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Bible Commentaries

Ernst Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Ecclesiastes 8

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 8:1. As in Ecclesiastes 7:23-Hosea :, at the close of a series of wise sayings, the author institutes a consideration of wisdom itself, so also here, at the beginning of a new series of such sayings, he extols the high importance of wisdom, in order to prepare the spiritual ear for the reception of his utterances. Who is as the wise man? No one is equal to the wise man: wisdom is the one precious pearl with which no possession on earth can be compared ( Job 28:18; Matthew 13:45-1 Corinthians :). The ground of the importance of wisdom is assigned in the words—and who knoweth the interpretation (פֶ שֶ ר the Hebrew word, occurs only here; elsewhere the Chaldee form פְ שַ ר is used, and that only in Daniel) of things? דבר , corresponds to the expression, “that which is,” employed in Ecclesiastes 7:24 to designate the object of wisdom. Wisdom leads us into the nature, the essence of things, and thus furnishes a basis for right practical conduct. J. D. Michaelis says—“By the solution of things, we are to understand nothing but the explanation of all that which is done in the world and of the design thereof: the evils of the world appear to us like letters without meaning, unintelligible; but as soon as we consider their good results, their interpretation will be plain, we shall see why God permits them.” The cross, whose dark depths are illuminated by wisdom, is no doubt, according to what follows, a special aspect of the general question which is here principally brought under consideration; but J. D. Michaelis has had it too directly and exclusively in view. The statement of the high advantages of wisdom is continued in the words—a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine. By the illumination of the face several commentators understand “the instruction and good guidance which wisdom confers on its possessor.” That, however, is against usage, according to which the illumination of the countenance can only signify “to cheer, to enliven.” The connate phrase, “enlighten the eyes,” means usually “to make brisk and cheerful:” misery and pain cause the eyes to be dull, gloomy, languid. Compare Psalms 19:9, where “enlightening the eyes” is set in parallelism with “rejoicing the heart.” To the cheering of the countenance has reference the phrase האיר פניו , used of God: God’s face beams, is radiant, in relation to those towards whom he is gracious. This expression is not elsewhere employed of men; yet in Proverbs 16:15, it is said, “in the light of the king’s countenance is life.” The reason of the joy afforded by wisdom may be found in the insight it gives into the nature of things, specially, into the providence of God; and in the assurance and decision with which, as a consequence, we can regard the practical questions of life. And the strength of his countenance is changed. According to usage, “the strength of the countenance,” can only mean, “hard and rigid features,” as the expression of boldness and impudence. In Deuteronomy 28:50, גוי עז פנים is “a bold and impudent people.” In Daniel 8:23, a kingעז פנים is a bold, impudent king. העז פנים or בפנים , “to make the face strong,” is used of “boldness, impudence,” in Proverbs 7:13; Proverbs 21:29. Consequently, the rendering, “rage, chagrin at the repugnant circumstances of life,” must be rejected as erroneous. Jerome has given substantially the correct view—“Omnis hsereticus et falsura dogma defendens impudenti vultu est.” So also the Berleburger Bible which says—“In order that the rigidness of his countenance, that is, his savage unfriendly crabbed stubborn nature, his wrinkled forehead and impudent face, may be changed; that man may be no longer so harsh, so difficult of approach, nor be, as hitherto, refractory to human and divine commands. When, through the transforming power of wisdom, a heart of flesh has taken the place of the heart of stone, the inward pliancy and docility, the soul’s fear of God and his commands, which then follow, become discernible in the countenance.”

Verses 1-17

Here too again the point of departure is the mournful condition of the people of God. After an introductory eulogy of wisdom, ( Ecclesiastes 8:1) the author admonishes his fellow-countrymen not to allow themselves by any means to be diverted from obeying their heavenly King, or to be seduced to evil courses, seeing that their Lord is almighty both in action and in punishment, ( Ecclesiastes 8:2-Numbers :). If the people of God only continue steadfast in obedience their sufferings will one day be removed from them: men, however mighty they may seem, are far too impotent to be able to hinder the course of the judgments which God at His own appointed time decrees for the good of His children, ( Ecclesiastes 8:5-Ruth :).

