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The Preacher sheweth that all human courses are vain; because the creatures are restless in their courses, they bring forth nothing new, and all old things are forgotten: and because he hath found it so in the studies of wisdom.
Ecclesiastes 1:1. The words of the Preacher— Or, orator. Mr. Desvoeux has shewn with great learning, that Solomon in this book appears nearly in the character of an eminent sophist among the Greeks, according to the primitive signification of that word, which implied philosophy and rhetoric joined together. The method of these ancient sages, as far as we can judge of it from what remained among their degenerate successors, was, to treat any subject which was reckoned worthy their learned dissertations in such a manner as to please the ear and improve the mind; which Tully calls the most perfect philosophy. The book of Ecclesiastes certainly deserves that character, if any in antiquity does. We must not conceive that Solomon was like the common and ordinary preachers among the Hebrews; yet it is certain, that he spake much in public for the instruction of the people; There came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon:—All the earth sought the face of Solomon, to hear his wisdom: See 1 Kings 4:31; 1Ki 4:34; 1 Kings 10:24. From whence it is plain, that our author made public discourses on several subjects, and that people were in a manner called together by his fame from all nations round about to hear his wise performances. As no other son of David, who was king of Israel, was famous for his wisdom, or could claim the title of preacher or orator except Solomon, this edition evidently denotes the real author of the book: The style of which, says Bishop Lowth, is evidently singular; the diction particularly obscure; nor does the poetic character much abound in the composition and structure; which perhaps may properly be attributed to the nature of the argument. The Jews are displeased to have it reckoned among the poetic books; and if their authority availed much in matters of this kind, we should perhaps in this particular give in somewhat to their opinion. See his 24th Prelection.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3. Vanity of vanities— Vanity of vanities, according to the Hebrew idiom, signifies, the greatest vanity. The original word הבל hebel, signifies, properly, steam or vapour, and is used to denote any thing which is transient and empty, in apparition to what is solid, substantial, and permanent. These verses contain the first proposition, "That no labour or trouble of men," &c. The proofs of which we here subjoin analytically:
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3. I. Proposition.
Ecc 1:4 to Ecc 11:1 st Proof. The course of nature.
Ecclesiastes 1:12, &c. 2nd Proof. Men's occupations.
Ecclesiastes 1:16-18. 1st Head. Wisdom or philosophy.
Ecc 2:1-2 nd Head. Pleasure. 3.-10. Both jointly.
Ecclesiastes 2:11. General conclusion of the 2nd proof.
A review of the 2nd proof, with special conclusions relating to every particular therein mentioned; viz.
Ecclesiastes 2:12-17. Ecclesiastes 2:1. Wisdom.
Ecclesiastes 2:18-23. Ecclesiastes 2:2. Riches.
Ecclesiastes 2:24-26. Ecclesiastes 2:3. Pleasure.
Ecclesiastes 3:1, &c. 3rd Proof. Inconstancy of men's will.
Ecclesiastes 3:9. Conclusion of the 3rd proof.
A review of the 2nd and 3rd proofs, considered jointly with special observations and corollaries.
Ecc 3:10 to Ecc 11:1 st Observation. God is inculpable.
Ecclesiastes 3:12-15. 2nd Observation. God by his constant Providence and unerring wisdom governs the world.
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17. 1st Corollary. God shall redress all grievances.
Ecclesiastes 3:18-21. 2nd Corollary. God must be exalted, and man humbled.
Ecclesiastes 3:22. 3rd Corollary. God alloweth men to enjoy the present.
Ecclesiastes 4:1. 4th Proof. Men's neglect of proper opportunities evidenced in several instances; viz.
Ecclesiastes 3:1; Ecclesiastes 3:1. Oppression.
Ecclesiastes 4:4. Ecclesiastes 4:2.Envy.
Ecclesiastes 6:3; Ecclesiastes 6:3. Idleness.
Ecclesiastes 12:4; Ecclesiastes 12:4. Avarice.
Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. Ecclesiastes 4:5. Misapplication of esteem and regard.
Ecclesiastes 5:1-9. N.B. Chap. Ecc 5:1-9 is a digression containing several admonitions, in order to prevent any misconstruction of the foregoing remarks.
Ecclesiastes 12:6; Ecclesiastes 12:6. Expensive living.
Ecclesiastes 1:3. What profit— The word יתרון iithron, rendered profit, signifies the surplus, or that which remains after allowance is made for toils and fatigue, &c. It occurs eleven times in this book; and I think, says Mr. Desvoeux, the original notion of residue or remainder may well be preserved in every place, and will generally set the author's meaning in a better light than any other expression; though it may be sometimes convenient to make use of some other word.
Ecclesiastes 1:4. The earth abideth for ever— Remaineth the same for ever] The meaning is, "The earth, considered as the scene of action, with respect to all mutable things, is no way affected by the continual and universal changes which happen on and about it."
Ecclesiastes 1:8. All things are full of labour— All these considerations are wearisome. Desvoeux.
Ecclesiastes 1:9. The thing that hath been— Yet what is the thing that hath been? the very same which shall be: And what is that which is done: the very same which shall be done: for there is nothing entirely new under the sun. See Desvoeux, and the LXX.
Ecclesiastes 1:10. Is there any thing whereof, &c.— Is there any thing that will say, See this! this is new. Thus the beauty and energy of the original are preserved.
Ecclesiastes 1:11. There is no remembrance, &c.— This verse may be rendered, There is no memorial to what happened before, neither shall there be any memorial to what shall happen henceforth, with those who shall come hereafter. The first proof of the general proposition is contained in the 4th and following verses to the present; and is taken from the consideration of natural things. It may be paraphrased thus: "It is vain for men to expect any advantage from future changes in the course of nature; since not only the earth, but all the other visible parts of the universe, have hitherto remained the same throughout the different generations which have succeeded each other since the world began, Ecclesiastes 1:4. The sun, the winds, the rivers, are in a continual motion, yet from the beginning to this time they have been constantly subject to the same laws and revolutions, Ecclesiastes 1:5-7. If a man, not satisfied with bare contemplation, will undertake to find out the secret causes of these wonderfully constant effects, what does he get by his curiosity, but trouble and weariness? Repeated inquiries, when never attended with the hoped-for success, must soon become tiresome and vexatious. An inquisitive man would fain look into all the recesses of nature, and hear all that others have to say on what he is not able to discover himself: but he never can compass his end, and satisfy his curiosity, either through his own researches, or by getting acquainted with those of others, Ecclesiastes 1:8. It is even beyond his power to mark any phaenomenon which may with any certainty be looked upon as a new one. Natural revolutions are such, that you have no sign nor token to distinguish that which happens for the first time from that which hath happened many times before; and that course is so well settled, that the same disappointments which have hitherto been met with are to be expected for the future." Ecclesiastes 1:9-11. Desvoeux.
Ecclesiastes 1:12. I, the preacher, was king, &c.— I, who have assembled you, was king, &c.
Ecclesiastes 1:13. This sore travail hath God given— That is to say, the fatiguing employment which God gave to the sons of men, to give evidence of himself. See the paraphrase on the 15th verse.
Ecclesiastes 1:15. And that which is wanting cannot be numbered— Nor can men's wants be numbered. For the first clause of this verse, see chap. Ecclesiastes 7:13. From the 12th to this verse, we have the second proof of the first proposition, taken from the various occupations of men in search of happiness, which Solomon had both opportunities to observe from his high station, and abilities to observe rightly, from the wisdom he was endowed with, Ecclesiastes 1:12-13. These he found to be such, that no lasting advantage could accrue from them to mankind; and this for two reasons; first, because that which is, or appears to be, wrong, cannot by their utmost efforts be redressed; secondly, because their wants are so many, that they are not able to number them, Ecclesiastes 1:14-15. This double consideration seems to point out a twofold distribution of the occupations of men, as they propose to themselves either to rectify what is wrong, or to satisfy their own wants: the one is the business of the philosopher, the other of the man of pleasure; and both subjects are immediately resumed; First, singly, in the next verses, and chap. Ecc 2:1-2 and then jointly, chap. Ecc 2:3-10 in order to be more particularly considered.
Ecclesiastes 1:17. And I gave my heart to know wisdom— For I applied myself to the knowledge of wisdom, and the knowledge of whatever is shining, and of science. We meet in all languages with words which are as much, or even more frequently, made use of in a metaphorical, than in a literal way; yet you can never fully and rightly understand them, unless you keep an eye to the primitive literal signification, and have a particular regard to the circumstances wherein such a word is employed. הלל hallel, seems to be one of those words, which, by not paying a due regard to this observation, has been often misinterpreted. One of its metaphorical meanings has been even mistaken for the primitive signification; which is contrary to nature. Leigh rightly observes, that its primitive signification is, either to shine, or to make another thing shine; which is done in a metaphorical way by praising or valuing. See Desvoeux, 384, and Parkhurst on the word.
Ecclesiastes 1:18. For in much wisdom, &c.— The sum of the matter, from the 16th verse, is this; First, the research of wisdom, nay, the very possession of that science, whereby one is fully enabled to distinguish good from evil, avails nothing to solid happiness: on the contrary, it even serves frequently to imbitter our lives; as nothing can be more afflicting to a rational mind, than to see, and not be able to reform, the vices of his fellow-creatures.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, Solomon upon the throne never appeared so august and venerable, as here he does in the pulpit. We have,
1. The titles that he assumes, The preacher, or קהלת koheleth; some render gathered, and, supplying the word soul, make it a description of his own state, recovered from his grievous backslidings; and they who are thus restored are bound to keep up everlastingly a grateful memorial of the mercy: or the gatherer, to whom the people resorted to hear his lessons of instruction; or perhaps he now collected his people together, who had been justly offended at his unfaithfulness, that they might hear his recantation, that he might take shame to himself for the offence he had given, and caution others by his sad experience to avoid the paths of sin in which he had walked. Thus true penitents desire ever to take shame to themselves publicly, where their offence was public; and, as far as lies in them, seek to recover those whom their influence or ill example led astray: The son of David, an honourable relation; but which rendered his sin the more aggravated, considering the education he had received under such a father: king of Jerusalem; the dignity of his station made his example more pernicious, and in Jerusalem also, where God's presence dwelt, and his seat of worship was fixed; which rendered his sins more infamously scandalous: thus, as true penitents do, he dwelt upon the aggravation of his guilt; or perhaps he mentions his station as that which should engage attention from the people, and give weight to his discourse.
2. The text of the discourse is, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity; and this is redoubled, to shew his own deep conviction of the truth, and to affect his hearers with a sense of it. The world and all the things of it are utterly unsatisfactory; they perish in the using, afford no solid comfort to the soul, and disappoint all those who place their confidence in them, or expect happiness from them; and they, who have with greatest eagerness strove to quench their thirst at those broken cisterns, by sad experience have found them vanity of vanities: none had ever greater abilities to gratify his desires, none ever with more boundless indulgence sought satisfaction in earthly things, than Solomon; and, after long proof, this is his deliberate conclusion.
3. He appeals to universal experience for confirmation of the truth. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? Poor mortals toil and labour after the riches, honours, and pleasures of this inferior world, and, when they think to find a reality, grasp a shadow: even here man's life is often embittered by his abundance, and his pleasures prove his torment: at death, nothing that he possesses can profit him to gain a moment's respite, or pass with him into the grave; and after death how insignificant will all those things appear, unable to purchase the pardon of one sin, or stand us in any stead at the bar of judgment? We must labour for a better portion above the sun, if we would be happy to eternity.
2nd, To prove the vanity of all things that he had asserted, he shews,
1. The shortness and uncertainty of all our earthly enjoyments: we are posting fast to the grave, and treading upon the heels of those who are now stepping into it, and must quickly follow them; our abode here is but for a moment, and that continually in jeopardy: a very short-lived pleasure, therefore, can the creature afford us.
2. When we are gone, the earth abideth for ever; we can carry nothing out of it: the world must endure its appointed time, and then, with all the works upon it, be burnt up.
3. All the things in the world are in a state of revolution; the sun rises and sets; the winds veer round the compass; the rivers ceaseless roll, an emblem of man's fluctuating state, seeking rest and finding none, and hasting with full speed to the dust whence he came, as these return again to the same place from which they at first set forth. Nor in all his career can he find,
4. The least solid satisfaction: the sea will sooner overflow, than the heart be filled with creature-good; all the rivers of prosperity are insufficient; the finest prospect, the most melodious airs, soon pall the senses; we want new objects to satisfy curiosity, and grow tired of them as soon as they are familiar. All things are full of labour, nothing can be obtained without it; and when we have toiled in the pursuit, we find that we have wearied ourselves for very vanity; man cannot utter it, how wearisome a world this is, and how empty are all its enjoyments.
5. There is nothing new: we are happy to flatter ourselves with being able to discover arcana in nature unknown before, and improvements in arts and sciences such as would shame all former generations; but it is only what hath been; the course of nature is the same, men's hearts the same, their intellectual faculties the same; and what we call new is only so to us, for want of records of former ages, or through our confined knowledge of the world at present: we must look above, if we would have all things new, Revelation 21:0.; new hearts, fashioned by Divine grace here, and a new world wherein dwelleth righteousness, and where vanity shall be no more.
6. Do what we will to make ourselves memorable, we shall be disappointed, and not live even in same: few of the great personages that have appeared, or the wonders that they have wrought, have found an historian to transmit their remembrance to posterity: they are sunk in the lake of oblivion; and those of future ages, who succeed us, will perhaps never so much as hear that such persons as we are ever existed. The only way to secure deathless fame is, to have our names written, in the book of life of the Lamb, among his worthies, whose memorial shall endure not only through all the generations of time, but through the ages of eternity.
3rdly, Having asserted in general the vanity of all sub-lunary good, he passes on to the grand particulars which engage men's pursuits, in order to confirm the truth that he had advanced. He begins with wisdom, of earthly things the most excellent, and proves the vanity of this by experience and argument.
1. He tried what happiness human wisdom in its most refined and exalted state would bring; and he possessed such advantages to make the experiment complete, that none after him will presume to be a more competent judge. He was a preacher, endued with gifts of nature the most singular; a king, who had it in his power to furnish himself with all possible assistance in the prosecution of his studies; he was over Israel, a wise and understanding people, and in Jerusalem, the very seat of wisdom, where he had opportunity of conversing with God's prophets and priests, and with the wisest of men who resorted to him from all the parts of the earth: and his application was as indefatigable as his advantages were singular: He set himself to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven; the depths of philosophy, the secrets of nature; the qualities of animals, vegetables, fossils, and all that is above or beneath the earth, 1 Kings 4:33.; the mysteries of politics, trade, manufactures; the history of mankind, ancient and modern, their manners, customs, and ways: nor was the pursuit unsuccessful; he attained astonishing heights of science; I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, whether of nature or of art; and none who had been before him, even in Jerusalem the seat of learning, had ever gone so far; and withal, his knowledge was deeply digested, and the fruit of great experience. And that by contraries he might the better know the value of wisdom, he set his heart to know madness and folly also; to observe the follies and vices, as well as virtues of mankind. Thus furnished, as far as the human understanding could soar, he was fully qualified to judge what happiness all the attainments of human literature and science could afford. But, 2. The experiment answered not at all the pains it cost; the pursuit was attended with sore travail; for no labour is more fatiguing than that of the mind, intensely engaged; the just punishment of God, for man's daring to affect a wisdom which was forbidden him: the possession afforded him only a view of the vexation, as well as vanity, of the world: the more he knew of men and things, the more he saw of what grieved and vexed him; while he felt his own inability withal to rectify the wretchedness and wants of this disordered world. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; such is the corruption of human nature, that no attainments of wisdom can mend it, even when we see what is fit and right; the bias to evil is so strong, that reason and philosophy remonstrate in vain; nothing but Divine grace, which changes the heart, can make our paths straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered: the more we know, the more we are convinced that we know nothing, and discover the endless defects in our own understanding, and wants which can neither be numbered nor supplied: so that, upon the whole, we cannot but conclude, in much wisdom is much grief; it is painful to acquire; serves to excite our thirst, without being able to satisfy it; enlarges out knowledge of human miseries, and makes us more sensibly affected with them. In short, he that increaseth knowledge, only increaseth sorrow; and every new attainment affords fresh cause of disquietude and dissatisfaction. But there is a wisdom which will not thus disappoint the attentive inquirer; the knowledge of Jesus, the wisdom of God, and the mystery of godliness; the more we are acquainted with it, the more satisfaction will it afford to our souls; and, however defective our measure of it may be here, the least attainment contains a divine hope, that hereafter it will be complete and perfect, when we shall know even as we are known.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29