Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
THE LORD COUNSELS HIS YOUTHFUL CHILDREN TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE LIFE HE GIVES.
I John 2:12-17
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 40:3 (After profession of faith)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
By the grace of the Lord our God, eleven young people may today make profession of their faith in Jesus Christ. By making profession of the faith, these eleven declare their love for the Lord and their intent to serve Him all the days of the lives. As such, they take on themselves the responsibility to serve God according to His word; they accept that they themselves need to answer to God for what they do.
That reality raises the question: what conduct is legitimate for you? How should you, as young people who profess the faith, live? Can you still make the most of this life, enjoy it to the full, or should you keep away from (some of) the fun, be ‘prunes’? Should you as young Christians who state your love for the Lord live as if it’s wonderful to be alive, or should you stay away from this and stay away from that and give the impression that life is more work than fun, more responsibility than enjoyment, more rules than liberty?
I raise the question on purpose. One hears sounds to the effect that the life of the Christian is dull, dull because you can’t do this and can’t do that. These are voices one hears not only from outside the church; one hears it also within. Being a Christian is made out to mean that you can’t really get your adrenalin going….
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes answers this question. Inspired by the Spirit of God, this Teacher in Israel counsels young people to make the most of life, to enjoy their young days much. It’s the words of our text: "rejoice, O young man, in your youth…, walk in the ways of your heart, And in the sight of your eyes." We’d say: Go for it!
I use this morning this theme:
THE LORD COUNSELS HIS YOUTHFUL CHILDREN TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE LIFE HE GIVES.
1. "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth…," says the text, "Walk in the ways of your heart, And in the sight of your eyes." And I hear you say: does the Preacher of Ecclesiastes really mean that? Would he have us, would he have our young people, to live it up, to make the most of their young lives? We have learned from Scripture that our hearts are sinful –is folly not bound up in the heart of the youth?– and so we are more comfortable with a word as found, eg, in Num 15:
"…you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined" (vs 39).
And Prov 3:
"My son, do not forget my law,
But let your heart keep My commandments….
Lean not on your own understanding…,
Do not be wise in your own eyes…" (vss 1,5,7).
To tell our youth that they can live it up: we’re horrified at the thought of the wild excesses we’re sure our younger members would give themselves to if they were told they walk in the ways of their hearts and in the sight of their eyes! Even the older of us would give ourselves to some pretty descriptive activities if we could do whatever we felt like doing. So we’re sure: the Preacher can’t really mean what he says in our text. To ‘live it up’ is contrary to the rest of Scripture.
So it is, brothers and sisters, that for many years our text was understood in reformed circles as irony, as if the Preacher didn’t really mean what he said here. And the proof that the Preacher wouldn’t mean what he says in this text would be the concluding words of vs 9:
"But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment."
So: you’d better not do what you feel like doing, because the judgment looms on the horizon, and "it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
But is this indeed, congregation, young people, what the author of Ecclesiastes is saying? Is he on the one hand telling you to do what you’d like, and on the other reminding you of God’s coming judgment and so reminding you that you’d better behave? Would the Preacher have the youth of the church determine their conduct through their fear of God’s judgment? As it turns out, beloved, this is not what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes means. That becomes clear when we consider the identity of the young man of our text.
Our translations picture the words of our text as being addressed to a "young man". In itself this translation is accurate enough; the word used here does mean "young man". But the reference is not to just any teenager as such (or any person in his young ’20’s, for that matter); the reference is rather to choice young men. For the word that’s used here means literally ‘chosen one’. So the word appears frequently in the contexts of battle; the soldiers serving in the army are "select men" (cf Judges 20:15f), the best of the lot, the able and daring, and that in turn tends to end up being the "young men".
In our text, though, the reference is not to youth hand-picked for battle. One can be hand-picked, selected to do more things than fight in the king’s army. One can also be hand-picked, selected by God Himself for service in His kingdom (cf Dt 4:37; 10:15; I K 8:16; I Chr 28:4; Ps 65:4; 78:68; etc). I think, for example, of Ps 65:
"Blessed is the man whom You choose…,
> That he may dwell in your courts" (vs 4).
And David’s words to Israel in I Chron 28:
"…the Lord God of Israel chose me above all the house of my father to be king over Israel forever…" (vs 4).
In both instances we come across the same word as appears in our text: a man chosen for something. Yet in our text the reference is distinctly to a young person as opposed to an older person; that’s clear from the instruction to "let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth." This, then, is the young man mentioned in our text: this is not just a somebody told to enjoy his youth and follow the dictates of his young heart; this is instead the young man hand-picked by God Himself, selected, to be His, a young man strong in the Lord. That’s the identity of the young man of our text.
To say it in today’s terms: the young man of our text is he who makes profession of faith, is those who (though young) are so strong in the Lord that they dare to say Yes, they love the Lord and want to serve Him. O no, what makes them strong is not that they have more spiritual muscle or more brawn than other youth; they rather are strong because of the Lord’s renewing work in the hearts of these youth. These youth have been changed by the work of the Holy Spirit so that they are not dead in sin as they were born to be; they are rather made alive, reborn, so that they love God with all their heart and soul and strength.
The apostle John speaks of the youth of the church in the same way in the passage we read from his first letter. The aged apostle speaks to the youth in the congregation and says of these "young people" that they "have overcome the wicked one" (vs 13). The point is not that these youth in the congregation on their own strength have battled the devil and triumphed; we know from Scripture that neither young nor old are able on own strength to overcome the devil. The point is rather that these youth have been chosen by God for the privilege of sharing in Christ’s victory on Calvary, and so they can be described as already victorious. These young people have been recreated through the work of the Holy Spirit, they are young men different from the youth of the world, are God’s young men, picked, chosen. And because God has given them His Holy Spirit John can say to them that they "are strong", that "the word of God abides in" them (vs 14). To say it with the Form for the Public Profession of Faith: these are they who "love the Lord God", these are they whose "heartfelt desire" it is "to serve Him according to His Word, to forsake the world, and to crucify [their] old nature." These are they who "firmly resolve to commit [their] whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of His Church." Indeed, young people in whom God has worked by Christ’s renewing Spirit.
2. If this, now, is the identity of the "young man" of our text –he’s not just any young person, but rather one picked by God and so renewed by God’s Holy Spirit– we can consider now our second point: the conduct of the young man.
The Preacher encourages the young man of our text to "rejoice…in [his] youth." The Preacher goes farther to explain also how this young man is to rejoice in his youth. He should, says the Preacher, "let [his] heart cheer [him]," should "walk in the ways of [his] heart, And in the sight of [his] eyes." I’ve mentioned earlier some passages from Scripture wherein people are told not to walk in the desires of their heart, since that heart is so deceitful (Num 15:39; Prov 3:1ff). Consider again those words from Num 15:
"…you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined" (vs 39).
But given the identity of the young man of our text, we understand that there is no contradiction between our text and the other passages I quoted. For the Preacher is not addressing youth as such (as if any and all youth are to follow the urges of their hearts); the Preacher is addressing those young men (and women) who have been picked by God for renewal in the Spirit, those selected to be strong in Christ so that with Christ they have overcome the evil one. To these the Preacher says: you go ahead, walk in the ways of your heart….
Certainly, these youth have not been perfected, sin remains a very real enemy. But –to use Jeremiah’s words– these are they upon whose heart God has written His law (Jer 31:33). Or, as John says it, "the word of God abides in" them (I Jn 2:14). Such youth are not wanting to follow the remaining sinfulness of their hearts; renewed in their hearts as they are, they want instead to do what is pleasing to their Lord and Saviour. In the words of Ps 1:
"…his delight is in the law of the Lord" (vs 2).
And Ps 40:
"I delight to do Your will, O my God,
And Your law is within my heart" (vs 8).
As the apostle Paul says:
"I delight in the law of God according to the inward man" (Rom 7:22).
Such chosen ones, though still young, have no pleasure in sinning, they fight against sin, they strive to put to death the sinful inclinations that remain within them. And fighting sin isn’t a burden for them; being renewed as they are by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, such a child of the Lord delights to "live according to the will of God in all good works" (LD 33.90).
When such a youth, then, is told to walk in the ways of his heart and in the sight of his eyes, he certainly receives no licence to do whatever evil the heart of man may conceive. God remains God, holy, and never does He encourage anyone to sin in peace. The youth of our text is instead told to live out of the desire of his renewed heart, and so serve the Lord happily and eagerly.
Here, then, is an instruction for living that is ultimately rooted in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Life by itself, and the hearts of people also, knows so much sin, and all that sin brings God’s heavy wrath on the sinner. In the days of the Preacher –and it’s rather the same in our day– people saw but little sense in life, saw no meaning to existence. That particular philosophy of the Preacher’s day found expression in two forms: on the one hand some of those who saw no sense in life involved themselves in anything and everything, from amassing many houses and much money to having many women and being spaced out of one’s mind day in day; on the other there were various in Israel of old who despaired of life itself and couldn’t be bothered to live. Either way, the effects of sin well and truly took the shine out of life; God’s curse on sin weighed heavily on society. The Preacher for his part had tried these approaches to life, and found them vanity.
