One of the most beautiful poetic passages of the Hebrew bible is found in Ecclesiastes 12, and the richness of this passage is too often missed because people have failed to understand the rich poetic imagery that Solomon has employed. Throughout this passage, word pictures are employed to describe the process of aging and all that comes with it. How many of these word pictures can you identify and correctly interpret?
The most challenging word pictures found in this passage are in verse 5; their challenge lies in the fact that we no longer have a clear understanding of the intended imagery of the almond blossom, the locust [tree], or the caperberry. Many translations have opted to interpret some or all of these word pictures for you, often without indicating their departure from the underlying Hebrew text. While the NLT attempts to keep the original imagery, it adds the common interpretations of that imagery into the text i.e. “before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper, and the caperberry no longer inspires sexual desire.” However, I believe Robert Alter, in his book “The Wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes,” offers a better solution when he notes that “It is less strained to read these lines simply as images of the cycle of growth and decay in nature as man is about to depart from that cycle.” Alter also offers a possible solution to one of the most challenging word pictures in this text. He notes that “The most puzzling reference is to the laden locust. Some see this as indicating a plant, not an insect (in fact a meaning carried by the English word as well); others detect a reference to the female locust heavy with eggs, after laying which she dies. Perhaps the least strained construction is a locust tree heavy with ripe fruit.”
How many of the word pictures employed by Solomon can you identify?
Remember your Creator while you are still young,
before the days of misery come
and turn into years in which you say “there is no pleasure in them.”
Remember him –
Before the light of the sun, and the moon, and the stars grow dark,
And the clouds return after the rain.
When the guardians of the house tremble
and the strong men stoop,
When the grinders are idle because they are few
and those who peer through the windows fade away.
When the doors to the street are shut,
And the sound of the mill grows faint.
When one rises to the sounds of the bird,
But the daughters of song have been subdued.
Even heights bring fear,
And the streets terrify them.
— the almond tree blooms,
the locust tree is heavy laden,
and the caper berry breaks open —
Because a man goes to his eternal home,
And mourners go around in the streets.
Remember him –
Before the silver cord breaks
and the golden bowl crashes to the ground,
Before the well’s pitcher is smashed
and it’s crank wheel broken.
Before dust returns to the earth from where it came,
And the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Futility, futility, said the preacher, all is futility.