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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Ecclesiastes 5

 

 

Verses 1-7

Verses 1-12

Ecclesiastes 5:1-12

Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God.

Reverence and fidelity

This passage is a series of cautions against irreverence and insincerity in worship, against discouragement because of political wrongs, and against the passion for, and misuse of, great riches. Distrust in God underlies all these evils. Humble faith in and reliance upon Him, in the contrast, mark the wise man. Note--

I. One’s proper bearing in the Lord’s house (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).

1. In the first three verses carelessness and loose speech are condemned in all who come into the presence chamber of the Almighty. So it is when subjects appear before any sovereign to do him honour or make request. Exact address and studied phrase are required. The free and easy spirit which will not regard these is expelled hastily and with great indignation. Earthly dignities are but a faint type of the heavenly. The soul which faintly realizes this will come before Him with “few words,” if he be a Sinaitic worshipper; “in fulness of faith” and “with boldness,” if he be a Christian believer.

2. In the further admonition, hasty and ill-considered pledges are forbidden. Impetuous promising is the worst kind of trifling, and the Church or person who incites another to it only works him harm. We are in agreement with the Mosaic legislation regarding such impiety, “If thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.” Sin lies, not in the refusal to make a partial and ill-considered pledge to God, but in not heeding that first of all His commands, “Give me thine heart.” Cordial assent to this requirement makes one an accepted worshipper, whose acts and words do not conflict when he appears before God. Thoughtless, giddy, garrulous lips here are an abomination unto Him. One might better be dreaming and know it.

II. The duty of relying upon the Divine justice (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9). The victims of tyranny and wrong have not ceased wailing. We hear their pitiful cries in every era of the world’s history.

III. The delusive character of wealth (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12). To denounce riches generally is as though one inveighed against the air: all men breathe it. All men just as naturally long for these material treasures. But our lungs are fitted to receive only a certain volume; we cannot use more. We cannot store it for consumption, enjoying it all the more that others have not as much. And the like is true of these earthly possessions. Beyond the mere provision for food, and raiment, and shelter, and our varied tastes, they have no power to minister, though piled high and broad as the pyramids. “He cannot reach to feel them,” as the philosopher says. Yet the deceit is universal, that the more one can amass the nearer he will come to perfect contentment. He will not believe that he chases thus only a shadow--that it is as far from his embrace when he counts his millions as when he had only units. He may as well expect to quench his thirst by drinking of the ocean. (De Wm. S. Clark.)

Reverence and fidelity

With chapter five begins a series of proverbial sayings somewhat like those of the Book of Proverbs, but showing more internal connection. These represent some of the experimental knowledge which had come to the heart in its chase after many things. We may use them, as we do the Proverbs, as condensations of wisdom, each having a completeness in itself.

I. worship (verses 1-7).

1. The proper manner of worship is here suggested to us. It mush be with a full intention of the heart and not merely with the outward symbols. Always in worship, even when it is most freed of external props, there is the opportunity for a lack of right intention, and, therefore, a lack of meaning to God as well as to men. Worship must always be interpreted by the condition of heart of the worshipper.

2. Vows formed a considerable element in the old Jewish worship, and are more or less recognized in the New Testament. We promise to do certain things: to be faithful to Christ and His Church, to love our fellow-Christians, to obey those who are over us in Christ, etc. These are vows, pledges given to God, and they should be kept as scrupulously as we would keep a business obligation signed with our own hand.

II. A difficult passage concerning statecraft follows. The State may be mismanaged, but it is wisest to make the best of it. “If thou seest oppression of the poor and violation of justice and righteousness in the government of a province, be not astonished at the matter. Such perversion of state-craft is not confined to the petty officials whose deeds you know. Clear up to the top of the Government it is apt to be the same. For there is a high one over a high one watching, and higher persons over them, and all are pretty much alike” (verse 8). “But the advantage of a land in every way is a king devoted to the field” (verse 9). The idea here is that the old simple agricultural form of government was the best for the people of that day. The general meaning is that good government comes from having rulers who are not rapacious for their own aggrandizement, but have the interests of the country at heart.

