Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (1991) 298-317

               Copyright © 1991 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

                     Ecclesiastes 12:1-8-Death,

                          an Impetus for Life

 

                                                     Barry C. Davis

                                                     Bible Teacher

                                                   Deerfield Illinois

 

In the Book of Ecclesiastes the author described his search for

the key to the meaning of life. That search, however, became an ex-

ercise in futility because the more he sought for the answers to life,

the more he discovered that life itself is unfair, that human wisdom

is woefully insufficient, and that death continually laughed in his

face. Furthermore he realized that of those three barriers- injus-

tice, ignorance, and death-death by far is the most devastating. As

Fuerst wrote, "Death is clearly the major problem, which intensifies

and exacerbates all others; the spectre of death mocks the brave

plans of the living. Man cannot argue with this spectre, and cannot

combat it. It will win in the end.1

Death has a voracious, insatiable appetite. Much like a vicious

animal, it silently stalks its prey and then strikes with great fury

and often little warning. It tears asunder hopes and dreams, and de-

clares that life itself is "vanity," "futility ," "meaninglessness," or

"emptiness" (lb,h,). Thus death "can make a man hate life, not be-

cause he wants to die, but because it renders life so futile.”2 

Since death cannot be circumvented, Solomon argued that the

 

 

1  Wesley J. Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, La-

mentations: The Five Scrolls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 151.

 

2  J. Stafford Wright, "The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes," in Classical Evangelical

Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (Grand Rapids

Baker Book House, 1972), p. 143.



Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8-Death, an Impetus for Life               298

 

key to life and living is to be found in facing death and dying. Going

to a wake will help one become awake to the realities of life (7:2, 4).

Perhaps to his surprise, Solomon discovered that the meaning of life

can be found only by facing the inevitable reality of death.

Ecclesiastes includes numerous references to death and dying.3

The most thorough treatment on the process and finality of death is

in 12:1-8, a passage that graphically depicts the decay of life with

its frailty, fear, and ultimately its finality. Before discussing this

passage six principles on death and life will be presented.

 

         Principles on the Death-Life Phenomenon

 

Principal One: All die (2:14-16; 3:19-22; 9:3). There is an

inescapable finality to death; "the inclusiveness of the grave [is]

universal."4 Whether human or animal, wise or foolish, righteous or

unrighteous, clean or unclean, sacrificer or nonsacrificer, good or bad,

swearer or the one who refuses to swear oaths, each one must face the

fate of death Being a human may have its advantages over being an

animal, and being wise may have its advantages over being foolish

in being able to live longer. Yet ultimately death functions as the

great equalizer. Thus the one certainty of life is death.5

Principal Two: Death has certain advantages over life (4:1-3;

7:1-2, 26). In life, wickedness abounds; in death, there is no suffering

and there are no snares to entrap a person. In life, there is constant

oppression, often with none to offer comfort; in death, there is a sense

of escape.  For the living, there is seldom relief-the innocent are

unable to "throw off an oppressive yoke, and in the absence of hope,

life becomes intolerable."6 Contemplating these truths, Solomon con-

cluded that death is to be preferred to life and nonexistence to either

 

3   2:14-16; 3:2 19-22; 4:1-3; 5:15-16; 6:3-4, 6; 7:1-2, 4,17,26; 8:8, 10, 12-13; 9:2-3, 4-6,

10-12; 12:1-7.

4   J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1971), p. 453.

5   Ecclesiastes does not soften the harsh reality of death. In fact little by way of a

theology of the afterlife is presented, leaving it to be understood primarily as a mys-

tery. Moreover, when the subject of the afterlife is addressed (9:5-6, 10), it is pre-

sented as a contrasting existence to the present life, as a place where all earthly expe-

riences cease (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary

[Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983], p. 129). Furthermore even though at

death the human spirit returns to God (12:7), no one is able to show what that exis-

tence will be like (3:21).

6   James L. Crenshaw, "The Shadow of Death in Qoheleth," in Israelite Wisdom,

ed. John G. Gammie et al. (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978), p. 208.



300     Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

death or life.7 The quest to find meaning to life by investigating life

itself, therefore, becomes a hopeless and vain effort.8

Principle Three: Death cannot be avoided, but it is best not to

act foolishly and to rush it (3:2; 6:6; 7:17; 8:8, 12-13; 9:11-12). Hu-

mans desire to control death and, to a limited extent, they are able to

forestall it. They are capable of acting in ways that would seem to

hasten death on the one hand or to extend life on the other (7:17;

8:12-13).  Yet typically death happens without regard to people's

plans.  In the ultimate sense, it is controlled by God (3:2; 9:11-12).

Remarkably, despite principle two (that death has certain ad-

vantages over life), the author of Ecclesiastes never encouraged the

shortening of life, by either unintentional or intentional means. To

the contrary, he urged people to refrain from wickedness or foolish-

ness which conceivably could hasten the end of their lives (7:17).

Furthermore he avoided offering suicide as an option-a lure which

"would seem irresistible for one who hates life and falls into de-

spair's vice-like grip."9 A voiding such extremes, he offered princi-

ples four and five as positive affirmations of life in the face of death.

Principle Four:  Studying the reality of death can be instructive

on how to live life to the fullest (7:4; 12:1-7). "The mind of the wise

is in the house of mourning" rather than in "the house of pleasure"

(7:4).  Such a perspective forces the individual to face the reality of

death toward which all life inevitably points. A soberness or an at-

titude of reflection thereby is thrust on the individual. "Sorrow pen-

etrates the heart, draws the thought upwards, purifies, trans-

forms."10 By advocating the study of death, Qohelet challenged his

readers to face life in light of their mortality. Also he urged them to

 

7 Qohelet's conclusion regarding the preference of nonexistence over present exis-

tence appears on the surface to be at variance with the Old Testament Israelite's

aversion to Sheol, the place of the dead. Knudson states that "the Israelites looked

forward to it [Sheol] with unconcealed dread. Almost any kind of earthly existence

was to be preferred to it" (Albert C. Knudson, The Religious Teaching of the Old Tes-

tament [New York: Abingdon Press, 1918], p. 390). Qohelet, however, did not embrace

the place of the dead as the place to be. Rather, he preferred nonsuffering as the

"place" to be. The dead and the never-alive do not face the miseries of this life.

