Ecclesiastes 12
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
1. Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth] The word for “Creator” is strictly the participle of the verb which is translated “create” in Genesis 1:1; Genesis 1:21; Genesis 1:27, and as a Divine Name is exceptionally rare, occurring only here and in Isaiah 40:23; Isaiah 44:15. It is plural in its form, as Elohim (the word for God) is plural, as the “Holy One” is plural in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 30:3; Hosea 12:1, as expressing the majesty of God. The explanations which have been given of the words as meaning (1) “thy fountain” in the sense of Proverbs 5:18, “thy well-spring of sensuous joy,” or (2) “thy existence,” are scarcely tenable philologically, and are altogether at variance with the context.

while the evil days come not] The description which follows forms in some respects the most difficult of all the enigmas of the Book. That it represents the decay of old age, or of disease anticipating age, ending at last in death, lies beyond the shadow of a doubt; but the figurative language in which that decay is represented abounds in allusive references which were at the time full of meaning for those that had ears to hear, but which now present riddles which it is not easy to solve. Briefly, the two chief lines on which commentators have travelled have been (1) that which starts as in the comment of Gregory Thaumaturgus (see Introduction, ch. vii.) from the idea of the approach of death as the on-coming of a storm; (2) that which assumes that we have as it were a diagnosis of the physical phenomena of old age and its infirmities, and loses itself in discussions as to what bodily organ, heart, brain, liver, gall-duct, or the like, is specially in the author’s mind. It will be seen, as the imagery comes before us in detail, how far either solution is satisfactory, how far they admit of being combined, or what other, if any, presents itself with stronger claims on our attention.

The “evil days” are those which are painted in the verses that follow, not necessarily the special forms of evil that come as the punishment of sensual sins, but the inevitable accompaniment of declining years or of disease. There is the implied warning that unless a man has remembered his Creator in his youth, it will not then be easy to remember Him as for the first time in the “evil days” of age or infirmity. In those days it will be emphatically true that there will be no pleasure in them.

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
2. while the sun, or the light] The imagery falls in naturally with the thought that the approach of death is represented by the gathering of a tempest. It does not follow, however, that this excludes the thought of a latent symbolism in detail as well as in the general idea. The thought that man was as a microcosm, and that each element in the universe had its analogue in his nature, was a familiar one to the Greek and Oriental mind, and was susceptible of many applications. So, to take an instance belonging to a different age or country, we find an Eastern poet thus writing, circ. a. d. 1339,

“Of all that finds its being in the world

Man in himself the symbol true may find.

His body is as earth, and as the Heaven

His head, with signs and wonders manifold,

And the five senses shine therein as stars.

The Spirit, like the sun, pours light on all.

The limbs, that bear the body’s burden up,

Are as the hills that raise their height to heaven.

Hair covers all his limbs, as grass the earth,

And moisture flows, as flow the streams and brooks.

So on the day when soul and body part,

And from the body’s load the soul is freed,

Then canst thou see the body all a-tremble,

As earth shall tremble at the last great day;

The Spirit with its senses fall away,

As stars extinguished fall on earth below;

The last death-sigh with which the body dies

Thrill through the bones, like tempest-blast and storm.

As on that day the hills shall pass away,

So does death’s storm break up our mortal frame.

A sea of death-damps flows from every pore:

Thou plungest in, and art as drowned therein:

So is thy dying like the great world’s death;

In life and death it is thy parallel.”

From the Gulschen Ras of Mahmud, quoted in Tholuck’s Blüthen-Sammlung aus der morgenländischen Mystik, p. 213.

It will be admitted that the parallelism is singularly striking and suggestive. With this clue to guide us we may admit all that has been urged by Umbreit, Ginsburg and others in favour of the “storm” interpretation and yet not reject the more detailed symbolic meaning of Jewish and other commentators. We may have the broad outline of the phenomena that precede a tempest, sun, moon and stars, hidden by the gathering blackness. A like imagery meets us as representing both personal and national calamity in Isaiah 13:10; Jeremiah 15:9; Amos 8:9. The sun may be the Spirit, the Divine light of the body, the moon as the Reason that reflects that light, the stars as the senses that give but a dim light in the absence of sun and moon. The clouds that return after rain are the natural symbol of sorrows, cares, misfortunes, that obscure the shining of the inward light, perhaps of the showers of tears which they cause, but after which in the melancholy and gloom of age and weakness they too commonly “return.” The mere anatomical interpretation which interprets the first four symbols as referring to the eyes, the brow, the nose, the cheeks, and finds in the “clouds after rain” the symptoms of the catarrh of old age, may be looked upon as a morbid outgrowth of prosaic fancy in men in whom the sense of true poetic imagination was extinct.

