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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who is not directly identifiable from the text, being only identified as a king of the house of David, (‘son of David’ means simply ‘descended from David’) finally makes clear that all that is important in life is to live before God and do His will. All else is vanity. Although initially he searches everywhere for meaning, significance, permanence and true satisfaction, and for long term meaningfulness in the normal course of life, he concludes that it is not to be found on earth ‘under the sun’. Instead all appears empty and transient. It is ‘vanity’ (emptiness, lacking in content, like a puff of wind). This idea pervades the whole book ( see 1.14; 2.1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3.19; 4.4, 7, 8, 16; 5.7, 10; 6.2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7.6, 15; 8.10, 14; 9.9; 11.8, 10; 12.8.11) True meaningfulness, he concludes, is in fact only to be found in the end by knowing God, and walking with Him (2.24-26; 3.11-13; 5.1-2; 9.7-10; 11.9; 12.1; 13.7; 12.13-14). For in the end God will call all men into judgment (3.17; 11.9; 12.14).
So he concludes that God alone, and a proper walk with Him, can satisfy the deep cravings of the heart and mind, and make a man’s life meaningful in the long term, so that eventually his essential being is taken up to God (12.7). And all that he writes is building up to that thought, for he climaxes with the words, ‘This is the end of the matter. All has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments. For this is the whole duty of man’ (12.13).
It is wrong to see this as a book which leaves us in despair and hopelessness, or indeed has that intention. This comes out essentially in chapter 5 where we are carried directly into the presence of God. There it is made apparent that while we cannot understand His ways which are beyond our ability to understand (5.2), a theme that is found elsewhere in the book (3.11), we are called on to trust Him and seek to fulfil His will. And he stresses that God must be taken seriously (5.4). This is also brought out in the passages which describe the joyful life of the godly (2.24-26; 3.11-13; 5.1-2; 9.7-10), a life which is to be persevered in even though all seems meaningless, and it is confirmed in the final chapter which promises hope for those who ‘fear God’ (12.13). The godly are called on to live by faith and not by sight.
What we do see in the book is the search of a man seeking truth, and weighing up the alternatives as far as they can be known. He takes up ideas only to reject them. At times he talks like an atheist as his mind grapples with the various problems. At other times like a believer as he is aware of how God breaks in on man. But he finishes up by declaring his conclusion, that the whole of what man is lies in ‘fearing’ God and obeying His covenant commands (12.13), that is, in faithfully walking with Him in accordance with the covenant, because all will at some stage be called into judgment (12.14). It can be seen as evangelistic philosophy. He does not solve the problem of the meaninglessness of life under the sun, (after all life’s activities apart from God are meaningless), he simply overrides it on the grounds that God is above all (5.1-2) and requires us to walk before Him and in the end all are accountable to God. The meaningless becomes meaningful in the light of eternity.
There is no doubt that Ecclesiastes has an important lesson for our materialistic, science driven society, for it brings out that all our materialism and scientific understanding is in the final analysis meaningless. Unless we get above it and find God we will indeed end up as the food of worms in the grave. In God alone can we discover meaning.
Intermingled with this process of argument are many statements which demonstrate the wisdom of the king. He does not want his listeners to think that he is just a pessimist and cynic. So he continually produces valuable pearls of wisdom with which to impress them. He wants to show himself as a genuine wisdom teacher. And he thus also continually introduces the idea of ‘the wise’. We must not always expect to find a connection between these pearls of wisdom. Such was not necessarily the style, although they were usually connected in some way, even if only vague. But life has to be lived and they are a guide as to how to live it.
Thus the philosophical quest, religious observations and the teaching of wisdom are quaintly intermingled. He is searcher, teacher and wise man. And as such he analyses life, passes on his wisdom, and above all faces men up to God as the One Who has to be approached with reverent awe, and Who will be the Judge of all men. It is this last which is his final message.
Chapter 1 The Vainness and Meaninglessness of Life.
All Is Vanity (1.1-3).
1.1 ‘The words of the preacher (Qoheleth - assembly leader), the son of David, king in Jerusalem.’
The word ‘qoheleth’ is a feminine singular participial form connected with the root ‘qahal’ which means ‘to assemble’. Thus it signified one connected with an assembly either as speaker, leader or member, possibly of a group that met in the royal court to consider wisdom. So here Qoheleth is possibly to be seen as ‘the preacher’ or ‘the speaker’ or ‘the appointed leader’ of a recognised group of seekers after wisdom.
He identifies himself as ‘the son of David and king in Jerusalem’. ‘Son of David’ simply identifies him as being of the Davidic royal house. It does not mean that it was his direct heir. While Solomon is favoured by tradition, no doubt because of his fame as a wisdom teacher and because of his grand lifestyle, there are in fact a number of arguments which make this unlikely (see below). Alternatives would include the ‘good’ kings’ such as Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah or Josiah, or some other king, even one who ruled in Jerusalem after the Exile (this last would tie in with the apparently ‘late’ grammar). But we know nothing else about the writer, except what was in his heart. He clearly does not want to be openly recognised. He rather wants to be known as ‘a wise man’.
The identity of the author is somewhat restricted by the following facts:
On the other hand it may simply mean that he did what he did while he was king, without necessarily signifying that he had now ceased to be king, with what had ceased being his search for truth, not his reign. In other words he had done it while he was king in Jerusalem, but had now ceased to do it.
All these reasons, and especially 3) and 5), appear to militate against Solomonic authorship. But it does not affect the importance and truth of what follows in the slightest.
The Meaninglessness Of What Man Seeks To Accomplish (1.1-3).
1.2-3 ‘Vanity of vanity,’ says the preacher, ‘all is vanity. What profit does a man have of all his labour with which he labours under the sun?’
The writer begins his words with an eye-catching statement, (and ends them with the same in 12.8). All man’s labour and toil is ‘vanity’, indeed it is ‘vanity of vanities’, total vanity (compare 12.8). The word for ‘vanity’ (hebel) can mean a fleeting breath, a puff of wind. What he means by vanity is that it is spiritually and rationally profitless and meaningless, of no permanent worth, not worth the trouble except as a means of survival, not having deep significance and ultimate meaning, not contributing to the essence of life, not having lasting value. All that is connected with man’s labour is transient and passing. See Psalm 39.5, 6, 11; 94.11; 144.4; Isaiah 49.4; Jeremiah 16.19. For six days he labours, and on the seventh he rests. And then he begins to labour all over again. But it is all part of the earthly pattern ‘under the sun’. Apart from enabling him to survive it takes him nowhere. (Later we will learn that it is his attitude in his labouring, whether he does it before God, that is in fact important - 2.24-26; 5.18-20; 9.7-10; compare 8.13).
It is not without significance that the same phrase ends the main section of the work (12.8), thus encapsulating the whole of his argument about the futility of things. But we must not overlook the fact that within that argument he constantly introduces flashes of inspiration which reach outside it, when he introduces God into the situation (2.24-26; 3.10-17; 5.1-7, 18-20; 8.12-13; 9.1, 7-10; 11.9; 12.1, 7). And the whole is then capped off by the final conclusion in which awesome reverence and obedience towards God is required, followed by the warning of final judgment (12.13-14).
The phrase ‘under the sun’ is repeated throughout the book and is found elsewhere in Elamite and Phoenician inscriptions. Its main meaning is undoubtedly a reference to ‘everything that exists and functions on earth’. But we might also see in it a reference to the fact that it is the ‘greater light’ of God’s creative work (Genesis 1.14-17), which controls the earth system which He has created. This might be seen as confirmed by the fact that the writer unquestionably has Genesis 1 in mind elsewhere (6.10-12). Furthermore its constant repetition in this book possibly also acts as a polemic against the idea of a sun-god. In those days, in a context like this, its constant repetition could hardly fail to be seen as an indictment of the sun, which could add no meaning to life. Other nations and people worshipped the sun, it was extremely prominent in Egyptian thought, (which had almost certainly influenced the writer) and everywhere popular, but under the sun (Shemesh), he stresses, was only long term uselessness and a failure to find anything meaningful. The noun was thus two-pronged. The sun was to be seen as being as transient and passing and as lacking in other-worldly influence as everything else.
The Meaninglessness of What Men Seek To Accomplish Comes Out In The Fact That Life Simply Follows A Continual Unchanging Repetition. It Is Purposeless and Boring and Unenlightening And Accomplishes Nothing Of Value. It Simply Repeats the Same Old Thing (1.4-11).
1.4 ‘One generation goes, and another generation comes, and the earth goes on for ever.’
Here we discover the essence of his thinking. Men may labour but nothing really changes. Nothing permanent is accomplished. One generation after another goes on in the same way as the previous generation, labouring on seemingly endlessly. Life just goes on pointlessly, on and on as man struggles to survive.
This is then illustrated by a number of examples of the endless repetition of life. (Later he will point out that the one way of escape from this endless meaninglessness of life is to live before God and find comfort in His presence. It is that alone which can bring permanent worthwhileness to life - 2.24-26; 5.18-20; 9.7-10 ).
1.5-6 ‘The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where he arises. The wind goes towards the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually in its course, and the wind returns again to its rounds.’
Both sun and wind continue their daily and nightly activities in the same old way. The sun follows a continual pattern, rising, setting, and then racing round to rise again. There is possibly here a hint of Egyptian influence, although the idea of the sun speeding underneath in order to rise again must have been a common one, for men saw it go down in one place at night, and in the morning come up at the opposite side from which it went down. The wind varies slightly more in its course, first going south, and then north, and so on, but even then only in order to continually follow a similar course time and again. It is continually coming and going in the same old way, continually following its regular courses.
The description of the sun is reminiscent of ideas in Egypt about Ra, who makes his daily journey over the earth, and his nightly journey under the earth. But here it the idea is demythologised. Ra is degraded to a thing. However, the writer must have been conscious of the ideas of others. Thus ‘under the sun’ must be seen as containing at least some stress on the sun’s meaninglessness, however seen, as well as on its long term uselessness. It is simply seen by him as a part of the pattern of nature.
1.7 ‘All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers go, there they go again.’
The rivers also follow the round of life. They go into the sea, evaporate, rise as clouds, fall again in rain, and again go into the sea. They follow the same continual process. And the sea never fills up. All their effort seems in vain. So the process is meaningless, it has no final purpose.
The point behind all this is not to criticise nature. It is to point out that these things, like man’s labour, have no achievable final end in view. They are not leading anywhere, but just going on and on in an endless round.
1.8-9 ‘All things are full of weariness. Man cannot utter it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done, is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.’
Man too is caught up with this continual process. All things are simply continually boring and frustrating, not worth talking about, not satisfying the watching eye, nor the hearing ear, for it is nothing new. What has happened will happen again and again. What is done by man will be done again and again. There is nothing new anywhere, wherever we look under the sun. Man’s knowledge of, and from, life gets him nowhere.
This is the view of life of the thinking man. Unless we simply go on without thinking this must be our conclusion. There is nothing on earth finally worth living and striving for, or discovering. It may be of advantage in the short term, but it passes. It is not permanent. It does not reach to the very basis of life.
1.10 ‘Is there anything of which men say, “This is new”? It has already been in the ages which preceded us.’
