Ecclesiastes 12 Meaning Commentary Summary

Before we start studying Ecclesiastes 12 meaning I want to deal with a few matters before we get into the text.

If you’ve ever read the book of Ecclesiastes you’re probably aware of the contents of this last chapter. If you don’t know, basically, the author – whom we know as the Preacher – he describes some of the difficulties associated with growing old. And he does it in a poetic way. For instance, he talks about “grinders”. And when he does, he’s using that image metaphorically to refer to teeth. And then he goes on to say that they are few – which is something that does indeed happen in old age.

And we can tend to look at the way that the Preacher poetically pictures old age. And we can tend to laugh and think it’s humorous. Now, you’re free to laugh, but I don’t believe that’s the Preacher’s goal. He’s not writing this chapter to make you laugh. He’s writing this chapter to warn you. This is coming to you. You want to laugh about the absence of teeth or the tendency to wake up easily in older folks? Well, just you wait! It’s coming to you some day.

And that brings me to another point I want to make. This chapter is not primarily written to those who are experiencing these difficulties. No – older people already know about these things. The preacher is writing to those who are – verse 1 – “in the days of thy youth”. He’s writing to younger people who know nothing from personal experience of the realities that he’s describing. And he’s urging you younger people to a certain way of living and thinking in light of the fact that dark days – as he describes them – are coming.

And yet, the Preacher’s description of old age isn’t value-less for people already experiencing some of these issues. The Preacher himself – we can assume – was at least close to – if not completely experiencing – the time of life that he describes in chapter 12. His descriptions of old age are too real to be described by someone who knows nothing about them.

So, with those considerations in mind, let’s move on to the text.

Now, we ended our lesson last week with chapter 11 – where young men were told to rejoice in their youth, knowing that dark days are coming and will be many. And now we have a similar admonition in verse 1 of chapter 12…

KJV Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil [difficult] days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

So, what better time to remember and know and serve your Creator than in the prime of your life? These are years of opportunity. Years of ability and strength. They’re easy years – compared to what’s to come in your life.

And we’re told what’s to come. Years that are evil – not in the sense of moral evil, but in the sense of difficulty. Years that will find you saying that you don’t have any pleasure in them. That’s what’s to come in this life for every one of us.

And the Preacher really focuses on these days to come for an extended period in chapter 12. This is like the crescendo to the Preacher’s whole message in this book. He’s been impressing upon us the vanity or emptiness of life on this earth – especially if you’re living without God and without concern for spiritual realities. And he’s addressed it from all angles. And he’s spoken of death before in this book. But now, as his last topic, he wants to focus in on the end of this vain life and what it’s going to be like. And all this in order to impress on younger people that they need to enjoy the life that God has given them while they still can. They need to know and serve God while there’s still time.

Because time is running out. Remember the one who created you, he says, verse 2…

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

It seems that the first part of verse 2 is referring to one’s deteriorating vision as he gets older. What else would darken the light of heavenly bodies – whose light really never darkens? It’s referring to the perspective – the eyesight – of the one who sees that light.

The second part of verse 2 is a little more difficult. Are the clouds here speaking of something like cataracts? That’s a condition that tends to occur in older folks that clouds their vision. People who experience it tend to claim that it’s like looking through a frosty or fogged-up window – it’s cloudy. And then the “rain” would refer to tears or the natural moisture of the eye. This interpretation has the benefit of being related to the idea that just preceded it – which had to do with vision.

So, serve God with your eyes, while they’re still fully functional.

Moving on to verse 3…

3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,

Let’s try to figure out the literal picture painted for us in these two descriptions.

Keepers of the house are ones who would guard a house from invaders. You expect them to be strong. But in the picture we’re given, they’re not. In this metaphor, the ones you count on to be strong just aren’t anymore. They tremble, either from physical weakness or from the emotion of fear.

Likewise, the “strong men” are now bowing themselves or being stooped. But that’s not the position you expect to see a strong man assume. You expect a strong man to be physically upright. But something happened and now this man is stooped over.

So, based on the literal physical pictures that these two descriptions paint for us, now we can apply these metaphorically to the “days of darkness” that all youth will some day experience.

The picture is one of strength giving way to weakness. As the dark days come, young men and women can expect this kind of situation to set in. This kind of weakness where there had been strength – generally.

And that’s why – for youth – now is the time to remember your Creator – to know him and serve him – while there’s still strength to do it. Because that strength will be gone some day.

Let’s look at the next description…

and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened [grow dim],

I think it’s pretty obvious that the “grinders” refer metaphorically to teeth. As you age, the chances are that you’ll lose all or at least some of your teeth. They decay. And so, that’s pictured as the ceasing of those who would grind flour because there are only a few of them.

What I don’t think is as obvious is the second description about those who “look out of the windows”. Some would interpret this as a reference to failing eyesight. But, we’ve already dealt with eyesight. And – more importantly – if these descriptions are in parallel – and they have been thus far – then this description would be related in some way to the grinders from the first description. In which case, these who are looking out of the windows would be a reference to teeth. And in particular, teeth that are falling out as decay and other elements “darken” them or cause them to fall out. [Explain the window reference – teeth look like windows and so when you lose one it’s dark]

So – young man and young woman – serve God with your mouth while there’s time.

Moving on to verse 4…

4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,

So, we’re given two metaphorical pictures – one regarding doors and another regarding sound.

The doors are said to be facing the streets. And normally I guess you’d expect them to be open. But not anymore. Now, they’re shut.

The second description speaks of grinding – like we’ve seen before. But notice whats emphasized – not the grinding itself, but the sound of that grinding. Presumably, you’d hear the grinding normally through the open door that faces out to the street. But the door is shut and the sound is now low.

And I think that gives away what this is meant to convey. As a young man or woman grows older, yet one more faculty that deteriorates is their hearing. So, I think this is referring to the loss of hearing as one grows older.

So, young man or woman – remember God with your ears. Hear his word. Converse with people about him – while you can still hear what’s being said.

Now, the next two descriptions of the days of darkness are related to the two that we just considered…

and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird [hard to stay asleep],
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low [hearing loss];

It seems that these two descriptions of the dark days to come have to do with two seemingly contradictory phenomena in the life of a man who’s entered those days. There seems to be on the one hand a tendency to wake up at the slightest noise – the “voice of the bird” as we have it here. And at the same time, as we’ve already considered – the man’s hearing gets worse – “the daughters of musick shall be brought low”. So, your hearing gets worse – but somehow – in ways that are very unhelpful – your hearing becomes keener to things that you don’t want to notice.

On to verse 5…

5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,

These two descriptions refer to increased fears that can attend old age. If older folks aren’t careful – and especially if they don’t know the Lord – the fears can increase to the point where it can be debilitating. There’s always some worry or fear that you find yourself communicating to others. But those same things wouldn’t have bothered you when you were younger. You wouldn’t even have given them a second thought. But there’s something about the days of darkness that tends to increase fears within one’s heart.

So – young man or woman – remember your Creator before the time when irrational fears will multiply in your heart. Remember and love and serve him now while there’s time!

Now, the next three descriptions are all fairly unrelated – in the sense that each seems to describe a different aspect of the difficulties of old age – rather than all of them describing the same aspect…

and the almond tree shall flourish [blossom – progression from pink to white – hair],
and the grasshopper shall be a burden [bear a heavy burden or drag himself along],
and desire [caper berry – aphrodisiac] shall fail:

So, the almond tree – I’ve been told – as it blossoms – goes from a pinkish color to white. What tends to turn white when a person grows older? Hair. Now, white hair is portrayed in other parts of Scripture as a sign of wisdom. It means you’ve lived wisely enough in order to live long enough to have your hair change colors from whatever it was to white. And the Preacher here isn’t refuting that. He’s not saying that having white hair is bad. He’s just associating that phenomenon with growing old and entering into the days of darkness.

On to the grasshopper. How do grasshoppers usually move? They hop. They spring. They’re unhindered – uninhibited. But this description sees the light, springing grasshopper dragging himself along. That’s very uncharacteristic of a grasshopper. And it’s uncharacteristic of a young man or woman. But as we grow older – the spring in our step can turn into a characteristic shuffle of the feet. The grasshopper drags himself along, so to speak.

And then desire fails. The Hebrew word behind our English “desire” only occurs once in the Old Testament. And it refers to the caper berry – which is something that tends to heighten sexual desire in a person. But even that kind of assistance in the realm of physical intimacy fails as the dark days come upon a person.

And the final insult of this cruel life is stated in the next two descriptions…

because man goeth to his long home [the house of his eternity],
and the mourners go about the streets:

Man goes to his eternal home – the house of his eternity. The body – after experiencing all the indignities that we’ve mentioned thus far – goes to its home in the grave. And mourners attend the funeral.

Young man or woman – remember your Creator before you die and it’s too late.

And death is described with a few more pictures in verses 6 and 7…

6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed [or broken or bound],
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

The silver cord and golden bowl are pictured as being broken. Perhaps the materials of which these two items are made are intended to represent the preciousness of life. Gold and silver are both precious metals. They’re not particularly strong metals. But they are very costly. They’re highly valued. And so is your life. Use that precious life to remember your Creator while you still have it!

Then a pitcher would be used to draw water out of a spring. And a wheel would likely be used to draw up a bucket of water from a well. The Bible – both Old and New Testaments – portrays life poetically as water. And so when your access to the water that is life is stopped – by the image of the broken pitcher or the broken wheel – then what this is metaphorically portraying is the end of access to life – or, in other words, death.

And when that happens to someone, the actions of verse 7 occur…

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

God created man from the dust of the earth. And when man dies, that’s right where his body returns. But here we’re also told that man’s spirit returns to God. Why? Because God gave it to him.

Now, this is interesting. Do you remember in Ecclesiastes where the Preacher asked rhetorically “who really knows that man’s spirit ascends upward?” And I think at that point, the Preacher was trying to challenge the outlook of a man who rejects spiritual realities. Without God telling you that man’s spirit ascends upward to God – you don’t really know that that is how it works. But here the Preacher just cuts to the chase and says – “yes, man’s spirit does indeed return to God.” [3:21]

So, again, remember your Creator – because he gave you your spirit – that aspect of yourself that survives death. He gave you that spirit – and some day he will take it back. You better remember him right now while you can – before the dark days come. Before you meet your end and need to face the judgement of God – that we’ve already heard about in this book.

And with that last consideration of death, the Preacher ends his sayings just as he started them – all the way back in chapter 1, verse 2…

8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all [of these things] is vanity.

It truly is. Everything in this life is so empty – if we’re seeking meaning and fulfillment from them. If this is all we had, we’d be of all men most miserable. But the Preacher holds out to us the possibility that this life doesn’t have to be the end. There’s a God in heaven who is judge of all and who will receive your spirit some day. Even in this life he gives you good gifts. And he wants you to enjoy them. And yet, he wants you to enjoy him even more.

And with the end of the words of the Preacher, we have an unknown narrator who penned verse 1 of chapter 1 and now at the end here, verses 9 through 14 of chapter 12. So, let’s see how the narrator finishes this book…

9 ¶ And moreover, because [or in addition to the fact that] the preacher was wise, he still [also] taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed [or pondered], and sought out, and set in order [or arranged] many proverbs.

So, the Preacher had a teaching ministry in addition to being wise. He spent his time finding, pondering, evaluating, and arranging many proverbs.

10 The preacher sought to find out acceptable [delightful/pleasant] words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth [or, removing the italicized words, and write words of truth uprightly].

So, the Preacher sought to write delightful words. And what we just studied in this last chapter is likely intended to be included in that group – believe it or not. He spent his life seeking words like that and writing truth-filled words correctly. He sought the truth and sought to communicate it in a delightful way.

And then it seems like the narrator is encouraged to try a little delightful truth-telling of his own in verse 11…

11 ¶ The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies [collections – of these sayings], which are given from one shepherd.

So, what is the narrator’s proverb communicating? He’s considering the words of the wise. Words like those of the Preacher. And he says that they’re like goads – like sharp sticks that move irrational animals to action. And isn’t that a helpful picture of the intention of wisdom literature? It’s meant to move man – who can at some times be as irrational as beasts – into wise action – into a wise course of life.

And wise sayings are like nails fastened to a wall. They’re intended to be unmoveable – unshakeable – never changing. And isn’t that what we have in our hands? Words that are still as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago. They’re fastened securely by the one who collects and communicates them – like the Preacher – and they’re not going anywhere.

But books come and go. It’s almost unexplainable as to why these sayings in this book haven’t been lost or why they haven’t lost their value and applicability over time. Well, that’s because these are given by one shepherd. And Shepherd should be capitalized. It’s speaking of the Lord – the one who breathed out Scripture through authors like the Preacher. His word never fails. It’s infallible. And that’s why it remains so relevant even to this day. [Proof of inspiration!]

And because God’s words are so valuable and really the only ones that will last forever and that never lose their power – be careful to be focused on these words and not let the reading of other things take your attention away from them. That’s what the narrator says in verse 12…

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

Either be warned BY the words that the narrator has just said… or be warned about paying such close attention to anything BEYOND the words of God – the words that have been given by one Shepherd. And here’s the warning. There are all sorts of books out there. There’s just no end to the making of them. Everyone’s writing books. And now with the internet – there’s even more. And if you want to keep track of everything you will wear yourself out. [Give story about thoughts of the Talmud and Mishnah in Israel]

So, the narrator would warn his son – or maybe his disciples – against being devoted to any other words besides the Scriptures.

And when it comes down to it, here’s the narrator’s conclusion. In light of all that the Preacher said throughout this book. In light of what the narrator has appended to that. Here it is…

13 ¶ Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 ¶ For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

Life isn’t lived just under the sun. Life on this earth isn’t all there is to it. And if you’re living that way, you’re living wrong. Your life is to be about fearing God. Reverencing him. Fearing to displease him because you love him. This is the duty of every man.

And if you don’t fulfill your duty – there will be judgement. Everything you do will be judged by God. Even secret things. He knows them all. And he will evaluate them and discover if they were good or evil.

So, in this life lived on earth – get ready to meet God. Get ready to give an account to him. Live your life with an eye to the judgement to come.

Christians aren’t exempt from judgement. We will stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ. Our works will be evaluated. We’ll receive reward… and we’ll lose reward there.

So, the conclusion of this whole book? Fear God. Keep his commandments. This is your duty in light of the coming judgement.

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