Ecclesiastes 12:6
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.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(6) Golden bowl.Zechariah 4:3.

Ecclesiastes 12:6. Or ever the silver cord be loosed — By the silver cord he seems to understand the spinal marrow, which comes from the brain, and goes down to the lowest end of the back-bone. And this is aptly compared to a cord, both for its figure, which is long and round, and for its use, which is to draw and move the parts of the body; and to silver, both for its excellence and colour, which is white and bright, in a dead, much more in a living body. This may properly be said to be loosed, or dissolved, because it is relaxed, or otherwise disabled for its proper service. And answerably hereto, by the golden bowl we may understand the membranes of the brain, and especially that inmost membrane which insinuates itself into all the parts of it, following it in its various windings, keeping each parcel of it in its proper place, and dividing one from another, to prevent disorder. This is not unfitly called a bowl, because it is round, and contains in it all the substance of the brain; and a golden bowl, partly for its great preciousness and usefulness; partly for its ductility, being drawn out into a great thinness or fineness; and partly for its colour, which is somewhat yellow, and comes nearer to that of gold than any other part of the body does. And this, upon the approach of death, is commonly shrivelled up, and many times broken. And as these clauses concern the brain, and the animal powers, so the two following respect the spring of the vital powers, and of the blood, the great instrument whereof is the heart. And so Solomon here describes the chief organs appointed for the production, distribution, and circulation of the blood. For though the circulation of the blood has been hid for many generations, yet it was well known to Solomon. According to this notion, the fountain is the right ventricle of the heart, which is now acknowledged to be the spring of life; and the pitcher is the arteries which convey the blood from it to other parts, and especially that arterious vein, by which it is transmitted to the lungs, and thence to the left ventricle, where it is better elaborated, and then thrust out into the great artery, called aorta, and by its branches dispersed into all the parts of the body. And the cistern is the left ventricle of the heart, and the wheel seems to be the great artery, which is fifty so called, because it is the great instrument of this circulation. The pitcher may be said to be broken at the fountain, when the veins do not return the blood to the heart, but suffer it to stand still and cool, whence comes that coldness of the outward parts, which is a near forerunner of death. And the wheel may be said to be broken at the cistern, when the great arteries do not perform their office of conveying the blood into the left ventricle of the heart, and of thrusting it out thence into the lesser arteries, whence comes that ceasing of the pulse, which is a certain sign of approaching death.12:1-7 We should remember our sins against our Creator, repent, and seek forgiveness. We should remember our duties, and set about them, looking to him for grace and strength. This should be done early, while the body is strong, and the spirits active. When a man has the pain of reviewing a misspent life, his not having given up sin and worldly vanities till he is forced to say, I have no pleasure in them, renders his sincerity very questionable. Then follows a figurative description of old age and its infirmities, which has some difficulties; but the meaning is plain, to show how uncomfortable, generally, the days of old age are. As the four verses, 2-5, are a figurative description of the infirmities that usually accompany old age, ver. 6 notices the circumstances which take place in the hour of death. If sin had not entered into the world, these infirmities would not have been known. Surely then the aged should reflect on the evil of sin.Be loosed - The termination of life is signified generally by the snapping of the silver cord by which the lamp hangs from the ceiling; by the dashing in pieces of the cup or reservoir of oil; by the shattering of the pitcher used to bring water from the spring; and by the breaking of the wheel by which a bucket is let down into the well. Others discern in the silver cord, the soul which holds the body in life; in the bowl, the body; and in the golden oil (compare Zechariah 4:12) within it, the spirit. 6. A double image to represent death, as in Ec 12:1-5, old age: (1) A lamp of frail material, but gilded over, often in the East hung from roofs by a cord of silk and silver interwoven; as the lamp is dashed down and broken, when the cord breaks, so man at death; the golden bowl of the lamp answers to the skull, which, from the vital preciousness of its contents, may be called "golden"; "the silver cord" is the spinal marrow, which is white and precious as silver, and is attached to the brain. (2) A fountain, from which water is drawn by a pitcher let down by a rope wound round a wheel; as, when the pitcher and wheel are broken, water can no more be drawn, so life ceases when the vital energies are gone. The "fountain" may mean the right ventricle of the heart; the "cistern," the left; the pitcher, the veins; the wheel, the aorta, or great artery [Smith]. The circulation of the blood, whether known or not to Solomon, seems to be implied in the language put by the Holy Ghost into his mouth. This gloomy picture of old age applies to those who have not "remembered their Creator in youth." They have none of the consolations of God, which they might have obtained in youth; it is now too late to seek them. A good old age is a blessing to the godly (Ge 15:15; Job 5:26; Pr 16:31; 20:29). This verse is to be understood either,

