Ecclesiastes 3
Pulpit Commentary
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
Verses 1-22. - Section 4. In confirmation of the truth that man's happiness depends upon the will of God, Koheleth proceeds to show how Providence arranges even the minutest concerns; that man can alter nothing, must make the best of things as they are, bear with anomalies, bounding his desires by this present life. Verses 1-8. - The providence of God disposes and arranges every detail of man's life. This proposition is stated first generally, and then worked out in particular by means of antithetical sentences. In Hebrew manuscripts and most printed texts vers. 2-8 are arranged in two parallel columns, so that one "time" always stands under another. A similar arrangement is found in Joshua 12:9, etc., containing the catalogue of the conquered Canaanite kings; and in Esther 9:7, etc., giving the names of Haman's tensions. In the present passage we have fourteen pairs of contrasts, ranging from external circumstances to the inner affections of man's being. Verse 1. - To every thing there is u season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . "Season" and "time" are rendered by the LXX. καιρός and χρόνος. The word for "season" (zeman), denotes a fixed, definite portion of time; while eth, "time," signifies rather the beginning of a period, or is used as a general appellation. The two ideas are sometimes concurrent in the New Testament; e.g., Acts 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1 (comp. also Daniel 2:21, where the Septuagint has καιροὺς καὶ χρόνοις; and Daniel 7:12, where we find the singular καιροῦ καὶ καιροῦ in Theodotion, and χρόνου καὶ καιροῦ in the Septuagint). So in Wisd. 8:8, "wisdom to foreseeth signs and wonders, and the events of seasons and times (ἐκβάσεις καιρῶν καὶ χρόνων)." Every thing refers especially to men's movements and actions, and to what concerns them. Purpose; chephets, originally meaning "delight," "pleasure," in the later Hebrew came to signify "business," "thing," "matter." The proposition is - In human affairs Providence arranges the moment when everything shall happen, the duration of its operation, and the time appropriate thereto. The view of the writer takes in the whole circumstances of men's life from its commencement to its close. But the thought is not, as some have opined, that there is naught but uncertainty, fluctuation, and imperfection in human affairs, nor, as Plumptre conceives, "It is wisdom to do the right thing at the right time, that inopportuneness is the bane of life," for many of the circumstances mentioned, e.g. birth and death, are entirely beyond men's will and control, and the maxim, Καιρὸν γνῶθι, cannot apply to man in such cases. Kobeleth is confirming his assertion, made in the last chapter, that wisdom, wealth, success, happiness, etc., are not in man's hands, that his own efforts can secure none of them - they are distributed at the will of God. He establishes this dictum by entering into details, and showing the ordering of Providence and the supremacy of God in all men's concerns, the most trivial as well as the most important. The Vulgate gives a paraphrase, and not a very exact one, Omnia tempus habeat, et suis spatiis transenat universa sub caelo. Koheleth intimates, without attempting to reconcile, the great crux of man's free-will and God's decree.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
Verse 2. - A time to be born, and a time to die. Throughout the succeeding catalogue marked contrasts are exhibited in pairs, beginning with the entrance and close of life, the rest of the list being occupied with events and circumstances which intervene between those two extremities. The words rendered, "a time to be born," might more naturally mean "a time to bear;" καιρὸς τοῦ τεκεῖν, Septuagint; as the verb is in the infinitive active, which, in this particular verb, is not elsewhere found used in the passive sense, though other verbs are so used sometimes, as in Jeremiah 25:34. In the first case the catalogue commences with the beginning of life; in the second, with the season of full maturity: "Those who at one time give life to others, at another have themselves to yield to the law of death" (Wright). The contrast points to the passive rendering. There is no question of untimely birth or suicide; in the common order of events birth and death have each their appointed season, which comes to pass without man's interference, being directed by a higher law. "It is appointed unto men once to die" (Hebrews 9:27). Koheleth's teaching was perverted by sensualists, as we read in Wisd. 2:2, 3, 5. A time to plant. After speaking of human life it is natural to turn to vegetable life, which runs in parallel lines with man's existence. Thus Job, having intimated the shortness of life and the certainty of death, proceeds to speak of the tree, contrasting its revivifying powers with the hopelessness of man's decay (Job 14:5, etc.). And to pluck up that which is planted. This last operation may refer to the transplanting of trees and shrubs, or to the gathering of the fruits of the earth in order to make room for new agricultural works. But having regard to the opposition in all the members of the series, we should rather consider the "plucking up" as equivalent to destroying, if we plant trees, a time comes when we cut them down, and this is their final cause. Some commentators see in this clause an allusion to the settling and uprooting of kingdoms and nations, as Jeremiah 1:10; Jeremiah 18:9. etc. but this could not have been the idea in Koheleth's mind.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
