Ecclesiastes 9
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.
For all this I considered in my heart] More literally, For to all this I gave my heart to dig through, i.e. to explain and penetrate to the secret of the great enigma of life.

that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God] The words hover, as it were, between the thought of Destiny and Providence, the latter, perhaps, slightly predominating. The wise and good need not despair, though they remain in ignorance of the working of the Divine Will. It is enough for them to know that they are in Its power, under Its care, and that It is in its essence as righteous as It is almighty.

no man knoweth either love or hatred] The words have been differently interpreted according as the “love” and “hatred” are referred to God or man. In the former case, the thought would be, that as things are, no man knows by the outward events of his life whether he is the object of God’s favour or displeasure, in the latter that no man knows who, as he passes through life, will be the objects of his love or hate. Both interpretations are tenable, but the former seems more in harmony with what follows. The latter has the interest of finding a parallel in the thought of Sophocles as to the mutability of human life:

φθίνει μὲν ἰσχὺς γῆς, φθίνει δὲ σώματος,

θνήσκει δὲ πίστις, βλαστάνει δʼ ἀπιστία,

καὶ πνεῦμα ταὐτὸν οὔ ποτʼ οὔτʼ ἐν ἀνδράσιν

φίλοις βέβηκεν, οὔτε πρὸς πόλιν πόλει.

τοῖς μέν γὰρ ἤδη, τοῖς δʼ ἐν ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ

τὰ τερπνὰ πικρὰ γίγνεται καὖθις φίλα.

“Earth’s strength doth wither, withers strength of limb,

And trust dies out, and mistrust grows apace,

And the same spirit lasts not among them

Who once were friends, nor joineth state with state.

To these at once, to those in after years,

Sweet things grow bitter, then turn sweet again.”

Œd. Col. 610–615.

by all that is before them] Better, all is before them. i. e. as in what follows: all chances and changes of life coming from love or wrath, are possible in the future.

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.
2. All things come alike to all] As before, the seeker sees no order or purpose in the chances and changes of life. Earthquakes, pestilences, tempests make no discrimination between good and evil. As with the melancholy emphasis of iteration, the various forms of contrasted characters are grouped together. “The righteous and the wicked” point to men’s conduct relative to their neighbours, the “good and pure” (the first word is probably added to shew that a moral and not merely a ceremonial purity is meant) to what we call “self-regarding” actions, the self-reverence of purity in act and thought. “Sacrifice” is the outward expression of man’s relation to God. “The good” and “the sinner” are wider in their range and express the totality of character. The last group is not without difficulty. As commonly interpreted, “he that sweareth” is the man who swears falsely or rashly, as in Zechariah 5:3, he “that feareth an oath” is either the man who looks on its obligation with a solemn awe, or one whose communication is Yea, yea, Nay, nay, and who shrinks in reverential awe from any formal use of the Divine Name. On this view, the words probably point to the tendency of thought which was developed in the teaching of the Essenes, who placed every oath on the same level as perjury (Jos. Wars, ii. 8, § 6), and was in part sanctioned in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37). It may be noted, however, that in all the other groups, the good side is placed first, and I do not feel quite sure that it is not so in this case also. The man “that sweareth” may be he who does what most religious Jews held to be their duty, truthfully and well (comp Deuteronomy 6:13; Isaiah 65:16; Psalm 63:11), he who “fears the oath,” may be the man whose “coward conscience” makes him shrink from the oath either of compurgation on the part of an accused person (comp. Aristot. Rhet. i. 27), or of testimony. The former was in frequent use in Jewish as in Greek trials. Comp. Exodus 22:10-11; 1 Kings 8:31; 2 Chronicles 6:22; Numbers 5:19-22. It may be added that this view agrees better with the language about “the oath of God” in ch. Ecclesiastes 5:2.

This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
3. This is an evil among all things] The pessimism of the thinker returns once more upon him, and he falls into the strain which we have heard before in chs. Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, Ecclesiastes 3:19, Ecclesiastes 5:15, Ecclesiastes 6:12. The great leveller comes and sweeps away all distinctions, and there is no assured hope of immortality. Life is “evil” even while it lasts, and death is the same for all, when the curtain drops on the great drama.

madness is in their heart while they live] The “madness” is that of chs. Ecclesiastes 1:17, Ecclesiastes 2:12. All man’s life, in its vain strivings, its fond hopes, its wild desires, seems to the pessimist but as the “delirantium somnia.” The English version seems to imply that the writer laid stress on the fact that the evildoers did not continue in existence to bear the penalty they deserved, but rested in the grave like others;

“After life’s fitful fever they sleep well,”

but it is rather the Epicurean thought of death as the common lot, and the sigh with which it is uttered is, as it were, the unconscious protest of the philosophising Hebrew against the outcome of his philosophy. In what he heard of as a “short life and merry” he finds an insanity that ends in nothingness.

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
4. For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope] A different and preferable punctuation gives the rendering: For who is specially chosen, i.e. who is excepted from the common lot of death. To all the living there is hope. The passage has, however, received many conflicting interpretations, of which this seems, on the whole, the best. It was quite after the tone of Greek thought to find in the inextinguishable hope which survives in most men even to the end, even though the hope does not stretch beyond the horizon of the grave, their one consolation, that which made life at least liveable, even if not worth living. So Hope was found at the bottom of Pandora’s treasure-chest of evils. So Sophocles:

ἂ γὰρ δὴ πολύπλαγκτος ἐλπὶς πολλοῖς μέν ὄνασις ἀνδρῶν.

“For unto men comes many-wandering hope,

Bringing vain joy.”

Antig. 613.

a living dog is better than a dead lion] The point of the proverb lies, of course, in the Eastern estimate of the dog as the vilest of all animals (1 Samuel 17:43; Psalm 69:6; 2 Kings 8:13; Matthew 7:6; Matthew 15:26; Revelation 22:15, et al.), while the lion, with both Jew and Greek, was, as the king of beasts (Proverbs 30:30), the natural symbol of human sovereignty. A like proverb is found in Arabic.

The pessimist view of life, co-existing with the shrinking from death, finds a parallel in Euripides (Hippol. 190–197):

πᾶς δʼ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων,

κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις

ἀλλʼ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο

σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις

δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθʼ ὄντες

τοῦ δʼ• ὅτι τοῦτο στίλβοι κατὰ γᾶν.

διʼ ἀπειροσύναν ἄλλου βιότου,

κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας.

“Yea, every life of man is full of grief,

Nor is there any respite from his toils:

But whatsoe’er is dearer than our life,

Darkness comes o’er it, covering all with clouds;

And yet of this we seem all madly fond,

For this at least is bright upon the earth,

Through utter nescience of a life elsewhere,

And the ‘no-proof’ of all beneath the earth.”

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
5. For the living know that they shall die] The writer in one of the strange paradoxes of the mood of pessimism finds that though life is vanity, it is yet better than the death which he looks upon as its only outcome. There is a greatness in the very consciousness of the coming doom. Man, knowing he must perish and lamenting over his fate, is nobler than those that are already numbered with the dead. There is a pride even in the cry with which those who enter on the arena as doomed to death greet the sovereign Power that dooms them:

“Ave, Cæsar; morituri te salutamus.”

“Hail to thee Cæsar, hail! on our way to our death-doom we greet thee.”

They were nobler then than when their bleeding and mangled car-cases on the arena were all that was left of them.

neither have they any more a reward] The words exclude the thought (in the then phase of the Debater’s feeling) of reward in a life after death, but the primary meaning of the word is that of “hire” and “wages” (Genesis 30:28; Exodus 2:9), and the idea conveyed is that the dead no longer find, as on earth, that which rewards their labour. There is no longer even death to look forward to as the wages of his life.

So we have in Shakespeare:

“Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.”

Cymbeline, Act iv., Sc. 2.

for the memory of them is forgotten] The Hebrew gives an assonance between “reward” (sheker) and “memory” (zeker), which it is hard to reproduce in English. “Reward” and “record” suggest themselves as the nearest approximation. For the thought see note on ch. Ecclesiastes 1:11. Even the immortality of living in the memory of others, which modern thinkers have substituted for the Christian hope, is denied to the vast majority of mankind.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
6. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished] The three passions are named as strongest and most vehement in their action. Even these are all hushed in the calm of the grave. There are no passions there, and the deadliest foes, rival statesmen and bitter controversialists, rest side by side together. The thought of the state of the dead stands on nearly the same level as that of the elegy of Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:9-20).

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
7. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy] The Debater falls back, as before, on the Epicurean rule of tranquil regulated enjoyment, as in chs. Ecclesiastes 2:24, Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22, Ecclesiastes 5:18. Life was after all liveable, if a man would but set himself to look at its brighter side. The specific mention of “wine” for the first time in this connexion does not imply anything more than the moderate use of it commended in Proverbs 31:6; Psalm 104:15. What is asserted, is that asceticism is not the right remedy for pessimism. Experience indeed seems to shew that too often it does but intensify it. Whatever else might be doubtful, if such a life were accepted as God’s gift (chs. Ecclesiastes 2:24, Ecclesiastes 8:15), He approved of the deeds of the man who so lived. The “other, and more cheerful, voice” utters a protest against the mere gloom of despair. We have oscillations of thought, but not, as some have supposed, the maxims of a sensualist introduced only to be condemned.

Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
8. Let thy garments be always white] In the symbolism of colours, so universal that we may almost call it natural, white garments, cool and refreshing in the heat of an Eastern climate, have always been associated with the idea of purity and joy (2 Chronicles 5:12; Esther 8:15). In the religious symbolism of Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 3:18; Revelation 6:11, the idea of purity is, perhaps, predominant over that of joy. So in Roman life the term “albatus” (clothed in white garments) was used of one who took part in a festive banquet (Hor. Sat. ii. 2. 61; Cic. in Vatin. c. 13). A singular instance of literalism is recorded in the life of Sisinnius, the Novatian bishop of Constantinople, who, as in obedience to this precept, never wore any but white garments (Socr. H. E. vi. 21). Chrysostom censures his ostentation.

let thy head lack no ointment] Here, again, illustrations from Hebrew, Greek and Roman life crowd on us. We think of the “oil of gladness” of Psalm 45:7; the “oil of joy” of Isaiah 61:3; of “the sweet smell” of Isaiah 3:24; of “the costly wine and ointments” of Wis 2:7; of the “perfusus liquidis odoribus” of Hor. Od. i. 5; of the “Assyriaque nardo potamus uncti” (“let us drink anointed with Assyrian nard”) of Hor. Od. ii. 11.

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
9. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest] The absence of the article from the Hebrew noun for “woman” has been wrongly pressed by interpreters who see in the Debater the advocate of sensuality, as indicating indifference to the marriage union (“live joyfully with a woman whom thou lovest, whether wife or not”), and is simply the indefinite form natural to a general maxim. So we should say naturally “live with a wife whom you love.” The conclusion in which the writer for the present rests is that while sensual indulgence in excess leads to misery and shame, and brings men into contact with the most hateful form of womanhood (chs. Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 7:26), there is a calm peacefulness in the life of a happy home, which, though it cannot remove the sense of the “vanity” and transitoriness of life, at least makes it endurable. If there is, as some have thought, an undertone of irony, it is one which springs from a sympathy with the joy as well as the sorrow of life, and not that of a morose cynicism, saying, “enjoy … if you can.”

all the days of thy vanity] The iteration emphasizes the wisdom of making the most of the few days of life. The thought is essentially the same as that expressed in the Carpe diem of Hor. Od. i. 11.

that is thy portion in this life] This, the calm regulated enjoyment of the wiser Epicureans.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
10. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do] Here again men have interpreted the maxim according to their characters; some seeing in “whatsoever thy hand findeth” simply opportunities for enjoyment; others taking the precept as meaning practically, “do whatever thou hast strength to do, let might be right with thee;” others, as it seems, more truly, finding in it a call to work as well as enjoyment; to work as the condition of enjoyment (chs. Ecclesiastes 1:14, Ecclesiastes 5:12). It may be questioned whether the word for “work” is ever used of mere activity in sensual pleasure. For the phrase “whatsoever thy hand findeth” see the marginal reading of 1 Samuel 10:7; Jdg 9:33.

for there is no work, nor device] The words find a parallel, though in a far higher region, and with a far nobler meaning, in those which were spoken by the Son of Man, “I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work” (John 9:4). From the standpoint of the Debater the region behind the veil, if there be a region there, is seen as a shadow-world in which all the energies that belong to a man as a “being of large discourse looking before and after” are hushed in the deep sleep of death. The common saying, often in men’s mouths as if it came from the Bible, “There is no repentance in the grave,” is probably an echo of this passage. It is obvious, however, that the state of the dead which is in the writer’s thoughts approximates to a theory of annihilation rather than to that of a state of torment in which repentance is impossible or unavailing. The “grave” stands as elsewhere (Job 7:9; Psalm 6:5, et al.) for the Hebrew Sheôl, the Hades of the Greek, the unseen world of the dead. It is noticeable that this is the only passage in the book in which the word occurs.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
11. that the race is not to the swift] The sequence of thought is that while it is a man’s wisdom to do the work which he finds ready to his hand, he must not reckon on immediate and visible results. The course of the world witnesses many apparent failures even where men fulfil the apparent conditions of success. The wise and skilful often gain neither “bread” nor “favour,” and the injustice of fortune is worse than that painted in the words of the Satirist, “Probitas laudatur et alget” (Juven. i. 74). So a poet of our own time has sung,

“Oh, if we draw a circle premature,

Heedless of far gain,

Greedy of quick return of profits, sure

Bad is our bargain.”

Browning. A Grammarian’s Funeral.

The thought of “the race” seems to belong to a time when contests of this nature had become familiar to the dwellers in Palestine, i.e. after they had come in contact with Greek habits, and is so far an argument for the later date of the book. In 1Ma 1:14; 2Ma 4:9-14, games of this kind are said to have been introduced in Jerusalem under Antiochus Epiphanes. On the assumption of Alexandrian authorship we may think of the hippodrome of that city as present to the writer’s mind.

time and chance] The first word is that which is so prominent in ch. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; the second is found elsewhere only in 1 Kings 5:4, where it is translated “occurrent,” the latter word being used, as commonly in the English of the 16th and 17th centuries, as a substantive. So in Shakespeare we have “So tell him, with the occurrents more and less,” in Hamlet, Ecclesiastes 9:2.

For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.
12. as the fishes that are taken in an evil net] The words paint vividly the suddenness of calamities which defeat all men’s purposes and plans. The imagery was a natural one in any country, and meets us in Hosea 7; Ezekiel 12:13; Ezekiel 32:3; Proverbs 7:23; but it is interesting to note a parallel in the poetry of Greece. So Æschylus:

ἥτʼ ἐπὶ Τροίας πύργοις ἔβαλες

στεγανὸν δίκτυον, ὡς μήτε μέγαν

μήτʼ οὗν νεαρῶν τινʼ ὑπερτελέσαι

μέγα δουλείας

γάγγαμον, ἄτης παναλώτου.

“Who upon the towers of Troïa

Castedst snare of closest meshes,

So that none, full-grown or youthful,

Could o’erleap the net of bondage,

Woe of universal capture.”

Agam. 347–350.

We may compare the parallels, for the illustration drawn from the “snare of the fowler,” of Psalm 91:3; Psalm 124:7; Proverbs 1:17; Proverbs 6:5.

This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me:
13. This wisdom have I seen also] The Debater points the moral of his previous maxim by a special illustration and it can scarcely be doubted that it was one which his first readers would recognise, though the nature of his method led him to speak as in hints and dark sayings, eschewing the historical element altogether, except so far as men might be able to read between the lines.

There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:
14. there was a little city] The city has been identified by one commentator (Hitzig) with Dora, which was besieged unsuccessfully by Antiochus the Great in b.c. 218 (Polyb. 9:66). Josephus describes it, in his narrative of its siege by Antiochus Sidetes (Ant. xiii. 7, § 2), as “a city hard to be taken,” but we know nothing of any special incidents corresponding to the allusion in this passage. The term “great king” fits in with the hypothesis, as also does the fact that the siege was raised, but that is all. The spiritualising interpretations which have found favour with Jewish and Christian commentators, in which the history represents something like the attack of Satan on the town of Mansoul (as in Bunyan’s Holy War), must be rejected as altogether arbitrary and fantastic.

and built great bulwarks against it] The “bulwarks,” as in the Old Testament generally, are the out-works of the besiegers, the banks or mounds from which missiles were thrown into the city (comp. Deuteronomy 20:20; 2 Samuel 20:15; 2 Chronicles 26:15).

Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.
15. and he by his wisdom delivered the city] The history of the siege of Abel-beth-Maachah in 2 Samuel 20:14-20 presents a suggestive parallel, but there the wisdom that delivered the city was that of a woman.

Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.
16. Wisdom is better than strength] The maxim of ch. Ecclesiastes 7:19 is reproduced, but it is traversed by the fact that the wisdom must often be content to remain unrecognised. The power of the purse too often prevails against the wisdom of the poor. At the best, often, in words already quoted (Ecclesiastes 9:11),

“Probitas laudatur et alget.”

“Virtue is praised, and left out in the cold.”

Juvenal, Sat. i. 74.

The marginal reference in the A. V. to Mark 6:2-3 is not without significance as indicating the highest illustration of the maxim, in the question which asked “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is he not himself a carpenter?” The chief butler’s forgetfulness of Joseph (Genesis 40:23) supplies another obvious parallel.

The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.
17. The words of wise men are heard in quiet] The thought is like that of the “great cry and little wool” of the English proverb. That which tells on men, in the long run, is the wisdom whose words are wary, and calm, and few, not the declamation of the wind-bags of popular oratory. Comp. the description of the highest type of wisdom in Isaiah 42:2; Matthew 12:19. He that “ruleth among fools” is not the foolish ruler, but the man who takes the highest place in the company of fools, and graduates, as it were, as the Senior Wrangler in that class-list. Such an one is as the “prating fool” of Proverbs 10:10.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.
18. Wisdom is better than weapons of war] The maxim presents another illustration of the irony of history. The excellence of wisdom is acknowledged. Counsel is more than the materiel of war; the statesman more than the general, and yet one man by his guilt or folly, by the perversity which includes both (the Hebrew verb for “sinneth” has this meaning, as in Proverbs 8:36), may mar what it has taken years to bring to a good issue. The defeat of an army, the most terrible catastrophe, may often be traced to the fact that “some one has blundered,” in carelessness or passion. It is probable enough that, as in Ecclesiastes 9:14, the writer had some definite historical fact present to his thoughts which we are unable to identify. The history of Achan, in Joshua 7:1-12, presents a sufficient illustration.

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