Solomon has labored to document his efforts to find meaning and purpose in life under the sun. Now as we enter the final chapter of his report, these last recorded words of the Teacher will function in a manner similar to that of a military captain who brings his ship about to engage in one final assault. He will begin with a continuation of the youth oriented message that he began in the closing verses of chapter eleven before moving into a graphic representation of life’s progression under the sun. Following this, the Teacher will offer his credentials before finally unveiling the overriding truth and culmination of this book.
The principal theme behind Ecclesiastes chapter twelve is a call to action and in one sense, the “act now” message that lies beneath these verses should be a familiar one to 21st century consumers. For example, modern day advertisers consistently encourage potential shoppers to “buy now” and take advantage of “limited time offers.” Automotive salespersons attempt to persuade wavering purchasers to make a commitment with reports of other potential buyers. Television infomercials entice viewers with exciting bonuses- but only for those “who call within the next few minutes.”
But even while this call to action may feel somewhat familiar, the Teacher will not be trading in anything as inconsequential as a discount, a bargain, or the potential for a good deal. You see, Solomon’s “bargain” will consist of life itself and the desire that we all possess for relevance, meaning, and fulfillment in life. His message will not represent a human-centric, self-help teaching that purports to offer advice that will help ensure a better life. Instead, the Teacher will provide an identification of what is really important under the sun and reveal the graphic consequences in store for those who miss it.
To back up his assertion, the Teacher will present his qualifications towards the end of chapter twelve along with a claim for the ultimate endorsement of his teachings. He will then submit his final conclusion along with an important reminder for those who may be inclined to disregard it. As you might expect, the Teacher will ultimately conclude that there is more to life then that which we experience here under the sun. That observation will direct us toward the path of meaning and purpose in life and will also help prepare us for that which is to come when our days under the sun are ended.
“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).
Its interesting to note that Solomon chose to begin this final section of Ecclesiastes with a reference to the “Creator” instead of a word like “God” or “Lord” to identify the all knowing, all powerful divine Being. Perhaps the rationale for this choice might be found in the fact that while some may not recognize a Supreme Being as “God” or “Lord,” all finite things or beings (like human beings, for instance) must have a creator. While some may not accept God as Lord of all, He is certainly Creator of all and the Common Denominator that links all finite things. So whatever God may be in addition to the Creator (such as Lord or Savior, for example), He was and is Creator first.
However, this counsel implies far more than just the simple recognition of the fact that a Creator exists. For instance, you may recall that the Teacher advised his youthful readers to “Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body…” in the previous chapter of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). The second part of that strategy now follows here in Ecclesiastes 12:1 with the further advice to “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” (KJV). This suggests more than just the acknowledgement of a Creator’s existence; it indicates the need to allow that acknowledgment to influence the thoughts, words, actions, and choices of daily life.
You see, the reality and acknowledgment of a Creator implies a human responsibility to think and act in ways that are in alignment with the Creator’s intent. This becomes especially important when we stop to consider an important reality: while youth may offer the advantages of strength, vitality, and opportunity, it may also represent a time when the concept of death and eternity seems furthest away. That reality often makes it easy to go along with the flow of an “under the sun” world where many would prefer to live as if a Creator did not exist.
Instead of traveling that path, Solomon recommends that we utilize the strengths and opportunities of youth in a manner that honors God rather than engage in a pursuit of the vanities that he has painstakingly labored to document throughout the previous chapters of this book. We’ll continue to look at this application of the Teacher’s counsel next.
“Keep your Creator in mind while you are young! In years to come, you will be burdened down with troubles and say, ‘I don’t enjoy life anymore'” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 CEV).
For the most part, people don’t seem to think very much about the existence of a Creator as they go about the business of daily life. While some may hold a vague concept regarding the existence of a “higher intelligence,” the concept of a Creator God may seem impossibly distant and remote. In any event, the existence of a Creator seems to have little impact on the day-to-day lives of most people and as a result, the majority of such people effectively live as if a Creator didn’t really exist.
This is one of the dangers that lurk behind the warning of Ecclesiastes 12:1. While the advice found in this verse is specifically directed towards those who are young, the reality is that virtually anyone in any stage of life can also benefit from this reminder. As mentioned earlier, the concept of “remembering your Creator” encompasses more than just a superficial acknowledgment of a Creator’s existence; it means living with an active recognition of the Creator’s authority and acting on that recognition in our daily lives. It means living with the knowledge that our choices and actions take place before a Creator who sees not only what we choose to do but every motivation as well.
The New Testament book of Colossians builds upon and summarizes this idea when it says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).
Although these reminders are important, the Teacher surely recognized that some readers might benefit from a more practical and down to earth incentive to remember his or her Creator. For such people, the Teacher provided one additional motivation: “…before the days of trouble arrive, and those years, about which you’ll say, ‘I take no pleasure in these’” (CEB). You see, the person who lives an average life span will eventually reach a period when the common, everyday pleasures of daily life are no longer easily attainable- and the person who chooses not to remember his or her Creator before that time may be subject to the lament identified by one commentator…
“When a man has the pain of reviewing a misspent life, his not having given up sin and worldly vanities till he is forced to say, ‘I have no pleasure in them,’ renders his sincerity very questionable.” (1)
(1) Matthew Henry Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary
“Remember your Creator while you are young, before the bad times come–before the years come when you say, ‘I have wasted my life'” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ERV).
