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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 1

Sermon Bible CommentarySermon Bible Commentary

Verses 1-2

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

The book of Ecclesiastes is a dramatic biography, in which Solomon not only records, but re-enacts, the successive scenes of his search after happiness, a descriptive memoir, in which he not only recites his past experience, but, in his improvising fervour, becomes his former self once more.

I. It need not then surprise us if we find in these chapters many strange questionings and startling opinions before we arrive at the final conclusion. Intermingled with much that is noble and holy, these "doubtful disquisitions" are not the dialogue of a believer and an infidel, but the soliloquy of a "divided heart," the debate of a truant will with an upbraiding conscience.

II. In the search after happiness, his first resource was knowledge, then merry-making, then the solace of absolute power. But no sooner did he find his power supreme and unchallenged than he began to be visited with misgivings as to his successor. "Yea, I hated all the labour which I had taken under the sun, because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me."

III. Who is there that apart from God's favour has ever tasted solid joy and satisfaction of spirit? All will be vanity to the heart which is vile, and all will be vexation to the spirit which the peace of God is not possessing.

J. Hamilton, The Royal Preacher, Lecture II.

Verses 1-11

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

The search for the summum bonum , the quest of the chief good, is the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes. Naturally we look to find this theme, this problem, this "riddle of the painful earth," distinctly stated in the opening verses of the book. It is stated, but not distinctly. For the book is a drama, not an essay or a treatise. Instead of introducing the drama with a brief narrative or a clear statement of the moral problem he is about to discuss, the Preacher opens with the characteristic utterances of the man who, wearied with many futile endeavours, gathers up his remaining strength for a last attempt to discover the chief good of life.

I. It is the old contrast old as literature, old as man between the ordered steadfastness of nature and the disorder and brevity of human life. As compared with the calm order and uniformity of nature, man's life is a mere fantasy, passing for ever through a limited and tedious range of forms each of which is as unsubstantial as the fabric of a vision, many of which are as base as they are unreal, and all of which, for ever in a flux, elude the grasp of those who pursue them or disappoint those who hold them in their hands. The burden of all this unintelligible life lies heavily on the Preacher's soul. The miseries and confusions of our lot baffle and oppress his thoughts. Above all, the contrast between nature and man, between its massive and stately permanence and the frailty and brevity of our existence, breeds in him the despairing mood of which we have the keynote in his cry, "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

II. All depends on the heart we turn to nature. It was because his heart was heavy with the memory of many sins, because, too, the lofty Christian hopes were beyond his reach, that the "son of David" grew mournful or bitter as he looked at the strong ancient heavens and the stable, bountiful earth and thought of the weariness and brevity of human life. This, then, is the mood in which the Preacher commences his quest of the chief good. He is driven to it by the need of finding that in which he can rest. He could not endure to think that those who have "all things put under their feet" should lie at the mercy of accidents from which their realm is exempt; that they should be the mere fools of change, while that abideth unchanged for ever. And therefore he set out to discover the condition in which they might become partakers of the order, and stability, and peace of nature the condition in which, raised above all tides and storms of change, they might sit calm and serene even though the strong ancient heavens and the solid earth should vanish away.

S. Cox, The Quest of the Chief Good, p. 113.

The allegorical interpretations of Ecclesiastes, of which there have been an enormous number, are all based upon a similar mistake. They all assume that the author ought to have written something else. This kind of criticism, however ingenious, is dishonest and irreverent dishonest, for it is an attempt to obtain unfairly confirmation for our own opinions; irreverent, for if a book be worth reading at all, it is our business to try and learn the author's views, and not to teach him ours.

I. Koheleth begins his soliloquy with the thought that we are not immortal. "What profit hath a man," he asks, "of all his labour that he taketh under the sun?" The earth is possessed of perpetual youth, and she continually repeats herself; but how different it is with man. Generation after generation passes away, and returneth nevermore. We do not live even in the remembrance of our fellows. "But the earth abideth for ever." This was what angered Koheleth: that man should perish when the world in which he lived was eternal.

II. Apart from immortality, all that he said may be repeated with equal correctness today. Whoever takes Koheleth's view of human destiny should participate in Koheleth's despair. What avails it to be a Homer or a Caesar today if tomorrow I am to be nothing but a heap of dust?

