“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,” goes the famous phrase in Ecclesiastes 9:10. But why? The rest of the verse tells us, and the answer fits the theme of this book of the Bible—written by an aging King Solomon who was reflecting back on an eventful life: “[F]or there is no work, nor device [or reasoning], nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” That’s the motivation for doing things with our might. Just as we tend to get a little bit more ambitious when playing a board game that has a timed element, we start to work more hastily when we see the time running out—especially if the timer is one of those mini hourglasses where the sand quickly starts to disappear from the top of the hourglass.
Life itself has been equated with an hourglass, and Solomon charges us to go after wisdom with that mindset. Several passages in Ecclesiastes bottom out the idea that the grave is void of any kind of thinking, reasoning, work or wisdom.
The entirety of Ecclesiastes heavily considers the subjects of death and the futility of much of human life. But far from being morbid, this book offers priceless wisdom aimed at the young, especially since the young don’t usually think about these things.
The context of, and lead-up to, this famous “with thy might” verse can be found starting in verse 4, where Solomon says “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” He also says “[T]he dead know not any thing” (verse 5; see also Psalm 146:4 which says, at death, our thoughts perish). The dead cannot be hired for any kind of job (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and verse 6 says their excitement, envying and hatred for things—their favorite sports teams, rivalries, favorite hymns, biggest pet peeves, or what they envied about someone else—is all gone.
Verse 5 says “the memory of them is forgotten.” Of course, you remember those close to you who are deceased, and there are memorials of many who have died. But think of that verse this way: What the deceased remembered is gone. When we die, all the various memories we have are inaccessible to anyone else in this life.
Now Is the Time to Ask Questions
My mother had eight siblings. When she died on February 9, 2021, I wanted to get word to her living siblings whom we hadn’t talked to in some time. I had the phone number for one of my cousins—a daughter of my mom’s older sister, my Aunt Dolores, who was born eight years before my mom. I told my cousin of my desire to reconnect with everyone—partly for wanting to gather as much family history as I could. She said, “Everyone is getting older, so now is the time to ask questions.”
That statement put even more of a fire under me. When a family member dies, you’re already hyperaware of how finite physical life is, and that statement rattled my psyche.
So I talked for a while with my Aunt Dolores, who remembered things that otherwise had perished with Mom. I took copious notes in an empty little notebook of my mom’s, which had a picture of a kitten on the front of it.
Later that day, I was walking through a grocery store and walked by an elderly lady shopping on a motorized scooter. It was at that very moment that my entire impression of “old people” shifted. Because of the conversation I had just had with my 86-year-old aunt, I now saw a living, breathing encyclopedia of experiences and memories. Whoever this lady in the store was, she was a completely unique record of personal, irreplaceable memories!
The Bible advocates asking the elderly questions—mining their memories and learning from their lives. And it advises doing so with a bit of urgency, and “with your might.” We don’t just live our own lives with that kind of motivation, but we use what time we have to dig out that kind of history. As my older cousin said: “Now is the time to ask questions.”
I hope to motivate you to seek out and learn from the elderly, and to do so with your might.
Read all of Ecclesiastes 9. It’s about making the most of the opportunities you have, and one of those opportunities is drawing out as many memories as you can from older generations.
Notice verse 12: “For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.” We don’t know when our life will come to an end.
Just 30 days after my mom died, I got a message from my cousin that Aunt Dolores had died. I hadn’t spoken to her in years: We had just started interacting more often. I would send her old pictures my mom had (with my aunt in them), and she’d explain things about them. We had a text thread going about St. Louis Cardinals baseball and spring training. And I realized very sharply what it says here in Ecclesiastes 9. Her memories perished—except for what was passed on—what her children knew, and what little I’d written in my small kitty notebook.
To help illustrate his point, Solomon tells us in verses 14-15: “There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.”
Being confronted by deaths in the family really sparks a lot of meditation. Four lessons have crystallized, in terms of what and how we should learn from the elderly. These are principles supported in Scripture. The first two can be found in Deuteronomy 32:7: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee.”
The first lesson has to do with your specific family history: Find family history by asking older relatives.
This would include parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even older cousins. Learn your family history—your legacy. These are “heirlooms” of knowledge specific to your line.
Even my teenaged daughter has shared with me stories about my mom’s childhood that I never knew, because the granddaughter-grandmother line of communication was open.
Another example: My wife found an article in a newspaper from Connellsville, Penn., where her great-grandfather made a trip to St. Louis (he was important enough to the community for the press to cover his excursions). This great-grandfather was visiting a St. Louis chiropractic college for his son’s (my wife’s grandfather) graduation. When my wife told her father about the article, he remembered a personal detail about that trip. He was a little boy when his father graduated from that institution, and he remembers his Papa getting back on the plane to return to Pennsylvania—but before he did, he did a magic trick: He pulled a coin out of his little grandson’s ear.
These were details that weren’t in any newspaper article. Hopefully it prompts you to ask your older relatives about their memories. Have you ever asked your grandparents about their grandparents?
These mental souvenirs, these “heirlooms,” impact our perception of the past in a constructive way.
Another lesson from Deuteronomy 32:7 is about intersecting family history with general history: Investigate how their experiences intersect with historical events.
When it comes to broader historical events, how does your family history relate? This can help make history come alive for you. This happens a lot on the local news, when an event happens on a national or international level, the local station will find out how someone in that specific community is connected to, or impacted by, that event.
The July 1947 newspaper nugget about my wife’s great-grandfather mentioned that he flew over St. Louis and saw flood waters reaching the tops of the homes in some areas. I learned from that article that there was a great flood there that year.
Something else I’ve learned since my mother’s death: She had an uncle who died after stepping on a landmine in World War ii. This young man had a wife back home who had, seven days earlier, given birth to a baby girl. His wife had written a letter and sent it across the Atlantic to inform her husband of the news, but he never got the message.
That little girl grew up and is in her mid-70s now. I recently acquired a picture of her standing at her father’s grave in a military cemetery in Luxembourg, about 100 feet from the grave of the famous General Patton. What’s special about this picture is that this cousin of mine is standing with the granddaughter of General Patton. What I learned from this is that the legendary general wanted to be buried with the troops he led. I could have learned that historical fact from a book or a documentary, but learning it this way has made this detail of history incredibly meaningful and unforgettable!
My third lesson is about the significance of events: Search the significance of present events by asking questions about the past.
Deuteronomy 4:32-33 read: “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other [that’s a lot of research!], whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?”
Some incredibly special and unique things were happening to Israel, and God wanted them to ask questions to deeply understand how special those things were. Whatever happens to us, we can ask whether they are unique to our generation, or if there are other generations who have experienced similar things. In some cases, our experiences might be unique; but often, we may learn how much we have in common with those who have gone before us!
We can “ask” by reading and by studying. Here, however, I’m trying to drive you directly to living, breathing examples of people who can be asked directly.
This helps you realize how significant present events are. This is something the great historian and leader Winston Churchill grappled with: “Manfred Weidhorn, in his book Sword and Pen, said this about Winston Churchill: ‘In attempting to assess the ultimate significance of events, Churchill grapples with the problem of historical perspective. Incidents have one meaning at the time of their occurrence and another when they have become part of history’” (The Former Prophets).
One of Job’s friends admonished him to ask these kinds of questions of his elders: “For enquire, I pray thee, of the former age, and prepare thyself to the search of their fathers: (For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow:) Shall not they teach thee, [and] tell thee, and utter words out of their heart?” (Job 8:8-10).
These friends of Job didn’t give him the greatest advice during his trial, but this is a biblical principle: enquiring of the former age because our lives make such a tiny footprint on the shores of time.
These three lessons should really cause our esteem of the elderly to multiply. That is the essence of my fourth lesson: Honor all those with hoary heads, because of the abundance of life experience.
This is explicitly commanded in Leviticus 19:32: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary [or gray] head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord.”
There are three actions commanded in this verse, two relating directly to our treatment of the elderly. One of those two is an action (standing) and the other is an attitude (honoring).
The physical action is one that shows respect, because you have stopped what you’re doing to acknowledge that someone much older has entered the same space as you. Whether they’re “wise” or not, if their appearance shows physical evidence of their age, then they deserve your respect.
The word for honor means to glorify or enlarge (literally to “swell up”). We can glorify the elderly by seeking out their perspective, mining their memories, and deferring to their opinion.
After Job’s friends gave him their take on why he was suffering, a younger man named Elihu spoke up. He plainly said he let these other men talk first because they were older (Job 32:6)—his opinion was to come after theirs, because, as he said: “Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom” (verse 7). Though age doesn’t necessarily guarantee wisdom (see Ecclesiastes 4:13), ideally a long life should speak and teach wisdom.