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 8:2. The simple “I” standing alone, is as much as, “I counsel thee,” or, “wilt thou listen to my advice, then.” At first sight the author seems here to be admonishing his fellow-countrymen to obey the secular authorities, that is the heathen. Even Jerome remarks, “videtur praecipere juxta apostolum regibus et potestatibus obsequium;” but rightly adds, “this explanation is however to be rejected.” Against this explanation there is at the very outset one objection, namely, that scarcely a passage is to be found in the Old Testament where obedience to the heathen tyrants is represented as a religious duty. Jeremiah 29:7, is not to be reckoned amongst them. Romans 13 was written at the time of the dominion of the Romans, and therefore in essentially different circumstances. “What the Apostle says there of the authorities, as the guardians of law and right, is inapplicable to oriental monarchies, as is satisfactorily enough proved by this very book. The characteristic which distinguished the Romans from other heathen nations, namely, their sense of justice, is prominently referred to in 1 Maccabees 8. The king here, for whom obedience is claimed is rather the Heavenly one, as in Ecclesiastes 5:8; compare also Psalm 20:10; Psalms 5:3; Psalms 10:16. The author intentionally abstains from saying expressly that he means the heavenly king. Wisdom loves to speak in “dark sayings,” ( Proverbs 1:6). It pursues its aim of sharpening the intellect even at the risk of misunderstanding. But prudence also rendered it advisable not to express himself here more clearly. The mouth being the organ of speech, it stands here for the words which proceed from it (compare Ecclesiastes 10:13). שמר is the standing term employed to denote the observance of the commands of God: compare שמר מצוה in Ecclesiastes 8:5. There is a difference between the words here and the phrases usually employed in relation to the heavenly king, e. g., עבר פי יהוה ( Numbers 14:41, and elsewhere), and מרה את פי יהוה ( Numbers 20:24, and frequently besides). And (indeed) because of the oath to God. A person’s oath is, in all cases, either that which he makes ( Psalms 105:9; 1 Chronicles 16:16), or which is made to him ( Habakkuk 3:9, where “oaths of the tribes,” are oaths which were made to the tribes, promises of God to Israel confirmed by oath, Genesis 24:8; Joshua 2:17; Joshua 2:20; 1 Kings 2:43), which therefore belongs to him, either as giver or receiver. Accordingly, in this place, “the oath of God” can only be the oath which is made to God, and the explanation, “the oath by God,” must therefore be rejected. But this does not prevent the words being referred also to earthly authorities. For in fact every oath by God must be looked upon as an oath made to God:—one swears to God, to perform this or that thing to this or that man. Compare Exodus 22:10—“the oath of the Lord shall be between them both:”—and 2 Samuel 21:7; 1 Kings 2:43. The subject-matter in hand, however, forbids us referring the words to such an oath of allegiance: we can only think of the oath which bound the people of God to obedience to their heavenly King. Nebuchadnezzar, it is true, made Zedekiah take an oath of faithfulness to himself ( 2 Chronicles 36:13): but there is nowhere to be found the slightest trace of an oath taken by the nation to its heathen tyrants. To their heavenly King, on the contrary, the Israelites stood notoriously pledged by sacred covenant and oath to obey His laws and commands. In Deuteronomy 29:12-Ezra :, it is said, “thou shalt enter into the covenant of the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day.—Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath: but both with those who are here this day, and also with those who are not here.” Ezekiel says, in Ezekiel 16:50, to Judah—“I will deal with thee even as thou hast done, which despiseth the oath and breakest the covenant,” on which Michaelis remarks, “quo te devovisti paciscens cum deo.” It is of special importance, however. to compare a passage which refers to the same period as the one now under notice, and is remarkably allied therewith, namely Nehemiah 10:30, where it is said of the people, “they entered into an oath and curse to walk in God’s law, which was given by the hand of Moses, the servant of God, and to observe (לשמר ) and do all the commandments (מצות , compare Ecclesiastes 8:5) of the Lord our God, and his judgments and his statutes.”

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 8:3. Be not hasty to go out of his sight; compare Genesis 4:16, “and Cain went out from the presence of the Lord;” Jonah 1:3, “and Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord ;” and Hosea 11:2, where הלך מפני is used of apostacy from the living God ( John 6:66). When severe suffering befalls a man he is tempted to turn away from God: compare Job 2:9, “then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Bless God and die.” Job answers thereto—“As one of the foolish women speakest thou. Do we take good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive the evil?” “In all this,” we read, “Job sinned not,” although his circumstances rendered him exceedingly liable to sin.” In Job 36:13, Elihu speaks of the “impious, who heap up wrath,” when God binds them, that is, when He visits them with heavy sufferings. “Their soul,” says he, “dies in youth, and their life is among the degraded.” Psalms 37:1, admonishes us not to “fret ourselves because of evil-doers,” and warns us against being seduced into apostacy from the living God, and into wicked courses, by the sight of the prosperity of the wicked and of the power which they wield. “O man, though thy cross press thee without end, though thy sufferings be ever so severe, become not a rebel against God:” thus would the writer address the covenanted people groaning beneath the hard yoke of the heathen world. Stand not in an evil thing. Several commentators explain, “remain not therein.” But “remain “does not suit the connection. The idea evidently is, that we should not allow ourselves to be seduced by suffering into the paths of sin, into despair of God, into infractions of his sacred ordainments, and endeavours to work out our own deliverance in our strength and way: compare Psalms 37:8—“cease from anger and forsake wrath, fret not thyself in any wise to do evil:” on which J. Arnd remarks—“many of them do evil things in wrath, revenge, and impatience, of which they repent in eternity.” עמד must consequently be understood here as in Psalms 1:1—“Stand not in the way of sinners:” sin is represented as an evil spot on which we should not take our post. For he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him: into a worse situation it is impossible to be betrayed, than to make omnipotence, in the person of God, our enemy, as we inevitably do when we suffer ourselves to be earned away, by impatience, to evil things, instead of following the counsel, “Be silent to the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” Referred to an earthly king, no satisfactory explanation can be given of this verse. How little even, the very first words suit such an application is evident from the frequent attempts which have been made to alter their sense, as, for example, by Knobel: “Be not hasty to revolt from him.” Very few persons indeed ever got to see the face of an eastern, king, and when they did, to go away or to remain, lay not in their choice. “Apud Persas,” says Justinus i. 9, “persona regis sub specie majestatis occulitur; Xenophon says in his Agesil. ix. 1, ὁ? μὲΠέρσης τῶ? σπανίως ὁ?ρᾶ σθαι ἐ?σεμνύνετο ; according to Aristotle, “de Mundo,” the Persian monarch was παντὶ? ἀ?όρατος ,—compare Esther 4:11—and on this passage, Baumgarten, “de fide hist, libri Eatherae,” 82. Moreover, an Israelite cannot say of an earthly monarch—“he doeth whatsoever it pleaseth him.” It would be a denial of God on high. Nebuchadnezzar, it is true, says to Daniel’s three companions—“Let us see who that God is that shall deliver you out of mine hand” ( Daniel 3:15): but they answer, “Behold, the God whom we honour is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and out of thine hand, O king, will he deliver us.” Overwhelmed by facts Nebuchadnezzar himself was forced to say of Jehovah—“his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation,” ( Daniel 4:34).

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 8:4. Because, the word of the king is ruler. שלתון is used to denote “ruler “in the Chaldee portion of Daniel: see Ecclesiastes 3:2-Leviticus :, “all the rulers of the provinces.” The rank which they vindicate to themselves belongs, truly regarded, to the word of God. שלתון must be regarded here and in Ecclesiastes 8:8 as introduced with the marks of quotation. It is employed ironically. And who can say to him, what doest thou? S. Schmidt remarks on Job 9:12—‘“est interrogatio in jus vocantis v. auctoritate superiore prohibentis. Describitur enim hic summum dei imperium et independentia a superiore.” Knobel is compelled to observe, “The formula which constitutes the second clause is never used except to glorify the divine power.” Compare Job 9:12, “Behold he robbet h, and who shall drive him back, who shall say unto him, What doest thou?” and Job 23:13, “and he is one, and who shall drive him back; and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth.” See also the “Book of Wisdom” Wis_12:12 , τίς γὰ?ρ ἐ?ρεῖ? Τί ἐ?ποίησας ; ἢ? τίς ἀ?ντιστήσεται τῷ? κρίματί σου ; Isaiah 45:9; Jonah 1:14.

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 8:5. Whoso keepeth the command, that is, as much as, “whoso standeth not in an evil thing,” ( Ecclesiastes 8:3). מצוה is to be taken as a kind of nomen proprium, signifying, the command absolutely, the divine command; compare nivo שמר מצוה , used in 1 Kings 11:34, of the observance of the divine commands. Shall experience no evil thing: whoso avoids the evil of guilt, shall be spared the evil of punishment Knobel’s explanation ידע “to know,” “to make the acquaintance,” דבר רע , “of moral culpability,” does not suit the second clause. He may fall into great sufferings, as the pious in Israel were now compelled to experience,—by way of consolation for the bearers of the cross are the words spoken—but only into such sufferings as are blessings, when more carefully examined, and as shall have a joyous termination: compare Romans 8:28, οἴ δαμεν δὲ? ὅ?τι τοῖ?ς ἀ?γαπῶ σιν τὸθεὸπάντα συνεργεῖ? εἰ?ς ἀ?γαθόν . And a wise heart discerneth both time and judgment. According to Ecclesiastes 3:1, “the time” can only be the time of the interference of God. “Judgment” consequently must refer to God’s exercise of judgment and right. Time and judgment taken t ogether, signify that God will judge at his own time. The meaning of the entire verse is as follows: As certainly as God in his own time shall judge righteously—a thing which is known to the wise heart—so certain is it, that those who hold God’s commands, and therefore have God on their side, cannot be really and lastingly unhappy.

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 8:6. For to every desire—(of wise and believing hearts after the establishment of the Kingdom of God.)—there is time and right, because the adversity of man is heavy upon him. Behind man lies concealed the monarch of the world. The ground whereof is, that the means of human chastisement in God’s hand are very powerful, רב “great,” see on Ecclesiastes 6:1. With all his power man is still not independent, but subject to heavy blows of fate. Men therefore can oppose no resistance when God proceeds to exercise judgment for the good of His people.

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 8:7. For he knoweth not that which shall be: before one who does not know that, we should not be afraid; to his temporary prosperity we should attach little importance. To-morrow it may be all over with him, however glorious and brilliant is his appearance to-day. If we only have God on our side, we may be calm and contented even in the midst of oppression.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 8:8. There is no man that hath power over the spirit, to retain the spirit. In this point also the monarch of the world lies hidden behind man. When the hour of death appointed by God comes, he must away. In Psalms 146, which was composed during the time of the Persian dominion, it is said, ( Ecclesiastes 8:3-Numbers :) “Put not your trust,” (the Psalmist is addressing the world, the great nation,) “in princes, in the son of man, in whom is no help. When his breath goeth forth he returneth to his earth: in that very day his thoughts perish.” Jerome writes—“non est ergo lugendum, si ... saepe ab iniquis potentioribus opprimamur, quum morte omnia finiantur, et superbus et potens qui cuncta populatus est, non valeat animam suam retinere quum rapitur.” And there is no discharge in the conflict, which God carries on with man. When God has once begun the strife with any one, He does not let him free, He does not desist, until He has brought him to ruin. Illustrative of these words is the example of Pharaoh. The discharge does not refer so much to the imprisonment, as to the strife, the conflict itself: compare Genesis 32:27, where one of the wrestlers addresses to the other the word שלחני , “let me go.” Wickedness delivereth not him that hath it, notwithstanding that it puts powerful and apparently irresistible means at his disposal. They have only importance until God’s time and judgment draw nigh. The Berleburger Bible remarks, “he will not succeed in freeing himself in this matter, as he succeeded in freeing himself from God’s law.”

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 8:9. All this, that is, all that can “be classed under the same head as that which is specially mentioned immediately after, and which can be represented thereby;—facts namely, which, when superficially examined may easily prove a stumbling block in the way of faith (compare Ecclesiastes 7:15). Jerome says—“Dedi inquit cor meum, ut omne quod sub sole geritur intuerer, et hoc vel maxime, quod homo accepit in hominem potestatem, ut quoscunque vult affligat atque condemned.” The suffix in לו refers of course to the second mentioned man. The present verse sets forth the stumbling block: the following verse shows how it is to be removed. That a hint concerning the latter cannot be contained in the present verse is clear from the word בכן in Ecclesiastes 8:10, alone.

Verses 9-13

Here also again the author finds the occasion for his utterances in the sufferings of the people of God, in the tyranny with which they were burdened. The consolation, which is offered under a twofold head, ( Ecclesiastes 8:9-2 Samuel :, and Ecclesiastes 8:11-1 Chronicles :) is the following—“Look to the end, ( Psalms 73:17) in good time God’s judgment will overthrow the wicked, and exalt the righteous.”

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 8:10. And then saw I the wicked buried. ראיתי serves here, as in Ecclesiastes 8:9, to render the description more vivid and palpable. It is to be noted that Solomon here speaks, and not the author. They are experiences like those which are alluded to by Asaph in Psalms 73, such as took their rise from the conflict between evil and good which raged in the midst of the covenant people itself. In the background however stands the thought: thus will the Persian Empire also one day be borne to the grave. בכן “under such circumstances,” or since things are thus situated: as a Hebrew word it occurs, besides here, only in Esther 4:6. Not to be buried, is frequently represented as a punishment of the godless: compare on Ecclesiastes 6:3. The untimely comparison of these two passages has led many commentators into the error of supposing that burial, which, on their own authority they have here converted into an honourable one, (Cartwright, for example, who says, “sepulturam, et illam quidem amplam et dignitatis plenam consequi, in benedictione dei jure numeratur”) is represented as an advantage enjoyed by the wicked. But the wicked condemned by God are buried in Ezekiel 32:23-Jeremiah :; Ezekiel 39:11, also: so too the godless rich man of the Gospels, ( Luke 16:22). And they came. Whither, may be learnt from the preceding קברים ; namely, into the grave: and thus an end is put to all their prosperity, their wealth and their efforts to injure the righteous. And from the place of the holy went they forth, יהלכו forms the contrast to באו . They come into the grave and are thus removed from the place where their presence gave such offence. Worthy of note is it that מקום stands in the stat. constr. It is not said, “from the holy place,” but, “from the place of the holy,” that is, the place to which the holy belong: “the holy” must here be regarded as ideal persons. They must leave the place in which their existence and presence is something abnormal. The Holy are the true members of the Church of the Lord, (compare the remarks in my Christology on Isaiah 4:3). Parallel is Isaiah 52:1, “put on thy festival garments, O Jerusalem, thou holy city, for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean :” and Isaiah 49:17, “thy destroyers and those that laid thee waste shall go forth of thee.” And they were forgotten in the city, who had thus done. Compare Proverbs 10:7, “the memory of the just is blessed, but the name of the wicked shall rot:” also Psalms 73:19-Proverbs :, “how are they brought to desolation in a moment, they are utterly consumed with terrors. As a dream, when one awaketh, so dost thou in the city despise their image.” Many commentators have been led into an entirely mistaken view of the whole verse by the translation—“who have done justice,” or, “who have rightly acted.” It may still be fairly doubted whether כן ever as a neuter, signifies “rectum,” and adverbially, “recte.” In most of the passages adduced in favour of this rendering, the common and therefore the simplest meaning “thus,” is plainly the most suitable. Even in the two which seem most in its favour, namely in Numbers 36:5; Numbers 27:7, the translation “thus,”—“thus speak they of the tribe of Joseph: thus speak the daughters, etc.”—is rendered probable by a comparison of Matthew 26:25, and John 18:37. When any one who is solicited for a decision, speaks of the petition as reported or as being inquired into, consent is implied Here, however, in any case must כן be taken in its usual meaning on account of the unmistakable reference to the foregoing בכן . This also is vanity, to wit, that man should rule over man to his misfortune,—the doings of tyrants. It is vanity because of the sudden catastrophe which befals it,—vanity because it suddenly comes to nought and ends in horror. In regard to the prosperity of the wicked, of the heathen tyrants, it is said also in Ecclesiastes 7:6, “this also is vanity.” The Berleburger Bible says, “O how foolish are men not to prove and judge such things more wisely, not to see how vainly they act!” Faith receives here as in Psalms 73 the victory, in that by the grace of God it discerns that the prosperity of the wicked as well as the sufferings of the righteous are only transitory.

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 8:11. Because a sentence is not pronounced—that is, because the heavenly edict is delayed—the work of wickedness hasteneth: that is, because they go unpunished the wicked are confirmed in their wickedness: compare Isaiah 26:10, “Let favour be showed to the wicked yet will he not learn righteousness. On the earth, where one should do right, he commits iniquity.” פתגם , signifying “word” in general, and then specially “mandate, edict,” is probably of Persian origin, and it seems to have been used, as it were technically, for the edicts of the Persian kings: compare Esther 1:20; Ezra 4:17; Ezra 6:11; Daniel 3:16. The only passage where the word elsewhere occurs in Hebrew is the one in Esther just quoted: otherwise it is only found in the Chaldee of Daniel and Ezra Here, as also in Daniel 4:14, it is then transferred to the decrees of heaven. We must consider it as introduced with signs of quotation. פתגם occurs in connection with עשה in Esther 1:20 also: “the edict of the king which he makes.” Since אין means “it is not,” נעשח can only be a participle. פתגם is here therefore treated as a feminine. The explanation—“the judgment on the work of wickedness,”—is contrary to the accents: besides פתגם is never elsewhere employed with the genitive of the object, and it is questionable whether it can be so employed. מהרה is properly a noun, signifying “haste:” it is so used in chap 4:12: see too Psalms 147:15, במהרה , “in haste.” It is best to take it in this sense here also—“Haste,” for, “hasty.” The adverb “hastily,” might very fitly take the place of the adjective: see Ewald, § 296 d. Therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil, in that they are purposed to drive out violence with violence, and, falling into error concerning God, seek to secure prosperity for themselves, by the same means as the fortunate wicked. The “children of men” are those who suffer at the hands of prosperous wickedness, with special reference to Israel as oppressed by the fortunate powers of this world How the wicked are confirmed in their wickedness by their prosperity, and how the suffering are thereby tempted to apostatize from God, is vividly and to the life described in Psalms 73. The “heart becomes full” of evil inclinations, so full that they violently break forth in deeds of wickedness: compare the remarkably similar passage in Esther 7:5: then also Acts 5:3.

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 8:12. The author does not however let himself be deceived by that which is now visible. We may have to wait for God’s righteous decision, but in its own time it will certainly come. אשר , “(be it) that,” which is as much as to say, “May it, let it, even” (be). A cognate use of the word is found in Leviticus 4:22; Deuteronomy 11:27; Deuteronomy 18:22, where אשר , signifies, “(supposing) that.” To מאת , must פעמים be supplied. For remarks on האריך compare Ecclesiastes 7:15. לו is the dat. comm. The word כי assigns the reason why the writer does not grudge the wicked his prosperity.

Verse 13

Ecclesiastes 8:13. Inasmuch as long duration is a relative idea, the long duration previously attributed to the wicked does not contradict the assertion made here, that he will not endure long. Of the Persian Empire, which the author has here primarily in view, both assertions held at the same time good,—it lasted long, and yet it lasted a short time. All depends on the standard applied. As the shadow: fleeting, transitory as the shadow which vanishes with the setting sun, and leaves not a trace behind (compare Psalms 144:4; Book of Wis_2:5 ).

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 8:14. That the lots of the righteous and the wicked are not seldom mixed up with each other, is a vanity, and is intended to be a vanity. Taking man to be what he now actually is, these things go to constitute the best world we can conceive; and Elster’s remark, that “facts cannot fail to make a bitter and gloomy impression,” holds good only of the natural man in the believer: the spiritual man judges quite differently. Righteousness would too soon disappear if its reward were bestowed on it immediately, and, as it were, piece by piece. Godliness perishes as soon as it becomes a matter of trade: it is not meant that the righteous should find their satisfaction in an open and manifest recompence. If there existed men righteous as they should be, righteous throughout, of one piece, then the experience here set forth would of course be suspicious. But as things actually are, whilst sin dwells even in the righteous, so long as they need to be punished and guarded, so long as they wander too readily from the right path, and especially, so long as they are prone to serve God for hire, the facts under consideration offer no difficulty to those who stand really in righteousness. They may be and are not seldom fiercely perplexed and harassed thereby, but that is all. Really meant complaints at such experiences proceed only from such as, without authority or right, reckon themselves among the righteous;—as may be clearly seen in Malachi. Without doubt, however, as is proved by a considerable number of declarations even from this book, the resemblance between the fate of the righteous and that of the wicked, is but an external and partial one. All things must finally work together for the good of those who love God: the end will separate the righteous from the wicked. I said that this also is vanity; “this also”—this doubtful condition of the pious and the ungodly. Vanity, that is, it is to be counted as part of the misery and wretchedness of this life, to which even believers are subject and with which they must put up. He is, of course, a poor fool, who devotes himself to righteousness in order to become rich and honoured, in order to lose none of his family or friends, and so forth.