A. W. Momerie, Agnosticism, p. 176.

References: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 . J. J. S. Perowne, Expositor, 1st series, vol. ix., p. 409; J. H. Cooke, The Preacher's Pilgrimage, p. 12.Ecclesiastes 1:2 G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 20; Clergyman's Magazine, vol. i., p. 102.Ecclesiastes 1:2 , Ecclesiastes 1:3 . H. P. Liddon, Old Testament Outlines, p. 162.

Verses 2-11

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

I. This passage is the preamble to the book; it ushers us at once into its realms of dreariness. It is as if he said, "It is all a weary go-round. There are no novelties, no wonders, no discoveries. The present only repeats the past; the future will repeat them both." From such vexing thoughts may we not escape by taking refuge in one permanence and one variety to which the royal Preacher does not here advert? I mean the soul's immortality and the renewed soul's perpetual rejuvenescence, that attribute of mind which makes it the survivor of all changes, and that faculty of regenerate humanity which renders old things new and suffuses with perpetual freshness things the most familiar.

II. If the immortality of material forms is only that which they achieve through the immortality of the human soul, and if the true glorification of matter is its sanctifying influence on regenerate mind, we may learn two lessons from our argument. (1) There is no harm in a vivid susceptibility to those material appearances and influences with which God has replenished the universe. (2) But that susceptibility is good for nothing if it be not sanctifying. There is an idolatry of nature. There are some whose god is the visible creation, and not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

J. Hamilton, The Royal Preacher, Lecture IV.

References: Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 . R. Buchanan, Ecclesiastes: its Meaning and Lessons, p. 22; T. C. Finlayson, A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 27; G. G. Bradley, Lectures on Ecclesiastes, p. 29.

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 1:4

It is the manifest intention of the Divine Spirit, as shown in the sacred writings, that we should be taught to find emblems in the world we are placed in to enforce solemn instruction upon us.

I. The character of permanence in objects we behold may admonish us of the brevity of our mortal life. In a solitary or contemplative state of the mind the permanent objects give the impression as if they rejected and scorned all connection with our transitory existence; as if we were accounted but as shadows passing over them; as if they stood there but to tell us what a short day is allotted to us on earth. They strike the thoughtful beholder with a character of gloomy and sublime dissociation and estrangement from him.

II. The great general instruction from this is, How little hold, how little absolute occupancy, we have of this world! When all the scene is evidently fixed to remain, we are under the compulsion to go. We have nothing to do with it but as passing from it. Men may strive to cling, to seize a firm possession, to make good their establishment, resolve and vow that the world shall be theirs; but it disowns them, stands aloof: it will stay, but they must go.

III. But should not the final lesson be that the only essential good that can be gained from the world is that which can be carried away from it? Alas that mere sojourners should be mainly intent on obtaining that which they must leave, when their inquisitive glance over the scene should be after any good that may go with them something that is infixed in the soil, the rocks, or the walls!

J. Foster, Lectures, 2nd series, p. 117.

Reference: Ecclesiastes 1:4 . J. Hamilton, Works, vol. vi., p. 484.

Verses 4-10

Ecclesiastes 1:4-10

I. It is universally acknowledged that the circle is the archetype of all forms, physically as well as mathematically. It is the most complete figure, the most stable under violence, the most economical of material; its proportions are the most perfect and harmonious: and therefore it admits of the utmost variety consistent with unity of effect. The universe has apparently been framed according to this type. Nature attains her ends not in a series of straight lines, but in a series of circles; not in the most direct, but in the most roundabout, way.

II. Passing from the physical world to the domain of man, we find there also innumerable traces of the law of circularity. "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh." Human life is like the wheel which Ezekiel saw in vision. Its aspects and relations, external and internal, are continually changing; one spoke of the wheel is always ascending while another is descending: one part is grating on the ground while another is aloft in the air. Action and reaction is the law of man's life. A season of misfortune is usually followed by a season of success; and when circumstances are most prosperous, a time of reverses is not far off.

III. The first and most prominent doctrine which Christianity teaches is that retrogression is an element of progress. (1) "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," was its watchword when it first raised its voice amid the deserts and mountains of Judaea. Repentance is the germinal bud of living Christianity. (2) The afflictions and trials that bring the Christian low contribute in the end to raise him to a higher condition of heavenly-mindedness. (3) Death seems to the eye of sense the saddest and most mysterious of all retrogressions. The wheel is broken at the cistern; the circle of life completes itself, and returns to the non-existence from which it sprang. But the day of death is better than the day of birth, because death is a higher and nobler birth. The grave is an underground avenue to heaven, a triumphal arch through which spiritual heroes return from their fight to their reward, made conquerors, and more than conquerors, through Him that loved them.

