Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Things.—We might also translate “words.”Ecclesiastes 6:11-12. Seeing there be many things which increase vanity — This seems to be added as a conclusion from all the foregoing chapters; seeing not only man is a vain creature in himself, but there are also many other things, which, instead of diminishing, do but increase this vanity, as wisdom, pleasure, power, wealth; seeing even the good things of this life bring so much toil, and cares, and fears with them; what is man the better — By all that he can either desire or enjoy here? For who knoweth what is good for a man — No man certainly knows what is best for him here, whether to be high or low, rich or poor, because those things which men generally desire and pursue, are very frequently the occasions of their utter ruin, as has been observed again and again in this book; all the days of his vain life — Life itself, which is the foundation of all men’s comforts and enjoyments here, is a vain, uncertain, and transitory thing, and therefore all things that depend upon it must needs be so too; which he spendeth as a shadow — Which, while it abides, hath nothing solid or substantial in it, and which speedily passes away, and leaves no sign behind it; for who can tell a man, &c. — And as no man can be happy with these things while he lives, so he can have no satisfaction in leaving them to others, because he knows not either who shall possess them, or how the future owners will use or abuse them, or what mischief they may do by them, either to others, or even to themselves. Ecclesiastes 6:10 to the effect that vanity is an essential part of the constitution of creation as it now exists, and was foreknown.
what is man the better—of these vain things as regards the chief good? None whatever.
Seeing not only man is a vain creature in himself, as hath been now said, but there are also many other things in the world, which instead of removing or diminishing, as might be expected, do but increase this vanity, as wisdom, pleasure, power, wealth, and the like, the vanity of all which hath been fully and particularly declared. Seeing even the good things of this life bring so much toil, and cares, and fears, &c. with them.
What is man the better, to wit, by all that he can either desire or enjoy here? Hence it is evident that all these things cannot make him happy, but that he must seek for happiness elsewhere.
what is man the better? for these things? not at all, rather the worse, being more vain; there is no profit by them, no excellency arises to him from them, no happiness in them, nothing that will be of any service to him, especially with respect to a future state, or when he comes to die. It may be rendered, as it is in the Septuagint and Vulgate Latin versions, "seeing there are many words that multiply vanity"; as all such words do that are used with God by way of murmur and complaint concerning a man's lot and condition in this world, and as expostulating and contending with him about it; these increase sin, and by them men contract more guilt, and therefore are not the better for such litigations, but the worse; and so the words stand in connection with Ecclesiastes 6:10, but the former sense seems best, this being the conclusion of the wise man's discourse concerning vanity. So the Targum and Jarchi understand it of things, and not words.Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)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?Verse 11. - Seeing there be many things that increase vanity. The noun rendered"things" (dabar) may equally mean "words;" and it is a question which signification is most appropriate here. The Septuagint has λόγοι πολλοί, "many words." So the Vulgate, verba sunt plurima. If we take the rendering of the Authorized Version, we must understand the passage to mean that the distractions of business, the cares of life, the constant disappointments, make men feel the hollowness and unsatisfactory nature of labor and wealth and earthly goods, and their absolute dependence upon Providence. But in view of the previous context, and especially of ver. 10, which speaks of contending (din) with God, it is most suitable to translate debarim "words," and to understand them of the expressions of impatience, doubt, and unbelief to which men give utterance when arraigning the acts or endeavoring to explain the decrees of God. Such profitless words only increase the perplexity in which men are involved. It is very possible that reference is here made to the discussions on the chief good, free-will, predestination, and the like subjects, which, as we know from Josephus, had begun to be mooted in Jewish schools, as they had long been rife in those of Greece. In these disputes Pharisees and Sadducees took opposite sides. The former maintained that some things, but not all, were the subject of fate (τῆς εἱμαρμένης), and that certain things were in our own power to do or not to do; that is, while they attribute all that happens to fate, or God's decree, they hold that man has the power of assent, supposing that God tempers all in such sort, that by his ordinance and man's will all things are performed, good or evil. The Sadducees eliminated fate altogether from human actions, and asserted that men are in all things governed, not by any external force, but by their own will alone; that their success and happiness depended upon themselves, and that ill fortune was the consequence of their own folly or stupidity. A third school, the Essenes, held that fate was supreme, and that nothing could happen to mankind beyond or in contravention of its decree ('Joseph. Ant.,' 13:5. 9; 18:1:3, 4; 'Bell. Jud.,' 2:08. 14). Such speculative discussions may have been in Koheleth's mind when he wrote this sentence. Whatever may be the difficulties of the position, we Christians know and feel that in matters of religion and morality we are absolutely free, have an unfettered choice, and that from this fact arises our responsibility. What is man the better? What profit has man from such speculations or words of skepticism? Job 3:13) in a wider sense, is equals melius est huic quam illi (זה ... זה, as at Ecclesiastes 3:19). The generalization of the idea proceeds yet further in the Mishn. נוח לו, e.g.: "It is better (נוח לו לאדם) for a man that he throw himself into a lime-kiln than that (ואל), etc." From this usage Symm. renders מ ... נחת as obj. to ידע לא, and translates: οὐδὲ ἐπειράθη διαφορᾶς ἑτέρου πράγματος πρὸς ἓτερον ; and Jerome: neque cognovit distantiam boni et mali, - a rendering which is to be rejected, because thus the point of the comparison in which it terminates is broken, for 5b draws the facit. It is true that this contains a thought to which it is not easy to reconcile oneself. For supposing that life were not in itself, as over against non-existence, a good, there is yet scarcely any life that is absolutely joyless; and a man who has become the father of an hundred children, has, as it appears, sought the enjoyment of life principally in sexual love, and then also has found it richly. But also, if we consider his life less as relating to sense: his children, though not all, yet partly, will have been a joy to him; and has a family life, so lengthened and rich in blessings, only thorns, and no roses at all? And, moreover, how can anything be said of the rest of an untimely birth, which has been without motion and without life, as of a rest excelling the termination of the life of him who has lived long, since rest without a subjective reflection, a rest not felt, certainly does not fall under the point of view of more or less, good or evil? The saying of the author on no side bears the probe of exact thinking. In the main he designs to say: Better, certainly, is no life than a joyless life, and, moreover, one ending dishonourably. And this is only a speciality of the general clause, Ecclesiastes 4:2., that death is better than life, and not being born is better than both. The author misunderstands the fact that the earthly life has its chief end beyond itself; and his false eudaemonism, failing to penetrate to the inward fountain of true happiness, which is independent of the outward lot, makes exaggerated and ungrateful demands on the earthly life.
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