First, then, let us seek to get all the light we can from all the exterior marks it bears before seeking to interpret its contents. For our primary care with regard to this, as indeed with regard to every book in the Bible, must be to discover, if possible, what is the object of the book, -- from what standpoint does the writer approach his subject.
And first we find it in that group of books through which the voice of man is prominent -- Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles. In these is heard the music of man's soul; often -- nay, mostly -- giving sorrowful and striking evidence of discord, in wail and groan, in tear and sigh; and yet again, in response evidently to the touch of some Master hand, that knows it well, -- a tender, gracious, compassionate touch, -- rising into a song of sweetest harmony that speaks eloquently of its possibilities, and bears along on its chords the promise and hope of a complete restoration. But we shall search our book in vain for any such expression of joy. No song brightens its pages; no praise is heard amid its exercises. And yet perfectly assured we may be that, listened to aright, it shall speak forth the praise of God's beloved Son; looked at in a right light, it shall set off His beauty. If "He turns the wrath of man to praise Him," surely we may expect no less from man's sorrows and ignorance. This, then, we may take it, is the object of the book, to show forth by its dark background the glory of the Lord, to bring into glorious relief against the black cloud of man's need and ignorance the bright light of a perfect, holy, revelation; to let man tell out, in the person of his greatest and wisest, when he, too, is at the summit of his greatness, with the full advantage of his matured wisdom, the solemn questions of his inmost being; and show that greatness to be of no avail in solving them, -- that wisdom foiled in the search for their answers.
This, then, we will conclude, is the purpose of the book and the standpoint from which the writer speaks, and we shall find its contents confirm this in every particular.
It has been well said that as regards each book in holy writ the "key hangs by the door," -- that is, that the first few sentences will give the gist of the whole. And, indeed, pre-eminently is such the case here. The first verse gives us who the writer is; the second, the beginning and ending of his search. And therein lies the key of the whole; for the writer is the son of David, the man exalted by Jehovah to highest earthly glory. Through rejection and flight, through battle and conflict, had the Lord brought David to this excellence of glory and power. All this his "son" entered into in its perfection and at once. For it is that one of his sons who speaks who is king, and in Jerusalem, the city of God's choice, the beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth. Such is the story of verse 1. Nothing could possibly go beyond the glory that is compassed by these few words. For consider them, and you will see that they ascribe "wisdom, and honor, and riches, and power" to him of whom they are spoken; but it is human wisdom and earthly power, all "under the sun." And now listen to the "song" that should surely accompany this ascription; note the joy of a heart fully and completely satisfied now that the pinnacle of human greatness is attained. Here it is: "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" The word hahvehl is always translated, as here, "vanity." It is sometimes applied to "idols," as Deut. xxxii.21, and would give the idea of emptiness -- nothingness. What a striking contrast! Man has here all that Nature can possibly give; and his poor heart, far from singing, is empty still, and utters its sad bitter groan of disappointment. Now turn and contemplate that other scene, where the true Son of David, only now a "Lamb as it had been slain," is the center of every circle, the object of every heart. Tears are dried at the mention of His name, and song after song bursts forth, till the whole universe of bliss pours forth its joy, relieves its surcharged heart in praise. "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher. That is the old groan. "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof, for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by Thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and hast made them kings and priests, and they shall reign over the earth." That is the new song. Oh, blessed contrast! Does it not make Him who Himself has replaced the groan by the song precious? Has it, then, no value?
And this is just the purpose of the whole book, to furnish such striking contrasts whereby the "new" is set off in its glories against the dark background of the "old," -- rest against labor, hope against despair, song against groan; and so the third verse puts this very explicitly, -- "What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?"
The wisest and the greatest of men is seeking for an answer to this question. And this verse is too important in its bearing on the whole book to permit our passing it without looking at that significant word "profit" a little closer. And here one feels the advantage of those helps that a gracious God has put into our hands in these days of special attack upon His revelation, whereby even the unlearned may, by a little diligence, arrive at the exact shade of the meaning of a word. The word "profit," then, is, in the Hebrew, yithrohn, and is found in this exact form only in this book, where it is translated "profit," as here, or "excellency," as in chap. ii.13. The Septuagint translates it into a Greek one, meaning "advantage," or perhaps more literally, "that which remains over and above." In Eph. iii.20 it is rendered "exceeding abundantly above." Hence we gather that our word intends to convey to us the question, "After life is over, after man has given his labor, his time, his powers, and his talents, what has he received in exchange that shall satisfy him for all that he has lost? Do the pleasures obtained during life fully compensate for what is spent in obtaining them? Do they satisfy? and do they remain to him as "profit" over and above that expenditure? In a word, what "under the sun" can satisfy the longing, thirsting, hungering heart of man, so that he can say, "My heart is filled to overflowing, its restless longings are stilled, I have found a food that satisfies its hunger, a water that quenches its thirst"? A question all-important, surely, and it will be well worth listening to the experience of this seeker, who is fitted far above his fellows for finding this satisfactory good, if it can be found "under the sun."
First, then, the Preacher, like a good workman, takes account of what material he has to work with. "Have I," he says, "any thing that others have not had, or can I hope to find any thing that has not been before?" At once he is struck with that "law of circuit" that is stamped on every thing: generation follows generation; but no new earth, that remains ever the same; the sun wheels ceaselessly in its one course; the winds circle from point to point, but whirl about to their starting-place; the waters, too, follow the same law, and keep up one unbroken circuit. Where can rest be found in such a scene? Whilst there is unceasing change, nothing is new; it is but a repetition of what has been before, and which again soon passes, leaving the heart empty and hungry still. Again, then, let us use this dark background to throw forward another scene. See, even now, "above the sun" Him who is the Head and perfect Exponent of the creation called the new. Is there any law of constant unsatisfying circuit in Him? Nay, indeed, every sight we get of Him is new; each revelation of Himself perfectly satisfies, and yet awakens appetite for further views.
"No pause, no change those pleasures
Or, again, look at that blessed "law of circuit" spoken of in another way by one who has indeed been enlightened by a light "above the sun" in every sense of the word, in 2 Cor. ix. It is not the circling of winds or waters, but of "grace" direct from the blessed God Himself. Mark the perfection stamped upon it both by its being a complete circle -- never ending, but returning again to its Source, -- and by the numerical stamp of perfection upon it in its seven distinct parts (or movements) as shown by the sevenfold recurrence of the word "all," or "every," both coming from the same Greek word.
1. "God is able to make all grace abound unto you." There is an inexhaustible source. We may come and come and come again, and never find that fountain lowered by all our drafts upon it. Sooner, far sooner, should the ocean be emptied by a teacup than infinite "power" and "love" be impoverished by all that His saints could draw from Him. All grace.
2. "That ye always." There is no moment when this circle of blessing need stop flowing. It is ever available. No moment -- by day or night, in the quiet of the closet or in the activities of the day's duties, when in communion with friends or in the company of foes, -- when that grace is not available. At all times.
3. "Having all sufficiency" -- perfect competence to meet just the present emergency. A sufficiency, let us mark, absolutely independent of Nature's resources, -- a sufficiency beautifully illustrated by "unlearned and ignorant" Peter and John in the presence of the learned Sanhedrim. Let us rejoice and praise God as we trace these three glorious links in this endless chain of blessing. All sufficiency.
4. "In all things" (or "in every way"). It is no matter from what side the demand may come, this precious grace is there to meet it. Is it to deal with another troubled anxious soul, where human wisdom avails nothing? Divine wisdom and tact shall be supplied. Courage if danger presents itself, or "all long-suffering with joyfulness" if afflictions tear the heart. In all things.
5. "May abound to every good work." Now filled to the brim, and still connected with an inexhaustible supply, the vessel must overflow, and that on every side. No effort, no toil, no weariness, no drawing by mechanical means from a deep well; but the grace-filled heart, abiding (and that is the only condition) in complete dependence upon its God, naturally overflows on every side -- to all good work.
6. "Being enriched in every thing" (we omit the parenthesis, although full of its own divine beauty), (or, "in every way"). This is in some sort a repetition of No.5, but goes as far beyond it as the word "enriched" is fuller than the word "sufficient." The latter fills the vessel, as we have said, up to the brim; the former adds another drop, and over it flows. In view of these "exceeding great and precious promises," we may say, --
"Oh wherefore should we do ourselves this wrong,
since we may be enriched in all things.
7. "To all bountifulness." This stream of grace is never to stagnate, or it will lose all its character of blessing, as the manna hoarded for a second day "bred worms, and stank." Thus every single Christian becomes a living channel of blessing to all around, and the circle is now completed, by once more returning to the point whence it started, "Which causeth through us thanksgiving to God," and closes with no weary wail of "All things are full of labor," but joyful songs resound on every side, and at every motion of this circle of blessing ascends "thanksgiving to God." For just exactly the same full measure is seen in the thanksgiving ascending at the end as in the grace descending in the beginning. There it "abounded," filling the vessel full till it overflowed in the same measure, "abounding" in blessings to others who needed, and these forthwith pass on the stream in "abounding" thanksgiving to God. The apostle himself, as if he could not suffer himself to be excluded from the circle of blessing, adds his own note at the close with "Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift." And shall we not, too, dear brother or sister now reading these lines, let our feeble voice be heard in this sweet harmony of praise? Has not this contrast between the new song and the old groan, again we may ask, great value?
