How often do we hear young people justifying their sinful actions with the phrase “Sowing wild oats?” Is there a proper time in life when living for self is appropriate, and sin can be experienced free from consequences? Do we, as human beings, have the right to devote a portion of our young adulthood to getting sin out of our system? More importantly, is there even any merit to this idea? It becomes apparent from a study of the scriptures that there is no excuse for sin. Ever. And the more we try to convince ourselves that sin is acceptable somehow, the more deluded we become, foolishly following the course of the world and falling into perdition.
On the subject of sowing wild oats as a young man, especially in the context of marriage, Irven Lee writes, “The devil himself is the author of the idea that a young man must sow his ‘wild oats.’ The Bible teaching is very different… The youth, who think that drunkenness, fornication, and other forms of ungodliness are the smart things to do in order to have a good time and to be popular with the crowd, is not likely to find himself happily married when he is an adult. Such a young man is destroying all hope of a happy marriage. God knows what is best for us at every age of our lives, and He never recommends ungodly behavior at any time” (Good Homes In A Wicked World, 27). This is especially true when interpreting such texts as Ecclesiastes 11:8-12:7, in which it is very easy to misinterpret the point that Solomon tries to make.
Remember Your Creator
This text is dominated by images of youth and old age. Solomon begins by telling young men everywhere that they ought to enjoy their vitality while it lasts, because death and infirmity do not delay for long. The description of the young man lies in stark contrast to the description of the elder just prior to death.
“Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. Everything that is to come will be futility” (11:8). Having lived a long life, and seen and done just about everything that a man can do, Solomon now makes it clear that it is better to dwell on the good days than become darkened by the bad days. Tribulation and suffering happen in this world and we cannot change it, so we can either be strengthened by that fact or weakened by it. There is also the possibility that Solomon means Hades when he write “the days of darkness.” It is much like what he says in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “For there is no activity or planning in Sheol where you are going.” So while we are in this life, we must be aware of the endlessness of the next one. When we keep Hades in mind, it will cause us to think about the state of our souls and where we will spend the afterlife. After such reflection, the truly humbled spirit cannot help but appreciate life, God, and the wonderful Word which guides us into all truth.
“Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood.” Solomon encourages youths to enjoy it while they can, because days will come when old age and illness take over. We get the same idea from Proverbs 15:13, “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face.” There is a warning, though, that must accompany the exhortation to enjoy youthfulness. The preacher continues, “And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things” (11:9). See also Numbers 15:39. Obviously, Solomon is not encouraging the practice of utter hedonism and selfish pursuit of pleasure. Rather, he is using sarcasm to express the tendency of many young men to act rashly. Unfortunately, young people tend to use their eyes in determining their course in life (Job 31:7), so Solomon basically says, “If you don’t believe, O young men, then go out and try it for yourself. You tell me if this life is not vain. You tell me that following after your eyes brought you contentment and fulfillment.” We must bear in mind that we will not get away with anything. Every time we decide to experiment with sin and pursue worldly pleasures, God remembers, and He will bring it all up on the final day. Instead of advocating the “sowing wild oats” philosophy, Solomon is trying to impress on the young men of his day the absolute importance of using their time wisely. Without wisdom in this matter, what good is youth? If one wastes his youth doing foolish things, he will inevitably pay for those deeds for years, if not forever! Instead of pursuing sin as a young man, Solomon encourages us to pursue good things. We should seek fun activities, but not in sin. We should enjoy the health of our age. We should see the pleasures that this world has to offer and enjoy them. Good food, friends, adventures, health, and everything else that is considered wholesome. But in pursuing these things, let us always remember God, keeping His judgment constantly in the back of our minds.