Later in the Bible we read of an account of a king who did not honor the elderly in this fashion. That king was actually Solomon’s son and David’s grandson: Rehoboam. In 1 Kings 12, he had just inherited the kingdom from this father, and a man named Jeroboam was causing the people to make certain demands of the new king. As the people viewed it, Solomon—the author of Ecclesiastes—had levied some pretty heavy taxes on the populace.
“And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, that stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people? And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever” (verses 6-7). These older men had a perspective on what would win over the citizens of Israel. But notice Rehoboam’s response to their counsel: “But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him” (verse 8).
The account suggests King Rehoboam dismissed the opinions of the elders before even hearing what the younger advisers had to say. Now, Rehoboam was 41 years old here, which means he had a fair bit of life experience to draw on himself. But his advice was limited to those who “were grown up with him” (verse 10 repeats this fact). They were the same generation, meaning they had the same perspective Rehoboam already had!
Rehoboam would have been one year old when his grandfather David died, yet he had access to people with living memory of how David ran the kingdom. Verse 15 shows that God was allowing all this, but Rehoboam’s disregard for advice from the elderly ripped the kingdom in two! And, as verse 16 says, it made the majority of the nation reject David himself. I’m sure you can imagine what David would have thought of all this!
One result that will come from respecting and interacting with the elderly is a proper lack of confidence in your own narrow perspective. This is something that Abigail Adams (wife of the second U.S. President John Adams) tried to teach her son John Quincy, who later became president himself. Mrs. Adams wrote a letter to her son on June 10, 1778, when he wasn’t yet 11 years old, telling him: “The most amiable and most usefull disposition in a young mind is diffidence of itself, and this should lead you to seek advise and instruction from him who is your natural Guardian, and will always counsel and direct you in the best manner both for your present and future happiness” (spelling standards were different back then). Diffidence means modesty or lack of confidence in. The best perspective for a young mind, she said, is knowing that you don’t know everything. Lack a little confidence in your own perspective, and let that drive you to seek counsel—primarily from God, she wrote.
Just as there’s an embedded “wisdom” in having lived a long time (at least a valuable perspective), there’s also an embedded attribute to being young—what Mrs. Adams called “the inadvertency and Heedlessness of youth.” Inadvertency means the tendency to not carefully plan ahead or prepare. Heedlessness means a reckless lack of paying attention.
She does acknowledge that her son is quite mature for a 10-nearly-11-year-old and knows a good deal about history. The rest of her letter goes on to reference current events happening right then, plus some recent history, plus history as ancient as the first-century emperor Nero. That’s quite a letter from a mom to a 10-year-old! Abigail Adams wasn’t elderly here (she was in her mid-30s), but she was striving to make a historical perspective relevant and significant to her son!
If you look at the lessons I’ve mined from these personal Ecclesiastes-type experiences in my family, you’ll see they all start with letters that spell the word fish, because you have to fish out your own unique family history, how it intersects with broader history, whether those things are significant or not, and what honor this should foster in you for those who are older.
Toward the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon really puts our attention on God—pointing to His ageless wisdom! “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10).
We are told to live life to the full, knowing that God will bring us into judgment. For those called in the Church age, our judgment is occurring right now (1 Peter 4:17). Solomon says there is joy in this understanding. He’s not trying to be depressing by just talking about how everything is vanity and that we will all die and our memories will perish. He wants us to make the most of our youth.
Verse 1 of the next chapter continues the thought: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.”
It is much easier to forge a relationship with God when you have more life ahead of you, rather than at the time when you don’t really look forward to getting up in the morning—when you feel your best years are gone, and you don’t really enjoy anything anymore. By extension, it’s also much easier to fish out godly wisdom from those older than you— to learn those things while you are still in your formative years—rather than when you are old and more set in your ways.
Consider reading Ecclesiastes 9:10 this way: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. It’s on you—especially, as the rest of the verse says, because life is so limited. When someone dies, their spirit (their intellect) is stored with God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). No other human being can access it.
We must make the most of the time we have. Make the most of the fellowship opportunities you have with the elderly. Use this understanding to motivate you—like the draining of a small hourglass in a board game.
Now is the time to ask questions! Make the most of the time you have. And make the most of the time your elders have. There’s only so much time in this life that you can benefit from what they have to offer! Go after their history with your might!