Ecclesiastes 1:13
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail has God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
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(13) Gave my heart.—The phrase occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16) and often elsewhere. (See Daniel 10:12; 2Chronicles 11:16, &c) The heart among the Hebrews is regarded as the seat, not merely of the feelings, but of the intellectual faculties, and so the word is constantly used in what follows. “I gave my heart” is the same as “I applied my mind.”

To seek.—Deuteronomy 13:14; Leviticus 10:16.

Search out.—Numbers 14:36; Numbers 14:38; Ecclesiastes 7:25.

Travail.—The word occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:10; Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:3; Ecclesiastes 5:14; Ecclesiastes 8:16) but no-where else in the Old Testament, though kindred forms are common. The word itself is common in Rabbinical Hebrew, in the sense of business.

“To afflict them” (margin). This is too strong a translation; better, to travail therein.



Ecclesiastes 1:13
. - Hebrews 12:10.

These two texts set before us human life as it looks to two observers. The former admits that God shapes it; but to him it seems sore travail, the expenditure of much trouble and efforts; the results of which seem to be nothing beyond profitless exercise. There is an immense activity and nothing to show for it at the end but wearied limbs. The other observer sees, at least, as much of sorrow and trouble as the former, but he believes in the ‘Father of spirits,’ and in a hereafter; and these, of course, bring a meaning and a wider purpose into the ‘sore travail,’ and make it, not futile but, profitable to our highest good.

I. Note first the Preacher’s gloomy half-truth.

The word rendered in our text ‘travail’ is a favourite one with the writer. It means occupation which costs effort and causes trouble. The phrase ‘to be exercised therewith,’ rather means to fatigue themselves, so that life as looked upon by the Preacher consists of effort without result but weariness.

If he knew it at all, it was very imperfectly and dimly; and whatever may be thought of teaching on that subject which appears in the formal conclusion of the book, the belief in a future state certainly exercises no influence on its earlier portions. These represent phases through which the writer passes on his way to his conclusion. He does believe in ‘God,’ but, very significantly, he never uses the sacred name ‘Lord.’ He has shaken himself free, or he wishes to represent a character who has shaken himself free from Revelation, and is fighting the problem of life, its meaning and worth, without any help from Law, or Prophet, or Psalm. He does retain belief in what he calls ‘God,’ but his pure Theism, with little, if any, faith in a future life, is a creed which has no power of unravelling the perplexed mysteries of life, and of answering the question, ‘What does it all mean?’ With keen and cynical vision he looks out not only over men, as in this first chapter, but over nature; and what mainly strikes him is the enormous amount of work that is being done, and the tragical poverty of its results. The question with which he begins his book is, ‘What profit hath a man of all his labour wherein he laboureth under the sun?’ And for answer he looks at the sun rising and going down, and being in the same place after its journey through the heavens; and he hears the wind continually howling and yet returning again to its circuits; and the waters now running as rivers into the sea and again drawn up in vapours, and once more falling in rain and running as waters. This wearisome monotony of intense activity in nature is paralleled by all that is done by man under heaven, and the net result of all is ‘Vanity and a strife after wind.’

The writer proceeds to confirm his dreary conclusion by a piece of autobiography put into the mouth of Solomon. He is represented as flinging himself into mirth and pleasure, into luxury and debauchery, and as satisfying every hunger for any joy, and as being pulled up short in the midst of his rioting by the conviction, like a funeral bell, tolling in his mind that all was vanity. ‘He gave himself to wisdom, and madness, and folly’; and in all he found but one result-enormous effort and no profit. There seemed to be a time for everything, and a kind of demonic power in men compelling them to toil as with equal energy, now at building up, and now at destroying. But to every purpose he saw that there was ‘time and judgment,’ and therefore, ‘the misery of man was great upon him.’ To his jaundiced eye the effort of life appeared like the play of the wind in the desert, always busy, but sometime busy in heaping the sands in hillocks, and sometimes as busy in levelling them to a plain.

We may regard such a view of humanity as grotesquely pessimistic; but there is no doubt that many of us do make of life little more than what the Preacher thought it. It is not only the victims of civilisation who are forced to wearisome monotony of toil which barely yields daily bread; but we see all around us men and women wearing out their lives in the race after a false happiness, gaining nothing by the race but weariness. What shall we say of the man who, in the desire to win wealth, or reputation, lives laborious days of cramping effort in one direction, and allows all the better part of his nature to be atrophied, and die, and passes, untasted, brooks by the way, the modest joys and delights that run through the dustiest lives. What is the difference between a squirrel in the cage who only makes his prison go round the faster by his swift race, and the man who lives toilsome days for transitory objects which he may never attain? In the old days every prison was furnished with a tread-mill, on which the prisoner being set was bound to step up on each tread of the revolving wheel, not in order to rise, but in order to prevent him from breaking his legs. How many men around us are on such a mill, and how many of them have fastened themselves on it, and by their own misreading and misuse of life have turned it into a dreary monotony of resultless toil. The Preacher may be more ingenious than sound in his pessimism, but let us not forget that every godless man does make of life ‘Vanity and strife after wind.’

II. The higher truth which completes the Preacher’ s.

Of course the fragmentary sentence in our second text needs to be completed from the context, and so completed will stand, ‘God chastens us for our profit, that we should be partakers of His holiness.’ Now let us consider for a moment the thought that the true meaning of life is discipline. I say discipline rather than ‘chastening,’ for chastening simply implies the fact of pain, whereas discipline includes the wholesome purpose of pain. The true meaning of life is not to be found by estimating its sorrows or its joys, but by trying to estimate the effects of either upon us. The true value of life, and the meaning of all its tears and of all its joys, is what it makes us. If the enormous effort which struck the Preacher issues in strengthened muscles and braced limbs, it is not ‘vanity.’ He who carries away with him out of life a character moulded as God would have it, does not go in all points ‘naked as he came.’ He bears a developed self, and that is the greatest treasure that a man can carry out of multitudinous toils of the busiest life. If we would think less of our hard work and of our heavy sorrows, and more of the loving purpose which appoints them all, we should find life less difficult, less toilsome, less mysterious. That one thought taken to our hearts, and honestly applied to everything that befalls us, would untie many a riddle, would wipe away many a tear, would bring peace and patience into many a heart, and would make still brighter many a gladness. Without it our lives are a chaos; with it they would become an ordered world.

But the recognition of the hand that ministers the discipline is needed to complete the peacefulness of faith. It would be a dreary world if we could only think of some inscrutable or impersonal power that inflicted the discipline; but if in its sharpest pangs we give ‘reverence to the Father of spirits,’ we shall ‘live.’ Of course, a loving father sees to his children’s education, and a loving child cannot but believe that the father’s single purpose in all his discipline is his good. The good that is sought to be attained by the sharpest chastisement is better than the good that is given by weak indulgence. When the father’s hand wields the rod, and a loving child receives the strokes, they may sting, but they do not wound. The ‘fathers of our flesh chasten us after their own pleasure,’ and there may be error and arbitrariness in their action; and the child may sometimes nourish a right sense of injustice, but ‘the Father of spirits’ makes no mistakes, and never strikes too hard. ‘He for our profit’ carries with it the declaration that the deep heart of God doth not willingly afflict, and seeks in afflicting for nothing but His children’s good.

Nor are these all the truths by which the New Testament completes and supersedes the Preacher’s pessimism, for our text closes by unveiling the highest profit which discipline is meant to secure to us as being that we should be ‘partakers of His holiness.’ The Biblical conception of holiness in God is that of separation from and elevation above the creature. Man’s holiness is separation from the world and dedication to God. He is separated from the world by moral perfection yet more than by His other attributes, and men who have yielded themselves to Him will share in that characteristic. This assimilation to His nature is the highest ‘profit’ to which we can attain, and all the purpose of His chastening is to make us more completely like Himself. ‘The fathers of our flesh’ chasten with a view to the brief earthly life, but His chastening looks onwards beyond the days of ‘strife and vanity’ to a calm eternity.

Thus, then, the immortality which glimmered doubtfully in the end of his book before the eyes of the Preacher is the natural inference for the Christian thought of moral discipline as the great purpose of life. No doubt it might be possible for a man to believe in the supreme importance of character, and in all the discipline of life as subsidiary to its development, and yet not believe in another world, where all that was tendency, often thwarted, should be accomplished result, and the schooling ended the rod should be broken. But such a position will be very rare and very absurd. To recognise moral discipline as the greatest purpose of life, gives quite overwhelming probability to a future. Surely God does not take such pains with us in order to make no more of us than He makes of us in this world. Surely human life becomes ‘confusion worse confounded’ if it is carefully, sedulously, continuously tended, checked, inspired, developed by all the various experiences of sorrow and joy, and then, at death, broken short off, as a man might break a stick across his knee, and the fragments tossed aside and forgotten. If we can say, ‘He for our profit that we might be partakers of His holiness,’ we have the right to say ‘We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’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.1:12-18 Solomon tried all things, and found them vanity. He found his searches after knowledge weariness, not only to the flesh, but to the mind. The more he saw of the works done under the sun, the more he saw their vanity; and the sight often vexed his spirit. He could neither gain that satisfaction to himself, nor do that good to others, which he expected. Even the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom discovered man's wickedness and misery; so that the more he knew, the more he saw cause to lament and mourn. Let us learn to hate and fear sin, the cause of all this vanity and misery; to value Christ; to seek rest in the knowledge, love, and service of the Saviour.Wisdom - As including both the powers of observation and judgment, and the knowledge acquired thereby (1 Kings 3:28; 1 Kings 4:29; 1 Kings 10:8, ...). It increases by exercise. Here is noted its application to people and their actions.

Travail - In the sense of toil; the word is here applied to all human occupations.

God - God is named as אלהים 'elohı̂ym thirty-nine times in this book; a name common to the true God and to false gods, and used by believers and by idolators: but the name Yahweh, by which He is known especially to the people who are in covenant with Him, is never once used.

Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the evil which is the object of inquiry in this book is not at all unique to the chosen people. All creation Romans 8 groans under it. The Preacher does not write of (or, to) the Hebrew race exclusively. There is no express and obvious reference to their national expectations, the events of their national history, or even to the divine oracles which were deposited with them. Hence, it was natural for the wisest and largest-hearted man of his race to take a wider range of observation than any other Hebrew writer before or after him. It became the sovereign of many peoples whose religions diverged more or less remotely from the true religion, to address himself to a more extensive sphere than that which was occupied by the twelve tribes, and to adapt his language accordingly. See the Ecclesiastes 5:1 note.

13. this sore travail—namely, that of "searching out all things done under heaven." Not human wisdom in general, which comes afterwards (Ec 2:12, &c.), but laborious enquiries into, and speculations about, the works of men; for example, political science. As man is doomed to get his bread, so his knowledge, by the sweat of his brow (Ge 3:19) [Gill].

exercised—that is, disciplined; literally, "that they may thereby chastise, or humble themselves."

I gave my heart, which phrase notes his serious and fixed purpose, his great industry and alacrity in it,

to seek and search out, to seek diligently and accurately, by wisdom, wisely, or by the help of that wisdom wherewith God had endowed me, concerning all things that are done under heaven; concerning all the works of God and men in this lower world; the works of nature, and their causes, effects, properties, and operations; the works of Divine providence, and God’s counsels and ends in them; the work and depths of human policy in the conduct of personal, and domestical, and public affairs.

This sore travail, this difficult and toilsome work of searching out these things,

hath God given to the sons of man; God hath inflicted this as a just punishment upon man for his eating of the tree of knowledge, that instead of that sweet and perfect knowledge which God had freely infused into man at his first creation, he should now grope after some small parcels or fragments of it, and those too not to be gotten without the sweat of his brows and brains.

To be exercised therewith; to employ themselves in the painful study of these things, which now is both their duty and their punishment. Or, as it is rendered in the margin, and by many others, to afflict them in or by it, to chastise their former curiosity, and to give them matter of continual humiliation and vexation. And therefore knowledge is so far from making men happy, that it exposeth them to trouble and infelicity. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom,.... As he had all advantages and opportunities, so he did not want for industry and application to obtain knowledge; he gave his mind to it; he took up a resolution not to be discouraged by any difficulties, but to break through them, if possible; he set about the work with great readiness and cheerfulness; he had a price in his hand to get wisdom, and he had a heart unto it; see Proverbs 17:16; and he pursued it with all diligence, with all his might and main: nor did he content himself with a superficial knowledge of things; but "searched" after the most recondite and abstruse learning, and penetrated into the utmost recesses of it, to find out all that was to be known; and this he did "by" using all the "wisdom" and sagacity, the light and strength of reason, and all those bright natural parts, which God had given him in a very extraordinary manner. And his inquiry was very extensive; it was

concerning all things that are done under heaven; into the nature of all things, animate and inanimate; trees, herbs, plants, fossils, minerals, and metals; beasts, birds, fish, and all creeping things; see 1 Kings 4:33; with everything else in nature: he sought to make himself master of all arts and sciences; to get knowledge of all trades and manufactures; to understand everything in politics, relating to kingdoms and states, and the government of them; to observe all the actions of men, wise and foolish, that he might know the difference, and be a judge of what was right and wrong. And his observation upon the whole is,

this sore travail hath God given to the sons of men, to be exercised therewith: he found by experience it was a heavy task, which God had put upon the children of men, to get wisdom and knowledge in the way it was to be gotten; which was very burdensome and wearisome to the flesh; nay, he found it was an (l) "evil business", as it may be rendered; or there was something sinful and criminal, which God suffered men in their pursuit after knowledge to fall into, and which their studies exposed them to; as to indulge a vain and sinful curiosity, to pry into things unlawful, and to be wise above what is written; or to be too anxious in attaining natural knowledge, to the neglect of things of great importance; or to abuse or trust in knowledge attained unto, or be vainly elated and puffed up with it. Or this may be understood of the evil of punishment, which God inflicts on men for the sin of eating of the tree of knowledge; and that as he is doomed to get his bread, so his knowledge, with the sweat of his brow, that is, with great pains and labour; which otherwise would have been more easily obtained: but this God has done to "afflict" or "humble" (m) men, as the word may be rendered; to afflict or punish them for sin; and to humble them by showing them how weak are the powers and faculties of their minds, that so much pains must be taken to get a small share of knowledge. The Targum is,

"and I saw all the works of the children of men obnoxious to an evil business; the Lord gave to the children of men, to be afflicted with it.''

(l) "occupationem malam", Junius & Tremellius, Piscator, Drusius, Amama, Gejerus. (m) "ad affligendum", Montanus, Gejerus; "ut affligent se in ea", Vatablus, Rambachius; "ut ea humlies redderet", Tigurine version.

And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this grievous labour hath God given to the sons of man {i} to be exercised with it.

(i) Man by nature has a desire to know, and yet is not able to come to the perfection of knowledge, which is the punishment of sin, to humble man, and to teach him to depend only on God.

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.Verse 13. - I gave my heart (ver. 17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Daniel 10:12). The heart, in the Hebrew conception, was the seat, not of the affections only, but of the understanding and intellectual faculties generally. So the expression here is equivalent to "I applied my mind." To seek and search out. The two words are not synonymous. The former verb (דָּרַשׁ, darash) implies penetrating into the depth of an object before one; the other word (תּוּר, tur) taking a comprehensive survey of matters further away; so that two methods and scopes of investigation are signified. By wisdom; ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ (Septuagint). Wisdom was the means or instrument by which he carried on his researches, which were directed, not merely to the collecting of facts, but to investigating the causes and conditions of things. Concerning all things that are done under heaven; i.e. men's actions and conduct, political, social, and private life. We have "under the sun" in ver. 9, and again in ver. 14. Here there is no question of physical matters, the phenomena of the material world, but only of human circumstances and interests. This sore travail (rather, this is a sore travail that) God hath given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. The word rendered "travail" (עִנְיָן, inyan) occurs often in this book (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:23, 26, etc.), and nowhere else in the Old Testament. The same root is found in the word translated "exercised;" hence Wright has, "It is a woeful exercise which God has given to the sons of men wherewith to exercise themselves." If we keep to the word "travail," we may render, "to travail therein." It implies distracting business, engrossing occupation. Septuagint, περισπασμόν; Vulgate, occupationem. Man feels himself constrained to make this laborious investigation, yet the result is most unsatisfactory, as the next verse shows. "God" is here Elohim, and so throughout the book, the name Jehovah (the God of the covenant, the God of Israel) never once occurring. Those who regard Solomon as the author of the book account for this on the plea that the king, in his latest years, reflecting sadly on his backsliding and fall, shrank from uttering with his polluted lips the adorable Name once so often used with filial reverence and beloved. But the true reason is found in the design of Koheleth, which was to set forth, not so much Israel's position under the covenant, as the condition of man in the face of the God of nature. The idiosyncrasies and peculiar features of the chosen people are not the subject of his essay; he deals with a wider sphere; his theme is man in his relation to Divine providence; and for this power he uses that name, common alike to the true and false religions, Elohim, applied to the Supreme Being by believers and idolaters. "All rivers run into the sea, and the sea becomes not full; to the place whence the rivers came, thither they always return again." Instead of nehhárim, nehhalim was preferred, because it is the more general name for flowing waters, brooks, and rivers; נחל (from נחל, cavare), אפיק (from אפק, continere), and (Arab.) wadin (from the root-idea of stretching, extending), all three denote the channel or bed, and then the water flowing in it. The sentence, "all rivers run into the sea," is consistent with fact. Manifestly the author does not mean that they all immediately flow thither; and by "the sea" he does not mean this or that sea; nor does he think, as the Targ. explains, of the earth as a ring (גּוּשׁפּנקא, Pers. angusht-bâne, properly "finger-guard") surrounding the ocean: but the sea in general is meant, perhaps including also the ocean that is hidden. If we include this internal ocean, then the rivers which lose themselves in hollows, deserts, or inland lakes, which have no visible outlet, form no exception. But the expression refers first of all to the visible sea-basins, which gain no apparent increase by these masses of water being emptied into them: "the sea, it becomes not full;" איננּוּ (Mishn. אינו) has the reflex. pron., as at Exodus 3:2; Leviticus 13:34, and elsewhere. If the sea became full, then there would be a real change; but this sea, which, as Aristophanes says (Clouds, 1294f.), οὐδὲν γίγνεται ἐπιῤῥηεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων, represents also the eternal sameness. In Leviticus 13:7, Symm., Jer., Luther, and also Zckler, translate שׁ in the sense of "from whence;" others, as Ginsburg, venture to take שׁם in the sense of משּׁם; both interpretations are linguistically inadmissible.

Generally the author does not mean to say that the rivers return to their sources, since the sea replenishes the fountains, but that where they once flow, they always for ever flow without changing their course, viz., into the all-devouring sea (Elst.); for the water rising out of the sea in vapour, and collecting itself in rain-clouds, fills the course anew, and the rivers flow on anew, for the old repeats itself in the same direction to the same end. מקום is followed by what is a virtual genitive (Psalm 104:8); the accentuation rightly extends this only to הלכים; for אשׁר, according to its relation, signifies in itself ubi, Genesis 39:20, and quo, Numbers 13:27; 1 Kings 12:2 (never unde). שׁם, however, has after verbs of motion, as e.g., Jeremiah 22:27 after שׁוב, and 1 Samuel 9:6 after הלך, frequently the sense of שׁמּה. And שׁוּב with ל and the infin. signifies to do something again, Hosea 11:9; Job 7:7, thus: to the place whither the rivers flow, thither they flow again, eo rursus eunt. The author here purposely uses only participles, because although there is constant change, yet that which renews itself is ever the same. He now proceeds, after this brief but comprehensive induction of particulars, to that which is general.

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