III. The matter of riches, which requires such special thought to-day, when riches come easily and to many, was not without its importance in the olden time.

1. Wealth then as now was unsatisfying (verse 10). It held out promises which it had no power to fulfil. It said to men, “Be rich and you will be happy.” They became rich, but they were not happy. The soul is made to crave the most ethereal kind of food; but the rich man tries to satisfy it with coarse things. It is made to hunger for the things of heaven; he thrusts upon it the things of earth.

2. Here also is emphasized the thought that the increase of wealth is not satisfying (verse 11).

3. And then comes the old lesson, which many a rich man has confessed to be true, but which those who are not rich find it very hard to believe true, that labour with contentment is better than wealthy idleness (verse 12). Many a successful millionaire has confessed that his happiest hours were in the beginning of his career, when he felt that he must work hard for his wife and babies, and when he returned home at night with a sweet sense of contented fatigue that never comes now in his anxious days of great prosperity.” (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)

Behaviour in church

I. That you should enter the scene of public worship with devout preparation. “Keep thy foot,” etc. The mad whom Solomon addresses is supposed to be on his way to the house of God. The character of a man’s step is often an index to the state of his soul. There is the slow step of the dull brain and the quick step of the intensely active; there is the step of the proud and the step of the humble, the thoughtless and the reflective. The soul reveals itself in the gait, beats out its own character in the tread.

1. Realize the scene you are entering. It is “the house of God.” Whom are you to meet? “The high and holy One,” etc. Draw not hither thoughtlessly. “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,” etc. (Exodus 3:5). “How dreadful is this place!” etc. (Genesis 28:16-17). Do not rush hither.

2. Realize the solemnity of the purpose. It is to meet with the Mighty Creator of the universe, whom you have offended and insulted. It is to confess to Him, and to implore His forgiveness.

II. That you should listen to the instruction of public worship with deep attention. Having entered the house of God, it is your duty to be more “ready to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

1. You should attend with profound carefulness to the services of God’s house, that you may avoid a great evil,--that of “offering the sacrifice of fools.” Mere bodily sacrifices are the sacrifice of fools (Ezekiel 33:31). Lip services are the sacrifice of fools (Isaiah 29:13). The hypocritical services are the sacrifices of fools (Luke 18:11-12). What are the sacrifices that God will accept? (Psalms 51:17; Isaiah 66:2).

2. You should attend with profound carefulness to the services of God’s house that your mind may be in a right state to receive true good. “Be more ready to hear,” etc.

III. That you should attend to the engagements of public worship with profound reverence. “Be not rash with thy mouth,” etc. Let thy words be in harmony with thy real state of soul; and see that thy state of soul is truthful and right. There seem to be two reasons here against vapid verbosity in worship.

1. The vast disparity between the worshipper and the object he addresses. “For God is in heaven,” etc. Duly realize His presence and greatness, and you will become all but speechless before Him. Isaiah did so (Isaiah 6:1-6).

2. The fearful tendency of an empty soul to an unmeaning verbosity (verse 3). (Homilist.)

A dream cometh through the multitude of business.--

The prayer and the dream

There is an analogy instituted between voluminous prayer and the voluminous dream. The dream arises out of the various transactions of business, and the fool’s prayer springs from the variety of his vocabulary. Confusion is the characteristic of both. They are produced by external influences. The soul as a directing rational power is asleep. Dim memories of things mingle in a wild phantasmagoria before the closed portals of the sense of the dreamer. It is just so with the worshipping word-monger. The nature and character of God, the promises, Scripture language, are floating before the closed vision of the pietistic dreamer, and his prayers are a jumble of disjointed things. This will always be the case with him who gives himself up to the external influences. But as it is better to dream than to be dead, so is it always better to pray, even disjointedly and wildly, than to be without that breath of the spiritual life. The mere enthusiast, guided by no reason in his devotions, may be brought under its direction; but how shall mere reason become enthusiastic? We answer, by the action of the Spirit of God on the soul. What we need is this Spirit. We can prophesy to the dry bones, and clothe them with flesh; but the Spirit of God is needed that they may stand up and become an army of God. “Come, O breath, and breathe on those slain, that they may live,” is to be our prayer. When we have got the answer to that petition, we shall be living, loving, active Christians. (J. Bonnet.)


