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Fear God Now Because Old Age and Death Come Quickly

12 So remember[a] your Creator in the days of your youth—
before[b] the difficult[c] days come,
and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;
before the sun and the light[d] of the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds disappear[e] after the rain;
when those who keep watch over the house[f] begin to tremble,[g]
and the virile men begin to stoop over,[h]
and the grinders[i] begin to cease because they grow few,
and those who look through the windows grow dim,[j]
and the doors along the street are shut;
when the sound of the grinding mill[k] grows low,
and one is awakened[l] by the sound of a bird,
and all their[m] songs[n] grow faint,[o]
and they are afraid of heights and the dangers[p] in the street;
the almond blossoms[q] grow white,[r]
and the grasshopper[s] drags itself along,[t]
and the caper berry[u] shrivels up[v]
because man goes to his eternal home,[w]
and the mourners go about in the streets—
before the silver cord is removed,
or the golden bowl is broken,
or the pitcher is shattered at the well,[x]
or the water wheel[y] is broken at the cistern—
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the life’s breath[z] returns to God who gave it.

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  1. Ecclesiastes 12:1 tn The imperative זְכֹר (zekhor, “Remember!”) is a figurative expression (metonymy of association) for obeying God and acknowledging his lordship over one’s life (e.g., Num 15:40; Deut 8:18; Pss 42:6-7; 63:6-8; 78:42; 103:18; 106:7; 119:52, 55; Jer 51:50; Ezek 20:43; Jonah 2:7; Mal 4:4). The exhortation to fear God and obey his commands in 12:13-14 spells out what it means to “remember” God.
  2. Ecclesiastes 12:1 tn The temporal adjective עַד (ʿad, “before”) appears three times in 12:1-7 (vv. 1b, 2a, 6a). Likewise, the temporal preposition ב (bet, “when”) is repeated (vv. 3a, 4b). These seven verses comprise one long sentence in Hebrew: The main clause is 12:1a (“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”), while 12:1b-7 consists of five subordinate temporal clauses (“before…before…when…when…before…”).
  3. Ecclesiastes 12:1 tn The adjective רָעָה (raʿah, “evil”) does not refer here to ethical evil, but to physical difficulty, injury, pain, deprivation and suffering (e.g., Deut 31:17, 21; 32:23; 1 Sam 10:19; Neh 1:3; 2:17; Pss 34:20; 40:13; 88:4; 107:26; Eccl 11:10; Jer 2:27; Lam 3:38); see HALOT 1263 s.v. רָעָה 4.b; BDB 949 s.v. רָעָה 2.
  4. Ecclesiastes 12:2 tn Heb “the light and the moon and the stars.” The phrase “the light and the moon” is a hendiadys (two separate terms denoting one idea) or perhaps even a hendiatris (three separate terms denoting one idea) for “the light of the moon and stars” (e.g., Gen 1:14).
  5. Ecclesiastes 12:2 tn The verb שׁוּב (shuv, “to return”) here denotes “to desist” (HALOT 1430 s.v. שׁוּב 3). It pictures the disappearance of the clouds as a result of the precipitation of their contents.
  6. Ecclesiastes 12:3 tn Heb “the watchers of the house.”
  7. Ecclesiastes 12:3 tn The verb זְוּעַ (zeuaʿ, “to tremble”) probably does not refer to physical tremors but to trembling in fear (e.g., Esth 5:9; Hab 2:7; Sir 48:12); cf. HALOT 267 s.v. זוע). At the onset of old age, those who had been the most courageous during their youth suddenly become fearful.
  8. Ecclesiastes 12:3 tn The verb עָוַת (ʿavat, “to bend; to stoop”) means “to be stooped” (HALOT 804 s.v. עות) rather than “to bend themselves” (BDB 736 s.v. עות). The perfect tense may be taken in an ingressive sense (“begin to stoop over”).
  9. Ecclesiastes 12:3 tn The term הַטֹּחֲנוֹת (hattokhanot, Qal active participle feminine plural from טָחַן, takhan, “to grind”) is a double entendre. In its literal sense, it refers to female mill-grinders; in its figurative sense, it refers to molar teeth (HALOT 374 s.v. *טֹחֲנָה). The related Hebrew noun טַחֲנָה (takhanah) refers to a “mill,” and the related Arabic noun tahinat means “molar tooth” (HALOT 374 s.v. *טַחֲנָה).
  10. Ecclesiastes 12:3 tn The verb חָשַׁךְ (khashakh, “to grow dim”) is used elsewhere in reference to failing eyesight (e.g., Ps 69:24; Lam 5:17); see HALOT 361 s.v. חשׁך 2. Therefore, the phrase “those who look through the windows” is probably a figurative description of the eyes, picturing failing eyesight at the onset of old age.
  11. Ecclesiastes 12:4 tn The noun טַחֲנָה (takhanah) refers to a “grinding-mill” where grain is ground into flour (HALOT 374 s.v. טַחֲנָה). The term is here used as a double entendre, figuratively describing the loss of one’s teeth at the onset of old age. The figurative usage also draws upon the polysemantic nature of this noun; the related Arabic root tahinat means “molar tooth” (HALOT 374 s.v. *טֹחֲנָה).
  12. Ecclesiastes 12:4 tn Heb “rises up.” The verb קוּם (qum, “to arise”) refers to being awakened from sleep in the middle of the night by a sound (e.g., Exod 12:30; 1 Sam 3:6, 8) and waking up early in the morning (e.g., Gen 24:54; Judg 16:3; Ruth 3:14; Neh 2:12; Job 14:12; 24:14); see HALOT 1086 s.v. קוּם 1; BDB 877 s.v. קוּם 1.a. Here it describes one of the frustrations of old age: the elderly person is unable to get a full night’s sleep because every little sound awakens him in the middle of the night or too early in the morning.
  13. Ecclesiastes 12:4 tn The term “their” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity and smoothness.
  14. Ecclesiastes 12:4 tn Heb “all the daughters of song.” The expression “the daughters of song” (בְּנוֹת הַשִּׁיר, benot hashir) is an idiom for “songs; musical sounds; melodious notes” (HALOT 166 s.v. I בַּת 2; BDB 123 s.v. בַּת 5; GKC 418 §128.v). The genitive הַשִּׁיר (“song”) represents the nature, quality, character or condition of the construct בְּנוֹת (“daughters”); see IBHS 149-51 §9.5.3b. The idiom refers to the musical songs sung during one’s youth or to the ability to hear songs that are sung. This line is lamenting the loss of hearing which occurs at the onset of old age.
  15. Ecclesiastes 12:4 tn Heb “are brought low.”
  16. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn The Hebrew noun חַתְחַתִּים (khatkhattim) literally means “terrors” (HALOT 363 s.v. חַתְחַת; BDB 369 s.v. חַתְחַת). Here it is used as a metonymy (cause for effect) to refer to dangers that cause the elderly to be fearful of going outside or walking along the streets. The form חַתְחַתִּים is a reduplicated noun stem from the root חתת (“terror”); HALOT 363 s.v. חַתְחַת; BDB 369 s.v. חַתְחַת. The reduplication of the noun stem intensifies its meaning: the noun חִתַּת (khittat) means “terror,” so the intensified reduplicated form חַתְחַת (khatkhat) connotes something like “great terror” (see S. Moscati, Comparative Grammar, 78-79, §12.9-13). The plural form חַתְחַתִּים (“great terrors”) denotes plural of number (more than one) or plural of intensity (which would further intensify the experience of fear); see IBHS 122 §7.4.3a.
  17. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn The noun שָׁקֵד (shaqed) is used in the OT in reference to the “almond nut” (e.g., Gen 43:11; Num 17:23 HT [17:8 ET]) and metonymically (product for thing producing it) for the “almond tree” (e.g., Jer 1:11); cf. HALOT 1638 s.v. שָׁקֵד; BDB 1052 s.v. שָׁקֵד 2.
  18. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn The verb נצץ (“to blossom”) is a geminate verb (II = III) that, in this case, is written with a matres lectionis (plene spelling) rather than the normal spelling of וינץ (GKC 204 §73.g). The Hiphil verb יָנֵאץ (yaneʾts) is from the root נצץ “to shine; to sparkle; to blossom” (HALOT 717 s.v. נצץ; BDB 665 s.v. נָצַץ). It is used in reference to almond blossoms whose color progresses from pink to white as they ripen (e.g., Song 6:11). This is an appropriate metaphor (comparison of sight) to describe white hair that often accompanies the onset of old age.
  19. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn Or “locust.”
  20. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn The verb סָבַל (saval, “to bear a heavy load”) means “to drag oneself along” as a burden (BDB 687 s.v. סָבַל) or “to become thick; to move slowly forward; to clear off” (HALOT 741 s.v. סבל).
  21. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn The noun אֲבִיּוֹנָה (ʾaviyyonah, “caper berry, caper fruit”) is a hapax legomenon, occurring only here in the Hebrew Bible. It refers to the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East (HALOT 5 s.v. אֲבִיּוֹנָה; BDB 2-3 s.v. אֲבִיּוֹנָה). There are two options for the interpretation of this figure: (1) At the onset of old age, the sexual virility that marked one’s youth is nothing more than a distant memory, and even aphrodisiacs fail to stimulate sexual desire to allow for sexual intercourse. (2) The onset of old age is like the shriveling up of the caper berry fruit; the once virile youth has passed his prime just like a shriveled caper berry can no longer provide a sexual stimulant.
  22. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tc The MT vocalizes consonantal ותפר as וְתָפֵר (vetafer, conjunction plus Hiphil imperfect third person feminine singular from פָּרַר, parar, “to burst”). However, an alternate vocalization tradition of וְתֻפַּר (vetupar, conjunction plus Hophal imperfect third person feminine singular “to be broken down”) is reflected in the LXX which reads καὶ διασκεδασθῇ (kai diaskedasthē, “is scattered”) and Symmachus καὶ διαλυθῇ (kai dialuthē, “is broken up”) which is followed by the Syriac. On the other hand, Aquila’s καὶ καρπεύσει (kai karpeusei, “are enjoyed,” of fruits) reflects וְתִפְרֶה (Qal imperfect third person feminine singular from פָרַה, “to bear fruit”); this does not reflect an alternate reading but a translator’s error in word division between וְתָפֵר הָאֲבִיּוֹנָה (vetafer haʾaviyyonah, “the caper berry bursts”) and וְתִפְרֶה אֲבִיּוֹנָה (vetifreh ʾaviyyonah, “the caper berry bears fruit”).tn Or “fails”; or “bursts.” The meaning of the verb פָּרַר (parar, “to break; to make ineffectual”) is debated: (1) “to be ineffectual,” that is, to fail to provide sexual power as an aphrodisiac, or (2) “to break; to burst,” that is, the caper berry fruit shrivels as it lingers on its branch beyond its period of ripeness (HALOT 975 s.v. פרר 2.f; BDB 830 s.v. I. פָּרַר 2.d).
  23. Ecclesiastes 12:5 tn In the construct phrase בֵּית עוֹלָמוֹ (bet ʿolamo, “house of his eternity”), the genitive עוֹלָמוֹ (“eternity”) functions as an attributive adjective: “his eternal home.” This is an idiom for the grave as the resting place of the body (e.g., Ps 49:12 [11]; Job 7:9; 14:10-12; Eccl 12:5) or Sheol as the residence of the dead (e.g., Job 17:13; 30:23); see HALOT 124 s.v. I בַּיִת 2; 799 (5); BDB 109 s.v. בַּיִת 1.d. For example, the term בֵּית (“house”) is used in Job 30:23 in parallelism with “death” (מָוֶת, mavet). The same idiom appears in postbiblical Hebrew: “the house of eternity” (בֵּית עוֹלָם, bet ʿolam) is a euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery (e.g., Lamentations Rabbah 1:5); see Jastrow 1084-85 s.v. עָלַם III. This idiom is also found in a Moabite text in reference to the grave (Deir Alla Inscription 2:6). A similar idiom is found in Phoenician and Palmyrene in reference to the grave (DISO 35). The idiom appears to have originated in Egyptian literature (H. A. Hoffner, TDOT 2:113). See F. Cumont, Afterlife in Roman Paganism, 48-50.
  24. Ecclesiastes 12:6 tn Heb “water-spring.”
  25. Ecclesiastes 12:6 tn The term גַּלְגַּל (galgal, “wheel”) refers to the “water wheel” or “paddle wheel” for drawing water from a well (HALOT 190 s.v. I גַּלְגַּל 2; BDB 165 s.v. גַּלְגַּל 1.b). This Hebrew noun is related to the Akkadian term gulgullu (“pot”), as well as Phoenician (?) גלגל (“wheel for drawing water”). The Latin term girgillus (“lever for the bucket”) is a late derivation from this term. See G. Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina, 2:225-28.
  26. Ecclesiastes 12:7 tn Or “spirit.” The likely referent is the life’s breath that originates with God. See Eccl 3:19, as well as Gen 2:7; 6:17; 7:22.