Ecclesiastes 12 and The Whole Duty of Man
I admit it. I’m 60 years old, and I look at things differently than I used to. I think more about what is really important and also about what is really NOT. It matters much more how I live than how long I live. As we get older, things come into a more seasoned perspective. Chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes, though addressed to youth, contains a profound description of old age, the futility of life without meaning, and the conclusion of the whole matter: the one most important thing in life.
Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
This section contains a number of figurative and beautifully poetic expressions. The meanings I will give are from our friend, Bishop K. C. Pillai. He was raised as a devout Hindu in India (born in 1900), before that country was as Westernized as today. When he accepted Jesus Christ, his family declared him dead and actually held a funeral for him. He never saw them again (including his wife). As he became more and more familiar with the Bible and with western culture, he realized that Westerners misunderstood certain practices and idioms in the Bible that he was familiar with from his native culture. His was not the same culture as the land and times of the Bible, but it was far more similar than we Westerners experience. He spent much of his life traveling throughout The United States and Great Britain teaching “Orientalisms of the Bible.” He passed away in 1970, but I will never forget the six weeks he lived with my family when I was a teenager, as he was teaching at meetings in the area. Whether these explanations make sense or not, you decide. I think they do, but Bishop Pillai is my only source.
“The keepers of the house,” that tremble (verse three) are the legs. The “strong men” that bow themselves are the knees. The “grinders” are the teeth. In old age, they “cease because they are few.” “Those that look out of the windows be darkened” refers to diminishing eyesight. “Doors shall be shut in the streets” describes partial loss of hearing. “Sound of the grinding is low” indicates poverty with little to eat. “He shall rise up at the voice of the bird” refers to an elderly person being easily startled, afraid of small noises. “Daughters of musick shall be brought low” is diminished vocal ability.
Verse five describes old age as a time when people are afraid of that which is high. Fears are in the way. The almond tree flourishing refers to the hair turning white. Even such a small thing as a grasshopper is a burden. Desire fails; there is a loss of appetite. Then man goes to his long home, his grave, and mourners go about the streets. Verse six refers to funeral practices.
6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
A husband gives his wife a silver cord at the time of their wedding. She lays it on his chest at the funeral, symbolizing that the marriage bond between them is over. An earthen pot, representing the man’s body, is broken. Gold gilding on the pot represented the man’s position and honor. A fire in the pot, representing his life, is extinguished. Funeral participants are given earthen pitchers filled with water to be used for their ceremonial cleansing since they have been defiled by coming near a dead body. The pitchers are broken and discarded. The “wheel” is a stretcher on wheels used to carry the body.
7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
“Vanity” is translated from a Hebrew word that literally means “breath” or “vapor.” It is used figuratively of that which has no substance; that which is a waste, is empty, useless. “All is vanity” is a true conclusion, but limited to what “the preacher” has just described. One gets old and experiences all kinds of infirmities. He dies, and his body goes back to dust. If that is all there is to life, then all is vanity. “The preacher” goes on, however, to explain that this is not all there is to life.
9 And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.
10 The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.
11 The words of the wise are as goads [used to keep animals moving in the right direction], and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.
12 And further, by these [words of the wise, words of truth], my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
It isn’t studying the words of truth that is a weariness of the flesh. The “son” is here implored to be admonished by the words of truth, and to know that, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Apart from words of truth, showing the true meaning of life, all other learning becomes pointless.
And the conclusion of the whole matter?
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear [reverence] God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
“Duty” in the King James Version is in italics, indicating that the word was supplied, not translated from a Hebrew word in the text. A more literal rendering of the Hebrew text would be: “for this is the whole of man.” A number of other versions translate accordingly. Man’s reason for existence is to reverence God and do His will. What gives his life meaning is God’s judgment of him in eternity. Apart from reverencing God, doing His will, and spending eternity with Him, all is vanity.