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 be darkened,
3. in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble] Here, as before, there is a vivid picture which is also an allegory. The words represent (1) the effect of terror, such as that produced by tempest, or by earthquake, in the population of the city; and (2) the fact which corresponds to these in the breaking up of life. As in the previous verse the phenomena of the firmament answered to those of the higher region of man’s nature, so these represent the changes that pass over the parts of his bodily structure. Here accordingly the mode of interpretation which was rejected before becomes admissible. The error of the allegorizers was that they had not the discernment to see that the decay of mental powers would naturally take precedence of that of the bodily organs and that they would as naturally be symbolized by sun, moon and stars. The “keepers” or “watchers” of the houses are in the picture those who stand at the gate as sentinels or go round about the house to see that there are none approaching with the intention to attack. In the allegory they represent the legs which support the frame at rest or give it the power of movement. The trembling is that of the unsteady gait of age, perhaps even of paralysis. Not a few features in the picture seem to indicate experience rather than observation, and this fits in with the thought, suggested in the Ideal Biography (Introduction, ch. iii)., of a form of creeping paralysis depriving one organ after another of its functional activity yet leaving the brain free to note the gradual decay of the whole organism.

and the strong men shall bow themselves] As the previous clause painted the effect of terror on the slave sentinels of the house, so this represents its action on the men of might, the wealthy and the noble. They too cower in their panic before the advancing storm. Interpreting the parable, they are the symbol of the arms as man’s great instrument of action. They too, once strong to wield sword, or axe, to drive plough, or pen, become flaccid and feeble. The “hands that hang down” (Job 4:3-4; Isaiah 35:3; Hebrews 12:12) become the proverbial type of weakness as well as the “feeble knees.” It should be added that the allegorizing commentators for the most part invert the order of interpretation which has been here adopted, finding the arms in the “keepers” and the legs in the “strong man.” Something may, of course, be said for this view, but the balance of probabilities turns in favour of that here adopted.

and the grinders cease because they are few] Both this noun and “they that look out” are in the feminine, and this determines their position in the picture. As we found slaves and nobles in the first half of the verse, so here we have women at the opposite extremes of social ranks. To “grind at the mill” was the type of the humblest form of female slave labour (Jdg 16:21; Isaiah 47:2; Exodus 11:5; Job 31:10; Matthew 24:41; Homer, Od. xx. 105–8). To “look out of the windows” (i.e. the latticed openings, glazed windows being as yet unknown) was as naturally the occupation of the wealthy and luxurious women of the upper class. So the ladies of Sisera (Jdg 5:28), and Michal, Saul’s daughter (2 Samuel 6:16), and the observing sage, or probably, Wisdom personified (Proverbs 7:6), and Jezebel (2 Kings 9:30), and the kingly lover of the Shulamite (Song Song of Solomon 2:9) are all represented in this attitude.

The interpretation of the parable is here not far to seek. The grinders (as the very term “molar” suggests) can be none other than the teeth, doing, as it were, their menial work of masticating food. They that look out of the windows can be none other than the eyes with their nobler function as organs of perception. So Cicero describes the eyes as “tanquam in arce collocati … tanquam speculatores altissimum locum obtinent.” “Placed as in a citadel, like watchmen, they hold the highest places” (de Nat. Deor. ii. 140). The symbolism which thus draws, as it were, distinctions of dignity and honour between different parts of the body will remind a thoughtful student of the analogy on which St Paul lays stress in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Each member of that analogy may, of course, thus be used as a symbol of the other. Here the gradations of society represent the organs of the body, and the Apostle inverts the comparison.

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
4. and the doors shall be shut in the streets] The picture of the city under the terror of the storm is continued. The gates of all houses are closed. None leave their houses; the noise of the mill ceases. The bird (probably the crane or the swallow) rises in the air with sharp cries (literally, for a cry). Even the “daughters of song” (the birds that sing most sweetly, the nightingale or thrush, or possibly the “singing women” of ch. Ecclesiastes 2:8, whose occupation is gone in a time of terror and dismay) crouch silently, or perhaps, chirp in a low tone. Few will dispute the vividness of the picture. The interpretation of the symbols becomes, however, more difficult than ever. The key is probably to be found in the thought that as we had the decay of bodily organs in the previous verse, so here we have that of bodily functions. The “doors” (the Hebrew is dual as representing what we call “folding doors”) are the apertures by which the life of processes of sensation and nutrition from its beginning to its end is carried on, and the failure of those processes in extreme age, or in the prostration of paralysis, is indicated by the “shutting” of the doors. What we may call the dual organs of the body, lips, eyes, ears, alike lose their old energies. The mill (a better rendering than “grinding”) is that which contains the “grinders” of Ecclesiastes 12:3, i.e. the mouth, by which that process begins, can no longer do its work of vocal utterance rightly. The words “he shall rise up at the voice of the bird” have for the most part been taken as describing the sleeplessness of age, the old man waking at a sparrow’s chirp, but this interpretation is open to the objections (1) that it abruptly introduces the old man as a personal subject in the sentence, while up to this point all has been figurative; and (2) that it makes the clause unmeaning in its relation to the picture of the terror-stricken city, below which we see that of the decay of man’s physical framework. Adopting the construction given above, we get that which answers to the “childish treble” of the old man’s voice, and find a distinct parallel to it in the elegy of Hezekiah “Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter” (Isaiah 38:14); the querulous moaning which in his case was the accompaniment of disease becoming, with the old or the paralysed, normal and continuous. The “daughters of song” are, according to the common Hebrew idiom, those that sing, birds or women, as the case may be. Here, their being “brought low,” i.e. their withdrawal from the stage of life, may symbolise the failure either of the power to sing, or of the power to enjoy the song of others. The words of Barzillai in 2 Samuel 19:35 paint the infirmities of age in nearly the same form, though in less figurative language. “Can thy servant taste what I eat or drink? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men or singing women?” The interpretations which find in the “daughters of song” either (1) the lips as employed in singing, or (2) the ears as drinking in the sounds of song, though each has found favour with many commentators, have less to commend them, and are open to the charge of introducing a needless and tame repetition of phenomena already described.

With the picture of old age thus far we may compare that, almost cynical in its unsparing minuteness, of Juvenal Sat. x. 200–239. A few of the more striking parallels may be selected as examples:

“Frangendus misero gingiva panis inermi.”

“Bread must be broken for the toothless gums.”

“Non eadem vini, atque cibi, torpente palato, Gaudia.”

“For the dulled palate wine and food have lost Their former savours.”

“Adspice partis

Nunc damnum alterius; nam quæ cantante voluptas,

Sit licet eximius citharœdus, sitve Seleucus,

Et quibus auratâ mos est fulgere lacernâ?

Quid refert, magni sedeat quâ parte theatri,

Qui vix cornicines exaudiet, atque tubarum


“Now mark the loss of yet another sense:

What pleasure now is his at voice of song.

How choice soe’er the minstrel, artist famed,

Or those who love to walk in golden robes?

What matters where he sits in all the space

Of the wide theatre, who scarce can hear

The crash of horns and trumpets?”

Or again

“Ille humero, hic lumbis, hic coxâ debilis; ambos

Perdidit ille oculos, et luscis invidet; hujus

Pallida labra cibum accipiunt digitis alienis.

Ipse ad conspectum cœnæ diducere rictum

Suetus, hiat tantùm, ceu pullus hirundinis, ad quem

Ore volat pleno mater jejuna.”

“Shoulders, loins, hip, each failing in its strength

Now this man finds, now that, and one shall lose

Both eyes, and envy those that boast but one.…

And he who used, at sight of supper spread,

To grin with wide-oped jaw, now feebly gapes,

Like a young swallow, whom its mother bird

Feeds from her mouth filled, though she fast herself.”

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
5. also when they shall be afraid of that which is high] The description becomes more and more enigmatic, possibly, as some have thought, because the special forms of infirmity referred to called for a veil. The first clause, however, is fairly clear if we omit the interpolated “when.” They (the indefinite plural, with the force of the French on) shall be afraid of a height, or hill. The new form of the sentence, the opening words also, indicate that the picture of the storm has been completed, and that symbolism of another kind comes in. We see, as it were, another slide in the magic lantern of the exhibiter. To be “afraid of a hill” expresses not merely or chiefly the failure of strength of limbs to climb mountains, but the temper that, as we say, makes “mountains out of molehills,” which, like the slothful man of Proverbs 22:13, sees “a lion in the path.” There are “fears in the way.” Imaginary terrors haunt the aged. Here again we have a parallel in Latin poetry:

“Multa senem circumveniunt incommoda; vel quòd

Quærit et inventis miser abstinet, ac timet uti,

Vel quòd res omnes timidè gelidèque ministrat.”

“Many the troubles that attend the old;

For either still he sets his mind on gains

And dares not touch, and fears to use his gains,

Or deals with all things as with chill of fear.”

Horace, Ep. ad Pis. 169–71.

So Aristotle among the characteristics of age notes that the old are δειλοὶ καὶ πάντα προφοβητικοὶ (timid and in all things forecasting fears) (Rhet. ii. 23). The interpreters who carry the idea of a storm through the whole passage explain the passage: “They (the people of the city) shall be afraid of that which is coming from on high,” i.e. of the gathering storm-clouds, but for the reasons above given, that interpretation seems untenable.

and the almond tree shall flourish] The true meaning is to be found, it is believed, in the significance of the Hebrew name for almond tree (Sheked = the early waking tree, comp. Jeremiah 1:11), and the enigmatic phrase describes the insomnia which often attends old age. The tree that flourishes there is the tree of Vigilantia or Wakefulness. As might be expected, the discordant interpretations of commentators multiply, and we may record, but only in order to reject them, the more notable of these. (1) The almond blossoms represent the white hairs of age. Those blossoms are, however, pink and not white, and few persons would find a likeness in the two objects thus compared. (2) The verb rendered “shall flourish” has been derived from a root with the meaning “to loathe—scorn—reject,” and the sentence has been explained either (2) he (the old man) loathes the almond, i.e. has no taste for dainties, or (3) turns away from the almond tree, i.e. has no welcome for the messenger of spring, or (4), with the same sense as (2), “the almond causes loathing.” Anatomical expositors strain their fancies to find in the almond that which answers to (5) the thigh bone, or (6) the vertebral column, or some other part of the body which age affects with weakness. Into the discussion what part best answers to the almond we need not follow them.

and the grasshopper shall be a burden] The word translated “grasshopper” is one of the many terms used, as in 2 Chronicles 7:13, for insects of the locust class, as in Leviticus 11:22; Numbers 13:33; Isaiah 40:22, where the A. V. has “grasshopper.” It will be noted that in some of these passages (Numbers 13:33; Isaiah 40:22) it plays the part of the “mustard seed” of the Gospel parable (Matthew 13:31) as the type of that which is the extreme of diminutiveness. And this we can scarcely doubt is its meaning here. “That which is least weighty is a burden to the timidity of age.” Assuming the writer to have come in contact with the forms of Greek life, the words may receive an illustration from its being the common practice of the Athenians to wear a golden grasshopper in their heads as the symbol of their being autochthones, “sprung from the soil.” Such an ornament is to the old man more than he cares to carry, and becomes another symbol of his incapacity to support the least physical or mental burden. As before we note a wide variety of other, but, it is believed, less tenable, explanations. (1) The locust has been looked on as, like the almond, another dainty article of food, which the terror of the storm, or the loss of appetite in age, renders unattractive. Commonly indeed they are said to have been eaten only by the poor, but Aristotle (Hist. Anim. v. 30) names them as a delicacy, and the Arabs are said to consider them as such now (Ginsburg). Entering once more on the region of anatomical exposition we have the grasshopper taken (2) for the bone of the pelvis which becomes sharp and prominent in age, (3) for the stomach which swells with dropsy, (4) for the ankles swelling from the same cause, and so on through various other members.

and desire shall fail] The word translated “desire” is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, and this rendering rests on a somewhat doubtful etymology. The LXX. version, which may be admitted as shewing in what sense the word was taken at a very early date, and with which the Rabbinic use of the word agrees, gives κάππαρις, which the Vulgate reproduces in capparis, i.e. the caper or Capparis spinosa of botanists. It is in favour of this rendering that it preserves the enigmatic symbolism of the two previous clauses, while “desire” simply gives an abstract unfigurative term, out of harmony with the context. Possibly indeed the name was given to the plant as indicating its qualities as a restorative and stimulant (Plutarch, Sympos.; Athenæus, Deipnos, ix. p. 405). The pickled capers of modern cookery are the buds of the shrub, but the berries and leaves are reputed to possess the same virtues. Hence one of the Epicures in Athenæus (Deipnos. ix. p. 370) takes Νὴ τὸν κάππαριν (By the caper!) as a favourite oath, just as a modern gourmet might swear by some favourite sauce. So understood the meaning of the passage seems fairly clear. The caper-berry shall fall, i.e. shall no longer rouse the flagging appetite of age. There shall be a longa oblivio of what the man had most delighted in. It would seem indeed from the account of the capparis given by Pliny (Hist. Nat. xx. 59) that its medicinal virtues were of a very varied character. It was a remedy for paralysis and diseases of the kidneys and the liver, for tooth-ache and ear-ache, for scrofula and phagedænic ulcers. The words describe accordingly the infirmity which no drugs, however potent, can cure. It is as when Shakespeare says that “poppy and mandragora” shall fail to minister the “sweet sleep” of yesterday, as when we say of a man in the last stage of decrepitude that “no quinine or phosphorus will help him now.” See the Ideal Biography in the Introduction, ch. iii. So understood the Debater speaks with a scorn like that of Euripides (Suppl. 1060) of the attempts of the old to revive their flagging desires and avert the approach of death.

μισῶ δʼ ὅσοι χρῄζουσιν ἐκτείνειν βίον

λουτροῖσι, καὶ στρωμναῖσι καὶ μαγέυμασιν.

“I hate them, those who seek to lengthen life

With baths, and pillows, and quack-doctor’s drugs.”

Substantially most commentators agree in this meaning. The anatomical school, however, identify it, as before, with this or that bodily organ affected by old age, and one writer (Rosenmüller) thinks that the point of comparison is found in the fact that the caper-berry as it ripens, bends the stalk with its weight, and then splits open and lets the seeds fall out.

because man goeth to his long home] Literally, to the house of his eternity, i.e. to his eternal home. The description of the decay of age is followed by that of death as the close of all, and for a time, perhaps to link together the two symbolical descriptions, the language of figurative imagery is dropped. The “eternal home” is, of course, the grave (the phrase is stated by Ginsburg to be in common use among modern Jews), or more probably, Sheol, or Hades, the dwelling-place of the dead. In Tob 3:6, “the everlasting place” seems used of the felicity of Paradise, and it is, at least, obvious that the thought of immortality, though not prominent, is not excluded here. The term Domus æterna appears often on the tombs of Rome in Christian as well as non-Christian inscriptions, probably as equivalent to the “everlasting habitations” of Luke 16:9, and in these cases it clearly connotes more than an “eternal sleep.” An interesting parallel is found in the Assyrian legend of Ishtar, in which Hades is described as the “House of Eternity,” the “House men enter, but cannot depart from; the Road men go to, but cannot return” (Records of the Past, i. 143).

the mourners go about the streets] Literally, in the singular, the street or market-place. The words bring before us the most prominent feature of Eastern funerals. The burial-place was always outside the city, and the body was borne on an open bier through the streets and open places of the city, and the hired mourners, men and women, followed with their wailing cries, praising the virtues, or lamenting the death, of the deceased (2 Samuel 3:31; Jeremiah 22:10; Jeremiah 22:18; Mark 5:38). Sometimes these were short and simple, like the “Ah brother! Ah, sister! Ah, his glory!” of Jeremiah 22:18. Sometimes they developed into elegiac poems like the lamentations of David over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17-27), and Abner (2 Samuel 3:32-34). So we have in the Talmud (quoted by Dukes, Rabbin. Blumenlese, pp. 256, 257) examples such as the following, “The palms wave their heads for the just man who was like a palm”—“If the fire falls upon the cedar what shall the hyssop on the wall do?” It is obvious that such elegies would often take the form of a figurative description of death, and that which follows in the next verse may well have been an echo from some such elegy.

