Ecclesiastes 12:1-14

Koheleth continued the admonition that can apply to any young person, saying, “And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near about which you will say, I have no delight in them.” The conjunction “and” indicates that this is a continuation of the words directed to youths (in the previous chapter). (12:1)

To remember the Creator would signify appreciatively to recognize him as the giver of life and the source of all blessings. Such remembering involves a reverential regard for him as the Maker of everything, and this is manifested by conduct harmonizing with his commands. (12:1; compare Deuteronomy 8:10-19.)

Being in the plural, the Hebrew expression for “your Creator” (bohre’eyka) signifies excellence, magnificence, or grandeur. He is the magnificent Creator. (12:1)

While in the prime of life, one should let the highest regard for the Creator and his will guide one’s decisions and conduct. The Hebrew word, rendered “youth” (bechuróhth), means “young manhood.” It refers to the time when one is enjoying the freshness of youth, for the term bachúr can apply to an adult unmarried male having youthful strength and vigor. (12:1)

The “evil days” are the days of old age, with their attendant ailments, loss of strength, and general deterioration of physical and, often, mental faculties. Accompanied by continued decline and no hope of any improvement, the days are indeed “evil” or “bad.” The capacity for enjoying food, drink, and other wholesome pleasures is greatly reduced and replaced by aches and pains. Hence, persons of advanced age come to the point where they may say that they have no delight or pleasure in the declining years of their life. (12:1) Their sentiments are like those expressed by Barzillai when invited by King David to join him in Jerusalem. “I am now eighty years old. I cannot tell what is pleasant and what is not; I cannot taste what I eat or drink; I can no longer listen to the voice of men and women singing. Why should I be a further burden on your majesty?” (2 Samuel 19:35, REB)

The person who has remembered his Creator when young, however, can look back with satisfaction on his former years. By having avoided the injurious effects of a reckless way of life in youth, he has also benefited by not contributing to the problems of old age.

Seemingly contrasting the time of youth with that of old age, Koheleth said, “before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain.” Youth is the summertime of life. The sun shines from a cloudless sky, and the days are “light” or bright. Nights are also delightful, as the moon and the stars adorn the black sky. Old age, on the other hand, is the wintertime of life. In winter, the days are dark and gloomy in the land where Koheleth resided. On account of overcast skies, the sun, moon, and stars are concealed from sight, thus darkened. The light or brightness of summer yields to the dark gray of winter. After downpours of cold rain, perhaps followed by some clearing of the sky, the clouds quickly return. In old age, the days lose their brightness, and no light dispels the darkness of the nights. The declining years of life are like the damp, cold and gloomy days and nights of winter, with rains in the form of difficulties, pains and distresses that follow one another in rapid succession. (12:2)

It appears that Koheleth provided a poetic portrayal of the debilitating effects on the physical organism, saying, “in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease [functioning] because they are few, and those that look through the windows [find it] darkened.” (12:3; see the Notes section.)

Elsewhere in the scriptures, the human body is referred to as a “tent” or “house.” (2 Corinthians 5:1, 2, 4; 2 Peter 1:13, 14) So there is a basis for considering the “house” to be the body and Koheleth’s description to relate to various parts thereof. “Your body will grow feeble.” (12:3, CEV)

The “guards,” “keepers,” or “guardians” of the house could be the arms and hands. They serve as the protectors of the house or the body, shielding it from injury, keeping it clean, and supplying what it needs to function properly. In old age, the arms weaken and the hands tremble. (12:3)

As the supporters and transporters of the rest of the body, the legs could be designated as “strong men.” The Shulammite described the legs of her lover as “pillars.” (Song of Solomon 5:15) With advancing years, the legs cease to be straight, sturdy pillars. Muscle tone and mass decrease, and the legs bend at the knees. The gait becomes slow, awkward, and unstable. (12:3)

Few are the “grinders” or “grinding women,” possibly meaning the teeth. When most or all of the teeth are missing, the process of grinding food basically ceases. Toothless gums are only capable of handling soft, mushy foods. (12:3)

“Those that look through the windows,” or “the ladies that peer through the windows” (Tanakh), may refer to the eyes. As they look between the opened eyelids from their window-like orbits, the eyes see as if in a haze or in a “darkened” condition. Vision is poor and, at times, blindness sets in. (12:3)

Koheleth continued the description, “and the doors on the street are shut, when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are weakened.” (12:4)

Psalm 141:3 refers to the “door of my lips,” and so the “doors” could designate the lips that close the mouth. When visible to all, the lips are like the double doors of a house facing the street. In old age, on account of toothless gums, the lips fold inward and, therefore, might be spoken of as being shut “on the street.” Since the lips are involved in speaking, the reference could also be to the fact that the making of public expression comes to an end. Infirmity prevents a person of advanced age from being an active participant in the affairs of life conducted in public places. The Septuagint reads agorá (“marketplace”), not street. Accordingly, the doors of the mouth would be closed with reference to the busy thoroughfare. (12:4)

Since the “grinders” may be the “teeth,” the “sound of the grinding” (or the “sound of the mill” [REB]) could refer to the dull, muffled sound of chewing food with toothless gums. In a number of translations, the closed doors are represented as the ears and the low “sound of the grinding” as poor hearing. “The noisy grinding of grain will be shut out by your deaf ears.” (CEV) “Your ears will be deaf to the noise in the streets, and you will barely hear the millstone grinding grain.” (NCV) Loss of hearing, however, may be indicated by the expression “all the daughters of song are weakened.” (12:4; see the Notes section.)

The elderly no longer sleep soundly. They tend to wake up frequently, and the periods of wakefulness last longer than in the case of younger people. Because much of the sleep is light, the aged may be roused at the “sound of a bird” even if their hearing is limited. Unable to go back to sleep after being awakened by the sound of a bird early in the morning, they may rise. Because deafness is a common affliction of the elderly, they may not be able to hear bird calls. On account of sleeplessness, though, they may get up at the time the first chirping starts. (12:4)

“Daughters of song” could denote the musical notes, all of which sound low or faint. This is the sense a number of translations convey (“all the strains of music dying down” [Tanakh]; “you will barely hear singing” [NCV]). Translations vary, however, as to the interpretation placed on the words “daughters of song.” Koheleth’s words have been understood as indicating that the elderly cease to sing or that their rendition of songs is feeble. “Your voice will become thin and trembling.” (Deine Stimme wird dünn und zittrig. [German, Gute Nachricht Bibel]) Others have limited the expression “daughters of song” to the song of birds (“songbirds fall silent” [REB]). “Already early in the morning you wake up with the chirping of birds, although you can barely even hear their singing.” (Schon frühmorgens beim Zwitschern der Vögel wachst du auf, obwohl du ihren Gesang kaum noch hören kannst. [German, Hoffnung für alle]) (12:4)

With apparent reference to the aged, Koheleth observed, “They are afraid also of a height, and terrors [are] in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself, and the caper berry bursts, because man is going to his eternal home, and mourners are going about on the streets.” (12:5)

Being unsteady on his feet and, perhaps, subject to dizzy spells, an old man is more likely to fall when climbing. Ascending elevations also poses problems because of shortness of breath and the great effort required on account of enfeeblement. Such factors cause the elderly to be afraid of heights. The Septuagint reads, “Indeed from a height, they will see, and terrors [are] in the way.” This could mean that the elderly, from an elevated spot, could see things that would make them fearful. (12:5)

The roads or busy thoroughfares can prove to be terrifying. Impaired hearing, poor eyesight, and lack of agility make it difficult to avoid hazards. Unscrupulous persons may also prey on defenseless elderly ones, making them targets for robbery. (Compare Proverbs 1:11-13.) Due to deterioration of physical and mental faculties, the aged face real perils and may also imagine terrors. (12:5)

Before its leaves appear, the almond tree starts to bloom at the end of January or the beginning of February. The blossoms usually are pink and, at times, white. At the tips, the petals turn white, making the tree appear white when in full bloom. If the reference to the blooming of the almond tree relates to an old man, it could refer to the fact that the hair turns white. (12:5)

The words “the grasshopper drags itself” could be descriptive of an old man. Being stiff, and having crooked elbows sticking out beyond the sides of the stooped body, he might be said to resemble a grasshopper, but he “drags himself,” shuffling slowly as he moves awkwardly and unsteadily. The Hebrew expression may also be rendered, “the grasshopper is a burden.” This suggests that, when alighting on an aged, infirm person, something as little as a grasshopper is burdensome. In the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac, the basic meaning is “the grasshopper becomes fat.” The renderings of the ancient versions could be understood to denote that an old man may be considerably overweight, as was 98-year-old Eli. (1 Samuel 4:15, 18) Perhaps the translators regarded the Hebrew as meaning that the grasshopper became “burdened [with fat].” (12:5)

Modern translators have interpretively rendered the Hebrew text in various ways. “You will limp along like a grasshopper when you walk.” (NCV) “You will feel lifeless and drag along like an old grasshopper.” (CEV) “Arduously you drag yourself through the day.” (mühsam schleppst du dich durch den Tag [German, Hoffnung für alle]) (12:5)

When pickled, the caper berry (Hebrew, ’aviyyohnáh; Greek, kápparis [LXX]; Latin, capparis [Vulgate]) serves as a condiment to stimulate desire for food. In describing what happens to the fruit of the caper plant, a form of the word parár appears in the Hebrew text. This term may mean “to burst,” or “to be void,” and so could signify “to become ineffectual,” possibly with reference to stimulating an old person’s appetite. “Your appetite will be gone.” (NCV) The reference to the caper berry has also been related to sexual desire (“without any sexual desire” [NLT]). (12:5)

Instead of relating to an old man, the descriptions from the almond tree onward have been presented as having an application to the plants themselves. “For the almond tree may blossom, the grasshopper be burdened, and the caper bush may bud again.” (Tanakh) Since the reference to the grasshopper does not fit in logically, a footnote in the Tanakh gives an alternate reading, Emendation yields ‘the squill (postbiblical Heb. hasab) resume its burden,’ i.e., its blossom-stalk and its leaves. The thought conveyed is that the almond tree, the squill, and the caper plant seem to be dead but then, at the end of the dormant period, come alive with new growth. No similar revival takes place for man when he dies. (12:5)

Man, in his state of decline, is “going,” walking, or heading to his “house” or “home” — the realm of the dead. This “house” is described as “eternal” or “lasting,” the Hebrew word ‘ohlám denoting time that has no set limit. Because death is approaching, the mourners “are going about in the street,” readily available when the individual dies. Besides relatives, friends, and close acquaintances, professional mourners would wail in a loud and bitter manner. (12:5)

Koheleth’s next words could relate to the dissolution of the body at death. The opening expression ‘adh’asher (“as yet even”), commonly rendered “before,” is to be linked with the encouragement to “remember your Creator” (verse 1). For clarity, a number of translations have added the words (“remember your Creator”; or “remember him”) at the beginning of verse 6. The Hebrew text reads, “before the silver cord is removed and the golden bowl is broken, and the jar at the spring is shattered, and the wheel at the cistern is crushed.” (12:6)

The Hebrew term (racháq) that describes what happens to the “silver cord” may be translated “is removed.” Numerous modern translations render racháq as “severed,” which rendering has the support of the Vulgate and the Syriac. In the Septuagint, the word used is anatrépo, meaning “to overthrow” or “to ruin.” When broken, the “golden bowl” could no longer function as a useful container. A jar or vessel at a spring or cistern is repeatedly filled and emptied. When shattered, the earthenware jar can no longer serve this purpose. (12:6)