He then challenges his hearers to tell him whether anyone can point to anything that is really new. He concludes that they cannot, although those with short memories may think that they can. But they are wrong. Nothing happens now which has not happened a hundred times before through past ages. It has all happened again and again in the ages that preceded us. Man by searching never really finds out anything new. Life is just endless repetition.
1.11 ‘There is no remembrance of the former things, nor will there be any remembrance of the latter things which are to come, among those who will come after.’
Man never learns. Each generation ignores what previous generations have learned. They do not think it important enough to remember. And what they themselves do and learn will then in its turn also be forgotten by future generations. And thus they may sometimes think that they have come up with a new wisdom. But in the end, if they only knew it, if they searched, they would discover that it is but the same old wisdom that men have always known, possibly wrapped up in a different way.
The Preacher Has Made His Enquiries and Comes Up With Nothing (1.12 - 2.26).
The Preacher now brings out that he has made further enquiries and has come up with nothing. He first considers the search for intellectual knowledge (1.12-18), and then he considers the search for pleasure (2.1-26), but he concludes that both lead nowhere.
The Intellectual Search (1.12-18).
1.12-13 ‘I the preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom about all that is done under heaven. It is a painful effort (a sore travail, an unhappy business) that God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’
The Preacher reminds us that he was king in Jerusalem, and gave himself to use his wisdom to discover knowledge, but declares that the search for such wisdom and understanding turned out to be a useless and painful effort because of the difficulty of finding anything out. Although all that is under heaven is looked into, the effort only turns out to be effort spent in vain (compare 12.12). One is reminded here especially of the study of modern philosophy, where men seemed to be getting somewhere and finished up arguing about the meaning of words and mathematical formulae. Learned, yes, but not getting anywhere.
‘Was king in Jerusalem.’ Some see this as meaning that he was no longer king in anything but name, but had relinquished his throne to his son who in practise ruled for him. But it may simply mean that he did it while he was king, without necessarily signifying that he had now ceased to be king. What had ceased was his search, not his reign. He had done it while he was king, but had ceased to do it.
1.14 ‘I have seen all the works which are done under the sun, and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind.’
He had searched out everywhere what men did, but whatever they did, it was in the end fruitless and profitless, both spiritually and rationally. It was simply temporal and material. Seeking to find meaning to life was like striving after the wind. It was impossible to grasp and lay hold of what they were looking for, some extra meaning and lasting significance in life. All they had was the works that man continually did and which were in the end without any really final important significance. (Although of course being necessary to survive. It is kings in Jerusalem who can afford to think like this).
1.15 ‘What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be accounted for (numbered).’
This simply means that everything in life is basically marred and lacking in meaningful content. Everything is lacking in some way. It is ‘unstraight (crooked)’. And whatever we do it is not possible to make it ‘straight’. Whatever we do to it, it remains unstraight. We cannot give it a perfection that it does not have (the perfection he was looking for). It is not possible to obtain something complete from something else which is incomplete and thus diametrically opposite to it and totally unlike it. Nor is it possible make something of account which is in fact not so. All in life is to be seen as like things that are in essence crooked (marred in some way and incomplete). All are the same essentially. And perfection cannot be obtained from imperfection. Thus it is impossible to look behind such things and find anything that is essentially meaningful, i.e. something that is straight. Nothing can be transformed into something different, for all is essentially the same. What he was actually looking for, something that was essentially different from everything else and had an element of perfection, appeared in fact to be lacking. Thus it was impossible to give any account of it. It was all a part of his vain search into the meaning of life.
1.16-18 ‘I communed with my own heart, saying, “Lo, I have obtained for myself great wisdom, above all who were before me in Jerusalem. Yes, my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow.’
The Preacher had convinced himself that he had accumulated a wisdom and understanding above any who had been before him in Jerusalem, whether king, priest, wise man or prophet. He was convinced that he had great resources within himself of wisdom and knowledge, which had come through his meditation on truth as he saw it, and through his experience of life. None had quite achieved what he had achieved.
But when he then applied himself to examine all that was to be known, whether it was wisdom, or what others thought was wisdom (but turned out to be madness and folly, frivolous knowledge), it was in vain. He had left nothing uninvestigated, however foolish it had seemed. But all his searching out of man’s supposed knowledge, whether wise or foolish, had achieved nothing. He had come to the conclusion that the search for ultimate wisdom, for an ultimate reality, was the searching out of something that could not be comprehended or grasped. It was like searching for the wind.
Thus all his wisdom and increase in knowledge had simply left him flattened and even grief stricken. It appeared that wisdom only resulted in grief, and knowledge in sorrow, because what was being sought could not be found in that way. It was out of reach of intellectual ability. We are here reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1.20, ‘where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ The Preacher agrees with him. No solution was to be found in that way.
Chapter 2 The Search for Pleasure.
Experimenting With Good Things (2.1-11).
2.1 ‘I said in my heart, “Go at it now, I will test out merriment. Therefore enjoy pleasure (or ‘good things’). “ And behold this also was vanity.’
The writer summarises his findings from his next venture, the search for pleasure, for good things. Perhaps meaning could be found in that. But it failed. That also was empty and meaningless. That also did not finally satisfy the heart and the mind.
2.2 ‘I said of laughter, “This is madness,” and of merriment, “What does it do?”
Thus his conclusion was that laughter which resulted from ‘having a good time’ was folly, it was empty, and that seeking merriment accomplished nothing. After all, what did it do, what did it accomplish, what did it leave you with when it was all over? The answer is, absolutely nothing.
2.3 ‘I searched in my heart how to sustain myself (my flesh) with wine, my heart yet guiding me with wisdom, and how to lay hold on frivolity, that I might see what it was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their life.’
And this was the way he went about it. He experimented with enjoying good wine, without letting it take possession of him or hinder his thought processes. He experimented with ‘having a good time’. He wanted to find out what would satisfy the hearts of men all the days of their lives. He threw himself into it. But all clearly failed. That was no way to live a life.
2.4-6 ‘I made myself great works, I built myself houses, I planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens, and parks, and I planted trees in them producing all kinds of fruit. I made myself pools of water, to water from them the woodlands where trees were nurtured.’
Being the king, and wealthy, he was able to indulge his interests. He built houses, planted vineyards, planned and brought into being gardens and parks of outstanding beauty. He filled them with fruit trees, full of tasty things and delightful to the eye.
He built artificial pools, always full of water, in a land where water was often a luxury, and surrounded them with trees of every kind, an oasis in an often dry land. This was no short term experiment. These things would take many years. Surely this was accomplishing something? But he concluded that it was not. Others had done the same, and where were those things now?
2.7a ‘I bought menservants, and maidens, and had servants born in my house.’
He had menservants to do his bidding, so that he could have anything done for him that he wanted. He had maidens for his pleasure. He indulged in sex whenever he wanted, with the women of his choice, and produced many children who became servants in his house. (As the children of low born concubines they would become high level servants, but not princes. Their service would include high office). But still his heart hungered. He was not satisfied. It all had no final meaning.
2.7b-8a ‘I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold, and the most sought after treasure of kings and provinces.’
He indulged himself to the full with valuable possessions, with herds and flocks, the thing most valued by many of that day, for they reproduced and grew rapidly and enhanced wealth; and with silver and gold, and with every desirable object that could be found in the courts of kings and throughout many provinces. There was no desirable thing that he did not have.
2.8b ‘I obtained for myself men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, all kinds of musical instruments.’
He experimented with music of every kind. He listened to every type of singer. He experimented with every musical instrument. The word translated musical instruments is of unknown meaning. Some translate as concubines. But their equivalent have been mentioned in verse 7, and we would expect in a list of pleasures of those times the mention of musical instruments, especially in a verse where music is in mind. Whichever it was it was something that delighted the hearts of men.
2.9 ‘So I was great, and increased (in possessions and good things) more than all who were before me in Jerusalem, also my wisdom remained with me.’
Whatever he wanted he obtained, and to excess. And yet in it all he was not foolishly indulgent, he was sensible in his indulgence. He did not let himself go or become a wastrel or a drunkard.
2.10 ‘And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold from my heart any joy. For my heart rejoiced because of all my efforts, and this was my reward from all my efforts. ‘
Nothing that he desired was not tried out by him. He indulged in everything that was available. And he enjoyed participating in them and doing them. He was not a killjoy. And he found great delight in them. But that was all he found. It was transient. It was not lasting.
2.11 ‘Then I looked on all the activities that my hand had wrought, and on the efforts that I had exerted myself to accomplish. All was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.’
But when he considered all that he had done and experienced and accomplished, he recognised within himself that it was all useless and empty, unsatisfying and meaningless. It was searching for the undiscoverable, and had no lasting value. It still left his heart empty and deeply dissatisfied.
Note the constantly repeated ideas, ‘vanity (useless, transient, empty, without lasting significance)’, ‘striving after wind’, (seeking what cannot be seen or grasped hold of), ‘no profit under the sun’ (of no lasting value). This summed up his experience of all his efforts. He had achieved nothing. He had gained nothing.
A Return To Philosophy and Its Hopelessness (2.12-17).
2.12 ‘And I turned my mind to observing wisdom and madness and folly. For what can a man do who follows what a king has done? Only what he has already done.’
His next step was again to consider the combined ‘wisdom’ of men. He studied what was wise, he studied what was madness, he studied what was foolish and absurd. Having as king indulged himself in all the pleasures open to a king, and having found them to fail, what was left for him? Only to return to what he had already done. This was in itself proof of the folly of it all.
‘For what can a man (any man) do who follows what a king has done? Only what the king has already done’ This does not necessarily contrast himself as a man with the king. He is both the king and a man. As king he had had special advantages not open to ordinary men. Yet as a king, with the resources of a king, he had tried everything out, he had covered all the ground, he looked into everything. So what was any man, including himself, to do to follow that? All any man could do was repeat the same old thing.
2.13-14 ‘Then I saw that wisdom exceeds folly, as much as light exceeds darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walks in darkness. And yet I saw that one thing (or ‘event’) happened to them all.’
He was not undiscerning. He recognised that there was wisdom and that there was folly. And that the first was totally superior to the second, just as light is superior to darkness. The wise man sees where he is going. He uses discernment. He walks in the light. The fool blunders on in darkness, with his eyes closed. But all come to the same end. All experience the same final event. All die (compare 3.19). All end in darkness.
‘One thing (event).’ Contingency, happening, chance, fortune, providence, fate.
2.15-16 ‘Then I said in my heart, “As it happens to a fool, so will it happen to me. And why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart that this also was vanity. For the wise man even as for the fool, there is no remembrance for ever, seeing that in the days to come all will have been already forgotten. How does the wise man die? Just as the fool.’
So he questions how he can really consider himself as more wise than a fool when both come to the same end. Both die. Both are forgotten by men. ‘The memory of them is forgotten’ (9.5). Almost nothing of what they are lives on. Thus neither has accomplished more than the other. Neither has gained more than the other. They share the same fate. The wise man is finally as the fool.
Do we see here the first glimmer of a search after the idea of a possible future life, for if what he says here is true, and all ends at the end of this life, what is there to live for? Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Compare 3.21 which surely has this in mind as a possibility. It was the same dilemma that the prophets and the psalmists faced. If death was the end how do we explain suffering? (See Psalm 73). How do we encourage men to positive living and achievement? How do we discover final meaning?
