When the popular thing to do is really not the thing to do, Someone will tell you the difference.
The Washington Post printed an article a while ago about some Turkish farmers who were watching their flock. Suddenly, one sheep stepped away, and walked over the edge of a cliff, where it fell to its death. Then, groups of them turned, and casually followed, walking over the cliff as well, until 450 sheep had plummeted into a deep rocky ravine where they all died. The rest of the flock of 1,500 did the same thing, marching over the side, only being injured, because they were falling on the bodies of those that were already dead in the bottom.
When I saw this article, the first thing I thought about was people. The Bible compares people to sheep. Sometimes we even facetiously refer to one another as “sheeple.” You’ve probably noticed what happens when one person does something incredibly weird, and all of a sudden, the same behavior is popping up all over the place. It seems as though human beings are just waiting around for something to do with their life, and then one of us does something self-destructive, bizarre, or even contrary to basic reality, and all the rest of us line up on that behavior, and go over the cliff, too.
Jesus saw the same thing play out in front of him in the gospels. The Bible says that he had compassion on the crowds, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd.
Why listen to the words of Scripture, especially to a book Like Ecclesiastes? The last few verses of that book answer before it draws to a close.
“Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing, and studying, and arranging many Proverbs with great care” (Eccl. 12:9).
The Preacher, Solomon, taught the knowledge of God, because in the absence of it, we go off a cliff. He conveyed that knowledge through three different means of preparation—weighing, studying, and arranging.
Not only the Book of Ecclesiastes, but every word of Scripture has a certain weight of glory to it, like Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 4:7, where he mentions “an eternal weight of Glory.” When this weighty, substantial, forever word gets into us, then we become weighty people. It is so much different than Wonder Bread, when you pull out a slice and wonder, where’s the bread?
Scripture is not made with air, bleach, and sugar. Preachers can be so afraid of being thought irrelevant, that they feel pressured to pursue some kind of news cycle relevance. Yet, the pulpit cannot be dominated with mere current events. The more it chases such words, the more its teaching becomes eternally irrelevant, so much Wonder Bread. And the Preacher becomes a social pundit, rather than a minister of the weight of glory.
Solomon says the word is a studied word. We might think Solomon was wise because he studied, but actually, he studied because he was wise. The smartest person in the world is always the one most aware of his own ignorance.
Lastly, Solomon says the word of Ecclesiastes (as well as all Scripture), is an arranged word. I’m reminded of the priests in the Old Testament tabernacle, as they “arranged” the showbread. It was an unleavened, dense food product that was set out weekly. A word of this sort needs arrangement for the sake of those who receive it. The teaching of a thing requires thinking through how to present it, and placing elements of it in an order that’s receivable, and understandable. Otherwise the whole subject turns into a pot of goulash. First Corinthians chapter 14 speaks quite a bit about the necessity of an understandable word, because without comprehension, words add up to zero.
And this isn’t all.
The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (v. 10).
Scripture contains delightful words, expressions of exquisite grace that encourage, warm, and cherish the soul. However, these words are not supposed to be empty motivational sayings. They should convey divine truth. Scripture is not a composite of fifty percent grace and fifty percent truth. It is one hundred percent grace, and one hundred percent truth. Grace and truth permeate one another, just as they did in Jesus when He came, “full of grace and truth” (c.f. John 1:14).
Solomon says these weighty, studied, arranged, delightful, true words of God will have a certain kind of effect within you:
“The words of the wise or like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings” (v.11)
Sometimes a 2,500 pound animal like an ox, plowing a field, would suddenly stop. Perhaps it felt, I’m comfortable right here, so I’m not moving any farther. The plowman would pick up a sharp stick called a goad, and he’d stretch forward and use it to prod the ox forward. This experience often approximates that of the Christian Life.
You may have gotten to a place where you feel comfortable, and settled. Then, all of a sudden, a word comes to you from the Bible or the faith community, and it prods you forward. I recall the first time this happened to me after salvation. I was sitting in a church meeting, singing hymns, and thinking about how far I’d come in my spiritual growth. It had been a good month. Then I looked down at my sneakers. On both sides of them were Playboy Bunny emblems. I had bought them before I had been born again, thinking they were cool. But now as we sang Holy, Holy, Holy! that emblem felt like a patch of leprosy on my feet. As soon as I could, I went to the shoe shop and got a suitably uncool pair of shoes. It was a prod I’ve remembered until this day.
The Word, however, also deals with the opposite problem. Christians can have a temperament prone to move around, hunt for excitement or comfort, and claim the Lord’s leading as justification for it. But, “the words of the wise are like nails firmly fixed.” Too much activity, nervousness, fidgeting, will not allow a soul to be established and rooted properly. That is when the word often exercises a sobering effect. It fixes you in place.
True, though these words are weighed, studied, and arranged by a preacher, they’re given by One Shepherd.” (v. 11)—the One Solomon would call “The God of Israel, Yahweh.” For us though, we would add, “God in Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep.” And this is precisely the reason we need to listen. Such words are calculated exactly for you, crafted for the good of your soul.
“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (v. 12).
Human beings never tire of generating new philosophies, and weird ideas. Internet publishing has certainly sped this process along since the days of Solomon. It can be both a good and bad thing. On the positive side, self-appointed gate guards can no longer censor information. The downside is the torrent of publications that go beyond the word of God, and contradict it, flows directly into the minds and hearts of non-discerning readers. Distraction occurs, and with it, a sapping of spiritual energy that creates weariness. While we think enlightenment is happening, faith may actually be deteriorating.
Now this doesn’t mean we put a full stop on all books not directly related to Scripture. After all, Solomon says be wary of them, not stop reading them. Use discretion. Personally, I enjoy well-written novels. I finish one every three months, or so. It’s not that I’m a slow reader, but I simply assign a lower priority to secular non-fiction.
Once a year, I’ll read a book about social and cultural trends, so I can understand what is going on in our world, and won’t feel like I have my head stuck in the sand. I am more restrictive on this subject, because these books anger me, make me suspicious of others, and reinforce tribalism. I have never felt happy or spiritually strong after reading one of them. This is the weariness we’re warned about.
Like a diet where you limit fatty foods and sugar, monitor your reading for the sake of your spiritual vitality. Give your top priority to the Word of God, so your spirit will be strong.
Finally, Solomon concludes:
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (v. 13a).
The whole reason you exist is to be an image bearer of God (c.f. Gen. 1:26), and transformed into that image from glory to glory. The Great Shepherd is guiding you into His own likeness, and this occurs as we cooperate with Him, obeying His word.
See to this, “for God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (v. 13b).
He is shepherding us into the good, and hopefully you are not wandering off a cliff into the evil, for all will be revisited at the end.
The first thing the great Shepherd did for us was to die for us. That’s a statement of profound, and absolute commitment—”The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). However, even beyond this point, He continues, directing, and steering us.
There was a short window of time when it was fashionable to follow Jesus. A large crowd had naturally grown around Him, as He had taught helpful things, and fed a multitude with a complimentary lunch. But then Jesus stood up and preached that one sermon, where He said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Hearing this strange word, some backed off, and walked away, no longer following Him. One sheep withdrew, and then a bunch of them, until hundreds walked off. Just like that, it became unfashionable to follow Jesus. He turned to the twelve, and asked if they also wanted to leave. But Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The influence of the shepherd’s words was even at that moment guiding them.
Yet, His shepherding did even more than protect them from marching over the side of the cliff and entering the ranks of ex-disciples. He would lift up their lives and teachings before countless millions for thousands of years to come.
I read about a man who walked out of his house in the morning into his garden. To his amazement, suspended in mid-air was a collection of water drops in a perfect concentric pattern. It was a surreal moment until he got closer, and realized they were water drops sitting on a spider web. Of course without the web, all of them would have fallen on the ground and turned into a puddle.
Our lives are like those little pearls of water—our marriage, kids, jobs—and they rest on something that seems invisible to the world, the wise word of the Shepherd. A rough, and ready guy I once knew got spiritually revived and began to really love the Scriptures. He decided to apply what he was seeing from the Bible in his workplace, and he did it for a long time. Then one day he went to his boss and told him how Jesus was leading him to go into full-time ministry, and that he was going to quit. The boss wept. It wasn’t because he was upset that he’d have a hard time filling the slot, but because he’d miss seeing the living out of Jesus in the workplace—those wonderful pearls of virtue.
This doesn’t mean we’re perfect people. In fact, if it weren’t for the wise word of Christ holding us up off the ground, suspending us in midair, everyday we would make a bad decision to weaken our marriages, or create a toxic environment at our workplaces, or spoil our children, or scar them. You would live exactly like an unsaved person.
Instead, we are a bunch of often foolish, imperfect people, resting on something eternally wise.