Verse 3. - A time to kill, and a time to heal. The time to kill might refer to war, only that occurs in ver. 8. Some endeavor to limit the notion to severe surgical operations performed with a view of saving life; but the verb harag does not admit of the meaning "rewound" or" cut." It most probably refers to the execution of criminals, or to the defense of the oppressed; such emergencies and necessities occur providentially without man's prescience. So sickness is a visitation beyond man's control, while it calls into exercise the art of healing, which is a gift of God (see Ecclus. 10:10 Ecclus. 38:1, etc.). A time to break down, and a time to build up. The removal of decaying or unsuitable buildings is meant, and the substitution of new and improved structures. A recollection of Solomon's own extensive architectural works is here introduced.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
Verse 4. - A time to weep, and a time to laugh, grouped naturally with a time to mourn, and a time to dance. The funeral and the wedding, the hired mourners and the guests at the marriage-feast, are set against one another. The first clause intimates the spontaneous manifestation of the feelings of the heart; the second, their formal expression in the performances at funerals and weddings and on other solemn occasions. The contrast is found in the Lord's allusion to the sulky children in the market-place, who would not join their companions' play: "We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented" (Matthew 11:17). Dancing sometimes accompanied religious sere-monies, as when David brought up the ark (2 Samuel 6:14, 16).
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
Verse 5. - A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. There is no question about building or demolishing houses, as that has been already mentioned in ver. 3. Most commentators see an allusion to the practice of marring an enemy's fields by casting stones upon them, as the Israelites did when they invaded Moab (2 Kings 3:19, 25). But this must have been a very abnormal proceeding, and could scarcely be cited as a usual occurrence. Nor is the notion more happy that there is an allusion to the custom of flinging stones or earth into the grave at a burial - a Christian, but not an ancient Jewish practice; this, too, leaves the contrasted "gathering" unexplained. Equally inappropriate is the opinion that the punishment of stoning is meant, or some game played with pebbles. It seems most simple to see herein intimated the operation of clearing a vineyard of stones, as mentioned in Isaiah 5:2; and of collecting materials for making fences, wine-press, tower, etc., and repairing roads. A time to embrace. Those who explain the preceding clause of the marring and clearing of fields connect the following one with the other by conceiving that "the loving action of embracing stands beside the hostile, purposely injurious, throwing of stones into a field" (Delitzsch). It is plain that there are times when one may give himself up to the delights of love and friendship, and times when such distractions would be incongruous and unseasonable, as on solemn, penitential occasions (Joel 2:16; Exodus 19:15; 1 Corinthians 7:5); but the congruity of the two clauses of the couplet is not obvious, unless the objectionable position of stones and their advantageous employment are compared with the character of illicit (Proverbs 5:20) and legitimate love.
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
Verse 6. - A time to get (seek), and a time to lose. The verb abad, in piel, is used in the sense of "to destroy" (Ecclesiastes 7:7), and it is only in late Hebrew that it signifies, as here, "to lose." The reference is doubtless to property, and has no connection with the last clause of the preceding verse, as Delitzsch would opine. There is a proper and lawful pursuit of wealth, and there is a wise and prudent submission to its inevitable loss. The loss here is occasioned by events over which the owner has no control, differing from that in the next clause, which is voluntary. The wise man knows when to exert his energy in improving his fortune, and when to hold his hand and take failure without useless struggle. Loss, too, is sometimes gain, as when Christ's departure in the flesh was the prelude and the occasion of the sending of the Comforter (John 16:7); and there are many things of which we know not the real value till they are beyond our grasp. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. Prudence will make fast what it has won, and will endeavor to preserve it unimpaired. But there are occasions when it is wiser to deprive one's self of some things in order to secure more important ends, as when sailors throw a cargo, etc., overboard in order to save their ship (comp. Jonah 1:5; Acts 27:18, 19, 38). And in higher matters, such as almsgiving, this maxim holds good: "There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth.... The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth shall be watered also himself" (Proverbs 11:24, 25). Plumptre refers to Christ's so-called paradox," Whosoever would (ο{ς α}ν θέλῃ) save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25).
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
Verse 7. - A time to rend, and a time to sew (καιρὸς τοῦ ῤῆξαι καὶ καιρὸς τοῦ ῤάψαι). This is usually understood of the rending of garments in token of grief (Genesis 37:29, 34, etc.), and the repairing of the rent then made when the season of mourning was ended. The Talmudists laid down careful rules concerning the extent of the ritual tear, and how long it was to remain unmended, both being regulated by the nearness of the relationship of the deceased person. In this interpretation there are these two difficulties: first, it makes the clause a virtual repetition of ver. 4; and secondly, it is not known for certain that the closing of the rent was a ceremonial custom in the times of Koheleth. Hence Plumptre inclines to take the expression metaphorically of the division of a kingdom by schism, and the restoration of unity, comparing the Prophet Ahijah's communication to Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:30, 31). But surely this would be a most unlikely allusion to put into Solomon's mouth; nor can we properly look for such a symbolical representation amid the other realistic examples given in the series. What Koheleth says is this - There are times when it is natural to tear clothes to pieces, whether from grief, or anger, or any other cause, e.g., as being old and worthless, or infected; and there are times when it is equally natural to mend them, and to make them serviceable by timely repairs. Connected with the notion of mourning contributed by this clause, though by no means confined to that notion, it is added, A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. The silence of deep sorrow may be intimated, as when Job's friends sat by him in sympathizing silence (Job 2:13), and the psalmist cried, "I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred" (Psalm 39:2); and Elisha could not bear to hear his master's departure mentioned (2 Kings 2:3, 5). There are also occasions when the sorrow of the heart should find utterance, as in David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17, etc.) and over Abner (2 Samuel 3:33, etc.). But the gnome is of more general application. The young should hold their peace in the presence of their elders (Job 32:4, etc.); silence is often golden: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: when he shutteth his lips, he is esteemed as prudent" (Proverbs 17:28). On the other hand, wise counsel is of infinite value, and must not be withheld at the right moment, and "a word in due season, how good is it!" (Proverbs 15:23; Proverbs 25:11). "If thou hast understanding, answer thy neighbor; if not, lay thy hand upon thy mouth" (Ecclus. 5:12; see more, Ecclus. 20:5, etc.).
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Verse 8. - A time to love, and a time to hate. This reminds one of the gloss to which our Lord refers (Matthew 5:43), "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy," the first member being found in the old Law (Leviticus 19:18), the second being a misconception of the spirit which made Israel God's executioner upon the condemned nations. It was the maxim of Bias, quoted by Aristotle, 'Rhet.,' 2:13, that we should love as if about some day to hate, and hate as if about to love. And Philo imparts a still more selfish tone to the gnome, when he pronounces ('De Carit.,' 21, p. 401, Mang.), "It was well said by them of old, that we ought to deal out friendship without absolutely renouncing enmity, and practice enmity as possibly to turn to friendship. A time of war, and a time of peace. In the previous couplets the infinitive mood of the verb has been used; in this last hemistich substantives are introduced, as being more concise and better fitted to emphasize the close of the catalogue. The first clause referred specially to the private feelings which one is constrained to entertain towards individuals. The second clause has to do with national concerns, and touches on the statesmanship which discovers the necessity or the opportuneness of war and peace, and acts accordingly. In this and in all the other examples adduced, the lesson intended is this - that man is not independent; that under all circumstances and relations he is in the hand of a power mightier than himself, which frames time and seasons according to its own good pleasure. God holds the threads of human life; in some mysterious way directs and controls events; success and failure are dependent upon his will. There are certain laws which, regulate the issues of actions and events, and man cannot alter these; his free-will can put them in motion, but they become irresistible when in operation. This is not fatalism; it is the mere statement of a fact in experience. Koheleth never denies man's liberty, though he is very earnest in asserting God's sovereignty. The reconciliation of the two is a problem unsolved by him.
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
Verse 9. - If thus man, in all his actions and under all circumstances, depends upon time and seasons which are beyond his control, we return to the same desponding question already asked in Ecclesiastes 1:3. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? The preceding enumeration leads up to this question, to which the answer is "None." Since time and tide wait for no man, since man cannot know for certain his opportunity, he cannot reckon on reaping any advantage from his labor.
I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
Verses 10-15. - There is a plan and system in all the circumstances of man's life; he feels this instinctively, but he cannot comprehend it. His duty is to make the best of the present, and to recognize the immutability of the law that governs all things. Verse 10. - I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it; i.e. to busy themselves therewith (Ecclesiastes 1:13). This travail, exercise, or business is the work that has to be done under the conditions prescribed of time and season in face of the difficulty of man's free action and God's ordering. We take infinite pains, we entertain ample desires, and strive restlessly to carry them out, but our efforts are controlled by a higher law, and results occur in the way and at the time arranged by Providence. Human labor, though it is appointed by God and is part of man's heritage imposed upon him by the Fall (Genesis 3:17, etc.), cannot bring contentment or satisfy the spirit's cravings.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
Verse 11. - He hath made every thing beautiful in his (its) time. "Everything:" (eth hacol) does not refer so much to the original creation which God made very good (Genesis 1:31), as to the travail and business mentioned in ver. 10. All parts of this have, in God's design, a beauty and a harmony, their own season for appearance and development, their work to do in carrying on the majestic march of Providence. Also he hath set the world in their heart. "The world;" eth-haolam, placed (as haeol above) before the verb, with eth, to emphasize the relation. There is some uncertainty in the translation of this word. The LXX. has, Σύμπαντα τὸν αἰῶνα; Vulgate, Mundum tradidit disputationi eorum. The original meaning is "the hidden," and it is used generally in the Old Testament of the remote past, and sometimes of the future, as Daniel 3:33 [Daniel 4:3], so that the idea conveyed is of unknown duration, whether the glance looks backward or forward, which is equivalent to our word "eternity." It is only in later Hebrew that the word obtained the signification of "age" (αἰών), or "world" in its relation to time. Commentators who have adopted the latter sense here explain the expression as if it meant that man in himself is a microcosm, a little world, or that the love of the world, the love of life, is naturally implanted in him. But taking the term in the signification found throughout the Bible, we are justified in translating it "eternity." The pronoun in "their heart" refers to "the sons of men" in the previous verse. God has put into men's minds a notion of infinity of duration; the beginning and the end of things are alike beyond his grasp; the time to be born and the time to die are equally unknown and uncontrollable. Koheleth is not thinking of that hope of immortality which his words unfold to us with our better knowledge; he is speculating on the innate faculty of looking backward and forward which man possesses, but which is insufficient to solve the problems which present themselves every day. This conception of eternity may be the foundation of great hopes and expectations, but as an explanation of the ways of Providence it fails. So that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end; or, without man being able to penetrate; yet so that he cannot, etc. Man sees only minute parts of the great whole; he cannot comprehend all at one view, cannot understand the law that regulates the time and season of every circumstance in the history of man and the world. He feels that, as there has been an infinite past, there will be an infinite future, which may solve anomalies and demonstrate the harmonious unity of God's design, and he must be content to wait and hope. Comparison of the past with the present may help to adumbrate the future, but is inadequate to unravel the complicated thread of the world's history (comp. Ecclesiastes 8:16, 17, and Ecclesiastes 9:1, where a similar thought is expressed).
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.
Verse 12. - I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice; rather, I knew, perceived, that there was no good for them; i.e. for men. From the facts adduced, Koheleth learned this practical result - that man had nothing in his own power (see on Ecclesiastes 2:24) which would conduce to his happiness, but to make the best of life such as he finds it. Vulgate, Cognovi quod non esset melius nisi laetari. To do good in his life; Τοῦ ποιεῖν ἀγαθόν; (Septuagint); Facere bene (Vulgate). This has been taken by many in the sense of "doing one's self good, prospering, enjoying one's self." like the Greek εϋ πράττειν, and therefore nearly equivalent to "rejoice" in the former part of the verse. But the expression is best taken here, as when it occurs elsewhere (e.g. Ecclesiastes 7:20), in a moral sense, and it thus teaches the great truth that virtue is essential to happiness, that to "trust in the Lord... to depart from evil, and to do good" (Psalm 36:3, 27), will bring peace and content (see in the epilogue, Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14). There is no Epicureanism in this verse; the enjoyment spoken of is not licentiousness, but a happy appreciation of the innocent pleasures which the love of God offers to those who live in accordance with the laws of their higher nature.
And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
Verse 13. - And also that every man should eat and drink... it is the gift of God. This enforces and intensifies the statement in the preceding verse; not only the power to "do good," but even to enjoy what comes in his way (see on Ecclesiastes 2:24), man must receive from God. When we pray for our daily bread, we also ask for ability to take, assimilate, and profit by the supports and comforts afforded to us. "It" is better omitted, as "is the gift of God" forms the predicate of the sentence. Ecclesiastes 11:17, "The gift of the Lord remaineth with the godly, and his favor bringeth prosperity for ever."
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
Verse 14. - I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever. A second thing (see ver. 12) that Koheleth knew, learned from the truths adduced in vers. 1-9, is that behind man's free action and volition stands the will of God, which orders events with a view to eternity, and that man can alter nothing of this providential arrangement (comp. Isaiah 46:10; Psalm 33:11). Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it. We cannot hasten or retard God's designs; we cannot add to or curtail his plans. Septuagint, "It is impossible to add (οὐκ ἔστι προσθεῖναι) to it, and it is impossible to Lake away from it." Thus Ecclus. 18:6, "As for the wondrous works of the Lord, it is impossible to lessen or to add to them (οὐκ ἔστιν ἐλαττῶσαι οὐδὲ προσθεῖναι), neither can the ground of them be found out." God doeth it, that men should fear before him. There is a moral purpose in this disposal of events. Men feel this uniformity and unchangeableness in the working of Providence, and thence learn to cherish a reverential awe for the righteous government of which they are the subjects. It was this feeling which led ancient etymologists to derive Θεός and Deus from δέος, "fear" (comp. Revelation 15:3, 4). This is also a ground of hope and confidence. Amid the jarring and fluctuating circumstances of men God holds the threads, and alters not his purpose. "I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6). The Vulgate is not very successful: Non possumus eis quid-quam addere, nec auferre, quae fecit Deus ut timeatur, "We cannot add anything unto, or take anything away from, those things which God hath made that he may be feared."
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
Verse 15. - That which hath been is now; so Septuagint; "That which hath been made, the same remaineth" (Vulgate); better, that which hath been, long ago it is; i.e. was in existence long before. The thought is much the same as in Ecclesiastes 1:9, only here it is adduced not to prove the vanity and endless sameness of circumstances, but the orderly and appointed succession of events under the controlling providence of God. That which is to be hath already been. The future will be a reproduction of the past. The laws which regulate things change not; the moral government is exercised by him who "is, and was, and is to come" (Revelation 1:8), and therefore in effect history repeats itself; the same causes produce the same phenomena. God requireth that which is past; literally, God seeketh after that which hath been chased away; Septuagint, "God will seek him who is pursued (τὸν διωκόμενον);" Vulgate, "God reneweth that which is passed (instaurat quod abiit)." The meaning is - God brings back to view, recalls again into being, that which was past and had vanished out of sight and mind. The sentence is an explanation of the preceding clauses, and has nothing to do with the inquisition at the day of judgment. Hengstenberg has followed the Septuagint, Syriac, and Targum, in translating, "God seeks the persecuted," and seeing herein an allusion to the punishment of the Egyptians for pursuing the Israelites to the Red Sea, or a general statement that God succors the oppressed. But this idea is quite alien to the intention of the passage, and injures the coherence.
And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
Verses 16-22. - Acknowledging the providential government of God, which controls events and places man's happiness out of his own power, one is confronted also by the fact that there is much wickedness, much injustice, in the world, which oppose all plans for peaceful enjoyment. Doubtless there shall be a day of retribution for such iniquities; and God allows them now in order to try men and to teach them humility. Meantime man's duty and happiness consist, as before said, in making the best use of the present and improving the opportunities which God gives him. Verse 16. - And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment. Koheleth records his experience of the prevalence of iniquity in high places. The place of judgment (mishat); where justice is administered. The accentuation allows (cf. Genesis 1:1) this to be regarded as the object of the verb. The Revised Version, with Hitzig, Ginsburg, and others, take מְקום as an adverbial expression equivalent to "in the place." The former is the simpler construction. "And moreover," at the commencement of the verse, looks back to ver. 10," I have seen the travail," etc. That wickedness (resha) was there. On the judicial seat iniquity sat instead of justice. The place of righteousness (tsedek). "Righteousness" is the peculiar characteristic of the judge himself, as "justice" is of his decisions. That iniquity (resha) was there. The word ought to be translated "wickedness" or "iniquity" in both clauses. The Septuagint takes the abstract for the concrete, and at the end has apparently introduced a clerical error, which has been perpetuated in the Arabic and elsewhere, "And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, there was the ungodly (ἀσεβής); and the place of the righteous, there was the godly (εὐσεβής)." The Complutensian Polyglot reads ἀσεβὴς in both places. It is impossible to harmonize these statements of oppression and injustice here and elsewhere (e.g., Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 8:9, 10) with Solomon's authorship of the book. It is contrary to fact that such a corrupt state of things existed in his time, and in writing thus he would be uttering a libel against himself. If he was cognizant of such evils in his kingdom, he had nothing to do but to put them down with a high hand. There is nothing to lead to the belief that he is speaking of other countries and other times; he is stating his own personal experience of what goes on around him. It is true that in Solomon's latter days disaffection secretly prevailed, and the people felt his yoke grievous (1 Kings 12:4); but there is no evidence of the existence of corruption in judicial courts, or of the social and political evils of which he speaks in this book. That he had a prophetical for, sight of the disasters that would accompany the reign of his successor, and endeavors herein to provide consolation for the future sufferers, is a pious opinion without historical basis, and cannot be justly used to support the genuineness of the work.
I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
Verse 17. - I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked. In view of the injustice that prevails in earthly tribunals, Koheleth takes comfort in the thought that there is retribution in store for every man. when God shall award sentence according to deserts. God is a righteous Judge strong and patient, and his decisions are infallible. Future judgment is here plainly stated, as it is at the final conclusion (Ecclesiastes 11:14). They who refuse to credit the writer with belief in this great doctrine resort to the theory of interpolation and alteration in order to account for the language in this and analogous passages. There can be no doubt that the present text has hitherto always been regarded as genuine, and that it does clearly assert future retribution, though not so much as a conclusion firmly established, but rather as a belief which may explain anomalies and afford comfort under trying circumstances. For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. The adverb rendered "there" (שָׁם, sham) is placed emphatically, at the end of the sentence. Thus the Septuagint, "There is a reason for every action, and for every work there (ἐκεῖ)." Many take it to mean" in the other world," and Plumptre cites Eurip., 'Med.,' 1073 -

Ἐνδαιμονοῖτον ἀλλ ἐκεῖ τὰ δ ἐνθάδε
Πατὴρ ἀφείλετ

"All good be with you! but it must be there;
Here it is stolen from you by your sire."
But it is unexampled to find the elliptical "there," when no place has been mentioned in the context, and when we are precluded from interpreting the dark word by a significant gesture, as Medea may have pointed downwards in her histrionic despair. Where the words, "that day," are used in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 10:12; 2 Timothy 1:18, etc.), the context shows plainly to what they refer. Some take the adverb here in the sense of "then." Thus the Vulgate, Justum et impium iudicabit Deus, et tempus omnis rei tunc erit." But really no time has been mentioned, unless we conceive the writer to have been guilty of a clumsy tautology, expressing by "then" the same idea as "a time for every purpose," etc. Ewald would understand it of the past; but this is quite arbitrary, and limits the signification of the sentence unnecessarily. It is best, with many modern commentators, to refer the adverb to God, who has just been spoken of in the preceding clause. A similar use is found in Genesis 49:24. With God, spud Deum, in his counsels, there is a time or judgment and retribution for every act of man, when anomalies which have obtained on earth shall be rectified, injustice shall be punished, virtue rewarded. There is no need, with some commentators, to read up, "he appointed;" the usual reading gives a satisfactory sense.
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
Verse 18. - The comfort derived from the thought of the future judgment is clouded by the reflection that man is as powerless as the beast to control his destiny. Concerning the estate of the sons of men; rather, it happens on account of the sons of men. God allows events to take place, disorders to continue, etc., for the ultimate profit of men, though the idea that follows is humiliating and dispiriting. The LXX. has περὶ λαλιᾶς, "concerning the speech of the sons of men." So the Syriac. The word dibrah may indeed bear that meaning, as it is also used for "word" or "matter;" but we cannot conceive that the clause refers solely to words, and the expression in the text signifies merely "for the sake, on account of," as in Ecclesiastes 8:2. That God might manifest them; rather, that God might test them; Ut probaret eos Dens (Vulgate). God allows these things, endures them patiently, and does not at once redress them, for two reasons. The first of these is that they may serve for the probation of men, giving them opportunity of making good or bad use of them. We see the effect of this forbearance on the wicked in Ecclesiastes 8:11; it hardens them in impenitence; while it nourishes the faith of the righteous, and helps them to persevere (see Daniel 11:35 and Revelation 22:11). And that they might see that they themselves are beasts. The pronoun is repeated emphatically, "that they themselves are [like] beasts, they in themselves." This is the second reason. Thus they learn their own powerlessness, if they regard merely their own animal life; apart from their relation to God and hope of the future, they are no better than the lower creatures. Septuagint. "And to show (τοῦ δεῖξαι) that they are beasts." So the Vulgate and Syriac. The Masoretic reading adopted in the Anglican Version seems best.
For 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 preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
Verses 19-21 are best regarded as a parenthesis explanatory of vers. 16-18, elucidating man's impotence in the presence of the anomalies of life. The conclusion in ver. 22 is connected with vers. 16-18. We must acknowledge that there are disorders in the world which we cannot remedy, and which God allows in order to demonstrate our powerlessness; therefore the wisest course is to make the best of present cir-circumstances. Verse 19. - For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; literally, chance are the sons of men, and chance are beasts (see on Ecclesiastes 2:14); Septuagint, "Yea, and to them cometh the event (συνάντηημα) of the sons of men, and the event of the beast." Koheleth explains in what respect man is on a level with the brute creation. Neither are able to rise superior to the law that controls their natural life. So Solon says to Croesus (Herod., 1:32), Πᾶν ἐστι ἄνθρωπος συμφορή, "Man is naught but chance;" and Artabanns reminds Xerxes that chances rule men, not men chances (ibid., 7:49). Even one thing befalleth them. A third time is the ominous word repeated, "One chance is to both of them." Free-thinkers perverted this dictum into the materialistic language quoted in the Book of Wisdom (2. 2): "We are born at haphazard, by chance (αὐτοσχεδιως´); etc. But Koheleth's contention is, not that there is no law or order in what happens to man, but that neither man nor beast can dispose events at their own will and pleasure; they are conditioned by a force superior to them, which dominates their actions, sufferings, and circumstances of life. As the one dieth, so dieth the other. In the matter of succumbing to the law of death man has no superiority over other creatures. This is an inference drawn from common observation of exterior facts, and touches not any higher question (comp. Ecclesiastes 2:14, 15; Ecclesiastes 9:2, 3). Something similar is found in Psalm 49:20, "Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish." Yea, they have all one breath (ruach). This is the word used in ver. 23 for the vital principle, "the breath of life," as it is called in Genesis 6:17, where the same word is found. In the earlier record (Genesis 2:7) the term is nishma. Life in all animals is regarded as the gift of God. Says the psalmist, "Thou sendest forth thy spirit (ruach), they are created" (Psalm 104:30). This lower principle presents the same phenomena in men and in brutes. Man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; i.e. in regard to suffering and death. This is not bare materialism, or a gloomy deduction from Greek teaching, but must be explained from the writer's standpoint, which is to emphasize the impotence of man to effect his own happiness. Taking only a limited and phenomenal view of man's circumstances and destiny, he speaks a general truth which all must acknowledge. Septuagint, "And what hath the man more than the beast? Nothing." For all is vanity. The distinction between man and beast is annulled by death; the former's boasted superiority, his power of conceiving and planning, his greatness, skill, strength. cunning, all come under the category of vanity, as they cannot ward off the inevitable blow.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Verse 20. - All go unto one place. All, men and brutes, are buried in the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The author is not thinking of Sheol, the abode of departed spirits, but merely regarding earth as the universal tomb of all creatures. Plumptre quotes Lueretius, 'De Rer. Nat.,' 5:260 -

"Omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulchrum."

"The mother and the sepulcher of all." Thus Bailey, 'Festus' -

"The course of nature seems a course of death;
The prize of life's brief race, to cease to run;
The sole substantial thing, death's nothingness."
All are of the dust (Genesis 3:19; Psalm 104:29; Psalm 146:4). So Ecclus. 41:10, "All things that are of earth shall turn to earth again." This is true of the material part of men and brutes alike; the question of the destiny of the immaterial part is touched in the next verse.
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Verse 21. - Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? The statement is here too categorically rendered, though, for dogmatical purposes, the Masorites seem to have punctuated the text with a view to such interpretation. But, as Wright and others point out, the analogy of two other passages (Ecclesiastes 2:19 and Ecclesiastes 6:12), where "who knoweth" occurs, intimates that the phrases which follow are interrogative. So the translation should be, "Who knoweth as regards the spirit (ruach) of the sons of men whether it goeth upward, and as regards the spirit (ruach) of the beast whether it goeth downward under the earth?" Vulgate, Quis novit si spiritus, etc.? Septuagint, Τίς εῖδε πνεῦμα υἱῶν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰ ἀναβαίνει αὐτὸ ἄνω; "Who ever saw the spirit of the sons of man, whether it goeth upward?" The Authorized Version, which gives the Masoretic reading, is supposed to harmonize better with the assertion at the end of the book (Ecclesiastes 12:7), that the spirit returns to the God who gave it. But there is no formal denial of the immortality of the soul in the present passage as we render it. The question, indeed, is not touched. The author is confirming his previous assertion that, in one point of view, man is not superior to brute. Now he says, looking at the matter merely externally, and taking not into consideration any higher notion, no one knows the destiny of the living powers, whether God deals differently with the spirit of man and of beast. Phenomenally, the principle of life in both is identical, and its cessation is identical; and what becomes of the spirit in either case neither eye nor mind can discover. The distinction which reason or religion assumes, viz. that man's spirit goes upward and the brute's downward, is incapable of proof, is quite beyond experience. What is meant by "upward" and "downward" may be seen by reference to the gnome in Proverbs 15:24, "To the wise the way of life goeth upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath." The contrast shows that Sheol is regarded as a place of punishment or annihilation; this is further confirmed by Psalm 49:14, 15, "They are appointed as a flock for Sheol: death shall be their shepherd... their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for he shall receive me." Koheleth neither denies nor affirms in this passage the immortality of the soul; that he believed in it we learn from other expressions; but he is not concerned with parading it here. Commentators quote Lucretius' sceptical thought ('De Rer. Nat.,' 1:113-116) -

"Ignoratur enim quae sit natura animal,
Nata sit, an contra nascentibus insinuetur,
Et simul interest nobiscum, morte dimenta,
An tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas."

"We know not what the nature of the soul,
Born in the womb, or at the birth infused,
Whether it dies with us, or wings its way
Unto the gloomy pools of Orcus vast."
But Koheleth's inquiry suggests the possibility of a different destiny for the spirits of man and brute, though he does not at this moment make any definite assertion on the subject. Later on he explains the view taken by the believer in Divine revelation (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
Verse 22. - After all, the writer arrives at the conclusion intimated in ver. 12; only here the result is gathered from the acknowledgment of man's impotence (vers. 16-18), as there from the experience of life. Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, etc.; rather, so, or wherefore I saw that there was nothing, etc. As man is not master of his own lot, cannot order events as he would like, is powerless to control the forces of nature and the providential arrangements of the world, his duty and his happiness consist in enjoying the present, in making the best of life, and availing himself of the bounties which the mercy of God places before him. Thus he will free himself from anxieties and cares, perform present labors, attend to present duties, content himself with the daily round, and not vex his heart with solicitude for the future. There is no Epicureanism here, no recommendation of sensual enjoyment; the author simply advises men to make a thankful use of the blessings which God provides for them. For who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? The Revised Version, by inserting "back" - Who shall bring him back to see? - affixes a meaning to the clause which it need not and does not bear. It is, indeed, commonly interpreted to signify that man knows and can know nothing that happens to him after death - whether he will exist or not, whether he will have cognizance of what passes on earth, or be insensible to all that befalls here. But Koheleth has completed that thought already; his argument now turns to the future in this life. Use the present, for you cannot be sure of the future; - this is his exhortation. So he says (Ecclesiastes 6:12), "Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" where the expression, "under the sun," shows that earthly life is meant, not existence after death. Ignorance of the future is a very common topic throughout the book, but it is the terrestrial prospect that is in view. There would be little force in urging the impotence of men's efforts towards their own happiness by the consideration of their ignorance of what may happen when they are no more; but one may reasonably exhort men to cease to torment themselves with hopes and fears, with labors that may be useless and preparations that may never be needed, by the reflection that they cannot foresee the future, and that, for all they know, the pains which they take may be utterly wasted (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 9:3). Thus in this section there is neither skepticism nor Epicureanism. In brief, the sentiment is this - There are injustices and anomalies in the life of men and in the course of this world's events which man cannot control or alter; these may be righted and compensated hereafter. Meantime, man's happiness is to make the best of the present, and cheerfully to enjoy what Providence offers, without anxious care for the future.

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