Verses 1-17

Verses 1-20

Verse 4-5

Ecclesiastes 5:4-5

When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it.

Of remembering and keeping our vows

One of the greatest inconveniences to which men are exposed in the various transactions of life, one of the greatest hindrances in their performance of duty, is forgetfulness: and this may be owing, partly to a defective constitution of mind, more frequently to habits of inattention and wilful neglect. A benefactor confers upon us a distinguished favour: we feel deeply sensible of the obligation, and sure that it must always be remembered; we venture to pledge ourselves that such will be the case; our own interest is greatly concerned that it should be so; the continued good-will and kindness of our friend depend upon it: and yet, when the benefit is past, and not seldom even while it is enjoyed, we are led to bestow scarcely a thought upon the hand from which our bounty has been supplied. None of us will deny our obligations to God for the blessings of His providence and the riches of His grace; and probably there are few of us, who have not been at some time or other so powerfully affected by a consideration of the Lord’s dealings with us, as to have entered into some resolutions before Him, and made some promises of honouring and serving Him. But how soon have these hopeful convictions lost their power; how soon has the enemy, who was watching all the while with jealousy over them, “caught away that which was sown in their heart,” and scattered it to the winds. The gains and pleasures, the corrupt indulgences, the fashionable follies of the world, have rushed in like a flood, and swept from them the very recollection of their promised change. If we could have kept a register of our thoughts and purposes, no doubt we should find, upon consulting it, that we had repeatedly, in the course of our lives, made our resolutions, and avowed our purposes in the sight of Heaven, to walk more humbly and faithfully with our God, and to live for eternity. And though we have long ago dismissed these matters from our minds, and no longer trouble ourselves either with the promised obligations, or our forgetfulness of them, yet are they standing before God in living characters, which no time can efface or alter. The sentiments, and affections, and conduct, which we saw necessary for us years ago, continue to be equally necessary, though they are no longer felt; our feelings may be changed and gone, but there is no change in duty: whatever it was wise and good for us to promise, that we are now as much bound to perform, as we were when the promise was originally made; and God will demand it at our hands. There is one momentous occasion of our lives to which most of us may carry back our thoughts with peculiar advantage; one occasion on which we certainly did, in the most open, and solemn, and unqualified manner, pledge ourselves to God in the presence of His Church and people; and that was when we took upon ourselves the vows and promises, which were made for us at our baptism, when we were confirmed. This is a transaction and a service upon which we ought to dwell with great solemnity and frequency. It is incumbent on me to say a word to those who are about to take upon themselves the promises and vows made at their baptism. Let the matter be well weighed: let it be soberly considered that they are going to give a promise and a pledge to the God of truth; to declare that they are fully sensible of the engagement which has been made for them, and are willing to take it wholly upon themselves; to declare that, for the remainder of their days, they wilt walk worthily, by the help of the Lord of that new and holy state into which they were baptized. Now, that this is a most serious, important, and awful engagement, no one, who is come to years of discretion, can fail to perceive. Let all them be assured, that if this solemn vow be earnestly made and faithfully kept, God will be their friend, and “He will save them”: if this solemn vow be trifled with and broken, God will punish such mockery, and will become their enemy, and they may perish everlastingly. Certainly we may say, in this case, if in any, “Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.” (J. Slade, M. A.)

