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Ecclesiastes 12

PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
Remember God in Your Youth Seek God in Early Life
(11:9-12:8)
Conclusion
(11:7-12:8)
Advice to Young People
(11:9-12:14)
Old Age
(11:7-12:8)
12:1-8 12:1-8
(1-5)
12:1-8 12:1-5a 12:1-8
(1-7)
      12:5b-7  
  (6-7)      
  (8)   12:8 (8)
The Purpose of the Preacher The Whole Duty of Man   Summing Up Epilogue
12:9-10 12:9-10 12:9-10 12:9-11 12:9-10
12:11-12 12:11-12 12:11-12   12:11
      12:12 12:12
12:13-14 12:13a 12:13-14 12:13-14 12:13-14
  12:13b-14      

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentarywhich means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

 

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

A. Chapter 12 addresses the normal target audience of Wisdom Literature—wealthy young men (cf. Eccl. 12:1, 12).

 

B. This chapter describes old age in colorful metaphors. Every part of the body is used to show the deterioration of age.

 

C. Many have asserted that the original book concluded at Eccl. 12:9-12 and that Eccl. 12:13-14 were later added to make the book seem more traditional and theologically acceptable. However, this is only speculation. Verses 13-14 are like a postscript.

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 12:1-8
 1Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, "I have no delight in them"; 2before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain; 3in the day that the watchmen of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle because they are few, and those who look through windows grow dim; 4and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low, and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly. 5Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. 6Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; 7then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. 8"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!"

12:1 "Remember" This is a Qal imperative (BDB 269, KB 269), similar to 11:9-10. We must live as stewards who will give an account to our Creator (cf. Eccl. 3:17; 12:14; Matt. 10:26; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5).

▣ "Creator" This is a form of the Hebrew word bara (BDB 135, KB 153, Qal active participle, Gen. 1:1). It is exclusively used to describe God as the One who creates! It is interesting that the participle is plural (cf. Job 35:10; Ps. 149:2; Isa. 54:5), which relates to (1) the "us" passages in Genesis (cf. Eccl. 1:26,27; 3:22; 11:7) or (2) the general name for God as creator, Elohim (see SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY at Eccl. 1:13), found throughout Genesis 1-2:3.

▣ "in the days of your youth" This is a chronological beginning point (i.e., young person still at home, pre-marriage). In Judaism a person is not responsible to the law until a period of training and personal commitment (i.e., bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah). From this time forward covenant believers are responsible to God for their actions.

Notice that Wisdom Literature informs all stages of life, but starts with young people (cf. Eccl. 11:9). Chapter 12 moves from the opening days of spiritual responsibility throughout life until old age and death. In every state (before evil days, Eccl. 12:1; before old age, Eccl. 12:2; and before time of death, Eccl. 12:6) believers must remember God!

▣ "evil days" In Hebrew this means sickness, sorrow, or here, senility (cf. 2 Sam. 19:35). This term (BDB 949) basically means "evil," "misery," "distress," or "injury" (cf. Eccl. 2:21; 5:12,15; 8:11; 11:8,10).

▣ "I have no delight in them" The deterioration of the physical body robs life of joy. Remember Qohlelth's repeated admonition of "enjoy daily life now" (i.e., 2:24-26; 3:12,13,22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9).

12:2 This verse symbolically refers to the use of one's sight or vision (cf. Eccl. 12:3). Even the beauty of seeing God's creation grows dim as one ages. Verses 2-5 describe old age by a series of metaphors taken from a weather-beaten house.

Although I think a cryptic description of the advance of old age best fits the imagery of Eccl. 12:2-5, there have been other views (cf. Robert Gordis, Koheleth, The Man and His World, A Study of Ecclesiastes, p. 341):

1. each phrase refers to a different organ of the body

2. they refer to a storm

3. they refer to the gradual decay of an estate

4. each phrase must be taken separately, some literally, some figuratively

 

▣ "and clouds return after the rain" This implies that there is never a clear day, never a sunlit morning. It is always gray and gloomy.

12:3 "watchman. . .tremble" This refers to the body's arms shaking (from age or fear).