“I was an old man when the word came,
that you can’t buy time or a good name.” (1)
One of the best illustrations of Solomon’s premise in Ecclesiastes 12:1 can be found in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son as seen in Luke 15:11-32. In this parable, Jesus related the account of a youth who asked for and received a share of his father’s estate. Shortly after receiving his father’s money, the young man packed up his belongings and left on an extended road trip. He eventually settled down in a distant land and while there, he proceeded to spend all of his money on wild parties and extravagant living (Luke 15:13).
Now for many, this sounds like the ultimate kind of lifestyle, one that is embraced by celebrities and celebrated on television music channels. For the prodigal son, life represented a non stop party as he pursued a lifestyle that was built around what he wanted, what he was interested in, and what felt good to him at the moment. But the money eventually ran out and the young man was forced into a degrading employment arrangement with a local pig farmer (Luke 15:14-16). However, the prodigal son’s story had a happy ending. He eventually came to realize that he had made a serious mistake and returned to his father. His father received him joyfully and their relationship was restored.
While the parable of the prodigal son is often used to illustrate the manner in which God receives us when we return to Him through Christ, there are some other applications that tie in with the Teacher’s observation here in Ecclesiastes 12:1.
For instance, while the prodigal son’s relationship with his father was eventually restored, the son could do nothing to reclaim the time that he had already wasted in the pursuit of a reckless lifestyle. That valuable time represented the peak of the prodigal son’s strength and could never be reclaimed. But unlike the prodigal son, some people choose to continue in the pursuit of a lifestyle that is built around whatever feels desirable at the moment. Such people often reach the winter of life with few accomplishments of eternal value, having failed to apply the counsel of Ecclesiastes 12:1 or Jesus’ observation from Matthew 16:26…
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (ESV).
(1) Steve Taylor “What Is The Measure Of Your Success” from the album “I Predict 1990”
“Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. Remember him before your legs—the guards of your house—start to tremble; and before your shoulders—the strong men—stoop. Remember him before your teeth—your few remaining servants—stop grinding; and before your eyes—the women looking through the windows—see dimly” (Ecclesiastes 12:2-3).
What are the things we remember? Its probably safe to say that most people tend to remember the things that hold the greatest personal significance. For instance, we remember the requirements and responsibilities associated with our jobs. We remember the things for which we have an emotional attachment- a person, a feeling, a scent, a time, or a place. We remember the negative experiences of the past so we can avoid repeating them. The point is that we can often judge the importance of something by evaluating the place that “something” holds within our remembrance.
The problem is that the experience of life under the sun may impair the remembrance of the Creator’s plan for our lives and effectively waste the strength and opportunities of youth. The February 29th, 1991 edition of Our Daily Bread relates the following anecdote that serves to illustrate the Teacher’s encouragement to remember the Creator, especially in our youth…
“According to an old fable, a man made an unusual agreement with Death. He told the Grim Reaper that he would willingly accompany him when it came time to die, but only on one condition— that Death would send a messenger well in advance to warn him. Weeks passed into months, and months into years.
Then one winter evening, as the man sat thinking about all his money and possessions, Death suddenly entered the room and tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, the man cried out, ‘You’re here so soon and without warning. I thought we had an agreement.’ Death replied, ‘I’ve more than kept my part. I’ve sent you many messengers. Look in the mirror and you’ll see some of them.’
As the man complied, Death whispered, ‘Notice your hair. Once it was full and black, now it is thin and white. Look at the way you cock your head to listen to me because you can’t hear very well. Observe how close to the mirror you must stand to see yourself clearly. Yes, I’ve sent many messengers through the years. I’m sorry you’re not ready, but the time has come to leave.'”
This anecdote also brings to mind another important caution from the Scriptures…
“Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17 NIV).
“(B)efore the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 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” (Ecclesiastes 12:2-3 ESV).
Although the Teacher of Ecclesiastes has discussed the challenges and opportunities associated with life under the sun, he did not present his readers with a “take it or leave it” collection of opinions. Instead, he worked to anticipate potential questions from his audience and address some probable objections as well. We can see an example of this approach beginning here in Ecclesiastes 12:2.
Having already counseled his readers to “…remember your Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say, ‘I don’t enjoy life'” (GNB), Solomon will now attempt to provide a basis for that statement with a poetic description of the difficulties associated with the advancing years of age. This section will go on to describe the physical infirmities of age using the illustration of an approaching storm and a home that was once in good repair but has since suffered from the neglect of those who were entrusted with it’s upkeep. While these figures of speech are not very pleasant, they vividly communicate the author’s main point: the difficulties associated with age should motivate us to honor God with the remaining years we have.
For instance, verse two refers to “…the day when the keepers of the house tremble.” If we were to consider the head and torso as the “house” of the body, then the arms and hands might represent the “keepers” of the house that now tremble with age. The “strong men” might refer to the legs, possessors of some of the most powerful muscles in the body but now bent with fatigue from years of support. The “grinders” present a graphic illustration of teeth that once performed their task without pain or difficulty but have now been mostly lost. Finally, the challenge of diminishing eyesight is poetically represented by those who are now forced to see through a dim window.
