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Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 9:14

There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it.
New American Standard Version

Bible Study Resources

Nave's Topical Bible - Bulwark;   Ingratitude;   War;   Wisdom;   Torrey's Topical Textbook - Cities;  
Bridgeway Bible Dictionary - Wisdom literature;   Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology - War, Holy War;   Fausset Bible Dictionary - Nathan;   Sheba (1);   Holman Bible Dictionary - Ecclesiastes, Book of;   Parables;   Poor, Orphan, Widow;   Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible - Ecclesiastes;  
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Bulwark;   Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher;   The Jewish Encyclopedia - Bar Miẓwah;   James, General Epistle of;   Yeẓer Ha-Ra';  
Every Day Light - Devotion for August 22;  

Adam Clarke Commentary

Verse 14. There was a little city, and few men within it — Here is another proof of the vanity of sublunary things; the ingratitude of men, and the little compensation that genuine merit receives. The little history mentioned here may have either been a fact, or intended as an instructive fable. A little city, with few to defend it, being besieged by a great king and a powerful army, was delivered by the cunning and address on a poor wise man; and afterwards his townsmen forgot their obligation to him.

Those who spiritualize this passage, making the little city the CHURCH, the few men the APOSTLES, the great king the DEVIL, and the poor wise man JESUS CHRIST, abuse the text.

But the Targum is not less whimsical: "The little city is the human body; few men in it, few good affections to work righteousness; the great king, evil concupiscence, which, like a strong and powerful king, enters into the body to oppress it, and besieges the heart so as to cause it to err; built great bulwarks against it - evil concupiscence builds his throne in it wheresoever he wills, and causes it to decline from the ways that are right before God; that it may be taken in the greatest nets of hell, that he may burn it seven times, because of its sins. But there is found in it a poor wise man - a good, wise, and holy affection, which prevails over the evil principle, and snatches the body from the judgment of hell, by the strength of its wisdom. Yet, after this deliverance, the man did not remember what the good principle had done for him; but said in his heart, I am innocent," c.

What a wonderful text has this been in the hands of many a modern Targumist and with what force have the Keachonians preached Christ crucified from it!

Such a passage as this receives a fine illustration from the case of Archimedes saving the city of Syracuse from all the Roman forces besieging it by sea ana land. He destroyed their ships by his burning-glasses, lifted up their galleys out of the water by his machines, dashing some to pieces, and sinking others. One man's wisdom here prevailed for a long time against the most powerful exertions of a mighty nation. In this case, wisdom far exceeded strength. But was not Syracuse taken, notwithstanding the exertions of this poor wise man? No. But it was betrayed by the baseness of Mericus, a Spaniard, one of the Syracusan generals. He delivered the whole district he commanded into the hands of Marcellus, the Roman consul, Archimedes having defeated every attempt made by the Romans, either by sea or land: yet he commanded no company of men, made no sorties, but confounded and destroyed them by his machines. This happened about 208 years before Christ, and nearly about the time in which those who do not consider Solomon as the author suppose this book to have been written. This wise man was not remembered; he was slain by a Roman soldier while deeply engaged in demonstrating a new problem, in order to his farther operations against the enemies of his country. See Plutarch, and the historians of this Syracusan war.

When Alexander the Great was about to destroy the city Lampsacus, his old master Anaximenes came out to meet him. Alexander, suspecting his design, that he would intercede for the city, being determined to destroy it, swore that he would not grant him any thing he should ask. Then said Anaximenes, "I desire that you will destroy this city." Alexander respected his oath, and the city was spared. Thus, says Valerius Maximus, the narrator, (lib. vii. c. iii., No. 4. Extern.,) by this sudden turn of sagacity, this ancient and noble city was preserved from the destruction by which it was threatened. "Haec velocitas sagacitatis oppidum vetusta nobilitate inclytum exitio, cui destinatum erat, subtraxit."

A stratagem of Jaddua, the high priest, was the means of preserving Jerusalem from being destroyed by Alexander, who, incensed because they had assisted the inhabitants of Gaza when he besieged it, as soon as he had reduced it, marched against Jerusalem, with the determination to raze it to the ground; but Jaddua and his priests in their sacerdotal robes, meeting him on the way, he was so struck with their appearance that he not only prostrated himself before the high priest, and spared the city, but also granted it some remarkable privileges. But the case of Archimedes and Syracuse is the most striking and appropriate in all its parts. That of Anaximenes and Lampsacus is also highly illustrative of the maxim of the wise man: "Wisdom is better than strength."

