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Reflections of a Royal Philosopher

 1

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

3

What do people gain from all the toil

at which they toil under the sun?

4

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

but the earth remains forever.

5

The sun rises and the sun goes down,

and hurries to the place where it rises.

6

The wind blows to the south,

and goes around to the north;

round and round goes the wind,

and on its circuits the wind returns.

7

All streams run to the sea,

but the sea is not full;

to the place where the streams flow,

there they continue to flow.

8

All things are wearisome;

more than one can express;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

or the ear filled with hearing.

9

What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done;

there is nothing new under the sun.

10

Is there a thing of which it is said,

“See, this is new”?

It has already been,

in the ages before us.

11

The people of long ago are not remembered,

nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come

by those who come after them.

The Futility of Seeking Wisdom

12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

15

What is crooked cannot be made straight,

and what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

18

For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

The Futility of Self-Indulgence

 2

I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Wisdom and Joy Given to One Who Pleases God

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

14

The wise have eyes in their head,

but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? 17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

 


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Ec 1:1-18. Introduction.

1. the Preacher—and Convener of assemblies for the purpose. See my Preface. Koheleth in Hebrew, a symbolical name for Solomon, and of Heavenly Wisdom speaking through and identified with him. Ec 1:12 shows that "king of Jerusalem" is in apposition, not with "David," but "Preacher."

of Jerusalem—rather, "in Jerusalem," for it was merely his metropolis, not his whole kingdom.

2. The theme proposed of the first part of his discourse.

Vanity of vanities—Hebraism for the most utter vanity. So "holy of holies" (Ex 26:33); "servant of servants" (Ge 9:25). The repetition increases the force.

allHebrew, "the all"; all without exception, namely, earthly things.

vanity—not in themselves, for God maketh nothing in vain (1Ti 4:4, 5), but vain when put in the place of God and made the end, instead of the means (Ps 39:5, 6; 62:9; Mt 6:33); vain, also, because of the "vanity" to which they are "subjected" by the fall (Ro 8:20).

3. What profit … labour—that is, "What profit" as to the chief good (Mt 16:26). Labor is profitable in its proper place (Ge 2:15; 3:19; Pr 14:23).

under the sun—that is, in this life, as opposed to the future world. The phrase often recurs, but only in Ecclesiastes.

4. earth … for ever—(Ps 104:5). While the earth remains the same, the generations of men are ever changing; what lasting profit, then, can there be from the toils of one whose sojourn on earth, as an individual, is so brief? The "for ever" is comparative, not absolute (Ps 102:26).

5. (Ps 19:5, 6). "Panting" as the Hebrew for "hasteth"; metaphor, from a runner (Ps 19:5, "a strong man") in a "race." It applies rather to the rising sun, which seems laboriously to mount up to the meridian, than to the setting sun; the accents too favor Maurer, "And (that too, returning) to his place, where panting he riseth."

6. according to his circuits—that is, it returns afresh to its former circuits, however many be its previous veerings about. The north and south winds are the two prevailing winds in Palestine and Egypt.

7. By subterraneous cavities, and by evaporation forming rain clouds, the fountains and rivers are supplied from the sea, into which they then flow back. The connection is: Individual men are continually changing, while the succession of the race continues; just as the sun, wind, and rivers are ever shifting about, while the cycle in which they move is invariable; they return to the point whence they set out. Hence is man, as in these objects of nature which are his analogue, with all the seeming changes "there is no new thing" (Ec 1:9).

8. Maurer translates, "All words are wearied out," that is, are inadequate, as also, "man cannot express" all the things in the world which undergo this ceaseless, changeless cycle of vicissitudes: "The eye is not satisfied with seeing them," &c. But it is plainly a return to the idea (Ec 1:3) as to man's "labor," which is only wearisome and profitless; "no new" good can accrue from it (Ec 1:9); for as the sun, &c., so man's laborious works move in a changeless cycle. The eye and ear are two of the taskmasters for which man toils. But these are never "satisfied" (Ec 6:7; Pr 27:20). Nor can they be so hereafter, for there will be nothing "new." Not so the chief good, Jesus Christ (Joh 4:13, 14; Re 21:5).

9. Rather, "no new thing at all"; as in Nu 11:6. This is not meant in a general sense; but there is no new source of happiness (the subject in question) which can be devised; the same round of petty pleasures, cares, business, study, wars, &c., being repeated over and over again [Holden].

10. old timeHebrew, "ages."

which was—The Hebrew plural cannot be joined to the verb singular. Therefore translate: "It hath been in the ages before; certainly it hath been before us" [Holden]. Or, as Maurer: "That which has been (done) before us (in our presence, 1Ch 16:33), has been (done) already in the old times."

11. The reason why some things are thought "new," which are not really so, is the imperfect record that exists of preceding ages among their successors.

those that … come after—that is, those that live still later than the "things, rather the persons or generations, Ec 1:4, with which this verse is connected, the six intermediate verses being merely illustrations of Ec 1:4 [Weiss], that are to come" (Ec 2:16; 9:5).

12. Resumption of Ec 1:1, the intermediate verses being the introductory statement of his thesis. Therefore, "the Preacher" (Koheleth) is repeated.

was king—instead of "am," because he is about to give the results of his past experience during his long reign.

in Jerusalem—specified, as opposed to David, who reigned both in Hebron and Jerusalem; whereas Solomon reigned only in Jerusalem. "King of Israel in Jerusalem," implies that he reigned over Israel and Judah combined; whereas David, at Hebron, reigned only over Judah, and not, until he was settled in Jerusalem, over both Israel and Judah.

13. this sore travail—namely, that of "searching out all things done under heaven." Not human wisdom in general, which comes afterwards (Ec 2:12, &c.), but laborious enquiries into, and speculations about, the works of men; for example, political science. As man is doomed to get his bread, so his knowledge, by the sweat of his brow (Ge 3:19) [Gill].

exercised—that is, disciplined; literally, "that they may thereby chastise, or humble themselves."

14. The reason is here given why investigation into man's "works" is only "sore travail" (Ec 1:13); namely, because all man's ways are vain (Ec 1:18) and cannot be mended (Ec 1:15).

vexation of—"a preying upon"

the SpiritMaurer translates; "the pursuit of wind," as in Ec 5:16; Ho 12:1, "Ephraim feedeth on wind." But old versions support the English Version.

15. Investigation (Ec 1:13) into human ways is vain labor, for they are hopelessly "crooked" and "cannot be made straight" by it (Ec 7:13). God, the chief good, alone can do this (Isa 40:4; 45:2).

wanting—(Da 5:27).

numbered—so as to make a complete number; so equivalent to "supplied" [Maurer]. Or, rather, man's state is utterly wanting; and that which is wholly defective cannot be numbered or calculated. The investigator thinks he can draw up, in accurate numbers, statistics of man's wants; but these, including the defects in the investigator's labor, are not partial, but total.

16. communed with … heart—(Ge 24:45).

come to great estate—Rather, "I have magnified and gotten" (literally, "added," increased), &c.

all … before me in Jerusalem—namely, the priests, judges, and two kings that preceded Solomon. His wisdom exceeded that of all before Jesus Christ, the antitypical Koheleth, or "Gatherer of men," (Lu 13:34), and "Wisdom" incarnate (Mt 11:19; 12:42).

had … experience—literally, "had seen" (Jer 2:31). Contrast with this glorying in worldly wisdom (Jer 9:23, 24).

17. wisdom … madness—that is, their effects, the works of human wisdom and folly respectively. "Madness," literally, "vaunting extravagance"; Ec 2:12; 7:25, &c., support English Version rather than Dathe, "splendid matters." "Folly" is read by English Version with some manuscripts, instead of the present Hebrew text, "prudence." If Hebrew be retained, understand "prudence," falsely so called (1Ti 6:20), "craft" (Da 8:25).

18. wisdom … knowledge—not in general, for wisdom, &c., are most excellent in their place; but speculative knowledge of man's ways (Ec 1:13, 17), which, the farther it goes, gives one the more pain to find how "crooked" and "wanting" they are (Ec 1:15; 12:12).

Ec 2:1-26.

He next tries pleasure and luxury, retaining however, his worldly "wisdom" (Ec 3:9), but all proves "vanity" in respect to the chief good.

