Ecclesiastes 12:3
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,
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(3) In this verse we have a description of an afflicted and affrighted house: the servants below (keepers of the house; comp. 2Samuel 20:3) in consternation [the word for “tremble” occurs twice more in Biblical Hebrew (Esther 5:9; Habakkuk 2:7), but is common in Aramæan]; the masters (men of might, translated “able men “Exodus 18:21; Exodus 18:25; comp. “mighty in power,” Job 21:7) in equal distress; so also the grinding maids below, discontinuing their work (Exodus 11:5; Isaiah 47:1-2); the ladies, who look out at the lattices (Judges 5:8; 2Samuel 5:16; Proverbs 7:6; 2Kings 9:30), forced to withdraw. (For the four classes, comp. Isaiah 24:2; Psalm 132:2.)

Expositors have generally understood the house here described as denoting the decaying body of the old man. To the English reader the “grinders” of our version suggest “teeth” in a way that the “grinding maidens” of the Hebrew does not; and the ladies looking out of the lattices can easily be understood of “the eyes.” But when it is attempted to carry out the figure, and to find anatomical explanations of all the other images employed, the interpretation becomes so forced that some have preferred to understand Ecclesiastes 12:3 as only a general description of the consternation produced by such a tempest as is spoken of in Ecclesiastes 12:2. I cannot but think that the “house” does denote the bodily frame; but I regard as unsuccessful the attempts which have been made to carry out this idea into its details.

Ecclesiastes 12:3. When the keepers of the house — The body, which is often and fitly compared to a house; whose keepers are the hands and arms, which are man’s best instruments to defend his body from the assaults of men or beasts, and which, in a special manner, are subject to this trembling. And the strong men shall bow themselves — Either the back, or the thighs and legs, in which the main strength of the body consists, and which, in old men, are very feeble. And the grinders — The teeth, those especially which are commonly so called, because they grind the meat which we eat; cease — To perform their office; because they are few — Hebrew, כי מעשׂו, because they are diminished, either in strength, or in number, being only here one, and there another, and neither united together, nor one directly opposite to another, and consequently unfit for their work. And those that look out of the windows be darkened — The eyes. By windows he understands, either the eye-lids, which, like windows, are either opened or shut: or, those humours and coats of the eyes, which are the chief instruments by which we see.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.The body in old age and death is here described under the figure of a decaying house with its inmates and furniture.

This verse is best understood as referring to the change which old age brings to four parts of the body, the arms ("the keepers"), the legs ("the strong men"), the teeth ("the grinders"), and the eyes.

3. keepers of the house—namely, the hands and arms which protected the body, as guards do a palace (Ge 49:24; Job 4:19; 2Co 5:1), are now palsied.

strong men … bow—(Jud 16:25, 30). Like supporting pillars, the feet and knees (So 5:15); the strongest members (Ps 147:10).

grinders—the molar teeth.

cease—are idle.

those that look out of the windows—the eyes; the powers of vision, looking out from beneath the eyelids, which open and shut like the casement of a window.

The keepers of the house, i.e. of the body, which is oft and fitly compared to a house, as Job 4:19 Psalm 119:54 2 Corinthians 5:1; whose keepers here are either,

1. The ribs and bones into which they are fastened, which are the guardians of the inward and vital parts, which also are much weakened and shaken by old age. Or rather,

2. The hands and arms, which are man’s best instruments to defend his body from the assaults of men or beasts, and which in a special manner are subject to this trembling, by paralytical or other like distempers, that are most incident to old men.

The strong men; either the back, or the thighs and legs, in which the main strength of the body doth consist, which in old men are very feeble, and unable both for the support of the body and for motion.

The grinders; the teeth, those especially which are commonly so called, because they grind the meat which we eat.

Cease, to wit, to perform their office,

because they are few, Heb. because they are diminished, either,

1. In strength. Or,

2. In number; being here one, and there another, and not united together, and one directly against another, and consequently unfit for their work.

Those that look out of the windows; the eyes. By windows he understands either,

1. The holes in which the eyes are fixed, Zechariah 14:12. Or,

2. The eye-lids, which, like windows, are either opened or shut. Or,

3. Those humours and coats of the eyes noted by anatomists, which are the chief instruments by which the eye sees. In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,.... By the "house" is meant the human body; which is a house of clay, the earthly house of our tabernacle, in which the soul dwells, Job 4:19, 2 Corinthians 5:1. The Targum interprets the keepers of the house, of the knees and the trembling of them; but the Midrash and Jarchi, much better, of the ribs; man being fenced with bones and sinews, as Job says, Job 10:11; though trembling cannot be well ascribed to them, they being so fixed to the backbone: rather therefore, as Aben Ezra, the hands and arms are meant; which work for the maintenance of the body, and feed it with food, got and prepared by them; and which protect and defend it from injuries; for all which they are fitted, and made strong by the God of nature. The Arabic version renders it, "both keepers"; and, doubtless, respects both hands and arms; and which, in old age, are not only wrinkled, contracted, and stiff, but attended with numbness, pains, and tremor. Some, not amiss, take in the head; which is placed as a watchtower over the body, the seat of the senses; which overlooks, guards, and keeps it, and which often through paralytic disorders, and even the weakness of old age, is attended with a shaking;

and the strong men shall bow themselves; it is strange the Targum and Midrash should interpret this of the arms, designed in the former clause; Jarchi and Aben Ezra, more rightly, of the thighs; it takes in thighs, legs, and feet, which are the basis and support of the human body; and are strengthened for this purpose, having stronger muscles and tendons than any other parts of the body; but these, as old age comes on, are weakened and distorted, and bend under the weight of the body, not being able, without assistance, to sustain it;

and the grinders cease because they are few; the Targum is,

"the teeth of the mouth:''

all agree the teeth are meant; only the Midrash takes in the stomach also, which, like a mill, grinds the food. There are three sorts of teeth; the fore teeth, which bite the food, and are called "incisores": the eye teeth, called "canini", which bruise and break the food; and the double teeth, the hindermost, which are called "dentes molares", the grinding teeth; and which being placed in the upper and nether jaw, are like to millstones, broad and rough, and rub against each other and grind the food, and prepare it for the stomach: these, in old age, rot and drop out, and become few and straggling, one here and another there; and, not being over against each other, are of no use, but rather troublesome;

and those that look out of the windows be darkened; the eyes, as the Targum and Ben Melech; and all agree that those that look out are the eyes, or the visive rays: the "windows" they look through are not spectacles; for it is questionable whether they were in use in Solomon's time, and, however, they are not parts of the house; but either the holes in which the eyes are, and so the Septuagint and Vulgate Latin versions render it, to which the Targum agrees, paraphrasing it, the strong bounds of the head; and which are no other than what oculists call the orbits of the eye: or else the eyelids, which open and shut like the casement of a window, and through which, being opened, the eyes look; or the humours of the eye, the watery, crystalline, and glassy, which are transparent, and through which the visive rays pass; or the tunics, or coats of the eye, particularly the "tunica aranea" and "cornea"; as also the optic nerves, and especially the "pupilla", or apple of the eye, which is perforated or bored for this purpose: now these, in old age, become weak, or dim, or thick, or contracted, or obstructed by some means or another by which the sight is greatly hindered, and is a very uncomfortable circumstance; this was Isaac's case, Genesis 27:1; but Moses is an exception to the common case of old men, Deuteronomy 34:7.

In the day when the {b} keepers of the house shall tremble, and the {c} strong men shall bow themselves, and the {d} grinders cease because they are few, and those that {e} look out of the windows shall be darkened,

(b) The hands which keep the body.

(c) The legs.

(d) The teeth.

(e) The eyes.

3. in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble] Here, as before, there is a vivid picture which is also an allegory. The words represent (1) the effect of terror, such as that produced by tempest, or by earthquake, in the population of the city; and (2) the fact which corresponds to these in the breaking up of life. As in the previous verse the phenomena of the firmament answered to those of the higher region of man’s nature, so these represent the changes that pass over the parts of his bodily structure. Here accordingly the mode of interpretation which was rejected before becomes admissible. The error of the allegorizers was that they had not the discernment to see that the decay of mental powers would naturally take precedence of that of the bodily organs and that they would as naturally be symbolized by sun, moon and stars. The “keepers” or “watchers” of the houses are in the picture those who stand at the gate as sentinels or go round about the house to see that there are none approaching with the intention to attack. In the allegory they represent the legs which support the frame at rest or give it the power of movement. The trembling is that of the unsteady gait of age, perhaps even of paralysis. Not a few features in the picture seem to indicate experience rather than observation, and this fits in with the thought, suggested in the Ideal Biography (Introduction, ch. iii)., of a form of creeping paralysis depriving one organ after another of its functional activity yet leaving the brain free to note the gradual decay of the whole organism.

and the strong men shall bow themselves] As the previous clause painted the effect of terror on the slave sentinels of the house, so this represents its action on the men of might, the wealthy and the noble. They too cower in their panic before the advancing storm. Interpreting the parable, they are the symbol of the arms as man’s great instrument of action. They too, once strong to wield sword, or axe, to drive plough, or pen, become flaccid and feeble. The “hands that hang down” (Job 4:3-4; Isaiah 35:3; Hebrews 12:12) become the proverbial type of weakness as well as the “feeble knees.” It should be added that the allegorizing commentators for the most part invert the order of interpretation which has been here adopted, finding the arms in the “keepers” and the legs in the “strong man.” Something may, of course, be said for this view, but the balance of probabilities turns in favour of that here adopted.

and the grinders cease because they are few] Both this noun and “they that look out” are in the feminine, and this determines their position in the picture. As we found slaves and nobles in the first half of the verse, so here we have women at the opposite extremes of social ranks. To “grind at the mill” was the type of the humblest form of female slave labour (Jdg 16:21; Isaiah 47:2; Exodus 11:5; Job 31:10; Matthew 24:41; Homer, Od. xx. 105–8). To “look out of the windows” (i.e. the latticed openings, glazed windows being as yet unknown) was as naturally the occupation of the wealthy and luxurious women of the upper class. So the ladies of Sisera (Jdg 5:28), and Michal, Saul’s daughter (2 Samuel 6:16), and the observing sage, or probably, Wisdom personified (Proverbs 7:6), and Jezebel (2 Kings 9:30), and the kingly lover of the Shulamite (Song Song of Solomon 2:9) are all represented in this attitude.

The interpretation of the parable is here not far to seek. The grinders (as the very term “molar” suggests) can be none other than the teeth, doing, as it were, their menial work of masticating food. They that look out of the windows can be none other than the eyes with their nobler function as organs of perception. So Cicero describes the eyes as “tanquam in arce collocati … tanquam speculatores altissimum locum obtinent.” “Placed as in a citadel, like watchmen, they hold the highest places” (de Nat. Deor. ii. 140). The symbolism which thus draws, as it were, distinctions of dignity and honour between different parts of the body will remind a thoughtful student of the analogy on which St Paul lays stress in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Each member of that analogy may, of course, thus be used as a symbol of the other. Here the gradations of society represent the organs of the body, and the Apostle inverts the comparison.Verse 3. - The gradual decay which creeps over the body, the habitation of the spirit, is depicted under the figure of a house and its parts (comp. Job 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 2 Peter 1:13, 14). In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble; i.e. this is the case when, etc. The hands and arms are appropriately called the keepers of the house, for with them (as Volek quotes from Galen) man ὁπλίζει καὶ φρουρεῖ τὸ σῶμα παντοίως ("arms and guards his body in various ways"). The shaking and palsy of old men's limbs are thus graphically described. This would be one of the first symptoms discerned by an observer. Taking the alternative interpretation, we should see in these "keepers" the menservants who keep watch before the house. These menials are appalled by the approach of the tempest, and quake. And the strong men shall bow themselves. The "men of power" are the legs, or the bones generally, which in the young are "as pillars of marble" (Song of Solomon 5:15), but in the old become feeble, slack, and bent. Delitzsch quotes 3Macc. 4:5, where we read of a multitude of old men being driven mercilessly, "stooping from age, and dragging their feet heavily along." In this clause it is this stooping and bending of the body that is noticed, when men are no longer upright in stature, "swifter than eagles," "stronger than lions" (2 Samuel 1:23; 1 Chronicles 12:8), fit for war and active employment. It is therefore less appropriate to see in the "keepers" the legs, and in the "strong men" the arms. Otherwise, the latter are the masters, the wealthy and noble, in contradistinction to the menials before mentioned: both lords and servants are equally terrified at the approach of the tempest, or, as Wright would say, at the touch of the sickly season (see on ver. 2). And the grinders cease because they are few. The word for "grinders" is feminine (αἱ ἀλήθουσαι, "the grinding-women," Septuagint), doubtless because grinding was especially women's business (Matthew 24:41). By them are meant the teeth, as we speak of molars, though, of course, the term here applies to all the teeth; so the Greeks used the term μύλαι for the denies molares. These, becoming few in number and no longer continuous, cannot perform their office. Otherwise, the grinding-women leave their work or pause in their labors at the approach of the storm, though one does not quite see why they should be fewer than usual, unless the sickly season has prostrated most of their companions, or that many are too frightened to ply their task. Having, therefore, harder work than usual, they stop at times to recruit themselves. But the analogy rather breaks down here; one would be inclined to suppose that their decreased numbers would make them apply themselves more assiduously to their necessary occupation. As the "keepers" in the former part of the verse were slaves, so these grinders are slaves, such occupation being the lowest form of service (see Exodus 11:5; Judges 16:21; Job 31:10). Those that look out of the windows be darkened. These are the eyes that look forth from the cavities in which they are sunk; they are regarded as the windows of the bodily structure, the eyelashes or eyelids possibly being deemed the lattice of the same. Plumptre cites Cicero, ' De Nat. Deer.,' 2:140: "Sensus interpretes ac nuntii return, in capite, tamquam in arce, mirifice ad usus necessaries et facti et collocati sunt. Nam oculi, tamquam speculatores, altissimum locum obtinent; ex quo plurima conspicientes, fungantur sue munere." The dimness in the eye and the failing in the powers of sight are well expressed by the terms of the text. It is noted of Moses, as something altogether abnormal, that at a hundred and twenty years of age "his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated" (Deuteronomy 34:7). Taking the alternative interpretation, we must regard those that look out of the windows as the ladies of the house, who have no menial work to do, and employ their time in gazing idly from the lattices (comp. Judges 5:28; 2 Samuel 6:16; Proverbs 7:6). These "are darkened," they are terror-stricken, their faces gather blackness (Joel 2:6), or they retire into corners in terror of the storm. These women are parallel to "the strong men" mentioned above; so that the weather affects all of every class - men-servants and maidservants, lords and ladies. "And sweet is the light, and pleasant it is for the eyes to see the sun; for if a man live through many years, he ought to rejoice in them all, and remember the days of darkness; that there will be many of them. All that cometh is vain." Dale translates the copula vav introducing Ecclesiastes 11:7 by "yes," and Bullock by "truly," both thus giving to it a false colouring. "Light," Zckler remarks, stands here for "life." But it means only what the word denotes, viz., the light of life in this world (Psalm 56:14; Job 33:30), to which the sun, as the source of it, is related, as מאור is to אור. Cf. Eurip. Hippol., ὧ λαμπρὸς αἰθὴρ κ.τ.λ, and Iphigen. in Aulis, 1218-19, μὴ μ ̓ ἀπολέσης κ.τ.λ: "Destroy not my youth; to see the light is sweet," etc. The ל in לע has the short vowel Pattach, here and at 1 Samuel 16:7, after the Masora.

(Note: Cf. on the contrary, at Genesis 3:6 and Proverbs 10:26, where it has the Kametz; cf. also Michlol 53b.)

The ki beginning Ecclesiastes 11:8 is translated by Knobel, Hitz., Ewald, and others by "ja" (yes); by Heiligstedt, as if a negative preceded by immo; but as the vav of Ecclesiastes 11:7 is copulative "and," so here the ki is causal "for." If it had been said: man must enjoy himself as long as he lives, for the light is sweet, etc., then the joy would have its reason in the opportunity given for it. Instead of this, the occasion given for joy has its reason in this, that a man ought to rejoice, viz., according to God's arrangement and ordinance: the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun; for it ought thus to be, that a man, however long he may live, should continue to enjoy his fair life, especially in view of the night which awaits him. Ki im are not here, as at Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 8:15, where a negative precedes, to be taken together; but ki assigns the reason, and im begins a hypothetical protasis, as at Exodus 8:17, and frequently. Im, with the conclusion following, presents something impossible, as e.g., Psalm 50:12, si esurirem, or also the extreme of that which is possible as actual, e.g., Isaiah 7:18, si peccata vestra sint instar coccini. In the latter case, the clause with the concessive particle may be changed into a sentence with a concessive conjunctive, as at Isaiah 10:22 : "for though thy people, O Israel, be as numerous as the sand of the sea;" and here: "though a man may live ever so many years." The second ki after ויז is the explicat. quod, as at Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 8:17, etc.: he must remember the days of darkness, that there shall be many of them, and, at all events, not fewer than the many years available for the happy enjoyment of life. In this connection kol-shebba' denotes all that will come after this life. If Hitz. remarks that the sentence: "All that is future is vanity," is a false thought, this may now also be said of his own sentence extracted from the words: "All that is, is transitory." For all that is done, in time may pass away; but it is not actually transitory (הבל). But the sentence also respects not all that is future, but all that comes after this life, which must appear as vain (hěvel) to him for whom, as for Koheleth, the future is not less veiled in the dark night of Hades, as it was for Horace, i. 4. 16 s.:

"Jam te premet nox fabulaeque

Manes Et domus exilis Plutonia."

Also, for Koheleth as for Horace, iv. 7. 16, man at last becomes pulvis et umbra, and that which thus awaits him is hevel. Tyler is right, that "the shadowy and unsubstantial condition of the dead and the darkness of Sheol" is thus referred to. הבּא signifies not that which is nascens, but futurum, e.g., Sanhedrin 27a, "from the present ולהבא and for the future" (for which, elsewhere, the expression לעתיד לבא is used). The Venet. construes falsely: All (the days) in which vanity will overtake (him); and Luther, referring בא as the 3rd pers. to the past, follows the misleading of Jerome. Rightly the lxx and Theod.: πᾶν τὸ ἐρξηόμενον.

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