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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Ecclesiastes 2


From wisdom Koheleth turns to the pursuit of mirth, in order to see whether the true good is to be found in it, but here again he finds not what he sought, he finds nothing to still the cravings of his heart ( Ecclesiastes 2:1-2). After this preliminary survey there follows the fuller exposition. Taking the coarsest first, Koheleth tries what wine drinking will do, ( Ecclesiastes 2:3). Then he seeks pleasure in great works and improvements ( Ecclesiastes 2:4-6), in rich possessions, brilliant connections, and in the manifold enjoyments of love ( Ecclesiastes 2:7-8) at the same time not renouncing wisdom, but keeping it as his companion in all his undertakings, and letting it be their very life and soul, ( Ecclesiastes 2:9). He follows after mirth with all eagerness, intending thus to obtain a recompense for the great trouble caused him by the procuring of the material of pleasure ( Ecclesiastes 2:10). On a closer examination, however, this pleasure also evades his grasp, and so all his pains and efforts appear to him vain, ( Ecclesiastes 2:11). The one thought alone that all that which he has effected by his wisdom will be inherited, to judge from the usual course of things in this world, by an evil successor, mixes gall with the satisfaction with which he regards his creations, ( Ecclesiastes 2:12). Reflecting on the matter more carefully he sees that wisdom has undoubtedly a considerable advantage over folly ( Ecclesiastes 2:13-14 a); but still this advantage is not of such a nature that a man can sincerely rejoice in it and its creations, that he can seek the happiness of his life in it and devote himself with all zeal to the production of such works. Wisdom is unable to protect us against many misfortunes, ( Ecclesiastes 2:14 b-15). The same forgetfulness covers the wise man no less than the fool in the future; and how sadly does death, to which the wise man is subject no less than the fool, destroy all joy in wisdom and its creations, ( Ecclesiastes 2:16-17). And, to recur to that which was anticipatorily mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:12, the thought of a wicked successor stifles completely the satisfaction felt in the works effected at the cost of so much labour and in the wisdom therein manifested ( Ecclesiastes 2:18-21). Mirth being spoiled by such considerations, there remain behind only the manifold pains and disquiet occasioned to man by the production of that wherein he was to rejoice ( Ecclesiastes 2:22-23). Surely, then it is better for man to renounce such a chase and hunt, to live for the present moment, and to take the enjoyments which offer themselves unsought. And yet such a cheerful enjoyment of the gifts of God is not in a man’s own power: it comes from God, who must Himself make our hearts capable of enjoyment, and deliver us from the bonds of avarice ( Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).

The moral of all this is—look not back with painful longings to Solomon and his age, though so brilliant and though apparently so rich in pleasures. More closely considered its wealth of mirth was vanity. That unseen source of joy, from which Solomon actually drew whatever of pleasure he realized, is still open to you notwithstanding the needy position in which you find yourselves. Guard then against shutting yourselves out from it by a base and contemptible covetousness.

Verses 1-2

Ecclesiastes 2:1-2. In these two verses the new experiment and its results are described in broad outline: in the third and following verses these summary hints are carried out in detail. Not only for his wisdom was Solomon renowned, but also for his possessions and pleasures; and in this latter respect also was his age an object of devouring yearnings to the people of God in their day of tribulation and oppression. Therefore does the author introduce Solomon with the confession on his lips that behind even that glory vanity lay hid. When the writer says, “I spake,” the “I” is emphatic: “I spake.” Some will have it that אני frequently occurs in this book along with the first person of the verb superfluously even where no emphasis whatever is intended, as for example in Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:14; Ecclesiastes 2:18; Ecclesiastes 3:17. In such cases, however, אני is by no means pleonastically used. It calls attention to the importance of the person who is speaking, who is declaring his experiences. An address to the soul similar to the one here may be found in Psalms 16:2. The heart is to be proved, whether perchance it feels itself contented and fully satisfied by this new object presented to it. The mirth is that which springs from possessions and pleasures. The words which follow immediately upon, and are directly connected with, these, namely, look upon good, (ראה signifying with ב ‘‘look upon, to feed oneself upon,”) show that Ecclesiastes 2:1-2 do not relate merely to a life of low and coarse gratification, but that they have a more comprehensive application. The laughter mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:2 is that which accompanies common sensual gratification: mirth or joy is not identical with laughter, but has a more comprehensive signification, as is clear from Ecclesiastes 2:10. Extravagant mirth, the intoxication of the senses, at once shows itself to be vanity ( Ecclesiastes 2:3). But even the joy taken in earthly projects and possessions does not stand the test. Ecclesiastes 2:11 forms the comment to the question, “What doeth it?” of Ecclesiastes 2:2. Geier says: “Why dost thou thus befool men and lead them basely away from the true good? We should involve Koheleth in self-contradiction were we to ascribe to him here the thought, that all joy is vain and despicable. He rather takes special pains to urge men to take pleasure in their life, to live for the present moment, and thankfully to enjoy whatever it offers. That which he here condemns is mirth considered as the highest good, as the end of life, and the too great eagerness displayed in its pursuit. Luther has seized exactly the right point of view: “that this is true, experience tells us. For many a man arranges all his affairs and puts forth much trouble and labour, that he may ensure to himself quiet and peace in his old age: and yet God orders it otherwise, and involves him in things which give him his first true taste of disquietude. Many an one seeks his pleasure in lust and debauchery, and from that hour onwards his life is embittered. Therefore, if God does not give us joy and pleasure, but we seek to contrive and create them for ourselves, nothing comes of it; and on the contrary, as Solomon says, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. We can do nothing better then than willingly to accept and put up with that which God docs to us and for us, and to accustom our heart to be satisfied and contented with that which God each moment sends us, be it good or evil, sorrow or joy. If a wife is given thee, regard it as a gift of God, thank Him, and be cheerful and contented. But if thou settest thyself to go beyond this, and to add thereto thy human devices, thinking to secure only gratifications and joys, honeymoons, and merrymakings, thou wilt make for thyself sadness and sorrow of heart. For this reason, should we accustom ourselves to resting satisfied with what God does and gives, with what He wills and intends, and not with what we will und intend. Solomon’s intention, then, is not to induce all the world to turn hermits and monks, to cast away all joy, mirth, pastime, all rust, comfort, amusement: what, he means to say is, that thoughts and proposals are nothing when we think by their help to make to ourselves rest and peace, recreation and good courage. The truest joy and merriment is that which we do not expressly seek (for when we plan beforehand a little hindrance may frustrate the whole), but which God sends us at the moment.” In Ecclesiastes 2:1-2 we have undoubtedly the germ of the parable in Luke 12:16-21. This may be seen from the similarity of the address to the soul which there occurs; from the words ἔ?χεις πολλὰ? ἀ?γαθὰ? there as compared with the expression, “Look upon good,” here; from the word εὐ φραίνου compared with, “I will prove thee with mirth,” Ἄ?φρων corresponding to מהולל אני ; and finally from the words ἃ? δὲ? ἡ?τοίμασας , τίνι ἔ?σται ( Ecclesiastes 2:20) as compared with the 12th verse of this chapter—“For what will the man do that shall come after the king?” (compare Ecclesiastes 2:19.)

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 2:3. First of all mirth in its coarsest form, intoxication of the senses. “I sought in my heart to indulge my flesh with wine.” That תור has the meaning “to prove, to assay, to try,” is certified by Numbers 13, where the word is repeatedly used of the spies, and by Ecclesiastes 2:18, where its force is given in the paraphrase—“and see the land, what it is, and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many.” This sense of the word suits all the passages in which it occurs, and especially Numbers 15:39—“that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; and ye shall not follow your eyes and your heart proving:” that is, ye shall institute no moral experiments, following the desires of your own heart and the lusts of your eyes. Such experiments will as certainly be followed by sad and painful results as it is a necessity that God’s vengeance should visit those who turn aside from the way of his commands. The wise Solomon did not give himself to intoxication of the senses in the way of a mere voluptuary; for this latter cannot help doing what he does, and is a slave of his passions and desires: but in the manner of an inquirer who, standing on an eminence above sensual enjoyments wishes to know by personal trial, what can be obtained from them, so as to be able, in virtue of his own experience, to instruct others how far a true good is or is not to be found therein. In regard to משך בשר “to indulge, to cherish the body,” consult Gesenius’ Thesaurus. The remaining words of the verse carry out further the hint contained in the phrase “I assayed;” to the effect that Solomon did not surrender himself à corps perdu to coarse sensual gratifications, in opposition to what is said of the duty of kings in Proverbs 31:4-5, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes strong drink, lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.” And my heart held to wisdom, i.e., it took wisdom along with it into its sensual enjoyments, retained it by its side, differing thus from mere voluptuaries, who first bid farewell to wisdom, and then surrender themselves to sensual pleasures, נהג in conjunction with ב occurs only in the signification “to lead, to convey anything;” see Isaiah 11:6, and 1 Chronicles 13:7, where נהג בעגלה corresponds to נהג עגלה in 2 Samuel 6:3. Ewald’s explanation, “whilst my heart was satiated with wisdom,” is contrary to usage, as well as to Ecclesiastes 2:12 ff. Nor is anything contrary to the words, “I will prove thee “of Ecclesiastes 2:1, or to those of this verse, “I assayed,” according to which it was a simple experiment that he was concerned with, intended to be said, which might cast a doubt on Solomon: for Solomon is introduced to notice here, not in his character of an historical personage, with which the writer has nothing to do; but as the ideal of Israelitish wisdom. “And (this took place, or I did thus, in order) to lay hold on folly,” which is the antithesis to wisdom. He tried whether the true happiness of life was to be found in sensual enjoyments, in order that, supposing the contrary to be the case, he might, from his own experience, “know folly to be folly, and learn to abhor it from the bottom of his heart. “Till I might see what is good for the children of men, what they shall do the number of the days of their life.” By reason of the shortness of human existence, which passes very soon irrecoverably away, it is a thing of all the more importance to come early to clear ideas in regard to the end of life and the true good. To live recklessly is the greater folly, seeing that the life of man does but last some seventy years, or at the best eighty years. The point of view here taken is the right one also for all that follows. At the commencement of his experiment, which begins with wine and ends with women, the writer says, “and my heart held to wisdom,” and corresponding to these words we find it said at the close, “my wisdom remained with me” ( Ecclesiastes 2:9). Everything is set before us from the point of view of an experiment. That coarse sensual enjoyment afforded no satisfactory result; that on the contrary it manifested itself to be folly—about this not a word is wasted. There was the less need to say anything expressly, inasmuch as a general judgment had been pronounced in Ecclesiastes 2:2, which left no doubt as to the result of such a trial.

Verses 4-8

Ecclesiastes 2:4-8. I made me great works, I built me houses, planted me vineyards, &c. In 1 John 2:16 it is said, “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world;” on which Bengel remarks, “Concupiscentia carnis dicit ea, quibus pascuntur sensus, qui appellantur fruitivi, gustus et tactus. Concupiscentia oculorum ea quibus tenentur sensus investigativi, oculus s visus, auditus et olfactus. ἀ?λαζονεία est arrogans pompa, cum quis nimium sibi aut verbis aut factis assumit—ut homo velit quam plurimus esse in victu, cultu, apparatu supellectile, aedificiis, praediis, famulitio, clientibus jumentis, muneribus.” From the lust of the flesh Solomon now passes to the lust of the eye and to that pride of life which delights in, and understands how to procure for itself, outward splendour. All the modes of activity here enumerated are unable to satisfy the heart, and therefore should we be careful not to pursue them further than is necessary and indispensable—a thing which all those do who seek therein a happiness they can never confer. If we are convinced that a man may possess all these things, and yet be at the same time the most miserable of beings, we shall not occupy ourselves with them further than our rank and position in life demand. That the temple is not included amongst the “houses” is evident, not only from the word לי “for himself,” “I built houses for myself:” but also from the tone of the entire enumeration, which introduces only such things as had Solomon for their central point. In Ecclesiastes 2:7 Solomon is represented as saying—“also I obtained cattle and sheep in multitude, more than all who were in Jerusalem before me.” In this some have wrongly supposed that they had discovered “a blunder of the later author,” in relation to whom there had been of course many kings in Jerusalem. Amongst the royal predecessors of Solomon in Jerusalem were reckoned not only David and Saul but also the Jebusite kings up to Melchizedeck. “I gathered me also silver and gold and a treasure of kings and the provinces.” סגלה does not signify “property in general,” but “something of special value and highly estimated,” strictly, “that which men lay by, lay on one side, treasure:” see Christology, iii. p. 635. The author is speaking here of a treasure of kings and provinces, in reference to the aforementioned “silver and gold.” The conjunction therewith is the more appropriate, inasmuch as the gold and silver came from the kings and the provinces. מלכים stands without article in order to draw attention to the significance of “a treasure of kings:” “the provinces “on the other hand are the definite and well-known ones of Solomon’s kingdom. Corresponding to the kings and provinces here we find in the allegorical descriptions of Proverbs 31:29, “the daughters,” i.e., the dependent nations, “many daughters bring wealth.” “The kings” are those of the vanquished heathen countries: compare 1 Kings 4:21, “And Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt: they brought presents and served Solomon all the days of his life. Ecclesiastes 2:24. He had dominion over the whole land beyond the river from Thipsah and Gaza, over all kings beyond the river.” There is no sufficient reason for reckoning amongst the kings the officers who, according to Ecclesiastes 4:7 ff., were appointed by Solomon over the twelve provinces into which the original Israelitish territory was divided, although some amongst them were the sons-in-law of the king. And quite as little ground is there for Hitzig’s supposition, that by “the provinces “we are to understand those twelve original districts. The provinces are plainly not to be taken separately from the kings: the word gather, moreover, is not appropriate as applied to the original territory of the Israelites: and the twelve tribes did not bring silver and gold, but Solomon drew from them only the natural productions of the natural districts. The usual explanation of the words is, “a treasure such as kings have, and such as provinces supply.” But there is no reason for resorting to this more remote view; besides that in 1 Chronicles 29:3, the word in the Stat. const, which is conjoined with סגלה designates that in which the treasure consists; “a treasure of silver and gold.” I gat me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the children of men, plenty of all sorts. תענוג “caresses “is used only of sexual love, שדה signifies in Arabic, robur, vehementia. From the same root is derived the Hebrew word שדי “the almighty.” The adjoined plural marks the augmented force of the abstract conception: “multitude and great multitude.” According to 1 Kings 11:3, Solomon had seven hundred princesses to wife, and three hundred concubines. Those who commit the mistake of not finding in the word תענוג a reference to Solomon’s love of women—a thing which it was quite impossible to pass over in silence in an enumeration of all the things with which he surrounded his own person, and which related peculiarly to himself, have sought in a great variety of ways to import into the words שדה ושדות a reference to Solomon’s women. J. D. Michaelis, in justification of his arbitrary explanation, says quite openly, “in this choice of meanings I have not looked so much to philological grounds, as to the consideration that it appears almost incredible that Solomon should have forgotten women in the enumeration of his sensual pleasures.” If we understand the words of Solomon’s wives, the conjunction of the singular and plural will appear strange “wife and wives.” That the wives are here mentioned, because they swelled by their number the splendour of Solomon’s court, and set him for whom such things were prepared in a brilliant light, is plain from the verse immediately following, which lays stress on the greatness of the king who gathered around himself all these resources.

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 2:9. And I became great, and greater than all those that were before me in Jerusalem, and my wisdom remained to me: Vulgate, perseveravit mecum. עמד is used also in Ecclesiastes 8:3, in the same meaning of “remain, continue.” Inasmuch as wisdom, that noblest of all possessions, remained to the king along with these other possessions, we should with the greater confidence expect him to have a contented and satisfied heart. The words which occur in Ecclesiastes 2:3, at the beginning of the description—“and my heart prosecuted wisdom”—correspond to those which we find here, “and (אף the emphatic “and” indicates that an important addition is being made) wisdom remained to me.” Ewald’s explanation is, “served me;” Elster’s is, “stood to me,” which is as much as to say, “It supported, aided me,” in gaining riches and renown. But עמד with ל cannot have that meaning.

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 2:10. It cost Solomon labour, yea great labour ( Ecclesiastes 2:23) to raise himself to a position where he should be the central point of all. For this trouble, however, he felt himself at first repaid by the joy which he experienced at the thought that all had been effected by his own wisdom, belonged to him and contributed to his glory. But even of this satisfaction he was speedily deprived. It only lasted so long as he did not go to the very bottom of the thing. When the joy vanished there remained only the labour behind, and this was felt to be simple torture so soon as it distinctly showed itself to be fruitless.—According to Ecclesiastes 2:11 Solomon looked upon all his works and on all the labour he had spent on them, and “behold all was vanity.” The expression, “and behold,” points to the unexpectedness and startling nature of the fact. The grounds of the general judgment here pronounced are afterwards detailed. Those who mistake this have recourse to conjectures. Thus Hitzig is of opinion that “the work had afforded him some gratification: but at last he had accomplished all and was unable to devise any further projects. So then the work came to an end, and with it naturally the enjoyment which it had afforded.” Similarly Elster, who says: “the vanity of wearying ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure consists in this, that when the enjoyment is spent there is only the feeling of emptiness left behind.” But these are the thoughts of the commentators themselves, of which there is no trace in the text. Besides, the matter in hand would not be served by any experience that might be ascribed to a hypochondriacal source: plain and palpable reasons are required, and such are advanced in the succeeding part of the book, from which the present verse may not be separated. “And there is no profit under the sun.” If Solomon, with all his wisdom and with all the means at his disposal secured no profit, gained no real good, there surely must be none to be acquired, (Stier renders “profit,” by “nothing abiding;” but the correctness of the common interpretation is guaranteed by Ecclesiastes 2:13: the Hebrew word only occurs in this book, and it always signifies “profit, advantage.”) The existence of true good is by no means denied. The author treats here only of such possessions as have their origin under the sun, and which man can acquire by his own efforts. The positive assertion correspondent to the negative one of the text is found in James 1:17πᾶ σα δόσις ἀ?γαθὴ? καὶ? πᾶδώρημα τέλειον ἄ?νωθέν ἐ?στιν καταβαῖ νον ἀ?πὸ? τοῦ? πατρὸτῶφώτων .

In Ecclesiastes 2:12 the catchword פניתי “I turned myself,” used in Ecclesiastes 2:11 is again adopted, and for the purpose of indicating that what was there only hinted at will here be fully unfolded. Koheleth turns himself to behold wisdom and madness and folly, i.e. to consider them in their relation to each other, and to estimate their relative worth. Wisdom, which Solomon did not lay aside when he gave his life a new direction, but kept as his companion therein ( Ecclesiastes 2:9) applying it now to practical, as at an earlier period he had applied it to speculative matters, is here brought forward as the very soul of his undertakings. Consequently, if the inquiry into the relation between wisdom and folly show the result that wisdom is nothing, the works of which wisdom is the soul must also be nothing. At this place Hitzig makes the erroneous remark, that “after having discovered ( Ecclesiastes 2:11) that his works are nought, he finds out here that the wisdom which he has expended on them is also nought.” Wisdom and the works rather constitute one whole, interpenetrating each other:—wisdom is in the works as their animating principle. Koheleth next sets before us that which gave rise to his reflections on the relation between wisdom and folly, and which caused his perplexity as to the value of the former and of the works effected by its means. This was the simple fact that his successor would probably be a man of worthless character, who would disgracefully destroy what he had accomplished by his wisdom and by his great labours. Rehoboam! that is the thought which first presses itself on his mind. Then at Ecclesiastes 2:13 begins that comprehensive discussion which in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 comes back again to the circumstance here anticipatorily mentioned. The presumptive folly of his successor appears here to constitute the motive to the investigation: in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, which form a sort of commentary to the somewhat enigmatical words before us, this folly seems to be an important feature in the inquiry itself. By the words—“For what is the man?” we may understand either —“what is he? what is it with him? or, what will he do?” supplementing the meaning from what follows: “Who will come after the King,” i.e. after me, the King, or who will succeed me in my kingdom? The miserable answer to the question, “what will my successor do?” is—He will do “what they have already done.” From the fact that fully is the custom of the world, arises the probability that his successor also will be foolish, so that Solomon with all his wisdom will appear to have laboured in vain, and to have spent his strength for nothing and vanity ( Isaiah 49:4). Ewald’s explanation, namely, “what, i.e., of what kind is the man, who will succeed the king, with him, i.e., as compared with him whom one has made before?” is characterised by great harshness. The simple word with can never stand for compared with: besides, Solomon was not made king by men. The inquiry into the relation between wisdom and folly, together with the results of each, to which Koheleth is moved by the thought of his evil successor which presses itself upon him, leads in the first instance to the conclusion that wisdom has an unquestionable advantage over folly, ( Ecclesiastes 2:13-14 a). Wisdom is like light, which preserves the man that walks in it from many dangers to which the darkness exposes him: or again, the wise man is like one who sees, and who can therefore avail himself of many advantages and avoid many inconveniences. But still the advantage is not an unmixed, an absolute one:—“but nevertheless I know that one event happeneth to them all,” ( Ecclesiastes 2:14 b) the wise man no less than the fool may break a leg, and is not less than others exposed to all possible accidents. If this be so, the question naturally arises—“why have I been then so very wise?’’ If wisdom with its productions has only a relative value, if it has no power to guard its possessor against even the very worst that can happen, it follows surely that a man should not occupy himself too deeply with it, that he should not make it and its creations the real aim of his life; it follows also, lastly, that an age in which wisdom flourishes less strongly, need not on that account grieve over much. And I said in my heart that this also is vanity—this, the study of human wisdom, in respect of which the age of Solomon far surpassed later ages. The meaning found by Elster in these words, viz., “this arrangement of life itself, according to which the wise man experiences the same fortune as the fool, is characterised as vanity,” does not suit the connection. Koheleth has no wish to blame the divine government of the world, his aim is to exhibit the vanity of human efforts and human possessions. The word “for,” which follows, shows that it is wisdom which he considers to be vanity. If then even this noblest of earthly possessions is vain, how urgently should we feel ourselves summoned to unite ourselves the more closely and inwardly to God; compare Proverbs 3:5,—“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Luther remarks—“therefore is it better to commit the supreme government of all things to the King who has made us. Lot every man discharge with all diligence the duties of his office, let him accomplish whatever God gives him at the present moment to do: if all does not go on as he expected let him leave it to God. What God gives let him accept: if God hinders thee in any wise, take that also for a good. Whatever we can do we are called upon to do: what we cannot effect we must let alone: the stone which thou canst not lift thou must needs let lie.” The affirmation that “this also is vanity,” in proof of which it is alleged in Ecclesiastes 2:15, to be the fact, that wisdom affords no protection against the manifold misfortunes of life, receives anew and doubly strong confirmation in Ecclesiastes 2:10, from the forget fulness, which in the future covers alike the wise man with his works, and the fool, and from the necessity by which both alike are bound to submit to death. If wisdom is incompetent to protect us against any of these troubles it surely should not be the object of such ardent longings. We ought rather to leave it and the pursuit thereof to Solomon and his age, and seek elsewhere the true happiness of life: “Seeing that in the days to come all is forgotten,”—Vulgate: future tempora oblivion cuncta partier operient,—“and how dieth the wise man with the fool?” That is the most unworthy and humiliating thing that can happen to the wise man, to be subjected no less than the mere fool to the disgraceful necessity of death. The to be deceived by outward show and seeming, is by no means in itself true repentance. A clear proof thereof, is that such feelings are to be found frequently in the heart of the ungodly. They are notwithstanding for the well disposed a powerful motive to return to God. This is however not the precise point of view from which matters are examined here. The aim of all that is advanced is rather to deliver the men of that generation from their devouring yearnings after the glory of the age of Solomon by laying bare its true character before their eyes.

Verses 18-21

Ecclesiastes 2:18-21. In these verses attention is once more turned to the evil successor who was expected to occupy the throne. The “toil” alluded to in Ecclesiastes 2:18 had its roots in that which such an event would bring to pass. “For” ( Ecclesiastes 2:22) on the grounds advanced in Ecclesiastes 2:21 and previously, inasmuch as I must leave the fruits of my labour to an unworthy successor, since furthermore accidents befal alike the wise man and the fool, since the wise man is no less mortal than the fool, and the remembrance of both alike passes away, the question presses itself on the mind—“what has man?” This is as much as to say, “man has nothing.” On this view the word כי , at the commencement of Ecclesiastes 2:23, appears quite appropriate. “Vexation is his torment,” ( Ecclesiastes 2:23) i.e., he is tormented thereby. From which the practical conclusion is that we ought not to busy ourselves with such distracting and perplexing matters, and that it should be a cause of gladness when our circumstances furnish no occasion and incentive to such a course. In fact it promises too little fruit, nothing is obtained thereby to compensate the expenditure in labour, anxiety and pain.

Verse 24

Ecclesiastes 2:24. Seeing that such is the case with the works men undertake, our wisdom surely is to embark only in such enterprises as are clearly necessary, and in this way to employ the present moment and live for the present moment—a thing which this needy present generation is as able to do as Solomon with all his glory, ( Ecclesiastes 2:24). Against taking this Ecclesiastes 2 :as a question—“Is it not good for man?”—it has been objected that in such a case, לא would be used instead of אין . But the cognate word אין is used interrogatively in 1 Samuel 21:9. To simple eating and drinking, the contrast is given in the wearisome labours some men undergo for the special advantage of their own person, and in order to secure to it the highest enjoyments life can offer. Labours for the advancement of the kingdom of God belong to an entirely different region, and form no part whatever of the contrast which is here mentioned. The words—“let his soul see good” recommend joy in conjunction with, as distinguished from joy at our labours. Ecclesiastes 2:2-3 stand in the way of an epicurean misinterpretation of what is here said in regard to eating and drinking. No one who has been at all penetrated by the deep earnestness of the book can for a moment entertain the thought of such a profane interpretation. The last words of the ver., namely—“I sow that this also comes from the hand of God”—draw attention to the consideration that even such eating and drinking, such cheerful enjoyment of the gifts of God, are not in the power of men by themselves, but must come from above, like every other good gift—that is in fact also a gift of God. How far this is so Ecclesiastes 2:20 teaches us. The foe of such joy, avarice, which was one of the principal diseases of that age,—this foe can only be overcome by God. God alone can free the soul from his bonds, Ecclesiastes 2:25. From his own experience Koheleth can say that he has richly enjoyed this gift of God. Between the enjoyment mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:10, and that referred to here, there is this difference, that the latter may be the portion of the man who has but small means. That חוש is used here in its usual, and alone clearly ascertained signification, “to hasten,” is evident from Habakkuk 1:8, where it occurs in conjunction with “eating,” and with the same meaning as here. In Psalms 119:60, “delay” forms the contrast to “haste.” The next following words are a commentary on this verse. The avaricious man does not hasten to eat, for his eye is looking into the uncertain future, but he delays therein and stores up his pleasures against another day. הוץ מן are nowhere else used in the Old Testament in the sense in which they are employed here; frequently however in the Talmud and in the writings of the Rabbis. Hitzig translates—“and who can delight himself except from him?”—and remarks, “Following the Septuagint, the Syriac, Jerome and Ewald we read ממנו . In this form (ממני ) the words are plainly more suitable as a basis for the first part of Ecclesiastes 2:24: whilst the reading ממנו corresponds admirably to the second half of the same verse.” But according to the authenticated reading the words suit the whole verse: “for who has by God’s gift.” Independently, however, of the unwarranted alteration of the reading, it is against that explanation that מוש can only mean “to hasten,” and not “to delight oneself,” or as others would have it “to drink;” and further that such an expression as “eat from God,” can scarcely be employed. The reason of the double future which is here used, is that the matter is still going forward.

Verse 26

Ecclesiastes 2:26. In this verse Koheleth refers hack his own individual experience to a general ground. For to the man who in good before Him giveth He wisdom and knowledge, that his heart may not cling to the dead mammon, and, precisely in this way he receives also, joy, in that he enjoys what God has assigned him. To the sinner, on the contrary, God in his righteous judgment giveth travail to gather and heap up! That also is vanity and empty effort, even this gathering together; and the circumstances of the time-rendered it peculiarly necessary to lay stress on the folly of such a course: the less God bestowed, the more avaricious was it deemed necessary to become. Hitzig thinks it is “the struggle to find happiness in sensual enjoyment enjoined in Ecclesiastes 2:24.” But that is too farfetched, is moreover wrong and in contradiction with the fundamental idea of the book. A discreet and solid enjoyment of that which God confers is everywhere earnestly recommended. Here we very plainly see that the refrain, “this also is vanity, &c.,” by no means involves a complaint against God, but is a cry of warning to men who in the perversity of their hearts seek happiness where God has not willed that it be sought.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.