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Bible Commentaries

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

- Ecclesiastes

by Adam Clarke

Introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes

The book, entitled Koheleth, or Ecclesiastes, has ever been received, both by the Jewish and Christian Church, as written under the inspiration of the Almighty; and was held to be properly a part of the sacred canon. But while this has been almost universally granted, there has been but little unanimity among learned men and critics as to its author. To Solomon it has been most generally attributed, both in ancient and modern times.

Grotius, however, conjectured that it was written a long time after Solomon; and he says, at the close of his notes on it, that it was revised in the days of Zerubbabel by some learned man, who in the twelfth verse of the last chapter addresses his son Abihud: "And farther, by these, my son, be admonished." But such a conjecture appears to have little foundation. This great man was more successful in his criticism on the language of the book; showing that there are many words in it which do not savor of the purity of the Hebrew tongue; and are found in the times of the captivity and afterwards, and such as appear principally in the books of Ezra and Daniel.

Calovius has on the other hand, not with so much success as he imagined, argued against Grotius for the purity of the language.

Mr. G. Zirkel of Wurtzburgh published an examination of this book in 1792, in which he endeavors to prove: -

1. That the style of Ecclesiastes is that of the later Hebrew writers, as appears by the Chaldaisms, Syriasms, and Hellenisms that occur in it.

2. That it may have been written between the years 380 and 130 before Jesus Christ, if not later.

The Jena reviewers seem to have thought it to be a translation from the Greek, and to have been written by a Jew of Alexandria, while the famous library was founding by Ptolemy Philadelphus king of Egypt, about the year 240 before Christ. And that it is to this circumstance that Ecclesiastes 12:12 alludes, "Of making many books there is no end;" which could not have entered into the head of a Palestine Jew; and such a person might speak with propriety of an Israel in Jerusalem, Ecclesiastes 1:12, being acquainted with an Israel in Alexandria.

The Jews in general, and St. Jerome, hold the book to be the composition of Solomon, and the fruit of his repentance when restored from his idolatry, into which he had fallen through means of the strange or heathenish women whom he had taken for wives and concubines.

Others, of no mean note, who consider Solomon as the author, believe that he wrote it before his fall; there being no evidence that he wrote it afterwards; nor, indeed, that he ever recovered from his fall. Besides, it was in his old age that his wives turned away his heart from God; and the book bears too many evidences of mental energy to allow the supposition that in his declining age, after so deep a fall from God, he was capable of writing such a treatise. This opinion goes far towards destroying the Divine inspiration of the book; for if he did recover and repent, there is no evidence that God gave him back that Divine inspiration which he before possessed; for we hear of the Lord appearing to him twice before his fall, but of a third appearance there is no intimation. And lastly, Of the restoration of Solomon to the favor of God there is no proof in the sacred history; for in the very place where we are told that "in his old age his wives turned away his heart from the Lord," we are told of his death, without the slightest intimation of his repentance. See my character of Solomon at the end of 1 Kings 11:0 (note).

Nothing, however, of this uncertainty can affect either the character, importance, or utility of the book in question. It is a production of singular worth; and the finest monument we have of the wisdom of the ancients, except the book of Job.

But the chief difficulty attending this book is the principle on which it should be interpreted. Some have supposed it to be a dialogue between a true believer and an infidel, which makes it to the unwary reader appear abounding with contradiction, and, in some instances, false doctrine; and that the parts must be attributed to their respective speakers, before interpretation can be successfully attempted. I am not convinced that the book has any such structure; though in some places the opinions and sayings of infidels may be quoted; e.g., Ecclesiastes 7:16, and in some of the following chapters.

In the year 1763, M. Desvoeux, a learned foreigner then resident in England, and who was in the British service, wrote and published a Philosophical and Poetical Essay on this book, in which he endeavors to prove, that the design of the author was to demonstrate the immortality of the soul; and that it is on this principle alone that the book can be understood and explained.

As a late commentator on the Bible has adopted this plan, and interwoven the major part of this dissertation with his notes on the book, I shall introduce the whole of M. Desvoeux's analysis of its contents, the propositions, arguments, proofs, illustrations, corollaries, etc., on the ground of which he attempts its illustration: -

The whole of the discourse (he says) may be reduced to the three following propositions, each of which is attended with its apparatus of proofs and especial observations.

