« Prev 1. On the Authorship, Form, Design, and Contents… Next »

3

§ 1. ON THE AUTHORSHIP, FORM, DESIGN, AND
CONTENTS OF THE BOOK.

Those who raise the question, "Is life worth living?" answer it by—living on; for no man lives simply to proclaim what a worthless and wretched creature he is. But for the most part the question is mooted in a merely academical and not very sincere spirit. And to the dainty and fastidious pessimist who goes about to imply his own superiority by declaring that the world which contents his fellows is not good enough for him, there still seems no better reply than the rough but rousing and wholesome rebuke which Epictetus gave to such as he some nineteen centuries ago, reminding them that there were many exits from the theatre of life, and advising them, if they disliked the "show", to retire from it by the nearest door of escape, and to make room for spectators of a more modest and grateful spirit.

Of the pessimists of his time he demands, "Was it not God who brought you here? And as what did He4 bring you? Was it not as a mortal? Was it not as one who was to live with a little portion of flesh upon the earth, and to witness his administration—to behold the great spectacle around you for a little while? After you have beheld the solemn and august spectacle as long as is permitted you, will you not depart when He leads you out, adoring and thankful for what you have heard and seen? For you the solemnity is over. Go away, then, like a modest and grateful person. Make room for others."

"But why," urges the pessimist, "did He bring me into the world on these hard terms?"

"Oh!" replies Epictetus, "if you don't like the terms, it is always in your power to leave them. He has no need of a discontented spectator. He will not miss you much, nor we either."

But if any man lift the question into a more sincere and noble form by asking, "How may life be made worth living, or best worth living?"—in other words, "What is the true ideal, and what the chief good, of man?"—he will find no nobler answer to it, and none more convincingly and persuasively put, than that contained in this Scripture, which modern pessimists are apt to quote whenever they want to "approve" their melancholy hypothesis "with a text." From Schopenhauer downward, this Book is constantly cited by them as if it confirmed the conclusion for which they contend,5 Taubert even going so far as to find "a catechism of pessimism" in it. Their assumption, however, is based on a total misapprehension of the design and drift of Ecclesiastes of which no scholar should have been guilty, and of which it is hard to see how any scholar could have been guilty had he studied it as a whole, instead of carrying away from it only what he wanted. So far from lending any countenance to their conclusion of despair, it frankly traverses it—as I hope to show, and as many have shown before me—and lands us in its very opposite; the conclusion of the whole matter with the Hebrew Preacher being, that whoso cultivates the virtues of charity, diligence, and cheerfulness, because God is in heaven and rules over all, he will not only find life well worth living, but will pursue its loftiest ideal and touch its true blessedness.

When scholars and "philosophers" have fallen into a mistake so radical and profound, it is not surprising that the unlettered should have followed their leaders into the ditch, and taken this Scripture to be the most melancholy in the Sacred Canon, instead of one of the most consolatory and inspiriting, for want of apprehending its true aim. Beyond all doubt, there is a prevailing ground-tone of sadness in the Book; for through by far the larger part of its course it has to deal with some of the saddest facts of human life—with the errors which divert men from their true aim, and6 plunge them into a various and growing misery. But the voice which sinks so often into this tone of sadness is the voice of a most brave and cheerful spirit, a spirit whose counsels can only depress us if we are seeking our chief good where it cannot be found. For the Preacher, as we shall see, does not condemn the wisdom or the mirth, the devotion to business or the acquisition of wealth, in which most men find "the chief good and market of their time," as in themselves vanities. He approves of them; he shows us how we may so pursue and so use them as to find them very pleasant and wholesome; how we may so dispense with them, if they prove beyond our reach, as none the less to enjoy a very true and abiding content. His constant and recurring moral is that we are to enjoy our brief day on earth; that God meant us to enjoy it; that we are to be up and doing, with a heart for any strife, or toil, or pleasure; not to sit still and weep over broken illusions and defeated hopes. Our lower aims and possessions become vanities to us only when we seek in them that supreme satisfaction which He who has "put eternity into our hearts" designed us to find only in Him and in serving Him. If we love and serve Him, if we gratefully acknowledge Him to be the Author of "every good gift and every perfect boon," if we seek first his kingdom and righteousness; in fine, if we are Christian in more than name, the study of this Book should not7 make us sad. We should find in it a confirmation of our most intimate convictions, and incentives to act upon them. But if we do not hold our wisdom, our mirth, our labour, our wealth as the gifts and ordinances of God for our good, if we permit them to usurp his seat and become as gods to us, then indeed this Book will be sad enough for us, but no whit sadder than our lives. It will be sad, and will make us sad, yet only that it may lead us to repentance, and through repentance to a true and lasting joy.


It is to be feared that the popular misconception of this singular and most instructive Scripture goes much farther than this, and extends to questions much more superficial than that of the temper or spirit it breathes. If, for example, the average reader of the Bible were asked, Who wrote this Scripture? when was it written? to whom was it addressed? what is its general scope and design? his answer, I suppose, would be: "Solomon wrote this Book; of course, therefore, it was written in his lifetime, and addressed to the men over whom he ruled; and his design in writing it was to reveal his own experience of life for their instruction." And yet in all probability no one of these answers is true, or anywhere near the truth. According to the most competent judges, the Book Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon, nor for centuries8 after his death; it was addressed to a generation of feeble and oppressed captives, who had been carried away into exile, or had lately returned from it, and not to the free prosperous nation which rose to its highest pitch in the reign of the Wise King. It is a dramatic representation of the experience of a Jewish sage, who deliberately set himself to discover and pursue the chief good of man in all the provinces and along all the avenues in which it is commonly sought, eked out by what he supposed or tradition reported Solomon's experience to have been; and its design was to comfort men who were groaning under the heaviest wrongs of Time with the bright hope of Immortality.

To scholars versed in the niceties of the Oriental languages, the most convincing proof of the comparatively modern date and authorship of the Book is to be found in its words, and idioms, and style. The base forms of Hebrew and the large intermixture of foreign terms, phrases, and turns of speech which characterize it—these, with the absence of the nobler rhythmic forms of Hebrew poetry, are held to be a conclusive demonstration that it was written during the Rabbinical period, at a time long subsequent to the Augustan age in which Solomon lived and wrote. The critics and commentators whose names stand highest22   Rosenmüller, Ewald, Knobel, De Wette, Delitzsch, Ginsburg, with many other competent judges, are agreed on this point; and even those who in part differ from them differ only in assigning the Book to a date still farther removed from the time of Solomon. There are but few scholars who now contend for the Solomonic authorship, and hardly any of these are, I think, in the first rank. tell us9 that it would be just as easy for them to believe that Hooker wrote Blair's Sermons, or that Shakespeare wrote the plays of Sheridan Knowles, as to believe that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. And of course on such questions as these we can only defer to the verdict of men who have made them the study of their lives.

But with all our deference for learning, we have so often seen the conclusions of the ripest scholars modified or reversed by their successors, and we all know "questions of words" to be capable of so many different interpretations, that probably we should still hold our judgment in suspense, were there no arguments against the traditional hypothesis such as plain men use and can understand. There are many such arguments, however, and arguments that seem to be of a conclusive force.

