Life, in Retrospect

Lessons of Life

“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

— Joe Megacz

In Ecclesiastes chapters ten, eleven, and twelve, Solomon looks back on his life and what lessons the years have taught him. Beginning in chapter ten, Solomon presents his observations, from personal experience, on growing old. Having already declared numerous times that all material gain is vanity, Solomon recognizes that, on the other hand, a person’s reputation for wisdom and honor is a lasting and valuable possession to be nurtured and protected.

Chapter Ten

Ecclesiastes 10:1, “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” How carefully and continually we must control our words and actions, especially in the presence of others. Similarly, Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:3 says, “Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses.”

Then, Solomon continues his exhortations to gain and display wisdom. He issues a series of warnings against foolish rulers and evil rulers — how to recognize them, and how to deal with them. No doubt Solomon saw many such rulers when they came from other countries to visit him, and see the temple that he built, and the majesty of his kingdom. Solomon’s descriptions of kingly fools, contrasted with common-sensed servants, are sometimes humorous, as in verses six and seven: “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.” There have been foolish, incompetent rulers of many nations from Solomon’s day to ours.

The exhortation of verse four is noteworthy on two levels, “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.” The phrase “leave no thy place” means to stand firm. On a natural level, Solomon is saying, “Stand up to bullies. If you don’t, they will just bully you more.” We should not be intimidated but answer calmly, without anger or bitterness. On a spiritual level, we can see a reference to Satan as the ruler of this present evil world. Solomon’s advice to stand firm for righteousness echoes James’ admonition in James 4:7, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Verses ten through fifteen contain exhortations to avoid foolish thoughts, words, and deeds, plus nuggets of practical wisdom. Among them is verse ten, “If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.” “Iron” refers to an axe, and “whet” refers to a whetstone, a tool for sharpening an axe. Abraham Lincoln, likely paraphrasing this scripture, is reported to have famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” The lesson is to plan ahead and prepare yourself and your tools in order to most effectively achieve the desired outcome of the task at hand, whether literal or spiritual. We have in our hands not a spiritual axe, but a symbolic sword — the word of God — and we must keep our understanding of it sharp and ready to be put to use.

In the closing verses, Solomon returns to his observations of rulers, both wise and foolish, and the impact of their wisdom or, conversely, foolishness on the people of the land. Ecclesiastes 10:16, 17: “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning! Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness!” The meaning of these verses is that an immature and unwise ruler will guide his people foolishly and bring them woe. To eat in the morning suggests resting, partying, and enjoying life now, without first working to earn that rest and enjoyment later. By contrast, a noble and wise ruler will lead his people to work diligently now in order to build a successful and enjoyable future. Proverbs 20:4 teaches this same principle: “The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing.” This principle is even more relevant to our spiritual work now, building a character likeness to our Lord in preparation for our eternal future.

The last verse of chapter ten, verse 20, is a warning against evil speaking: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” If we share our derogatory thoughts about a brother with even one person, our words will take wing and be repeated to others, usually without our knowledge. This is vanity.

Chapter Eleven

Ecclesiastes chapter eleven begins with an exhortation to “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” On a practical level, this verse means to give generously of our material goods to those in need. Such acts might appear overly generous and even wasteful, as if we were throwing our bread away. But, as a more modern expression puts it, “What goes around comes around.” Similarly, in Luke 6:38, Jesus said, “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” The importance of material generosity with those in need, especially among our brethren, cannot be overstated. In contrast, with a few exceptions, selfishness is the rule in the world today.

But generosity in spiritual matters is even more important. We have been given the bread of truth, the bread of life, from others who received it before us and shared it with us. Let us be diligent in casting that bread of truth upon the waters — the people of the world whenever we have the opportunity. If faithful in this generosity, then, after many days, after our walk on earth is complete, we will be blessed a thousand-fold.

Verse two expands this thought of generosity: “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.” In other words, give as much as you can, to as many as you can, for as long as you can, because who knows when the time will come when you no longer can. And then, as verse three tells us, eventually time is up, and there will be no more opportunity to be generous and do good.

Similarly, verse four exhorts us to “do it now,” don’t hesitate. “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.” We can always find an excuse to procrastinate — it’s too windy, or about to rain, as Solomon described the thinking of the lazy farmer. In another sense, this verse tells us to avoid over-analyzing the decisions we must make, which leads to “analysis paralysis” — overthinking and underdoing. Verse six continues this thought with the words, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.” In other words, do the Lord’s work that He has set before you with your best time and talents, and leave the results to Him. We are responsible for our efforts, not the outcome, in serving the Lord, the truth, and the brethren.

In Ecclesiastes 11:8-10, Solomon begins his closing reflections on the joys of youth and the good times, contrasted with the sorrows of old age and the darker times: “But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore, remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.” We can all attest that life has its ups and downs, and that none of these ups and downs lasts forever. “The best we can do is the best we can do,” as someone once said. Then, as we look back on a life well lived, treasure the joys, especially the spiritual joys, that have been our blessing, and, while appreciating the lessons learned and the spiritual growth gained from our difficult experiences, let the pain of those difficult experiences go. Let it go.

Chapter Twelve

Ecclesiastes chapter twelve seems to continue the reflections of chapter eleven, verses eight through ten, as if chapter twelve should have begun at Ecclesiastes 11:8. Ecclesiastes 12:1 reads, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” This part of verse one is often quoted and it speaks of the importance of teaching our children God’s principles of truth and righteousness at an early age, when their characters are being formed. If they are taught to be godly children, then they will grow to become godly men and women. What a responsibility these words place upon Christian parents! Sadly, how often these words are ignored.

There are other words that follow in Ecclesiastes 12:1. The verse continues, “while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.” Now Solomon turns his full attention to the burden of aging and how difficult life becomes as we grow older. Things that we used to do quickly and easily become harder and take longer. Indeed, near the very end of life, some of the elderly give up on having any more joy in living and largely spend their remaining days just waiting to die.

In verses two through six, Solomon gives us his well-known allegory of the decline of our physical bodies as we age. Ecclesiastes 12:2: “While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain.” Here we have a picture of the loss of mental clarity as light becoming dark. As we age, we find that we can’t remember things as well as we used to, and we can’t think as quickly as we once could. Clouds represent trouble, and the elderly are often troubled in their minds, sometimes to the point of chronic depression. Even after the rain of adverse circumstances passes, the clouds of distressing thought about those adverse circumstances return quickly every day. We find it more difficult to put our troubles behind us and move on with our lives.

Verse three: “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.” Here our bodies are pictured as a house. The keepers of the house are our hands which we use to dress and groom ourselves and perform the tasks of daily living. As we grow old, our hands tremble. The strong men are our legs. They grow weaker and more painful in the hips and knees. The grinders are our teeth. Modern dentistry can now preserve the number of our teeth better than was possible in Solomon’s day. Nonetheless, problems with our teeth grow more numerous as we age. The windows of this allegorical house are our eyes, and they become darkened as our vision deteriorates.

Verse four: “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.” Many older adults shut the doors of their lives to others, or no one comes to visit, and they become isolated and lonely. The sound of the grinding becoming low refers to the end of our careers and working life which often causes a sense of isolation as years-long ties with fellow workers are broken, furthering the loss of friendship for the elderly.

How blessed are the brethren whose ties of fellowship are never broken and last a lifetime — to the very end of our walk on this side of the veil! Older adults also have trouble sleeping. We rise at the slightest disturbance and cannot go back to sleep. Additionally, we suffer loss of hearing pictured by the daughters of music brought low. Sometimes, we simply no longer enjoy the things we once did.

Verse five: “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.” As we age, the elderly lose their balance and suffer falls. Worries abound, and our hair turns white, like the almond blossom. Little problems, like grasshoppers, are magnified in our minds, and among the married, desire for intimacy wanes. Eventually all go to our long-term home, death, except of course for the church class who are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

Verse six: “Or ever (meaning, “because” — these are the causes of death) 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.” The silver cord is our nervous system, which if damaged results in many kinds of muscular diseases and even paralysis. The golden bowl is our head. If a stroke or hemorrhage occurs, death is often swift. Our lungs are our pitchers, filling up with air at the fountain. Lung diseases are often fatal. The wheel broken at the cistern describes heart failure.

Verse seven: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” As God said to Adam in Genesis 3:19, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In Ecclesiastes 12:8, Solomon repeats his familiar refrain, this time with a sense of finality, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” However, we rejoice that we can live lives of a higher purpose and meaning that will continue on a higher plane for all eternity. What a privilege!

%d bloggers like this: