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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Ecclesiastes 2



The vanity of human courses in the works of pleasure. Though the wise be better than the fool, yet both have one event. The vanity of human labour in leaving it they know not to whom. Nothing better than joy in our labour; but that is God's gift.

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 2:2. I said of laughter, it is mad I said to laughter, how dost thou shine? and to pleasure, what does that avail? See the note on the 17th verse of the foregoing chapter. The sum of these verses is, secondly; neither does the enjoyment of pleasure yield a solid happiness; for he who enjoys it must be soon convinced that it leaves no solid satisfaction behind it; which our author proves by his own experience, having found but a vain eclat in mirth and pleasure.

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 2:3. I sought, &c.— I sought in mine heart that I might force my senses into a habit of drinking wine, (yet leading my heart into wisdom,) and that I might apprehend what is in folly, until I should see, where is that good for the children of men, which they pursue under heaven every day of their life. Desvoeux. Solomon's design, as here represented, was, to catch hold of whatever he should find in folly, rather for the improvement of his knowledge, than for the sake of present enjoyment. This verse contains a fine instance of the antithesis; where the flesh or sensual appetite is opposed to the heart, the one being drawn unto wine, the other led into wisdom; where we have the two ends toward which each of these subjects is carried, wine and wisdom, and the manner in which each of them is influenced to take these different courses. The verb נהג nahag, applied to the heart means to guide, to lead from one place to another; and is constantly made use of with respect to animated creatures, men or tame animals, who use their activity towards attaining the end proposed. The meaning of the verb משׁךֶ mashak, employed with respect to the flesh is, to draw with violence: in the proper sense, it is always applied to mere passive beings; and in the figurative, it always retains a notion of force and constraint. Thus it seems the sacred writer wanted to inform his hearers, that he could not be brought into a habit of drinking without putting some violence upon his own inclinations; whereas his natural bent prompted him to the search after wisdom; that he put this force upon his own inclination with no other view, but that he might acquire an experimental knowledge of what so many men call happiness, and might thereby be enabled to judge of its value; and lastly, that at the same time he pursued this course, he did not grow passionate for wine, which must have disqualified him for judging; but preserved such a command over that habit, as to be led from it by wisdom, whenever he should find he knew enough of it to form a right judgment. And, lest his meaning should be misunderstood, he does not say positively that he put that force upon his flesh; but that he took pains, or sought to do it: whereas, with respect to the leading of his heart to wisdom, he directly ascribes it to himself, or to the propensity of his soul that way. There is still another opposition, relating to the time spent in pursuing that course into which he took pains to force himself. The lovers of wine will make the drinking of it a good or happiness to themselves under heaven, as long as they live; but he gave way to that foolish and sinful habit no longer than it was necessary for his wise purpose of being thoroughly acquainted with the nature of that wherein men of pleasure place their happiness. Until I should see where that good, or happiness, lies for the children of men, which they will pursue under heaven the number of the days of their life.

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 2:6. To water therewith the wood, &c.— To water therewith the nursery of young trees. Desvoeux. Hebrew, the forest-budding trees.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 2:8. As musical instruments, &c.— A captive woman, nay, several captive women. It is doubted, whether the Hebrew words, rendered by us musical instruments, &c. signify things or persons. Mr. Desvoeux is of opinion that they signify persons. Any one, says he, who will read the original with attention, may easily perceive that this catalogue of Solomon's acquisitions from Ecc 2:4-8 is divided into several members by as many verbs; each of which has one or more substantives either governed by it, if it be an active one, or belonging to it, as its nominative, if it be a passive verb. But it must be farther observed, that none of these members take in both things and persons. Our author was so accurately exact in preserving that distinction, that, though slaves and cattle were considered in nearly the same light by the ancients, and though he made use of the same verb with respect to both, yet he repeated that verb twice, rather than bring both under the same head. This seems a probable reason that שׁדה shiddah, and שׁדות shiddoth, which are brought by Solomon under the same head with men-singers and women-singers, are persons and not things. שׁדה shiddah, is very properly derived from the verb שׁדד shadad, signifying to plunder, or lay waste; and so may signify a woman who is the subject of warlike devastation; a fair captive; and it is very reasonable to suppose, that in the catalogue of the acquisitions he made in order to indulge his pleasure, Solomon would not forget that circumstance whereof the historian speaks so strongly: Solomon had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, 1 Kings 11:1-11.11.3. And besides we should remember, that the possession of female captives was one of the most distinguished marks of ancient grandeur. This mention of the peculiar treasure of kings and provinces, confirms this opinion; for these treasures did not consist of gold and silver only; female captives made no inconsiderable part of it. See Jdg 5:30 and Homer, Il. 2: line 355. We may farther observe, that the phrase, The delights of the sons of men, confirms this interpretation. I do not know how far some people's fondness for music may influence their judgment in the application of this character; but when I consider not only Solomon's inclination for the sex, but chiefly the general taste and manners of his time, which was not long after the Trojan war; I can scarcely imagine how it is possible to take the delights of the sons of men in any other sense than we have given above. Whoever has read any thing of the profane history of those early times, must know, that the main spring of all the transactions of the most celebrated heroes was love; if one may give that name to an unbounded lust, which prompted them to lay violent hands on all that was fair; and many particulars contained both in the historical and moral books of scripture prove, that beauty was no less admired in Judaea than in other parts of the world. See Desvoeux, p. 487 and the Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer.

