Nobody wants to grow old. We want to be “forever young.” We try to ward off old age and all its problems as long as possible. We don’t like being called “old” because it is viewed as negative.
How many of us think we are old? When I was a teenager, a 60-year-old was OLD! Now that I’m 63, a 90-year-old is OLD.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, surgeons perform more than ten million cosmetic procedures each year, almost none of them medically necessary. Journalist Beth Teitell worries about all that plastic, not because it is unsafe or unwise, but because it will make her look older than women her own age. In a book called Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth , Teitell comments that no one is safe from this fear, not even the rich:
I know women who worked hard to get into good colleges, worked their connections to land enviable jobs, married well, produced children who could pose for Ralph Lauren ads, vacation on the right islands with the right beach towels and the right heiresses — they have fractional ownerships in Cessnas, for heaven’s sake — and yet if they have furrows and hints of upper-lip lines and puppet mouth when those around them are smoother than freshly ironed Pratesi linens, what’s it all worth? In a word, nothing.
Whether she knows it or not, Teitell is confronting one of the reigning idolatries of modern times — the cult of youth. For people who know they are getting older, worshiping this god or goddess demands endless efforts to stay young. But many young people worship the same deity. Rather than respecting their elders, they look down on people or ideas that seem old-fashioned. They want everything new and trendy. It is hard for them to imagine that they will ever grow old. Given the choice, some would rather die first.
Now, the passage we’re looking at in Ecclesiastes 12 is addressed to those who are still young, so that they will live right while they are young before old age sets in.
The first verse goes: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’”
2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut–when 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–5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets– 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
It is obvious that the theme of these verses is aging and death. It begins by describing the opposite of the bright days of youth as “days of evil” and ends with the body in the grave and the spirit returning to God. The topic pictured here is the debilitation of old age.
So we’re going to look at this passage and answer three questions today and next week:
- What is it like to grow old?
- How should we treat the elderly?
- How should we live today, knowing that one day (Lord willing), we will grow old?
So what is it like to grow old? Starting in verse 2 Solomon uses metaphors to describe the body as it ages. In general, what we see here is a picture of a house falling apart. Paul picked up on this metaphor in 2 Corinthians 5 by saying that the human body is like a “tent,” a temporary dwelling and taking down the house (or tent) is a metaphor for death.
A literature professor would call this poem a “character sketch” — “a generalized and figurative description of old age in its physical manifestations.”
First, in verse 2, he describes the loss of sight.
“before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain.”
Remember that Solomon has already said:
“Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:7–8).
Verse 2 compares the troubles of old age to a gathering storm. Both night and day are darkened by clouds, and after the rain falls, the storm clouds gather again. This is what happens as people grow old.
When we are young, there is still time for the sky to clear, but when we are old, we suffer one trouble after another, with little or no time to recover. The light of life grows dim. Derek Kidner says that this scene is:
somber enough to bring home to us not only the fading of physical and mental powers but the more general desolations of old age. There are many lights that are liable then to be withdrawn, besides those of the senses and faculties as, one by one, old friends are taken, familiar customs change, and long-held hopes now have to be abandoned.
As we approach old age, our insight dims. Cataracts develop.
According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), “Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.”
This image is carried on in v. 3 when Solomon says that “those who look through the windows are dimmed.”
Verses 3-5 compare the aging of the body with the deterioration of a house.
3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut–when 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–5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets–
The keepers of the house, the hands, begin to tremble. Once strong backs are bent over; legs and knees begin to sag.
What are your grinders? Your teeth. Your gums recede, your teeth look longer, and your teeth even fall out. Did you know “By the age of sixty, people in an industrialized country like the United States have lost, on average, a third of their teeth. After eighty–five, almost 40 percent have no teeth at all.” Being Mortal (pp. 29-30).
“The doors” are ears that are deaf or hard of hearing and thus closed to the hustle and bustle of a noisy street.
“The daughters of song” are vocal cords that no longer have the elastic strength to make sweet music.
One thinks of old Barzillai’s lament when King David invited him to the royal palace in Jerusalem: “I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women?” (2 Samuel 19:35).
Since almond trees are pale in the springtime, the phrase “the almond tree blossoms” indicates that someone’s hair has turned white with age.
Nor are these the only problems that come with growing old. According to verse 4, old people have trouble sleeping; they are up with the first songbirds, before dawn. According to verse 5, they are afraid — afraid of falling or of being attacked along the road. Because they are stooped over, they have extra wariness. “One need only think of how the loss of balance, the unsteady feet, and the stiff legs of an old person can make a simple flight of stairs a frightful prospect, especially on the descent…One little fall can have an air of finality to it, as it sets in motion a sequence of events well-known to pastors and families of the elderly: a fall, a broken hip, being bedridden, the onset of pneumonia, and death”” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 415-416).
The “almond tree” blossoms white like the hair of an old person, and the hair falls off as he or she ages, like the almond tree casts it white flowers. It may be a tight race between hair growing grey or falling out.