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Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". 1832.

Bridgeway Bible Commentary

Thoughts on wisdom and folly (9:13-10:20)

A simple story illustrates how a person may be wise and humble, but the good he does is not appreciated by those who benefit from it. Riches, status and a show of power are the things people admire. If a person lacks these, he is ignored or despised, even though his quiet words of wisdom may save a city from destruction (13-18).
One foolish act can spoil a lot of good. Stupidity leads to wrongdoing and marks a person out as a fool in the eyes of everyone (10:1-3). But when a ruler acts like a fool, the wise person will be patient and not panic. Unfortunately, fools often get into places of authority, but more capable people are not given a chance (4-7). In most activities there is some danger, so people should be careful and plan ahead; otherwise, instead of enjoying success they may meet disaster (8-11).
Fools talk without thinking of the consequences of their words and so get themselves into trouble. They waste their time with much talk about the future, even though no one can know the future. They waste their energy in useless work. They have no idea where they are going (12-15).
Immature rulers, who think only of their own comforts and ignore the needs of the people, bring hardship and discontent to the country they rule (16-17). Laziness leads to decay. If people want to enjoy the good things of life, they must work so that they can earn the money to buy them (18-19). The wise will learn how to control their thoughts and, consequently, their words and actions. In this way they will keep out of trouble (20).

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Bibliographical Information
Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "Brideway Bible Commentary". 2005.

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

A parable probably without foundation in fact. Critics who ascribe this book to a late age offer no better suggestion than that the “little city” may be Athens delivered 480 b.c. from the host of Xerxes through the wisdom of Themistocles, or Dora besieged 218 b.c. by Antiochus the Great.

Ecclesiastes 9:16-17 are comments on the two facts - the deliverance of the city and its forgetfulness of him who delivered it - stated in Ecclesiastes 9:15.

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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.

Chuck Smith Bible Commentary

Chapter 9

For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knows either love or hatred by all that is before them. All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that fears an oath. This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead ( Ecclesiastes 9:1-3 ).

So one thing happens to everybody--they die whether you're good or bad, sacrifice or don't sacrifice. It doesn't matter. You're all going to die. And as far as Solomon was concerned, that was horrible. If all of your wisdom can't cause you to escape death, all of your wealth can't cause you to escape death, how dies the rich man? As the poor. How dies the wise? As the fool. They all die.

You can't escape death was the conclusion of his human wisdom, but Jesus taught us how to escape death. Jesus said, "He who lives and believes in Me shall never die" ( John 11:26 ). You can escape death by living and believing in Jesus Christ. But the human mind, human wisdom won't bring you to that. It takes the revelation of God. And if you're only coming at life from the human level and trying to find God from the human level, you'll never make it. God must reveal Himself to you by His Spirit. And God has revealed Himself through His Word. And God has revealed, "And this is the record, that God has given to us eternal life and this life is in the Son, and he who has the Son has life" ( 1 John 5:11-12 ). "He that lives and believes in Me," Jesus said, "will never die."

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion ( Ecclesiastes 9:4 ).

I guess so.

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead don't know any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten ( Ecclesiastes 9:5 ).

Now those who teach the annihilation of the soul immediately turn to this as their scriptural proof. The book of Ecclesiastes, a book that deals with human reason, human intellect apart from God. And they pick out this scripture to prove soul annihilation. "For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing, neither have they any more reward. For the memory of them is forgotten." And then in verse Ecclesiastes 9:9 , their second proof text. No, I beg your pardon. The second text is right in here somewhere close.

But anyway, Jesus tells us that there was a certain rich man who fared sumptuously every day. Moreover, there was a poor man who was daily brought at his gate, full of sores, begging bread and eating bread that fell from the rich man's table. And the poor man died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died, and in hell, lifted up his eyes being in torment and said, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus unto me that he may take his finger and dip it in water and touch my tongue, for I am tormented in this heat." And Abraham said unto him, "Son, remember that in thy lifetime you had good things." Now that's what Jesus said. The consciousness that exists after death.