The vow

The vow is a form of prayer. It is a prayer with an obligation. The worshipper wants something, and, either that he may get it or that he may show his gratitude, he resolves to do a certain thing. In the Old Testament economy the vow was a common form of worship. There was something in it suited to those lower and feebler views of God which obtained in the infancy of the Church. The chief objection to it is, that it lays a man under a bond to do what should always spring from love; that it is likely to be put as a full satisfaction for the religious obligations of the Christian, which yet include the whole life and being; and that there is in it an assumption that, if we do not make the vow, the obligation on our part is not incurred; whereas this is not so, for I may say that whatever is lawful for us to vow is always right for us to do, even if we had not made the vow. Rashness and inconsiderateness should not lead us to make any vow, either which we cannot keep, which we will not keep, or which it would be unlawful for us to keep, for such, translated into our language, is no doubt the essential meaning of those words--“Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel,”--that is, the messenger of God, the minister, the priest, who was cognizant of the making of the vow,--“that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thy hands?” We are cautioned here not only against rash vows, but against unconsidered and voluminous prayers. Be not rash nor hasty: let thy words be few. Our Saviour cautioned against vain repetitions. Several gross vices in prayer are here indicated. First, voluminous prayer is to be guarded against--the utterance of the same request in many forms, as though God should be affected with the variety and quantity of speech! This, when done as a duty, is an evil; when done for pretence, is a hypocrisy. When we go to God, we should go with some petition which we want granted. We should know what it is; and if we have many petitions, we should have them arranged in proper order, and we should express them simply. There is much prayer without desire; and if God would grant many petitions which are offered up, many a worshipper would be greatly amazed and sadly disappointed. Take for instance our prayers for a new nature, for spiritual-mindedness. Well, we are afraid that there are prayers lying at the back of these petitions giving them the negative. The petitioners do not think there is not a good and a benefit in these things, but they do not want them for themselves, at least not now. A new nature is just what they do not want, but a little more indulgence of the old. They are as full of worldly-mindedness as they can be, and do not wish to have it destroyed. What then? Should we cease to offer up such prayers? No! But what we should do is this: try to get such views of the nature of things sought to be got rid of as shall lead to earnestness in our petitions against them, and to get such views of the blessings prayed for as shall lead us really to desire them. We require to study, that our prayers be of the right kind--that they be not mere verbiage; and, as in going before men for any favour, our words should be few, and well ordered. About the exercise of prayer there are great difficulties, which can only be surmounted by previous study, by constant watchfulness, and by a simple reliance on the Spirit of God, as the source from whom all our inspirations flow. (J. Bonnet.)


Verses 8-17

Verse 10-11

Ecclesiastes 5:10-11

He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver.

The unsatisfactoriness of material wealth

I. That as goods increase, desire increases. This is not the case universally. There are men whose property is daily increasing, but whose desires are not increasing. The answer, as to who these men are, is suggested by the text. They are those who have not set their affections upon money. Love of silver leads to dissatisfaction with silver. Love of abundance leads to dissatisfaction with increase. He who loves silver wants gold. He who loves gold wants land. “Man never is, but always to be blessed,” if he look for blessedness only to earth. As bodily hunger cannot be satisfied by fine scenery which appeals to the eye; as thirst cannot be quenched by the strains of even the sweetest music; and as what ministers to mental growth will not, directly at least, tend to physical development; so neither can the soul thrive upon food other than its own. God made man for Himself, and away from God, there is for man no abiding, no solid satisfaction.

II. That expenditure keeps pace with income. Wants are born of “goods.” These increase and so do those who eat them. Further, wealth has its duties as well as its advantages; and in its possessor be a Christian he will recognize those duties. The practical recognition of them proves this, that “when goods are increased they are increased that eat them.”

III. That the love of wealth is vanity. “This also is vanity.” To love wealth “is vanity”: because love of wealth makes men cold, unsympathetic, and morally unmanly, causes them to live from circumference to centre, instead of from centre to circumference. On the contrary he who lives for others lives a radiating life, realizes that all are brethren. To love wealth is vanity, because whilst there is an excitement in the pursuit of wealth there is no true enjoyment in its” possession. A soul centred upon worldly wealth, like the daughter of the horse-leech, cries, “Give! give!” We cannot serve God and mammon (J. S. Swan.)

The vanity of riches

This passage describes the vanity of riches. With the enjoyments Of frugal industry it contrasts the woes of wealth. Looking up from that condition on which Solomon looked down, it may help to reconcile us to our lot, if we remember how the most opulent of princes envied it.

1. In all grades of society human subsistence is very much the same. Even princes are not fed with ambrosia, nor do poets subsist on asphodel. Bread and water, the produce of the flocks and the herds, and a few homely vegetables, form the staple of his food who can lay the globe under tribute; and these essentials of healthful existence are within the attainment of ordinary industry.

2. When a man begins to amass money, he begins to feed an appetite which nothing can appease, and which its proper food will only render fiercer. “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver.” To greed there may be “increase,” but no increase can ever be “abundance.” Therefore, happy they who have never got enough to awaken the accumulating passion, and who, feeling that food and raiment are the utmost to which they can aspire, are therewith content.

3. It should reconcile us to the want of wealth, that, as abundance grows, so grow the consumers, and of riches less perishable, the proprietor enjoys no more than the mere spectator. A rich man buys a picture or a statue, and he is proud to think that his mansion is adorned with such a famous masterpiece. But a poor man comes and looks at it, and, because he has the aesthetic insight, in a few minutes he is conscious of more astonishment and pleasure than the dull proprietor has experienced in half a century. Or, a rich man lays out a park or a garden, and, except the diversion of planning and remodelling, he has derived from it little enjoyment; but some bright morning a holiday student or a town-pent tourist comes, and when he leaves he carries with him a freight of life-long recollections.

4. Amongst the pleasures of obscurity, or rather of occupation, the next noticed is sound slumber. Sometimes the wealthy would be the better for a taste of poverty; it would reveal to them their privileges. But if the poor could get a taste of opulence, it would reveal to them strange luxuries in lowliness. Fevered with late hours and false excitement, or scared by visions the righteous recompense of gluttonous excess, or with breath suppressed and palpitating heart listing the fancied footsteps of the robber, grandeur often pays a nightly penance for the triumph of the day.

5. Wealth is often the ruin of its possessor. It is “kept for the owner to his hurt.” Like that King of Cyprus who made himself so rich that he became a tempting spoil, and who, rather than lose his treasures, embarked them in perforated ships; but, wanting courage to draw the plugs, ventured back to land and lost both his money and his life: so a fortune is a great perplexity to its owner, and is no defence in times of danger. And very often, by enabling him to procure all that heart can wish, it pierces him through with many sorrows. Ministering to.the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, misdirected opulence has ruined many both in soul and body.

6. Nor is it a small vexation to have accumulated a fortune, and when expecting to transmit it to some favourite child, to find it suddenly swept away (Ecclesiastes 5:14-16). There is now the son, but where is the sumptuous mansion? Here is the heir, but where is the vaunted heritage?

7. Last of all, are the infirmity and fretfulness which are the frequent companions of wealth. You pass a stately mansion, and as the powdered menials are closing the shutters of the brilliant room, and you see the sumptuous table spread and the fire-light flashing on vessels of gold and vessels of silver, perhaps no pang of envy pricks your bosom, but a glow of gratulation for a moment fills it: Happy people who tread carpets so soft, and who swim through halls so splendid! But, some future day, when the candles are lighted and the curtains drawn in that selfsame apartment, it is your lot to be within; and as the invalid owner is wheeled to his place at the table, and as dainties are handed round of which he dare not taste, and as the guests interchange cold courtesy, and all is so stiff and so commonplace, and so heartlessly grand, your fancy cannot help flying of[ to some humbler spot with which you are mere familiar, and “where quiet with contentment makes her home.” (J. Hamilton, D. D.)

Silver and satisfaction

This is true of all earthly things. No man is satisfied with any human idol.

I. Corrupt affection. All worldly love is corrupt. There is nothing good in silver. It has only present beauty and usefulness.

II. The glamour of time. How bright is the tinsel of an illuminated theatre! Such is the spell cast over the things of time and sense, until the Spirit of God causes the sunshine to beam in our hearts.

III. The disappointment of ambition. Like a mirage the object sought eludes the grasp. No acquisition is final. The more we get the more we want. (Homilist.)


Verses 10-17

Verse 18

Ecclesiastes 5:18

It is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour.

Labour

It is concerning Labour in its broadest sense that I wish to speak. The navvy with his shovel, the ploughman with his team, the weaver with his loom, the clerk with his pen, the “commercial” with his order-book, the domestic with her scrubbing-brush, the designer, manager, inventor, writer with his brain and brilliant gifts, the minister with tender heart and cultured mind--these all are sons of Labour, who, in their striving to do true work, can realize a responsibility so great as to declare their brotherhood with Him who declared, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day, for the night cometh when no man can work.”

I. The rights of labour.

1. Has not the labourer a right to expect some degree of pleasure in his labour? To some this may seem somewhat fanciful, but they cannot deny its justness. To eat, to drink, to sleep, to think, to speak, are pleasurable sensations; why should so natural and necessary a function as toil be otherwise? Yet we know it is to many. Multitudes are brutalized by work, simply because they find no satisfaction in it. They work in order to live, and die in order to find rest.

2. Equally just is it for Labour to assert its right to an honest reward. Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations,” got to the root of the wage question when he said that the wages of labour were the fruits of labour. And the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, had he been able to hear that sentiment, would have said “Amen! for it is his portion.” Amid the complex tangle of modern mercantile transactions it would be an impossibility to assign to the hand-worker the exact product of his individual labour, after deducting the wages of the brain-worker who designs, organizes, or superintends, and the other expenses involved in production. But should it not be the striving of a Christian employer to secure to every worker as near an approximation to his true reward as can be ascertained? Should it not be frowned upon as a deadly sin for men to grow rich on “the hire of the labourers, which they keep back by fraud”?

3. Further, it is surely Labour’s right to have the fullest liberty in seeking these ends. The work done by our trade unions is a splendid monument to the sturdy self-restraint of the workers, and whilst in the future the principles taught and the methods adopted by them may undergo considerable change, yet the intelligent association of men for purposes of educating public opinion, and influencing the legislature will remain the most effective of means for realizing Labour’s ideals.

II. The duties of labour. Let Labour, whilst seeking for justice to itself, seek to deal justly with others. If “capital” be the miserable abstraction of which the proverb says it has “neither soul to save, nor heart to feel, nor body to kick,” it is no reason why workers should deal unfairly with the individual “capitalist,” who often is as much the victim of an evil social system as the worker himself. If it be the maxim of commerce to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest, blind to all considerations as to whether thereby one obeys or disobeys the law of Christ; if to take advantage of a brother’s necessity is not condemned as a breach of commercial ethics, there is no justification whatever for any worker adopting similar principles in his life work. Because a man does not believe in the justice of our present system of doing business, it is no reason why he should play ducks and drakes with his employer. Assuming that the principle of competition is a cruelly oppressive one, and that many employers are heartless tyrants, a sensible worker will, nevertheless, while those evil conditions remain--and they may for some time yet--make the best he can of them. To worry employers for concessions that it would be suicidal to grant is, at best, a short-sighted policy. Better to attack the system to which both masters and men are victims. Employers of labour are sometimes made unnecessarily hard by the foolishness and inconsiderateness of workers. It may, for instance, be quite legitimate for a mill-hand to grumble over the poorness of his pay, but the justice of his plea becomes miserably weakened when he “plays” for a couple of days when work is abundant, with the consequence that that work is driven elsewhere. It may be quite lawful for a man to take a holiday at any time he pleases, but not expedient. Even in such a matter the higher law of brotherliness should prevail. In the ranks of manual labour, though not these exclusively, we find a lamentable “want of thought,” which in its results is often as bad as “want of heart.” It has been asserted that the British workman is the hardest of all masters when he reaches that position; that in his co-operative societies his “divvy” is often larger than it should be because of underpaid labour. Not difficult would it be to prove that the overwork of multitudes of shop assistants is caused by thoughtless working-folk who “shop” late when it would be as easy to “shop” early. A man’s religion is seen in the byways of conduct, and if in these movements he is not above suspicion, he loses all claim to be called a Christian, for the spirit of Christ’s Gospel says, “Deal with all men as with your brother, as with children of God, whose necessity is your sorrow, whose strength is your joy.” (T. A. Leonard.)
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Verses 18-20

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ecclesiastes 5:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/ecclesiastes-5.html. 1905-1909. New York.

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