The Words of the Preacher

Donovan L. Riley
Thursday, December 31st 2015
Jan/Feb 2016

You have asked me to share my wisdom with you; you have come here to sit at my table in the hope that you will be enlightened. So I will share what I know.

I have thought for a long time about all that our God has made’all of us wonderful creatures he has wrought, and the useless desires that drive us to build up and tear down and rebuild again all he has made. I will speak to you about all these things. All I ask is that you listen and write down what I tell you, so that after I have gone to be with my fathers, my words will remain to shepherd you and the children of Israel through every generation.

Tonight I will not speak to you as the king but as "the Preacher." As such, it will not be my wisdom I share with you. Though I have greater understanding and greater wealth too, I cannot say to you that I have enjoyed them. Life and its pleasures are traps. The pursuits of our hearts' desires are snares that kill. I have learned this, and so I will not speak to you of the wisdom that drags one down into the grave. No, it will be the words the Lord God has given me to speak. His words will come to you like spears and nails.

Everything is a breath. All our life is like the wind. We are fleeting as vapor. All our righteousness is counted as nothing by our Maker. All our works, what are they? What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Who is it that creates the heavens and the earth? The Lord alone can create something new. We do nothing new, but we imagine that when we have done all we can our work is righteous in God's sight. We vainly presume that what we make for ourselves the world has never before seen. But we can do nothing new, because we are the same. The same old Adam is present in us from the cradle to the grave.

I have witnessed what God has given to men and women to busy themselves with. Having been king over Israel in Jerusalem all these many years, I applied my heart to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What I have seen is that everything done under the sun is useless. It was in this realization that I was taught wisdom, not by men but by God. Learn, then, to submit yourselves to the wisdom of God. Don't worry yourselves with thoughts about what God has not commanded. The safest way is to rely on the word of God. In this is enough guidance for all of us. His commands to us are to trust always in him, love one another as we have been loved by him, and bear the yoke he has laid upon our shoulders. Whatever he has given you to do is good. Whatever he has not given you to do, whatever comes from your own hands, will end in sorrow.

I have explored the limits of reason and understanding. I have known love and sensual pleasure. My ears have been filled with the words of wise men and liars. I have tasted the most delicious delicacies, and I have held in my hands the rarest artifacts. As king over Israel, I have explored what life can offer of happiness, enjoyment, goodness, and wisdom. And after all this, I have been shown that they will not cheer me or lighten my burdens unless God himself gives them to me and satisfies me.

Let God have his way and all creation will be given to you as a gift. Do not say to the Lord, "I will wait for you at this place, and at this time you will give me pleasure; and here is the person whom you will send to me for this purpose." If you speak to God in this way, then all will go wrong for you. Whatever you plan for yourself will be condemned as evil or useless. Happiness and enjoyment in this life are both gifts from God. Let us enjoy them as he has given them to us.

Hear and pay attention to what I tell you. In my youth I tried to make paradise on earth. But only when the Savior comes, whom God will send, will the paradise our first parents knew be restored to us. Only then will the orchards blossom in season and out of season. Then new water will flow up out of the earth, and our fields will produce our daily bread without end. Our flocks will cover the face of the whole earth, and they will never see sickness or disease. We will neither marry nor be given in marriage. We will be united with the Lord as a bride sits next to her bridegroom at the wedding feast. There will be no more concubines, no more buying and selling of people for profit or pleasure. There will be no more slaves or servants in our houses, for all will be welcomed into the Lord's house and called "beloved children." This is the only wisdom that gives me comfort, because it is wisdom given to me by the Lord.

Do not think it matters whether you are wise or foolish. Only faith in the Lord will save you from anxiety and useless worries. If you think that my wisdom can save you from falling into misfortune or ruin, or that you have found a wisdom that can bring permanent happiness, then you are a fool. Human wisdom is fine, and it can be of some benefit to you. But if you do not know what is pleasing to God, then your wisdom is foolishness. You are lying to yourself. Commit yourself to the Lord. Pray that he sets you to doing his will and that you would accomplish what pleases him. Then you can take comfort in the knowledge that you are truly wise.

Many of our fathers, who did not know God, thought they were wise. In their blindness and foolishness, these kings became wicked. They turned to other gods, even gods that required human sacrifices. Some went so far as to murder their own children, believing that their blood sacrifice would earn them wisdom and righteousness as a reward. These evil men claimed to speak for God's chosen people. They said, "We serve you, children of Israel, as your advocate before God," but they put God's people in chains. Claiming that their words were God's word, they enslaved their own people. My own father discovered at the end of his life that his sins had caused the people of Israel’the people God had given to him to shepherd’to wander away to worship other gods. No, I have seen how even the godliest men can fall into madness and foolishness when they begin to think they are wise and that God will bless whatever they undertake.

My friends, do not think that only kings fall victim to this temptation. The more people gain, the more they want. They torment themselves trying to find something good that will give them pleasure. They tear at each other, hurt each other, and torture each other out of envy. And for what? A treasure that will rust or a delicacy that will be eaten by worms. Where is wisdom in this? Where is kindness, or love, or goodness? God has given us to one another as gifts, to strengthen and bless one another's work. Together we gather in a harvest of God's blessings. But when we tear at each other and refuse to share the harvest, we gain nothing but sorrow and heartbreak.

A certain wise father, when he was about to die, commanded his sons to be present at his bedside. He gave them a bundle of sticks to break. Although they could not break them all at the same time, they did manage to break them one by one. In this way he taught his sons that their wealth and their treasures, everything they would accumulate for themselves, would be secure if they were of one mind and helped one another. If they were of one mind, then small things would grow; but through arguing about who is wisest, strongest, or most righteous, they would be scattered and brought to nothing.

Have this same mind among yourselves when you go up to the Lord's house. Draw near to God and listen. This is better than all the sacrifices you would foolishly want to offer to him. Those who act in this way are fools; they do not know that what they do is evil in the sight of God. Keep your mouth shut. Do not let your heart drive you to speak too quickly or make promises to God you cannot hope to keep. God sits enthroned in the heavens, and you stand here on earth. He dwells in unapproachable light. Therefore, when you are in the house of the Lord, let your words be few. There is no wisdom in many words. Be of one mind. At the same time, do not let your mouth sin against God in the midst of the congregation. Why should your voice disturb God, or your actions destroy what he has given you? Fear God and worship him. In this is your peace. We are made by him to receive all we need for body and soul from him.

Everything is in the hand of God. How then can we claim that any of our works, whether in his house or in our own, are worth anything? No, both the gifts and the enjoyment of them are from God. But as soon as we begin to measure them against what our neighbor has been given, or control how they use them, we sin against God. In all you do, work hard and do whatever you can with one mind according to what God's word has taught. Do not measure your work or your efforts against your neighbor's. There is no wisdom in this. Commit yourself, all your efforts, plans, and outcomes, to the wisdom of God. Let the word of God rule over you. This is the gift from God. God will keep you occupied all your days, and he will put joy in your heart. In this is wisdom. The one who forgets this is a fool. Foolish people do not care about godly wisdom or what happens to others.

But what about the best men and women in Israel? What shall I say about those who help others’those God has set over Israel as governors and fathers? They should be encouraged to live with all Israelites in peace, to marry, to rule, and to not imagine their works are useless.

You asked me to teach you wisdom. You asked to be enlightened. It is something few can possess. Listen then: God's wisdom is not like human wisdom. Human wisdom is written down in books that wear out, fade, and are moth-eaten. What is spoken of as wisdom is heard, yet soon is forgotten. But God's wisdom will never wear out or fade or be forgotten. God's wisdom is God himself, and he is greater than I.

Ignoring or avoiding God's wisdom means that you avoid God’that Wisdom who spoke creation into existence, who created the heavens and the earth, who saves us from ourselves and from all our useless works and ways and all our foolish plans. This is the revelation of God shown to me when he gave me wisdom. He gave himself to me as a gift. Therefore, eat the bread on this table with joy. Drink the wine in your glasses with a happy heart. God has already given them to you as a gift, just as he has given himself to you in the giving of them.

To live in this understanding, that God is wisdom, means you live in his favor. What you gain for yourself or what little you are given is all God-pleasing when it is enjoyed in faith. When you suffer through evil times and distress, do not trust in yourself. Trust that God is at work in all things for your good. A fish snaps at the bait and swallows the hook. Birds see a worm and walk into a snare. They think they see something good and are captured. So it is with us when we choose something good for ourselves and hope in it. We are deceived. This is what I have learned from wise men, and what experience has taught me. Whatever our plans may be, they usually turn out the opposite of what we intended.

What I have said may seem harsh, like nails and spears that poke and pierce your flesh. But such is the wisdom of God. It is not God who is harsh toward us, but we who are lazy, who resist his way of teaching us wisdom. His wisdom is powerful, lively, and compelling. It takes all the parts of our lives we try to keep separate from him, the gifts we try to claim as our own work, and binds them together into a whole. God is our Wisdom, our Shepherd, and our Savior. Listen to Wisdom.

Beware, my friends, of anything beyond these words. Watch out for those who offer you wisdom not given to you by the one Shepherd. There is no end to the writing of books. There is much study that does nothing but make you dull and ignorant. Instead, recognize that the Spirit of God is upon me, filling my mouth with his word. Recognize the true and living God in my words. Just as you who sit at my table are not superior to me, so I am not superior to God. I do not imagine that I can teach the Shepherd, but I receive all things from him.

I will end my preaching now. All has been heard that needed to be said. Everything that I have sought to understand, all that I have considered and studied, has led me back to God's wisdom. All that we imagine and all the works of our hands are useless. They are nothing more than a breath. But when they are received in faith from God as gifts, they are the heart's greatest comfort and true blessing. Therefore, fear God and keep his commandments. In this is the whole obligation of men and women to God. Believe and trust that God is good. His wisdom will shepherd and save you from the day of his furious judgment. Do not lie to yourselves. God will bring every work of our hands into judgment, along with every secret thing we do, whether it is good or evil. Our delight and hope must never be in our works but in God and his word.

You have asked me to teach you wisdom and I have. You came here searching for meaning to avoid living a meaningless life. This is possible only when you receive God and his Wisdom, because they are the same person. Receive Wisdom in faith and you will enjoy God's favor. Then you will avoid useless ideas and meaningless works today and forever. Now, may the Lord our God’who is for you Wisdom, your only Shepherd, your Redeemer, and your Savior’favor you in life and in death until the day when he calls us all from our graves to dwell with Wisdom forever. Amen.

Thursday, December 31st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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