(Last in a series of 12 insights into Ecclesiastes) by Gene Whittum
Solomon continues his warning about death. He has spoken of it many times in his journal and again is imploring the readers to avoid severe judgment by calling to mind their duty to “remember their creator” while they still have the strength, mind and will to do so. The call to recollect has more significance than to just bring something to mind—it involves embarking on a course of action. It is the same as the association between the words “obedience” and “trust”, or “belief” (faith).
When one is presented with the Gospel, there is an interaction between the belief, or faith in the word and the acceptance (obedience) to the word. Obedience is the effect of the presentation of the gospel. Hebrews 4:2 illustrates this principle: “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” This principle is also reflected in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 and Luke 8. For this reason, many who call themselves Christians and who have no evidence to support it, may not be true believers. The Epistle of James emphasizes this throughout the book. Much more could be said about this but we will leave it to your own personal study.
Bear in mind that Solomon, here, appears to be approaching the end of his life. When we read of his history, with his hundreds of wives and concubines, we can conclude that he was a very gifted man with untamed passions. He never had any recorded contact with a prophet (as his father David did with Nathan), and as a result, had no accountability with anyone. He was the king, after all. His testimony is given, in part, in chapter two. His experience of life is recorded in much of the remainder of the book and his wisdom concerning righteous living is delineated in the Proverbs, some of the Psalms and the book called the Song of Songs.
So what does one say when facing the end of life? Death is nothing new to the human race and, here, Solomon is about to expire but he has some final things to say to us. He is telling us to fear God today because old age and death come upon us quickly. He uses the word “before” three times (12:1,2,6) and then he says “when” several times and closes with “then” (verse 5), which appears to be the time of death.
In these verses he mentions several bodily ailments which, collectively or singly, are enough to cause one’s death. Scholars differ somewhat on what these verses mean in the progress of dying, and I can only attempt to sort them out knowing that others may disagree with the conclusions. That is okay. Some of the best scholars disagree with each other. One thing can be said as being certain: it is a description of a body dying. I shall number the verses and offer a brief comment.
Verse 1. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble (difficulty) come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’” Old age is debilitating to say the least and many pleasures are no longer pleasurable because they are not possible or worth the effort. Verses 1 through 7 consist of one long sentence which is difficult to break up into an interpretation of the whole passage—therefore the semi-colons interspersed in our descriptions of the passage.
Verse 2. “Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain;” Many dark days come with a note of the reality that the past is past, emphasizing the transitoriness of life. The dark days may also include some amount of depression. In any case, there is a contrast between the vigor of youth and the incapacitation of old age, life lived in a minor key.
Verse 3. “When the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few and those looking through the windows grow dim;” Here the arms and hands begin to tremble, perhaps with palsy or feebleness; the legs become weak and unsteady; the back begins to stoop over; the teeth (usually molars) are few and chewing becomes difficult; and finally, the eyes begin to lose their sight and simple tasks of years gone by become arduous. The picture of the teeth is of female mill-grinders in the ancient world. The literal meaning would refer to the teeth.
We begin to observe the approaching frailty of old age. Because of these impending weaknesses of getting older, the author encourages the young to learn and practice godliness before the onset of advanced years. The habits formed in earlier years, become hardened and in later years are difficult to remedy without great deliberation.
Paul writes about this condition in Ephesians 4:18 where he states: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” The verb ‘darkened’ is in the perfect tense—‘being darkened in the past with results that they are presently darkened’. It is a process of life that culminates in their hearts being ‘hardened’ by ignorance and carnal practices (We get our word ‘sclerosis’ from this Greek word). It results in a sad spiritual condition and robs old age of much happiness and spiritual peace, hope and satisfaction.
Verse 4. “When the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades;” “The lips (to quote Walter C. Kaiser Jr.) swinging or folding doors, as the jaws of leviathan are called the ‘doors of his face’ in Job 41:14 fall into the mouth for lack of teeth. (A street is a cleft between two rows of houses.)” The ancient world did not have dentists as the modern world does, so teeth were missing (or all gone) and chewing does not make much noise, thus, the ‘grinding fades’.
The next phrase: “when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint” indicates the inability to get a full night’s sleep due to being awakened by every little noise. It seems that the hearing is also included when “all their songs grow faint”. The person, or persons, described here do not have all the infirmities mentioned in this passage. Every individual will have different ailments with which to cope. Authors differ in their interpretation of these verses. However, the context indicates that there is a slow or fast disintegration of the body and each of us can fill in our own disabilities as we age.
Verse 5. “When men are afraid of heights and of dangers (terrors) in the streets;” Many elderly people are afraid to go outside or walk along the streets and consequently remain inside. Ladders, also, are a common phobia. “When the almond tree blossoms (white hair) and the grasshopper drags himself along.” This would describe the hobbling walk of one with a cane.
