The last chapter drops the irony so evident just before and urges the solemn truth of judgment, which admitted only of the plainest and gravest appeal. It is accordingly the admirable conclusion of a book of telling truth (which unbelief readily misreads), but full of serious instruction where faith searches for profit.
"Remember also thy Creator(s) in the days of thy youth before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh of which thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, be darkened, and the clouds return after the rain: in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the street; when the sound of the grinding is low, and one shall rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of song shall be brought low; yea, they shall be afraid of [that which is] high, and terrors [shall be] in the way; and the almond tree shall blossom, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: before the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern; and the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all [is] vanity" (vers. 1-8).
It is an affecting call from early days to set God before the soul on the one hand, and to forget not on the other the frailty of fallen man, with death and judgment its portion, as man is. Although it is the fashion to doubt and deny that there is an allegorical description, in itself it seems manifest, suitable to the writer, and worthy of the inspiring Spirit. There may be difficulty as to every detail in the application; but this is so true of scripture generally that none need wonder if it be so here.
Ver. 2 expresses external objects and conditions of the greatest power by day or night no longer influencing as they did; then in ver. 3 the infirmity of man's members, once strong to guard or sustain, no less than the feebler ones, so necessary for the nourishment of the body, and the perception of things great or small. Then in ver. 4 is described the failure of human powers for action or speech in public, or to revive what gave pleasure once; while ver. 5 represents the growing inability and fears and decay. The sign of old age is the hoary head and the shrinking from burden or effort, betokening the approach of the grave, with its accompaniments, when the internal powers all fail, and the body returns to its kindred dust, the spirit to Him Who breathed His immortalising breath into man alone on earth. So pungent a description of human decay, where the word of God is honoured, may well warn of the danger of deferring) the heed due to Him from such as we are. If fallen man, made in God's image, sink into infirmities more overwhelming than any creatures set under him in God's order, what folly to defer the prime wisdom of fearing God!
"And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he pondered, and sought out, [and] set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and [that which was] written uprightly, [even] words of truth. The words of the wise [are] as goads, and as nails well fastened are the words of the masters of assemblies, [which] are given from one shepherd. And further, my son, be admonished by them; of making many books [there is] no end; and much study [is] a weariness of the flesh. [This is] the end of the matter; all hath been heard: fear God, and keep his commandments; for this [is] the whole [duty] of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether [it be] good or whether [it be] evil" (vers. 9-14).
It is not surprising that in a growingly self-complacent rationalistic age men should think themselves competent to question the wisdom of the Preacher, and his acceptable words. To such the words of the wise cannot be goads; their fatal self-sufficiency makes them pitfalls or stumbling-blocks. To the faithful they are words of truth, and the collections of them as nails fastened in. They are given from one shepherd, and the reader fails not to be warned by them. Of the many books of man there is no end, and their study is but weariness of the flesh.
But one thing is needful, as our Saviour said; and the royal Preacher pointed to the same conclusion. "Let us hear the end of the whole matter," and forget it not. "Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." Christ alone, while confirming this, gives us far more as in Him, and lets us into heavenly things, and the divine nature in a way then impossible to be known and enjoyed. But to fear and obey Him is ever right. "For God shall bring every work into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or whether evil."