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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 9

Verses 1-6

17

The Chief Good not to be found in Wisdom:

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; Ecclesiastes 9:1-6

1. The Preacher commences this section by carefully defining his position and equipment as he starts on his final course. As yet he carries no lamp of revelation in his hand, although he will not venture beyond a certain point without it. For the present he will trust to reason and experience, and mark the conclusions to which these conduct when unaided by any direct light from Heaven. His first conclusion is that wisdom, which of all temporal goods still stands foremost with him, is incapable of yielding a true content. Much as it can do for man, it cannot solve the moral problems which task and afflict his heart, the problems which he must solve before he can be at peace. He may be so bent on solving these by wisdom as to see "no sleep in his eyes by day or night"; he may rely on wisdom with a confidence so genuine as to suppose at times that by its help he has "found out all the work of God"-really solved all the mysteries of the Divine Providence; but nevertheless "he has not found it out"; the illusion will soon pass, and the unsolved mysteries reappear dark and sombre as of old. {Ecclesiastes 8:16-17} And the proof that he has failed is, first, that he is as incompetent to foresee the future as those who are not so wise as he. With all his sagacity, he cannot tell whether he shall meet "the love or the hatred" of his fellows. His lot is as closely hidden in "the hand of God" as theirs, although he may be as much better as he is wiser than they Ecclesiastes 9:1. A second proof is that "the same fate" overtakes both the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the wicked, and he is as unable to escape it as any of his neighbours. All die; and to men ignorant of the heavenly hope of the gospel the indiscrimination of death seems the most cruel and hopeless of wrongs. The Preacher, indeed, is not ignorant of that bright hope; but as yet he has not taken the lamp of revelation into his hand: he is simply speaking the thought of those who have no higher guide than reason, no brighter light than reflection. And to these, their wisdom having taught them that to do right is infinitely better than to do wrong, no fact was so monstrous and inscrutable as that their lives should run to the same disastrous close with the lives of evil and violent men, that all alike should fall into the hands of "that churl, Death." As they revolved this fact, their hearts grew hot with a fierce resentment as natural as it was impotent, a resentment all the hotter because they knew how impotent it was. Therefore the Preacher dwells on this fact, lingers over his description of it adding touch to touch. "One fate comes to all," he says, "to the righteous and to the wicked, to the pure and to the impure, to the religious and to the irreligious, to the profane and to the reverent." If death be a good, the maddest fool and the vilest reprobate share it with the sage and the saint." If death be an evil, it is inflicted on the good as well as on the bad. None is exempt. Of all wrongs this is the greatest; of all problems this is the most insoluble. Nor is there any doubt as to the nature of death. To him for whom there shines no light of hope behind the darkness of the grave, death is the supreme evil. For to the living, however deject and wretched, there is still some hope that times may mend: even though in outward condition despicable as that unclean outcast, a dog-the homeless and masterless scavenger of Eastern cities-he had some advantage over the royal lion who, once couched on a throne, now lies in the dust rotting to dust. The living know at least that they must die; but the dead know not anything. The living can recall the past, and their memory harps fondly on notes which were once most sweet; but the very memory of the dead has perished, no music of the happy past can revive on their dulled sense, nor will any recall their names. The heavens are fair; the earth is beautiful and generous; the works of men are many and diverse and great; but they have "no more any portion forever in aught that is done under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 9:2-6).

This is the Preacher’s description of the hapless estate of the dead. His words would go straight home to the hearts of the men for whom he wrote, with a force even beyond that which they would have for heathen races. In their captivity, they had renounced the worship of idols. They had renewed their covenant with Jehovah. Many of them were devoutly attached to the ordinances and commandments which they and their fathers had neglected in happier and more prosperous years. Yet their lives were made bitter to them with cruel bondage, and they had as little hope in their death as the Persians who embittered their lives, and probably even less. It was in this sore strait, and under the strong compulsions of the dreadful extremity, that the more studious and pious of their rabbis, like the Preacher himself, drew into an expressive context the passages scattered through their Sacred Books which hinted at a retributive life beyond the tomb, and settled into that firm persuasion of the immortality of the soul which, as a rule, they never henceforth altogether let go. But when the Preacher wrote, this settled and general conviction had not been reached. There were many among them who, as their thoughts circled round the mystery of death, could only cry, "Is this the end? is this the end?" To the great majority of them it seemed the end. And even the few, who sought an answer to the question by blending the Greek and Oriental with the Hebrew wisdom, attained no clear answer to it. To mere human wisdom, life remained a mystery, and death a mystery still more cruel and impenetrable. Only those who listened to the Preachers and Prophets taught of God beheld the dawn which already began to glimmer on the darkness in which men sat.

Verses 1-18

7

FOURTH SECTION

The Quest Achieved. The Chief Good Is To Be Found, Not In Wisdom, Nor In Pleasure, Nor In Devotion To Affairs And Its Rewards;

But In A Wise Use And A Wise Enjoyment Of The Present Life, Combined With A Steadfast Faith In The Life To Come

Ecclesiastes 8:16 - Ecclesiastes 12:7

AT last we approach the end of our Quest. The Preacher has found the Chief Good, and will show us where to find it. But are we even yet prepared to welcome it and to lay hold of it? Apparently he thinks we are not. For, though he has already warned us that it is not to be found in Wealth or Industry, in Pleasure or Wisdom, he repeats his warning in this last Section of his Book, as if he still suspected us of hankering after our old errors. Not till he has again assured us that we shall miss our mark if we seek the supreme Good in any of the directions in which it is commonly sought, does he direct us to the sole path in which we shall not seek in vain. Once more, therefore, we must gird up the loins of our mind to follow him along his several lines of thought, encouraged by the assurance that the end of our journey is not far off.

Verses 7-12

Nor in Pleasure:

Ecclesiastes 9:7-12

Imagine, then, a Jew brought to the bitter pass which Coheleth has described. He has acquainted himself with wisdom, native and foreign; and wisdom has led him to conclusions of virtue. Nor is he of those who love virtue as they love music-without practicing it. Believing that a righteous and religious carriage of himself will ensure happiness and equip him to encounter the problems of life, he has striven to be good and pure, to offer his sacrifices and pay his vows. But he has found that, despite his best endeavours, his life is not tranquil, that the very calamities which overtake the wicked overtake him, that that wise carriage of himself by which he thought to win love has provoked hatred, that death remains a frowning and inhospitable mystery. He hates death, and has no great love for the life which has brought him only labour and disappointment. Where is he likely to turn next? Wisdom having failed him, to what will he apply? At what conclusion will he arrive? Will not his conclusion be that standing conclusion of the baffled and the hapless, "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die"? Will he not say, "Why should I weary myself any more with studies which yield no certain science, and self-denials which meet with no reward? If a wise and pure conduct cannot secure me from the evils I dread, let me at least try to forget them and to grasp such poor delights as are still within my reach"? This, at all events, is the conclusion in which the Preacher lands him; and hence he takes occasion to review the pretensions of pleasure or mirth. To the baffled and hopeless devotee of wisdom he says, "Go, then, eat thy bread with gladness, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Cease to trouble yourself about God and His judgments. He, as you have seen, does not mete out rewards and punishments according to our merit or demerit; and as He does not punish the wicked after their deserts, you may be sure that He has long since accepted your wise virtuous endeavours, and will keep no score against you. Deck yourself in white festive garments; let no perfume be lacking to your head; add to your harem any woman who charms your eye: and, as the day of your life is brief at the best, let no hour of it slip by unenjoyed. As you have chosen mirth for your portion, be as merry as you may. Whatever you can get, get; whatever you can do, do. You are on the road to the dark dismal grave where there is no work nor device; there is, therefore, the more reason why your journey should be a merry one" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

Thus the Preacher describes the Man of Pleasure, and the maxims by which he rules his life. How true the description is I need not tarry to prove; ‘tis a point every man can judge for himself. Judge also whether the warning which the Preacher subjoins be not equally true to experience (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12). For, after having depicted, or personated, the man who trusts in wisdom, and the man who devotes himself to pleasure, he proceeds to show that even the man who blends mirth with study, whose wisdom preserves him from the disgusts of satiety and vulgar lust, is nevertheless-to say nothing of the Chief Good-very far from having reached a certain good. Then, at least, "the race was not (always) to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither was bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the learned." Those who had the fairest chances had not always the happiest success; nor did those who bent themselves most strongly to their ends always reach their ends. Those who were wanton as birds, or heedless as fish, were often taken in the snare of calamity or swept up by the net of misfortune. At any moment a killing frost might blight all the growths of Wisdom and destroy all the sweet fruits of pleasure; and if they had only these, what could they do but starve when these were gone? The good which was at the mercy of accident, which might vanish before the instant touch of disease or loss or pain, was not worthy to be, or to be compared with, the Chief Good, which is a good for all times, in all accidents and conditions, and renders him who has it equal to all events.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ecclesiastes-9.html.