Their fate, moreover, is not a question mark but a reality; it is not something to be

feared by the child of God but something to be experienced. (Compare principle five

in which Qohelet argued that there are advantages to being alive when compared to

being dead.)

8 J. Coert Rylaarsdam, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, The Lay-

man's Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1908), p. 110. See Ecclesi-

astes 1:13-2:11.

9 Crenshaw, 'The Shadow of Death in Qoheleth," p. 210.

10 Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, Biblical

Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. M. C. Easton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1988), p. 315.



Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8-Death, an Impetus for Life               301

 

consider their fate early in life (12:1) while there is still time to

make a difference in how they live. The longer the delay, the more

old age will rob them of the ability to make changes necessary to

live life to the fullest to the glory of God (vv. 1-5).

Principle Five: Life has certain advantages over death (9:4-6,

10). While One is alive, there is a hope of finding meaning to life

and the Possibility of attaining success in life that carries beyond

the grave. Qohelet illustrated this truth by maintaining that even

the lowest of the low (i.e., the dog)11 that is alive is better off than

the greatest (if the great (i.e., the lion)12 that is dead (9:4). By this

contrast he reinforced the superiority of life to death. Whereas life

offers hope, death shatters all dreams. Death allows no further

opportunity for obtaining any reward in this life or the next.-

Principle Six: Living solely for this life is meaningless (5:15-16;

6:3-5; 8:10). Securing all possible physical possessions (wealth,

health, and family) and religious credits does nothing to ensure an

enduring reward or a meaningful existence after the grave. Riches in

fact deceive title individual who places his or her trust in them (5:13-

16). They are inherently unsatisfying-they are never enough;

someone always desires to take them away; and they produce worry

and misery it this life. Riches also are temporary-they provide no

true security. They cannot be taken into the next life; they are as

fleeting as the wind.

Having a long life with many descendants (6:3-5) does not guar-

antee earthly satisfaction, much less eternal rewards. The joy of

children's laughter may fade through the years and children's love

for their father may turn to resentment or apathy-the resultant

tragedy being that none of a man's children may care enough even to

save face by giving him a decent burial.13 Such a man, as Kidner

states, would "have the things men dream of-which in Old Testa-

 

11 Crenshaw describes the Hebrew view of "dog" as follows: "The lowly cur [9:4b],

restricted to a life of scavenging on the perimeters of human existence, functioned as a

tern of opprobrium. The epithet 'dog,' was hurled in the faces of male prostitutes,

who belonged, in the speaker's opinion, outside the domain of human beings (Deut.

23:18-19). The term also became a means of self-abnegation, particularly in the pres-

ence of nobility 1:1 Sam. 24:14)" ("The Shadow of Death in Qoheleth," p. 209).

12 In direct contrast to the dog, which was despised by the Hebrews, the lion enjoyed

an exalted status. "To the Jews the lion was the mightiest of beasts, having a king's

regal bearing (P:v 30:29-31). Thus it symbolized leadership (Gn 49:9, 10; Nm 24:9)"

(Walter A. Elwell, ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker

Book House, 198~], 1:107-8).

13 Eichrodt argues that the Israelites attached much significance to having a proper

burial. He states that they saw a direct relationship between the absence or inade-

quacy of a burial and the realization of a less desirable position in the afterlife

(Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker, 2 vols.

[Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961,1967],2:212).



302     Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

ment terms meant children by the score, and years of life by the thou-

sand-and still depart unnoticed, unlamented and unfulfilled."14

These tragic situations are compounded by the fact that even if

an individual is religious, he is quickly forgotten after he dies

(8:10).15 The seemingly solid permanence of this life fades quickly

uuo the shadowy, elusive specter of the next. .

 

                   An Introduction to 12:1-8 on Death and Life

 

Many attempts have been made to unify Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 un-

der one analogical scheme.16 Some scholars have advocated that

the passage describes physiological changes. Others have suggested

that it pictures a funeral, and still others have indicated that it de-

picts a ruined house. The wisest approach seems to be that suggested

by Gordis who maintains that "most plausibly, old age is pictured

here without one line of thought being maintained throughout."17

Fuerst concurs, stating that "it is better not to insist on ...the pres-

ence of just one dominant figure of speech."18 Perhaps Solomon saw

death and dying as such debilitating and devastating events that he

determined to portray them through a multiplicity of analogies

with great rapidity to ensure that the thrust of his message was

clearly understood.

Because of the diversity of illustrative material in the passage,

it is necessary to analyze each of the images separately to determine

its specific point of reference.19 In doing so, the various conundrums

will be clarified and the integrity of the passage maintained.20

The passage is framed by references to God as the Originator of

life. Despite the inequities of life and the terrors of death, God is

 

14 Derek Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-

Varsity Press, 1976), p. 59.

15 This verse may be understood either as focusing solely on the wicked who in some

way make a pretense of being religious or as presenting the wicked in the first half

and the righteous in the second half. For a discussion of these two positions see

Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, pp. 345-47, and Cren

shaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), p. 154.

16 For a discussion of some of the more common approaches toward unification, see

Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, and Robert Gordis, Ko-

,lleleth-The Man and His World (New York: Schoken Books, 1968)

17 Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 339.

18 Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations:

rhe Five Scrolls, p. 152.

19 R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), pp. 163-64.

20 Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 101.



Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8-Death, an Impetus for Life               303

 

ever the Creator of both the living (v. 1)21 and the dead (v. 7). God's

sovereignty is thus recognized as a regulating element in all human

activities. If God is present at the beginning and the ending of life,

He most certainly is there throughout the totality of life. God thus

can give meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence; He can even

help individuals make sense out of the senselessness of death.

To aid the flow of thought through the passage, Qohelet em-

ployed threee times the temporal marker rw,xE dfa ("before") (vv. 1-2,

6) to denote the transitions between the temporal-psychological

shifts in the passage. While signaling a new thought, the words

also recall the command of verse 1, "Remember also your Creator."

The primary activity to undertake throughout all phases of life is to

consider God and His involvement in the life-death phenomenon.

 

The Days before the End (12:1)

 

"Remember also" (rkoz;U) provides a transition from the injunction

to live life to the fullest because it is short and the future is uncertain

(11:1-10) to a serious enjoinder to live life wisely precisely because it

is short and. the future is certain (12:1-7). That future certainty is the

fact that every individual will die. Furthermore the process of dy-

ing is an experience filled not with pleasure but with sorrow.

"Remember" (rkoz;) is the most appropriate choice for this solemn

religious adjuration.22 Though the Qal form of this verb normally

refers "to inner mental acts, either with or without reference to con-

comitant external acts,"23 the context of this passage (and of the en-

tire book) implies that action subsequent to the mental activity must

be undertaken. Readers are challenged to remember, not for the sake

of reminising but for the purpose of revolutionizing their lives,

bringing them into conformity with God's eternal and sovereign plan.

Various commentators have sought to emend j~yx,r;OB ("your Cre-

ator") in the Masoretic Text to read "your well" or "your cistern"--

euphemistic terms for one's wife.24 These commentators argue that

the verse is recommending "the enjoyment of marital relations."25

 

21 See below for a discussion of the arguments for and against j~yx,r;OB as a reference to

God as Creator.

22 Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 340.

23 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L.

Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), s.v. "rkazA," by

Andrew Bowling, 1:241.

24 Proverbs 5:15, 18 presents this euphemistic use of the term j~r,xeB;

25 Both Whybray and Gordis discuss and reject this view that requires an emended

text (Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 163, and Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World,

p. 340).



304                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

Others have suggested "your pit" as a possible alternative, thereby

implying the grave. Still others have offered "your vigor, well-be-

ing."26 These options are similar in phonics but not in orthography.27

Though there is no textual support for these alternative read-

ings,28 those who recommend an emended text do so because they be-

lieve that an "allusion to God the Creator ill fits this context."29

However, strong arguments based on the context may be made in fa-

vor of the reading "your Creator." First, in 11:5, God is first men-

tioned since 9:7. Then the Person of God is kept before the minds of

the readers in the concluding verses of the book (11:5, 9; 12:1, 7, 13-

14). Second, the reference to God provides an effective inclusio to the

discussion of death, picturing God both as the One from whom life

comes (v. 1) and as the One to whom life returns (v. 7). Third, though

in 11:9-10 Qohelet urged his readers to enjoy the pleasures of life, he

counterbalanced that charge by a solemn warning to remember the

judgment of God. To shift away from that God-oriented perspective

in 12:1 to encourage the embracing of one's wife would be contrary to

his argument.30 Fourth, remembering one's "grave" or one's "well-be-

ing" might be shown to fit the context of 12:1-7, but their use would

weaken the impact of the text.

In contrast to the alternative renderings, the term j~yx,r;OB, a prob-

able plural of majesty ,31 is highly appropriate in this context. Since

the theme of 12:1-8 is death, the end of physical life, what better

way is there for expressing the nonfinality of that death than to re-

mind the readers that God is Creator? Death is pictured not as the

end but rather as the beginning of an everlasting existence.

Readers are to remember God early in their lives ("in the days

of your youth")32 "because childhood and the prime of life are fleet-

ing" (11:10). As the days of one's youth pass quickly, the onset of the

 

26 Crenshaw discusses these various alternatives and selects "your wife" as his pre-

ferred translation (Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, pp. 184-85).

27 Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 100.

28 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 148.

29 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 184.

30 Qohelet commended spousal love-making in 9:9 in a somewhat less somber context.

'To reintroduce it here would be an unnecessary (and incongruous) redundancy.

31 Whybray suggests that j~yx,r;OB is a plural of majesty (Ecclesiastes, p. 163); Gesenius

says that the singular should be read (Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch

and A. E. Cowley, 2d Eng. ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910], p. 399).

32 Qohelet did not define the age of "youth," except as a contrast to what follows

1:12:2-5). Furthermore he did not indicate that an older person cannot or should not re-

member his God, but rather he seems to imply that the older an individual becomes,

the more difficult It is to change his life when he does remember



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an impetus for Life             305

 

aging process brings with it a decline that impacts the vigor and

drive of one’s life.33 Pleasure and hope are inversely proportional to

age. Thus people ought to turn to God while there is still time to dis-

cover the meaning of life and alter the course of their lives.34 Gold-

berg suggests the intent behind Qohelet's concern as follows: "We are

encouraged...to commit ourselves to our Creator while we have our

wits about us, while we can still enjoy life, and before we lose the

fullest capacity to even think of God's purposes and desires."35

In verse 1 the first of the three rw,xE dfa ("before") temporal

clauses, "before the evil days come," highlights the time of life be-

fore the onslaught of death's decay is noticeable. This summarizes

in an overview fashion what is described in detail in verses 2-7,

namely, that in his dying the individual will have no delight.

To what do "the evil days" refer? Rather than being a reference

to moral perversion 36 or the darkness of Sheol, 37 as some suggest,

"evil days" synonymous with "old age, in which there is no plea-

sure."38 Such a view is contextually appropriate because of its con-

trast to "in the days of your youth" and because of its continuation of

the argument (11:6-10) that the early years of life provide opportu-

nities for enjoyment whereas the later years do not.

Furthermore the closing chapter of one's life reduces dramati-

cally the of opportunity for accomplishing the desires of one's heart.

They are in fact times of "no delight"--times in which there is an

absence or impossibility39 (Nyxe) of delight. This "delight" (Cp,H,) is an

emotion-laden word that implies an attraction to some object, hence

a "desire" or a "longing" for something.40  It conveys the idea of

"delight" or "pleasure" and may be used "in reference to a person's

great interest."41

 

33 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 148.

34 Interestingly Qohelet did not suggest that the act of "remembering" God acts ei-

ther as a deterrent to or as a cosmetic against the ravages of old age; it is not an elixir

from the mythical fountain of youth. The assumption is that everyone who lives long

enough will experience the natural debilitating effects of the aging process.

35 Louis Goldberg, Ecclesiastes, Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1983), p. 132.

36 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 148.

