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Ecclesiastes is not a book I've read very much. I know the broad outline of the book, and its concluding thesis ('Fear God and keep his commandments'), but not much of the specifics.

I came to Ecclesiastes 12.6, and I'm curious about this 'silver cord'. Attempts to search the phrase keep bringing me to versions of a belief that the 'silver cord' is an invisible rope that tethers the soul to the body; if a person has an out-of-body experience, the soul straying too far from the body might snap the silver cord, causing bodily death. (This speculation dominates even the Wikipedia page.)

I greatly doubt this is what the 'silver cord' meant to the author and his original audience.

The text itself doesn't seem to imply it has any particular metaphysical properties. It appears within a list of fairly mundane objects, where the surrounding context seems to be that 'all things break down'. It seems the only reason there is so much wild speculation about the silver cord is precisely because no one knows what it is in context.

What exactly is the thing? Are there any other texts (Jewish or otherwise) from the second century BC or earlier that have verbal or conceptual parallels? How would the 'silver cord' have been understood by the author and his original audience?


Ecclesiastes 12.1-8

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
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Essentially, it means the cord of life. Strong's Heb. 2256, "chebel" or band. Brown-Driver-Brigs - cord, and references Ecc. 12:6 as cord of life.

The NIV does a fair job with verse 6 as:

"Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well,"

A brief summary from Adam Clarke's commentary as:

The context is aging, approaching death, and the call to remember the creator acknowledged in your youth. Verses 3 - 6 compare the aging body to a house where the keepers are the hands that become paralytic and shaky; the strong men are legs that begin to bow and no longer hold up the body; the grinders are teeth that have decayed with age, and can no longer chew strong meat; the windows are the eyes that dim and can no longer see well; the doors being shut in the streets are the lips and mouth which can no longer swallow; and the sound of grinding low is the lost teeth, and inability to chew properly; rising up at the sound of a bird is the inability to sleep soundly being disturbed at the least sound; the daughters of music being brought low is the weak and feeble voice of old age.

The silver cord is the nervous system breaking; the golden bowl breaking representing the brain and loss of memory; the pitcher broken at the fountain and the wheel broken at the cistern is the heart slowing and failing to pump; which then results in the death of the body. See full commentary here

E.W. Bullinger's Companion Bible Notes on Eccl. 12:4-6,

"Verse 4

the doors = the openings: i.e. the mouth and ears.

streets = street (singular)

sound of the grinding is low: i.e. the mastication with gums instead of teeth is low.

rise up = start: referring to insomnia.

the daughters of musick: i.e. songs, &c, the product of music.

Verse 5

afraid: i.e. of ascending heights.

high = lofty, elevated.

fears shall be in the way: i.e. apprehensions of danger in journeying.

almond tree shall flourish: i.e. grey hairs shall grow scanty, or drop off, not "almond nuts be rejected"; for the teeth and eating have already been dealt with in Ecclesiastes 12:3.

grasshopper, or locust. shall be a burden = shall become burdensome: i.e. as to weight.

desire shall fail. "Desire" = Hebrew = the caperberry. Here the Authorized Version beautifully renders the figure of speech (as a version should do), while the Revised Version renders it literally (as a translation too often does). The Figure of speech is Metalepsis: i.e. a double Metonymy (App-6), by which (1) the "caperberry" is put for the condiment made from it, and then (2) thecondiment is put for the appetite produced by it. And further, since, because of its shape, as well as from the notion that it was supposed to create sexual desire, all that is intended by the figure is included in the rendering "desire shall fail".

man. Hebrew. "ddam (with Art). App-14. See note on Ecclesiastes 1:13. Verse 6

Or, &c. New figures now (in Ecclesiastes 12:6) introduced, referring to the arrival (Structure, above) of death itself.

the silver cord: i.e. the spinal cord.

the golden bowl: i.e. the head, or skull.

pitcher: the failure of the heart.

the wheel. On which the bucket is brought up by a rope from the cistern, or well." Source: here

