The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.Ecclesiastes 1:1. The words of the Preacher — Or, discourses. The Hebrew word קהלת, here used, may either signify the person who assembles the people, or the person that addresses them when assembled. “We must not suppose that Solomon was like the common or ordinary preachers among the Hebrews; yet it is certain he spake much in public for the instruction of the people; for there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon: All the earth sought to Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his heart, 1 Kings 4:31; 1 Kings 4:34; 1 Kings 10:24. From whence it is plain that he made public discourses on several subjects, and that people were, in a manner, called together from all nations round about to hear them.” — Dodd. “He was not only a king,” says Poole, “but also a teacher of God’s people: who, having sinned grievously in the eyes of all the world, thought himself obliged to publish his repentance, and to give public warning to all, to avoid those rocks upon which he had split.”
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanity, &c. — Not only vain, but vanity in the abstract, which denotes extreme vanity. Saith the Preacher — Upon deep consideration and long experience, and by divine inspiration. This verse contains the general proposition, which he intends particularly to demonstrate in the following book. All — All worldly things; is vanity — Not in themselves, for they are God’s creatures, and therefore good in their kinds, but in reference to that happiness which men seek and expect to find in them. So they are unquestionably vain, because they are not what they seem to be, and perform not what they promise, but, instead of that, are the occasions of innumerable cares, and fears, and sorrows, and mischiefs. Nay, they are not only vanity, but vanity of vanities, the vainest vanity, vanity in the highest degree. And this is redoubled, because the thing is certain, beyond all possibility of dispute.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?Ecclesiastes 1:3. What profit — What real and abiding benefit? None at all. All is unprofitable as to the attainment of that happiness which all men are inquiring after. Of all his labour — Hebrew, his toilsome labour, both of body and mind, in the pursuit of riches, or pleasures, or other earthly things; under the sun — In all worldly matters, which are usually transacted in the day-time, or by the light of the sun. By this restriction he implies, that the happiness which in vain is sought for in this lower world, is really to be found in heavenly places and things.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.Ecclesiastes 1:4. One generation passeth away, &c. — Men continue but for one, and that a short age, and then they leave all their possessions, and therefore they cannot be happy here, because the source of happiness must needs be unchangeable and eternal, and the certain knowledge of the approaching loss of all these things must rob a man of solid contentment in them. But the earth abideth — Through all successive generations of men; and therefore man is more mutable than the very earth upon which he stands, and which, together with all the comforts which he enjoyed in it, he leaves behind him to be possessed by others.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.Ecclesiastes 1:5-6. The sun also riseth — The sun is in perpetual motion, rising, setting, and rising again, and so constantly repeating its course in all succeeding days, and years, and ages; and the like he observes concerning the winds and rivers, Ecclesiastes 1:6-7; and the design of these similitudes seems to be, to show the vanity of all worldly things, and that man’s mind can never be satisfied with them, because there is nothing in the world but a constant repetition of the same things, which is so irksome, that the consideration thereof hath made some persons weary of their lives; and there is no new thing under the sun, as is added in the foot of the account, (Ecclesiastes 1:9,) which seems to be given us as a key to understand the meaning of the foregoing passages. And this is certain from experience, that the things of this world are so narrow, and the mind of man so vast, that there must be something new to satisfy the mind; and even delightful things, by too frequent repetition, are so far from yielding satisfaction, that they grow tedious and troublesome. The wind goeth, &c. — The wind also sometimes blows from one quarter of the world, and sometimes from another; successively returning to the same quarters in which it had formerly been.
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.
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.Ecclesiastes 1:7. The sea is not full — So as to overflow the earth, which might be expected from such vast accessions of waters to it. Whereby also he intimates the emptiness of men’s minds, notwithstanding the abundance of creature comforts. Unto the place from whence the rivers come — Unto their springs or fountains; thither they return — By secret passages of the earth: or their waters, after flowing into the sea, and being mixed with its waters, are exhaled by the heat of the sun, become vapours and clouds, descend in showers on the hills and mountains, and feed the springs from which they flow again, in streams and rivers, into the lakes, seas, and oceans. He seems to speak of the visible and constant motion of the waters, both to the sea and from it, and then to it again in a perpetual reciprocation.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.Ecclesiastes 1:8-9. All things — Not only the sun, and winds, and rivers, but all other creatures; are full of labour — They are in continual restlessness and change, never abiding in the same state. The eye is not satisfied — As there are many things in the world vexatious to men, so even those things which are comfortable are not satisfactory, but men are constantly desiring some longer continuance or fuller enjoyment of them, or variety in them. The eye and ear are here put for all the senses, because these are most spiritual and refined, most curious and inquisitive, most capable of receiving satisfaction, and exercised with more ease and pleasure than the other senses. The thing that hath been, &c. — There is nothing in the world but a continued and tiresome repetition of the same things. The nature and course of the beings and affairs of the world, and the tempers of men, are the same that they ever were, and shall ever be; and therefore, because no man ever yet received satisfaction from worldly things, it is vain for any person hereafter to expect it. And there is no new thing — In the nature of things, which might give us hopes of attaining that satisfaction which hitherto things have not afforded.
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.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
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.Ecclesiastes 1:11. There is no remembrance, &c. — This seems to be added, to prevent the objection, that there are many inventions and enjoyments unknown to former ages. To this he answers, This objection is grounded only upon our ignorance of ancient times, which, if we exactly knew or remembered, we should easily find parallels to all present occurrences. There are many thousands of remarkable speeches and actions done in this, and which will be done in the following ages, which neither are, nor ever will be, put into the public records or histories, and consequently must unavoidably be forgotten in succeeding ages; and therefore it is just and reasonable to believe the same concerning former ages.
I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.Ecclesiastes 1:12. I the Preacher was king — Having asserted the vanity of all things in the general, he now comes to prove his assertion in those particulars wherein men commonly seek, and with the greatest probability expect to find, true happiness. He begins with secular wisdom. And to show how competent a judge he was of this matter, he lays down this character, that he was the Preacher, which implies eminent knowledge; and a king, who therefore had all imaginable opportunities and advantages for the attainment of happiness, and particularly for the getting of wisdom, by consulting all sorts of books and men, by trying all manner of experiments; and no ordinary king, but king over Israel — God’s own people, a wise and a happy people, whose king he was by God’s special appointment, and furnished by God with singular wisdom for that great trust; and whose abode was in Jerusalem — Where were the house of God, and the most wise and learned of the priests attending upon it, and the seats of justice, and colleges, or assemblies of the wisest men of their nation. All these concurring in him, which rarely do in any other man, make the argument, drawn from his experience, more convincing.
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.Ecclesiastes 1:13. I gave my heart — Which phrase denotes his serious and fixed purpose, and his great industry in it. To search out by wisdom — To seek diligently and accurately, by the help of that wisdom wherewith God had endowed me. Concerning all things, &c. — Concerning all the works of God and men in this lower world; the works of nature; the works of divine providence; and the works and depths of human policy. This sore travail — This difficult and toilsome work of searching out these things, God hath inflicted as a just punishment upon man for his eating of the tree of knowledge. To be exercised therewith — To employ themselves in the painful study of these things.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.Ecclesiastes 1:14-15. I have seen all the works, &c. — Diligently observed, and, in a great measure, understood them; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit — Not only unsatisfying, but also an affliction or breaking to a man’s spirit. That which is crooked, &c. — All our knowledge serves only to discover our miseries, but is utterly insufficient to remove them; it cannot rectify those disorders which are either in our own hearts and lives, or in the men and things of the world. That which is wanting — In our knowledge, and in order to man’s complete satisfaction and happiness; cannot be numbered — Or, counted out to us from the treasures of human learning, but what is wanting will be so still; all our enjoyments here, when we have done our utmost to bring them to perfection, are still defective: and that which is wanting in our own knowledge is so much, that it cannot be numbered. The more we know, the more we see of our own ignorance.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
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.Ecclesiastes 1:16-17. I communed with mine own heart — I considered within myself in what condition I was, and what degrees of knowledge I had gained; and whether it was not my ignorance that made me unable to rectify those errors, and supply those wants of which I complain; and whether wiser men could not do it, though I could not; saying, Lo! I am come to great estate — Hebrew, הגדלתי, I am grown great, namely, in wisdom, or, I have magnified, or greatly enlarged; and have gotten —
Hebrew, והוספתי, have added, more wisdom — As I had a large stock of wisdom infused into me by God, so I have greatly improved it by conversation, study, and experience; than all they that were before me — Whether governors, priests, or private persons. This was no vain boast, but a known and confessed truth, and the profession of it was necessary to demonstrate his assertion; in Jerusalem — Which was then the most eminent place in the world for wisdom and knowledge. I gave my heart to know wisdom, &c. — That I might thoroughly understand the nature and difference of truth, and error, of virtue and vice. I perceived that this is vexation, &c. — Or, feeding upon wind, as the Hebrew רעיון רוח, may be properly rendered, and as a similar phrase is rendered by many, both ancient and modern translators, in Ecclesiastes 1:14, and by our translators, Hosea 12:1.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.Ecclesiastes 1:18. In much wisdom is much grief — Or displeasure to a man within himself, and against his present condition; and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow — Which he does many ways, because he gets his knowledge with hard and wearisome labour, both of mind and body, with the consumption of his spirits, and shortening of his life; because he is often deceived with knowledge, falsely so called, and often mistakes error for truth, and is perplexed with manifold doubts, from which ignorant men are wholly free; because he hath the clearer prospect into, and quicker sense of, his own ignorance, and infirmities, and disorders; and, withal, how vain and ineffectual all his knowledge is for the prevention or removal of them; and because his knowledge is very imperfect and unsatisfying, yet increasing his thirst after more knowledge; lastly, because his knowledge quickly fades and dies with him, and then leaves him in no better, and possibly in a much worse condition, than that of the meanest and most unlearned man in the world.