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
6. or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken] The figurative character of the whole section, reaches its highest point here. It is clear however that the figures, whatever they may be, are symbolic of nothing less than death. We have had the notes of decay in organs and in functions brought before us one by one. Now we come to the actual dissolution of soul and body. It will help us to a right understanding to begin with the golden bowl. The noun is the same as that used in Zechariah 4:3-4, for the bowl of the golden seven-branched candlestick (better, lamp) of the Temple. It was the vessel, or reservoir, from which the oil flowed into the lamps. The lamp itself was, in the judgment of most students of the Mosaic ritual, the symbol of life—perhaps, even in its very form, of the Tree of life—in its highest manifestations. The symbolism of Greek thought harmonized with that of Hebrew, and “the lamp of life” was a familiar image. So when Pericles visited Anaxagoras, as he was dying of want and hunger, the sage said reproachfully “When we wish to keep the lamp burning, we take care to supply it with oil.” (Plutarch, Pericles.) So Plato (de Legg. p. 776) and Lucretius (ii:78) describe the succession of many generations of mankind, with an allusive reference to the Lampadephoria, or torch races of Athens.

“Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.”

“Like men who run a race, hand on the lamp of life.”

So the “light of life” appears in Greek epitaphs,

Νὺξ μὲν ἐμὸν κατέχει ζωῆς φάος ὑπνοδοτείρη

“Sleep-giving night hath quenched my light of life.”

Anthol. Graec. Ed. Jacobs, App. 265.

It can scarcely remain doubtful then that the “golden bowl” is life as manifested through the material fabric of man’s body. And if so, the “silver cord” in the imagery of the parable can only be the chain by which, as in houses or temples, the lamp hangs, i.e. when we interpret the parable, that on which the continuance of life depends. Death, elsewhere represented as the cutting of the thread of life by the “abhorred shears” of the Destinies, is here brought before us as the snapping of the chain, the extinction of the principle of life. The anatomist commentators have, as before, shewn their lack of poetic feeling by going in omnia alia as to the interpretation of the symbols. The “golden bowl” has been identified with the skull or the stomach, and the “silver cord” with the tongue or the spinal marrow, and so on into a region of details into which it is not always pleasant to follow the interpreter.

or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern] Better, or the pitcher be shattered. As with the Hebrews so also with the Greeks, life was represented by yet another symbol almost as universal as that of the burning lamp. The “fountain of life” was with God (Psalm 36:9). It was identified in its higher aspects with “the law of the wise” (Proverbs 13:14), with “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 14:27). The “fountain of the water of life” was the highest symbol of eternal blessedness (Revelation 21:6; Revelation 22:17). Two aspects of this symbolism are brought before us. (1) There is the spring or fountain that flows out of the rock, as in Isaiah 35:7; Isaiah 49:10. When men go to that spring with their pitcher (an “earthen vessel” as in Genesis 24:17) there is an obvious type of the action of the body (we may, perhaps, go so far with the Anatomists as to think specially of the action of the lungs) in drawing in the breath which sustains life. The “cistern” represents primarily the deep well or tank from which men draw water with a windlass and a rope and bucket (1 Samuel 19:22; Leviticus 11:36; Deuteronomy 6:11), a well like that of Sychar (John 4:6). Here obviously we have another parable of the mechanism of life, pointing to an action lying more remote than that of the fountain and the pitcher, and, if we have been right in connecting that with the act of breathing, we may as naturally see in this the action of the heart. Death is accordingly represented under both these figures. There will come a day when the pitcher shall be taken to the fountain for the last time and be broken as in the very act of drawing water, when the wheel that guides the current of the blood “which is the life” shall turn for the last time on its axis. Into the more detailed anatomical explanations which find in the pitcher and the wheel, the liver and the gall-duct, or the right and left ventricle, we refrain, as before, from entering.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
7. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was] The reference to the history of man’s creation in Genesis 2:7 is unmistakeable, and finds an echo in the familiar words of our Burial Service, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” So Epicharmus, quoted by Plutarch, Consol. ad Apoll. p. 110, “Life was compound, and is broken up, and returns thither whence it came, earth to earth and the spirit on high.” So the Epicurean poet sang,

“Pulvis et umbra sumus.”

“Dust and shadows are we all.”

Hor. Od. iv. 7. 16—

echoing the like utterance of Anacreon,

ὀλίγη κόνις κεισόμεθα.

“We shall lie down, a little dust, no more”—

echoed in its turn by Shakespeare (Cymbeline, iv. 2),

“Golden lads and lasses must,

Like chimney sweepers, turn to dust.”

the spirit shall return unto God who gave it] We note, in the contrast between this and the “Who knoweth …?” of ch. Ecclesiastes 3:21, what it is not too much to call, though the familiar words speak of a higher triumph than is found here, the Victory of Faith. If the Debater had rested in his scepticism, it would not have been difficult to find parallels in the language of Greek and Roman writers who had abandoned the hope of immortality. So Euripides had sung

Ἐάσατʼ ἤδη γῇ καλυφθῆναι νεκρούς,

Ὅθεν δʼ ἕκαστον ἐς τὸ φῶς ἀφίκετο,

Ἐνταῦθʼ ἀπελθεῖν, πνεῦμα μὲν πρὸς αἰθέρα,

Τὸ σῶμα δʼ ἐς γῆν.

“Let then the dead be buried in the earth,

And whence each element first came to light

Thither return, the spirit to the air,

The body to the earth.”

Eurip. Suppl. 529—

or as Lucretius at a later date,

“Cedit item retro, de terra quod fuit ante,

In terras, et quod missum ’st ex ætheris oris,

Id rursum cœli rellatum templa receptant.”

