Admonition to Carefreeness (11:7-12:7)

11:7 Light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun. 11:8 No matter how many years a man may live, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, which may be many. All that comes is vanity. 11:9 Rejoice, young man, in your youth, and let your heart make you glad in the days of your youth. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desire of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. 11:10 So remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the prime of life are fleeting.

Qoheleth did say that a stillborn child who “never sees the sun” is better off than a rich man who could not enjoy life, no matter how many children he may have and how many years he may live (6:1-7). Now, as he continues to speak on making the most of life, he clarifies that actually “light is pleasant” and it is “good for the eyes to see the sun,” that is, to be alive in this world (cf. 9:3-6). And this is provided that no matter how many years one may live, “let him rejoice in them all.” Otherwise he is no better off than the stillborn child, as “all that comes,” which means all that he gains under the sun, “is vanity.”

Qoheleth then qualifies, “and let him remember the days of darkness.” As “light” symbolizes life, the “days of darkness” refer to death and the days of physical frailty (“which may be many”) preceding it (12:1-7). To “remember the days of darkness” is to recognize that when the body becomes increasingly frail one begins to lose his ability to enjoy life. So Qoheleth admonishes the “young man” to “rejoice in your youth” and so make the most of life before it is too late. In 5:18-20 he made it clear that real enjoyment is experienced out of a carefree disposition. There, emphasizing God’s sovereignty, he said it is God who enables one to be carefree (“God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart”). Here, emphasizing human responsibility, he says one is to become carefree (“let your heart make you glad”). He then explains how we can enjoy life with a carefree disposition.

To enjoy life one must be able to follow the “impulses of your heart and the desire of your eyes.” This means we must be able to do what seems and feels good for us to do. Some people find this teaching out-of-place in the Bible. But imagine what it is like if we must never follow the impulses of our heart and the desire of our eyes. If we must not choose a line of work that seems and feels good for us to do, we must exclude any line of work which we are good at and enjoy doing, which by definition is our vocation. Or, if we must not follow our heart and our eyes in our choice of leisure, we must exclude any activity that seems and feels good for us to do, which is what leisure is supposed to be. Can we then enjoy life?

It is a common misconception that this teaching contradicts the prohibition in Numbers 15:39: “(do) not follow after your own heart and your own eyes.” For in that context, the people were admonished to observe all the commandments of God. That prohibition is about not following after one’s heart and one’s eyes when doing so violates God’s commandments. But there is adequate room to follow one’s heart and one’s eyes without violating any commandment. In fact Qoheleth himself qualifies (“But know”) that “for all these things,” that is, how we follow after our heart and our eyes, “God will bring you into judgment.” The “judgment” here is the same as that in 12:14, where it covers “every act ... whether it is good or evil.” Hence the “judgment” need not be negative, as doing what seems and feels good to do is not necessarily evil. In other words, we are to follow the impulses of the heart and the desire of the eyes within God’s moral framework (built on the Ten Commandments).

In fact, the admonition to “follow the impulses of your heart” comes right after the admonition to “Rejoice ... and let your heart make you glad.” This means the “impulses” Qoheleth has in mind are those of a carefree heart, which is a God-fearing heart inclined to obey God’s commandments. To ensure that one does have a carefree heart, Qoheleth adds, “So remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body.” And this requires one to fear God and keep His commandments. For consider the vexation of the heart that we have looked at: being burdened by the cares of this world. We saw how this relates to violating the moral dimension of the created order by breaking the tenth commandment: covetousness (see exposition of 5:18-6:9). And covetousness is basically about putting too much value on the transitory things of this world. The seventeenth century theologian John Owen has warned that “an over-valuation of temporal things” will only cause us to “spend our lives in fears, sorrows and distractions” (1949:32).

Since “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a stricken spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22), very often our physical pain is caused by vexation of the heart. Hence removing the vexation through observing God’s commandments helps in putting away pain from the body. And physical affliction can also be directly caused by the violation of God’s commandments. The sabbath commandment shows that we are also to respect the physical dimension of the created order by having adequate rest. But covetousness often causes one to overwork to the detriment of his health. Sheer complacency and carelessness about the way the physical world and our physical body is ordered can also damage our health. All this unnaturally hastens the coming of the “days of darkness.” But one who fears God respects His created order in all its dimensions and thus cultivates a carefree disposition as well as minimizes physical affliction.

Therefore not only is there adequate room within God’s moral framework to enjoy life by doing what seems and feels good for us to do, outside of God’s moral framework there is no room at all for real enjoyment.

12:1 Therefore remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no delight in them"; 12:2 before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain: 12:3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, and the grinders become idle because they are few, and those who look through the windows grow dim, 12:4 and the doors on the street are shut, while 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; 12:5 also they are afraid of heights and terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and the caperberry fails, for man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners walk about in the street; 12:6 before the silver cord is broken, and the golden bowl is crushed, and the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, and the wheel is crushed at the cistern; 12:7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Qoheleth admonishes the “young man” to remove vexation from his heart and put away pain from his body because “youth and the prime of life are fleeting” (11:10). This is in order to make the most of life in light of the coming “days of darkness” (11:8). Here Qoheleth calls these dark years the “days of trouble” (12:1). And when these troublesome “years draw near” one will say, “I have no delight in them,” because he can no longer enjoy life. “Therefore,” Qoheleth admonishes, “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (in order to enjoy life), before the arrival of these unpleasant years. But what has remembering our Creator got to do with enjoying life?

The Hebrew word translated “remember,” like its English counterpart, does not always mean to recall the past (cf. 5:18; 9:15; 11:7). To remember something can also mean to remember to do what one is supposed to do with respect to that something. To remember the sabbath day (Exod 20:8) is to remember to observe it and keep it holy (Deut 5:12). Hence to remember our Creator is to remember our accountability to Him as our Maker and thus obey Him (cf. Whybray 1989:163). And this verse (12:1) is parallel in meaning to the one preceding (11:10). For the phrase “before the days of trouble [bodily frailty] come” is another way of saying “for youth and the prime of life are fleeting.” So to “remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body” one must “remember [or obey] your Creator.” We have already inferred this much above. Here Qoheleth makes it explicit that the fear of God is basic to the enjoyment of life. This anticipates the final exhortation to fear God and keep His commandments (12:13-14).

We are to remember our Maker “before the days of trouble ...” (verse 1); “before the sun and the light ... are darkened ...” (verses 2-5); and “before the silver cord is broken ...” (verses 6-7). The often metaphorical descriptions in the second and third “before”-clauses elaborate on the “days of trouble” in the first. And these “days” begin to draw near after one reaches “the prime of life.”

The darkening of the sun, moon and stars and the returning of the clouds signal the dawn of the “days of darkness” (11:8), when “light” (or life) is disappearing (cf. 11:7). In due time the hands tremble, the legs stoop, the teeth become few, the eyes grow dim, and sound is shut out because the ears are failing. Due to the lack of teeth there is little chewing. They become idle and “the sound of grinding is low.” And because the ears are failing one is unable to appreciate music (“the daughters of song are brought low”). Though the hearing is bad one is easily awakened because he does not sleep soundly (“one rises up at the sound of a bird”). As one advances in age, the hair grows white like an almond tree blossoming. When he begins to walk with difficulty, like a grasshopper dragging itself along, he is afraid of heights and feels terrified on the road. And the caperberry, “reputed to have been stimulants for the appetite and thought to have worked as aphrodisiacs,” also fails (Seow 1997:363). The time to enjoy life is over.

The degeneration of the body is part of the natural process in which one eventually dies and “goes to his eternal home,” sent off in a funeral (“mourners walk about in the street”). The third “before”-clause is obviously describing death even though it is not clear how the idiomatic expressions concerning “the silver cord” or “the wheel... at the cistern” relate to dying. For Qoheleth himself understands the expressions as depicting death: the “spirit,” or life-breath, returns to God and the body, made from dust, returns to dust (cf. Gen 2:7; 3:19). Since each of the items, whether the “golden bowl” or “the pitcher,” is said to be damaged beyond repair (like a cord broken or a wheel crushed), perhaps these ancient idioms are about some vital organs failing beyond remedy (cf. Kaiser 1979:120-21). This fits the context as Qoheleth is describing natural bodily degeneration that leads to death.

Encapsulation of Theme: “All is vanity” (12:8)

12:8 “Vanity of vanities,” says Qoheleth. “All is vanity!”

With this statement, Qoheleth concludes his thesis. It is essentially an exact repetition of the statement he began his speech with (1:2). It thus encapsulates the contents of the speech. It confirms that the theme of the speech is indeed “all is vanity.” And “all is vanity” because “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” In other words, there is ultimately no net gain. It confirms what we have inferred right from the beginning, that when Qoheleth first asserted that there is no profit under the sun (1:3), he was talking about ultimate profit. In light of death there is indeed none. Also it is clear from his speech that he recognizes immediate profit under the sun.

So Qoheleth’s theme is neither pessimistic nor unorthodox. There is then no reason, as is often done, to assign the positive and orthodox admonition to fear God and keep His commandments (12:13-14) to someone other than Qoheleth. And we have been highlighting how, right from the beginning, Qoheleth prepares his audience mentally and emotionally for this exhortation, which draws the speech to a natural conclusion.


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