Matthew Poole's Commentary
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.All is vanity; our labour great and unprofitable, Ecc 1:1-3. The whole course of things is always going and returning, Ecc 1:4-7. Nothing in nature is satisfied, Ecc 1:8. Nothing new; old things are forgot, Ecc 1:9-11. The search after wisdom is itself a vain labour; cannot supply our natural wants, nor satisfy our desires; but increaseth sorrow: all this the Preacher found out by experience, Ecc 1:12-18.
The Preacher; who was not only a king, but also a teacher of God's people, which he did both by words, upon some solemn occasions, and by writings; who having sinned grievously and scandalously in the eyes of all the world, justly thought himself obliged to preach or publish his true repentance for all his folly and wickedness, and to give public warning and wholesome counsels to all persons to avoid those rocks upon which he had split. The Hebrew properly signifies either gathering or gathered; and so it signifies either,
1. A preacher, as it is commonly rendered, whose office it is to gather in souls unto God or his church. Or,
2. A penitent or convert, or one gathered or brought back by true repentance to God, and to his church, from which he had so wickedly revolted. King of Jerusalem: this is added partly as a description of the person or author of this book, Solomon, who was the only man that was both
Song of Solomon of David, properly so called, and king of Jerusalem; and partly as an aggravation of his sin, because he was the son of David, a wise and godly father, who had given him both excellent counsel, and, for his general course, a good example: and for the evil example which he gave him in the matter of Uriah, that also, considered with his hearty and effectual repentance for it, and the dreadful punishments of it upon his person and family, was a fair warning and most powerful instruction to him to learn by his father's example, and because he was a king, not by birth, for he was not David's eldest son, but by the special favour and designation of that God whom he had now so ill requited, and that in Jerusalem, a holy city, the place of God's special presence, and of his worship, where he had daily opportunities to know and obligations to practise better things, which place he had defiled by his horrid sins, and thereby made it, and all God's people, and the true religion, and the name of the blessed God, odious and contemptible amongst all the nations round about him.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.Vanity of vanities; not only vain, but vanity in the abstract, which notes extreme vanity, especially where the word is thus doubled; as a king of kings is the chief of kings, and a servant of servants is the vilest of servants, and a song of songs is a most excellent song.
Saith the Preacher, upon deep consideration and long experience, and by Divine inspiration. This verse contains the general proposition, which he intends particularly to demonstrate in the whole following book.
All, all worldly things, and all men’s designs, and studies, and works about them, is vanity; not in themselves, for so they are God’s creatures, and therefore good and really useful in their kinds; but in reference to men, and to that happiness which men seek and confidently expect to find in them. So they are unquestionably vain, because they are not what they seem to be, and perform not what they promise, content and satisfaction, but instead of that are commonly the causes or occasions of innumerable cares, and fears, and sorrows, and mischiefs; and because they are altogether unsuitable to the noble mind or soul of man, both in nature or quality, and in duration, as being unstable and perishing things. And this vanity of them is here repeated again and again; partly, because it was most deeply fixed and perpetually present in Solomon’s thoughts; partly, to show the unquestionable certainty and vast importance of this truth; and partly, that he might more thoroughly awaken the dull and stupid minds of men to the consideration of it, and might wean men’s hearts from those things upon which he knew they excessively doted.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?What profit? or, as others render it, What remainder? What real and abiding benefit hath a man by it? None at all. All is unprofitable, as to the attainment of that happiness which Solomon here is, and all men in the world are, inquiring after.
His labour, Heb.
his toilsome labour, both of body and mind, in the pursuit of riches, or pleasures, or other earthly things.
Which he taketh under the sun; in all sublunary or worldly matters, which are usually transacted in the day time, or by the light of the sun. By this restriction he implies that that profit and happiness which in vain is sought for in this lower world, is really and only to be found in heavenly places and things.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: men continue but for one, and that a short age, and then they leave all their possessions to the succeeding age; and therefore they cannot be happy here, because happiness must needs be unchangeable and eternal; or else the perpetual fear and certain knowledge of the approaching loss of all these things will rob a man of all solid contentment in them.
The earth abideth for ever, i.e. through all successive generations of men; and therefore man in this respect is more mutable and miserable than the very earth upon which he stands; and which, together with all the glories and comforts which he enjoyed in it, he leaveth behind him to be possessed by others.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.The sun is in perpetual motion, sometimes arising, and sometimes setting, and then arising again, and so constantly repeating its courses in all succeeding days, and years, and ages; and the like he observes concerning the winds and rivers, Ecclesiastes 1:6,7. And the design of these similitudes seems to be, either,
1. That by representing the constant changes and restless motions of these particular things he might intimate that it is so with all other earthly things; and therefore no man can expect satisfaction from them. Or,
2. That by comparing the sun, and wind, and rivers, as, Ecclesiastes 1:4, he compared the earth with man, he might show that man, considered as mortal, is in a more unhappy condition than these things, because when the earth abides, man goes; and when the sun sets, he riseth again; and so the wind and rivers return to their former place and state, but man, when once he dies, he never returns again to this life; of which comparison see Job 14:7,12. Or,
3. To show the vanity of all worldly things, and that man’s mind can never be satisfied with them, because there is nothing in the world but a constant repetition of the same things, which is so irksome a thing, that the consideration thereof hath made some persons weary of their lives; and there is no new thing under the sun, as is added in the foot of the account, Ecclesiastes 1:9, which seems to me to be given as a key to understand the meaning of the foregoing passages. And this is manifest and certain from experience, that the things of this world are so narrow, and the mind of man so vast, that there must be something new to satisfy the mind; and even delightful things, by too frequent repetition or long continuance, are so far from yielding satisfaction, that they grow tedious and troublesome.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; the wind also sometimes blows from one quarter of the world, and sometimes from another; all of them being synecdochically comprehended under these two eminent quarters. But because this word, the wind, is not expressed in the Hebrew, but is only borrowed or understood from the latter clause of the verse, this first clause is by other judicious interpreters understood of the sun, of whom he last spake; the words being thus rendered according to the Hebrew, He (the sun) goeth towards the south, (which he doth one half of the year,) and turneth about unto the north, which he doth the other half. And so here is the whole motion of the sun towards the four quarters of the world particularly described; his daily motion from east to, vest, and back again, Ecclesiastes 1:5; and his yearly motion from north to south, between the signs of Cancer and Capricorn.
The wind returneth again according to his circuits: this clause is by all understood of the wind, which is fitly mentioned immediately after the sun, because it hath its rise from the sun, who is therefore called the father of winds, and the winds do usually rise with the sun, and are laid when he sets. But then it is rendered thus, and that very agreeably to the Hebrew, the wind goeth continually whirling or compassing about, and he returneth again to his circuits, being sometimes in one, and sometimes in another quarter, and successively returning to the same quarters in which he had formerly been.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.Is not full, to wit, to the brink, or so as to overflow the earth, which might be expected from such vast accessions to it; whereby also he intimates the emptiness and dissatisfaction of men’s minds, not withstanding all the abundance of creature-comforts.
Unto the place from whence the rivers come; either,
1. Unto the sea, from whence they are supposed to return into their proper channels, and then, as it is expressed, thither (i.e. into the sea) they return again. Or,
2. Unto their springs or fountains, to which the waters return by secret passages of the earth, as is manifest from the Caspian Sea, and reasonably supposed in other places. Or rather,
3. Unto the earth in general, from whence they come or How into the sea, and to which they return again by the reflux of the sea. For he seems to speak of the visible and constant motion of the waters, both to the sea and from it, and then to it again in a perpetual reciprocation; which agrees best with the former similitudes, Ecclesiastes 1:5,6.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.All things, not only the sun, and winds, and rivers, which I have mentioned, but all other creatures, are full of labour; both subjectively, as they are in continual restlessness and change, never abiding in the same state or place; and efficiently, as they cause great and sore labour to men, in getting, and keeping, and enjoying of them, yea, even in the study of them, as is noted hereafter.
Man cannot utter it; the labour is inexpressibly and unconceivably great.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing; as there are many things in the world troublesome and vexatious to men’s senses and minds, so even those things which are comfortable and acceptable to them are not satisfactory, but men are constantly desiring some longer continuance or fuller enjoyment of them, or variety in them, and they never say, It is enough, I desire no more. The eye and ear are here synecdochically put for all the senses, because these are most spiritual and refined, most curious and inquisitive, most capable of receiving satisfaction, because they are exercised with more ease and pleasure than the other senses, whose satisfactions are oft attended with greater weariness and manifold dangers and inconveniences.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.There is nothing in the world but a continued and tiresome repetition of the same things. The nature and course of the beings and affairs of the world, and the tempers of men’s minds, are generally the same that they ever were and shall ever be; and therefore because no man ever yet received satisfaction from any worldly things, it is a vain and foolish thing for any person hereafter to expect it.
No new thing, to wit, in the nature of things, which might give us hopes of attaining that satisfaction which things have not hitherto afforded. For otherwise this doth not restrain the God of nature, who hath frequently done, and still can do, new and miraculous works, and who can and doth discover to particular persons new inventions, when it pleaseth him.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.For the proof hereof I appeal to the consciences and experiences of all men. It hath been already of old thee; the same things have been said and done before, though possibly we did not know it.
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.There is no remembrance of former things: this seems to be added to prevent this objection, There are many new inventions and enjoyments unknown to former ages. To this he answers, This objection is grounded only upon our ignorance of ancient times and things, which is very great, and which if we did exactly know or remember, we should easily find parallels to all present occurrences in former ages. The latter clause tends both to illustrate and confirm the former. The sense is, There are many thousands of remarkable speeches and actions done in this and the following ages, which neither are, nor ever will be, put into the public records or histories, and consequently they must unavoidably be forgotten and lost unto succeeding ages; and therefore it is just and reasonable to believe the same concerning former ages, seeing the same causes are most likely to produce the same effects.