As, for instance, this: The whole social state described in this Book is utterly unlike what we know to have been the condition of the Hebrews during the reign of Solomon, but exactly accords with the condition of the captive Israelites, who, at the disruption of the Hebrew monarchies, were carried away into Babylonia.10 Under Solomon the Hebrew State touched its highest point. His throne was surrounded by statesmen of tried sagacity; his judges were incorrupt. Commerce grew and prospered, till gold became as common as silver had been, and silver as common as brass. Literature flourished, and produced its most perfect fruits. And the people, though heavily taxed during the later years of his reign, enjoyed a security, a freedom, an abundance unknown whether to their fathers or to their children. "Judah and Israel were many in number as the sands by the sea, eating, drinking, and making merry.... And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig-tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon" (1 Kings iv. 20, 25). But as we read this Book we gather from it the picture of a social state in which kings were childish, and princes addicted to revelry and drunkenness (x. 16); great fools were lifted to high places and rode on stately horses, while nobles were degraded and had to tramp through the mire (x. 6, 7); the race was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the learned (ix. 11). The most eminent public services were suffered to pass unrewarded, and were forgotten the moment the need for them was passed (ix. 14, 15). Property was so insecure that to amass wealth was only to multiply extortions, and to fall a prey to the11 cupidity of princes and judges, insomuch that the sluggard who folded his hands, so long as he had bread to eat, was esteemed wiser than the diligent merchant who applied himself to the labours and anxieties of traffic (iv. 5, 6). Life was as insecure as property, and stood at the caprice of men who were slaves to their own lusts; a hasty word spoken in the divan of any one of the satraps, or even a resentful gesture, might provoke the most terrible outrages (viii. 3, 4; x. 4). The true relation between the sexes was violated; the ruling classes crowded their harems with concubines, and even the wiser sort of men took to themselves any woman they desired; while, with cynical injustice, they first degraded women, and then condemned them as alike and altogether bad, their hands chains, their love a snare (vii. 26, 28; ix. 9). The oppressions of the time were so constant, so cruel, and life grew so dark beneath them, that those who died long ago were counted happier than those who were still alive; while happier than either were those who had not been born to see the intolerable evils on which the sun looked calmly down day by day (iv. 1-3). In fine, the whole fabric of the State was fast falling into ruin and decay, through the greed and sloth of rulers who taxed the people to the uttermost in order to supply their wasteful luxury (x. 18, 19); while yet, so dreadful was their tyranny and their spies so ubiquitous,12 that no man dared to breathe a word against them even to the wife of his bosom and in the secrecy of the bed-chamber (x. 20): the only consolation of the oppressed was the grim hope that a time of retribution would overtake their tyrants, from which neither their power nor their craft should be able to save them (viii. 5-8).

Nothing would be more difficult than to accept this as a picture of the social and political features of the Hebrew commonwealth during the reign of Solomon, or even during those later years of his reign in which his rule grew hard and despotic. Nothing can well be more incredible than that this should be intended as a picture of his reign, save that it should be a picture drawn by his own hand! To suppose Solomon the author of this Scripture is to suppose that the wisest of kings and of men was base enough to pen a deliberate and malignant libel on himself, his time, and his realm! On the other hand, the description, dark and lurid as it is, exactly accords with all we know of the terrible condition of the Jews who wept in captivity by the waters of Babylon under the later Persian rule, or were ground under the heels of the Persian satraps after their return to the land of their fathers. In all probability, therefore, as our most competent authorities are agreed, the Book is a poem rather than a chronicle, written by an unknown Hebrew author,13 during the Captivity or shortly after the Return, certainly not before B.C. 500, and probably somewhat later.33   The fourth century B.C. is, I think, its most probable date. In his recent exposition of Ecclesiastes, the Dean of Wells attempts to bring the date down to about B.C. 240. But his arguments are so curious and fanciful, and his conclusion is based so largely on conjecture, and on dubious similarities of phrase in the language of the Hebrew Preacher, and of some of the later philosophers of Greece, that I suspect very little weight will be attached to his gallant attempt to breathe new life into the moribund hypothesis of the ingenious Mr. Tyler. Delitzsch, for example, a high and recognized authority, declares that there is "not a trace of Greek influence" in this Scripture, though Dr. Plumptre finds so many. But though neither his hypothesis nor his confessedly conjectural biography of the unknown author carries the force of "sober criticism," there is much in his Commentary which will be found very helpful.

Nor is this inference, drawn from the style and general contents of the Book, unsupported by verses in it which at first sight seem altogether opposed to such an inference. All the special and direct indications of authorship are to be found either in the first or in the last chapter.

