What do you want on your tombstone? It was the catchphrase of a commercial a few years back for Tombstone Pizza. It is also a phrase that we relate to what is the way someone wants to be remembered. It signifies a message that is to be communicated long after the person is gone, a message of great importance, or in some cases, of great humor. At the end of the fascinating book of Ecclesiastes, there is an epitaph of sorts written that brings the words of the Preacher, the Qoheleth to a close. The text indicates that these last verses were written by someone other than the Qoheleth, but provides for us a summary of the work of this collector of sayings. Within this text, there seems to be two different statements regarding this book. Some have seen these as competing views or as the individual statements of separate commentators. Others have seen a complementary nature of the two statements. For our purposes, we will view them separately, but both are affirming the words and work of the Qoheleth as the under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd.
Using the imagery of a memorial service at the end, our first eulogy of the Qoheleth is that he took great care in putting together the words of this book. The writer uses several descriptive terms that, put together, give us a composite picture of a meticulous, studious arranger of wise sayings. We read that besides being wise, he was very selective in putting together these words of wisdom. 1 Kings 4 gives us a brief description of the wisdom of Solomon and concludes with the statement in 1 Kings 4:32 that he spoke 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs, along with other words of wisdom about trees and beasts. From this large database of information, we are told that he weighed them, studied them, and arranged them with great care. Much like a preacher today, he carefully crafted the message, bringing emphasis to the proverbs of supreme weight and importance and focused completely on enhancing the knowledge of his people. The chapters and verses of Ecclesiastes may be challenging to read at times, but they were carefully selected by a wise teacher hoping to equip his students with life-giving knowledge of God.
Further, in this first eulogy, the connection is made between the words of Qoheleth and the true source of these words: the one Shepherd. In most translations, there is a capital “S” to indicate, rightly I believe, that the text refers to God as the “one Shepherd.” The words of this book are, like all Scripture, breathed out by God and written down by God’s chosen human author. It gives us great hope as we read that this is not just the cynical rants of a bitter, but wise man. It is not even the wise musings of someone who has experienced it all and hopes to share what he has learned with his students. This is the word of God, brought to us by the human instrument that God chose. As a result, these words that we read carry a two-fold purpose: a goad and nails firmly fixed.
A goad is a tool that is used to provoke or stimulate someone to action. The most common context for this tool is in the driving of cattle. The goad is pointed rod that is used to move the cattle forward when the cattle does not want to move. It is meant to provoke a stubborn beast to action. In the analogy, it is not a pretty sight for us as we are imaged by the stubborn beast that needs the prodding of a loving Shepherd. It may hurt, but it is meant to be the faithful wounds of a friend, designed for our growth. None of us likes to be wrong. Just ask anyone who picked Duke in their brackets this month! What is worse than being wrong, though, is not acknowledging being wrong and being stuck there. Some years ago, while preaching on biblical counseling and change, I put this phrase together for my people: “It’s okAY to not be okay, but it is not okay to be okay with not being okay.” It was a catchy way of saying what the writer here says: we need to be goaded by the words of the Great Shepherd because we will often be in the wrong.
The second purpose of the arranged words of the wise Qoheleth is that they are to be well-driven nails, or nails firmly fixed. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about one of his favorite books on preaching. I have since read it twice, and I still reference it from time to time. The title of the book derives from Eccl. 12:11, Well-Driven Nails by Byron Yawn. It is not a scholarly book in terms of homiletics, but the purpose is to help the preacher find his voice, his way of communicating the truth of God’s word in such a way that the listeners are given the opportunity of having the security of these firmly fixed truths in the midst of a confused and confusing world, a world that in the words of the Qoheleth is vanity, meaningless without God in the picture. The truths that are communicated here are designed to be that firm foundation on which to stand.
As we come to vs. 12, we see the second eulogy given. In vs. 12-14, the message of Ecclesiastes is brought to a powerful conclusion. The end of the matter is given in verse 13 and is surrounded by statements that point us back to the middle. The whole duty of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments. This is what the Qoheleth has been building towards, in that he has looked at everything under the sun and found it to be meaningless, vanity of vanities, but that there is a world that is not under the sun, a world where God is and gives meaning and purpose to all that is done. It is a world where God reigns and a world where the most appropriate thing to do is to bow before the King of kings. In one sense, this might be seen as the golden rule of the Old Testament, an ordering principle that brings all the smaller details into focus. To live our lives in submission to and reverent fear of God is what gives direction, or what ought to give direction to all of mankind. Beyond this, to study the depths without submission, or to submit outwardly while rebelling in private, is the vain life of which the Qoheleth has clearly warned his readers.
We come to the end of this season of study in the book of Ecclesiastes. To quote the writer, there is a time for everything, and though the study here has concluded, the meaningful, purposeful life of the true follower of Jesus awaits and it is the farthest thing from vanity that you can get! Fear God! Keep his commandments!