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Ecclesiastes (2)
Death

(Bible Study - February 1999)

The one subject that dominates the book of Ecclesiastes is one that our world hates to think about -- death. Twentieth century life is spent running away from it, pretending that it is not there. Yet death cannot be stopped. It scorns every advance of human enterprise and achievement. It mocks the creation and accumulation of wealth in which modern society loves to indulge. It ridicules all forms of human status and attainment.

The Preacher knew all this. He had carefully considered the significance of death centuries before our own era; the conclusions he came to are still relevant and true today.

A book permeated by death
We begin by noticing a pattern in Ecclesiastes related to this theme of death. We saw last time (Tidings, 1/99) that the book begins with an introduction (1:1), followed by the phrase "vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity" (1:2). This phrase, which serves as a book end or frame, is followed immediately by a summary of the book’s message, or at least, the sceptical side of it (1:3-11). As we shall see in a moment, this section deals with the horror of death, and the futility of life.

The conclusion of the book follows the same pattern. The last element of Ecclesiastes is, as we saw in the previous article, the conclusion or epilogue in 12:9-14. Before this comes the book-end or frame, "vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity" (12:8). Immediately before that, we have another piece which deals with death — etched even more starkly than the first (12:1-7; compare also 11:7-10). This sequence is the mirror image of what we saw at the start of the book: Ecclesiastes proper (the large part inside the frame) both begins and ends with death, as the following plan shows:

1:1 Introduction
1:2 Vanity of vanities (frame)
1:3-11 Theme of death; futility of life
The Main Part of Ecclesiastes
12:1-7 Theme of death & its inevitability
12:8 Vanity of vanities (frame)
12:9-14 Conclusion

The theme of death not only starts and ends the main body of the book; it punctuates it as well.

"One generation passeth..."
We will now turn our attention to the opening section which tackles the topic of death: Ecclesiastes 1:3-11. The section begins with a question: "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" (1:3). The answer to it is as follows: there is no profit to our labour, since "one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh" (1:4a). The transitory nature of human existence in itself ensures that there can be no profit; no one can ever achieve more than 70 years’ worth of "profit," because after that all must be left behind. The only benefit a man can reap from his labour is that which he enjoys within the tiny constraints of his own lifetime. In a few years he is gone, never to return. In only a few years after that, the generation which followed him is gone too. It is an infinitely repeating cycle of birth and death.

Yet it is a strange kind of cycle, as can be seen when we compare it with other cycles which we know about. This is exactly the comparison the Preacher now goes on to make. After making the poignant contrast between the coming and going of human generations he abruptly states, "But the earth abideth for ever" (1:4b). The steadfastness and eternity of the earth makes the human cycle of birth and death all the more ludicrous. The Preacher emphasises this by drawing our attention to three of the earth’s fundamental cycles: the daily circuit of the sun (1:5); the wind blowing round and round the earth (1:6) and the water cycle (1:7).

The contrast is exquisite. Century after century, millennium after millennium, the earth’s cycles continue. It is the same sun around which our earth orbits; the wind whirls around "continually;" the rain cycle goes on and on. In contrast to these displays of constancy and timelessness (a lesson about God’s constancy and timelessness) a man comes and goes never to return — so that there will never be another you or another me. This is the harsh reality of death.

However, although each generation and each individual is unique, yet there is a similarity or repetition about all human experience which further serves to highlight the vanity of human existence and the horror of death. Everything has been before, and yet man is still not satisfied (1:8,9); there is nothing new under the sun. Every human activity and yearning is repetitious and derivative. What a pathetic existence, in one sense, we humans have!

"The dust shall return to the earth"
Ecclesiastes ends with what is perhaps an even more striking picture. The passage really begins in 11:7 and extends to 12:7. The Preacher describes the ageing and dying process as "the days of darkness" (11:8; also 12:2). In 12:1-5, he makes explicit the deterioration which often accompanies old age, a description which culminates in death as described in 12:6,7.

We shall come to the ageing process in a moment; first, though, we consider the fact of death itself. It is described as being the time when, "The silver chord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God that gave it" (12:6,7).

Verse 6 appears to use two metaphors to speak of death. The first is of a silver chord and a golden bowl — most likely the bowl was used as an oil light, suspended by a chord. Dying is compared to the breaking of this chord and the crashing of the bowl down to the ground, whereupon it shatters and its light is extinguished. Second, death is compared to a pitcher used to draw water at a well. Death is like the breaking of this pitcher and the pulley which was used to let it down. No more water can be drawn; death has conquered.