While these realities may be unpleasant to consider, the author’s intent is not to inspire his readers to “think happy thoughts.” Solomon dealt with the reality of life under the sun and these word pictures help to communicate the idea that we are responsible to invest the time we have to honor the Creator while we have the ability to do so.
Like any good communicator, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes had a specific goal in mind for the passage that we know today as Ecclesiastes chapter twelve. You see, Solomon had more in mind than simply communicating with his audience; his primary goal was expressed by a desire to help others grasp and master the truths he had written about. To effectively accomplish this, Solomon turned to a number of different metaphors to help gain entry into the understanding of his readers.
Earlier, Solomon had chosen to communicate the infirmities associated with age by utilizing the image of a home that had fallen into disrepair. Now he will return with some additional figures of speech in an effort to communicate the main point of this section- it is critical to take advantage of the opportunities we have now for the time is approaching when we may be no longer able to do so…
“Remember him before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades. Now you rise at the first chirping of the birds, but then all their sounds will grow faint” (Ecclesiastes 12:4).
A door that is closed or locked may present little more than an inconvenience for certain members of society. For example, a soldier, firefighter, or law enforcement officer often has a wide variety of options available for entering a closed door if he or she wishes to do so. These options may range from the use of physical force along with tools such as axes or battering rams and extend all the way to sophisticated explosive devices in order to root out an enemy or secure a room.
So what does this have to do with Ecclesiastes 12:4? Well, like the soldier or firefighter in our example, a closed door might have represented little more than a minor obstacle for a person in his or her youth. But over time, the abilities that may have once enabled us to gain entry to life’s opportunities eventually disappear and we are left to stand at the door without the strength or tools to gain entry.
But Solomon identified some other obstacles as well. For example, sleep patterns may change as we age. We might fall asleep in the middle of the day when we should be awake and awake early in the morning when we could be sleeping. Sounds become indistinct and we may lose the ability to appreciate the music we once enjoyed. One or more of these experiences are common among those who reach the autumn of life under the sun and the Teacher will provide us with a few additional examples next.
“Remember him before you become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets; before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper, and the caperberry no longer inspires sexual desire. Remember him before you near the grave, your everlasting home, when the mourners will weep at your funeral” (Ecclesiastes 12:5).
There are some good reasons to explain why we don’t see many septuagenarians skateboarding, BMX riding, or participating in the X Games. As the passage quoted above implies, one of those reasons involves the fact that someone cannot be fearful of falling while participating in these or similar sports.
In fact, the very real danger associated with an elderly person who is in danger of falling has helped inspire a entire market of medical alarm and life safety companies that purport to provide peace of mind for the elderly who are fearful of becoming disabled or immobilized within their own homes. This reality represents one motivating factor that drove the Teacher to encourage his readers to honor the Creator before the infirmities associated with old age begin to take their toll.
Verse five then continues by poetically identifying this season of life with an almond tree in bloom. As it turns out, this is a good metaphor for advancing age for almond tree blossoms begin as pink blooms and eventually turn white, much as the hair of an aging person tends to do as well.
The text then goes on to reference a “caperberry.” While the fruit of a caperberry plant may sound unfamiliar, those who are accustomed to Mediterranean cuisine will recognize “capers” as the edible flower buds of a caperberry plant and a staple of Italian cooking. Some commentators believe that the caperberry was thought to function as a type of aphrodisiac or appetite stimulant in Solomon’s time. If this is the case, then we might understand the Teacher’s reference as an illustration of someone who has completely lost the virility of youth. When that loss has taken place, then we know that such a person cannot be far from “…the grave, your everlasting home.”
We should also notice that the wording of this passage implies no possibility of reincarnation, annihilation, or a so-called passage into oblivion upon death. For Solomon, human existence did not end with physical death; instead, every human being will proceed to an eternal home and a destiny that will be impacted by a decision to neglect or honor his or her Creator.
“Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well” (Ecclesiastes 12:6).
In the days before electrical power and batteries, a fiery torch, a candle, or an oil filled lamp were the only means available to provide light after sunset. This represents part of the imagery that the Teacher employed in a final plea to his readers to remember humanity’s Creator and allow His existence to influence the choices and decisions of life.
Solomon’s poetic image utilizes a bowl that held a candle or a wick that was used to provide light for those within it’s vicinity. Such bowls were commonly suspended from ceilings or rafters during that time. In this instance, notice that the bowl was fashioned from gold while the cord used to suspend it was made from silver. These metals represent two of the most most valuable and costly materials available and clearly imply the value associated with human life.
The visual image of a broken cord reminds us that no matter how secure and strong we may appear to be, life is fragile, tenuous, and impermanent. Like a chain that breaks without warning due to the failure of a single link, the silver cord of life might also fail at a moment when we least expect it and bring down all that depends upon it. This idea is further symbolized by a golden bowl that is subsequently destroyed, extinguishing the flame that once burned brightly. As one commentator remarked, “The image points to the value of life… and the drama in the end of a life whose pieces cannot be put together again.” (1)
A similar image is employed by the use of a jar, a pulley, and a water well. In Solomon’s day, water was often retrieved by the use of a rope tied to a bucket. The rope was then routed over a wheel (or a pulley) that was suspended over a cistern. The bucket was lowered into the well to scoop up the water below, then raised and transferred to a clay jar for transport.
