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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Ecclesiastes 12

 

 

Introduction

CHAP. XII.

The Creator is to be remembered in due time. The preacher's care to edify. The fear of God is the chief antidote of vanity.


Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 12:1. Remember now thy Creator, &c.— The first point to be examined is, where the description of old age given in this chapter begins. Most interpreters, who begin it with these words in the first verse, the years draw nigh, &c. or, at least, with the mention made Ecclesiastes 12:2 of the sun, light, moon, and stars being darkened, are at great pains to guess what particular infirmities of old age may be represented by each of these phaenomena of bad weather. But those pains might have been spared. The image here set before us has too manifest a respect to that which we read but a few verses before, ch. Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 not to acknowledge some analogy between them. Truly the light is sweet, &c. It is plain, that seeing the light, and beholding the sun, are mentioned on no other account, than as proper emblems of a prosperous life. And, indeed, light and darkness are among the most frequent metaphors used by the Hebrews to signify prosperity and adversity. Therefore, when that image offers itself again, in an inference drawn from the premises wherein it had made its first appearance, with this only difference, that an affirmative attends it in one place, and a negative in the other, it is very natural that it should be understood of a painful and calamitous life. Being destitute of light, and living in a climate where the sky does not clear up after the rain, but is so continually overspread with clouds, that there is no seeing either sun, moon, or stars, is as truly unpleasant as seeing the light is sweet. Here may be truly applied a remark of Bishop Lowth, upon a parallel passage in Ezekiel 32:7-8. Notae sunt imagines, frequens earum usus, certa significatio; ideoque perspicua, clara, vereque magnifica.* Thus I would rather look upon this verse as a transition to the mention which is going to be made of old age, than as part of its description. If it has any respect to it, it seems to be but a very distant one to that time of life, as it is a painful and unpleasant one; and none at all to the particular infirmities to which it is liable. Solomon's design was, to inculcate the necessity of minding our Creator, before a constant course of adversity forces us to think of him. But as one might have objected, that it is not the fate of every man to fall into such misfortunes, it was proper that, after mentioning them in general terms, he should proceed to shew, that, according to the usual course of nature, no long liver can avoid leading, for some time, an unpleasant life as to nature; accordingly, he begins, in the next verse, to describe the state to which a man must at last be reduced, who has lived many years. The division of that description into three parts, and the reasons why I look upon the first and last only as poetical, shall be considered in the next note. See Desvoeux, and Bishop Lowth's 6th Prelection.

* The images are striking, their use frequent, their signification certain, and therefore perspicuous, clear, and truly sublime.


Verses 1-7

THE PICTURE OF OLD AGE,

From Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 according to the common Translation.

The royal preacher, in the first seven verses of this chapter, enforces the duty of early religion, by arguments principally drawn from the decay of the intellectual and corporeal powers in an advanced age. The evils induced upon the mental system are little more than cursorily spoken of. The inconveniences resulting to the bodily structure from a long series of years, are more particularly expatiated upon. Whence it is evident, that Solomon chiefly designed the reader's conviction to arise from an anatomical survey of the human fabric. But the description here exhibited of the various organs of the body is somewhat obscured by an allegorical phraseology. In order to explain the meaning of the words, and the connection of the author's sentiments, let us view them in the form of a didactic essay.

Ecclesiastes 12:1. In the earliest part of thy life meditate frequently upon thy great Creator. Remember likewise, that thou art not indebted to him only for thy existence, but for thy continued preservation, and for the repeated comforts vouchsafed unto thee daily. Be sure, therefore, to testify thy gratitude for such high obligations, by consecrating the bloom of thy youth to Almighty God. This is assuredly the period of thy most acceptable services. Do not postpone the discharge of religious duties to more advanced years, because infirmities, pains, and sorrows will then imbitter thy days, and render life an insupportable burthen.

Ecclesiastes 12:2. Consider farther, that not only the body is enervated by age, but that the intellectual faculties, those luminaries of the microcosm, are likewise impaired. The understanding is darkened, the memory debilitated; and too often the will becomes cold, languid, and enfeebled; or perverse, restive, and reluctant to the exercises of religion.

Let me also add, that besides these natural obstacles arising from deficient powers of body and mind, there are very many contingent impediments to our duty: I mean those outward troubles and afflictions, which accompany human life, and which are usually multiplied, in proportion to the number of years which a man sojourns upon earth. Hence it is, that towards the close of our days we find disappointments and sorrows arise in a quick succession, like returning clouds in a wet season.

Ecclesiastes 12:3. But as the early surrender of our hearts to God, and the steady application of our minds to his service, are matters of such vast consequence, it may not be amiss to examine with greater precision those particular lets and hindrances to our duty which are generally the effects of age. Now, these impediments will appear evident from a scrutiny into those evils which advanced years bring upon the human system.

Those hands, which should frequently be lifted up in prayer to God, being weakened by age, hang down and tremble. They are disabled from earning provision for the body, and defending it against external injuries. At the same time, the ribs and the stronger bones of the thighs and legs, which formerly gave strength, rectitude, and stability to the whole fabric; which likewise, in conjunction with the back-bones, connected and held together the several parts of the edifice: these strong and mighty supports, I say, are all relaxed, or bowed down by age, and foretel the approaching fall of the superstructure.

The teeth also, in advanced life, become incapable of discharging their office, by a decay of their substance, or loss of their number. Hence the aliment is not properly broken, and divided and prepared for the stomach. From which cause a multitude of ills arise to the system in general; because the food, being imperfectly acted upon by the teeth, is likewise imperfectly acted upon afterwards by the stomach. Whence proceed indigestion, obstructions, and a default of nourishment, through the various parts and members of the body.

The defect of vision is another concomitant evil of old age. The eyes, those valuable organs! so essentially necessary not only to the comforts of life, but also to the security and preservation of man, are incapacitated from performing their important functions. Those windows of the building are darkened by films or defluxions; and the soul is, at it were, precluded from looking out at these obstructed casements. Whence it follows, that as from the decay of our strength we are disqualified for the active duties of religion; so likewise, from the diminution of our sight, we can make no fresh acquisitions to our knowledge by reading, or thereby recal or quicken past ideas and notices of our duty.

Ecclesiastes 12:4. But to return once more to those instruments which first prepare and dispose the food for its advantageous reception in the stomach: because, since our very being depends on the sustenance that we receive, and its due distribution through all the parts of the body, we can easily infer, that the entire loss or destruction of our teeth must cause a great failure of strength and vigour to the whole system.

That old age deprives us of these smaller bones, is too obvious a truth to be insisted upon. But, besides the unhappy consequences already enumerated, an additional difficulty presents itself to our view. The gums at this period are to personate the province of the teeth. Nevertheless, the smoothness of their surfaces render them very unfit for this work. Hence what pains and labour are aged men obliged to take, before they can bruise and soften their food sufficiently for the purposes of the stomach. It is also observable, that the lips, those portals of the mouth, are kept constantly shut during the action of the jaws, lest the morsel, through the loss of teeth to withhold it, should be protruded, and fall out of the mouth.

Another melancholy effect of old age, is a deficiency of sleep, whereby the strength and spirits are farther impaired. The old man frequently awakes at the crowing of the cock, and is incapable of renewing his slumbers: whereas the youth, and man of middle age, can perpetuate their sleep almost at will.

Notice has already been taken of defective vision: but the organs of hearing are likewise great sufferers by age. Those daughters of music, who by their exquisite delicacy of sensation and skill in melodious principles, formerly reduced sounds into harmony, for the entertainment of themselves and others, are now brought into the lowest estate, and are no longer in a capacity of answering the ordinary purposes of their structure.

Ecclesiastes 12:5. But, however material and weighty all these evils may be, there is still a heavier and longer train of calamities, which associate themselves with advanced years.

Whereas youth is bold, valiant, and regardless of danger, age is quite the reverse of this character. The ancient man discovers, in every action, diffidence, irresolution, and timidity. In all his short excursions abroad, he treads with circumspection, wariness, and distrust. After painfully ascending an eminence, he is seized with a temporary giddiness; and in his descent, he trembles at every pebble in the path, lest his strength should prove disproportionable to such little obstacles, and a fall ensue.

Thus fears and terrors are attendant upon the steps of that man whose grey hairs resemble the whitening blossoms of the almond-tree, and to whom, from the decline of his strength, even the grasshopper, that light and inconsiderable insect, becomes a burthen. Add to all these particulars, a disrelish of every scene around them, from the failure of desire, and the decay of other passions. Yet all these inconveniences and ills are inseparable from humanity, because man is born to die, and age is the harbinger of death. To enforce this truth by arguments, would be an insult offered to the understanding of men, while funerals and mourning relatives are frequently darkening all the streets.

From what has been already said upon the weakness, infirmities, and distempers of advanced life, the expediency, as well as the duty of early religion, must appear abundantly plain. However, as the human body is a complicated structure, and as little more than the external parts of the building have at present been considered, let us carry our researches farther, and examine what is doing in the more private and retired chambers of this wonderful fabric.

Ecclesiastes 12:6. Here we shall be astonished at the stupendous displays of Almighty wisdom, power, and goodness. Know then, that there are scattered up and down in the human body a multitude of white cords, to which anatomists have given the appellation of nerves. These strings are the instruments of sensation and motion. For if a nerve be tied hard, or cut asunder, that part to which the nerve belonged, instantly loses all feeling, and becomes destitute of action.