“That also which from earth first came, to earth

Returns, and that which from the ether’s coasts

Was sent, the vast wide regions of the sky

Receive again, returning to its home.”

De Rer. Nat. ii. 998.

Or again,

“Ergo dissolvi quoque convenit omnem animal

Naturam, ceu fumus, in altas aëris auras.”

“So must it be that, like the circling smoke,

The being of the soul should be dissolved,

And mingle with the breezes of the air.”

Lucret. De Rer. Nat. iii. 455.

Or Virgil, with a closer approximation to the teaching of the Debater,

“Deum namque ire per omnes

Terrasque tractusque maris, cœlumque profundum;

Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,

Quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas;

Scilicet huc reddi deinde, ac resoluta referri

Omnia; nec morti esse locum; sed viva volare

Sideris in numerum, atque alto succedere cœlo.”

“[They teach] that God pervades the world,

The earth and ocean’s tracts and loftiest heaven,

That hence the flocks and herds, and creatures wild,

Each, at their birth, draw in their fragile life;

That thither also all things tend at last,

And broken-up return, that place for death

Is none, but all things, yet instinct with life,

Soar to the stars and take their place on high.”

Virg. Georg. iv. 220–227.

We cannot ignore the fact that to many interpreters (including Warburton) the words before us have seemed to convey no higher meaning than the extracts just quoted. They see in that return to God, nothing more than the absorption of the human spirit into the Anima Mundi, the great World-Soul, which the Pantheist identified with God.

It is believed, however, that the thoughts in which the Debater at last found anchorage were other than these. The contrast between the sceptical “Who knoweth the spirit of man that it goeth upward?” (ch. Ecclesiastes 3:21) and this return to God, “who gave it,” shews that the latter meant more than the former. The faith of the Israelite, embodied in the Shemà or Creed which the writer must have learnt in childhood, was not extinguished. The “fear of God” is with him a real feeling of awe before One who lives and wills (ch. Ecclesiastes 8:8; Ecclesiastes 8:12). The hand of God is a might that orders all things (ch. Ecclesiastes 9:1). It is God that judges the righteous and the wicked (ch. Ecclesiastes 3:17). Rightly, from this point of view, has the Targum paraphrased the words “The Spirit will return to stand in judgment before God, who gave it thee.” The long wandering to and fro in many paths of thoughts ends not in the denial, but the affirmation, of a personal God and therefore a personal immortality.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
8. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity] The recurrence at the close of the book, and after words which, taken as we have taken them, suggest a nobler view of life, of the same sad burden with which it opened, has a strange melancholy ring in it. To those who see in the preceding verse nothing more than the materialist’s thoughts of death as echoed by Epicurean poets, it seems a confirmation of what they have read into it, or inferred from it. The Debater seems to them, looking on life from the closing scene of death, to fall back into a hopeless pessimism. It may be rightly answered however that the view that all that belongs to the earthly life is “vanity of vanities” is one not only compatible with the recognition of the higher life, with all its infinite possibilities, which opens before man at death, but is the natural outcome of that recognition as at the hour of death, or during the process of decay which precedes and anticipates death. The “things that are seen and are temporal” are dwarfed, as into an infinite littleness, in the presence of those which are “not seen and are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). And there would be, we may add, even a singular impressiveness in the utterance of the same judgment, at the close of the great argument, and from the higher standpoint of faith which the Debater had at last reached, as that with which he had started in his despondent scepticism. It is, in this light, not without significance that these very words form the opening sentence of the De Imitatione Christi of à Kempis.

There remain, however, two previous questions to be discussed. (1) Are the words before us the conclusion of the main body of the treatise, or the beginning of what we may call its epilogue? and (2) is that epilogue the work of the author of the book or an addition by some later hand? The paragraph printing of the Authorised Version points in the case of (1) to the latter of the two conclusions, and it may be noted as confirming this view that the words occur in their full form at the beginning of the whole book, and might therefore reasonably be expected at the beginning of that which is, as it were, its summing-up and completion. In regard to the second question, the contents of the epilogue tend, it is believed, to the conclusion that they occupy a position analogous to that of the close of St John’s Gospel (John 21:24) and are, as it were, of the nature of a commendatory attestation. It would scarcely be natural for a writer to end with words of self-praise like those of Ecclesiastes 12:9-10. The directly didactic form of the Teacher addressing his reader as “my Son” after the fashion of the Book of Proverbs (Ecclesiastes 1:8, Ecclesiastes 2:1, Ecclesiastes 3:1; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 3:21) has no parallel in the rest of the book. The tone of Ecclesiastes 12:11 is rather that of one who takes a survey of the book as one of the many forms of wisdom, each of which had its place in the education of mankind, than of the thinker who speaks of what he himself has contributed to that store. On the whole, then, there seems sufficient reason for resting in the conclusion adopted by many commentators that the book itself ended with Ecclesiastes 12:7 and that we have in what follows, an epilogue addressed to the reader; justifying its admission into the Canon of Scripture and pointing out to him what, in the midst of apparent perplexities and inconsistencies, was the true moral of its preaching. The circumstances which were connected with that admission (see Introduction, chs. ii., iii., iv.) may well have made such a justification appear desirable.

