Ecclesiastes 1
Pulpit Commentary
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Verse 1. - The words of the Preacher, the son of David, King in Jerusalem; Septuagint, "King of Israel in Jerusalem" (comp. ver. 12). The word rendered "Preacher" is Koheleth, a feminine noun formed from a verb kalal, "to call" (see Introduction, § 1), and perhaps better rendered" Convener" or "Debater." It is found nowhere else but in this book, where it occurs three times in this chapter (vers. 1, 2, 12), three times in Ecclesiastes 12:8, 9, 10, and once in Ecclesiastes 7:27. In all but one instance (viz. Ecclesiastes 12:8) it is used without the article, as a proper name. Jerome, in his commentary, translates it, 'Continuator,' in his version 'Ecclesiastes.' It would seem to denote one who gathered around him a congregation in order to instruct them in Divine lore. The feminine form is explained in various ways. Either it is used abstractedly, as the designation of an office, which it seems not to be; or it is formed as some other words which are found with a feminine termination, though denoting the names of men, indicating, as Gesenius notes (§ 107, 3. 100.), a high degree of activity in the possessor of the particular quality signified by the stem; e.g. Alemeth, Azmaveth (1 Chronicles 8:36; 1 Chronicles 9:42), Pochereth (Ezra 2:57), Sophereth (Nehemiah 7:57); or, as is most probable, the writer desired to identify Koheleth with Wisdom, though it must be observed that the personality of the author often appears, as in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18; Ecclesiastes 7:23, etc.; the role of Wisdom being for the nonce forgotten. The word "king" in the title is shown by the accentuation to be in apposition to "Koheleth" not to "David;" and there can be no doubt that the description is intended to denote Solomon, though his name is nowhere actually given, as it is in the two other works ascribed to him (Proverbs 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1). Other intimations of the assumption of Solomon's personality are found in Ecclesiastes 1:12, "I Koheleth was king," etc.; so in describing his consummate wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 16; Ecclesiastes 2:15; comp. 1 Kings 3:12; 1 Kings 5:12), and in his being the author of many proverbs (Ecclesiastes 12:9; comp. 1 Kings 4:32) - accomplishments which are not noted in the case of any other of David's descendants. Also the picture of luxury and magnificence presented in Ecclesiastes 2. suits no Jewish monarch but Solomon. The origin of the name applied to him may probably be traced to the historical fact mentioned in 1 Kings 8:55, etc., where Solomon gathers all Israel together to the dedication of the temple, and utters the remarkable prayer which contained blessing and teaching and exhortation. As we have shown in the Introduction (§ 2), the assumption of the name is a mere literary device to give weight and importance to the treatise to which it appertains. The term, "King in Jerusalem," or, as in ver. 12, "King over Israel in Jerusalem," is unique, and occurs nowhere else in Scripture. David is said to have reigned in Jerusalem, when this seat of government is spoken of in contrast with that at Hebron (2 Samuel 5:5), and the same expression is used of Solomon, Rehoboam, and others (1 Kings 11:42; 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 15:2, 10); and the phrase probably denotes a time when the government had become divided, and Israel had a different capital from Judah.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Verses 2-11. - PROLOGUE. The vanity of all human and mundane things, and the oppressive monotony of their continued recurrence. Verse 2. - Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (comp. Ecclesiastes 12:8). "Vanity" is hebel, which means "breath," and is used metaphorically of anything transitory, frail, unsatisfying. We have it in the proper name Abel, an appropriate designation of the youth whose life was cut short by a brother's murderous hand. "Vanity of vanities," like "heaven of heavens" (1 Kings 8:27), "song of songs" (Song of Solomon 1:1), etc., is equivalent to a superlative, "most utterly vain." It is here an exclamation, and is to be regarded as the key-note of the whole subsequent treatise, which is merely the development of this text. Septuagint, ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων; other Greek translators, ἀτμὶς ἀτμίδων, "vapor of vapors." For "saith" the Vulgate gives dixit; the Septuagint, εϊπεν; but as there is no reference to any previous utterance of the Preacher, the present is more suitable here. In affirming that "all is vanity," the writer is referring to human and mundane things, and directs not his view beyond such phenomena. Such reflection is common in sacred and profane writings alike; such experience is universal (comp. Genesis 47:9; Psalm 39:5-7; Psalm 90:3-10; James 3:14). "Pulvis et umbra sumus," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4:7. 16. "O curas hominum! O quantum est in rebus inane!" (Persius, 'Sat.,' 1:1). If Dean Plumptre is correct in contending that the Book of Wisdom was written to rectify the deductions which might be drawn from Koheleth, we may contrast the caution of the apocryphal writer, who predicates vanity, not of all things, but only of the hope of the ungodly, which he likens to dust, froth, and smoke (see Wisd. 2:1, etc.; 5:14). St. Paul (Romans 8:20) seems to have had Ecclesiastes in mind when he spoke of the creation being subjected to vanity (τῇ ματαιότητι), as a consequence of the fall of man, not to be remedied till the final restitution of all things. "But a man will say, If all things are vain and vanity, wherefore were they made? If they are God's works, how are they vain? But it is not the works of God which he calls vain. God forbid! The heaven is not vain; the earth is not vain: God forbid! Nor the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor our own body. No; all these are very good. But what is vain? Man's works, pomp, and vain-glory. These came not from the hand of God, but are of our own creating. And they are vain because they have no useful end That is called vain which is expected indeed to possess value, yet possesses it not; that which men call empty, as when they speak of 'empty hopes,' and that which is fruitless. And generally that is called vain which is of no use. Let us see, then, whether all human things are not of this sort" (St. Chrysostom, 'Hem. 12. in Ephes.').
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
Verse 3. - What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? Here begins the elucidation of the fruitlessness of man's ceaseless activity. The word rendered "profit" (yithron) is found only in this book, where it occurs frequently. It means "that which remains over, advantage," περισσεία, as the LXX. translates it. As the verb and the substantive are cognate in the following words, they are better rendered, in all his labor wherein he laboreth. So Euripides ('Androm,' 134) has, Τί μόχον μοχθεῖς, and ('And. Fragm.,' 7:4), Τοῖς μοχθοῦσι μόχθους εὐτυχῶς συνεκπόνει. Man is Adam, the natural man, unenlightened by the grace of God. Under the sun is an expression peculiar to this book (comp. vers. 9, 14; Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17, etc.), but is not intended to contrast this present with a future life; it merely refers to what we call sublunary matters. The phrase is often tact with in the Greek poets. Eurip., 'Alcest.,' 151 -

