We now come to the end of the main body of Ecclesiastes. Just as the Preacher has repeatedly warned us of death, the great equalizer, coming for us, he now concludes with a poem describing the final years of human life. The portrait of our inevitable physical decay is framed by a message to those who are not yet in those last years. Likely writing the poem from firsthand experience, Solomon commands us to rejoice in our youth, remove the sins that cause us to waste our lives, and remember our Creator.
LIGHT IS SWEET // VERSES 7-8
First of all, what does the Preacher mean when he says that light is sweet and that seeing the sun is pleasant? From a physiological standpoint, researchers continue to learn more and more the truthfulness of this statement. We now know that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin in the body, a hormone that helps to regulate moods, calm anxiety, balance digestion, and many other functions. Simply being under the sun that God created, therefore, grants many health benefits to our bodies. Given our propensity today to remain indoors more than ever before, we should make particular of this verse’s practical wisdom. Although we humans have managed to create lightbulbs and channel electricity, our lights cannot offer the same benefits as God’s original creation. In many ways, we continue to form shallow imitations of God’s works. And particularly if you wrestle with depression or anxiety, listen all the more to Solomon’s words here. For all its simplicity, a walk in the sunshine is one of the greatest weapons against the various forms of mood disorders.
It is also interesting to note the subtle shift that is happening here. Solomon has repeatedly used the phrase “under the sun” throughout Ecclesiastes, but now he is directing our gaze upward toward the sun itself. Of course, the Preacher will firmly turn our attention above the sun in the epilogue.
Verse 8 is essentially a microcosm of the verses that will follow. Two commands are given: rejoice in all of our years and remember that the days of darkness will be many. The verse then ends with yet another vanity proclamation (although it seems that vanity here is not referring to pointlessness and meaninglessness of life but rather its brevity and transience). Since these two commands are explored more in the later verses, I will not expound upon them here, but I do want to make note of Solomon’s usage of units of time. He commands for us to rejoice in all the years that we live while remembering that the days of darkness will be many. Isn’t it so tempting for us to let days of difficulty that the LORD places before us overshadow the years of joy? This in no way makes light of the days of darkness. They will come, and they will be heavy. Let us prepare our hearts now to consider the sovereignty of God during those days of adversity (7:14). Yet in general, God gives so much more time of rejoicing than He does days of darkness.
REJOICE // VERSE 9
Solomon’s first command to the young is to rejoice. This thought is not foreign to Ecclesiastes since the Preacher has repeatedly told us that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy the life that God has given us. But despite the similarity to Ecclesiastes’ main refrain, something different is happening here. In those previous exhortations, the Preacher is simply presenting the result of his investigations before us. He is informing us that he has only found enjoyment to a gift that only God can give. Whether we follow his advice or not seems to be just set in our lap. But not here. He is now blatantly commanding us to rejoice, to enjoy life.
Let me ask two questions: Do we think of God’s commands as being for our good? Or do we think of them as God trying to limit and hinder us?
In Deuteronomy 10:12, God gives this message to the Israelites: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Notice those last three words: for your good. God’s commands are for our good and flourishing on the earth.
Further on in Deuteronomy 28:47, God warns Israel of the curses that will befall them “because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart”. God has never wanted mindless obedience. Curses would still come upon the Israelites for joyless obedience.
Do we tend to think of God as commanding our joy and delight in Him? God commands our joy in Him because He is our ultimate source of joy. God is not a megalomaniac who tells us simply to enjoy Him or else; rather, He calls us to enjoy Him because nothing else can satisfy us. Even the good gifts of God are temporary and, therefore, cannot give lasting joy. Everything will eventually fail us (or we ourselves will fail). God is the only One who cannot fail. God points us to Himself because there is nothing greater. When He commands us to rejoice, we can only do so in Him. We can only find true joy in God Himself.
Let us consider a few more questions.
First, who qualifies as the young man here? The answer seems to be anyone who is not presently living out the poem of verses 1-7 in chapter 12. Solomon does not appear to recognize all the various age classifications that we assume today. Young and old, youth and elderly, are the two categories of people for these verses in Ecclesiastes.
Second, is Solomon urging us to follow our heart? Typically, those of a more Reformed theological persuasion tend to throw up Jeremiah 17:9 whenever we talk about following the heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Yet notice that Solomon appears to be telling us to follow our heart: walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. The only thing more dangerous than following our heart is following our eyes. Didn’t the Preacher himself warn that the eye is never satisfied with seeing? How then do we reconcile these things?
Remember that Ecclesiastes is one piece of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Furthermore, if Solomon did indeed write Ecclesiastes, then this is the same author who wrote Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The Preacher’s command here is not contradicting Jeremiah; instead, he is issuing this command to those who will actively seek to guard their heart. Especially under the New Covenant in Christ, we should grow in loving God with all our heart, and then our heart’s desire will be to follow the ways of the LORD.
Third, the verse ends by warning that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. For which things will God judge us? There are two ways of understanding this. God might be warning us against partying too hard. Rejoice and enjoy life. Follow your heart. Do what pleases your eyes, but if you cross the line into sin, judgment will come. Or it could mean that God will judge us for not obeying His command to rejoice. To refuse to be content and satisfied with the multitude of blessings that God has given is an offense to God Himself. This interpretation seems much more likely to me. If rejoicing is a command, then judgment will come to those who disobey.
REMOVE // VERSE 10
The second command is to remove vexation and pain. Once more, Solomon’s usage of vanity here is a reminder that youth is fleeting. It is a vapor that is here today and gone tomorrow. Because youth is so temporary, stop wasting time with needless frustrations, with things that do not matter, with being upset. Stop wasting time worrying about all the things that we cannot fix or control. Remove those vexations from the heart.
Now, this does not mean that we should rid ourselves of all the annoying people in life. Second only to loving God is loving those around us. Nor does it encourage us to stop doing things that are frustratingly difficult. Often the most life-giving activities are also the most difficult ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the Christian life. The way is hard and the gate is narrow, but the reward for the few who find is eternal life.
Instead, the Preacher is commanding us to stop doing worthless (and often sinful) things that ruin our life. In fact, we could break this down into two categories. First, if you can, make life less frustrating for yourself. Second, stop making excuses, and kill the sin that is killing you. Sin, after all, is the most vexing and painful action that we can ever take.
Perhaps a personal example of how these two categories play out will be helpful. Being highly sanctified in dealing with frustrations, it was difficult to remember a time when I was sinfully frustrated, but I managed to recall an example. Let me take you then all the way back to this morning. Having spent the weekend visiting some friends, Tiff and I slept through our alarm by an hour. We were awakened by our crying daughter, which to me means that we begin the day already playing catch up. I, therefore, began the day extremely frustrated with myself. But even though the frustration was with myself, it is unleashed upon my wife and daughter. I was incapable of enjoying the two greatest gifts that the LORD has given me because I was upset with myself. Such is the great danger of unchecked vexations. They steal the joy that God gives. Graciously, the LORD brought this verse into my heart (Psalm 119:11 anyone?), and asked forgiveness from Tiff and thanked her for not returning her own frustrations back upon me. What exactly does this verse teach me in situations like this? First, if I get frustrated by sleeping too late, I should get up earlier. Cut vexations off at the root, if possible. Second, such frustrations are sin. I sinned against my wife and daughter, so I am called to repent and turn back to the joy of the LORD. Life is simply too short to waste time being upset or sinning. Cut it out and start rejoicing in the blessings of God.
REMEMBER // VERSES 1-7
The final command is to remember our Creator in the days of our youth. He tells us to do so before the evil days appear. Turn to God before old age sets in.
The word “before” in this verse begins the final poem of Ecclesiastes. This poem, which concludes in verse eight, rivals the breadth and majesty of Solomon’s own poem on time in chapter three. However, for this poem, the Preacher writes heavily in metaphors so the meaning can be quite difficult to interpret. To find Solomon’s meaning, we must understand that verses 2-7 are poetically used to cement the idea presented in verse one. He tells us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, and now he defines what he means by youth: “remember God before _____ happens to your body.”
Verse 2 describes light being blocked out by a gathering storm. This likely refers to the ominous approach of death, finally eclipsing our futile dreams of immortality. In the days of youth, adversity is typically just a setback, but now even small things can become a travesty from which one may never return. When a person is young, time heals most wounds, yet at the end of life, time only approaches to kill.
We must keep in mind that within this poem each verse is meant to build upon the previous. Most interpret verse 3 as speaking about the onset of old age that has come before the gathering storm of death. “The keepers of the house tremble” is likely referring to the natural tremor that finds its way into most of the elderly. “The strong men are bent” describes the atrophy of the bones of the elderly, which often results in a hunched or bent back. “The grinders cease because they are few” portrays for us the time when chewing our food will be nigh impossible because of the lack of teeth. “Those who look through the windows are dimmed” most likely refers to the dimming of eyesight caused by old age.
And the poem continues: remember God before we are too old to ever leave the house. It is a natural progression that as we age, we sleep less. Some elderly individuals sleep only for a few hours each night. Thus, the elderly rarely find difficulty waking at dawn, while many youths cannot recall the last time that they saw dawn.
Aging is also often marked by the degeneration of the mind. Dementia and paranoia are likely to cause terrors in the elderly (v. 5). Their body is no longer able to do the things that it once could, which thus makes them afraid of heights and such. Solomon’s mention of a blossoming almond tree is a reference to one’s hair becoming white. Toward the end of winter, the almond tree will begin to blossom its flowers, before even its leaves grow. This creates a period of time when the almond tree is covered in white flowers, which could be thought to resemble a head of white hair. At the end of its life, the normally bounding grasshopper will sluggishly drag itself along – “much like the awkward gait of old men and women” (Barrick, 200). Most interpret the failing desire to be sexual desire. When death approaches in the old age, there is simply no desire, nor ability, to practice anything sexual. “It may be a great comfort to many of you to see that this is last on the list! It is the last thing to go, according to this statement” (Stedman, 177). Each of these is a sign that “man is going to his eternal home.”
The repeated use of the word “before” should keep verse one in our minds. Remember the Creator before death finally comes. Verse 6 presents various symbols of how death befalls us. Snapped, broken, and shattered are the images that Solomon wishes for us to have of death. He does not naively designate death as a joyous occasion, but rather emphasizes how devastating its effects are. It is also here that we are provided a glimpse at Solomon’s true view of life after death. For the majority of the book, any time that Solomon discussed what happens after death he did so very bleakly, from the perspective of being “under the sun.” However, here he states that our bodies will return to the dust from which we were created and our souls will return to God. This recalls the image of the creation of man in Genesis. God formed man from the dust and breathed His spirit into us to give life. Thus, death is the decomposition of the entirety of man. God summons the spirit back to Himself, and without the spirit, the flesh reverts to dust.
I think what makes this poem as brutal as it is beautiful is its reminder that death is often a slow process in which each of our faculties slowly succumbs to decay piece by piece. All the signs of aging are actually signs of approaching death; therefore, one should be prepared for death.
But why does Solomon specifically command us to remember God before old age? Thankfully, repentance can certainly be found as long as breath is still in the lungs. Of course, being alive is not a guarantee that we will be able to repent. Hebrews 12:17 warns us that Esau sought repentance with tears but did not find it. But generally, there is still hope for anyone who is still alive.
I believe that Solomon is commanding us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth because he wants to save us from living a wasted and vain life. John Piper poignantly begins his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, with the powerful story of an old man who repented and believed the gospel after one of the sermons of Piper’s father. After his conversion, the man wept that he had wasted his life. He came to see the beauty of Christ and understood that everything that he lived for previously was nothing more than a vanity. The sad reality is that even if we turn to the LORD at the end of our lives, our faculties will be so decayed that we will be able to do little for Him. Contrast this fact with the reality that true joy and delight are only found by remembering our Creator and living according to His design. A life given to God is the only non-wasted life.
VANITY OF VANITIES // VERSE 8
Ah, the bitter refrain of Ecclesiastes! How fitting is it that this poem of finality should conclude with the verse that began Solomon’s first poem in Ecclesiastes! The careful reader, or uptight English student, will surely have noticed that verses 1-7 are one gigantic run-on sentence. One commentator suggests that if one attempts to read the entire poem as one sentence, he or she would be out of breath—which is fitting because hevel can also be translated to mean ‘a breath.’
Let us conclude with a message to the young and to the old.
First, to the young: rejoice in the days of your youth, remove the sins and frustrations that will ruin and waste your life, and remember your Creator now. As a young man now, here is how I hope to prepare for the day that I will walk through chapter 12’s poem (should the LORD grant me those years). During my youth, I long to grow in the one thing that I will be able to do even with my final breath: prayer. Sadly, many people lose their sense of value along with their failing body. This is a tragedy because, for the Christian, the loss of physical faculties should mean full devotion to the work of prayer. When I am an old man, I long to be a mighty force of prayer, even if my hands can longer write words like these. Even if my legs can no longer hold my body up in the pulpit, I desire to have young men at my home learning how to pray.
Second, to the old: your final years are not the time to coast through life. The race is almost complete, so sprint to the finish line. In You and Me Forever, Francis Chan writes this thought better than I can, so I will let him speak:
At 85, Caleb was as courageous as ever. Rarely do we meet people in their fifties and sixties living by faith, much less people in their eighties. In speaking to young adults throughout America, they tell me of how they would love to be mentored by older people who are living by faith. But they can’t find any. Some may be joyful and friendly, but no longer living by faith. Sadly, their lives consist of visiting grandkids and taking vacations. Some are still acquiring more possessions, hoping to make the most of their last few days on earth. (p. 185)
Time flies. And it flies faster each year. So don’t procrastinate. Think of your age in miles per hour. When you’re seven years old, it feels like life is moving at seven miles per hour. It feels like you are never going to turn eight. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, the years start passing by more rapidly. By the time you’re doing fifty or sixty, it’s hard to even keep track of what year it is. Anything beyond that, and you’re in the fast lane. You should just put this book down now and sprint. Like a game of hot potato, you should get rid of your possessions as fast as possible. Invest everything you can in the Kingdom. Your life is going to be over any minute, and you’re going to regret holding on to things you weren’t able to keep. (p. 190)