Aging Is Meaningless without Jesus
Aging Is Meaningless without Jesus
Main Idea: You can enjoy life in the face of aging and death if you turn to God through Jesus Christ.
- Enjoy Life as God Intended (11:7-10).
- Turn to God Now before Aging Robs You (12:1-7).
- Trust in Jesus as Your Savior and Sage (12:8-14).
A recent article showed that leading men in movies age, but their love interests do not (Buchanan, “Leading Men Age”). For example, while Denzel Washington is pushing 60, the starlet who acts opposite of him is usually 35 and under. Or consider Harrison Ford, who stars opposite love interests that are usually at least 15 years younger than him, if not more, or Liam Neeson’s last movie in which he was 25 years older than his love interest, and on and on we might go.
Our culture is unique from many cultures in the world in that we do not prize age. Whereas many other cultures see age as a sign of wisdom and the elderly as those who should be honored, we do everything we can to marginalize the aged. We do everything we can to ignore aging. We ignore it by only putting “beautiful” and “young looking” people in movies, in advertisements, and in our magazines. We do it with billions of dollars spent every year on botox injections and plastic surgery. As Dolly Parton once said, “It cost a fortune to look this cheap.” We do it with computer enhancements on photo spreads, photo shopping out unsightly images. We attempt to ignore aging with medicines, diets, workouts, and creams. If we are young, we ignore that aging is a reality at all. The young usually think they have an endless supply of days ahead of them.
Why do we do this? Why do we ignore aging? The reason we ignore aging is that we fear death, and since aging reminds us of our mortality, we desperately try to escape it. Yet no matter how much effort we exert to be healthy and safe, the bottom line is that we get about 100 years max in this world. That is why Five for Fighting says in the song “100 Years” that there is nothing better than being 15. The song talks about how brief life is, and so your teen years and your early twenties feel so great because you have time to live life, to make dumb choices and recover from them. Life moves so fast from getting married to having kids and starting a family to hitting your midlife crisis. Then, before you know it, you are a senior adult, and the sun is setting on your life. If this world is all there is and you only get about 100 years, then being 15 is the best thing in the world because you have all of your time, possibilities, decisions, and life goals out in front of you for the taking. We prize youth because we fear the fleeting nature of life and the finality of death.
Solomon has made the foreboding point throughout Ecclesiastes that life is fleeting and vain because our soon-coming death renders all our actions meaningless. Our short life gives way to the eternal home of death. It is a grim prospect. But Solomon ends the book by answering the question in Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:14, How can I have joy in the face of aging and death?
Enjoy Life as God Intended
Yes, if this life is all there is, then death renders every action in this cursed world meaningless. However, Solomon has consistently made the point that the fleeting nature of life should cause us to enjoy life the best we can as God intended because it is a gift from God. Death’s ominous reality can also render every action meaningful. That is what Solomon calls us to here.
He says that light is sweet, and it is pleasing to see the sun (11:7). What he means is that life is a good gift. We see this in springtime because the gloominess of winter has passed and the sun is out and it’s warm outside, and people start spending more time outside enjoying the sun and having a great time. It is a joy. That is kind of what Solomon is talking about here. Being alive under the sun can be sweet. Again, Ecclesiastes has made both points. Being under the sun can be drudgery, and being under the sun can be joy (Murphy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 214). The point is that you should rejoice in all of your days because they are fleeting—life does not last long. This is illustrated in the way we enjoy spring and take advantage of it because we know it will not last forever—summer and fall and then winter are coming right around the corner. In the same way we should enjoy life while we can because it is fleeting.
The mention of light in verse 7 leads the way for what he says about darkness in verse 8. He says to rejoice in however many years you are able to live because the days of darkness will be many, and then he reminds us again that everything that comes in life is “futile”—hevel. I believe the best meaning for hevel in this passage is “fleeting.” He drives the idea home that life is momentary by explaining that the days of being dead—the days of darkness—far outnumber the days of life under the sun (i.e., being alive) (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 340). Therefore, live life to the full in the face of the fleeting nature of life and the finality of death. Contemplating death is a means to enjoy life and a means to live wisely. As we have seen in Ecclesiastes, when you contemplate death you are better at avoiding the things that might cause an early death. When you are young, you do not count your days. You think you have countless days ahead, and that can lead you to do something foolish. And when you contemplate death, you are better at enjoying life in the present.
The next verse (11:9) commands us not to postpone enjoyment to some future time. Young people tend to think they will really be able to enjoy life when they grow up. We think when I have a car, when I graduate college, when I get out on my own, or when I start a family, then I can really start living life (Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 287). Solomon says, “No! Enjoy the present moment.” Country songs like “Don’t Blink” and “You’re Gonna Miss This” really have a way of helping us not take life for granted. For example, in “Don’t Blink,” Kenny Chesney sings about seeing an old man in his 100s being interviewed and saying that the secret to life is not blinking because life goes by so fast. Before you know it, you go from grade school to meeting your high school sweetheart to getting married to your babies growing up to your wife’s death. So enjoy every moment of your life and live it for all it is worth.
In the song “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Trace Adkins talks about a mom driving her teenage daughter to school, and the daughter laments the fact that she is under age. The daughter talks about how she can’t wait till she becomes an adult and can do what she wants, but her mom tells her to slow down because she will miss the teen years once they are gone. Later on she is a newlywed living in a small apartment, and when her dad visits her, she starts talking about how she can’t wait to be a mom and have a house of her own. Her dad tells her to have patience and enjoy these days because she will miss them once they are gone. Down the road, she has a young family with all the chaos that comes with it. A plumber comes to the house, and she keeps apologizing for the noise and the chaos. He says it is not a problem; in fact, there will come a day when her kids are grown that she will miss these days. The song encourages us to slow down and enjoy every day for the gift that it is.
Accordingly, Solomon exhorts his readers to rejoice in their youth and to walk in the ways of their hearts and eyes, but he adds that they must recognize that God will judge in the end (11:9). Enjoy life’s prime and the opportunities you have now that others do not have; do what you want to do. Seize the day! However, keep in mind that you will face God and answer for how you lived your life. Ecclesiastes has speculated throughout about a final judgment. The message has been clear that from a human perspective we cannot know for sure what happens beyond death, but Solomon says here that there is something beyond the grave—judgment for how you lived.
Some might see the inevitability of judgment as a drag, but Solomon does not mention judgment here to be a damper. Instead, Solomon references judgment to encourage the reader to enjoy life, but to enjoy life as God intended, not following after our “own thoughts” (Isa 65:2; cf. Eccl 7:29). The book has longed for judgment—for things to be set right. One thing judgment does is make our actions meaningful. God takes us seriously as human beings. What we do matters to Him (Kidner, Ecclesiastes, 99). Therefore, enjoy life responsibly as God designed. That means we don’t determine for ourselves how we will do marriage, food, drink, sex, finances, family, work, and relationships. We enjoy things in those areas of life the way the Bible has instructed us to. That’s how we seize the day.
Lastly, in this section Solomon says to remove “sorrow” and “pain” from your body because youth is fleeting (11:10). The word translated “prime of life” literally means “black hair” as opposed to the gray hair of old age (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 340). Since youth is fleeting, and your black hair will turn gray (or fall out!) faster than you realize, you must remove sorrow and pain from your life.
There are two things that the person must remove from life to enjoy their fleeting youth properly. First, you must remove sorrow to enjoy youth responsibly. Do not idolize the state of youth to the point that you dread its loss and thus fail to enjoy the gift while you have it (Kidner, Message of Ecclesiastes, 99).
My friend Chip told me one time about a pair of shoes he got as a boy for Christmas. The shoes would light up every time they hit the pavement. He wore them all Christmas day and loved them, but his mom warned him, “Be careful. Once the battery goes out, they won’t light up anymore.” He said that he was so worried about running the battery out that he barely ever wore the shoes again, and then his feet got too big. We can waste a great gift if we never use it. We can also waste the gifts of youth. We should see youth as beautiful in its time but passing and not ultimate. Thus, do not let the problems and fleetingness of life spoil your youth. Do not let youth’s transitory nature cause you to miss out on enjoying what you have. As Ferris Beuller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Second, the other thing that can spoil your youth and must be removed from your life is sin. The HCSB translates the word “pain,” but the word is literally “evil.” To “put away pain,” then, is to repent of sin. God has made life as a gift to be enjoyed as He designed. We run into major problems when we depart from His good design. When we choose to do marriage, relationships, food, money, and work in ways He did not intend, it leads to brokenness and pain in our lives. So when you depart from God’s design, repent and turn to Him. . . . That’s what Solomon says next.
Turn to God Now before Aging Robs You
Solomon’s intention in this section is to explain that today is the day to turn to God—don’t delay. He’s exhorted us to enjoy life, and as we have seen, turning to God is the only way to enjoy life rightly. In order to accomplish his purpose, Solomon gives a sobering picture of the curse of death with the hope that it will drive us to God now. Murphy points out that the poem is relentless in its move toward death. This entire section is one long run-on sentence that if read together would literally leave the reader out of breath (Murphy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 215).
Solomon commands us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth (12:1). What does that entail? Remembering your Creator means trusting Him, obeying Him, and walking with Him. It entails teaching your kids about God (Deut 6). The reference to God as Creator here looks back to the creation event, which has been the backdrop to Ecclesiastes all along. Joy can truly be found if one lives out the wise order by which God created the world. God created everything good and to be enjoyed; however, because we sinned, now everything is broken. We now use things—even good things—wrongly or worship them as idols, and that departure from God’s design leads to brokenness. Solomon has catalogued this throughout Ecclesiastes concerning pleasure, comedy, success, wisdom, money, extravagant possessions, and so much more. The only way to navigate this world wisely and truly enjoy the good gifts God has created for us—not as idols we place above Him but as gifts meant to glorify Him—is by faith in Him, so we are called to repent of our sin, repent of our idolatry, and believe in Him.
Johnny Hunt points out that you “cannot afford to put off faith in God” until you are older (Ecclesiastes, 73). You will regret it because not living your life with God at the center causes you to make stupid decisions: you might do something like marry an idiot, choose the wrong friends, or start the wrong occupation (Chandler, “To the Young and Old”). Those dumb decisions will have repercussions for the next 30 years of your life or even longer. Tons of money is spent on counseling and medications because of poor life choices (Driscoll, “Threading Your Needle”). So turn to God now and submit yourself to His Word for decision making.
The vocabulary of the poem is apocalyptic. It uses language often used in passages that describe the end of the world, such as the darkening of the sun and moon (cf. Joel 3:15). The point in Ecclesiastes 12 is that your world personally will end in death. In the poem the author gives three “before” statements to depict vividly aging and dying. First, we must turn to God before evil days come (12:1), which refers to impending death. Death is not the way the world should be. It was not part of God’s original design but rather is an enemy intruder in the world. When those evil days come, we will have no pleasure in them (12:1). The depressing reality for many people is that if they live long enough, they will become so sick, experience so much daily pain, or feel the indignity of not being able to do everyday things they used to do with no thought, and they will beg God to let them die. They will ask God why they continue to live, and they will hope for death.
Second, we must turn to God before the astrological lights go out (12:2). We need to understand as we walk through the poem that it contains highly metaphorical language, and we cannot be dogmatic about what it all means. However, we can make some observations that come close, I think.Solomon says the lights will go out, which may refer to eye failure or the loss of mental powers. The reference to rain and clouds could refer to glaucoma (i.e., cloudy vision) or that our reasoning and memory functions decline in old age—after all, even when young people forget something, they say they had a “senior moment.” Perhaps Solomon is alluding to the heartbreaking effects of dementia. Others think the clouds could refer to troubles that were minor setbacks in youth, but now the aged do not recover as quickly from them, or they never recover from them. Thus, the clouds never go away (Kidner, Ecclesiastes, 102).
Solomon continues this section by talking about
the day when the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, the women who grind cease because they are few, and the ones who watch through the windows see dimly, the doors at the street are shut while the sound of the mill fades. (12:3-4)
These images refer, it seems, to the diminished capacity of the senses and motor skills in old age. In old age your hands tremble (i.e., the guardians), major muscles fail so you begin to bend over (i.e., the strong men), teeth go missing and chewing is difficult (i.e., the grinders), eyesight dims (i.e., the watchers), and hearing fades (i.e., the doors). The cruel irony is that while your hearing fades, the slightest noise—like a bird chirping—startles and wakes you (12:4). In old age sleeping is difficult—you’re up with the birds!
He continues by saying that
they are afraid of heights and dangers on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper loses its spring, and the caper berry has no effect; for man is headed to his eternal home, and mourners will walk around in the street. (12:5)
The elderly are afraid of heights, and they are also afraid of falling, or danger in the road, that is, being jostled, in contrast to the courage of youth. The blossoming almond tree refers to white hair in old age, and then after the bloom the hair goes away and you are bald. The burdened grasshopper can refer to something light that is now too heavy to lift with the vigor of youth gone, or it may refer to bad joints and the loss of mobility. Finally, there is a loss of sexual desire. The caper berry was a known aphrodisiac, but now it has no effect. As Matt Chandler humorously points out, Solomon notoriously loved women and managed to put the loss of sexual appetite dead last. He has no teeth, he cannot move, he cannot see, he cannot hear, and finally he is not interested in sex anymore (“To the Young and Old”). This description of aging and the nearing of death is similar to the death of King David in 1 Kings 1. He is cold and cannot keep warm, so they put a beautiful young woman in bed with him to try to warm him up, but the Bible says nothing happens. The only thing left is death. Adam goes to his eternal home, which does not refer to heaven in the context of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book the author has limited his observations to a human perspective, and therefore he is uncertain about what lies beyond the grave since no human can know for certain. The eternal home merely refers to death itself, which is then followed by a funeral with mourners.
Third, we must turn to God “before the silver cord is snapped, and the gold bowl is broken, and the jar is shattered at the spring, and the wheel is broken into the well” (12:6). The images of the silver cord, the golden bowl, the shattered jar, and the broken wheel refer to drawing water. The problem is that the system to get life-sustaining water has deteriorated and shattered into the finality of death (Webb, Five Festal Garments, 99). The cord that pulls the water, the bowl that holds the jar, the jar that holds the water, and the wheel for the pulley system are all broken at the bottom of the well. Life has gone out. The outcome is that man returns to dust (12:7), that is, he dies and decays under the curse of sin while the breath of life returns to God. Again, this is not a comment on heaven. It refers to the departure of life. This reality is the sentence God passed on Adam because of his sin and his posterity’s sin (Gen 3; Rom 5). When you sin against God, you shall surely die and return to the dust from which you came. Ecclesiastes has said all along that we live in a cursed world where death is inevitable because of humanity’s sinful choices that led us to this point.
The text is painful, depressing, and heartrending, but death’s sting should stir us to action. Remember God now when you can avoid living with regret. That exhortation leads to the conclusion of Ecclesiastes.
Trust in Jesus as Your Savior and Sage
Ecclesiastes 12:8 gives the final assessment, which is the same as the first assessment in Ecclesiastes 1:2: everything is futile, fleeting, meaningless, and absurd. The conclusion helps us understand the purpose behind exposing the meaninglessness of life. Solomon wants us to realize that God imposed a curse on the world to show us the meaninglessness of following our own devices and to drive us to Him. Thus, the point of Ecclesiastes, like every book of the Old Testament, is ultimately to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Tim 3:15). When we see death up close in hospital visits, the suffering of a loved one, or the passing of a friend, it signals that there is something better out there. That’s the point of Ecclesiastes: everything is meaningless without Jesus. We see this in the conclusion (12:9-14)
Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes to shepherd the reader with words that are pleasing, true, convicting, and wise (12:9-10). His words are like goads, spiked sticks that prod cattle down the right path. That has been his intention all along. He gives messianic wisdom to convict us of the meaninglessness of life without God and to drive us to remember our Creator. After all, the image of the “one Shepherd” is only used in reference to the Messiah (see Ezek 34:23; 37:24).
Solomon turns his attention to his son, pleading with him to beware of moving beyond his words (12:12). He trains his son in wisdom in order to establish the kingdom, so he tells his son not to attempt his own investigation as if the son could find meaning somewhere that Solomon failed to look. Solomon says his words recorded in Ecclesiastes are sufficient. This is the sum total of the matter (v. 13). Solomon knows the temptation to try anything and everything other than God to find satisfaction, so he has talked about his pursuit of wealth, education, women, pleasure, success, and other things. When all is said and done, God is the only One who can satisfy the human heart.