Neither the context nor other scriptures make it possible to establish whether the “silver cord,” the “golden bowl,” the “jar,” or the “wheel” at the cistern designate specific body parts. Possibly Koheleth simply intended to portray the sudden end of life in three different ways. (1) The silver cord snaps, the bowl (filled with oil and containing a lighted wick) falls to the ground and is damaged, the oil is spilled, and the flame goes out. (2) A jar filled with water hits the sides of the well too hard, and the precious liquid flows out of the broken jar. (3) The wheel at the cistern is shattered, and the drawing of water stops immediately. (12:6; see the Notes section.)

Once the person is dead, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The first man was formed from the “dust” or the elements of the ground. As descendants of the first man, all humans or earthlings are made of “dust.” At death, the physical organism decomposes, returning to the elements of which it consisted originally. Psalm 146:4 expresses a similar thought: “When his spirit goes forth he returns to the earth, on that very day all his plans come to nothing.” (NJB) The “spirit” or principle of life, however, did not originate spontaneously from the lifeless dust. In the case of the first man, his lifeless body was animated by the “spirit” or life principle that God imparted. Never having been a part of the earth, the spirit could not return to it. Instead, as Koheleth said, it “returns to God, the source and the giver thereof. (12:7)

The “return of the spirit to God” may also include the thought that all future life prospects rest with him, the One into whose hands the spirit is committed. (12:7; Psalm 31:5) This harmonizes with the scriptural reference to the revivifying power of God’s spirit. “When you take away their spirit, they die and return to the dust from which they came. When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you give new life to the earth.” (Psalm 104:29, 30, REB)

Man’s life is comparatively brief, and death ends all his plans and activities. Nothing enduring is left behind. In most cases, even the name will cease to be remembered by future generations. Therefore, the words found at the beginning of the book are repeated at this point. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says Koheleth, ‘the whole — vanity.’” It is a vanity, a futility, an emptiness above all others — a vanity of the superlative degree. “All,” “the whole,” or everything in human affairs, that came under Koheleth’s careful study and observation proved to be meaningless, purposeless, futile, or vain. Nothing had any permanence or lasting value. (12:8)

“And besides having become wise, Koheleth also taught the people knowledge.” By using his God-given reasoning faculties in carefully observing human affairs and evaluating his findings, Koheleth became wise or acquired real insight respecting practical matters of life and in solving perplexing problems. He did not selfishly keep others in ignorance, jealously maintaining his superiority over them so as to be able to exercise greater control. Instead, he instructed them, generously sharing his extensive knowledge. (12:9)

Seemingly, regarding his efforts to be a good teacher, Koheleth spoke of “weighing,” “searching out,” and “arranging many proverbs.” The rendering “weighing” is based on considering the Hebrew word consisting of three consonants (aleph, zayin, and nun) to be ’azán, meaning “to weigh,” “to ponder,” or “to consider carefully.” These three consonants may also be understood to mean “ear” and “to listen.” The Septuagint reads, “An ear will search out well-arranged parables,” indicating that Koheleth’s ear was always open to hear “well-arranged parables,” which he then added to his fund of knowledge and used in teaching the people. A number of translations express a similar thought. “[He] gave ear.” (Young) “He listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims.” (12:9, Tanakh)

The Hebrew word chaqár basically means to “search out,” “to explore,” and has also been rendered “scrutinized” (NAB), “explored” (HCSB), “looked for” (NLB), and “studied” (NJB). As to what Koheleth did with the proverbs, wise sayings, or maxims, the Hebrew word describing this action is taqán, which means “to make straight.” This may signify that he arranged proverbs in a particular order. “To make straight” could also mean to correct, and this is expressed by the rendering “emended many proverbs.” (12:9, NJB)

Koheleth sought to find “delightful words and [to write] correct words of truth.” The finding of “delightful words” could refer to the effort required in the selection of subjects that would give pleasure or delight to the readers and to those hearing the reading of what was recorded. This could suggest that the words were useful, meaningful, and of genuine interest. On the other hand, the focus could be on the choice and arrangement of the words — “attractive style” (NJB). Truth, however, was not sacrificed for the sake of giving pleasure to the reader or preserving a delightful style. The Hebrew term describing the “words of truth” as “genuine” or “upright” is yósher, basically conveying the sense of “straightness.” The words were “genuinely truthful sayings” (Tanakh); “what he wrote was upright and true” (NIV). (12:10)

“The words of the wise [are] like goads.” A goad or prod consisted of a long wooden pole to which a sharp metal point was attached. It was used to prick a draft animal so that it would move forward in the right direction. Like goads, the words or sayings of persons possessing sound judgment or insight can motivate others to take the proper course. The words of the wise can prick the conscience and prompt appropriate or corrective action. Even the expressions and attitudes of persons rightly affected by the words can change for the better. (12:11)

“And like nails driven in [are] owners of collections.” “Owners” or “masters” of “collections” may designate sages who are depositories of many wise sayings which they understand and apply correctly. Such persons continue to grow in their fund of knowledge, resulting in expanding their “collections” of meaningful maxims. (12:11)

Nails that are driven in provide support and stability for an object. With reference to those whom they teach and admonish, wise persons are like nails, serving as a stabilizing influence and giving support and encouragement as they draw on their “collections.” Once driven in, nails have a permanent place. So, the allusion could also be to the temporary goadlike or pricking effect of the spoken word and the abiding nature of the written word with its potential for continuing to influence others. (12:11)

Numerous translators understand the Hebrew expression “owners of collections” to apply to the collected sayings rather than the persons who are the depositories of such collections (“their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails” [NIV], “like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings” [NRSV], “like nails driven home” [REB], “like nails that fasten things together” [CEV]). The Tanakh links “nails” with “goads.” “The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks.” It seems preferable, though, to regard the term bá‘al in its usual sense as meaning “master” or “owner.” (12:11)

Wise sayings “were given by one Shepherd.” The words of the wise and the “collections” of profitable sayings in their possession are from the one who is the source of their wisdom — God. YHWH gives wisdom; from his mouth [come] knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6); “YHWH [is] my shepherd.” (12:11; Psalm 23:1)

Regarding anything written that does not reflect God-given wisdom, Koheleth continued, “And anything beyond these, my son, beware. There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the flesh.” The expression “son” could refer to a youth or a pupil, one not yet in possession of the wisdom and experience associated with age. Such a one could easily be swayed by what he read. Hence, there was good reason for him to be given the caution to beware of writings that did not reflect God-given wisdom. Much of what was available had no value and could prove to be injurious. There simply was no end to all the books that had been and continued to be written. For example, in the third century BCE, Demetrius, librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, told King Ptolemy II Philadelphus that there were over 200,000 volumes in the library and that it was his hope to increase the number to 500,000. (12:12; see the Notes section.)

The Hebrew word for “study” (lahág) is thought to be drawn from an unused root conveying the idea of being greatly addicted to something. An all-consuming interest in the vast, growing field of writings can wear a person down physically. A slavish, indiscriminate devotion to books is wearisome or exhausting to the “flesh,” the physical organism. (12:12)

After his careful investigation and evaluation of human affairs, Koheleth concluded, “Final word, all having been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all.” In Hebrew, the term “word” (davár) can also mean “thing,” “affair” or “matter,” and this (in connection with the Hebrew term sohph (“end”) has been rendered as “the conclusion of the matter” (NIV), “the sum of the matter” (Tanakh), and “the end of the matter” (NRSV). The basic thought is the same — after all has been heard or examined, one conclusion is reached. Humans or earthlings should fear God, be in awe of him, or have a wholesome dread of displeasing him. They should also keep his commandments, letting his word and will guide what they do and say. Divine commandments or guidelines should influence their attitude and their thoughts. (12:13)

The “all of man” or “man’s all” may denote (1) man’s complete obligation or (2) man’s whole purpose for being. Both meanings are to be found in the renderings of translators. (12:13) “This is the whole duty of man.” (NIV) “This applies to all mankind.” (Tanakh) “There is no more to man than this.” (NEB) “This is the whole man.” (Margolis) “This is what life is all about.” (CEV)

Pointing out that humans are accountable for their actions and should, therefore, fear God and keep his commandments, Koheleth added, “For God will bring every work into judgment, [even] every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” Nothing escapes the attention of the Most High. People will be called to account for their actions, even those concealed from human view. A court higher than that of any man will determine what was “good” or “evil.” (12:14)

Jesus Christ similarly referred to this accountability. “On the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36, 37, NAB) Recognizing the certainty of a coming judgment should serve to restrain one from making derogatory, deceptive or slanderous expressions and engaging in corrupt conduct. The apostle Peter reminded fellow Christians: “If you say ‘Father’ to him who judges everyone impartially on the basis of what they have done, you must live in awe of him during your time on earth.” (1 Peter 1:17, REB)


Many have understood the poetic language of verses 3 and 4 as describing what happens to the humans body as it ages, and this significance has been made explicit in the renderings of a number of modern translations. Others, however, have regarded the words to relate to what happens to an estate as it falls into a condition of neglect and deterioration; or they have taken the imagery to refer to the fearful response of individuals in a large household when about to face a severe storm (which is regarded as representative of death). One of the descriptions in particular does not seem to fit either of these explanations. The “grinders” (which word is feminine gender in Hebrew and, therefore, can be rendered “grinding women”) are said to have “ceased,” or stopped working, because of being few. The decline of an estate would not end the need to grind grain because fewer women would be available for this essential labor, nor would an approaching storm reduce the number of women doing the grinding and so could not be the reason for stopping the activity.

Although interpretively representing the “doors” of verse 4 as the “lips, the New Living Translation gives a meaning to the verse that is not apparent from the Hebrew text nor from the Septuagint. “And when your teeth are gone, keep your lips tightly closed when you eat!”

The reference to the blossoming of the almond tree, to the grasshopper, and to the caper berry (in verse 5) has also been considered as serving to contrast with developments regarding the deceased. “Outside the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper eats itself full, and the caper fruit bursts open, but you they carry to your last dwelling place. On the street, they start mourning for you.” (Draußen blüht der Mandelbaum, die Heuschrecke frisst sich voll und die Kaperfrucht bricht auf; aber dich trägt man zu deiner letzten Wohnung. Auf der Straße stimmen sie die Totenklage für dich an. [German, Gute Nachricht Bibel]).

A number of views about verse 6 that were expressed in past centuries have gained a measure of acceptance. The “silver cord” has been understood to designate the “spinal cord; the “golden bowl,” the brain, or the bowl-like cranium that contains the brain; and the “jar,” the heart. The “wheel at the cistern” has been linked to the circulation of blood.

When understood to be the “silver cord,” the spinal cord could be spoken of as being removed from its previous position in the living body, for it ceases to function at death. If designating the “golden bowl,” the brain (in its broken state at death) can no longer fill its vital role in the body. As a container for liquid, the “pitcher,” “jar,” or “vessel” could refer to the heart through which the blood courses. Because the blood continues to flow in and out of it, the heart is comparable to a vessel at a spring. As the flow of water into a vessel stops when the wheel at the cistern is crushed or broken, so death ends the circulation of blood from the heart to other parts of the body.

The example cited in connection with verse 12 is taken from what is known as the “Letter of Aristeas,” which contains a traditional account about the origin of the Torah portion of the Septuagint.