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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 1

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-18


Of the vanity of the practical and the theoretical wisdom of men

Ecclesiastes 1:2

A. The theoretical wisdom of men, directed to a knowledge of the things of this world, is vanity.

2Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 4One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6The wind goeth towards the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full, unto the place 8from 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. 9The 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. 10Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of 11old 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 12come after. I the preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And 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. 14I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 15That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. 16I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

[Ecclesiastes 1:4.—לְעוֹלָם. See the extended discussion on this and kindred words, p. 44 T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 1:5.—זָרַח: Primary sense, irradiation, scattering, like זרח, and זרע, to sow—scatters its rays—spargit lucem. Part. beaming, glowing. See Metrical version. Compare Virgil, frequent, aurora spargebat lumine terras. שֹׁאֵף Zöckler would give it here the sense of running, going swift. It is better to preserve the primary sense of panting It suits better the hidden metaphor, on which see note, p. 38. T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 1:8.—הַדְּבָרִים. Rendered things in E. G. So the Vulgate, cunctæ res. Best rendering is the more common and primary one of words: all words weary in expressing the vanity. Zöckler objects to this as making a tautology with לְדַבֵּר, following. The argument is the other way; such seeming tautologies or verbal parallelisms are rather regarded by the Hebrews as an excellency of diction.—T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 1:10.—לְעֹלָמִים. See extended note, p. 44.—T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 1:14.—רְעוּת. There is no need of resorting to the Chaldaic for this word; neither has it any connection with רָצַה. It comes easily from the very common Hebrew רָעָה, primary sense, to feed (transitively or intransitively), pasture (not a verb of eating, like אכל), then to provide, take care of, then to have the mind upon any thing as an object of care or anxiety. The order of ideas is exactly like that in the in Arabic رعى or Greek νέμω. The form, as also that of רַעְיוֹן Ecclesiastes 1:17, is purely Hebrew. We have the masculine form, Psalms 139:2; Psalms 139:17, applied to man, and used in a good sense, רֵעִי, my thought. “Thou knowest all my thought”—not in the sense of more speculative thinking, but all my cares. And so in that still more tender passage, Ecclesiastes 1:17, where it is applied to God anthropopathically מַה־יָּקְרוּ רֵעֶיךָ, “how precious are thy thoughts,” thy cares, or carings, for me. Compare 1 Peter 5:7, “He careth for you.” In the connection with it, most of the modern commentators rendor רוח, wind—a caring or striving for the wind. It is, however, by no means certain that the older rendering, spirit, was not the right one—a striving (a vain striving or vexation) of the spirit. See a similar connection of רַעְיוֹן (procisely=רְעוּת) with לב, the heart, Ecclesiastes 2:22. In that place it is not easy to distinguish רַעְיוֹן לִבּוֹ, anxiety of his heart, from רְעוּת רוּחַ in this.—T. L.]

[Ecclesiastes 1:17.—שִׂכְלוּת—הֹלֵלוּת, abstract terms in וּת, on which some rely as proving a later language, and consequently, a later date to the book. They are, however, like others of the kind that occur in Koheleth, purely Hebrew in their derivation, whilst they have an abstract form, because the idea required here, though unusual elsewhere, demanded it. If there were but few literary compositions in the English language, it would be just as relational to object to one because it had several examples of words ending in ism, though precisely adapted to the meaning intended; and this because such a termination was not found in other books, having little or nothing of a speculative cast. These words, הֹללֵוּת וְשִׂכְלוּת, differ, as madness or frenzy, and fatuity.—T. L.]


Title: Ecclesiastes 1:1.Words of the preacher, Son of David, King in Jerusalem.—For the exposition of the name קהֶֹלֶת comp. the Introd. § 1. That this designation here takes the place of the historically known name, שְׁלֹמֹה, has been justly acknowledged as an indication that a poetic fiction lies before us. “All the other works of Solomon bear his usual name at their head; the Proverbs, whose title is the Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel; the Song of Solomon, Psalms 72:0 :and Psalms 127:0. As indeed is natural, that he who will claim authorship uses no other name than that under which he is already known. Enigma and concealment would be quite out of place here. Now if Solomon is here called Koheleth, the author clearly indicates that it has only ideal value when he is quoted as author of the book, that he appears only as the representative of wisdom. The name, which is clearly an impersonal one, shows that the person to whom it is attached belongs only to poetry and not to reality” (Hengstenberg).—Moreover, in the peculiar designation, “King in Jerusalem,” instead of “King over Israel” (comp. Ecclesiastes 1:12), we may perceive a trace of later post-Solomonic origin. On the contrary, to find in this expression a hint that the author does not dwell in Jerusalem, but somewhere in the country (according to Ewald, in Galilee), is unreasonable and too far-fetched. See § 4, Obs. 2.

2. The whole first discourse, which we, with Ewald, Vaiii., Keil, etc., extend to the end of chap. 2, treats of the principal theme, of the vanity of all earthly things in general; it is therefore of an introductory and fundamental character (comp. Introd. § 2). In harmony with Keil, we again divide them into two nearly equal parts, the first of which (Ecclesiastes 1:2-18) presents the vanity of the theoretical, and the second (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26) the vanity of the practical wisdom of men; or, of which, number one shows that the strivings of human wisdom after knowledge, and number two that the same efforts aiming at enjoyment and active control of reality, attain no genuine success. This division seems more simple and comprehensive than that of Ewald and Vaihinger, who lay down three main divisions, 1) Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 1:11; Ecclesiastes 2:0) Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 3:0) Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, according to Ewald, and 1) Ecclesiastes 1:2-14; Ecclesiastes 2:0) Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 3:0) Ecclesiastes 2:20-26, according to Vaihinger, giving to the middle division a disproportioned length.—The first half is occupied in proving the vanity and want of success of the theoretical striving of men after wisdom, and is again divided into three divisions. For it shows, 1) by the continually recurring circle of nature and history, permitting no real progress, that the objects of human knowledge are subjected to the law of vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11); and 2) then, that to this vanity of the objective reality, there corresponds a complete futility of effort at its comprehension on the part of the human subject, so far that even the wisest of all men must be convinced by experience of the emptiness of this effort (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18). Each of these divisions includes two strophes of three verses each, together with an introductory half strophe or proposition, so that the scheme of the whole section perfected is this: I. Division: The vanity of human knowledge in an objective point of view (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). Proposition or general preliminary remark (half strophe); Ecclesiastes 1:2-3. First strophe: Ecclesiastes 1:4-7.—Second strophe: Ecclesiastes 1:8-11. II. Division: The vanity of human knowledge in a subjective point of view (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18). Proposition: Ecclesiastes 1:12.—First strophe, Ecclesiastes 1:13-15). Second strophe, Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.—We follow in this strophical division the plan of Vaihinger (also that of Keil and Hahn), which differs materially from that of Ewald. But the latter may therein be right, that from Ecclesiastes 1:9 the discourse approaches prose style, and only here and there, as in Ecclesiastes 1:15; Ecclesiastes 1:18, returns to loftier poetic diction. Vaihinger also acknowledges this, in so far as he considers the two rythmically constructed apothegms, Ecclesiastes 1:15; Ecclesiastes 1:18, as characteristic closing formulas of the two last strophes of the section (comp. Introd. § 2, p. 106).

3. The general preliminary observation, or, if preferred, the theme of the first discourse; Ecclesiastes 1:2-3.—Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. This exclamation, containing the fundamental thought of the whole book, returns again at the close, Ecclesiastes 12:7, almost in the same words, after a previous examination has everywhere proved its truth. Nothing is wanting there but the repetition of הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, which gives a specially solemn impression to the sentence here at the head of the whole. As to the expression “vanity of vanities” being a paraphrase of the superlative idea “extremest vanity,” comp. the observation on שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים Song of Solomon 1:1 (above, p. 1). For the punctuation הֲבֵל comp. אֲבֵל Psalms 35:14, where the principal vowel is also pushed forward and lengthened to a tseri. הֶבֶל “breath, steam” (comp. Chald. הֲבַל to become warm, to steam) is a very proper expression to mark the inconstancy, unsubstantially, and emptiness that characterize all earthly things.1 To confine this predicate of nothingness to the actions of men (Hahn) is the less allowable since farther on, in verses 9 and 14, human action is expressly spoken of as participating in the emptiness of worldly things; and there is previously given a much more comprehensive description of this vanity, which clearly shows that the author would understand in the “all” that he declares as vanity, all earthly nature and the whole circle of temporal things, (in contrast to the eternal). It is also inadmissible to accept the double הבל הבלים as subject of the sentence, instead of taking the independent, animated exclamation rather as a presupposed predicate to הַכֹּל, this pretended subject הַכֹּל would then have in the following הֶבֶל another predicate, whereby the whole expression would become awkward, and essentially lose in active force and emphasis, (against Rosenmueiler, Hahn).—As cases similar to the contents of Ecclesiastes 1:2, comp. the passages in Psalms 90:3-10; Psalms 102:25-28; also Psalms 39:6-7; and also what the patriarchs were obliged to experience and confess regarding the vanity of temporal life: Genesis 4:2; Genesis 5:29; Genesis 9:7; Genesis 9:9, etc. Ecclesiastes 1:3. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?—(Ger., with which he fatigueth himself). Now for the first time the preacher more especially touches the vanity of human things, but means it in connection with the toil of men, as thereby declared unprofitable and unsuccessful (עָמָל, difficulty, labor, exertion, comp. Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:14, etc.) not only his actions, but at the same time also his spiritual strivings and searchings, of which in the Sequel he principally treats; he consequently mainly means the substance of his interests and efforts, the subjective human in contrast to the objective reality of all earthly life, to which that הַכֹּל in Ecclesiastes 1:2 referred. Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 hold therefore, substantially, the same relation to each other as the two subsequent paragraphs in Ecclesiastes 1:4-11, and Ecclesiastes 1:12-18. יִתְרוֹן Synonymous with וֶתֶר Genesis 49:3; Proverbs 17:7; Job 20:22, etc., is found only in this book, and indicates that which is left, what remains to one; hence profit, advantage, success,2 acquisition, ὅ τις εἰργάσατο, 2 John 1:8, not a superiority over others, which signification appears most fitting in Ecclesiastes 2:13.—The בְּ in בְּכָל־עֲמָלוֹ, Hahn considers, according to Isaiah 5:25, equal to “notwithstanding, in spite of,” which however is unnecessary, as the usual signification “in” or “through” affords a sufficiently good sense.—For the expression “under the sun,” a characteristic and favorite form of the author, comp. Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:20; Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 3:16, etc. The synonymous expressions “under the heaven,” (Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 3:1; Ecclesiastes 1:13;) and “upon the earth” (Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 8:16; Ecclesiastes 11:2), are found elsewhere in the Old Testament. The preference of Koheleth for the form “under the sun,” is doubtless explained by the fact that it instructively and clearly points to the contrast “between the eternal regularity which the sun shows in its course, and the fluctuating, vacillating, changeable doings of men, which it illuminates with its ever equal light.”—(Elster).

