Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. –Ecciesiastes 12:1
The Searcher of Israel was concerned that we who read his book would find our way out of the tragedies, the troubles, the difficulties, and the dangers of life before it is too late. Before the flame of our life burns out he wants us to find the secret of living. So he continues in this last chapter with a further word to youth:
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (12:1, (NRSV).
This is an appeal to young people to think often and seriously about their Creator, not simply to remember that He is there. The idea is this: Recall God’s presence daily, live in a relationship with Him, seek to discover the greatness and glory of God while you are still young…before it is too late.
Before we develop that thought, let us first read the verses that follow, for these give the reason for thinking about and relating to God while one is still young. That reason is, “days of trouble” are coming.
Those days of trouble are described in verses 2 through S by a vivid and beautiful imagery that describes the aging process, and the decrepitude of old age. Remember your Creator,
…before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity (NRSV).
In marvelous poetry the Searcher describes the increasing weaknesses of old age and the actual experience of death. Since this is where life is headed for all of us, he admonishes, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” (12:1).
Let us go through these verses again and see exactly what he describes. Most commentators agree that the words, “before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain,” refer to the fading of mental powers as one grows older.
When you are young, life seems to stretch endlessly before you. It seems that you will never grow old. But as you live through the years, life seems to speed by more rapidly, and at last it seems as if it is very brief. Suddenly you find yourself looking and feeling old. As someone has said, “About the time your face dears up, your mind begins to go!” That is how brief life seems to be.
The mental faculties are described here in terms of light. The mind, with its powers of reasoning, of memory, and of imagination, begins to fade like the dying rays of a setting sun. The reasoning power of the brain, perhaps the greatest gift that God has given to us, begins to lose its skill. Memory fades-that is one of the first marks of old age. This verse describes the failing of memory and of the imagination, like the stars that fade at the approaching dawn.
“The clouds return with the rain,” is a reference to the second childhood, the senility that comes on in old age. As a child, life revolves around three simple things: eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. In the aged that same cycle returns.
Then the Searcher speaks of “the day when the guards of the house tremble.” The guards of the house are the arms and the hands by which we defend ourselves if attacked. They are useful in maintaining the body, which begins to bend and tremble in old age. Old people take very short steps; they sometimes can hardly walk. One sign of the onset of old age is when your knees buckle but your belt won’t. Some of us are beginning to exhibit those signs.
Then he says, “The women who grind cease working because they are few.” That needs no interpretation for those who have already lost many of their grinders through tooth decay. Mealtimes are prolonged because it takes so long to get food lined up with the few remaining grinders!
“Those who look through the windows see dimly” clearly refers to the fading of eyesight as old age approaches. Cataracts form. Various eye problems develop. Almost all lose the ability to read close up; we must hold things at arm’s length to see what they are.
“The doors on the street are shut” is a vivid picture of what happens when the teeth fall out. The doors of the face, the lips, fall in. When that happens “the doors on the street” obviously shut.
“The sound of the grinding is low” is thought by some commentators to refer to the digestive system. But because we have already identified the “grinders” as the teeth, it seems better to say that this is a reference to how the aged, now toothless, gum their food. That does not result in a lot of noise! It is hard to chew Grape Nuts¨ when you have no teeth!
Then, “one rises up at the sound of a bird.” I have noticed that in the mornings any sound will awaken me. It is characteristic of the aged, who are easily awakened. Even the sound of the chirping of birds outside the window awakens them.
Yet, at the same time, “all the daughters of song are brought low.” That refers to the increasing deafness of old age. “The daughters of song” are the ears, through which we hear song. They are brought low; they lose their powers. Everybody seems to talk in a much lower tone than they used to. People seem to mumble as “the daughters of song are brought low.”
Next is a word on the increasing fears of old age: “One is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road.” Older people fear almost every step. They are afraid of the cracks in the sidewalk. They are afraid to mount stairs. They are “afraid of heights.” Terrors increase as they go about the streets. Older people tend to stay in. They do not even want to drive at night because they are afraid of “terrors in the road.”
“The almond tree blossoms” is a clear reference to the hair, which turns white with old age. Like the white blossoms of the almond tree, one begins to take on a very different look as age advances.
I never understood until recently what was meant by “the grasshopper drags itself along.” But when I wake in the morning now I find myself stiff, and sometimes I have difficulty walking. This increases as one grows old. It results in the infirm and feeble steps of the very aged. “The grasshopper drags itself along.”
Finally, “desire fails.” That is a reference to sexual desire. It may be a great comfort to many of you to see that this is last on the list! It is the last thing to go, according to this statement.
Let us acknowledge that modern technology has helped solve many of these problems. We can buy wigs when our hair falls out, or dentures when our teeth rot away. Glasses, contact lenses, and even surgery help with vision problems. Artificial legs, arms, and hands can be fitted. All of these are great devices. With all the help that modern technology avails, it must be quite a sight when some people get ready for bed. It must be like watching the demolition of a house!
Still, we have not moved very far from the days of the Searcher, even though we have devised many ways to disguise aging. Even with these modern helps, Solomon’s words are a revelation of the up-to-dateness of Scripture.
The Searcher goes on to describe the various ways death can occur. In frankness and openness the Scripture faces the fact that “all must go to their eternal home.” Despite the many passages in this book in which the writer seems to see death as the end of all the good things under the sun, that is, in this life, nevertheless there are several statements that human existence goes on beyond death. Here is one of them: “All must go to their eternal home.” The grave is not the end! There is life, there is existence, beyond death.
Meanwhile, “the mourners will go about the streets.” This, the Searcher says, is a result of the various forms death takes. First, “the silver cord is snapped.” That seems to be a reference to the spinal cord, that great spine-encased nerve that runs up and down the back. If it becomes damaged, broken, or diseased, life can suddenly end.
“The golden bowl is broken” refers to the cranium, the skull. A blow to the head that damages the brain can cause sudden death.
“The pitcher is broken at the fountain” is a reference to the heart. Heart disease, cardiac arrest, is the most frequent cause of death in the United States today. The heart can suddenly stop–the fountain that continuously sends blood throughout our bodies can break and cease to function.
“The wheel broken at the cistern” refers to the circulation of the blood. The continual wheel of life that keeps us alive can stop through degeneration of the veins, through hardening of the arteries, or through a blood clot. Sudden death can occur.
The result of any of these failures is that the body crumbles: “Dust returns to the earth as it was.” But the breath (spirit)–the part of humanity which differentiates us from the animals, that part which seeks after eternity, for something beyond life, that part which is restless and empty within us when we have not found the key to life–the breath (spirit) returns to God who gave it. What an accurate and vivid description this is of the ending of life!
The Searcher’s conclusion, then, is the same one we have seen throughout the book. Life “under the sun,” lived without having discovered the reason for living, is vanity, emptiness, futility. The greatest futility is a life that has not found a reason for living. What a waste, to live and never discover why you are here! What a waste, to die without learning the secret of true existence! That is the Searcher’s ultimate conclusion. He began the book with it, in verse 2, and ends with the same words here in verse B of chapter 12. He has searched through all of life and has reached his conclusion.
To return to verse 1 of this chapter, it is hard to find the answer to life when you’re old, and not many do. There are stories (thank God for every one of them) of people turning to God in their last moments. Some of us know someone who genuinely did that. But it does not happen frequently. Statistics show that most people who come to Christ come while they are relatively young. Ninety-five percent of all believers come to Christ before they are fifty years old, and most of those before they are thirty.
Youth is the time to find God. That is what Solomon tells us: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”
Remembering God means to relate to Him, to walk with Him, to discover Him, to learn to know Him while you are young. There are two excellent reasons given for this.
First, because “days of trouble” are coming. Old age is setting in, and you will lose your ability to change and learn new things. There probably has never been a time when youth has been subjected to more temptations and pressures to wrong living than today. Temptation is all around us, subtle and powerful. The appeal of the world and the flesh is constantly with us, turning thousands of young people away from the truth of God. But bad as it is when you are young, it will get worse the older you grow. The pressures to conform are greater when you move out into life and business, when you become a parent, when you become a breadwinner and establish a home. The pressures to conform, to fit in with the ways of the world, will be far more intense than they are while you are in high school or college. Evil pressures increase–that is one good reason to remember your Creator in the days of your youth.
Second, your motivations are highest now. The Searcher says days are coming when you will say, “I’m not motivated at all.” One of the signs of age is its unwillingness to change, its resistance to new ideas. I have often observed the tragedy of older people who acknowledge they’ve missed the secret of life, but who are unwilling to change, simply because it is so hard to do when they are old. This is why the Searcher exhorts young people, “Learn about God now; open your heart to Him; seek the wisdom of God now. Study the Scriptures now, when you are young, while motivation is high and evil pressures are less, and you can discover the secret of living while you are still young enough to enjoy the blessing it will bring.”
We have a wonderful example of this in Jesus. He grew up in a godly home, was exposed to the truth of the Scriptures, involved Himself with the work of His father in the carpenter’s shop. The one thing that is recorded of Him in those days is that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
Jesus put God first in His life. He understood the key to life, the secret of learning how to handle the problems and pressures of life. And what is that? It is to be in relationship and in communication with the living God who is at work in the affairs of men. Jesus saturated His mind with the Scriptures. He could quote them from memory at any time in His ministry because His mind was filled with what God had said. And He understood these marvelous words.
When Jesus was only twelve years old He astonished the teachers in the temple with His wisdom, asking them penetrating questions they could never answer. He went back with His mother and father to finish His boyhood in Nazareth, having “remembered His Creator in the days of His youth.”
The last five verses of this book are an epilogue. The Searcher takes us back over the entire book and reminds us of the careful search he made to come to his conclusion.
Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly (12:9-10, NRSV).
This revealing verse reminds us how carefully this book has been compiled. Solomon himself learned to be wise. The only source of that wisdom, he tells us, was the Word of God. He sought through the Scriptures, learned them, and then taught the people.
This knowledge of the Scriptures enabled the Searcher to teach with great power and influence–but only after careful preparation. Notice what he did: he “sought to find pleasing words and he wrote words of truth plainly” Throughout the book are many proverbs that he uses to illustrate the truth he sets forth. They were not lightly chosen. They were not haphazardly arranged, We must take them seriously. They are not mere one-liners, meant to amuse. They are carefully chosen and arranged to illustrate what he had to say.
More than that, he searched for arresting, accurate words to express this wisdom. This is a great verse for teachers and preachers. It will help them understand what is necessary for public ministry. Not only must we have an understanding of the subject, but we must think through how to say it in such a way that people will listen. That is how the Searcher proceeded. It is excellent advice.
He underscores the value of Scripture in picturesque terms.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails–given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:11-12).
All students will say “Amen!” to that phrase: “Much study wearies the body.” But notice how he describes the value of Scripture. It is like a “goad.” It prods and pokes you, you cannot get it out of your mind. It makes you go where you would not ordinarily go. It works by prodding you along.
I suspect many have discovered that aspect of Scripture. I once knew a man who was in the grip of a terrible depression for more than a year. It had destroyed his marriage. He had lost his job and could not function. But he was delivered by daily meditating on a simple statement he found in Scripture, the only Scripture he could believe at the time, the words of Jesus, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Thinking on that day after day prodded him, goaded him to think about his own life. He came out of his depression within a relatively short time and never returned to it again. That is how Scripture works.
It is also “firmly embedded nails [an anchor]” (12:11). You can hang on to it and hold fast to it in times of danger and temptation. Once when I was severely troubled and so deeply disturbed that I could not even eat, one phrase from the lips of Jesus came to my mind again and again. It was the phrase in John 14:1, when Jesus said to His worried disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
I was gripped by those three words, “Do not let.” They said to me that a troubled heart is subject to the will of that believer. He can let his heart be troubled or he can let it not be troubled. The ground for letting it not be troubled is in the words that immediately follow: “Trust in God, trust also in Me.”
When the realization struck me that my Lord was there with me with wisdom and power to handle the situation, I felt my heart’s load lifted. I was free to not let my heart be troubled. That is the power of Scripture.
Why does it have this unique power? Why does it, more than any other book, have this ability? The reason, according to verse 11, is that “their collected sayings [are] like firmly embedded nails–given by one Shepherd.” These are inspired, God-breathed words. The heart of God is the heart of a shepherd; He sees us as wandering sheep in need of a shepherd’s care. The shepherd character of our Lord is probably the reason why the shepherds of Bethlehem were chosen to be the first men to hear the wonderful words of the angels, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
The shepherds would understand this: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). But the hope that was awakened on that Christmas morning was the realization that the One who was born in the manger was the One of whom it was said, “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). That is where hope comes in life.
“Do not go beyond that,” the Searcher warns. This is the word of wisdom to scholars and all searchers for knowledge: “Of making many books there is no end.” You can read yourself to death. You can study yourself to death. Scripture is not saying that study is wrong. No, it is right to read and search and know and learn. But beware of letting this take you beyond what this book so clearly declares, that God is the secret of life, that He is the reason for existence. Until we discover Him, study and books will never be of any continuing value to us.
This is clearly and finally stated in the two final verses of the book:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (12:13).
Remove the word duty from your version. It is not in the Hebrew, even though every version seems to use that unfortunate translation. It is really this statement:
Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the wholeness of man.
The secret of wholeness is to “Fear God and keep His commandments.” It is to discover the secret of being a whole person. Who does not want that? We desire to be whole; not broken, fragmented, easily upset, erratic, going off in all directions at once. But we want to be stable, controlled, balanced, whole people. Here is the secret of it. This is what we are to learn when we are young: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” before the pressures come upon you. It is the secret of wholeness: “Fear God and keep His commandments.”
Everything hangs upon the words, “Fear God.” This is a difficult idea for us. Most of us think of fear as abject terror, as running from God because He is a threat. But that is never the biblical meaning of the word. Put in the form of an acrostic it becomes easier to remember:
F stands for faith in His existence. You cannot come to God unless you know He is there. Hebrews 11:6 declares, “Anyone who comes to [God] must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” There is where fear
Begins–faith that God exists. The whole of the created universe shouts this at us. The inner responses of the heart confirm it. The Word of God declares it and history reveals it. Francis Schaeffer said that this is the great and first truth of the gospel–the God who is there!
E is the experience of His grace. You never can properly fear God until you have learned for yourself what kind of a God He is. He is a God of mercy, of grace, of forgiveness. When you have stood before Him and felt your guilt, when you have known you were wrong and corrupt, and heard Him say in your inner heart, “neither do I condemn you Go now, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11), then you will be able to properly fear God. One element of fear is the experience of the wonder of forgiveness, that God forgives and sends you out againwith a new purpose and a new resource.
That leads to the third element: A is awe at the majesty,wisdom, and the wonder of God. What a Being He is! What a marvelous mind that comprehends the billions of pieces of information in this universe and holds them continuously before Him. What power to hear every voice and relate to every person who has ever lived! What a marvelous God! Awe before His majesty, before His comprehensiveness, before His unfailing wisdom and power. That is part of fearing God.
The last letter, R, stands for resolve to do what He says, to obey His word, to keep His commandments. Jesus Himself said that: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mark 12:30). That is to be done in response to His love already shown to you. Love Him because He first loved you. And second, “Love mercy and … walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That is to obey Him, to follow Him, to keep His commandments. That is what it means to fear God.
The Searcher concludes that nothing can be hid from God’s eyes:
God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
No one can hide from God. He is there in all of life. He knows everything that goes on, He knows the thought of the heart, every word of the mouth. He knows the motives that we seek to hide from others. He sees the duplicity, the deception, the lovelessness. He has made a record of it all; nothing can be hid. Everything will come out in the open at last. The illusions by which we seek to convince ourselves that things are not the way the Bible says they are will be stripped away and we will see ourselves as He sees us. And there will not be a voice lifted to challenge the righteousness of His judgment.
Because of that, Solomon exhorts us to fear God, to have faith in His existence, to experience His grace, to stand in awe of His Person, and to resolve to obey him. That is the secret to life. That is the secret of wholeness in man.
And with that King Solomon’s record of lifelong research is finished. He writes at the end of a life that has known both leaping, flashing moments of pleasure, and long, lonely hours of shame and misery. The record is plain for all to see. Life without God is dull, empty, vain. Life with Him is full and satisfying. Even the tears and pain have meaning and value when we see they are chosen by Him. The purpose behind it all is the increase of joy.
Fear God, and keep His commandments,
for this is the whole of man. –Ecclesiastes 12:13