In Solomon’s final chapter, he gives us a blow-by-blow description of the golden years. Only he does not describe the aging process in such a euphemistic way. In this painfully accurate allegory, Solomon describes old age – something he has become quite familiar with.
1 But you should remember your Creator in those days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “There is no pleasure left in them for me”; 2 before the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after it rains; 3 in that day the guards of the house will tremble, and the strong men slouch, the grinders will stand idle because they are sparse, and those who look through the windows will grow dim; 4 and the doors on the street will be shut as the sound of the grinding mill softens, and he will wake up at the tweet of the bird, but all the daughters of song will only sing quietly.
He contrasts old age to the prime of life, when everything is light and strength, and all your parts function correctly. The eyes look through their windows and see everything clearly when you are young, but the older you get, the darker the days get. Your bladder is like a full rain cloud, that seems to fill up again so quickly after you go. Those strong legs that guard your body/house turn to jelly. Your teeth are sparse, and just sit there idle, no longer serving to grind up your food. You no longer venture away from home because your doors of opportunity for productive work are shut. You miss the sound of business, and busyness. You wake up early, at the sound of the first bird’s tweet, but you don’t hear sounds as often as you used to.
Solomon’s point is the same that he has been making all along. Life is short, don’t waste it. Enjoy life to its fullest, especially when you are young and can enjoy it most. But, while you are enjoying the gift of life, remember the creator who gave it to you. Your relationship with him (and the pleasure you can gain from it) is what is left when everything else goes. You need the wisdom to not waste your time, especially your prime time.
5 People should remember him before they get afraid of a high place and of scary things on the road; before the almond tree blossoms, before the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caper berry does nothing. Because the man is walking to his permanent house while mourners surround him in the street. 6 Remember Him before the silver cord gets severed and the golden bowl crushed, the pitcher by the well gets shattered and the wheel at the cistern crushed; because 7 then the dust will return to the ground like it was before, and the breath will return to God who gave it. 8 “Completely impermanent,” says the Collector, “everything is impermanent!”
Solomon concludes his allegory describing old age and its consequences. He had first outlined the loss of personal pleasures because of the parts of the body failing (1-4). Now he describes the emotional and psychological changes that can occur with aging, including phobias, lethargy, and loss of sexual desire (capers were used as an aphrodisiac). Basically, Solomon describes an old man as if he is a dead man walking to his own funeral, trading his temporary house for a permanent one: the grave. His friends are just mourners walking along with him.
Solomon’s point is simple. Do not wait until you are half dead to remember the one who gave life to you in the first place. That life is a gift. You should appreciate the giver while you are enjoying the gift. Remember him before. The world needs young people who love and respect and obey the one who created them.
Some of us have waited almost too long to remember God. We need to know how to reach the next generation, and instil in them the love and respect and obedience that God deserves.
9 Since he had the advantage of being a wise man, the collector also taught the people knowledge; and he compared, searched out and arranged many proverbs. 10 The collector sought to find appropriate words to write: words of truth with integrity. 11 The words of wise men are like cattle prods, and these masterful collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 But if you want to go beyond this, my son, I warn you: the writing of many books never ends, and excessive devotion to books wears out the body. 13 The last word, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this word is for everyone. 14 Because God will hold us accountable for everything we do, everything which is hidden, if it is good or if it is evil.
Solomon knew that since he had accomplished a great deal as a scholar and writer, there would be those who would want to imitate him. But he also knew the price that he had paid by his excessive devotion to studies and the written word. So, he warns his sons (and anyone else who might read these words – including us) not to get so obsessed with learning and writing.
In the end, only one message is for everyone: fear God and keep his commandments. Our failure or success in life does not depend on how much we accomplish. It depends on his judgment. We should surrender our ambitions to him. He can teach us how to do our life’s work without losing perspective, and missing life itself.
So, it is obvious as we look at this new translation that Solomon is not the pessimistic cynic that he has been made out to be. His conclusion is not that life is futile, useless or meaningless. His conclusion is that life is worth living, work is worth doing, wisdom is worth getting, and ambition is worth having. But he also concludes that along the way we will all discover that human life is limited and temporary. That discovery should automatically send us to our knees in submission to God, who is the only one who is not limited and mortal. If there is ever a permanent life in our future, it will come from him. In fact, he promises permanent life at the resurrection to those who commit themselves to him today (Matthew 19:29; 25:46). Solomon teaches us that we cannot count on this life staying the same. But you can count on Jesus giving you a resurrection life that will never end.