Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;XII.
(1) Creator.—This occurs as a Divine name in Isaiah 40:23; Isaiah 44:15. and elsewhere. Here it is in the plural, like the Divine name Elohim. (See also Note on Ecclesiastes 12:8.) We have “thy Maker” in the plural in Job 35:10; Psalm 149:2; Isaiah 54:5; and “Holy One” in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 30:3; Hosea 11:12.
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:(2) Here the style rises, and we have a figurative description of the “evil days;” but, as sometimes happens in the case of highly wrought poetry, it is much easier to perceive the general effect intended than to account for all the words which produce it. English readers generally have been deeply impressed by Ecclesiastes 12:6-7, in a general way understanding them as speaking of the dissolution of the noble structure of the bodily frame; and they scarcely gain anything by the efforts of commentators to explain to them what exactly is meant by the “silver cord” and the “golden bowl.” After using all the help my predecessors have given me, I frankly own myself unable to give more than a vague account of the figures employed in this whole passage.
Darkened.—See Ecclesiastes 11:8. On darkness of the heavens as a symbol of calamity, comp. Isaiah 13:10-11; Jeremiah 4:28-29; Ezekiel 32:7-9; Joel 2:1-10; Amos 8:9-10; and contrast Isaiah 30:26; Isaiah 60:10.)
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,(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.
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;(4) The first two clauses continue the description of the afflicted house; all communication with the outer world broken off: the double doors towards the street shut, the cheerful noise of grinding not heard without (Jeremiah 25:10-11; Revelation 18:22). If a more minute explanation of the double doors is to be given, we may understand the verse as speaking of the closing of the lips on the falling away of the teeth. (See Job 41:14; Psalm 141:3; Micah 5:7.)
He shall rise up.—No satisfactory explanation of this clause has been given. The following are three of the best interpretations that have been proposed: (1) The old man, whose state has been figuratively described before, is said to sleep so badly that the chirping of a bird will awake him. (2) His voice becomes feeble like the chirping of a bird (Isaiah 29:4). (3) The bird of ill omen raises its voice (Psalm 102:6-7; Zephaniah 2:14). Each of these interpretations is open to serious objections, which I do not state at length, having myself nothing better to propose.
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:(5) The old man is beset with terrors; terrors from on high, terrors on the way: all in which he had taken delight before, has charms for him no longer; the almond causes loathing (for so may be translated the word rendered “flourished” in our version); the locust, in the East a favourite article of food, is now burdensome; the caper berry (translated “desire” in our version) fails; for man is going to his everlasting house, &c
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.(6) Golden bowl.—Zechariah 4:3.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.(7) The preacher has risen above the doubts of Ecclesiastes 3:21. (See also Genesis 3:19.)
And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.(9) In the introduction I have stated my conviction that the epilogue which here follows is an integral part of the book. If so, it seems to me clear that the writer, who has up to this recorded the words of Kohéleth, now speaks in his own name, and informs his readers that the preacher, whose teaching of the people he preserves, was also a writer, and the author of the well-known Proverbs.
Moreover.—This, the first word of the epilogue, is one of the specialties of the book of Ecclesiastes. (See Ecclesiastes 2:15.) So is also the word for “set in order” (Ecclesiastes 1:15; Ecclesiastes 7:13).
The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.(11) Words of the wise.—In this and the next verse the weighty words of sages, such as was Kohéleth, are contrasted with the volubility of modern bookmakers. Though the general purpose of the verses is plain, the words used are enigmatical, and one cannot feel great confidence in assigning their precise meaning. The translation of our version fairly represents the original, if it is observed that the words “by” and “which,” which determine the meaning, are in italics. With regard to the “nail,” compare Ezra 9:8; Isaiah 22:23. The word “masters” we have had twice in this book already in the sense of possessor, “master of the tongue” (Ecclesiastes 10:11), “master of wings” (Ecclesiastes 10:20). “Assemblies” is a word not coming from the same root as that from which Kohéleth is derived. It might mean collections of sayings as well as of people. It is difficult to affix any meaning to the last clause, except that the sages, of whom the verse speaks, have been given for the instruction of the people by Israel’s great Shepherd (Psalm 80:1).
And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.(12) Study.—The word occurs here only in the Old Testament; but is not a Talmudic word.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.(13) Whole duty of man.—Rather, the duty of every man. The sacred writer practically anticipates the teaching of Romans 3:29.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.(14) Considering that the book is filled with complaints of the imperfection of earthly retribution, this announcement of a tribunal, at which “every work,” “every secret thing,” shall be brought into judgment, cannot be reasonably understood of anything but a judgment after this life; so that this book, after all its sceptical debatings, ends by enunciating, more distinctly than is done elsewhere in the Old Testament, the New Testament doctrine of a day when God shall judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:16), shall bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts (1Corinthians 4:5).