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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Ecclesiastes 6

The discussion of the theme—“the vanity of riches”—is here continued, with the intent, in the first instance, of repressing the envy felt at the advantage enjoyed by the heathen world in this respect, and then in order to undermine the prevailing covetousness which proceeded from the same root as envy, namely, the false estimate of earthly possessions.

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 6:1. רבה may refer either to frequency (Septangint, Vulgate, “frequens;” Luther; “and it is common amongst men”) or to size. In favour of the latter view are decisive the principal passage, Genesis 6:5, and the parallel passages, Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 8:6, where רעה רבה signifies “a great evil.” That which on a superficial examination appears as a great good, turns out, on more careful inquiry to be a grout evil. The author’s commencing at once with such a description of the riches of worldly-minded men must have produced a great effect and given envy a severe blow.

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 6:2. The rich man is the Persian ( Ecclesiastes 10:20). One ought not to envy him his riches. He does not dare to enjoy his wealth, and the enemy will soon take it away from him. How is it possible that that should be a matter for envy which more closely viewed is but a vain show? There were of course rich spendthrifts among the Persians also. But the example of the covetous rich man served as a proof that riches in themselves are not an enviable good. Riches and wealth and honour, are put together in this way also in 2 Chronicles 1:11. God gives him not power, that is, he delivers him not from the bonds of avarice by which he is hold bound; (compare Ecclesiastes 5:18). The stranger is the successor of the Persian in the dominion of the world. נכרי is quite generally used of such as belong to another nation and society ( Deuteronomy 17:15), and that it is to be taken in this sense here is evident from the correspondence that exists between the words, “a stranger will cat it,” of this verse, and those of the 3d verse, “also he will have no grave.” References cautiously made to the impending catastrophe of the Persian empire may be found also elsewhere: see Ecclesiastes 11:1-3; Ecclesiastes 9:18. The expression, “evil disease,” which has much the same force as “an evil is like a disease,” is taken from Deuteronomy 28:59.

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 6:3. Hundred, namely, sons. The phrase—“the days of the years,” is constantly used, especially in the Pentateuch, to designate the time of one’s life ( Genesis 25:7; Genesis 47:8-9; Psalms 90:10). The words, “his soul is not filled with good,” correspond to the words, “God giveth him not power to cat thereof,” of Psalms 90:2: and “he has no grave,” to the words, “a, stranger will eat it.” קבורה elsewhere signifies always “Grave,” and therefore we must give it this meaning in the only passage, namely Jeremiah 22:19, where the meaning “Burial” seems to be required. The grave of the ass is the flaying ground. The preposition is omitted there, because the relation is quite clear in. itself. Allusion is here made to a catastrophe like that depicted in Psalms 79:3, “their blood have they shed like water, and there was none to bury them.” Compare parallel passages, such as Jeremiah 8:2, where of the godless it is declared, “they shall not be gathered, nor be buried: dung shall they be on the field,” 9:21, 25:33; Isaiah 14:19-20, and what is written of Jezebel in 2 Kings 9. Seb. Schmidt and Rambach explain incorrectly, “ex turpi tenacitate non audeat aliquid honestae sepulturae destinare.” Better than the lot of such a rich man,—a life without enjoyment, and then not even a grave,—is the lot of an untimely birth, which, though it has enjoyed no good, has experienced also no suffering.

Verses 4-5

Ecclesiastes 6:4-5. On these verses it is remarked in the Berleburger Bible, “the meaner and worse the condition of an untimely birth is made, so much the greater must also appear the misery of a covetous man.” The last words of Ecclesiastes 6:5, “this has rest above that,” give the ground of the judgment that “an untimely birth is better than he,” ( Ecclesiastes 6:3). Rest, freedom from suffering, it is in regard to which an untimely birth has the advantage over such an unfortunate rich man, who ought in fairness to be an object of pity, instead of being one of envy.

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 6:6. And if one a thousand years (which measure the lives of the first fathers of the human race nearly reached) should live twice over. (Jerome, “et non ut Adam prope mille sed duobus millibus vixerit annis”) is he then to be counted happy? Do not all go to o ne place? Can he perhaps fetch up in Sheol, where all arrive in a like state of poverty, (οὐ δὲγὰεἰ σηνέγκαμεν εἰτὸκόσμον , ὅ?τι οὐ δὲ? ἐ?ξενεγκεῖτι δυνάμεθα , 1 Timothy 6:7) that which he has lost on earth?

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 6:7. All the labour of man is for his mouth, (falsely explained by Luther—“on every man is labour Imposed in his measure”), which is easy to fill, and in the rich man is not larger than in the poor. The Berleburger Bible says: “Can they carry more than one garment on the body? Can they eat more than till they are filled?” The rational conclusion to be drawn from the fact presented in these words, is that which is given us in 1 Timothy 6:8,—ἔ?χοντες δὲ? διατροφὰκαὶ? σκεπάσματα , τούτοις ἀ?ρκεσθησόμεθα . But that still, notwithstanding its limit ed capacity of enjoyment, the soul of man is not satisfied, is very strange, and is a strong proof how greatly the human race has been under the dominion of sin and folly which produce ἐ?πιθυμίας πολλὰ?ς ἀ?νοήτους καὶ? βλαβεράς ( 1 Timothy 6:9), ever since the day spoken of in Genesis"

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 6:8. In this verse are advanced the grounds of the proposition laid down with such generality in Ecclesiastes 6:7, “that the soul of man is not satisfied.” So deep laid is that hereditary disease of the human race, avarice, that not even the covenant people, not even the congregation of the chosen, is free from it. Wisdom is invariably represented in this book as the prerogative of Israel, folly as belonging to the heathen. The wise man ought in all fairness to be free from such a disease. But in reality it is otherwise. Even in the midst of the covenanted people must the Lord preach: “Take heed that ye be not covetous, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” To a Timothy even, St. Pau l felt it necessary to write: σὺ? δέ , ὦ? ἄ?νθρωπε θεοῦ? , ταῦ τα φεῦ γε ( 1 Timothy 6:11). In the Old Testament the members of the kingdom of God are frequently styled “poor and wretched.” For them many sources of pain open themselves up, which the world does not know: in all the sufferings which befal them they confess a visitation of their sins, and receive them as a token of God’s wrath: they do not try to distract their minds nor give themselves up to illusions, they do not gild over their misery but take up their cross willingly: and finally they are hated by the world because God has chosen them out of the world. That these miserable ones should also be assailed by earthly desires is the more to be wondered at since “they know to walk before the living,” since they are the nation of revelation, the only people on the wide earth to whom God has given, in his law, a rule to regulate their conduct. Compare Deuteronomy 4:5-6: “Behold I teach you to-day statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me: and ye shall keep them and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people:” also Psalms 147:19-20—“He sheweth His word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He does not deal so with any heathen, and his judgments, they know thee not.” The reverse of those who know to walk before the living, are “the fools who do not know to go into the city,” ( Ecclesiastes 10:15) the heathen.

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 6:9. מראה is universally the object of sight, that which is seen: so in Leviticus 13:12,—” according to all the sight of the eyes of the priest,” that is, according to all that is seen by the eyes of the priest. Seeing that ma n can so easily have a sufficiency, it is better to rejoice in that which lies before his eyes, however trivial it may be, than to wander away into the clouds with our desires, (μὴ? μετεωρίζεσθε , Luke 12:29) and to vex ourselves with plans and hopes which v ery easily deceive, and even if fulfilled bring us no real happiness. The Berleburger Bible says: “this is the wandering of the soul which then runs about amongst the creatures, and like an Esau hunts in the fields of this world for the good food which wisdom finds only at home and in the calmness of contentment.” Luther remarks,—“Solomon’s opinion is, that it is better to make use of that which lies before our eyes, that is, of what is now at hand, than that the soul to wandering to and fro. Solomon’s will is that we make use of the present, thank God for it, and not think of anything else—like the dog in AEsop which snapped at the shadow and let the flesh fall. What he intends then is that we should use that which God has given before our eyes, that which is now here, and be content therewith and not follow our own soul which is never satisfied: as he said before. Let every Christian then abide by that which he has, which God gives him just now: that pleases him: but the godless are not so: on the contrary, all that they see is a torment to them, because they do not make use of the present, but their soul runs hither and thither and everywhere and is never satisfied. Consequently, when a godless man has money, it does not suffice him, he uses it not, but desires more: if he has a wife, he is not content, but wants another: if he has a whole kingdom he is unsatisfied: like Alexander the Great whom a world could not satisfy. Solomon therefore forbids the soul running to and fro, as it is said in the Hebrew, that is, we are not to be always weaving our thoughts together into plans. And the sum is this—use the present: for that also is vanity and vexation, to wit, when the soul wanders thus restlessly about.”

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 6:10. What he is—he, namely, to whom reference is here made—: Long ago was his name, named: that we are told by the name long ago given to him. There is a reference here to Genesis 5:2,—“and he called their name man, on the day on which they were created.” In this name is expressed the impotence of man. He describes men as earthly, because they are taken from the earth, ( Genesis 2:7) and because they must return to it, ( Ecclesiastes 3:19). The article in התקיף which occasioned difficulty to the Masorite is quite regular. Hitzig remarks, “the meaning is not that a man cannot tight with a stronger (e.g. man), but that, man cannot struggle with the particular person who surpasses men, namely, God.” Paul appears to allude to this passage in 1 Corinthians 10:22, μὴ? ἰ?σχυρότεροι αὐ τοῦ? ἐ?σμεν : the practical conclusi on therefrom is the uncertainty of riches, the ἀ?δηλότης πλούτου ; and our duty, evidently is, not to set our hopes upon them but upon the living God, ( 1 Timothy 6:17) not to strive after riches, but to endeavour to stand well with our Creator. Inasmuch as m an is absolutely dependent on God, he ought not to engage in many distracting occupations, he should not vex himself with cunning and violent modes of obtaining riches, because he cannot protect what he has gained, and knows not but that at any moment he may hear the call, “thou fool, this night will thy soul be required of thee.” How foolish, then, to envy the heathen that wealth which may, like the flower of the “field, so soon fade away, ( James 1:10-11).

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 6:11. For there are many things that increase vanity. דברים in the sense of “words” does not suit the connection. More property, more vanity. That is as certain as that man is not the lord of his own life, but is absolutely dependent on a higher power. What did it help the Persian that he had subdued a great part of the world and had appropriated its treasures to himself? When Alexander came and violently assailed the two-horned ram of the Persian, Empire, ( Daniel 8:6) it became evident that it had only increased vanity. The same thing takes place in great commercial crises. Cartwright says—“quam ob rem animum ad studium pietatis convertamus, quae ad omnia utilis est et promissiones habet praesentis et futurae vitae, (1 Timothy 4).” What more has man? The rich have not in reality more than the poor. For their advantages turn out, on a closer examination, to be mere delusion and vanity: and they vanish as soon as the judgments of God go abroad in the world.

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 6:12. The question—For who knoweth what is good for man in life?—refers not only to earthly goods, but to eternal, to the true and real goods, ( Luke 16:11) whose possession is in all circumstances desirable. This is clear from the connection with the foregoing enquiry—“what more has man?” (of these things?) For who knows what? The words—for the number of the days of his vain life, which he spends like a shadow—(מספר must be supplied with ב from בחיים ; that the days can be counted, is a sign of the shortness of the duration of life; compare Ecclesiastes 5:17), are meant to teach us that the shorter our life the more important is it that we should not feed ourselves with wind and ashes. In this shadowy existence we should not hunt after unsubstantial shadows. The fleeting, quickly vanishing shadow is an image of the transitoriness and short-livedness of man. Büchner remarks—“a shadow may stretch itself out as long as it can, but when the sun goes down it vanishes and leaves nothing behind it.” Compare Ecclesiastes 8:13; 1 Chronicles 29:15,—“like the shadow are our days upon earth.” Psalms 103:15,—“man is in his life like grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.” Psalms 144:4, “man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.” The words, “for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?” contain the reason for the affirmation that riches are not to be regarded as a true good. Only on one condition should we be justified in treating them as important, namely, that we knew the future, and had it in our power. Some accident or other may suddenly rob us of what we have gathered with so much toil. Nay more, there may come a great catastrophe which, like the flood, will sweep everything away. After him, that is, after his present condition (compare Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 7:14). Several have falsely explained—“after his death.” The practical conclusion is, that we should strive after true possessions: and then that we should be free from cares, covetousness and envy, content with what we have, however little it may be: ἀ?ρκεῖ σθε τοῖ?ς ὀ?ψωνίοις ὑ?μῶ?ν ( Luke 3:14). Rambach observes: “Ex quibu s omnibus apparet, nihil melius esse quam proscripta turpi avaritia praesentibus contentum esse, iisque cum pia et licita hilaritate frui.” Luther remarks “the hearts of men strive after various kinds of things: one seeks power, another riches: but still they know not whether they shall obtain them. Nor do they make use of God’s present gifts, but their heart hankers alone and always after that which they have not, and cannot yet see. He does not speak of that which will come after this life, but means to say, that no man knows what will happen to him after an hour, after a day, or after a year. Julius Caesar having put down the rest, thought that then he had the game all in his own hands, and meant to set the Roman Empire in fine order: but at the very moment when he was revolving his plans, he was killed in the council at Rome. Why then do we vex and torment ourselves with our own thoughts, when future things are not a single moment in our power? We ought consequently to be content with that which God gives us each moment, and commit all to Him who alone is acquainted with, and is able to regulate both present and future.”

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 6". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ecclesiastes-6.html.