Simple or Simplistic? Ecclesiastes 12:9-14


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Morning yall. I’m Joe Davis and I’ve been serving as the pastoral intern here at 6:8 since September. So, as I begin, I’d like to start off with a confession. It’s just something I’ve noticed around 6:8 that has really bothered me. I don’t want to sound mean, but I think it’s my duty to say this. So, here goes: I’m sorry Jason and 6:8 but you just can’t call yourself a real church if you don’t have one of those customizable, changeable letter, marquee church signs! How are supposed to tell Ardmore about Jesus without a weird, corny, simplistic slogan that we change every week??? Just imagine how effective our church would be with a sign like this:

[“Hang out with Jesus. He hung for you”]

Or, how about this one?

[“Jesus will make you happy, happy, happy”]

Still not convinced? I saved the best for last.

[“Life scrambled? Jesus specializes in omelets”]

You know, we’ve been exploring the teaching of Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes for the past 11 weeks. Each week we’ve learned something new about what it means to be a wise person. IF we would have had an awesome church sign, we could have put up what we learned each week to remind ourselves, but since we don’t have one, I guess we can just review everything we’ve learned so far.

So, who is the wise person for Koheleth? It’s the one who…

  • surprises us in hopeless situations with the kind of strength that endures, yet is often forgotten
  • embraces all of life and lives in hope
  • has a good name formed in the crucible of life joys and pains
  • invests their resources in the kingdom of God
  • puts limits on desire to find healthy balance
  • lives by promise, not explanation
  • values, sacrifices for & invests in people
  • walks in reliance & faith through life’s seasons
  • understands wisdom as that which makes sense in light of eternity
  • chooses to be happy & does good
  • is not cynical, but hopeful
  • is boldly respectful, full of integrity & obedient to the voice of God

It all seems so simple. Don’t you think? It’s perfect material for a church sign! But, you know, now that I think about, putting this simple wisdom up on a church sign would probably make is seem simplistic, right? But, what’s the difference? What separates simple from simplistic? Good question.

We say something is “simple” when it’s plain, ordinary, easy to understand, clear, or profound. Truth is simple. We say something is “simplistic” when an idea is dumbed down, or an issue is trivialized, when the core of a problem is being avoided. A simplistic response gives the appearance of simplicity by ignoring the complex reality of the situation.

Church signs are almost always simplistic. Compare those signs we saw to the words of “Amazing Grace”: “twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved… twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Simple, profound, beautiful, truth. I don’t think this needs much explanation. The difference between simple and simplistic seems pretty clear.

Leonardo da Vinci described simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication.” Walt Whitman called it “the glory of expression.” Jesus calls us to have the simple faith of a child (Luke 17:18). Simple; not simplistic. I think we’re pretty good at detecting the difference most of the time. But what about this wisdom from Ecclesiastes? Is it simplistic? Or simple? That’s our question this morning.

Our text today is found at the very end of Ecclesiastes. Listen and follow along as I read Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

This passage is known as the epilogue to Ecclesiastes. It refers to Koheleth in the third person, while the rest of the book – except for the very first verse – refers to him in first person. That lets us know that these verses were not written by Koheleth, but by a later author – maybe even two different authors. We’re gonna look at this passage in two sections: verses 9-11 and then verses 12-14. To begin, we’ll take a brief look at the first section, v9-11, and then focus a little more on the second part, v12-14.

In verses 9-11, Koheleth is affirmed and endorsed as a trusted, wise sage. The author says that his wisdom is the real stuff; both pleasing and truthful, artistic and good for instruction. He uses images from animal husbandry to let the reader know that wisdom stings. It mentions a “goad,” which is like a cattle prod, and the reference to “nails” is probably talking about a stick with nails at the end for herding animals. Not exactly a fun image.

In verses 12-14, it gets really interesting. It’s basically saying, “Well, here’s all you need to know about Koheleth and his wisdom in a nice bite-sized, bumper sticker-church sign slogan!” We’ve spent 11 weeks talking on and on about this stuff and it all boils down to these 6 words: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Really? If I were the Jewish student who just sat through weeks (months?) of learning all of Koheleth’s strange, grumpy teachings, I’m gonna be a little frustrated when I come to this verse. “This is Judaism 101! Of course we fear God and keep his commandments! What else is new! Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna to end this way!?!”

It’s so simple. Or, is it simplistic? Most commentators point out that this teaching does not sound like something that Koheleth would say. At no point in Ecclesiastes does Koheleth link the fear of God to the keeping of God’s commandments. You know, Koheleth was a unique guy. One commentator I read described him as one who had “pitched his tent at the far edges of the camp,” meaning that Koheleth’s message was “on the extreme edges of ordinary biblical teachings.” Koheleth says some weird stuff unlike anything else found in the Bible. In light of the radical nature of Koheleth’s teaching, the thinking goes that verses 12-14 were added to intentionally smooth off those uncomfortable, “unauthorized” edges of Koheleth’s hard-to-swallow wisdom. Not that these verses contradict or undermine his teaching; they just reign it in and anchor it in the stream of traditional Old Testament thought. It tightens the ropes on Koheleth’s tent pegs to make sure he stays within the mainstream camp, even if he’s still on the edge a bit. So, is this summary teaching – “Fear God and keep his commandments” – just a simplistic gloss, that tidies up all of Koheleth’s complex, uncomfortable, untraditional, sometimes jarring questions so we can ignore them and move on? Or is it a simple, clear-eyed, profound distillation of Koheleth’s wisdom that should guide us on our own journeys?

The answer? Well, I think it depends. Let’s go back to verses 9-10. They say, “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.” These verses are a ringing endorsement of Koheleth’s wisdom and teaching. But there is something implied here we must be careful not to miss, here it is: this wisdom did not fall from the sky, it was not written in a day, and it’s not a bunch of easy, shallow answers to life’s tough questions. Rather, it is wisdom forged in the fire of intellectual struggle, through repeated crises of faith. It is the end result of a quest for truth, for making sense of the world, a lifelong process of observing, wrestling, and questioning. This guy did the work, he put in the hours, and he found pleasing, truthful words.

What we need to know about Koheleth is that he is “the most real of the realist” of Biblical authors. He is the one “least comfortable with conventional wisdom, and the most willing to challenge its unexamined assumptions.”[1] Let that sink in. Koheleth is a sage; he writes wisdom. Wisdom literature in the Bible is not necessarily about God in the proper sense. It’s more about a human response to the words and acts of God and God’s creation. The books of Job and Proverbs and some Psalms fit into this category. Wisdom writers tried to make sense of life based on observation and practical experience in order to guide human beings into the path of successful living. Sages were about right being and doing – not just about right thinking.

Koheleth doesn’t pull any punches. He’s got real questions and he doesn’t pretend like he has all the answers. In Ecclesiastes 11:5, he admits to feeling a great deal of mystery concerning God: “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” Wow, what an image. Do you know how “the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb”? For Koheleth, knowing the works of God are even beyond that; God is mysterious, fearful for Koheleth. But, he keeps believing and keeps up his search for wisdom even with his uncertainty and his questions. He has a Hebrews 11 kind of faith; he was sure of what he hoped for and certain of things he did not see.

Koheleth doesn’t give up on God. Yes, what happens in this world may seem meaningless, but God holds us all responsible for following our hearts and eyes to find happiness. Throughout his teaching, we hear seven calls to enjoy life and rejoice in the good gifts God has given.[2] Yes, God is mysteriously sovereign, but God is also the giver of gifts that make life joyful. If Ecclesiastes were a song, Koheleth’s repeated cries of “Meaningless! Meaningless!” would be like the bass line, but the melody would be joy! And in any song, it’s the melody carries the theme – not the bass line. Verses 9-11 confirm that Koheleth perseveres through his trials and all his deep, vexing questions about life and God. He not only perseveres, he “counts it all joy” as James would say in the New Testament.[3]

So, back to our question on this teaching: “fear God and keep his commandments.” Is it a clear, profound, and simple teaching or a misleading, shallow, and simplistic slogan? Well, when we consider Koheleth’s life, we see that this teaching is not simplistic at all. He goes through the fire and his faith is refined. He didn’t back down on the hard questions. He wasn’t satisfied with any simplistic answers he was given. He didn’t gloss over the complexities of life. He faced them head on. He stayed the course. At the end of his journey, this is the simple wisdom that has sustained him: he feared God and kept his commandments and found that this path led to a fulfilled, joyful life. “Fear God and keep his commandments” is simply true and not simplistic because Koheleth lives it.

But that’s Koheleth. What about us? We’re obviously in a different situation; our journey is ongoing. We’re still in the thick of it. The ball is in our court. The jury is still out. Will “fear God and keep his commandments” be a bumper sticker for our lives? Just another simplistic slogan we memorize to make ourselves feel better? That’s one choice. I hope we don’t choose it.

Koheleth’s lifelong journey towards wisdom in Ecclesiastes shows us another way. When we live our faith like Koheleth, “Fear God and keep his commandments” can become the foundational, profound, simple truth of our lives as well. Will it be hard? Of course. We’ll be searching for deeper understanding and doing lots of practice, which means that we’ll probably get it wrong on a regular basis. Remember that image of the goad, the cattle prod? Wisdom is about guiding us, prodding us, out into the world where we experience all that it means to be human: joy, pain, sadness, grief, grace, love, forgiveness, and peace. In these experiences with God and each other, we inevitably run into some tough questions; some that may shake us to the core.

Have we really examined ourselves – as both good and sinful? What is the ground of our faith? Do we know why we’re here worshiping this morning? Who is this God we sing and pray to? Has our faith become simplistic? Are our eyes open to the reality of suffering and injustice or do we cover our ears and close our eyes to escape the pain? These are hard questions. I don’t mean to belittle anyone by asking them. These are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too. If these questions are new for you, that’s ok. If you’ve been ignoring them, that’s ok too. It is a scary process. We may come to different answers, we may get hurt a little along the way, but these are the kinds of questions we need to engage if we’re to follow Koheleth’s wise path.

