The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 14: Nearing the end of the Journey.
We are nearing the end of the journey anyway. Assuming that we do not have am unexpected heart attack or stroke or other unexpected grave illness, one day we shall discover that we are not the person we used to be. We do not move as quickly as we used to; we do not remember things as well as we used to; all sorts of stiffnesses afflict us; other people don’t seem to want to use us to do things as much. We are getting old. One day, now not so far away we shall die. This raises two questions: 1) how well shall we cope with the downgrade of our life; 2) what will happen when we die. This chapter is about the first of those, the next is about the second.
There has never been a better statement of how life downgrades than that in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes. Here it is together with some explanations:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”— (that is when life begins to be a bit of a struggle)
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop, (when your legs are not as strong as they used to be and your back is bent)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (your teeth fall out)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (your eyesight grows dim)
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades; (you hearing is not very good)
when people rise up at the sound of birds, (you don’t sleep so well)
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets; (you can’t take the risk you used to take)
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred. (sexual desire has faded)
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets. (and finally you die)
Isn’t that brilliant? It must be about the best poetic description of old age ever written. Unless some accident or sudden illness takes us away that is what lies in front of all of us. Modern medicine means that in many parts of the world people now live far longer than they used to and consequently experience much more of the slow failing of one’s body than people used to.
But the fundamentally important question is what does it all say to us? What is the constructive part of the message of the writer and of the God who lies behind the writer?
To ask the question is equivalent to asking what the next verse after those means: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”, but even that is not a great deal of help because it is very hard to be sure what the Hebrew word ‘hebel’ that the NIV translates as ‘meaningless’ really means. Many translations, like the NIV, have gone for words like meaningless, or vanity or useless, which is rather odd since the writer clearly does not think that what he is saying is meaningless or useless.
Let’s go back to the basic meaning of the word which is that like a cloud on the top of a hill it is insubstantial, difficult to see through and wont last long. So now we are being told that old age is not an easy thing to get hold of, difficult to work your way through and wont last for ever – all of which makes good sense.
Looked at in isolation that all seems rather bleak. But it is different if we put it in the context the writer intended. The next few verses say:
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
And before we got to these verses we read this in the preceding chapter:
Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.
…. So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.”
Go for it, the writer says. Make the most of life, even when it is on the down slope. Don’t give up. Rejoice in your Saviour and all he has brought to you and promises still to bring.
Jesus said: “don’t worry about your life – what to eat, what to drink; don’t worry about your body what to wear. There’s more to life than food! There’s more to the body than a suit of clothes? Have a good look at the birds in the sky. They don’t plant seeds, they don’t bring in the harvest, they don’t store things in barns – and your father in heaven feeds them! Think how different you are from them! Can any of you add 30 cms to your height just by worrying about it? Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
So don’t worry away with your ‘What’ll we eat? ’ and ‘What’ll we drink? ’ and ‘ What’ll we wear? ’ Instead make your top priority God’s kingdom and his way of life and all these things will be given to you as well.”