4. First division, first strophe, verses 4–7. In an objective view, human knowledge shows itself futile, in considering the continual change of human generations on the earth, Ecclesiastes 1:4, and the steady course of the sun, the wind, and the water (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7).—One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. הָלַךְ to go away, abire, as Ecclesiastes 5:15; Job 10:21; Psalms 39:13. For this sentence comp. Sir 14:19 : ὥς φύλλον θάλλον ἐπὶ δένδρου δάσεος τὰ μὲν κατα βάλλει, ἄλλα δὲ φύει, οὔτως γενὲα σαρκὸς καὶ αἵματος, ἡ μὲν τελευτᾶ, ἑτέρα δὲ γεννᾶται—a capital comparison, which reminds us of Isaiah 64:5.—But the earth abideth forever; (literal, “and the earth stands eternally”), (עָמַד as in Ps. 29:19; Leviticus 13:5, is of lasting existence, stands still). The copula expresses the simultaneousness of the two circumstances placed in contrast with each other: whilst the earth stands forever, human generations come and go incessantly. In the abiding of the earth, the poet doubtless thinks of its foundation on pillars over the water, to which Psalms 24:2; Psalms 104:5; Job 38:6, and other poetical passages allude. But whether, at the same time, the earth is considered the arena of the curse and sinful misery brought in by men (Genesis 3:17-19), as a vale of sorrow, and a place of misfortune, so that the thought were: men effect nothing lasting on earth, new races of men must ever begin where the old ones ceased, must ever repeat the same Sisyphus labor as their fathers (Hengstenberg, Hahn): this is doubtful on account of the expression לְעוֹלָם. This certainly indicates not an endless eternity in the strictest sense of the word, but only “a future of unlimited length,” (Hengstenberg); but it shows the intention to bring out, as a principal thought, the character of the continual and everlasting in contrast with the appearance of continual change, and points thus to the inability of human investigation and knowledge to hold any firm position in the midst of such change everlasting as the duration of the earth.

Ecclesiastes 1:5. The sun ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. The first half of this verse, is an exact parallel of the first clause of Ecclesiastes 1:4, the second corresponds in substance to the thought in the second clause of that verse. For, as in the former, the earth, the scene of the coming and going of the generations of men, so in the latter the “place” of the sun (i.e., its subterranean, heavenly dwelling-place, from which it daily enters upon its new course, comp. Psalms 19:6), is contrasted as abiding in the presence of continual change. As the human race, with every change of its individuals, makes no advance, as its history presents no real progress, so is the motion of the sun apparently a continual circuit, without arrival at any fixed goal, or lasting place of rest. Contrary to the accents, the Septuagint, Vulgate, Chaldaic, Luther, Elster, Hitzig, Hahn, etc., connect וְאֶל־מְקוֹמוֹ שֹׁאֵף closely with the preceding; “and hastens to its place, and there ariseth again. But שאף belongs clearly to what follows, and also does not mean running, hastening, but (as הֵפִיחַ in Habakkuk 2:3) gasping after air, panting, longing”—a sense which strikingly delineates the movement of the sun, striving to reach the vault of heaven, although in it there lies a conception somewhat different from this: “and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race,” Psalms 19:5. For Hengstenberg clearly brings into the text the joyous desire, the pretended image of “the vigorous courage of the new generation.” It rather points to the idea of the exhaustion of the sun on account of its ever restless motion, and this doubtless with the intention of directly showing the depressing influence produced by observing the ever recurring circuit of this body, and the discouragement in this endless uniformity, that presents itself to the comprehension of the human observer (comp. Elster on this passage).3 Ecclesiastes 1:6. It goeth to the South, and turneth to the North. (Literal of the Ger. text). The sun is naturally not the subject [Sept. Syriac, M. Geier, etc.), but the wind named in the second clause, for only of it can it be said, “it turneth to the north.” But south and north are here used with the wind, because the other cardinal points had been previously used with the sun, to prevent an unpleasant repetition. The author could scarcely have thought of anything like the law of the revolution of the winds (Wolfgang Menzel, in his Natural History conceived in the Christian spirit I. 270); for he had just asserted in Ecclesiastes 1:4, that the earth stands eternally still. The opinion of Hahn is also objectionable, that the poet was desirous of showing the continual change between warm and cold wind, and this change from warmth to cold was to depict the vicissitude of happiness and unhappiness in human life, as, in the preceding verse, that from night to day. Such an allegorizing of the passage is the less justifiable because the circuit of the waters described in Ecclesiastes 1:7 can only be considered a picture of the change from happiness to unhappiness by virtue of a forced and highly artificial interpretation. The more careful allegorical interpretation tried by Hengstenberg, according to which sun, wind, and water are all symbols of human existence moving in the circuit of vanity, is not indeed sufficiently justified by the context. The wind goeth ever whirling (Lit. Ger.). The twice repeated סוֹבֵב expresses continual repetition, the everlasting, and the ever-returning change of the wind; comp. the reduplication of ideas with the same intent in Genesis 14:10; Deuteronomy 2:27; Deuteronomy 14:22; Mark 6:39. This double סוֹבֵב is subordinate to הוֹלֵךְ presenting the main idea, just as שּׁוֹאֵף in Ecclesiastes 1:5 is to זֹרֵחַ.—And the wind returneth again according to his circuits.—That is, the circuits which it has already made, it ever makes again, it ever repeats the courses that it has previously described; for that is, properly speaking, the סְבִיבוֹת, not circles (Sept. Vulg., Ewald, Knobel, etc). The translation “on its circuits or circles” (Ewald, Knobel, etc.) or also “according to its circuits” (Rosenmueller) is unnecessary; for that עַל, with verbs of motion, especially שׁוּב, has the sense of to, until, (exactly synonymous, in such case, with עַד) is proved by such passages as Proverbs 26:11; Psalms 19:7; Psalms 48:11; Job 37:3, and also by the circumstance that, in the later Chaldaic style, עַל is mostly synonymous with אֶל. [In the above passage Zöckler translates zu seinen Wendungen.—W.].

Ecclesiastes 1:7. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full, i.e., it does not overflow notwithstanding the immense masses of water that it constantly receives; it does not overwhelm and swallow up the land. In הַיָם, the author doubtless refers to the ocean, not to the Dead Sea, as Hitzig arbitrarily supposes. The previous mention of the sun, the wind, and the four cardinal points, show conclusively that he deals with great cosmophysical ideas, and thus hardly thinks merely of the streams like the Jordan flowing into the Dead Sea, or indeed of the contracted relations of Palestine at all. Comp. also Aristophanes in his “Clouds,” v. 1294, et seq.:

αὕτη μὲν (ἡ θάλαττα) οὐδὲν γίγνεται

ἐπιῤῥεόντων τῶν ποταμῶν πλείων, σὺ δὲ

ζητεῖς ποιῆσαι ταργύριον πλεῖον τὸ σόν

Unto the place from whence the rivers come, “thither they return again. Literal, thither are the rivers to go returning,” thither they always take their course again. For this construction examine 1 Samuel 20:19; Hosea 5:11, etc; as in the English, (they are going), the participle here expresses the continuous character of the action. For the construct state before the relative clause (which is, as it were, regarded as a single noun) comp. passages such as Genesis 40:3; Leviticus 4:24; (Ewald, Manual. § 322, c.).—As it is not absolutely necessary that הלךְ must express the “going whither,” but may also well express the going out, or the coming whence, as Ecclesiastes 1:6 shows, therefore, מְקוֹם שֶׁהַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים does not mean the ocean as the common collecting-place of all river-water (Elster, Vaihinger, etc.), but rather as the occasional source and origin of the individual rivers. The return of the water from the ocean the author certainly thinks effected in a way corresponding to the natural course of things, namely, that of exhalations, and clouds, and falling mists, and not by means of secret subterraneous canals and passages, as Luther, Rosenmueller, et al., pretend. See Genesis 2:6; Job 36:27-28.—Also Umbreit, Hitzig, and Hengstenberg on this passage.

5. First division, second strophe, Ecclesiastes 1:8-11. As the natural objects of human knowledge truly satisfy neither the eye nor the ear (Ecclesiastes 1:8), so there predominates in the history of mankind a restless flight of events, crowding and following each other in endless circuit, which necessarily destroy, in equal measure, both the interest in new acquirements, and the endeavor to remember the things that are past (Ecclesiastes 1:11).—All things are full of labor, man cannot utter it.—The words כֹּל־הַדְּבָרִים יְגֵעִים are understood by exegetists to mean either: “all words are troublesome, weary” (Sept., Ewald, Elster, Hitzig, Hengstenberg, Hahn, etc.), or: “all things fatigue, are full of burden and trouble” (Hieronymus, Luther, Rosenmueller, Vaihinger, etc.). The ruling signification in this book, as every where in the Old Testament of דבר =λόγος, sermo, as well as the closely following remark, “man cannot utter it” (יוּכַל לְדַבֵּר), seem to speak in favor of the former meaning. But the word דבר, as meaning thing, is found also in Ecclesiastes 1:10; Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 7:8; and it appears, in every view of the case, more appropriate that the quality of wearying, of producing discouragement and indifference, should be predicated of the things of the world, and the objects of human knowledge, than that the words relating to the naming and judging of these things, should be designated as feeble or exhausting. This first meaning would also produce a tautology of הַדְּבָרִים with לְדַבֵּר, which one could scarcely attribute to an author who, on the whole, expresses himself with such choice and delicacy. Thus the sense of the line remains in every case that which is accepted oven by most of the defenders of the first conception; namely, to recount all objects of human knowledge and experience is fatiguing in the extreme, and is indeed impracticable`; no speech can perfectly give the impression which is produced on our mind by the thought of physical endlessness, and of the never changing operations and life of the forces of nature (comp. Elster on this passage). For the active sense of יָגֵעַ, which elsewhere, as in Deuteronomy 25:18, 2 Samuel 17:2, expresses the passive thought, “faint,” “weary,” but here is clearly exhaustive, making weary, examine the similar significations of נִמְרָץ ,נַחְלָה ,אָנוּשׁ in Isaiah 17:11; Jeremiah 30:12; Micah 2:10; and also the Latin tristis in the sense of making sad, depressing; and the German “betrübt” in phrases like: “es ist betrubt zu schen,” etc.The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing,—No remarkable quality is here affirmed of the eye or the ear; it is only intended to delineate more closely the relation held to the expression, “all things are wearying.” “If the eye should become satisfied, so that it would no longer see, then the narrating word must step in and be able in its turn also to master things. But the abundance of phenomena, which presses on eye, ear, and the remaining senses, is endless; there are always objects which the eye must see, does see, and brings to him who would gladly close his labors” (Hitzig). For parallel passages comp. Proverbs 27:20. For מִשְׁמֹעַ, lit. “away from hearing,” i.e., so that it may hear no longer, comp. Genesis 27:1; Exodus 14:5; 1 Samuel 8:7; Isaiah 24:10, etc.

Ecclesiastes 1:9. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; or also; “what has happened, that will again happen, that will occur anew.” מַה שֶׁהָיָה cannot be considered a question (LXX. τί τὸ γεγονός Vulg. quid est quod fuit); for in this book מַה־שֶּׁ is always equivalent to “that which,” or “whatever;” see Ecclesiastes 3:15; Ecclesiastes 6:10; Ecclesiastes 8:7; Ecclesiastes 10:14; and examine for the same Chaldaic style, Daniel 2:25; Ezra 7:18.—And that which is done, is that which shall be done.—As the former refers to the objective course of natural laws and phenomena, so this parallel expression alludes to the subjective efforts and actions of men; and the progress to any thing really new is denied of both.—And there is no new thing under the sun.—Lit. there is not in existence any thing new, (וְאֵין כָּל־חָרָשׁ). For the placing of this negation before כָּל, to indicate the total non-existence of any thing, comp. Judges 13:4; Psa 143:2; 2 Kings 4:2; also similar Hebrew terms in the New Testament Greek, Matthew 24:22; Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16, etc.—For this sentence comp. Seneca especially; Epist. Ecc 24: Nullius rei finis est, sed in orbem nexa sunt omnia. Omnia transeunt ut revertantur, nil novi video, nil novi facio; also Tacitus, Annal. III. Ecc 55: Rebus cunctis inest quidam velut orbis, ut quemadmodum temporum vices, ita morum versentur; and Marc. Aurel. Comment., ad se ipsum, VI. Ecc 31: ̀ὁ τὰ νῦν ὁρῶν πάντα ἑώρακεν, ὅσα τὲ ἐξ άϊδιόυ ἐγένετο, και ὅσα εὶς τὸ ἁ̓πειρον ἔσται. πάντα γὰρ ὁμογενῆ καὶ ὁμοειδῆ; Ibid. VII. Ecclesiastes 1:0 : οὐδεν καινὸν. πάντα καὶ συνήθη καὶ ὀλιγχρόνια; Ibid. VII. Ecc 26: πᾶν τὸ γινόμενον οὕτως�.

Ecclesiastes 1:10. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new ? it hath been already of old time which was before us.—The first half of this verse is a hypothetical preliminary clause, introduced by יֵשׁ דָּבָר to which is added the after clause without a copula, for the sake of greater emphasis; comp. similarly formed conditional sentences in Ecclesiastes 1:18.—כְּבַר, long ago, already long since (Sept. ἥδη; Vulg. jam), is one of the characteristic Aramaic4 particles of the book, allied to כִּבְרָה “greatness, length,” and the Arab. Kibar, great age; (comp. Introd. § 4, Obs. 2). The word לְעלָֹמִים, added as a more special definition, indicates that the meaning of “long ago” is to be understood in the sense of time of external length; or also that it continues in endless spaces of lime;5 for the preposition לְ, in the sense of “within,” comp. Genesis 7:4; Ezra 10:8, and Elster on this passage.—Instead of אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ there stands at the close אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָּנֵינוּ because הָיָה is used impersonally, in the sense: “there have been” (comp. Genesis 47:24; Exodus 12:49); an enallage numeri, that could easily occur with a neuter plural like עלָֹמִים. Ewald takes the words as subject of the sentence, and translates them thus: “what occurred before our eyes had already been long ago.” But this position of the subject at the end of the sentence would be harsh and without motive; and for מִלְּפָנֵינוּ, which means according to Isaiah 41:26 simply “before us, earlier than we,” would necessarily stand לְפָנֵינוּ if the translation “before our eyes, in our presence,” were the correct one.

Ecclesiastes 1:11. There is no remembrance of former things.—Clearly an explanation of the thought of the preceding verse, which we need not (as Hitzig and Elster) connect with what precedes through the conception: “that our considering old things as new is because of the continual extinction of the remembrance of former things.” For the construct state זִכְרוֹן before a following noun with a preposition, comp. similar cases, as Ezekiel 13:0, 2 Samuel 1:21.—רִאשֹׁנִיםַ and אַהֲרֹנִים signify every where the earlier and the later ones (Leviticus 26:45; Deuteronomy 19:14; Psalms 79:8; Isaiah 61:4; also Ecclesiastes 4:16 of this book, consequently ancestry and posterity. The neuter idea, “the earlier,” would necessarily be expressed by the feminine רִאשֹׁנוֹת (Isaiah 42:9; Isaiah 46:9; Isaiah 48:3).—With those that shall come after.—לָאַחֲרֹנוֹת in future, later. Comp. for the substantive אַהֲרֹנָה, Deu 13:9; 2 Samuel 2:26.

6. Second Division. Proposition and first strophe. Ecclesiastes 1:12-15. In a subjective view human knowledge proves futile and vain, in so far as all the desires and enterprises of men, to which it is directed, are empty and vain, and lead to nothing. I, the preacher, was King over Israel in Jerusalem.—Observe the preterit, הָיִיתִי, I was—a clear indication that a later personage than the historical Solomon says this.6 For even in his most advanced age Solomon, who, according to 1 Kings 11:40-43, was reigning king until his death, could not have spoken of his kingdom as something belonging solely to the past. For the remaining allusions in this verse to a period later than the Solomonic, see above on Ecclesiastes 1:1 (No. 1), and the Introduction, § 4. And moreover the author, assuming the character of Solomon, indicates for his own person a condition in life which affords him a broad view, rich experience, and knowledge of men; comp. Sir 38:24 ff.

Ecclesiastes 1:13. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom.—That is, I gave it entirely to that seeking, exerted myself zealously on that account; comp. שִׂים לֵב, Isa. 41:42; שִׁית לֵב, Psalms 48:14; and הֵכִין לֵב, Job 11:13. “To seek” (דָּרַשׁ) and “to search” (תּוּר) are distinguished from one another—the former by being less thorough, and the latter by penetrating more deeply and searching after the hidden. בְּהָכְמָה is not “wisely” (Luther, comp. Vulgate, sapienter), but “with wisdom;” for wisdom was the instrument with which he made his investigations;7 (for the well-known old Hebrew sense, see the Introd. to the Solomonic books, Vol. XII. p. 3 of this work.)—Concerning all things that are done under heaven.—Thereby is clearly meant only the actions and lives of men, and not occurrences in the realm of nature, for which latter the verb נעשה would be very unfittingly chosen. And what has happened in itself is not so much meant as its character, worth, aim and success as an object of seeking and searching; therefore, to search concerning all things that are done (עַל כָּל וגו).—This sore travail, etc.—Human action itself is not designated here as עִנֲין רָע, as sore travail or pain (Hitzig, Hahn), but the zealous searching, the critical endeavor of the wise observer of life, who every where meets only vanity and emptiness, and with all his theoretical and practical experimenting with life, reaches no lasting enjoyment and success (and thus with justice the most exegetists; see Elster on this passage).—God hath given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.—This unsuccessful and vain striving after wisdom, to which man feels himself impelled by a natural necessity, is imparted to him by God himself; it is a part of the salutary and disciplinary curse that God has laid on human nature -since the fall, a “part of the whole system by which the Lord humbles fallen man, and therewith prepares the redemption” (Hengstenberg).

Ecclesiastes 1:14. I. have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.—(Lit., “windy effort,” i.e., “an effort of the wind”) (Sept. προαίρεσις πνεύματος) an effort without result, that effects no lasting good. Comp. Hosea 12:2, which passage gives us at the same time the proper sense of the expression רְעוּת. For the formula רדף קדים there used parallel with רָעָה רוּחַ, “to consume wind,” really means to follow after the wind, to be in quest of it, a diligent striving after it (comp. רעה in passages like Proverbs 13:20; Proverbs 15:14; Isaiah 44:20). רְעוּת is consequently the bearing, the intension of one zealously aiming at, consequently striving, continuous direction of the will (thus also Ezra 5:7, 18), the same as רַעְיוֹן, which in Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 4:16 is also found connected with רוּחַ. It is therefore erroneous to derive it from רעע=רצץ, to shatter, to break into pieces (thus the Vulg. “afflictio spiritus,” also Chald. Raschi et at).

Ecclesiastes 1:15. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.—Clearly a proverbial sentence, which the author perhaps found ready made in the rich treasury of the proverbial wisdom of his people, and used here to strengthen what he had said in Ecclesiastes 1:14. The sense is, as the parallel passage, Ecclesiastes 7:13, shows, that human action and effort, in spite of all exertion, cannot alter that which has once been arranged and fixed by God. “Man cannot alter what is (apparently) unjust in God’s arrangement of the world, nor make or regard its failures perfect; hemmed in within the narrow limits of the world as it is constituted, he is not able to perform the most important thing that he above all things should be able to do” (Hitzig). This thought is not fatalistic (as Knobel. supposes); for, as numerous other passages of this book show (namely, Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 7:20 ff.; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:14), the author knows very well that human sin is the cause of the incapacity here described in contrast with the unchangeable and divine order of the world, and considers this inability as one of self-guilt on the part of man.—“That which is wanting cannot be numbered,” i.e., not completed, not be brought to its full number; comp. the Lat. ad numeros suos redigi=perfici, and also our German proverbs: “Where there is nothing, nothing farther is to be counted;” or, “There the emperor has lost his right,” etc.

7. Second Division, second strophe. Ecclesiastes 1:16-18. Practically experiencing wisdom, striving after positive knowledge, is, as the critically observing, thoroughly futile, reaching no lasting result, because its acquirement is inseparably connected with pain and discouragement.—I communed with my own heart, saying, i.e., I entered inwardly into my own counsel; comp. the Lat. cogitare cum animo suo, and in the Hebrew similar phrases דִּבֵּר בְּלִבּוֹ, Psalms 15:2; דּ אֶל־לִבּוֹ, Genesis 24:45; עַל לִבּוֹ, 1 Samuel 1:13.—Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom.—The word הִגְדַּלְתִי (comp. Isaiah 28:29) intimates that he possessed great wisdom before; the word הוֹסַפְתִּי, that during his life he continually increased it. Comp. 1 Kings 5:9-11.—Than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem.—The first עַל is comparative, as in Genesis 48:22; Psalms 16:2. From the second עַל before יְרוּשָׁלָיִם it appears that with the here mentioned predecessors of Koheleth real kings8 are meant (comp. also Ecclesiastes 2:7). The allusion here can scarcely be to the old Canaanitish princes (Adoni-zedek, Joshua 10:1; or, indeed, Melchisedec, Genesis 15:18), but to the crowned heads of Israel, who alone were competent to the realization of חכמה. This passage contains, again, therefore, a reference to the difference between the author of this work and Solomon, but still not one of that kind that we are justified in reproaching him (with Hitzig) of ignorance of history. He rather commits this offence against actual history with the same absence of suspicion and purpose which permitted him to adapt his work only loosely and distantly to the personal and temporal relations x and every where to dispense with the strict carrying out of the historical fiction in question. (Comp. Introd. § 4).—Yea, my heart had great experience of Wisdom and knowledge.—Concerning דַּעַת as synonym of חָכְמָה comp. Proverbs 1:2. “To see, to behold wisdom and knowledge,” is as much as acquiring it by experience, arriving at its possession and enjoyment. This beholding is attributed to the heart, because it is indeed the seat or instrument of aspiration after Wisdom , 9 see Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 1:17.