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 2:9. Also my wisdom remained with me The meaning is, that Solomon's greatness had no way impaired his wisdom, as is too frequently the case.

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 2:10. And this was my portion of all my labour But this was my portion from all my labour. The word חלק cheilek, rendered portion, constantly implies something which is an advantage, or is considered as such by him who receives it. The Hebrew orator has taken care to give his own definition of what he meant by a man's share or portion in this world, or in or from his labour. There is nothing better in the labour of man, says he, chap. Ecc 3:22 than that he should receive pleasure from it, because that is his portion: and again, chap. Ecclesiastes 5:18. That itself is his portion. It is but just that we should remember that definition in other passages where the expression is used without being particularly defined. This will explain the meaning of several otherwise obscure passages; as Ecclesiastes 2:21 leaving one's portion to another Man 1:1 :e. leaving him the enjoyment of what you had acquired, with a design to enjoy it yourself: chap. Ecclesiastes 5:19 taking one's portion; 1:e. enjoying it; chap. Ecc 9:6 having a portion under the sun; 1:e. being in a capacity of enjoying the pleasures of this world. See chap. Ecclesiastes 9:2. The sum of these verses, from the third, is this: When each of the methods of pursuing happiness before-mentioned had proved ineffectual and insufficient by itself, nothing remained for Solomon, that he might be thoroughly enabled to judge of them, but to try both jointly; and this, he tells us, was the step he took. "I did not (says he) launch into pleasure like a thoughtless libertine; but with an inquisitive mind, and a settled design, not only to enjoy, but also to reflect upon my enjoyments; and thus to join together that course of life which by the wise is reputed folly, and that very study and application from which wise men get their denomination. In this I was so successful, as to procure to myself all the conveniencies of life, and refinements of pleasure, which the greatest plenty can afford, or the nicest taste invent. But, after all, I found that present enjoyment was the only advantage I had gained."

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 2:11. Then I looked on all, &c.— Then I turned myself on all, &c. See the next verse, where the same verb פנה panah, in the original is so rendered. The author represents himself as a man who, being uneasy at his not finding the wished-for happiness, turns from one object to another towards all that is about him; and yet cannot discover what he looks for. This is the more remarkable, as the figure is closely pursued in the following part of the discourse. Here Solomon turns himself toward the objects to take a view of them: but, as a slight view was not sufficient to entitle him to decide that there were no hopes of finding happiness among them, he went round, Ecclesiastes 2:20.; where I make no difficulty to render the verb, I considered every way, as that word surrounding evidently is a metaphorical one. See chap. Ecclesiastes 4:1. This verse contains the general conclusion of the second proof, inferred from the most accurate inquiry into the various methods pursued by men in search of happiness; which conclusion is this, that the pains and trouble necessary to procure pleasure and to acquire knowledge on the one hand, and the value of the acquisition on the other, being duly weighed, there is no overplus; for the most a man gets is but the just value of his trouble; and even that is but transitory. Besides this general conclusion, which flows from the joint consideration of the several particulars whereof men's occupations in this world chiefly consist, special observations may be made on each of those particulars viewed separately. To this purpose our author resumes and considers them again in the subsequent part of this chapter; and even more distinctly than before: for whereas in his first partition he had ranked all under two classes, philosophy and pleasure, the second of which, as he treated it, contained the acquisition of riches, as well as that of pleasure properly so called; now he makes three distinct heads; for the first of which, see on Ecclesiastes 2:17.

Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 2:17. Therefore I hated life From the 12th to this verse, we have a review of the second proof; first, with respect to wisdom. The more one compares together wisdom or knowledge, and ignorance, which no one can be better qualified to do than king Solomon was, or perform with more exactness; the more it appears that the former has by much the advantage of the latter; Ecclesiastes 2:12-21.2.13.: yet that advantage does not reach so far as to establish a visible inequality of happiness between the wise and ignorant. Death is equally unavoidable to both; Ecclesiastes 2:14. From thence two consequences naturally arise; first, even that which is the most valuable in itself, avails so little in this world, that it may very reasonably, with respect to it, be accounted but a vain advantage. Wisdom itself does not secure immortality, either in a literal or a metaphorical sense; and whatever trouble may be taken in erecting monuments to the wise, it is so much lost with respect to the ignorant, who will most probably be the greatest number, as well hereafter as they are now; Ecclesiastes 2:15-21.2.16. Secondly, life itself is unworthy our love and attachment; since both its conclusion and the occupations in which it is employed concur to demonstrate its emptiness and vanity; Ecclesiastes 2:17.

Verse 19

Ecclesiastes 2:19. Yet shall he have rule, &c.— Yet shall he be master of all that I have acquired through both my labour and prudent management under the sun. Desvoeux.

Verses 20-21

Ecclesiastes 2:20-21.2.21. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair, &c.— And I considered every way, so that my heart despaired of ever gaining any sort of advantage from all the trouble that I took under the sun; Ecclesiastes 2:21. Since a man who labours wisely, knowingly, and successfully, must nevertheless leave his share to another man who did not join in the labour.

Verse 23

Ecclesiastes 2:23. And his travail, grief And grief his employment. The second observation (the subject of which is riches, and which begins at the 18th verse), and the conclusion which flows from it, are so blended together that they cannot be easily disjoined. When a man dies, which, as was said before, must be the case of the wise as well as of the ignorant, the fruits of all his labour and industry fall into the hands of his heir, whether that heir inherit his predecessor's abilities or not. Thus, he who had no share in the trouble, labour, and solicitude, wherein you spent your days, and from which you seldom were free, not even in the time which is devoted to rest, comes to the enjoyment of what cost you so much; Ecclesiastes 2:18-21.2.19. Therefore, as far as you are personally concerned in it, your labour is lost, and your occupations are vain. Is it not then highly reasonable to hate both the occupations of men in this world, and that which they can get by it, or rather, (to soften the harshness of the Hebrew phrase by reducing it to its true meaning,) not to place our affections in this world, and to set very little value on it and its contents. Ecclesiastes 2:20-21.2.23.

Verse 24

Ecclesiastes 2:24. There is nothing better for a man, &c.— This verse literally runs thus; No good in man that he eateth and drinketh, and maketh his soul to see good in his labour; that itself I perceived, that it cometh from the hand of God. That Solomon does not pretend to question the reality of pleasurable enjoyments has been observed by others, and is plain from many passages in this book; but it is plain likewise, that he does not assert it in this place, the meaning of which is so obvious from the context, that I wonder it has escaped the notice of commentators; for the opposition between באדם baadam, in man, and מיד miad, in the hand, is manifest: The advantage of enjoying life is not in man, or within the power of man: but it comes from the hand of the Almighty, &c. The sense is apparently the same with Job 21:16. Lo! their good is not in their hand. See the paraphrase on Ecclesiastes 2:26. Houbigant renders the present verse, Neither is there felicity in the man who eats and drinks, and refreshes himself with the good things gained by his labour. This also I considered to be from the hand of God; and he reads the next verse, For who eateth or drinketh, but through his gift?

Verses 25-26

Ecclesiastes 2:25-21.2.26. For who can eat, &c.— For who shall eat, and who shall enjoy without him? It might also be rendered, For who shall eat, and who shall reflect more than I? Ecclesiastes 2:26. For he giveth wisdom and knowledge and pleasure to the man who is good in his sight; while he giveth the sinner a troublesome occupation, that he may gather and heap up riches to give to him who is good before God. See Desvoeux, p. 550. The third observation contained in these verses, and the 24th, is upon pleasure, which differs chiefly from riches in this, that when once it is procured, as it is at the same time enjoyed, it is so much the property of the enjoyer, that it can by no means be transferred to another; and so far it may be looked upon as a real good: but is that good the real result of the labour and trouble we put ourselves to, in order to procure it? It seems to be so at first; but, upon cooler reflection, it appears to be quite otherwise. The bounty of the Supreme giver of every good gift is the only source it proceeds from; Ecclesiastes 2:24. The Almighty does not always permit him who gathers the means of pleasure to enjoy them himself; and often employs the sinner to make as it were a provision for the just, whom he endoweth with wisdom and knowledge, and puts him into possession of those means of pleasure which another has heaped up for him. From this observation it is very reasonable to conclude, that the anxious research of pleasure is as vain as the rest of men's occupations in this world; since, after all, the end is not obtained by the most eager pursuer, but by him only whom God is pleased to bless.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Since the pursuit of wisdom disappointed all his hopes, behold the system changed; and that happiness sought in the indulgencies of sense, and the flowery paths of pleasure, which the regions of science could not bestow.

1. In mirth the jocund hours are passed; no joy withheld, no amusement forgotten; the poignancy of wit, and flights of humour, keep the gay circle in a burst of laughter: in dance and song, and all the delights of the sons of men, the live-long day is spent; while music's enchanting sound, with a vast variety of instruments, pours forth a flood of harmony; and pleasure reigns throughout the palaces of Zion: but is this man's proper good? no, in no wise; the event declared: behold, this also is vanity, poor and unsatisfactory. I said of laughter, It is mad; it diverts the soul from the ways of serious godliness; and what can be greater madness, than for momentary mirth to plunge our souls into eternal mourning? What doeth it? it can scarcely afford a transient respite from present griefs; for even in laughter often the heart is sad; and the end of that mirth, which tends to blunt the edge of divine conviction, or to dissipate the impressions which God's word hath made on our minds, must be heaviness: the time will come when none of these can afford the least satisfaction; the witty jest can no longer brighten the countenance, ghastly in the convulsions of death; the songs of vanity are pangs to the ear, which, lying on the bed of sickness, can scarcely bear the lightest foot that treads the floor; and the gay circle can afford no delight to the eye ready to close in death.

2. From wine he tried to find the joy which pleasure had denied: The board is filled; the sparkling glass goes round; and, though with reluctance he descended from the intellectual pleasures of a man to the enjoyments of a beast, he resolved to try the experiment, and to lay hold on folly; yet even when he made the attempt, he could not soberly but condemn the indulgence, and purposed to abstain from grosser excesses, and keep folly, as it were, at bay, acquainting himself yet with wisdom; maintaining such a guard over his appetite, that he might not be enslaved by drunkenness or excess, and only taste enough to satisfy him what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life; and as he owns the attempt folly, so he found it; for to seek, from the intoxication of our senses, any real good to our souls, must be indeed the foolishness of folly.

3. The board is cleared, the songs of mirth are silent; another scheme of happiness succeeds and promises greater satisfaction: the noble plans are drawn, the materials ready, the gorgeous palace rises majestical to view; the vineyards are planted, the gardens laid out with taste, the lawns extended, the woods disposed with nicest judgment; the trees, for fruit or show, exquisite of their kind; large pieces of water collected for use and beauty, to please the eye and fertilize the soil: a vast retinue ever waited his commands in all the various offices of his household; and, far from being impoverished with all his works, his income exceeded his expence: his treasuries were filled; his cabinet stored with jewels and whatever was exquisite and curious; and from the distant provinces the richest presents courted his acceptance, sent from tributary kings, or governors, or from such as sought, from his transcendant wisdom, solution of their difficulties, or counsel in their emergencies. Thus in riches, magnificence, and splendor, he quite obscured all his predecessors; and still his wisdom remained: amidst all his other pursuits he kept possession of himself, and was not so enslaved by any of them, as not to be able to form a right judgment of them; though he gave the most unbounded scope to the gratification of his desires, kept back his heart from no joy, tasted his pleasures with the higher relish of delight, and enjoyed all the fruits of his labours without a disappointment or check to allay the satisfaction: yet on the review, revolving all his works, the thought, the care, the expence they cost him, and how little real happiness they afforded him, he solemnly declares all to be vanity and vexation of spirit; and neither the employments nor enjoyments under the sun afforded the least real profit. They must look higher than the sun, who would secure substantial good.

2nd, Behold this wisest of men,
1. Re-assuming his pursuit of wisdom, though he had found it unsatisfactory: he might perhaps have overlooked something, or been hasty in his conclusion; at least he was reduced to this, because on reflection he was convinced that all his other schemes of happiness were, comparatively, madness and folly, and the pleasures of science as much superior to the joys of sense, as light excelleth darkness: and in all his decisions we may safely acquiesce; nor vainly essay by our own experience to prove those things madness and folly, which one, so much abler to make the experiment, and so much wiser to determine upon the case, has already resolved.
2. The repeated trial confirmed his former conclusion; for, though wise men seem to have some advantages over fools, yet all their foresight often stands them in as little stead as the fools' blunders: One event happeneth to them all; their bodies are liable to the same diseases, the same disasters attend them both, the same grave awaits them, and, when dead, they will be alike forgotten; even he himself, great as wise, was not exempt from this common fate: As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth to me; even to me, as the original emphatically expresses it; and therefore he concludes, Why was I then more wise? why take so much pains? What profit is there of my labour, when I stand on the same level, and am exposed to the same disasters as others? Then I said, This also is vanity, and the pursuit of worldly wisdom unprofitable and useless. Let all of this world,, proud of learning, abilities, wealth, or station, hear and weigh this mortifying truth; The fool and the beggar in the grave must be their equals; there no distinction is known but what divine grace alone makes.

3rdly, There seems to be something of impatience, as well as dissatisfaction, discovered by Solomon.
1. He appears heartily tired of all the schemes he had pursued, and the works in which he had been engaged; not only he hated his labour, was disappointed, and weary of the vanities he had sought, but hated life itself because of the troubles and vexations with which it is embittered, and wanted a rest that he could not find on earth. In despair he quitted all his toils, closed his books, dismissed his builders, forsook his pleasures; and now, assured that no happiness could be found beneath the sun, began, with holy indifference about creature-vanities, to seek the substantial bliss which is to be found in a better world. Note; It is happy for us, when the conviction of the insufficiency of the creature leads us up to the all-sufficiency of the Creator. God in Christ is the only portion that can fill the restless desires of an immortal soul.

2. He gives his reasons why he was tired of life and its toils. The work under the sun was grievous; not only the employments of the body, but the more fatiguing application of the mind; the labour of wisdom, knowledge, and equity; how to transact the business of our station with greatest advantage and integrity; the care and concern about which occasions many sorrows, through the disappointments and perplexities in which we are involved; and what in the day dwells thus anxiously on our minds, at night drives sleep from our eye-lids: such a vanity and vexation of spirit do they find this world to be, who are most occupied in it. And for whom do they toil? not for themselves, but for those who come after them. At death, all must be left behind to one who enters into possession of what cost him no pains; and it lightly goes; or he takes it as his portion, and thinks that he has thereby obtained a prescription to be idle and useless in his generation; for who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool that will inherit the fruit of their labours? The estate raised by equity and prudence is perhaps wasted in extravagance; and what the wise laboured all their days to erect, the fool that follows wantonly pulls down, as was the case with Solomon himself; and perhaps he, in the spirit of prophecy, foresaw how unworthy Rehoboam would prove. What therefore hath a man of all his labour? nothing that yields him substantial joy, or abiding satisfaction.

3. He declares what is the proper use of creature-comforts: to enjoy them in moderation, possess them with thankfulness, and improve them to the glory of God; and this must be the gift of God, who alone can give us a heart to spend freely what we have gained wisely; and, with a sense of his love enable us to relish the good that he bestows, and make even our worldly enjoyments the means of drawing us nearer to his blessed self: to this Solomon hastened; and the wise will seek to follow his example.
4. He concludes with observing the misery of the wicked, who have no heart to use aright the blessings that God bestows upon them: they are cursed with perpetual anxiety and toil, both to amass and to preserve their gains; they have no comfort in them, but pine in the midst of plenty; and, uncharitable and cruel, have no heart to open their stores for the relief of the needy; till God at last cuts them off, or takes from them what they so abuse, to give it to others who will employ their abundance to a better purpose: and this also is vanity and vexation of spirit to the wicked, who cannot bear the thoughts of parting with his possessions, and grieves at the prospect of seeing his beloved riches liberally spent, or in the hands of those who will devote them to the glory of God and the good of their fellow-creatures.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.