Tonight, a fairy comes to your house. Gives you two options: A million dollars or joy. Choose one. Or maybe he customizes. He comes to each of our homes, we are 25 years older, let’s say, if you can imagine that. And he customizes the question. For some it’s a million dollars or joy. For others it’s a major role in a blockbuster film or joy. For others it’s a beach house or joy. It’s a happy family or joy. A loving marriage or joy. A Ph.D. or whatever it is that you would put in the blank. If I had ____, I feel like I would really be happy. And the fairy gives you this option. you can have this or joy.
And here’s the struggle with questions like that because as Americans typically we don’t want to choose. We want it all, right? So, we begin to think, now listen if I got the million dollars that would pay off all my debts, I could share some money with friends, I’d have friends for the first time. I could do all these good things, so I’d feel good about myself.
So, I would end up with joy, so give me the million. Because if I just get joy I might miss the million. But if I get the million I’m going to get the joy. If I have a beach house I’m going to have friends over, we’re again had some good…
If I get the major role, if I get the NFL contract which I’m still counting on then then I’ll get joy. And this is often how we think, right? Maybe not articulated but deep down most of us believe that there’s something that’s waiting out there that if we had that, something we’re pursuing, if we had that I’d be a pretty happy person. I would have joy.
What ecclesiastics is basically screaming for 12 chapters is, “let’s stop pretending.” We’re duping ourselves. Stop pretending that getting a prestigious position, having lots of friends, a happy family, money in the bank, health, whatever it is, a beach house, that that actually is going to provide a sustaining, transforming joy. And Solomon ends, look back to where Ryan ended last week in chapter 11:9 with this plea to young people rejoice. Ecclesiastes 11:9-
Oh young man in your youth and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Now there is a chance that what he means by that judgment, it’s a judgment of joy. It’s a possible interpretation. As one third century Jewish writer wrote of this verse, man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy. It’s a judgment of joy.
So therefore “Remove vexation” [liposuction anxiety] “from your heart.” [Tension, angst from your heart.] “Put away pain from your body [for evil] from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.”
And this is where we pick up verse 1,
“Remember [before you forget] also your Creator in the days of your youth.”
And here’s the key word if you haven’t underlined this and you do underline in your Bible, you may want to underline that next word, “before.” “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say I have no pleasure in them.” Verse 2, “Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened.” Verse six “Before the silver cord is snapped.” Everything he says in there is related to before. You need to do something before something else happens.
So, that’s why I titled this message and really the theme of this passage is “Find Joy First.” Do something – finding joy – before something else happens. Don’t wait. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that people can get you this or that circumstances can produce this or that if only you’re lying to yourself if you think that. Get joy first. Even if a fairy comes to you and offers you something else, don’t buy it. Because whatever else you have on your to do list today, get joy first.
Our nation is currently experiencing the fruit of pursuing the opposite. When my kids were first starting to go into public school, and my last kid graduated from high school a week or two ago. Hard to believe. …Not hard to believe. I was 8 when I had my first child. But when they were first starting to go into public high school, and we had done everything we could do to prepare them for this journey through school, one of the main warnings in those final chats before, it was talks about joy because public school, any school, but public school will seek to suck the joy out of your heart. Sad is in. Glad is not. If you’re happy, you’re superficial.
So, you got to have that – I can’t even do it because I’m not cool enough – but you got to have that cool, dead look to you. Everything is horrible but I’m dealing with it. And you don’t get it. But I get it. Nobody else gets it. Only I get it. And so, you get to go through looking sad. And so, we just said, listen we’re going to have to pull you out if you do the sad thing because whatever else you do in life, find joy first. Don’t wait till you finish middle school. Don’t wait till you graduate from high school. Don’t wait till you make it big in your job or you have a happy marriage or somehow you’ve got a big chunk of money you can retire on. If you try that, joy will never come. Find joy first. And by joy, I don’t mean sappy, happy, silly. Because the world has this kind of happiness. It’s usually induced by alcohol, requires lots of lubrication and movies and music and all sorts of other things to keep you from actually thinking about what real joy is. I’m not talking about fake happiness. I’m talking about a deep kind of joy that puts something under your feet.
There’s solidity and stability, and you don’t have to blend in with everybody around you to keep, and it’s what Solomon is talking about. And our world is missing it. Just think about some of the latest stats. 30% of teenagers reported prolonged feelings of hopelessness. The number of children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and self-harm has doubled between 2008 and 2015. That’s a small amount of time for such a drastic increase. In 2016 45,000 Americans ages 10 and up died by suicide. 45,000. 26 were killed in school shootings the same year. Now that’s 26 too many. But 45,000 died by suicide. Suicide rates have risen 30% in every racial and age category since 1999, and this is interesting, except among elderly 75 years and up, the only age group that has not seen an increase.
Now we can talk about smartphones because there does seem to be a correlation in 2012 when smartphone ownership crossed the 50% line, these numbers seemed to jump with more screen time. Depression and all the rest, we can talk about mental illness, a lot of factors. Not trying to over simplify it. But at the root there is a deep despair at a time when no one in history has had so much, so many possessions and pleasures, you can say has had it so easy in one sense and yet no joy.
And it’s a huge message that if you start with anything else other than joy in God, to remember our Creator who made us and knows how we find joy. If you start anywhere else, it’s going to lead to bad places. This is essentially what Habakkuk came to in Habakkuk 3:17-18-
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no there no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
What is Habakkuk doing here? He is saying in our words,
“Though my bank account is empty, and my body is full of disease, I have no friends on Facebook, no likes on Instagram, my family is falling apart, my bank account is empty, I am finding joy in God first before I’m looking to any of these things to stabilize or satisfy me.
It’s the same thing Paul said. Philippians 3:1, he says “Finally brothers, rejoice in the Lord.”
And again, by that he doesn’t mean pretend you’re happy when you’re not. When he’s talking about rejoice the Lord, it’s where do you go when everything else fails and falls apart? What is the foundation of your life, your righteousness, your standing before God, your sanity? What does everything else rest on? And you see it a couple of verses later because he says, ”
Whatever gain I had I count it as lost for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I’ve suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish [think vanity] in order that I may gain Christ.
And he goes on to explain that doesn’t come through your performance. It doesn’t come from you’ve finally done enough it comes to faith in Christ Jesus alone. And the entire book of Ecclesiastes points us there. The entire Bible points us there. We began our study of Ecclesiastes with a quotation from George Bernanos. He said “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must lose hope in everything that does.” So, Solomon is essentially saying, don’t do what I did. Don’t live your life experimenting in everything to see if you can find a meaningful joy, and then you come to the end of your life, and you look at it, and you go “What a waste.”
Don’t do that. Find joy first. Please, he is arguing.
Now why? And he’s going to give us a couple of reasons. The first one’s going to be really obvious. The second two I’m going to try to summarize the ending of Ecclesiastes by highlighting one aspect. So why get joy first?
Number 1. It gets harder. If you wait thinking my life is so complicated right now, I’m going to do this later. He is warning us it actually gets harder later. Terry Pratchett said, “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” Is that not so? There are different versions of that, but essentially inside every old person is a young person going “What in the world just happened?” And Solomon is saying, hey that’s coming. But before that comes, find joy.
And he does this, look at verse one again, “Remember also your Creator.” It’s interesting he’s highlighting the fact that he made you. “In the days of your youth, before the evil days come, the days draw near of which you will say I have no pleasure in them.” So, he made us. He knows the source of real joy.
And then in verse two he begins to paint a poetic picture of aging, and he weaves together two images; that of a storm and that of a house. And we want to be careful not to lose ourselves in the details of the images because the overall message is quite clear. But I can’t resist highlighting a few aspects, so let’s read together this amazing picture of aging. Verse 2, “Do this [find joy] before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened. And the clouds return after the rain.” Now did you catch something there? Usually what comes after the rain? Yeah you picture the sun coming out. But here it’s like the clouds are coming back after the rain.
It’s like when you’re a young person you may go through hard things. We all do. But typically, there is some hope that the sun is going to come up, you’re actually going to see a season of improvement or optimism. What he’s describing here is the clouds are actually coming back. You’re going from hard thing to hard thing, from one storm to another storm, from one doctor’s appointment to another doctor’s appointment, to where you wonder is my life basically reverting back to the very beginning when I was a newborn when basically I ate I drank, I use the bathroom, and then I get to go to doctor’s appointments.
He’s talking about this storm and repeat. Kidner says faculties fade, friends are taken, and familiar customs are abandoned. And here’s the challenge, because things are changing all the time. But when things change when we’re young we have a certain degree of resiliency. But things are changing so fast while our resiliency is in decline our buoyancy is decreasing while the changes are increasing. That’s that perfect storm he is describing here. Verse 3, “In the day when the keepers of the house tremble.” What’s that referring to? The keepers of the house typically referring to the hands, the arms that basically take care of you. They begin to tremble.
Verse 3, second part, “And the strong men are bent [legs], and the grinder cease because they are few [the teeth are disappearing], and those who look through the windows are dimmed.” What’s that? Our eyes. We start losing vision. Verse 4, “And the doors on the street are shut when the sound of grinding is low.” Probably referring to the mouth closing in as the teeth are gone. This is pre-denture time with closing in of the mouth. “And one rises up at the sound of a bird.” What’s that talking about? Insomnia, erratic sleep. Go to bed early but wake up at like 3 in the morning. “And all the daughters of song are brought low,” which is ironic considering what he just said. You know the hearing, sounds become soft but shriller. So, you’re not hearing some things, and you are hearing others. Verse 5, “They are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way.”
So, every time we go to a stadium to watch one of my kids play soccer or whatever with my parents-in-laws, and I’m helping my father-in-law up these cement steps, it’s terrifying. Because when you’re a kid you fall about every 1.3 seconds. You’re down and your back up. And every once in a while, you get a boo boo and you put a Band-Aid on, kiss it and you’re good. I mean it’s healed within a minute. And as you age you go down like that, and you’re not getting up. A fall can be a broken hip, which can lead to pneumonia, which can be months in the hospital. And so, what he’s describing here is they’re afraid also of what is high. They don’t want to be in precarious places. And terrors are in the way. They don’t want to be in fast moving crowds. And young people don’t even think about that. They’re bobbing and weaving, knocking canes. They’re not thinking about that. But as we age we begin to think about that.
“And the almond tree blossoms.” What’s that referring to? The hair turning white. “The grasshopper also, the grasshopper drags itself along.” What a picture here. The spring and speed of youth turns to a crawl and desire fails. Eventually near the end of our lives the desire for food and sex shrinks. Why? “Because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.” So, God is preparing us for a journey to another place. Verse 6, he begins for more images,
Two pairs. Before the silver cord is snapped or the golden bowl is broken,” [That’s a picture of a golden valuable bowl hanging by a silver cord that snaps, picturing life is valuable yet fragile.] Second part “Or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain or the wheel broken at the cistern.” If you think of a well, the wheel that pulls up the pitcher, the wheel collapses, the pitcher breaks, what was operative is now useless in death. Verse 7, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was.” So here he’s linking us back to Genesis 3, the fall, the curse, from dust to dust, and really what’s happening is a reversal of Genesis 2:7 where God breathed into the nostrils the breath of life, man became animated came alive. And now at death the opposite is happening. He gives, and he takes away. And the spirit (second part of verse 7) returns to God who gave it at death.
Verse 8, Solomon goes back where he began. “Vanity of vanities says the preacher. All is vanity.” What does he mean? Our spirits with all the vanity of our relatively short lives returns back to the giver of life, and he takes our meaningless, useless lives, and he makes them useful. He makes them meaningful.
So, the point of all this is do this before this happens. Get joy first. His point is not, if you don’t get saved when you’re a kid you can never get saved, because that’s not true. But our lives are like Play-Doh, aren’t they? The older Play-Doh gets the less flexible, less malleable, formable.
My grandfather lived an amazing life. But he was not a Christian for most of it. Not a believer for most of it. When my sister and I who were the first ones saved in our family became Christians, we began sharing the gospel with parents, siblings, family, and I’ll never forget the response I got from my grandfather. So, I’m a teenager. He’s an amazing man. But I’m going to him saying, “Gramp, you’re a sinner in need of a Savior.” And he blew me off. What are you talking about? My grandfather was a nice guy relatively speaking, and for him to recognize that I’m a sinner in need of a Savior was deeply offensive.
So, years go by, and as he was watching the change in our lives God began to soften his heart. And I believe he trusted Christ before he died. I mean he confessed Christ. But one of the things that he used to share with me near the end of his life that I just found so tragic what he would say, “Peter, I have wasted my life.” And I’d say, “Gramp, no. You’ve had an amazing life.” And think of this guy. He grew up on a 10,000-acre ranch in Saskatchewan, Canada. He rode his horse to school. Think of the excuses you could have for not making it. And then he’s down in Panama and he’s all over the place. And he ends up becoming a stunt pilot where Logan Airport is now in Boston, open cockpit, spins and all that. And then building high rises downtown. He did everything, but he would say over and over again I’ve done everything, and I’ve wasted my life. And there’s something that Solomon is getting at.
If you start by doing everything but not having joy with the one person who made you for himself, in one sense it’s a waste. And it goes by like that. So what Solomon is saying is, don’t wait, young people. And in one sense don’t over define young, because in some sense he’s talking about, if you still have not fully experienced all that he has described, in one sense you’re young. Because the young thing is all relative. Like just try. I’m in my 50s. Just try to say something about aging to an 80-year-old. They just look at you and go, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Don’t tell me about your pains and groans increase.” So, aging is relative. But he’s looking at us and he’s saying, wherever you are right now, find joy first.
Find joy first. Don’t wait. Kill those deceptions that there will be a time when you will naturally find joy because it actually gets harder.
Number 2, why find joy right now? First because it actually gets more confusing, it gets more confusing. Now I know Solomon is wrapping up his letter here, his book. But embedded in this are some clues that he’s still beating on the same drum.
Let’s read this, verse 9. “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge.” So, his point there is, I wasn’t just curious, I was also pastoral. I taught for the benefit of others what I learned. And he gives his methodology, weighing and studying and arranging. He assessed, he researched, he organized, and even organized it artistically. “Many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.” So, it wasn’t just truth or just artistry. He was seeking to bring them together. Verse 11, “The words of the wise are like goads,” that is the stick or the rod that is used to prod cattle or mules, “and nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings.”
Picture building a little house, young people picture building a little house without nails, stacking it all together, and then build a house with nails, nail it together and then push both over and see what happens. So obviously nails provide a stability, something that will last in the midst of opposition. That’s his point here. The words of the wise both stimulate and stabilize. And the reason they stimulate and stabilize is because they are given, end of verse 11, by one shepherd, one shepherd. So, wherever these words came from, if are truth they come ultimately from this one shepherd. And so, he says in verse 12, “My son, beware of anything beyond these.” These words that come from our shepherd. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is weariness of soul – weariness of the flesh.”
That’s why I think he’s still on the same discussion – find joy first – because he’s still addressing young people, and he’s saying, hey listen. It’s going to get harder. But also, if you just think you can accumulate more information and suddenly you’re going to come to a place where you’re going to get it all, it’s all going to be clear, it actually gets fuzzier. Ask anybody with multiple degrees, depending on the area. The more you learn, the more you learn you don’t know much, things that really matter.
And so, Solomon is saying, “Don’t buy the lie that if I can just get a high school diploma, if I can just get a college degree, if I can get a masters, I get a Ph.D., I’m going to be brilliant. Wait. No, what we’re talking about is much more fundamental than that. “There are endless books, much study is awareness of the flesh.” That was my life verse in college. He’s not knocking reading widely. The old country preacher that would say, “You only need one book. The Bible.”
He’s not saying it’s a waste of time to read widely. But when push comes to shove, where do you find words of life, truth, joy? What is your reliable source of what is true in this world? And he’s saying it comes from one Shepherd. One shepherd. He has words of life. When the disciples were leaving Jesus, remember? And Jesus turned them and said, “Are you leaving, too?” I mean everybody. All these people were leaving Jesus, and Jesus said, are you going to go too? And they said, “Where else are we going to go? You’re the only one that has the words of life. And people find joy first, they know that. You can go do anything in the world. I mean have at it. God has created a big wide world to explore, do research, learn, grow, fix, dig wells, rescue slaves, do all these amazing things. But find joy first. Otherwise it just keeps getting more confusing.
If you don’t nail down your source of joy, you will be knocked down by every new wave of fashionable theory. It gets more confusing.
Number 3, he’s wrapping it all up. It all comes down to one thing, verse 13.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
He’s bringing it all together. This source of sustaining joy only comes from one place and the end of the matter. And Jacques Ellul, a French writer, says it so well here. Fear God, listen to his Word. This is the summary. “Fear God, listen to his Word. This is the only fixed, stable point.” Everything else is moving. “All of the person is reduced to this – all; that is, apart from this, a person is nothing in himself. He also amounts to a breath… We find no compromises here, no gray areas. The thing that gives us existence, truth, and reality, the thing that suddenly creates us, is our relationship with God. This relationship constitutes the whole person,” the end of the matter, since stripping him of it leaves him with nothing else: we’ve found that everything else was vanity.”
This is an all-encompassing vision of life. It changes everything. Awe of God and his Word breathes life, brings meaning to everything we are and do. And it gives us a compelling vision. Why is vision so important? Read Matt Perman’s relatively new book How to Get Unstuck. He talks about vision, he talks about how vision keeps us from just reacting to the urgent, living a life that’s just bouncing off whoever’s clamoring the most, all those reasons. But the third reason he gives, third or fourth, is it frees us from being control freaks.
And Solomon’s talked a lot about that. How does it do that? Listen to what Steven Covey wrote. “Without the passion of vision, ‘discipline’ is regimentation and restraint – control yourself, grit your teeth, white knuckle your way through life.” And many, young people listen to me. Many of you have tried this, and you’re like “I don’t want to just be driven to obey, compelled to comply.” And I say that that’s not joyful.
But what he’s talking about here is a vision of life that doesn’t shove, it woos. It draws. People with vision have a picture of where they’re going that actually draws them through seasons of great suffering. Think of Jesus in Hebrews 12, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” That is compelling. And young people, if you don’t have that, you’re going to need a baby sitter. Whether your baby sitter is your parents now or later a boss or a jailer, prison guard. You’re going to need a babysitter for your whole life. People are going to have to tell you what to do.
What Solomon is saying is “No, there’s something much bigger. You find joy first. You don’t need a babysitter, because the Spirit from within is bearing this fruit and is drawing you. That’s what vision does. Vision compels us, constrains us, woos us, doesn’t just shove us. It’s a sign of real maturity. The psalmist addresses this in Psalm 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” You get someone that’s tasted that, there’s nothing like it. Nothing like it. Psalm 90:14, “Satisfy us early [some of the translations say early] “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Moses is saying, start early. Start early in your life, start early in your day. Find joy for us.
George Muller used to say, “My first job in the morning is to get happy in God.” That’s it. He’s got thousands of orphans to care for. Tons of pressures. No no no. My first job isn’t to figure all that out, it’s to get alone with God. Find joy first. Find joy first. Because then the rest of the day there’s an energy source that comes not from your circumstances or the people you hang out with, but from the one who made you for himself. So, what do we do? Just two simple things.
Number 1 reject the lie that blank is going to lead to joy. Whatever it is with you. Each of you is different. You know what it is. If you stop and think about it right now, if there’s something you’re believing, that if you could get a healthy body, or get through this season, or accomplish this task, or get to this place financially, or solve these problems relationally, somehow that’s going to bring joy. No. Kill that lie. The thing you may want is a good thing maybe. But it’s not going to give you joy. So, kill the deception.
And then secondly, embrace joy. Joy in God. The fruit of the spirit is love, what’s next? Joy. He bears this fruit in us. Yes, we fight for joy. Yes, we are commanded to pursue joy, but for some of us our biggest struggle is believing that joy is always around the next corner. And like we procrastinate many other things, we can easily procrastinate joy. So, I want to ask you to do something now that some of you may feel comfortable with, some not. But we didn’t come to church to be comfortable, I hope. But as I pray, if what I’m saying the Spirit of God is doing or has been doing in your heart, I want you to speak.
You know how the Bible talks about bearing witness? Two or three witnesses? So, as I pray, you tell God out loud. Yeah this. This is true for me. Now I know we have way too many people who grew up in the kind of background where that is immediately assumed to be chaotic. But I want to tell you something. To God it is not at all. He hears every cry, and we want to bear witness so don’t be passive. If you’re saying today I’m ready to kill the lies of false joy and claim the promises of real joy in God through Christ. I know it’s going to be a lifelong experience of learning to live in that joy. But I’m in. I’m in. Then for you it may be. Yes. Can you say, yes to the Spirit of God? Amen if that sounds more spiritual. Whatever you want to say. Let’s talk to him, and let’s talk to him together. Don’t look like a pastor can’t do this for you. You have to say, this is what I want. Nobody else can. Your parents can’t do this for you. You have to say it. So, let’s pray.
Father we come to you in the name of Jesus, and we are committed to kill the lies that kill joy, that promise false joys, Lord, and all of us are thinking of different things that we tend to believe will give us joy. And right now, hundreds of people are saying, Lord I’m not going to put my confidence in that. I reject the deception that if I could only have blank I would have joy. No, Lord. We want joy first. The joy of the Lord is our strength. We don’t even have strength to fight for joy without the joy that you bear in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. So, Lord we are asking you for the humility and the wisdom to see what we shouldn’t be trusting in, and then Lord you show us the path of life.
In your presence, there is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures for evermore. Jesus you promised in John 15 that you gave us your word so that your joy may be in us and that our joy may be full. Lord please hear the cries of our hearts. We want that full joy. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to suffer. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have down days. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to have a smile on our faces. But deep in our souls, there is a shalom. There is a wholeness. There is a peace. There is a sustaining joy. We pray that you would fill us with that. Lord, no matter what happens in our culture, Lord we are no longer slaves of fear as we prayed earlier.
We are not slaves of fear. We are your children, and we thank you. And Lord I pray, we pray together for those who haven’t tasted this joy. There may be some in here who have never tasted this joy, and it just seems so foreign, it’s like eating foreign food that they’ve never tasted. Please Lord let them today taste and see that you are good, and Lord that you love to give your children joy. And once they taste that Lord, the garbage of this world is seen and tasted as it really is, toxic. It’s like sucking up toxic water. Lord we don’t want that. A so Lord send us from here today a joyful people for your glory, in Jesus name.