Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men:1. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun] The picture is substantially the same as that of ch. Ecclesiastes 4:7-8. The repetition is characteristic, consciously or unconsciously, of the pessimism from which the writer has not yet emancipated himself. He broods over the same thought, chews, as it were, the “cud of bitter fancies” only, “semper eandem canens cantilenam.” Here the picture is that of a man who has all outward goods in abundance, but he just lacks that capacity for enjoyment which is (as in ch. Ecclesiastes 5:20) the “gift of God,” and he dies childless and a stranger becomes the heir. We are reminded of the aged patriarch’s exclamation, “I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus” (Genesis 15:2).
A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.
If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he.3. If a man beget an hundred children] A case is put, the very opposite of that described in the preceding verse. Instead of being childless the rich man may have children, and children’s children; may live out all his days. What then? Unless his “soul be filled with good,” unless there is the capacity for enjoyment, life is not worth living. Still, as before, “it were good never to have been born.” We may probably trace an allusive reference to Artaxerxes Mnemon, who is reported to have had 115 children, and who died of grief at the age of 94, at the suicide of one of his sons, and the murder of another, both caused by a third son, Ochus, who succeeded him (Justin, x. 1).
and also that he have no burial] The sequence of thought seems at first strange. Why should this be, from the writer’s standpoint, as the climax of sorrow? Why should he who had noted so keenly the vanities of life put seemingly so high a value on that which comes when life is over and done with? Some writers have felt this so strongly, that they have suggested the interpretation, “even if there be no grave waiting for him,” i.e. even if he were to live for ever. The natural meaning is, however, tenable enough, and we have once more an echo of Greek teaching. Solon had taught that we are not to call any man happy before his death, and by implication, in his story of the sons of Tellus, had made the prospect of posthumous honour an element of happiness (Herod. i. 30). So, in like manner, it was the direst of woes for a man to know that he “should be buried with the burial of an ass” (Jeremiah 22:19), or, in Homeric phrase, that his body should be “cast out to dogs and vultures.” How could any man, however rich and powerful, be sure that that fate might not be in store for him? On the assumption of the late date of the book, there may be a reference to the death of Artaxerxes Ochus, who was murdered by the eunuch Bagoas, and his body thrown to the cats. Possibly, Koheleth himself may have had some reason for an anxious doubt, whether the honours of sepulture would be his. If, as seems likely, he was a stranger in a strange land, alone and with no child to succeed him, perhaps with a name cast out as evil or heretical, there was small chance of his being laid to rest in the sepulchre of his fathers. See the “Ideal Biography,” Introduction, ch. iii.
an untimely birth is better than he] The thought of ch. Ecclesiastes 4:3 is reproduced, but in a somewhat less generalized form. There, never to have been born, is asserted, after the manner of the Greek maxims quoted in the notes, to be better than existence of any kind. Here the assertion is limited to the comparison with the joyless pursuit of wealth. The “untimely birth” was the natural emblem of all abortive enterprise (Job 3:16; Psalm 58:8).
For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness.4. he cometh in with vanity] The pronoun in the English Version refers the clause to the man who has heaped up riches, and had a long life with no real enjoyment. Probably, however, the words describe, in harmony with the thought of the preceding verse, the portion of the still-born child. It comes and goes, and is forgotten, and never sees the sun, and tastes not the misery of life. The last clause of Ecclesiastes 6:5, there is rest to this rather than to that (“rest” idealised, as in Job 3:13, as in itself all but the supreme good that man can strive after), seems to make this construction certain. Possibly, however, the description of Ecclesiastes 6:4 is made to apply in part to both terms of the comparison, so that it may be seen, on which side, both having so much in common, the balance of advantage lies. On “seeing the sun” as an equivalent for living, see chs. Ecclesiastes 7:11, Ecclesiastes 11:7; Job 3:16; Psalm 49:20.
Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other.
Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place?6. Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told] The weariness of life carries the thinker yet further. Carry it to the furthest point conceivable, and still the result is the same. The longer it is, the fuller of misery and woe. The thought finds, as before, a parallel in the speech of Solon to Crœsus (Herod. i. 32). The man goes to the same place,—to the dark, dreary world of Sheol, perhaps even to a more entire annihilation than was implied in the Hebrew thought of that unseen world,—as the abortive birth, with nothing but an accumulated experience of wretchedness. Depression could go no further. See the poem of Omar Khayyam in the Appendix.
All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.7. All the labour of man is for his mouth] i.e. for self-preservation and enjoyment. That is assumed to be the universal aim, and yet even that is not satisfied. The “appetite,” literally soul (not the higher, but the sensuous, element in man’s nature), still craves for more. Desire is progressive, and insatiable.
For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living?8. For what hath wise more than the fool?] The question so far is easy. In this matter, the gifts of intellect make no difference. The wise, no less than the fool, is subject to the pressure of bodily necessities, and has to labour for them. The second clause is somewhat less clear. Of the many interpretations that have been given, two have most to commend them, (1) supplying the subject of comparison from the first clause, what advantage hath the poor that knows to walk before the living (i.e. that has learnt the art to live) over the fool (who is the mere slave of appetite)? what does wisdom and self-control and freedom from the snares of wealth really profit him? and (2), treating the sentence as elliptical, What advantage hath the poor over him who knows how to walk before the living (i.e. the man of high birth or station, who lives in public, with the eyes of men on him)? The latter explanation has the merit of giving a more balanced symmetry to the two clauses. The question, with its implied answer, seems at first at variance with the praise of the lot of the labouring poor in ch. Ecclesiastes 5:12, “Don’t trust,” the writer seems to say in his half-cynical, half-ironical mood, “even to poverty, as a condition of happiness. The poor man is as open to cares and anxieties as the man of culture and refinement. After all, poor and rich stand on nearly the same level.”
Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.9. Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire] Literally, than the wandering of the soul. The truth is substantially that embodied in the fable of “the dog and his shadow” and in proverbs like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” To enjoy what we actually see, i.e. present opportunities, however limited, is better than the cravings of a limitless desire, “wandering” at will through all the region of possibilities. In that wandering, there is once more the feeding upon wind. Perhaps, however, that sentence is passed with an intentional ambiguity, characteristic of the writer (see note on Ecclesiastes 6:9), upon the actual present enjoyment, as well as on the unsatisfied desire, or upon the bare fact that the former with its lower aims is better than the latter with its higher ones.
That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he.10. That which hath been is named already] The maxim is enigmatic. As viewed by many commentators, it asserts that man is the creature of a destiny, which he cannot resist. Long ago, in the far eternity, his name has been written, and what he will be. He cannot plead against the Power that is mightier than himself, i.e. against God. There is nothing left but submission. So taken, the words have a parallel in all utterances in the Bible, or out of it, that assert, or seem to assert, an absolutely predestinating fatalism (Isaiah 45:9; Acts 15:18; Romans 9:20). In such a fatalism, reconciled in some way or other with man’s freedom and responsibility, both the Stoics and Pharisees believed, and so far there would be nothing strange in finding a like maxim in a book which contains so many mingled and heterogeneous elements, both Greek and Jewish, of oscillating thought. There are, however, what seem sufficient reasons for rejecting this interpretation. The word for “already,” which occurs only in this book (chs. Ecclesiastes 1:10, Ecclesiastes 2:12, Ecclesiastes 3:15), is never used of the eternity of the Divine decrees, but, as the passages referred to shew, of that which belongs essentially to human history; that for “mightier,” found in the O. T. only here and in Ezra 4:20; Daniel 2:40; Daniel 2:42; Daniel 4:3; Daniel 7:7, is not used, in any of these passages, of God. The sequence of thought leads the writer to dwell on the shortness of man’s life, rather than on its subjection to a destiny. The following explanation gives that sequence more clearly, What he is, long ago his name was called. In the last words we find a reference to Genesis 2:7, where the name of Adam (= man) is connected with Adamah (= the ground), as homo was, by older philologists, derived ex humo. The very name of man bore witness to his frailty. This being so, he cannot take his stand in the cause, which one “mightier” than himself pleads against him. Death is that mightier one, and will assert his power. So taken, the thought is continuous and harmonious throughout.
Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?11. there be many things that increase vanity] The Hebrew noun, as so often throughout the book, may stand either for things or words. In the former case, the maxim points to the pressure of affairs, what we call “business,” the cares about many things, which make men feel the hollowness of life. In the latter, it probably refers to the speculative discussions on the chief good, destiny, and the like, which were rife in the schools both of Jews and Greeks, and finds a parallel in ch. Ecclesiastes 12:12, and in Milton’s description of like debates, as to
“Fixed fate, free will, fore-knowledge absolute;
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.”
The latter fits in best with the explanation which refers the previous verse to the Divine decrees, the former with that which has been adopted here.
what is man the better] Literally, what profit (the word is another form of that which occurs so frequently), what outcome, is there for man?
For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?12. who knoweth what is good for man] We have once more the distinctive formula of Pyrrhonism. “Who knows?” was the sceptic’s question, then as at all times. See note on ch. Ecclesiastes 3:21. After all discussions on the supreme good, some pointing to pleasure, and some to virtue, and some to apathy, who can give a definite and decisive answer? Life remained after all vain, and not worth living. See again the poem of Omar Khayyam in the Appendix.
which he spendeth as a shadow] The thought was so natural as to be all but universal. It had been uttered by Job (Ecclesiastes 8:9), and by David (1 Chronicles 29:15). It was uttered also by Sophocles:
ὁρῶ γὰρ ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ὄντας ἄλλο, πλὴν
εἴδωλʼ, ὅσοιπερ ζῶμεν, ἢ κούφην σκιάν.
“In this I see that we, all we that live,
Are but vain shadows, unsubstantial dreams.”
for who can tell a man] Man’s ignorance of the future, of what may become of children or estate, is, as before in chs. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19; Ecclesiastes 4:7, another element in the “vanity” of human life. Granted that it is long and prosperous to the end, still the man is vexed or harassed with the thought that his work may be all undone, his treasures wasted, his plans frustrated.