From Jamieson-Faussett-Brown Commentary on Ecc. 12:6,

"6. A double image to represent death, as in Ec 12:1-5, old age: (1) A lamp of frail material, but gilded over, often in the East hung from roofs by a cord of silk and silver interwoven; as the lamp is dashed down and broken, when the cord breaks, so man at death; the golden bowl of the lamp answers to the skull, which, from the vital preciousness of its contents, may be called "golden"; "the silver cord" is the spinal marrow, which is white and precious as silver, and is attached to the brain. (2) A fountain, from which water is drawn by a pitcher let down by a rope wound round a wheel; as, when the pitcher and wheel are broken, water can no more be drawn, so life ceases when the vital energies are gone. The "fountain" may mean the right ventricle of the heart; the "cistern," the left; the pitcher, the veins; the wheel, the aorta, or great artery [Smith]. The circulation of the blood, whether known or not to Solomon, seems to be implied in the language put by the Holy Ghost into his mouth. This gloomy picture of old age applies to those who have not "remembered their Creator in youth." They have none of the consolations of God, which they might have obtained in youth; it is now too late to seek them. A good old age is a blessing to the godly (Ge 15:15; Job 5:26; Pr 16:31; 20:29)." Source: here

And, Gill's Exposition on Eccl. 12:6,

"Or ever the silver cord be loosed,.... As the above are the symptoms and infirmities of old age; these in this verse are the immediate symptoms of death, or what attend it, or certainly issue in it. Some by "the silver cord" understand the string of the tongue; and to this purpose is the Targum,

"before thy tongue is dumb from speaking;''

and it is observed (q) in favour of this sense, that the failing of the tongue is no fallacious sign of death, of which there is no mention at all in this account, unless here; and the tongue may not unfitly be called a "cord", both from the notation of the word because it binds, and because it scourges like a cord, Job 5:21; and is compared to silver, Proverbs 10:20, and in this verse rather the head than the back is treated of. But best, the bond of union between soul and body is meant: the Midrash and Jarchi, and the Jewish writers in general, interpret it of the "spina dorsi", or backbone; or rather of the marrow of it, which descends like a cord from the brain through the neck, and down the backbone to the bottom of it; from whence spring the nerves, fibres, tendons, and filaments of the body, on which the life of it much depends: this spinal marrow may be called a "cord" for the length of it, as well as what arise from it; and a silver cord, from the colour of it (r), this being white even after death; and for the excellency of it: and this may be said to be "loosened" when there is a solution of the nerves, or marrow; upon which a paralysis, or palsy, follows, and is often the immediate forerunner of death;

or the golden bowl be broken; the Targum renders it the top of the head; and the Midrash interprets it the skull, and very rightly; or rather the inward membrane of the skull, which contains the brain, called the "pia mater", or "meninx", is intended, said to be a bowl, from the form of it; a "golden" one, because of the preciousness of it, and the excellent liquor of life it contains, as also because of its colour; now when this "runs back", as the word (s) signifies, dries, shrinks up, and breaks, it puts a stop to all animal motion, and hence death;

or the pitcher be broken at the fountain; not the gall at the liver, as the Targum, which the ancients took to be the fountain of blood; but by the "fountain" is meant the heart, the fountain of life, which has two cavities, one on the right side, the other on the left, from whence come the veins and arteries, which carry the blood through the whole body; and here particularly it signifies the right ventricle of the heart, the spring and original of the veins, which are the pitcher that receives the blood and transmits it to the several parts of the body; but when thee are broke to shivers, as the word (t) signifies, or cease from doing their office, the blood stagnates in them, and death follows;

or the wheel broken at the cistern; which is the left ventricle of the heart, which by its "diastole" receives the blood brought to it through the lungs, as a cistern receives water into it; where staying a while in its "systole", it passes it into the great artery annexed to it; which is the wheel or instrument of rotation, which, together with all the instruments of pulsation, cause the circulation of the blood, found out in the last age by our countryman Dr. Harvey; but it seems by this it was well known by Solomon; now, whenever this wheel is broken, the pulse stops, the blood ceases to circulate, and death follows. For this interpretation of the several preceding passages, as I owe much to the Jewish writers, so to Rambachius and Patrick on these passages, and to Witsius's "Miscellanies", and especially to our countryman Dr. Smith, in his "Portrait of Old Age", a book worthy to be read on this subject; and there are various observations in the Talmud (u) agreeable hereunto.

(q) Vid. Castel. Lexic. Hept. col. 3662. (r) Vid. Waser. de Num. Heb. l. 1. c. 13. (s) "recurrat", V. L. "excurrit", Junius & Tremellius. (t) (u) T. Bab. Sabbat, fol. 151. 2. & 152. 1."

Sources: here Bold emphasis mine.

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    How does Clarke arrive at that (rather allegorical) interpretation? Is he claiming this is how 'the author and his original audience' understood the silver cord? – user2910 Jun 2 '17 at 1:34
  • Well, I try to be brief and am chastised for insufficient detail. On others I provided a great deal of supporting detail and am chastised for writing too much. So, I added more references. – Gina Jun 2 '17 at 22:06
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    Asking for information how Clarke arrived at his view, and whether it really answers the original question, is hardly 'chastising'. – user2910 Jun 2 '17 at 22:52
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    Smiling....no problems. – Gina Jun 3 '17 at 2:28
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Ecclesiastes is both a reminder that the world is passing and unfulfilling without God and a celebration that you can find joy in it through God.