Γυνή τ ἀρίστη τῶν ὑφ ἡλίῳ μακρῷ
"By far the best of all beneath the sun." Homer, 'Iliad,' 4:44 -

Αι{ γὰρ ὑπ ἠελίῳ τε καὶ οὐρανῷ ἀστερόεντι
Ναιετάουσι πόληες ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων.
"Of all the cities occupied by man
Beneath the sun and starry cope of heaven."

(Cowper.) Theognis, 'Parcem.,' 167 -

Ὄλβιος οὐδεὶς
Ἀνθρώπων ὁπόσους ἠέλιος καθορᾷ
"No mortal man
On whom the sun looks down is wholly blest."
In an analogous sense we find in other passages of Scripture the terms "under heaven" (ver. 13; Ecclesiastes 2:3; Exodus 17:14; Luke 17:24) and "upon the earth" (Ecclesiastes 8:14, 16; Genesis 8:17). The interrogative form of the verse conveys a strong negative (comp. Ecclesiastes 6:8), like the Lord's word in Matthew 16:26, "What shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" The epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:13) furnishes a reply to the desponding inquiry.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
Verse 4. - One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. The translation rather weakens the force of the original, which is, a generation goeth, and a generation cometh. Man is only a pilgrim on earth; he soon passes away, and his place is occupied by others. Parallelisms of this sentiment will occur to every reader. Thus Ben-Sira, "All flesh waxeth old as a garment: for the covenant from the beginning is, Thou shalt die the death. As of the green leaves on a thick tree, some fall and some grow; so is the generation of flesh and blood, one cometh to an end, and another is born. Every work rotteth and consumeth away, and the worker thereof shall go withal" (Ecclus. 14:17, etc.; comp. Job 10:21; Psalm 39:13). The famous passage in Homer, 'Iliad,' 6:146, etc., is thus rendered by Lord Derby -

