Knowledge in the Digital Age (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
Knowledge in the Digital Age
(One Truth: In All Things)
February 24th, 2019
I. Celebrating the Word
Last August, an extremely important milestone was reached. Wycliffe Bible Translators completed their 1000th translation of the New Testament. That 1000th translation was for the Keliko people, a small refugee tribe located in South Sudan.
The month before this milestone the Tembo people of Congo finally received God's word in their native tongue after a 21-year effort by Wycliffe. In reading about both of these achievements, the articles I found also included a similar description of how these Bibles were welcomed: “with praising, singing, and dancing”. It was a party; a celebration.
One of the translators had this to say about their reaction, "They consider this a very precious book. We've got the Bible in English, in [our] mother tongue. We've got the Bible in many different versions. These people have one version, one New Testament" (Jon Hampshire).
Keep that response in mind as we turn to the English language version of Ecclesiastes 12.
This morning, we are wrapping up our month-long series entitled, “Digital Disciplines”. You may recall we talked about the need, in this day and age, in this digital day and age, the need to adopt and practice digital disciplines. Why is that? Because the unique power of our digital devices, when it's combined with human nature, calls for thoughtful and disciplined usage.
In our first study I asked, “When it comes to your attentiveness, to your focus, to where you set your thoughts and how you use your time, is your phone or your tablet or your laptop or your gaming console, is it a trusted tool in your efforts to know God and do his will? Or is it a digital distraction?”
We went on to learn in that lesson that, “The only truly effective safeguard against digital distraction, and the only truly effective starting point for digital discipline, is a spiritual gaze satisfied with the goodness, with the grace, with the greatness, with the glory of God himself.”
In our second study, we talked about relationships in the digital age, and all the pitfalls, all the relational temptations we face because of our devices. Based on what God's word told us about relationships, I concluded that “we always need to see our devices as tools [not to replace, but] to extend and enhance, first and foremost, our everyday, embodied relationships”. Christ set this example for us when...
“...he came in the flesh. He didn't 'phone in' your redemption. He didn't send “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) via text. He didn't post something about his sacrificial love. No. He stepped into your everyday, embodied existence as an everyday, embodied person. Jesus was and is “God with us” in the fullest possible sense.”
Finally, last week, we looked at the issue of affirmation in the digital age. If you were here, you may remember that we talked about how “all of these ways to share and interact and discuss [online] can easily become opportunities for self-promotion; vehicles for human validation; supposed mechanisms to find meaning; ways to secure worth.” But, as we talked about, “the more you desire the praise of men, the less desirable Jesus will seem to you.” Praise God that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save misdirected, glory-seekers like us? That he died to make ultimate affirmation and ultimate validation possible, 'in him'”
II. The Passage: "Beware of Anything Beyond These" (12:9-14)
So this morning, as we dig into Ecclesiastes chapter 12, I want you to consider our final topic, “Knowledge in the Digital Age”. Listen, and follow along in your Bibles, as I read Ecclesiastes 12:9-14. We read...
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.  The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.  The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.  The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Obviously, this was written thousands of years before the digital age. But I want us to consider what God is showing us here about knowledge. Let me break this passage down into four parts. We find the first part in verses 9 and 10, where we hear about...
1. Explored and Experienced Knowledge (vs. 9, 10)
As we see here, the writer of Ecclesiastes is identified only as “the Preacher”. If we were to look at clues scattered throughout the book, it's a safe bet to say this “preacher' or “teacher” was none other than King Solomon, the son of David. Now, as you look back at verses 9 and 10, think about what they reveal about Solomon and the knowledge he offers his readers. We learn that he was “wise”, and that he “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care”.
If we move on to verse 10, we hear about his attentiveness and his integrity; that what he recorded in this book was not simply speculation or gossip or sentiments of wishful thinking. No, (v. 10) “he wrote words of truth”. The rest of the book also emphasizes the fact that Solomon sought knowledge and wisdom in many different places, from many different people, through many different experiences. He was not some academic sitting in an ivory tower. We find here both explored and experienced knowledge. But in v. 11, we also read about...