And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.
9. And moreover, because the Preacher was wise] The opening words, closely linked on, as they are, to the preceding, confirm the conclusion just stated that Ecclesiastes 12:8 belongs to this postscript of attestation. The unknown writer of the attestation (probably the President of the Sanhedrin, or some other Master of the Wise, such as were Hillel and Gamaliel) begins by repeating the key-note of the opening of the book. So taken, the words are every way significant. They do not name Solomon as the author, but content themselves with recognising the enigmatic name with which the unknown writer had veiled himself. He, they say, belonged to the company of the sages. He “gave good heed” (literally, he hearkened or gave ear), he “sought out” (we note how exactly the word describes the tentative, investigating character of the book, as in Jdg 18:2; 2 Samuel 10:3; Proverbs 28:11; Job 5:27; Job 28:27), he “set in order” (i.e. composed) “many proverbs.” The word for “proverbs” is that which stands as the title of the Book of Proverbs, but it expresses, more than the English term does, the parabolic, half-enigmatic character which is characteristic of most sayings of this nature in the East, and as such is translated by “parables” in the LXX. here, and in the A.V. in Ezekiel 20:49; Psalm 49:4; Numbers 23:7; Numbers 23:18; Numbers 23:24 and elsewhere. The words have been pressed by some interpreters as a testimony to the Salomonic authorship, but it is obvious that though they fit in with that hypothesis, they are equally applicable to any one who followed in the same track and adopted the same method of teaching.

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.
10. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words] Literally, words of delight, or pleasure, as in chs. Ecclesiastes 5:4, Ecclesiastes 12:1. The phrase reminds us of “the words of grace” (Luke 4:22) which came from the lips of Him, who, as the Incarnate Wisdom of God, was, in very deed, greater than Solomon. The fact is stated as by way of apologia for the character of the book. The object of the teacher was to attract men by meeting, or seeming to meet, their inclinations, by falling in with the results of their own experience. We are reminded so far of the words of Lucretius:

“Nam veluti pueris absinthia tetra medentes,

Cum dare conantur, prius oras pocula circum

Contingunt mellis dulci, flavoque liquore,

Ut puerorum ætas improvida ludificetur

Labrorum tenus, interea perpotet amarum

Absinthî laticem, deceptaque non capiatur,

Sed potius tali pacto recreata valescat.”

“As those who heal the body, when they seek

To give to children wormwood’s nauseous juice,

First smear the cup’s rim with sweet golden honey,

That infant’s thoughtless age may be beguiled

Just to the margin’s edge, and so may drink

The wormwood’s bitter draught, beguiled, not tricked,

But rather gain thereby in strength and health.”

De Rer. Nat. iv. 11–17.

and that which was written was upright] The italics shew that the sentence is somewhat elliptical, and it is better to take the two sets of phrases in apposition with the “acceptable words” that precede them, even a writing of uprightness (i.e. of subjective sincerity), words of truth (in its objective sense). The words are, thus understood, a full testimony to the character of the book thus commended to the reader’s attention.

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.
11. The words of the wise are as goads] The general fact is, of course, stated in special connexion with the book which furnishes the writer’s theme. They assert that its words also, sweet as they seem, are not without their sting, though, like the prick of the goad, it is for good and not for evil, urging men on to strong and vigorous labour in the fields of thought and action. The comparison was a natural one in any country, but we are reminded of what was said of the words of Pericles that his eloquence “left a sting (κέντρον) in the minds of his hearers (Eupolis, quoted by Liddell and Scott, s. v. κέντρον), and in part also of the Greek proverb, consecrated for us by a yet higher application (Acts 9:5; Acts 26:14) that “it is hard to kick against the pricks,” as applicable to resisting wisdom as well as to defying power (Æsch. Agam. 1633, Pindar, Pyth, ii. 173).

as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies] The word for “nails” is found in this, or a cognate form, with that meaning in Isaiah 41:7; Jeremiah 10:4; 1 Chronicles 22:3; 2 Chronicles 3:9; and there is no adequate reason for taking it here, as some have done (Ginsburg), in the sense of the “stakes” of a tent. The word “by” however is an interpolation, and the words taken as they stand would run as nails fastened are the masters of assemblies. The whole analogy of the Hebrew is against our referring the last words to any but persons, and we must therefore reject the interpretation that the “words of the wise are as goads, as fastened nails which are put together in collections” (Delitzsch). The “masters of assemblies” (not, as it has been rendered (Tyler) “editors of collections”,) can be none else than the heads or leaders of a body of learned men, like the Great Synagogue of the traditions of the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, or the Sanhedrin of a later date. In “the fastened nail” we have a symbolism like that of Isaiah 22:23; Ezra 9:8, and seen also in the Rabbinic proverb, “Well for the man who has a nail to hang things on” (Dukes, Rabbin. Blumenlese, p. 121). In both these cases, it will be noted, the word refers to persons. It is the fitting emblem of fixity and permanence, and forms the natural complement to that of the goads. As it has been well put (Ginsburg), the two words express the several aspects of Truth as progressive and conservative.

which are given from one shepherd] The noun is used often in the O. T. both in its literal sense, and of kings and rulers as the shepherds of their people (Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 3:15; Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44; Ezekiel 34 passim), and of God as the great Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 23:1; Psalm 80:1, and by implication, Ezekiel 34:23). We have to choose accordingly between the two latter meanings. The words either assert that all the varied forms of the wisdom of the wise come from God, or that all the opinions, however diversified, which are uttered by “the masters of assemblies,” are subject to the authority of the President of the assembly. The first gives, it is believed, the most satisfactory meaning, and so taken, the words express the truth declared, without symbolism, in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. It was not, perhaps, without some reference to this thought, though scarcely to this passage, that our Lord claimed for Himself as the one true Guide and Teacher of mankind the title of the “Good Shepherd,” and condemned all that had come before Him, assuming that character, as thieves and robbers (John 10:8; John 10:11), and that St Peter speaks of Him as the “chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4) over all who exercise a pastoral office in the Church of Christ.