The last part of verse 5 requires some additional translation. The NET Bible renders it “and the caper berry shrivels up”; the ASB reads “and the caper berry is ineffective.” The Complete Jewish Bible says “and the caper berry has no (aphrodisiac) effect”, and the Tanach (another Jewish translation does not mention the phrase. Another Jewish translation expresses it “and the caper berry shall fail.”
The significance of the verse is similar to Genesis 30:14-15 where mandrake plants were commonly thought to be an aphrodisiac in the culture of the time. Here, in old age, sexual virility may become a distant memory and even aphrodisiacs fail; the caper berry shrivels up as it remains on the branch beyond its period of ripeness.
An interesting series of words and phrases lead up to the conclusion of verse five that we mentioned earlier. Four times the word “before” is used in verses 1, 2 and 6; six times the word “when” is used in verses 3-5, and then a concluding word “then” is given at the end of verse five. “Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.” The ‘eternal home’ is an idiom for the grave as one’s final resting place and the “mourners (who) go about the streets” are referring to the common practice in funerals of that day. Mourners were often hired to advance before the funeral procession.
Verse 6. Solomon is not yet done with his description of the hazards of old age. He once again gives an admonition to “remember him”– the Creator mentioned in verse one. He wants to emphasize again the theme of the passage that it is always best to serve the Lord when one is young, fresh and able. The word “before” appears again to introduce more conditions that attend the elderly.
The occurrence of death is, as the prior verses, explained metaphorically and commentators differ as to what is meant by the silver cord, the golden bowl, the pitcher and the wheel. One thing is certain—it is a reference to the dissolution and the frailty of life. The “silver cord” seems to refer to the spinal cord; the “golden bowl” may be the skull or brain; the “pitcher”, which is used at the well and drawn up by a rope, may refer to the heart or stomach; the “wheel” at the cistern perhaps refers to the heart or circulatory system that transports the blood continuously throughout the body. When that breaks down, it is then terminal as mentioned in the following verse.
Verse 7: “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” To interpret the prior verses, different translations do not help a great deal in the unraveling of the meaning. Authors differ and what I have written seems to be more of a common thread of agreement with many writers. In this verse, however, it is much easier to discern what is being said. Solomon is referring to the death of a person who has grown old. The life has been lived, admonitions and examples have been given, and now the individual must await the judgment of God as to how the life was spent.
Verse 8. “Meaningless! Meaningless!’ Says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless’ “. This is a strange conclusion to what he has just said regarding “remembering” and “death”. This was the theme of his introduction in chapter one. In the context of the chapter, he seems to be saying how vain it is to have lived a full life and not learn the meaning and solution to righteous living. We can all say that to live and die without having the joy of life and the fellowship with God is indeed meaningless—a great tragedy.
Solomon now gives the conclusion to the matters of life. He has told us to enjoy life in spite of all the hurdles we may face. He has looked toward the God who is above the sun and who is intimately involved with His creation. Life is seldom free of various kinds of obstacles and problems and mysteries.
What qualifies a person to set down a dissertation such as this? He was certainly wise and throughout history has plainly taught many, especially those who take time to contemplate his words. He has not trifled with his readers; he researched and wrote thousands of proverbs and anyone who spends time in what he has written elsewhere (Proverbs and Psalms), receive much benefit from learning and observing his counsel and exhortations.
In his admissions in this journal, he too has learned right from wrong. Therefore he can say–verse 10, that “what he wrote was upright and true.” It is wisdom that has withstood the ages, and we still acknowledge that fact because what he has written became a part of our Scriptures. It has been written for our admonition. If we are honest in our assessment, we will have to agree that he was wise.
Verse eleven is critical to his conclusions. He writes: “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.” Shepherd is capitalized and therefore refers to one much superior to Solomon, the teacher. In Genesis 48:15 Jacob, in blessing his sons, says: “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my Shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys.” God was Jacob’s Shepherd. We all know Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”and Isaiah 40:11 “He tends his flock like a Shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young.” See also Jeremiah 31:10 and Ezekiel 34:11-12.
Solomon in effect is giving credit for his words to the “Shepherd” when he notes that they were “given by one Shepherd.” He is not necessarily calling himself wise—his words were ‘given’ by the Wise One. He is using the third person (the Shepherd) rather than the first person, himself. The revelation of the book came from God. The words he sought were “delightful words” but they were also like prods to make the individual think. His work was not that of a pessimist or defeatist; he did not advocate artificial happiness nor did he deny the existence of God. He learned, perhaps too late, the same lessons that he is trying to help us to learn.
