The headlines overwhelm both mind and heart. Any abridged recounting of these issues is unnecessary for you Gracious Reader – you are already nodding your head and reflecting on the issue(s) freshest to you. The writer of Proverbs advises “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” And yet our heart is heavy and even sickened by tragedies natural and travesties manmade. “My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” This provides a good focus for the believer taking seriously the mandate to guard the heart – focusing on God’s words and ways strengthen our faith; focusing on His promises and prophecies establish our hope; focusing on Son and Spirit empower us to love with the fervent love Peter writes about. The question remains – “How do I guard my heart?” I refuse to bury my head in the sand like the ostrich. I refuse to withdraw like a turtle into a shell. And yet to claim I am unaffected by the sorts of things alluded to above is disingenuous and disturbing. “If you aren’t outraged, then you just aren’t paying attention.” If this resonates with you, I hope in the following paragraphs to share with you one practical habit I apply daily and I have applied for decades.
The writer of the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes claims, “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” There is great comfort in this. We serve a God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” and who provides for and protects His people through the problems and circumstances familiar to Him throughout human history. There is NOTHING new to God. In colorful imagery and poetic phrasing, Ecclesiastes continues on this theme of monotony and emptiness. I recommend you read the whole of Ecclesiastes – my favorite audio Bible reads it in under 37 minutes. – and at the very least, read the first chapter to get a sense of the frustration the writer feels.
If you choose not to read it, one word can give a sense of the tone of the entire book. The Hebrew word hebel appears seventy-three (73) times in the Old Testament, with over half of the occurrences found in Ecclesiastes. Translated as vanity or emptiness, it appears five (5) times in the second verse alone! “Vanity of vanities!” – the emptiest of the empties! It is all pointless! We just keep working. The sun keeps setting, only to rise and set again the next day. The wind blows south only to turn around and blow north over the same ground it just covered. The waters of the rivers run into the ocean and yet never fill it. The eye is never satisfied with what it sees. The ear is never content with what it hears. And these complaints all appear in only the first nine verses of the 222 verses of Ecclesiastes!
I handed out bottles for blowing soap bubbles during my sermon on this topic. I asked each person to blow bubbles. And describe what they saw. I have included various comments below:
- Pretty to look at the bubbles
- Some bubbles are big, and others are small
- Each bubble is mostly air with not much substance to it
- The bubbles are fleeting and short-lived
- There is difficulty in capturing a bubble
- You can make a lot of them, and pretty soon, everything returns to the way it was before blowing bubbles.
This activity illustrated what the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying. Hebel is like a soap bubble, and the vanity or emptiness of life is described in the list above. Let me know your thoughts on my activity and illustration. What additional traits did you notice? Now let’s skip to the last (twelfth) chapter of Ecclesiastes where the preacher seeks “acceptable words” to conclude the book. In the final two verses, we read this:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (boldface added)
It all boils down to the boldface phrase above, which is one we can remember – “Fear God and Keep His Commandments.” This blesses my heart and focuses me on God instead of the godless chaos surrounding me. The passage comes with a promise of judgment – God’s judgment – regarding what is good and what is evil. Let’s read the words of the apostle Paul:
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.
I hope you meditate on the verses and consider the acceptable words – Fear God and Keep His Commandments – and I offer the following two thoughts for you to begin your consideration of this.
FEAR: The first occurrence of the Hebrew word translated “fear” comes from the first book of the Torah:
So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
Too often, the word “fear” is considered synonymous with “respect,” and this fails to capture the full import of the fear talked about. Adam hid himself from God – this hardly seems adequately explained by a mere healthy respect. Paul wrote:
Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God, and I also trust are well known in your consciences.
2 Corinthians 5:11
The phrase “fear and trembling” is worth some consideration and is found in:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
C.S. Lewis captured this brilliantly in the following conversation from his book The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe:
Susan: “Is he—quite safe?” I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”
Mrs. Beaver: “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
Lucy: “Then he isn’t safe?”
Mr. Beaver: “Safe? . . . Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
Aslan of course represents, throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, none other than JESUS!
KEEP: The first occurrence of the Hebrew word translated “keep” also comes from the first book of the Torah:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.
So, of course, obeying His commandants is part of keeping them, and I think there is so much more. The word is first used in the context of gardening. Have you ever watched a gardener tend and keep her garden? My wife is a prolific “green thumb,” and the fall harvest is abundant. No flat surface in the house is left unoccupied by potatoes and tomatoes and whatever else she planted. She stays close to the garden. She weeds and waters the garden. She keeps out animals that will destroy the garden. She knows that her garden will bring forth fruit in due season. In the same, we are instructed to keep His commandments so that they will bear fruit.
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them Your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward.