This is an edited version of sermon on Ecclesiastes 12 in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.
Here is a description of the condition of Joseph Stalin shortly after he had a stroke which was to prove fatal at the age of 74 in 1953. During his near 30-year Marxist dictatorship of the Soviet Union he had been responsible for the deaths of many millions:
‘At 7am the doctors, led by Professor Lukomsky, finally arrived, but they were a new team who had never worked with Stalin before. They were brought to the patient in the big dining room which must have reeked of stale urine . . . Their examination of the powerless, once omnipotent patient was a comedy of errors . . . First, a dentist arrived to take out Stalin’s false teeth, but (according to an eye-witness) ‘he was so frightened they slipped out of his hands’ and fell on the floor . . . The clothes had to be cut away with scissors . . . His right side was paralysed while his limbs quivered sometimes. His forehead was cooled. He was given a glass of 10 per cent magnesium sulphate . . . The doctors asked the guards who had seen what. The guards now feared for their lives too.’ (Simon Sebag Montefiore: Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).
As we have seen so far in our series in the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, the Philosopher-King of Jerusalem, has been describing the reality of life in a fallen world under the righteous curse of God. This is a world under the sentence of death because we as human beings have wilfully rebelled against the good and holy God who made us. This is the world of Genesis 3 in which the Lord God had said to the man he had created: ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you: “You must not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you: through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ (Genesis 3v17-19 – NIV)
And there is no exception to this rule. A man as evil as Stalin gets it, so does the old lady whose worst obvious fault had been a tendency to gossip at the bus-stop.
In this final chapter of Ecclesiastes, we have the Teacher’s memorable description of old age. He himself was an old man who had ruled over Israel and had had a large harem in Jerusalem: ‘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” – before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain . . . when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets: when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire is no longer stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.’ (Ecclesiastes 12v1-2, v5)
Not everybody experiences old age, of course. Some die before they get old. But the Teacher’s description resonates for many as they get older, though usually without the harem experience. For the King with his Solomonic harem, there was a time to embrace – rather a lot, it would seem. But now he has become old, his capacities are diminished and the time has come to refrain.
It is in the face of the reality of old age that the Teacher exhorts the young to remember their Creator God in the days of their youth: ‘Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or 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.’ (Ecclesiastes 12v6-7)
The force of this command to remember God in the days of your youth in this context is strong. The Teacher is urging much more than a casual remembering. He is exhorting the young to be mindful of God in their youth, to get into the habit whilst young of serving, honouring and worshipping the God who will one day judge them.
That does not remove the trials of eventual old age but it makes all the difference in the world to the person who experiences them. St Augustine, the fifth century Christian bishop and theologian, describes this difference powerfully in his magnificent book The City of God. He was talking about suffering generally but what he said applies to the sufferings of old age. He said that whilst the sufferings experienced by a Christian person and a non-Christian person can be the same – the trials of old age – the sufferers remain spiritually and morally very different. He used the analogy of the difference between stirring a cesspit and a bowl of perfume. The motion of stirring is the same, but the smell is very different.
Worshipping God by being a committed believer in his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, does not remove the sufferings of old age, but it does make all the difference to how we approach them. The believer in the Lord Jesus can regard these tribulations as the inevitable reality of life in a fallen world and can look forward to the renewal of creation and their own bodily resurrection at the coming of their Lord and Saviour.
Remembering your Creator in the days of our youth can by God’s grace make all the difference to a person’s attitude towards the unavoidable pains of old age.