Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
I write these words as a 61-year-old man. Frankly, the years have gone by all too quickly! Looking back, I can see the wisdom of the Teacher's appeal: ″Remember your Creator in the days of your youth″ (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
The Teacher finally lays his cards on the table. Today's passage is an extended appeal stretching over seven verses (vv. 1-7), followed by a conclusion (v. 8). It is the most emotionally charged section of the entire book; its persuasive force reinforced by a series of powerful images.
Ecclesiastes 12:1-4 depicts a house that has come on bad times, and is about to be struck by a storm: the doors are barred and everyone is quiet, waiting fearfully for the storm to break. These verses are also a metaphorical picture of old age: darkness and depression, trembling limbs, few teeth, failing sight; the notes of dismay, despair, and apathy dominate. Ecclesiastes 12:5 may refer to white hair (almond blossom) and the slow, angular gait of an old man (the grasshopper). It also suggests nature's indifference to old age: the flowers are as fresh as ever, the grasshoppers continue to jump about.
Ecclesiastes 12:6 consists of three images: a golden lamp suspended by a silver chain, ruined beyond repair when the chain snaps; a pitcher on a pulley by a well-again, the whole mechanism is broken. And finally, the hopeless image of dust and a departing spirit (v. 7).
It is an evocative picture. Life is precious, but fragile. Life can be delightful, but there will come a time when our powers fail and our horizons shrink. Life also contains much that is routine (lighting lamps, drawing water), but for even the most routine tasks there will come a last time. And then we return to the dust.
This is the ultimate reality: our last years and the end of our lives. The Teacher describes them in grim and poignant detail. It is in the light of all this that he tells us ″remember your Creator in the days of your youth.″ Here the Teacher addresses his readers from the heart: ″Think how you will live your life: it will be over soon enough!″
To conclude, the Teacher repeats his opening motto (v. 8, echoing 1:2): ″The merest breath; everything is a breath.″10 But now, having worked through his discourse, we have a better idea of what the motto means: life is brief (that sense fits particularly well in chapters 11 and 12); life is puzzling, hard to make sense of at times; life may be frustrating, marked by much futility. But none of this implies that life as a whole is absurd or meaningless. On the contrary, there are foolish and wise paths in life, and it is vitally important to choose our path well, acknowledging our Creator in the way we live.
10This is my translation: see the comments on Ecclesiastes 1:2 (Day 1). I find that the NIV's translation (″Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless!″) obscures the Teacher's thought here.
Why do you think the Teacher ends his words with this powerful and sobering picture of old age and death?
Do you acknowledge the fact of your mortality, that you will one day have to endure infirmity and finally death (unless the Lord comes first)? How can you prepare yourself to deal with these things in a way that honours God and encourages others?