in the eternal God and in eternal life through Jesus. So fear God and keep his commandments—revere God in Christ as the supreme reality of your life, and do what he says. That is the whole of man.
Ultimately, what’s at stake isn’t just whether you’ll be satisfied or empty in this life. What’s at stake is how you’ll spend eternity. “For,” says Ecclesiastes, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
When the Judge pours out his wrath on the wicked, the frustrations and restlessness of this life, and even the pains and problems of aging, will seem trivial compared to the unending horror of an eternity without God in hell.
On the other hand, when the Judge pours out his favor on those who trust Jesus and obey his teaching, the joys and pleasures of this life will seem a passing vapor compared to the indescribable, unending joy of eternity with Christ in heaven.
So remember your Creator now. Trust Jesus as your Savior now. Fear God and keep his commandments now. “Now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation.” Please join me in praying the marvelous words of an old hymn:
O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,
Thou fount of life, Thou light of men,
From fullest bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to Thee again.
Thy truth unchanged has ever stood,
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee, Thou are good,
To them that find Thee, all in all.
Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Where’er our changeful lot is cast,
Glad that Thy gracious smile we see,
Blest, that our faith can hold Thee fast.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.