Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

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Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

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Turn to God Now, Make the Most of Life While You Can

Moving into chapter 12, we continue with the third subsection of the last major section, now reading the last of the three segments making up the subsection. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says of the poetry that makes up this segment: “The description in the verses that follow ranks among the finest of the world’s literature…. The onset of old age is pictured under a wide variety of metaphors, most of obvious application” (Wright, introductory note on verses 1-8). The proverbial sequence of the past few chapters continues through to a conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:7, though the verses here are quite unlike the proverbial forms we have seen previously in the book—this passage being a much longer form. (For comparison, recall the lengthy poem about the virtuous woman at the end of the book of Proverbs.) Ecclesiastes 12:1 does not mark a new subsection, as it continues right along with the prominent theme of the last four verses (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10) concerning enjoying life while young before the coming of darkening times and death. Furthermore, as already mentioned, those verses (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10) may have been meant as a qualifying expansion of the book’s refrain along with chapter 12. In any case, it’s clear that verses 1-7 of chapter 12 constitute a self-contained poem within the current subsection.

It should be noted that this passage does not convey one comprehensive metaphoric picture. What’s presented here is not a continuous allegory, but a series of diverse images related in what they portray. It’s even possible that the various descriptions here—some more literal and others more figurative—were originally used in society independently from one another. Again, though, the imagery in the verses here is put together in a masterful way to all form a cohesive unit—the “while,” “when” or “before” in each of the verses up through verse 6 all tying back to remembering your Creator in verse 1, followed “then” in verse 7 by the end of this physical life.

As pointed out, most of the imagery in this passage is obvious in what it means to convey generally, particularly given the context. Some statements, though, are not so clear—yet we may still gain a sense of what’s intended within the context of the poem. Expositor’s states: “It may be asked how the idea of inspiration can be held when there are so many possible interpretations of individual pictures. The answer is that, while attention to detail is important, the total description is what matters; and whatever the interpretation of phrases, the whole picture of decrepit old age is conveyed clearly” (footnote on verse 1). We might recall something similar with the lack of clarity one encounters in the Song of Solomon, our notes pointing out that the poetry there is often evocative—not necessarily meant to always give exact details but to convey a feeling about what’s being discussed. The same could be true here, especially as overtness in describing the deterioration of the body through the effects of old age could come across as insensitive and impolite. Still, it’s probably safe to assume that the various expressions in the poem were much better understood by Solomon’s immediate audience in his day than they are to us reading them nearly 3,000 years later. (Yet in the face of this gap we still trust that God will reveal to us whatever we truly need to know.)

“The passage begins with a nonmetaphorical statement so as to make it clear to the reader what is to follow” (note on verse 1). In the NKJV verse 1 reads, “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” As Expositor’s further notes: “The thrill of youth fades into a lack of zest for life. The statement is a general one and certainly allows for varying degrees of experience, since some people retain their zest in extreme old age.” Indeed, recall that Ecclesiastes 11:8 said it’s possible to rejoice in all the years of one’s life, though that is all too often not the case. The same commentary further points out that many of the health troubles associated with aging in chapter 12 are often not as severe in today’s advanced nations, with modern living conditions and treatments, as they were in ancient times. Still, “the point is that as we grow older, we all have some traces of these marks of age, even if they do not develop to the extremes that this chapter describes. So the Teacher is justified in reminding young people that they cannot afford to put off their faith in God their Creator until they are older” (same note).

Something else to take note of in verse 1 is that, as many commentators have observed, it says to remember your “Creators”—plural (YLT). This is often understood as a majestic plural—denoting a singular yet lofty Creator. It’s pointed out that, in parallel, the plural form “Makers” is used of God in Job 35:10 and Isaiah 54:5. Of course, we should also note that the most common name for God in Hebrew Scripture, Elohim, is plural (literally “Gods”), as is the title Adonai (“My Lords”). While a majestic sense may be possible, we should recognize that a plurality in God as Creator was noted in the very beginning of Genesis: “Then God [Elohim or “Gods”] said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26). This is not a use of the “royal we,” as many contend regarding how rulers sometimes speak—as is especially clear in Genesis 3:22, where God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us,” showing an actual plurality. And as Ecclesiastes has harkened back to man’s creation in Genesis a number of times, it should perhaps not be surprising to see an acknowledgement of the plurality in God as Creator that’s presented there. The New Testament more clearly reveals a plurality of Creators, explaining that God the Father created all things through the Word who became Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3, John 1:14; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; Ephesians 3:9, NKJV). Any of these plural forms, being names and titles for the divine family, can apply to either the Father or Christ individually (as They each bear the family name) or to both of Them together, depending on the context.

The focus here on remembering our Creator, and doing so while young, is vital. Coming to terms with life in this world, seeking to understand it and trying to find happiness—the whole point of this book—must start right here. People are looking for truth and fulfillment in all the wrong places—and in all the wrong things. Where should you turn? To your Creator, who made the world and you in it, who set things up as they are, who made the rules, who put you here for a purpose to fulfill, who has all the answers. And, as Dr. Walter Kaiser notes, in using the word remember, Solomon “is not asking for mere mental cognizance…. For example, when God ‘remembered’ Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19)…He acted decisively on her behalf, and she who was barren conceived the child Samuel. [It’s the same with God remembering Noah and removing the floodwaters (Genesis 8:1).] So it is in our passage. To remember our Creator calls for decisive action based on recollection and reflection on all that God is and has done for us” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 118). This ties in to what we just saw in Ecclesiastes 11:9 about realizing that there will be judgment for what we do. But of course we do not just remember that. We also remember that God loves us and desires us to be part of His family forever. We remember that we owe everything to our Maker— and that He is the Source of all blessing and good who wants to grant us infinite blessing. And we don’t just reflect on that. We respond to God. We heed Him. And the time to turn to Him is now! We might imagine remembering God after a long life of waywardness—as it seems Solomon himself did. But one’s life can be so ruined by then. Remember God now. Seek Him and worship Him and obey Him today (compare Hebrews 4:7). Don’t put it off. The younger you start, the more you will experience of life as God intended—and the better off will be your time in this world, sparing you from many sorrows (recall the putting away of upset and evil or harm in Ecclesiastes 11:10). There will still be pain, of course, but that pain is far easier to bear if your life is close to God. He will be with you and give you strength through the hard times, as He has promised (for example, James 4:8; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Hebrews 13:5- 6).

Continuing to the next verse, where Ecclesiastes 12:1 said to remember your Creator “before the difficult days come,” verse 2 in parallel says, “…while the sun and the light, and the moon and the stars, are not darkened, and the clouds do not return after the rain.” In saying while these things have not happened, the meaning is while they have not happened yet. The NIV renders the verse to say before the things mentioned here do happen. As pointed out earlier, the darkening here seems to parallel the coming “days of darkness” after beholding the light and the sun in Ecclesiastes 11:7-8. The wording of Ecclesiastes 12:2 could be meant figuratively to say that youth is a time of clear skies, having fewer storm clouds. “Nothing but blue skies,” a popular song says. And when the clouds do come and rain in a negative sense—as apparently in the imagery we saw in Ecclesiastes 11:3 (and as in the modern idiom of having something rain on our parade)—the troubles blow over quickly, and it doesn’t get cloudy again right away. This is in contrast to getting older, when you have one problem after another. Alternatively, on the more literal side, the darkening could refer to one’s vision being dimmed with age through cataracts or general vision loss (compare Genesis 27:1; Genesis 48:10; 1 Samuel 3:2; 1 Samuel 4:15). The New American Commentary says, “The cloudiness of vision sounds like glaucoma. The picture of clouds ‘returning after rain’ appears to say that the vision does not clear up, in contrast to weather” (Garrett, note on Ecclesiastes 12:2). However, eyes growing dim is evidently the meaning of what follows at the end of the next verse—“those that look through the windows grow dim” (verse 3)—so a different meaning might seem more likely for verse 2. Still it’s possible that the descriptions in verses 2 and 3 were originally standalone images with overlapping meaning that were placed together in the poem. Given how well both interpretations—storms of life and eyes dimming—fit in the context of verse 2, it could be that a double meaning is intended.

Accepting a figurative storms-of-life depiction here, Derek Kidner writes: “There is a chill of winter in the air of verse 2, as the rains persist and the clouds turn daylight into gloom, and then night into pitch blackness. It is a scene sombre enough to bring home to us not only the fading of physical and mental powers but the more general desolations of old age. There are many lights that are liable then to be withdrawn, besides those of the senses and faculties as, one by one, old friends are taken, familiar customs change, and long-held hopes now have to be abandoned. All this will come at a stage when there is no longer the resilience of youth or the prospect of recovery to offset it” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today series, pp. 101-102). (Some have tried to specifically allegorize all the celestial bodies listed in verse 2, but that is probably going too far, such interpretation being too subjective.)

Then in verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4, the difficult days of future years are depicted with the imagery of a run-down house. Recall the mention in Ecclesiastes 10:18 of a decaying building and leaking house due to laziness that, in context, represented a nation in decline. Now in chapter 12 we have the portrayal of a falling house standing for a person growing old—the bodily keepers having grown weak and failing. Kidner writes: “In verses 3 and 4a the picture changes. Now it is no longer one of nightfall, storm and winter, but of a great house in decline. Its former glories of power, style, liveliness and hospitality can now be surmised only by contrast with their few pathetic relics. In the brave struggle to survive there is almost a more pointed reminder of decay than in a total ruin. It is still part of our own scene; our own future is facing us and we cannot avoid involvement with this foretaste of it” (p. 102).

Verse 3 begins, “In the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men bow down…” Expositor’s interprets, “The arms and hands that minister to the body begin to tremble, and the legs that once carried the body so strongly weaken and sag at the knee” (note on verse 3). Others agree on the hands that care for and defend the body but see a different meaning for the bowing strong men. Tommy Nelson writes in A Life Well Lived: “Who are your mighty men? Your shoulders. And one day they will not stand as tall and straight as they do now” (p. 186). The shoulders might well seem as strong men standing on either side of the head and supporting it. The bowing would fit with an elderly person being stooped over. The New American Commentary, while likewise agreeing on the hands, takes the strong men bowing more generally to be “the major muscle groups of the legs and back,” stating that “beyond that, it is impossible to be specific in anatomical details” (note on verse 3).

The next part of verse 3 about “the grinders ceasing because they are few” is commonly taken to mean the teeth stop chewing because so many teeth are lost as people get up in years. The metaphor is based on workers at an estate grinding flour. If taken literally one would think that these would have to work harder and not cease if they were few—yet it could be that there being so few means that the effort would not suffice anyway so that the workers give up on the task. Maybe the sense is even of a lack of grinding stones, so that not enough grain can be ground for the household as needed. (The low grinding sound in the next verse may also be related to the teeth, though it might be more literal, as we’ll discuss in a moment.) We’ve already noted, in regard to the darkening of verse 2, the end of verse 3 about those looking through the windows growing dim as referring to the eyes. The dimming may refer to the eyes not seeing well in terms of clouded vision (as in the passages earlier cited about sight diminishing with age), or the dimming could describe how the eyes appear, with perhaps loss of sparkle. In any case, the image here is not a literal one of people looking out of windows growing dim. This is an obvious metaphor—with the body still pictured as a house, here with windows to see out of, figuratively speaking.

The bodily house metaphor appears to continue into verse 4, the verse beginning, “When the doors are shut in the streets, and the sound of grinding is low…” Following from the lack of grinders meaning lack of teeth and chewing in the previous verse, Kaiser takes the doors being shut in the street here to mean that “the lips (swinging or folding doors, as the jaws of leviathan are called the ‘doors of his face’ in Job 41:14) fall into the mouth for lack of teeth. (A street is a cleft between two rows of houses.)” (p. 120). And, again based on the previous verse, he interprets the sound of grinding being low in this verse to mean that “in toothless old age, only soft foods may be eaten. Thus no noise is made, for no hard bread or parched corn [or grain] is being chewed” (ibid.).

While that is possible, a number of other commentators see the bodily house metaphor continuing but take the doors being shut to go with sound being low due to diminished hearing. Expositor’s notes on verse 4, “The other doors of the senses, the organs of hearing, gradually close, marooning the owner within the cramped house of his own body.” It’s stated in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries that the doors on the street being shut “will refer to the reduced access to the outside world which follows impaired hearing” (Eaton, note on verse 4). The New American Commentary likewise says: “The shutting of doors refers to the ears, as people shut doors when they want to exclude outside noise. Deafness is meant, as indicated by the sounds of grinding and singing fading out” (note on verse 4). Note that in this interpretation the low grinding sound is not due to soft chewing or, as some propose, to soft speaking, but more literally refers to outside grinding of grain, though used somewhat figuratively in a representative sense of the outside hum of daily business, the sound volume of which is now turned down. This explanation might seem to be contradicted by the next line: “When one rises up at the sound of a bird.” The wording here seems to indicate disturbed sleep, waking at the slightest sound, maybe at the first songbirds before dawn. Tyndale comments: “So much for impaired hearing! More likely the picture is one of waking erratically in the early hours” (note on verse 4). Yet what of the bird sound if that’s the meaning? Some think the verse refers to an aging person’s voice rising up TO the sound of a high bird pitch—thus losing the deeper voice of earlier adulthood. Yet we lack evidence that, in terms of sound, ancient Hebrew “had the metaphor of up and down with the scale” (Expositor’s, footnote on verse 4). More simply, perhaps the portrayal here is of the elderly, having diminished hearing, not being able to make out particular sounds through the hubbub of the day, yet in the quiet of the night still waking at minor noises. The New American Commentary calls this “a cruel paradox of old age: one cannot hear well, but one sleeps so lightly that the slightest disturbance is sufficient to take away sleep” (note on verse 4). The sound of a bird could even refer to mere fluttering rather than twittering.

The last line of verse 4, “and all the daughters of music are brought low,” may seem obscure, but another expression about old age from the same general period this was written probably gives us the sense of the words here. When Solomon’s father David asked the elderly Barzillai, who as a wealthy man had provided for the king, to come to Jerusalem to be honored and provided for by David in return, Barzillai responded: “How long have I to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am today eighty years old. Can I discern between the good and bad? Can [I] your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Can I hear any longer the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be a further burden to my lord the king?” (2 Samuel 19:34-35). The elements of Barzillai’s description seem to be common expressions for old age at that time. Thus, the daughters of music being brought low in Ecclesiastes 12:4 probably also refers to not being able to hear music very well when old. Specifically, “daughters of music” could refer to songs, musical compositions or the performers of these. Some think the reference is to the elderly not being able to sing anymore themselves, but with the parallel here the hearing seems more likely—following naturally after the other references to hearing in verse 4. Loss of singing ability could conceivably go with the previously mentioned idea of one’s voice rising to a bird pitch, but it seems better to take everything in verse 4 as a reference to hearing impairment.

At the beginning of verse 5 we see that not all of the poetry here is metaphor, as these words are meant quite plainly: “Also they are afraid of height, and of terrors in the way.” People often get more nervous about heights as they grow old, since diminished strength and balance means there’s a greater chance of falling. In fact the whole world can seem much more precarious and dangerous, leading to fear of potential threats in the way (in their path or in the street)—whether accidents or being jostled amid bustling traffic, mistakes leading to embarrassments, or being hurt or taken advantage of by others—and thus anxiety about just getting around (sometimes leading to staying shut in at home or in one’s room).

The next two images in verse 5 return to figurative language. First is the blossoming almond tree. Expositor’s explains, as commonly interpreted: “The almond tree pictures the white hair of age. To us it is usually the harbinger of spring, and the blossom is pink. In Palestine, however, the tree begins to blossom in midwinter; and although the petals are pink at their base, they are white towards the tip. The general impression of the tree in flower is of a white mass…. But the old man has no spring to follow so as to enjoy the fruit” (note on verse 5).

The next line in the verse has been subject to various interpretations. It literally reads, “The grasshopper [or locust] is a burden [or burdens itself].” Some favor the rendering of it becoming a burden to itself based on the reflexive verb form here, the NIV translating, “The grasshopper drags itself along”—this seeming to fit with the preceding winter imagery of the almond tree blossoming. Expositor’s notes, “Now the lively, leaping grasshopper can only drag itself along, as happens when the days grow cold, an obvious picture of old age.” Kaiser says the metaphor “describes the halting gait of the elderly as they walk along on their canes” (p. 121; compare Zechariah 8:4). However, the verse could instead be saying that a grasshopper or something it represents is a burden to an elderly person. Expositor’s further notes: “The meaning of the latter translation would be that even a small thing like a grasshopper seems unduly heavy, although it is difficult to see why a grasshopper should be singled out this way.” Maybe it’s due to the grasshopper being a common illustration for smallness, as in Numbers 13:33, where the Israelite spies compared themselves to grasshoppers before the giants in Canaan (see also Isaiah 40:22). Others have speculated that it’s the grasshopper’s chirping that is too much for the elderly person to take. Yet another possibility is that the grasshopper as a burden or weighty problem pictures a person’s youthful verdure being eaten away at by the aging process—a formerly green field now consumed (compare Joel 1:4; Amos 7:1-2). The Greek Septuagint translation takes the locust’s heaviness to mean it is “fat.” This translation seems unlikely, but it could conceivably fit with the locust having consumed the greenery of youth.

Commentator John Gill offered these possibilities regarding the grasshopper being a burden: “…Meaning either, should a grasshopper, which is very light, leap upon an aged person, it would give him pain, the least burden being uneasy to him; or, should he eat one of these creatures, the locusts being a sort of food in Judea, it would not sit well, on his stomach: or the grasshopper, being a crumpled and lean creature, may describe an old man; his legs and arms emaciated, and his shoulders, back, and hips, crumpled up and bunching out; and the locust of this name has a bunch on its backbone, like a camel…. [Another commentator] says, that the head of the thigh, or the hip bone, by the Arabians, is called ‘chagaba,’ the word here used for a locust or grasshopper; which part of the body is of principal use in walking, and found very troublesome and difficult to move in old men; and [Jewish sage] Aben Ezra interprets it of the thigh: the almond tree, by the Rabbins [or Jewish rabbis]…is interpreted of the hip bone, which stands out in old age: and the Targum [or ancient Jewish paraphrase of the Old Testament], of this and the preceding clause, is, ‘and the top of thy backbone shall bunch out, through leanness, like the almond; and the ankles of thy feet shall be swelled’” (note on verse 5). Gill further pointed out that some understand here a sexual reference corresponding to the next line in the verse, “…and desire fails.” The New American Commentary prefers the grasshopper being too heavy to lift as a hyperbole, but summarizes other ideas, stating, “Alternatively, it has been taken to refer to either bad joints, swollen ankles [following the Septuagint’s fattening], a halting walk, or impotence. The last interpretation is possible in light of the following line… [paraphrased as] ‘And desire no longer is stirred’” (note on verse 5).

Actually, the phrase typically rendered “desire fails” literally means “and the caperberry bursts forth/destroys/fails”—the same commentary seeing “fails” as most likely (footnote on verse 5). Tyndale notes that the phrase “was translated ‘the caperberry is made ineffectual’ by the LXX [or Septuagint]…. No substantiation for this translation has been produced. The caperberry was apparently a stimulant to bodily appetites [an appetizer or aphrodisiac], so the essential point is unchanged” (note on verse 5). “No evidence for the aphrodisiac qualities of the caper appears prior to the medieval Jewish commentaries, however; and this interpretation is not certain” (NAC, footnote on verse 5). Some have pointed out that in a description of bodily deterioration one would expect some reference to the loss of sexual potency, especially considering the author being Solomon, with his vast harem. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what’s intended. The New American Commentary further points out that it’s possible to translate the wording as the caperberry bursting forth in bearing fruit in a literal sense, along with the almond literally blossoming and the grasshopper being heavy, or fat as in the Septuagint, with new grass and greenery to eat—this all then meaning, in a contrasting picture, that “while nature is renewed every year, the human body simply grows older and weaker” (note and footnotes on verse 5). But the same commentary concludes that “this interpretation requires an anomalous translation of the Hebrew, however, and is not to be followed” (note on verse 5). Yet this is the preferred explanation of the New Bible Commentary: Revised. The matter must remain unclear for now, but the images here seem more likely to indicate loss of vigor than revitalized vigor the aging person is missing out on.

And then the end of verse 5 tells us that, following the period of decline we’ve seen, this life at last comes to its inevitable end: “For man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.” The reference here is to death—the description of dying continuing from here through to the end of verse 7. The Hebrew for “man” at the end of verse 5 is ha-adam (the man or the human race) as in some other passages in Ecclesiastes, here tied to the reference in verse 7 taken from Genesis about dust returning to the earth, as we’ll note more about shortly. The phrase “eternal home” or “house of eternity” (or “the house of his eternity”) is not a reference to heaven, as some might imagine, but to the grave. Job had spoken of the grave as a house: “If I wait for the grave as my house, if I make my bed in the darkness…” (Job 17:13). Yet calling it man’s eternal house might seem troubling, as if to say that man’s proper place is the grave and that he will be there forever. Tyndale notes that another commentator “wonders whether it might be ‘dark house’ (on the basis of the cognate root in Ugaritic which can mean ‘to be dark’). This is a possibility, but the common Hebrew meaning ‘eternity’ is preferable” (note on verse 5). In fact, the Hebrew olam, meaning forever or eternity, has the sense of “concealed, i.e. [to] the vanishing point” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, Strong’s No. 5769), and could denote something hidden or “time out of mind” (ibid.). The original King James Version translates the phrase here as “long home,” recognizing that the state of death will not go on forever. Yet “eternal home” is still a reasonable translation, as it appears to be an idiomatic expression for the grave that’s not necessarily meant as a statement about how long the dead will actually remain dead—except, possibly, that it seems without end. As Job also said: “So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more [at least as they exist now], they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep” (Job 14:12). Yet Job then says the dead will yet rise (verses 13-14).

Tyndale points out that “eternal home” is a term for the grave in the Egyptian Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy—and that “it is also a Babylonian/Assyrian idiom for ‘grave’” (note and footnote on verse 5). Furthermore, the Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament says: “‘Everlasting house’ is the name for the grave of the dead, according to [Greek historian] Diodorus Sic[ulus] i. 51, also among the Egyptians, and on old Lat[in] monuments also the expression domus aeterna [house eternal] is found” (note on 12:5). And this was despite the fact that these pagans believed in immortal afterlife for the soul in another place. Yet many believed that the souls of the dead would revisit their tombs. Of course, this idea constituted no part of what Solomon meant by his phrasing here. Recall that he plainly said there is no consciousness in death, as we’ve seen (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). Still, he knew this was not the ultimate end of human life. He spoke of future reward and judgment, which means that he, like Job, must have known about future resurrection. The Pulpit Commentary points out about “the house of his eternity” here: “From the expression in the text nothing can be deduced concerning Koheleth’s eschatological [endtime] views. He is speaking here merely phenomenally [or according to what the senses perceive]. Men live their little span upon the earth, and then go to what in comparison of this is an eternity [in the perspective of past ages]. Much difficulty…would be obviated if critics would remember that the meaning of such words is conditioned by the context, that e.g. ‘everlasting’ applied to a mountain and to God cannot be understood in the same sense” (note on verse 5; and compare Exodus 21:6, where olam, translated “forever,” refers in this particular case to something ongoing for the remainder of human life and not beyond). It’s also possible that “house of his eternity” is meant as a lodging or way station en route to one’s eternity.

The mourners going about the streets at the end of Ecclesiastes 12:5 is of course a reference to funeral customs—so again we return here to a literal picture. And we might note that the reference to the house of eternity together with mourners also recallsEcclesiastes 7:2, which spoke of going to “the house of mourning” as “the end of all men” that the living take to heart, in reference to contemplating one’s own mortality when attending a funeral—a very sobering and valuable reminder for all of us.

Continuing in Ecclesiastes 12, verse 6 then carries us back into metaphor—all four images here referring to the final act of dying, as does everything from the end of verse 5 through verse 7, as mentioned before. The opening imperative in verse 6 given in various translations—“Remember your Creator” (NKJV) or “Remember him” (NIV)—is not present in the Hebrew text (thus the italics in the NKJV), but the directive is understood, as previously noted going back to verse 1, following in line with “in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come” (as it must for the wording of verse 6 to make sense). Here, it is even more direct—remember your Creator before you die.