From the brain, which is the source of the whole nervous system, there proceeds through the entire length of the back-bone (in a cavity curiously formed for its reception and security) a cord of an enlarged size, which, on account of its resplendent whiteness, may aptly be compared to the complexion of burnished silver. From this cord are branched out thirty pair of smaller strings, which are distributed along the arms, thighs, legs, and trunk of the body. Now in old age this silver cord is very liable to be relaxed and weakened, or a part thereof to be altogether broken in its functions, as appears manifest from those paralytic complaints, to which elderly persons are peculiarly obnoxious. When a relaxation of this cord prevails, then tumours and debility are the consequences. When the canals which compose this cord, are quite obstructed, then follow complete palsies; or, in other words, an entire deprivation of sense and motion. Ought we not, therefore, to remember our Creator in the prior stages of life, before this melancholy period of deficient sensation and action arrives? For a palsy is partial death, and many times portends the speedy dissolution of the whole building.

But, agreeably to what has already been suggested, the brain is the original of the nerves. Those nerves, which are bestowed upon the eyes, the ears, the tongue, and all the other parts of the face and head, issue immediately from the brain itself, through small apertures in the skull, primarily designed for the transmission of these little cords. Any disorder happening to these nerves, and interrupting their functions, will occasion, according to the degree of the disease, dimness of sight, or total loss of vision, heaviness of hearing, or absolute deafness, defective speech, or an utter incapacity of speaking; will deprive the lips in part, or altogether, of their due motions, and likewise impair or annihilate the smell and the taste.

What an amazing organ is the brain! that source and parent of all sensation and motion! That inexplicable repository of the understanding of man! How curious its texture! How tender its substance! and of what vast importance to the present existence, utility, and comfort of the species! For which reason the all-wise Creator has securely lodged it in a strong citadel of bone; which, from its circular cavity, and the inestimable value of its treasure, may with propriety be styled the golden bowl.

But it is observable, that in the extremity of old age, this golden bowl, and more especially the contents thereof, are highly injured. The several parts of the brain, through length of time, become unfit for their various offices. It is like an exquisitely wrought machine, with complicated movements. A long succession of years breaks, wears out, and dissolves this surprising workmanship. Wherefore it must be the most egregious folly to defer the consideration of our eternal interest till the winter of life comes upon us, when we are disqualified for the common intercourses of society, and even for the ordinary actions of animal life.

But additional motives for early religion will result from a scrutiny into the effects of age upon the heart, and the great vessels which proceed from this fountain of life. We most assuredly ought to secure the favour of our Maker before these large canals, which issue from the heart, and receive, like pitchers at a well, the contents of this spring, be grown incapable of discharging their office aright. For it is an incontestable truth, that in elderly men, these grand conduits, which take the blood from the heart, in order to circulate it through the lungs, the brain, and all the organs and members of the body, become bony, rigid, and inflexible: whereby they are disabled from acting upon the blood, and driving it through all the distant pipes of the system. Hence those languors, faintings, and sudden changes, which frequently occur in persons much advanced in years.

But also the heart itself, that cistern of the whole building, which receives and dispenses to the farthest extremities, in an appropriated period of time, every particle of blood belonging to the body; I say, this powerful reservoir is rendered by old age unfit for its important charge. Part of its substance, like the great canals already mentioned, degenerates into bony fibres, which are unable to perform their due action. For the heart propels the blood to the extreme parts by a contractile force. If this contractile power is abated by the hardness and inflexibility of the heart's substance, it is apparent that the circulation of the blood cannot properly be carried on; but momentary stagnations, sinkings of spirits, and universal weakness must follow. Because this power of contraction, like the wheel of a water-engine, is the grand and principal cause of the distribution of the fluids through all the numerous channels of the system.

This is a true, though uncomfortable, representation of the animal oeconomy in the decline of life. Whoever, therefore, attentively surveys this picture, ought to act answerably to the admonitions which it suggests. He should acquaint himself with God from his youth, and secure the friendship of that Almighty Being, who will not forsake him in his old age, and when he is grey-headed.

Every serious and thinking man must be convinced, that the dedication of the prime of his days, and the vigour of his strength to heaven, is both wisdom and piety. To all procrastinating votaries, will not the prophets interrogatories be very apposite? "If we offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? and if we offer the lame and the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto the governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? faith the Lord of Hosts."

Ecclesiastes 12:7. But it must also be noticed, that these defects and decays of the system are the immediate forerunners of its dissolution: that, when this great change befals us, the materials of which our bodies are composed shall be all resolved into earth, from whence they were taken; and our souls, which animated these organized particles of dust, shall return to God, the Father and Judge of our spirits; who will reward or punish us, according to our deeds in the flesh. This is an argument of infinite weight, and indeed far superior to any arguments hitherto urged for the remembering of our Creator in the days of our youth. Wherefore, let the rising generation consider, that if through grace they nobly scorn the blandishments of sense, and inviolably attach themselves to their duty, they will be most gloriously recompenced at the grand tribunal, Ecclesiastes 12:14. "when God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."