2.17 ‘So I hated life, because the effort that is wrought under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.’
The Preacher confesses that as a result of his meditations life was becoming distasteful to him because of its pointlessness. All the effort he had put in discouraged him, nay, grieved him, because it had achieved nothing. It was profitless. Again he summed it up as useless and striving after the unattainable.
What Use Our Efforts When We Must Leave All Behind To Those Who Will Misuse It? (2.18-23).
2.18-19 ‘And I hated all my effort with which I exerted myself under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will be after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control (‘rule’) over all that has been produced by my great efforts (‘all my labour in which I have laboured’), and in which I have shown wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.’
Another thing that perturbed him was that he would have to leave the results of all his great efforts to others. And who knew what they would do with them? What men build up, other men pull down. They have no permanence. So all his great efforts would finally have been in vain. What his wisdom had produced would eventually come to nothing. It would be dismissed by the next generation. It could not bear thinking about.
2.20-21 ‘So I changed my way of thinking (turned about) to make my heart despair about all the efforts in which I had exerted myself under the sun. For here is a man whose efforts are with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skill, and yet he will give it for a bequest to a man who has not exerted himself with regard to it. This also is vanity, and a great evil.’
Especially disillusioning was the fact that he having exerted himself with wisdom, understanding and skill, the one to whom it was all passed on might well treat all his hard efforts as irrelevant, looking on it as unimportant and not worth bothering about, and making no effort to maintain what had been passed on to him. The thought of this happening had changed his whole way of thinking with regard to matters. It was not only an indication of the meaninglessness of things, but a positive evil. (Thus it was not quite so meaningless after all. The writer does not deny that things have meaning, only that they have final meaning).
‘Skill.’ The word is found at Ugarit, and in Akkadian sources. It can therefore no longer be described as ‘late Hebrew’. (The findings at Ugarit have made much ‘late Hebrew’ into early Hebrew. Had the Preacher but known this it would have given him a good illustration).
2.22-23 ‘For what has a man for all his efforts, and for the striving of his heart with which he exerts himself under the sun? For all his days are spent in painful effort, and his exertions are vexatious. Yes, even in the night his heart is restless. This also is vanity.’
He concludes by asking what point there is for a person to wear himself down and exert painful effort, seeking to build up for the future, when the future is so insecure and transient. The very thought of it upsets him. It makes all his exertions vexatious. It makes him unable to sleep at night. It is further evidence of the temporary nature of things, of the meaninglessness of it all.
His Preliminary Conclusion (2.24-26).
2.24-26a ‘There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good as a result of (in) his efforts. I also saw this, that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment more than I? For to the man who pleases him (literally ‘is good before him’) God gives wisdom, knowledge and joy, but to the blameworthy one he gives constant struggle, to gather and to heap up, so that he may give to the one who pleases God.’
This partial conclusion, which he acknowledges is not fully satisfactory, brings God into the equation as a solution for the first time. Indeed it is noteworthy that up to this point he has ignored God so that his only previous mention of God has been in terms of what God ‘had given to man to be busy with’ (1.13). Now he recognises that that is the problem. That man is so busy with the things that God has ‘given to men to be busy with’ that he has no time for God Himself. He has noticed that it is far better for a man to relax, and eat and drink, and work in order to enable him to enjoy ‘good things’ in life from the hand of God (that is, wisdom, knowledge and joy which cause him to please God), than it is for him to struggle to excess but fail to enjoy what God wants to give him. This was where the Preacher recognised that he himself had failed. After all no one had been able to eat and have enjoyment more than he had. And yet he had not found contentment in it because he had been too occupied with his thoughts to be open to receive the blessings of God. It is this benefit of open-heartedness towards Him that he concludes is what God supremely offers to a man. Thus he, as it were, envies the man who has not had to struggle within himself as he has done. He sees that such a life, which is lived by quiet faith open to God for His blessings, is from the hand of God. (Compare ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness’ - Genesis 15.6). And the consequence is that such a man ‘pleases God’, and continues quietly to learn from Him. A man like that is not too busy to receive God’s wisdom, knowledge and joy. This is the ‘good’ that he receives, and it is by not being so taken up with the stress of life that he has time for God. (It is in contrast with the wisdom, knowledge and pleasure that the king has sought - 1.12, 16; 2.1).
And a further consequence of this life of quiet trust is that he also benefits from the labours of others who are too busy to have any time for God. Such people are to be seen as blameworthy because they live to themselves and not to please God, and in the end their efforts, aimed at pleasing themselves, will not benefit themselves, but will rather benefit those who please God.
So he concludes that it is by pleasing God in this way that man reveals true wisdom, knowledge and joy, and not by his struggles to attain the unattainable. It is indeed in contrast with the one who exerts himself with great effort to gather possessions or knowledge of all kinds, but who thrusts God to one side, only to discover that what he does simply benefits these very ones who are pleasing God. There is a remarkable similarity between the Preacher’s ideas here and the words of Jesus Christ Himself when He also warned His disciples against being so anxious about obtaining the things of this life that we fail to trust God (Matthew 6.25-34). Rather men were to receive from God’s hand what He gave and were to look for the blessing that is from above by ‘seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6.33). Then ‘all these things will be added to them’. A similar idea is in mind here.
So the idea of ‘pleasing God’ here is on the basis of living a normal life before Him, without self-seeking but which is the result of an unstressed heart which is open to receive God’s wisdom, knowledge and joy, and seeks to please Him, while exerting sufficient honest effort into his toil to make it possible. To such a man, he says, God gives such wisdom, knowledge and joy, that is to say, the equivalent of what the writer had been looking for in all his exertions but had failed to find (1.16; 2.1). The writer has observed this in practise, and acknowledges it to be so.
The wisdom, knowledge and joy given to the man with an open heart towards God is not, of course, the in-depth wisdom and knowledge that the writer had sought. They are the general wisdom and knowledge of a life sensibly lived before God, which experiences God without overexertion and is not overtaken with other things. But most importantly such wisdom and knowledge are accompanied by joy (something which is later very much stressed - 8.15; 9.7-9). His view may be seen as rather idealistic. He has probably only noticed those who were reasonably well-to-do, not those whose lives were lives of constant and excessive toil and struggle, with no means of enjoying life, who would not come to the attention of a king, although even such people can find joy in God. That is why the Psalmists indicated that it was the poor and needy who were most aware of God.
Such a man’s life is not complicated, it is lived before God. And he also receives benefit ( a result of fallout) which results from the labours of those who are self-seeking and strenuously exert themselves to become rich or knowledgeable, who provide work and trade and other benefits for godly people, which they gladly accept. Note that these self-seeking would-be rich people are, in contrast, not pleasing God. In His eyes they are blameworthy. Their exertions have thrust God out of their lives and have caused them to behave in non-ethical ways. Interestingly the ideas expressed have some affinity with Egyptian Wisdom teaching.
2.26b ‘This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
This insight into the life of the godly man is seen as revealing. It shows that the Preacher has recognised that the one who puts God first (and receives wisdom, knowledge and joy) is more content than the one who struggles for pleasure, enjoyment and deep wisdom. But he recognises at the same time that there is still something missing in his definition. He acknowledges that he has not yet reached a fully satisfactory conclusion. For in a sense this also is vanity and a striving after wind, because it still leaves such a life without an ultimate purpose. It is still in its own way meaningless and empty. In a way this godly man, as he sees him here, is also falling short. His life is not achieving something sufficiently positive. And so he feels that his search must continue.
Alternately ‘this also is vanity and a striving after wind’ might be seen as applying only to the last phrase in the verse ‘but to the blameworthy one he gives constant struggle, to gather and to heap up, so that he may give to the one who pleases God’. The impression give, however is that it is a summary statement, summing up all that has been said.
Chapter 3 There Is A Right Time For Everything. There Is Also Transient Beauty In The World and Man Has Everlastingness In His Heart. But There Is Also Injustice, And In The End All Die.
His experiments are now over but he continues to think about all the events and occurrences of life, and how they reveal the meaninglessness of it all, with the occasional glimmer of hope. And he sees that even the man with the open heart towards God is as much caught up in the time-line as everyone else. We know that he is included because of 3.9. In 2.24 he found enjoyment in his toil. Now the question is, what gain would he have finally from his toil?
So the Preacher’s thoughts move now to the repeated continuity of life. Along the time-line, which is everlasting (verse 11), various things are seen as occurring repetitively, each in its time. They come and they go, but they are but temporary. Only time moves on continually leaving man behind, even the godly man.
There is a Time for Everything In Its Place (3.1-8).
3.1-8 ‘To everything there is a fixed season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
This list is made up of fourteen contrasting phrases depicting opposites. The fourteen is intended to convey the idea of the divine perfection of the list. It is the perfect seven twofold. It is noteworthy that the first two in the list stress the idea of death, both the death of man and the death of plants. The Preacher is very much aware of the reality of death. But against it he sets the reality of new life. That too he is aware of. We again have illustrated the continual repetition of birth and death. Things are born and they die, and new life replaces them. And all in their time. The time line goes on, with all these activities continually repeating themselves.
But then he goes on to cover the broader aspects of life. So the next five contrast what is the dark side with what is the light side. Killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning and casting stones on to a field to render it useless, are contrasted with healing, building up, laughing, dancing and clearing the field of stones to make it fruitful. He sees both sides of life, the dark and the light. That is what life is like as it goes on its way, a life of contrasting and repetitive experiences, each in its time. Sometimes negative, sometimes positive. But all transient.
Then he deals with the more homely aspects of life - embracing, seeking something lost, keeping things, and accidentally tearing things, in contrast with refraining from embracing, losing something, throwing something away, and repairing something that is torn.
And finally we have three examples which relate to men’s relationships with each other, keeping silence compared with speaking, loving compared with hating, and war compared with peace. The time-line continues on as these experiences occur again and again at different points in time, but all passing.
As can be seen this magnificent overall view, covering many aspects of life, is expressed in contrasts. The point is being made that everything has its time, in a long string of times, and the opposite also has its time. There is a time when one thing happens, there is a time when the opposite happens. There is a time when the good happens, and a time when the not so good happens. Something may be right at one time, when at another time it might be wrong. Each thing has its time. So goes on the continual process of life, constantly repeating itself over time, which is his main point.
It is not necessary however to see here a predetermination of these activities. The time in question is the right time, or the wrong time, in each case, not the predetermined time. It is fixed because it is right for that time. Indeed a man can die before his time (7.17, compare also 9.11 where time is related to chance) which is contrary to predetermination. What does come out is that we need to ensure that we do things at the right time, and be careful that we do not do them at the wrong time.
Musings On Man’s Work (3.9-10).
3.9 ‘What profit has the workman in that in which he labours?
We return here to the question of purposelessness. The workman who labours gains nothing from his labours apart from his wages. Nothing of what he labours on will benefit him. It is thus to him a pointless and empty exercise. And this is even true of the godly man. And yet man has to work hard and long to achieve what he does. Such is the pointlessness of his life. All that is permanent that he gains by his labours is for others.
3.10 ‘I have seen the hard exertions which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’
We note that there is almost a repeat of 1.16 here. In 1.16 he had said, ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’ Now that situation has improved to simply being ‘hard exertions which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’ The improvement presumably arises from the introduction of the godly man who has found joy in his labour. But it still depresses him, for he sees the hard exertions which are required of man as given to him by God. What he observes others as doing (‘men are busy with’) he sees as a God given-task (consider Genesis 3.17-19), but one which apparently leads nowhere (unless, of course, it is performed towards God).
God has Given Man a Conception of Everlastingness.
Here he provides something extra to what God has given men to do. While man has to work so hard, nevertheless God has made everything beautiful in its time (‘God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good’ - Genesis 1.29). And at the same time God has set everlastingness in man’s heart (‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him’ - Genesis 1.27). But it has been done in such a way that man is unable to comprehend totally what God has done.
3.11 ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has set everlastingness in their heart, yet in such a way that man cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning, even to the end.’
The thought of time has turned his thoughts to the beauty of the world. He acknowledges that everything is beautiful in its time. God had created beauty (Genesis 1.29), and that beauty continues on as different things arise in their time. But on the basis of verses 1-8 the corollary is that while each thing has its time, and it is a time of beauty, it will in the end wither and decay. Nevertheless it has had its time of beauty. But again that might be seen as the point, its beauty fades in the end. The ceaseless repetition continues. Of what purpose the beauty if it finally fades?
The partial answer comes in that he sees God as having set within man’s heart the awareness of everlastingness. Now here is something very tangible and very different. Man was made in the image of God, and therefore man is aware that God is the everlasting God, that although history repeats itself again and again in the same way, it does so on a time-line that finally continues on everlastingly. Thus he grasps the concept of everlastingness. At last he has found something that is not transient.
But he immediately stresses that this does not mean that man is able to find out God’s ways, or what He has done from the beginning, or will do, even to the end. That is outside man’s cognisance. He cannot fathom God. All he can do is be aware of that everlastingness, and that those who know God are connected to that everlastingness, even though each only has a short span along that unceasing time-line, unless of course man can in some way partake in that everlastingness.
3.12-13 ‘I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and to do good so long as they live. And also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy good in all his labour. It is the gift of God.’
But as men cannot totally search out God’s ways in spite of their sense of everlastingness, the best thing for them to do is to be happy and to do good as long as they live, while being aware of the everlastingness. He is continuing the thought that men must follow the path of the godly (must be pleasing to God - 2.26), even though they may still not quite appreciate what they have which is so important. He has failed as yet to recognise that there is an everlasting quality and a special relationship with God in all that they do, and that they are part of everlastingness, in the sense that they are caught up in an undefinable something which is positively everlasting, and not just everlasting continuance. (What elsewhere is called an eternal covenant.)
But he still sees such a man’s happiness as obtained by living a contented life before God, achieved by eating and drinking, in the normal course of this life, what he sees as given to him by God, and by enjoying good in all his labour, accepting it as God’s given task for him, and throwing himself into it. For this is God’s gift to him. (But the Preacher’s positive understanding is still lacking).
3.14-15 ‘I know that whatever God does it will be for ever. Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. And God has done it that men should fear before him. That which is has been already, and that which is to be has already been. And God seeks that which is pursued.’
He is now getting closer to the significance of his concept of everlastingness. God is everlasting, and what He does it will be for ever. There at least is something that is perfect. Nothing can be added to it. Nothing can be taken from it. It is not limited by the time-line. It transcends it. (He will in the end work up to the position that man can transcend it too).
‘And God has done it that men should fear before him.’ What has God done? He has done things that are clearly everlasting. Nothing can be added to them. Nothing can be taken from them. Here is meaning and permanence indeed. And the purpose of this is that men might fear before Him, might be in awe of Him, and worship Him. The consequence of this, if only he could see it, was that God was drawing His own into something that was everlasting. (In the end the everlasting covenant. But he never directly puts it in those terms for he is ‘a wise man’, he is thinking of the whole of mankind).
At least he now draws God into the seemingly meaningless process. That which is has been already, and that which shall be (is to be) has already been. That is the process that he has already despaired of, the continual recurring of things through time. But now there is a new factor. God steps in to the process. God positively seeks what has been pursued or driven away. He positively acts on the process. It is no longer meaningless. It is another step in the solution of his problem.
But he does not try to analyse what those everlasting things are that God does. He recognises that they are beyond his understanding. What matters is that they are there, and that man has some awareness of them.
‘And God seeks that which is pursued.’ The meaning of this phrase is difficult, but that does not prevent us from recognising the fact that it is a clear declaration of God acting within the seeming meaninglessness of things. Perhaps it indicates that as His own put in effort to pursue what has already been or will be, God steps in to have His part in it with them. Or it may signify that what the godly are pursuing is precisely what God is seeking for them.
Alternatively it has been suggested that we could translate, ‘God claims it (or seeks it) as it passes on’. God takes what seems to be the meaningless process of time and gives it meaning by introducing Himself into the situation.
Whatever way we see it, it indicates that God has become active in the situation, a fact which introduces the meaningful.
Injustice Is A Blot on God’s Creation (3.16-17).
The consequence of his awareness of everlastingness, and of his subsequent recognition that justice is not being achieved, is that he becomes aware that God is the final judge.
3.16 ‘And moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of judgment, that wickedness was there. And in the place of righteousness that wickedness was there.’
The Hebrew is graphic. ‘In the place of judgment, wickedness there!’ Where justice and righteousness should have been prevalent, wickedness had entered. The courts were corrupt. The authorities governing dishonestly and unfairly. So now he sees that there is not only meaninglessness, but also wickedness and injustice. A moral dimension has been introduced. This can only lead on to the thought of God’s judgment.
3.17 ‘I said in my heart, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked. For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” ’
As his thoughts were progressing, this terrible fact that he had become aware of shook him out of his complacent reasoning. The scheme of things was disturbed. Wickedness in the place of judgment! Wickedness in the place where right should prevail! God must surely do something about it. And so he is sure that at some stage God must step in and judge both the righteous and the wicked. For there is a time for every purpose and for every work so that there must be a time for this.
Note that the righteous are to be judged as well as the wicked. The judgments of the courts have proved false. So the Preacher is confident that God must, as it were, hear their appeal, He must re-judge the righteous as well as judging the wicked, for he is arguing that He must surely have some way of bringing about final justice. (Compare Ezekiel 18.20-22). Here we have the moral argument for the truth of an afterlife. This again signifies that he sees God as stepping into the advancement of time. (The logical consequence of this must be a judgment beyond the grave for those who died unjustly. But he does not reach that conclusion yet).
Later he will declare that for some who cannot find justice it would be better to be dead, or even to not have been born at all (4.1-3). This may suggest that he does, even at this stage, have an inner sense that for things to be righted justice must in some way be dispensed after death. But he does not discuss the matter. It is not yet fully formulated in his mind. But what he is certain of is that God must judge, and right the wrong.
So the Preacher is now no longer quite so smooth in his philosophy. He has had to recognise that God continues to insist on breaking into things. First he had the recognition of the strange contentment and blessing of the godly (2.24), then the sense of beauty in nature (3.11a), then the recognition of a sense of everlastingness in man (3.11b), then the recognition of God’s doing everlasting things (3.14), then the recognition of God’s stepping into the process of time to act (3.15), and now the sense of morality and necessity for His judgment, something that was of such importance to God that it necessitated God Himself stepping in to act in this way. All was now no longer quite so meaningless.
Death Is The Great Leveller (3.18-22).
Now we discover the conflict taking place within him. He has had a concept of everlastingness and of the necessity for future judgement. How then does this tie in with the fact that all die, both man and beast?
3.18-19 ‘I said in my heart, “Because of the sons of men, that God may put them to the test, and that they may see that they themselves are but as beasts, for that which befalls the sons of men, befalls beasts, even one thing befalls them. As the one dies so does the other die. Yes they all have one breath, and man has no pre-eminence over the beasts. For all is vanity.” ’
The question arises here as to what is the subject of ‘because of the sons of men’. Some see it as referring back to verse 16. But the idea of wickedness in the place of justice would not impress on man that he was like the beasts. It might indeed rather emphasise man’s difference from the beasts. What impresses on him the fact that he is like the beasts in context is that he dies like they do. Furthermore what is the point of putting them to the test in judgment if they then all simply die? Thus we are probably to look forward and see the subject as being ‘even one thing befalls them’.
This would then mean that he sees dying like the beasts as being a kind of test to men. In the face of it what will be their reaction to God? What are they going to do in the face of this?
If we are to connect it to verses 17-18, and not as a totally new thought, it must be because he automatically assumes that death will be the consequence of the wicked being brought into judgment. To a despotic king, even a good one, the death sentence was a constant consequence of justice. Thus the fact that men are judged and executed demonstrates that they are but like the beasts. But this is not consistent with verse 17 where the righteous are also in mind.
‘For that which befalls the sons of men, befalls beasts. Even one thing befalls them. As the one dies so does the other die. Yes, they all have one breath, and man has no pre-eminence over the beasts, for all is vanity.’ He has now come back to his pessimism. All die in the same way, both man and beast. They have similar ‘breath’ (of life - Genesis 2.7; 7.22) and they lose it in a similar way. So man is no different from the beasts. He experiences the same inevitable end. Thus all is meaningless. This fact is then emphasised.
Some see this likening to the beasts as including (or should we say excluding) the moral dimension. Man behaves like the beasts as well as dying like them. But it is questionable whether this is what The Preacher means. Not all behave like beasts, only the powerful. His concentration is rather on the fact that both die in the same way and become dust.
3.20 ‘All go to one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.’
The grave is the destiny of both man and beast. Dust they are and to dust they will return. So again he emphasises that there is no difference between them. Their dead bodies are dealt with in the same way.
3.21 ‘Who knows the spirit of man, whether it goes upward, and the spirit of the beast, whether it goes downwards into the earth?’
But again the Preacher has a moment of questioning. Again something challenges him to think. It is only a question, but it reveals the uncertainty in his thinking. Who knows what happens to the ‘spirit’? We should note that whether the breath of life and the spirit are to be seen as the same thing does not matter. What matters here is the possibility that there is something in man, his essential life, which perhaps goes upwards towards God (compare 12.7), in contrast to that of the beast. If that were the case the death of the man and the beast may not be the same after all. However, for the present he dismisses the idea. (It is only later that he finally accepts it (12.7), the idea that man will in some undefinable way partake of everlastingness).
3.22 ‘So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works. For that is his portion. For who will bring him to see what shall be after him?’
So he concludes that the best thing for man to do is to rejoice in what he does, to enjoy his life and his work, for it has been allotted to him by God, and not be concerned about the distant future. The word is not used, but the idea is that he should live his life by trust in God.
‘What shall be after him.’ It is pointless for a man to worry about what will be after him. This is in contrast with 2.18-19. But there the reference was to someone who had spent his life building up his possessions unnecessarily, whereas here he is speaking of one who has lived his life before God without building up excessive possessions and therefore need not worry about the future in this way. Compare 6.12; 10.14.
From our position we might see here that The Preacher has not come to the logical conclusion. He has accepted the everlastingness of God, and His intervention in what goes on in the earth, he has recognised that there should be justice for all, even for those who die before they can receive justice, he has recognised the quality of life enjoyed by God’s true people. But at this stage he fails to accept the logical consequence of it all. Instead he sinks back into pessimism. He cannot at this stage grasp the possibility of resurrection. So he fails to follow through on what he has discovered.
Chapter 4 The Dreadfulness of Oppression. Guidance on Living.
This chapter begins with considering the dreadfulness of oppression and then continues with thoughts on living, giving both good and bad examples. At this point the fact that he is ‘a wise man’ comes out. It finishes with a parable or illustration about wisdom and folly.
The Dreadfulness of Oppression (4.1-3).
Having been faced up to the injustice in the world, and especially the injustice in its courts of justice, the Preacher now turns to consider oppression in general and is dismayed at the unfairness of it all.
4.1 ‘Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter.’
The next thing that he considers, which increases his pessimism, is the oppression of men by those in authority or who have power (compare 3.16-17; Job 35.9; Amos 3.9). He sees a world full of such oppression, and the tears of the oppressed, and the fact that they are without someone to assist them. This latter fact so moves him that he repeats it twice, firstly as a sad fact, and then in contrast with the oppressors. The oppressors have authority and power, the oppressed have no comforter.
But in contrast to 3.16-17, where such behaviour led to judgment for the oppressors and justice for the oppressed, here he is concerned only with the earthly situation of the oppressed. Indeed it is clear that he does not feel that the oppressed are going to obtain justice in this life. The dead are better off than they. So this directly contrasts with 3.17 if we see that as referring to this life. This might serve to confirm that 12.14 sees judgment as taking place after death. Otherwise this does not make sense.
4.2-3 ‘Wherefore I congratulated the dead, who are already dead, more than the living. Yes better than both, is him who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.’
What he saw so upset him that he congratulated those who had already died and so escaped the oppression. It was better for such to be dead rather than alive. But then he takes it a step further. It was even better for the one who has not been born and therefore has not had to experience the oppression at all, and has not had to observe it. Perhaps he was also thinking temporarily that it would in fact have been better for him not to have been born at all, a further reason for recognising the meaninglessness of life.
Sundry Observations On Life (4.4-12).
Having all to briefly considered the oppression that was in the world, which has left him feeling that it was better if they had never been born, he now turns his thoughts back to the thought of man’s constant toil. This too was meaningless.
The first three verses in this section contrast three differing lifestyles. The first results either in envy or overwork, the second in total laziness, and the third in contentment. This is followed by considering the folly of one who overworks himself without even having anyone to leave it to, and in contrast the advantages in having someone to work alongside as friend and helpmeet. So his pessimism lead him to at least try to solve some of the problems of this life. He is not just a theoretical philosopher.
4.4 ‘Then I saw all exertions and every pleasing work, that for this a man is envied by his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
Something that saddened The Preacher was the jealousy he found among those who achieved nothing, jealousy against the achievers. Someone who by great effort and skill produces something pleasing and admired is likely to discover that his neighbours, instead of appreciating it, will simply be filled with envy and react accordingly. A man is without honour among his neighbours. Thus there would seem little point in the effort. This too emphasised the meaninglessness of things, for the man’s efforts were a searching after something unattainable, an achievement which would be appreciated, but this was appreciation which would not be forthcoming.
Alternately some see this as indicating response to competition, and translate, ‘I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbour.’ The result being that the man possibly works himself too hard and at least partially wrecks his life. This even more brings out the meaninglessness of it all, being spurred on by competition to the vain effort to achieve the impossible.
4.5 ‘The fool folds his hands together and eats his own flesh.’
In contrast with the man who exerts himself and produces skilful work is the fool who simply folds his hands and does nothing because he is lazy. Instead of achieving something to be proud of he does the opposite. He lives off his relatives (‘eats his own flesh’) and impoverishes them, or impoverishes himself until he looks like a skeleton. He becomes a down and out.
‘Eats his own flesh’ could signify living off relatives, or the bringing about of his own undoing. It may signify that he so impoverishes himself that he leaves himself with nothing to eat but his own flesh, or has so little to eat that he becomes a skeleton. In extremity it signifies death (Ezekiel 39.18; Micah 3.3; Isaiah 49.26).
4.6 ‘Better is a handful with quietness, than two handfuls with hard exertion and striving after wind.’
This is the middle way, (which is quietly slipped in), that of being satisfied with a handful and achieving quiet content, rather than striving over-hard, and striving after the impossible, in order to have a large amount, or doing nothing and having nothing. This is the wise man coming out, and has in mind the godly man of 2.24-26.
It must be recognised that the writer is dealing with extremes, not discouraging hard work. The standards of level of work in those days was far higher than today. What we see as especially hard work they would have seen as normal exertion.
4.7-8 ‘Then I returned and saw folly (what is vain) under the sun. There is one who is alone and does not have a relative (literally ‘a second’). Yes, he has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end of all his labour, nor are his eye satisfied with riches. “For whom then do I labour” says he, “and deprive myself of good?” This also is folly (i.e. what is vain), yes it is a sore overexertion.’
This example of further folly is of a man who has no relative to leave his possessions to, yet he kills himself with work amassing more and more possessions, with no real end in view. This is clearly folly, but although he considers it, and recognises the fact, he still carries on. He is a workaholic.
4.9-12 ‘Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, and has no other to lift him up. Again if two lie together then they have warmth. But how can one who is alone keep warm? And if a man prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.’
Here the Preacher praises the idea of working together. Then men are more sure of their reward. If one is ill or collapses the other can assist him and help with his work, whereas the person working alone has no one to help him if he collapses. If they have to sleep outside on a cold night then the two can give each other warmth, sharing each other’s body heat, while one by himself has no one to assist him to keep warm. If they are attacked by thieves who would be too much for one, two can assist each other and drive them off. Three is even better, for quantity adds strength. The threefold interwoven cord has more strength than a single cord. So in the midst of bringing out the folly of men he continues to slip in good advice about sensible work practises.
The Young Men And The Foolish King.
We are now provided with a further example of folly, the folly of seeking a position of power and authority which will only in the end result in disappointment. (Better far to simply receive from God’s hand what He provides).
4.13-15 ‘Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king, who does not know how to receive admonition any more. For out of prison he came forth to be king. Yes, even in his kingdom he was born poor. I saw all the living who walk under the sun, that they were with the youth, the second, who stood up in his stead. There was no end of the all the people, even all those over whom he was. Yet those who come after him will not enthuse about him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
The description here is a little complicated. Probably only two people are in mind, the poor and wise youth and the king. ‘The second’ probably means the second in the sense that the young man followed the first king to the throne as the second king. ‘Who stood up in his stead’ probably means that the young man stood up in the stead of the old king. However, some see it as referring to a line of kings. Whichever way we see it, the significance is the same. They are all soon forgotten.
The first lesson is that although the young man was poor, and an ex-prisoner, and had been born poor, he would make a better king because he was wise and was willing to learn. Whereas the old king, unwilling to take advice or be quietly rebuked, would be a tyrant. And indeed this was recognised, for the young man had full support from the people. All the living who walked under the sun supported him. They were so many that there was no end of them. And he was over them all. He was a huge success.
But the second and main lesson is that he was soon forgotten. For all his success, once he was replaced nobody enthused about him any more. Thus his whole success was in the long run simply meaningless. His aim to be remembered as a huge success came to nothing. It was a striving after the unobtainable. It was not lasting. (This is even more evidenced by the fact that today we have no idea who he was, or whether he was just a parabolic figure).
We must remind ourselves again that The Preacher is not thinking in terms of present usefulness and benefit, but of ultimate meaning. In the long run the reign of this successful young man was irrelevant, as everything before has been irrelevant.
Chapter 5 True Religion and Worship. The Problem of Riches. The Good Life.
The Importance of True Worship (5.1-7).
This chapter now begins with one of those periods in The Preacher’s musings when he seems for a short period to break through the veil of meaninglessness. Here he considers man approaching God, with true seeking, true worship, and contact with the heavenly, that men might learn to fear God more (verse 7). It is contact with everlastingness.
It is the first time that the Preacher has considered temple worship. But the way it is naturally introduced demonstrates that we are to see it as a part of the background to all he says. And he speaks wisely. Man should approach God thoughtfully, ready to hear and learn. God is the teacher. Man is the suppliant. He obviously here considers that a man can know God. Here is the previous godly man 2.24-26 now involved in worship. For a while his pessimism is in abeyance.
5.1-2 ‘Guard your steps (literally ‘your foot’) when you go to the house of God, for it is better to draw near to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools. For they know not that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, and do not let your heart be hasty to utter anything before God, for God is in heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few.’
For the first time The Preacher considers man’s worship. In it man is approaching heaven, he is approaching everlastingness. But he has already said that God’s ways are unknowable. Thus man should approach God with care and reverence. He should guard his steps, he should draw near to hear what God would say to him. He should stay with what God has revealed about Himself to His prophets (Abraham, Moses and so on). He should draw near ready to obey (see 1 Samuel 15.22). This is far better than simply approaching God with thoughtless ritual.
Many offer the sacrifice of fools. They do not consider themselves sinful and yet they offer a sin offering. They are not offering themselves to God and yet they offer a whole burnt offering. They are not grateful to God and yet they offer a thankoffering. These are the sacrifices of fools. They do it simply because it is the thing to do. But it will not impress God. In contrast with those who guard their steps, these simply ‘trample His courts’ (Isaiah 1.11-12). The fool in practise does not know God (Psalm 14.1).
‘They know not that they do evil.’ This may mean that they come carelessly, unaware of their sinfulness. Or it may mean that their very casual approach is in itself seen as evil. Both are in fact true.
But if a man comes rightly to God with a hearing ear, will he not learn something meaningful? It would seem so. There is no suggestion of all this being vanity here. But he must come wisely. He must not indulge himself in a multitude of words, he must not speak without careful thought, what he speaks should have been carefully weighed up. For he is approaching the One Who is in the heavenly realm, the One Whose ways cannot be ferreted out, The One Who is everlasting, who is in direct contrast with those who are on the earth. Therefore his words should be few. He is there to learn and to hear. He should say little.
Thus for a brief period The Preacher appears to acknowledge that there are meaningful things to learn, even though man cannot fully find out God. He is gradually approaching his moment of enlightenment.
How wise The Preacher was. These are word to which we should all take heed. The church is full of those who know God’s mind better than He knows it Himself, in ways that He has not clearly revealed. We would often do better to be silent and admit how little we really know of God than to speak boldly and mislead. It would have saved much suffering.
He goes on to expand his meaning.
5.3 ‘For a dream comes with a multitude of business, and a fool’s voice with a multitude of words.’
Men who are too busy with a multitude of activity, including ritual activity, without stopping to hear, simply come up with dreams, something that comes from their own thoughts and minds. It is not from God. It is a fantasy, although they label it as from God. Those who would know God’s will must wait quietly before God. Furthermore a fool’s voice is known by its multitude of words, something to which we should all take heed. Those who have most to say about God often know the least. When we speak about God it should be thoughtful and measured and in accord with what has been revealed in His word, His revelation of Himself.
5.4-5 ‘When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it. For he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vowed. It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay.’
How easily a promise is made to God. He will not come in person to require it of us. But beware, says The Preacher. When you have made a vow do not delay fulfilling it. It is the fool, the man whose belief and commitment is nominal, who makes rash vows, and in them God has no pleasure. Thus we must fulfil our promises to God promptly. It would have been better if we had not made our dedication, than to make it and then back down on it (see Deuteronomy 23.21-23).
