Commentary on Ecclesiastes 11-12 (Wisdom from the Preacher)

Chapter 11, verses 1-6, give financial and investment advice. In verses 1-2, Solomon is recommending that the reader spread out her investments over 7 or even 8 different areas. The phrase “cast your bread upon the waters” refers specifically to maritime trade. Solomon’s reign was characterized by extensive sea trade with other nations. By spreading out your investments, you will reduce your risk when catastrophes occur.

Verses 3-6 admonish the reader to get to work and stop waiting on perfect timing. A person who is a farmer, for example, cannot predict when the rain will fall, when storms will fall trees, where winds will carry seeds. We cannot even understand how God breathes life into a fetus, which is fundamental to human existence. We simply cannot understand all of God’s plans. The wise person is industrious and productive all the time, not waiting around to figure out what the future will bring.

In verses 7-10, Solomon reminds us that life is short. Death is rapidly approaching and we must take advantage of the days of our youth while it is still possible. He specifically advises, “Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment.”

What are we to make of this advice? Donald R. Glenn, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament:), explains:

Solomon reiterated his advice to enjoy life (cf. v. 8), emphasizing that a person should do so in his youth. Elsewhere Solomon had said that enjoying life consists of eating and drinking (2:24; 3:13; 8:15; 9:7), wearing nice clothes and pleasant lotions (9:8), enjoying marital bliss (9:9), and finding satisfaction in one’s work (2:24; 3:22; 5:18). Now Solomon encouraged his readers to do whatever their hearts desired (‘follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes,’ 11:9; NASB). However, those desires should be tempered with an awareness that God will judge.

What wonderful freedom these verses give the Christian! Do what you want to do, within the confines of God’s law. Enjoy the good things God has provided you and seek after what interests you, but always remember that God judges your heart.

Chapter 12, verses 1-8, command the reader to “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” This command, according to Glenn, “means to revere God, to keep His laws faithfully, to serve Him responsibly, remembering that because He created people, everyone owes Him his life.”

What awaits all of us in old age is not pleasant, and Solomon vividly depicts the arrival of old age with several metaphors in verses 1-5. Duane A. Garrett, in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), provides the following interpretations.

Verse 2 refers, likely, to an eye condition such as glaucoma. The elderly will slowly lose their eyesight.

The “keepers of the house,” in verse 3, probably refer to the hands, which tremble in old age.

The “strong men,” says Garrett, “are the major muscle groups of the legs and back.”

“The ‘grinders’ are teeth, which have ceased to chew food because they are few. Those who look out of windows are again the eyes, although growing ‘dim’ may refer to a lack of sparkle in the eye rather than inability to see well.”

In verse 4, “the shutting of doors refers to the ears, as people shut doors when they want to exclude outside noise. Deafness is meant, as indicated by the sounds of grinding and singing fading out. But rising up at the sound of birds alludes to a cruel paradox of old age: one cannot hear well, but one sleeps so lightly that the slightest disturbance is sufficient to take away sleep.”

In verse 5, “fear of heights and danger in the street means that the feebleness of the body takes away accustomed manliness. The metaphor of a declining household is abandoned here. The blossoming of the almond tree is the turning of the hair to white.

The reference to the grasshopper is obscure, but probably it should be rendered, ‘And the grasshopper becomes heavy,’ a hyperbole meaning that even something as light as a grasshopper seems too heavy to lift.”

“And desire no longer is stirred” refers to loss of appetites, likely sexual desire.

In the end, a man dies and goes to his eternal home. Verses 6-7 again command the reader to remember God before death arrives. Every activity of a human being is meaningless because of death, so how does Solomon advise us all to deal with this reality?

Verses 9-14 conclude his treatise. Solomon reminds us of his authority. His words are wise, knowledgeable, and true. He carefully thought about what he should write. Ultimately, his advice comes from the Shepherd, or God Himself. He warns the reader that there are plenty of other books written to impart wisdom, but chasing after these teachings is wearisome.

Garrett writes about verse 12, “A more probable translation is: ‘Beyond all this, my son, be advised: Of making many books there is no end.’ The contrast is not between the study of canonical versus noncanonical wisdom but between failure to appreciate wisdom on the one hand and excessive zeal for study on the other.”

Solomon’s conclusion: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Garrett summarizes the lessons to be taken from the book of Ecclesiastes:

For us the ‘meaninglessness’ of life which the Teacher so ruthlessly exposes would seem to lead to despair or nihilism; for him it is an incitement to true piety. The insignificance of all that is done under the sun leaves him awestruck and silent before God. His inability to control or predict the future provokes him to dependence on God. The futility of attempting to secure his future through wisdom or acts of religion (e.g., making vows) leads him not to impiety but to an understanding of the true nature of obedient trust.

Seen in this light, to ‘keep his commandments’ is not to behave with the self-satisfied arrogance of religious presumption, nor is it a nod to piety from an otherwise impious book. Rather, it is the deepest expression of humble acceptance of what it means to be a human before God. Solomon as the Teacher, in his address to his aristocratic colleagues, has anticipated perhaps the deepest mystery of the gospel: The just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:16–17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38).