Solomon with human reason and understanding said, "But the dead don't know anything." This guy knew that his tongue was tormented, he knew Lazarus, and he knew that he had brothers back on earth who were still living sinful lives. And he could remember his past sinful life. Now you have to either accept the word of Jesus or the word of Solomon in a backslidden state as he is trying to find the reason and purpose of life apart from God, life under the sun. It is wrong to take the book of Ecclesiastes for biblical doctrine. Better to turn to the words of Christ. He surely knew much better than did Solomon in his backslidden state.

Also their love [that is, of the dead], and their hatred, and their envy, [is forgotten] and it's perished [annihilated]; neither have they any more a portion for ever of any thing that is done under the sun ( Ecclesiastes 9:6 ).

They're through. It's over. It's all... it's the end.

Go thy way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God now accepts your works. Let your garments be always white; and let your head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest [all the days of your life] all the days of your empty life, which he hath given you under the sun, all the days of your emptiness: for that is your portion in this life, and in thy labor which you take under the sun ( Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 ).

That's all you're going to get, man, so you might as well go for it. That's life.

Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave ( Ecclesiastes 9:10 ),

That's their other proof text. "No work, device, knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going." It's not what Jesus said.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all ( Ecclesiastes 9:11 ).

There is no purpose in life. There is no guiding hand in life. It's all a matter of time and chance. That's his conclusion. That is not a Scriptural doctrine. Only Solomon's conclusion of looking at things. Life is just time and chance. It doesn't matter how swift or slow, weak or strong, wise or foolish. Life is just time and chance.

For a man also knows not his time: as the fish that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them. This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great to me ( Ecclesiastes 9:12-13 ):

Now this is what I observed. It seemed like a great thing.

There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and he built great bulwarks against it: Now there was in this little city found a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. Then I said, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that rules among fools. Wisdom is better than the weapons of war: but one sinner destroys much good ( Ecclesiastes 9:14-18 ).

So his conclusions of observing a city spared by a wise man. "

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Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "Chuck Smith Bible Commentary". 2014.

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Clearly, in this illustration, wisdom is better than strength, but even so it does not guarantee a reward. People generally do not value wisdom as highly as wealth, even though wisdom is really worth more.

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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible

[There was] a little city, and few men within it,.... Which some take to be a piece of history, a real matter of fact; that as the city of Abel, when besieged by Joab, was delivered by the counsel of a wise woman, 2 Samuel 20:15; so there was a city, which Solomon had knowledge of, which was delivered from the siege of a powerful king, by the wise counsel of a poor wise man: though others think it is only a fiction, fable, or parable; the moral of which is, that political wisdom, even in a poor mean person, is sometimes very useful and serviceable, though it does not meet with its proper merit. Many of the Jewish writers understand the whole allegorically and figuratively; so the Targum, by "the little city", understands the body of man; by "few men in it", the little righteousness there is in the heart of man; though, according to the Midrash, Jarchi, and Alshech, they are the members of the body; by "the great king", the evil imagination, or corruption of nature, which is great to oppress, and besieges the heart to cause it to err; and by "the poor wise man", the good imagination or affection, which prevails over the other, and subdues it, and delivers the body from hell, and yet not remembered; and so the Midrash, and the ancient Jews in Aben Ezra, though he himself understands it according to its literal sense. Some Christian interpreters explain it to better purpose, concerning the church attacked by Satan, and delivered by Christ, who, notwithstanding, is unkindly and ungratefully used: the church is often compared to a city, it is the city of God, and of which saints are fellow citizens; it is but a "little" one in comparison of the world, and, in some periods and ages of the world, lesser than in others; it is little and contemptible in the eyes of the world, and the inhabitants of it are mean and low in their own eyes; they are a little flock, Luke 12:32; and "few" in number that are "within it": some are only of it, but not in it, or are external members only, which sometimes are many; or outward, not inward, court worshippers; they are few, comparatively, that belong to the invisible church, that are chosen, redeemed, called, and saved, Matthew 20:16; there are but few able men, especially such as are capable of defending the church against its enemies.

and there came a great king against it; Satan, the prince of devils and of the posse of them in the air, the god and prince of the world of the ungodly, who works in their hearts, and leads them captive at his will who may be said to be "great" with respect to the numbers under him, legions of devils, and the whole world that lies in wickedness, or "in" or "under" the wicked one: and on account of the power he exercises, by divine permission, over the bodies and minds of men; and in comparison of the little city, and few men in it, being stronger than they,

Matthew 12:24; he comes from the region of the air, where his posse are; or from going to and fro in the earth; or from hell, into which he is cast down: he comes by divine permission; in the manner evil spirits do, by temptation; in a hostile way, against the church and people of God, to destroy and devour them, if possible;

and besieged it; surrounded it on all sides, as the Gog and Magog army trader him will encompass the camp of the saints, and the beloved city,

Revelation 20:9;

and built great bulwarks against it; such as are called strong holds,

2 Corinthians 10:4. Satan's first attack was upon the elect of God, in Adam; when he brought them, through sin, under a sentence of condemnation and death, though then they were preserved in Christ; and ever since he has been attacking the church by persecution, in order to take it by storm; and by spreading errors and heresies, such as tend to raze the foundation, and to pull down the superstructure of grace; and by promoting schisms, and laying such large principles of church communion, as tend to take away ordinances and discipline, the fence of the city; and by throwing in hand grenades of strife and contention, to raise a civil war among the citizens themselves; and, by various temptations to sin, to gain deserters: these are some of his bulwarks, batteries, and engines.

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The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Bibliographical Information
Gill, John. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". 1999.

Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Bible

The Advantages of Wisdom.

      13 This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me:   14 There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:   15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.   16 Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.   17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.   18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

      Solomon still recommends wisdom to us as necessary to the preserving of our peace and the perfecting of our business, notwithstanding the vanities and crosses which human affairs are subject to. He had said (Ecclesiastes 9:11; Ecclesiastes 9:11), Bread is not always to the wise; yet he would not therefore be thought either to disparage, or to discourage, wisdom, no, he still retains his principle, that wisdom excels folly as much as light excels darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13; Ecclesiastes 2:13), and we ought to love and embrace it, and be governed by it, for the sake of its own intrinsic worth, and the capacity it gives us of being serviceable to others, though we ourselves should not get wealth and preferment by it. This wisdom, that is, this which he here describes, wisdom which enables a man to serve his country out of pure affection to its interests, when he himself gains no advantage by it, no, not so much as thanks for his pains, or the reputation of it, this is the wisdom which, Solomon says, seemed great unto him,Ecclesiastes 9:13; Ecclesiastes 9:13. A public spirit, in a private sphere, is wisdom which those who understand things that differ cannot but look upon as very magnificent.

      I. Solomon here gives an instance, which probably was a case in fact, in some neighbouring country, of a poor man who with his wisdom did great service in a time of public distress and danger (Ecclesiastes 9:14; Ecclesiastes 9:14): There was a little city (no great prize, whoever was master of it); there were but few men within it, to defend it, and men, if men of fortitude, are the best fortifications of a city; here were few men, and, because few, feeble, fearful, and ready to give up their city as not tenable. Against this little city a great king came with a numerous army, and besieged it, either in pride, or covetousness to possess it, or in revenge for some affront given him, to chastise and destroy it. Thinking it stronger than it was, he built great bulwarks against it, from which to batter it, and doubted not but in a little time to make himself master of it. What a great deal of unjust vexation do ambitious princes give to their harmless neighbours! This great king needed not fear this little city; why then should he frighten it? It would be little profit to him; why then should he put himself to such a great expense to gain it? But as unreasonable and insatiably greedy as little people sometimes are to lay house to house, and field to field, great kings often are to lay city to city, and province to province, that they may be placed alone in the earth,Isaiah 5:8. Did victory and success attend the strong? No; there was found in this little city, among the few men that were in it, one poor wise man--a wise man, and yet poor, and not preferred to any place of profit or power in the city; places of trust were not given to men according to their merit, and meetness for them, else such a wise man as this would not have been a poor man. Now, 1. Being wise, he served the city, though he was poor. In their distress they found him out (Judges 11:7) and begged his advice and assistance; and he by his wisdom delivered the city, either by prudent instructions given to the besieged, directing them to some unthought-of stratagem for their own security, or by a prudent treaty with the besiegers, as the woman at Abel, 2 Samuel 20:16. He did not upbraid them with the contempt they had put upon him, in leaving him out of their council, nor tell them he was poor and had nothing to lose, and therefore cared not what became of the city; but he did his best for it, and was blessed with success. Note, Private interests and personal resentments must always be sacrificed to public good and forgotten when the common welfare is concerned. 2. Being poor, he was slighted by the city, though he was wise and had been an instrument to save them all from ruin: No man remembered that same poor man; his good services were not taken notice of, no recompence was made him, no marks of honour were put upon him, but he lived in as much poverty and obscurity as he had done before. Riches were not to this man of understanding, nor favour to this man of skill. Many who have well-merited of their prince and country have been ill-paid; such an ungrateful world do we live in. It is well that useful men have a God to trust to, who will be their bountiful rewarder; for, among men, great services are often envied and rewarded with evil for good.

      II. From this instance he draws some useful inferences, looks upon it and receives instruction. 1. Hence he observes the great usefulness and excellency of wisdom, and what a blessing it makes men to their country: Wisdom is better than strength,Ecclesiastes 9:16; Ecclesiastes 9:16. A prudent mind, which is the honour of a man, is to be preferred before a robust body, in which many of the brute creatures excel man. A man may by his wisdom effect that which he could never compass by his strength, and may overcome those by out-witting them who are able to overpower him. Nay, wisdom is better than weapons of war, offensive or defensive, Ecclesiastes 9:18; Ecclesiastes 9:18. Wisdom, that is, religion and piety (for the wise man is here opposed to a sinner), is better than all military endowments or accoutrements, for it will engage God for us, and then we are safe in the greatest perils and successful in the greatest enterprises. If God be for us, who can be against us or stand before us? 2. Hence he observes the commanding force and power of wisdom, though it labour under external disadvantages (Ecclesiastes 9:17; Ecclesiastes 9:17): The words of wise men are heard in quiet; what they speak, being spoken calmly and with deliberation (though, not being rich and in authority, they dare not speak aloud nor with any great assurance), will be hearkened to and regarded, will gain respect, nay, will gain the point, and sway with men more than the imperious clamour of him that rules among fools, who, like fools, chose him to be their ruler, for his noise and blustering, and, like fools, think he must by those methods carry the day with every body else. A few close arguments are worth a great many big words; and those will strike sail to fair reasoning who will answer those that hector and insult according to their folly. How forcible are right words! What is spoken wisely should be spoken calmly, and then it will be heard in quiet and calmly considered. But passion will lessen the force even of reason, instead of adding any force to it. 3. Hence he observes that wise and good men, notwithstanding this, must often content themselves with the satisfaction of having done good, or at least attempted it, and offered at it, when they cannot do the good they would do nor have the praise they should have. Wisdom capacitates a man to serve his neighbours, and he offers his service; but, alas! if he be poor his wisdom is despised and his words are not heard,Ecclesiastes 9:16; Ecclesiastes 9:16. Many a man is buried alive in poverty and obscurity who, if he had but fit encouragement given him, might be a great blessing to the world; many a pearl is lost in its shell. But there is a day coming when wisdom and goodness shall be in honour, and the righteous shall shine forth.

      4. From what he had observed of the great good which one wise and virtuous man may do he infers what a great deal of mischief one wicked man may do, and what a great deal of good he may be the hindrance of: One sinner destroyeth much good. (1.) As to himself, a sinful condition is a wasteful condition. How many of the good gifts both of nature and Providence does one sinner destroy and make waste of--good sense, good parts, good learning, a good disposition, a good estate, good meat, good drink, and abundance of God's good creatures, all made use of in the service of sin, and so destroyed and lost, and the end of giving them frustrated and perverted! He who destroys his own soul destroys much good. (2.) As to others, what a great deal of mischief may one wicked man do in a town or country! One sinner, who makes it his business to debauch others, may defeat and frustrate the intentions of a great many good laws and a great deal of good preaching, and draw many into his pernicious ways; one sinner may be the ruin of a town, as one Achan troubled the whole camp of Israel. The wise man who delivered the city would have had his due respect and recompence for it but that some one sinner hindered it, and invidiously diminished the service. And many a good project, well laid for the public welfare, had been destroyed by some one subtle adversary to it. The wisdom of some would have healed the nation, but, through the wickedness of a few, it would not be healed. See who are a kingdom's friends and enemies, if one saint does much good, and one sinner destroys much good.

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These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Bibliographical Information
Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:14". "Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible". 1706.