PART 19 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’
AFTER a sustained and at times torturous reflection on the meaning of life, the Preacher finally goes to the heart of the matter, to the One in whom all believers must find their rest and security.
The verses in this passage invite readers, time and again, to look past the vanities of life under the sun, indeed to look beyond its contradictions to the sovereign Creator. The Preacher does this by pointing once again to the inevitability of death in verses 2-5, and in verses 6-8. The metaphor of the sun, light and moon growing dark is often used in Hebrew literature to point to the end of one’s life.
Notice that the Preacher is not speaking here about the setting of the sun, but of it losing its luminosity altogether. Although the sun sets everyday, it doubtless still shines; and with the dawn of each new day, it will rise again, illuminating the horizon and pushing back the darkness. But here, the sun itself loses its light altogether, as do the lesser luminaries, the moon and the stars.
The imagery of the clouds expands the theme in that clouds cause darkness to fall on the land by covering light from the sun and the moon. When this happens, fear grips us all and even the strongest among us would “stoop” in despair as the darkness slowly swallows up our fading existence. Then death occurs: “Then man goes to his eternal home, and mourners go about the streets” (12:5). Our lives are snuffed out like a candle in the wind.
In verses 6 and 7, the Preacher continues to discuss the reality of death by using a number of metaphors and imageries that are no doubt familiar to his original audience. The first metaphor is “the silver cord”, which refers to anything long and twining, like the branches of a plant. Its severing would result in its death and decay since it no longer can draw nourishment from its source.
The second metaphor, the “golden bowl”, probably refers to the receptacle at the end of a lampstand which contains the oil for the lamp. When it is broken, and could no longer hold the oil, the lamp consequently could no longer be lit.
While these two metaphors’ allusion to death is easily gleaned, the next metaphor, the “shattering of the pitchers (or pots)” requires some familiarity with Jewish culture. Since the second temple period, broken pots were found at Jewish tombs. These broken vessels, scholars maintain, are used in the funerary rites of the Jews and the peoples of other ancient near-eastern cultures to symbolise death or the end of life. Finally, the broken wheel at the well refers to the pulley for drawing water. Because it is broken, water from the well, which symbolises life itself, is no longer accessible. Thus, with one powerful metaphor after another, the Preacher presses the point that death is an eventuality that awaits all of us.
It is therefore with utter seriousness that the Preacher urges those who would listen to his words to look to their Creator. And it is his careful choice to present God supremely as the Creator of all that there is. Not only has the Creator brought everything into being, He alone sees the pattern of human history and the whole temporal existence of humankind.
ALWAYS BE MINDFUL OF GOD
‘For the believer, this reminder to be always mindful of God is relevant not just in times of great difficulty or when faced with the harrowing prospect of death. The believer must be mindful of God at all times, in good times as well as in bad.’
Furthermore, having brought everything into existence, the Creator is also guiding His creation towards its intended end. Thus although the evil and contradictions that we experience in the world sometimes obscure the fact that God is in control, the Preacher reminds us that this is indeed the case – God is in control because He is the Creator of the world.
The Preacher therefore urges his readers to remember God their Creator. In the Bible, to remember is a much more profound act than the perfunctory way we sometimes take it to mean in modern parlance. In the Bible, to remember is more than a mental activity, like not forgetting to take the dog for a walk or to shut the windows before leaving the house.
Remembering is a matter of passionate fidelity; to remember is to commit oneself unquestioningly and unequivocally to God. The Bible therefore does not make the distinction between remembering and obedience because the former would make no sense without the latter. The Preacher’s exhortation to remember the Creator is therefore nothing less than a summons to resist the temptation of godless secularism and to entrust ourselves fully to the God who alone knows our beginnings and our ends. The counsel to put one’s faith in God “in the days of your youth, before the years of trouble come” is no less significant. Learning to trust God in one’s youth would go a long way in preparing one to face the storms of life, which the Preacher implies will visit both the believer and unbeliever alike.
For the believer, this reminder to be always mindful of God is relevant not just in times of great difficulty or when faced with the harrowing prospect of death. The believer must be mindful of God at all times, in good times as well as in bad. Yet in this accelerated world of ours, in which we are carried relentlessly and at times mindlessly from one activity to another, God often seems so far from our minds. The pressures of our cluttered world do not allow us to create the spaces that we need to spend quiet time in the presence of our God, to remember our Creator.
But how easily does this world of ours, this Babel that we have created for ourselves, crumble into dust when tragedy visits unannounced. How easily does the very foundation on which we stand splinter and give way when hit by the seismic events of life.
The believer here is reminded to be always mindful of God, for such mindfulness will result in trust, and trust alone will enable the believer to weather the turbulent storms of circumstance in our fallen and fragmented world.
Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.