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
12. And further, by these, my son, be admonished] Better, And for more than these (i.e. for all that lies beyond), be warned. The address “my son” is, as in Proverbs 1:1; Proverbs 2:1; Proverbs 10:15, that of the ideal teacher to his disciple. It is significant, as noted above, that this appears here for the first time in this book.

of making many books there is no end] The words, which would have been singularly inappropriate as applied to the scanty literature of the reign of the historical Solomon, manifestly point to a time when the teachers of Israel had come in contact with the literature of other countries, which overwhelmed them with its variety and copiousness, and the scholar is warned against trusting to that literature as a guide to wisdom. Of that copiousness, the Library at Alexandria with its countless volumes would be the great example, and the inscription over the portals of that at Thebes that it was the Hospital of the Soul (ἰατρεῖον ψυχῆς, Diodor. Sic. i. 49) invited men to study them as the remedy for their spiritual diseases. Conspicuous among these, as the most voluminous of all, were the writings of Demetrius Phalereus (Diog. Laert. v. 5. 9), and those of Epicurus, numbering three hundred volumes (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 17), and of his disciple Apollodorus, numbering four hundred (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 15), and these and other like writings, likely to unsettle the faith of a young Israelite, were probably in the Teacher’s thought. The teaching of the Jewish Rabbis at the time when Koheleth was written was chiefly oral, embodying itself in maxims and traditions, and the scantiness of its records must have presented a striking contrast to the abounding fulness of that of the philosophy of Greece. It was not till a much later period that these traditions of the elders were collected into the Mishna and the Gemara that make up the Talmud. Scholars sat at the feet of their teacher, and drank in his words, and handed them on to their successors. The words of the wise thus orally handed down are contrasted with the “many books.”

much study is a weariness of the flesh] The noun for “study” is not found elsewhere in the O. T., but there is no doubt as to its meaning. What men gain by the study of many books is, the writer seems to say, nothing but a headache, no guidance for conduct, no solution of the problems of the universe. They get, to use the phrase which Pliny (Epp. vii. 9) has made proverbial, “multa, non multum.” We are reminded of the saying of a higher Teacher that “one thing is needful” (Luke 10:42). The words of Marcus Aurelius, the representative of Stoicism, when he bids men to “free themselves from the thirst for books” (Medit. ii. 3), present a striking parallel. So again, “Art thou so unlettered that thou canst not read, yet canst thou abstain from wantonness, and be master of pain and pleasure (Meditt. vii. 8).

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
13. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter] The word for “let us hear” has been taken by some scholars as a participle with a gerundial force, “The sum of the whole matter must be heard,” but it admits of being taken as in the English version, and this gives a more satisfying meaning. The rendering “everything is heard,” i.e. by God, has little to recommend it, and by anticipating the teaching of the next verse introduces an improbable tautology. The words admit of the rendering the sum of the whole discourse, which is, perhaps, preferable.

Fear God, and keep his commandments] This is what the Teacher who, as it were, edits the book, presents to his disciples as its sum and substance, and he was not wrong in doing so. In this the Debater himself had rested after his many wanderings of thought (ch. Ecclesiastes 5:7, and, by implication, Ecclesiastes 11:9). Whatever else might be “vanity and feeding on wind,” there was safety and peace in keeping the commandments of the Eternal, the laws “which are not of to-day or yesterday.”

for this is the whole duty of man] The word “duty” is not in the Hebrew, and we might supply “the whole end,” or “the whole work,” or with another and better construction, This is for every man: i.e. a law of universal obligation. What is meant is that this is the only true answer to that quest of the chief good in which the thinker had been engaged. This was, in Greek phrase, the ἔργον or “work” of man, that to which he was called by the very fact of his existence. All else was but a πάρεργον, or accessory.

For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
14. For God shall bring every work into judgment] Once again the Teacher brings into prominence what was indeed the outcome of the book; though, as history shews, the careless reader, still more the reader blinded by his passions, or prejudice, or frivolity, might easily overlook it. The object of the writer had not been to preach a self-indulgence of the lowest Epicurean type, or to deny the soul’s immortality, though for a time he had hesitated to affirm it, but much rather to enforce the truth, which involved that belief, of a righteous judgment (ch. Ecclesiastes 11:9), seen but imperfectly in this life, with its anomalous distribution of punishments and rewards, but certain to assert itself, if not before, when “the spirit shall return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). From the standpoint of the writer of the epilogue it was shewn that the teaching of Ecclesiastes was not inconsistent with the faith of Israel, that it had a right to take its place among the Sacred Books of Israel. From our standpoint we may say that it was shewn not less convincingly that the book, like all true records of the search after Truth, led men through the labyrinthine windings of doubt to the goal of duty, through the waves and winds of conflicting opinions to the unshaken rock of the Eternal Commandment.

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