Ecclesiastes 12 Study Notes
12:1-7 Approaches to this passage differ, but it most likely is an extended series of metaphors describing the troubles of old age, culminating in death. The fact that old age is in view is suggested by the details of the metaphors and also by the exhortation in 11:10 to enjoy life while youthful vigor still exists. This text tells the young person, “This is what you have in your future, so enjoy your youth while it lasts.”
12:1 God is called the Creator here for two reasons. First, as maker of heaven and earth he is our judge; we must remember him in the sense that we live in fear of him and never forget that we are accountable to him for our actions. Second, God as Creator calls us to enjoy life; he made the light, the earth and sky, food and drink, man and woman, and all the other things that in Gn 1 he calls “good.” The days of adversity, as described in the verses that follow, are the days when a person is feeble and failing.
12:2 The phrase the sun and the light are darkened alludes to the great works of creation in Gn 1:3-8—the creation of light, sun, moon, and sky. In apocalyptic texts, such as Jr 4:23-28 and Jl 2:10-11, the day of the Lord is described as an unmaking of creation itself, including the darkening of the sun and moon. For every human, death is a personal apocalypse; it is the end of the world for us. This, rather than failing eyesight, is probably the main point of this verse (failing eyesight is described in the next verse).
12:3 The phrase when the guardians of the house tremble probably refers to the hands. They are what a person uses to protect himself, and the hands of the elderly are sometimes subject to trembling. The strong men who stoop refers to the legs and back; these are the largest muscle groups in the body and they become flaccid in old age, leading to bent posture. The women who grind grain are the teeth, because they grind food. In the ancient world, where dental care was nonexistent, even the pharaohs of Egypt lost their teeth if they lived into old age. The teeth are referred to as “women” because typically women in a household did the work of grinding flour for bread. The ones who watch through the windows refers to the eyes. Here, however, the language is a metaphor for poor eyesight; there is no apocalyptic language, as there is in v. 2.
12:4 This verse describes two aspects of the effects of old age on hearing. On the one hand, people no longer hear well, and sounds are muffled and faint as if doors have been shut. On the other hand, many old people do not sleep well, and even a faint sound awakens them.
12:5 Solomon abandons metaphorical language with the phrase they are afraid of heights and dangers on the road. Old people fear falling down and are easy prey for criminals. Almond tree blossoms almost certainly refers to white hair. The grasshopper loses its spring and the caper berry has no effect may refer to impotence; it appears that the caper was regarded as an aphrodisiac. A mere mortal going to his eternal home with mourners walking in the street obviously alludes to a funeral.
12:6 The cord, the bowl, the jar . . . shattered at the spring, and the wheel . . . broken at the well all refer to drawing up water from a well, a spring, or a cistern. Water in the Bible is frequently associated with life (this is understandable, considering the near-desert climate of ancient Israel). Thus, if these things are broken, death has occurred. Describing these objects as silver and gold implies that life is precious.
12:9-14 These verses reveal a few more details about the author’s life and give the reader some parting exhortations.
12:10 This verse indicates that the Teacher not only sought to give sound teaching, but to present it in a way that was appealing and appropriate. This suggests that there is more care in the wording and arrangement of books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes than first meets the eye.
12:11 The essential teaching of this verse—that God has given us wisdom in order to guide us through life—is clear. A pastoral metaphor governs at least part of the verse. God (the one Shepherd) prods us along just as shepherds prod animals with cattle prods—sticks with sharp points (Ac 26:14). It is not certain whether embedded nails refers to nails inserted at the ends of cattle prods (1Sm 13:21), or whether this is a different metaphor, describing proverbs as fixed and dependable, like nails driven in a wall. If the latter, it implies that we can hang our lives on these fixed truths.
12:12 Proverbs are important, but the Teacher warns against study done for its own sake. Too much study deprives a person of the joys that Ecclesiastes recommends. This verse does not oppose scholarship, but it does demand that scholars approach their work with humility and with balance in their lives.
12:13-14 The meaning of the phrase because this is for all humanity is much debated. The Hebrew literally says, “for this [is] the whole of man.” The phrase could mean, as the CSB renders it, that the rule to fear God applies to every person. Alternatively, it could mean obedience to God is the proper role for man in the universe. In other words, to live in the fear of God is to be truly human. To do otherwise is to lose the essence of our humanity. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes, to fear God, is in keeping with the message of the book—that we are mortal and weak but he is almighty. Although the book recommends, among other things, that we should enjoy our brief time under the sun, the advice to fear God trumps everything. The whole of the book has been focused on the brevity of earthly life and on how we should live in light of this reality. But at the end, the book looks beyond this life to the final judgment.