1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV
Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to the younger generation.
Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 NLT
And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals. But this time, he gives them a somber warning not to leave God out of the equation.
Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” – Ecclesiastes 12:1 NLT
It would appear that, because of his advanced age, Solomon views everyone as younger than himself. And he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that are restricted to the elderly. In other words, he wants the younger generation to know that old age will not bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. Just because you grow older does not mean you will increase in wisdom or spirituality. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé, Timothy:
Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. – 1 Timothy 4:12 NLT
He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).
So, in a similar way, Solomon shares his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life will not last forever. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV).
His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon, and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.The sad truth is, that as we age, our eyesight diminishes.
Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes its way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity.
And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine, and a lifestyle focused on culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). This is an obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing.
Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the physical pleasures of life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). With the onset of old age, the eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beautiful treasures with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the splendor of the magnificent palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty had become indistinguishable from one another.
“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, he couldn’t even hear himself chew his own food. How frustrating this must have been to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It’s an inevitable and unavoidable reality of life under the sun.
On top of that, the aging process is accompanied by an increase in fear, including the fear of falling, the fear of harm, the fear of being alone, and the fear of impending death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.
The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon had tried all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.
Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is on death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what comes next. The afterlife was all a mystery to him.
In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher, and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition. Once it happens, there is no going back. From Solomon’s perspective, death was an irreparable condition.
And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). Upon death, the body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust, while the soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality and a sense of loss to his words. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he enjoyed all that life had to offer. Solomon had no way of imagining his life without a body. What would be left for his soul to experience in the afterlife? This is why he sums up this section with his oft-repeated refrain: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV).
From his vantage point as an old man, Solomon’s conclusion was that young people should enjoy life while they could. But they should also recognize that God made it all possible. He was the giver of life and of all the good gifts that come with it. But Solomon couldn’t get past the sad truth that life passed far too quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy all that God had given him. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously.
Wise words from a wizened old man. And we would do well to listen while we can still hear and put them into practice while we still have the strength.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.