1. literally, of the ornaments of life, such as chains, and jewels, and vessels of gold and silver, and of the instruments by which the necessary provisions and supports of life are conveyed to us, such as fountains of water, and pitchers, &c.; which may be said to be loosed or broken, because they are neglected as useless things to the dead man. Or rather,

2. Allegorically, of those inward parts of man’s body which are the chief instruments of life, or sense and motion, and of the vital or animal operations, whether such from which they first proceed, or in which they are first elaborated and contained, which may fitly be compared to a bowl, and fountain, or cistern; or such by which they are derived or conveyed to the several parts of the body, which are very conveniently designed by the cord, and pitcher, and wheel; all which are truly said to be loosed or broken, i.e. dissolved, or become useless and insufficient for the performance of their several functions. This in the general. But it seems most probable that Solomon, who was so profound a philosopher, and doubtless had an accurate knowledge of all the parts of man’s body, and their several offices and operations, doth by these several expressions describe so many particular parts and offices. By

the silver cord, it is generally and most probably conceived that he understands the pith or marrow of the back-bone, which comes from the brain, and thence goeth down to the very lowest end of the back-bone, together with the nerves and sinews, which, as anatomists observe, are nothing else but the production and continuation of the marrow. And this is most aptly compared to a cord, both for its figure, which is very long and round, and for its use, which is to draw and move the parts of the body; and to silver, both for its excellency and colour, which is white and bright, even in a dead, and much more in a living body. And this may properly be said to be

loosed, or dissolved, or broken, or removed, as others render the word, the sense of all these translations being the same, because it is relaxed, or obstructed, or otherwise disenabled for its proper service. And answerably hereunto, by the

golden bowl he understands the membranes of the brain, and especially that innermost membrane which is called by anatomists the pious mother, because it doth with a motherly care defend the brain, and assist and govern its actions, which insinuates itself into all the parts of the brain, following it in its various windings and turnings, keeping each parcel of it in its proper place, and distinguishing and dividing one part from another, to prevent disorder and mischief. This is not unfitly called a bowl, partly because it is round, and partly because it receives and contains in it all the substance of the brain; and a golden bowl, partly, for its great preciousness and usefulness; partly, for its ductility, being drawn out into a great thinness or fineness, as gold is capable of being drawn forth into thinner plates than other metals can bear; and partly, for its colour, which is somewhat yellow, and comes nearer to that of gold than any other part of the body doth. And this is well said to be

broken, as for the reason above noted, so because upon the approach of death it is commonly shrivelled up, and many times broken. And as these two former clauses concern the brain and the animal powers, so the two following clauses of this verse respect the spring and seat of the vital powers and operations, and of the blood, the great instrument thereof, which hath been commonly conceived, and consequently is here understood, to be the liver, but more truly and certainly is the heart, which is now known and confessed to be the source of the blood. And so Solomon here describes the chief organs or vessels appointed for the production, and distribution, and circulation of the blood in man’s body. For although the doctrine of the circulation of the blood hath lain hid and unknown for very many generations together, and therefore the honour of the invention of it is justly ascribed to a famous physician of our country, yet it is not improbably supposed by some that it was well known to Solomon, although after his times it was lost, as doubtless many other things were, which he wrote concerning plants, and other things. According to this notion

the fountain here is the right ventricle of the heart, which is now acknowledged to be the spring of life, and of the vital spirits, and the pitcher is the veins which convey the blood from it to other parts, and especially that arterious vein, as anatomists call it, by which it is transmitted to the lungs, and thence to the left ventricle of the heart, where it is better elaborated, and then by the pulse thrust out into the great artery, called arteria aorta, and by its branches dispersed into all the parts of the body, to give them life and vigour, which being done, the residue of the blood is carried back by the veins into the right ventricle of the heart, whence it is disposed, as hath been now mentioned, and so runs in a perpetual round, unless it be obstructed by some disorder in the body. And the

cistern is the left ventricle of the heart, and the

wheel seems to be the great artery which is joined to it, which is very fitly so called, because it is the first and great instrument of this rotation or circulation of the blood, which by its pulse is forcibly thrust out into all the parts of the body, whence by various windings and turnings it returns thither again, and so is sent again upon the same journey, which in like manner it performs again and again, as long as life and health continue; and when any of these parts are disenabled for the discharge of their offices, then are they fitly said to be broken. The

pitcher may be said to be

broken at the fountain, when the veins do not return the blood to the heart, but suffer it to stand still and cool within them, whence comes that coldness of the outward parts, which is a near forerunner of death. And the wheel may be said to be

broken at the cistern, when the great arteries do not perform their office of conveying the blood lute the left ventricle of the heart, and of thrusting it out thence into the lesser arteries, whence comes that ceasing of the pulse, which is a certain sign of approaching death. Or ever the silver cord be loosed,.... As the above are the symptoms and infirmities of old age; these in this verse are the immediate symptoms of death, or what attend it, or certainly issue in it. Some by "the silver cord" understand the string of the tongue; and to this purpose is the Targum,