They suffer from diminished desire, which may include sexual desire but is not limited to that. Even the will to live grows weak. The caperberry was an ancient aphrodisiac, meant to stimulate sexual desire. “In general, that used to generate interest in a person’s life finally can no longer capture his attention. The sunset years do become years about which a person is left to conclude: ‘I have no delight in them’ (12:1)” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 416).
We might add other desires which fail with advancing age: the urge to learn, the many desires of the will and emotions. All desires, including even the will to live, cease. (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 122)
Then one day the crumbling old house will collapse. The Preacher prepares us for this with the image of the grasshopper in verse 5. Typically, grasshoppers spring up in the air. So a grasshopper stiffly scraping itself along the ground is a goner. Grasshoppers also appear to be nothing but skin and bone.
In his book Being Mortal Atul Gawande describes what happens to the body as it ages into these later years. It doesn’t sound pleasant. He writes (page 30):
Even as our bones and teeth soften, the rest of our body hardens. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart, and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Under a microscope, the vessels and soft tissues display the same form of calcium that you find in bone. When you reach inside an elderly patient during surgery, the aorta and other major vessels can feel crunchy under your fingers. Research has found that loss of bone density may be an even better predictor of death from atherosclerotic disease than cholesterol levels. As we age, it’s as if the calcium seeps out of our skeletons and into our tissues.
To maintain the same volume of blood flow through our narrowed and stiffened blood vessels, the heart has to generate increased pressure. As a result, more than half of us develop hypertension by the age of sixty-five. The heart becomes thicker-walled from having to pump against the pressure, and less able to respond to the demands of exertion. The peak output of the heart therefore decreases steadily from the age of thirty. People become gradually less able to run as far or as fast as they used to or to climb a flight of stairs without becoming short of breath.
As the heart muscle thickens, muscle elsewhere thins. Around age forty, one begins to lose muscle mass and power. By age eighty, one has lost between a quarter and a half of one’s muscle weight.
Growing old isn’t for sissies. It’s hard to grow old. It’s hard on our biology and also mentally and emotionally.
This too is a reason to remember our Creator while we are still young: “because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets — before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:5–7).
Our lives are advancing, inexorably, toward our eternal home. All of the images in verses 6-7 speak of the end of life—the snapping of the silver cord, the breaking of the golden bowl, the shattering of the pitcher and the breaking of the wheel. The fragile cord of life is snapped and the light of life goes out.
Echoing the curse of Genesis (3:19), “dust returns to the earth as it was.”
This is the same curse that Jesus suffered on the cross, for in the psalm of the God-forsaken servant we hear him say to his Father, “you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).
We too are made of dust (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 103:14), and to the dust we shall return.
But the essential part of us will be going to our eternal home and keep on living, or as he says at the end of verse 7, “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” This also echoes the Genesis account of our creation, because there in Genesis 2:7 it says, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
“This speaks of the continuance of existence for the spirit, despite the failing of the flesh. The awareness of this reality speaks to the importance of recognizing the eternal significance of all activity through the proper perspective of and relation to God. Such awareness is innate (3:11) if we will but listen, and represents a marvelous contrast to the naturalistic “under the sun” viewpoint that can boast no certainty about anything.” (Cone, 416).
At some point the heart stops pumping, the blood stops circulating through our organs, and death has come. The spirit leaves the body (James 2:26; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59), the body begins to decay and turns to dust.
The Old Testament expectation is that the spirit would go to Sheol, the holding place of the dead until the resurrection. Our current New Testament expectation, according to Paul, is that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) and “to depart and be with Christ” is “better by far” (Phil. 1:23).
Today we are young and strong, but already we are getting older, and tomorrow the mourners will carry our bodies out for burial.
The point of this text is that death is coming, maybe sooner than we would imagine. Therefore, the time to get right with God is now, while you still have opportunity.
Our lives pass quickly, as the following poem says:
“When as a child, I laughed and wept, Time crept;
When as a youth, I dreamed and talked, Time walked;
When I became a full grow man, Time ran;
When older still I daily grew, Time flew;
Soon I shall find in traveling on, Time gone.”
Anonymous, quoted in McGee, 3:139.
McGee also includes this anonymous prayer for elderly people to pray:
“Thou knowest, Lord, I’m growing older.
My fire of youth begins to smolder;
I somehow tend to reminisce
And speak of good old days I miss.
I am more moody, bossy, and
Think folk should jump at my command.
Help me, Lord, to conceal my aches
And realize my own mistakes.
Keep me sweet, silent, sane, serene,
Instead of crusty, sour, and mean.”
Again, Solomon, writing about a millennia before the first Easter, makes the grave seem eternal in that there is only a one-way ticket and no returning from it. But since Jesus rose from the dead, we know that we will rise from the dead. Jesus said in John 14:19, “Because I live, you will live.” Death isn’t the end for us, but a new beginning in the most wonderful place with the most wonderful Savior, Jesus Christ.
The end result of this, if you don’t have an “above the sun” perspective, is recorded in verse 8: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher, “Everything is meaningless.” Everything!
Solomon’s presentation ends where it began, striking a note of universal vanity of everything apart from God and his Gospel.
Solomon is preparing us for the final, and best, answer that he could give us to this conundrum of life lived under the sun—remember your Creator and fear Him (12:1, 14).