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(1) The words.—The Book of Nehemiah begins similarly; so do the prophecies of Jeremiah and Amos, and of Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30:31)
The Preacher.—Rather, convener (see Introduction). This word (Kohéleth) occurs in this book, Ecclesiastes 1:1-2; Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 7:27, where, according to our present text, it is joined with a feminine, being elsewhere used with a masculine; and Ecclesiastes 12:8-10, having the article in the first of these passages, and there only, being elsewhere used as a proper name.
(2) Vanity of vanities.—This verse strikes the key-note of the whole work. In using this expression we mean to indicate the opinion that the unity of the book is rather that of a musical composition than of a philosophical treatise. A leading theme is given out and followed for a time. Episodes are introduced, not perhaps logically connected with the original subject, but treated in harmony with it, and leading back to the original theme which is never lost sight of, and with which the composition comes to a close (Ecclesiastes 12:8).
The word translated “vanity” (which occurs thirty-seven times in this book, and only thirty-three times in all the rest of the Old Testament) in its primary meaning denotes breath or vapour, and is so translated here in some of the Greek versions (comp. James 4:4); so in Isaiah 57:13. It is the same word as the proper name Abel, on which see Note on Genesis 4:2. It is frequently applied in Scripture to the follies of heathenism (Jeremiah 14:22, &c), and also to the whole estate of men (Psalms 39:5-6; Psalms 62:9; Psalms 144:4). The translation “vanity” is that of the LXX. We may reasonably believe that St. Paul (Romans 8:20) had this key-note of Ecclesiastes in his mind.
“Vanity of vanities” is a common Hebrew superlative, as in the phrases “Heaven of heavens,” “Song of songs,” “Holy of holies,” “Lamentation of lamentations” (Micah 2:4, margin).
Saith the Preacher.—Heb., said. The Hebrew constantly employs the preterite when English usage requires the present or perfect. In the case of a message the point of time contemplated in Hebrew is that of the giving, not the delivery, of the message. So “Thus said Benhadad,” “Thus said the Lord” (1 Kings 20:2; 1 Kings 20:5; 1 Kings 20:13 and passim) are rightly translated by the present in our version. In the present case this formula is one which might conceivably be employed if the words of Kohéleth were written down by himself; yet it certainly rather suggests that we have here these words as written down by another.
(3) What profit.—The Hebrew word occurs ten times in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:13; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:9; Ecclesiastes 5:16; Ecclesiastes 7:12; Ecclesiastes 10:10-11) and nowhere else in the Old Testament, but is common in post-Biblical Hebrew. The oft-recurring phrase “under the sun” is a peculiarity of this book. In other books we have “under heaven.”
(3-11) Man is perpetually toiling, yet of all his toil there remains no abiding result. The natural world exhibits a spectacle of unceasing activity, with no real progress. The sun, the winds, the waters, are all in motion, yet they do but run a round, and nothing comes of it.
(4) Comp. Sir. 14:19.
(5) Hasteth.—Heb., panteth. The word is used of eager desire (Job 7:2; Psalms 119:131).
Where he arose.—Better, there to rise again.
(6) The order of the Hebrew words permits the first clause, “going towards the south and returning towards the north,” to be understood in continuation of the description of the movements of the sun, and so some interpreters have taken them, but probably erroneously. The verse gains in liveliness if more literally rendered, “going towards the south and circling towards the north, circling, circling goes the wind, and to its circles the wind returns.”
(7) Whence the rivers come.—Better, whither the rivers go. (Comp. Sir. 40:11.)
(8) This verse is capable of another translation which would give the sense “other instances of the same kind might be mentioned, but they are so numerous that it would be wearisome to recount them,” We abide by the rendering of our version.
(9) No new thing.—Contrast Jeremiah 31:22; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 65:17. Justin Martyr (Apol. i. 57) has what looks like a reminiscence of this verse; but we cannot rely on it to prove his acquaintance with the book, the same idea being found in Grecian philosophy.
(10) Of old time.—The Hebrew word here is peculiar to Ecclesiastes, where it occurs eight times (Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 3:15; Ecclesiastes 4:2; Ecclesiastes 6:10; Ecclesiastes 9:6-7), but is common in later Hebrew.
(11) If anything appears new, this is only because its previous occurrence has been forgotten. So likewise will those of this generation be forgotten by those who succeed them.
KOHELETH RELATES HIS OWN EXPERIENCE.
(12) Having in the introductory verses stated the argument of the treatise, the writer proceeds to prove what he has asserted as to the vanity of earthly pursuits, by relating the failures of one who might be expected, if any one could, to bring such pursuits to a satisfactory result. Solomon, in this book called Kohéleth, pre-eminent among Jewish sovereigns as well for wisdom as for temporal prosperity, speaking in the first person, tells how, with all his advantages, he could secure in this life no lasting or satisfying happiness. He relates first how he found no satisfaction from an enlightened survey of human life. He found (Ecclesiastes 1:14) that it presented a scene of laborious exertion empty of profitable results. His researches (Ecclesiastes 1:15) only brought to light errors and defects which it was impossible to remedy; so that (Ecclesiastes 1:18) the more thought a man bestowed on the subject, the greater his grief. On the name Kohéleth, and the phrase “was king,” see Introduction.
Over Israel.—King of Israel is the usual phrase in the earlier books, but there are examples of that here employed (1 Samuel 15:26; 2 Samuel 19:23; 1 Kings 11:37).
(13) Gave my heart.—The phrase occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16) and often elsewhere. (See Daniel 10:12; 2 Chronicles 11:16, &c) The heart among the Hebrews is regarded as the seat, not merely of the feelings, but of the intellectual faculties, and so the word is constantly used in what follows. “I gave my heart” is the same as “I applied my mind.”
To seek.—Deuteronomy 13:14; Leviticus 10:16.
Search out.—Numbers 14:36; Numbers 14:38; Ecclesiastes 7:25.
Travail.—The word occurs again in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:10; Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:3; Ecclesiastes 5:14; Ecclesiastes 8:16) but no-where else in the Old Testament, though kindred forms are common. The word itself is common in Rabbinical Hebrew, in the sense of business.
“To afflict them” (margin). This is too strong a translation; better, to travail therein.
(14) Vexation.—The word occurs only in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:6; Ecclesiastes 6:9). The A. V. translation, “vexation of spirit,” is difficult to justify. Very nearly the same phrase occurs in Hosea 12:1, and is there translated “feeding on wind,” for in Hebrew, as in some other languages, the name for “spirit” primarily denotes breath or wind. Accordingly many interpreters understand the phrase of the text “feeding on wind” (see Isaiah 44:20). The same root, however, which means to “feast on a thing,” has the secondary meaning to “delight in a thing,” and so the corresponding noun in Chaldee comes to mean “pleasure” or “will.” (Comp. Ezra 5:17; Ezra 7:18.) Accordingly the LXX. and many modern interpreters understand the phrase of the text “effort after wind.”
(15) Made straight.—The verb occurs only in this book (Ecclesiastes 7:13; Ecclesiastes 12:9, “set in order”) and in Rabbinical Hebrew. So likewise “that which is wanting” is peculiar to this passage, and to later Hebrew.
(16) Wisdom and knowledge.—Isaiah 30:6; Romans 11:33.
(17) Madness and folly are words we should not expect to find in this context, and accordingly some interpreters have attempted by variations of reading to substitute for them words of the same nature as “wisdom and knowledge,” but see Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 7:25. Taking the text as it stands, it means to know wisdom and knowledge fully by a study of their contraries. The word for “madness” is peculiar to this book, but the corresponding verb occurs frequently in other books.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29