For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4


Ecclesiastes 12

A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2004 James Melough

12:1.  “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;”


Experience teaches that the older people grow the less heed they give to God’s Word, and the less likely they are to change their minds about anything.  They become more and more firmely set in their ways; hence the imperative of obeying God while they are young, and their minds malleable.  The preacher reminds his hearers that youth is fleeting, each passing day bringing nearer the time when the mind and body will grow old, and become incapable of affording any pleasure or seeing any purpose to life.


12:2.  “While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:”


The reference is not to literal darkening of the astral bodies, but to the deteriorating ability of one’s physical faculties in old age to perceive things with the same clarity as formerly, vision being usually the first to be affected.


As for the return of the clouds after rain, this is unusual, for normally the clouds disappear after having discharged their moisture.  But again the language is symbolic, and declares the truth that for the unbeliever old age brings multiplied troubles unrelieved by any periods of happiness.


12:3.  “In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened.”


This appears to continue the declaration of truth relative to the decreasing mental and physical ability brought on by advancing years.  The keepers of the house are taken by some to be the arms and hands; and the strong men to be the legs, but by others, to refer to the five senses by which we normally function, the trembling perhaps alluding to the shaking which affects the hands as years multiply; the strong men bowing themselves referring possibly to the stooping of head and shoulders which also accompanies the ageing process.  Along the same lines, the reduction of the number of grinders is usually taken to refer to the loss of teeth, while the darkening of those looking out of the windows may refer to diminishing eye sight.


Rejection of the allegorical application makes difficult any clear understanding of what the writer is attempting to communicate.


12:4.  “And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinders is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;”


As an open door speaks of free, easy social intercourse, so does a closed door indicate the opposite, and it is scarcely necessary to say that such social activity diminishes as people age.  They loose both the desire and the ability to participate socially as they did when young.  Some understand the doors to represent the ears.


The diminished sound of grinding doesn’t indicate reduction in the amount of grinding being done, but rather reduced ability to hear: older people tend to become increasingly hard of hearing. 


Some understand the grinders to be the teeth, but this seems unlikely, since normally the teeth make no sound during the process of chewing, and we should note that it is “the sound of the grinders” that is low.


Rising up “at the voice of the bird,” i.e., at the pre-dawn crowing of the rooster, is simply a metaphor for sleeplessness.  As we grow older our sleep becomes more fitful.


“... and all the daughters of music shall be brought low” seems to mean that age brings diminished ability to sing, though some take this to mean increased inability to hear the sound of singing, so that to the deaf listener it seems that the singing itself is lower.


12:5.  “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and, and the mourners go about the streets.”


In youth man desires to climb trees, hills, mountains, every height being a challenge, but when he is old he fears heights, and tries to avoid them lest he fall.  “... fears in the way” are taken by most to refer to the aged person’s fear of falling even while just walking on level ground.


The reference to the almond tree is related to the fact that it bears white blossoms, a picture here of man’s hair turning white as he grows old.  And like the grasshopper whose movements become sluggish as it nears death, so does man also lose his agility as he grows old. 


“... desire shall fail” is also translated “the caper-berry shall fail; the caper-berry is ineffectual; caper-buds have no more zest.” 


The caper-berry is a Mediterranean shrub whose flower buds are used for garnishing or seasoning, and as an aphrodisiac, and the message being declared here metaphorically is that as years increase the zest for living decreases.


The “long home” to which man goes is not exactly the grave, but rather heaven or hell, where the soul abides eternally, the grave being but the temporary abode of the body until its being raised at the resurrection of life, or of death, depending on whether the man died as a believer or as an unbeliever, the two resurrections being separated by the thousand years of the Millennium.


“... and the mourners go about the streets,” is the reminder that every second Death sweeps more than a thousand souls into eternity, hence the common description of earth as “this vale of tears.”


12:6.  “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, of the wheel broken at the cistern.”


This is clearly a metaphoric description of death, the literal silver cord being that used to suspend a lamp from the ceiling. When the cord breaks, the lamp falls to the floor and is smashed. Since silver is a Biblical symbol of redemption, the death may be that of a believer. 


The golden bowl is taken by many to represent the head and the brain within it.  Since gold is the biblical symbol of glory, death’s being likened to the breaking of a golden bowl, declares that God is glorified in a man’s becoming a “golden bowl” by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and living his life to God’s glory, by a faithful testimony shedding abroad the light of the knowledge of Christ.


A fountain is a spring or source of water bubbling forth continuously, so the breaking of the pitcher at the fountain  speaks symbolically of the death of one who had lived his life in close association with Christ Who declared that He Himself was the Fountain of the water of life, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” John 4:14.


“... the wheel” is the pulley suspended over the well, the bucket being lowered and raised by means of the rope running through the pulley.  It is a picture of the believer as an instrument in God’s hand to bring the “water of life,” the Gospel, to a perishing world.  The breaking of the wheel is a metaphoric description of the believer’s death.


12:7.  “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”


This recalls the fact that man’s body was made from the dust of the ground, see God’s words to disobedient Adam in Gen 3:19, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 


But man is tripartite: he has a soul and spirit as well as a body, and at death the soul and spirit return to God Who consigns them to heaven or hell depending on whether the man was a believer or an unbeliever. 


Relative to the distinction between soul and spirit we read that, “The word of God is quick (alive), and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit ....” Heb 4:12.  (Of help in distinguishing between man’s body, soul, and spirit, is the fact that with his body he has world consciousness; with his soul he has self consciousness, and with his spirit he has God consciousness; and it is instructive to note that animals have body and soul, but not spirit.  No animal has ever evinced any consciousness of God.  Only man, from the most primative to the most sophisticated, displays that consciousness.  Innately he must worship something, even if it be only a tree or a stone).


12:8.  “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.”


The conclusion of the unconverted man is that everything pertaining to man’s life is empty, worthless, and futile.  He can conceive of nothing after death.


12:9.  “And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.”


The preacher is still Solomon, richly endowed by God with wisdom and knowledge, see 2 Chron., 1:10-12; and so that he might teach the people wisely, he very carefully searched out truth and wise sayings to pass on to them.


Those who undertake to teach God’s people would be well advised to follow his example.


12:10.  “The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.”


Solomon was also careful to select words that would transmit his knowledge correctly, so that the absolute truth he sought to convey to his hearers and readers would be unambiguous and easily understood.  And again, those who would teach truth should exercise the same care.


12:11.  “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.”


A goad was a sharp pointed stick used to prod animals to keep them moving in the direction desired by the driver, and the words of wise elders and teachers are like goads in that they too are meant to keep the believers walking in the path marked out for them in God’s Word.


And as the nails used to fasten pieces of wood should be driven in all the way, so should the instruction of elders and teachers be, as it were, “hammered home,” i.e., emphasized, presenting obedience not as an option, but as an imperative.


“... which are given from one shepherd,” refers to the elders given by the Lord, the one or chief Shepherd, to shepherd His people, but the description also fits the words of Scripture on which their teaching is based.


12:12.  “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”


The “these” almost certainly relates to the elders whose admonishments, i.e., words of advice, counsel, or reprimand, are to be heeded. 


The reference to the making of many books, and to the weariness induced by much study of books, is a warning never more needed than today, when believers are bombarded by advertisements for books on every subject under the sun, so much so that Christians, tantalized by dramatic titles, or the charisma of popular authors,  spend more time reading books about the Bible than they do reading the Bible itself.


12:13.  “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.”


All that has been discussed in this book of Ecclesiastes can be summed up in this concise statement which concludes it: Fear God, not in an apprehensive slavish way, but with the reverential awe begotten by the contemplation of His transcendant power and glory.


All else that might claim our attention pales into insignificance, for man’s eternal bliss or torment depends on whether he does fear God, or despises Him, and rebels against His will as revealed in His written Word.


12:14.  “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”


The imperative of living in reverential awe of God is declared in the fact that ultimately He is the One Who will Judge each man’s life, the result of that judgment being admission of every believer to eternal bliss in heaven, or consignment of every unbeliever to eternal torment in the terrible lake of fire.  Nor will the judgment be based on an imperfect knowledge of each man’s life: it will be according to God’s omniscience.


The certainty of that judgment, and its fearful eternal consequences, ought to impel every unbeliever to cry out in sincerity as did the publican in Lk 18:13 “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

[Lord willing, next week: A Return to Leviticus]


     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough