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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Ecclesiastes 1

Verses 1-18

The Verdict of Life

Ecclesiastes 1:2

The verdict of this book seems to be no hasty verdict, but a settled, deliberate conclusion. It is not due to a temporary fit of depression, or some passing adverse circumstance, but it seems the result of experience arrived at after mature thought. And there are plenty Today who have arrived at the same conclusion. All is vanity. Life is hard and cruel and disappointing, and not worth the living. They tell you it is a weary struggle in which most fail. That the disappointed men in life are not to be found only in night shelters and casual wards, but in the Houses of Parliament, in the salons of society, in the mansions of Park Lane.

I. Now, is this the true Verdict of Life? Is it all emptiness and vexation? If so, it seems strange that God should have put us here at all. Let us look and see the circumstances under which it was given. It is a very significant thing, that this conclusion of life is not the outcome of trouble. It is not the verdict of a man dogged by continuous misfortune, or persistent ill-health.

II. The truth is, he was a disappointed man, and there are two soils of disappointed men in life. There is the man who is disappointed because he does not get, and there is the man who is disappointed because he does get, and the latter is by far the worse of the two. The man who is disappointed because he has not got, may have still the fascination of his hopes before him. But the man who has got what he desires and is then disappointed, has pricked the bubble, and knows the meaning of emptiness and vexation of spirit And the last was the disappointment of Solomon. The selfish man is always a disappointed man. What an utter selfishness this book reveals. Take this second chapter, it is all I, I, I I made, I got, I did, I had, I sought, and this is the end of it all. If you want to know the best life has to give, live for others.

E. E. Cleal, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxiv. p. 38.

Ecclesiastes 1:2

'There is an old Eastern fable about a traveller in the Steppes who is attacked by a furious wild beast. To save himself the traveller gets into a dried-up well; but at the bottom of it he sees a dragon with its jaws wide open to devour him. The unhappy man dares not get out for fear of the wild beast, and dares not descend for fear of the dragon, so he catches hold of the branch of a wild plant growing in a crevice of the well. His arms soon grow tired, and he feels that he must soon perish, death waiting for him on either side. But he holds on still: and then he sees two mice, one black and one white, gnawing through the trunk of the wild plant, as they gradually and evenly make their way round it. The plant must soon give way, break off, and he must fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveller sees this, and knows that he will inevitably perish; but, while still hanging on, he looks around him, and, finding some drops of honey on the leaves of the wild plant, he stretches out his tongue and licks them.' After quoting this fable (translated, by the way, from Rückert, into English verse by Archbishop Trench, in his Poems, p. 266 ), Tolstoy (in My Confession ) proceeds to apply it to modern life. He quotes the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes as an expression of this Epicurean escape from the terrible plight in which people find themselves as they awaken to the fact of existence. The issue 'consists in recognizing the hopelessness of life, and yet taking advantage of every good in it, in avoiding the sight of the dragon and mice, and in seeking the honey as best we can, especially where there is most of it.... Such is the way in which most people, who belong to the circle in which I move, reconcile themselves to their fate, and make living possible. They know more of the good than the evil of life from the circumstances of their position, and their blunted moral perceptions enable them to forget that all their advantages are accidental.... The dullness of their imaginations enables these men to forget what destroyed the peace of Buddha, the inevitable sickness, old age, and death, which tomorrow if not Today must be the end of all their pleasures.'

Thomas Boston of Ettrick closes his Memoirs with these words: 'And thus have I given some account of the days of my vanity. The world hath all along been a step-dame unto me; and wheresoever I would have attempted to nestle in it, there was a thorn of uneasiness laid for me. Man is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed from that quarter. All is vanity and vexation of spirit. I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord.'

Ecclesiastes and Proverbs display a larger compass of thought and of experience than seem to belong to a Jew or to a king.

Gibbon.

After the fifth century the world lived on these words: Vanity of vanities... one thing is needful. The Imitatio Christi is undoubtedly the most perfect and attractive expression of this great poetic system; but a modern mind cannot accept it save with considerable reserve. Mysticism overlooked that innate quality of human nature, curiosity, which makes men penetrate the secret of things, and become, as Leibnitz says, the mirror of the universe.... Ecclesiastes took the heavens to be a solid roof, and the sun a globe suspended some miles up in the air; history, that other world, had no existence for him. Ecclesiastes, I am willing to believe, had felt all that man's heart could feel; but he had no suspicion of what man is allowed to know. The human mind in his day overpowered science; in our day it is science that overpowers the human mind.

Renan.

References. I. 2. E. W. Attwood, Sermons for Clergy and Laity, p. 428. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 20.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

The general drift of this book of Ecclesiastes is peculiar to itself. It gives us an estimate of life which, to a certain extent, reappears in our Lord's teaching, but which is generally speaking in the background throughout the Old Testament. Our text is the keynote of the book. The word 'vanity' occurs thirty-seven times in it, and it means properly speaking a breath of wind; and thus it comes to mean something fictitious and unsubstantial. The vanity of life, and of that which encompasses it, has been brooded over by the human mind under the influence of very different moods of thought But it was neither subtle pride, nor weary disgust, nor a refined mysticism that prompted this language of Solomon. The preacher does not ignore the circumstances and duties of this life, while he insists that this life does not really satisfy. The true lesson of the text before us is that this earthly life cannot possibly satisfy a being like man if it be lived apart from God. The reason is threefold.

I. All that belongs to created life has on it the mark of failure. Man is conscious of this. The warp and weakness of his will, the tyranny of circumstance, the fatal inclination downwards, of which he is constantly conscious, tell a tale of some past catastrophe from which human life has suffered deeply. And nature, too, with its weird mysteries of waste and pain, speaks of some great failure.

II. Life and nature are finite. The human soul, itself finite, is made for the infinite. God has set eternity in the human heart, and man has a profound mistrust of his splendid destiny.

III. All that belongs to created life has on it the mark of approaching dissolution. This is a commonplace, but commonplaces are apt to be forgotten from their very truth and obviousness. Personality survives with its moral history intact, all else goes and is forgotten. What profit hath a man of all his labour? The answer is, no profit at all, if he is working only for himself; but most abundant profit if he is working for God and eternity. Christ has passed His pierced hands in blessing over human life in all its aspects. He has washed and invigorated not merely the souls, but the activities of men, in His own cleansing blood. When death is near we read this verse with new eyes, and realize that this is a world of shadows, that the real and abiding is beyond.

H. P. Liddon, Clerical Library, vol. II. p. 162.

References. I. 2-11. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 27. R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes; its Meaning and Lessons, p. 22. G. G. Bradley, Lectures on Ecclesiastes, p. 29.

The Eternity of God

Ecclesiastes 1:4

I. The Fleetingness of Human Life. There are many now who are depressed by this sense of the premanency and power of the material world; when the earth receives, and reduces to itself, the frame which was once instinct with thought and will, man seems to be dethroned from his preeminence and life to be trampled out. There are some who resent the thought of passing away and being forgotten; it has been their ambition to leave on the face of the earth some permanent mark which should keep their name alive. The pyramids of Egypt have served this purpose; and yet what irony there is in that very success. We have new standards of glory, new ideals of government; to us these monuments speak less of the magnificence of the monarchy in the Nile Valley than of the oppression by which it accomplished its purpose. There is, perhaps, a deeper pathos when the works men wrought survive their memory altogether; those who look at the ruined cities of Mashonaland, or even at our own Dyke at Newmarket, can only guess dimly who planned these things, and what purpose they serve. The oblivion that has overtaken such great workers and builders demonstrates the fleetingness of human life and effort, and this may come home to us even more forcibly when we see the abandonment of great works that were meant to be of permanent and abiding use, and to serve purposes with which we sympathize. Yet in their very desolation and decay these things have a message of hope; at first sight it might seem that as the Preacher felt, all is vanity; that even the noblest aims and deepest devotion of human life pass into nothingness. But we have had deeper insight vouchsafed us; we can gauge better what remains, as the ages pass; the material embodiment of human purpose, however high and noble, is superseded and decays; but the endeavour, conscious or unconscious, to do God's work in the world has en undying worth. The things of sense are not, after all, that which really lasts; there is a glorious heritage of law and order, and welfare, and duty to God and man, to which each generation has been called in turn to make its contribution. That heritage remains while the jealousies and petty ambitions, like the fashions of yesterday, are done with.

II. God only is Eternal. For, indeed it is God, and God only, that is eternal, that stays abidingly through all the changes of this mortal life, through all the coming into being of the great system of which our earth is a portion. He is the source of all good of all earthly good in the physical surroundings which form man's home; in the vigour of life and the faculties with which man is endowed; and above all, of all mortal and spiritual good, of those qualities and activities in which man can most closely ally himself to and most fully express the thoughts and character of God. To appreciate the good that God has given to and wrought through those who have passed away is to enter into the communion of saints, and to realize our union with those whom our eyes have never seen is the deepest and most abiding thing of life.

W. Cunningham, Church Family Newspaper, vol. lxxi. p. 536.

References. I. 4. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Ecclesiastes, p. 297. J. Hamilton, Works, vol. vi. p. 484. J. Foster, Lectures (2nd Series), p. 117. I. 4-10. H. Macmillan, Bible Teaching in Nature, p. 312. I. 4-11. J. Bennett, The Wisdom of the King, p. 60.

The Discontent of the Times

Ecclesiastes 1:7-10

There is in our time a widespread spirit of discontent which prevails widely among the sober and industrious classes.

I. What are the sources of this discontent?

a. The wealth of all civilized countries has been immensely and rapidly increasing in recent years.

b. They have suddenly become possessed of enormous wealth.

c. There is a growing tendency to make wealth hereditary.

d. The popular estimate of wealth has become enormously exaggerated.

II. There is a wide feeling that the industrial classes are not gaining their fair share of this enormous and rapid accumulation of wealth. Man, when he gains one level, wants immediately to attain a higher; it is the prophecy of immortality in him.

III. It is love, and not mere greed which is at the bottom of very much of the existing discontent. A man feels that if he is equal before the contemplation of the law when he stands beside others, equal before God the Creator and God the Governor, he must have equal rights in the world; not to the property which others have acquired, but to the opportunities to acquire such property for himself, to give his household the advantage of it.

IV. It is generically the same force which took our ancestral pirates and painted savages and built them up into a Christian Commonwealth. It is just his unsatisfied aspiration which God has planted in its element in the human soul, and to which He presents the hidden riches of the earth, which a man must work for that he may gain them, but which he can gain if he will patiently and courageously work.

V. Wealth if it conies is to be used honestly, nobly, beneficently, but that wealth is not the chief good of human life; it is only an instrument of that which is better and higher, and 'a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth'.

R. S. Storrs, British Weekly Pulpit, vol. III. p. 513.

References. I. 7. Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 302. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Waterside Mission Sermons (2nd Series), p. 122.

Ecclesiastes 1:8 ; Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 , etc.

When I was a boy, I used to care about pretty stones. I got some Bristol diamonds at Bristol, and some dog-tooth spar in Derbyshire; my whole collection had cost perhaps three half-crowns, and was worth considerably less; and I knew nothing whatever, rightly, about any single stone in it could not even spell their names; but words cannot tell the joy they used to give me. Now, I have a collection of minerals worth, perhaps, from two to three thousand pounds; and I know more about some of them than most other people. But I am not a whit happier, either for my knowledge or possession, for other geologists dispute my theories, to my grievous indignation and discontentment; and I am miserable about all my best specimens, because there are better in the British Museum. No, I assure you, knowledge by itself will not make you happy.

Ruskin in Fors Clavigera. See also the discussion of this in Bacon's Advancement of Learning, i. i-iii, and Ruskin's further apostrophe in The Eagle's Nest, 80.

Consciousness of happiness, above all, will not choose the intellect as a hiding-place for the treasure it holds most precious.

Maeterlinck.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

We marvel at the prodigality of Nature, but how marvellous, too, the economy! The old cycles are for ever renewed, and it is no paradox that he who would advance can never cling too close to the past. The thing that has been is the thing that will be again; if we realize that, we may avoid many of the disillusions, miseries, insanities, that for ever accompany the throes of new birth. Set your shoulder joyously to the world's wheel; you may spare yourself some unhappiness if, beforehand, you slip the book of Ecclesiastes beneath your arm.

Havelock Ellis.

Compare Jowett's Sermons on Faith and Doctrine, pp. 282, 283.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Alas! this fame is the mockery of God, with which we are so familiar that cruel irony which is ever the same. The blasé King of Israel and Judah said with truth 'There is nothing new under the sun'. Perhaps the sun itself is but an old warmed-up piece of pleasantry, which, decked out with new rays, now glitters with such imposing splendour!

Heine.

If in a sense the whole beauty of art is an expression of the mood of Ecclesiastes, if the passion of the ways of the heart, and the light of the eyes, and the plenitude and magnificence of life beneath the sun, have most intimate and intense significance when discerned as in an interval of clear and sweet light between the lifting and the falling of darkness, it must be as the incentive to concentrated appreciation of opportunity that the fleetingness of life affects the thought of the painter. He is pledged to discern and express the beauty that can never fade into nothingness, to show life touching life with immortality. It is impossible for him, whose art is formal, for whom only formal beauty and impressiveness exist within the term of his art, to declaim the vanitas vanitatum of the Preacher to our minds, and yet preserve the appeal of beauty, that is his medium of reaching our sense.

R. E. D. Sketchley, Watts, p. 58.

References. 1. 9. E. A. Bray, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 61. A. Maclaren Expositions of Holy Scripture Ecclesiastes, p. 307.

Ecclesiastes 1:12

The possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind. This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus. Fortune and merit had, from an humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind. 'He had been all things,' as he said himself, 'and all were of little value.'

Gibbon.

Ecclesiastes 1:12

See C. G. Rossetti's poem, 'A Testimony'; also her verses on 'Vanity of Vanities,' 'Days of Vanity,' 'Cardinal Newman,' and 'The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness'.

A word must be said about those exquisite gems of verse which are contained in the Greek Anthology... . The motto which is written on the pages as a whole is the same as that of the book of Ecclesiastes, 'Vanity of vanities,' and the dominant side of sadness deepens the farther we follow the poems into Roman times. Herodotus (v. 4) tells us of a Tracian tribe, whose custom it was to wail over the birth of a child, and to bury the dead with festive joy, as being released from their troubles. 'Let us praise the Tracians,' says a writer in the Anthology, 'in that they mourn for their sons as they come forth from their mother's womb into the sunlight, while those again they count blessed who have left life, snatched away by unseen Doom, the servant of the Fates.' One who had looked upon the course of the world and the treacherous ways of fortune is forced to exclaim: 'I hate the world for its mystery'.

S. H. Butcher.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-13

To grow old, learning and unlearning, is such the conclusion? Conclusion or no conclusion, such, alas! appears to be our inevitable lot, the fixed ordinance of the life we live. 'Every new lesson,' saith the Oriental proverb, 'is another grey hair; and time will pluck out this also.' And what saith the Preacher? 'I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under the heavens; this sore travail hath God given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.' Perchè pensa? Pensando s'invecchia , said the young unthinking Italian to the grave German sitting by him in the diligence, whose name was Goethe. Is it true?

Nevertheless, to say something, to talk to one's fellow-creatures, to relieve oneself by a little exchange of ideas, is there no good, is there no harm, in that? Prove to the utmost the imperfection of our views, our thoughts, our conclusions; yet you will not have established the uselessness of writing.

References. I. 12. A. W. Momerie, Agnosticism, p. 190. I. 12-14. C. Kingsley, The Water of Life, p. 175. I. 12-18. J. J. S. Perowne, Expositor (1st Series), vol. x. p. 61. R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes, its Meaning and Lessons, p. 36, I. 13. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Ecclesiastes., p. 317.

Ecclesiastes 1:14

Nature has furnished man with a rich provision of force, activity, and toughness. But what most often comes to his help is his unconquerable levity. By this he becomes capable of renouncing particular things at each moment, if he can only grasp at something new in the next. Thus unconsciously we are constantly renewing our whole lives. We put one passion in place of another; business, inclinations, amusements, hobbies, we prove them all one after another, only to cry out that 'all is vanity'. No one is shocked at this false, nay, blasphemous speech. Nay, every one thinks that in uttering it he has said something wise and unanswerable. Few indeed are those who are strong enough to anticipate such unbearable feelings, and, in order to escape from all partial renunciations, to perform one all-embracing act of renunciation. These are the men who convince themselves of the existence of the eternal, of the necessary, of the universal, and who seek to form conceptions which cannot fail them, yea, which are not disturbed, but rather confirmed, by the contemplation of that which passes away.

Goethe.

Seen All

Ecclesiastes 1:14

In a certain broad, rough, superficial sense this is possible. It is ineffably disappointing; it is spiritually and fruitfully, poetically and morally, most suggestive. It is easy to see what the man has been looking at; he has, so to say, been counting the wrong things, or has been counting them in a wrong spirit, or has been longing for the end. There is a contentment that is mean, soulless, and utterly pitiable; there is a discontent that is ineffable, inspired, quick with holy ambition; not a foolish discontent, pining and whining, but a discontent which says, God meant me to see more and to be more and to do more, and I want to succeed in executing the full purpose of God. That is the Christian life, that is Christian prophecy, Christian discipline and Christian perfectness.

I. A sad thing it is for a man to think he has seen all the landscape which lies before his window. He wants change of scene, and no wonder, for he has seen nothing; he wants change of air, and what wonder, if the air has brought him no music from the organ of the morning? There are some poets who have not yet seen the whole of their little back garden; there is hardly room in it for another geranium, but that little back garden is a three-volume romance, is the beginning of Paradise Regained, is a history of faithful industry and hopefulness, and is a pledge that the rest will be paid at God's counter in God's time.

II. 'I have seen all the letters of the alphabet.' Can you read? 'No, but I have seen all the letters of the alphabet, and I know them one from another, and I can write every one of them in three different ways; I am absolutely perfect in the use of the alphabet.' Hear how this poor soul chatters about his alphabet! He has counted the alphabet, he has seen all the letters that are written under the sun: the one thing he cannot do is to put the letters together, and turn them into syllables and words and sentences and poems and philosophies. Are we to take the criticism of such a man as an estimate of literature? He is as perfect in his alphabet as Aristotle was in his. Aristotle could not teach this man anything about the alphabet that the man does not know already: the only thing is the man cannot read, cannot use his own alphabet, cannot employ his own tools.

III. I have seen a man have so much money that he had not enough. Let him stand before the tollkeeper of this turnpike; the charge for passing the tollgate is sixpence: can he pay the money? He cannot; hear him, for he hath a speech: 'Allow me to pass, or give me change for this note, value one thousand pounds; it is all the money I have at command'. He might as well hand a piece of blank paper to the tollkeeper, it is blank paper to that functionary; it is so much as to be too little, it fails on the negative side, the plus quantity becomes a minus quantity. Life is full of these contradictions and ironies and perplexities; we had better get down to the solid rock of common sense and know that a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth, and get to know that he who has one little loaf of bread is better off in the time of hunger than the man who has ten thousand acres which have not yet brought forth their harvest.

IV. There is no satisfaction in the finite. Why does not man find satisfaction in the finite? Because he himself is not finite in the same sense, he is finite in another and better sense, but man stands next to God in the great catalogue of names 'In the beginning God created man in His own image and likeness, in the image and likeness of God created He him'. The seen is meant to be an emblem of the unseen; the things we see are hints of the things we cannot yet discern; we are living in a region of beginnings; by the very greatness of our nature we claim to be immortal, by the very passion of our desires we know that no good power can have given us so much with the intention of finally disappointing us.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. vii. p. 30.

References. I. 14. Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 339. C. D. Bell, The Name Above Every Name, p. 124.

Ecclesiastes 1:17

See Mozley's Parochial and Occasional Sermons (number xii.).

References. I. 18. S. A. Brooke, Christ in Modern Life, pp. 230, 243. II. 1-3. J. J. S. Perowne, Expositor (1st Series), vol. x. p. 165. II. 2. H. Melville, Penny Pulpit, No. 2532.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1910.