Ecclesiastes 1
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
1. The words of the Preacher] For the title of the Book and the meaning of the word translated “Preacher” (better, Debater, or, perhaps, as the Hebrew noun has no article, Koheleth, as a proper name, carrying with it the meaning of Debater), see Introduction. The description “king in Jerusalem” is in apposition with “the Preacher” not with “David.” It is noticeable that the name of Solomon is not mentioned as it is in the titles of the other two books ascribed to him (Proverbs 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1).

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
2. Vanity of vanities] The form is the highest type (as in the “servant of servants” of Genesis 9:25, the “chief over the chief” of Numbers 3:32) of the Hebrew superlative. The word translated “vanity,” identical with the name Abel or Hebel (Genesis 4:2) means primarily a “breath,” or “vapour,” and as such becomes the type of all that is fleeting and perishable (Psalm 62:9; Psalm 144:4). It is uniformily translated by “vanity” in the English Version of this book, which is moulded on the Vulgate as that was upon the LXX. The other Greek versions gave “vapour of vapours” (Hieron. in loc.) and this may perhaps be regarded as, in some respects, a preferable rendering. The watchword of the book, the key-note of its melancholy music, meeting us not less than thirty-nine times, is therefore, whether we take it as a proposition or an exclamation, like that of the Epicurean poet “Pulvis et umbra sumus” (Hor. Od. iv. 7. 9), like that also, we may add, of St James (James 3:14) and the Psalmist (Psalm 90:3-10). In the Wisdom of Solomon apparently written (see Introduction, chap. v.) as a corrective complement to Ecclesiastes we have a like series of comparisons, the “dust,” the “thin froth,” the “smoke,” but there the idea of ‘vanity’ is limited to the “hope of the ungodly” and the writer, as if of set purpose, avoids the sweeping generalizations of the Debater, who extends the assertion to the “all” of human life, and human aims. It is not without significance that St Paul, in what is, perhaps, the solitary reference in his writings to this book, uses the word which the LXX. employs here, when he affirms that “the creature was made subject to vanity” and seeks to place that fact in its right relation to the future restitution of the Universe (Romans 8:20).

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
3. What profit hath a man] The question is, it is obvious, as in the analogous question of Matthew 16:26, the most emphatic form of a negation. For “all his labour which he taketh” read all his toil which he toileth, the Hebrew giving the emphasis of the combination of the verb with its cognate substantive. The Debater sums up his experience of life in this, “There is toil, and the toil is profitless.” The word for “profit,” not meeting us elsewhere in the Hebrew of the O. T., occurs ten times in Ecclesiastes. Its strict meaning is “that which remains,”—the surplus, if any, of the balance-sheet of life. It was, probably, one of the words which the commerce of the Jews, after the Captivity, had brought into common use. The question is in substance, almost in form, identical with that of our times “Is life worth living?”

under the sun] The phrase thus used, occurring 29 times in Ecclesiastes, has nothing like it in the language of other books of the Old Testament. It is essentially Greek in character. Thus we have in Euripides, Hippol. 1220,

ὅσα τε γᾶ τρέφει

τὰν Ἅλιος αἰθομέναν δέρκεται

ἄνδρας τε.

“All creatures that the wide earth nourisheth

Which the sun looks on radiant, and mankind.”

And Theognis, 168,

τὸ δʼ ἀτρεκές, ὄλβιος αὐδεὶς

ἀνθρώπων, ὁπόσους ἤελιος καθορᾷ.

“One thing is certain, none of all mankind,

On whom the sun looks down, gains happiness.”

Our English “sublunary” may be noted as conveying an analogous idea.

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
4. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh] The sentence loses in strength by the words inserted in italics. Better, generation passeth and generation cometh. This is, as it were, the first note of vanity. Man, in idea the lord of the earth, is but as a stranger tarrying for a day. As in the touching parable of the Saxon chief, he comes from the darkness as into the light of a festive hall, and then passes into the darkness once again (Bede, Eccl. Hist. ii. c. 14), but the earth which is in idea subject to him boasts a permanence which he cannot claim. In the Hebrew word which answers to “for ever” we have, as elsewhere, an undefined rather than an absolutely infinite duration.

Parallelisms of thought present themselves in Sir 14:19; Job 10:21; Psalm 39:13, and, we may add, in Homer, Il. vi. 146,

οἴη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοιήδε καὶ ἀνδρῶν.

φύλλα τὰ μέν τʼ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θʼ ὓλη

τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἒαρος δʼ ἐπιγίγνεται ὣρη

ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἡ μὲν φύει, ἡ δʼ ἀπολήγει.

“As are the leaves, so is the race of men;

Some the wind scatters on the ground, and some

The fruitful forest, when the springtide comes,

Puts forth; so note we also with mankind;

One comes to life, another falls away.”

It is significant that these lines were ever in the mouth of Pyrrho, the founder of the Greek school of Sceptics (Diog. Laert. ix. 11. 6).

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
5. The sun also ariseth] From the standpoint of modern thought the sun might seem even more than the earth to be the type of permanent existence, but with the Hebrew, who looked on it in its phenomenal aspect, it was not so, and the sun accordingly appears as presenting not a contrast, but a parallel, to human mutability and resultless labour. We are reminded of the Rabbinic legend of Abraham’s looking on the sun, and, when half tempted to adore it, repressing the temptation by watching its going down and saying “The God whom I worship must be a God that does not set.” Koran, Sur. 6. Stanley’s Jewish Church, 1. Lect. 1.

hasteth to his place where he arose] The primary meaning of the first of the two verbs is that of the panting of one who travels quickly. Here again we have to think of the belief that, between the sunset and the sunrise, the sun had a long journey to perform, as the Greeks thought, by the great Ocean river, till it returned to the point where it had risen the day before. Possibly the clouds and mists of the morning were thought of as the panting of the sun, as of “the strong man” who “runs his race” (Psalm 19:5).

Parallels present themselves in Psalm 19:5 (“rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race”) and yet more strikingly in Virgil, Georg. i. 250,

Nosque ubi primus equis Oriens adflavit anhelis,

Illic sera rubens accendit lumina Vesper.

“And when to us the sun with panting steeds

Hastens at dawn, far off the star of eve

There lights her glowing lamp.”

Comp. also Æn. xii. 113.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
6. The wind goeth toward the south] This comes after the sun as exhibiting a like, though more irregular, law of mutability. “South and north” only are named, partly, perhaps, because east and west were implied in the sunrise and sunset of the previous verse, more probably because these were the prevailing currents of air in Palestine. Comp. “Awake, O north wind; blow, O south,” in Song of Solomon 4:16; Sir 43:20; Luke 12:55.

It whirleth about continually] The whole verse gains in poetic emphasis by a more literal rendering, It goeth to the south, and it circleth to the north, circling, circling goeth the wind, and on its circlings returneth the wind. The iteration and order of the words seem to breathe the languor of one who was weary with watching the endless and yet monotonous changes. (Comp. the illustration in Introduction, chap. iii.)

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
7. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full] The words express the wonder of the earliest observers of the phenomena of nature: as they observed, the poet described.

So we have in Aristophanes (Clouds, 1248),

αὕτη μὲν (ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται

ἐπιῤῥεοντων τῶν ποταμῶν, πλείων.

“The sea, though all the rivers flow to it,

Increaseth not in volume.”

Lucretius, representing the physical science of the school of Epicurus, thought it worth his while to give a scientific explanation of the fact:

“Principio, mare mirantur non reddere majus

Naturam, quo sit tantus decursus aquarum.”

“And first men wonder Nature leaves the sea

Not greater than before, though to it flows

So great a rush of waters.”

Lucret. vi. 608.

thither they return again] We are apt to read into the words the theories of modern science as to the evaporation from the sea, the clouds formed by evaporation, the rain falling from the clouds and replenishing the streams. It may be questioned, however, whether that theory, which Lucretius states almost as if it were a discovery, were present to the mind of the Debater and whether he did not rather think of the waters of the ocean filtering through the crevices of the earth and so feeding its wells and fountains. The Epicurean poet himself accepts this as a partial solution of phenomena, and on the view taken in the Introduction as to the date of Ecclesiastes it may well have been known to the author as one of the physical theories of the school of Epicurus. We can scarcely fail, at any rate, to be struck with the close parallelism of expression.

“Postremo quoniam raro cum corpore tellus

Est, et conjuncta est, oras maris undique cingens,

Debet, ut in mare de terris venit umor aquai,

In terras itidem manare ex aequore salso;

Percolatur enim virus, retroque remanat

Materies humoris, et ad caput amnibus omnis

Confluit; inde super terras redit agmine dulci.”

“Lastly since earth has open pores and rare,

And borders on the sea, and girds its shores,

Need must its waters, as from earth to sea

They flow, flow back again from sea to earth,

And so the brackish taint is filtered off

And to the source the water back distils,

And from fresh fountains streams o’er all the fields.”

Lucret. vi. 631–637.

The same thought is found in Homer, Il. xxi. 96,

“Ocean’s strength

From which all rivers flow,”

and is definitely stated in the Chaldee paraphrase of the verse now before us. Comp. also Lucret. v. 270–273. An alternative rendering gives “to the place whither the rivers go, thither they return again” or “thence they return again.”

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
8. All things are full of labour] The Hebrew dabar may mean either “word” or “thing,” and so the sentence admits equally of this or the nearly equivalent rendering, All things are weary with toil and All words are feeble, and each gives, it is obvious, a fairly tenable meaning. The first generalizes as by an induction from the previous instances, that all things (especially, i. e. all human affairs) are alike “stale, flat and unprofitable.” The latter stops in the induction to say that all speech is feeble, that time and strength would fail to go through the catalogue. On the whole, looking to the fact that the verb “utter” is cognate in form with the word translated “things,” the latter seems more closely in harmony with the context. We might fairly express the force of the Hebrew by saying All speech fails; man cannot speak it. The seeming tautology gives the sentence the emphasis of iteration. So the LXX. and the Targum.

the eye is not satisfied with seeing] The thought is limited by the context. It is not that the Debater speaks of the cravings of sight and hearing for ever-new objects, true as that might be; but that wherever the eye or the ear turn, the same sad tale meets them, the same paradox of an unvarying record of endless yet monotonous version. The state which Lucretius (ii. 1037) describes, probably as echoing Epicurus, that of one “fessus satiate videndi,” presents a parallelism too striking to be passed over.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
9. The thing that hath been] What has been affirmed of natural phenomena is now repeated of the events of human life. The writer reproduces or anticipates the Stoic doctrine of a recurring cycle of events which we find reproduced in Virgil:

“Magnus ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo.

Alter erit tum Tiphys, et altera quæ vehat Argo

Delectos heroas; erunt etiam altera bella,

Atque iterum ad Troiam magnus mittetur Achilles.”

“Lo! the great cycle runs its course anew:

A second Tiphys springs to life, and steers

A second Argo with its warrior freight

Of chosen heroes, and new wars arise,

And once again Achilles sails for Troy.”

Virg. Ecl. iv. 5, 34–36.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
10. Is there any thing] A man may challenge, the writer seems to say, the sweeping assertion just uttered. He may point to some new phenomenon, some new empire, some invention of art, or discovery of science. It is all to no purpose. It has been before in the vast æons (the Hebrew word for “of old time” is the plural of that commonly translated “age” or “eternity”) of the recorded or unrecorded past. It is but an oblivion of what has been that makes us look to that which is to be as introducing a new element in the world’s history. The thought was a favourite one with the Stoics. For a full account of their doctrine on this point see Zeller’s Stoics and Epicureans, ch. 7. Aurelius does but sum up the teaching of the school, where he says, almost in the very words of Ecclesiastes, that “they that come after us will see nothing new, and that they who went before us saw nothing more than we have seen” (Meditt. xi. 1). “There is nothing new” (Ibid. vii. 1). “All things that come to pass now have come to pass before and will come to pass hereafter” (Ibid. vii. 26). So Seneca (Ep. xxiv.), “Omnia transeunt ut revertantur; Nil novi video, nil novi facio.” (“All things pass away that they may return again; I see nothing new, I do nothing new.”)

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
11. There is no remembrance of former things] Better, of former men, or of those of old time, and so in the next clause of those that shall come after. The thought of the oblivion of the past, suggested in the previous verse, as explaining the fact that some things seem new to us which are not so, is reproduced in another aspect as yet a new element in the pessimism into which the writer has fallen. Men dream of a fame that shall outlive them. How few of those that went before them do they remember even by name? How little do they know even of those whose names have survived amid the wreck that has engulfed others? What does it profit to be famous now, just known by name to the generation that follows, and then forgotten altogether? Comp. a striking passage to the same effect in Jeremy Taylor’s Contemplations of the State of Man, ch. 3, “The name of Echebar was thought by his subjects to be eternal, and that all the world did not only know but fear him; but ask here in Europe who he was, and no man hath heard of him; demand of the most learned, and few shall resolve you that he reigned in Magor,” and Marc. Aurel. Meditt. ii. 17, ἡ ὑστεροφημία, λήθη, “posthumous fame is but oblivion.” So ends the prologue of the book, sounding its terrible sentence of despair on life and all its interests. It is hardly possible to turn to the later work, which also purports to represent the Wisdom of Solomon, without feeling that its author deliberately aimed at setting forth another aspect of things. He reproduces well-nigh the very words of the prologue, “the breath of our nostrils is as smoke” … “our name shall be forgotten in time: our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud” … but he puts all this into the mouth not of his ideal Solomon but of “ungodly men, … reasoning with themselves but not aright,” Wis 2:1-5, and shews how it leads first to sensuous self-indulgence, and then to deliberate oppression, and persistent antagonism to God. (See Introduction, chap. v.)

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
12. I the Preacher was king over Israel] Better, “I … have been king.” It would, perhaps, be too much to say that this mode of introducing himself, is so artificial as to exclude, as some have thought, the authorship of the historical Solomon. Louis XIV.’s way of speaking of himself “Quand ĵ etois roi” may well have had its parallel, as Mr Bullock suggests in the Speaker’s Commentary, in the old age of another king weary of the trappings and the garb of Majesty. As little, however, can they be held to prove that authorship. A writer aiming at a dramatic impersonation of his idea of Solomon would naturally adopt some such form as this and might, perhaps, adopt it in order to indicate that it was an impersonation. The manner in which the son of David appears in Wis 7:1-15 presents at once a parallel and a contrast.

And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
13. I gave my heart] The phrase, so expressive of the spirit of an earnest seeker, is eminently characteristic of this book and meets us again in Ecclesiastes 1:17, chaps. Ecclesiastes 7:25, Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16. Like forms are found in Isai. 41:42; Psalm 48:14. “Heart” with the Hebrews, it may be noticed, is the seat of the intellect as well as the affections, and “to give the heart” is therefore specially expressive of an act of concentrated mental energy. The all that is done under heaven (we note the variation of phrase from the “under the sun” of Ecclesiastes 1:9) takes in the whole range of human action as distinct from the cosmical phenomena of Ecclesiastes 1:5-7. The enquiry of the seeker was throughout one of ethical rather than physical investigation.

this sore travail] The words express the feeling with which the writer looked back on his inquiry. It had led to no satisfying result, and the first occurrence of the name of God in the book is coupled with the thought that this profitless search was His appointment. He gave the desire but, so the preacher murmurs in his real or seeming pessimism, not the full Truth in which only the desire can rest. The word for “travail” is peculiar to this book. That for “exercised” is formed from the same root.

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
14. all is vanity and vexation of spirit] The familiar words, though they fall in with the Debater’s tone and have the support of the Vulg. “afflictio spiritus,” hardly express the meaning of the Hebrew and we must read “vanity and feeding upon wind.” The phrase has its parallel in Hosea 12:2 (“Ephraim feedeth on wind”) and Isaiah 44:20 (“feedeth on ashes”) and expresses, with a bold vividness, the sense of emptiness which accompanies unsatisfied desire. Most commentators, however, prefer the rendering “striving after the wind” or “windy effort,” but “feeding” expresses, it is believed, the meaning of the Hebrew more closely. The LXX. gives προαίρεσις πνεύματος (= resolve of wind, i.e. fleeting and unsubstantial). Symmachus gives βόσκησις and Aquila νομή (= feeding). The word in question occurs seven times in Ecclesiastes but is not found elsewhere. The rendering “vexation” rests apparently on a false etymology.

That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
15. That which is crooked] The words are apparently a proverbial saying quoted as already current. The complaint is that the search after wisdom brings the seeker face to face with anomalies and defects, which yet he cannot rectify. The Hebrew words are not the same, but we may, perhaps, trace an allusive reference to the promise of Isaiah 40:4 that “the crooked shall be made straight,” and the Debater in his present mood looks on this also as a delusive dream. There is nothing left but to take things as they are and “accept the inevitable.” Comp. chap. Ecclesiastes 7:13, as expressing the same thought.

that which is wanting] The second clause presents the negative aspect of the world’s defects as “crooked” did the positive. Everywhere, if there is nothing absolutely evil, there is an “incompleteness” which we cannot remedy, any more than our skill in arithmetic can make up for a deficit which stares us in the face when we look into an account, and the seeker had not as yet attained to the faith which sees beyond that incompleteness the ultimate completeness of the Divine order.

I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
16. Lo, I am come to great estate] The pronoun is used emphatically. The verb in the Hebrew is connected closely with what follows and speaks not of outward majesty but of “becoming great,” in wisdom. So taken we may read, “I became great and increased in wisdom more than all.” We note again, as in Ecclesiastes 1:13, the kind of dialogue which the Debater holds with his inner consciousness. He “communes with his heart” (comp. Psalm 4:4; Psalm 77:6). So Marcus Aurelius gave to the book which we call his Meditations, the title τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν—literally, “Things for myself” or “Self-communings.”

they that have been before me in Jerusalem] Better, “over Jerusalem.” Those who maintain the late origin of the book point to this apparent retrospect over a long series of predecessors as betraying, or possibly as intended to indicate, the pseudonymous authorship. The historical Solomon, it is said, had but one predecessor over Jerusalem. The inference is, however, scarcely conclusive. Even on the theory of personated authorship, the writer would scarcely have slipped into so glaring an anachronism, and the words admit of being referred, on either view, either to the line of unknown Jebusite rulers, including perhaps Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), Adonizedek (Joshua 15:63; 2 Samuel 5:7) and others, or to the sages “Ethan the Ezrahite and Heman and Chalcol and Darda the sons of Mahol,” who are named in 1 Kings 4:31, and who may, in some sense, as teachers and guides, have been “over” as well as “in” Jerusalem. Some MSS. indeed give the preposition “in” instead of “over.”

my heart had great experience] More literally, and at the same time more poetically, my heart hath seen much wisdom and knowledge. The two nouns are related, like the Greek σοφία and ἐπιστημὴ, the former expressing the ethical, the latter the speculative, scientific side of knowledge.

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
17. And I gave my heart] The apparent iteration of the phrase of Ecclesiastes 1:13 expresses the concentration of purpose. The writer adds that his search took a yet wider range. He sought to know wisdom through its opposite, to enlarge his experience of the diseases of human thought. He had fathomed the depths of the “madness and folly;” the former word expressing in Hebrew as in English the wilder forms of unwisdom. There is, perhaps, a touch of self-mockery in the fact that the latter word in the Hebrew is all but identical in sound with a word which means “prudence.” One, the writer seems to say, has the same issue as the other. Some critics, indeed (e.g. Ginsburg), think that the present text originated in an error of transcription and that we ought to read “to know wisdom and knowledge.” It has been thought and, as stated in the Introduction (chap. ii.), with some reason, that in the use of the stronger word we have an echo of the current language of the Stoics who looked on all the weaknesses of mankind as so many forms of insanity. So Horace (Sat. ii. 3. 43),

“Quem mala stultitia et quemcunque inscitia veri

Cæcum agit, insanum Chrysippi porticus et grex

Autumat. Hæc populos, hæc magnos formula reges,

Excepto sapiente, tenet.”

“Him, whom weak folly leads in blindness on,

Unknowing of the Truth, the Porch and tribe

Who call Chrysippus Master, treat as mad.

Peoples and mighty kings, all but the wise

This formula embraces.”

So also Diog. Laert. vii. 124,

λέγουσι πάντας τοὺς ἄφρονας μαίνεσθαι.

“All that are foolish they pronounce insane.”

vexation of spirit] Better, feeding on wind, as before. See note on Ecclesiastes 1:14. The word is, however, not identical in form, but expresses a more concrete idea. By some it is rendered “meditation.” The fact that the writer uses a word not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, suggests the thought that he wanted a new word for the expression of a new thought.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
18. in much wisdom is much grief] The same sad sentence was written on the study of man’s nature in its greatness and its littleness, its sanity and insanity. The words have passed into a proverb, and were, perhaps, proverbial when the Debater wrote them. The mere widening of the horizon, whether of ethical or of physical knowledge, brought no satisfaction. In the former case men became more conscious of their distance from the true ideal. They ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the only result was that they knew that “they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). In the latter, the more they knew of the phenomena of nature or of human life the more they felt that the “most part of God’s works were hid.” Add to this the brain-weariness, the laborious days, the sleepless nights, the frustrated ambitions of the student, and we can understand the confession of the Debater. It has naturally been often echoed. So Cicero (Tusc. Disp. iii. 4) discusses the thesis, “Videtur mihi cadere in sapientem ægritudo” (“Sickness seems to me to be the lot of the wise of heart”).

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