So he does not consider this meaningless either. He considers it a serious matter. For a time he has lost his pessimism. He is aware that he is dealing with everlastingness.
5.6-7 ‘Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger (or Angel) that it was an error. Why should God be angry at what you say (‘your voice), and destroy the work of your hands. For this is what happens through the multitude of dreams and meaningless promises and many words. But as for you, fear God.’
The Preacher warns us that we must watch our words before God, for if we do not we will commit ourselves in a way that then causes us to sin. And once we have made our vow (unless it was very foolish and not what God would require) we must be careful to perform it. We must not step back and say it was a mistake. We should not have made such a mistake. God is not to be mocked or treated lightly.
For if we are not obedient and honest with regard to our vows, God will be angry, and we will somehow suffer loss. Then he points out that situations like this often arise through too many self-induced dreams, too many meaningless promises, too much talking in prayer and not enough listening.
And at length he comes to his final conclusion. It is important to be in awe of God, to be submissive to His authority in godly fear. Later he will point out that to fear God and keep His covenant requirements is man’s whole responsibility and duty (12.13). He is back to his thought that man must trust in God and walk before Him. In all this the Preacher is explicit about the good man’s personal relationship with God.
But who is the messenger (angel) who has been mentioned? In Malachi 2.5-7 we are told that it is the true priest, the one who receives God’s word, who is ‘the messenger of YHWH of hosts’, he who truly teaches the Law of Truth. Thus it is a godly priest who may be in the writer’s mind here. Alternately he may be referring to the Angel of YHWH, that mysterious figure Who so often represented God and was God.
It is important to note that there is no question of ‘vanity’ here. Here the ‘vanities’ are on the part of those who do not obey God (verse 7). For a brief while The Preacher is in his God-aware mood. Many a man, as he searches for the truth about God, has experienced such moments when all seemed to be settled, until the questionings started again.
Thoughts About The Burdens and Problems of Wealth (5.8-17).
Here we find a total contrast to the first seven verses. There the thought was of attitude towards God. Now we move on to the attitude towards life. It must be remembered that many would see the wealthy as those who were pleasing to God. Was that not why they were wealthy? But the Preacher has come to recognise that it is not the wealthy who are pleasing to God, but those who are content with what they have and have an open heart towards God (2.24-26). Thus he points out that the accumulation of wealth, often by unjust means, may seem to add significance to life, but in the end it is meaningless and simply adds to the problems of life. (This is, of course, the view of one who is wealthy). He will conclude with the fact that seeking God is better.
5.8 ‘If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent taking away of justice and right in a province, do not marvel at the matter. Because one who is higher than the high regards, and there are higher ones than they.’
There is nothing sadder than a province where there is no justice, and right is overturned, especially when it is accompanied by violence (Isaiah 5.8; Amos 8.4-6). Yet The Preacher advises patience. There is One Who is Higher than the high, and He can bring into play some who are even higher than the local oppressors, those who are princes and kings over the whole (this would be a carrying out of the justice demanded in 3.16-17). Thus matters can be righted. Those who have accumulated wealth by oppression will suffer for it. For the expression ‘one higher than the high’ compare ‘the one mightier than he’ (6.10).
All of this is but a part of the overall procession of time.
Alternately we may see this verse as simply listing grades of officials, the high, the higher and the highest, with the thought that with such a multiplicity of officials it is not surprising that there is injustice. Everyone wants to have their share in what is available. So fields are taken away and the poor set to work as bondservants. This would fit in better with the meaninglessness of wealth (verse 10), but not with expectations of justice (3.16-17).
5.9 ‘Moreover the profit of the land is for all. The king himself is served by the field.’
This may be seen as a comfort for the oppressed. While they may suffer some oppression and loss nevertheless they can remember that the profit of the land is, in the end, for all. All benefit from it in one way or another, either as owners or workers. This was especially so in Israel where land rights were seen as having been allocated by God and always, at least in theory, finally reverted to their owners. Why, he adds, even the king profits from his land in the countryside (or it may mean profits by way of taxation).
Alternately it may be seeing it from the eyes of the oppressing officials, ‘the profit of the land is for all (of us)’, just as the king himself profits from taxation of the land. Then the prospect for the righteous is more gloomy.
However some translate ‘a king is an advantage to a land with cultivated fields’. The idea being that his control of the reins and the stability that results enables the people to cultivate the land properly. His kingship is thus good for all.
Overall is either the thought that God watches over the oppression of the poor and the doings of the unjust, and will remedy the situation (as in 3.16-17), while those who make themselves wealthy will be brought to account, or the thought of the meaninglessness of such wealth to those who by one means or another obtain it. The latter is made clear in the next verse.
5.10 ‘He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver, nor he who loves plenty with increase. This also is vanity.’
The truth is that those who seek to accumulate wealth will never be satisfied. The one who seeks silver will finally not be satisfied with it and will desire gold. For the one who seeks to build up wealth the amount of increase is never sufficient. He always wants more. Thus all is meaningless and empty.
5.11 ‘When goods increase those who eat them are also increased, and what advantage is there to the owner except looking at them with his eyes?’
The achieving of wealth in fact simply results in larger households of family and servants to consume them, so that in the end they are no better off. And anyway, in the end such a man has so much that all the benefit he really obtains is that he can survey his wealth in order to gain satisfaction from it. There comes a point where he cannot really improve the quality of his life. He has much more than he can spend. So he is simply building up wealth for no good reason. And, as the next verse reveals, there is a downturn. He may find that he suffers from the rich food he eats. But what is certain is that he does not think of God.
5.12 ‘The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much. But the fullness of the rich will not allow him to sleep.’
In contrast with the rich the working man sleeps well. He is exhausted and the food he eats, whether little or much, does not disturb his sleep. But the food of the wealthy causes problems that prevent sleep. This may also include the thought that the pressures of being wealthy also interfere with his sleep. So the labouring man is better off than the wealthy, even if he does not have much to eat.
5.13-15 ‘There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun, namely riches kept by an owner to his hurt, and those riches perish by an evil adventure, and if he has begotten a son there is nothing in his hand. As he came forth out of his mother’s womb, he will go again, naked as he came, and will take nothing for his labour which he can carry away in his hand.’
Here the writer has in mind those who seek to build up wealth for their sons. It may well be that when the son comes to inherit there will be nothing left. He is thinking here of wealth lost through poor investment, speculation, foolish behaviour or as a result of the activities of others such as theft and banditry. Wealth quickly, or dishonestly and unfairly, gained, and yet at great cost, can equally quickly be lost, and possibly even result in physical disadvantage or death, especially in violent times. His son is left with nothing, and he himself (or possibly his son) goes to the grave just as he came, also with nothing. he can take none of the fruits of his labour with him. Furthermore wealth can bring other evils such as the need to be always on the alert lest any seek to get hold of his wealth. The wealthy are the focus of attention for the greedy and dishonest. So wealth may actually hurt us.
5.16a ‘And this also is a grievous evil, that in all points as he came, so will he go.’
The thought of the man leaving as he came, makes The Preacher aware also of another significance of what he has said. When the wealthy die they can take nothing with them, even if they are still rich. For all go as they came, naked and with nothing. Thus in the end he gains nothing, and may indeed have lost what he could have gained by righteous living.
5.16b ‘And what profit has he who labours for the wind?’
So the accumulation of riches is in the final analysis of no benefit. It just brings with it its own problems. And those who seek wealth, often hopelessly, desiring to find in it some extra meaning to life, simply find that they have laboured for the unattainable.
5.17 ‘All his days also he eats in darkness, and he is sore vexed and has sickness and wrath.’
Such a man ‘eats in darkness.’ Compare 2.13. He is not a wise man because his life is concentrated in the wrong direction. The man who would be rich will stint himself, and overwork himself, and ruin his own health through stress, and thus be miserable, ill and bad tempered. It may also have in mind that the one who gains wealth and loses it spends the rest of his life regretting it, and suffering from the fact.
So wealth is not necessarily the road to contentment and wellbeing. It can bring as many problems as it solves. And yet all crave wealth to their hurt.
Better Than Seeking Riches Is To Seek To Enjoy Walking With God (5.18-20).
Once again he falls back on his idea of a godly man. Here is the one who does find blessing from God. We should note that what is in mind here is life within the covenant. It is the man who receives from God, acknowledges God, loves God and walks in His perceived will who is in mind. Even his food, drink and labour, which are central to his life and that of his family, are gifts from God.
It should be noted in this respect that in 5.1-2 worship of God was not being recommended, it was assumed, and the recommendation was as to how to approach it for it to be meaningful and beneficial. So all references to the life of the godly therefore assume this rightful worship of God. The writer is speaking of the full-orbed life of the godly.
5.18-20 ‘Behold, what I have seen to be good and beneficial (literally ‘beautiful’) is for one to eat and to drink and to enjoy good in all his labour in which he exerts himself under the sun, all the days of his life which God has given him. For this is his allotment. Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him the power to eat of them, and to take his allotment, and to rejoice in his exertions, this is the gift of God. For he will not call to mind the days of his life a great deal, because God answers him in the joy of his heart.’
Once more the Preacher comes back to God as his solution. The sensible view of life is to walk with God on the daily journey, looking constantly to Him. It is to recognise what God has allotted and to be satisfied. We must remember that these would not be seen as platitudes. In those days to the ordinary man God was of great relevance. Thus they would interpret literally and meaningfully what the writer is saying.
What is good and beautiful for a man is to live a simple, ordinary life, to eat and drink without excess, to enjoy his work, and to look to God, accepting both at His hands. If he has been given wealth by God he should accept it joyfully as a gift, and he also should enjoy his food and drink and the work that he does, and look to God. Note the proliferation of the mention of God (four times), a direct contrast with what has gone before when the concentration has been on man. It is only in previous passages about the godly man (2.24-26), the passage on everlastingness and judgment (3.10-18), and the passage on worship (5.1-7) that we otherwise have such constant mentions of God.
He is not here distinguishing between poverty and wealth. The idealistic view in Israel, if not always the reality, was of every man having his own vine and his own fig tree, and his own plot of land (1 Kings 4.25). It was seen as so much a part of essential Israel that it was even the vision presented by the Assyrians when they sought to encourage Jerusalem to surrender (2 Kings 18.31). Thus there would be levels of wealth, which were seen by each as his allotment from God, and with which each would be content.
But each was to look to God, worshipping truly (5.1-2), waiting on God and absorbing His everlastingness (3.11), and receiving the joy which God gives to His own in response to the fact that they are His (verse 20). It was a life of trust, and obedience to the covenant that God had made with Israel, with each man acknowledging and loving God with all his heart (Deuteronomy 6.4-6). This assumption lay behind the kind of life the Preacher is describing. For each man’s allotment in Israel came from the covenant with God.
‘All the days of his life which God has given him. For this is his allotment --- this is the gift of God.’ This very much has in mind man’s covenant relationship with God which lay at the root of Israel’s beliefs. The godly man looks to God, is faithful to God and receives with thanksgiving what God has given him. He trusts, obeys and enjoys, recognising that even his life has been given to him by God.