Let’s note the four images here: “…before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the well.” Starting with the first one, the NKJV footnotes that the silver cord being “loosed” or undone, or let go of, follows the Masoretic Text scribal notes tradition of qere (what is to be read) while the kethib or ketiv (what is written) here is actually “removed”—taken away or gotten rid of. The Greek Septuagint says the cord is “broken” or snapped—perhaps influenced by the other instances of things being broken or shattered in the verse. The variance in meaning between the wording differences seems very slight. It may be that the removal of the cord leads to the breaking of the next item in the sequence, as we’ll consider further in a moment.

First, however, it should be pointed out that some imagine that the silver cord here is an ethereal, wispy, silvery cord tethering a person’s immortal soul to his physical body, and that this cord is severed when the body dies, with the disembodied, still-conscious soul then floating away to the afterlife. But imagine is the key word, there being no real basis for such a conception. Some who claim to have engaged in the occult practice of astral projection (supposed transmigration of the soul to other places or other planes of existence) or who’ve had unintentional so-called out-of-body experiences say they have seen such a cord as a lifeline tying them to their bodies. Yet there is no proof these accounts are genuine. They could be outright false reports or possibly represent hallucinations involving preconceptions, selfcomforting amid diminished or warped sensory awareness, or, in the mind’s weakened, susceptible state, even demon influence—as Satan has wanted to promote the idea of an immortal soul ever since he told the big lie to Eve in the Garden of Eden that she would not die if she disobeyed God as God had said (see Genesis 3:1-4). All such notions and experiences must be held up to the light of the truth of what Scripture actually says. And Scripture compares death to sleep in which the dead wait in unawareness until a future awakening in a resurrection (Job 14:12-14; Psalm 13:3; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2; John 11:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:18, 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Even Solomon himself already wrote in this book, which is part of Scripture, that there is no consciousness apart from the body in death (Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10). So it’s certain that he was not referring in Ecclesiastes 12:6 to some immaterial link between the body and an immortal soul.

What we see in all the images of this verse are things broken beyond repair, as the items here are smashed. Again, the final act of dying is in view. Many take the silver cord together with the golden bowl as a singular image of a hanging bowl or hanging lamp (a bowl filled with golden olive oil for fuel) suspended by a silver or perhaps silver-coated chain. The chain breaks, whereupon the bowl plunges to the floor and shatters. It’s also possible to see here, as some suggest, the golden bowl as precious, valuable life hanging by a slender thread that will not continue to hold. This would point to the frailty of human life. When the precarious factors that maintain it give way, life slips away and is lost to obliteration in death.

The next two images are clearly tied together—the clay pitcher shattered at the fountain or spring and the wooden wheel to lower the bucket into the well or cistern broken. These images may be taken individually, or perhaps they are to be understood as parts of one image, with the breakdown of a whole water-drawing apparatus meant. In fact, some believe that the broken cord and bowl at the beginning of the verse are also part of the water-drawing equipment, making all of verse 6 one unified image. Yet a fallen and shattered lamp for the first part of the verse makes good sense in context—perhaps even giving the added image of the light being extinguished, though that is not specifically stated here. Furthermore, fallen and shattered lamps and a broken well may add to the picture of a run-down estate, in line with the deteriorating house imagery in verses 3-4 that depicted an aging person. On the other hand, a broken well on its own, with no lamp reference, could also fit with an estate gone to ruin. Yet it should be noted that the sense of verse 6 is not mere deterioration but that life has come to an end—“total collapse,” as Expositor’s notes, with nothing working anymore.

The same commentary further notes on verse 6: “Another interpretation links the pictures with parts of the body. The silver cord could be the spine, the golden bowl the head, the pitcher the heart, and the wheel the organs of digestion.” Kaiser holds such a view, stating that “the spinal marrow connecting the brain and nerves is pale and silverlike,” that the golden bowl “may be a reference to the brain because of its shape and color,” that “the failing heart, a pitcher-like receptacle, is pierced or broken, and all the lifesupporting blood flows out” and that “the system of veins and arteries that carries the blood around continually like a waterwheel breaks down when the heart breaks” (p. 121). This concurs with the notes on verse 6 in Adam Clarke’s Commentary. Yet understanding the imagery this way may be fanciful, as it isn’t clear that correspondence with particular body parts is intended. (There was apparently some correspondence earlier in the poem, as we saw, but not consistently throughout it.)

It seems best to take the first part of verse 6, about the cord and bowl, as referring to the precarious factors maintaining precious life giving way and leading to death, as earlier brought out. Likewise, the broken elements of the well seem to simply mean that the various systems and mechanisms that supply life to a person and perpetuate living, generally speaking, no longer function—with the waters of life no longer able to be drawn. Tommy Nelson sees all of verse 6 as associated with a well, but his words still apply even in considering the well imagery to be limited to the latter part of the verse: “Throughout Scripture, a well is a metaphor for life. But this well is no longer being used for drawing water. Someday your body is going to wear out. You will be nothing but a dry shell of your former self” (p. 188). This transitions naturally into all that is ultimately left, as stated in the next verse—dust.

Concluding the description of death that began at the end of verse 5, verse 7 states, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Recall that verse 5 had mentioned man, or ha-adam, going to the grave. The name adam, having the sense of “red earth,” was given to the first man, as he was taken from the ground. And here we see man as dust returning to the earth. This is clearly an allusion to the Genesis account. Genesis 2:7 had stated, “And the LORD God formed [the] man [ha-adam] of the dust of the ground [ha-adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” And later after man sinned, God said in Genesis 3:19 that he would have a hard life ending in death in these terms: “…till you return to the ground [ha-adamah], for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” And here in Ecclesiastes 12:7 we see specific reference to the dust returning to the earth where it came from. Likewise we saw in Ecclesiastes 3:20 that men and animals “all go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to the dust.” And Scripture elsewhere mentions “the dust of death” and refers to those who die as “all those who go down to the dust” (Psalm 22:15, Psalm 22:29).

Yet there is more to human existence than earth-based dust. Again, Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12:7 that at death “the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Because the word for “spirit” here, ruach, can mean spirit, wind or breath, some take the wording here as a further allusion to Genesis 2:7, where God breathed into the man of dust the breath of life. And indeed it does seem to be an allusion to that, but the word for breath in Genesis 2:7 is neshamah, the reference there being to the physical breath. Yet when God enlivened man He gave him more than just air into his respiratory system. He gave enlightenment to his brain through non-material spirit—referred to elsewhere in Scripture as the spirit in man or the human spirit, which gives a person human understanding (see Job 32:8; 1 Corinthians 2:11; and for more read our article “The Wondrous Spirit of Man”). This spirit is not like the wrong idea of an immortal soul that remains conscious apart from the body after death. We’ve already seen that consciousness requires bodily life—whether through the body today or a resurrection body in the future, there being no consciousness in death. Thus, the human spirit is not conscious of itself, but is rather a non-physical component that imparts conscious self-awareness, intellect and personality to the human brain—the spirit and brain together forming the human mind. And it seems that the human spirit retains a person’s thoughts and memories—so that the unique person is able to be restored in a future body in the resurrection. Recall that some translate Ecclesiastes 3:21 as not knowing whether the spirit in man goes up or down to the earth as with animals. Yet it can’t mean that, for we see here in Ecclesiastes 12:7 very clearly where the spirit goes. While the physical elements of man that were taken from the earth return to the earth, the spiritual element that came from God returns to Him (see also Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59).

We should recognize that Ecclesiastes 12:7 is meant to give us a sense of finality about the end of this life. It ends the verses describing the final act of dying (verses 5-7). It ends the masterful poetry of chapter 12 about the need to remember God before getting older and dying (verses 1-7). It draws to a close the current subsection about living joyfully while life lasts, keeping in mind coming dark days and death and ultimate judgment, setting up for the summation and conclusion to follow. In verse 7 we see that the very bases of this earthly life—material existence and the spirit for contemplating and navigating it—are withdrawn by the God who gave them, the Creator we were told to remember before this happened. The opportunity is only here for a while—and then it is over.

We’ll note something further about verse 7 in commenting on the next verse, verse 8, which is the last verse in our current reading—as well as the only verse in our next reading, verse 8 being a summation of the great problem we face. We’ll also take note of where we have arrived at this point in the book.