Reflections on Wisdom – Ecclesiastes 12

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 12

Wisdom and Aging (12:1–5)

In Eccl. 11:9–10 Solomon began a discussion about the relationship between divine wisdom and aging. Somewhat surprisingly, in this passage Solomon actually commands joy among his readers. While we don’t usually conceive of joy being a trait or an emotion that can be commanded, we do see this exhortation elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Deut. 28:47–28; Phil. 4:4). In these verses Solomon exhorts his readers to rejoice, especially in their youth. The idea here is that it is often easier to be joyful in youth, before the effects of sin are felt upon one’s body, mind, and life. Furthermore, the reference to God’s judgment in Eccl. 11:9 seems to imply that mankind will be held accountable for his enjoyment of life in God’s good world. Indeed, we dare not neglect this divine duty to enjoy life, especially in the time of youth, for failure to do so may result in judgment.

In Eccl. 12:1 Solomon summarizes his earlier discussion from Eccl. 11:7–10 with a clear command, writing, “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth.” Next, in Eccl. 12:2–5 Solomon uses the image of a dilapidated house, as well as certain events in nature, to illustrate the aging process. The intent here is to enforce the principle of enjoying God in one’s youth; yet, note that youth is somewhat of a relative concept, for tomorrow everyone will be one day older. Therefore, the exhortation to enjoy God in one’s youth could be paraphrased as, “Enjoy God today.” Some of the images Solomon employs in this passage include: the keepers of the house, which are the arms; the strong men, which are the legs; the grinders, which are the teeth; the windows, which are the eyes; the doors, which are the lips; and rising up at the sound of a bird, which refers to light sleep.

Wisdom and Death (12:6–8)

In concluding his discussion about aging, at Eccl. 12:5 Solomon refers to the death of all people and man going to his “eternal home, and the mourners go[ing] about the streets.” Next, in Eccl. 12:6–8 Solomon discusses mankind’s death in more detail. Observe that just as he had used the image of an old house to illustrate aging in Eccl. 12:2–5, so here in Eccl. 12:6 Solomon uses images of brokenness and ruin to illustrate death. In this passage Solomon refers to a loosed cord, a cracked bowl, a shattered pitcher, and a broken wheel. Since he had mentioned God as Creator in Eccl. 12:1, here in Eccl. 12:7 Solomon again refers to the creation narrative from Genesis 1–3 as he writes about man returning to dust at his death (cf. Gen. 3:19). Finally, at Eccl. 12:8, for the thirty-eighth time in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon refers to the vanity of life, as he observes, “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity.”

Wisdom and God (12:9–14)

Eccl. 12:9–12 serves as a summary of the events of Solomon’s investigation, while Eccl. 12:13–14 is a summary of the content of Solomon’s investigation. In beginning this passage, we are told that “the Preacher . . . set in order many proverbs” (Eccl. 12:9). This claim helps to identify Solomon as “the Preacher,” for he is the author of the book of Proverbs. Moreover, 1 Kings 4:23 says, “Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five.” Next, in Eccl. 12:11–12 Solomon gives the reader two admonitions. First, we are encouraged to listen to the words of scholars, which includes the book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccl. 12:11). Second, we are warned, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (Eccl. 12:12). The idea here seems to be that seeking earthly wisdom is a fruitless and never-ending pursuit.

The last two verses in this book, Eccl. 12:13–14, summarize the content of the previous twelve chapters. Here Solomon writes, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” The result, then, of Solomon’s investigation into life under the sun (cf. Eccl. 1:13; 7:25; 8:16–17) can be summarized with seven observations: (1) life is vanity—that is, the duration of life is short, the meaning of life is futile, and the actions of life are repetitive; (2) the pleasures of this world will not ultimately satisfy; (3) in the near term, life under the sun is not always just; (4) life goes better if it is marked by wisdom rather than by foolishness; (5) life cannot be planned in detail in advance, for man cannot know the future; (6) life must be characterized by the fear of God; and (7) God will judge all the works of man.

Application Questions:

  1. Is the idea that joy is a Christian duty, which is commanded by God, a new idea for you? How can we better manifest joy in our lives?
  2. What types of things can the church do in order to encourage enjoyment of God?
  3. How can we use the message of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes in order to prepare people to hear the gospel?
  4. Have you ever felt the weariness that comes from pursuing wisdom in the fallen world apart from Christ? What led you to pursue Jesus?
  5. How would you summarize the message of the book of Ecclesiastes? Is the message of this book encouraging or discouraging to you?

Published by

David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.