REFLECTIONS.—1st, This chapter is a continuation of the subject which closed the preceding. We have,

1. The application of the Preacher's discourse to young men, by way of admonition and counsel. Remember now, without delay, thy creator, or creators, the triune God, whose right to us is unquestionable; not only our Maker as men, but our Redeemer also as sinners, and thus twice our creator; and therefore justly expecting that we should glorify him in our bodies and in our spirits, which are his.

2. He urges his exhortation by the suitableness of the season, and the prospect of the evil days which are approaching, when the infirmities of age and sickness as much disorder the mind as the body; when we should have gotten, and not be then to seek, the supports of religion, which these days of evil and anguish need; and when, if at last we should reflect on our past days, it must give us the most painful reflections, to look back on the flower of our years spent in the service of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and only the dregs of age remaining for God.

3. The calamities of old age are elegantly and feelingly described: probably the sacred penman now spoke from experience. The sun, the light, the moon, the stars are darkened, the eyes of the body grow dim, and can no longer enjoy the surrounding objects of light, and the faculties of the mind are impaired; the judgment awakened, the memory lost, the imagination frozen: and the clouds return after rain, successive troubles and ails follow each other, and under painful defluxions the body melts away. The keepers of the house tremble, the paralytic head, the shaking hand, and tottering knees bespeak the feeble frame, and the strong men bow themselves; the legs can scarcely support their weight, and on some artificial prop the body bending to the tomb is sustained: the grinders cease, because they are few, the toothless gums no longer perform their office to masticate the food: and those that look out of the windows are darkened, the eyes sunk in their sockets, and no more sensible of the light of day. And the doors shall be shut in the streets; they eat little, close their lips to keep their food in their mouths, having lost their teeth; and are unable to appear as formerly in the streets; and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, his broken rest is easily disturbed with the crowing of the cock, or the least noise, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; the voice becomes inharmonious and harsh, the ears dull of hearing. Also they shall be afraid of that which is high, unable to ascend the hill, or climb the tower; their breath fails, their head turns round, and fears shall be in the way; they are afraid of falling through weakness, and ready to stumble at every thing in their path: and the almond-tree shall flourish; with silver hairs their heads are covered,* and the grasshopper shall be a burden, either their chirping is irksome, or, if used for food, however light of digestion, too heavy for their stomach; and desire fails, the appetite lost, and the passions of youthful days utterly quenched. And in this debilitated and exhausted state, death cannot be far distant; because man goeth to his long home, the grave, where the abode of his body must be till a resurrection-day; or, to the house of this world, that eternal world which should alone be regarded by us as our proper home: we should consider ourselves as pilgrims upon earth, and strangers while here below, and look for, and hasten to, the everlasting habitations which await us above; and the mourners go about the streets, either those who were hired to weep for the dead, or those dear relatives, who with no fictitious tears bedew the bier of their departed friend, and fill the air with their lamentations. The silver cord, the bond of union between body and soul, will then be loosed; the golden bowl, which contained the animal spirits, be broken; then shall the pitcher be broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, the heart cease to beat, the blood to flow, and universal stagnation and death ensue. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, such is the dire effect of one man's sin, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it, to receive its doom; either admitted to the blissful presence of God, or reserved in chains of darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Well might the Preacher conclude from this humbling view of mortal man, with the position that he had advanced as the text of his discourse, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

* See note on this passage.

2nd, The Preacher is drawing to a conclusion, and warmly recommends what he has written, as the dictates of wisdom and experience. He tells us,

1. The pains that he took for our instruction. Moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; what God had given him, he freely communicated; and, being recovered from his falls, returned to his former happy employment of making others wise unto salvation: yea, he gave good heed, extracting all the instruction he could find among books or men, and well digesting and pondering it in his own mind, and sought out with elaborate and accurate investigation the more difficult parts of science, and set in order many proverbs. 1 Kings 4:32. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, such as might most effectually, powerfully, and pleasingly convey the sacred truths which he laboured to inculcate; and that which was written was upright; being the dictates of God's Spirit, even words of truth, proceeding from the God of truth.

2. The use and intention of his discourse. The words of the wise are as goads, sharp and quickening, convincing the conscience of sin, and stimulating our stupid hearts to diligence and activity in working out our own salvation: and as nails, to fix the wavering soul on God, fastened by the masters of assemblies, the ministers of the true religion, whose office and business it is, with ceaseless labour, to inculcate these words of truth, which are given from the one shepherd, who alone can make their ministry effectual to the conversion of men's souls; and he has promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the world. In dependance upon him, therefore, must we go forth, and confidently expect to be assisted by him, and made successful in the preaching of his gospel.

3. The Bible is the book of books; compared with this, all others are insignificant; and whatever corresponds not herewith is carefully to be avoided. And further, by these my son, be admonished, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these sacred truths; or of what is more than these beware, and affect not to be wise above what is written, but reject every writing which pretends to add to, or diminish from, what is revealed in the word of God: of making many books there is no end; it is vain to expect conviction from any other book, if the book of God do not produce it; and though our study were crowded with writings of philosophy and morality, one page of God's word speaks with more power, authority, and evidence to the conscience, than these numberless volumes; and much study is a weariness of the flesh; the composing or reading human works with fixed attention wearies both the mind and body; but the study of the book of God is as pleasing as it is profitable.