1. I said … heart—(Lu 12:19).

thee—my heart, I will test whether thou canst find that solid good in pleasure which was not in "worldly wisdom." But this also proves to be "vanity" (Isa 50:11).

2. laughter—including prosperity, and joy in general (Job 8:21).

mad—that is, when made the chief good; it is harmless in its proper place.

What doeth it?—Of what avail is it in giving solid good? (Ec 7:6; Pr 14:13).

3-11. Illustration more at large of Ec 2:1, 2.

I sought—I resolved, after search into many plans.

give myself unto wine—literally, "to draw my flesh," or "body to wine" (including all banquetings). Image from a captive drawn after a chariot in triumph (Ro 6:16, 19; 1Co 12:2); or, one "allured" (2Pe 2:18, 19).

yet acquainting … wisdom—literally, "and my heart (still) was behaving, or guiding itself," with wisdom [Gesenius]. Maurer translates: "was weary of (worldly) wisdom." But the end of Ec 2:9 confirms English Version.

folly—namely, pleasures of the flesh, termed "mad," Ec 2:2.

all the days, &c.—(See Margin and Ec 6:12; Job 15:20).

4. (1Ki 7:1-8; 9:1, 19; 10:18, &c.).

vineyards—(So 8:11).

5. gardensHebrew, "paradises," a foreign word; Sanskrit, "a place enclosed with a wall"; Armenian and Arabic, "a pleasure ground with flowers and shrubs near the king's house, or castle." An earthly paradise can never make up for the want of the heavenly (Re 2:7).

6. pools—artificial, for irrigating the soil (Ge 2:10; Ne 2:14; Isa 1:30). Three such reservoirs are still found, called Solomon's cisterns, a mile and a half from Jerusalem.

wood that bringeth forth—rather, "the grove that flourisheth with trees" [Lowth].

7. born in my house—These were esteemed more trustworthy servants than those bought (Ge 14:14; 15:2, 3; 17:12, 13, 27; Jer 2:14), called "songs of one's handmaid" (Ex 23:12; compare Ge 12:16; Job 1:3).

8. (1Ki 10:27; 2Ch 1:15; 9:20).

peculiar treasure of kings and … provinces—contributed by them, as tributary to him (1Ki 4:21, 24); a poor substitute for the wisdom whose "gain is better than fine gold" (Pr 3:14, 15).

singers—so David (2Sa 19:35).

musical instruments … of all sorts—introduced at banquets (Isa 5:12; Am 6:5, 6); rather, "a princess and princesses," from an Arabic root. One regular wife, or queen (Es 1:9); Pharaoh's daughter (1Ki 3:1); other secondary wives, "princesses," distinct from the "concubines" (1Ki 11:3; Ps 45:10; So 6:8) [Weiss, Gesenius]. Had these been omitted, the enumeration would be incomplete.

9. great—opulent (Ge 24:35; Job 1:3; see 1Ki 10:23).

remained—(Ec 2:3).

10. my labour—in procuring pleasures.

this—evanescent "joy" was my only "portion out of all my labor" (Ec 3:22; 5:18; 9:9; 1Ki 10:5).

11. But all these I felt were only "vanity," and of "no profit" as to the chief good. "Wisdom" (worldly common sense, sagacity), which still "remained with me" (Ec 2:9), showed me that these could not give solid happiness.

12. He had tried (worldly) wisdom (Ec 1:12-18) and folly (foolish pleasure) (Ec 2:1-11); he now compares them (Ec 2:12) and finds that while (worldly)

wisdom excelleth folly (Ec 2:13, 14), yet the one event, death, befalls both (Ec 2:14-16), and that thus the wealth acquired by the wise man's "labor" may descend to a "fool" that hath not labored (Ec 2:18, 19, 21); therefore all his labor is vanity (Ec 2:22, 23).

what can the man do … already done—(Ec 1:9). Parenthetical. A future investigator can strike nothing out "new," so as to draw a different conclusion from what I draw by comparing "wisdom and madness." Holden, with less ellipsis, translates, "What, O man, shall come after the king?" &c. Better, Grotius, "What man can come after (compete with) the king in the things which are done?" None ever can have the same means of testing what all earthly things can do towards satisfying the soul; namely, worldly wisdom, science, riches, power, longevity, all combined.

13, 14. (Pr 17:24). The worldly "wise" man has good sense in managing his affairs, skill and taste in building and planting, and keeps within safe and respectable bounds in pleasure, while the "fool" is wanting in these respects ("darkness," equivalent to fatal error, blind infatuation), yet one event, death, happens to both (Job 21:26).

15. why was I—so anxious to become, &c. (2Ch 1:10).

Then—Since such is the case.

this—namely, pursuit of (worldly) wisdom; it can never fill the place of the true wisdom (Job 28:28; Jer 8:9).

16. remembrance—a great aim of the worldly (Ge 11:4). The righteous alone attain it (Ps 112:6; Pr 10:7).

for ever—no perpetual memorial.

that which now isMaurer, "In the days to come all things shall be now long ago forgotten."

17. Disappointed in one experiment after another, he is weary of life. The backslider ought to have rather reasoned as the prodigal (Ho 2:6, 7; Lu 15:17, 18).

grievous unto me—(Job 10:1).

18, 19. One hope alone was left to the disappointed worldling, the perpetuation of his name and riches, laboriously gathered, through his successor. For selfishness is mostly at the root of worldly parents' alleged providence for their children. But now the remembrance of how he himself, the piously reared child of David, had disregarded his father's dying charge (1Ch 28:9), suggested the sad misgivings as to what Rehoboam, his son by an idolatrous Ammonitess, Naamah, should prove to be; a foreboding too fully realized (1Ki 12:1-18; 14:21-31).

20. I gave up as desperate all hope of solid fruit from my labor.

21. Suppose "there is a man," &c.

equity—rather "with success," as the Hebrew is rendered (Ec 11:6), "prosper," though Margin gives "right" [Holden and Maurer].

evil—not in itself, for this is the ordinary course of things, but "evil," as regards the chief good, that one should have toiled so fruitlessly.

22. Same sentiment as in Ec 2:21, interrogatively.

23. The only fruit he has is, not only sorrows in his days, but all his days are sorrows, and his travail (not only has griefs connected with it, but is itself), grief.

24. English Version gives a seemingly Epicurean sense, contrary to the general scope. The Hebrew, literally is, "It is not good for man that he should eat," &c., "and should make his soul see good" (or "show his soul, that is, himself, happy"), &c. [Weiss]. According to Holden and Weiss, Ec 3:12, 22 differ from this verse in the text and meaning; here he means, "It is not good that a man should feast himself, and falsely make as though his soul were happy"; he thus refers to a false pretending of happiness acquired by and for one's self; in Ec 3:12, 22; 5:18, 19, to real seeing, or finding pleasure when God gives it. There it is said to be good for a man to enjoy with satisfaction and thankfulness the blessings which God gives; here it is said not to be good to take an unreal pleasure to one's self by feasting, &c.

This also I saw—I perceived by experience that good (real pleasure) is not to be taken at will, but comes only from the hand of God [Weiss] (Ps 4:6; Isa 57:19-21). Or as Holden, "It is the appointment from the hand of God, that the sensualist has no solid satisfaction" (good).

25. hasten—after indulgences (Pr 7:23; 19:2), eagerly pursue such enjoyments. None can compete with me in this. If I, then, with all my opportunities of enjoyment, failed utterly to obtain solid pleasure of my own making, apart from God, who else can? God mercifully spares His children the sad experiment which Solomon made, by denying them the goods which they often desire. He gives them the fruits of Solomon's experience, without their paying the dear price at which Solomon bought it.

26. True, literally, in the Jewish theocracy; and in some measure in all ages (Job 27:16, 17; Pr 13:22; 28:8). Though the retribution be not so visible and immediate now as then, it is no less real. Happiness even here is more truly the portion of the godly (Ps 84:11; Mt 5:5; Mr 10:29, 30; Ro 8:28; 1Ti 4:8).

that he—the sinner

may give—that is, unconsciously and in spite of himself. The godly Solomon had satisfaction in his riches and wisdom, when God gave them (2Ch 1:11, 12). The backsliding Solomon had no happiness when he sought it in them apart from God; and the riches which he heaped up became the prey of Shishak (2Ch 12:9).




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