Ecclesiastes 1:17. And I gave my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly—that is, I applied myself to learning not only the positive and normal contents of human knowledge, but also its counterpart, error and perversion in their various forms; according to the principle: contrariis contraria intelliguntur. הֹלֵלוּת = הוֹלֵלוּת, Ecclesiastes 10:13; comp. the similar formation חָכְמוּת, Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 9:1, etc., and Ewald, Manual, § 165 c), and שִׂכְלוּת, want of sense and folly are also thus placed together in Ecclesiastes 2:12 only, that the latter word is written סִכְלוּת with more etymological exactness (comp. also Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 2:13, etc.).—I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For רַעְיוֹן רוּחַ see Ecclesiastes 1:14; and comp. רַעְיוֹן לִבּו the striving of his heart, Ecclesiastes 2:22, as well as the same word in the Chaldee of the Book of Daniel (Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 5:6; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 7:28), where it signifies thought. זֶה הוּא, a pleonasm, of which there are many in the book. Ecclesiastes 1:18. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.—Ger. Proverb: “Much wisdom causeth headache;” also Cicero, Tusc. III. Ecclesiastes 4 : “videtur mihi cadere in sapientem ægritudo,” and what Elster remarks on this passage: “Such an enlargement of the practical knowledge of human life destroys the natural ease and simplicity of the individual life, and by comparisons with others, awaking the consciousness of being variously affected in one’s own existence through influences operating from without, produces a feeling of insignificance and feebleness of each individual life as such; and by exciting man to many aspirations and desires which remain unfulfilled, and therefore leave painful impressions behind. It is still more important to think of the manifold disillusions which a deeper insight of the moral arena in a stricter sense produces, because it not only teaches how confidence in the strength and worth of individuals is often unjustifiable, but also shows how in the great and sacred institutions of humanity, which have originally a purely ethical aim, this ethical object is frequently lost, and that those only exist in reality through a linking of interests that are entirely foreign to their real nature.”—וְיוֹסִיף is an antecedent: “and if one gathers wisdom, if one makes much wisdom.” Ewald, Elster, et al., consider יוֹסִיף (here as well as in Isaiah 29:14; Isaiah 38:5) an active participle from the stem reverting from Hiphil, into Kal, with י—instead of—(Ewald, Manual, §127 b.; 169 a) while others find in it simply an impersonal future Hiphil, and compare it on account of the scriptio plena with הוֹסַפְתִּי Ecclesiastes 1:16.


Human effort, confined to the conditions of life and the objects of knowledge of this earthly world, can attain no enduring wealth of happiness or success, either in a practical or theoretical relation. For every thing that is accomplished under the sun, that is, in this contracted sublunary world subjected to the curse of temporality, is, like the great heavenly light of our planet, or, like the mysterious course of the wind and the water, confined to a changeless circuit beyond which there is no progress. All efforts after the attainment of a higher and more durable happiness, which man by means of his own natural power may institute, fail at this stern barrier of the earthly and temporal. Be it the cheerful enjoyment of life, and the active cooperation with it, be it fulness of knowledge and wealth of treasures, of intellectual truth and insight, as long as man, standing simply in his own strength as a mere child of earth, commanding no other than earthly and natural powers, endeavors to place himself in possession of these treasures, will he be ever obliged to experience the utter vanity of his labors. Only in submission to the eternally Divine, which remains fixed and constant in all the vicissitudes of time, (Psalms 102:25 ff.), does he obtain the power to overcome the imperfections and annoyances of temporal existence, or, at least, true consolation while suffering their pressure. Faith alone is the anchor of safety which is able to preserve the bark of life, tossed to and fro by the storms of time, from sinking into the awful depths of despair and inconsolable doubts regarding our temporal and eternal welfare.

Of these fundamental thoughts of the section before us, only those referring to the vanity of earthly life and its wisdom are specially treated. Of the religious solution of the conflict, which, according to numerous and prominent allusions in the subsequent pages, forms the deeper background for the grievous lamentations of the preacher, there penetrates, for the time, scarcely anything through his picture of the vanity of all earthly things. It is, substantially, only the sad contrast between human aspirations after wisdom, and the absolutely unsatisfying result in this world, to whose description the author directs his attention; that conflict between the ardent desire of life and its enjoyment, between thirst after knowledge and its failure, whose deep significance Fabri, in his work—“Time and Eternity”—has as strikingly as beautifully delineated when, in p. 10 f., in direct connection with the lamenting commencement of this book he says: “Who does not know, from his own thousand-fold experience, this wonderful feeling of a deep temporal grief that often, as an armed foe, overwhelms the spirit of man with a secret shudder in the midst of the loudest merriment? Who does not know the pressure and the pain of time, when we see it in steady flow hurrying quietly by us, nay, when we see ourselves, entirely helpless, carried away by its stream, and daily approaching nearer to the limits of life? Do we not then feel as the occupant of a frail boat, which, drawn into the current of a mighty stream, finds itself carried down with arrowy speed, and if not in its course dashed to pieces on the rocks, hastens with inevitable destiny to the cataract that is to bury it in that deep from which no one may ever rise and begin the course anew?” That is the periculum vitæ, the danger of life, of which the wise men of old have spoken, and have recognized as the inevitable destiny of every thing born into this lower world. Thus time, with its restless and continuous going and coming, appeals to the direct feelings of every man as an oppressive destiny, as a travail, as Solomon says, (Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 1:18), as a tragic conflict between what ought to be and what is.


In the homiletical treatment of the section, the evangelical preacher should not be satisfied in merely presenting this sad conflict without its solution; he should rather connect with the lament concerning the vanity of earthly things, the consolation of the unchanging grace of the Eternal One; and thus regard the gloomy picture of the author in the light of divine revelation, to which the entire course and contents of the book encourage us. In this intent we might use the entire chapter as a text for a connected view whose theme might be as follows: That which is visible is temporal, that which is invisible is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17); or also—“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” “But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10); or: The flight of earthly things, its cause and its cure, (with reference to the 90th Psalm, and appropriate spiritual hymns). In case the text is divided, there should not be more than two parts. Then make Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 the text for the thought: “There is nothing new under the sun;” and from 12–18 for the thought: “In much wisdom there is much grief.”

With a view to the practical treatment of the individual passages, examine the following homiletical hints and helps from ancient and modern exegetical writings.

Ecclesiastes 1:2. Luther:—In the introduction he gives us the subject of the whole book, when he tells us that there is the greatest vanity in all human pursuits, to such a degree that men, neither content with the present, nor able to enjoy the future, turn even their best things into misery and vanity, all through their own fault, not that of the things themselves.

M. Geier:—The more the vanity of the world is discovered, the more will the disgust of it increase in the true Christian; and on the contrary, a desire will arise for the heavenly and eternal.—Hengstenberg:—The right solution of the problem is this: Between the assertion—“And behold, all was very good,” and that other: “All is vanity,” lies the fact of the fall. With this latter a whole new order of things has appeared. The creation, which was good in itself, was no longer fitting for degenerate man. “All is vanity,” is no accusation of God. It is rather, if we keep in view the nature of man, a praise of God. It is precisely in this doom of punishment, and in the adjustment of the economy of the Cross, that God shows Himself especially great and glorious.

Ecclesiastes 1:3. Luther:—The creature is indeed subject to vanity, as Paul testifies, Romans 8:0, but nevertheless the things themselves are good. Otherwise he would have called the sun itself a vanity; but this he excepts, because he says, under the sun. It is not, therefore, of the works of God he treats, which are all good and true, and above the sun, but the works beneath the sun,—what we do here in this earthly life.—Starke:—Since with decay the profit of all outward occupation vanishes, it is folly for men to be so absorbed with external things that they thereby forget the care of their own souls.

Ecclesiastes 1:4-7. Cramer:—That the world has not existed from eternity, one sees in all its parts, because these are not fixed and constant the whole cannot, therefore, remain unchanged. But the constant order in creatures and their employments, proves that there is a God who sustains every thing.—Starke:—In nature every thing is governed by the laws of motion; how - much more should man direct his steps according to the rules of life prescribed to him by God (Galatians 6:16; Psalms 119:9; Psalms 100:5).—Wohlfarth:—The existence of the world clearly depends upon the unchangeable order given to nature by God, and just because it follows these divine laws without deviation, is nature, yet to-day, as it was thousands of years ago, the inexhaustible dispenser of the blessings and joys of men. Let us herein acknowledge the wisdom, goodness, and might of the Eternal One, and adore him who once said: “Let there be!” and there was ! who called the sun of the day, as well as the night, into existence, who prescribed to the waters their course, and gave command to the winds. Let us comprehend that we can only then be happy and make others happy, when, as nature unconsciously, obeys natural laws, we obey with clear consciousness the commands of virtue and the laws of nature for the spirit world.

Ecclesiastes 1:8. Zeyss:—The immortal spirit of man can find no real rest in temporal things, but only in God, the highest and eternal good, Matthew 11:29.—Hansen:—External things do not satisfy. David in Psalms 17:15 gives us clearly to understand that he recognizes the same truth; for he says: “I will behold thy face in righteousness,” and adds, “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” He hopes, therefore, in the contemplation of God, to obtain what he cannot have in the form of this world. And for this very reason Solomon calls all things vain that belong to this sensual life.—Berleb. Bible:—“The avenues of the soul bear many thousand objects or things to the heart, with which man fatigues and distracts himself, as with a boundless mountain of sand. From these his mind forms numberless images, which he gazes at, and inwardly handles. From these come the manifold thoughts and the distracted spirit of poor man. Therefore, by apostacy from God, his Creator, he has gone out with his heart after many things, and now, instead of God, in whom he would eternally have had enough, he embraces so many thousand creatures in his desires, and cannot oven then be satisfied. For the immortal essence of the soul can by no means repose in the empty creature; it seeks ever farther, and will ever have more; it is a fire that burns without ceasing, and would gladly seize all things.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-11. Luther:—If we understand these words, nothing new beneath the sun, of the things themselves, and of the works of God, it would not be true. For God is every day doing what is new; but we do nothing new, because the old Adam is in all. Our ancestors abused things, just as we abuse them. Alexander, Cæsar, had the same disposition; so had all Kaisars and Kings; so have we. As they could never be satisfied, so never can we; they were wicked; so are we.—Cramer:—No man has so great a cross that he finds none like himself; for we are not better than our fathers, 1 Kings 19:5.—Hengstenberg:—“There is nothing new under the sun;” let that serve to sober down the fantasies which gather grapes from the thorns of the world, but not discourage the friends of the Kingdom of God, which has its real seat, not under the sun, but above the sun, and whose heavenly protector, by ever creating new things (Jeremiah 31:22) gives material to a new song, Psalms 40:4.

Ecclesiastes 1:13-15. Luther [to Ecclesiastes 1:14]:—All painful anxiety and care in making provision, whether in public or private, through our own counsels, and our own wisdom, are condemned is this book. God disappoints the thoughts and plans that are not grounded on His word. And rightly too; for why should we prescribe and add to His wisdom? Let us learn, then, to submit to His counsels, and abstain from those cares and thoughts which God has not commanded.

Ecclesiastes 1:15. Human concerns cannot be so managed as that all things should be rightly done, and that there should not still remain many evils. The best way, then, is to walk in faith, which lets God reign, prays for the coming of His Kingdom, tolerating in the meantime, and patiently enduring, all evils, or committing them to Him who judgeth righteously.

Freiberg Bible:—In spiritual as in corporeal things, God alone can make the crooked straight and smooth.—Harman (to Ecclesiastes 1:13 f.—Bible Reflections of a Christian, Vol. I., p. 103):—All human wisdom labors, and has care and sorrow for its reward; the farther wisdom looks, the greater is the labyrinth in which it loses itself. It is with reason as to the eyes with a magnifying glass, when the most delicate skin becomes disgusting, the most luscious dish a mess of worms, and the finest work of art a mere botch. We see the impossibility of removing all inequalities of human society, and we see in it an overwhelming number of faults and failings; yes, the weakness of our senses and judgment leads us to find faults in beauties, because we examine all things only fragmentarily.

Ecclesiastes 1:16-18. Hansen (to Ecclesiastes 1:17):—Many thousand actions are considered prudent and wise, which in reality are silly and foolish. It is an arduous task to correct one’s error in respect to all this, and regard the world, and human life in the world, with just eyes.—(To Ecclesiastes 1:18).—Wisdom, as such, is no cause for uneasiness of mind; it is rather a cause for contentment. It sometimes happens, however, that peace of mind is disturbed by wisdom. The deeper our vision, the more clearly we perceive the imperfections among the children of men, and that usually produces unrest in the mind.—Starke:—But because knowledge easily puffeth up (1 Corinthians 8:1), wise and learned men have so much greater need to beg God to keep them in true humility.—Every righteous teacher, yes, every true Christian, must resign himself to many evils which must meet him in the endeavor to acquire genuine wisdom.

[Olamio or Ionian Words in Scripture—Eternities or World-Times—Cyclical Ideas in Koheleth.—The passage, Ecclesiastes 1:3, rendered, “the earth abideth forever,” is the one most commonly quoted as their key text by those who would not only give a limited sense to עולם here, which it undoubtedly has, but would, thereby, weaken the force of this whole class of words in all other parts of the Bible, and especially when they are used in reference to a future state of being. On this account, the whole subject has seemed worthy of a fuller discussion than it has generally received in Commentaries, and this the passage to which such an exegetical examination can be most appropriately attached.

The best rendering of the word לְעוֹלָם Ecclesiastes 1:3, is “for the world-time,” or “for the world,” as we have given it in the metrical version annexed. It may seem strange to ears not accustomed to it, but it is the true translation, not only here, but in many other places, where its proper significance is concealed under general or inadequate phrases. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 it has been once rendered by our translators, “the world,” which is correct enough in itself, but may mislead by raising in the reader’s mind the conception of a space world. For further remarks on that important passage see note, p. 67. The word לְעוֹלָם cannot here (Ecclesiastes 1:3) mean for ever, in the sense of endless duration, though it may be used for such idea when the context clearly demands, as when it is employed to denote the continuance of the Divine existence, or of the Divine Kingdom, or any thing else connected with the proper Divine eternity as the word is now taken. It is, however, in that case, only the employment of necessarily finite language to express an infinite idea strictly transcending all language, unless poorly represented by a conceptionless, negative word, which, although logically correct, is far inferior in vividness and power to some vast though finite term, which, by its very greatness and immeasurability, raises in the mind the thought of something beyond, and ever still beyond, worlds without end. This effect is still farther increased by plurals and reduplications, such as the Hebrew עלמים, and עולם, the Greek ἀιῶνες, and αἰῶνες τῶν αἰώνων, the Latin secula, and secula seculorum, the old Saxon, or old English, of Wicliffe, to worldis of worldis (Hebrews 13:21), or our more modern phrase, for ever and ever, where ever (German ewig), was originally a noun denoting age, or vast period, just like the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew words corresponding to it. Another mode of impressing the idea of absolute eternity is by the use of language in the context, or general scenic representations, which bring up the thought of finality in the passage, giving it the aspect of something settled, never to be disturbed, having nothing beyond that can possibly change it, as in that most impressive close of Matthew 25:0. In Ecclesiastes 1:3 it evidently expresses the duration of the earth as coeval with the great order of things called the world, whether in the time or space sense, and vastly transcending the דּוֹר, generation, or life-time (the æon, as we might call it in a still more limited sense) of man. There is a similar contrast, Psalms 110:1, where דור ודור “generation and generation,” or “all generations,” as it is rendered, refers to the human history, whilst, מעולם עד עולם from world to world, ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος, a seculo et usque in seculum von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit, refers to the Divine existence as measured, conceptually, by, work times, even as our brief individual life-time ii measured by years (Ps. 110:90), and our own peculiar world-time by dorim, or generations.

These words correspond in all the language referred to. They arise from a philological exigency, from the demand for some word to express that idea of time, or rather conception of time (since all language is primarily for the sense want), which goes beyond any known historical and astronomical measurements,—some great period, cycle, or age, not having its measurement from without, but in itself, or, at least, seemingly independent of outward phenomenal measurement. It is something supposed to have its own chronology, separate from other chronologies. In a lower, or more limited, sense, an olam, æon, age, world, or world-time, may be historical; that is, such indefinite periods may be regarded as coming, one after another, during the continuance of the same earth or kosmos; truly historical, yet divided from each other by some intrinsic character, rather than by mere years or centuries. Thus we say the old world, the new world, the ancient world, the modern world, the Greek world, the Roman world, &c. This would correspond to our use of the word ages, and that would make a good sense, Ecclesiastes 1:10, “the worlds or ages (עלמים) that have been before.” They may also have a higher sense than the historical, regarded as the history of one earth or kosmos, continuing as it is without any great physical change. They may be cosmical æons, carrying the idea of a new dispensation, with a change in the space-kosmos with which they are connected, or some change in the human state or relation that is equally significant. It might be conceived as a decay, dissolution, and restoration,—a renewal, rather, instead of an absolute creation de novo. Such an idea of new cosmical worlds, or æons, is favored in a certain aspect of it by some passages of Scripture which speak of a new (or rather renewed) heavens and earth, Psalms 102:26; Isaiah 66:22. Or it might be more like an idea which was certainly very ancient, of the same worlds coming over and over again, with all things and all events repeated, just as they had taken place. This was an old Egyptian and Arabian view, probably arising from the observations of astronomical cycles (see Pareau de Notiliis Vilæ Futuræ ab antiquissimo Jobi Scrtptore, etc., pp. 65, 66, etc.). Something like it was taught by Pythagoras and Plato in their doctrine of the magnus annus, as also by the Stoics in their doctrine of the cyclical return of the world, and all things in it, through a process of rarefaction and condensation (with a final conflagration), from which came again that rare elementary state which is in the beginning of each cycle,—a kind of thinking to which the modern nebular theories present a fair counterpart. These views of the. Platonists and Stoics [ were sheer speculations. The old notions, however, of the Egyptians and Arabians seem to have had a different character, and as there is nothing incredible in the thought of their being known to this old writer, whether Solomon or any one else, so is it also admissible, to say the least, that , some such view, in connection with others, perhaps, of a more indefinite kind, may have been included in the words of Koheleth, Ecclesiastes 1:9; Ecclesiastes 1:11. If i some such thought had suggested the language, or been anciently suggested by it, the dogma would by no means have bound our assent, as though it were an inspired Bible truth, since it is only used by this contemplative writer as an illustration of the general cyclical notion of returns in the world movement. This may be regarded almost in the light of an a priori idea, or one necessarily arising to every thoughtful mind in the contemplation of nature, whether we think of it as temporal or eternal. Just as the great nature is made up of lesser cycles (a thing obvious to sense), so, when viewed as a whole, and regarded simply as nature, without reference to its origin, it can only be conceived as a vast repeating cycle, having its birth, growth, increase, diminution, ortus, interitus, maxima, minima, ever going round and round, as the very law of its continued being. A straightforward movement in one direction forever, whether it be one of rarefaction, or condensation, of separation, or combination, must end in ruin, stagnation, death, or utter sameness, in some period far less than an absolute eternity, if we may make comparisons. To avoid this, nature, the great nature, as well as the smaller ones, must be thought of as having its καμπή, its turning or bending, as Plato holds, and may even be said to demonstrate, in the Phœdo, 72, Ecc 73: “For if the one course of things should not give place to the other, in generation, but, on the contrary, there was ever a straightforward development (εὐθεῖα γένεσις) without any turning or circuit, it is certain that all things must finally get the same form (τὸ αὐτὸ σχῆμα), and have the same state or affection (τὸ ·ἀυτὸ πάθος), and all things must cease becoming” (παύσαι τὰ γιγνόμενα)—that is, there would be an end of all generation; things would be brought to a stand. This would be universal death, he shows, whether an absolute immobility and stagnation, or an absolute rarefaction and incoherence, which would come to the same thing. Both terminations would be the death of nature, of all natures. Whether in the individual or the universal, it can only live by coming round and round again. This must be the law of all physical movement, whether we regard nature as eternal, or as having its great beginning, together with special beginnings, in a Divine Word. As a nature commenced, it must thus move in growth, maxima and minima, or it would not be a nature. Change, decay, death, revival, are the law of its life. Aristotle thus presents the general cyclical idea (Physica IV. 14) as grounded in human language expressive of the natural human thinking. After speaking of time as motion in a circle, he thus proceeds: ·διὰ δὲ τοῦτο καὶτὸ εἰωθὸς λέγεσθαι συμβαίνει· φασὶ γὰρ κύκλον εἰναι τὰ�, καὶ τῶν�, καὶ γένεσιν, καὶ φθοράν. ὅτί ταῦτα πάντα λαμβᾶνει τελευτὴν καὶ� “On this account there arises the usual mode of speech. For they say that all human things are a circle (a wheel); and so of all other things that have a physical movement, both of generation and decay—namely, that they have a beginning and an end, or, as it were, a, period (a going round).” This reminds us of the τροχὸς γενέσεως, “course of nature” (circulus naturæ), of James 3:6, and the גַּלְגַל תּוֹלְדוֹת “the wheel of generations,” of the Talmudists and Rabbinical writers—also of Plato’s splendid Myth in the Politicus (269 c) of the two great periods, in one of which the Divine superintendence carries nature forward in unbroken progress, and, in the other, it is left to itself, and, consequently, to ruin and decay. Compare also the citations made by Zöckler, p. 40, from Seneca, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelian.

There is, however, a difference between the Greek αἰών, in its classical usage, and the Shemitic עולם. It consists in the fact that the latter is used for world—every where in the Syriac and Chaldaic, and much more frequently in the Bible Hebrew than our translation, or any modern version, would seem to show. There is a glimpse of such a meaning sometimes in the classical αἰών, as in Æschylus Supp. Ecc 572: Ζευς αἰῶνος κρεων�—“Zeus, king of the never ceasing (ever moving) world,” as it may very appropriately be rendered, or of the never ceasing age or eternity. This world sense of the Hebrew, and of the Greek in the New Testament, does not however, denote the world in space, more properly represented by the word κοσμος, but the world in time, or as a time existence. This is peculiarly a Shemitic conception, and yet it comes directly from our necessary thinking. The time of a thing enters into the idea of its true being as much as its extent or its energy in space; or, to express it more correctly, the movements in succession, of any true organism belong as much to its reality (that which makes it a res, or thing) as the matter or collected cotemporaneous activities to which we give the name. So, too, in our Saxon world (weorld), the primitive etymological conception, we think, would be found to be time rather than space, as appears even in the later usage which we find in such expressions as this world in distinction from the other world, or the world to come,—besides the already referred to usage in Wiclif’s translation, where it stands for עולם in the Old Testament, and for αἰών in the New; as Psalms 104:0; 5:13 for מלכות כל עלמים, Kingdom of all worldis, 1 Timothy 1:17 for βασιλεὺς τῶν αιώνωων Kynge of worldis, which puts us in mind of, ÆschylusΖεὺς αἰῶνος κρέων�.

