Summary: 19th in a series from Ecclesiastes. A few life lessons for us to apply in the face of the certainty of death.
Over the past two weeks, it seems like we’ve been barraged with a multitude of celebrity deaths – Farrah Fawcett, Karl Malden, Billy Mays, and, of course, Michael Jackson. In a sense, I’m really tired of all the coverage that has been given to the deaths of these people, just because they are well known. But in another sense, perhaps there may be some benefit because all this publicity has certainly caused some people to consider their own mortality.
That is certainly one thing that Qoheleth has done frequently throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes. And now, as he wraps up his musings and prepares to close the book with his conclusions, he reflects on the certainty of death and the fleeting nature of our lives one last time. Let me read our passage for this morning.
9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, And let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; Walk in the ways of your heart, And in the sight of your eyes; But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment. 10 Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, And put away evil from your flesh, For childhood and youth are vanity. 12:1 Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come, And the years draw near when you say, "I have no pleasure in them": 2 While the sun and the light, The moon and the stars, Are not darkened, And the clouds do not return after the rain; 3 In the day when the keepers of the house tremble, And the strong men bow down; When the grinders cease because they are few, And those that look through the windows grow dim; 4 When the doors are shut in the streets, And the sound of grinding is low; When one rises up at the sound of a bird, And all the daughters of music are brought low; 5 Also they are afraid of height, And of terrors in the way; When the almond tree blossoms, The grasshopper is a burden, And desire fails. For man goes to his eternal home, And the mourners go about the streets. 6 Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, Or the golden bowl is broken, Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, Or the wheel broken at the well. 7 Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. 8 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "All is vanity."
Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8 (NKJV)
This section brings to a conclusion all of Qoheleth’s musings and reflections on what he observed about life here on earth “under the sun”. In fact, this section ends with nearly the same words that he used to open the book:
"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NKJV)
This kind of structure is very common in the Bible and particularly in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. It is referred to as an “inclusio” in which the same phrase at the beginning and end of the passage serves as bookends to all the material that is contained between them. That is certainly true here where everything between chapter 1, verse 2 and chapter 12, verse 8 is a description of the vanity of life here on earth.
Although I’ve hopefully made the point often enough throughout our journey through Ecclesiastes, let me just remind you one last time that the word translated “vanity” here is the Hebrew word “hebel”, which means “vapor” or “breath”. It almost certainly does not mean “meaningless”, as it is translated in the NIV, but rather it points to the vaporous or fleeting nature of life here on earth. We have seen throughout Ecclesiastes that life here “under the sun” is far from meaningless. It is, in fact, unpredictable and we can’t figure it out most of the time, but God intends for us to find joy nonetheless. So it is certainly not meaningless.
Once again, as he has done previously, Qoheleth uses the certainty of death as a backdrop to introduce several life principles or lessons. But before we turn to those, let’s first take a look at how he describes the aging process and death in these verses.
THE AGING PROCESS AND DEATH
• “difficult days” (12:1-6)
Qoheleth describes the aging process as “difficult days” and he uses some very colorful poetic language to describe that process. Although a few commentators view much of this section in an almost prophetic sense as referring to the last days, that just doesn’t seem to be real consistent with the rest of the book where Qoheleth is merely making observations about what he sees here on the earth. However, it is certainly possible that there is some prophetic imagery here. At least some of the descriptions that are used bear some similarity to other prophetic passages about the end times. Since the words are inspired by God it is possible that even though Qoheleth didn’t understand what he was writing to be prophecy, God could use it in that way.