Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Kohéleth, having tried wisdom and philosophic investigation, proceeded next to see what cheerful enjoyment could do for human happiness.
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.(1) In mine heart.—To mine heart (Luke 12:19; Psalm 42:11).
I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?-2Proverbs 14:13.
I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.(3) Sought.—The word translated “search out” (Ecclesiastes 1:13).
“Draw,” margin. There is no Biblical parallel for the use of the word in this sense. The general meaning is plain.
Acquainting.—Rather, guiding. The word is used of the driver of an animal or the shepherd of a flock (2Samuel 6:3; Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 63:4). Kohéleth contemplated not an unrestrained enjoyment of pleasure, but one controlled by prudence.
All the days.—(See margin). This phrase occurs again in Ecclesiastes 5:17; Ecclesiastes 6:12. We have “men of number” in the sense of “few”—i.e., so few that they can be numbered (Genesis 34:30, and often elsewhere). So we may translate here “for their span of life.”
I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards:(4) Houses.—1Kings 5:11; 2Chronicles 8:4.
I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits:(5) Orchards.—Rather, parks. The word, which occurs also in Song of Solomon 4:3, Nehemiah 2:8, is originally Persian, and passed into the Greek and into modern languages in the form of “paradise” (Luke 23:43; 2Corinthians 12:4; and in LXX., Genesis 2:10; Genesis 13:10; Numbers 24:6; Isaiah 1:30; Ecclesiasticus 24:30; Susan. 5:4). Parks and trees giving, not only fruit, but shade from the hot Eastern sun, were an almost necessary part of kingly luxury. The king’s garden is spoken of in 1Kings 21:2; 2Kings 21:18; 2Kings 25:4; Nehemiah 3:15.
I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:(6) Pools.—In a place south of Bethlehem are still pointed out three gigantic reservoirs, known as the Pools of Solomon (Stanley’s Jewish Church, 2:197). The place is probably the same as that called Etham by Josephus in his description of Solomon’s luxury (Ant. viii. 7. 3). Josephus speaks of another Pool of Solomon (Bell. Jud. v. 4. 2). Tanks are necessary for irrigation in a land where natural streams are few and are dried up in summer. The king’s pool is mentioned in Nehemiah 2:14.
I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me:(7) Got me.—The servants acquired by purchase are distinguished from those born in the house. (Concerning the number of Solomon’s servants, see 1Kings 4:27; 1Kings 10:5; and of his cattle, 1Kings 4:23, 1Kings 8:63.)
I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.(8) Peculiar treasure.—The word is used of the Jewish people (Exodus 19:9; Psalm 135:4; Malachi 3:17; but generally 1Chronicles 29:3). That Solomon had tributary kings is stated (1Kings 4:21; 2Chronicles 9:24; Psalm 72:10; Ezra 4:20). The word used for “provinces” here and in Ecclesiastes 5:8, occurs in reference to the provinces of the Persian Empire repeatedly in the Book of Esther; Ezra 2:1; Nehemiah 7:6; Daniel 8:2. (See also Lamentations 1:1; Ezekiel 19:8.) The word is almost wholly absent from the earlier books, save that it occurs where the “princes of the provinces” are mentioned (1 Kings 20).
Singers.—Music was regarded as a necessary accompaniment of feasts (Isaiah 5:12; Amos 6:5; Ecclesiasticus 32:5; Ecclesiasticus 49:1). For David’s employment of professional singers, see 2Samuel 19:35.
Musical instruments.—The Hebrew word here used occurs nowhere else, and commentators are reduced to look to the etymology for the explanation of it. Their guesses are so numerous that it would be wearisome to recount them. That adopted in our version is by no means one of the most probable. The interpretation “concubines” is most in favour with commentators, though they differ among themselves as to the grounds on which they justify this translation. And it does appear unlikely that this notorious feature of Solomon’s court should be omitted in an enumeration of his luxury. It will be seen from the margin that the words “of all sorts” have nothing corresponding to them in the original, but are intended as an equivalent for a Hebrew idiom, in which a plural is intensified by prefixing a noun in the singular.
So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.(9-11) Kohéleth carried out his plan of tempering his enjoyment with discretion, but while he took his fill of the pleasure that fell to his lot, he found in it no abiding profit. He goes on in the following paragraph to complain that the wisdom and other advantages he possessed in his search for happiness render his failure the more disheartening.
And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.(12) This verse presents some difficulties of translation which need not be discussed here. The Authorised Version gives the following very good sense: If the king has failed in his experiment, what likelihood is there that a private person should be more successful? Yet bearing in mind that in Ecclesiastes 5:18 the “man that cometh after the king” means his successor, and also that the theme of the whole section is that in human affairs there is no progress, it is more simple to understand this verse: the king’s successor can do no more than run the same round that has been trodden by his predecessor.
Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.(13) Wisdom surely has an advantage over folly, yet how full of “vanity” is that advantage. Let the wise man have done his best, soon death comes; the wise man is forgotten, and all he has gained by his labour passes, without labour, into the hands of one who may be no inheritor of his wisdom.
The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.(14) Event.—Translated “hap,” or “chance” (Ruth 2:13; 1Samuel 6:9; 1Samuel 20:26).
For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.(16) It might be urged on behalf of the Solomonic authorship that Solomon himself might imagine that in the days to come he and his wisdom would be forgotten, but that such a thought does not become a long subsequent writer who had been induced by Solomon’s reputation for wisdom to make him the hero of his work. It would seem to follow that the writer is here only giving the history of Solomon’s reflections, and not his ultimate conclusions. Better to omit the note of interrogation after “wise man,” and put a note of exclamation after “fool,” the “how” being used as in Isaiah 14:4; Ezekiel 26:17.
Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.(17) Is grievous.—Rather, was.
Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.(18) Eccles. 9:19. There seems to be no special reference to Rehoboam, but only the assertion of the general principle that the wisest of men must leave all that his labour has gained to be enjoyed by another who may be destitute of wisdom. The thought is not so much that it is a hardship for the wise man to leave what he has gained, as that it is that he should have no advantage over the fool who enjoys the same without any merit.
And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.(19) Have rule.—The word occurs again in Ecclesiastes 6:2; Ecclesiastes 8:9; elsewhere only in Nehemiah and Esther. and in Psalm 119:133.
Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.(20) Went about.—Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 9:14; Ecclesiastes 12:5.
For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.(21) Equity.—Rather, skill, success (Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 5:7). The noun is peculiar to this book. The corresponding verb occurs in Ecclesiastes 10:10; Ecclesiastes 11:6; Esther 8:5.
For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.(23) The fact that the wise man must surrender his acquisitions exhibits the inutility of the painful toil by which he has gained them.
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.(24) Nothing better.—“Not good” is the sense of the Hebrew as it stands, for it will be observed that the word “than” is in italics. But as this word might easily have dropped out by a transcriber’s error, interpreters, taking in connection Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 8:15, generally agree to modify the text so as to give it the meaning of our version, according to which the sense is: “Seeing the uncertainty of the future, the only good a man can get from his labour is that present pleasure which he can make it yield to himself; and whether he can even enjoy so much as this depends on God.” If the text be not altered, the sense is: “It is not good for a man to eat, &c, seeing it depends on God whether or not that is possible.”
For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?(25) Hasten.—Habakkuk 1:8.
More than I.—There is a various rendering, which has the authority of the LXX., and which has every appearance of being right: “without Him.”
For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.(26) On the doctrine that the wicked amass wealth for the righteous, see marginal references.