Ecclesiastes 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers




Provost of Trinity College, Dublin.




THE proofs have been given elsewhere that the collection of sacred writings which was held in reverence by the Jews of Palestine in the days of our Lord and His Apostles, consisted of twenty-two books, and that these included the Book of Ecclesiastes. The first preachers of Christianity appear to have been in complete agreement with their unconverted brethren as to the authority of their sacred books; and in point of fact, all the books of the Jewish Canon have always enjoyed unquestioned authority in the Christian Church. It is no disparagement to the authority of the Book of Ecclesiastes that no direct quotation from it is to be found in the New Testament. A few coincidences of thought or expression have been pointed out (for instance, Ecclesiastes 11:5 with John 3:8, Ecclesiastes 9:10 with John 9:4); but none of them is decisive enough to warrant our asserting with any confidence that the Old Testament passage was present to the mind of the New Testament writer. But there is no reason to imagine that any of the Apostles would have hesitated to appeal to the authority of any book of the Jewish Canon, if his subject had required such a reference.

In the Jewish schools there was controversy, about the end of the first century of our era, whether the Book of Ecclesiastes was one of those which “defile the hands;” that is to say, whether it was affected by certain ceremonial ordinances, devised in order to guard the sacred books from irreverent usage. We need not inquire what exact amount of authority might be conceded to the book by those who then placed it on a lower level than the rest; for the view which ultimately prevailed, recognised it as entitled to all the prerogatives of Canonical Scripture. It does not appear that the Solomonic authorship of the book was questioned in the course of these disputes. Thus in the Christian Church, Theodore of Mopsuestia, while accepting Solomon’s authorship, supposed him to have written the book by human prudenee, not Divine inspiration.

It is proper to mention that the place of the work in modern Hebrew Bibles is not the same as in English Bibles, where all the books ascribed to Solomon are placed together. In the Hebrew, after the Proverbs comes Job; then Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. But the reason of this arrangement is that the last five books, called the five rolls, were written on separate rolls for use in synagogue worship on special festivals. They are arranged in the order in which these festivals occur, Ecclesiastes being fourth because the Feast of Tabernacles, on which it is read, is fourth in order. The Masoretic arrangement of these rolls was different; and in the oldest dated Hebrew MS. Ecclesiastes is third. It is very precarious to draw, as some have done, from this arrangement for liturgical purposes, a presumption against the acknowledgment of Solomon’s authorship by the Jews. And, in fact, the order of our English Bibles may claim to be the older of the two, being the order both of the Septuagint and of the Talmud.

While we consider the canonical authority of the Book of Ecclesiastes as sufficiently guaranteed by the general sanction which the founders of the Christian Church gave to the Jewish Scriptures,’ we cannot find that any opinion as to the authorship of the book is entitled to claim apostolic authority. The book, as has been remarked, is not mentioned in the New Testament; and the ascription of canonical authority to a book determines nothing as to its authorship. Nothing was supposed to be known with certainty as to the authorship of some books, which, nevertheless, held an undisputed place in the Canon: for example, Joshua, Judges. Job.

In discussing the authorship of a book, internal evidence holds, relatively to external, a far higher place in the case of the Old than of the New Testament. In the latter case we have available the testimony of witnesses separated by a comparatively short interval from the time of the composition of the books. Thus when a question arises as to a various reading in the Apocalypse, Irenæus confirms the evidence of the best MSS. by an appeal to the testimony of persons who had seen the Apostle John. But the earliest witnesses from whom we can learn anything as to the composition of Old Testament books, are later by hundreds of years than the books of which they speak. Thus, though the belief that Solomon was the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes was for many centuries practically universal both among the Jews and in the Christian Church, yet the earliest period to which we can trace the belief is some centuries later than the age of Solomon; and the belief may easily have been generated by inference from the text itself, not by historical tradition. In the disputes concerning the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Jewish schools, which have been already mentioned, we cannot find that the topic of external evidence was employed on either side. The whole controversy turned on the contents of the book. concerning which we are as competent to form an opinion as were either of the opposing parties then. On the one side it was alleged that the book contained contradictory statements, and that it taught erroneous doctrine; on the other, explanations were given which were held to be satisfactory. It was pointed out that the book began and ended with words of the Law (Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 12:13); and in particular, its statement as to the “conclusion of the whole matter,” was regarded as removing all doubt as to the author’s design.

Turning now to examine what we can learn of its authorship from the book itself, we find that the title runs, “The words of Kohéleth son of David, King in Jerusalem.” We have here the difficulty that the name Kohéleth does not occur in the historical books as the name either of king or private person. If the words “son of David” be understood strictly, Solomon must be intended—the only one of David’s sons who reigned in Jerusalem. If we were to suppose the words to have been used more loosely, we might think of any of the descendants of David who succeeded him on the throne; in particular, perhaps, of Manassch, whose experience might well have made him feel the vanity of human life. But this latter view is supported by no authority, and the things attributed to Kohéleth agree too well with what is told of Solomon in the Book of Kings, to allow us to think that any one else is intended. Thus Kohéleth excels all his predecessors in wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:16; see 1Kings 3:12), and set in order many proverbs (Ecclesiastes 12:10; 1Kings 4:32). The description of his state (Ecclesiastes 2) corresponds with what is told of Solomon (1 Kings 10); while his unfavourable experience of women (Ecclesiastes 7:28) is what might be expected from Solomon (1 Kings 11).