A damaged pulley or a broken jar would eliminate access to this life sustaining water and helps serve as a symbolic representation of a person who can no longer function and participate in life. Each word picture represents the idea of “damage beyond repair” and is meant to communicate the importance of honoring God with our life and work while we have the ability to do so.
“For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. ‘Everything is meaningless,’ says the Teacher, ‘completely meaningless'” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8).
If we were to use the analogy of a golf course to illustrate an average human life span, we could say anyone who has already started play on the final nine holes can tell you that it’s not very easy. While we might possess the benefit of life’s experience as we grow older, the truth is that we slowly lose the physical ability to do the things we once found easy to do. It’s during this time that the choices and decisions of our youth can help to determine whether those remaining years are more or less of a blessing.
The picture that Solomon provides for us in the verses quoted above is largely a reversal of the account of humanity’s creation as found in Genesis 2:7. That passage tells us, “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). But now that process is transposed as our bodies eventually revert to dust upon our passing and the spirit returns to the Creator who established it.
This word “spirit” is one that possesses a variety of meanings depending on the context. For example, the word “spirit” might refer to things like enthusiasm, fortitude, or ambition. It might refer to a supernatural apparition, or a ghost of the type seen in Charles Dicken’s famous work, A Christmas Carol. It might even refer to alcohol or some other type of flammable liquid.
The Biblical idea of the word “spirit” finds it’s origin in the Old Testament Hebrew word “ruach” and the Greek word “pneuma” as found in the New Testament. In fact, the word “pneuma” can be seen today as the basis of the word “pneumatic” when used in relation to something like a pneumatic tire, air tool, valve, or gas. This word expresses the general idea of the wind, a current of air, or breath. One Biblical translation captures this idea by rendering verse seven, “Our bodies will return to the dust of the earth, and the breath of life will go back to God, who gave it to us” (GNB).
The idea is that -like the wind- the human spirit is invisible and immaterial. The spirit is the part of every human which is eternal, the part that continues following the death of our physical bodies- and once that takes place, “…your spirit will return to God who gave it” (NCV).
“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘All is vanity'” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8 NKJV).
Why do so many things appear to have no purpose or meaning in life? Why does it seem as if we work so much but accomplish so little? Why do we invest so much but often get so little back? Well, the Biblical account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis helps provide us with some answers to those questions…
“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19).
One consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was a cycle of futility that still exists to this day. One way to define the term “futility” is to say that it refers to something that is “useless and without purpose” – and Genesis 3:19 tells us exactly how that cycle would come to characterize Adam’s life…
- Adam came from the dust
- He would spend the rest of his life trying to grow things to eat out of that dust so he could survive
- His work would be difficult and produce a poor return on his investment
- He returned to the dust upon his death
- Following his death, Adam’s lifeless body would decay and serve the next generation that was trying to grow things to eat out of the dust.
This cycle of futility was far different from God’s original design for humanity as detailed in Genesis chapters one and two. For instance, the first two chapters of Genesis demonstrate the life, growth, and progress associated with God’s creative work. But in Genesis chapter three, we see the beginning of things like death, deterioration, and the “vanities” that Solomon laments throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Yet despite these depressing realities, we have this encouragement from the Scriptures…
“Christian brothers, we want you to know for sure about those who have died. You have no reason to have sorrow as those who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and then came to life again. Because we believe this, we know that God will bring to life again all those who belong to Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NLV).
“Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 KJV).
So now we’ve come full circle. As we approach the closing verses of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher has returned once again to the premise that he originally used to open this book: “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
As Solomon has extensively documented between these two verses, life under the sun is ultimately meaningless if this physical life is all there is to our existence. For instance, the person who works to accumulate possessions must leave them behind at death. The person who seeks to live on in the remembrance of future generations is likely to be forgotten within a few short years. Monuments to those who have passed eventually crumble and decay. There is nothing of real substance, worth, or significance if life ends with physical death for without God, we are ultimately just looking for things to fill our time under the sun.
This reality was also recognized by the Apostle Paul in the Biblical book of 1 Corinthians when he wrote, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 5:19 NIV). But the problem really goes much further than that, for even basic concepts like “right” and “wrong” have no real meaning unless they originate from a transcendent source. As pointed out earlier, the famous author C.S. Lewis once related a personal experience to illustrate this idea when he said, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line…” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
The “straight line” that Mr. Lewis talks about represents those moral absolutes that prescribe right and wrong behavior- what we should and shouldn’t do. Like a straight edge, these moral absolutes help us determine when the actions of an individual or society have become “crooked.” If death is the end of human existence and these transcendent absolutes don’t really exist, then we can say with the Apostle Paul, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'” (1 Corinthians 15:32 NIV).
Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8 serve as the foundation that supports the premise of this book- and having established his premise and supported it’s validity, the Teacher will next offer his credentials in preparation for the unveiling of his conclusion in the final verses.
“Keep this in mind: The Teacher was considered wise, and he taught the people everything he knew. He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them. The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).
This passage represents a shift from the first person point of view that has characterized much of Ecclesiastes to a third person narrative. Some commentators believe that this change signals the work of a later editor who sought to provide some additional information concerning the Teacher before continuing on to the conclusion of this book. While its possible that these verses represent a later addition, this does not necessarily have to be the case.
As mentioned earlier when we looked as Ecclesiastes chapter one, we might assume that our author intended to write with both a contemporary and future audience in mind. If this is the case, then the use of a third person narrative would help provide some important background information for those who were personally unfamiliar with the author or his literary approach.
The first thing we learn from this background information is that the Teacher was someone who possessed wisdom. As used in the original language, this word carries the idea of skill or mastery in the art of living in accordance with God’s expectations. (1) Later on in the New Testament, the word “wisdom” is associated with things like insight, common sense; good judgment, and an understanding of what is true, right, or lasting.
With these definitions in mind, we can say that wisdom refers to an understanding of what to do with the facts at hand. It means using proper judgment in the application of knowledge. Having wisdom means more than simply making good decisions; wisdom shapes the basis of our philosophy about life, and that philosophy helps form the principles by which we live.
The cornerstone of a wise life philosophy is found in Proverbs 9:10 where we’re told that, “…the reverence and fear of God are basic to all wisdom. Knowing God results in every other kind of understanding” (TLB). While such wisdom might seem remote or unattainable, the Biblical book of James identifies the path that leads to the acquisition of real wisdom…
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5 NIV).
Remember that God is the source of all true wisdom and He is willing to share that wisdom -generously- to those who are willing to ask Him.
(1) chakam OT:2450 from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“The Teacher was very wise and taught the people what he knew. He very carefully thought about, studied, and set in order many wise teachings. The Teacher looked for just the right words to write what is dependable and true” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 NLV).
These few verses are rich in application for anyone who assumes the responsibility associated with teaching others.
For instance, one hallmark of Solomon’s teaching approach included a strong commitment to study and preparation. This was especially important because the teachers of the Biblical era did not simply lecture to their students. Instead, it was customary for students and teachers to both assume the “classroom” role of questioner and answerer- and this commitment to good preparation helped equip the Teacher for wherever those conversations might turn.
As we’ve seen throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon had interests in the political arena, public works, the arts, and other areas. Yet the Teacher did not allow those varied interests to interfere with his commitment to study and preparation. The Teacher clearly thought about what he wished to communicate; he was not one to immediately share what may have occurred to him at the moment and permit poorly chosen words, partially formulated thoughts, or logical inconsistencies to find their way into his teaching. The Teacher apparently understood that its difficult to take someone seriously when that person clearly hasn’t thought very carefully about what he or she is trying to say- and he took steps to eliminate that possibility from his own teaching.
We should also notice that Solomon did not confine his teaching to conversations with other academics. Instead, he sought a wide and varied audience for the presentation of what he had learned. He carefully evaluated the teachings of others, testing them to determine their true validity. The Teacher understood that words are important and he made certain to carefully choose the right word to illustrate exactly what he wished to communicate, much as the 19th century author Mark Twain would later illustrate by saying, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Now it may be easy for those who are not teachers to discount this portion of Ecclesiastes before moving on to the conclusion of this book. But before we continue, let’s stop to remember that everyone is a teacher to some degree, for everyone has a responsibility to teach and communicate Biblical truth to others. The person who utilizes Solomon’s approach to teaching is someone who is sure to become Biblically grounded enough to be able to effectively communicate the truth to others and correct false teachings as well.
“The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true” (Ecclesiastes 12:10 NIV).
While the Teacher of Ecclesiastes was committed to the accurate communication of truth, another Biblical personality apparently doubted that “truth” even existed. You see, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate once asked Jesus one of the most important questions that anyone can ask: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). The answer to this question is critically important for if we don’t define truth for ourselves now, someone else will surely try to do it later.
So what is “truth”? Well, simply put, “truth” is defined as “that which conforms to reality.” Truth is that which is in agreement with the facts. In other words, if you’re speaking the “truth” then you’re telling it like it is. The “truth” refers to that which is authentic, genuine, and corresponds with what is actual and factual. This is important because the subject of “truth” comes up a lot when talking about Christianity.
For example, Jesus once said of Himself, “…I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NIV). This is an absolute statement that people may find objectionable, especially if they don’t believe that absolute truth exists. This premise is revealed whenever someone remarks that,“You may believe in Jesus, but that’s true for you and not for me.” The problem is that a statement like this is actually self-defeating when you stop to think about it.
To understand why, just ask, “does that statement apply for everyone?” In other words, is it absolutely true that a belief in Jesus can be true for some but not for others? If the answer is yes, then that statement cancels itself out by assuming that at least one thing can be absolutely true- and if its possible for something to be true for everyone, then its also possible for belief in Christ to be true for everyone as well.