"mighty men stoop" This refers to the legs.

▣ "grinding ones are few" This refers to the teeth.

▣ "windows grow dim" This refers to the eyes, as does verse 2.

12:4 "doors on the street shut" This refers to the lack of hearing.

▣ "sounding of grinding mill is low" This refers to the ears.

▣ "one will arise at the sound of" The reference here is to sleeplessness.

▣ "daughters of song will sing softly" This may be (1) another reference to bad hearing or (2) a parallel to the aphrodisiac of Eccl. 12:5d (i.e., sexual interest).

12:5 "afraid of high places This may refer to standing or a fear of falling.

▣ "terror on the road" This refers to the difficulty of walking.

▣ "almond tree blossoms" Here this refers to white (i.e., gray) hair. The blossoms of the almond tree are white (cf. UBS, Helps for Translators, "Fauna and Flora of the Bible," p. 89).

▣ "grasshopper. . .drags himself" This refers to (1) the elderly walking bent over; (2) the elderly being overweight (LXX) or full of years; or (3) impotence (Talmud, NIDOTTE, vol. 3, p. 221).

▣ "casperberry is ineffective" Normal sexual desire is gone. Casperberries (BDB 2, cf. NASB, NJB, JPSOA, REB) were used to stimulate one's appetite and sexual desire. Some scholars translate (BDB 2) as "desire" (i.e., NKJV, NRSV, TEV, NIV).

▣ "eternal home" The term "eternal" (BDB 761) translates the Hebrew word 'olam. See Special Topic at Eccl. 1:4. The reference is to Sheol (cf. Job 17:13; 30:23; see Special Topic at Eccl. 6:6). The old man thinks that the hired funeral mourners (i.e., BDB 704, KB 763, Qal active participle) are (1) waiting (BDB 685, KB 738, Qal perfect) outside for him to die or (2) in a processional around the bier (NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 46).

12:6 The NASB asserts that the imperative from Eccl. 12:1 is assumed and that God ("Him") is the object.

The first verb (BDB 934, KB 1221, Niphal imperfect) basically means "be removed" (only here in the OT). The Septuagint (LXX), Peshitta, and Vulgate have "broken" or "snapped." The Niphal stem denotes no agency in the action.

Notice how all the verbs of Eccl. 12:6 imply a destruction (i.e., death, cf. Eccl. 12:7):

1. silver cord is broken, BDB 934, KB 1221, Niphal imperfect

2. golden bowl is crushed, BDB 954, KB 1285, Qal imperfect

3. pitcher is shattered, BDB 990, KB 1402, Niphal imperfect

4. wheel is crushed, BDB 954, KB 1285, Niphal perfect

Do all of these verbs refer to (1) one event of destruction, one mechanism for obtaining water (Ibn Ezra) or (2) two events of destruction, one for light and one for water? Most modern translations assume two events.

▣ "silver cord. . .golden bowl" This speaks of the value and, yet, the frailty of human life.

▣ "pitcher. . .wheel" These metaphors are from household items or daily chores.

12:7 In light of Qoheleth's questioning of all things, this is a strong affirmation.

▣ "the dust will return to the earth" Humans were made from dust (e.g., 3:20; Gen. 2:7; 3:19; Job 4:19; 8:19; 10:9; 34:15; Ps. 90:3; 103:14; 104:29; 146:4).

▣ "the spirit will return to God who gave it" The Hebrew term (BDB 924) can mean "spirit," "wind" (cf. Eccl. 11:5), or "the breath" (cf. Eccl. 3:2 1; Gen. 2:7; Num. 16:22; 27:16; Isa. 57:16; Zech. 12:1).

12:8 This looks like a concluding summary statement, matching 1:2. One wonders how many conclusions were originally a part of Ecclesiastes and how many were added later.

Before I try to answer this question, let me affirm that this is a hermeneutic question, not an inspiration question. When dealing with OT texts as they now stand (a.d. 900s, i.e., the Masoretic Text) that we are dealing with edited texts. The date and number of edits is uncertain. It is a faith presupposition that the bible as it now exists is inspired. The exact mechanism of this inspiration is unknown. The Spirit was active in the original authors and also in the later editors or compilers of the OT. To add to this uncertainty is the issue of textual problems. The text we have now was not the original text (as the different Hebrew manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly show). Even though we do not have the exact words of the original authors, we believe the Spirit was active in preserving the essential truths!

Therefore, to ask how many conclusions are there to Ecclesiastes is not an attack on inspiration, but an attempt to deal with what looks like two, three, or four conclusions:

1. v. 8 (Qoheleth's conclusion matching 1:2)

2. vv. 9-10 (a positive postscript)

3. vv. 11-12 (a negative postscript)

4. vv. 13-14 (a traditional postscript)

(The Jewish Study Bible has two divisions: Eccl. 12:9-11; Eccl. 12:12-14 [1621])

The UBS Handbook For Translators assumes that 1:1 and 12:9-14 were later editions (p. 434), made up of two postscripts, 9-11, 12-14.

These last verses are an editorial on Qoheleth. He is referred to in the third person (i.e., describes his activities), which never occurs in the rest of the book, except the very beginning (1:1) and the very end (12:9-14).

NASB, NKJV"the Preacher"
NRSV"the teacher"
TEV"the Philosopher"
NJB"Qoheleth"

The term (see introduction) is used only here with the definite article, which implies a title, not a name.

▣ "vanity of vanities" This book is characterized by two phrases. This is one of them (see note at Eccl. 1:2). The second is "under the sun" (see note at Eccl. 1:3). The author is using satire, irony, and tongue-in-cheek statements as a way to force fallen humanity to come to grips with the fleeting frailty and hopelessness of life without God.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 12:9-10
 9In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. 10The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

12:9-10 Notice the activities of a sage:

1. "taught the people knowledge," Eccl. 12:9, BDB 540, KB 531, Piel perfect

2. "pondered," Eccl. 12:9, BDB 24 II, KB 27, Piel perfect, only here in the OT (same root common as "to give ear to")

3. "searched out," Eccl. 12:9, BDB 350, KB 347, Piel perfect, only here in OT

4. "arranged," Eccl. 12:9, BDB 1075, KB 1784, Piel perfect, the word's basic meaning is "to be straight" (cf. Eccl. 1:15; 7:13). Piel only here. This activity is part of the editing/compiling process, which took place over many years.

5. "sought to find delightful words," Eccl. 12:10, BDB 134, KB 152, Piel perfect, BDB 592, KB 619, Qal infinitive construct. This refers to powerful literary impact .

6. "to write words of truth correctly," Eccl. 12:10, BDB 507, KB 503, Qal passive participle, these men had a sense of God's presence and power, using them to communicate His will to others. Qoheleth did not see himself as a rebel against the truth, but against some wisdom concepts.

This is similar to a description of a scribe's work in Ezra 7:10 (study, practice, teach).

12:9 The UBS, Handbook For Translators makes an interesting observation about the initial word of Eccl. 12:9 and 12 (BDB 452), translated several ways in Ecclesiastes:

1. "extremely" (i.e., excess), 2:15; 7:16

2. "advantage," 6:8,11; 7:11

3. "anything" (untranslated by NASV)

4. "In addition," 12:9

BDB 452 gives the basic meaning as "superiority," "advantage," or "excess." The theologically interesting aspect is that a closely related term (BDB 452) is used in Qoheleth's introductory question, "What advantage does man have in all his work?" (i.e. 1:3). This key term is repeated several times (cf. Eccl. 1:3; 2:11,13; 3:9; 5:8,13; 10:10,11). It denotes the futility of any lasting advantage in human performance or human knowledge apart from God (i.e., "under the sun," cf. Eccl. 1:3).

It is surely possibly that this key term (and its derivatives) begin and close the book. There is no lasting benefit or hope apart from God!

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 12:11-12
 11The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

12:11 There is a reverse parallelism (chiasm):

1. the words of wise men

the masters of these collections

2. like goads (BDB 201)

like well-driven nails (BDB 702)

As #1 refers to the same group (there is some variety possible: [1] "the words of scholars," NKJV; [2] "collected sayings," NRSV; [3] "they guide the assembled people," REB; [4] "their collected sayings," NIV; [5] "these wise words left us by many masters," Knox), so #2 refers to the same thing (i.e., an animal prod, a long staff with a metal point firmly attached).

Wisdom Literature was to be a guide and discipline from God (i.e., One Shepherd, cf. NAB, NKJV, TEV, NIV) to challenge and encourage humans in this life and point them to the next.

▣ "goads" This form is found only here. These long, pointed (from the same root, "to sharpen," cf. 1 Sam. 13:21) sticks (BDB 201) were used to prod animals into activity. These truths should motivate humans into godly action.

▣ "given" This verb (BDB 678, KB 733) is a Niphal perfect. This verb is often used in Ecclesiastes to refer to God's activity (cf. Eccl. 1:13; 2:26; 3:10; 5:18,19; 6:2; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7,11).

▣ "by one Shepherd" This title was often used of God (cf. Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 23:1; 80:1; 95:7; Isa. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11). This verse emphasizes the fact that God inspires these truths (i.e., recognition of inspiration and later canonicity).

Jewish tradition identifies "the one shepherd" with Moses (i.e., Targums, Rashi). However, Moses is never called shepherd, but he does carry the "rod of God" (shepherd's staff). Moses also warned against adding to or taking away from God's revealed truths (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32.

12:12 "my son" In Israel's Wisdom Tradition the teacher was called "father" and his male students "sons" (cf. Prov. 1:8; 4:1).

▣ "be warned" This verb (BDB 264, KB 265) is a Niphal imperative found in Wisdom Literature only three times (once in Ps. 19:11 and twice in Eccl. 4:13; 12:12). This at first seems to contradict the author's plea to search for wisdom, but apparently as Eccl. 12:11 asserts God's authorship of some literature (i.e., canonical texts), Eccl. 12:12 must refer to other non-canonical wisdom literature. It is similar to 1:18.

NASB"excessive devotion"
NKJV, NRSV,
TEV, NJB,
JPSOA, NIV,
REB"much study"

The verbal "excessive" (BDB 915 I, KB 1176, Hiphil infinitive absolute) is used twice in this verse:

1. making of many books

2. excessive devotion

The noun (BDB 529) is found only here in the OT. In Arabic it means "to be devoted," "to be attached," or "to apply oneself assiduously to something."

It is uncertain whether (1) the writing; (2) the compiling; or (3) the study of books is the focus of the warning. The problem is that human wisdom is helpful, but not ultimate!

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 12:13-14
 13The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

12:13 "The conclusion" This term (BDB 693) means "end" (cf. Eccl. 3:11; 7:2; 12:13), used in the sense of "summary," "conclusion," or "result of investigation."

"fear God" This is the first of two Qal imperatives. This admonition is a repeated theme (cf. Eccl. 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13; Job 1:1; 28:28; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33). Respect Him and recognize His presence, power, and provision (hidden though it may be) in our daily lives.

▣ "keep His commandments" This is the second Qal imperative (cf. Eccl. 8:5). The terms "fear" and "commandments" appear together in Ps. 112:1. Like the book of James in the NT, this book asserts the need for faith in action!

▣ "this applies to every person" No one is excluded from the demand of respect and obedience to God.

12:14 "Because God will bring every act to judgment" God is going to set things straight, if not in this life, then in the next (cf. Eccl. 3:17; 11:9).

▣ "everything which is hidden" The verb "hidden" (BDB 761 I, KB 834, Niphal participle) refers to intentional and unintentional sins (cf. Ps. 19:12; 90:8; 139:23-24). Fallen humans will give an account to God for the stewardship of the gift of life (cf. Matt. 10:26; 25:31-46; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5; Rev. 20:11-15).

▣ "whether it is good or evil" Everyone will give an account of his actions (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5: 10).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why is this book seemingly so self-contradictory?

2. What is the purpose of Ecclesiastes in the Canon?

3. What is the final word from the author?

4. Why is this book so relevant today?