Ecclesiastes 8:10-14 (text); Hebrews 10:26-31
© June 23, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ: In the early 1990s, T-shirts and bumper stickers with the words “No Fear” were popular. No Fear was the name of a company that promoted life on the edge with extreme sports such as skiing from the top of Mount Everest or climbing skyscrapers without safety equipment. Later, a show called “Fear Factor” featured contestants putting live cockroaches in their mouths, or laying in a tub full of snakes, or climbing electrical substations which could easily result in death.
These “No Fear” promotions challenged people to conquer all kinds of fears, even the fear of death. And the youth of our day has taken up the challenge to its logical end. They have no fear of authority, of order, of social norms, of punishment. And you know what? In the end, this No Fear culture has resulted only in a lawless, corrupt culture, not in freedom, satisfaction or joy.
But the Preacher of Ecclesiastes promotes the opposite. Man has to have only one fear, the most needful fear of all: the fear of God. Fear God! he tells us in his book six times (Eccl 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12; 8:13; 12:13). And the result of this fear is true godly freedom, satisfaction and pleasure.
Further, the Preacher observes that there is no justice in this world; the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer. Earlier, he has mentioned this injustice to be vanity and meaningless, e.g., “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteous-ness, even there was wickedness” (Eccl 3:16; see also Eccl 4:1; 5:8) But then he also says that there will be a reversal in the end: it will not be well with the wicked, and it will be well with those who fear God.
So our theme today is, “Fear God!” divided into three headings: first, What It Means; second, What It Means to the Wicked; and third, What It Means to the Righteous.
What It Means
In Holy Scripture, the English word “fear” is a translation of many synonyms.
In the Old Testament, the most common meanings are “terror,” “to be afraid,” “horror,” or “trembling.” If it is used as an adjective, the translations are “fearful,” “terrible,” “awesome.” A few examples are: (1) Psalm 145:6, “the might of your awesome deeds,” but our Psalter Hymnal translates it as, “Thy mighty acts and terrible.” (2) Psalm 55:5: “Fear and trembling come upon me”; (ESV); “Great fear and trembling on me seize” (PsH). (3) Isaiah 21:4, “horror has appalled me” (ESV), “fearfulness affrighted me” (KJV).
In the New Testament, the Greek word most commonly used is phobos, which is usually translated as “fear,” “terror,” or “fright.” It is used of ordinary fear: “But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear” (Matt 14:26). “And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men” (Matt 28:4). Also, Joseph, Mary and the shepherds were fearful when the angels appeared to them. When Paul commands that we are to obey and honor civil authorities, he said, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” (Rom 13:3) At Mount Sinai, Moses was so fearful, “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear‘”(Heb 12:21). Christ also encouraged the church in Smyrna about the coming persecution, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (Rev 2:10).
Another word related to “fear” is “timidity.” Paul exhorts Timothy not to be timid, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). Here, fear is sometimes translated as “timidity” (NIV, NASB).
In relation to our text, “fear” is also used to refer to the “fear of God” (Rom 3:18; 2 Cor 7:1; Luke 18:4; 23:40). In Hebrews 12:28, we are to offer to God acceptable worship with “reverence and awe” (ESV, NIV, NASB), or “reverence and godly fear” (KJV, ASV, Webster’s). God is to be feared because he is “a consuming fire.”
What then does the Preacher mean with the words “fear God”? The words “fear God” is not a command to obey him with fear, or else … To “fear God” is actually be in awe of God because of his holiness, mercy, and mighty works. After the Israelites safely crossed the sea on dry ground, God closed the waters again when the Egyptians tried to do the same, and they all drowned. God’s people saw this mighty act of God, and Moses describes their reaction, “Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD …” (Exod 14:31). This fear was not one of dread or terror; rather they were in awe, admiration, wonder and amazement of God’s exceeding might and power over the wind, the storm and the sea.
Let us now look at what “fear of God” means to the wicked and its consequences to them.
What It Means to the Wicked
Verse 10 is a bit controversial: whether it should be, “were praised in the city” or “were forgotten in the city.” “Praised” is better since the Preacher sees the vanity and injustice of the wicked being praised and receive honorable burial after they die. Celebrities, politicians and the rich receive treatment that the righteous should have (v 11). This is the opposite of Proverbs 10:7, “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.”
The Preacher thinks, if God were righteous, the wicked will be punished, and the righteous rewarded. But he doesn’t see this. Many of the wicked prosper. There are many corrupt and cruel government officials. Corporate executives make millions while employees make next to nothing. Sports and celebrities earn millions on the backs of fans who pay with their hard-earned money to see their shows. Corrupt pastors who extort shameful gain from their poor followers. Those who cheat in their exams get high grades, while the honest students get lower grades. Teenagers who strive for purity in their lives are ridiculed by others who are popular because they’re easy to get. Athletes who take illegal drugs, such as Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, win championships while the honest ones settle for second best.
