Ecclesiastes 12:8
Vanity of vanities, said the preacher; all is vanity.
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Ecclesiastes 12:8. Vanity of vanities — This sentence, wherewith he began this book, he here repeats in the end of it, as that which he had proved in all the foregoing discourse, and that which naturally followed from both the branches of the assertion laid down, Ecclesiastes 12:7.12:8-14 Solomon repeats his text, VANITY OF VANITIES, ALL IS VANITY. These are the words of one that could speak by dear-bought experience of the vanity of the world, which can do nothing to ease men of the burden of sin. As he considered the worth of souls, he gave good heed to what he spake and wrote; words of truth will always be acceptable words. The truths of God are as goads to such as are dull and draw back, and nails to such as are wandering and draw aside; means to establish the heart, that we may never sit loose to our duty, nor be taken from it. The Shepherd of Israel is the Giver of inspired wisdom. Teachers and guides all receive their communications from him. The title is applied in Scripture to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The prophets sought diligently, what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. To write many books was not suited to the shortness of human life, and would be weariness to the writer, and to the reader; and then was much more so to both than it is now. All things would be vanity and vexation, except they led to this conclusion, That to fear God, and keep his commandments, is the whole of man. The fear of God includes in it all the affections of the soul towards him, which are produced by the Holy Spirit. There may be terror where there is no love, nay, where there is hatred. But this is different from the gracious fear of God, as the feelings of an affectionate child. The fear of God, is often put for the whole of true religion in the heart, and includes its practical results in the life. Let us attend to the one thing needful, and now come to him as a merciful Saviour, who will soon come as an almighty Judge, when he will bring to light the things of darkness, and manifest the counsels of all hearts. Why does God record in his word, that ALL IS VANITY, but to keep us from deceiving ourselves to our ruin? He makes our duty to be our interest. May it be graven in all our hearts. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is all that concerns man.This passage is properly regarded as the Epilogue of the whole book; a kind of apology for the obscurity of many of its sayings. The passage serves therefore to make the book more intelligible and more acceptable.

Here, as in the beginning of the book Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, the Preacher speaks of himself Ecclesiastes 12:8-10 in the third person. He first repeats Ecclesiastes 12:8 the mournful, perplexing theme with which his musings began Ecclesiastes 1:2; and then states the encouraging practical conclusion Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 to which they have led him. It has been pointed out that the Epilogue assumes the identity of the Preacher with the writer of the Book of Proverbs.

8-12. A summary of the first part.

Vanity, &c.—Resumption of the sentiment with which the book began (Ec 1:2; 1Jo 2:17).

This sentence, wherewith he began this book, he here repeateth in the end of it partly as that which he had proved in all the foregoing discourse, and partly as that which naturally and necessarily followed from both the branches of the assertion now laid down, Ecclesiastes 12:7. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher,.... The wise man, or preacher, set out in the beginning of the book with this doctrine, or proposition, which he undertook to prove; and now having proved it by an induction of particulars, instanced in the wisdom, wealth, honours, pleasures, and profit of men, and shown the vanity of them, and that the happiness of men lies not in these things, but in the knowledge and fear of God; he repeats it, and most strongly asserts it, as an undoubted truth beyond all dispute and contradiction, that all things under the sun are not only vain, but vanity itself, extremely vain, vain in the superlative degree;

all is vanity; all things in the world are vain; all creatures are subject to vanity; man in every state, and in his best estate, is altogether vanity: this the wise man might with great confidence affirm, after he had shown that not only childhood and youth are vanity, but even old age; the infirmities, sorrows, and distresses of which he had just exposed, and observed that all issue in death, the last end of man, when his body returns to the earth, and his soul to God the giver of it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.
8. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity] The recurrence at the close of the book, and after words which, taken as we have taken them, suggest a nobler view of life, of the same sad burden with which it opened, has a strange melancholy ring in it. To those who see in the preceding verse nothing more than the materialist’s thoughts of death as echoed by Epicurean poets, it seems a confirmation of what they have read into it, or inferred from it. The Debater seems to them, looking on life from the closing scene of death, to fall back into a hopeless pessimism. It may be rightly answered however that the view that all that belongs to the earthly life is “vanity of vanities” is one not only compatible with the recognition of the higher life, with all its infinite possibilities, which opens before man at death, but is the natural outcome of that recognition as at the hour of death, or during the process of decay which precedes and anticipates death. The “things that are seen and are temporal” are dwarfed, as into an infinite littleness, in the presence of those which are “not seen and are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). And there would be, we may add, even a singular impressiveness in the utterance of the same judgment, at the close of the great argument, and from the higher standpoint of faith which the Debater had at last reached, as that with which he had started in his despondent scepticism. It is, in this light, not without significance that these very words form the opening sentence of the De Imitatione Christi of à Kempis.

There remain, however, two previous questions to be discussed. (1) Are the words before us the conclusion of the main body of the treatise, or the beginning of what we may call its epilogue? and (2) is that epilogue the work of the author of the book or an addition by some later hand? The paragraph printing of the Authorised Version points in the case of (1) to the latter of the two conclusions, and it may be noted as confirming this view that the words occur in their full form at the beginning of the whole book, and might therefore reasonably be expected at the beginning of that which is, as it were, its summing-up and completion. In regard to the second question, the contents of the epilogue tend, it is believed, to the conclusion that they occupy a position analogous to that of the close of St John’s Gospel (John 21:24) and are, as it were, of the nature of a commendatory attestation. It would scarcely be natural for a writer to end with words of self-praise like those of Ecclesiastes 12:9-10. The directly didactic form of the Teacher addressing his reader as “my Son” after the fashion of the Book of Proverbs (Ecclesiastes 1:8, Ecclesiastes 2:1, Ecclesiastes 3:1; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 3:21) has no parallel in the rest of the book. The tone of Ecclesiastes 12:11 is rather that of one who takes a survey of the book as one of the many forms of wisdom, each of which had its place in the education of mankind, than of the thinker who speaks of what he himself has contributed to that store. On the whole, then, there seems sufficient reason for resting in the conclusion adopted by many commentators that the book itself ended with Ecclesiastes 12:7 and that we have in what follows, an epilogue addressed to the reader; justifying its admission into the Canon of Scripture and pointing out to him what, in the midst of apparent perplexities and inconsistencies, was the true moral of its preaching. The circumstances which were connected with that admission (see Introduction, chs. ii., iii., iv.) may well have made such a justification appear desirable.Verse 8. - It has been much questioned whether this verse is the conclusion of the treatise or the commencement of the epilogue. For the latter conclusion it is contended that it is only natural that the beginning of the final summing-up should start with the same words as the opening of the book (Ecclesiastes 1:2); and that thus the conjunction "and," with which ver. 9 begins, is readily explained. But the treatise is more artistically completed by regarding this solemn utterance as the conclusion of the whole, ending with the same burden with which it began - the nothingness of earthly things. Koheleth has labored to show this, he has pursued the thought from beginning to end, through all circumstances and conditions, and he can only re-echo his melancholy refrain. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher. He does not follow the destiny of the immortal spirit; it is not his purpose to do so; his theme is the fragility of mortal things, their unsatisfying nature, the impossibility of their securing man's happiness: so his voyage lands him at the point whence he set forth, though he has learned and taught faith in the interval. If all is vanity, there is behind and above all a God of inflexible justice, who must do right, and to whom we may safely trust our cares and perplexities. Koheleth," Preacher," here has the article, the Koheleth, as if some special reference was made to the meaning of the name - he who has been debating, or haranguing, or gathering together, utters finally his careful verdict. This is the sentence of the ideal Solomon, who has given his experiences in the preceding pages. "Ere the sun becomes dark, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, and the clouds return after the rain." Umbreit, Elster, and Ginsburg find here the thought: ere death overtakes thee; the figure under which the approach of death is described being that of a gathering storm. But apart from other objections (vid., Gurlitt, "zur Erlk. d. B. Koheleth," in Sutd. u. Krit. 1865), this idea is opposed by the consideration that the author seeks to describe how man, having become old, goes forth (חלך, Ecclesiastes 12:5) to death, and that not till Ecclesiastes 12:7 does he reach it. Also Taylor's view, that what precedes Ecclesiastes 12:5 is as a dirge expressing the feelings experienced on the day of a person's death, is untenable; it is discredited already by this, that it confuses together the days of evil, Ecclesiastes 12:1, and the many days of darkness, i.e., the long night of Hades, Ecclesiastes 11:8; and besides, it leaves unanswered the question, what is the meaning of the clouds returning after the rain. Hahn replies: The rain is death, and the return is the entrance again into the nothingness which went before the entrance into this life. Knobel, as already Luther and also Winzer (who had made the exposition of the Book of Koheleth one of the labours of his life), sees in the darkening of the sun, etc., a figure of the decay of hitherto joyful prosperity; and in the clouds after the rain a figure of the cloudy days of sorrow which always anew visit those who are worn out by old age. Hitz., Ewald, Vaih., Zckl., and Tyler, proceeding from thence, find the unity of the separate features of the figure in the comparison of advanced old age, as the winter of life to the rainy winter of the (Palestinian) year. That is right. But since in the sequel obviously the marasmus senilis of the separate parts of the body is set forth in allegorical enigmatic figures, it is asked whether this allegorical figurative discourse does not probably commence in Ecclesiastes 12:2. Certainly the sun, moon, and stars occur also in such pictures of the night of judgment, obscuring all the lights of the heavens, as at Isaiah 13:10; but that here, where the author thus ranks together in immediate sequence והךּ ... השּׁ, and as he joins the stars with the moon, so the light with the sun, he has not connected the idea of certain corresponding things in the nature and life of man with these four emblems of light, is yet very improbable. Even though it might be impossible to find out that which is represented, yet this would be no decisive argument against the significance of the figures; the canzones in Dante's Convito, which he there himself interprets, are an example that the allegorical meaning which a poet attaches to his poetry may be present even where it cannot be easily understood or can only be conjectured.

The attempts at interpreting these figures have certainly been wholly or for the most part unfortunate. We satisfy ourselves by registering only the oldest: their glosses are in matter tasteless, but they are at least of linguistic interest. A Barajtha, Shabbath 151-152a, seeking to interpret this closing picture of the Book of Koheleth, says of the sun and the light: "this is the brow and the nose;" of the moon: "this is the soul;" of the stars: "this the cheeks." Similarly, but varying a little, the Midrash to Lev. c. 18 and to Koheleth: the sun equals the brightness of the countenance; light equals the brow; the moon equals the nose; the stars equals the upper part of the cheeks (which in an old man fall in). Otherwise, but following the Midrash more than the Talmud, the Targum: the sun equals the stately brightness of thy countenance; light equals the light of thine eyes; the moon equals the ornament of thy cheeks; the stars equals the apple of thine eye. All the three understand the rain of wine (Talm. בכי), and the clouds of the veil of the eyes (Targ.: "thy eye-lashes"), but without doing justice to אחר שׁוב; only one repulsive interpretation in the Midrash takes these words into account. In all these interpretations there is only one grain of truth, this, viz., that the moon in the Talm. is interpreted of the נשׁמה, anima, for which the more correct word would have been נפשׁ; but it has been shown, Psychol. p. 154, that the Jewish, like the Arab. psychology, reverses terminologically the relation between רוח (נשׁמה), spirit, and נפשׁ, soul.

The older Christian interpretations are also on the right track. Glassius (as also v. Meyer and Smith in "The portraiture of old age") sees in the sun, light, etc., emblems of the interna microcosmi lumina mentis; and yet better, Chr. Friedr. Bauer (1732) sees in Ecclesiastes 12:2 a representation of the thought: "ere understanding and sense fail thee." We have elsewhere shown that חיים רוח (נשׁמת) and חיּה נפשׁ (from which nowhere חיים נפשׁ) are related to each other as the principium principians and principium principatum of life (Psychol. p. 79), and as the root distinctions of the male and female, of the predominantly active and the receptive (Psychol. p. 103). Thus the figurative language of Ecclesiastes 12:3 is interpreted in the following manner. The sun is the male spirit רוח (which, like שׁמשׁ, is used in both genders) or נשׁמה, after Proverbs 20:27, a light of Jahve which penetrates with its light of self-examination and self-knowledge the innermost being of man, called by the Lord, Matthew 6:23 (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:11), "the light that is in thee." The light, viz., the clear light of day proceeding from the sun, is the activity of the spirit in its unweakened intensity: sharp apprehension, clear thought, faithful and serviceable memory. The moon is the soul; for, according to the Heb. idea, the moon, whether it is called ירח or לבנה is also in relation to the sun a figure of the female (cf. Genesis 37:9., where the sun in Joseph's dream equals Jacob-Israel, the moon equals Rachel); and that the soul, viz., the animal soul, by means of which the spirit becomes the principle of the life of the body (Genesis 2:7), is related to the spirit as female σκεῦος ἀστηενέστερον, is evident from passages such as Psalm 42:6, where the spirit supports the soul (animus animam) with its consolation. And the stars? We are permitted to suppose in the author of the book of Koheleth a knowledge, as Schrader

(Note: Vid., "Sterne" in Schenkel's Bibl Lex. and Stud. u. Krit. 1874.)

has shown, of the old Babyl.-Assyr. seven astral gods, which consisted of the sun, moon, and the five planets; and thus it will not be too much to understand the stars, as representing the five planets, of the five senses (Mish. הרגּשׁות,

(Note: Thus the five senses are called, e.g., Bamidbar rabba, c. 14.)

later הוּשׁים, cf. the verb, Ecclesiastes 2:25) which mediate the receptive relation of the soul to the outer world (Psychol. p. 233). But we cannot see our way further to explain Ecclesiastes 12:2 patholo.-anatom., as Geier is disposed to do: Nonnulli haec accommodant ad crassos illos ac pituosos senum vapores ex debili ventriculo in cerebrum adscendentes continuo, ubi itidem imbres (נשׁם) h.e. destillationes creberrimae per oculos lippientes, per nares guttatim fluentes, per os subinde excreans cet., quae sane defluxiones, tussis ac catharri in juvenibus non ita sunt frequentia, quippe ubi calor multo adhuc fortior, consumens dissipansque humores. It is enough to understand עבים of cases of sickness and attacks of weakness which disturb the power of thought, obscure the consciousness, darken the mind, and which ahhar haggěshěm, after they have once overtaken him and then have ceased, quickly again return without permitting him long to experience health. A cloudy day is equals a day of misfortune, Joel 2:2; Zephaniah 1:15; an overflowing rain is a scourge of God, Ezekiel 13:13; Ezekiel 38:22; and one visited by misfortune after misfortune complains, Psalm 42:7 : "Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me."

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