The end of the matter

May 2005    


Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

EVERY preacher would know that conclusions to sermons are just as important as introductions, if not even more so.

The Preacher has in this book traversed a difficult and treacherous path which demands unconditional honesty on the one hand, and which is riddled with mysteries and paradoxes on the other. The journey has led him to conclude that the approaches taken by secularists and nihilists, those who say that there is no God and those who are sceptical that human life is infused with meaning, are thoroughly impoverished.

“Life under the sun”, as he calls it, is in the final analysis a life stripped of meaning; it is, to use the Preacher’s words, vanity.

The secularist who appears to be enjoying his life, and who behaves as though he does not have a care in the world is, in the jargon of psychologists and counsellors, “in denial”. He is in a double bind: by denying transcendence, he robs himself of life’s meaning, and by denying the spiritual poverty of his position, he is wallowing in the mud of self-delusion.

The nihilist is not in a more advantageous position than the secularist, for, having already rejected the existence of God – which is nothing short of rejecting God – he now plunges into the turbulent ocean of despair. Life and human existence is meaningless, and the brief life that we possess will end up in death, our total disintegration. Thus all our aspirations, ideals and accomplishments will end in nothing – they will vanish into thin air with our deaths, and even the memories of them will not linger for very long.

Nihilism chides even the liberal idea of humanity and human freedom that have in some sense fathered it. For even if what William Ernest Henley, in his famous poem “Invictus” says about human freedom is true, even if “I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul”, what good is this if in the end all that we are will come to nought?

The nihilist creed is famously and eloquently expressed by Britain’s most celebrated atheist philosopher of the last century, Bertrand Russell, thus: “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark.” If only annihilation awaits us in the end, our temporal accomplishments are surely meaningless.

But even believers who do not subscribe to flaccid and escapist philosophies like these are confronted with life’s mysteries and paradoxes, and the Preacher has spared no effort in helping his readers confront this. He ends his speech with the section, which we looked at last week, in which he exhorts his readers to remember God their
Creator. From 12:9 a narrator takes over, summarising what has gone before by describing the Preacher’s quest. And in the last two verses (13 and 14), the narrator emphatically underscores the point which the Preacher was trying to bring out in his complex discourse so that there can be no room for misunderstanding.

‘In good times as well as in bad, the believer celebrates life as a gift from God. In joy or in sorrow, the believer will live his life with humility and in gratitude, always in the fear of the Lord and in obedience to His Word. And in every circumstance the believer can find meaning because he knows that God has not abandoned him.’

In Hebrew, the first sentence of this passage (i.e., v 13) is abrupt, calling the reader to pay attention to what will be said in verses 13b-14, for it is the essence of the message of the Preacher. The sentences that follow are brief and to the point, and they employ keys words and concepts that the Preacher has been using throughout the
book to summarise his message.

The first injunction in the final two sentences of the book of Ecclesiastes is to “fear God”. The Preacher has issued this injunction several times in the book (3:14; 5:6; 7:18; 8:12), but here, at the end, the narrator makes sure that it is stated clearly and unambiguously.

To fear God is simply to honour, respect and worship Him, that is, to recognise Him as God of the universe and
Lord over our lives. Fearing God is the duty of rational creatures because they owe their very existence to Him, and in the end, they will have to stand before God as their Judge.

By this emphasis, the narrator, echoing the Preacher, is also stressing that in the end it is God who we must fear – not fate, not chance, not calamities, not human beings, not rulers and kings, but God. The fear of God is embodied in a life of obedience, for the two injunctions in verse 13 are of a piece and cannot be separated.

The creature, made in God’s image, has a special relationship with his Creator. It is a relationship based on call and response: God calls His rational creature to acknowledge Him as Creator and Lord, and the latter responds in obedience and respect.

Part of what it means to fear the Lord is to accept life itself as a gift. The secularist who rejects the notion of life as a gift, and who treats it as something he can control and shape in the end mocks God, the Giver of life. In the same way, the nihilist who embraces despair and who curses life itself blasphemes against the God who is the Source of all life.

The believer is different, for he knows that his every breath and everything that he is able to accomplish and enjoy are special graces that come from God. And even when confronted with suffering, tragedy and pain that are wrapped up with this fallen reality, the believer is able to put his trust in God in the firm knowledge that He has everything within His sovereign control.

In good times as well as in bad, the believer celebrates life as a gift from God. In joy or in sorrow, the believer will live his life with humility and in gratitude, always in the fear of the Lord and in obedience to His Word.

And in every circumstance the believer can find meaning because he knows that God has not abandoned him. Life and all its various events and circumstances become for believers “sacramental” in that in them they experience the real presence of God, who is their sovereign Creator.

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

With this article, he concludes this series of articles which began in October 2003.


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