"The race of man is as the race of leaves:
Of leaves, one generation by the wind
Is scattered on the earth; another soon
In spring's luxuriant verdure bursts to light.
So with our race: these flourish, those decay."
(Comp. ibid., 21:464, etc.; Horace, 'Ars Poet.,' 60.) But (and) the earth abideth forever. While the constant succession of generations of men goes on, the earth remains unchanged and immovable. If men were as permanent as is their dwelling-place, their labors might profit; but as things are, the painful contrast between the two makes itself felt. The term, "for ever," like the Greek εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, does not necessarily imply eternity, but often denotes limited or conditioned duration, as when the slave is engaged to serve his master "for ever" (Exodus 21:6), or the hills are called "everlasting" (Genesis 49:26). This verse gives one instance of growth and decay in contrast with insensate continuance. The following verses give further examples.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
Verse 5. - The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down. The sun is another instance of ever-recurring change in the face of an enduring sameness, rising and setting day-by-day, and resting never. The legendary 'Life of Abram' relates how, having been hidden for some years in a cave in order to escape the search of Nimrod, when he emerged from his concealment, and for the first time beheld heaven and earth, he began to inquire who was the Creator of the wonders around him. When the sun arose and flooded the scene with its glorious light, he at once concluded that that bright orb must be the creative Deity, and offered his prayers to it all day long. But when it sank in darkness, he repented of his illusion, being persuaded that the sun could not have made the world and be itself subject to extinction (see 'Abraham: his Life and Times,' p. 12). And hasteth to his place where he arose; literally, and panteth (equivalent to hasteth, longeth to go) to its place arising there; i.e. the sun, sinking in the west, eagerly during the night returns to the east, duly to rise there in the morning. The "place" is the region of reappearance. The Septuagint gives, "The sun arises, and the sun sets, and draws (ἕλκει) unto its place;" and then carries the idea into the following verse: "Arising there, it proceedeth southward," etc. The Vulgate supports the rendering; but there is no doubt that the Authorized Version gives substantially the sense of the Hebrew text as accentuated. The verb שׁאפ (shaaph), as Delitzsch shows, implies "punting," not from fatigue, but in eager pursuit of something; and all notions of panting steeds or morning exhalations are quite foreign from the conception of the passage. The notion which Koheleth desires to convey is that the sun makes no real progress; its eager punting merely brings it to the old place, there to recommence its monotonous routine. Rosenmüller quotes Catullus, 'Carm.,' 5:4-6, on which, Doering cites Lotich., 'Eleg.,' 3:7. 23 -

"Ergo ubi permensus coelum sol occidit, idem
Purpureo vestit lumine rursus humum;
Nos, ubi decidimus, defuncti muncre vitae,
Urget perpetua hmina nocte sopor."
But our passage does not contrast the revival of the sun every morning with man's eternal sleep in death.
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.
Verse 6. - The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; literally, going towards the south, and circling towards the north. These words, as we have seen above, are referred to the sun by the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac; but it is best to make this verse refer only to the wind - a fresh example of motion continually repeated with no real progress to an end. Thus each verse comprises one subject and idea, ver. 4 being concerned with the earth, ver. 5 with the sun, ver. 6 with the wind, and ver. 7 with the waters. There seems to be no particular force in the naming of north and south, unless it be in contrast to the sun's motion from east to west, mentioned in the preceding verse. The words following show that these two directions are not alone intended. Thus the four quarters are virtually included. It whirleth about continually. The original is more forcible, giving by its very form the idea of weary monotony. The subject is delayed till the last, thus: Going towards the south... circling, circling, goeth the wind; i.e. it blows from all quarters at its own caprice. And the wind returneth again according to his circuits. And on its circlings returneth the wind; it comes back to the point whence it started. The wind, seemingly the freest of all created things, is bound by the same law of immutable changeableness, insensate repetition.
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.
Verse 7. - All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Here is another instance of unvarying operation producing no tangible result. The phenomenon mentioned is often the subject of remark and speculation in classical authors. Commentators cite Aristophanes, 'Clouds,' 1293 -

Αὕτη μὲν (sc. ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται Ἐπιῥῤεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων,

"The sea, though all the rivers flow therein,
Waxeth no greater."
Lucretius attempts to account for the fact,
De Rer. Nat.,' 6:608 -

"Nunc ratio reddunda, augmen quin nesciat sequor.
Principio mare mirantur non reddere majus
Naturam, quo sit tantus decursus aquarum,
Omnia quo veniant ex omni fiumina parte."
This Dr. Busby thus versifies -

"Now in due order, Muse, proceed to show
Why the deep seas no augmentation know,
In ocean that such numerous streams discharge
Their waters, yet that ocean ne'er enlarge," etc.
No particular sea is intended, though some have fancied that the peculiarities of the Dead Sea gave occasion to the thought in the text. Doubtless the idea is general, and such as would strike every observer, however little he might trouble himself with the reason of the circumstance (comp. Ecclus. 40:11). Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again; rather, unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. As Wright and Delitzsch observe, שָׁם after verbs of motion has often the signification of שָׁמָּה; and the idea is that the streams continue to make their way into the sea with ceaseless iteration. The other rendering, which is supported by the Vulgate undo, seems rather to favor the Epicurean poet's solution of the phenomenon. Lucretius, in the passage cited above, explains that the amount of water contributed by rivers is a mere drop in the ocean; that a vast quantity rises in exhalations and is spread far and wide over the earth; and that another large portion finds its way back through the pores of the ground to the bed of the sea. Plumptre considers that this theory was known to Koheleth, and was introduced by him here. The rendering which we have given above would make this opinion untenable; it likewise excludes the idea (though that, indeed, may have been entertained by the Hebrews, Psalm 109:10 and Proverbs 8:28) of the clouds being produced by the sea and feeding the springs. Thus Ecclus. 40:11, "All things that are of the earth do turn to the earth again; and that which is of the waters doth return into the sea."
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
Verse 8. - All things are full of labor. Taking the word dabar in the sense of "ward" (compare the Greek ῤῆμα), the LXX. translates, "All words are wearisome;" i.e. to go through the whole catalogue of such things as those mentioned in the preceding verses would be a laborious and unprofitable task. The Targum and many modern expositors approve this rendering. But besides that, the word yaged implies suffering, not causing, weariness (Deuteronomy 25:18; Job 3:17); the run of the sentence is unnecessarily interrupted by such an assertion, when one is expecting a conclusion from the instances given above. The Vulgate has, cunetse res difficiles. The idea, as Motais has seen, is this - Man's life is constrained by the same law as his surroundings; he goes on his course subject to influences which he cannot control; in spite of his efforts, he can never be independent. This conclusion is developed in succeeding verses. In the present verse the proposition with which it starts is explained by what follows. All things have been the object of much labor; men have elaborately examined everything; yet the result is most unsatisfactory, the end is not reached; words cannot express it, neither eye nor ear can apprehend it. This is the view of St. Jerome, who writes, "Non solum do physicis, sed de ethicis quoque scirc difficile est. Nec sermo valet explicare causas natu-rasque rerum, nec oculus, ut rei poscit dignitas, intueri, nec auris, instituente doctore, ad summam scientiam pervenirc. Si enim nunc 'per speculum videmus in aenigmate; et ex parte cognoscimus, et ex parte prophetamus,' consequenter nec sermo potest explicate quod nescit; nec oculus in quo caecutit, aspiecre; nec auris, de quo dubitat, impleri." Delitzsch, Nowack, Wright, and others render, "All things are in restless activity;" i.e. constant movement pervades the whole world, and yet no visible conclusion is attained. This, however true, does not seem to be the point insisted on by the author, whose intention is, as we have said, to show that man, like nature, is confined to a circle from which he cannot free himself; and though he uses all the powers with, which he is endowed to penetrate the enigma of life and to rise superior to his environments, he is wholly unable to effect anything in these matters. Man cannot utter it. He cannot explain all things. Koheleth does not affirm that man can know nothing, that he can attain to no certitude, that reason will not teach him to apprehend any truth; his contention is that the inner cause and meaning elude his faculties, that his knowledge is concerned only with accidents and externals, and that there is still some depth which his powers cannot fathom. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Use his eight as he may, listen to the sounds around him, attend to the instructions of professed teachers, man makes no real advance in knowledge of the mysteries in which he is involved; the paradox is inexplicable. We have, in Proverbs 27:20, "Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied; and the eyes of man are never satisfied." Plumptre quotes Lucretins's expression (2. 1038)," Fessus satiate videndi." "Remember," says Thomas a Kempis ('De Imitat.,' 1:1.5), "the proverb, that the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. Eudeavour, therefore, to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things, and to transfer thyself to the invisible. For they that follow their sensuality do stain their conscience and lose the grace of God."
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.
Verse 9. - The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be. The LXX. and the Vulgate render the first clauses of the two parts of the verse in both cases interrogatively, thus: "What is that which hath been? The very thing which shall be. And what is that which hath been done? The very thing which shall be done." What has been affirmed of phenomena in the material world is now affirmed of the events of man's life. They move in an analogous circle, whether they are concerned with actions or morals. Plumptre sees here an anticipation or a reproduction of the Stoic doctrine of a recurring cycle of events, such as Viral mentions in his fourth 'Eclogue' -

"Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo," etc. But Koheleth is speaking merely from experience, and is indulging in no philosophical speculations. There is no new thing under the sun. The Vulgate transfers this clause to the next verso, which, indeed, supports the assertion. From classical authors commentators have culled examples of the same thought. Thus Tacitus, 'Annal.,' 3:55, "Nisi forte rebus cunctis inest quidam velut orbis, ut quem ad modum temporum vices, ita morum vertantur." Seneca, 'Epist.,' 24, "Nullius rei finis est, sod in orbem nexa sunt omnia; fugiunt ac sequuntur Omnia transeunt ut revertantur, nihil novi video, nihil novi facio. Fit ali-quando et hujus rei nausea." M. Aurelius, 'Medit.,' 6:37, "He that sees the present has seen all things, both that which has Been from everlasting and that which shall Be in the future. All things are of one birth and one form." Again, 7:1, "There is nothing new; all things are common and quickly over;" 12:26, "Everything that comes to pass was always so coming to pass, and will take place again." Justin Martyr, 'Apol.,' 1:57, has, perhaps, a reminiscence of this passage when he writes, Οὐ γὰρ δεοίκαμεν θάνατον τοῦ πάντως ἀποθανεῖν
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Verse 10. - Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? The writer conceives that objection may be taken to his statement at the end of the preceding verse, so he proceeds to reiterate it in stronger terms. "Thing" is dabar (see on ver. 8). Septuagint, "He who shall speak and say, Behold, this is new," seil. Where is he? Vulgate, "Nothing is new under the sun, nor is any one able to say, Lo! this is fresh." The apparent exceptions to the rule are mistaken inferences. It hath been already of old time, which was before us. In the vast aeons of the past, recorded or unrecorded, the seeming novelty has already been known. The discoveries of earlier time are forgotten, and seem quite new when revived; but closer investigation proves their previous existence.
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.
Verse 11. - There is no remembrance of former things; rather, of former men - per-sons who lived in former times. As things are considered novel only because they had been forgotten, so we men ourselves shall pass away, and be no more remembered. Bailey, 'Festus '-

"Adversity, prosperity, the grave,
Play a round game with friends. On some the world
Hath shot its evil eye, and they are passel
From honor and remembrance; and stare
Is all the mention of their names receives;
And people know no more of them than they know
The shapes of clouds at midnight a year hence."
Neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after; rather, and even of later generations that shall be there will be no remembrance of them with those that shall be in the after-time. Wright quotes Marcus Aurelius, who has much to say on this subject. Thus: cap. 2:17, "Posthumous fame is oblivion;" cap. 3:10, "Every man's life lies all within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain;" cap. 4:33, "Those words which were formerly current and proper are now become obsolete and barbarous. Alas l this is not all: fame tarnishes in time, too, and men grow out of fashion as well as language. Those celebrated names of ancient story am antiquated; those of later date have the same fortune; and those of present celebrity must follow. I speak this of those who have been the wonder of their age, and shined with unusual luster; but as for the rest, they are no sooner dead than forgotten" (comp. Wisd. 2:4). (On the keen desire to live in the memory of posterity, see Ecclus. 37:26 Ecclus. 44:7, etc.)
I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Verse 12 - Ecclesiastes 6:12. - Division. I. PROOF OF THE VANITY OF EARTHLY THINGS FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND GENERAL OBSERVATION. Verses 12-18. - Section 1. Vanity of striving for wisdom and knowledge. Verse 12. - I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. Koheleth relates his own experience as king, in accordance with his assumption of the person of Solomon. The use of the past tense in this verse is regarded by many as strong evidence against the Solomonic authorship of the book. "I have been king" (not "I have become king," as Gratz would translate) is a statement introducing the supposed speaker, not as a reigning monarch, but as one who, in time past, exercised sovereignty. Solomon is represented as speaking from the grave, and recalling the past for the instruction of his auditors. In a similar manner, the author of the Book of Wisdom (8:1-13) speaks in his impersonation of Solomon. That king himself, who reigned without interruption to his death, could not have spoken of himself in the terms used here. He lost neither his throne nor his power; and, therefore, the expression cannot be paralleled (as Mr. Bullock suggests) by the complaint of Louis XIV., unsuccessful in war and weary of rule, "When I was king." Solomon redivivus is introduced to give weight to the succeeding experiences. Here is one who had every and the most favorable opportunity of seeing the best side of things; and yet his testimony is that all is vanity. In the acquisition of wisdom, the contrast between the advantage of learned leisure and the interruptions of a laborious life is set forth in Ecclus. 38:24, etc. King over Israel. The expression indicates a time before the division of the kingdom. We have it in 1 Samuel 15:26, and occasionally elsewhere. The usual phrase is "King of Israel." (For in Jerusalem, see on ver. 1.)
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.
Verse 13. - I gave my heart (ver. 17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Daniel 10:12). The heart, in the Hebrew conception, was the seat, not of the affections only, but of the understanding and intellectual faculties generally. So the expression here is equivalent to "I applied my mind." To seek and search out. The two words are not synonymous. The former verb (דָּרַשׁ, darash) implies penetrating into the depth of an object before one; the other word (תּוּר, tur) taking a comprehensive survey of matters further away; so that two methods and scopes of investigation are signified. By wisdom; ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ (Septuagint). Wisdom was the means or instrument by which he carried on his researches, which were directed, not merely to the collecting of facts, but to investigating the causes and conditions of things. Concerning all things that are done under heaven; i.e. men's actions and conduct, political, social, and private life. We have "under the sun" in ver. 9, and again in ver. 14. Here there is no question of physical matters, the phenomena of the material world, but only of human circumstances and interests. This sore travail (rather, this is a sore travail that) God hath given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. The word rendered "travail" (עִנְיָן, inyan) occurs often in this book (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:23, 26, etc.), and nowhere else in the Old Testament. The same root is found in the word translated "exercised;" hence Wright has, "It is a woeful exercise which God has given to the sons of men wherewith to exercise themselves." If we keep to the word "travail," we may render, "to travail therein." It implies distracting business, engrossing occupation. Septuagint, περισπασμόν; Vulgate, occupationem. Man feels himself constrained to make this laborious investigation, yet the result is most unsatisfactory, as the next verse shows. "God" is here Elohim, and so throughout the book, the name Jehovah (the God of the covenant, the God of Israel) never once occurring. Those who regard Solomon as the author of the book account for this on the plea that the king, in his latest years, reflecting sadly on his backsliding and fall, shrank from uttering with his polluted lips the adorable Name once so often used with filial reverence and beloved. But the true reason is found in the design of Koheleth, which was to set forth, not so much Israel's position under the covenant, as the condition of man in the face of the God of nature. The idiosyncrasies and peculiar features of the chosen people are not the subject of his essay; he deals with a wider sphere; his theme is man in his relation to Divine providence; and for this power he uses that name, common alike to the true and false religions, Elohim, applied to the Supreme Being by believers and idolaters.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Verse 14. - Here is the result of this examination of human actions. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun. In his varied experience nothing had escaped his notice. And behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit; reuth ruach; afflictio spiritus (Vulgate); προαίρεσις πνεύματος, "choice of spirit," or, "wind" (Septuagint); νομὴ ἀνέμου (Aquila and Theodotion); βοσκήσις ἀνέμου, "feeding on wind" (Symmachus). This last translation, or "striving after wind," seems to be most agreeable to the etymology of the word רְעוּת, which, except in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17, 26, etc.), occurs elsewhere only in the Chaldee portion of Ezra (Ezra 5:17; Ezra 7:18). Whichever sense is taken, the import is much the same. What is implied is the unsubstantial and unsatisfying nature of human labors and endeavors. Many compare Hosea 12:2, "Ephraim feedeth on wind," and Isaiah 44:20, "He feedeth on ashes." In contrast, perhaps, to this constantly recurring complaint, the author of the Book of Wisdom teaches that murmuring is unprofitable and blasphemous (Wisd. 1:11). Bailey, in 'Festus,' sings -

