In his excellent commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes (Living Life Backwards), David Gibson titles this chapter, ‘One Foot in the Grave.’ He opens with the quote: ‘Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened’ (from The Times by Terry Pratchett). He then writes,
“Growing old makes a body and an inner self part company, as one ages and the other stays young. It leaves a person depressed at the disconnect between the mirror and the mind – how we look to others versus how we think about ourselves – and generates denial as our limbs begin to do with difficulty the things they used to do with ease. This process leaves a person blinking in perplexity at the speed of life, which has hurtled toward its conclusion just as it seemed to really get going. Youthfulness leaves so quickly. And entering old age itself is to arrive in a season beset by all manner of difficulties, pains, and sorrows.”
Hence, Solomon’s call to “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
Society deals with this inevitable decline in several ways. Western culture seeks to deny the reality of aging in the marketing of beauty products, as they worship at ‘the cult of youth.’ According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, surgeons perform more than ten million cosmetic procedures each year, almost none of them medically necessary. Journalist Beth Teitell worries about all that plastic, not so much because it is unsafe or unwise, but because all the women her age who get plastic surgery will make her look older by comparison. In a book called Drinking Problems at the Fountain of Youth, Teitell comments that no one is safe from this fear, not even the fabulously wealthy:
“I know women who worked hard to get into good colleges, worked their connections to land enviable jobs, married well, produced children who could pose for Ralph Lauren ads, vacation on the right islands with the right beach towels and the right heiresses – they have fractional ownerships in Cessnas, for heaven’s sake – and yet if they have furrows and hints of upper-lip lines and puppet mouth when those around them are smoother than freshly ironed Pratesi linens, what’s it all worth? In a word, nothing.”
There are also more extreme responses. In Las Vegas, the Cenegenics Medical Institute describes itself as the world’s largest ‘age-management practice.’ For a very hefty fee, it aims to help you spend as long as possible in your body – it can feed you, exercise you, monitor you, drug you, and adapt you to help you live as long as possible. In this worldview your body is the best thing you have, and you should aim to live in it as long as you can. As David Gibson notes, “Those who indulge in this pursuit seek to be ‘amortals’. Rather than structuring their lives around the inevitability of death, they prefer to ignore it instead.”
On the other hand, the Bible calls for us to face head-on the traumas of what it can mean to be alive but physically deteriorating in mind and body. In our passage this week, the Preacher’s realism about being an old person leads him to issue commands to a young person. ‘The coming failing of the body should inform the present working of my body. My certain death must invigorate my current life,’ writes Gibson. Furthermore, ‘putting one foot in the grave,’ he notes, ‘is the way to plant the other on the path of life.’
Whether we are young or old or somewhere in between, the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us to celebrate the joys of life at any age. But he is also honest about the troubles that come with growing old. By the wisdom of the Spirit he calls us to live well, however old we happen to be. ‘Don’t waste your life.’
This week we are drawing to the end of the book of Ecclesiastes as we consider chapter 11:1-12:8. The wise person will give time to heed Solomon’s words while he/she is young. Will you? Bring some friends with you as we drink deeply from the well of wisdom, and look towards home.
Soli Deo Gloria,