H. Macmillan, Bible Teaching in Nature, p. 312.

References: Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 . J. Bennet, The Wisdom of the King, p. 60. Ecclesiastes 1:6 . F. Schleiermacher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. iii.,p. 5.Ecclesiastes 1:7 . H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Waterside Mission Sermons, 2nd series, p. 122; Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 302.

Verses 12-14

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14

I. Solomon found no rest in pleasure, riches, power, glory, wisdom itself. He had learnt nothing more, after all, than he might have known, and doubtless did know, when he was a child of seven years old; and that was simply to fear God and keep His commandments, for that was the whole duty of man. But though he did know it, he had lost the power of doing it; and he ended darkly and shamefully a dotard worshipping idols of wood and stone among his heathen queens. And thus as in David the height of chivalry fell to the deepest baseness, so in Solomon the height of wisdom fell to the deepest folly.

II. Exceeding gifts from God, like Solomon's, are not blessings; they are duties, and very solemn and heavy duties. They do not increase a man's happiness; they only increase his responsibility the awful account which he must give at last of the talents committed to his charge. They increase, too, his danger. They increase the chance of his having his head turned to pride and pleasure, and falling shamefully, and coming to a miserable end. As with David, so with Solomon. Man is nothing, and God is all in all. Let us pray for that great, that crowning, grace and virtue of moderation, what St. Paul calls sobriety and a sound mind. Let us long violently after nothing, or wish too eagerly to rise in life, and be sure that what the Apostle says of those who long to be rich is equally true of those who long to be famous or powerful, or in any way to rise over the heads of their fellow-men. They all fall, as the Apostle says, into foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition, and so pierce themselves through with many sorrows.

C. Kingsley, The Water of Life, p. 175.

Verses 12-18

Ecclesiastes 1:12-22

Koheleth now mentions the unusual advantages which he had possessed for enjoying life and making the best of it. His opportunities could not have been greater, he considers, had he been Solomon himself. He henceforth speaks therefore under the personated character of the wise son of David. He speaks as one who represented the wisdom and prosperity of his age.

I. "I have set myself," he says, "to the task of investigating scientifically the value of all human pursuits." This, he assures us, is no pleasant task. It is a sore travail that God has allotted to the sons of men, which they cannot altogether escape. Koheleth thought and thought till he was forced to the conclusion that all human pursuits were vanity and vexation of spirit, or, according to the literal Hebrew, were but vapour and striving after the wind. There was no solidity, nothing permanent, nothing enduring, about human possessions or achievements. For man was doomed to pass away into nothingness.

II. Having stated his position in these general terms, he now enters into the subject a little more in detail. He reminds himself how at one time he had tried to find his happiness in pleasure and amusement; but pleasure had palled upon him, and appeared good for nothing: and as for amusements, Koheleth thinks that life might, perhaps, be tolerable without them. Having discovered the unsatisfactoriness of pleasure, Koheleth proceeds to inquire if there is anything else that could take its place. What of wisdom? Can that make life a desirable possession? He proceeds to institute a comparison between wisdom and pleasure. Pleasure is but momentary; wisdom may last for a lifetime. Pleasure is but a shadow; wisdom is comparatively substantial and real. The lover of wisdom will follow her till he dies. Ay, there's the rub till he dies. One event happeneth to them all. What then is the good of wisdom? This, too, is vanity.

III. In the third chapter Koheleth points out how anything like success in life must depend upon our doing the right thing at the right time. Wisdom lies in opportuneness. Inopportuneness is the bane of life. What we have to do is to watch for our opportunity and embrace it.

IV. In Ecclesiastes 3:14 , Koheleth seems to rise for a moment into a religious mood. But his religion is by no means of an exalted type. Times, seasons, and opportunities, he says, are of Divine appointment; and, like nature's phases, they happen in recurring cycles. God doeth it that men should fear before Him. The existence of so much unrequited wisdom in the world might seem to suggest that there is no higher power. But there is. God will rule the righteous and the wicked, and reward them according to their works. There is a time for every purpose and for every work, and therefore for the purpose of retribution among the rest.

A. W. Momerie, Agnosticism, p. 190.

References: Ecclesiastes 1:13 . J. Bennet, The Wisdom of the King, p. 14.Ecclesiastes 1:14 . Ibid., pp. 28, 38; Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 339; W. G. Jordan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xvii., p. 136.

Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 1:17

There are two ways of arriving at the knowledge of the truth respecting the importance and benefit of holiness and goodness. These two ways are one the experience of what is good, the other the experience of what is bad. These are the two kinds of moral experience we see in the world. I shall compare the two together, first, as to their own character, and, secondly, with respect to their weight in the way of example to others.

I. As to their own character. It is to be admitted that the moral impression which is gained by a course of sin is often a very acute and deep one. There is nothing in the whole circle of human feeling and conviction deeper and more intense than the insight into the emptiness and vanity of the world which men of the world have sometimes at the close of their career. But what, after all, does this wisdom, which is gained by the experience of an evil life, do for them? The great use of wisdom is to make men act aright. If it come after all action is over, it is useless; it is mere seeing for seeing's sake, and knowing for knowing's sake. Here, then, lies the difference between that knowledge which is got by an evil life and that knowledge which is got by a good one. In both cases there is a strong moral conviction gained; but in the case of moral conviction gained by an evil life the harm has been done: and the conviction comes not to prevent the evil, but only to acquaint you with it. To state briefly the difference between the convictions which the experience of good and the experience of worldly men produce, we may say in a word that it consists in faith. In the conviction which is gained by an evil life there is no faith. The possessor would not trust anything but his own experience, and accordingly his conviction is mere matter of experience when he gets it.

II. As regards the comparison of these two kinds of experience in the way of example to others, I cannot but think that the value of that experience at which men of pleasure and men of the world arrive at the close of their careers, and which they communicate to others, is very much overrated. However strong and acute it may be in itself, as regards its effect upon others it is feeble, and for this very good reason: that the man's advice is one way, and his acts have been in another. There is one, and only one, appointed way of doing good; and that is by being good.

J. B. Mozley, Sermons Parochial and Occasional, p. 170.

Reference: Ecclesiastes 1:17 . J. Bennet, The Wisdom of the King, p. 85.

Verse 18

Ecclesiastes 1:18

The declaration of the text may be considered as the expression of a soul that seeks satisfaction in mere earthly knowledge.

I. Mere earthly knowledge is unsatisfactory in its nature. Take as an illustration of this the field of creation. The knowledge of facts and laws can employ man's reason, but it cannot ultimately satisfy it, and still less can it soothe his soul or meet the longings of his spirit.

II. Mere earthly knowledge is painful in its contents. How melancholy is the history of man when written down! Take away our hope in God, and we could bear to study history only as we forget all the higher ends it might serve as a school of training for immortal souls, and as the steps of a Divine Architect through the broken scaffolding and scattered stonework upwards to a finished structure. The very glimpse of this is reviving; but to give up at once Architect and end, and see human lives scattered and strewn across weary ages, and human hearts torn and bleeding with no abiding result this surely would fill a thoughtful mind with pain. The more of such history, the more of sorrow.

III. Mere earthly knowledge is hopeless in its issue. For an illustration of this we may take the field of abstract thought. Let a man seek the origin and end of things without God, and doubt grows as search deepens, for doubt is on the face of all things if it be in the heart of the inquirer. As he enlarges the circumference of knowledge he enlarges the encircling darkness, and even the knowledge yields no ray of true satisfaction.

IV. Mere earthly knowledge is discouraging in its personal results. We may consider here the moral nature of man. Earthly science can do very much to improve man's external circumstances. It can occupy his reason; it can refine and gratify his taste. But there are greater wants that remain. If the man seek something to fill and warm his heart, all the wisdom of this world is only a cold phosphorescence. The tree of knowledge never becomes the tree of life.

V. Mere earthly knowledge has so brief a duration. Here we may contemplate life as a whole. If the thought of God be admitted, all real knowledge has the stamp of immortality; but if there be nothing of this, "in one day all man's thoughts perish." "The wise man dieth, and the fool also." The sweeter truth is to the taste, the more bitter must be the thought of leaving the pursuit of it for ever.