"Of all life's aims, what's worth the thought we waste on't?
How mean, how miserable, seems every care!
How doubtful, too, the system of the mind!
And then the ceaseless, changeless, hopeless round
Of weariness, and heartlessness, and woe,
And vice, and vanity! Yet these make life -
The life, at least, I witness, if not feel
No matter, we are immortal."
That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
Verse 15. - That which is crooked cannot be made straight. This is intended as a confirmation of ver. 14. By the utmost exercise of his powers and faculties man cannot change the course of events; he is constantly met by anomalies which he can neither explain nor rectify (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:13). The above is probably a proverbial saying. Knobel quotes Suidas: Χύλον ἀγκύλον οὐδέποτ ὀρθόν. The Vulgate takes the whole maxim as applying only to morals: "Perverse men are hardly corrected, and the number of tools is infinite." So too the Syriac and Targum. The Septuagint rightly as the Authorized Version. The writer is not referring merely to man's sins and delinquencies, but to the perplexities in which he finds himself involved, and extrication from which is impracticable. That which is wanting cannot be numbered. The word חֶסְדון, "loss, defect," is ἅπαξ λεγόμενον in the Old Testament. We cannot reckon where there is nothing to count; no skill in arithmetic will avail to make up for a substantial deficit. So nothing man can do is able to remedy the anomalies by which he is surrounded, or to supply the defects which are pressed upon his notice.
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.
Verse 16. - Koheleth now arrives at his first conclusion, that wisdom is vanity. I communed with mine own heart. The expression suggests, as it were, an internal dialogue, as the Greek Venetian puts it, Διείλεγμαι ἐγὼ ξὺν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:1, 15). Lo, I am come to great estate. If this be taken by itself, it makes Koheleth speak of his power and majesty first, and of his progress in wisdom afterwards; but it is best to connect it with what follows, and to confine the clause to one idea; thus: "I have obtained great and ever greater wisdom" - I have continually added to my stores of knowledge and experience. Than all they (above all) that have been before me in (over) Jerusalem. Who are the rulers alluded to? Solomon himself was only the second of the Israelite kings who reigned there; of the Canaanite princes who may have made that their capital, we have no knowledge, nor is R likely that Solomon would compare himself with them. The Targum has altered the approved reading, and gives, "Above all the wise men that were in Jerusalem before me." The reading, "in [instead of 'over'] Jerusalem," has indeed some manuscript authority, and is confirmed by the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac, but it is evidently a correction of the text by critics who saw the difficulty of the authorized wording. Motais and others assert that the preposition in the Masoretic text, עַל (all, often means "in," as well as "over," when the reference is to an elevated spot; e.g., Isaiah 38:20; Hosea 11:11. But even granting this, we are still uncertain who are the persons meant. Commentators point to Melchizedek, Adonizedek, and Araunah among rulers, and to Ethan, Heman, Chalcol, and Darda (1 Kings 4:31) among sages. But we know nothing of the wisdom of the former, and there is no tangible reason why the latter should be designated "before me in Jerusalem." Doubtless the words point to a succession of kings who had reigned in Jerusalem, and the writer, involuntarily, perhaps, betrays his assumed character, in relying an excusable anachronism, while giving to the personated monarch a position which could not belong to the historical Solomon. Yea, my heart had great experience of (hath seen abundantly, κατὰ πολύ Venetian) wisdom and knowledge, הַרְבֵה used adverbially qualifies the word before it, "hath seen." The heart, as we have observed (ver. 13), is considered the seat of the intellectual life. In saying that the heart hath seen wisdom, the writer means that his mind has taken it in, apprehended and appropriated it (comp. Ecclesiastes 8:16; Job 4:8). Wisdom and knowledge; chokmah and daath; σοφίαν καὶ γνῶσιν (Septuagint), the former regarding the ethical and practical side, the latter the speculative, which leads to the other (comp. Isaiah 33:6; 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.
Verse 17. - And I gave my heart. He reiterates the expression in order to emphasize his earnestness and energy in the pursuit of wisdom. And knowing, as St. Jerome says, that "contrariis contraria inteiliguntur," he studies the opposite of wisdom, and learns the truth by contrasting it with error. And to know madness and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12). The former word, holeloth (intensive plural), by its etymology points to a confusion of thought, i.e. an unwisdom which deranges all ideas of order and propriety; and folly (hero sikluth), throughout the sapiential books, is identified with vice and wickedness, the contradictory of practical godliness. The LXX. has παραβολὰς καὶ ἐπιστήμην, "parables and knowledge," and some editors have altered the Hebrew text in accordance with this version, which they consider more suitable to the context. But Koheleth's standpoint is quite consistent. To use the words of St. Jerome in his 'Commentary,' "AEqualis studii fuit Salomoni, scire sapientiam et scientiam, et e regione errores et stultitiam, ut in aliis appetendis et aliis declinandis vera ejus sapientia probaretur." On the other hand, Den-Sirs gives a much-needed warning against touching pitch (Ecclus. 13:1), and argues expressly that "the knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom" (Ecclus. 19:22). Plumptre unnecessarily sees in the use of the term" madness 'an echo of the teaching of the Stoics, who regarded men's weaknesses as forms of insanity. The moralist had no need to travel beyond his own experience in order to learn that sin was the acme of unwisdom, a declension from reason which might well be called madness. The subject is handled by Cicero, 'Tusc. Disput.,' 3:4, 5. We are reminded of Horace's expression ('Carm.,' 2:7. 27) -

"Recepto Dulce mihi furere est amico." And Anacreon's (31.), Θέλω θέλω μανῆναι. Thus far we have had Koheleth's secret thoughts - what he communed with his own heart (ver. 16). The result of his studies was most unsatisfying I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit; or, a striving after wind, as ver. 14 Though the word is somewhat different. As such labor is wasted, for man cannot control issues.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
Verse 18. - For in much wisdom is much grief. The more one knows of men's lives, the deeper insight one obtains of their actions and circumstances, the greater is the cause of grief at the incomplete and unsatisfactory nature of all human affairs. He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow; not in others, but in himself. With added experience and more minute examination, the wise man becomes more conscious of his own ignorance and impotence, of the un-sympathizing and uncontrollable course of nature, of the gigantic evils which he is powerless to remedy; this causes his sorrowful confession (ver. 17b). St. Gregory, taking the religious view of the passage, comments, "The more a man begins to know what he has lost the more he begins to bewail the sentence of his corruption, which he has met with" ('Moral.,' 18:65); and, "He that already knows the high state which he does not as yet enjoy is the more grieved for the low condition in which he is yet held" (ibid., 1:34). The statement in our text is paralleled in Ecclus. 21:12, "There is a wisdom which multiplieth bitterness," and contrasted in Wisd. 8:16 with the comfort and pleasure which true wisdom brings.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

Bible Hub
Proverbs 31
Top of Page
Top of Page