“So, remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting” (11:10). It is better to enjoy youth with God in mind, and remove the vexation that comes from selfishness and imprudence. Instead of going after the lusts of our eyes, we should enjoy good things, pure things, honorable things (Philippians 4:8). It interesting to see how youthful sin is portrayed. Does Solomon see “wild oats” as being fashionable, fulfilling, honorable, popular, or in any way gratifying? No. Sin is “vexation,” nothing more. Sin is what makes our lives painful, keeping us from being happy. Sin is temporary, and appalling. It makes us miserable. While many sins seem from the outside to be romantic or fashionable, they only end up making us bitter – adultery makes nobody happy and leaves families hurt, drugs destroy the body and the mind, lies only leave us deep in convolution, selfish pursuits leave us empty inside. All sin is vanity.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1). “Set God always before thine eyes from thy earliest days; think who made thee, and what thou wast made for, not for self-pleasing only, not to gratify thy passions which are now strong, but that thou mightest use thy powers and energy in accordance with the laws of thy being as a creature of God’s hands” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IX, Deane, 296). What a shame that so many young people waste their energy on worldly things. It is often only in a man’s old age that he finally realizes the benefits of serving and loving God. A youth, with all the vitality and enthusiasm that come with it, is an invaluable tool in the service of God. Young people are more physically capable of strong song leading, door-to-door evangelism, energy in teaching, and they have access, in a sense, to a larger audience of potential converts. It is an unfortunate truth that our society does not respect the teaching of the elderly as much as it ought to. Quite frankly, it is youth that appeals to people. Unbelievers will be drawn to a congregation with youthful enthusiasm and vitality. And if the youth of a church is dead already, then what hope has that church for future growth? The most productive years of our Christian lives should in our youngest days. Not that we will cease being productive as older Christians, but that we will, when that time comes, lack the ability to do all that we might want to do. How sad it is that, and how ironic, that as young people we have the potential and lack the drive, and as older people, we are confined by age but brimming with earnestness. If you do not want to live by regret, then work hard for Christ now! “Before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight in them.’” Too many old men become jaded and spiteful in the dusk of life. For a person who does not put his trust in God, the last few years of ill health and insecurity can be dark, demeaning, and utterly hateful days. It is like Barzillai in 2 Samuel 19:35, “I am now eighty years old. Can I distinguish between good and bad? Or can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Or can I hear anymore the voice of singing men and women?” In the next few verses, Solomon describes some of the physical and spiritual ailments of old age.
Youth is temporary – waste it not!
“Before the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after rain” (12:2). “The imagery is intended to represent the abiding and increasing inconveniences of old age” (Deane, 297). A brewing storm is a good metaphor for old age. In our early days, all seems bright and cheerful. We are healthy and death seems so distant. But as the clouds become closer, and the figures in the sky are masked, we feel death nearing. Here is the lesson for us, though: to a man who is spiritually prepared for death, that storm will not catch him by surprise, and neither will it demoralize him when it finally hits. He will go into eternity with confidence and faith, knowing that God has seen his preparation.
12:3-4 – The onset of old age is described like a house in these verses. As a storm approaches that house, many of the watchmen tremble and lose faith. “In the day that the watchmen of the house tremble.” The watchmen in this extended metaphor represent our hands and arms. It is the case for many individuals that old age brings uncontrollable shaking to the limbs. “And the mighty men stoop.” By this he means the legs, as they are the mightiest parts of our frame. “The grinding ones stand idle because they are few.” The word for “grinding ones” is feminine, as women were the designated grinder operators. These grinders most likely symbolize the teeth, because “they are few” in our old age. “And those who look through windows grow dim.” Finally, these are the eyes that look forth from the cavities in which they are sunk. “The doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low.” This is indicative of the time when our organs lose control, and our teeth cease their labor. “The sound of the grinding or the mill is weak and low when the teeth have ceased to masticate, and, instead of the crunching and grinding of food, nothing is heard but a munching and sucking” (Deane, 298). “And one will arise at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly.” This could signify a sensitivity to loud noises.
12:5 – Again, we have a metaphor representing the arduous nature of living to and advanced age. It takes a great deal of labor to make it to the top of a hill, and there are things that scare a man in his twilight that would have never scared him as a youth. “The almond tree blossoms.” The almond tree does not blossom until nearly winter. Upon reaching its time, the flowers are a pale pink-white color. The image is fitting, then, when used to describe the snowy top of an elder. “the grasshopper drags himself along.” Observe the grasshopper near the end of his life. Long gone are the fine leaps of days gone-by, or the sleek elegance of his sturdy legs. “And the caperberry is ineffective.” Capers, or likely hyssop, is used as a stimulant in provoking appetite. What Solomon may be saying is that even the caper is no longer effective in exciting the desire for food in a man’s last days.
“Remember Him before the silver cord is broken, and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered, and the wheel at the cistern is crushed” (12:6). With such a description in the preceding verses, Solomon’s conclusion to these thoughts is that we need to think about God while we have time. Death is on the horizon, waiting to get each and every one of us (Hebrews 9:27). What a lesson! No person in this world has the power to predict when things will happen, especially his own demise. So why not make plans for eternity now?
“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (12:7). There is no metaphor in this verse – death is plainly stated as being the end to life, a return of our bodies to the soil, and a collection of our souls. It is clear from other verses that mankind’s bodies are formed from the dust (Genesis 2:7, 3:19, Job 34:15, Psalm 104:29). What is interesting is that nothing we have in this world is really ours to keep. Neither is it ours to do with as we please. God gave us the world, first of all, so we ought not waste it. God granted us the use of our bodies, so we should take care of them and use them as vessels of honor. Finally, God gave us our souls, and He wants them back. Either God will take your soul and rejoice over it, or He will take it and discard it because of disobedience.
Getting it out of my system?
Many young men and women argue that their sins are motivated by the supposedly noble motivation of getting sins out of the way, or purging oneself of sinful desires by indulging in them at a young age. It is as if rejecting self control and falling headlong into all of the desires of youth will stop all of those desires from resurfacing for the rest of a man’s days. But is this a Biblical concept, and is there even a benefit to believing this?
The problem with believing this is that the individual forgets that all sins have consequences, and that sins committed in youthful indulgence may lead to lifelong unhappiness. Marriage, for example, is one easy way of ruining one’s life at a very early age. Without much forethought, many young people rush into marriage without thinking about God, or adequately testing their potential mate for the qualities that make for a happy home life. However, when the marriage goes awry after a few years, it most often ends in divorce, which can be a mark on a person’s life for the rest of his or her days. It is one of the most disheartening things to see young people ruin themselves by divorcing before they are even thirty. What it usually means is that he or she will have to spend the rest of his or her life a celibate (Matthew 19:9-12), because the marriage bond in the eyes of God, even a marriage bond forged in youthful indulgence and stupidity, lasts for a lifetime (1 Corinthians 7:39). The same can be said of any sinful activity. How many adults regret getting into drugs when they discover the incurable effects in their waning days? How many older men regret wasting money on foolish indulgences when they are in debt and unable to take care of their families? How many adult women regret having children out of wedlock, or giving up their virginity to men who had no love for them? The problem with trying to get sin out of our systems as young people is that the more youthful sins we commit, the more it marks our souls for the rest of our lives. Instead of getting rid of sin and leaving it behind, we are just constantly reminded of it by its effects or consequences. It is because of this that Paul exhorts Timothy not to indulge, but to flee from youthful lusts (2 Timothy 2:22).The other problem with thinking that we can get sins out of our systems by committing them is that we may inadvertently trap ourselves in the same sin. How naïve it is to believe that committing fornication once in youthfulness will expunge the desire for that sin in later years? Does the same work for those addicted to pornography? Or those addicted to drugs? Or those who go from marriage to marriage? How well did “purging” sin in immaturity work for those adults who are now addicted to the same sins after years? Sin is not described as an exhaustible resource that we can clear out of our souls with binging. Rather, the Bible presents it as an inexhaustible source of pain. Sin is slavery with no end (2 Peter 2:18-19).