‘For he will not call to mind the days of his life a great deal, because God answers him in the joy of his heart.’ As a result he is not always looking back with regret, he is not worried about the future, he is not searching for what is meaningful. He will always have the joy of his continual walk with God, with the sense of everlastingness (ever undefined) in his heart.
Chapter 6 The Rich May Not Have All the Advantages. Life Is Not That Meaningful. And Why Should Man Think That He Is Special?
The general view would be that life was for the wealthy. It was they above all who would find joy and happiness, and it was they who would be most acceptable to God. So the Preacher makes quite clear that in fact it was not so.
Life Is Not Enjoyable To Even Some of the Rich (6.1-7).
6.1 ‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavily on men. A man to whom God gives riches, wealth and honour so that he lacks nothing for himself of all that he could desire, yet God does not give him the privilege (power) of enjoying them, but a stranger eats of it. This is vanity and a sore affliction.’
He points out that life is not always consistent. There may be many reasons why a wealthy man may not be able to enjoy his wealth. He may have food incompatibility which prevents his enjoyment of food, he may find wine makes him sick, he may overindulge in the wrong foods or in drink, he may have health problems that prevent the enjoyment of life. Then he has the pain of watching strangers who enjoy the hospitality of his home eating and enjoying what he himself cannot enjoy. (Contrast Isaiah 3.10).
On the other hand he may have it taken away from him by invasion, or through brigands, or through those who dispense justice unfairly and use their position to grasp what is not theirs. Then a stranger again enjoys what was really his. His possession of wealth has been in vain.
‘This is vanity, and is a sore affliction.’ The grief that the man suffers will be great, but it also brings out again the ultimate meaninglessness of life if this is all that there is to it.
6.3-5 ‘If a man beget a hundred children, and live many years so that the days of his years are many, but he is not himself filled with good, and moreover he has no burial. I say that an untimely birth is better than he. For it comes in meaninglessness and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Moreover it has not seen the sun, nor known it. This has rest rather than the other. Yes, even though he live a thousand years twice told, and yet enjoys no good. Do not all go to one place? ’
The begetting of children was seen as a great blessing (Psalm 127.3-5). Here the man has ‘a great many children, more than the norm’ (the significance of ‘a hundred’). A long life was also seen as a blessing (Deuteronomy 11.21). But if his days are not enjoyable and he lacks essential provision or he is bowed down with illness (he ‘is not filled with good’), or in some other way his life is not good because for example of family feuds, (and then he adds to make matters worse - ‘and has no burial’), then the baby who dies at birth is better off than he. And this is true for the man, if during that time he actually receives no ‘good’, even if he lives for a thousand years and more.
‘And moreover he has no burial.’ Not to be buried properly was looked on as something deeply humiliating and to be avoided at all costs (2 Kings 9.30-37; Isaiah 14.19; Jeremiah 22.19), and especially for a man with many children, whose responsibility it was to bury him. Perhaps here the thought is that his hundred children were alienated from him and wanted nothing to do with him in the day of his death, adding to his other problems. So being rich is not always the answer.
‘An untimely birth is better than he. For it comes in meaninglessness and departs in darkness, and its name is covered with darkness. Moreover it has not seen the sun, nor known it. This has rest rather than the other.’ Such a life is even worse than that of a stillborn child. That is bad enough. The child comes in meaninglessness, and dies in the darkness of the womb, never having seen light, or the sun, and its name is never mentioned. But it has more rest than this poor rich man. And in the end they go to the same place, to the place of the dead. Both are the same in the end, it is simply that the stillborn child has escaped the misery.
The lesson is that both these men described had not in the end been given the blessings of God’s allotment, even though outwardly it had seemed so, emphasising again how important to the enjoyment of life was the walk with God. The writer no doubt shared the popular viewpoint that not to be blessed was a sign of not being in right relationship with God.
6.7 ‘All the labour of the man is for his mouth, and yet he himself is not satisfied.’
This refers back to the man we have been considering. The whole purpose of his labour was to feed himself, for he gained no other benefit from it. And this he achieved. But he could not achieve satisfaction for himself.
Even The Wise Do Not In The Last Analysis Have Any Advantage Over The Unthinking. So We Should Hold On To What God Gives Us Rather Than Dreaming Of More (6.8-9).
6.8-9 ‘For what advantage has the wise more than the fool? Or what advantage does the poor man have who knows how to walk before the living (or ‘who has understanding, in walking before the living)? Better is the sight of the eyes, than the wandering of the desire. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’
In the face of these vicissitudes of life, and especially in the face of death (compare verse 6 and 2.14-16), what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? In the face of such circumstances neither can do anything about it. So both are in the same position. Nor could the poor man do anything in that situation, whatever understanding he may have about walking before the living. Illness and death are the great equalisers for all. Thus it is best to accept what we are given, holding on to what we can see rather than dreaming of what is unobtainable..
‘Better is the sight of the eyes, than the wandering of the desire.’ It is better to have something which is real and can be seen, than a desire and dream which may never be fulfilled, caused by wandering longings. This expresses a general thought following the descriptions of the two men whose lives were sadly lacking. Its point is simply to stress the fact that if we have something good we should hold on to it, and not look for more, for if we are too ambitious we may lose what we have.
So his final word of counsel is to be content with what we have (compare. Hebrews 13.5). This is the last of nine times that the phrase "striving after wind" occurs (see 1.14, 17; 2.11, 17, 26; 4.4, 6, 16). It opens and closes the section of the book dealing with the futility of human achievement (1.12-6.9), and stresses that that is what much of life can be if we do not walk with God, a striving after what cannot be obtained.
Man Should Not See Himself As Anything Special (6.10-12).
The section closes with the warning that man should not see himself as anything special. Like all creatures he was named by God (1.26). Thus he must beware of setting himself up against the One Who is mightier than he. ‘Man’ is simply one name among many which are applied to what has been seen as futile, the sun (1.9, 14; 2.11, 18 etc), the rivers (1.7), the fruit trees (2.5), the herds and flocks (2.7), man’s labour (2.10-11, 19, 22, 24; etc. What then is man? (Psalm 8 has a different perspective on him). What he must recognise is that only God knows what is good for a man in his life (which is but a shadow), and only God can tell him what will be after him.
6.10-12 ‘Whatever has been, its name has already been called. And it is known that it is (the same for) Man. Nor can he contend with him who is mightier than he. Seeing that there are many words that increase vanity (futility, meaninglessness), what is ‘Man’ the better? For who knows what is good for Man in his life, all the days of his vain life which he spends as a shadow? For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?’
The reference here is back to the creation accounts in Genesis, when all was ‘named’, and man was named Man (1.26, 27; 2.7). Everything that exists originally came into being and was ‘called’ by a name (see Genesis 1). That revealed God’s sovereignty over it. And it is something that has already happened. So all is thus under His control and sovereignty. The same is true of the one who was called ‘Man’. He also was called by a name from the beginning. His name too has already been called. He too is under God’s control and sovereignty. Thus he is unable to strive with the One Who is mightier than he, the One Who named him. In this Man is no different from any other part of creation.
Furthermore there are many ‘words’ that were used of things that were named that he has shown are a part of the meaninglessness of life, ‘the sun’ (the ‘light’ of Genesis 1.14) in 1.5 and often; the rivers (Genesis 2.10-14) in 1.7; the trees of all kinds of fruit (Genesis 1.11) in 2.5; the herds and flocks (Genesis 2.20) in 2.7; man’s labour (Genesis 2.15) regularly in Ecclesiastes. Even the ‘breath’ of life (Genesis 7.22) in 3.19. So what is ‘Man’ the better? For none can really declare what is good for man in all the days of his vain and meaningless life which ‘makes like a shadow’, that is as something that is not permanent, as being on the edge of death (1 Chronicles 29.15; Job 8.9; Psalm 144.4). Nor can anyone tell what shall be after him. He is merely living a short span, a meaningless part of the time-line, the time-line that goes on everlastingly. He only gains importance when he becomes in touch with God.
So the Preacher closes off the first section of his book on a pessimistic note. But he is talking paradoxically. Outwardly what he says is correct, but he himself has already spoken of what is good for man (2.24; 5.18). Thus there is the struggle within him between the outward meaninglessness of life and the inner meaning that he discerns for the godly man, for the man who lives before God. As a philosopher and thinker he is pessimistic, although as a believer, at least to some extent, he is optimistic. But there is still the problem of death to be taken into account.
Chapter 7 It Is Good To Be Aware of Death, To Listen To Rebuke, To Behave Wisely, Even Though Life Is Unfair. But The World Is Full of Wickedness.
The emphasis of the book from now on includes the thought of living wisely and of man considering his ways and being wise. It is as though having convinced himself of the purposelessness and transience of things (which he will still on the whole maintains) he wants to make men behave with wisdom. The thought of the vanity of life is not to be allowed to result in folly. His position as a wisdom teacher comes to the fore.
The chapter commences with a return to full pessimism. Life is so meaningless that death is to be welcomed. Meanwhile man should be wise and recognise that he can learn more from mourning than from jollity. It is the fool who makes merry all the time, for life is sombre, and needs to be considered seriously, keeping in mind the brevity of life.
This seems to contrast 5.19-20 where the godly find joy in their labour because God responds to them by giving them joy. But it is not a contradiction. He is not suggesting that men should be mourning all the time. He just wants them to remember that they should live their lives keeping in mind its brevity. Then indeed they will be better placed to joy in God.
He then continues to deal with the things that can make a man foolish and advises him to follow practical wisdom. Man should hold on to wisdom so that he is not led astray, and indeed so that he might not die prematurely. And above all he must not think that he can fathom God or alter His ways. He must accept what comes from the hand of God.
As We Live Life It Is Good To Remember Its Brevity (7.1-4).
There now follow a number of wise sayings which are a reminder of the solemnity of life.
For ‘name’ as meaning reputation see Proverbs 22.1; Zephaniah 3.19. He is probably being very sombre here. The context is of dying, and what he probably means is that it is better for a man to die covered with a good reputation (shem) rather than covered with ointment (shemen). Note the play on words. (In each of the following verses two verses both parallels follow the same theme. Thus a general comment on reputation is out of place here).
In view of the uselessness and meaninglessness of life death is to be preferred. The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
The stress on death continues. Attending funerals is good for a man, for it reminds him of his frailty. There is, of course, feasting at a funeral, but the contrast is with partying at other celebrations (both would in fact last seven days - Genesis 50.10; 29.27; Judges 14.12). Partying may have its place but it is at a wake that important lessons are remembered. For all need to be reminded that they will die, and thus they will hopefully live life wisely in the light of it.
In the same way sorrow (because of someone’s death) is better than laughter, for it results in man’s heart becoming better. It has a salutary effect on people. It makes him consider his life more carefully. So the wise remember that a man must die, that is where their heart is, while the foolish give themselves to non-stop enjoyment. And that is where their heart is.
He is not suggesting that we should spend all our time attending funerals, or that we should never enjoy ourselves. He is pointing out what in fact will be most beneficial to us in the long run, a recognition of the seriousness of life..
It Is Important To Be Thoughtful. If A Man Is Not Careful There Are Things That Can Make Him Behave Foolishly (7.5-10).