The three propositions, with their proofs and illustrations, are contained in the following analysis:


No labor of man in this world can render him contented, or give him true satisfaction of soul.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 No labor of man, etc.

Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 First proof - The course of nature.

Ecclesiastes 1:12, etc. Second proof - Men's occultations.

Ecclesiastes 1:15-18 First head - Wisdom or philosophy.

Ecclesiastes 2:1-2 Second head - Pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 2:3-10 Both jointly.

Ecclesiastes 2:11 General conclusion of the second proof.

A review of the second proof with special conclusions, relating to every particular therein mentioned, viz.,

Ecclesiastes 2:12-17 1. Wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 2. Riches.

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 3. Pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 3:1, etc. Third proof - Inconstancy of men's wills.

Ecclesiastes 3:9 Conclusion of the third proof.

A review of the second and third proofs, considered jointly, with special observations and corollaries.

Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 First observation - God is inculpable.

Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:15 Second observation - God is the author of whatever befalls us in this world.

Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 First corollary - God shall redress all grievances.

Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 Second corollary - God must be exalted, and man humbled.

Ecclesiastes 3:22 Third corollary - God allows men to enjoy the present life.

Ecclesiastes 4:1 Fourth proof - Men's neglect of proper opportunities, evidenced in several instances, viz.,

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 1. Oppression.

Ecclesiastes 4:4 2. Envy.

Ecclesiastes 4:5-6 3. Idleness.

Ecclesiastes 4:7-12 4. Avarice.

Ecclesiastes 4:13 - Ecclesiastes 5:1-9 5. Misapplication of esteem and regard.

N. B. Ecclesiastes 5:1-9 is a digression containing several admonitions, in order to prevent any misconstruction of the fore-going remarks.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12 6. Expensive living.


Ecclesiastes 5:13 Earthly goods and possessions are so far from making us happy, that they may be even viewed as real obstacles to our ease, quiet, and tranquillity of mind.

Ecclesiastes 5:14-17 First proof. Instability of riches.

Ecclesiastes 5:18 Second proof. Insufficiency of riches to make men happy.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 Corollary. The fate of an abortive is, on the whole, preferable to that of him who lives without enjoying life.

Ecclesiastes 6:7-9 Third proof. Men's insatiableness.

Ecclesiastes 6:10-11 General conclusion from the first and second propositions.


Ecclesiastes 6:12 Men known not what is or is not truly advantageous to them; because they are either ignorant or unmindful of that which must come to pass after their death.

Ecclesiastes 7:1, etc. First proof. Wrong estimation of things.

A digression, intended, like that Ecclesiastes 7:1-9, to prevent any misconstruction of the preceding observations; and containing several advices, together with a strong commendation of him who gives them, in order to enforce the observation of the rules he lays down.

Ecclesiastes 7:9-12 First advice. Do not blame Providence.

Ecclesiastes 7:13 Second advice. Do not judge of Providence.

Ecclesiastes 7:14-15 Third advice. Submit to Providence.

Ecclesiastes 7:16-20 Fourth advice. Avoid excesses.

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 Fifth advice. Do not heed idle reports.

Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 Commendation of the foregoing advices from the author's application of every thing; and especially,

Ecclesiastes 7:26-29 1. Wickedness and ignorance.

Ecclesiastes 8:1-8 2. Wisdom.

Second proof. Anticipated judgments.

Ecclesiastes 8:9-14 1. That sin shall go unpunished, because it is so in this world.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 2. That life is preferable to death.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 First corollary. Earthly enjoyments are not criminal.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Second corollary. We must make a proper use of our faculties.

Ecclesiastes 9:11-15 Third proof. Judgments that are seemingly right, but entirely false.

Ecclesiastes 9:16, etc. Fourth proof. Little regard paid to wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 9:16 1. Past services are forgotten.

2. The least fault is noticed.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-19 3. Favor gets what is due to merit.

Ecclesiastes 10:20 A caution to prevent the abuse of the preceding remarks.


Ecclesiastes 11:1-4 Ecclesiastes 11:1. From the first Proposition, - We must give to earthly goods that stability of which they are capable.

Ecclesiastes 11:5-6 2. From the first and second Propositions, - We must, in all our conduct, conform to the design of Providence, and leave the success to God.

Ecclesiastes 12:7-8 3. From the three Propositions, but especially from the third, we must seek for happiness beyond the grave.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-12 Commendation of the work, from several considerations.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 Conclusion of the whole.

This is the whole of M. Desvoeux's Analysis; and I place it here, that the reader who approves of the plan may keep it in view while he is passing through the book. For my own part, I doubt whether the author made any such technical arrangement.

The three propositions which M. Desvoeux lays down, and which are so essential to the interpretation he gives of the book, would have been expressly propounded by the inspired writer had he intended such; but they appear nowhere in it, and M. D. is obliged to assume or gather them from the general scope of the work. However, on his plan, he has certainly made a number of judicious observations on different passages, though his translations are generally too bold, and seldom well supported by the original text.

In 1768 was published "Choheleth, or the Royal Preacher, a Poetical Paraphrase of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Most humbly inscribed to the King." 4th. There is no name to this work. The late Rev. John Wesley gives the following account of the work and its author in his Journals: -

"Monday, Feb. 8, 1768. I met with a surprising poem, entitled, Choheleth, or the Preacher: it is a paraphrase in tolerable verse on the book of Ecclesiastes. I really think the author of it (a Turkey merchant) understands both the difficult expressions, and the connection of the whole, better than any other either ancient or modern writer whom I have seen. He was at Lisbon during the great earthquake, just then sitting in his nightgown and slippers. Before he could dress himself, part of the house he was in fell, and blocked him up. By this means his life was saved; for all who had run out were dashed to pieces by the falling houses."

Mr. W. seems to have known the author well, but did not like to tell his name. About the year 1789 that eminent man recommended the work to me, and told me several particulars relative to it, which have escaped my memory. I procured the book the first opportunity, and read it with great satisfaction; and from it derived no small portion of information. Having now examined it anew, I can most cordially subscribe to Mr. Wesley's opinion. I really believe that the author understood both the difficult expressions, and the connection of the whole, better than any other writer, whether ancient or modern, at least known to me. Had it comported with my plan, I should have thought a reprint of his work, with the text, which he does not insert, and a few philological notes, would have been quite sufficient to have given my readers a safe and general view of the whole work and its design; though I can by no means adopt the author's hypothesis, that the book was written by Solomon after he was restored from his grievous apostasy. This is an assumption that never was proved and never can be.

From the preface to this work I have selected some general observations, which I consider to be important, and subjoin to this introduction; and what I borrow from the work itself I mark with a C, not knowing the author's name. Of the authenticity of the book of Ecclesiastes I have no doubt; but I must say, the language and style puzzle me not a little. Chaldaisms and Syriasms are certainly frequent in it, and not a few Chaldee words and terminations; and the style is such as may be seen in those writers who lived at or after the captivity. If these can be reconciled with the age of Solomon, I have no objection; but the attempts that have been made to deny this, and overthrow the evidence, are in my view often trifling, and generally ineffectual. That Solomon, son of David, might have been the author of the whole matter of this, and a subsequent writer put it in his own language, is a possible case; and were this to be allowed, it would solve all difficulties. Let us place the supposition thus: Solomon said all these things, and they are highly worthy of his wisdom; and a Divine writer, after his time, who does not mention his name, gives us a faithful version of the whole in his own language.

On other subjects relative to this book, the author of Choheleth shall speak for me.

"I. Not to perplex our readers with the various expositions of the word Choheleth, the title of the book in the original, (for in truth we can find none better or more significant than that commonly received, viz., Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher), let us now come to the book itself. Nothing can be more interesting than the subject it treats of, to wit, the chief or sovereign good which man, as a rational and accountable being, should here propose to himself. Every human creature, it is certain, naturally aims at happiness; but though all apply themselves with equal ardor to this desirable end, yet such is the violence of passion, and want of reflection in the generality of mankind, that the means they use for obtaining it, instead of conducting them to the safe and direct road, only serve to mislead and bewilder them in dark and intricate labyrinths, where it is impossible to find what they seek for. Now as it was absolutely necessary to convince such men of the vanity of their pursuits, in order to induce them to turn back in the right way, Solomon shows, in the first place, what is not happiness, and then what really is. Like a skillful physician, he searches deeply into the latent cause of the malady, and then prescribes a radical cure.

"II. In the former disquisition he enumerates all those particulars which mankind are most apt to fix their hearts upon, and shows, from his own dear-bought experience, and the transient and unsatisfactory nature of the things themselves, that no such thing as solid felicity is to be found in any of them. What he asserts on this head carries with it the greater weight, as no man upon earth was ever better qualified to speak decisively on such a subject, considering the opportunities he had of enjoying to the utmost all that this world affords. After having thus cleared away the obstacles to happiness, he enters on the main point, which is to direct us how and where it may be found. This he affirms, at the conclusion of the book, where he recapitulates the sum and substance of the sermon, as some not improperly have styled it, consists in a religious and virtuous life, with which, as he frequently intimates, a man in the lowest circumstances may be happy, and without which one in the highest must be miserable. As the whole book tends to this single point, so, in discussing thereof, many excellent observations are interpersed relating to the various duties of life, from the highest to the lowest station; the advantages resulting even from poverty, the genuine use of riches, and extreme folly of abusing them; the unequal dispensations of Divine Providence; the immortality of the human soul; and great day of final retribution. All these noble and important subjects are treated of in such a style and manner as nothing among the ancients can parallel.

"We have here given the genuine character of this inestimable piece; yet such has been the ignorance, inattention, or depravity of some persons, that it would be hard to find an instance of any thing written on so serious and interesting a subject, which has been so grossly misrepresented. How often has a handle been taken from certain passages, ill understood, and worse applied, to patronize libertinism, by such as pretend to judge of the whole from a single sentence, independent of the rest, without paying the least regard to the general scope or design! According to which rule the most pious discourse that ever was written may be perverted to atheism. Some fanatics have fallen into the contrary extreme; for, on reading that all here below was vanity, they have been so wrong-headed, as to condemn every thing as evil in itself. This world, according to them, cannot be too bitterly inveighed against; and man has nothing else to do with it, but to spend his days in sighing and mourning. But it is evident that nothing could be farther from the preacher's intention: for notwithstanding he speaks so feelingly of the instability and unsatisfactory nature of all sublunary things, and the vanity of human cares, schemes, and contrivances; yet, lest any one should mistake his meaning, he advises every man, at the same time, to reap the fruit of his honest labors, and take the comfort of what he possesses with a sober freedom and cheerful spirit. Not to harass and disturb his mind with anxious cares and restless solicitudes about future events; but to pass the short space which Heaven has allotted him here, as pleasantly as his station will admit, with a quiet conscience. He does not condemn the things themselves, such as science, prudence, mirth, riches, honors, etc.; but only their abuse, that is, the useless studies, unreasonable pursuits, and immoderate desires, of those who pervert God's blessings to their own destruction.

"On this head Solomon gives his sentiments, not only as a divine and philosopher, but like one thoroughly acquainted with the foibles of the human heart. It was not his design to drive people out of the world, or to make them live wretchedly in it; but only that they should think and act like rational creatures; or, in other words, be induced to consult their own happiness.

"There is nothing in the whole body of pagan philosophy so elevated and magnificent, as what some have written on the important subject of this poem: but we find their opinions so various and contradictory, and the most plausible so blended with errors, even those of the divine Plato not excepted, that their sublimest sentiments on the sovereign good or ultimate happiness of man, when compared with those of the royal preacher, not only appear cold and languid, but always leave the mind unsatisfied and restless. We are lost in a pompous flow of words; and dazzled, but not illuminated. One sect, by confining happiness to sensual pleasures, so greatly slackened the cord as to render it wholly useless: another, by their too austere and rigid maxims, stretched it so tight that it snapped asunder; though the experience of all ages has evinced that these latter imposed both on themselves and the world, when they taught that virtue, however afflicted here, was its own reward, and sufficient of itself to render a man completely happy. Even in the brazen bull of Perillus, truth will cry out from the rack against such fallacious teachers, and prove them liars. The extravagant figments, therefore, of the stoical apathy, no less than those of the voluptuous epicurean, both equally vanish at the splendor of the Divine truth delivered by Solomon. He alone decides the great question in such a manner that the soul is instantly convinced; it need seek no farther.

"III. To prevent all misapprehensions, which a slight and cursory reading of this book is apt to raise in many persons, it will be requisite to observe two cautions: First, that Solomon, who tells us that he applied his heart not only to the search of wisdom and knowledge, but also of folly and madness, frequently speaks, not according to his own sentiments, though he proposes the thing in a naked and simple manner, designedly making use of such terms as might set the picture in a fuller and clearer light, so that we often meet with certain expressions which, unless we search into their true design, seem to have a quite different force and meaning from what the author really intended. We must therefore take particular care to distinguish the doubts and objections of others from Solomon's answers; the want of attending to which has made this book much more obscure than otherwise it would appear. Secondly, we should not judge of the entire discourse from some parts of it; since many things are pertinently said, according to the present subject, which, in themselves, and strictly taken, are far from true. In order to come at the genuine sense, we should form our opinion from the different circumstances of the matter treated of, comparing the antecedent with the consequent passages, and always considering the preacher's real scope and design. By carefully attending to these two cautions, this book will be seen in a very different light from what it now appears in to the generality of readers.

"IV. This book, besides the figurative and proverbial expressions to be found in no other part of the Scripture, is undoubtedly metrical; and, consequently, the grammatization, in many places, not a little perplexed, from the frequent ellipses, abbreviations, transposition of words, and other poetical licenses, allowed in all languages; to say nothing of the carelessness or ignorance of transcribers, as appears from the variety of readings. Yet, notwithstanding we are so little acquainted with the nature of the Hebrew metre, and the propriety of certain phrases which, at this vast distance of time, in a language that has been dead upwards of two thousand years, must unavoidably occasion the same difficulties and obscurities as occur in works of far less antiquity, and in languages more generally studied and better understood; notwithstanding this, I say, a diligent and attentive observer will always find enough to recompense his trouble; and, if he has any taste, cannot avoid being struck with the exquisite beauty and regularity of the plan.

"V. The most judicious commentators have remarked on this book, that we have here a conspicuous example of that form of disputing, which was so justly admired in the soundest of the pagan philosophers; particularly in Socrates, who, whilst others were taken up with abstruse speculations about the nature of things, and investigating the number, motions, distance, and magnitude of the stars, brought down philosophy from the upper regions, and fixed its abode on earth; that is, by teaching such precepts as served for the regulation of life and manners, by far the most useful of all sciences, as being most conducive to the welfare of society, and the general benefit of mankind. Of this we have a noble specimen in the memoirs of that ancient moralist, collected by Xenophon. It is, I think, beyond all contradiction, that no one ever made deeper researches into nature, or had made so great a progress in every branch of science, both speculative and experimental. But what, after all, was the result of his inquiries? A thorough conviction of the inutility of such studies, and how little they conduce towards the obtaining that peace and tranquillity of mind wherein true happiness consists. He applied himself, therefore, to that study which might produce a real and lasting advantage, namely, to render men wise to some purpose; that is, truly virtuous. The manner of his treating this important subject bears some resemblance to that of the celebrated Greek moralist. He does not give us a long roll of dry formal precepts, with which the mind is soon tired; but, to confirm the truth of every thing he says, appeals, not only to his own experience, but to the general sense of unbiassed reason. At the same time he sets before us, in the liveliest colors, the sad effects of vice and folly; and makes use of every incentive to engage the heart to be enamored with virtue, and pursue its own interest. Whatever he intends to inculcate is first barely proposed, and then more accurately explained and illustrated, though by gentle and almost imperceptible transitions; with this peculiarity, that there is always much more implied than expressed; insomuch that the reader, from a slight hint given him, is left to draw such inferences as his own reflection must naturally suggest. Every thing, in short, is drawn, in this admirable composition, with equal simplicity and elegance; and hath as distinguished a superiority to whatever the best pagan philosophers have given us on the same subject, as the borrowed light of the moon is surpassed by that of the sun in his full meridian lustre; or, to use a still stronger comparison, as Solomon's knowledge of the one true God excelled the idle notion of their fictitious deities."

Some have supposed that the book of Ecclesiastes is a poem. That some poetic lines may be found in it, there is no doubt; but it has nothing in common with poetic books, nor does it exist in the hemistich form in any printed edition or MS. yet discovered. It is plain prose, and is not susceptible of that form in which the Hebrew poetic books appear.

The author already quoted thinks that the book of Ecclesiastes is metrical. I cannot see this: but it has what is essential to poetry, a truly dignified style; there are no mean, creeping words in it, whether pure Hebrew, or borrowed from any of its dialects. They are all well chosen, nervous, and highly expressive. They are, in short, such as become the subject, and are worthy of that inspiration by which the author was guided.

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