J. I. Packer on Ecclesiastes

by John Yoder on January 22, 2016

Since we recently started a series from Ecclesiastes, I thought you might appreciate these comments from J. I. Packer.  It comes from an article,  “J. I. Packer, 89, On Losing Sight But Seeing Christ” by Ivan Mesa, an editor for The Gospel Coalition.


“Over Christmas macular degeneration struck so that I can no longer read or write.”

For many who have appreciated and benefited from James Innell Packer’s writing ministry—the author of more than 300 books, journal articles, book reviews, dictionary entries, and innumerable forewords—this will come as especially saddening news.

Packer, 89, will no longer be able to write as he has before or travel or do any regular preaching. Macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease that causes the loss of vision. While for now Packer still retains peripheral vision, it’s doubtful he will ever regain the ability to read. (Justin Taylor explains this in some detail.)

“God knows what he’s doing,” Packer recently told me in a phone interview. Rather than being paralyzed by fear or self-pity, Packer is confident that “this comes as a clear indication from headquarters. And I take it from him.”

Whether his response stems more from the British stiff upper lip or decades’ worth of sanctification, Packer is living out a truth he has long believed and proclaimed: God is sovereign and good in all things.

“God knows what he’s up to,” says the author of Knowing God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. “And I’ve had enough experiences of his goodness in all sorts of ways not to have any doubt about the present circumstances.” He adds, “Some good, something for his glory, is going to come out of it.”

The rest of my conversation with Packer is transcribed below. May it serve as an encouragement even as we pray for this dear brother who has faithfully taught and lived for many decades of gospel ministry.


Is losing the ability to write, read, and preach especially hard?

No, in the days when it was physically possible for me to do these things I was concerned, even anxious, to get ahead with doing them. Now that it’s no longer possible I acknowledge the sovereignty of God. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21). Now that I’m nearly 90 years old he’s taken away. And I won’t get any stronger, physically, as I go on in this world. And I don’t know how much longer I’ll be going on anyway.

Has this been a hard trial emotionally?

Emotionally, it doesn’t make an impact on me because after all I’m nearly 90, and I would have had to stop those things soon anyway because my strength would not have continued. God has been very good to us [he includes his wife, Kit], and none of us has been struck as so many people of our age by any form of dementia. We’re both blessedly free of that in a way that other folks of our age known to us are not. When you’re preserved from something other people actually have to work their way through you recognize that this is a mercy and are thankful.

Ecclesiates is a book of the Bible you have especially treasured and have gleaned much wisdom from over the years. You’ve said Ecclesiastes cured you of youthful cynicism. On this side of life what has the old sage taught you? Does the final chapter of Ecclesiastes—chapter 12—hold more resonance at this stage than, say, 40 years ago?

The author of Ecclesiastes has taught me that it is folly to suppose that you can plan life and master it, and you will get hurt if you try. You must acknowledge the sovereignty of God and leave the wisdom to him.

It tells me now what it told me 40 years ago, namely, that we wear out, physically we come apart. You get old, and getting old means the loss of faculties and powers you had when you were younger. And that is the way God prepares us to leave this world for a better world to which he’s taking us. The message of Ecclesiastes 12 is “Get right with God as early in life as you can; ‘remember the creator in your days of youth’ (Eccl. 12:1). Don’t leave it until some time in the future when you’re not likely to be able to handle it well at all.”

[For the rest of the article go here.  His comments about the Young, Restless and Reformed are also insightful…“If for the moment we are giving our time non-churchly or trans-denominational movements, well, that should be seen as step, a venture, towards churchliness rather than towards individualism. Individualism, no. Churchliness, yes.”]

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