The only place in the Old Testament where our English translators have rendered עולםby the word world is Ecclesiastes 3:11 [see note on that passage, p. 67]. It has been objected to this by Stuart, Hitzig, and others, because it is the only place, and that, therefore, the rendering is to be regarded as contrary to the usage of the language. But to this it may be replied by turning the argument: It should not have been the only place. There are others in which world is the best rendering. Thus in the passages already cited, Psalms 90:2, it is literally “from world to world,” instead of the vague term everlasting;10 Ps. c Ecc 945:13, “kingdom of all worlds:” Psalms 96:0; Psalms 31, 45; Jeremiah 10:10, “God of life, King of the world;” Habakkuk 3:0 :S, הליכות עולם“ goings of the world,” Vulg itinera mundi; Deuteronomy 33:27,“the arms of the world”—that support the world movement. [See further on this, Lange, Genesis, P. 140, Six days of creation, Ecc 27.] From such usages came the Rabbinical sense so frequently found, and not vice versa, as some would have us believe; only that the Rabbins afterward, not fully understanding the old Hebrew conception as denoted by the plural forms of עולם, or wishing to enlarge it so as to make it a term of science, gave it also the space sense, and used it for κόσμος (See Buxtorf—Lex. Chald. and Rab.). the great thought underlying all the passages just quoted is that of the world movement, as an immense time, exhibiting God’s great work, or plan, Ecclesiastes 3:14. So also in Ecclesiastes 1:3, לעולם may be rendered for the world, and, in fact, the context forces to that view: generations of men go and come, but the earth stands, לעולם for the world-time, as long as the world lasts, conveying the same idea that is given, Psalms 72:5, “throughout all generations, as long as the sun and more endure.” It is a way some critics have, of refusing to see a sense in places where it occurs, and then asserting that it cannot occur in any specific instance, because “it is not found elsewhere,” they say, in the Old Testament. Thus regarded, we see how it comes to be so common in the earliest Hebrew after the canonical,—not merely the earliest Rabbinical and Talmudical, but in Sirach, and other Jewish books, that much preceded them. This would never have been the case in the early Rabbinical writings, much less in these apocryphal books, had there not been some ground for it in the old Biblical Hebrew itself. And this may be said. generally, in regard to all other Rabbinisms, as they have been called, in Koheleth. They are rather Kohelethisms which appear in the earliest Rabbincial and Talmudical writers, because the old book, on account of its having more of a philosophical aspect than other ancient Scripture, possessed great charms for them, making it a favorite study, leading them to imitate its peculiar style, and to make much use of its rather forms and words. In the apocryphal books, so far as they were written originally in Hebrew, the use of עולם for world, or world time, is beyond all reasonable doubt. It must have been so employed in Sir 36:17, where we have the Greek αἰῶνας in the world sense, as also in Tob 13:6; Tob 13:10. In both cases the language is precisely similar to that Psalms 145:13, 1 Timothy 1:17. The earliest Syriac preceding the New Testament used their emphatic form of the word [עלמא] in the same way, as appears from the Peschito version of the Old Testament, as well as that of the New, this same word being used in such passages as Psalms 80:2; Psalms 45:13, Ecclesiastes 3:11, and Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 9:3, as a rendering of αἰών, αἰῶνες, where the Greek has, beyond all doubt, the world sense, though in its time aspect. Again, there is no accounting for this idiom in. the New Testament [this use of αἰών so different from the classical] except by regarding it as a Hebraism, which is simply saying that the world sense, thus viewed, was an old and established sense of the Hebrew עולם. There was nothing in any science, or thinking, in the Jewish age immediately preceding, to occasion any change or departure from the old meaning. There is neither authority nor weight in Winer’s remarks (Idioms of New Testament, § 27, 3) on the plural forms of αἰών,—that “they are used for worlds because the object denoted consists of several parts, e. g., οί αἰῶνες, the whole world, the universe,” with which he would compare the Rabbinical use of עלמים “The Jews,” he says, “imagined several heavens, one above the other.”That is true, but they never use עלמים to express such a conception. It is ever שׁמי שׁמים, the Heaven of Heavens, or the Heaven and Heaven of Heavens, or some similar language, from which came afterwards the third heaven of the Jews, and the seven heavens of the Talmud and of the Mohammedans. But this was ever in the space sense—worlds above worlds—not the time sense, worlds after worlds, which was a conception peculiarly Shemitic, barely found, if at all, among other ancient peoples, and giving rise to those pluralities of עולם and afterwards of αἰών, which can be accounted for in no other way; since the conception of absolute endlessness as etymological in עולםor αἰών, would clearly have prevented it. It is this idea which so refutes the assertion of Stuart (Comment. Ecclesiastes 12:1) that “time divided is not strictly predicable of a future state.” He means that all duration before or after the present world, as we call it, must be regarded as one continuous blank, or unvaried extension of being. There are not only no days and years, such as measure our olam, but no αἰῶνες, or world-times, in that greater chronology. This certainly is not the Scripture mode of conception, or such language as we find would never have arisen, or such pluralities as עלמים, αἰῶνες, or their reduplications, ages of ages, worlds of worlds exactly like the space pluralities שׁמי שׁמים, heaven of heavens. Such is the Scripture conception, we say, and what right had stuart, following Hit-zig, to deny that it is a Scripture truth, or to affirm that it is only a mode of speaking more humano? And reason sanctions it. What a narrow idea that the great antepast, and the great future after this brief world or עולם has passed away, are to be regarded as having no chronology of a higher kind, no other worlds, and worlds of worlds, succeeding each other in number and variety inconceivable ! Robinson seems to hold the view of Winer that when αἰῶνεςis used for worlds in the New Testament, it is to be regarded as a space conception, “ the upper and lower worlds, the heavens and the earth, as making up the universe;” and he refers to Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 9:3, passages which should have convinced him (pace tanti viri, do we venture to say it) that the time sense (worlds after worlds instead of worlds beyond or above worlds) is not only predominant but exclusive, as it is in 1 Timothy 1:17, βασιλεὺς τῶν αἰώνων, the King of the worlds, the King eternal. This would seem, too, to be Zöckler’s way of thinking, when he speaks of the rendering world (Ecclesiastes 3:11) as appearing first in the Talmudic literature, and carrying the sense of kosmos, macrocosmos. Neither עולם in the Old Testament, nor αἰών in the New, has ever the sense of kosmos, or any space conception attached to it. That idea, as was said before, did come in afterwards among the Talmudists and early Rabbins, but it was only after they had got a smattering of science, and wished to make some of their old words look more philosophical, See Buxtorf’S Lexicon on the word. They still, however, retained the time sense, or the world-time, in their favorite expressions,עולם הזהam world, and son עולם הבא, the world to corns, which are exact representations of the ancient usage, as it arose in that early day, when time worlds were so much more a source of wondering thought than worlds in space, the boasted conception of our modern knowledge.

It may he thought that this view of עולם and αἰών as having plurals, and, therefore, not in themselves denoting absolute endlessness, or infinity of time, must weaken the force of certain passages in the New Testament, especially of that most solemn sentence, Matthew 25:46. This, however, comes from a wrong view of what constitutes the real power of the impressive language there employed. The preacher, in contending with the Universalist, or Restorationist, would commit an error, and, it may be, suffer a failure in his argument, should he lay the whole stress of it on the etymological or historical significance of the words, αἰών, αἰωνίος, and attempt to prove that, of themselves, they necessarily carry the meaning of endless duration. There is another method by which the conclusion is reached in a much more impressive and cavil-silencing manner. It is by insisting on that dread aspect of finality that appears not in single words merely, but in the power and vividness of the language taken as a whole. The parabolic images evidently represent a closing scene. It is the last great act in the drama of human existence, the human world, or æon, we may say, if not the cosmical. It is the συντέλεια τοῦ αἰῶνος, Matth. 3:39, the end, the settlement, the reckoning of the world, or more strongly, Hebrews 9:26, συντέλεια τῶν α̇ιώνων, “ the settlement of the worlds,” when “God demands again the ages fled,” Ecclesiastes 3:15 (see the Metrical Version, and the reasons for this translation). At all events, our race, the בני אדם the Adamic race, the human αὶών, or world, is judged; whether that judgment occupy a solar day of twenty-four hours, or a much longer historic period. There comes at last the end. Sentence is pronounced. The condemned go away, εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον—the righteous, εἰς ζωὴν α̇ιώνιον. Both states are expressed in language precisely parallel, and so presented that we cannot exegetically make any difference in the force and extent of the terms. Αἱώνιος, from its adjective form, may perhaps mean, an existence, a duration, measured by asons, or worlds (taken as the measuring unit), just as our present world, or oeon, is measured by years or centuries. But it would be more in accordance with the plainest etymological usage to give it simply the sense of olamic or iconic, or to regard it as denoting, like the Jewish עולם הבא (olam habba), the world to come. These shall go away into the punishment [the restraint, imprisonment] of the world to come, and these into the life of the world to come. That is all we can. etymologically or exegetically make of the word in this passage. And so is it ever in the old Syriac Version, where the one rendering is still more unmistakably clear: These shall go away לְתַשְׁנִיָקא דַלְעָלַם to the pain of the olam, and these לְחיֵא דַלְעָלַם to the life of the olam”—the world to come. Compare the same Syriac expressions in a great many other passages, such as Matthew 19:16; Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18; John 3:15; Acts 13:46; 1 Timothy 6:12, etc., in which αἰώνιος is ever rendered דַלְעָלַם or דַלְעָלְמָא (more emphatic) “that which belongs to the olam,” in the singular.

They shall go away—the one here, the other there. The two classes so long mingled are divided, no more, as it would seem, to be again together. The “wheat is gathered into the garner,” the “tares are east into the fire.” The harvest is over; there is no more to follow; at least, the language gives us no intimation of any thing beyond. The catastrophe has come; the drama is ended; the curtain drops. Shall it never rise again? Is this solemn close forever in the sense of irreversibility? Who is authorized to say that there will ever be an arrest of this judgment, or a new trial ever granted? Every thing in the awful scene so graphically depicted seems to favor the one thought of finality. Hash minds may indulge the thought of some change, some dispensation in still remoter “worlds to come,” but there is no warrant for it in any of the language employed. If there be allowed the thought of change, it may be inferred of the one state as well as of the other. The ζωὴ αἰώνιος may have its interruption, its renewed probation, and exposure to evil; exegetically this may be as well sustained as the other. To rebut any such presumption, we have, too, our Saviour’s words, John 14:2; “If it were not so, I would have told you.” There would have been a similar ground for such language here as when he said, “Let not your hearts be troubled; in my Father’s house are many mansions; “there would have been the same reason for allaying fears of change on the one hand, or preventing despair on the other, had there not been the intention to impress that thought of finality which the whole dramatic representation so vividly conveys: If there were ages of change coming somewhere in the vast future, in the infinite flow of the αἰῶνες τῶν αἰώνων, “the ages of ages,” when the ζωὴ should cease, or the κόλαασις be intermitted, “I would have told you.” He has not told us; and no man should have the audacity to raise the veil which He has so solemnly dropped before the vision both of sense and reason. Let it remain for a new revelation, when he chooses to make it. Till then it stands: They shall go away, the one into the life, the other into the imprisonment, of the world to come. There is no more; let no one add to it; let no one take away. Some have thought to find the metaphysical idea of timelessness in the Scriptural olamic words, and especially in the αἰών, αἰώνιος, of the New Testament. That is a Platonic notion largely dwelt upon in the Timseus (37 c) where αιών is represented as fixed, one of the “things that stand” [belonging to the class called τὰ ὄντα rather than τὰ γιγνόμενα] whilst χρόνος flowing time, is its “moving image,” or the revolving mirror which seems to set in motion the landscape of eternity, though, in reality, all is changeless and still. But this timeless idea is no etymological sense of αἰών it is only the speculative notion of the philosopher which he represents by the word as supplying a supposed antithesis to χρόνος, time. We have no right to say, however, that there is no ground for it in the reason. It appears, sometimes, in the common thinking, as when we speak of time as contrasted with eternity, or of a state before time was, or that shall be when “time shall be no more.” Such a style of speech has been favored by a wrong interpretation of the language, Revelation 10:6, on ὅτι χρόνος οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι, and a severing it from its immediate context. Still its prevalence shows that it is not altogether alien to the human thinking. It is felt that there is a solid reason for predicating timelessness of God, of the Divine mind, and the Divine ways, as lying above the plane of the human, even “as the Heaven is high above the earth” [Isaiah 55:9]. To Deity all effects must be present in their causes, and causes seen in their effects, and all phenomena, or “things that do appear,” must have their more real existence in the unseen seminal energies of which they are manifestations. They have their true being in the Logos or Word from whence they came. Inthis sense the Prophet most sublimely represents God as יוֹשֵׁב קֶדֶם Psalms 55:20, sedens antiquitatem, literally, sitting the everlasting antepast, and שֹׁכֵן עַד Isaiah 57:15, inhabiting eternity, both of which expressions would seem to aim at denoting, as far as language can denote it, a timeless state, as opposed to movement or succession. And so even in regard to the human soul, our own finite thoughts may sometimes faintly present to us the image of successionless spiritual being, or of-some approach to it. We can think of a condition of the spirit in which time, as movement, seems to disappear. It may be the conception of some “beatific vision” on the one hand, or of some “horror of great darkness” on the other, the one so enrapturing and absorbing, the other so dense and harrowing, that all division, or sense of such division, seems so wholly lost that existence, in this respect, may not improperly be said to be timeless. Again, there is the schoolmen’s notion of eternity as given by Boethius, iota simul et interminabilis vilse possessio, or as it is defined by that quaint old Hebraist and Lexicographer, Robertson—“Eternity the everlasting and ever present, without futurition or preterition,” as in the timeless name אהיה, יהיה the I Am (Jahveh or Jehovah) ὁ ὢν, καὶ ὁ ἤν, καὶ ὅ ἑρχόμενος But such a timeless idea is hardly for our present thinking, in this present state of change and transition. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is high, we cannot attain unto it.” The mere glimpse we sometimes get dazzles the vision, and casts us down to that mode of thinking, as necessarily involving succession, which God has made the law of our presentmental being. We cannot, therefore, believe that this timeless idea of αἰών is intended in those passages that are meant to impress us with the solemnities of our future existence. If it thus occurs any where in the New Testament, it would seem to be in such passages as 2 Corinthians 4:18, τὰ γὰρ βλεπόμενα πρόσκαιιρα, τὰ δὲ μὴ βλεπόμενα αἰώνια—“the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.” We do not think that Paul got this, or other passages like it (such as Hebrews 11:1; Hebrews 11:3; Romans 1:20) from Plato, or that they were suggested to him by any study of the Platonic writings; but certainly there is a wonderful resemblance between it and some things in the Timæus, and the Republic. The μὴ βλεπόμενα the ἀόρατα “the unseen things,” of Paul, do strongly suggest, and are suggested by the ἀειδη the ἀόρατα the νοητα of Plato, as all denoting, not merely things absent from present vision, but that which is, in its very essence, unseen, supersensual, above all the senses, for which seeing is simply taken as the higher and general representative. So πρόσκαιρα and αἰώνια suggest the same distinction that Plato makes in the Timseus between the γιγνόμενα and the αἰώνια the becoming, the flowing, the changing, and the æonian, in the sense of reality and immutability. We are strongly drawn to think that Paul has something of the same contrast, though presented in a far higher and holier aspect than the mere philosophical contemplation. Πρόσκαιρα temporal would seem opposed to αἰώνια not in the sense of a short period (or periods) as contrasted with a long duration, or even an endless duration, but, rather, as time itself, or existence in time, as the antithesis of the timeless, that immutable, successionless being which even now we sometimes seem to see as in a mirror shadowly, (1 Corinthians 13:12), or enigmatically, but which then the soul may behold, face to face, as the most real of all realities. Except, however, in such lofty passages as that, where the inspired writer seems to see, and strives to utter, things ἄῤῥητα or ineffable (2 Corinthians 12:4), it is best to be content with that other and more obvious sense, which is best adapted to our faculties in their present state, and which may, therefore, be rationally regarded as the sense intended for us by the divine author of the Scriptures. Even here, in 2 Corinthians 4:18, this lower sense, if any choose to call it so, satisfies every demand of our present thinking: the things that are seen, the changing transitory objects around us, belong to our present transitory being—they are πρόσκαιρα for a season.—The things that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,” belong to the great world to come, as an advanced period in the vast successions of time. In this sense they are olamic or æonian. A purely timeless state, it may be said, is above our conceptions, at least for the human or finite existence,—above our conceptual thinking even, though not altogether transcending, as an idea, our highest reasoning.

There are other passages in which, the sense עולם would seem even more limited than in this verse of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 1:3), or rather, to be taken as a hyperbolical term for the indefinite or unmeasured, though of conceivably short duration. Compare Exodus 21:16, where it, is said of a servant in certain cases ויעבדוֹ לעולם “and he shall serve him forever”—that is, in distinction from a set time. So also, Lev. 30:26. The same language is used of inheritances, and earthly possessions, as in Deuteronomy 29:28. As an example of the immense extremes which the context shows in the use of the word, compare the language employed but a short distance from this latter passage, Deuteronomy 32:40 חי אני לעולם “I live forever;” spoken of God in such a way as to mean nothing less than the absolute or endless eternity. But it is the subject to which it is applied that forces to this, not any etymological necessity in the word itself. “And they shall reign forever and forever,” Revelation 22:5. Here is another example of an attempt to express the immeasurable, though in a different way, that is, by reduplications: καὶ βασιλεύσουσιν εἰς τοὺς ΑΙΩΝΑΣ τῶν ΑΙΩΝΩΝ in seeula seculorum, לעולם עלִמים Syriac לְעָלְמֵא דְעָלְמֵא or, in one word, לְעָלַמְעָלְמִין leolam-olemin, for-ever-ever-more, for ages of ages, worlds of worlds, eternities of eternities.—wickliff, “ther schulen regne in to worldis of worldis.” It falls short, of course, in conception, as all language must, yet still it is conceptually aiming at the endless, or absolute eternity, and must be taken, therefore, as representative of it in idea. A negative term, in such case, like infinite,, or endless, might have been used; but though correct, logically, it would have had far less conceptual, or even ideal power.

This is said of the future. There is a similar language used of the past; as Ephesians 3:9, ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων, a seculis מן עולמים from the olams, from the ages, the eternities, Wicliffe, “hidde worldis,” Tyndale, “from the beginning of the world,” the great world, including all worlds,—or, taken without division, the an-tepast eternity, before the present αἰὼν, olam, or world, began.

There is another method in which an attempt is made to represent the absolute eternity. It is by a phrase shorter than those before mentioned, but more emphatic, and, in some respects, more impressive. It is by adding to עולם or to לעולם the particle עַד or the noun עַד sometimes written עֶד Fuerst makes this word, as a noun, denoting eternity, from a supposed root עד, to which he gives the sense obducere, obvelare, to conceal, &c, making it, in this way, like the verb עלם the primary Sense of which is hiddenness, obscurity, thus giving the noun עולם the sense of the unbounded, the indefinite. There is no authority for this in the case of Tp. It might more plausibly be regarded as having the sense of number, like the Arabic عَلَّ; but the best view is that of Gesenius, who makes it, both as noun and particle, from עדה=Arabie عل ا which has the sense of transition. It is rather transition to, arrival and going beyond—a passing beyond, still farther, on, and on. Thus it becomes a name for eternity, as in those remarkable expressions, Isaiah 9:5, אֲבי עַדpoorly rendered everlasting Father, and שֹׁכֵן עַד inhabiting eternity, Isa. 67:15; with which compare הַרְרֵי עַד Habakkuk 3:6, הוֹרֵי עַד 49:29, and עַד עוֹלמֵי עַד 45:17 where we have the same word as noun and preposition—the mountains of ad, the progenitors of ad—to the ages of ad—to the ages to which other ages are to be added, indefinitely. Hence the preposition sense making it significantly, as well as etymologically equivalent to the Latin ad et, the Greek in, Saxon at and to, in all of which there is this sense of arrival and transition. The idea becomes most vivid and impressive in this Hebrew phrase לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד for ever and yet, for the age, the world, the eternity, and still on, on, on; or as the quaint old lexicographer before referred to expresses it, “it imparteth this, As yet, and as yet, and ever as yet, forever, and forevermore, as yet”—as though there were, in this short word thus added to עולם the full power of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, as it comes to us in the seemingly endless repetitions of that most sublime music. Unlike the others, the effect of this short addition to עולם is felt, in its very brevity and abruptness, as something that gives the impression of endless iteration. It is like the mathematician’s abbreviating term + &c, or the sign of infinity co, or the symbol by which he would denote the supposed last, term of an infinite series. These pluralities and reduplications, and other striking methods of representing the olamic ideas, are peculiar to the Shemitic languages, or they appear in our modern tongues only as derived from them through Bible translations, much changed, too, and weakened in the transfer. They are utterly at war with the thought of the great eternal past and future as blank undivided durations, according to the unwarranted dictum of Hitzio and Stuart, which would confine all history and all chronology to this brief æon we call time. These peculiar terms, with their strange pluralities, would never have grown up in the language of a people who entertained such a blank conception. The fact, however, is just the other way. In these vast time ideas, and the manner of vividly representing them, the Shemitic mind went beyond the modern, although we boast, and with reason, of so far exceeding the early men in the vastness of our space conceptions. It is only lately that our science has had its attention called to the great time periods of the world, as transcending the ordinary historical. Under the influence of the new idea, we talk largely in our numerical estimates, though almost wholly hypothetical; but for real emotional power what are our long rows of decimals, our myriads, and millions, and billions, to the αἰῶνες τῶν� the ages of ages, the worldis of worldis, the olam of olams, the great world made up of countless worlds, not beyond each other, in space, but one after the other, in time?

There is still another aspect of the world idea, which seems to be presented, Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 3:14. The thought of the world, or of a world, when the mind receives it complete, comes to it in a trinal form of contemplation, like the three dimensions in geometry, breadth, length, and height. It is the world in space and force, (or the world dynamically), the world in time, and the world in rank or range of being. To use some of the language employed by Cr. Lange, Genesis, 190, 191, it is the “world as kosmos, the world as scon,” to which we may add, the world as the kingdom of God. The application of this thought, especially the latter view of it, to Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 3:14, gives those verses a force and significance which warrants great confidence in it as the true interpretation. On Ecclesiastes 1:11 of that chapter, see soma further remarks in the note adjoined. In Ecclesiastes 1:14 it is said, “I know that all that God doeth,” or “whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever,” says our translation, in perpetuum says the Vulgate, Ecc 70: εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (for the æon), Luther, das bestehet immer. The Hebrew לעולם here may be rendered, as in Ecclesiastes 1:11, for the world, but it can hardly be regarded exclusively, or mainly, as either the world in space or the world in time. The mind is not satisfied with the rendering forever, or for eternity, if there is understood by it simply endless duration. God’s greater works, the heavenly bodies and their motions may have such a term applied to them, hyperbolically, as compared with the transient works of man, and this is the view which some excellent commentators take of the passage. There is a striking resemblance to it, well worthy of note, in Cicero’s Treatise de Natura Deorum, where the lower tellurian irregularities are contrasted with the heavenly order and permanency as manifested in the planetary movements, or, to use some of Koheleth’s language, the flowing, changing world, תַּחַת הַשֶׁמֶש “beneath the sun,” and the world supra solem, the eternal sphere, unchanging, or forever constant, in its one unvarying movement: Nulla igitur in ccs’o nee fortuna, nee temeritas, nee erratic nee va-rietas inest; contraqus, Omnis Ordo, Veritas, Rstio, Concordla; quseque his vacant, em-entila et falsa, plenaque erroris, ea circum terras, infra lunam, quse omnium ultima est, in lerrisqui versanur. “There is, therefore, in the heavens neither chance, nor arbitrariness, nor erroneous movement, nor variableness, but, on the contrary, all is order, truth, reason, constancy (ratio in the sense of proportion, harmony); void of these, all is spurious, false, full of error, that lies beneath the moon, the lowest sphere, or that has its home here on earth” [Argument of the Stoic Balbus, Cic. De. Nat. Deor., II. 22].” “Beneath the moon”—compare it with the frequent Solomonic expression above referred to, and the sublime language,. Job 25:2, עֹעֶֹה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו faciens concordiam in sublimibus suis—“who maketh peace in His high places.” Thus regarded, the heavens in their larger and higher aspect, are representative of the calmness, immutability, and unfailing certainty of that divine Will which is ever one with the divine Reason. This is indeed a noble view of the passage, but we cannot think it the exclusively true one, not simply because it is said in other Scriptures (Psalms 102:26, Isaiah 51:6), that “the heavens themselves grow old” and “vanish away,” but because it can hardly be made to suit with the expression לעולם either in its cosmical or time sense, or those other words כל אשר “whatsoever God has made.” Some things God has made to be transient, and they can, in no sense, be said to “be forever,” or “for eternity,” unless we take it, according to the view of Zöckler, in their connections with other things that are eternal, or in their bearing upon eternal destinies. But this would be true also of the works and movements of man, or things “beneath the sun.” The better view, therefore, and better satisfying the whole spirit of the passage, is that which regards עולם as denoting the world, or world-time in God’s sight—the great ideal, as it appears to Him, including not merely space and time, but the great range of being—or, to avoid the use of what might seem affected philosophical language, the divine plan of being, to which the smallest and most transient things contribute as well as the greatest,—in other words, the kingdom of God. To this “nothing can be added; from it nothing can be taken away.” In this sense, all that God doeth is לעולם for the olam, for the world, for the great whole of being, as distinguished from the human plans, the human doings, with their adapted yet transient seasons, as they are enumerated in the first part of the chapter—“a time for every thing,” but every thing for the olam, or great world time, with its inconceivable range of being, transcending man; as man transcends the animal worlds below him. A somewhat similar view seems to have been entertained by that excellent old commentator Martin Geier. He refers it to “the divine decrees”—God’s ideal world, in fact, whose effects are determined in-their causes, as the causes are all contained in the effects. “By God’s doing here” he says, “we are not to understand simply the things produced by him, creatures which God has made; for they do not all remain forever, &c, but it is to be understood, defacere Dei interno, i. e„ de decretis divinis, of the divine decrees (in mente divina) as they are forever in the divine mind, unchangeably, without addition or diminution, nam consilium Jehovah in seculum slat, congitationes cordis ejus in gene-rationem et generationem, Psalms 33:11 : “For the counsel of Jehovah stands, the thoughts of his heart unto all generations.” See also the note on the astronomical objections to the Bible; Bibelwerk, Genesis, Eng. ed., pp. 183, 184.—T.L.]

B. The practical wisdom of men, aiming at sensual enjoyment, and magnificent worldly enterprises, is vanity.


[1][The idea denoted by this frequent word is transitoriness, swift passing away; rather than nothingness (Nichtigkeit). Things may be very transient. yet very important—like the present human life, which St. James styles ἀτμίς (exactly equivalent to the Hebrew הֶבֶל) “a vapor that soon passeth away,” James 3:0. The writer does not mean to call vanity, in the sense of nothingness or worthlessness, that which he says elsewhere God will surely call to judgement with all its most secret deeds.—T. L.]

[2] [The word which, both in composition and significance, most nearly corresponds to Koheleth’s frequent יִתְרוֹן, is the Greek πλεονεξία, so much used by Paul, and poorly rendered covetousness. It rather means, having the more, having the advantage or superiority in anything, whether wealth, fame, or ambition.—T. L.]

[†It would really seem as though Sirach, though such a thorough Jew, as his book shows him to be, had known something of the poems of Homer. There is such a striking resemblance, both in particular words and in special points of the picture, between this passage and the lines, so frequently quoted from the speech of Glaucus, Iliad 5:146.

ὅιη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοιήδε καὶ�,

φύλλα τὰ μὲν τ’ ἅνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δὲ θ’ ὕλη

τηλεθόωσα φύει ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη,

ὣς�, ἠ μὲν φύει ἠ δ’ ἀπολήγει.

The race of man is like the race of leaves:
Of leaves, one generation by the wind
Is scattered on the earth; another soon,
In spring’s luxuriant verdure, bursts to light.
So with our race; these flourish, those decay.

Lord Derby’s Translation.—T. L.].

[3] [There is a concealed metaphor in this passage all the more beautiful because of its inobtrusiveness. It is contained in the words זרח and שאף, beaming (radiating) glowing, panting.—See Metrical Version. It is the figure of the race horse returning panting to his goal, whence he started—

All panting, glowing, there again is he.

Such a mode of conceiving was at the origin of the classical figure: the horses of the sun panting up the eastern steep [comp. Psalms 19:6]. See both figures combined, as they are here, Virg. Æn. xii. 113.

Postea vix summos spargebat lumine montes
Orta dies, cum primo alto se gurgite tollunt
Solis equi, lucemque elatis naribus efflant.

See also the Georgics, Lib. I. Ecc 250:

Aut redit a nobis aurora, diemque reducit,

Nosque ubi primus equis oriens afflavit anhelis.

To all thinking minds, the idea of the earth being a sphere, or a body, lying in space, with space all round it, above and below—or having, at least, an under as well as an upper side—must have been very early. It was at once suggested by this constant phenomenon of sun-setting and sun-rising—going down below on the West (his tabernacle or sleeping-tent, as the Psalmist compares it, Psalms 19:5), and rising in the East as one who came from below, and ascended “a steep, weary, yet glorious”—like a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber (Psalms 19:6) or as a strong man (an athlete) to run a race. Compare the same image, though reversed, Iliad. vi. 506. It was the same sun, and he must have gone under (into his “subterranean heavenly abode,” as Zöckler well calls it) and around again to his starting place. The heavens would be all round it, and, thus, as the Psalmist graphically paints, these under heavens would be his tabernacle, where he spends the night, as it appears to us. We detect the image in the early Hesiodean cosmogony, where it is said that “γαῖα (earth) gave birth to starry οὐρανὸς, corresponding to herself,” ΐσον ἑαυτῆ, Hes. Theog. 127. It was almost obvious to sense, and the musing mind must have been very early familiar with the conception. It was not inconsistent with the other notion that appears in Scripture, of the earth as an extended plain. The latter was phenomenal, the former the product of reflection. Both were adapted to poetry—the one to the poetry of the eye, the other to that of the thought. Compare Job 26:7. “He hangeth the earth upon nothing,” or, rather, “over emptiness.”—T. L.].

[4][There is no more reason for calling בִּבַר an Aramaic word here, than the feminine form, כִּבְרָה, Genesis 35:16; Genesis 48:7; 2 Kings 5:19. It means a considerable but indefinite amount whether of space as in the examples in Genesis 35:16 or of time as here—some distance off, or some time ago—long ago. The same may be said of מַכְבִיר, Job 35:16; Job 36:31.—T. L.]

[5][לעלמים is rather added as an amplification of the indefinite כּבר. It hath been already—long ago—yes, in some of the olams (or worlds), cosmical or historical, that have gone before in the immense past. See remarks in note on the olamic words, p. 41, &c.—T. L.]

[6][This is certainly a slender basis on which to build such an argument. The indefinite use of the Hebrew tenses will not allow it to have much force, and, moreover, it is perfectly consistent (even if rendered was) with the condition of an old man, an old king, who had seen the vanity of the world, and of royal estate, and wished to impress it on the mind of his reader, to speak it as something past and gone. I who was king—or, when I was king—in the full exercise of power and dignity. Besides, if there is an inconsistency, it would be full as great in one who assumes to personate Solomon. Such a one would be even more careful to guard against obvious anachronisms, as this would be, if thus regarded. See Wordsworth on the expression, and the argument drawn from it. The word Koheleth may be a scholium of the later compiler, to explain (though unnecessarily) what he deemed abrupt: I (Koheleth) was King; and so in other places like similar scholia in the Pentateuch.—T. L.]

[7][בְּחָכְמָה does not mean wisety in the sense of Knowingly, or skilfully—neither does it mean by, or, with wisdom, as an instrument, though that is nearer to it; but rather in the way of wisdom. that is philosophically, speculatively, theoretically, in distinction from experimentally or practically, as he did afterwards.—T. L.]

[8][This is entirely gratuitous. It may refer to any men of note and wealth, together with David and Saul, or the writer may well have had in view old Princes in Jerusalem, away back to the days of Melchisedec.—T. L.]

[9][The word לב, heart, is used in Hebrew (especially in the Proverbs and Solomonic writings) as much for the mind or intellect as for the feeling—the affections.—T. L.]

[10][This language is generally used of God, or His Kingdom. There are, however, cases where it is employed hyperbolically of the settlement in the promised land as in Jeremiah 7:7 : “And I will cause you to dwell in this place, which I gave to your fathers, למן עולם ועד עולם, from age to age”—or from world to world, or forever, if we take, as we may, if we have faith for it, the higher spiritual sense of the eternal settlement, the eternal rest, of which the settlement in Canaan was the appointed type.—T. L.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1857-84.
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