The Good Old Ways
Please read Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8 in your Bible. I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.
Classic One-Liners About Age
* Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving. Author Unknown
* I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes. Andy Rooney
* When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of algebra. Will Rogers
* I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.
* Whatever you may look like, marry a man your own age — as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight. Phyllis Diller
He’s so old that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.
* When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick. George Burns
* You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.
* It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen
This morning I want to draw particular attention to our summary statement:
God gives joys and trials at every stage of life.
The paradoxical thing about that statement is that while it true that joy is a gift, it is also a pursuit. This is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wants us to understand. It’s not enough to wait around for joy to fall on you, each of us is to pursue the things that are God-given sources of joy. Effort and intention are necessary for experiences of joy.
We need to also acknowledge the other half of that sentence. Trials are also gifts from God. They hurt in varying degrees, but are also rich resources, deep wells of experience that train us much better than joyous experiences do. Trials help us mature graciously. We’re not to simply grow old, but our aim is to grow in our spiritual maturity as we age. Age and maturity aren’t necessarily the same thing.
To help in that line, I want us to take a look at a passage from the OT book of Ecclesiastes. The author of this book identifies himself only as “the Preacher,” so that is how we will refer to him. Let’s look together at the Preacher’s comments on aging and see if our thesis holds true.
1. Let all ages enjoy life (11:7-8).
Given the cloudy, wet weather we’ve endured lately, we can appreciate the statement in v. 7; LIGHT IS SWEET. It is true of all people - to one degree or another - we need sunlight. Extensive deprivation causes low energy, depression, etc. The phrase IT PLEASES THE EYES TO SEE THE SUN is a description of human nature, as is the majority of this passage.
LIGHT is a metaphor of youth and the joys the young can enjoy more fully than the aged; it is SWEET. LIGHT also stands in contrast with the DAYS OF DARKNESS in verse eight.
The LIGHT-DARKNESS contrast is also a symbol of how human life can progress. The Preacher looks at youth (the LIGHT years) from a wistful perspective and here catalogs all that age has taken from him in the “dark” years.
The point/counterpoint of LIGHT and DARKNESS reminds us to be temperate; to not be too attached to either the joyous or sorrowful moments. We need to avoid being defined by our best days or our worst ones.
Verse eight brings a mix of good and bad news, mostly bad. That’s how Ecclesiastes often seems to us; a surplus of bad news.
The good news is that all ages are called to joy. However long life lasts, make your days a pursuit of joy even as you overcome trials.
The bad news is that we experience DAYS OF DARKNESS. To REMEMBER this fact is to keep our perspective in balance. The pursuit of joy is not to consume every conscious thought, nor is it supposed to take us in the paths of evil. The Preacher warns us there will be MANY DAYS OF DARKNESS. This is realism, not pessimism, though the Preacher goes back and forth across that line throughout this book.
2. Let the young be happy but mindful life ends with JUDGMENT (11:9-10; 12:1).
The Preacher gave five reasons to go ahead and enjoy our youth. These are not a license to do sinful or stupid things, but a recognition that it is wise to store up a trove of joy in your heart and memory, especially while you are young. These memories will help you get through DARK days.
The first four reasons are quite obvious and need no commentary:
LET YOUR HEART GIVE YOU JOY.
FOLLOW THE WAYS OF YOUR HEART.
BANISH ANXIETY FROM YOUR HEART.
The fifth, however, requires a little explanation. CAST OFF THE TROUBLES OF YOUR BODY means to not allow any weakness of body to inhibit the flight of your spirit and mind. Be ambitious in ways that go around your physical limitations.
The Preacher listed three things to keep in mind during good times. The first is to remember GOD WILL BRING YOU TO JUDGMENT (3:17; 9:1; 11:9; 12:14). Choices always have consequences.
On one hand, consequences are one of the primary means for parents to train children and our heavenly Father to train all of us. The person who remembers this will avoid sinful behavior. On the other hand, it is a virtue to seek joy. A 3rd century rabbi named Rab commented, “Man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy.” It is a sin to ignore God’s blessings. What’s called for here is a balanced perspective, one that tempers both joy and sorrow.
The second is to realize YOUTH & VIGOR ARE MEANINGLESS. Young people can feel “10’ tall & bulletproof,” but life has a habit of disabusing us of such illusions. The optimism and vitality of youth do not, by themselves, create anything of eternal value.
The third is to REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR. Be appropriately grateful for your life and don’t abuse it or give it up.
In this passage there are three times (11:8+10; 12:8) the Preacher reminds us the things of the world are MEANINGLESS. We know how that word feels, we also need to know what it meant. In Ecclesiastes, MEANINGLESS means “a fleeting breath.” It is also translated as “vanity” because it is temporary, not eternal. It is subject to frustration because it is worldly, not heavenly.
The Preacher used the word repeatedly. It was his verdict on the things of this life; the sum of his experiences and the conclusion of his thinking. In chapter twelve, the Preacher examines how the physical and mental limitations sometimes imposed by age can frustrate us. Better to make all the progress in spirituality we can before the limitations of advanced age make it harder.
3. Let the aged be remembered (12:1-8).
Old age is a serious subject, referred to here as THE DAYS OF TROUBLE. Even so, the Preacher approaches it with a sense of humor that is expressed in eleven clever metaphors of troubles that are typical to the aged. The preface to the word pictures is a statement that sums up our feelings about the DAYS OF DARKNESS: “I FIND NO PLEASURE IN THEM.” There are a number of different ways to interpret these word pictures; what I offer are examples; they’re not being offered as exclusive definitions. One other caveat: not all aged persons experience all these symptoms and modern medicine has invented several ways to relieve these typical limitations brought on by aging.
One = SUN, LIGHT, MOON, STARS GO DARK, CLOUDS RETURN AFTER THE RAIN (2) and LOOKING THROUGH THE WINDOWS GROWS DIM (3) refer to a gradual loss of vision. Or they may refer to the passing of the seasons and how the weather becomes progressively more difficult to live with: spring is easy, winter hard.
Two = THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (legs) TREMBLE and STRONG MEN (arms) STOOP (3) remind us of how weak limbs and stooping are stereotypes of aging.
Three = GRINDERS CEASE BECAUSE THEY ARE FEW (3) references loss of teeth. Oy, am I there! My dentist wants me to put all my money where my mouth is!
Four = DOORS TO THE STREET ARE CLOSED (4) notes how some old folks come to prefer solitude to socializing; the repeated loss of family and friends can have that effect on a person. Also, diminished senses of sight and hearing can leave a person feeling left out of conversations and understandably less interested in being among people, especially large groups of them.
Five = THE SOUND OF GRINDING FADES AND SONGS GROW FAINT (4) describe a gradual loss of hearing.
Six = MEN RISE AT THE SOUND OF BIRDS (4) is akin to our phrase “up with t chickens,” which is a vestigial habit of rising early, being trained to rise at a certain hour all our working years. This may also imply a problem with insomnia, more common among the aged than the young.
Seven = AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND DANGERS IN THE STREETS (5) looks to the added intensity of fear among the aged. Of course, people of all ages feel anxiety but it more often comes with advancing age because repeated experiences of trials can make us feel wary. Worse, a symptom of dementia and other mental illness is unfounded fears.
Eight = THE ALMOND TREE BLOSSOMS (5) are white, like an aged person’s hair. “Snow on the roof” is a modern expression observing the same phenomena in a polite expression.
Nine = THE GRASSHOPPER DRAGS HIMSELF ALONG (5). We’ve all seen how bugs get sluggish when the weather turns cold. We’ve also seen how arthritis and other illnesses typical to the aged can slow folks down.
Ten = DESIRE IS NO LONGER STIRRED (5) at varying ages, libido is trumped by the need/desire for a good night’s sleep. More broadly, the passions of youth typically give way to a more deliberate and temperate emotional nature as we mature.
Eleven = MAN GOES TO HIS ETERNAL HOME AND MOURNERS GO ABOUT THE STREETS (5) refers to the end of life. The culture of the day required wailing and expressions of grief most of us would consider extreme. In fact, by Jesus’ time, people would earn a living as professional mourners, performing these dramatic acts of mourning so the busy family members could get on with their daily routines!
In light of the DAYS OF DARKNESS, the young are to REMEMBER the aged. “Remembering” means to attend to the aged and honor them in their troubles. The young are to REMEMBER HIM (the aged) BEFORE death occurs, for death is inevitable and irreversible. We are given six word pictures of death here.
One, THE SLIVER CORD IS SEVERED. This CORD held up an oil lamp. Once severed, the lamp would crash to the floor and break.
Two, THE GOLDEN BOWL IS SHATTERED; a broken lamp will no longer give light to the room.
Three, THE PITCHER IS SHATTERED. A broken pitcher is of no use in carrying water.
Four, THE WHEEL IS BROKEN. If the pulley used to draw water from the well breaks, getting water has become much more difficult.
Five, THE DUST RETURNS TO THE GROUND refers to the creation of Adam from dust and to the decomposition of a body when buried (3:18-21).
Six, THE SPIRIT RETURNS TO GOD reminds us that life itself is a gift from God. God alone determines birth and death; all life is His to command. This is more reason to keep our focus on Him.
As serious as they are, the trials of the aged are also MEANINGLESS. That is, they are temporary. The only parts of life that endure are the maturity created in the person and the good works we do.
When reading Ecclesiastes, we need to keep in mind that it belongs to a kind of revelation called “wisdom literature.” The writer did not claim to be a prophet, but used reasoning to persuade his reader to a godly perspective. He did not wield the authority of “thus says the LORD,” but instead asks, “What do you think about this?”
We should also remember that all parts of Scripture interpret one another. No single verse or section stands alone to support doctrine. Instead, our most central beliefs are woven together from the strands of many scriptures.
All that to say this: don’t neglect reading Ecclesiastes because it seems negative. The Preacher’s observations are included in the Bible to help us form a rational basis for our faith and to weave together personal experience and divine revelation.
When you come down to it, this passage is a matter of time. In the life span of a human being, we reach the height of our power when ability is at its peak, matched by the breadth of opportunity.
In this case, the Preacher’s observations lend support to our belief that God gives joys and trials at every stage of life. If we believe God is in charge, then we must accept this essential truth. The alternatives are to blame the devil for all trials (not true), or to blame randomness (not true).
With God in charge, every experience has some meaning that transcends the moment and offers us at least one lesson to be learned for the deepening of our maturity. When we believe God is in charge, we understand that everything He does is motivated by love and that it will all work out for good. If we believe anything else, then the situation is really more hopeless than anything the Preacher described in Ecclesiastes. Faith in God is the only choice that offers hope for the future and gives meaning to our past and present.