I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.This verse is a preface to the following discourse, that by the consideration of the quality of the speaker they might be induced to give more attention and respect to his words. Having asserted the vanity of all things in the general, he now comes to prove his assertion in all those particulars wherein men commonly seek, and with greatest probability expect to find true happiness. He begins with secular wisdom. And to show how competent a judge he was of this matter, he lays down his character, that he was the
Preacher, which implies eminent knowledge and ability to teach others; or, the convert, who had learned by dear-bought experience what he now taught them; and a king, who therefore had all imaginable opportunities and advantages for the attainment of happiness, and particularly for the getting of wisdom, by consulting all sorts of books and men, by trying all manner of experiments, and many other ways; and no ordinary king, but
king over Israel, God’s own and only beloved people, a wise and a happy people, Deu 4:6,7 33:29, whose king he was by God’s special and gracious appointment, and furnished by God with singular wisdom for the discharge of that great trust; and whose royal palace and abode was in Jerusalem, where were the house of God, and the most wise and learned of the priests attending upon it, and the seats of justice, and colleges or assemblies of the wisest men of their nation; of which see 2 Kings 22:14 1 Chronicles 25:8, &c.; Psalm 122:5: all which helps concurring together in him, which very rarely do in any other men, makes the argument drawn from his experience more convincing and undeniable.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.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.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.I have seen, i.e. diligently observed, and in great measure understood.
Behold; for it was a great surprise to me, and therefore may seem strange to you.
All is vanity and vexation of spirit; and not only unsatisfying, but also troublesome, and an affliction or breaking to a man’s spirit or mind. Or, as others, both ancient and modern translators, render it, a feeding upon wind, as these very words, save only that there is the verb from which this noun seems most probably deduced, are rendered, Hosea 12:1, where also it signifies a fruitless or lost labour, and a disappointment of their hopes and desires of satisfaction. And so this is a repetition of the same thing in other words, according to the manner of these books.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.That which is crooked cannot be made straight; all our knowledge serves only to discover our diseases and miseries, but is oft itself utterly insufficient to heal or remove them; it cannot rectify those confusions and disorders which are either in our own hearts and lives, or in the men and things of the world.
That which is wanting, to wit, in our knowledge, and in order to man’s complete satisfaction and felicity, cannot be numbered; we know little of what we should or might know, or did know in the state of innocency, or shall know in the future life.
I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.I communed with mine own heart; I considered within myself in what condition I was, and what degrees of knowledge I had gained, and whether it was not my ignorance that made me unable to rectify those errors, and supply those wants, and wiser men could do it, though I could not.
I am come to great estate, Heb. I am grown great, to wit, in wisdom; or, I have magnified, or greatly enlarged. Have gotten, Heb. have added. As I had a large stock of wisdom infused into me by God, 1 Kings 3:12 4:29, so I have greatly improved it by conversation, and study, and experience.
More wisdom than all they that have been before me, whether governors, or priests, or private persons; which was no vain boast, but a known and confessed truth, and profession hereof was necessary to demonstrate his assertion.
In Jerusalem; which was then the most eminent place in the world for wisdom and knowledge.
Had great experience, Heb. had seen much; which intimates that his knowledge was clear, and certain, and experimental, as that is which we have from our own eyesight.
Wisdom and knowledge; two words signifying the same thing, as may be gathered from Ecclesiastes 1:18, and from the promiscuous use of them in this book, and in the Proverbs, and elsewhere, and implying all manner of knowledge, Divine or human, speculative or practical, political or philosophical.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly, that I might thoroughly understand the nature and difference of truth and error, of virtue and vice, all things being best understood by contraries, and might discern if there were any opinion or practice amongst men which would give him full satisfaction.
Vexation of spirit; or, feeding upon wind, as Ecclesiastes 1:14.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.Grief, or indignation, or displeasure within himself, and against his present condition.
Increaseth sorrow; which he doth many ways, partly, because he gets his knowledge with hard and wearisome labour, both of mind and body, with the consumption of his spirits, and shortening and embitterment of his life; partly, because he is oft deceived with knowledge falsely so called, and oft mistakes errors for truths, and is perplexed with manifold doubts, from which ignorant men are wholly free; partly, because he foresees, and consequently feels, the terror of many miseries which are or are likely to come to pass, which are unobserved by less knowing persons, and which possibly never happen; partly, because he hath the clearer prospect into, and quicker sense of, his own ignorance, and infirmities, and disorders, and withal how vain and ineffectual all his knowledge is for the prevention or removal of them; and partly, because his knowledge is very imperfect and unsatisfying, yet increasing his thirst after more knowledge, and consequently after more dissatisfaction, because instead of that just honour, and delight, and advantage which he expects from it, he meets with nothing but envy, and opposition, and contempt, because his knowledge quickly fades and dies with him, and then leaves him in no better, and possibly in a much worse, condition than the meanest and most unlearned man in the world.