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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 12

 

 

Verse 2-3

‘Before the sun and the light and the moon are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain. In the day when the keepers of the house will tremble, and the strong men will bend themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look out of the windows are darkened.’

They are to make the most of their lives before they become old and feeble, as described here. For the vivid description that now follows is of old age. The first sentence refers to a heavy enduring storm, when the day goes dark, the sun is hidden by the clouds, the light is simply semi-darkness, the moon also cannot be seen at night behind the clouds, and the rain fails to clear the sky of clouds, thus it is describing the time of life which brings with it the sense of waning strength, when light is hidden by clouds, and all is dull, and promise for the future is no more.

The second sentence describes picturesquely the failing faculties of old age. The keepers of the house which tremble are probably the shaking hands, the strong men which bend are the legs which can longer fully bear their weight, and the grinders which cease or are few are the teeth which have mainly decayed or fallen out, and are no longer any use for grinding, and what looks out of the windows are the eyes whose sight is dimmed. If anything is to be accomplished it must be before this assails a man.


Verse 4

‘And the doors will be shut in the street, when the sound of the grinding is low, and one will rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music will be laid low.’

This may refer to the fact that the doors will be shut because the aged man no longer goes out into the street. He also eats with difficulty with little use of the decayed teeth, so that there is little sound of grinding. Or the closed doors may be the man’s lips as he grows weaker, seen along with the non-use of the teeth as eating and drinking becomes more difficult, or reference may be to the approach of deafness, the doors being closed so that he cannot hear sounds. Whichever way it is, it is emphasising his incapacity through old age.

Furthermore he cannot sleep through the night and rises with the birds, and yet is unable to hear the songbirds (the daughters of music) clearly so as to enjoy their music. Or the idea may be that when through the dimness he catches the song of the early bird he rises as he always has, only to remember that he cannot hear their songs properly, and that life no longer offers him anything but to endure until the end.


Verse 5

‘Yes they will be afraid of what is high, and terrors are in the way, and the almond tree will blossom, and the grasshopper will be a burden, and the desire will fail, because man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets.’

As people age heights can become a problem, especially as their sense of balance worsens and they, and others, become afraid that they will misjudge distances and fall over the edge. Travelling becomes a nightmare, both because of stumbling weakness, and their own defencelessness against both man and wild beast. The blossoming of the almond tree refers to their whitened hair, which will be like an almond tree in blossom. The grasshopper represents what is small compared with others (Numbers 13:33; Isaiah 40:22). Even a grasshopper will be too heavy a burden to bear. ‘The desire will fail’ may refer to the fact that the private parts will no longer expand and react to women, or work efficiently in giving relief. They are simply limp and listless, as he is on the way to his everlasting home.

‘Because man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets.’

The thought here is finally of death. This is the final end. Man goes to his everlasting home, while the mourners parade around the streets, wailing because he has gone.

But the mention of the ‘everlasting home’ is interesting and significant in the light of what he had said earlier. God has previously been seen as having brought home to man His own everlastingness which is in man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and in Ecclesiastes 12:10 there is now no doubt in his mind, in contrast with Ecclesiastes 3:21, that man’s ‘spirit’ returns to God, Who gave it to Him when He made him in His image (Genesis 2:7 with Genesis 1:26-27) thus making him ‘one of us’. And in Ecclesiastes 12:14 every work is to be brought into judgment, even though he has previously acknowledged that this does not happen in this life (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3; Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13; Ecclesiastes 9:11). Thus the conclusion had to be that it must happen in God’s everlastingness, which adds meaning to the idea of his going to his everlasting home as not signifying the grave, but a life beyond.

It would probably be an error to suggest that this is definitely a clear statement of everlasting life beyond the grave. But it does seem that there is reference here to the fact that the writer has come to his final conclusion that somehow those who die are connected with God’s everlastingness, whether for good or bad. For he knows that somehow in God’s everlastingness every work will be brought into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14). That somehow man’s spirit is re-absorbed into God’s everlastingness (Ecclesiastes 12:7). That somehow man goes home.

So we may see that in the Preacher’s view Man’s death and entry into his everlasting home somehow brings him into contact with God’s everlastingness. Compare the similar hope, and yet vagueness in Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 23:6. It is one of those mysteries of His everlastingness that man cannot fathom (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but it offers hope, although finally having to be left with God. As we have suggested it is the faith of the Psalmists when they were absorbed with God. ‘In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalms 16:10-11); ‘As for me I will behold your face in righteousness, I will be satisfied when I awake with your likeness’ (Psalms 17:15); ‘I will dwell in the house of Yahweh for ever’ (Psalms 23:6); ‘in your light we will see light - they (the workers of iniquity) are thrust down and will not be able to rise’ (Psalms 36:8-9 compare with 12); ‘God will redeem my being from the power of the grave, for He will receive me’ (Psalms 49:15); ‘You will guide me with your counsel and afterwards receive me to glory’ (Psalms 73:24-25); ‘If I make my bed in the grave, behold, you are there’ (Psalms 139:8); ‘If I say surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light about me will be night, even the darkness does not hide from you, but the night shines as the day, the darkness and the light are both alike to you’ (Psalms 139:11-12); ‘Lead me in the everlasting way’ (Psalms 139:24); not clear doctrine, but a certainty of soul that God will not abandon them to the grave, but will draw them to Himself.

Thus in these words and in Ecclesiastes 12:7 The Speaker breaks free from the futility of all things into the everlastingness of God.


Verse 6

‘Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.’

There seems to be here a twofold thought. The golden bowl, holding the lighted oil to give light in the house, and held by a silver chord, breaks when the cord snaps with age. And the pitcher at the fountain is broken when the wheel which draws it up from the water is broken, again with age. (Although some see both as portraying the one event). Thus when a man dies his aged silver cord breaks and his golden light-containing bowl, the bowl of life, is broken. When a man dies it is because the wheel which drew up the pitcher full of water, the pitcher of the water of life, has broken with age, crashing down into the cistern and causing the pitcher also to break. The gold and silver reflect the value of a man’s life. The cord and the earthenware pitcher its fragility.


Verse 7

‘And the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return to God who gave it.’

There is a clear reference here to the idea behind Genesis 2:7, although ‘spirit’ (ruach = spirit, wind, breath) replaces ‘breath’ (neshumah), possibly to suggest more permanence. In view of his earlier reference to the mystery of the everlastingness of God set in man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and the contrast between the certainty in this verse and his uncertainty in Ecclesiastes 3:21, and the reference to man’s ‘everlasting home’ above in Ecclesiastes 12:5, we must see this also as significant. Unless the writer is extremely careless it indicates that his thought has advanced to a recognition of something beyond the grave. The God Who breathed into man the breath of life, and made him like one of the heavenly beings with a moral sense (Genesis 3:22) and an awareness of God, now receives him back into His everlastingness.

So the body has gone to the grave to become once again dust, but something within man, his very life, that special something that God uniquely gave him, has gone up to the everlasting God. Thus does the speaker finally come out of his pessimistic search into a positive conclusion of optimism in God and His everlastingness.

It is no argument to say that animals are also elsewhere seen as having ‘the breath of life’ (Genesis 6:17). There is no hint of that in Genesis 2, where the idea is positively linked with God breathing it uniquely into Man, an idea which is there central and distinctive. As we have pointed out above, what man became was unquestionably seen as unique, he became ‘as one of us’ (Genesis 3:22) in ‘God’s image and likeness’ (Genesis 1:26-27). The animals are simply a by-product. Theirs is not said to be God’s breath. It is simply a form of created life (Genesis 1:21).

So the Preacher’s thinking has now moved from the vanity and meaninglessness of the earth to something mysterious in heaven, which man cannot fathom, the reception back by God of that which made man distinctive. And that is where his faith lies. He does not seek to define it, or even to understand it. It is one of God’s mysterious everlasting works (Ecclesiastes 3:11). But it lifts man into hope. (It is something illustrated by the fact that ‘Enoch was not, because God took him’ (Genesis 5:24), and by the fact that that Elijah was taken up by God into heaven (2 Kings 2:11), something equally mysterious, but providing hope). The future was left with God.


Verse 8

‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity.’

This is a reference to the whole of man’s existence on earth. It signals the completion of what was commenced in Ecclesiastes 1:2, and the sum total of what the human mind can achieve. All that is done, or happens, on earth has been seen to be finally meaningless, temporary and transient. All hope of meaning and worth therefore depends on living before God and the final event just described, that the spirit returns to the God Who gave it. It depends on the fact that on death man is drawn back up to God and His mysterious everlastingness, (something that will one day gain clearer light in the coming and teaching of Jesus, and in His final conquest of death). But meanwhile all that is on earth is, and remains, ‘total vanity’.


Verses 9-14

Conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14).

Having given his final verdict on his musings the writer changes into the third person. This was in order to stress the solemnity of what he was saying. Moving into the third person in this way occurs regularly in Scripture, and there is no reason for seeing it as indicating the work of another writer. It stresses that this is his solemn conclusion.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-10

‘And further, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge. Yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words (literally ‘words of delight’) and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth.’

These words were written as an epilogue in the third person in order to give authentification to the book. Having reached his ultimate conclusion the Preacher now reverts to his normal position as teacher and speaker at the court assembly of the wise. As God had made him wise he felt that he had a wider duty and so he also taught ‘knowledge’ to the people, setting before them many proverbs.

He states his research methods. He ‘pondered and sought out and set in order’ many proverbs. Thus he did not just look to his own ideas. He read books written by wise men, no doubt from far and wide. He pondered them and selected out sayings and proverbs, and then set them in order. He produced many wisdom sayings, of the kind which we already seen in the book, to help man through this vain and short life. He sought words which would delight, and yet were upright words, words of truth. So his view of life did not prevent him from seeking to guide men through it. Even though a king he prided himself rather on being ‘a wise man’. To him that was what was most important to him

Ecclesiastes 12:11

‘The words of the wise are as goads and as nails well driven home, they are those of the leaders of groups, which are given from one shepherd.’

He saw the words of the wise as goads to spur people on and as nails driven home which would help them to establish in their own minds what is true. Suitable proverbs stick in people’s minds and thus give them guidance in the future. The goad was a long handled pointed instrument used to urge on the oxen when ploughing. Nails driven home help to keep things firmly fixed. And that was the aim of the Preacher.

The writer had gathered his material from fellow wise men and leaders of wisdom groups, but the one Shepherd is God Who is to be seen as the source of all wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 12:12

‘And furthermore, my son, be admonished. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.’

He finally cautions against leaping into becoming an author. Preparation for a worthwhile book requires sweat and toil and hardship, and there are so many books that the book may easily become lost among the many and never be read. Thus it is best to approach such things cautiously.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

‘This is the end of the matter. All has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of what man is about.’

Now he stresses that he has come to his final conclusion. He has said all that he wishes to say. Now he hopes that in the light of the hope he has offered to his readers, they may be a godly men. They must fear God (as he has continually stressed - Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 7:18; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13), waiting before Him in reverence and awe, and living before Him in obedience to His covenant commands. For this is the whole of what man is about.

This fear (loving reverence) of God is a central theme in the book (Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 7:18; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13), a fear that he has sought to inculcate in his readers. This fear of God was also central in the giving of the covenant, deliberately enhanced when God, the great King, declared to His people from the fiery mount that He was their God and their Deliverer, and that they should respond to His Lordship and deliverance by fulfilling His commandments (Exodus 19-20). And it is this that has constantly lain beneath the Preacher’s advice to the godly. For this fear of God is to be revealed in worship, reverence and awe (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2) and in living constantly before God (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; compare Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12-14; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 8:15).

It should be noted that these are not two commands but one. This does not present two alternatives as though we could fear God and not keep His commandments, or keep His commandments but not fear God. Both are required. The keeping of the commandments is seen as a response to the fear of God. It is indicating a personal and real daily relationship with Him. And it is what man is all about. Note the assumption that God’s commandments were known. The book was not written in a vacuum.

Ecclesiastes 12:14

‘For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.’

In the light of what has been said earlier in the book this cannot refer simply to retribution in this life. He has clearly stated that that is precisely what does not happen. Even though God is active in the world (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15) and will judge the righteous and the wicked (Ecclesiastes 3:17), he knows that oppression continues apace (Ecclesiastes 4:2; Ecclesiastes 5:8-9), so much so that it were better not to have been born (Ecclesiastes 4:3). That is not genuine retribution. The judgment is not carried out on earth (Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:1-3). The righteous are not rewarded and the wicked punished. Indeed this was something that had almost caused him to despair.

So these final words must be seen in the light of the fact that man’s essential life returns to God in His everlastingness. There all will in some way be righted. Every work will be brought into judgment. Every hidden thing will accounted for. Finally God will fulfil His warning and reveal His justice, although no further detail is given. It is simply left to be pondered on. That is why in the end the covenant life, the life lived in response to God, is the only life. Only those who are genuinely responsive to the covenant will be pleasing to God. Those who simply offer sacrifices as a duty, the ‘sacrifice of fools’ (Ecclesiastes 5:1), and those who refuse to obey His revealed will in His commandments, rejecting Him as King, will be judged and condemned.

We may wonder why this does not lead on to a more positive view of the afterlife. The answer may lie in the mythology that was round about, which had to be avoided. The Egyptians had their own views on life beyond the grave, as did the Mesopotamian world, imagining worlds of gods and men, of shadows and unreality. Israel avoided these ideas like the plague. Thus they concentrated on God’s goodness in this life, and when they at times considered the future beyond death it was simply described in terms of being with God. That was seen to be the situation of Enoch and Elijah, it was expressed in the words of the Psalmists (Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 23:6; etc). It was all that needed to be said.

Final Note.

Perhaps we may conclude with a brief resume of what conclusions the Preacher has come to.

· He has established the vainness of men’s attempts to make sense of life. Life has been seen to have no permanent meaning. All has proved to be a puff of wind, to be ‘vanity’.

· He has recognised that men cannot ‘find out God’ but must be content to accept His concern for them, to reverently fear Him, and to live in trust before Him, enjoying what He gives them, something which will result for them in joyfulness.

· He has acknowledged that all men’s attempts to ‘pierce the veil’ between this world and the next will be in vain, because God is beyond our understanding. They must walk by faith not by sight.

· By his teaching he has demonstrated his belief that men are open to receiving wisdom.

· But he has also established that there must be a judgment to come when all will be put right, and when all will have to give account to God. His moral sense has recognised that justice must finally be served, and that that requires a moral governor of the Universe Who will call all men to account.

· And he has established that God has put the sense of everlastingness in men’s hearts, and that man’s spirit will return to the God Who gave it.

· Thus his final conclusion is that men must fear God and keep His commandments in the confidence that their future is in His hands.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-12.html. 2013.

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