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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Reverence God and Keep His Commandments
Text:Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 30 - Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
TH 355 - We Are God's People
Psalter 37 - Nature's Tribute to God
Psalter 55 - The Good Shepherd

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

What’s the purpose of living? Many people ask this. For the turquoise killifish, it’s purpose is survival and propagation. It lives in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and has one of the shorted lifespans of a vertebrate. When it rains, small seasonal pools form. The fish hatches from eggs dormant for 9 months. And it spends its 12 weeks life cycle trying to reproduce before the pools disappear. That was the point of its life. Another fish - the coral reef pygmy goby of the Great Barrier Reef - has an even shorter lifespan. And it’s purpose is also survival and propagation. It lives for 5 weeks and must reproduce in that time. Survival and propagation. Comparatively, that’s life for most people. Some live in small ponds of poverty with a time limit; others live in big oceans of wealth - also with a time limit. We’re all trying to survive and thrive, but always facing imminent death or unexpected trials. 

So what’s the point of a life that speeds by and ends quickly? Is it really to survive and thrive? Solomon has been addressing this in Ecclesiastes. His theme is this - there’s no guarantee. Life is messy and then you die. But do you believe Solomon’s words? Do you echo them? Are you convinced? Or do you bank your hope in this life - like those fishes - to have significance before you die? Or you find ultimate worth in gain? Or you trust your smarts? Or you believe God owes you to bless you? As we come to the end, it’s time to evaluate his words. In Ecclesiastes 1:2, Solomon’s thesis was - vanity of vanities, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. And assuming it was true, he asked a follow up question in verse 3 - “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” If life is messy what’s the profit in this life?

We see his answer and conclusion in chapter 12. There are 3 appeals he concludes with - firstly, trust me, I’m credible. Secondly, accept the hard truths, they’re good. Thirdly, fear and obey God - he’s a judge.

The first appeal is this - trust me, I’m credible. He’s preached for 11 chapters. Should we believe dark sayings? And we should - because the one who gave them was wise. Verse 9 says, “And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.” 1 Kings 4 says God gave him wisdom as vast as the sand on the seashore. He was wiser than anyone in the East; had more wisdom than all the learning of Egypt. So why did he have to assert his credibility? After all, it’s malu to call himself wise. So unspiritual! But the reason is understandable. What he preached was troubling - “Everything in life is vain. It’s going to dwindle down to nothing. Your works will only mock you when you’re gone! Your wisdom is no guarantee of success.” These are things people don’t want to hear. It’s depressing. His credentials would’ve been questioned. Other things he said was hard for others to stomach - “eat, drink, and be merry.” So unspiritual. But dear friends, Jesus had the same response. On one hand he told those who followed him for food, that earthly food does not satisfy but he must be their food. They stopped following him. On the other hand, he wined and dined, that others called him a drunk and glutton. So here, Solomon defended himself so no one would discount his wisdom.

He said his teaching was true. As a wise preacher he taught the people. Verse 9 says he wrote down many of his sayings. Verse 10 says - “The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.” In other words, he taught with right words, and worked hard to find words to express those truths. And throughout Ecclesiastes, he’s given those truths - rightly worded - succinct, wise, provocative. “Life is hard, and then you die. You’ve gained so much wealth, you may leave it to foolish children when you die. You’re good but lose out; they’re evil but they win!” Those are hard truths succinctly and perfectly worded. Like Chinese proverbs; like idioms - two in the bush is worth one in the hand. I mean, what more perfect words do you want? Life under the sun is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit! That’s cold hard truth. Solomon wasn’t like Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer - to tell you only good and uplifting things. But he told them the cold hard truth. He was a Jonathan Edwards - sinners in the hands of an angry God! And these words he spoke were upright words of truth, verse 10. In other words, he laid down the truth correctly with correct words. He didn’t sugar coat, nor make it more palatable. He didn’t hide it. Now, why did he do this?

He was a shepherd leading his flock. And the way he would do it was by the truth. Verse 11 says, “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.” The kings of Israel were considered shepherds of their people. They would direct the people. That’s why even the Egyptian pharaoh carried the whip and the crook. Or European monarchs carried the scepter - a rod. Solomon was king and taught truth to the people to guide them, like a shepherd. But this was a difficult work. 

As a shepherd, he told the people to accept the hard truths - they’re good. That’s his second appeal. While he knew that truth was good, he also knew it was difficult for them to accept. We don’t want the truth. And even if we did, we can’t handle the truth. It’s painful. As verse 11 says, the words of wisdom and truth were as goads. A goad was a sharp stick the shepherd carried to control the sheep. Sometimes the animals could go astray, go near a cliff, be exposed to danger; when they refused to hear the shepherd’s gentle voice; the goad was used. Through pain, the animal would be motivated back to right paths. So the truth, wise words, were like painful tools to stop us from being foolish. 

They’re words of rebuke - spoken to warn us against danger - for our own good. Unfortunately, this function of the truth is often rejected. We don’t like to hear this kind of truth. We don’t like to obey it. But the preacher was not afraid to rebuke. Because he was their shepherd. Sometimes pain is used by God through his Word. The truth hurts. Dearly beloved, I’m learning more about this congregation. I’m learning to love each one of you more. I won’t do it perfectly. But I’m learning how to bring truth so it doesn’t destroy you. But unfortunately, even gentle truth will still hurt. It rebukes.

But this rebuke builds up - it edifies. Verse 11 says the truth is like nails used by a master builder. You need nails to hold a structure together. So truths hold your life together. For example, pastors teach certain truths which are painful. But these truths build the people up to face the harsh realities of life under the sun. Chapter 11 says that we better learn these truths early - when we’re young - otherwise, we may be bitter older people who can’t stomach the realities of life. Solomon’s counsel is both rebuke and truth to build us up to live life realistically and hopefully. If we understand them, we are spared from cynicism and bitterness.

And these truths are incremental. Nails, driven in one by one, strengthen the structure. Like Isaiah 28:10 describes - “for precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” These words teach us how to deal with vanity under the sun. It rebukes those who have high hopes for life under the sun. “You know, life is messy, it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to.” It also rebukes those who are bitter in life. “Did you actually think you deserve better in life? Where did you get this idea from?” It rebukes those who think their work cannot fail or backfire. It rebukes those who think they deserve happiness. It rebukes those who think they deserve healing. But when we take his words seriously, we can face life with humility and joy, living and working and rejoicing in God - taking from his hands the lot he has given us. 

And that’s why we must know, that these words of truth are not from Solomon, but from the greater Solomon; not just from an earthly shepherd, but from the chief shepherd of the sheep - from that one shepherd; and not just from an earthly king, but from the heavenly king; and not just from Solomon - whose name means peace; but from the prince of peace; and not just from Solomon who built the temple, but from Christ who built the better temple. And so if we would only hear, we would be humbled and driven to Christ. And implicit is this - if we resist these plain words of truth, - we’re not rejecting the human preacher, nor the human shepherd; but Christ himself. To neglect truth is to neglect Christ.

Our shepherd tells us to worship God and not to neglect the Lord’s Day. It’s a rebuke that builds us up - for when we hear, we would love him and his people more. When we fear obedience, because of what they must give up - their career, leisure, advancement - they’ll forget God. They neglect Christ for what? Things that don’t last. Our shepherd tells us it’s better to be single than to have an unholy relationship - it’s a rebuke that teaches us to value God and his kingdom more. When we fear obedience, because we fear loneliness, we neglect Christ and for what? A few years on earth with one whom they’ll never see in eternity. 

Our shepherd tells us to forgive our enemies. It’s a rebuke that builds humility in us. But we fear obedience because we’d have to give up anger and hope of vindication. We neglect Christ and for what? To be right. Christ was right, but received wrong. When Christ is our chief shepherd, when we hear him, his truths wean us from this world, and gives us hope of heaven. And while we remain under the sun, we serve Christ, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

And that’s his last appeal. Fear and obey God - he’s a judge. Why did Solomon preach and write this book? To tell us our purpose here under the sun. Verse 13 - “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” This is the answer to his question.  “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” What’s the point of your life? Is it like the fish? To survive and thrive? To propagate in your short life? No, it’s to worship and serve God. It’s to fear him and keep his commandments - to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That he is your only comfort in life and in death, that you would be heartily willing and ready to live for him. You see, life is messy. You can either choose to live it the way you want - to walk the broad path to destruction, to marry an unbeliever, to build up wealth like the rich fool, to neglect the worship of God, to chase after results without certainty; or you can choose to fear God. 

