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Of Goads and Nails

by Alex Wilson

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails–given by one Shepherd. –Eccles. 12:11

As noted in the preceding article, Ecclesiastes contains many baffling statements. Some seem to contradict other sayings in the book, or in other parts of Scripture. Some appear to express the secular agnosticism that is quite common in our time. Others sound like the existentialists, those totally pessimistic philosophers who influenced many college stu-dents in the 1960s and following. Yet it also contains many wonderful truths beautifully expressed. So how do we fit all these ideas together? We need some key to unlock this book. Some Bible students feel that the above verse from the last chapter provides that key–or at least one such key. Let’s think about it.

The “one Shepherd” surely refers to the Lord (Psa.23:1; Psa.80:1). So the writer is concluding his book by claiming that its ultimate source is God. He knew that at least some of his readers would be puzzled by Eccles., and tempted to dismiss it as merely a mixed-up bag of thoughts by a manic-depressive sage. So he says, “Whoa–you’re wrong. The Lord our Shepherd has given me these insights, so think again!” Then he seems to explain his two-pronged approach, goads and nails.

Richard De Haan analyzes this in his book, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets:
The people who lived during biblical days were familiar with goads, for they saw them in use every day. The farmer, walking behind a yoke of oxen pulling a plow, always carried a long stick with a sharp point. He used it to keep the animals moving and to control them. These creatures, though powerful and relatively docile, do not respond to verbal commands the way a horse does. Nor are they inclined to move briskly. A goad was necessary, therefore, to prod them into a steady pace, and to turn them left or right.
The nails Solomon mentioned were either long spikes or tent stakes such as might be used today. Driven deeply, they held securely against all onslaughts.

We may contrast the nails and goads of Ecclesiastes in this manner: The nail represents stability, solidness, an anchor. The goad signifies a sharp sting, arousing a person from lethargy or driving him in a direction he had not intended to take. (End of Quote)
So far, so good. But what are the goads and nails? In the two verses preceding this one the Teacher claimed to be wise, and that he “searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” Then he explains that wise teachers sometimes must goad their students awake. They use words to shock and startle them and stimulate their thinking. They may play the Devil’s advocate, arguing for views they themselves reject, in order to prepare the students to face the hard questions of life. The Teacher himself has done this at various times in Eccles.

But if that is so, then how can we discern which of his words are true and which are false? –which he believed and which he denied? The key here is his expression, “collected sayings.” They are the firmly embedded nails. So if we would profit from his wisdom, and gain the stability he wishes to impart, we must not take sentences or paragraphs in isolation. We must study his collected sayings, taking his book as a whole. Then we can make sure we get the big picture as he presents it.

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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8