But if Solomon is intended, why is he called Kohéleth? This particular form is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but there are of frequent occurrence other forms of the same grammatical root, which have the sense of collecting or assembling. Thus it is this root which furnishes the ordinary name for the congregation or assembly of the children of Israel; while the corresponding verb is used of the gathering together of the congregation. These words are used in connection with Solomon (1 Kings 8), where it is told (1Kings 8:1-2) how Solomon “assembled” the children of Israel, and (1Kings 8:14; 1Kings 8:22; 1Kings 8:55; 1Kings 8:65) how he blessed the “congregation.” Accordingly, the LXX. translates Kohéleth by the name which we still use, “Ecclesiastes,” which St. Jerome explains as one who gathers an assembly. It is less closely translated in our version “Preacher,” or one who addresses an assembly; while the rendering which has been proposed, “debater in an assembly,” is still more open to the objection that it imports a meaning not suggested by the word. According to our present Hebrew text, Kohéleth has in one place the article prefixed, indicating that it is not a proper name, but an official title. We accept the rendering of the LXX. as giving the best explanation of the word; and we reject the explanations: (a) that the word means a collector of sayings, for the Hebrew word is used of collecting persons, not things; (b) that it means the assembly itself, for all through the book the word is used as the name of a person; and, not to mention other explanations, (c) Renan’s suggestion that the word Kohéleth has no meaning, and is only a mnemonic acrostic, formed, according to a custom of the later Jews, by putting together the first letters of the words of an unknown longer title.

The word Kohéleth, however, presents some grammatical anomalies. With one we need not trouble the English reader; but the most important is that the word is feminine in its form. In three places the verb which is in agreement is masculine; once, according to the present text, it is feminine, but so very slight a change of reading would bring this passage into conformity with the others, that we cannot feel sure that there is any real difference. A common explanation of the feminine form Kohéleth is that the speaker is Wisdom (in Hebrew a feminine noun) supposed to be incarnate in the person of Solomon. This interpretation, which connects the ideas of “wisdom” and “gathering together,” has an attraction for the Christian reader when he remembers how one greater than Solomon, even the Wisdom of God, said, “How often would 1 have gathered thy children together.” Yet the suggestion will not bear a close examination. In the Book of Proverbs, where Wisdom is introduced as speaking, no room is left for misunderstanding: here not the smallest hint is given that Wisdom is speaking, and on the contrary, several places are inconsistent with such a supposition. For instance, the speaker sets. himself to “search and seek out wisdom,” “turns himself to behold wisdom;” nay, when he said, “I will be wise,” finds that “wisdom is far from him.” We have no right to accuse the author of having failed to carry out a personification consistently, unless we first give some proof that he intended personification, and of such proof there is not a shadow.

We believe that no more recondite explanation of the use of the feminine form is to be looked for than that the usage of the language at the time permitted it. It is no uncommon thing that an abstract noun, though feminine in form, should come to be used as a noun appellative. In a modern language a man may have applied to him titles such as majesté, grandeur, altesse, with corresponding feminine pronouns. A similar use is found in Hebrew, especially in the later Hebrew. It is a feminine noun which denotes the office of governor borne by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12:26) and others; feminine names of form like Kohéleth—viz., Sophereth and Pochereth—occur in the lists (Ezra 2:55; Ezra 2:57).

Having come to the conclusion that Kohéleth means Solomon, and that he is so called with special reference to that religious assembly of the people which he brought together and which he addressed, we have still to inquire whether the book purports to be written by Solomon. It certainly professes to record his words, but whether or not it professes that he himself is the writer is doubtful. The words of the Preacher appear to come to an end at Ecclesiastes 12:8, and then follows an epilogue in which he is spoken of in the third person. One possible explanation of this is that the book does not profess to have been written by Solomon, but only to contain the words of Solomon as recorded by another person, who in the epilogue speaks in his own name. Jewish tradition certainly refers to the time of Hezekiah not only the reduction of the Book of Proverbs to its present form (as stated in Proverbs 25:1), but also in like manner the writing of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Against the theory that Solomon himself was the writer the following arguments are urged: (a) Kohéleth says (Ecclesiastes 1:12), “I was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” We know Solomon was king till his death, therefore he who speaks of his reign in the past tense must be, not Solomon himself, but a later writer. who knew, moreover, that there were kings over Israel who did not reign in Jerusalem. That the tense used conveys to a Hebrew reader the impression that at the time of writing Solomon was king no longer, is evident from the Rabbinical legend which grew out of it. It was related that King Solomon, having displeased God, was deprived of the ring by which he ruled over the demons, whereupon Asmodeus their king assumed the form of Solomon and reigned in his place, while he himself was driven from door to door, and beaten by incredulous hearers to whom he told his story, and among whom he went about saying, I am Kohéleth, who was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” On the other hand, whatever the impression conveyed by the words, they cannot be absolutely inconsistent with Solomonic authorship; for even the writer of a fiction would not put into Solomon’s mouth words which he could not have used. The tense used is the same as in the verbs which follow, “I gave my heart,” “I communed with my own heart,” &c. Solomon is speaking of his past; he is telling how he made trial what wealth and splendour could do for human happiness, and he properly uses the past tense in telling how when he made his experiment he had the advantage of being king. A similar argument against the Solomonic authorship is drawn from the comparison (Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:9) between Solomon and those who had reigned in Jerusalem before him; which admits of the reply that a later writer could not have used this language, since David was the only predecessor of Solomon whom the later Jews recognised as king, but that he himself might have had in his mind the Jebusite kings who had reigned in Jerusalem before its capture by David.

(b) Kohéleth speaks in the tone of a subject, not of a sovereign. Some passages of which this may be said can be paralleled by passages in the Book of Proverbs, but one class of passages is of a special character. Kohéleth complains (Ecclesiastes 3:16) that wickedness was in the place of judgment; (Ecclesiastes 4:6) he tells how, looking on the tears of the oppressed who had no comforter (for with their oppressors there was power), he deemed it better to be dead than to be alive; twice more (Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 7:7) he returns to the subject of the tyranny of the powerful and the corruption of the judges; he complains of the bad choice of rulers by the sovereign—“folly set in great dignity, and the rich sitting in low places.” All is written in the tone of a man who looked on bad government as an infliction of Providence against which it was hopeless to contend, not of one who was personally responsible for the evil he failed to set right as he was bound to do. This argument makes a strong impression on me, and I am only imperfectly satisfied with the reply that the scene is laid in the old age of Solomon, after he had been persuaded by female influence to trust into unfit hands power which he was not afterwards strong enough to revoke.

In this connection it may be stated that even if the book be accepted as written by Solomon in his old age, there is no warrant for the common opinion that it was intended as an expression of penitence for the errors of his middle life. No such expression of penitence is to be found; his different experiments in search of happiness are recorded as failures, but without shame or repentance; and in particular not only is the sin of countenancing idolatry, with which he is charged in the Book of Kings, not deplored, but no warning against Idolatry is given in the whole book.

The ascription of the work to the old age of Solomon has been made to answer other objections. For example, the general state of the nation appears to have been one of great misery. Death was thought better than life, and men looked with regret on the former days, which they pronounced to be better than the present. This is said to be inconsistent with the prosperity of Solomon’s reign; but it is replied that the discontent which broke out so violently immediately after his death must have been growing, and not without cause, during the later years of his reign.

(c) The style of the book is strongly marked by the author’s individuality, and is confessedly unlike that either of the Proverbs or the Song of Songs. But it is urged that there may be great differences of style between works written by the same man in his youth and in his old age. It is more important to observe that the Hebrew of the book is very different from that of the books known to be of early date. It is, in fact, much more like the Hebrew of the Talmud than is that of any other book in the Canon, so that, judged by this test alone, it will be pronounced one of the latest in the Bible. The references we give in the Notes will show that many words occur in this book which elsewhere occur only in those of the canonical books which are known to be the latest. The argument from the grammatical forms used in the book is not less strong, but the details cannot be given in a Commentary like the present. Concerning each particular instance discussed, there is room for controversy. Earlier parallels have been found for some of the instances brought forward as indications of modern date. In other cases it can be said that it is only the scantiness of the early literature which prevents such parallels from being found; and it has been sought, by tracing analogies in other Shemitic languages, to make it probable that the words objected to as modern might easily have been found in the early Hebrew literature, if we had larger remains of it. The force of the argument, however, is cumulative. It would be very precarious to condemn a book as modern because of its containing three or four words or phrases which have a modern ring. Any one who takes up an early English book will be startled at occasionally coming across phrases which he had not imagined to be so old; and yet no one can fail to recognise the reality of the difference of style between an early book and a recent one. The strength of the present argument altogether depends on the number of words and forms of expression for which an apology must be found if the antiquity of the book is to be maintained. Of those who are entitled to speak with authority as Hebrew scholars, a very great majority regard this argument alone as decisive against the Solomonic authorship; and I am myself so much impressed by the marks of lateness in the Hebrew that I do not venture to put forward a theory which otherwise has something to recommend it, viz., that the book was written in the days of the later Hebrew monarchy, as a record of traditions then preserved of the teaching of Solomon on the occasion of his great assembly.

The conclusion, then, at which I arrive is that, while there is not one of the arguments against the Solomonic authorship which might not be made to give way if convincing external testimony in favour of it were produced, the accumulated weight of the internal arguments would be decisive in the absence of such external proof. To some minds the unanimous consent of the Christian Church for many centuries is decisive external proof; and so the answers to arguments of the former class are easily accepted. Formal Church decision on the subject there has been none; and to me it appears that the weight which attaches to the opinions of Christian Fathers on a question of canonicity does not belong to their opinions on the authorship of Old Testament books. No one now has any difficulty in owning that many of the psalms are later than the time of David, yet not only does Augustine regard the mention of Babylon as made by David under prophetic inspiration, but Philaster counts in his list of heresies the denial that all the 150 psalms were David’s If an Old Testament book is not mentioned in the New Testament, we have no reason to suppose that any later revelation as to its authorship was made to the Christian Church. At the time of the formation of the Church, Jewish general belief ascribed the Book of Ecclesiastes to Solomon, and that opinion was naturally adopted by Christian critics. The fact just mentioned as to general Jewish belief in the first century of our era (and in all probability for a considerable time preciously) is one entitled to great weight; but considering that the date to which we can trace that belief back is still at least 700 years later than Solomon, I cannot regard it as decisive; and in the face of the arguments on the other side. I find myself unable to assert Solomon’s authorship. The case would be different if the alternative were that we should be obliged to impute deception to a book which we accept as canonical, and to suppose that the writer, who knew himself not to be Solomon, falsely tried to make his readers believe that he was. But accepting the view suggested by the epilogue, that a later writer professes to record the teaching of Solomon, we are at liberty to suppose either that he really does what he professes, oral teaching of Solomon having been preserved by a true tradition, or else that the whole is a dramatic fiction, a form of composition common enough among profane writers, and against the use of which by an inspired writer no reason can be assigned.

Those who reject the Solomonic authorship are far from being agreed among themselves as to the date which they will assign the work, from which it is reasonable to infer, not that Solomon after all must have written it, but that the data for any determination of the kind are insufficient. It has been attempted to discover historical references in different passages, such as Ecclesiastes 9:14; but none of these attempts inspires any strong conviction as to its success. Indeed, when we remember how scanty are our materials for a knowledge of Jewish history after the Captivity, we shall not be surprised if we find a difficulty in identifying historical allusions. Again, coincidences have been pointed out between the teaching of Kohéleth and that of different schools of Greek philosophy; and these have been regarded as proving indebtedness on the part of the former, and thus as establishing a very late date for the book. Yet these coincidences are after all but superficial. It would be equally easy to prove by them that Kohéleth was a Stoic or Epicurean; yet he certainly was neither, but one whose theism was thoroughly Hebrew. I have not been able, then, to convince myself that Kohéleth had studied a philosophy by which he is so little really influenced, or that the things which he has in common with it are other than thoughts which may have occurred independently to reflecting men of different nations. I prefer, therefore, not to put forward any theory as to the date of composition, not regarding any as sufficiently proved. Some considerations, however, must be mentioned which place certain limits on hypotheses.

(1) In the time of Herod the Great the book was old enough to be regarded as Scripture. We are told by Josephus that Herod used to go about in disguise in order to learn what was thought of his government, and a story in the Talmud relates that he went in this way to a leading rabbi who had been deprived of sight by his orders, and from whom he expected to draw some angry denunciation of the wrongs which he and his brethren had suffered at his hands. But the rabbi resisted every temptation to curse the king, quoting Ecclesiastes 10:20; and the story goes on to tell that the king was moved to make atonement for these wrongs by rebuilding the Temple. In another Talmudical story, the scene of which is laid somewhat later, the celebrated Gamaliel is represented as depicting the miraculous results that would follow when, in the coming age of the Messiah, the curse should be removed from nature, and a contentious pupil (by whom it is imagined St. Paul is intended) objects, Is it not written, There is nothing new under the sun? Without overrating the amount of credence that these anecdotes deserve, we do not think that the stories could have originated or been accepted if the composition of the book had been within living memory in the reign of Herod.

(2) Ecclesiastes is more ancient than the apocryphal Book of Wisdom. It cannot reasonably be doubted that the author of the Book of Wisdom was acquainted with Ecclesiastes, the coincidences being such as cannot be ascribed to accident. In particular the whole passage (Wisdom Of Solomon 2:1-10) is full of echoes of Ecclesiastes. There are several passages in the latter book which appear to teach Epicurean or pessimistic doctrine: and of these the explanation was offered long since, of which every interpreter is still bound to take account, that the writer is not giving his own conclusions, but stating the opinions of an infidel or objector. And this seems to be the view taken by the author of Wisdom, who introduces the passage with the preface, “The ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright.” We need not suppose that the author of Wisdom rejected the authority of Ecclesiastes; he may have only sought to bring out more clearly what he believed to be its true meaning. Accordingly the solution of the problem of life afforded by the doctrine of future retribution, concerning the use of which made in Ecclesiastes there has been dispute, is in Wisdom taught with a distinctness which leaves no room for controversy. We do not gain much for the antiquity of Ecclesiastes in proving it to be older than Wisdom, the date of the latter book being uncertain. About 150 years before Christ is not an improbable determination.

(3) Ecclesiastes is more ancient than the apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, or Wisdom of the Son of Sirach. The proof of this seems to me sufficient, but it is far from being so cogent as in the case of the Book of Wisdom. It is a natural inference from the mention in the prologue of the threefold division of sacred books, “the Law, the prophets, and the rest of the books,” that the Canon had been then closed. And that then, as now, it included Kohéleth is made probable by coincidences, some of which no doubt can be explained as indicating that both writers used a common source; for example “he that diggeth a pit shall fall into it” (Ecclesiasticus 27:26, Ecclesiastes 10:8), has probably its original in Proverbs 26:27; Psalm 7:15. Other resemblances may be accidental, though we think the presumption is in favour of literary obligation, especially in the first instance (Ecclesiasticus 12:13, Ecclesiastes 10:11; Ecclesiasticus 13:25-26, Ecclesiastes 8:1; Ecclesiasticus 19:16, Ecclesiastes 7:20-22, Ecclesiasticus 20:7; Ecclesiasticus 21:25-26, Ecclesiastes 10:2-3; Ecclesiastes 10:12; Ecclesiastes 10:14; Ecclesiasticus 40:4, Ecclesiastes 1:7). Several others might be mentioned, and the argument gains much in strength from its cumulative force, it being unlikely that so many resemblances should be all accidental. The closest resemblance is in the passages (Ecclesiasticus 33:13-15; Ecclesiasticus 42:24-25), which, on being carefully compared with Ecclesiastes 7:13-15, exhibit what must be pronounced to be more than chance agreement. Even when the Son of Sirach uses the Book of Proverbs he usually does not copy slavishly, so that we have no right to expect closer agreement in this case; and if borrowing has been established in any one instance, the coincidences in other cases are not likely to be accidental. The Book of Sirach is older than that of Wisdom, but concerning its date also there is much disagreement among critics.

(4) Ecclesiastes is anterior to the times of the Maccabees. Under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes many a Jew was forced to choose whether he would forsake the faith of his fathers or submit to tortures and death. It then passed from being a question debated by speculative theologians, to become one of the greatest practical moment, whether if in obedience to God’s command he gave up all the happiness of this life, there was any future life in which he might hope for compensation. And the affirmative answer was thenceforward embraced by pious Jews with an intensity of faith of which we find no trace in Ecclesiastes. Neither, again, have we in that book any indication of the strong patriotic feeling to which the Maccabean struggles gave rise.

The testimonies that we have produced as to the use of the Book of Kohéleth entitle us to say that it must have been composed more than two centuries before Christ. The absence of documentary evidence leaves still some centuries between the age of Solomon and the date we have named, for our choice among which we have no guide except what inferences we can draw from the book itself. But the importance of placing a lower limit on the date of the book is that it controls speculations founded on the character of its Hebrew. This has so many affinities with Talmudical Hebrew that some scholars have attempted to bring down the date almost to our Lord’s time. The evidence as to the use of the book for a couple of centuries before that time shows that a certain reserve must be used in relying on the argument from language. A kindred argument has been built on the character of the Greek translation. At the beginning of the second century of our era, a Jew named Aquila published a new translation of the Old Testament, the chief characteristic of which was slavish literalness, even to the violation of Greek idiom. In particular he thought it necessary to represent by a Greek preposition a Hebrew particle which, as being a mere sign of the accusative case, previous versions had properly left untranslated. This peculiarity is found in the now extant Greek translation of Ecclesiastes. Yet the conclusion to which we are tempted, that this translation is the work of Aquila, is contradicted by the fact that a different translation, under the name of Aquila, was known to Origen. No proof being possible that the peculiarity in question was an invention of Aquila’s, it would be rash to conclude, as some have done, that Kohéleth was not translated into Greek until his time. Nor can we even say with any certainty that the present Greek text has been interpolated from Aquila’s translation. But we may, at least, add this to the presumptions against the Solomonic authorship; for if at the time the LXX. translation was made this book was regarded as Solomon’s, it seems likely that we should now have a Greek translation of it not differing in character from that of the Book of Proverbs.

It may be stated here that there are some passages in the book which, notwithstanding all that commentators have done to explain them, remain so obscure that there is reason to suspect the difficulty arises from corruption in the Hebrew text. But the remedy of critical conjecture is so precarious that in this Commentary no attempt has been made to resort to it, and it has been preferred to confess inability to give any explanation commending itself as perfectly satisfactory.

The Book of Ecclesiastes contains some internal evidence of having been written in Palestine; not, like the Book of Wisdom, in Egypt. Thus (Ecclesiastes 11:3; Ecclesiastes 12:2) the clouds full of rain are spoken of. The writer lives near the Temple (Ecclesiastes 5:1); and “the city” (Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 10:15) is, to all appearance, Jerusalem. It may be doubted, however, whether, if the writer’s residence had been exclusively in Palestine, he could have gained that familiarity with royal courts which he more than once exhibits.

Great as has been the diversity of opinion as to the authorship and date of the Book of Ecclesiastes, there has been fully as great as to its interpretation, and even as to its whole plan and object. We may set aside one system of interpretation, although it found favour in the Christian Church for centuries: that, namely, in which this Old Testament book was made to teach New Testament doctrine from one end to the other, and the most unlikely verses were forced to prophesy of Christ.[22] We need not inquire whether, when this style of comment was introduced, anything more was meant than to make the words of the Old Testament book the occasion for edifying practical observations; it is only for such purpose that comment of this sort would be likely to be used now. But even interpreters who, looking at the book solely from its human side, set themselves to discover the intention with which the author wrote, are found unable to agree in any conclusion. The cause of this disagreement is that different utterances of the book unquestionably contradict each other, and in such wise as to leave room for controversy which of them express the author’s real sentiments. Indeed. we are told that it was on account of these self-contradictions that the authority of the book was impugned in the Rabbinical schools. The following are a few of the examples of these contradictions given by a Jewish commentator: that in one place (Ecclesiastes 8:15) Kohéleth praises mirth, in another (Ecclesiastes 2:2) he condemns it as unprofitable; that in one place (Ecclesiastes 2:13) he owns that wisdom has an advantage over folly, in another (Ecclesiastes 2:13) he denies that there is any; the state of the dead is said to be better than that of the living (Ecclesiastes 4:2), and the contrary (Ecclesiastes 9:4). We are told (Ecclesiastes 8:12) that it shall be well with those who fear God, and (Ecclesiastes 7:13) that it shall not be well with the wicked, and that he shall not prolong his days; and yet (Ecclesiastes 7:15) that there is a wicked man who does prolong his days in his wickedness, and (Ecclesiastes 8:14) that there are wicked to whom it happens according to the doings of the righteous.

