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This is the last section of the book before we come to the epilogue. Fittingly, it concerns old age and death. In this context, Qohelet explains how we should live while we are still young and ‘in the light’.
In 11:8 he mentions the ‘days of darkness’ which come along as a person gets older and her eyes begin to fail (cf 12:2-3). The beautiful poetic language of 12:1-7 describes what happens in old age: apart from loss of sight, there is physical weakness and ‘bentness’, loss of hearing, early rising, increased fear, less going out, fewer friends, and failing desire. The imagery of 12:6 illustrates the moment of death itself. At this moment, the dust from which humans are formed returns to the earth and the breath returns to God (cf Gen 2:7).
Because these things will happen, Qohelet urges an enthusiastic approach to life before they do (cf 11:1-6), while light is still sweet and eyes can see (11:7). First of all, he recommends joy and happiness (11:8-9). Secondly, he encourages that we go after the things we see that make us happy, and turn away frustration and pain (12:9-10). Finally, he charges us to remember the one who created us (12:1), God. (The verb used there [i.e. ‘create’] is only ever used with God as its subject; there is another word for ‘make’, used in 11:5, which can be used of humans also.)
But there are a few caveats. He doesn’t want us to forget that there are dark days ahead, and that what we have now, in our youth, is hebel and will pass away (11:8,10). We cannot hang onto our youth and strength, as they are fleeting and momentary. Also, God will bring us into judgment for the paths we choose (11:9); the implication is that we should choose our paths wisely as we follow the desires of our hearts.
There is so much contrast in this section to what Qohelet taught earlier that some scholars have suggested that words were added by a different writer. For example, here he says that life is sweet, but earlier that it was better to be dead (eg 4:2-3). Here he says to think of the future, but earlier that we should ignore it and just enjoy the moment (eg 3:22). Here he says that God will bring us into judgment, but earlier that there is no justice or afterlife (eg 3:20; 6:6,12). What is going on here?
It seems from these apparent contradictions that Qohelet himself, just like us, is struggling to know what is truth. (Another possibility is that he changes his mind over the course of writing, and this is a progression of thought.) This encourages me that the way we have approached the book is correct: that Qohelet wants us to argue with him, to think about what he has written, and listen to its truth but always chew on that grain of salty nuttiness which grates. This is God’s word, and he wants us to know that it’s alright to have questions and arguments, and even faith in our doubts. We are neither to cut Ecclesiastes out of the Bible, nor accept everything it says on face value. Above all, as the book will go on to say, we are to remember and fear God, our Creator.
Prayer: Maker and Redeemer, there is a lot about this life that confuses and scares me, and a lot in your Word that I don’t understand. Help me to trust in you, to remember you, to fear you, and to live the life that you have given me while I still can.