37 George A. Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesi-

astes, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908), pp. 185-

86.

38 Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 341.

39 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s.v. "Nyixa," by Jack B. Scott, 1:37.

40 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon

of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 343.

41 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s.v. "CpeHA," by Leon J. Wood, 1:311.



306                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

The fact that an individual will lose his delight in life seems to

indicate that he may tend to focus too much on his infirmities to the

detriment of enjoying what God has created.42 He will have lost the

proper perspective on life and will have run counter to the commands

to rejoice while growing up, to follow the impulses of one's heart and

the desires of one's eyes, and to enjoy life with one's own spouse (9:9;

11:9). As Hengstenberg perceptively summarizes this message: "How

mournful a thing must it be to pass into the ranks of those who are

here described, without having tasted of the feast of joys prepared

by the Creator for all those who remember Him."43

 

                          The Days of the Ending (12:2-5)

 

The second thematic marker (rw,xE dfa, "before") shifts the

reader's thinking from that time of life before the individual is

fully aware of the aging process to that time when he is painfully

aware of his personal decay. Verses 2-5 include a series of

metaphors that reveal 'that the signs forewarning old age are no

longer mere warnings; they have become realities.

The beginning metaphor is that "the sun, the light, the moon,

and the stars are darkened" (v. 2). Because the passage speaks of ag-

ing and the dying process, this verse should not be thought of as re-

ferring to the future cosmic judgment in which the sun, moon, and

stars will be destroyed (Rev. 6:12-13). In addition, this clause

should not be considered a reference to the loss of one's family, draw-

ing on the symbolism of Genesis 37:9-10 (i.e., the sun meaning father,

the moon meaning mother, and the stars meaning brothers). Rather,

it should be understood as being generically suggestive of one or more

of the following: "a time of affliction and sadness,"44 "the fading

capacity for joy,"45 "the more general desolations of old age,"46 or the

failing of one's eyesight "so that the lights of all sorts become

dim."47 Most simply,48 the clause is expressing metaphorically the

 

42 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,

1968), p. 274.

43 Ernest W. Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (reprint, Minneapolis:

James and Klock, 1977), p. 245.

44 J. M. Fuller, ed., Proverbs-Ezekiel, The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker I

Book House, 1972), p. 111.

45 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 148.

46 Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 101.

47 Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 186.

48 Simplicity and caution are perhaps the best guides in attempting to understand

these and the following analogies regarding old age. Kidner agrees: "If some obscuri-

ties in these lines can be clarified, so much the better for kindling our imagination; but



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 Death, an Impetus for Life                307

 

loss of joy and excitement in life.49

Solomon next pictured old age as clouds that return after50 the

rain. Delitzsch succinctly describes the Hebrew concept of the cloud

image when he states, "A cloudy day is = a day of misfortune, Joel ii.

2, Zeph. i. 15; an overflowing rain is a scourge of God, Ezek. xiii. 13,

xxxviii. 22:”51 Ecclesiastes 12:2 may have in mind a Middle Eastern

winter rainstorm, which is normally followed by blue skies that

promise good weather. However, "the unexpected return of the

clouds soon after a storm, once more shutting out the light, is a bad

sign and brings gloom, both literally and psychologically."52 This

imagery is not depicting gradually failing eyesight or the onset of

glaucoma,53 but rather the repetitive gloom into which the elderly

may be prone to fall as they encounter setback after setback in the fi-

nal years of their lives. Much as an elderly person recovers from one

injury or illness only to be subjected to another, the individual's

hopes and dreams are continually being dashed. Thus as Kidner

comments, "the clouds will always gather again, and time will no

longer heal, but kill."54

 

so much the worse if they tempt us into treating this graceful poem as a laboured cryp-

togram, or forcing every detail into a single rigid scheme" (A Time to Mourn, and a

Time to Dance, p. 101).

Furthermore stepping beyond the bounds of simplicity and caution may lead to an

allegorical hermeneutic. The reader must be wary of commentators who pull from

these analogies more than can be justifiably proven. For example Plumptre states that

"the sun may be the Spirit, the Divine light of the body, the moon as the Reason that

reflects the light, the stars as the senses that give but a dim light in the absence of

the sun and moon" (E. H. Plumptre, Ecclesiastes: or the Preacher, with Notes and In-

troduction [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1881], p. 214). Delitzsch, though

decrying various attempts at interpreting these figures and calling those attempts

"wholly or for the most part unfortunate," also oversteps the bounds of careful

hermeneutics. He suggests that the sun, light, moon, and stars may be understood as

alluding, respectively, to the spirit, the light of self-examination, the soul, and the

five senses (Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, pp. 403-5).

49 Leupold states, "In the Scriptures 'light' is quite generally a symbol of joy and,

when it is sent by God, a token of favor. Just as clearly the Scriptures let darkness be

synonymous with judgment and punishment, cf., Joel 3:4; 2:10; Amos 8:9; Isa. 13:10; 5:3;

Jer. 4:33; Ezek 32:7; Rev. 6:12" (Exposition of Ecclesiastes, pp. 276-77).

50 Eaton suggests that rHaxa ("after") may mean "with," though he recognizes that

such a translation is not normally associated with rHaxa (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction

and Commentary, p. 148, n.).

51 Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 405.

52 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 164.

53 Crenshaw. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 185.

54 Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 102. Fredericks suggests that the

returning clouds are representative of "the despair and terror of imminent death" that

the individual faces "at the close of those miserable years" (Daniel C. Fredericks,

"Life's Rise and Demise in Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:8," paper presented to the Evangelical

Theological Society, San Diego, CA, November 18, 1989, p. 19).



308                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

The metaphors in verse 3 have been variously interpreted by

some as "a household falling into decay or house struck by a violent

storm."55 Other commentators understand the verses to be picturing

the deterioration of the human body as it ages56--the watchmen rep-

resenting the arms, the mighty men the legs, the grinding ones the

teeth, and those at the window the eyes.57 The uncertainties in

these images, therefore, result in a general lack of agreement among

scholars regarding how best to depict each individual image.58

What can be noted, however, is that Qohelet did not play fa-

vorites. He did not picture the decaying process of old age as solely

the lot of one sex as opposed to the other. In fact, of the four meta-,

phors in this verse, he relates two of them to the male population

and the other two to females. Thus the terrors associated with dying

are a reality of life for all people.

"The watchmen of the house" who "tremble" are those who pre-

serve, protect, and guard the house. Their function is to ensure that

everyone within the house is safe and secure. Yet these men

"tremble," "quake," are "in terror," or "quiver."59 What might cause

this trembling is the degeneration of the nervous and muscular sys-

tem of the body60 or a powerful outside force that greatly intimi-

dates the watchmen, causing them to cower in fear.

What then is the impact on the house? What is the impact on

the elderly when the guardians tremble? Protection against a

dreaded enemy decreases. Vulnerability to attack increases and

there is a subsequent increase in the potential for catastrophe or ul-

timate destruction to occur.

The second of the two male-oriented metaphors is that "mighty

rnen stoop." Because lyiHa ("mighty") has a broad semantic range in-

cluding strength, efficiency, ability, wealth, force, army, and

 

55 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 164.

56 The words found in the Egyptian Ptah-hotep's preface to his Instruction to his son

may be of interest at this point. He wrote, "Feebleness has arrived; dotage is coming. .

..The eyes are weak, the ears are deaf, the strength is disappearing. ...The heart is

forgetful. ...All taste is gone" (cited by R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The An-

chor Bible [Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965], p. 255). See also 2 Samuel 19:35

for Barzillai's description of his physical deterioration at the age of 80.

57 Fuller, Proverbs-Ezekiel, p. 111, and Rylaarsdam, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The

Song of Solomon, p. 132.

58 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 186. J'

59 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p.

266; and Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s.v. "faUz," by Andrew Bowling,

1238.

60 Plurnptre suggests that the trembling may be caused by "the unsteady gait of age,

perhaps even of paralysis" (Ecclesiastes: or The Preacher, with Notes and Introduc-

tion, pp. 214-15).



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8-Death, an Impetus for Life                309

 

virtue,61 determining exactly who these men are is difficult. They

undoubtedly are men of high standing, at least in the house, if not in

the city. Whybray indicates that they "may be masters, but are

probably the stalwart men-servants."62

Why would such honorable (and perhaps strong) men stoop? Are

they doing so because of old age or are they bending over in abject sub-

mission to some outside force? The verb tvafA ("stoop," here in the

Hithpael form) is best translated "bend themselves,"63 and there-

fore would seem to favor the latter position. They are not naturally

bent over nor do they choose to be, but rather forces working contrary

to their will impose conditions to which they finally succumb.

The next metaphor states that "the grinding ones [feminine

form] stand idle because they are few." An often held view of this

metaphor argues that "the grinding ones" (tnoHEF.oha) are teeth. If this is

true, then Delitzsch is correct when he states that "they [the teeth]

stand no longer in a row; they are isolated, and (as is to be supposed)

are also in themselves defective.”64 This view, however, does not

seem to fit the pattern of development in this verse. The other three

metaphors in the verse are more easily understood as references to

actual people rather than as references to body parts.

A second view of this metaphor presents "the grinding ones" as

women (i.e., female servants) who make flour for the household's

bread.65  This metaphor thus suggests that the women are no longer

able to complete their work because they are few in number and ap-

parently need a full complement of laborers to function properly.66

Though this view is plausible, it has one major weakness, as Cren-

shaw poins out. Would not one expect the grinders to work even

more diligently if they are few in number, unless the implication is

that the residents of the house are also few in number and have lit-

tle need for food?67

If Crenshaw's implication is correct, then the metaphor changes

its focus from the visible grinders to an unspecified group of people in

the house who no longer possess the wherewithal to support a flour-

 

61 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament,

pp. 298-99; and Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s.v. “lUH" by Carl Philip

Weber, 1:271-72.

62 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 164.

63 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p.

736.

64 Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 407.

65 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 164.

66 Hengstel berg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 246.

67 Crenshaw., Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 186.



310                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

ishing household. Whereas such a shift of focus is possible, it would

seem to lessen the impact of the metaphor, making the reference to

the aging process indirect rather than direct.

An alternative suggestion is that the grinders themselves have

become few through attrition due to old age, incapacitation, or

death. Under such conditions, there would be much sadness among

the remaining grinders because so many of their friends are no longer

around to make their work a joy. So the remaining grinders, them-

selves too weary to carry on, have just given up.

The fourth metaphor in this verse (and the second one directed

toward women) states that "those who look through windows grow,

dim." Most commentators agree that "those who look through win-

dows" is a reference to the women of the household who, according to

Middle Eastern custom, were not allowed to mingle with the men in

the business of the household and so they peered through the lat-

tice-work of the house.68 That they "grow dim" means either (a)

that others outside the house have a more difficult time seeing them

in the windows because they go to the windows no more,69 (b) that it

has become dark,70 or (c) that they themselves have a harder time

seeing, for their eyes have lost their brilliance.71 In each case, the

women are becoming progressively isolated from the outside world,

shut off from whatever joys and pleasures they once knew.

The writer continued this isolation-fear imagery as he began

verse 4 by stating that for the aging person "the doors on the street

are shut." Immediately the reader grasps the idea that life is not as

it once was or as it should be. What once allowed people or objects to

go in or out no longer does so. The doors are closed-perhaps through—

perhaps through inattentiveness or a lack of care by those re-

sponsible for opening them, or perhaps through their own inability

to be opened any more.

"Doors" (MyitalAd;) is a dual form meaning "literally 'double doors,'

only found at the entrance to cities, temples and exceptionally grand

houses,"72 most houses apparently having had only one door.73 The

doors may remain shut as a picture of a self-enclosed, self-isolated

group of people or may refer symbolically, as many suggest, to the

lips or the ears.74

 

68 Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 342.

69 Ibid., p. 343.

70 Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 405.

71 Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 188.

72 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 165.

73 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 186.

74 Fuller, Proverbs-Ezekiel, p. 111. Those who accept the lips or ears metaphor do so



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an impetus for Life                         311

 

"The sound of the grinding mill is low" because few people are

working there (cf. v. 3). Such a condition would be discouraging to

the elderly because what they remember as a cheerful indicator of

the exciting activities of business is now more and more being shut out

I of their lives. They in turn find themselves "increasingly cut off

from the hum of daily life."75

The Hebrew of 12:4, however, does not isolate the metaphor of

the grinding mill from the previous metaphor of the doors on the

street being shut. Rather, it uses the sound of the mill being low to

explain why the doors are closed. The B in  lpaw;Bi (''as. . . low") func-

tions as a temporal preposition indicating that the doors on the

street are shut "when" or "at the same time as'' the activity of the

grinding mill decreases dramatically. If the grinders in verse 3 are

understood as a reference to teeth, then that lends credibility to the

view that “doors" here refer to lips. On the other hand if the

grinders in verse 3 are women who prepare flour for bread, then the

house imagery better fits the closing of the doors in this verse. This

latter view seems preferable.

Having completed what Fredericks observes is a chiasm begin-

ning with verse 3b and ending with verse 4a,76 the symbolism shifts

to picture death from still another angle, the chirping of birds-"one

will arise at the sound of the bird." Whybray offers two possible in-

terpretations for this illustration: "either that the elderly get up

early in the morning...or that their voice becomes high like that of

a bird."77 What is so discouraging or sad about arising when birds

sing or about the pitch of one's voice being elevated? The latter

would be merely a statement of fact and therefore not necessarily a

source of worry, but simply rather a reminder that one has aged. The

former (rising when birds sing) only becomes a matter of dread if it

implies that one is awakened by every little sound. Kidner points

out, however, that if the previous metaphors imply that deafness

 

because of the dual nature of those organs. The closure of the lips would imply that

little is ingested in the way of food or that little is allowed to pass out in the way of

speech. The shutting off of the ears, of course, would suggest that the hearing of the

older person has diminished greatly. Those who favor the lips and ears metaphor

here in 12:4 tend also to argue for the eyes symbolism of verse 3 in reference to "those

who look through windows grow dim." Hence they do not understand "doors" to be

eyes despite what might seem to be a logical metaphoric relationship due to the du-

alism of the doors and the dual nature of the eyes (or of the eyelids).

75 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 149.

76 Fredericks states that in 12:3b and 12:4a "a chiasm is formed by two comments on

the limited milling (either ceasing or its sound is decreasing) which frame the com-

ments about the openings in the houses of the millers ('windows' and 'doors')" ("Life's

Rise and Demise in Ecclesiastes 11:1-12:8," p. 21).

77 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 165. See also Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary,

pp. 186-87.



312                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

 

Accompanies old age, then the elderly person would "hardly be wak-

ened or startled by the sparrow."78

       The music metaphor is continued in the final portion of verse 4:

all the daughters of song will sing softly."  This may refer to female

singers, to song birds, or to musical notes.79  That they "will sing

softly" may mean that the sound is faint to the ears of the elderly,80

that for the elderly "all singing as well as all appreciation of sing-

ing is a thing of the past,"81 or that the singers themselves have lost

the ability to sing.82  A further possible interpretation is that the

singers sing softly for fear of waking the elderly who have difficulty

sleeping and who arouse easily, even at the sound of the birds chirp-

mg. No matter which view is correct, the disheartening fact is that

those who have aged in this way are no longer able to enjoy what

was once a pleasure to them.

       The quiet sadness of the metaphors in verse 4 changes in verse 5

into what Crenshaw terms "a full measure of existential Angst."83

Fear now runs rampant.  Those who have grown old "are afraid of a

 high place and of terrors on the road."  A straightforward rendering

of these two pictures of fear best expresses their meaning. To a person

who is old, feeble, and defenseless, the world looms as a place of

great risks and physical dangers.  Delitzsch equates this fear to that

of the sluggard of Proverbs 22:13.

    

     As the sluggard says: there is a lion in the way, and under this pre-

tence remains slothfully at home ... so old men do not venture out; for

to them a damp road appears like a very morass; a gravelly path, as full

of neck-breaking hillocks; an undulating path, as fear fully steep and

precipitous; that which is not shaded, as oppressively hot and exhaust-

ingthey want strength and courage to overcome difficulties, and their

anxiety pictures out dangers before them where there are none.84

 

78  Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p.102, n. Kidner suggests that the

phrase may simply be "a note of time, like our 'up with the lark.'" Such a view again.

would seem to present merely a statement of fact rather than a condition of sadness re-

lated to old age. Perhaps the tragedy is to be explained by a realization that in an

agricultural society everyone who works is expected to rise at the break of dawn. The

elderly person who is no longer required to work and thus has the privilege of sleeping

later in the morning than others finds it impossible, however, to enjoy that luxury be-

cause his sleep is disturbed by the slightest sound.

79  Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, p.418, and Why bray, Ecclesiastes, p.165.

80  Fuller, Proverbs-Ezekiel, p.112.

81  Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p.280.

82  Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p.165.

83  Crenshaw, 'The Shadow of Death in Qohelet," p.207. Actually Crenshaw makes

this statement regarding Qohelet's overall view of death as observed throughout the

Book of Ecclesiastes. Crenshaw's words, however, seem especially appropriate here.

84  Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, pp.411-12.



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an impetus for life              313

 

The remaining three metaphors in Ecclesiastes 12:5 are difficult

to interpret. The two primary views are that the imagery symbol-

izes either the rapid growth of spring or the deterioration of the

human body. The former contrasts the downfall of a house which

will never rise again with the fresh renewal of nature which offers a

wellspring of hope. The latter understands that the words focus on

the gradual encroachments of old age.85 

Regarding the first of these three images-"the almond tree

blossoms”-most commentators say the symbolism refers to the white

hair of an elderly person. This view is favored because the almond

blossom, which exhibits a pink color when it blooms in January, very

soon there after becomes white at the tip, only to fall to the ground

later like white snowflakes.86

Hengstenberg, however, offers a different perspective. He con-

tends that both the context and the etymology of the word for al-

mond tree (dqewA) support the notion that the tree is "a symbol of that

watchfulness with which old age is visited."87  The word for almond

tree is similar to the verb "be watchful" (dqawA).

For t he second of the three metaphors-"the grasshopper drags

himself a long"-the following views are most often suggested: (a)

the stiffness of the joints; (b) the bent figure of an old person, (c) the

enormous; appetite of the locust which, becoming weighted down by

its full stomach, moves awkwardly, (d) the inability of the male sex

organ to function as it should in old age, and (e) an emblem of small-

ness, indicating that even the smallest object is a burden to carry.88

The first two explanations (stiffness and being hunched over)

and possibly the fifth suggestion (difficulty in burden-bearing) offer

the more reasonable suggestions of the meaning of the grasshopper

illustration. The overeating view (view c) functions at cross purposes

to imagery regarding the elderly's loss of ability to eat (if grinders

in verses 3-4 refer to teeth) and to the picture of the elderly's loss of

a desire to eat in the caperberry metaphor below. Furthermore the

diminished sexual capacity view (view d) requires that a double en-

tendre be understood-a suggestion about the grasshopper not ob-

served elsewhere in Scripture.89

 

85 Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 187.

86 Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 413; Gordis, Ko-

heleth-The Man and His World, p. 345; and Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 166.

87 Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 248.

88 Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 190;

Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 345; and Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p.

166.

89 The word used here for grasshopper (bgAHA) is used only four other times in Scripture:

Leviticus .1:22; Numbers 13:33; 2 Chronicles 7:13; and Isaiah 40:22. In Leviticus it is



314                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

The third metaphor in verse 5, "the caperberry is ineffective,"

is easier to interpret than the other two. Caperberries were used in

ancient times as a "provocative to appetite."90 This implies, there-

fore, that in old age, not even an artificial stimulant can move the

individual to do what in years gone by would have been done with

gusto and relish.91

Verse 5 concludes with a straightforward presentation of the

fact of death: "For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go

about in the street." The verb j`lahA ("goes") is used euphemistically in

typical Hebrew fashion to express the concept of dying.92  "To his

etemal home" indicates that the end of that "going" is the individ-

ual’s final resting place.

As a common designator of the grave,93 the "eternal home" is "a

'home' for successive generations of a family [that] spans an endless

period of time."94 It should not be thought of as expressing anything

II ore than the grave, nor should it be assumed that it introduces the

The nascent underpinnings of a theology of the afterlife. As Youngblood

states, "OT references to the afterlife are, for the most part, shrouded

in darkness when compared to the fuller revelation of the NT."95

The final clause of this section, "while mourners go about in the

street," reveals one last insult that the dying process has in store for

the aged. The irony of the clause should not be missed. While the

man dies, and even before he is dead, professional mourners gather

 

 

said to be an edible food, whereas in 2 Chronicles it becomes an instrument of God's

plague against the people of Israel. In the remaining two passages it indicates the

smaIl stature of people compared to the Nephilim giants of the land (Num. 13:33) and

to God (Isa. 40:22).

90 Fuller, Proverbs-Ezekiel, p. 112.

9l Some such as Crenshaw have suggested that the caperberry was used as an aphro-

disiac, and thus the caperberry metaphor is a reference to dwindling sexual desire in

old age (Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 188). Delitzsch and Whybray, however, find

110 records from antiquity (the earliest being from the Middle Ages) that support such

a usage for the caperberry (Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesi-

astes, p. 416, and Whybray, Ecclesiastes, pp. 166-67).

92 Nicholas J. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Netherworld in the

Old Testament (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969), p. 167.

93 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 167; and Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p.

347. Youngblood provides a thorough treatment of the phrase OmlAOf tyBe-lx,  ("to his

eternal home"). Analyzing contemporary uses from Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and

Phoenician sources on the one hand, and Egyptian sources on the other, he concludes

that  OmlAOf tyBe should be translated as "his dark house" rather than as "his eternal

home" (Ronald F. Youngblood, "Qoheleth's 'Dark House' [EccI12:5]," Journal of the

Evangelical Theological Society 29 [December 1986]: 383-410).

94 Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Netherworld in the Old Testament, p. 78.

95 Youngblood, "Qoheleth's 'Dark House' (Ecc. 12:5)," p. 410.



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an impetus for life              215

 

around in front of the dying man's house seeking employment to en-

gage in the practice of mourning (cf. Jer. 9:16-20; Amos 5:16). Little

thought, if any, is given to the one who has suffered the mockery and

misery of death. As Gordis concludes, the tragedy of this man's

death "constitutes merely one more professional routine for the hired

mourners--the vanity of life is climaxed by the vanity of death!"96

 

The End of Days (12:6-8)

The beginning of this final analysis of death again employs the

temporal marker rw,xE dfa ("before"), the third such usage of this He-

brew phrase in the verses under study.97 The first (v. 1) places the

individual under the indictment of death but seemingly (though not

actually) far removed from it. The second (v. 2) dramatically por-

trays the rapidly deteriorating conditions of life and the fast ap-

proach of death. Finally, here, the last act of life (i.e., death) is

played out. There is no timidity about death when it comes and

there is no escape for the individual whom death attacks. Ulti-

mately what is discovered is that both the body and the spirit of

the dead man return to their place of origin-the body to the ground

and the spirit to God (v. 7).

In verse 6, Qohelet portrayed the end of life by three graphic

metaphors: the crushing of a lamp, the shattering of a jar, and the

breaking of a wheel. Each presents an irreversible destruction, sym-

bolizing the suddenness and finality of death. Furthermore each

picture may be thought of as suggestive of a different type of life

that is taken in death. The rich imagery of the lamp made up of the

cord and bowl appears to reflect the fact that even the wealthy do

not escape death. The pitcher illustration, by contrast, seems to

show that those who are fragile and helpless also do not escape

death. And the wheel at the cistern pictures apparently the strong,

utilitarian type of person as still another category of individuals

who are unable to avoid death.

The two metaphors-the silver cord being broken and the golden

bowl being crushed-are in reality only one,98 for the cord and the

bowl are parts of one lamp. Once the cord is cut, the bowl drops to

the ground and is irreparably damaged. So too, when the cord of life

is cut, the individual falls to the ground never to rise again.

The final two images in this verse-the pitcher and the

 

96 Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 347.

97 Delitzfch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 419.

98 Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 192;

and Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 167.



316                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

wheel-may also, according to certain commentators, be two compo-

nents of one metaphor. Gordis suggests that Levy is correct when he

states, "One end of the cord has a pitcher, the other a metal ball . . .

as a counterweight. When the cord is tom, ball, pitcher and wheel

all fall to the bottom and are broken."99

Other commentators, however, view the two as separate

metaphors.100  The fragile, easily broken pitcher suggests the fragile

life of the elderly. It, like they, needs only to be struck once and then

it is of no use to those who are under the sun.101  Likewise, the crush-

ing of the wheel is assumed to symbolize the total destruction of life

at the point of death.

Concluding these dramatic illustrations of devastation, Solomon

moves from what to many has been a series of indistinct metaphors in

verses 2-6 to a picture that is unmistakably clear in verse 7.  Death,

simply and finally, is the separation of body and spirit.

An important point to note, however, is that the purpose in verse

I (and throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes) is not to present a theol-

ogy of the afterlife. .The goal was not to have readers understand

the details of life after death, but rather to have them recognize the

fact of the existence of an afterlife so that they might live eternally

purposeful lives here and now. Wright states this thesis in this

way:

     The dead have run their course. They are waiting in Sheol for the

judgment. They do not, like the living, know what is happening on the

earth. They have no further opportunities of earning the Master's re-

ward. Their bodies, the vehicles of the emotions of love and hatred and

envy, have gone to dust, and no more can they share in life under the

sun.102

 

Verse 7 begins by stating that "the dust will return to the earth

as it was." "Dust" (rpAfA) refers symbolically to the physical nature

(If the individual. This is a favorite term employed by Old Testa-

ment writers to remind the reader of his or her "earthly origin (Gn.

2:7; 3:19; Jb. 10:9) and physical weakness (Ps. 103:14)."103 The human

110dy, being in essence dust, returns to dust when the individual

 

99 Gordis and Crenshaw also espouse this view (Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and

his World, p. 348, and Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p. 188).

100 Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 192;

Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 150; Kidner, A Time to

Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 103; and Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes, pp. 283-84.

101 Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 285.

102 Wright, "The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes," p. 147.

103 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 150.



Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an impetus for life  317

 

dies.104  Fuerst presents the perspective of life and death in Ecclesi-

astes as follows: "Migration from dust to dust, with a brief moment

for wisdom and striving and reflection, is the fate of man."105

Verse 7 ends by differentiating the disposition of the human

spirit from the dissolution of the human body. Despite the interplay

between the two during life, there is no absorption of the one by the

other in death. Each has a separate destiny. Whereas the body

goes back to the earth as dust, the spirit returns to God who gave it.

To his credit, though he understands the finality of death to be

a tragic disruption of human life, Solomon neither condemns that

fact nor reproaches God for making life "a temporary gift which God

would one day withdraw."106

As the body and spirit of the dead person return to their origins

(v. 7), so the author in verse 8 returns to his original remarks in 1:2

"'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher, 'all is vanity!'" These

words seemingly declare that all in life and in death is "futile"107

(lb,h,). Crenshaw is led to assert that "one cannot imagine such a con-

clusion if the allusion to breath's return to God contained the slight-

est ground for hope. In truth, divine support of life has vanished for

Qoheleth.'108   Crenshaw's pessimistic position, however, fails to

recognize that the statement "all is futile," is thoroughly steeped in

Qohelet's positive understanding of the significance of life as he

presents it throughout the book.

In line with this view of life and in light of the reality of

death, individuals. are challenged to live to the fullest and at the

same time to be ever mindful of the transitory nature of life and of

the sudden, irreversible coming of death. Qohelet urged individu-

als, moreover, to remember their Creator in the days of their youth

(12:1) and to "fear God and keep His commandments" throughout all

the days of their lives (v. 13). This therefore presents a balanced

picture of life: "Man should enjoy what he can, be circumspect and

pious, and fear the Lord; but [at the same time recognize a sense] of

 

104 Carl Shank, "Qoheleth's World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring

Phrases," Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974-75): 62.

105 Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations:

The Five Scrolls, p. 153.

106 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, p. 168.

107 Though lb,h, may be used in a variety of ways depending on its context, the sense

of "futile" seems to fit the present context best. Furthermore it completes the introduc-

tory remark. in 1:2 and gives structure to the entire Book of Ecclesiastes. For a discus-

sion of the uses of lb,h,, see Theophile Meek, "Transplanting the Hebrew Bible," Jour-

nal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960): 331.

108 Crenshaw, "The Shadow of Death in Qoheleth," p. 210.



318                 Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1991

 

helplessness because the inexorable round of life finally does come to

an end."109

                                            Conclusion

 

Based on this study of death and dying in Ecclesiastes, including

an examination of 12:1-8, the final and most extensive passage in the

book on the subject, several conclusions may be drawn about the life-

death phenomenon.

1. Everyone must turn to God while there is still time, because

the end of days will come swiftly.

2. The aging, dying process, though in no way to be considered

beautiful, does post warning signs of impending doom-signs that

need to be heeded to ensure a successful life now and a proper reward

after death.

3. Laying up treasures in this world is futile, because death

will come for the individual, and the world will continue on as

though he or she never existed.

4. No matter how long one lives or how much preparation one

makes for dying, death comes suddenly and without fail.

5. Life after death does exist, and one needs to live now in such

a way as to be ready to meet one's Maker.

Hengstenberg summarizes well this philosophy of life and

death in Ecclesiastes.

 

    Since all things are vain, man, who is subject to vanity, should do all

in his power to enter into a living relation to Him who is the true abso-

lute Being, and through fellowship with Him to participate, himself, in a

true eternal being. All being vanity, man should not further vex himself

about a "handful of vanity"-he should not care much whether he have

[sic] to suffer a little more or a little less, but [should] attach importance

alone to that which either hinders or favours his fellowship with Him

who is the true absolute, personal, Being.110

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"; yet with God there is hope.

 

109 Goldberg, Ecclesiastes, p. 137.

110 Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 257.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu