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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Ecclesiastes 1

Verses 1-18

Ecclesiastes 1:0

Or, the words of the great Orator, or Convener one who calls an assembly together. This Preacher was the son of David a man, therefore, with a great hereditary claim to attention; probably there will be music in his speech and pathos; he may have succeeded to his father's harp as well as to his father's throne. It is not often in the Bible that we are challenged to hear the words of a great man, viewed from an earthly standpoint. We are called upon to listen to prophets without ancestry, and to apostles whose genealogy was of yesterday, and whose occupation was said to be more or less servile; but in this case we are summoned to hear the words of Coheleth, the son of David, a crowned and enthroned teacher of morals. He is represented as "king in Jerusalem" a man of the highest social position. We cannot but wonder what he will say, seeing that he has only seen the upper side of life, and can have known nothing of what the poor understand by want, homelessness, and all the degradation of penury and an outcast condition. Kings must of necessity talk the language of coloured sentiment. They may be excellent poets, but it is impossible, seeing they are ignorant of the tragedy of life, for them to speak healing words to wounded human hearts. Still, when kings speak subjects should eagerly listen. When a king has written a book it ought to be perused by subjects with the keenest interest. Anything that lessens the distance between monarchs and peoples should be welcomed as a contribution towards mutual understanding and sympathy. Perhaps the man will appear from under the king's robe of velvet and gold. Kings should always be encouraged to utter themselves volubly and candidly to their people, because the utterance itself is a discipline, and in speaking aloud we learn the measure and quality of our own voice. It may be quite a sophistry to imagine that silence on the part of kings is likely to produce impartiality. It may foster ignorance, it may aggravate prejudice; it certainly escapes all the conditions which accrue from open and frank conversation with all classes and conditions of men. In this verse we seem to come upon great spoil, for a king says he will speak to us, and a crowned head calls us together, that he may tell the results of his experiments in life. "Because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs." We not only have the proverbs, but the proverbist; it is no anonymous writer that asks us to pause on the road of life, but a king, grand in all kingliness, who asks us to sit down and listen to his tale of personal experience. The opportunity is a grand one, and should be seized with avidity by all earnest students.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity" ( Ecc 1:2 ).

"Vanity," a light wind, a puff, a breath that passes away instantly. This is the king's judgment! Already he begins to show that he is a man. He built his palace, but its foundations were laid in the fickle wind, and the palace itself was but a tinted dream! It is something to know the quality of the elements with which we have to deal, and the nature of the things that are round about us. A knowledge of the universal helps towards a knowledge of the particular. The climate determines the building. As men grow in the knowledge of life's tragedy, the one thing they seem to see most clearly is life's emptiness. Time itself ceases to have volume or duration, and to be but a flying wind. "Behold, thou hast made my days as an hand-breadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity." This is the voice of another teacher not wanting in social dignity and large spiritual experience. "Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity." Thus the word "vanity" is not limited to Ecclesiastes: it is found in the Psalms, and it is found also in the Epistles, and in some of its largest meanings it is found under a great variety of expressions from end to end of the sacred books. Here we have a judgment in brief. We long to enter into some detail, if not of argument yet of illustration, especially as this is one of the short sentences which a man might utter in his haste, and speak hastefully rather than critically and experimentally. Certainly our appetite is whetted by the boldness of the verdict, so much so that we cannot but wonder by what process such a conclusion has been reached. Perhaps the Preacher has been operating upon one side of life only, and has not taken in field enough for observation and judgment. Certainly if his testimony ended here it would be open to rational contention. We must ask the Preacher, therefore, to go somewhat into detail, that we may see upon what premises he has constructed so large a conclusion.

"What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after" ( Ecc 1:3-11 ).

This is the Preacher's view of life as it is commonly seen, We are not to understand that the Preacher is stating things as they really are; he is rather giving a view of life as it appears in passing. Some of it is, no doubt, real enough; but whether the whole of it does not admit of elevation, and of a better use, is not the immediate question. That inquiry will come afterwards. What is life as generally viewed? How does it strike a man whose view is shut in by the horizon? Coheleth will relate his experience, and we shall see how far it corresponds with our own. He says that life is unprofitable in the sense of being unsatisfying. It comes to nothing. The eye and the ear want more and more. The eye takes in the whole sky at once, and could take in another and another hour by hour, at least so it seems; and the ear is like an open highway, all voices pass, no music lingers so as to exclude the next appeal. In addition to all this, whatever we have in the hand melts. Gold and silver dissolve, and nought of our proud wealth remains. Much wants more, and more brings with it care and pain; so the wheel swings endlessly, always going to bring something next time, but never bringing it. "What hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?" "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?"

Coheleth says that there is no continuance in life: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh." You no sooner know a man than he dies. You make your election in the human crowd, saying, My heart shall rest here; and whilst the flush of joy is on your cheek, the loved one is caught away, like the dew of the morning. People enough, and more than enough, crowds, throngs, whole generations, passing on as shadows pass, until death is greater than life upon the earth. The dead man's house is always ready, and yet the earth looks as if it had never opened to receive one of its sons. It swallows up a city, and no mound tells where it slid down into the secret chambers. Coheleth saw men passing on thus, nothing remaining but the earth, and the earth getting ghastlier, because of its graves and echoes. "What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?"

Coheleth says that even nature itself became monotonous through its always being the same thing in the same way, as if incapable of originality and enterprise. The wind was veering, veering, veering, spending itself in running round and round, but never getting beyond a small circuit; if it was not in the north it was in the south, or wherever it was it could be found in a moment, for it "whirleth about continually." So with the rivers. They could make no impression upon the sea: they galloped, and surged, and foamed, being swollen by a thousand streams from the hills; and yet the sea swallowed them up in its thirst, and waited for them day by day, with room enough and to spare for all their waters. The eye, the ear, the sea, there was no possibility of satisfying, prodigals and spendthrifts! And the sun was only a repetition, rising and going down evermore. If you have seen him one day you have seen him always; you can take his measure, and you can reckon up his rate of travel. All this soon becomes weariness; for a time it pleases mightily, but at the end of seven years it is just where it began, and will be there at the end of seven centuries. Coheleth got tired of it, and he complained. In other than a poetical sense, the sun stands still, and the moon stays, until the monotony becomes oppressive.

Coheleth further says that there is no real variety in life "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." Man longs for variety, and cannot secure it. The same things are done over and over again. Changes are merely accidental, not organic. A new book is little more than a new binding. We have new combinations and new appliances, but no new element or really new life. The locomotive is new as a machine; still it only gets to London or to Rome a few hours sooner than the old vehicles. It is a poor originality, or we have become so accustomed to it already that we call it slow if it loses one mile in sixty. Even the telegraph has dropped from being a miracle into being a commonplace. All things are getting to be regarded as stale and slow. New colours are only new mixtures. New fashions are only old ones modified. In short, there is nothing new under the sun. "Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us." New things are promised in the apocalyptic day: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth.... And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new." It will be found in the long run that the only possible newness is in character, in the motive of life and its supreme purpose. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature."

In the twelfth verse Coheleth defines his position: "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem." This is a great point in such a case. If a beggar offered us some opinion upon the vanity of life we should pay but little heed to his criticisms, because we might charge him with disappointment, envy, malice, chagrin, and pettiness of spirit. It is, as we have said, something to have had a king who could make experiments for us on the largest possible scale. He plunged into the water, tasted different wells, and plucked fruit from high branches as well as low, and he gives in his account of the whole.

"And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith" ( Ecc 1:13 ).

This verse shows us that: he was no mere prodigal, but a student determined and zealous, climbing the high hills of wisdom and laying his measuring-line on the wide breadth of understanding. He wanted to know all things, and ended by knowing nothing as it really is. He found out the doctrine of the Unknowable long before our philosophers supposed themselves to have discovered it, and taught it with a plainer directness. Along with the doctrine of the Unknowable came the kindred doctrine of the Impossible:

"That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered" ( Ecc 1:15 ).

What God left out man cannot put in. He may clumsily imitate it, but his imitation at its best is rude and nearly useless. Man makes hands of wax, eyes of glass, limbs of wood, ghastly travesties of nature, and better imitations of death than of life! God leaves out genius, and men stuff their memories with the chaff of information; God leaves out poetry, and men jingle together such words as Love and Dove, Health and Wealth, Far and Star, and sell the cracked rhyme for music; God leaves out memory, and men buy almanacs and diaries. On one side is written Unknowable, on the other is written Impossible; and man swings between the two, like a pendulum, always in procession and making one tick exactly like another. Then Coheleth rushed from wisdom to folly and made a friend of madness, thinking that the earth was bigger at night-time than in the daylight; but lo! he struck his head against great beams and lamed himself upon the sharp rocks, and found himself in the morning within an inch of unfathomable abysses! As for conquering by wisdom, he found that the end of one horizon was the beginning of another, and that when he had scaled the hills the stars were as far off as ever, laughing at his impotence and coldly telling him that there was "no thoroughfare." And in his "much wisdom" he found "much grief," and as he increased knowledge he increased sorrow! Poor soul indeed, much vexed and harassed, plagued by his own ambition, having aspiration enough to get away from the valley, yet carrying with him all up the hill the want, the pain, the fear, which dig graves everywhere and make the highest places low. Yet it is important to observe that with all this experience Coheleth never disputes the value of real wisdom, but always exhorts men to seek understanding and secure it. "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding."

So much for the case as thus far presented by Coheleth. If this is all, the best medicine for many men is suicide. If life is a case of veering, veering, of getting up only to fall down again, of eating, drinking, sleeping, and whirling round a routine course of so-called duty, of laughter without joy, and mourning without hope, the nearest way is the best, for it is simply leaping out of nothing into nothing, out of the nothing of noise and fret into the nothing of unconsciousness and annihilation. "This way out!" from your misery, your chagrin, and pain, and shame, this way, by rope, or steel, or river, or poisoned cup, this way into absorption and oblivion! The omissions of this statement, regarded as a survey and report of the constitution and process of things, are most remarkable. So far as it goes the case is well stated, but as a representation of the whole idea of life, it is simply deficient in every element of spiritual truth. It is the world seen through a dense mist; it is a world supposed to be complete in itself; in short, it is not a world as we understand it who read events in the Scriptural sense. For example, all the primary religious elements and conditions are wanting. In this rude world of Coheleth's there is no God, no altar, no revelation, no outward and upward way. It is a world of information, fact, monotonous repetition, laughter, madness, folly, and self-terminating wisdom. This, in many respects, is the key of the book. The Preacher sought to satisfy the infinite with the finite, and that is what all non-religious men are endeavouring to do. To prove the emptiness of this world is not to prove that there is no other world, but is rather to suggest the existence of some larger sphere of life and experience. Here, again, we come upon the necessity of making the old distinction between geography and astronomy. A man may seek a long time in this world before he finds the explanation of the daylight which makes it glad. The fact is that the daylight is not in the earth, but is shed upon it from higher places. So it is with the great problem of human life; its answer is not in itself, it is a revelation from above. It is easy to denounce this world by proving its emptiness, and gathering together in one great host its pains and disappointments. All that side of the case is perfectly right, and can lead to but a sorrowful conclusion: the fact to be remembered is that that view leaves out every religious element and condition, which is equal to a man proving that the earth is a scene of darkness simply because he only visits it in the gloom of midnight. Not until what we understand by the Christian religion rises upon human life do its great revelations shine upon it with all the splendour of assured hope. Where primary religious ideas are wanting, all that is helpful in a life of discipline, and all that is beautiful in moral sympathy, must be wanting also. The man who describes himself in this text, though a king, is little better than a lawless and self-indulgent child. He wants to see the rivers filling up the sea, instead of eternally falling through a sieve; he wants new toys. He becomes tired of things, and cries for something better. His world has no perspective; his world has no outlook. He does not know that there is an altar-stair leading up through the darkness to other and fairer worlds. The idea of this being a school never strikes him. We are now keeping strictly within the limits of this report in so saying; what may strike him afterwards will in due time appear. Meanwhile our attention is fixed upon this survey only. He is king, he is master, he is everybody; and herein the royalty of his position was a drawback. Had he struggled his way up to the throne, as his ancestor did, he would have learned many a lesson on the rough way; but he was a great man's son, and he never spoke but in the imperative mood. A brief verb, and simple in conjugation, was Coheleth's; it had but one mood, stern and sullen, and it came back upon him at last as an echo that meant nothing. Whether he will become anything better as we study his book remains to be seen; in the meantime his world is small and poor. As we see the earth not by its own light, but by the light of the sun, so we are to see life not by the few sparks which may be emitted by social friction, but by the light of the world that is to come. We are to look at "things not seen," to "endure as seeing the invisible," to walk "in the power of an endless life." Jacob saw the ladder rising to the sky; Stephen saw "heaven opened;" Paul said, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." As we cannot see the earth without the sun, so we cannot truly see time without eternity, or the Here without the Hereafter. We think we can, and that is our chief mistake, a mistake out of which every other comes. The wise man will say: "This is not all; there is something beyond these shadows; there is life not yet discovered; I will no longer be a light unto myself; I will say unto the Lord, 'Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel.'" When this is the state of mind in which the student pursues his studies, the whole scene changes, the clouds are rich with stars, and the wind is full of music.

Observe our power to make this a very little world if we please. Shut out God, deny eternity, close the Holy Book, make death the full-stop of life, and the "great globe itself" darkens into a charnel-house, and the transient beauties which pass over its surface make its dreariness only drearier. "Vanity of vanities," saith the Convener; "Place of service and dawn of heaven," saith the Christian.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. 1885-95.