"before thy tongue is dumb from speaking;''

and it is observed (q) in favour of this sense, that the failing of the tongue is no fallacious sign of death, of which there is no mention at all in this account, unless here; and the tongue may not unfitly be called a "cord", both from the notation of the word because it binds, and because it scourges like a cord, Job 5:21; and is compared to silver, Proverbs 10:20, and in this verse rather the head than the back is treated of. But best, the bond of union between soul and body is meant: the Midrash and Jarchi, and the Jewish writers in general, interpret it of the "spina dorsi", or backbone; or rather of the marrow of it, which descends like a cord from the brain through the neck, and down the backbone to the bottom of it; from whence spring the nerves, fibres, tendons, and filaments of the body, on which the life of it much depends: this spinal marrow may be called a "cord" for the length of it, as well as what arise from it; and a silver cord, from the colour of it (r), this being white even after death; and for the excellency of it: and this may be said to be "loosened" when there is a solution of the nerves, or marrow; upon which a paralysis, or palsy, follows, and is often the immediate forerunner of death;

or the golden bowl be broken; the Targum renders it the top of the head; and the Midrash interprets it the skull, and very rightly; or rather the inward membrane of the skull, which contains the brain, called the "pia mater", or "meninx", is intended, said to be a bowl, from the form of it; a "golden" one, because of the preciousness of it, and the excellent liquor of life it contains, as also because of its colour; now when this "runs back", as the word (s) signifies, dries, shrinks up, and breaks, it puts a stop to all animal motion, and hence death;

or the pitcher be broken at the fountain; not the gall at the liver, as the Targum, which the ancients took to be the fountain of blood; but by the "fountain" is meant the heart, the fountain of life, which has two cavities, one on the right side, the other on the left, from whence come the veins and arteries, which carry the blood through the whole body; and here particularly it signifies the right ventricle of the heart, the spring and original of the veins, which are the pitcher that receives the blood and transmits it to the several parts of the body; but when thee are broke to shivers, as the word (t) signifies, or cease from doing their office, the blood stagnates in them, and death follows;

or the wheel broken at the cistern; which is the left ventricle of the heart, which by its "diastole" receives the blood brought to it through the lungs, as a cistern receives water into it; where staying a while in its "systole", it passes it into the great artery annexed to it; which is the wheel or instrument of rotation, which, together with all the instruments of pulsation, cause the circulation of the blood, found out in the last age by our countryman Dr. Harvey; but it seems by this it was well known by Solomon; now, whenever this wheel is broken, the pulse stops, the blood ceases to circulate, and death follows. For this interpretation of the several preceding passages, as I owe much to the Jewish writers, so to Rambachius and Patrick on these passages, and to Witsius's "Miscellanies", and especially to our countryman Dr. Smith, in his "Portrait of Old Age", a book worthy to be read on this subject; and there are various observations in the Talmud (u) agreeable hereunto.

(q) Vid. Castel. Lexic. Hept. col. 3662. (r) Vid. Waser. de Num. Heb. l. 1. c. 13. (s) "recurrat", V. L. "excurrit", Junius & Tremellius. (t) (u) T. Bab. Sabbat, fol. 151. 2. & 152. 1.

Or ever the {o} silver cord shall be loosed, or the golden {p} bowl be broken, or the {q} pitcher be broken at the {r} fountain, or the {s} wheel broken at the {t} cistern.

(o) Meaning, the marrow of the backbone and the sinews.

(p) The little skin that covers the brain, which is in colour like gold.

(q) That is, the veins.

(r) Meaning the liver.

(s) Which is the head.

(t) That is, the heart out of which the head draws the powers of life.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
6. or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken] The figurative character of the whole section, reaches its highest point here. It is clear however that the figures, whatever they may be, are symbolic of nothing less than death. We have had the notes of decay in organs and in functions brought before us one by one. Now we come to the actual dissolution of soul and body. It will help us to a right understanding to begin with the golden bowl. The noun is the same as that used in Zechariah 4:3-4, for the bowl of the golden seven-branched candlestick (better, lamp) of the Temple. It was the vessel, or reservoir, from which the oil flowed into the lamps. The lamp itself was, in the judgment of most students of the Mosaic ritual, the symbol of life—perhaps, even in its very form, of the Tree of life—in its highest manifestations. The symbolism of Greek thought harmonized with that of Hebrew, and “the lamp of life” was a familiar image. So when Pericles visited Anaxagoras, as he was dying of want and hunger, the sage said reproachfully “When we wish to keep the lamp burning, we take care to supply it with oil.” (Plutarch, Pericles.) So Plato (de Legg. p. 776) and Lucretius (ii:78) describe the succession of many generations of mankind, with an allusive reference to the Lampadephoria, or torch races of Athens.

“Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.”

“Like men who run a race, hand on the lamp of life.”

So the “light of life” appears in Greek epitaphs,

Νὺξ μὲν ἐμὸν κατέχει ζωῆς φάος ὑπνοδοτείρη

“Sleep-giving night hath quenched my light of life.”

Anthol. Graec. Ed. Jacobs, App. 265.

It can scarcely remain doubtful then that the “golden bowl” is life as manifested through the material fabric of man’s body. And if so, the “silver cord” in the imagery of the parable can only be the chain by which, as in houses or temples, the lamp hangs, i.e. when we interpret the parable, that on which the continuance of life depends. Death, elsewhere represented as the cutting of the thread of life by the “abhorred shears” of the Destinies, is here brought before us as the snapping of the chain, the extinction of the principle of life. The anatomist commentators have, as before, shewn their lack of poetic feeling by going in omnia alia as to the interpretation of the symbols. The “golden bowl” has been identified with the skull or the stomach, and the “silver cord” with the tongue or the spinal marrow, and so on into a region of details into which it is not always pleasant to follow the interpreter.

or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern] Better, or the pitcher be shattered. As with the Hebrews so also with the Greeks, life was represented by yet another symbol almost as universal as that of the burning lamp. The “fountain of life” was with God (Psalm 36:9). It was identified in its higher aspects with “the law of the wise” (Proverbs 13:14), with “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 14:27). The “fountain of the water of life” was the highest symbol of eternal blessedness (Revelation 21:6; Revelation 22:17). Two aspects of this symbolism are brought before us. (1) There is the spring or fountain that flows out of the rock, as in Isaiah 35:7; Isaiah 49:10. When men go to that spring with their pitcher (an “earthen vessel” as in Genesis 24:17) there is an obvious type of the action of the body (we may, perhaps, go so far with the Anatomists as to think specially of the action of the lungs) in drawing in the breath which sustains life. The “cistern” represents primarily the deep well or tank from which men draw water with a windlass and a rope and bucket (1 Samuel 19:22; Leviticus 11:36; Deuteronomy 6:11), a well like that of Sychar (John 4:6). Here obviously we have another parable of the mechanism of life, pointing to an action lying more remote than that of the fountain and the pitcher, and, if we have been right in connecting that with the act of breathing, we may as naturally see in this the action of the heart. Death is accordingly represented under both these figures. There will come a day when the pitcher shall be taken to the fountain for the last time and be broken as in the very act of drawing water, when the wheel that guides the current of the blood “which is the life” shall turn for the last time on its axis. Into the more detailed anatomical explanations which find in the pitcher and the wheel, the liver and the gall-duct, or the right and left ventricle, we refrain, as before, from entering.Verse 6. - Or ever; i.e. before, ere (ad asher lo). The words recall us to vers. 1 and 2, bidding the youth make the best use of his time ere old age cuts him off. In the present paragraph the final dissolution is described under two figures. The silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken. This is evidently one figure, which would be made plainer by reading "and" instead of "or," the idea being that the lamp is shattered by the snapping of the cord that suspended it from the roof. But there are some difficulties in the closer explanation of the allegory. The "bowl" (gullah) is the reservoir of oil in a lamp (see Zechariah 4:3, 4), which supplies nourishment to the flame; when this is broken or damaged so as to be useless, the light, of course, is extinguished. The Septuagint calls it τὸ ἀνθέμιον τοῦ χρυσίον: the Vulgate, vitta aurea, "the golden fillet," or flower ornament on a column, which quite sinks the notion of a light being quenched. The "cord" is that by which the lamp is hung in a tent or a room. But of what in man are these symbols? Many fanciful interpretations have been given. The "silver cord" is the spine, the nerves generally, the tongue; the "golden bowl" is the head, the membrane of the brain, the stomach. But these anatomical details are not to be adopted; they have little to recommend them, and are incongruous with the rest of the parable. The general break-up of life is here delineated, not the progress of destruction in certain organs or parts of the human frame. The cord is what we should call the thread of life, on which hangs the body lit by the animating soul; when the connection between these is severed, the latter perishes, like a fallen lamp lying crushed on the ground. In this our view the cord is the living power which keeps the corporeal substance from failing to ruin; the bowl is the body itself thus upheld. The mention of gold and silver is introduced to denote the preciousness of man's life and nature. But the analogy must not be pressed in all possible details. It is like the parables, where, if defined and examined too closely, incongruities appear. We should be inclined to make more of the lamp and the light and the oil, which are barely inferred in the passage, and endeavor to explain what these images import. Koheleth is satisfied with the general figure which adumbrates the dissolution of the material fabric by the withdrawal of the principle of life. What is the immediate cause of this dissolution, injury, paralysis, etc., is not handled; only the rupture is noticed and its fatal result. Another image to the same effect, though pointing to a different process, is added Or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or (and) the wheel broken at (in) the cistern. The picture here is a deep well or cistern with an apparatus for drawing water; this apparatus consists of a wheel or windlass with a rope upon it, to which is attached a bucket; the wheel fails, falls into the well, the bucket is dashed to pieces, and no water can be drawn. It is best to regard the two clauses as intended to convey one idea, as the two at the beginning of the verse were found to do. Some commentators, not so suitably, distinguish between the two, making the former clause say that the pitcher is broken on its road to or from the spring, and the latter that the draw-wheel gives way. The imagery, points to one notion which would be weakened by being divided into two. The motion of the bucket, the winding up and down, by which water is drawn from the well, is an emblem of the movements of the heart, the organs of respiration, etc. When these cease to act, life is extinct. The fraction of the cord and the demolition of the bowl denoted the separation of soul and body; the breaking of the pitcher and the destruction of the wheel signify the overthrow of the bodily organs by which vital motion is diffused and maintained, and the man lives. The expressions in the text remind one of the term, "earthen vessel," applied by St. Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7) to the human body; and "the fountain of life," "the water of life." so often mentioned in Holy Scripture as typical of the grace of God and the blessedness of life with him (see Psalm 36:9; Proverbs 13:14; John 4:10, 14; Revelation 21:6). "And remove sorrow from thy heart, and banish evil from thy flesh: for youth and age, not yet grown to grey hairs, are vain." Jerome translates: aufer iram a corde tuo, and remarks in his Comm.: in ira omnes perturbationes animi comprehendit; but כּעס (R. כס, contundere, confringere) does not signify anger, but includes both anger and sorrow, and thus corresponds to the specific ideas, "sadness, moroseness, fretfulness." The clause following, Jerome translates: et amove malitiam a carne tua, with the remark: in carnis malitia universas significat corporis voluptates; but רעה is not taken in an ethical, but in a physical sense: כעס is that which brings sorrow to the heart; and רעה, that which brings evil to the flesh (בשׂר, opp. לב, Ecclesiastes 2:3; Proverbs 14:30). More correctly than the Vulgate, Luther renders: "banish sorrow from thy heart, and put evil from thy body." He ought to free himself from that which is injurious to the inner and the outer man, and hurtfully affects it; for youth, destined for and disposed to joy, is hevel, i.e., transitory, and only too soon passes away. Almost all modern interpreters (excepting the Jewish), in view of Psalm 110:3, gives to שׁחרוּת the meaning of "the dawn of the morning;" but the connection with ילדוּת would then be tautological; the Mishn.-Midrash usus loq., in conformity with which the Targ. translates, "days of black hair," proves that the word does not go back to שׁחר, morning dawn, morning-red, but immediately to שׁחור, black, and as the contrast of שׂיבה (non-bibl. שׂיבוּת, סיב, סב), canities, denotes the time of black hair, and thus, in the compass of its conception, goes beyond ילדות, since it comprehends both the period of youth and of manhood, and thus the whole period during which the strength of life remains unbroken.

(Note: The Mishna, Nedarim iii. 8, jurist. determines that שׁחורי הראשׁ denotes men, with the exclusion of women (whose hair is covered) and children. It is disputed (vid., Baer's Abodath Jisrael, p. 279) whether תּשׁחרת, Aboth iii. 16, Derech erez c. II., Midrash under Lamentations 2:11, is equals שׁחרוּת, but without right; ben-tishhorěth is used for a grown-up son in full manly strength.)

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