Someone has said that we cannot hold back the hands of the clock or the pages of the calendar. Each year that we live we come closer to the end of life’s journey. How shall we grow old? With anger and resentment toward the inevitable changes that aging brings, or with grace and gratitude? Will we become cranky and crotchety old people, making ourselves and all of those around us miserable, or will we allow our faith in God to have its crowning glory by the poise and assurance with which we come to the closing days of our earthly life?
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most memorable books in all of the Bible. In it, Solomon, the third and wisest and wealthiest of all of Israel’s kings, describes his search for happiness and the meaning of life. The final chapter sets forth his conclusion, and in a beautiful allegory he describes the process of growing old.
Solomon begins by urging us to remember our Creator—God—in the days of our youth, before the evil (or difficult, NKJV) days of old age come and the years draw near that leads one to say, “I have no pleasure in them,” that is, when the joy and exuberance of one’s younger years have now turned gray and there is little if any physical pleasure is to be found in life.
In verse two the wise man describes what has been called “the rhythm of life [which] is like the rhythm of the year. Spring and summer give place to the clouds of autumn and winter. The showers that so quickly come and go in youth are succeeded by rain and clouds and then more clouds. It becomes progressively harder to throw off troubles and anxieties” (J. Stafford Wright, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Zondervan , p. 1192).
In verses three through eight, in picturesque and poetic language, Solomon describes the aging process as “the keepers of the house (the arms and hands) tremble, and the strong men (the legs) bow down.” “The grinders (teeth) cease because they are few, and those that look through the windows (the eyes) grow dim.”
“When the doors are shut in the streets” likely refers to the closing down of the other senses, including the organs of hearing, “marooning the owner within the cramped house of his own body” (Wright). As one advances into old age, he tends to rise early (“rises up at the sound of a bird”), while at the same time one’s voice becomes weak and indistinguishable as “all the daughters of music are brought low.”
With age comes the fear of heights and of “terrors in the way.” Old men don’t climb ladders, and more and more the elderly fear getting out into the busy traffic of life, especially at night. “The almond tree blossoms,” signifying the whitening of the hair (or, as is the case with some, before our hair turns gray it may simply turn loose!) Something as light as a grasshopper is a burden, or perhaps (as some scholars think) the sense is that the once lively, leaping grasshopper, now an old person, can only drag himself along in the cold days of the winter of life, the “strong men” (legs) now being bowed down (verse 3).
“Desire fails.” One’s appetite for food, sex, adventure and the other pleasures of life is greatly diminished in old age. “For man goes to his long home (here I love the KJV), and the mourners go about the streets.” Ah, yes, in contrast to life in this world which Job pessimistically described as being “of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1) and which James described as “a vapor that appears for a little while” (James 4:14), life for God’s children is finally reached in the long home—the eternal home, the real home! (See II Corinthians 5:1-3).
With advancing years comes the loosing of “the silver cord” (the bending of the spinal column), the breaking of “the golden bowl” (the head), the shattering of “the pitcher” at the fountain (the failure of the heart), and the breaking of “the wheel” at the well (perhaps a reference to the absence of the full functioning of the lungs or possibly an allusion to the breaking down of the organs of digestion)—all resulting eventually in death.
Regardless of the specifics of Solomon’s description of the aging process, the fact remains that unless we die young (and many do), old age with all its accompanying infirmities will come. As it does, how will it affect us? Will we accept it graciously or bitterly?
At the end of his search for the meaning of life, including his graphic depiction of growing old, Solomon says: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear (reverence, respect, hf) God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
May God give us the will to grow old gracefully and to come to the end of our earthly journey in the full assurance that “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but to all who have loved His appearing” (II Timothy 4:8).