2. Stable and Supernatural Knowledge (v. 11)
Look again at verse 11 and what Solomon tells us about this knowledge he shares:
First, he tells us that “the words of the wise are like goads”. That means they are like cattle prods that directed us in the way we should go. He then goes on to tell us that this collected knowledge is also “like nails firmly fixed”. Looking for something solid in this chaotic world? Solomon would direct you to the stability and strength of these “words of truth”.
But it's that last description in verse 11 that really inspires confidence. These collections of knowledge, these “words of the wise”, are, best of all, “given by one Shepherd.” Since Solomon is referring to collections of wisdom given by many wise people, the “one Shepherd” mentioned here is most likely God himself. Of course, the imagery of God as a shepherd is found in many places throughout the OT.
So what Solomon is describing here is what we would call the inspiration of Scripture. This is the belief that God communicated his words through the words of the human authors of the Bible. Now, think about that for a minute: in terms of knowledge, can anything top the knowledge given by the One who knows all things? Yes, such knowledge can be like a cattle prod. But wonderfully, it is also like the loving guidance of a faithful shepherd. But look at what verse 12 goes on tells us about knowledge. We find there Solomon's thoughts on...
3. Excessive and Exhausting Knowledge (v. 12)
As in one of his other books, Proverbs, Solomon is writing to instruct his son. Here in verse 12, he offers his son a warning: “My son, beware of anything beyond these”. “Beyond these”? Yes, beyond the knowledge inspired by God, recorded by wise people, and preserved in the Scriptures. Now wait a minute. Why would Solomon want to limit his son's knowledge? Shouldn't we seek as much knowledge and wisdom as possible? Well, look at the rest of verse 12:
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Solomon is pointing both to the sufficiency of what he is passing down, AND to the dangers of an excessive and exhausting knowledge. In connecting Solomon's day and age to our digital day and age, consider the words of Tony Reinke in his book, “Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You”. He writes:
The average output of email and social-media text is estimated at 3.6 trillion words, or about thirty-six million books—typed out every day! In comparison, the Library of Congress holds thirty-five million books. [36 million books... every day!]
But in general, what kind of knowledge do these digital 'books' contain. Reinke continues:
Online information is increasingly hyperpalatable, akin to alluring junk food. Breaking news, tabloid gossip, viral memes, and the latest controversies in sports, politics, and entertainment all draw us to our phones as if they were deep-fried Twinkies held out on sticks at the state fair. Digital delicacies are eye-grabbing and appealing, but they lack nutrition... Social media and mobile web access on our phones all drive the immediacy of events around the world into our lives. As a result, we suffer from neomania, an addiction to anything new within the last five minutes.
The same writer goes on to conclude: “every lure and temptation of the digital age is convincing us to give up difficult, sustained work for the immediate and impulsive content we can skim.”
But even if we can curate and consume only the best of the web, what dangers come with having access, all the time, to all that information? Christian counselor Mike Emlet reminds us:
Omnipresence is a burden unfit for a human being. Do you realize that Jesus, as a human being, in some mysterious way set aside this aspect of his divinity and chose to be limited by space and time (Philippians 2:6–7)
Pastor and writer Zack Eswine also encourages us about the temptations of the digital age and the blessing of embracing our limitations, our finite-ness:
First, we can only be at one place at one time, which means that Jesus will teach most of us to live a local life. We will resist and want to act like we are omnipresent. But he will patiently teach us that as human beings we cannot be, and this admission will glorify God...
Second, we cannot do everything that needs to be done, which means that Jesus will teach us to live with the things that we can neither control nor fix.
Third, we are unable to know everyone or everything, which means that Jesus will teach us to live with ignorance, our own and others'. In other words, we are not omniscient.
Jesus will require us to stop pretending that we are... Jesus invites everywhere-for-alls, fix-it-alls, and know-it-alls to the cross, the empty tomb, and the throne of his grace for their time of need.
[Someplace else, Eswine writes] The freedom in admitting our limitations is that we get to follow John the Baptist's footsteps and say, “I am not the Christ.” It means that I don't have to know everything, I don't have to fix everything, and I'm not expected to be everywhere at once. I'm one person that God created and dearly loves, and I get to just be that one person.
Brothers and sisters, friends, these are warnings we must hear as citizens in the digital age, in the so-called 'information age'. So much of what we are asked to consume online is ultimately, in light of God's word, useless knowledge. It certainly isn't the knowledge Solomon has been describing for us and recommending to us. And along with this knowledge, even with the best of it, there is the temptation to believe that knowing more will always make us safer, happier, smarter; that the glut of online information will somehow put us more in control.
But the other temptation is more subtle: as we digitally collect and consume and connect more and more, we are spreading ourselves thin relationally and spiritually. I may feel up-to-date on the posts of all my Facebook friends, but am I truly being a friend to my real-life neighbor, or to a brother or sister in my faith family? I may be more informed about missionary activity in dozens of countries, but am I being a missionary in the circle of lives into which God has placed me? I may have signed all the latest online petitions about this or that hot issue, but am I aware of the needs in my own community; and am I willing to lend a real hand, not just a virtual one? All of this brings us to a final point from Solomon. We also read about...
4. Sobered and Submissive Knowledge (vs. 13, 14)
Look again at verses 13 and 14. Solomon writes:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Remember, these verses are the closing verses of the entire book. Solomon's whole quest for knowledge has led him to this one conclusion: “fear God and keep his commandments”. The knowledge we need most will always bring us to the One we need most. The knowledge we find in God's word sobers us spiritually, and it calls us to submit ourselves to the God who knows all things; the God who made all things; the God who will judge all things.
But so much of what we consume online does not feed this kind of godly sobriety and submission. Instead, we feel it empowers us, putting our pleasure first and falsely making us feel more in control. Brothers and sisters, I'm not advocating for a kind of blissful ignorance about our world or our relational networks. No, my goal is to encourage you in terms of your 'knowledge priorities'. As you think both about the time you give to your digital devices and the time you give to God's word, ask yourself, “What knowledge could I not live without?”
III. Breaking News and a Beautiful Notification
In a day and age where breaking news is always trying to claim the labels 'urgent' or 'need-to-know', and our phones are buzzing and binging with notifications, what we need far, far, far more than any of this is God's breaking news, that is, the beautiful notification of the gospel of grace. While the church's social justice warriors, marketing experts, and prophecy gurus seem to be saying otherwise, the 'breaking news' of heaven is always the gospel of God's grace. This is how Paul expressed it in II Corinthians 4:6...
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Isn't that incredible? Paul points to the God of Genesis chapter 1, and reminds us that this same God wants to transform us into his new creations. How? Through the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face Jesus Christ”. Why did Jesus come? Because all of us, deep down, reject Solomon's conclusion. We do not “fear God and keep his commandments”. Therefore Christ came to pay the price, on the cross, for guilty sinners who reject God's life-giving knowledge.
Thanks be to God that, by his grace, he has shone light in our hearts. Will you trust Him to do that in your life? Will you trust Him to continue to do that in your life? How does He do that? By his Spirit, through his word. Like the Keliko and Tembo tribes, do we celebrate the gift of God's word? Let me ask you this, how might your life change if you spent as much time with God's word, preaching the gospel to yourself, as you do on your digital devices? No, there's not divine ratio in terms time. But God does call us celebrate his word; to recognize it's exalted status and how much we need it... because we need Him. Let's pray and ask God to convict us and conform us in light of his “words of truth” and the Word made flesh.
More in Digital Disciplines
February 17, 2019Affirmation in the Digital Age (John 5:44)
February 10, 2019Relationships in the Digital Age (II John 12)
February 3, 2019Attention in the Digital Age (II Thessalonians 3:6-13)