J. Ker, Sermons, p. 44.

Melancholy arises:

I. From the thought that life is too short even for the most ardent labour to wrest from the bosom of nature or the ocean of the soul a thousandth part of their secrets. "Death comes," we think. "Is all I have done for others and learnt for myself lost? Why may I not live to finish my work, to complete and round my knowledge? If death be all, then the increase of my knowledge is the increase of my sorrow." The remedy and the answer lie in the teaching of Christ. He has brought, it is true, upon the world an increased dread of death, for He has deepened the sense of moral responsibility; but in deepening responsibility He has also brought upon the world an increased delight in life, because He has made life more earnest, active, and progressive. The remedy then, when the thought of death comes to shroud our little term of being with melancholy, is to take up with eagerness again the duties and responsibilities of life. We look to Christ, and the two sources of the melancholy of which we speak the idea of our work perishing, the idea of a cessation of the growth of knowledge vanish away. (1) He died, it is true, when half the natural sands of life were run; but we see that His labour has not died with Him. It has passed as a power and life into the world. (2) In Him we are ourselves immortal, and the work which we have started and left to others here we carry on ourselves in the larger world beyond. But if so, it will require added knowledge, and indeed in its progress it will necessarily store up knowledge. In Christ we know that we shall never cease to learn.

II. The second source of melancholy is retrospective thought. Christ calls us to a higher thought of life. "Let dead idols bury themselves," He says; "come away from them, and follow Me; there are other ideals in front, better and larger than the past." It is the one inspiring element of Christianity that it throws us in boundless hope upon the future, and forbids us to dwell in the poisonous shadows of the past. We are to wake up satisfied in the likeness of Christ, the ever-young humanity. Therefore, forgetting those things which are behind, let us press forward unto the mark of the prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus.

III. A third cause of melancholy is the sadness of the world. What is its remedy? The true remedy is to penetrate steadily into the depths of the dreadful mystery; to comprehend what destiny, and evil, and death mean; to go down into hell, and know it, and conquer it. This is what Christ did in resolute action upon earth; and out of this meeting of sorrow and evil face to face, not by passing them by and ignoring them, sprang His conquest. Evil was overthrown, sorrow was changed into joy, death was swallowed up in victory, because He went down into hell.

S. A. Brooke, Christ in Modern Life, p. 243.

We may contradict this text as we please, but we do not in reality contradict it by asserting its opposite; we only complete it by asserting its other half. Both statements are half-truths. The whole truth of the thing is only found in the assertion of both. He that increaseth knowledge increaseth pleasure, and increaseth sorrow. This is what Albert Dürer saw and engraved in his subtle print of "Melencolia." It would be especially true in the artist's time of those who were attempting to penetrate into the secrets of the physical world. For the true methods of scientific investigation had not been found. We are freed from that grief, for we are consciously advancing, having found true methods; but the same profound pain besets us in the science of metaphysics and of theology, and for the same reason: the want of true methods.

I. The melancholy which arises from the vague answers which we can only suggest to many of our deepest questions is made greater by the clear answers which our questions receive in science. Distinctness in one sphere seems to suggest that distinctness might be reached in all if we had power. We have wings, then; but we have the misery of knowing that they are not strong enough.

II. What is the remedy for the sadness of increased uncertainty which growing knowledge has added to spiritual problems? The remedy is plainly stated in the New Testament. But let us see if we cannot approach the New Testament statement from the side of scientific practice, and so strengthen its force. The certainties of science are mixed up also with uncertainties. Towards these uncertainties what are the practice and attitude of men of science? It is that of men who possess a "faith which worketh by love." They believe in truth, and their faith works through love of truth. The result has been the swiftest and the safest success. In other spheres then, and in a different meaning, this text is true: "This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith." In every way this is a lesson which we would do well to learn. The root of our cowardice, of our hesitation, of our inactive melancholy, is our faithlessness. We are not asked at first to believe in certain doctrines or in the opinions of men. We are asked to believe in eternal right, in a Father of spirits whose will is good. This is not a faith in the commandments and doctrines of men. It is a faith in eternal love. It is not a blind credulity; it is a faith which the man has proved in adversity, and by which he has conquered.

S. A. Brooke, Christ in Modern Life, p. 250.

References: Ecclesiastes 1:18 . H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 2661; J. Fordyce, Christian World Pulpit, vol. viii., p. 303. 1 C. Bridges, An Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 1.Ecclesiastes 2:1 . J. Bennet, The Wisdom of the King, p. 14.Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 . J. J. S. Perowne, Expositor, 1st series, vol. x., p. 165.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Sermon Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sbc/ecclesiastes-1.html.
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