Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 12:8-12

You are here

Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 12:8-12

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Words of Truth From One Shepherd

Now we move into the final verses of this masterful work. As we’ve seen, in Ecclesiastes 12:8 Solomon returns to his opening lament from Ecclesiastes 1:2, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity,’” thus making most of the book, from 1:2 to 12:8, a literary inclusio. Starting and ending a work in similar fashion is a common technique in writing and public speaking even today, as papers and speeches start with an introduction culminating in a thesis or proposition being set forth, then give supporting material, then conclude beginning with a restatement of the initial thesis and leaving off with the value of what has been said. Another way this formula is described is as follows: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them. Solomon began by stating that this life is vanity, emptiness or frustration. He followed with a great deal of evidence to support this proposition. And then he restated it as clearly established. Solomon has certainly shown this life to be terribly vain or frustrating.

However, other key themes run through his work as well that help us to bear up under life’s difficulties and frustrations, which is actually the point of the book. These other themes are vital: that the vanity refers to life under the sun, while man and God are separated; that in the face of life’s vanity we need to receive everyday enjoyment of life through God; and that we need to live life in the proper fear of God, with focus on what is yet to come. Indeed, Solomon does not merely leave us with the restatement of the opening lament. Yes, it ends the presentation on the scope of the problem. Yes, it’s given as a climax in cathartic vent to how bad things are, as we earlier saw. Yes, it begins a conclusion to the work, serving as a transitional verse in that regard. But no, it does not leave us with hopelessness and nothing else to think about. And no, it is not even the principal focus of the conclusion, as we are left with something else for that in what follows. The real conclusion, we are told very directly in the last two verses, is to fear and obey God, keeping future judgment in mind (verses 13-14). We will give this important ending further consideration when we come to it in our next and final reading in Ecclesiastes.

Before the last verses, though, we must give attention to the first part of the book’s epilogue here in verses 9-12. We might note here a concentric, chiastic correspondence (a-b--b-a) with the opening of the book. Solomon began with an introductory note in Ecclesiastes 1:1 concerning his authorship: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” He then in the next verse (Ecclesiastes 1:2) gave the “vanity of vanities” declaration, as mentioned above. Now at the end of the book, we see in opposite order the restatement of the “vanity of vanities” declaration in Ecclesiastes 12:8 followed by concluding notes in verses 9-12 about Solomon’s role and credentials in the presentation of the book’s material and the context for it—why he wrote it as well as the ultimate Author behind the work, as we’ll see.

Some, as pointed out earlier, argue that the book originally ended with the vanity declaration of verse 8. They typically view the Preacher not as Solomon but some later wisdom teacher—and they suggest that verses 9-12 were appended by a disciple (and that verses 13-14 may have been added later still by a Jewish moralist wanting to give the book a more biblically normative ending). Part of the basis for this is the third-person description of the Preacher—yet we have seen this in other places, including the opening words of the book and even in the final vanity declaration of verse 8. That declaration refers to the Preacher in third person, so why must the third-person reference in verses 9-12 point to a new writer? Moreover, in addressing the reader or hearer as “my son” in verse 12, the words are clearly meant to be understood as coming from the teacher. Consider further that the use of “my son” in this fashion occurs 23 times in the book of Proverbs, principally a work of Solomon, in communicating words of wisdom (see Proverbs 1:8, Proverbs 1:10, Proverbs 1:15; Proverbs 2:1; Proverbs 3:1, Proverbs 3:11, Proverbs 3:21; Proverbs 4:1, Proverbs 4:10, Proverbs 4:20; Proverbs 5:1, Proverbs 5:20; Proverbs 6:1, Proverbs 6:3, Proverbs 6:20; Proverbs 7:1; Proverbs 19:27; Proverbs 23:15, Proverbs 23:19, Proverbs 23:26; Proverbs 24:13, Proverbs 24:21; Proverbs 27:11). Some will claim that this use of “my son” at the end of Ecclesiastes is a pretense to make it merely look like it’s coming from Solomon or the Preacher posing as him, but there is no legitimate reason to believe this. Another factor is the absence of similar epilogues in other biblical books, but many of the Bible’s books are unique in some way. And we do find parallels in other ancient literature. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible comments: “The use of an epilogue in a wisdom text is also known from Egyptian literature; epilogues appear, e.g., in the ‘Instruction of Ptahhotep’ and the ‘Instruction of Any.’ As such, there is no reason to regard the conclusion to Ecclesiastes as a secondary addition to the text, as a number of scholars do, or to see it as a ‘correction’ or contradiction of the gloomy realism of the rest of the book” (note on verses 9-14).

Let’s note the particular wording in this passage, starting with verse 9: “And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs.” Another argument against the Preacher who was behind the earlier part of the book having also written the words of the epilogue here is that we would not expect him to be praising himself, saying, “Hey, I’m wise.” But that’s a mischaracterization of what he’s saying. Even if he were noting himself to be wise here, the context would just mean that he knew what he should do as his duty in this regard—continue to teach and gather wisdom to share. Yet verse 9 probably actually says, as it could also be translated, that the Preacher was a wise man or sage (NASB, NLV, HCSB, JPS Tanakh, Expanded Bible)—that is, one of the wise—referring to his role and responsibility. Thus he would not be calling himself wise here but simply a wisdom teacher. Dr. Walter Kaiser notes: “We would argue that…the term ‘wise’ marked him as a member of one of the three great institutions of his day: prophet, priest, and wise man (cf. Jeremiah 8:8-9; Jeremiah 18:18; Ezekiel 7:26). The designation was a technical one, marking him a member of the wise to whom God gave wisdom, just as the priest had the Law and the prophet had the Word. Therefore, his claim is no sign that he lacked modesty, for it is a claim that the wisdom in Ecclesiastes came from God in a revelation, just as the prophet’s word also was given by divine inspiration” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 123). The source of the Preacher’s wisdom is stated more overtly in verse 11. Thus, what we read in verse 9 is that Solomon, after all of his investigation and coming to terms with the vanity of this life—probably even after having wasted many years in living contrary to God—now continued in his role as a wisdom teacher, recognizing it as his responsibility not just to rule as king, but to teach the people right knowledge and words of true wisdom to remember and pass on.

Verse 10 in the NKJV reads, “The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth.” In fulfilling his role, Solomon looked through troves of ancient wisdom literature and wrote a great deal of his own, seeking and putting together just the right words to communicate what was morally upright and true. The phrase “acceptable words” here can also be rendered, as pointed out in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, “pleasing words (lit[erally] ‘words of delight’)…. [Yet] his words are not so pleasing that they cease to be upright” (Eaton, note on verse 10). Kaiser comments: “There was a careful composing, investigating, and arranging of the proverbs and lessons he wrote. This was no haphazard spouting of negative thoughts in negative language [as many imagine of Ecclesiastes]. On the contrary, Solomon deliberately searched for ‘pleasant words,’ or ‘words of grace’ (12:10). In no way can that be a description of the work of a pessimist, nihilist, or Epicurean [hedonist] with an ‘eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die’ mentality. Few passages in the Bible tell us more about the literary method used by the writer. His description removes all doubt about alleged hastiness of thought and expression. The result of his searching for the right words was that he communicated ‘words of truth’ and not trite remarks. He wrote in ‘uprightness,’ that is, in perfect sincerity, without any pretense” (p. 123). And the next verse shows the words to be, as with other true wisdom, from the very Source of truth.

Verse 11 says, “The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.” Again, “the wise” [hakamim, plural] denotes wisdom teachers. The parallel description for them, translated “scholars” here, is baalé asuppoth, literally meaning “masters of collections” or “masters of assemblies”—referring either to those skilled in gathering wisdom or to public speakers before audiences. This is close in meaning to Solomon’s self-designation in the book translated as “Preacher,” Qoheleth, meaning “gatherer”—again either a collector of wisdom or one who gathers an audience to address it. The “goads” mentioned here were, as Kaiser notes, “in pastoral life…wooden rods with iron points, used to prod the oxen into action or increased speed…. Accordingly, Qoheleth’s words are designed to prod the sluggish into action. They ‘goad’ him into doing something” (pp. 123-124). The New American Commentary adds that goads were “to keep cattle moving in the right direction and so serve to represent moral guidance and stimulus in human affairs” (Garrett, note on verse 11). Yet the words are not just meant to drive forward and keep in line but to keep some things fixed in place. The well-driven nails here could be tent pegs, as Kaiser comments, “used by shepherds to fasten their tents,” the words in parallel being “‘fastened’ as definite points in the sluggard’s [everyone’s] mental furnishings to give him anchorage, stability, and perspective on life” (pp. 123-124). The NKJV Study Bible says that “the nails, or ‘pegs,’ referred to here are the same as in 2 Chr[onicles] 3:9; Jer[emiah] 10:4. These are hooks in tents [or any home] where families hung the clothes and pots needed for everyday life. Here they refer to mental hooks giving stability and perspective to life” (note on Ecclesiastes 12:11). So what we see here is that the words serve multiple helpful purposes to the one who receives them: “At one time they are pricking his conscience, perhaps with a single proverb; at another time they are fixing themselves on the memory like a central nail on which the important, everyday articles of clothing or cooking are kept” (Kaiser, p. 124). Isaiah uses the image of a secure peg on which the valuables of a house were hung as a metaphor for the Messiah on whom the hopes of the nation were fastened (Isaiah 22:22-25).

At the end of Ecclesiastes 12:11 we are told where the goads and pegs—the words of wisdom— come from. They are “given by one Shepherd.” That is to say, they all come from the same Shepherd. Now it could be imagined that the Preacher is speaking of himself—having gathered so much wisdom from others and carefully culled and shaped what was valuable and then delivering this to his audience. A pastor, as he was acting as, was a type of shepherd of people. Also, he had identified himself at the beginning of the book as “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:12)—clearly Solomon, as we’ve seen—and kings in the ancient world were often portrayed as shepherds. Scripture presents Israel’s leaders as shepherds. However, these were said to be shepherds over God’s flock, as He was the ultimate Shepherd (see Ezekiel 34)—Solomon having “sat on the throne of the LORD as king” over Israel (1 Chronicles 29:23). Consider, furthermore, that Solomon has not referred to himself as a shepherd but as Preacher or Gatherer up to now in the book, the previous two verses even still referring to him that way. As the Preaching the Word commentary states: “What seems more likely…is that the ‘shepherd’ is none other than God himself (which is why the term is capitalized in the English Standard Version and some other translations). This is the first time that the title ‘shepherd’ has appeared in Ecclesiastes, which seems to distinguish the Shepherd from the Preacher rather than to identify the two. Furthermore, ‘Shepherd’ is one of the noble titles for God in the Old Testament, not only in Psalm 23 but also in places like Psalm 80, where he is called ‘Shepherd of Israel’ (v. 1). Thus the ‘one shepherd’ in Ecclesiastes 12 is the one and only Shepherd—God Almighty” (p. 278). What we are being told in verse 11, then, is that the wisdom that is being communicated comes from God even if collected from others, as God is the real Author of wisdom and is the One causing it to be compiled and presented for the benefit of those receiving it.

Regarding the God-given words of the wise, verse 12 as rendered in the NKJV states: “And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.” In saying, “my son,” Solomon could have been dedicating the book to his actual son who would be king after him, who would need to continue to teach and lead people in the right way— Rehoboam (who sadly, however, did not follow a very wise course). Yet it seems more likely that Solomon was here following the style of a wisdom teacher in addressing his students, as we earlier noted about many references in the book of Proverbs. In any case, the message was meant for everyone. The first sentence here as translated seems to make sense by itself—take heed to these valuable words from God meant to help you. But how does this relate to the next sentence about endless books and wearisome study? One possibility is that emphasis should be placed on “these”—that is, be admonished or warned by these (the words just mentioned) rather than getting lost in all of this other material. In fact, there are two other ways to read the first part of the verse that yield a similar result, though the admonition or warning is against what follows. The verse literally reads: “And further from these my son be warned…” (see YLT). As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Wright) points out, this could mean, “And further than those [or beyond those]…be warned…,” or it could mean, “And further [in addition], from those [or beyond those]…be warned…” (see footnote on verse 12). The NIV renders this, “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.” Whatever the exact translation, this seems to be the sense.

Expositor’s says that verse 12 is “a warning against the vast amount of literature that is a waste of time for the reader who is really concerned to find the truth. If we take the first sentence of v[erse] 12 as warning the disciple against going beyond the inspired words of the wise (NIV, RSV), this incorporates the theme of the book. In this world there will always be mystery, and human beings can fall into all sorts of error if they try to prove what cannot be proved (e.g., 3:11, 14; 7:14). There will always be books pouring off the presses, some helpful, some agnostic, some downright anti-God” (note on Ecclesiastes 12:12). It is indeed wearying to wade through what’s out there. And that was so in Solomon’s time, as he studied what was available then. What if he saw the huge bookstores and libraries that exist today—or all that is available on the Internet? Information overload can keep us from where our focus needs to be. On the other hand, the verse is not intended to dissuade us from valuable study outside of Scripture or the writing of books of whatever genre or discipline, including Christian books. The passage here was not telling wisdom teachers, for instance, to cease from their work of study and writing, but that they and everyone stand firm on what is truly wise, as given by God. Of course, even studying Scripture can be a problem if it’s just an academic pursuit or if the focus is all wrong. And actually, mere study is not what’s being warned against here. The New American Commentary notes on verse 12 that “the contrast is not between the study of canonical [i.e., scriptural] versus noncanonical wisdom but between the failure to appreciate wisdom on the one hand and excessive zeal for study on the other.” In fact, the NASB renders “much study” as “excessive devotion” to the many books being written. In “Ecclesiastes: An Old Testament Study,” Dr. Daniel Hill explains that the word here for study or “devotion is [lahag], used only here in the O[ld] T[estament] from a rare root meaning to worship study. This is not a mere love of reading, it is a devotion to or worship of reading and study…. a result of thinking that all answers to all questions can be found in what man writes. Solomon says this type of misplaced devotion can make you very tired. Remember Eccl[esiastes] 1:18: ‘Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.’ The reason: Apart from what is revealed by God you will never get the answers you are seeking” (, note on verse 12). Consider those who, as the apostle Paul described, are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

Before moving on from Ecclesiastes 12:9-12, we should think more on what is given in the epilogue as the basis for the Preacher’s credentials. Dr. Hill writes: “Prior to giving his final verdict on the matter of significance in life, Solomon establishes why he can give this conclusion. Now the entire book shows us why he can say these things by way of experience, but his final appeal is not to experience [but rather to wisdom from God]. So [while one may] say experience is the best teacher, it is not. 1. The personal experience of failure can show us what is wrong, but it cannot show us what is right. 2. Experience can show us what doesn’t work, but it cannot show us what does work. 3. Experience is limited to that which is under the sun, earth-bound. 4. Experience may show one thing as better, but it cannot show us God’s absolute best. 5. Experience is similar to natural revelation; it shows us our inability, our weakness, our smallness. 6. Experience can show us that there is a God who is far beyond man, the Creator of man, an absolute Sovereign. But experience cannot lead us to God’s love and God’s wisdom. 7. Only the wisdom of God can bring us to the conclusion Solomon is about to make. Only doctrine [or teaching from God] and the wisdom that comes from it can allow us to live as God designed us” (note on verses 9-12).