3rdly. Behold, reduced to a single point, the sum of true religion, the certain means of happiness, and the great end of man: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; fear God, and keep his commandments; the one the principle, the other the practice which necessarily flows from it. The fear of God comprehends all serious godliness, a reverence of his majesty, a deference to his authority, and a dread of his displeasure, and this will engage us to keep his commandments diligently, constantly, universally; making conscience of all our ways, and seeking to have them more exactly conformed to that perfect rule which he has prescribed. Two things are urged to enforce this.

1. The consideration how much it is our bounden duty thus to fear and serve God. This is the whole duty of man, it is the great end of his creation, and should be his first concern; or, this is the whole man, he is then truly blessed and happy; which all the world and all the things therein can never make him.

2. The consideration of the judgment approaching. For God shall bring every work into judgment: of what infinite moment these must it be to us, how we shall appear at his bar, where, according to our deeds, our eternity must be determined for endless joys or everlasting burnings! God sees and marks all our ways, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil; before the assembled world of men and angels they will be produced, and judgment, according to the truth, be executed. Happy they who keep this great day ever in their view, and feel the impression of it deep upon their hearts, restraining them from evil, quickening them in their course, supporting them under trials, and engaging them to persevere, faithful unto death; they shall have great boldness in the day of judgment, be counted worthy to stand before the Son of Man, and be admitted into the everlasting joy of their Lord.


Verse 2-3

Ecclesiastes 12:2-3. While the sun, or the light. Before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars be darkened, and the clouds return after the rain. Ecclesiastes 12:3. In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, &c. Desvoeux; who renders the grinders, the grinding-maids, and observes, that whoever reads this description of old age with a tolerable degree of attention must observe, that the beginning of it consists of a double figure; namely, an allegory and a prosopopoeia;—whereby the most visible infirmities attending the last stage of life are very elegantly set forth. The whole outward frame of the human body is allegorically represented as a house; and without departing from the allegory, the most remarkably active parts of the body are personified, and appear in the description as so many men or women, to whom the several employments belonging to the house are devised: The keepers of the house, &c. to the voice of the grinding-maid, is lowered. But all on a sudden Solomon leaves off that lofty figurative style; not to explain it by saying in plain literal terms what he had already expressed in those daring figures; but to go on with his description, in quite a different strain. There is no more mention of the house; the subject understood by the house comes in without any disguise, and is plainly called He:—He shall rise up, &c. The infirmities of old age, or rather the alterations produced in our habits and inclinations through the bodily infirmities which generally attend that period of life, are recited in plain literal words, rather than described. If we find two figurative expressions in that part of the account, viz. the daughters of the song, and the grasshopper, the first was, either by use and custom, or at least by its analogy with other expressions of the same kind, equivalent to a proper one; and the second, which, for aught we know, may also have been in the same case, was chosen for decency's sake, to avoid an obscure word. But it is very remarkable, that, figurative as that expression is, the figure is confined within the word, and does not extend to the sentence; for what is said of the grasshopper, that it shall become a burden, nec quicquam nisi pondus iners, is an accident belonging to that which is meant by the grasshopper, but in no way to that insect itself; whereas it should belong to both, if the sentence was allegorical. This part of the description, therefore, may be truly called literal; And he shall rise at the crowing of the cock, and all the singing-women shall be dismissed, &c. Ecclesiastes 5:4-5. One would imagine that the description, if it be not complete, must proceed in the same way; but the author changes his style again, and abruptly resumes the allegory; yet not the same that he had already employed, but a new one, in order to describe the inward disorders under the weight of which an old man must sink at last, and be brought to his grave. Here there is no more mention of a man; nothing offers itself to a reader who looks no farther than the literal sense, except a well, once richly furnished with whatever was necessary for drawing water out of it, but now becoming useless through the decay of the several parts of the engine.


Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 12:4. And the doors shall be shut in the streets. And the double gate shall be shut up towards the inner court, at the lowering of the voice of the grinding-maid: and then he shall rise up at the crowing of the cock, and all the daughters of the song shall be valued at nought.


Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 12:5. Also when they shall be afraid, &c.— They shall be afraid even of distant objects, nay, of the scare-crow, set on the way-side; the sex shall be neglected, and the grasshopper shall become a burden, and desire shall fail; for the man is going to his everlasting home, and the mourners are walking about the court, ready for his burial. These alterations of the version are from Mr. Desvoeux; who observes, that though interpreters are divided concerning the application of several particulars in this poetical description of old age, they all agree in the meaning of the first allegory, whereby the outward form of our body is represented as a house, and our limbs either as servants to whom several employments are devised, or as parts of the building. Thus, says he, I think every one allows that the arms and hands are the keepers or guards, to ward off danger; the knees and legs, which support the weight of the whole fabric, are the strong men, and the eyes are the spies or scouts which look out of the window, Ecclesiastes 12:3. Then, to complete the picture of the outward appearance of an old man, the falling-in of his lips is represented as the shutting up of a double gate; Ecclesiastes 12:4. Thus far I agree with them, and even farther: for I have no doubt but that the teeth are signified by the grinding-maids, as I call them, after the LXX and Saint Jerome, or the grinding-stones, as some will have it; but I prefer the former, not only because it is most agreeable to the original word, but because the ancients had only hand-mills, at which none but women worked; a custom which, we learn from Dr. Shaw, still prevails among those nations which have retained the ancient manners. The next difference likewise chiefly concerns the image rather than the main sense; for several interpreters, led by the context, observe, that the mouth was represented by what is called the streets in the received version, and in mine the inner court. Now the street, being a passage open through and through, does no way resemble a hollow vessel; that resemblance might rather be found in a market-place, surrounded with high buildings, with but a few outlets, hardly perceivable in comparison of the surrounding sides. Accordingly the LXX have rendered it αγωρα ; but it is plain that the original word שׁוק shuk, means more properly that part of the house which by its form mostly resembled both a market-place, and a bowl. Such was the inner court, which Varro calls cava, or cavum aedium, Pliny cavaedium, and Tully impluvium; and we learn from Dr. Shaw, that there was such a court in all the eastern houses. The shutting up of the double gate towards the inner court, is represented as either the occasion of, or being occasioned by, or a circumstance that happens at the same time with, another accident; for the original, at the lowering of the voice of the grinding-maid, may equally bear these three constructions; and there is none but may have a proper application to the subject understood by that allegory; for, since it is allowed on all hands that the teeth are meant by the last of these words, because they are the instruments wherewith we grind our victuals, there can be no difficulty in applying the former, either to the broken set of teeth which an old man has remaining in his mouth, or to the gum which must perform the office of teeth, or rather to the tongue which bears a considerable part in the act of mastication, and might on that very account be called the grinding-maid by way of eminence. Now the sinking of an old man's lips into his mouth not only happens at the time with, but is owing to, the want of his teeth; whereby the operation of chewing is rendered imperfect. On the other hand, the close compression of the lips may serve partly to drown the disagreeable noise of his chewing with his gums instead of his teeth. As for the literal sense of the image, I think the construction whereby the two facts are connected in point of time is the less subject to difficulties, because it requires no knowledge of ancient usages and customs; for any one sees that the time of shutting up the gate must be about the same hour that the necessary work is finished, or when the night is drawing near.


Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 12:6. Or ever the silver cord be loosed. Remember thy Creator, I say, before the silver cord be removed, and the golden pully hasteneth its motion, and the jar be dashed to pieces upon the well, and the conduit be broken, through which the water used to run into the cistern. See the note on Ecclesiastes 12:2-3. It is on all hands allowed, that the picture-part of the emblem in this verse is a well once richly furnished with whatever is necessary both to draw water and to convey it to the proper places; but now becoming useless through the gradual decay of the several parts of the engine. To understand it right, therefore, it is necessary that we should have some notion of the thing described. It may be reasonably supposed, that kings and princes had such engines in their gardens as that to which our body is likened, either to supply their baths, or for the conveniency of watering; but the simplicity of those times, and the little progress then made in mechanical arts, may easily have persuaded us that they were of the less composed kind. Solomon tells us, chap. Ecclesiastes 2:6 that he had made ponds or reservoirs in his gardens; and the richness of the materials of which the several parts of the engine were made, may afford some reason to conjecture that the description in hand alludes to a machine which he had made to supply them with water. The several things necessary for that purpose, and which we may therefore expect to find mentioned in the description, were, besides the well itself, and a cistern or reservoir placed at a convenient distance, 1. A rope. 2. A pulley, to haul up and let down the rope more commodiously. 3. A bucket, or some other vessel in the nature of a bucket, hanging from the rope. 4. A conduit or gutter to convey the water from the upper edge of the wall which surrounded the well, to the reservoir. These several pieces, when in right order, may very well represent the hydraulic machine called a man; and of course their disorder is a proper image of the distempers whereby the constitution of our body is broken in old age. But, to apply every particular to that special circumstance of human infirmities which Solomon intended it should represent, is not an easy task; as it depends upon the notions which that prince had of the inward structure of our body, and of the office of each part: no one can be qualified to explain it who has not a competent skill in ancient anatomy; I say ancient, for it is not to be presumed that Solomon could or would allude to discoveries whereby he must have then been unintelligible; and Hippocrates himself, the father of physic, is but a modern with respect to our author. Therefore I content myself with explaining the letter of the allegory, and leave the accurate deciphering of it to professed anatomists; upon whose opinion, however, I would not advise the reader to place too great a dependence; as their decision, in this case, cannot be much better than conjecture. See Desvoeux, who has very largely and learnedly justified the above version, as the reader will find in the 376th and following pages of his essay. However, for the satisfaction of such as would wish to see some attempt to decipher this allegory, we shall subjoin at the end of this chapter such an attempt by an able writer; at the same time referring such as wish to see more on this subject, to the famous portrait of old age by Dr. Smith.


Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 12:7. Then shall the dust return to the earth. Desvoeux connects this with the preceding verse; at the end of which he places a semicolon only, and reads thus, And the dust return into the earth as it was, and the spirit return unto God who gave it. From the 7th verse of the preceding chapter we have the third precept, which, on account of its importance, is more enlarged upon than the two former, and has some retrospect to the three propositions considered jointly, but a more special one to the third. It might be thus shortly expressed: "Since men (being ignorant or unmindful of what must come to pass after their death) cannot find their way to happiness in this world, they must look for it after death, and lead in this world a life suitable to that expectation." First then, Solomon puts us in mind that, however pleasant we may imagine a man's life to be when attended with uninterrupted prosperity, yet a single reflection upon his future state is sufficient to damp his joy, and to convince him that all the happiness he has enjoyed is but vain, on that very account, that it is past, chap. Ecclesiastes 11:7-8. Then, from that observation he infers, that we must always keep futurity in view, and remember Him at whose disposal we know that all future events are, Ecclesiastes 12:9-10. This we must do during the whole course of our life, even from our youth, and in our most flourishing state, because the whole of our conduct must be once canvassed and examined before the supreme judge. Here the author, who in this book seldom misses the opportunity of a description, not satisfied with the bare mention of old age, describes the infirmities of it in a very elegant manner. But, as the style of that description is mostly figurative, it is not perhaps very easy to point out with certainty the particular infirmities attending a decrepit state, which are therein mentioned: yet the general meaning is very plain, which is sufficient to answer the main purpose. However, the description seems to consist of three parts. The first allegorically points out, under the image of an ill-attended house, the most obvious infirmities of old age; that is to say, those which can scarcely escape the notice of any one who beholds an old man; Ecclesiastes 12:3 and part of the 4th. The second part of the description sets forth, chiefly in plain literal terms, those alterations for the worse, which too often age produces in a man's habit and inclinations; part of Ecclesiastes 12:4-5. The last part, under the emblem of a well which becomes useless through the decay of the engines, and other things necessary to draw water out of it, and to convey it to the proper places, represents the inward decay of the constitution, whereby we are at last brought to a state wherein (chap. Ecclesiastes 9:10.) there is no work nor device to be done, nor any use for knowledge and wisdom, Ecclesiastes 12:6. But, lest any one should suspect that Solomon involved the whole man in the ruin and destruction of the bodily machine, he does shortly assert a distinction of principles, and a difference of fate between body and soul. The one was made of earth, and returns into it. The other came from God, and returns to him. Ecclesiastes 12:7.


Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 12:8. Vanity of vanities. The least reflection upon that ultimate term of all our occupations, enjoyments, and schemes of happiness in this world, death, naturally brings into one's mind the maxim set forth in the beginning of this discourse, and from which, by proving its truth with respect to all those, the Hebrew philosopher had endeavoured to evince the necessity of a future state. Wherefore it was proper to mention it again, in order to prepare the minds of his hearers for the general conclusion; which, however, he divided from it by the fourth and last precept or advice that he thought necessary to give; and which, as it had no particular retrospect to any argument used before, it was proper to divide, somehow or other, from those that had. See on the following verses.