The very first verse runs, "The words of the Preacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem." Now, David had only one son who was King in Jerusalem, viz. Solomon; the verse, therefore, seems to fix the authorship on Solomon beyond dispute. Nevertheless, the conclusion is untenable. For (1) in his known14 and admitted works the Wise King distinctly claims to be their author. The Book of Proverbs commences with "The Proverbs of Solomon," and the Canticles with "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's." But the book Ecclesiastes does not once mention his name, though it speaks of a "son of David," i.e. one of David's descendants. Instead of calling this son of David Solomon, it calls him "Coheleth," or, as we translate the word, "The Preacher." Now, the word Coheleth44   Plumptre writes the word Koheleth, and Perowne Quoheleth. Which of the three initial letters should be used is of little consequence, and hence I retain the form in most common use. Ecclesiastes is simply its Greek equivalent. is not a masculine noun, as the name of a man should be, but the feminine participle of an unused conjugation of a Hebrew verb which means "to collect," or "to call together." It denotes, not an actual man, but an abstraction, a personification, and is probably intended to denote one who calls a congregation round him, i.e. a preacher, any preacher, preacher in the abstract. (2) This "son of David," we are told, was "King in Jerusalem;" and the phrase implies that the Book was written at a time when there either were or had been kings out of Jerusalem, when Jerusalem was not the only site of a Hebrew throne, and therefore after the disruption of Solomon's realm into the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah. (3) Again,15 we find Coheleth affirming (i. 12), "I was King over Israel in Jerusalem," and (i. 16), "I acquired greater wisdom than all (all kings, i.e., say the critics) who were before me in Jerusalem." But to say nothing of the questionable modesty of the latter sentence if it fell from the pen of Solomon, he was only the second occupant of the throne in Jerusalem; for Jebus, or Jerusalem, was only conquered from a Philistine clan by his father David. And if there had been only one, how could he speak of "all" who preceded him? (4) And still further, the tense of the verb in "I was King over Israel" can only carry the sense "I was King, but am King no more." Yet we know that Solomon reigned over Israel to the day of his death, that there never was a day on which he could have strictly used such a tense as this. So clear and undisputed is the force of this tense that the rabbis, who held Solomon to be the author of Ecclesiastes, were obliged to invent a fable or tradition to account for it. They said, "When King Solomon was sitting on the throne of his kingdom, his heart was greatly lifted up within him by his prosperity, and he transgressed the commandments of God, gathering to him many horses, and chariots, and riders, amassing much gold and silver, and marrying many wives of foreign extraction. Wherefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against him, and He sent against him Ashmodai, the ruler of16 the demons; and he drave him from the throne of his kingdom, and took away the ring from his hand (Solomon's ring is famous for its marvellous powers in all Oriental fable), and sent him forth to wander about the world. And he went through the villages and cities, with a staff in his hand, weeping and lamenting, and saying, 'I am Coheleth; I was beforetime Solomon, and reigned over Israel in Jerusalem; but now I rule over only this staff.'" It is a pretty and pathetic fable, but it is a fable; and though it proves nothing else, we may fairly infer from it that, even in the judgment of the rabbis, the book Ecclesiastes must, on its own showing, have been written after Solomon had ceased to be King, i.e. after he had ceased to live.

In the Epilogue (xii. 9-12) the Author of the Book lifts the dramatic mask from his face, and permits us to see who he really is; a mask, let me add, somewhat carelessly worn, since we see nothing of it in the last ten chapters of the Book. Although he has written in a feigned name, and, without asserting it, has so moulded his phrases, at least in the earlier chapters of his work, as to suggest to his readers that he is, if not Solomon himself, at least Solomon's mouthpiece, attributing the garnered results of his experience to one greater than himself, that they may carry the more weight—just as Browning speaks in the name of Rabbi Ben Ezra, for instance, or Fra Lippo Lippi,17 or Abt Vogler, borrowing what he can of outward circumstance from the age and class to which they belong, and yet really uttering his own thought and emotion through their lips—he now confesses that he is no king of an age long past, but a rabbi, a sage, a teacher, a master, who has both made some proverbs of his own and collected the wise sayings of others who had gone before him, in order that he might carry some little light and comfort to the sorely bested men of his own generation and blood.55   See the commentary on these verses for a fuller exposition of his real claims and position. In short, he has exercised his right as a poet, or "maker," to embody the results of his wide and varied experience of life in a dramatic form, but is careful to let us know, before he takes leave of us, that it is a fictitious or dramatic Solomon, and not Solomon himself, to whom we have been listening throughout.

So that all the phrases in the Book which are indicative of its authorship confirm the inference drawn from its style and its historical contents; viz. that it was not written by Solomon, nor in his reign, but by an unknown sage of a long-subsequent period, who, by a dramatic impersonation of the characteristic experiences of the son of David, or rather of his own experiences blended with the Solomonic traditions and poured into their18 moulds, sought to console and instruct his oppressed fellow-countrymen.

But perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of this conclusion is that, when once we think of it, we cannot possibly accept the Solomon set before us in Ecclesiastes as the Solomon depicted in the historical books of Scripture. Solomon the son of David, with all his wisdom, played the fool. The foremost man and Hebrew of his time, he gave his heart to "strange women," and to gods whose ritual was not only idolatrous, but cruel, dark, impure. In his pursuit of science, unless the whole East belie him, he ran into secret magical arts, incantations, divinations, an occult intercourse with the powers of ill. In all ways he departed from the God who had enriched him with the choicest gifts, and sank, through luxury, extravagance, and excess, first into a premature old age,66   Solomon could not have been more than sixty years of age when he died, yet it was not till he was "old" that his wives "turned away his heart from the Lord his God" (1 Kings xi. 4). and then into a death so unrelieved by any sign of penitence, or any promise of amendment, that from that day to this rabbis and divines have discussed his final doom, many of them leaning to the darker alternative. This

"uxorious king, whose heart, though large,

Beguiled by fair idolatresses, fell

To idols foul,"

19

is the Solomon of history. But the Solomon of Ecclesiastes is a sage who represents himself as conducting a series of moral experiments for the good of mankind, in order that, with all the weight of manifold experience, he may teach men what is that good and right way which alone leads to peace. However hardly we may think of the Wise King who was guilty of so many follies, we can scarcely think of him as such a fool that he did not know his sins to be sins, or as such a knave that he deliberately endeavoured to palm them off on other ages, not as transgressions of the Divine Law, but as a series of delicate philosophic experiments which he was good enough to conduct for the benefit of the race.

On the whole, then, we conclude that in this Book Solomon is taken as the Hebrew type of wisdom, the wisdom which is based on large and varied experience; and that this experience is here dramatized, in so far as the writer could conceive it, for the instruction of a race which from first to last, from the fable of Jotham to the parables of our Lord, were accustomed to receive instruction in fictitious and dramatic forms. Its author was not Solomon, but one of "the wise" whose name can no longer be recovered; it was written, not in the time of Solomon, i.e. about 1000 B.C., but some five or six centuries later: and it was addressed not to the wealthy and peaceful citizens whose king held20 his court in Jerusalem, but to their degenerate and enfeebled descendants during the period of the Persian supremacy.77   "It may be regarded as beyond doubt that it was written under the Persian domination" (Delitzsch).


Doubtless many of the prevailing misapprehensions of the meaning, authorship, and animating spirit of the Book are due, in some measure, to the singular form into which it is thrown. It belongs to what is known as the Chokma, i.e. the Gnomic school, as opposed to the Lyrical school of Hebrew poetry. The Jewish, like Oriental literature in general, early assumed this form, which seems to have a natural affinity with the Eastern mind. Grave men, who made a study of life or who devoted themselves to a life of study, were likely to be sententious, to compress much thought into few words, especially in the ages in which writing was a somewhat rare accomplishment, or in which, as in the Hebrew schools, instruction was given by a living voice. No doubt they began with coining sage or witty aphorisms, generally lit up with a happy metaphor, each of which was complete in itself. Such sayings, as memorable and portable, no less than as striking for beauty and "matterful" for meditation, would commend themselves to an age in which books were21 few and scarce. They are to be found in abundance in the proverbs of all ancient races, and in the Book of Proverbs which bears the name of Solomon, and many of the more didactic and elaborate Psalms; while the Book of Job preserves many of the sayings current among the Arabs and the Egyptians. But with the Hebrews this literary mode took what is, so far as I am aware, a singular and unparalleled development, from the time of Solomon onwards, rising to its highest pitch in the Book of Job, and sinking to its lowest—within the limits of the Canon at least—in the cramping over-ingenuities of the acrostic Psalms, and in such proverbs as those attributed to Agur the son of Jakeh.