Two of the other examples, "pitcher shattered at the fountain" and "wheel broken at the well," convey the idea of trying to do an activity and being unable to for reasons outside of your control. You want to gather water, but your pitcher just broke. You want to get water from the well, but the wheel broke. I would guess that the silver cord and golden bowl must have been similarly important items in Jewish culture - maybe ritualistic, maybe in the household.

I agree that the idea of the nervous system is a stretch - especially considering the other two examples combining to be some sort of pumping mechanism (why provide four examples if two of them illustrate the same purpose?). If there is any intentional symbolism in the cord, I think it would be more in lines with our tie to the living. We are tied to this world and to the people and pleasures in it, but they are meaningless and that tie will break. Perhaps the silver cord is our tie to the world of the living, and the golden bowl is our consumption of the pleasures therein. That makes much more sense in the context of the book as a whole than a reference to anatomy that the people of the time likely didn't understand.

I agree that the resources and commentary available are a bit lacking on this, so this is just my own interpretation.

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First, please allow me to qualify my understanding of this Scripture. Many years ago I stumbled onto the fact that the Bible is filled with "Eastern Customs," "Figures of Speech," Metaphors," etc. (also known as "Orientalisms). When I began to study these it helped me to make bigger strides in understanding difficult Scriptures. That being said, here is what I have learned about this passage so far:
It is of course talking about the time when one gets old and can no longer function as he or she once did and death is not far away. However most of the language here is symbolic. "... before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain" usually refers to someone losing their power, standing, position, authority, etc. Very fitting of someone aging and no longer having the abilities they once had. Next, a silver cord has multiple meanings. In this case (according to George M. Lamsa - "Old Testament Light") it refers to a silver cord or thread that is used for the weaving of costly brocades. It runs through the entire cloth from one end to the other end. When it is cut off, the weaver stops weaving. Also in the East when two people get married they place a silver cord around each other's neck (as opposed to a wedding ring). When one of the spouses dies the silver cord is removed from their neck and placed with the deceased (Bishop K.C. Pillai, D.D. - "Light Through An Eastern Window"). Hope this helps someone.

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‘Silver‘, keseph, and an ‘appointed time’, keseh, are linked in Proverbs 7:20. The adulteress entices a prospective adulterer with the information that a certain time (linked with silver) is definite in the future and there is, or appears to be, time in which to dally behind the back of the husband.

[I have used Young’s concordance throughout as my only source of reference.]

But what if the husband returned early ? Instead of the hoped-for “appointed time”, associated with silver, there would be a “time of reckoning”, associated with silver.

Keseh appears only once in the Masoretic Text, an indication, from my own experience, that it is a significant word.

Gold is for invested wealth, vast expenditure, huge projects. Most of the populace would never see the stuff, let alone possess it. But silver is used, for example, to buy a field, as did Abraham, Genesis 23:16. In that case, he bought the field. But silver would, also, be used to rent land.

Thus, if it was a huge amount of silver - as in Abraham’s case, there would be no “time of reckoning” as the vast amount had bought the land until the end of time.

But if a smaller amount of silver had changed hands, then it would, in time, run out. The field must be re-possessed. A time of reckoning.

As to cord, chebel, both the spies sent to Jericho, Joshua 2:15, and Jeremiah, in 38:6, were suspended by cords, chebel, in life-threatening situations.

Rathaq, is only ever used twice in the Masoretic text and has two meanings: one in the Niph form, be loosed, as in this text, and one in the Pual form, used in Nahum 3:10, her great men were bound in chains, referring to the great of Nineveh, which, at the time of Nahum writing, stood out as the pinnacle of the ancient world, much as Babylon did, at a later date.

So the silver cord, either binds, or it looses. The cord is able to do either.

I see in all of this that God has given me wealth - an existence - for an appointed time, after which all will change. I know that each day is as precious as silver. But I know not how much silver God has appointed me.

Like the spies, or Jeremiah, I hang suspended, my time unknown, and I am in great danger, if I spend this time foolishly.

When the silver runs out, my time is up. And then, comes the reckoning.

Thank you for this question. I never knew what it meant until you prompted me to look into it.

Anything which makes me tread a careful path through this life, is most useful.

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