Yesterday I celebrated my 53rd birthday. That, coupled with the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of visiting with elderly folks in hospitals and nursing homes lately, got me to thinking about Ecclesiastes 12:1-8. Why that passage? It’s because those verses provide the Bible’s most vivid description of what it’s like to grow old. So, let’s walk through them together (all verses from the N.K.J.V.).
The passage begins by urging the reader to remember the Creator (God) in the days of youth. That’s before the difficult days hit, before the coming of the days that make you say, “I have no pleasure in them” (verse 1). Poetically, Solomon (the writer of Ecclesiastes) describes the days of youth as days in which the sun, the moon, and the stars aren’t darkened. That means that all of life still has a glisten and a sparkle to it as creation fills you with wonder and excitement both day and night. Furthermore, Solomon describes those days as being days when the clouds don’t come back around after a rain (verse 2). That’s his way of saying that when you are young even storms and periods of rain don’t get you discouraged. You know the sun will be back out soon and you have boundless optimism about the future.
Okay, all that sets the stage for the bad stuff, the description of the difficult days. In verse 3, Solomon begins that description by calling this latter time of life “the day when the keepers of the house tremble.” Since the “house” is obviously the body, the “keepers of the house” must be the arms and hands. I don’t think anyone can debate the fact that elderly people have arms and hands that are shaky. In old age, the “keepers of the house” aren’t what they used to be.
Next, Solomon says, “…the strong men bow down” and “…the grinders cease because they are few” (verse 3). The term “strong men” refers to the legs and thighs. They used to be strong and straight but now they are weakened and buckled. As for the “grinders,” that’s a reference to the teeth and the job they do grinding up food. We have a full set of teeth when we are young, but we systematically lose them over the course of the years. This was especially true in Solomon’s day before there was a dentist on every corner. Even today scores of elderly people have false teeth.
Solomon then moves on to talk about the eyes. He says, “…those that look through the windows grow dim” (verse 3). Again, think back to a time before bifocals, reading glasses, contact lenses, and cataract surgeries. For example, how could the elderly Isaac mistake Jacob for Esau? It happened because Isaac was virtually blind.
In verse 4, Solomon says “…the doors are shut in the streets.” This odd phrase has been interpreted in different ways, but I think he was describing how the elderly oftentimes end up living in isolation in their homes because they don’t get out much anymore. The term “shut in” applies here.
Also in verse 4, he says, “…the sound of grinding is low,” “…one rises up at the sound of a bird,” and “…all the daughters of music are brought low.” The first description speaks of the ears and their lessened ability to hear loud noises such as the grinding of millstones. The second speaks either of how the elderly tend to get up very early in the morning or how any little sound wakes them. The third refers to the vocal chords — they are the organs that sing — and describes how they become weakened to the point of becoming crackly.
Needless to say, when a person’s body begins to suffer such serious decline, a sizable amount of inner fear ensues. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Solomon says of the elderly, “…they are afraid of height and of terrors in the way” (verse 5). Old folks like to stay close to the ground, don’t they? And they don’t like to go out alone or at night due to the fear that some terrible person or thing will harm them.
Then Solomon offers three more facts about old age. Since the almond tree’s blossom is white, the “the almond tree blossoms” (verse 5) is certainly a picture of a person’s hair turning white with age. The line “The grasshopper is a burden” (verse 5) is more difficult to understand, but it means either that the elderly person doesn’t have enough strength to lift a grasshopper or that an insect becomes disproportionately irritating to an elderly person. I myself favor that second interpretation. As for the line “And desire fails” (verse 5), can anyone read that and not equate it with the loss of sexual potency and desire?
So once a person gets in such sorry shape physically, what is left to do? In Solomon’s way of looking at things, about the only thing left is actual death. He says, “…man goes to his eternal home” and “…the mourners go about the streets” (verse 5). On the heels of these two statements, he then metaphorically portrays death in verse 6 as the time when “the silver chord is loosed,” the golden bowl is broken,” “the pitcher (is) shattered at the fountain,” and “the wheel is broken at the well.” You see, in each metaphor the primary object can no longer function. Death, then, is the time when the body no longer functions.
Lastly, Solomon closes out his all-too-real and downright depressing description by saying:
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8)
I’m sure you know that God’s warning to Adam and Eve regarding the forbidden fruit was, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But did you know that experts in Hebrew tell us the original Hebrew of those words “you shall surely die” literally means “dying you shall die.” This is an important distinction to make because it brings into play the aging process that dogs mankind.
God didn’t strike Adam and Eve dead instantly the moment they ate that fruit, did He? Instead, He started the clock ticking on an aging process inside their bodies, a process of progressive decline that would ultimately culminate in physical death. And this aging process has been passed down to each of Adam’s descendants. I myself am now 53 years into the process, and I find my body aligning more and more with the words of Ecclesiastes 12:1-8. I’m just hoping that I’ve still got plenty of good years left before my silver cord is loosed, my golden bowl is broken, my pitcher is shattered, and my wheel is broken. The truth is, though, that only time will tell whether I do or not.