This development has not as yet, I think, attracted the attention it deserves; at least I have nowhere met with any formal recognition of it. Yet, undoubtedly, while at first the Hebrew sages were content to compress much wit or wisdom into the small compass of a gnome, which they polished like a gem, leaving each to shine by its own lustre and to make its own unaided impression, there rose in process of time men who saw new and great capacities in this ancient literary form, and set themselves to string their gems together, to arrange their own or other men's proverbs so aptly and artistically that they enhanced each other's beauty, while at the same time they compelled them22 to carry a logical and continuous stream of thought, to paint an elaborate picture, to build up a lofty yet breathing personification (that of Wisdom, for example, in Proverbs viii.), to describe a lengthened and varied ethical experience (as in Ecclesiastes), and even to weave them into a large and sublime poem, like that of Job, which has never been excelled. The reluctance with which this form lends itself to the nobler functions of literature, the immense difficulty of the instrument which many of the Hebrew poets wielded, will become apparent to any one who should try the experiment. We have a goodly collection of proverbs, drawn from many sources, foreign as well as native, in the English tongue. Let any man endeavour so to set or arrange them, or a selection from them, as to produce a fine poem on a lofty theme, and he at least will not underrate the difficulty of the task, even though we should concede to him the right to make proverbs where he could not find them to his mind. Yet to many of the finest Hebrew poets the very restrictions of this form seem to have possessed a charm such as the far less rigid and encumbering laws of the sonnet, or even of the triolet and other fanciful poetic wares of modern times, have exerted on the minds of many of our own poets.88   The nearest analogy in English literature to this triumphant use of the proverb of which I can think is Pope's use of the couplet—in every way a much lesser feat, however; while its burlesque or caricature may be found in Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy. A careful student of the Chokma23 school might even, I believe, trace the growth of this art, from its small beginnings in the earlier gnomic sayings of the Wise, to its culmination in the Book of Job; and, in so doing, would confer a boon on all students of Holy Writ.99   In the Book of Proverbs, for instance, he would find, in addition to the incomparable personification of Wisdom to which I have already referred, many examples of the proverb proper, many detached sayings whose underlying thought is illustrated by a stroke of imagination; such as that (chap. xxv. 11) in which the enhanced beauty of an appropriate word when spoken at the opportune moment is compared with the golden fruit of the orange when set in its frame of silver blooms (Expositions, vol. iv.). He would also find some of those small picturesque descriptions produced by an artistic sequence of proverbs—the same theme being sometimes worked over by different artists, in different ages, one and the same moral being enforced by wholly different designs; as, for instance, where Solomon (chap. vi. 6-11) enforces the duty of a forethoughtful industry by a picture of the ant and her prudent ways; while an unknown sage of a later date (chap. xxiv. 30-34) appends precisely the same moral, expressed in the same words, to his graphic picture of the Sluggard's garden (The Expositor, Second Series, vol. vi.). Moreover, if he turn to chapter xxx. he will see how this form of art, which once soared so high, was capable of sinking into a kind of puerile conundrum—with its three too wonderful things, and its four little things which yet are wise—while its moral tone remained pure and high. And, finally, in the exposition of the Epilogue to Ecclesiastes he will find how, after sinking so low, it rose once more, in the hands of the later rabbis, into many beautiful forms of fable, and exhortation, and parable.

It is to this school that the Preacher belongs, as he himself informs us in the Epilogue to his fine Poem. He set himself, he says, "to compose, to collect, and to arrange many proverbs" (xii. 9), rejecting any that were not "words of truth," preferring, as was natural in a time so dark, such as were "words of comfort" (xii. 10), and seeking his sayings both from the sages who stood by the old ways and those who looked for the new (xii. 11). And, of course, the arranging of his awkward24 and inelastic material was far more difficult than collecting it—arranging it so as to compel it to tell his story, and carry his argument to its lofty close. It is Story, the sculptor and poet, I believe, who says that "the best part of every work of art is unseen," unexpressed, inexpressible in tones, or verse, or colours: it is that invisible something which lends it dignity, spirit, life, that "style" which, in this case, is in very deed the man. And the best part of Coheleth's noble work is this art of arranging his gnomic sayings in the best order, the order in which they illuminate each other most brightly and contribute most effectively to the total impression. Hence, both in translating and in endeavouring to interpret him, whenever I have had to25 choose between rival renderings or meanings, I have made it a rule to prefer that which most conduced to the logical sequence of his work or carried the finer sense, deeming that at least so much as this was due to so great a master, and entertaining no fear that I could invent any meaning which would outrun his intention.

