Ecclesiastes 12



A Picture of Old Age and Death (12:1–8)

1–5 In these verses, the Teacher gives us a poetic picture of old age and the gradual deterioration that takes place in our bodies.24 In view of the coming days of trouble (old age), the Teacher urges young people to remember God before it’s too late (verse 1), so that they can give Him the best years of their lives.

6–7 In verse 6, the Teacher again tells us: Remember him (God). Then he gives us two pictures of death. The first is the cutting of the silver cord by which the lamp of life is suspended; the lamp—the golden bowl—falls and is broken. The second picture is the breaking of the wheel used to draw water from the well of life; as a result, the pitcher of water falls and is shattered. With life gone, the body—the dust—returns to the ground (Genesis 3:19); but the spirit returns to God (verse 7). The “spirit”—the essence or principle of life—does not die; it is the aspect of a human being that lives on after physical death.

8 If birth, youthful energy, declining health, and finally death are the sum total of life on earth, such life is meaningless indeed! Surely Solomon, more than any other, could testify to the emptiness of life without God. Solomon had everything; he was the richest and most powerful person of his time. He even had the gift of divine wisdom. But he turned from God, and lived most of his life as a secular man. Only toward the end did he realize how empty his life had been. That’s when he wrote this sermon, the book of Ecclesiastes, so that others might learn from his mistakes. What a tragedy it is when one reaches the end of life and, looking back, realizes it has been wasted.

The Conclusion of the Matter (12:9–14)

9–12 In these verses the Teacher gives his credentials. In verse 11, he acknowledges that the words of the wise have one source: they are given by one Shepherd, the God of ISRAEL (Psalm 23:1). God is the only source of true wisdom; the Teacher warns us against following after any so-called “wisdom” that is not from God.25

13–14 The Teacher’s conclusion has two parts. First, he shows us our duty: Fear God26 and keep his commandments. Second, he shows us why we should fear and obey God: God will judge us (see Ecclesiastes 11:9; 2Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 4:13). God will reward us for what we have done right (believing and obeying God) or punish us for what we have done wrong (rejecting and disobeying God). The reward is eternal life; the punishment is eternal separation from God. What we do during our short time on earth determines our eternal destiny. Our life on earth is meaningful indeed!

In summary, the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that life without God is meaningless. The Teacher (Solomon) had himself found life meaningless—that is, until his old age, when he seems to have regained his wisdom and returned to God. But before that, the Teacher’s main solution to the emptiness he experienced was to try and “enjoy life”; even animals did that. But humans cannot “enjoy life” only in the present, because God has set eternity in [their] hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). To live only for this present life is neither satisfying nor meaningful.

The only solution to life’s emptiness is to look to God, and seek to understand His eternal purpose for each of us. Yes, we are to “enjoy life” to the full (John 10:10). But that is only possible when we look at life from the perspective of eternity. Jesus told us to store up . . . treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19–21).The Apostle John told us not to love the world, for the world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15–17). Finally, the Apostle Paul wrote: Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2); this one sentence sums up the book of Ecclesiastes.

1 The book of Ecclesiastes follows the development of the Teacher’s thinking as he searches for the meaning of life. In the early chapters, the Teacher expresses thoughts that seem contrary to other parts of Scripture. But these thoughts need to be understood in the context of the Teacher’s search for meaning; by expressing such thoughts, the Teacher is showing us the limitations of human reason. When it is understood as a whole, the book of Ecclesiastes does not contradict any other biblical teaching.

2 The terms under the sun (verse 3), under heaven (verse 13), and “on earth” are all synonymous.

3 The Teacher is being overly pessimistic, perhaps for rhetorical effect. There are many new things—new inventions, new medicines, new political systems—but even these add only to the comfort of life, not its meaning. Again, when the Teacher says there is no remembrance of men of old (verse 11), he is simply saying there is nothing worth remembering; the “men of old” have not found the meaning of life. The generations come and go (verse 4), and there is no point to any of it. This is the conclusion that purely human wisdom leads to.

4 For the meaning of “Redeemer,” see Exodus 13:11–16; Ruth 2:10–20 and comments; Word List: Redemption.

5 The wisdom the Teacher is referring to in these early chapters is secular, human wisdom. It is not the wisdom of the book of Proverbs, which is based on the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 9:10).

6 In verse 18, the Teacher mentions wisdom and knowledge; in Scripture, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably (see Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). However, according to usual usage, knowledge is the awareness and understanding of facts, of truth; wisdom, on the other hand, is the ability to apply that knowledge in making right choices and sound judgments. True knowledge and wisdom are always derived from God; He is the ultimate source of both.

7 Again we must keep in mind that the wisdom the Teacher refers to throughout most of the book of Ecclesiastes is secular or human wisdom. It is not the wisdom associated with righteousness, such as that found in the book of Proverbs. In verse 16, the Teacher says that the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered. But the “righteous wise man” will indeed be remembered, because his name will be written in the book of life (Revelation 3:5).

8 In verse 3, the Hebrew word for kill is different from the word for murder in Exodus 20:13. In verse 8, the Teacher says there is a time to hate—that is, to hate evil (Romans 12:9).

9 God set eternity in our hearts when He first created man in his own image (Genesis 1:27). For this reason, humans sense that there is an eternal purpose for their existence, and they yearn to live in accordance with that purpose. Sadly, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, human beings have become separated from God and have lost their way; they engage in the activities of life without purpose or direction. Hence the main purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes is to help us regain our connection with God and live our lives in accordance with His eternal plan.

10 The Apostle Paul had a better answer to the problem of oppression (see Romans 8:35–39).

11 Here, as in many Old Testament passages, fools are those who are morally deficient, who despise knowledge and discipline, and who generally lead godless, even wicked, lives (see Proverbs 1:7 and comment).

12 Religious people often try to cover over character flaws and moral lapses by engaging in external rituals. It is easier to “offer sacrifices” than to deal with our sins and sinful attitudes.

13 In verse 3, the Teacher cites a proverb: Just as empty dreams are caused by the cares of life, so are empty prayers caused by too much talking.

14 Many people make vows to God; they promise God that if He does something for them, they will do something for Him—contribute money or time, or serve Him in some special way. There is nothing wrong with such vows—as long as they are fulfilled. If we hold back from God what we have promised, we will surely lose what we withhold—and more as well (see Acts 5:1–11).

15 For Christians—those who look forward to a glorious life in heaven—there is a large element of truth in this saying. To die and go to heaven is indeed better than to continue living here on earth—that is, if we go at the time of God’s choosing! (see 2 Corinthians 5:1–10; Philippians 1:21–23).

16 Early in his life Solomon had asked God for wisdom, and God had granted his request (see 1 Kings 3:7–12; 4:29–31). But gradually Solomon began to disobey God (1 Kings 11:9–10), and perhaps he lost some of his God-given wisdom as well. Now, in his old age, Solomon feels that wisdom is far off (verse 24). Yet God inspired Solomon to write this book to show us the futility of seeking wisdom apart from Him and to warn us that, if we persist in disobeying God, any wisdom we have gained will count for nothing.

17 It is not clear why the Teacher says in verse 28 that he found one upright man but not one upright woman; possibly he said it for poetic effect. Or perhaps he was given a prophetic vision of the one upright Man who was still to come, Jesus Christ.

18 For further discussion of mankind’s fall into sin, see Genesis 3:1–13 and comment; General Article: The Fall into Sin.

19 Many people take the words eat and drink and be glad out of context (verse 15). The Teacher is not saying that the only meaning in life is to get all the pleasure out of it one can. Rather, he is saying that life can be truly enjoyable and worthwhile if it is lived in dependence on God and in submission to Him. If we seek God first, He will grant us the things we need in life (Matthew 6:33): one of those things is gladness (joy); another is wisdom.

20 When the Teacher uses only human reasoning, he cannot comprehend life’s meaning. But when he turns his mind to God, he sees truth and meaning he didn’t see before. Many of us are like this Teacher: we are on a pilgrimage, a search. One moment we receive a glimpse of divine truth; the next moment we are beset by doubt. But such a search need not go on forever. By the end of the book, the Teacher’s search for meaning comes to an end and his faith is made firm (see Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).

21 People who believe in God know that nothing on earth happens by chance; God is sovereign over the entire universe, including every detail of our lives (Matthew 10:29–30).

But that doesn’t mean we humans are robots. Within God’s overall sovereignty, we have been given freedom to make moral choices, and we are responsible for those choices.

22 Some Bible scholars have interpreted verses 1–6 differently: they believe the Teacher is calling us to be generous in our giving to people in need. Those who are generous will not be the losers for it (see Proverbs 11:24–25); God will reward them, whether in this life or the next.

23 For the godless, everything is indeed meaningless (verse 8). For the godly, however, their days of darkness will be replaced by unending days of light.

24 In verses 1–5, the Teacher uses figurative language to describe the aging process. In verse 2, the lessening of light suggests the loss of vitality and joy; the clouds refer to the aches and anxieties of old age. In verse 3, the body is pictured as a house, the arms as keepers, the legs as strong men, the teeth as grinders, and the eyes as those looking through the windows. In verse 4, the doors. . . are closed, that is, contact with the outside world decreases; sleep is easily disturbed, hearing grows faint. The almond tree blossoms (verse 5) signify the white hair of the elderly; the lame grasshopper signifies loss of motion, loss of desire. Soon man goes to his eternal home—in this context, the grave.

25 The Bible is the infallible source of God’s wisdom. Anything written or spoken that is contrary to the Bible is not wisdom, it is not truth. Books and articles that are based on biblical truth are good to read. But much study (of other books) wearies the body (verse 12). The Teacher is referring to people who are forever reading and searching but who never find the answer, because they are not looking in the right place.

The second source of wisdom is the Holy Spirit Himself. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to understand the Bible and to live our lives according to God’s will. By giving us His word and His Spirit, God has given us everything we need to lead a meaningful and joyful life—a life that will last forever.

26 For the meaning of the expression, Fear God, see Deuteronomy 6:1–3; Proverbs 1:7 and comments.