Verses 14-17

The sufferings of the people of God constitute still the point of departure, as in Ecclesiastes 8:1-Ruth : and in Ecclesiastes 8:9-1 Chronicles :. Instead of racking our brains over their fate, we should rejoice at the good gifts of God which remain. Speculation and questioning conduct to no result, for the divine counsels are incomprehensible by man.

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 8:15. This mirth, is the cheerful enjoyment of those gifts of God which do not fail us even in circumstances of need, and is put in contrast to the habit of looking out for an open and splendid reward of righteousness—the consequence of the non-bestowal of which is gloomy discontent. Jewish speculators in righteousness thought that they must at once rule the heathen with a sceptre of iron; and when they found that the exact contrary was the case, they hung their heads, refused to find anything more to their liking, and grew dissatisfied with God and the world. The “mirth” spoken of here is quite consistent with the deep earnestness in life recommended by Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 7:1 ff. It is a joy which is the direct outflow of a piety that thankfully accepts what God gives, and refuses to be disturbed in its enjoyment thereof by unfounded pretensions. The Berleburger Bible remarks—“Mirth, that is, a godly joyfulness and cheerfulness of heart; in that, namely, the righteous, when he has anything to endure amidst the vanities of the world, which are universal, and are saddled on all alike, maintains and displays by faith in God a spirit calm and free from cares; and in all the divine arrangements proves himself prompt and lively. That he should eat and drink and be merry, that is, that he calmly and with fitting cheerfulness enjoy what God bestows on him. This had been already said in Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22; it is here again repeated, and not without reason, but to serve another purpose, namely, as an answer to the objection just urged.”

Verse 16

Ecclesiastes 8:16. The travail here mentioned is that into which those fall who seek to fathom, and rack their brains about, the ways of God: wherein those are usually the most zealous who are endowed with least capacity to answer the questions raised. The problem is in itself an exceedingly difficult one, but the solution becomes enormously more difficult when attempted by those who lack knowledge of the depths of human sinfulness. And this was a characteristic fault of the author’s age: hence was there so much murmuring and racking of brains. The author turns his heart to know wisdom, and (in spirit) to see (in the light of wisdom) the travail. ענין can only mean “travail,” “torment,” not “business,” as may be seen on comparing Ecclesiastes 2:26, and especially Ecclesiastes 3:10. What “travail” is meant, we are informed in the words—“that he does not see;” namely, that man, who is spoken of both before and afterwards, is unable to fathom the divine counsels in the distribution of fates, even though he apply himself earnestly to the work. Knobel explains quite incorrectly—“man who is restlessly busy, and through sheer activity gets no sleep.”

Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 8:17. The “travail” proves itself to be useless. We walk by faith and not by sight, and blessed are they that see not and yet believe. Therefore should we leave off worrying our minds. Blessed is the man who takes without questioning what God sends him, in the firm confidence that, however perverted it may appear, it is the right thing, and that all things must work together for the good of those who love God. Jerome says—“Subostendet tamen esse causas rerum omnium et justitiam, quare unumquodque sic fiat: sed in occulto eas latere et non posse ab hominibus comprehendi:” and Cartwrighft, “si enim opera, quae fecit Salomo, sapientem reginam Sabae in admirationem ita abripiunt ut non esset amplius in illa spiritus, quanto magis opera dei, omnem nostram intelligentiam superantia, nos in admirationem ejus adducant? Ut enim quisque est, ita sunt ejus opera.” Then saw I the whole work of God: in what aspect he sees it and knows it, to wit, in respect of its unsearchableness, we are informed by the words—that man cannot find, etc. In the Berleburger Bible we read—“O ye poor blind men, who think by your philosophy to fathom the grounds of the divine leadings, ye are justly cheated! Ye disapprove of all that are beyond human comprehension, when ye ought rather to confess that the higher they transcend your conceptions, so much the diviner are they. The more pains you take to fathom the secrets of wisdom by your reflection, the further are you from reaching your aim. Of the possession of true wisdom the best sign is when a man is assured that he cannot comprehend the mysteries of the divine dealings with souls.”

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 8". Ernst Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ecclesiastes-8.html.