Many of you probably know that today is Palm Sunday, which means Easter is next week, and we’d well to remember the story. This is the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The city is full of excitement for the Passover feast. Then, Jesus arrives – on a donkey! People say he’s the Messiah! The crowds gather and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people of Jerusalem – the disciples even! – thought they knew Jesus. They thought they knew what the Messiah would do. Everyone had their expectations; many felt sure that he would overthrow the Roman rule and liberate them. But, they were all very, very wrong. By the end of the week, their shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned into “Crucify!” How does this happen? What allows a person to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday? I think at least one major component is an unexamined faith built on simplistic slogans that we “know” in our heads but do not live out, and test, and refine in the everyday experiences of our life together.

Fear God and keep his commandments. Is it simple? Or simplistic? That depends on our response. As we submit ourselves to the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit, here’s a few things we should keep in mind about this teaching.

First, the word “and” doesn’t quite capture the depth of the connection between what it means “fear God” and “keep his commandments.” It makes it seem like you could have one without the other. However, the fear of God is evidenced by the doing of God’s commandments. But, can you really do God’s commandments without fearing God? Maybe you could for a while, but it probably wouldn’t last. The only person who can really do God’s commandments in a meaningful, sustained way is the person who fears God. You can’t separate the “doing” from the “being.” You can’t be a person who fears God without doing God’s commands and you can’t really do God’s commands without being a person who fears God. The “whole duty of everyone” is both “being” people who fear God and “doing” God’s commandments – all at the same time. We have to remember that our being and our doing are intimately connected; one necessarily affects the other.

As Westerners, we naturally focus on the “doing” part. We like “action steps.” So, we should probably begin with the “being” part. How do we begin to be people who “fear God”? Well, I mentioned earlier that this teaching was added in order to integrate Ecclesiastes into a more traditional, mainstream understanding of Old Testament faith. As it turns out, this teaching is almost literally straight out of Deuteronomy. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, God made a covenant, a deeply binding promise, with them. This covenant had laws attached to it that Israel agreed to abide by. They would be God-fearing people by “doing” the commandments contained in the covenant. In the context of a covenant relationship, “fear of God” is about loyalty to the covenant; it is the same as “love” and “service” and ultimately, it’s about worship. This is not the fear that creates distance, but the love that keeps us together in covenanted community. Of course, Israel didn’t live within the covenant. They failed again and again, but God remained faithful. Then, in Jesus Christ, God showed his great faithfulness once and for all. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God invites all people into a new covenant life through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been included in a new promise.

Now, it’s important to remember that God’s promises were with a people – not with individuals. We are called to live today as the body of Christ; many members, but one body. So how do we become people who fear God? We start by living in covenant, in promise, with each other. We call this community. It happens as we look each other eye to eye and confess our need for one another, that we’re in this together, that God has chosen us to be his people, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]. We can’t become people who fear God on our own because loving, serving, and worshiping God is impossible outside of a covenanted promise with God and with other people. God has called us to be a people who make and keep promises to each other. Praise God! Our promises are not dependent on our own faithfulness, but on the power of our God who is always faithful. Will we break our promises? Sure, but God is ready to forgive us. We must be ready to forgive each other as well as we do God’s commands with “fear and trembling”[5] together in community. Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Nope.

I think the “doing” part is actually a little easier to wrap our heads around. When this teaching about doing God’s commandments was written, it would have referred to the Mosaic law found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Since we unfortunately don’t have time to look through all those wonderful books of the Bible, we’ll just use one of Jesus’ statements. When someone asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[6] Only a person who fears God would do this command. Is it simple? Yes. Easy? No, not at all.

As we come to close, we need to recognize that we’re all at different places in our journey with God and with each other. If you come out to the Ignite class after church on April 8th, Lindley will be teaching you a very helpful model for how to understand the spiritual journey. According to this model, some of us are just in awe of God right now and soaking it all in, others are wanting to learn all they can, still others are leaders and teachers. Then there are some who have left leadership behind for a more inward journey, a few may feel like they’ve hit a wall – I think Koheleth hit lots of walls – but there could be some, who, like Koheleth, have made it through the wall and have been made new, who feel God’s love like never before and only want to serve God and others with all that they are.

Wherever we are on this journey, Koheleth’s life gives us a sure sign to guide us: fear God and keep his commandments. Our personal responses will not be the same, but they should all be pointing in this same direction. Will this be the simple truth that under girds our life of active faith lived out as a community in Ardmore, Havertown, and beyond? This is our whole duty. In the power of Holy Spirit, let’s be it; let’s do it – together.


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Old Testament Survey, “Ecclesiastes,” 249.

[2] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.

[3] James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 132-136.

[4] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV.

[5] Philippians 2:12.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40.

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