Matthew Poole's Commentary
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;Early piety recommended before old age come on and death be near: old age described, and death, Ecclesiastes 12:1-7. The conclusion: all is vanity, Ecclesiastes 12:8. The preacher’s end in this book, Ecclesiastes 12:9-12. The sum of all learning, experience, and happiness is to fear God, and keep his commandments, because God will bring all to judgment, Ecclesiastes 12:13,14.
Remember, to wit, practically, or so as to fear, and love, and faithfully serve and worship him, which when men do not they are said to forget God, Psalm 9:17 106:21, and in many other places.
Thy Creator; the first author and continual preserver of thy life and being, and of all the perfections and enjoyments which accompany it, to whom thou hast the highest and strongest obligations to do so, and upon whom thou hast a constant and necessary dependence, and therefore to forget him is most unnatural, and inhuman, and disingenuous.
In the days of thy youth; for then thou art most able to do it, and thou owest the best of thy time and strength to God; then thou hast opportunity to do it, and thou mayst not live to old age; then it will be most acceptable to God, and most comfortable to thyself, as the best evidence of thy sincerity, and the best provision for old age and death; and then it is most necessary for the conquering those impetuous lusts and passions which drown so many thousands of young men in perdition, both in this life and in that to come.
The evil days; the time of old age, which is evil, i.e. burdensome and calamitous in itself, and far more grievous and terrible when it is loaded with the sad remembrance of a man’s youthful follies and lusts, and with the dreadful prospect of approaching death and judgment, which makes him see that he cannot live, and yet dare not die, and with the consideration and experience of the hardness of his heart, which in that age is rarely brought to true repentance, and so generally expires either in vain presumption, or in hellish desperation.
I have no pleasure in them; my life is now bitter and burdensome to me, and worse than death; which is frequently the condition of old age.
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars be not darkened, Heb. While the sun, and the light, and the moon, &c. That clause, and the light, seems to be added to signify that he speaks of the darkening of the sun, and moon, and stars, not in themselves, or in their own bodies, but only in respect of that light which they afford to men. And therefore the same clause which is expressed after the sun, is to be understood after the moon and stars, as is very usual in Scripture in like cases. And those expressions are to be understood either,
1. Literally, of the dim-sightedness of old men, by reason whereof the light of the sun, &c. seems dark to them; which seems not to agree with the context, partly because the dimness of their sight is expressed in the next verse, and partly because both his and the following verses are wholly allegorical. Or rather,
2. Figuratively, and that either,
1. Of the outward parts of the body, and especially of the face, the beauty of the countenance, the lightsome and pleasant complexion of the cheeks, the liveliness of the eyes, which are compared to the sun, and moon, and stars, and which are obscured in old age, as the Chaldee paraphrast understands it. Or,
2. Of the inward parts of the mind, the understanding, fancy, memory, which may not unfitly be resembled to the sun, and moon, end stars, and all which are sensibly decayed in most old men. For it may seem improbable that Solomon in his description of the infirmities of old age should omit the decays of the most noble part of man, which are commonly incident to old age. And yet, with submission to those worthy persons who think otherwise, it seems not necessary that he should here speak of those inward decays, partly, because they are not so general in old men as the decays of the body are; partly, because he here directeth his speech to sensual men, who are more affected with corporal than with intellectual maladies; and partly, because both the foregoing and following passages concern the state of men’s bodies, and their outward condition. Or rather,
3. Of external things, and of the great change of their joy and prosperity, which they had in their youthful time, into sorrow and manifold calamities, which are usually the companions of old age; for this interpretation seems best to agree both with the foregoing verse, in which he describes the miseries of old age, and with the following clause, which is added to explain and determine those otherwise ambiguous expressions; and with the Scripture use of this phrase, which is the best key for the understanding of Scripture; for a state of comfort and happiness is oft described by the light of the sun, &c., as Judges 5:31 2 Samuel 23:4 Isaiah 30:26 60:20, and a time and state of great trouble is set forth by the darkening of the light of the sun, &c., as Isaiah 13:9, &c.; Isaiah 24:23 Joel 2:10 3:15 Matthew 24:29, and oft elsewhere.
Nor the clouds return after the rain: this phrase notes a perpetual succession and reciprocation of rain, and clouds bringing rain, and then rain and clouds again, and so without end; whereby he expresseth either,
1. The rheums or deflutions which do abundantly and incessantly flow in and from old men, for want of natural heat and strength to prevent or remove them. Or rather,
2. The continual vicissitude of infirmities, diseases, and griefs in old men, one deep calling upon another, and one affliction beginning at the end of another; whereas in young men after rain the clouds are dispersed, and fair weather succeeds.
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,The keepers of the house, i.e. of the body, which is oft and fitly compared to a house, as Job 4:19 Psalm 119:54 2 Corinthians 5:1; whose keepers here are either,
1. The ribs and bones into which they are fastened, which are the guardians of the inward and vital parts, which also are much weakened and shaken by old age. Or rather,
2. The hands and arms, which are man’s best instruments to defend his body from the assaults of men or beasts, and which in a special manner are subject to this trembling, by paralytical or other like distempers, that are most incident to old men.
The strong men; either the back, or the thighs and legs, in which the main strength of the body doth consist, which in old men are very feeble, and unable both for the support of the body and for motion.
The grinders; the teeth, those especially which are commonly so called, because they grind the meat which we eat.
Cease, to wit, to perform their office,
because they are few, Heb. because they are diminished, either,
1. In strength. Or,
2. In number; being here one, and there another, and not united together, and one directly against another, and consequently unfit for their work.
Those that look out of the windows; the eyes. By windows he understands either,
1. The holes in which the eyes are fixed, Zechariah 14:12. Or,
2. The eye-lids, which, like windows, are either opened or shut. Or,
3. Those humours and coats of the eyes noted by anatomists, which are the chief instruments by which the eye sees.
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;The doors be shut in the streets; or, towards the streets; which lead into the streets. This is understood either,
1. Literally; because men, when they are very old, keep much at home, and have neither strength nor inclination to go abroad. Or rather,
2. Allegorically, as all the other clauses are understood. And so the doors are either,
1. The outward senses, which, as doors, let in outward objects to the soul. Or rather,
2. The mouth, or the two lips, here expressed by a word of the dual number, which are oft called a door, both in Scripture, as Psalm 141:3 Micah 7:5, and in other authors, which, like a door, open or shut the way which leads into the streets or common passages of the body, such as the gullet, and stomach, and all the bowels, as also the windpipe and lungs; which also are principal instruments both of speaking and eating. And these are said to be shut, not simply and absolutely, as if they did never eat, or drink, or speak; but comparatively, because men in extreme old age grow dull and listless, having little or no appetite to eat, and are very much indisposed for discourse, and speak but seldom.
When the sound of the grinding is low; or, because the sound, &c. So this may be added, not as a new symptom of old age, but only as the reason of the foregoing symptom. The sense is, When or because the teeth, called the grinders, Ecclesiastes 12:3, are loose and few, whereby both his speech is low, and the noise which he makes in eating is but small. And this is one great cause of his indisposedness both to eating and to speaking. Some understand this of concoction, which after a sort doth grind the meat in the stomach, and in the other parts appointed by God for that work. But that is transacted inwardly, and without all noise or sound.
He shall rise up, to wit, from his bed, being weary with lying, and unable to get sleep,
at the voice of the bird; either,
1. Upon the smallest noise; which doth not consist with that deafness incident to old men, and described in the next words. Or rather,
2. As soon as the birds begin to chirp, which is early in the morning, whereas children and young men can lie and sleep long in the morning.
The daughters of music; all those senses or parts of the body which are employed in music and song, as well those which make it, as the parts of and within the mouth, as those which receive it, to wit, the ears.
Shall be brought low; shall be cast down from their former excellency; they are become incapable either of making music, or of delighting in it.
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:They shall be afraid; the passion of fear is observed to be most incident to old men, of which divers reasons may be given.
Of that which is high; either,
1. Of high things, lest they should fall upon them. Or rather,
2. Of high places, of going up hills or stairs, which is very irksome to them, because of their weakness, and weariness, ar, d giddiness, and danger, or dread of falling. And this clause, together with the next, may be rendered thus, and that agreeably to the Hebrew text,
Also they shall be afraid and terrified (two words expressing the same thing, which is very frequent in the Hebrew) of that which is high in the way. When they walk abroad, they will dread to go up any high or steep places.
And fears shall be in the way, lest as they are walking, they should stumble, or fall, or be thrust down, or some infirmity or mischief should befall them.
The almond tree shall flourish; their heads shall be as full of grey hairs as the almond tree is of white flowers. Such metaphors are not unusual in other authors. Hence Sophocles calls a grey or hoary head flowery, and again, covered with white flowers.
The grasshopper shall be a burden, if it doth accidentally hop up and rest upon them. They cannot endure the least burden, being indeed a burden to themselves. But the words may be, and are by others, rendered, the locust (as the ancient interpreters and many others render it; or, as ours and some others, the grasshopper, which comes to the same thing; for these two sorts of insects are much of the same nature and shape) shall be a burden to itself. And by the locust or grasshopper may be understood, either,
1. The old man himself, who bears some resemblance to it; in shape, by reason of the bones sticking out; in the constitution of the body, which is dry and withering; and in the legs and arms, which are slender, the flesh being consumed. Or,
2. The back, which fitly follows after the head, upon which the almond tree flourished, in which the strength of the body lay, and which formerly was able to bear great burdens, but now, through its weakness and crookedness, is a burden too heavy for itself. And some of the Jewish and other interpreters understand this word, which others render locust or grasshopper, to be some part of the body, either the back-bone, or the head of the thigh bone, or the ankle-bone, any of which may well be said to be heavy or burdensome to itself, when it moves slowly and listlessly, and not without difficulty and trouble. Desire, to wit, of meats, and drinks, and music, and other carnal delights, which are vehemently desired by men in the heat of their youth, but are unsavoury to old men; of which see an instance 2 Samuel 19:35. It is true, the former expressions are metaphorical, but the two next following are proper, and to be understood literally; and so may this clause also.
Man goeth, is travelling towards it, and every day nearer to it than other,
to his long home; from this place of his pilgrimage into the grave, from whence he must never return into this world, and into the state and place of the future life, which is unchangeable and everlasting.
The mourners; either such as were hired to that end, of whom See Poole "Jeremiah 9:17"; See Poole "Matthew 9:23", See Poole "Matthew 11:17", or true mourners, near relations, and dear friends, accompany the dead corpse through the streets to the grave.
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.This verse is to be understood either,
1. literally, of the ornaments of life, such as chains, and jewels, and vessels of gold and silver, and of the instruments by which the necessary provisions and supports of life are conveyed to us, such as fountains of water, and pitchers, &c.; which may be said to be loosed or broken, because they are neglected as useless things to the dead man. Or rather,
2. Allegorically, of those inward parts of man’s body which are the chief instruments of life, or sense and motion, and of the vital or animal operations, whether such from which they first proceed, or in which they are first elaborated and contained, which may fitly be compared to a bowl, and fountain, or cistern; or such by which they are derived or conveyed to the several parts of the body, which are very conveniently designed by the cord, and pitcher, and wheel; all which are truly said to be loosed or broken, i.e. dissolved, or become useless and insufficient for the performance of their several functions. This in the general. But it seems most probable that Solomon, who was so profound a philosopher, and doubtless had an accurate knowledge of all the parts of man’s body, and their several offices and operations, doth by these several expressions describe so many particular parts and offices. By
the silver cord, it is generally and most probably conceived that he understands the pith or marrow of the back-bone, which comes from the brain, and thence goeth down to the very lowest end of the back-bone, together with the nerves and sinews, which, as anatomists observe, are nothing else but the production and continuation of the marrow. And this is most aptly compared to a cord, both for its figure, which is very long and round, and for its use, which is to draw and move the parts of the body; and to silver, both for its excellency and colour, which is white and bright, even in a dead, and much more in a living body. And this may properly be said to be
loosed, or dissolved, or broken, or removed, as others render the word, the sense of all these translations being the same, because it is relaxed, or obstructed, or otherwise disenabled for its proper service. And answerably hereunto, by the
golden bowl he understands the membranes of the brain, and especially that innermost membrane which is called by anatomists the pious mother, because it doth with a motherly care defend the brain, and assist and govern its actions, which insinuates itself into all the parts of the brain, following it in its various windings and turnings, keeping each parcel of it in its proper place, and distinguishing and dividing one part from another, to prevent disorder and mischief. This is not unfitly called a bowl, partly because it is round, and partly because it receives and contains in it all the substance of the brain; and a golden bowl, partly, for its great preciousness and usefulness; partly, for its ductility, being drawn out into a great thinness or fineness, as gold is capable of being drawn forth into thinner plates than other metals can bear; and partly, for its colour, which is somewhat yellow, and comes nearer to that of gold than any other part of the body doth. And this is well said to be
broken, as for the reason above noted, so because upon the approach of death it is commonly shrivelled up, and many times broken. And as these two former clauses concern the brain and the animal powers, so the two following clauses of this verse respect the spring and seat of the vital powers and operations, and of the blood, the great instrument thereof, which hath been commonly conceived, and consequently is here understood, to be the liver, but more truly and certainly is the heart, which is now known and confessed to be the source of the blood. And so Solomon here describes the chief organs or vessels appointed for the production, and distribution, and circulation of the blood in man’s body. For although the doctrine of the circulation of the blood hath lain hid and unknown for very many generations together, and therefore the honour of the invention of it is justly ascribed to a famous physician of our country, yet it is not improbably supposed by some that it was well known to Solomon, although after his times it was lost, as doubtless many other things were, which he wrote concerning plants, and other things. According to this notion
the fountain here is the right ventricle of the heart, which is now acknowledged to be the spring of life, and of the vital spirits, and the pitcher is the veins which convey the blood from it to other parts, and especially that arterious vein, as anatomists call it, by which it is transmitted to the lungs, and thence to the left ventricle of the heart, where it is better elaborated, and then by the pulse thrust out into the great artery, called arteria aorta, and by its branches dispersed into all the parts of the body, to give them life and vigour, which being done, the residue of the blood is carried back by the veins into the right ventricle of the heart, whence it is disposed, as hath been now mentioned, and so runs in a perpetual round, unless it be obstructed by some disorder in the body. And the
cistern is the left ventricle of the heart, and the
wheel seems to be the great artery which is joined to it, which is very fitly so called, because it is the first and great instrument of this rotation or circulation of the blood, which by its pulse is forcibly thrust out into all the parts of the body, whence by various windings and turnings it returns thither again, and so is sent again upon the same journey, which in like manner it performs again and again, as long as life and health continue; and when any of these parts are disenabled for the discharge of their offices, then are they fitly said to be broken. The
pitcher may be said to be
broken at the fountain, when the veins do not return the blood to the heart, but suffer it to stand still and cool within them, whence comes that coldness of the outward parts, which is a near forerunner of death. And the wheel may be said to be
broken at the cistern, when the great arteries do not perform their office of conveying the blood lute the left ventricle of the heart, and of thrusting it out thence into the lesser arteries, whence comes that ceasing of the pulse, which is a certain sign of approaching death.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.The dust; the body, called dust, both for its original, which was from the dust, and to signify its vile and corruptible nature, Job 4:19 30:19 Psalm 103:14.
Return to the earth as it was; whence it was first taken. He alludes to that passage, Genesis 3:19. The spirit; the soul of man, frequently so called, as Genesis 2:7 Psalm 31:5, &c., because it is of a spiritual or immaterial nature.
Return unto God; into his presence, and before his tribunal, that there it may be sentenced to its everlasting habitations, either to abide with God for ever, if it be approved by him, or otherwise to be eternally shut out from his presence and favour.
Who gave it, to wit, in a peculiar manner, by his creating power: for in a general sense God giveth to every seed his own belly, 1 Corinthians 15:38; hence he is called the Father of spirits, Hebrews 12:9.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.This sentence, wherewith he began this book, he here repeateth in the end of it partly as that which he had proved in all the foregoing discourse, and partly as that which naturally and necessarily followed from both the branches of the assertion now laid down, Ecclesiastes 12:7.
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.The preacher was wise; which he affirmeth not out of vain ostentation, but partly to procure the more credit and acceptance to his doctrine and, counsel here delivered; and partly to declare his repentance for his former follies, and God’s great mercy in restoring his wisdom to him.
Taught the people knowledge; as God gave him this wisdom, that he might be a teacher of others, so he used it to that end; therefore despise not his counsel.
He gave good heed; he did not rashly and foolishly utter whatsoever came into his mind or mouth, but seriously pondered both his matter and words.
Sought out; both by the exercise of his own mind, and by reading and learning from others.
Set in order; or, directed or fitted. He selected such as were most useful.
Many proverbs; excellent and wise sayings, which are oft called proverbs, as was noted before upon the Book of Proverbs.
The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.Acceptable words, Heb. desirable or delightful, worthy of all acceptation, such as would minister comfort and profit so the hearers or readers.
Written by the preacher in this and his other books.
Upright, Heb. right or straight, agreeable to the mind or will of God, which is the rule of right, not crooked or perverse.
Words of truth; not fables cunningly devised to deceive the simple, but true and certain doctrines, which commend themselves to men’s own consciences or reasons; wholesome and edifying counsels.
The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.The words of the wise; not of secularly or politicly wise men, but of the spiritually wise and holy men of God; of which, and not of the former, this whole context treats.
As goads, and as nails, piercing into men’s dull minds and hard hearts, and quickening and provoking them to the practice of all their duties.
Fastened; which do not only amuse and startle men for the present, as the wise and grave counsels of moral philosophers frequently do, but make powerful and abiding impressions in them; which is the peculiar effect of God’s word.
By the masters of assemblies; by the teachers of God’s church and people, whether prophets or others, appointed by God for that work.
Which are given from one shepherd; from God, or from Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd and Teacher of the church in all ages, by whose Spirit the ancient prophets, as well as other succeeding teachers, were inspired and taught, Jeremiah 3:15 1 Peter 1:11 2 Peter 1:21. And this clause seems to be added partly as the reason of that admirable harmony and agreement which is amongst all the men of God in all ages and places, because they are all taught by one Master, and guided by the same hand; and partly to oblige us to the greater attention and reverence to all their doctrines and counsels, which we are to receive as the word of God, and not of men only, as it is said, 1 Thessalonians 2:13.
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.By these; by these wise men, and their words or writings, of which he spoke in the foregoing verse.
Be admonished; take your instructions from them, for their words are right and true, as he said, Ecclesiastes 12:10, whereas the words of other men are false, or at best doubtful.
Of making many books there is no end; I could easily write many books and large volumes upon these matters, but that were an endless and needless work, seeing things necessary to be known and done lie in a little compass, as he informs us in the next verse.
Much study; the reading of many books written by learned philosophers about these things; which it is more than probable were then extant, though since lost, which also Solomon, being so curious and inquisitive a person, would in all likelihood procure anti peruse as far as he hail opportunity.
Is a weariness to the flesh; it wasteth a man’s strength and spirits, and yet (which is implied) doth not satisfy the mind, nor sufficiently recompense the trouble and inconvenience to which man is exposed by it.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.The conclusion of the whole matter; the sum and substance of all that hath been said or written by wise men, so far as it is necessary for us to know.
Fear God; which is synecdoically put here, as it is very frequently in Scripture, for all the inward worship of God, reverence, and love, and trust, and a devotedness of heart to serve and please God, and a loathness to offend him, and an aptness to tremble at his word and judgments.
Keep his commandments: this is fitly added as a necessary effect and certain evidence of the fear, of God. Make conscience of practising whatsoever God requires, how costly, or troublesome, or dangerous soever it be.
The whole duty; in the Hebrew it is only, the whole; it is his whole work and business, his whole perfection and happiness, it is the sum of what he need either know, or do, or enjoy.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.For God shall bring every work into judgment: this is added either,
1. As a reason of what he last said,
this is the whole of man, because all men must give an account to God of all their works, and this alone will enable them to do that with joy, and not with grief. Or,
2. As another argument to press the foregoing exhortation, Fear God, and keep his commandments, for you must be called to judgment about it, &c.
With every secret thing; not only outward and visible actions, but even inward and secret thoughts.