And God’s a fearsome God. When the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, they were told not to touch the mountain. They had to fast and pray and prepare themselves and wash themselves before they could meet with God. And so holy was the mountain, that it was barricaded. If anyone was to touch it, or any animal was to come to the foot of the mountain, they would be destroyed. Why? Because God was fearsome. And a person would be right to be terrified of God - imagine coming before a holy God with all your sins. And when God finally met with the people, he did so with thunder, lightning, and fire - his voice was so loud and fearsome, that the people covered their ears and shrieked with fear. Why? Because they heard the commandments of God - and they were guilty. And in their abject terror, they pleaded with Moses to go up to the mountain to meet with God on their behalf. And Moses did. Yes, he was terrified and trembling, Hebrews 12 says. 

But he knew this God. He knew this awesome fearsome God was the same God who wanted to rescue his people. He was the one who tenderly called Moses and directed him to free his people from Egypt. He spoke to Moses from the burning bush - but the bush was not consumed. You see, the same God who spoke at Sinai with fire, burning up the mountain top, was the same God who spoke to Moses in quiet gentle tones from the bush that was not burned. So what’s the difference? When we know God as Savior, we fear the lusts and pride of the world. We fear disappointing him, sinning against him, and living life under the sun without him. That’s why the point of our lives, our happy duty - is to reverence God. As his sheep we follow his teachings; and we’re not under the coercive power of the law. We don’t obey because we must, we obey because we love. 

And our God is no debtor. If he has delivered Christ for us all, how shall he also, along with him, not give us all things Simply put, in New Testament language - fear God and keep is commandments is - seek ye first the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom not ours. His kingdom beyond the sun, and not ours here beneath the sun. This is why Solomon has shown how broken and messy life is here. 

We fear God. Why? Not just because we love him, but because there will be a final reckoning. Verse 14 - “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” Now, to those who don’t have Christ as their shepherd, this is a terrifying thing. Every work will be judged. Every secret thing - good or bad. Every word that you have ever said will be revealed. Everything you have ever done will be known. And that’s a fearful thing. But to the believer - who is shepherded through this messy life by Christ - this is not terrifying. Why? Because it’s judgment day. It’s the day of Christ. It’s the day when he comes to take us back to heaven. It’s a day of rewards. It’s day where all our tears will be wiped away. When we will be taken from this life under the sun to a life beyond the sun, where only the light of Christ shines.

Dearly beloved, the words of this book are life to us. You may have been rebuked by them. But if you receive them as wise words, you will be strengthened in your life here - the just shall live by faith. And you will fear the Shepherd who gave these words, and keep his commandments, longing to be with him in his kingdom. As we come to the end of another year, what are some words of application we can draw from this book? Far too many. But I want to give some from this passage that I think are fitting as we end the book, as we come to the end of the year, and as we come to another possible wave of COVID.

I’m sure as we’ve been going through the book, things have popped up - certain idolatries of your heart you realized - maybe wrong ways of thinking, bitterness, feelings of dissatisfaction which were surfaced as you try to survive and thrive here under the sun. Yes, there’s no foolproof resolution under the sun. Only Jesus helps you to live with life’s messiness, to find hope in him, and to stop striving to have. But it’s also to know in what way you can press on - not to give up, but to press on in wisdom and love. The counsel is simple - learn and apply the lessons now. Deal with the idolatries of your heart.

Give thanks for his shepherding. In what ways do you seek to do his will? Perhaps he’s leading you to do something more significant in your life - not to build up treasures. But to serve him - to give others the word of God - to be shepherds in the service of God. Whether it may be in the full-time ministry or the ministry of the church - to labor to show that there is hope in Christ alone.

As we come to this artificial cusp - a calendar year - let us consider to follow Christ more in the new year. What commandments are you to keep? For those who have stayed away from church - life is messy, you’re going to die anyway - what is life apart from God’s people and congregated worship? For those who have strayed from God in pursuit of your life, what is life apart from the will of God? 

Sermon Outline:

1. Trust Me - I’m Credible

    A. His wisdom

    B. His teaching

    C. His shepherding

2. Accept the Hard Truths - They’re Good

    A. Its rebuke

    B. Its edification

    C. Its neglect

3. Fear and Obey God - He’s a Judge.

    A. Fear and reverence

    B. The final reckoning

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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