The same approaches to life are popular today: so many Australians see no sense in life and in living, and so on the one hand give themselves to illicit sex regardless of the danger of AIDS, shoot drugs regardless of the danger involved in that, steal and lie at will, all with the thought in mind that nothing matters anyway, we’ve all got to die somehow one day and that’s the end; and on the other hand there are those who despair of life, who pursue no fun because it’s all vanity anyway. But however one reacts to the thought that life makes no sense –whether one gives oneself freely to all sorts of sin, or whether one despairs of life itself– in both cases one is confronted with the curse of God on sin.
But the young man of our text is told to enjoy life, to rejoice in his youth, and such an instruction, beloved, is possible only because of the triumph of Jesus Christ on the cross. O yes, the Preacher lived long before Christ defeated the powers of darkness on Calvary. But the Preacher knew what God had promised to do, knew of the sacrifices in the temple, knew of the forgiveness of sins through the blood of a coming Saviour. And we who live after Christ’s triumph may be the more convinced that Yes, sin has been overcome, and so the senselessness of life that comes with sin has been overcome also. So no child of God need despair of life, none need think that life makes no sense, that you may as well give yourself to sin and its consequences because you have to die somehow anyway, none need think that life is best lived by seeing no good in life and despairing. No, the Preacher believed the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s why he challenged the godly youth of his day (and of every day) to be cheerful, to let the fun that belongs to youth come out, to enjoy oneself in the Lord. Christ has triumphed over sin and Satan, in His Spirit He has also renewed your heart, and so: enjoy yourselves, walk in the ways of your Christian heart, make the most of life in grateful thanksgiving to God’s saving work. Go for it!
The Preacher can also think of practical considerations that ought to prompt the young people of the church to make the most of their youth. Eccl 11:7: "light is sweet" and "it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun." The whole point is: it’s good to be alive. But old age comes soon enough (vs 8), and so, says the Preacher, make the most of life now. For old age itself is not exactly fun. Eccl 12:1 speaks of old age as the years of which one says: "I have no pleasure in them". And why no pleasure? The Preacher mentions in 12:2-7 how the body breaks down. Vs 3 speaks of "the keepers of the house" trembling, and here’s a reference to the arms becoming weak. The "strong men" bow down for legs loose their strength. "The grinders cease": teeth fall out. "Those that look through the windows grow dim": the eyes don’t see whatever there is to see any more. And on goes the chapter, detailing all the physical troubles that beset the aged. All of that comes soon enough, and therefore, young man: enjoy the life God now gives. Redemption is real, life is not senseless, you’ve been renewed in the Lord, and so go for it, make the most of your youthful energy and strength, because you’ll be old before you know it.
It has pleased the Lord to create in the hearts of youth the desire to enjoy life; God has given to youth the gift of optimism, the gift of desiring to make the most of life, the gift of boundless energy. Should the young in our midst try to squash that gift? Should we deaden our desire to enjoy life, should we squash our natural optimism about tomorrow, our ambition to accomplish things? Please, my young brothers and sisters, do not do that! The Lord God has given His Son to take away the curse that lay on life as a result of sin, and so you may be keen to live, yes, you are encouraged to make the most of the life God gives you. Jesus Christ has died for you, you were crucified with Christ, died to sin with Him, have been raised with Him to a new life, have received His Holy Spirit, been renewed, changed. Now go, as children of God make the most of the life you’ve received in Jesus Christ! Don’t despair of life, don’t give yourselves to the ways of sin from which you’ve been rescued, but rejoice in your youth, walk in the ways of your renewed heart, delight in God’s good gifts, delight in the life God has given in Christ Jesus. In Christ "you have overcome the wicked one", and in Christ "you are strong" and you know the word of God (I Jn 2:13f). You know –as John writes– that because of Christ’s triumph "the world is passing away, and the lust of it" (vs 17); more, you know that because of the triumph of Christ the lusts of the flesh have already been put to death in your hearts. "Do not," then, "love the world or the things of the world"; that’s all defeated in Christ already. Love rather the God who so graciously saved you and washed your sins away, and so live in a fashion consistent with the new heart you’ve received. Has God not written His law on your heart?! (cf Jer 31:33). Rejoice in your youth, make the most of it while you have it!
3. In fact, beloved, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes feels so strongly about God’s young people rejoicing in their youth and walking in the ways of their renewed hearts that he adds a distinct encouragement pushing the youth to do so: third point. For he adds in the last part of vs 9 these words:
"But know that for all these
God will bring you into judgment."
An ‘encouragement’ I call these words. Admittedly, though, they sound more like a warning: rejoice in your youth, enjoy life, but know that the judgment comes. But the way these words sound is simply a matter of translation.
Certainly, it’s true that we are all to appear before the judgment seat of God, and shall need to give account of every idle word we have spoken, every evil deed we have done (cf Mt 12:36; II Cor 5:10). And yes, that definitely means that we need to be conscious of the fact that we need to justify before God every act we commit and every word we speak. Given that the Lord has not yet made us perfect, given that we remain inclined to sin, this is cause indeed for us to fight sin daily, to pray daily for strength to resist sin.
The point is, though, whether the Preacher in our text indeed wants to remind the youth to watch what they do because the judgment is coming. The answer is No, this is not the Preacher’s point. He draws attention to the coming judgment, but he does not use the reality of the Judgment to say: watch out that you don’t do this and don’t do that. Rather, he uses the reality of the coming Judgment to encourage the young man of our text to rejoice in his youth and to walk in the ways of his heart.
I said: the way the text reads to us is a matter of translation. The thing is that the word ‘but’ as appears in our translations does not have to be translated as ‘but’; in Hebrew the word used is simply the word ‘and’. In other words: the last part of vs 9 does not necessarily raise a warning finger against the freedom given in the first part of the verse. Besides, with the words ‘all these’ in the second last line of vs 9, the Preacher does not warn the youth that they will need to give account to God for all the sins they could commit if they were to walk in the way of their own heart and in the sight of their own eyes. With the words ‘all these’ the Preacher rather reminds the young people that God will bring them into judgment if they disobey the instruction to rejoice in their youth.
The point is this: it’s not just that our text gives the picked young people of Israel the permission to rejoice in their youth and walk in the way of their renewed heart; it’s rather so that in this text the Lord God tells young people to enjoy the life He gives. The instruction to enjoy life is a command of the Lord, and those who then don’t "rejoice in their youth" will need to give account to God on the last day as to why they didn’t make the most of the life God gave.
Recall, beloved, that God once created life, not so that His creatures might be prunes; He rather created life so that His creatures might enjoy the life He gave. It’s true that the fall into sin took a lot of the shine out of life; life outside the Garden of Paradise was a struggle with a lot of sweat and tears (Gen 3:17ff). But the life God recreated in Jesus Christ can again be enjoyed, and it’s now the Lord’s holy wish that His people do enjoy that life. Not for nothing did the Lord legislate for Israel at Mt Sinai so many feast days; His covenant people were to rejoice in their redemption, enjoy life. And not for nothing does the apostle Paul tell the Philippians to "rejoice…always" (Phil 4:4). Again, it’s true that life is far harder to enjoy when arms shake and legs are weak, when teeth fall out and eyes don’t see any more, etc, ie, when one grows old (Eccl 12). In one’s youth one is at the peak –at least physically– of what the Lord created mankind to be. The youth then certainly should enjoy the life God gives, should obey the instruction and will of God to rejoice in their youth, should not be despondent about life and consider life senseless. And it’s also true that patterns established in youth tend to stay with us for the remainder of our days.
So we understand too that the instruction of the Preacher in our text to the youth to enjoy life is an instruction for the older also. It’s harder when the infirmities of old age bear down on a person, O yes. But the older generation also are "picked", select men and women of the Lord, washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, renewed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and so there is every reason for the older too to enjoy life as much as possible. Despair at life, be despondent in the face of the troubles life gives: the Preacher is moved by the Lord God to tell us that No, such an approach to life will not do. Rejoice, and enjoy the life God gives: that’s the attitude God wants to see!
You make profession of faith this morning, my young brothers and sisters. You understand it now: this occasion does not mean that somehow you are now expected to be prunes, to live as if you’re in a straight-jacket, no longer able to do the things you’d prefer to do. You make profession of faith, and now God would have you to rejoice in your youth, to walk in the ways of your renewed hearts, delighting in God’s salvation, eagerly and cheerfully obeying the instructions of the God you love and so showing in all you do your hearty gratitude to God for His redeeming work in Jesus Christ. Amen.