The Joys and Sorrows of Growing Older

By Harold S. Martin
A Bible Helps Booklet No. 327 (March 2000)

The book of Ecclesiastes describes the experiences of Solomon as he was seeking to find satisfaction in earthly things--seeking happiness here on earth ("under the sun"). Solomon was a person who we might say "had everything." He had wisdom, riches, power, honor, God's favor--but he looked back over life when he had become older-and most of life seemed futile to him.

The book of Ecclesiastes shows the reader that life here on earth, without God, leads to emptiness and vanity. Meaning in life is not found in money, or pleasure, or work, or knowledge, or popularity. True satisfaction comes from knowing God and doing what pleases Him.

In the early chapters of Ecclesiastes Solomon tells some of his personal experiences in seeking what the world had to offer, and then he makes some broad observations. He says that death is unavoidable, life is filled with many injustices, riches are futile, hard work is often not appreciated--and so, once again, he concludes that all is vanity. But in the last chapters of Ecclesiastes we are cautioned to remember our Creator in the early years of life, for a life lived without God produces a bitter and lonely older person.

1. LIFE IS A GIFT: ENJOY IT (11:7-10)

What a joy it is to anticipate each new day and to accept it as a fresh gift from God. In verses 8-9 (of Ecclesiastes 11), Solomon especially instructs young persons to take advantage of the bright days of youth as the time for enjoyment, before the problems of old age begin to reveal themselves (problems which are pictured as "days of darkness").

The words of verse 9 ("and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes"), are not intended as an encouragement to go on a youthful fling and satisfy the sinful desires of the body. Rather, the writer is reminding young persons to enjoy some of the delightful experiences of life in the days of youth ("let thine heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth"), for aging will come, and there will be difficulties associated with old age. Solomon says--while you are young--work hard, take care of your mind and body, and avoid destructive sins of the flesh (such as lying, stealing, and sexual immorality). The evils of "the flesh" (verse 10) are things for which "God will bring thee into judgment" (verse 9). Solomon is not a dreary pessimist. He encourages us to rejoice in each new day, but also to remember that eternity is far longer than a person's life span. In essence, he says, "Make the most of your younger years; enjoy the days of sunshine and happiness; those years will go by quickly, and you will never see them again." We should enjoy life, but that does not exempt us from the need to obey God's commands (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).


After verse 1 of Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon moves from the subject of youth to the subject of old age and death. The words of verse 1 ("Remember now thy Creator") mean more than just "Think about God." To "remember" our Creator means to keep Him constantly in mind, to trust in Him, and to seek to live each new day for Him. "Remembering our Creator" means to be thankful to Him for all His gifts and promises--and to call on Him in the time of need.

Younger people should not get the idea that they can forget about God until they are older. That day may never come. People who have lived much of their lives without God do not easily find Him in the eleventh hour. For every "thief on the cross" who is saved near the end of life (Luke 23:39-43), there are hundreds of people who wait too long, and then pass through the dark door of death in the same way they lived their lives--unprepared to meet God.

Beginning at verse 2 (of Ecclesiastes 12), Solomon paints a poetic picture of the arrival of old age. In verse 2, he uses the figure of a gathering storm (a dark, overcast, cloudy day). In verses 2-4, he uses the figure of an old house. And in verse 5, he uses the figure of an aged man. Each aspect of the poetic-word-pictures represents a feature of old age.

In verse 2 Solomon mentions that the sun, moon, and stars "grow dark." The word "while" is better translated "before." We need to think about God and eternal destinies before the sun, moon, and stars grow dark. This is a picture of the sadness of growing old. Friends and loved ones die. Loneliness and sickness often set in. Even the best of God's saints sometimes sense a sadness when growing old. Many older persons long for the day they can leave the dark valley of life on earth.

After painting the background (a dismal, cloudy day), we are given a more detailed description of "the house" (verse 3)--that is, the tent in which we live--the physical body. (Some of the details in this section of Ecclesiastes 12 might be open to more than one interpretation, but it is quite clear that Solomon speaks here of the older person's body.)

The "keepers of the house" (verse 3) represent the arms and hands. The arms and hands are guardians of the body. In youth, they are quick and strong in protecting the body. In old age, they tremble with weakness. The "strong men" (verse 3) represent the legs (the strongest muscles of the body). As youthful strength gives way to old age, the legs begin to stoop (to "bow themselves"). The legs are bent with age.

The "grinders cease because they are few" (verse 3) are a picture of the teeth. The older person often loses some of his teeth, and chewing food becomes a more difficult task.

The words, "those that look out of the windows be darkened" (verse 3), refer to the eyes. In old age, eyesight weakens, and our ability to see grows more dim. One older preacher says, "I am finding it more and more difficult to preach at night because I have more trouble seeing my notes."

The "doors to the street" (verse 4) represent the ears. In old age, hearing begins to fail, and common sounds from the outside (like the grinding of grain) can no longer clearly be heard.

Solomon goes on to say (in verse 4) that older people "rise up at the voice of the bird"--but it is not because they hear the birds; it is because they simply cannot sleep. The words "daughters of music . . . brought low" are a reminder that the voice of the aging person often begins to quaver and weaken. All of these signs of growing weakness and feebleness lead to fears of various kinds. Older people are often afraid of heights (verse 5) and they fear going out on the street (going "in the way") because they are afraid of falling or tripping over some unseen object.

The blossoms of "the almond tree" (verse 5) are pink, but they turn white when they are ready to fall. The least weight becomes too heavy (even the weight of a "grasshopper"). And one's sexual libido often begins to wane ("desire shall fail"). There are, of course, other desires which often fail with advancing age--including the urge to learn and sometimes even the will to live. And then, as far as this life is concerned, the end comes. Verse 5 concludes by saying that each of us will leave his time-worn house (the present earthly tent/body), and move on to his eternal home. The words of the Bible are these: "man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets" (verse 5). There is a kind of sadness in those words. It is usually hard to leave the place where we have lived for a long, long time.

In verse 6, Solomon uses various figures of speech to picture death--the cutting of a silver cord, the breaking of a golden bowl, the shattering of a clay pitcher, and the breaking of a wheel. The silver and the gold picture the preciousness of life. Imagine a golden lamp shade hanging by a silver cord; when the cord is cut, the shade crashes to the floor and breaks. The broken pitcher and the broken wheel picture the usefulness of life coming to an end. A rope running over a wheel (a kind of pulley) made it easier to draw water--and when the pulley breaks, the clay pitcher drops. The lesson in verse 6 is that we are to remember God before the silver cord is severed, and before the golden bowl is broken. We are to remember God before the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel is broken at the well.

In verse 7, Solomon says that the body goes back to dust, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. The spirit leaves the body at death (James 2:26; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). The body begins to decay and eventually it turns to dust. These words show that the Old Testament saints had some clear concepts about life after death, even though it was only at the first coming of our Lord Jesus that life and immortality were brought into further light (2 Timothy 1:10).

In verse 8, for the last time in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, "Vanity of vanities. . . all is vanity." Those words mean that life under the sun (life here on earth without God) is meaningless and vanity. In the book of Ecclesiastes, we learn that certain paths in life lead to emptiness, but this profound book also helps us to discover true purpose in life. Following the wise counsel found here can spare us from the emptiness that results from living life apart from following God's laws. Throughout the book, Solomon speaks about the emptiness of life under the sun, and about the fullness of life under God. In the first part of chapter 12, Solomon uses beautiful poetic language to describe our brief life on earth before we go to our eternal home. Now, beginning at verse 9, Solomon concludes his message by reminding us of some lessons we need to learn.

Solomon uses the third-person "he" and speaks of himself as "the preacher." He had used the term already in the very first verse of the book. Lesson number one: In verse 9, Solomon says it is one thing to be wise; it is another thing to "teach" that wisdom to people. Teaching is not a task for a lazy person.

Lesson number two: In verse 10, he talks about the struggle to find "acceptable words" when trying to teach people.

Lesson number three: In verse 11, he says that God's Word (given by "the one shepherd") pricks our consciences "like goads." Goads are sharp sticks used for driving oxen.

Lesson number four: In verse 12, Solomon warns the student not to go beyond what God has written in His Word. (There are many books, and much study can be a weariness to the flesh. Solomon in essence says, "Don't let man's books rob you of God's wisdom.") In my judgment, reading most novels is a waste of time. John Blanchard used to say, "A novel is at best a well-told lie." The philosophies and ideas of men become a weariness to the flesh. God's Word, by way of contrast, prepares the heart for the world to come. In the final two verses of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells us how to live life to its fullest--even in the midst of the vanity all around us.

Lesson number five: In verse 13 we are told to "Fear God and keep his commandments." We are to live our lives with a sense of reverence for God. Fear carries with it an element of trust. For example, Psalm 40:3 says, "Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord." Fear also carries with it a desire to keep God's commandments. Proverbs 8:13 says, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." If we have reverence for God, and if we fear God, we will set out to follow Him and to genuinely seek to live by His Word.

Lesson number six: In verse 14 we are told to be aware of a future judgment. The text says, "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." People may seem to get away with sin, but the Bible assures us that sins will eventually be exposed and judged righteously. God is a holy God, and He will bring every work into judgment. This can be a time of joy and approval, or it can be a time of severe judgment. God will judge every work--whether it be good or bad.

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer has demonstrated that life can be lived in only two ways--with God, or without Him. The time that we have to live in this life is short. Soon the silver cord will be severed. Soon our spirits will return to God who gave them. The years rush by quickly. We are now beginning the third millennium since the first coming of Christ. Many of our friends have gone on to the eternal world--and just so every one of us will all too quickly exchange time for eternity.

Six times in the book of Ecclesiastes we are told to enjoy life while we can. (At no time does the Bible tell us to enjoy sin; instead there will be judgment for sin.) After age thirty, statistics show that human hormone levels drop, the immune system begins to lose its punch, the muscles shrink, the joints stiffen, and the skin begins to sag. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that aging comes slowly but surely, and that material things don't satisfy--whether they are things to see, things to eat, things to hear, or things to do. There must be more to life than just the tangible toys that we tend to crave and use here on earth.

The book of Ecclesiastes is really a picture of our human cry for a Saviour. Jesus is the answer to the deepest need of the human heart. He is the Bread of Life. (Solomon does not say those words, but the New Testament does.)

Poor I was, and sought for riches, Something that would satisfy. But the things I gathered round me Only mocked by soul's sad cry. Hallelujah! I have found Him Whom my soul so long has craved. Jesus satisfies my longings; Through His blood I now am saved.

When Solomon became king as a younger man, he asked God for wisdom (2 Chronicles 1:7-10), and he became the wisest man on earth (1 Kings 4:29-3 1). Solomon studied the literature that was available, taught many others, and wrote a multitude of proverbs. Leaders from other parts of the world came to Jerusalem to learn from him. But with all of his practical insights on life, Solomon failed to pay heed to his own advice, and his life began a downward spiral. Near the end of his life, Solomon looked back with a spirit of penitence and reviewed the experiences of his journey. We are given many of his observations in the book of Ecclesiastes.

The tone of Ecclesiastes 12:3-8 (with its poetic description of advancing age) seems negative and pessimistic, but we must remember that this is only one small part of Solomon's remarks on life's experiences. The entire book of Ecclesiastes is devoted to practical wisdom, giving instructions about how to accomplish things in life, and how to stay out of trouble. The book too is loaded with spiritual wisdom, providing help about how to know eternal values. Solomon's many remarks in the book about the emptiness of life are intended to lead us to seek true happiness in God alone. Solomon is not trying to destroy hope, but to direct our hopes to the only One who can truly fulfill them. Ecclesiastes 12 starts out with the words, "Remember now thy Creator." We are to remember Him in the days of youth. We are to remember Him before old age comes. We are to remember Him before we are called to meet God. John Wesley used to say, "I am one of God's creatures, passing through life like an arrow through the air. I came from God and will soon return to God. A few months or years hence, I will no longer be seen here. I will enter an unchangeable eternity. I want to know only one thing--the way to Heaven."

The invitation to every reader who has not yet trusted the Lord for salvation is to commit your soul to the safe-keeping of our Lord Jesus Christ. You will then know the joy of a heart which is at peace with God.

Most certainly, you do not want to be lost. Surely you want to go straight and do right. This article comes to remind every reader that Jesus loves you; Jesus shed His blood for you; Jesus wants to forgive you and deliver you from the grip of sinful habits. Won't you come to Him? Believe in Him? Turn your life over to His control? Why not sing:

"I've wandered far away from God Now I'm coming home; The paths of sin too long I've trod, Lord, I'm coming home."

You have the awesome power within to open the door of your heart to Jesus, or to lock the door of your heart against Him. Little children sometimes sing the chorus: "One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. Outside, and inside--on which side are you?" Your answer to that question will determine your eternal destiny.

All human beings will have to stand before God and be judged for what they did in this life. We will not be able to blame others as an excuse for failing to live properly. The Bible says in Romans 14:12, "So then every one of us shall give an account of himself to God." In that great day we will want to be on God's side, and through Jesus Christ we can be at peace with Him (Romans 5:1-2).

Additional copies of this article sent free on request.
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Amos Lehigh, Editor
P. 0. Box 391
Hanover, PA 17331 U.S.A.


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June 22, 2000