To Study or Not to Study

“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.”

- Ecclesiastes 12:11–12

Did the authors of Scripture know that they were writing the very Word of God when they sat down to pen their books and letters? More liberal historians and biblical scholars will answer that question with a no, and even many evangelicals have suggested as much. This is particularly true of Wisdom Books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. After all, many of the teachings in these books seem as if they could have come from wise unbelievers. In many cases, they do not seem to be the fruit of a uniquely biblical worldview, so how could their authors have had any inkling that they were writing the very words of the Lord?

Ecclesiastes 12:11 calls into doubt the assumption that the biblical authors did not know they were writing sacred Scripture inspired by God. It is almost certainly the case that the Hebrew term translated “Shepherd” in this verse refers to the Lord Himself, which is why the ESV has capitalized it. This makes good sense because the ancient Hebrews often referred to God as their “shepherd” (for example, Ps. 23:1). The immediate context, in which the Preacher sums up his teaching by calling us to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13), lends weight to identifying the “Shepherd” with our Creator.

Since “the words of the wise” are given by God, it is no wonder that the Preacher says that they “are like goads” (v. 11). A goad was likely a board in which nails were embedded with their points exposed. When attached to an ox-towed plow, these goads encouraged the animal to keep moving. If the ox resisted its master’s will and kicked back against the plow, it would feel a sharp pain. Alternatively, a goad may have been a sta with a spike on the end, like a spear, used to prod the animal along. Either way, the point is the same. The inspired “words of the wise” in Scripture correct us when we kick against them by our disobedience, encourage us in the path we should take, and become xed in our minds. If nails or spikes can remind an animal which way to go, how much more will the words of God do the same for us as we study them?

Verse 12 exhorts us not to “go beyond these” words, and says that there can be weariness in too much study, as there is no end to the making of books. We dare not look to anything besides Scripture as our final authority. The warning about studying seems to be a caution for those who live to ask questions without really seeking answers. We do not study for the sake of studying but in order to find out how the Lord wants us to live.

Coram Deo

Many people do not spend enough time studying the Word of God, but some “study” too much. That is, they continually ask questions for which they do not really want God’s answer. Our goal should not be to come to a conclusion after little study, but neither should it be our goal to entertain questions without truly looking for their answers. Scripture answers the questions God wants us to ask, so let us be diligent in our study of it.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 18:30
Proverbs 26:4
Proverbs 30:5
Matthew 21:23–27
2 Timothy 3:1–9

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.