Solomon, therefore, teaches his son not to try his own search for meaning and to take Solomon’s words to heart. Here is the bottom line: “Fear God and keep His commands,” since that is our chief end in the light of judgment (12:13-14). The book has longed for judgment because of the injustice in the world, but the problem for us is our part in the injustice of the world. God will set all things right, the wicked will not finally prosper, and the righteous will not finally suffer, but the difficulty for us is that Ecclesiastes makes clear we have failed to keep God’s commands. Everyone has failed, including Solomon and his son. Within Solomon’s lifetime he went from being the wisest man on planet Earth to sanctioning the sacrifice of babies, all because he saw some hot foreign women he wanted to be his. Yes, Solomon was a great sinner, and we might try to assuage our guilt by saying, “But I never had a thousand wives.” Still, you are not without guilt. You have your fantasies and your online history. Ecclesiastes ends by saying even the secret things we think are hidden will see the light of day in judgment when we are completely laid bare and exposed before the holy God (v. 14). That’s frightening.
We are under condemnation; that’s the bad news. But the good news is that there is one who is greater than Solomon who has come on the scene. He is the Wisdom of God. He does not just teach us messianic wisdom and fail to live up to it; He perfectly lives out the wisdom of God. And yet the One who perfectly lived out the wisdom of God took the judgment for our folly on the cross. He experienced everything we should experience for falling short of God’s glory. The enemy—the curse of sin and death—will steal our hearing, steal our motor skills, steal our sight, and steal our youthful vigor, but Jesus redeems us by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13). He took on our death. He took on three dark days in the grave, unable to hear, unable to walk, and unable to see. But He did not decay into the dust; He walked away from death. As Jaroslav Pelikan says, “If Christ is risen—then nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—then nothing else matters.” Because of Christ, the decay of death is not the final word. Because of Christ, aging is not the end. Because of Christ, life can be meaningful, and youthful radiance will last in eternal life after the grave.
Life is meaningful because Christ reconciles us to the Creator of life and gives us the ability to be wise. Now, in Christ, we can be satisfied in God alone, rather than loving His gifts more than we love Him. We can now experience true joy, true meaning.
Only when you trust God fully and are satisfied in Him alone can you truly enjoy life. God has a design for everything. We are meant to enjoy such things as food, drink, relationships, sex, work, and money as a means of worshiping Him. The problem is that we depart from God’s good design. We turn the gifts into idols. This reality is one of the fundamental issues Ecclesiastes has uncovered for us: we worship the gift rather than the Giver. Doing so is not just wrong—although it is—it is also unsatisfying. It causes brokenness and meaninglessness. Still, we continue to do it because we think the next thing we move on to will bring us the satisfaction we so desire. We do it with money and possessions, we do it with sex (like Hozier’s song “Take Me to Church”), we do it with work success, and we do it with pleasure. These things are fleeting joys at best and cannot satisfy, so we end up broken. Here is the good news: Christ took on our brokenness, and if we repent and believe, then we can recover and pursue God’s design for our lives and live life as we are meant to live it. Now, fully satisfied in Jesus, you can enjoy money as one who is content and generous, sex with your covenant spouse in marriage, work as one who provides for his family, and much more in the way God intended. All of these things are meaningless without Jesus, but with Jesus you can live a meaningful life here and hereafter.
Reflect and Discuss
- In what ways do we try to ignore old age and escape aging?
- What are some reasons you think we prize youth in our culture? Why is that good, and why might it be bad as well?
- What are some times in our lives when death confronts us? How might those experiences be helpful?
- Do you find yourself living life looking to some future when you can really be happy? What keeps you from enjoying the present?
- What are some practical ways you can enjoy life as God intended?
- What are some practical ways you can remember your Creator in your youth?
- What are some major decisions we make in our youth that may have long-term negative consequences if we fail to make godly ones?
- What do the devastating effects of aging tell us about the human condition?
- Why did the Spirit inspire such a “depressing” book to be written? How is the book of Ecclesiastes actually “good news/gospel”?
- What are some ways Ecclesiastes points us to Jesus?