Having, then, seen in these first few verses the purpose of the book and the standpoint of the writer, we may accompany him in the details of his search. First he repeats, what is of the greatest importance for us to remember (v.12), "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem." He would not have us forget that, should he fail in his search for perfect satisfaction, it will not be because he is not fully qualified both by his abilities and his position to succeed. But Infidelity, and its kinsman Rationalism, raise a joyful shout over this verse; for to disconnect the books of the Bible from the writers whose name they bear is a long step toward overthrowing the authority of those books altogether. If the believer's long-settled confidence can be proved vain in one point, and that so important a point, there is good "hope" of eventually overthrowing it altogether. So, with extravagant protestations of loyalty to the Scriptures, they, Joablike, "kiss" and "stab" simultaneously, wonderfully manifesting in word and work that dual form of the evil one, who, our Lord tells us, was both "liar and murderer from the beginning." And many thousand professing Christians are like Amasa of old, their ear is well pleased with the fair sound of "Art thou in health, my brother?" and they, too, take "no heed to the sword" in the inquirer's hand. Judas, too, in his day, illustrates strongly that same diabolical compound of "deceit and violence," only the enemy finds no unwary Amasa in Jesus the Lord. "Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss" tears the vail from him at once; and in the same way the feeblest believer who abides in Him, is led of that same spirit; and "good words and fair speeches" do not deceive, nor can betrayal be hidden behind the warmest protestations of affection.
But to return: "How could," cries this sapient infidelity, which today has given itself the modest name of "Higher Criticism," -- "how could Solomon say, 'I was king,' when he never ceased to be that?" Ah! one fears if that same Lord were to speak once more as of old, He would again say, "O fools and blind!" For is it not meet that the writer who is about to give recital of his experiences should first tell us what his position was at the very time of those experiences? That at the very time of all these exercises, disappointments, and groanings, he was still the highest monarch on earth, king over an undivided Israel, in Jerusalem, with all the resources and glories that accompany this high station, pre-eminently fitting him to speak with authority, and compelling us to listen with the profoundest respect and attention.
Yes, this glorious monarch "gives his heart" -- that is, applies himself with singleness of purpose "to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven." No path that gives the slightest promise of leading to happiness shall be untrodden; no pleasure shall be denied, no toil be shirked that shall give any hope of satisfaction or rest. "This sore travail hath God given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith." That is, the heart of man hungers and thirsts, and he must search till he does find something to satisfy; and if, alas! he fail to find it in "time," if he only drinks here of waters whereof he "that drinks shall thirst again," eternity shall find him thirsting still, and crying for one drop of water to cool his tongue. But then with what bitter despair Ecclesiastes records all these searchings! "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit," or rather, "pursuit of the wind." Exactly seven times he uses this term, "pursuit of the wind," expressing perfect, complete, despairing failure in his quest. He finds things all wrong, but he has no power of righting them; "that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." But perhaps we may get the secret of his failure in his next words. He takes a companion or counselor in his search. Again exactly seven times he takes counsel with this companion, "his own heart," -- "I communed with my own heart." That is the level of the book; the writer's resources are all within himself; no light from without save that which nature gives; no taking hold on another; no hand clasped by another. He and his heart are alone. Ah! that is dangerous as well as dreary work to take counsel with one's own heart. "Fool" and "lawless one" come to their foolish and wicked conclusions there (Ps. xiv.1); and what else than "folly" could be expected in hearkening to that which is "deceitful above all things" -- what else than lawlessness in taking counsel with that which is "desperately wicked"?
Take not, then, for thy counselor "thine own heart," when divine love has placed infinite wisdom and knowledge at the disposal of lowly faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, "who of God is made unto us wisdom," and "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
But does our Preacher find the rest he desires in the path of his own wisdom? Not at all. "For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." "Grief and sorrow" ever growing, ever increasing, the further he treads that attractive and comparatively elevated path of human wisdom. Nor has Solomon been a lonely traveler along that road. Thousands of the more refined of Adam's sons have chosen it; but none have gone beyond "the king," and none have discovered anything in it, but added "grief and sorrow" -- sorrowful groan! But the youngest of God's family has his feet, too, on a path of "knowledge," and he may press along that path without the slightest fear of "grief or sorrow" resulting from added knowledge. Nay, a new song shall be in his mouth, "Grace and peace shall be multiplied through the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord." (2 Pet. i.2). Blessed contrast! "Sorrow and grief" multiplied through growth in human wisdom: "Grace and peace" multiplied through growth in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord!
My beloved reader, I pray you meditate a little on this striking and precious contrast. Here is Solomon in all his glory, with a brighter halo of human wisdom round his head than ever had any of the children of men. Turn to 1 Kings iv.29: --
"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.
And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.
For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about.
And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.
And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.
And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom."
Is it not a magnificent ascription of abounding wisdom? What field has it not capacity to explore? Philosophy in its depths -- poetry in its beauties -- botany and zoology in their wonders. Do we envy him? Then listen to what his poor heart was groaning all that time: "In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow"! Now turn to our portion above the sun -- "the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord": infinitely higher, deeper, lovelier, and more wondrous than the fields explored by Solomon, in constant unfoldings of riches of wisdom; and each new unfolding bringing its own sweet measure of "grace and peace." Have not the lines fallen to us in pleasant places? Have we not a goodly heritage? Take the feeblest of the saints of God of today, and had Solomon in all his glory a lot like one of these?