It is interesting that both of these images, the symbols of water and light, are used elsewhere in the scriptures as metaphors for life. The consequence of this termination of life is the decaying process by which the dust returns to the earth. The spirit, in a reversal of Genesis 2, "returns unto God who gave it." This is what death is all about: the shattering of all man’s hope, and the cessation of everything that he was and stood for.

The ageing process
But before this, as we have said, the ageing process is described in a whole series of metaphors (vv. 3-5). We shall summarize one way in which these can be interpreted:

The keepers of the house shall tremble -- the weakening arms?
The strong men shall bow themselves -- weakening back and bowing legs?
The grinders shall cease because they are few -- tooth decay and loss?
The windows be darkened -- failing eyesight?
The doors shut in the streets -- weakening hearing?
The sound of the grinding is low -- weakening voice?
Rising up at the voice of a bird -- light or terminated sleeping? nerves?

These are followed in verses 4-5 by several more literal depictions: fear of heights, fear when being out and about, lessening of sexual appetite (the AV’s desire should be translated caperberry, an aphrodisiac — the point being that even aphrodisiacs no longer have their effect).

No one can doubt that it is a powerful depiction, and for most people, an accurate one. The ageing process is relentless; it marches on inexorably. It does not stop and is never satisfied, until it brings death: "Because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the street... then shall the dust return to the earth as it was" (12:5,7).

Other meanings of this passage
Although this allegorical or metaphorical interpretation of Ecclesiastes 12 is the most satisfying one, it seems that other meanings are also to be discerned in the passage. First, instead of interpreting each of the elements in the passage as an allegorical depiction of some facet of old age, one can ask what the passage as a whole is describing, where it takes its imagery from and what it depicts on a literal level. When this is done it becomes apparent that it is a funeral procession that is being described.

In verse 3, working men cease their work as a mark of respect to the one whose funeral procession is passing by; there is a solemnity about the streets; even the young and strong men are brought to consider their frailty by what is taking place. Women are looking out of the windows (v. 3c), "darkened" with respect for the dead. The usual hustle and bustle of life has come to a stop: the doors are shut in the streets, there is no music (v. 4) — only the noise of the animals who are oblivious to what is taking place. As the end of verse 5 describes, "a man is going (note the continuous tense: at this moment — this is his funeral procession) to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets." The point of the passage is that this fate is coming to us all — one day it will be our funeral procession. There is no escaping death.

Secondly, one can discern in the passage a number of links to the Old Testament prophets. There are several echoes in verses 2-6 of the language used to describe God’s future judgements upon the earth. Notice the darkening of the sun, moon and stars implied in verse 2, and the rain of the clouds. These cannot be interpreted allegorically, or in terms of a funeral procession. What are they doing in the text? The suggestion is that they are here to remind us of this prophetic language of the "day of the Lord." In verse 2, we see fear taking hold even of the young and strong, women fearfully looking out of the windows to see what is about to take place. In verse 4, all rejoicing and mirth has been brought to a standstill; life as we know it has ground to a halt.

This is exactly how the judgements of God on Israel in the past and his future return to judge are described in the prophets. Look at Jeremiah 4:19-31, Isaiah 24:1,3-12 or Joel 2:2 for examples.

There is not space to discuss these links here, but they are well worth examining further. They suggest that the message of Ecclesiastes here is not only concerned with the transience of each one of us as individuals and as human beings. The passage is also describing the transience of the world as we know it — that God will bring the world to account, that its affairs will be brought to a conclusion, and that God will be Judge. In this way it is not only our personal lives which are vanity when lived out in a godless way, but also the whole world order as we now experience it. For that is coming to nought too, to be replaced by a new and better order which Christ will bring.

Creation mocks again
We have found a clear pattern at the beginning and end of Ecclesiastes. At both ends of the book, we find the same "vanity of vanities" statement, and the same harrowing picture of the shortness of life and the horror of death. We saw in chapter 1 that the shortness of life was contrasted with the eternity of the creation as God has ordained it. Fascinatingly, the same contrast is to be found in Ecclesiastes 12 as well. We have already seen man’s decay and impending death vividly described. But against this we have several references to the natural creation which strike a dissident note. Verse 4 refers to the voice of the bird, singing as if completely oblivious to the sorrow of what is taking place in the human sphere. Although man decays, the almond tree still blossoms in verse 5, the locust is heavy (probably a better translation for "the grasshopper shall be a burden") — it is heavy and fat with food, and the caperberry blossoms (again, an alternative translation).

Once more, creation, by carrying on in the same old way, mocks at mankind’s frailty and shortness of days. The grasshopper and the almond do not appreciate the horrors of death, and ironically that makes the fact that we do even worse; it makes our lives appear all the more vain.

In the next article, God willing, we shall be considering the significance of these facts.

Mark Vincent

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