Verses 9-12

Ecclesiastes 12:9-12. And moreover, because the Preacher was wise. And moreover the orator, as he was wise, still taught the people knowledge, and made himself to be listened to; nay, he sought out many important sentences, and set them in proper order; Ecclesiastes 12:10. The orator, I say, spared no trouble to find out pleasant words, and one who could well write down this true discourse, Ecclesiastes 12:11. One shepherd gave the words of the wise like goads, and appointed the masters of collections, like planted repostories: Ecclesiastes 12:12. And father, my son, be instructed by them. There is no end of making many books, and it is a great trouble to examine much. Desvoeux; who observes, that the 11th verse might be translated, The words of the wise are like goads, and the masters of collections are like planted garden-houses: they were given by one shepherd; which, as to the turn of the phrase, agrees with the version of Geneva; and he is of opinion, that the masters of collections were officers appointed to examine into the merit of the collections which were published, and to declare which contained the genuine sayings of the wise, and which not. It is said of these masters, that they were given or appointed by the monarch or sole-shepherd; which shews that they were public officers; and it is possible that they were the same as the rulers or princes of the synagogue; but as it is at the least doubtful whether there were any such things as synagogues in Solomon's time, it is more proper not to assign any other employment to these officers than that of taking care of the collections of wise sayings, and being a kind of guardians of their authenticity. That this was, or at least made part of, their business, is plain from the advice, And farther, my son, be instructed by them, &c. and as to the propriety of the expression, they might be called masters of the collection which they had in charge, as the magister supplicium libellorum in Latin, and the master of the rolls in English. How long that employment lasted among the Jews, is more than we can tell; but it is probable, that the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, (Proverbs 25:1.) to whose care we are indebted for several chapters of the book of Proverbs belonged to the college or board instituted by Solomon; of which number I suppose his secretary to have been, whom I understand to be specified by the words, One who could well write down this true discourse. The author's design was, to recommend a work which may be viewed in two different lights; as a discourse spoken, and a book written. Its first public appearance was in the first shape; but it is probable that it was taken in writing, and perhaps from the orator's own mouth, by his secretary. This made it proper to mention the abilities of that officer, that those who had not heard Solomon speaking might depend on the exactness of the copy, and if he had been chosen from among the masters of collections, which we suppose, the honourable mention made of him naturally brought in that of the board of which he was a member. The fourth and last precept (see Ecclesiastes 12:9.) contained in these verses, consists in a high commendation of the present discourse, whether heard, as it was when Solomon spoke it, or read, as it was intended it should be when published according to his directions. The commendation is taken, First, From his personal abilities and reputation. Secondly, From the pains that he had taken to make this work perfect, with respect both to the matter and style. Thirdly, From the reasonableness of depending on the care and capacity of those whom he himself had appointed either to take his words down in writing as he spoke them, or to preserve his collections. To this effect, having represented the words of the wise as instruments of agriculture; perhaps because they serve to cultivate the mind, he does, pursuant to the same figure, represent those officers as the places where such instruments are kept, and where any one that wants them must resort to get them. Thus, by applying to the proper officers, any one may save himself the trouble of going through the endless collections of others, which, to pursue the simile a little farther, we may compare to a large garden, where you might look a great while for the gardener's tools, without finding them, if there was not a known repository.


Verse 13-14

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. Let us hear the conclusion, &c.— Let us hear the conclusion of the whole discourse. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the business of every man; Ecclesiastes 12:14. Because God shall bring all the works of men into judgment, with respect to every thing which was not taken notice of, whether good or evil. Now the sacred orator comes at last to the CONCLUSION which he had aimed at from the very beginning, viz. that every part of our conduct, whether it be praise or blame-worthy, shall be examined by the Almighty, who shall reward and punish even that which in the present dispensation of providence he seems to overlook. Whence it follows, that it is the interest of every man to fear God, and to obey his laws, that so he may be found guiltless when brought into judgment. See Desvoeux, and Peters on Job, p. 414.

With respect to this conclusion, it must be observed, that, the book being of a much older date than our artificial logic and dialectic, we have no reason to expect that Solomon should have strictly kept to the rules which they prescribe, and especially as his performance was a kind of mixed work, wherein philosophy was to appear in the dress of oratory. To say nothing, when you come to the conclusion of an argument, but what properly belongs to that conclusion, or has been before mentioned in the premises, and may be directly inferred from them, is a method accommodated to the rules observed by logicians, and certainly conducive to perspicuity; but it is more popular, and better suits the genius of rhetorical eloquence, to join the corollary or consequence drawn from the conclusion with the conclusion itself, so as to make but one compound proposition of both. If this be but remembered, one may easily see that we have put the right construction upon the conclusion of this book, though at first we may appear to have thrown part of it aside. Let the whole exhortation contained in the two last verses be compared with the book itself, whereof it is declared to exhibit the conclusion and design; and it will undoubtedly appear, that the meaning of it can be no other than this; namely, "The sole or principal motive to observe the laws of God is the steady belief of a future state; wherein God himself will judge mankind, and render unto every one according to his works:" and who can doubt but in that proposition the greatest stress is laid on the doctrine of a future state, as the only point which, in the nature of things, could have stood in need of proofs? The adviseableness of obeying God's commands is so obvious, when once he is allowed to have both rewards and punishments in store for mankind, that it could never have required twelve chapters to make it out. Besides, is there not reason to suppose that the author of the book understood the nature and design of his own work better than any interpreter born in after-ages? But what motive could ever have induced him to mention the doctrine of a future state, and judgment to come, as that which he had from the beginning laboured to establish, as the conclusion of the whole discourse, had his thoughts all along been employed on those subjects which several interpreters suppose he had chiefly in view? And let nobody object that the end properly, or at least primarily, declared by Solomon to have been in his view, is the fear of God, and not the doctrine of a future state; for these are two points which he considers as if they were but one. Besides, a very good reason may be assigned why he spoke of the fear of God, though the certainty of a future judgment was what he had principally aimed at; viz. that that doctrine is a powerful incentive to fear God; whereas no plausible one can be given, why he should have said a single word of that certainty, had the fear of God been the subject of which he directly intended to treat. See the introductory note on this book, and Bishop Lowth's 24th Prelection.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 12:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/ecclesiastes-12.html. 1801-1803.

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