There’s one further thing that we can learn from Solomon before we leave this passage. Instead of seeking to verbally batter others with the truth, the Teacher sought to communicate in a manner that was “pleasing” (BBE), “acceptable” (ASV), and “comforting” (GNB). As we’re reminded in the New Testament book of 2 Timothy…
“God’s people must not be quarrelsome; they must be gentle, patient teachers of those who are wrong. Be humble when you are trying to teach those who are mixed up concerning the truth. For if you talk meekly and courteously to them, they are more likely, with God’s help, to turn away from their wrong ideas and believe what is true” (2 Timothy 2:24-25 TLB).
“The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails —given by one shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11 NIV).
In the verses leading up to the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon has provided us with a number of important insights that are sure to benefit anyone who desires to communicate meaningfully with others.
For example, we’ve been reminded that its important to be knowledgeable about the things we’re attempting to communicate. We’ve also been told that we should seek to express that knowledge in a manner that is both truthful and right. Now the Teacher will add an additional characteristic that can help identify a wise communicator- a wise person chooses words that remain embedded within the listener’s memory and help motivate that person to act.
Solomon illustrated this concept by associating the words of the wise with something called a “goad.” A goad was a sharp, pointed implement that was 8-10 feet (2.5-3m) long and sometimes reinforced with iron. A goad was often used to guide oxen while pulling a plow or to help provide some extra motivation for a reluctant or unruly animal. The closest modern day equivalent to an ancient goad might be found in the spurs worn by a cowboy to help guide or direct a horse. In any event, the idea is that a wise person can motivate someone to move in the right direction by the words that he or she uses.
This passage serves to remind us that it is not always a pleasant task to motivate someone to do what they should and not necessarily what they’d like to do. A wise person recognizes this reality and will seek to motivate or encourage others in a manner that is both pleasing and acceptable whenever possible, just as we saw mentioned earlier in Ecclesiastes 12:10. This approach can help penetrate and effectively secure wisdom in the minds of those who are inclined to listen.
However, the Teacher was also quick to place the credit for these wise sayings where it really belonged: “These sayings come from God, our only shepherd, and they are like nails that fasten things together” (CEV). In looking at this passage, one commentator remarks, “Kings were typically compared to shepherds, and Solomon is claiming that the source of his ideas is God, the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm. 80:1).” (1) So while Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, he still recognized that true wisdom finds it’s source in God and not in those things we may accumulate, possess, or experience during our lives under the sun.
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1997). The Nelson Study Bible : New King James Version. Includes index. (Ec 12:11). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
Every student can probably find at least one area of agreement with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: “There is no end to books, and too much study will wear you out” (CEV). While there may be some humor to that observation, this passage brings up an important point.
In Solomon’s day, anyone with a desire to disseminate an idea or opinion had two basic options: he or she could engage in face to face communication with others or communicate through the written word as preserved on a scroll. Since transportation was often difficult in those days, interpersonal communication was usually limited to a relatively small number of people. A written work might find a wider audience, but scrolls were time consuming to produce and challenging to distribute in large numbers. Yet despite these obstacles, Solomon still seemed exasperated by the sheer volume of opinions that were available to be studied in his day.
Now let’s fast forward from Solomon’s era to our 21st century age of information. Scrolls have long been replaced by the individually paged form of book that allows for better portability and greater content. Advancements in transportation now permit human beings to personally meet and interact over a far wider geographic area. Mobile phones and texting capability offer near instant communication between two or more people 24 hours a day. Online technology allows anyone with an opinion (like the author of this web site, for instance) to establish an online presence and share his or her views with virtually anyone throughout the world. Commentators and pundits have the opportunity to offer viewpoints on almost any subject imaginable via radio, television, streaming media, and handheld devices. So if Solomon was dismayed by all the opinions offered through the relatively limited media that was available to him, what might he say about the options that are available for us today?
These modern media choices offer an important challenge for God’s people. For example, are we spending more time with books on spiritual topics than with the Bible itself? Do our devotional readings consist of works on various subjects with a few Biblical verses thrown in? Remember that devotional study and the acquisition of spiritual knowledge are valuable and necessary pursuits, but if we follow those pursuits to the exclusion of the Scriptures (or carefully selected commentaries that help us understand the Scriptures better), we ultimately do ourselves a disservice.
“That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
It’s been a challenging and difficult journey with the Teacher through the book of Ecclesiastes but we have now arrived at our final destination. But for those who were expecting some grand cosmic revelation from the wisest man who ever lived, the final verses of this book may feel like something of a let down. After all, if Solomon wanted to advise his readers to simply “…Fear God and obey his commands” then why didn’t he do so right at the beginning of the book and save us all the trouble of slogging along with him through the dark valleys of life under the sun?
Well, the answer is that there was a purpose behind the God-ordained journey that the Teacher has taken us on throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. You see, the experiences, the dead-ends, and the wrong turns documented throughout this trip should help to focus our attention on where we should be going- and where we should be going in life is found here in Ecclesiastes 12:13 where we are advised to fear God and obey His commandments.
Solomon hinted at this destination earlier in the book of Ecclesiastes when he said, “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). As mentioned earlier, our modern use of the of the word “fear” usually indicates a general sense of apprehension or state of being afraid. But in this kind of Biblical context, the word fear conveys the idea of things like reverence, honor, or respect. So when we read about this responsibility to “fear God,” it means that we should honor and respect Him above everything else.
But while this term does suggest an attitude of honor and respect, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we have nothing to be afraid of. You see, people are often heard to use trivial or superficial terms such as ‘the big guy” or “the man upstairs” when referring to God. But a look at the experiences of those who encountered God within the pages of the Scriptures reveals an initial response that was often one of terror when visited by the one true God (see Matthew 17:4-6 and Exodus 3:6 for some examples). As we’re told in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31 NKJV). God is to be respected and honored and not to be treated lightly.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God, and keep His commandments. For this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
One important aspect of our relationship with God involves our responsibility to “…keep His commandments” as mentioned in the passage quoted above. Jesus once illustrated this concept in a conversation with the religious leadership of His day by using a parable that explained the importance of living an authentic, God-honoring lifestyle…
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work on the farm today.’ ‘I won’t,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father told the youngest, ‘You go!’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t” (Matthew 21:28:30).
So the father in this parable said to his first son, “Go work on the farm today” but the son brazenly refused to do so. However, the first son later had a change of heart and decided to do what he had been asked to do. Unlike the first son however, the second son was polite and respectful to his father. When he was asked to work on the farm, the second son responded by saying, “Yes, sir, I will.” But even though the second son respectfully agreed to act on his father’s request, he never actually did what he promised to do. This little drama set up the following question from Jesus…
“‘Which of the two was obeying his father?’ They replied, ‘The first, of course'” (Matthew 21:31a).
Since the answer to this question seemed obvious, what was Jesus’ point? Well, here was the explanation…
“Then Jesus explained his meaning: ‘Surely evil men and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom before you do. For John the Baptist told you to repent and turn to God, and you wouldn’t, while very evil men and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to repent, and so you couldn’t believe” (Matthew 21:31b-32).
The tax collectors and prostitutes -like the first son in Jesus’ parable- changed their minds and committed themselves to following God after hearing God’s Word through John the Baptist (see Matthew 3:1-6). The religious leaders however, were a very different story. Like the second son in Jesus’ story, they hypocritally said one thing but did something else when it actually came to doing what God wanted them to do.
This helps illustrates why we are counseled to “Fear God, and keep His commandments.” As Jesus once said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15 NIV).
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 NIV).
In these verses, Solomon identifies some of the foundational responsibilities that should characterize our relationship with God. However, there seems to be one important element missing from the Teacher’s counsel here in Ecclesiastes chapter twelve. That crucial element is love. For instance, the New Testament gospel of Matthew relates this conversation between Jesus and a religious leader of His day…
“One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV).
With this in mind, it may seem unusual for Solomon to omit our responsibility to love God in favor of other relational aspects like respect and duty. One possible explanation for this omission might be found in the fact that it’s difficult to love someone you don’t first respect or honor. While things like respect and honor may not automatically indicate the presence of love, they are important precursors to a genuine loving relationship, at least from a human perspective.
A person who truly loves someone also knows that duty can be a representative aspect of love as well. As mentioned earlier, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). Jesus also touched on this idea in John 6:29 when He said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (NKJV).
The fulfillment of our responsibility to fear God and keep His commandments also helps to provide us with real meaning and purpose in a world where such things rarely exist. The Apostle Paul illustrated this concept when he said, “…life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus– the work of telling others the Good News about God’s mighty kindness and love” (Acts 20:24 TLB). In an under the sun existence where “all is vanity,” keeping God’s commandments helps provide an “above the sun” perspective that offers meaning and purpose in everyday life.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God, and keep His commandments. For this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 MKJV).
After spending much of the book of Ecclesiastes describing the vanities of life under the sun, Solomon ends with two verses that serve to remind us that the economy of the afterlife will be very different from that which we experience today.
You see, our “under the sun” world often assigns the greatest value to those things that we may possess or accumulate in life. For example, a person of great athletic ability, physical attractiveness, or financial wealth is often recognized as a person of great worth in our world today. However, these closing verses remind us that human existence will not find it’s ultimate worth in that which we possessed but in what we really are.
As implied in the passage quoted above, the real value of our existence will encompass the question of motivation, or the cause that exists behind the things we choose to say and do. This is important because our true motivations are often easily disguised, a capacity that even small children learn to acquire early in life. This ability makes it easy for us to be dishonest with ourselves or others regarding the actual intent behind our actions when it is in our interest to do so. We can find similar examples whenever we identify a “hidden agenda” or “ulterior motive” in assessing a person who may not be entirely sincere concerning his or her true motivation.
Since actual intent is often difficult to prove, we may be tempted to utilize this advantage to cast ourselves in the best light or get something we want. However, Ecclesiastes 12:14 reminds us that while we may be able to fool others (and even ourselves) regarding our true motives, the Creator is never fooled (see Hebrews 4:12-13 for a fuller explanation).
While some may be very sophisticated in masking their true motivations, nothing can ever be hidden from God. Along with the verses quoted above, the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians tells us each of us will be called to give an account for the manner in which we have built our lives (see 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). At that time, God will not only look upon what we have done but the motivation for what we have done as well. We’ll see a Biblical example of this concept from the life of the Apostle Paul next.
“God will definitely bring every deed to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:14 CEB)
Would it surprise you to learn that the New Testament Apostles had to deal with some people within the church who carried ulterior motives? Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say when he wrote the following message to the members of the church in the town of Philippi…
“Some, of course, are preaching the Good News because they are jealous of the way God has used me. But others have purer motives, preaching because they love me, for they know that the Lord has brought me here to use me to defend the Truth. And some preach to make me jealous, thinking that their success will add to my sorrows here in jail. But whatever their motive for doing it, the fact remains that the Good News about Christ is being preached and I am glad” (Philippians 1:15-18 TLB).
The people that Paul speaks of here were doing the right thing for the wrong reason. They outwardly appeared to be doing a great work for God but inwardly their motivations were wrong. Paul knew it but more importantly, God knew it.
This question of “inward motivation” seems to be very important to God. For example, the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel tells us how God instructed the prophet Samuel to locate a man named Jesse for God had selected one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king. When Samuel saw Jesse’s first son, he was sure that God had selected him to be the king. But this first son was not God’s choice. Neither was the second. Or the third. And so it went until seven of Jesse’s sons had presented themselves and been rejected.
Finally, Jesse’s eighth and final son (who had been out in the fields watching the sheep) appeared and God gave Samuel the go-ahead to anoint him as the new king. This last son was named David and he did indeed go on to become a great king. But the question is why would God choose a common sheep-herder as king instead of those who seemingly had more to offer? Well, God explained His reasoning like this…
“Don’t judge by a man’s face or height… I don’t make decisions the way you do! Men judge by outward appearance, but I look at a man’s thoughts and intentions” (1 Samuel 16:7 TLB).
Of course, knowing that God will judge the unseen motives behind our actions can be a disturbing thought- and we’ll look at some ways to prepare for that evaluation next.
“God is going to judge everything we do, whether good or bad, even things done in secret” (Ecclesiastes 12:14 GNB).
Knowing that God considers our thoughts and motivations to be important, it may be a good idea to take an inventory of those things that often initiate us to act today. For example…
- Do we seek to honor ourselves or do we really desire to honor God in the things we say and do? As we’re told in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, “…We didn’t speak to please people, but to please God who knows our motives” (CEV).
- Are there other motivations hiding behind a facade of religious sounding words or actions?
- Are we trying to convince ourselves that something is the right thing to do when it’s really just the easy thing to do?
- Are we acting selfishly or unselfishly?
- Are we really considering the needs of others or just the needs of ourselves?
- Are we doing good things as an outgrowth of our relationship with God or are we doing those things so others will see them and praise us for them?
Remember that God is often more concerned with the “inside” you than the “outside” you. God looks upon our internal motivations and He will judge those things that take place in secret. Of course, this represents something of a proverbial “double edged sword” when you consider the implications. For those who are unprepared to meet a holy, righteous, and morally perfect Creator, an accounting of every secret thought, word, and deed is something that should provoke a feeling of dread or apprehension.
But for those who have chosen to take the Teacher’s advice seriously, the knowledge that God will evaluate our life and work is something that helps provide meaning and purpose in what might otherwise seem to be a meaningless existence. You see, the “vanities” associated with life and work under the sun take on new significance when viewed from the eternal perspective of 1 Peter 2:11-12…
“Dear friends, your real home is not here on earth. You are strangers here. I ask you to keep away from all the sinful desires of the flesh. These things fight to get hold of your soul. When you are around people who do not know God, be careful how you act. Even if they talk against you as wrong-doers, in the end they will give thanks to God for your good works when Christ comes again” (NLV).
“…Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14 MSG).
The final verse of Ecclesiastes holds an important implication for everyone: if our thoughts and deeds are worthy of God’s evaluation, then life holds real significance despite those inconsistencies and apparent contractions we sometimes experience in life.
For example, the knowledge that our lives are subject to God’s assessment helps provide an opportunity to live for something greater than the banalities of everyday existence. The person who lives with the daily injustices of life can look forward to a time when God will right every wrong, both seen and unseen. The individual who lacks meaning, purpose, or direction in life can find those things in the pursuit of a lifestyle that is worthy of the Creator’s acceptance.
While this concept of “God’s judgment” may generate an image of eternal doom or condemnation in the minds of some, that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. You see, there are two great motivations within the Christian life. The first derives from the recognition of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the supreme act of love. The acknowledgement of a Creator who expressed His love by giving up His life so that we might live should provoke a loving response on our behalf as well- or as the Scriptures tell us, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 NIV).
The second motivation is one of responsibility. Living with the daily understanding that God will evaluate our choices helps provide a reason for doing what’s right, even if no one else notices or cares. So the desire to please God out of love is coupled with the knowledge that we will have to answer for the way that we’ve lived. Together, these things help provide meaning and purpose in life and enable us to live “above the sun.”
In Matthew 16:26, Jesus said, “What shall it profit a man if gains the entire world…” In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we‘ve looked at the account of man who did just that and have seen what he had to show for it. His ultimate conclusion is that life is ultimately pointless and futile without an acknowledgment of the Creator and a commitment to fulfilling His purpose for our lives. The New Testament book 1 John 5:11-12 sums up that message like this…
“…this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (NIV).