In fine, if I were to gather up into a few sentences the impression which "much study" of this Scripture has left on my mind as to the manner in which the author worked upon it, I should say: that Coheleth, a man of much of Solomon's original "largeness of heart" and a great lover of wisdom, set himself to collect the scattered sayings of the sages who were before him. He took the traditional story of Solomon as the ground and framework of his poem, at least at the outset, though he seems to have soon laid it aside, and endeavoured so to assort and arrange the proverbs he had collected that each would lead up to the next; while each group of them would describe some of the ways in which men commonly pursued the chief good, ways in most of which Solomon was at least reputed to have travelled far. Finding gaps which could not be well filled up from his large and various collection, he bridged them over with proverbs of his own composing, till he had got a sufficient account of each of the main adventures of that Quest. And, then, he put adventure26 after adventure together in the order in which they best led up to his great conclusion.

In all this I have said nothing, it is true, of that "inspiration of the Almighty" which alone gives man understanding of spiritual things. But why should not "He who worketh all," and has deigned to use every form of literary art by which men teach their fellows, move and inspire a lover of wisdom to collect and arrange the sayings of the Wise, if by these he could carry truth and comfort to those who were in sore need of both? And where, save from heaven and from Him who rules in heaven, could Coheleth have learned the great secret—the secret of a retributive life beyond the grave? Even the best and wisest of the Hebrews saw that life only "as through a glass, darkly;" and even their fitful and imperfect conception of it seems always to have been—as in the case of David, Job, Isaiah—an immediate gift from God, and a gift so large that even their hands of faith could hardly grasp it. No one need doubt the inspiration of a Scripture which affirms, not only that God is always with us, passing a present and effective judgment on all we do, but also that, when this life is over, He will bring every deed and every secret thing into judgment, whether it be good or whether it be bad. That was not an everyday thought with the Jewish mind. We find it only in men who were moved by the Holy Ghost to accept the27 teaching of his providence or the revelation of his grace.


As for the design of the Book, no one now doubts that it sets before us the search for the summum bonum, the quest of the Chief Good. Its main immediate intention was to deliver the exiled Jews from the misleading ethical theories and habits into which they had fallen, from the sensualism and the scepticism occasioned by their imperfect conception of the Divine ways, by showing them that the true good of life is not to be secured by philosophy, by the pursuit of pleasure, by devotion to traffic or public affairs, by amassing wealth; but that it results from a temperate and thankful enjoyment of the gifts of the Divine bounty, and a cheerful endurance of toil and calamity, combined with a sincere service of God and a steadfast faith in that future life in which all wrongs will be righted and all the problems which now task and afflict us will receive a triumphant solution. Availing himself of the historical and traditional records of Solomon's life, he depicts, under that disguise, the moral experiments which he has conducted; depicts himself as having put the claims of wisdom, mirth, business, wealth, to a searching test, and found them incompetent to satisfy the cravings of the soul; as attaining no rest nor peace until he had learned a simple enjoyment of simple pleasures, a patient constancy under28 heavy trials, heartfelt devotion to the service of God, and an unwavering faith in the life to come.


The contents of the Poem are, or may be, distributed into a Prologue, Four Acts or Sections, and an Epilogue.

In the Prologue (chap. i., vv. 1-11), Coheleth states the Problem to be solved.

In the First Section (chap. i., ver. 12—chap. ii., ver. 26), he depicts the endeavour to solve it by seeking the Chief Good in Wisdom and in Pleasure.

In the Second Section (chap. iii., ver. 1—chap. v., ver. 20), the Quest is pursued in Traffic and Political Life.

In the Third Section (chap. vi., ver. 1—chap. viii., ver. 15), the Quest is carried into Wealth and the Golden Mean.

In the Fourth Section (chap. viii., ver. 16—chap. xii., ver. 7), the Quest is achieved, and the Chief Good found to consist in a tranquil and cheerful enjoyment of the present, combined with a cordial faith in the future, life.

And in the Epilogue (chap. xii., vv. 8-14) he summarises and emphatically repeats this solution of the Problem.


It was very natural that the Problem here discussed should fill a large space in Hebrew thought and29 literature; that it should be the theme of many of the Psalms and of many of the prophetic "burdens", as well as of the Books Ecclesiastes and Job. For the Mosaic revelation did teach that virtue and vice would meet suitable rewards now, in this present time. At the giving of the Law Jehovah announced that He would show mercy to the thousands of those who kept his commandments, and that He would visit the iniquities of the disobedient upon them. The Law that came by Moses is crowded with promises of temporal good to the righteous, and with threatenings of temporal evil to the unrighteous. The fulfilment of these threatenings and promises is carefully marked in the Hebrew chronicles; it is the supplication which breathes through the recorded prayers of the Hebrew race, and the theme of their noblest songs; it is their hope and consolation under the heaviest calamities. What, then, could be more bewildering to a godly and reflective Jew than to discover that this fundamental article of his faith was questionable, nay, that it was contradicted by the commonest facts of human life as life grew more complex and involved? When he saw the righteous driven before the blasts of adversity like a withered leaf, while the wicked lived out all their days in mirth and affluence; when he saw the only nation that attempted obedience to the Law groaning under the miseries of a captivity embittered by the cruel30 caprices of rulers who could not even rule themselves, and unrelieved by any hope of deliverance, while heathen races revelled in the lusts of sense and power unrebuked: when this seemed to be the rule of providence, the law of the Divine administration, and not that better rule revealed in his Scriptures, is it any wonder that, forgetting all corrective and balancing facts, he was racked with torments of perplexity; that, while some of his fellows plunged into the base relief of sensualism, he should be plagued with doubts and fears, and search eagerly through all avenues of thought for some solution of the mystery?

Nor, indeed, is this problem without interest for us; for we as persistently misinterpret the New Testament as the Hebrews did the Old. We read that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap;" we read that "the meek shall inherit the earth;" we read that for every act of service done to Christ we shall receive "a hundredfold now, in this present time;" and we are very prompt with the gross, careless interpretation which makes such passages mean that if we are good we shall have the good things of this life, while its evil things shall be reserved for the evil. Indeed, we are trained—or, perhaps I should say, until recently we were trained—in this interpretation from our earliest years. Our very spelling-books are full of it, and are framed on the model of "Johnny was a good boy, and31 he got plum-cake; but Tommy was a bad boy, and he got the stick." Nearly all our story-books have a similar moral: it is always, or almost always, the good young man who gets the beautiful wife and large estate, while the bad young man comes to a bad end. Our proverbs are full of it, and axioms such as "Honesty is the best policy," a pernicious half-truth, are for ever on our lips. Our art, in so far as it is ours, is in the same conspiracy. In Hogarth, for instance, as Thackeray has pointed out, it is always Francis Goodchild who comes to be Lord Mayor and poor Jem Scapegrace who comes to the gallows. And when, as life passes on, we discover that it is the bad boy who often gets the plum-cake, and the good boy who goes to the rod; that bad men often have beautiful wives and large estates, while good men fail of both; when we find the knave rising to place and authority, and honest Goodchild in the workhouse or the Gazette, then there rise up in our hearts the very doubts and perplexities and eager painful questions which of old time troubled the Psalmist and the Prophet. We cry out with Job—

"It is all one—therefore will I say it,

The guilty and the guiltless He treateth alike;

The deceiver and the deceived both are his;"

or we say with the Preacher,—

"This is the greatest evil of all that is done under the sun

That there is one fate for all;

32The same fate befalleth to the righteous and to the wicked,

To the good and pure and to the impure,

To him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not:

As is the good so is the sinner,

And he that sweareth as he that feareth an oath."

And it is well for us if, like the Hebrew poet, we can resist this cruel temptation, and hold fast the integrity of our faith; if we can rest in the assurance that, after all and when all is done, "the little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked;" that God has something better than wealth and lucky haps for the good, and merciful correctives of a more sovereign potency than penury and mishaps for the wicked. If we have this faith, our study of Ecclesiastes can hardly fail to deepen and confirm it; if we are not so happy as to have it, Coheleth will give us sound reasons for embracing it.


« Prev 1. On the Authorship, Form, Design, and Contents… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection