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Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 12

 

 

Verse 1

THE GRAND CONCLUSION FOR ECCLESIASTES

"This is one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible."[1] Along with Ecclesiastes 11, and a few verses out of Ecclesiastes 10, we have here Solomon's conclusion. He had found his way out of the doubts and perplexities that for a time had confused him; and here (in these passages) he thunders the great doctrinal teachings of God's Word.

So great is the importance of this chapter that we shall study it one verse at a time.

Ecclesiastes 12:1

"Remember now also thy Creator in the days of the youth, before the evil days come, and thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them."

"The first word of this in the the Hebrew text of the O.T. is "and," indicating a connection with the previous verse."[2] This is a continuation of Remedy Three (Ecclesiastes 11:10) for the perplexities and vanities of life. The loving and faithful service of God our Creator is that third remedy. "It is a plea for a strong religious faith to be founded in youth as a safeguard against old age."[3]

"Creator here is not merely a synonym for God; it is an emphasis upon the fact that he is the Creator."[4] God created all of us; we are his; we owe him everything; his authority is eternal and unlimited. "You are not your own; you have no right to yourself. God made you, and he made you so that you might be happy; but you can be happy only in Him.[5]

This is a basic doctrine of the Holy Bible. "Some interpreters, of course consider this too pious, and so they change it; but this is not acceptable."[6] For example, here are a couple of the ridiculous changes men have made in God's Word: "In the days of your youth, remember your grave."[7] "Remember also your wife in the days of your youth."[8] "There is no reason to alter the text here."[9] It is only the boundless conceit, irreverence, and unbelief of evil men that prompts ravages of this kind against God's Word.

The focus upon God the Creator in this very first verse is quite appropriate, "It reminds us from earlier passages in Ecclesiastes that only God sees the whole pattern (Ecclesiastes 3:11); his workmanship we have spoiled by our devices (Ecclesiastes 7:29); and his creativity is continuous and unsearchable (Ecclesiastes 11:1). For us to `Remember Him,' therefore, is no perfunctory mental act. It means to drop our pretence of self-sufficiency and commit ourselves to Him, to love Him and to obey Him.

"It is amazing that the word `Creator' in the Hebrew text is plural, like [~'Elohiym] in Genesis 1:1. The Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit all played a part in our creation (John 1:4; Genesis 1:2)."[10]

Verse 2
"Before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain; in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows shall be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the street; when the sound of the grinding is low, and one shall rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; yea, they shall be afraid of that which is high, and terrors shall be in the way; and the almond tree shall blossom, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets: before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity."

"This passage (Ecclesiastes 12:2-8) has one of the most striking and beautiful allegories in the literature of mankind. Every phrase describes with a vivid metaphor, a symptom of the infirmities of old age."[11]

There have been many efforts to literalize what is meant by the beautiful metaphors here. Barton cited no less than seven systems of interpreting all these;[12] but one of the most beautiful of the renditions we have seen is this:[13]

Ecclesiastes 12:2-5a "That is when the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars shall grow dim for you, and the rain clouds will never pass away. Then your arms, that have protected you, will tremble, and your legs, now strong, will grow weak. Your teeth will be too few to chew your food, and your eyes too dim to see clearly. Your ears will be deaf to the noise of the street. You will barely be able to hear the mill as it grinds or music when it plays, but even the song of a bird shall wake you from sleep. You will be afraid of high places, and walking will be dangerous. Your hair will turn white; you will hardly be able to drag yourself along, and all desire will be gone."

"Nevertheless, this remarkable passage is best taken in its entirety, not broken down into teeth, legs, arms, etc., which doubtless are intended."[14] This amazing passage, as a whole, without being broken down reveals a picture of us in our old age that is plain enough, much plainer than any itemized inventory of our infirmities could possibly be.

"The grinders cease ..." (Ecclesiastes 12:3). "This no doubt refers to arms, legs, teeth, and eyes."[15]

In spite of the emphasis upon old age and death in this chapter, Solomon shows his real conviction in the very first verse. "He does not say, `Remember you must die,' but, `Remember thy Creator.' In this Solomon clearly distinguishes himself from all skeptics, cynics and Epicureans. with whom he has often been confused."[16]

"All the daughters of music shall be brought low" (Ecclesiastes 12:4). "He has not only lost his ability to sing, but the loss of hearing means he cannot even appreciate music"![17]

"And one shall rise up at the voice of a bird" (Ecclesiastes 12:4). Despite the beauty of the @@GNP rendition, we cannot agree that the song of a bird would awaken an old man who could barely hear the sound of a mill or the street noises. Birds sing quite early in the morning, at the break of day; and what is meant is that old people wake up early. However, this writer (who is an old man) would like to go on record with the testimony that the song of a bird never wakes up anybody who is wearing a hearing aid!

"Afraid of that which is high" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Here is the reason why old men do not like to climb ladders.

"Terrors shall be in the way" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). For example, when the Doctor says of the cancer test, "Yes, it's positive," one will know about those "terrors ... in the way."

"The almond tree shall blossom" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Cook rendered this, "The almond tree shall be despised,"[18] and interpreted it to mean that pleasant food would be despised by the aged. However, most scholars take it as an emblem of gray hair. "The blooms of the almond tree are a brilliant pink; but in time turn snow white; it is a fit metaphor of the gray headed old man."[19]

"The grasshopper shall be a burden" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). "The point here is that the lightest load is a burden to the aged."[20] It means what we would say if we remarked, "Why, that old man couldn't even carry a grasshopper."

"And desire shall fail" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). The Septuagint renders this, "The caper berry shall fail."[21] "This berry was widely used in the East as an aphrodisiac (sexual stimulant),"[22] or, "As a provocative of the appetite."[23] In this light, we may say that the old man's desire shall fail, all of it, whether for sex or for food.

"Man goeth to his everlasting home" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Without a doubt the best rendition of this is, "Man goeth to his eternal home."[24] What a glorious pronouncement is this! An eternal home? That most certainly teaches immortality, otherwise man would have no use whatever for an eternal home. It also teaches the doctrine of the resurrection, because, by no other means than that of a resurrection, would the dying sons of Adam ever enter such a home.

"And the mourners go about the streets" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). This is a reference to the paid mourners employed in ancient times to bewail the departed. The New Testament mentions these in connection with the raising of the daughter of Jairus. Here, their going about the streets was explained by Deane: "These were getting ready to ply their trade, expecting the death of the old man hourly."[25]

"Before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern" (Ecclesiastes 12:6) We cannot pretend to know with dogmatic certainty what is meant here. There are two ways of explaining it, (1) after the manner of the 19th century commentators, and (2) after the opinion of recent writers. Here are the two views:

(1) "The silver cord is the spinal cord, so called from the spinal nerve's likeness to a cord. Just as the previous verses have described the external evidences of old age, these explain the internal changes that bring death to the body itself. The golden bowl (so called from its priceless value) is the container for the brain itself. When the one is loosed and the other broken, death ensues."[26]

(2) "The golden bowl and the silver cord here are a lamp. The silver cord held the bowl. When the cord broke, the bowl fell putting out the light. Light is, of course, a Biblical symbol of life."[27]

Both of these explanations mean the same thing. They both refer to death. The second explanation fails to explain why the cord that held the lamp was "the silver cord."

"Or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern" (Ecclesiastes 12:6). "In the Bible, both light and water symbolize life;"[28] and in the metaphor here, either a broken pitcher at the fountain or a broken wheel at the cistern would cut off the supply of water. Thus all four of the things in this verse are metaphorical references to death.

"And the dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This verse indicates a phenomenal change in Solomon, exactly as does the statement in. Ecclesiastes 12:5, that, "Man goeth to his eternal home." See comment above.

"And the dust returneth to the earth as it was" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This clear reference to the Creation of man (Genesis) is not the only allusion to the fall of man that soon followed, `You are dust, etc' (Genesis 3:21). In Ecclesiastes 7:29, he contrasted man's uprightness (as God created him) with what followed in the invention of human devices for evil."[29]

"Solomon at this point had found his spiritual footing. While estranged from God and depending upon human wisdom, he asked, `Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward, or the spirit of a beast, whether it goeth downward'? (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Here he confidently affirmed that man's spirit returns to God who gave it. Faith had won the victory over doubt."[30] Murphy, and others, deny what the sacred text clearly says here, asserting that, "Solomon had no knowledge of a blessed immortality."[31] Such false opinions are effectively refuted by what is said here and in Ecclesiastes 12:5.

"This verse says that man's spirit is immortal; it does not die nor sleep in the grave. The New Testament tells us clearly that there is consciousness after death (Luke 16:19-31)."[32] In this verse the writer (Solomon) rises above the doubt expressed in Ecclesiastes 3:21. He did not contradict himself in the two passages, as some suppose, and on that false supposition call Ecclesiastes 12:7 an interpolation. No. Solomon here is saying that after examining all the doubts and perplexities, "He has now reached the firm conclusion that there is indeed a future for the individual soul."[33]

Barton also agreed that it is totally unnecessary to view this and Ecclesiastes 3:21 as contradictions. "It is possible for any man to have pessimistic doubts in which he questions whether a man's spirit differs from that of a beast, while still holding belief in God."[34]

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 12:8). Why does this statement appear just here? This is somewhat of a signature, indicating that Solomon himself is the author of these final verses just as he was the author of the rest of Ecclesiastes. No other person could possibly have inserted this here. The words stand, not only as a signature, but also, "As an introduction to the final verses."[35]

"Saith the Preacher ..." (Ecclesiastes 12:8). Radical critics, ever eager to find fault, suppose that the introduction of the third person at this point indicates a different writer. Ridiculous. Paul often lapsed into the third person, as did many other ancient writers. Cook pointed out that, "This epilogue makes the author to be (Solomon) the same as the author of Proverbs."[36]

Verse 9
"And further, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs."

As Cook noted, this identifies the author of Ecclesiastes as Solomon who wrote Proverbs.

Verse 10
"The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth."

We reject all notions that the third person used in these verses is any indication whatever of "another writer,"[37] as suggested by Fleming. "There is no change in the style and vocabulary of Ecclesiastes as we come to this epilogue,"[38] which would most certainly have been the case if any other writer had taken over here. Besides that, as pointed out above, the words "Vanity of vanities" virtually amount to a signature. Delitzsch accepted this viewpoint, declaring that, "We regard this epilogue as a postscript by the author of the book himself."[39]

Verse 11
"The words of the wise are as goads; and as nails well fastened are the words of the masters of assemblies, which are given from one Shepherd."

"In the Old Testament, the word Shepherd usually refers to God";[40] and a good rendition is this, "The words of the wise ... have been given by God, the one shepherd of us all."[41] This is a very important verse, because here Solomon recognizes the Word of God as the ultimate authority. How far has this wise man come from the doubts and sins of former days! "He says here that it is the teachings of the masters of assemblies, drawn from the fountainhead (the Word of God the one Shepherd), which give stability and strength to life."[42]

Verse 12
"And furthermore, my son, be admonished: that of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

The perfect understanding of this verse is captured by this translation: "My son, avoid anything beyond the scriptures of wisdom; there is no end to the buying of books, and to study books closely is a weariness of the flesh."[43] This is almost the same warning as that given by Paul that the brethren, "Might learn not to go beyond the things which are written." (1 Corinthians 4:6).

In many of the earlier passages of Ecclesiastes which suggest doubt, skepticism, uncertainty and perplexity, the commentators, in many instances, have pointed out that many of those passages reflect the mythological and pagan writings of antiquity; and here Solomon virtually confesses that many of the things which he had read had been, at least partially, the cause of his terrible apostasy, Peterson agreed that the warning here, "Was to discourage the reading of pagan literature."[44]

Verse 13
"This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man."

"QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM"

Solomon here gives us the final and authoritative conclusion of his thorough and extensive search for the answer to the question, "What is good for man"? In the same manner that one may prove a theorem in geometry, he has here come to the Q.E.D. In this glorious conclusion, he lays down the gauntlet, raises the white flag, and surrenders. "The worldly wisdom of Solomon ends with his submission to the power of God."[45] "These final two verses guard against any possible misconception; and they give the author's real and mature conclusion."[46]

"Fear God and keep his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Yes, GOD IS, and he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Furthermore, he has given commandments which men are obligated to honor and obey. Indeed, THERE IS A DIVINE REVELATION FROM GOD. Here is Solomon's witness to the existence and authority of the Law of Moses, because nothing else in the entire history of mankind ever even pretended to be the authentic Word of God.

"This is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). The word duty here is not in the the Hebrew text of the O.T. and has been added by the translators; and the passage may be read as, the whole of man. Grieve found the words every man in this verse;[47] and this is honored by a footnote in the RSV which translates: "This is the duty of every man."[48] Indeed it is true, regardless of the translation here. Even the Anchor Bible got back in line with this rendition: "The sum of the matter when all has been heard is this: Reverence God, and observe his laws. This applies to everything."[49]

The whole business and the whole purpose, and the whole intent of God's placing man upon the earth (the whole of man) - all that concerns man is summed up here. Fear God and obey him! "All other things, as stated again and again in Ecclesiastes, are dependent upon a Higher Incomprehensible Being."[50] This is the Higher Intelligence, the Creator, the First Cause - He is God!

"The fear and obedience of God are still the basic requirements of man's behavior, and God will hold him accountable for his actions."[51]

Verse 14
"For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." A more positive statement of the Biblical doctrine of the Eternal Judgment is to be found nowhere else in the Old Testament. The fact of God's eventual judgment of the whole world is a cardinal principle of Christianity, one of the fundamentals (Hebrews 6:2). This announcement of it at the end of Solomon's book makes it a climax. It could very well have been that his conviction of this certainty was the very thing that finally brought him to his senses. Delitzsch agreed with this. "This certainty of the final judgment at last was that which finally brought Solomon out of the labyrinth of his skepticism."[52] It will also do the same thing for every honest and intelligent man who will contemplate it.

As Hendry wrote, "The resolution of the discord" (the making of all things right: the just assignment of rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked, which shall take place only in the world to come) - "All this shall await the time when faith will give place to sight and every hidden thing will be revealed; so we may say of these last words of Ecclesiastes, that they foreshadow the resurrection."[53]

"Solomon's conclusion is that true religion is the only way to true happiness."[54] Man may chase the rainbows in any direction that he chooses, but apart from the love and service of God, only the rottenness of a grave awaits him. The verdict of God's truth against any other way but the true one is `vanity of vanities.' Why should anyone doubt it and throw his life away in the pursuit of life's beckoning butterflies, all of which can only disappoint and destroy him?

For a more extensive discussion of The Judgment regarding (1) its place in the Bible, (2) the necessity for it, (3) the occasion of it, (4) its importance as a foundational doctrine of Jesus Christ, (5) the reasons for its being a day of terror and sorrow for "all the tribes of the earth,,' etc., see Vol. 10 (Hebrews) of our New Testament Commentaries, pp. 115,116.

Our study of this amazingly powerful chapter of God's Word would not be complete without a summary of the great doctrines of Christianity that are either expressly declared, necessarily implied, or both, in these verses. Here they are:

The Existence and Power of God

God is the Creator

God is the creator of Man

Immortality of the Soul

The Resurrection of the Dead

God is the Shepherd of Israel

The Existence of Moses' Law

God's Commands Available in that Law

That Law a Divine Revelation

Man's Accountability to God

The Eternal Judgment (Heaven and Hell)

Rewards and Punishments

It would be difficult indeed to find another chapter in the whole Bible with a more impressive constellation of stellar Christian doctrines than that which appears here. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen!

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 12:1". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/view.cgi?book=ec&chapter=012". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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