25 September 2010

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

"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' ... Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity." (v.1, 8)


Most commentators treat today's passage as the end of the message written by the author of the rest of Ecclesiastes. From the first verse of the book, the author uses as narrator the character of "the Teacher" (Qohelet in Hebrew). By the style of the original Hebrew Ecclesiastes shows evidence of having been written around 250 BC. However the author places his narrator Qohelet in the time of King David, several hundred years earlier.

Today's passage serves as a final call to remember God amidst the increasing and inexorable futility of life. Its imagery is extraordinarily earthy and layered with references not only to human experience, but also to the degradation of the natural world. Qohelet speaks of the continual passing away of life not only as the "strong men are bent", but also as "the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails".

Though written over 2,000 years ago, this passage resonates with some of the more graphic predictions about what is already happening in some parts of the world with climate change as a result of global warming. It speaks of the failure of water supplies and the time when "dust returns to the earth as it was".

There is no comfort offered in this passage, beyond the recognition that all breath (spirit) will return to the creator; nothing will be lost to God. Indeed, Qohelet finishes by repeating the declaration of Ecclesiastes 1:2 - "Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity". The word rendered as vanity here carries the meaning not simply of illegitimate pride, but of meaninglessness or futility.

Despite the lack of comfort offered, many find a reassuring echo of their own weakening strength in this passage. We all age and, as we read this passage, we know we are not alone. In a secular world that takes its lessons about fullness of life from youth and strength, here the other end of life is our teacher.

To Ponder

To what extent is this a hopeful passage?

What image of God do you take from this passage?

Who would you like to read this text?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.