[22] For example, “There is one alone, and there is not a second, yet he hath neither child nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labour, neither is his eye satisfied with riches: neither saith he, For whom do I labour and bereave my soul of good?” This is the Saviour who descended alone, and without companion, to save the world. There is no end of His labour in bearing our sins and grievances for us; His eye will not be satisfied with riches while He ever desires our salvation. “If two lie together, then they have heat; but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” If one should sleep—that is, be dissolved in death—and have Christ with him, he is warmed. and comes to life again. If the devil come with attacks too strong for a man to bear alone, he nevertheless will stand who has Christ for his companion. And if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come, that triple cord is not easily broken, &c

Dismissing, however, discrepancies between what may be regarded as incidental statements, we find that the book has suggested opposite answers to the inquiry, what was the main lesson which the author designed to teach? He defines his subject plainly enough in the words which strike the key-note of his work, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” His theme is the nothingness of human life; the unsatisfying character of its pleasures, the profitless result of its pursuits, the uncertainty whether the best human. prudence can gain any real happiness. But as to the practical conclusion which the writer means to recommend, his readers have formed different opinions, Some have imagined that he inculcates an ascetic withdrawal from earthly pleasures, which have been proved to be worthless; some, that he gives his disciples the Epicurean counsel to enjoy life while they can, not knowing how long its happiness may last; some, that he teaches a sceptical despair of regulating conduct in a world where all is ruled by chance or fate. And we find ourselves perplexed by different answers when we inquire what solution the writer offers of the difficulties arising from the imperfections of the retribution which conduct meets in this world. He has complained that “all things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.” Does he then remove the difficulty by the Christian solution that there will be a future life in which the imperfections of earthly retribution will be adjusted, and the Divine justice fully vindicated? There are passages which would seem to indicate that Kohéleth had no such idea, and that he regarded the end of this mortal existence as the absolute end of all our joys and sorrows. “That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath, so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast, for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust and all turn to dust again.” “The living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten, also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun.” “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.” Yet the passages here cited are balanced by another chain of passages running through the book, professing the same belief in future judgment and retribution, which is declared in the formal conclusion at the end. “I said in my heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” “Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow, because he feareth not before God.” “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” And the conclusion of the whole is, “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.” It has been proposed to account for these seeming inconsistencies by the hypothesis that the book represents, not the sentiments of a single person, but the debates of an “assembly”; yet I cannot regard any attempt as successful which has been made to throw the book into the form of a dialogue, in which different speakers take their part. But the form of the book suggests that its contradictory utterances express the sentiments, not of different persons, but of the same person at different times, and that as Kohéleth relates his various experiments of life, so he tells also the opinions which he formed, but which subsequent experience compelled him to modify. According to this view we should regard the conclusion last stated (Ecclesiastes 12:14) as that in which he finally acquiesced, and which overrules any previous expressions that may be inconsistent with it.

Some have attempted to evade the argument drawn from the last verse by the suggestion that in this passage only a judgment in this life is referred to. But we have no experience in this life of a judgment in which every secret thing is brought to light and receives retribution, and the whole tenor of the book forbids us to imagine that the author asserts that anything of the kind takes place here. The only other way of escaping the necessity of interpreting the book by its formal conclusion, is to assert that the epilogue is not by the same author as the rest of the book. The assertion is easy to make, but difficult to prove. There would be justification for it if the doctrine of the epilogue contradicted that of the rest of the book; but in truth the epilogue does no more than give emphatic adoption to a solution which has been indicated already. Delitzsch (pp. 206, 430, Eng. Trans.) has found in the language of the epilogue, indications that it proceeded from the same author as the rest of the book, far more numerous than one could beforehand have expected to find in so short a passage. Certain it is that when the authority of the book was discussed in the Jewish schools, no doubt was entertained that the epilogue formed an integral part of the book; for it was the orthodoxy of the conclusion which banished doubts raised by some earlier passages. At the time, then, of these discussions the epilogue must have been of immemorial antiquity; and, if added by a different hand, then at the time when it was added the book of Kohéleth must have been of undisputed authority, and we may reasonably believe must have been received as Solomon’s. For the hypothesis assumes that the sentiments of the author of the epilogue are at variance with those of the writer of the book itself; and there would have been nothing to prevent him from doing as later Jews were tempted to do, and rejecting the book altogether, if its traditional authority at the time had not been too strong for him; and how, in that case, he could have succeeded in getting universal acceptance for his addition, as if it had been part of the original tradition, is not easy to explain.

To many a modern Christian reader it will seem strange that it should be a question admitting of debate whether or not a canonical Old Testament book recognises the doctrine of a future life.

To such a reader we offer the following considerations:—

(1) In the dispensation of God’s providence, the communication of religious knowledge has been progressive, like “light shining more and more unto the perfect day.” Prophets of old earnestly desired to look into those things which are exposed to the view of the least in the Gospel dispensation, and searched diligently into the meaning of dark sayings of their own which the light of subsequent revelations enables us with ease to interpret (1Peter 1:10).

(2) If we admit this principle, we have no cause for surprise if we find in the earlier portions of God’s revelation intimations rather than express declarations of those great truths which in the fulness of time were plainly disclosed. Each sacred writer was only empowered to communicate those truths which God had revealed to him. Each could say, “The word that God putteth in my mouth, that will I speak.” We do not derogate from the inspiration of any Old Testament writer if we refuse to force his words so as to make them convey a more express declaration of Gospel truth than their natural meaning suggests.

(3) Now, it must be owned that the doctrine of future retribution did not occupy in the minds of pious men of the old dispensation the same place among unquestioned truths which it holds in our own convictions. The proof of this assertion does not depend so much on particular texts as on the fact that the stumbling- block which, more than any other speculative difficulty, caused the feet of those of old time well-nigh to slip, was that “they were envious of the foolish when they saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Many of the psalms, as well as portions of the Book of Job, resemble the Book of Ecclesiastes in exhibiting the perplexity caused to thoughtful men of old by the frequent distribution of temporal happiness and misery, apparently, irrespective of the deserts of men, or even contrary to what we conceive it ought to be. We hear nothing of these difficulties in the New Testament. The disciples saw their enemies in possession of temporal power, and themselves at the extreme of earthly wretchedness, yet they never dreamed of questioning the ways of God’s providence, but counted that their “light affliction, which was but for a moment,” was working for them a “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” But in the case of the Old Testament writers referred to, the conclusion that it shall surely in the end be well with them that fear the Lord, is one which they seem to have arrived at by an effort of faith in the power, goodness, and justice of God as generally known to them, rather than on any more distinct revelation of the way in which He will make His cause to triumph.

(4) If to the reader it seem strange that the Bible should contain a detailed record of perplexities which a later revelation has removed, let him remember that the Bible contains an inspired account of the external history of God’s people, including the story of the sins and follies of many of them, and that we have all cause to own that this history contains valuable lessons for our learning. In an age when the trials of many are from speculative difficulties more than from the allurements of vice, can we pronounce it unfitting that the sacred volume should also contain for our instruction an inspired account of the internal history of a pious man of old, should make known to us his doubts and difficulties, and let us see how, apparently without being in possession of any such satisfactory solution of his difficulties as could content his intellect, his heart taught him that surely it shall be well with them that fear God, and that the conclusion of the whole matter is that to fear God and keep His commandments is the whole duty of man? The contradictions of the Book of Ecclesiastes spring out of the conflict between the writer’s faith and his experience—his faith that the world is ordered by God, and his experience that events do not fall out as he would have expected God should have ordered them. He seems to have lived in that darkest hour, the hour before dawn, when, through brooding on the imperfections of earthly retribution, many minds were prepared for the reception of the fuller revelation that was coming. The writer of Ecclesiastes takes a gloomy view of life, but he is at the opposite pole from the atheistic pessimists of modern times. The whole book is pervaded by belief in the God who rules the world, though it may be in a way incomprehensible to man.

It is plain, then, what instruction we may derive from the inspired history of the mental struggles of one perplexed by difficulties of which we know the solution. We, too, have our intellectual difficulties, and we must sometimes decide to hold fast to certain great truths of faith, notwithstanding objections which we do not know how satisfactorily to remove. In such a case we may be comforted by the study of the history of one who, in old time, passed through a similar experience, and by observing how, while his understanding was wandering perplexed, his heart by a shorter way arrived at the goal.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
(1) The words.—The Book of Nehemiah begins similarly; so do the prophecies of Jeremiah and Amos, and of Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30, 31)

The Preacher.—Rather, convener (see Introduction). This word (Kohéleth) occurs in this book, Ecclesiastes 1:1-2; Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 7:27, where, according to our present text, it is joined with a feminine, being elsewhere used with a masculine; and Ecclesiastes 12:8-10, having the article in the first of these passages, and there only, being elsewhere used as a proper name.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(2) Vanity of vanities.—This verse strikes the key-note of the whole work. In using this expression we mean to indicate the opinion that the unity of the book is rather that of a musical composition than of a philosophical treatise. A leading theme is given out and followed for a time. Episodes are introduced, not perhaps logically connected with the original subject, but treated in harmony with it, and leading back to the original theme which is never lost sight of, and with which the composition comes to a close (Ecclesiastes 12:8).

The word translated “vanity” (which occurs thirty-seven times in this book, and only thirty-three times in all the rest of the Old Testament) in its primary meaning denotes breath or vapour, and is so translated here in some of the Greek versions (comp. James 4:4); so in Isaiah 57:13. It is the same word as the proper name Abel, on which see Note on Genesis 4:2. It is frequently applied in Scripture to the follies of heathenism (Jeremiah 14:22, &c), and also to the whole estate of men (Psalm 39:5-6; Psalm 62:9; Psalm 144:4). The translation “vanityis that of the LXX. We may reasonably believe that St. Paul (Romans 8:20) had this key-note of Ecclesiastes in his mind.

“Vanity of vanities” is a common Hebrew superlative, as in the phrases “Heaven of heavens,” “Song of songs,” “Holy of holies,” “Lamentation of lamentations” (Micah 2:4, margin).

Saith the Preacher.—Heb., said. The Hebrew constantly employs the preterite when English usage requires the present or perfect. In the case of a message the point of time contemplated in Hebrew is that of the giving, not the delivery, of the message. So “Thus said Benhadad,” “Thus said the Lord” (1Kings 20:2; 1Kings 20:5; 1Kings 20:13 and passim) are rightly translated by the present in our version. In the present case this formula is one which might conceivably be employed if the words of Kohéleth were written down by himself; yet it certainly rather suggests that we have here these words as written down by another.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
(3-11) Man is perpetually toiling, yet of all his toil there remains no abiding result. The natural world exhibits a spectacle of unceasing activity, with no real progress. The sun, the winds, the waters, are all in motion, yet they do but run a round, and nothing comes of it.

(3) What profit.—The Hebrew word occurs ten times in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:13; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:9; Ecclesiastes 5:16; Ecclesiastes 7:12; Ecclesiastes 10:10-11) and nowhere else in the Old Testament, but is common in post-Biblical Hebrew. The oft-recurring phrase “under the sun” is a peculiarity of this book. In other books we have “under heaven.”

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
(4) Comp. Ecclesiasticus 14:19.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
(5) Hasteth.—Heb., panteth. The word is used of eager desire (Job 7:2; Psalm 119:131).

Where he arose.—Better, there to rise again.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
(6) The order of the Hebrew words permits the first clause, “going towards the south and returning towards the north,” to be understood in continuation of the description of the movements of the sun, and so some interpreters have taken them, but probably erroneously. The verse gains in liveliness if more literally rendered, “going towards the south and circling towards the north, circling, circling goes the wind, and to its circles the wind returns.”

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
(7) Whence the rivers come.—Better, whither the rivers go. (Comp. Ecclesiasticus 40:11.)

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
(8) This verse is capable of another translation which would give the sense “other instances of the same kind might be mentioned, but they are so numerous that it would be wearisome to recount them,” We abide by the rendering of our version.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
(9) No new thing.—Contrast Jeremiah 31:22; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 65:17. Justin Martyr (Apol. i. 57) has what looks like a reminiscence of this verse; but we cannot rely on it to prove his acquaintance with the book, the same idea being found in Grecian philosophy.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
(10) Of old time.—The Hebrew word here is peculiar to Ecclesiastes, where it occurs eight times (Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 3:15; Ecclesiastes 4:2; Ecclesiastes 6:10; Ecclesiastes 9:6-7), but is common in later Hebrew.

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
(11) If anything appears new, this is only because its previous occurrence has been forgotten. So likewise will those of this generation be forgotten by those who succeed them.

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.

(12) Having in the introductory verses stated the argument of the treatise, the writer proceeds to prove what he has asserted as to the vanity of earthly pursuits, by relating the failures of one who might be expected, if any one could, to bring such pursuits to a satisfactory result. Solomon, in this book called Kohéleth, pre-eminent among Jewish sovereigns as well for wisdom as for temporal prosperity, speaking in the first person, tells how, with all his advantages, he could secure in this life no lasting or satisfying happiness. He relates first how he found no satisfaction from an enlightened survey of human life. He found (Ecclesiastes 1:14) that it presented a scene of laborious exertion empty of profitable results. His researches (Ecclesiastes 1:15) only brought to light errors and defects which it was impossible to remedy; so that (Ecclesiastes 1:18) the more thought a man bestowed on the subject, the greater his grief. On the name Kohéleth, and the phrase “was king,” see Introduction.

Over Israel.—King of Israel is the usual phrase in the earlier books, but there are examples of that here employed (1Samuel 15:26; 2Samuel 19:23; 1Kings 11:37).

And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
(13) Gave my heart.—The phrase occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16) and often elsewhere. (See Daniel 10:12; 2Chronicles 11:16, &c) The heart among the Hebrews is regarded as the seat, not merely of the feelings, but of the intellectual faculties, and so the word is constantly used in what follows. “I gave my heart” is the same as “I applied my mind.”

To seek.—Deuteronomy 13:14; Leviticus 10:16.

Search out.—Numbers 14:36; Numbers 14:38; Ecclesiastes 7:25.

Travail.—The word occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:10; Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:3; Ecclesiastes 5:14; Ecclesiastes 8:16) but no-where else in the Old Testament, though kindred forms are common. The word itself is common in Rabbinical Hebrew, in the sense of business.

“To afflict them” (margin). This is too strong a translation; better, to travail therein.

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
(14) Vexation.—The word occurs only in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:6; Ecclesiastes 6:9). The A. V. translation, “vexation of spirit,” is difficult to justify. Very nearly the same phrase occurs in Hosea 12:1, and is there translated “feeding on wind,” for in Hebrew, as in some other languages, the name for “spirit” primarily denotes breath or wind. Accordingly many interpreters understand the phrase of the text “feeding on wind” (see Isaiah 44:20). The same root, however, which means to “feast on a thing,” has the secondary meaning to “delight in a thing,” and so the corresponding noun in Chaldee comes to mean “pleasure” or “will.” (Comp. Ezra 5:17; Ezra 7:18.) Accordingly the LXX. and many modern interpreters understand the phrase of the text “effort after wind.”

That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
(15) Made straight.—The verb occurs only in this book (Ecclesiastes 7:13; Ecclesiastes 12:9, “set in order”) and in Rabbinical Hebrew. So likewise “that which is wanting” is peculiar to this passage, and to later Hebrew.

I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
(16) Wisdom and knowledge.—Isaiah 30:6; Romans 11:33.

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
(17) Madness and folly are words we should not expect to find in this context, and accordingly some interpreters have attempted by variations of reading to substitute for them words of the same nature as “wisdom and knowledge,” but see Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 7:25. Taking the text as it stands, it means to know wisdom and knowledge fully by a study of their contraries. The word for “madness” is peculiar to this book, but the corresponding verb occurs frequently in other books.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
(18) Grief.—Irritation.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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