We must believe that his sincerity was real, albeit very difficult in places. Goads and nails are designed to prod and fasten—prodding towards righteous living and fastening us onto truth. Much of life is still enigmatic and puzzling, but with the guidance of the Shepherd, we are under gracious, tender and merciful care. The “words of delight” are words that he (Solomon) took delight in. Recall verse nine where he tells us that he “taught, heard, investigated, and put in order” his writings.
Verses 12: “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Moffatt translates this to read: “My son, avoid anything beyond the scriptures of wisdom.” I believe he is speaking of anything beyond the scriptures as being a final authority for life. All true bible teaching, hearing (others), investigating (checking them out) and putting in order (writing it down) is truly a wearying process.
Verses 13 and 14 are his concluding exhortation: Fear God, and obey His commands. “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (14) For God will bring every deed into judgment, (see 3:17, 11:9) including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” He has been inserting just enough warning throughout the book to keep us obedient.
The word “fear” has many connotations. It means to fear from an understanding of who God is and from a sense of our own weakness and dependence, joined by trembling in certain instances. It is to venerate God, praise and worship him in the knowledge of him. The more we know about God, the more we are able to worship “in spirit and in truth.” In this verse, the word is an imperative—a command, not just a suggestion (Moses did not go up on the mountain just to get a few suggestions from God. They were the Ten Commandments).
The word “evil” has many connotations in Scripture, everything from hating God to being mean to someone. It is always a negative word, meaning that anything that is not righteously based, may be said to be ‘evil’. As far as the judgment is concerned, the first line of judgment is the written word, the Scriptures. They should be the ‘goad’ that spurs us on to further investigate the Word of God.
There are several judgments in the bible and we cannot deal with them all here. Just one passage will be dealt with. It is 2nd Corinthians 5:20, a passage that deals with the judgment seat of Christ, or the Bema Seat. The verse reads: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body (that is, while living), whether good or bad.” The Greek word is kakos, which essentially means ‘worthless’ as does the Hebrew word rah, or rawah–to spoil or be good for nothing. The words do include sinful activity of many sorts but when dealing with the judgment of believers, the deeds we perform will be either “good” or “bad”.
In 2nd Corinthians, Paul is speaking to believers about pleasing the Lord and exhorting the believer to fear the Lord while working for him in the vineyard. When the believer appears before Christ at the judgment seat, our sins will not be an issue. All sin will be left in the grave and our deeds done in the body will be judged—whether good or bad (worthless). Are the things we do motivated by our love of Christ, or are they just out of a sense of duty? Are we filled with the Spirit as we live and labor, or are we carnal? When we worship in our churches, are our minds focused on the Lord or on ‘carnal’ things?
As an illustration: There is nothing wrong with a wheelbarrow of sand but you do not take a bucket of sand to the grocery store to pay for groceries. The sand is worthless. It is the same with our ‘spiritual’ deeds—are we motivated by the flesh or the spirit? It is a thin line at times as we gather together or walk around in the market place of life. Do we serve the Lord with a pure motive to honor him?
This does not answer all the questions that may be raised about these verses, but my desire is that we stop playing games with God and begin to get serious about our spiritual state. I think that when we appear before the Lord and he ‘wipes away all tears’, I believe the tears will be tears of sorrow, regret and shame that we did not do all that we could and should have done for the Kingdom while alive on earth. All that we have and all that we have done will seem insignificant as we stand in His presence.
These words on Ecclesiastes are from my heart; they are in no way complete or perfect. I trust that the reader will have received some instruction from this difficult book along with a blessing or two and that your own study of the Word will be enhanced and encouraged.
May the blessing of the Lord be with you.
May I add one thing to this chapter. Some liken the description of the ailments of old age to an old house falling apart. Following is the song written by Stuart Hamblen in 1954 which he named “This Ole House”. Note how it fits someone who is becoming decrepit.
“This ole house once knew his children This ole house once knew his wife. This ole house was home and comfort as they fought the storms of life. This old house once rang with laughter This old house heard many shouts Now he trembles in the darkness when the lightnin’ walks about.
Chorus: Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer Ain’t a-gonna need this house no more Ain’t got time to fix the shingles Ain’t got time to fix the floor Ain’t got time to oil the hinges Nor to mend the windowpane Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer He’s a-getting’ ready to meet the saints.
This ole house is a-gettin’ shaky This ole house is a-getting’ old This ole house lets in the rain This ole house lets in the cold On his knees I’m getting’ chilly But he feel no fear nor pain ‘Cause he see an angel peekin’ Through a broken windowpane.
This ole house is afraid of thunder This ole house is afraid of storms This ole house just groans and trembles When the night wind flings its arms This ole house is getting’ feeble This old house is needin’ paint Just like him it’s tuckered out But he’s a-gettin’ ready to meet the saints.”
I just thought many of you would appreciate the subtle (or not so subtle) truth of this old classic.