The wicked think that the delay or even lack of punishment (“sentence”) means that they can continue in their wickedness without fear. Man’s total depravity leads him to think this way. Young teens commit many crimes because of very light punishment. Even adults get light sentences because of “insanity” or plea bargaining. Cases drag on for many years without any solution or even trial.
The reason the wicked behave in this way is because they have no fear of God. In fact, most of them don’t even believe there is a God who exacts vengeance on their wickedness. They even mock and laugh at Christians who believe that there will be an end to wickedness on Judgment Day. The wicked say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet 3:4). They live like mere animals without souls or conscience, believing that death is the end of it all. There’s no punishment for being wicked, and no reward for being good and suffering for being good. This is why Isaiah warned Israel’s wicked people, “Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him” (Isa 3:11).
But God delays his vengeance because he is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6). And Paul says that our response to God’s mercy must be repentance, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4).
In these verses, we find no words from the Preacher about life after death. But later, he definitely believes that there is, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7). He sees many sinners do many evils, and yet live long. This bothers him because God has said in his Word that those who fear him and obey his commandments will live long lives, “that your days may be long” (Deut 6:2).
So even though he is troubled by injustice in this world, he knows that there is justice afterwards. One day, the wicked will die, and as Psalm 1:6 says, they will perish, which means judgment and hell. This is why the Preacher says in verse 13, “But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.” His days on earth were set by God before the creation of the world, not one day less or one day more. When the shadow of his life reaches a certain length, it is the end. King David says in Psalm 109:23 about the brevity of his life, “I am gone like a shadow at evening.”
After he is gone, the wicked’s next appointment is Judgment Day before a God that he denied and ridiculed in life, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). Then, he will hear the Son of Man say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In that place, there will “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 25:41, 30). On that day, “people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them” (Rev 9:6).
The wicked will perish, but the LORD knows the way of the righteous, those who fear him.
What It Means to the Righteous
The Preacher says that “it will be well” with those who fear God, “I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him” (v 12). He knows this from the Law of Moses, when the LORD promised to Israel that things will “go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD” (Deut 12:25). Even after judgment, God promised restoration to those who fear him in Israel, “Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds” (Isa 3:10).
What are these fruits of their righteous deeds? There are countless listed in the Scriptures, and we can only mention a few here.
Reverence for God is one fruit. The righteous are aware of God’s pure holiness, so they show honor and reverence for God in their lives, “Thus you shall do in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart” (2 Chr 19:9). We are to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28), and “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psa 2:11).
The fear of God is the source of all kinds of benefits: true wisdom, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7; 15:33); life, “The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” (Prov 10:27); blessedness, “Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!” (Psa 128:1, 4); sufficiency, “Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” (Psa 34:9); friendship with God, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him” (Psa 25:14); and protection and deliverance, “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Psa 34:7).
But there are some warnings to those of us who profess the fear of God, to give us assurance and strengthen our faith. We are to work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12; see also Rom 11:20; Heb 4:1). We are to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Those who sin must be rebuked “so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20). We are not to fear anything in this world, but are to trust in Christ, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Hebrews 10:27 warns believers again that if they willfully reject Christ, nothing remains except “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Indeed, God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), and so, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
So let us not envy the prosperous wicked, saying, “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psa 73:3). Let us not say life is not fair, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7) Let us not say there is no justice in this world, “Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1). Let us not agree with the Preacher who says all is meaningless because he sees that the righteous suffer what the wicked must suffer and the wicked prosper instead of the righteous (verse 14).
The Preacher says the above from an earthly point of view. But from an eternal perspective, all will be well with you who fear God.
Beloved friends, while God undoubtedly allows injustice in this world for the glory of his holy name, he also does not reveal why he does. However, you are not to conclude from this that it makes no difference whether or not you fear God: the Preacher insists that it will be well with those of you who fear God and that it will not be well with those of you who don’t. Because ultimately, justice will be done.
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself had reverence and fear towards his Father in heaven. Hebrews 5:7 says that Christ’s prayers and supplications were heard by his Father “because of his reverence” (ESV, NIV) or “fear” (KJV, ASV). He even rebuked Satan about worshiping only God, “It is the LORD your God you shall fear” (Deut 6:13; Matt 4:10).
Remember the two thieves crucified with Christ? One of them mocked Jesus, but the other one believed. The one who repented rebuked the other, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” Then the repentant thief showed that he feared God by pleading, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:40-42). And Jesus promised him that he will truly receive his reward in Paradise.
This is why you are to fear God—not man, not sufferings, nor anything in this world, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
Therefore, because you fear God, you are to banish all your fears, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father”” (Rom 8:15).