Further wise sayings about our approach to life. The sensible man is ever ready to listen to admonishment from the wise, rather than to listen to fools (verse 5). There are always those who will seek to influence him, either through oppression or bribery (verse 7). And impatience and pride (verse 8), anger (verse 9), and dissatisfaction (verse 10) might also lure him from the submissive attitude that is part of the way of wisdom. Thus the sensible man treads carefully.
A quiet listening to the wise, and learning from their rebuke (Proverbs 13.1), is better than continually joining in with mindless and raucous singing, and hearing just frivolity (Amos 6.4-6). For the laughter of the foolish is like the sound of cooking a pot on thorns. It makes a lot of noise but does not achieve any purpose. It is meaningless to cook on thorns, for thorns crackle but do not make good firewood.
‘This also is vanity.’ He is referring to the behaviour of the foolish and those who cling to them. Spending life only in seeking enjoyment is to live a meaningless and empty life.
Oppression makes a wise man praise. This may be because he is turned in his extremity to God, or because he knows that through it he will learn valuable lessons, or alternatively because he deems it wise to treat the oppressors carefully, giving them the flattery that they desire. He is sensible. He gives them the praise they seek so as to prevent trouble and so as to avoid worse oppression. But he bides his time (compare 3.16-17; 5.8-9). His praise is not to be taken at face value.
The ‘gift that destroys the understanding’ refers to a bribe. Once someone receives a bribe the way he looks at things and deals with things is very much affected.
So both oppression and bribes make people behave differently from their norm, but in neither case are the people involved to be trusted once the pressure is off. Oppression and bribes do not produce reliable allies. They are a part of the meaninglessness of life (some would attach ‘this also is vanity’ to this verse, but the phrase usually comes at the end of a section (compare 2.1, 15, 21, 26; 4.16; 8.14).
‘Better is the end of a thing (or ‘a word’) than its beginning. The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.’ The thought here is that patience is better than pride when dealing with things, and produces better results in the end. Thus at the beginning of something there may be conflicting emotions, and careless words, as pride rules, but it is better when patience has prevailed in the end, so that, through patience, the right end has been achieved. Indeed patience is always to be recommended. It is the attitude of the wise. For someone quickly vexed can behave like a fool, especially if he allows the vexation to simmer on.
And finally it is not wise to look back and think that things were better in the old days. It is unwise, for it is rarely true and produces wrong attitudes of heart. It is a negative way of thinking, and produces negative results.
The Importance of Practical Wisdom (7.11-22).
Wisdom As A Defence (7.11-12).
Having wisdom is a good foundation for life, for it provides a form of defence in times of trouble, and may even result in preserving a man’s life.
7.11-12 ‘Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, yes, more excellent is it for those who see the sun. For wisdom is a defence, even as money is a defence. But the excellency of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.’
Those who ‘see the sun’ are those who survive childbirth (compare 6.5). For those, while an inheritance is good, and welcome, they should recognise that it is not as valuable as wisdom. Both wealth and wisdom may be helpful in defending one’s position and status, but wisdom also aids survival when things are difficult, whereas an antagonist may be willing to kill a man for his money.
‘For wisdom is a defence, even as money is a defence.’ The Hebrew is terse. ‘In the shadow of wisdom. In the shadow of money.’
But Wisdom Includes A Recognition That We Cannot Interfere With God’s Doings. Thus We Must Accept From God What He Is Pleased To Give (7.13-14).
7.13 ‘Consider the work of God. For who can make that straight which he has made crooked?’
In 3.13 the work of God was that which has been done from the beginning even to the end, which man cannot fathom. Compare 8.17 where we were assured that no man can find out the work of God, whether wise or not. And in 1.15 we were informed that the crooked cannot be made straight, which faced us with the fact that we cannot change what God has created and make it different, nor can we make the imperfect perfect.. Thus the aim here in considering the work of God is not in order to understand it, or in order to change it, but in order to recognise that God controls all, and that what He is doing cannot be altered or fathomed by man. None can change what God has been pleased to do.
‘For who can make that straight which he has made crooked?’ This basically indicates that if God has made the world in a certain way, no one can thus change it apart from Him (compare 1.15). It is not actually saying that the world was made crooked. It is simply taking two opposites as an example, and saying that whatever choice God makes cannot be affected by man, that to alter whatever God chose as the basis of the world is impossible. So if for example He had chosen to make all crooked, then it would be impossible to straighten it. We cannot alter anything that God has chosen to do.
Some suggest that the idea is that it is no good our trying to set the world to rights, for it has been made crooked and we cannot make the crookedness straight, or that the problem of sin is such that man cannot of himself put it right. But this is probably to read in more than the writer intended, for in fact God did not make the world ‘crooked’ in that way. It was man who introduced sin into the world.
7.14 ‘In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider. God has even made the one, side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that will be after him.’
Here he tells us that we must take from God what comes. When prosperity comes we should enjoy it, when adversity comes it should make us consider our ways (‘when God’s judgments are in the earth the people learn righteousness’). For God has caused both to this end. Indeed His final aim was to make things so changeable that it ensured that man could not fathom the future, and would not know which was coming.
So in the end we are to leave everything in the hands of God. It is not for us to fathom out His ways, but to live rightly before Him within the covenant, accepting what comes from His hand.
‘What will be after him.’ In 3.22; 6.12 this indicates the future, signifying after he has died.
The Preacher Now Gives Further Wisdom Teaching About Life (7.15-18).
7.15-17 ‘All this have I seen in my meaningless and transient life (‘the days of my vanity’). There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his evil doing. Do not be righteous overmuch, nor make yourself over wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be wicked overmuch, nor be foolish. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this. Yes, also, do not withdraw your hand from that. For he who fears God will come forth of them all.’
The Preacher is still conscious of the meaninglessness and emptiness of his life. But it makes him call to mind what he has seen during that life. He has seen men who were righteous perishing in their righteousness. He has seen wicked men living on and not dying in spite of their evildoing. This was contrary to the idea that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked perish. It puzzled him, facing him with a dilemma (contrast 3.17; and see Psalm 73).
But he had a partial solution. Often such righteous people perish because they are ostentatious and cultivate hostility. And such wicked people protect themselves well by use of their ill-gotten gains.
He also warns against being over-wise, of condescendingly revealing superior knowledge, of always seeking to put others right regardless of their feelings and customs, of dispensing wisdom with the air of always being right. Such people draw attention to themselves and are the first target when there is an attack on the godly. For they have earned dislike by making people feel inferior, and paradoxically have given the impression that they are the most worthy, the most religious of men, and therefore the most important targets.
But he equally warns against being over-wicked, of being foolish. (Note that he does not say over-foolish. Foolishness is to be totally avoided). This had mainly in mind offences that incurred the death penalty of which there were many. If men become too wicked, even the wicked will desert them. Such men will die before their time.
He is not actually saying that ‘we should not be too good or too bad, but a bit of both’. That we should be in the middle. He is warning against extremes which he sees as both bad. His practical observations are not always necessarily to be seen as approval but as fact.
‘It is good that you should take hold of this. Yes, also, do not withdraw your hand from that. For he who fears God will come forth of them all.’ Here he is stressing that men should take hold of and grasp these principles, and that men should always take notice of both sides of a problem. The one who truly fears God will not be caught up in such problems, for he will avoid all extremes, and all sin. Thus he does not see the ‘righteous overmuch’ as true God-fearers.
‘Come forth’ would later certainly gain the meaning of ‘fulfil an obligation’ (compare ‘come up to scratch’). It may be that that usage was already prevalent in the writer’s time. In that case he may be noting that the one who is truly godly will fulfil his obligations to all.
The Importance Of Wisdom In All Things (7.19-22).
7.19 ‘Wisdom is a strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.’
Ten is regularly used to mean ‘a number of’. It does not have a particular type of governance in mind, simply a collective leadership which is looked up to by the people. Thus the thought here may be that to a wise man his wisdom is better than the advice of a number of city rulers (who were supposed to represent joint wisdom), who would all, from the writer’s experience, probably disagree anyway. The point is that wisdom is not necessarily with the majority, while a truly wise man’s wisdom is solid, and reveals to him all sides of a question, enabling him to make wise decisions.
Or it may be instancing the fact that while it is good to have the backing of the city elders, it is even better to have wisdom, because true wisdom may well serve a man better than any number of supposedly wise city elders.
7.20 ‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin.’
But even a righteous man does not always advise rightly. For although the wise man may seek to be righteous, sadly he often fails (whether accidentally or purposely), as do all men. For there is no one who always does what is good. All are swayed by sin in one way or another. Thus all need more wisdom. (It was only later that One would come Who was the great exception and fully without sin - 1 Peter 2.22; 2 Corinthians 5.21; Hebrews 4.15. But He was the exception that demonstrated the rule).
7.21-22 ‘Also do not take to heart (‘give your heart to’) all things that are spoken, in case you hear your servant curse you, for often also your own heart knows that you have in similar fashion cursed others.’
Another example of the need for wisdom is in respect of the hearing of rumours or listening to tell-tales. One thing the wise man will avoid doing is to take to heart careless words uttered by someone in an unguarded moment. This follows on the thought of verse 20. No one is totally righteous and therefore allowances must be made. When judging others we must ever remember our own faults, for we all make such mistakes. And there is a need for compassion. A man might hear his servant curse him, but if he takes this lesson to heart he will not lose a good servant as a result of a moment of folly. He will show mercy. Men even curse their best friends or their wives, thus we must expect from even a good servant an occasional curse behind our backs. It is again a question of not being over-righteous.
His Search For Understanding Resulting from His Wisdom Has Made Him Aware Of Man’s Sinfulness And Folly (7.23-29).
7.23-24 ‘All this I have tested out in wisdom. I said, “I will be wise”, but it was far from me. That which is far off and extremely deep, who can find it out?’
But there are limits to wisdom. For he has tried to test out all that he has been talking about using wisdom, but has to admit that he has not fully found the truth. Final wisdom, the wisdom which is of God, the wisdom which might bring meaning to things, is beyond him, as it is beyond all men (compare 3.11; 7.14; 8.17). It is as though it was beyond the far horizon (far off), as though it was in the deepest depths of the sea, or some underground mining works (extremely deep). It is not discoverable.
7.25-26 ‘I turned about and my heart was set to know, and to search out, and to seek wisdom and the reason of things, and to know that wickedness is folly, and that foolishness is madness. And I find a thing more bitter than death, even the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands like bonds. The one who pleases God will escape from her, but the sinner will be taken by her.’
His search was a thorough one. He set his heart to know. He searched things out. He sought. And what he sought was wisdom and the reason of things. And the one thing that he did discover was that wickedness was folly and that foolishness was madness, that is, in the long term.
He has already indicated in verses 23-24 that there were limits on what he had discovered, and could discover, for the reason of things was at present beyond him. But he points out that at least he did learn about wickedness and folly, about downright evil and careless, unthinking behaviour, and that such was folly and madness (both because of its positive consequences and because it prevented a man from enjoying the lot of the godly (5.19)).
One example of this, which he came across and which horrified his very soul, (and no doubt the soul of all his concubines), was the example of the scheming woman, which included the prostitute. He has the worst examples in mind. Possibly he had in mind Delilah (Judges 16.4-22), and, depending on his era, Jezebel (1 Kings 16.31; 18.13; 19.1-2; 21.6-16), or possibly vivid examples he had seen in his own experience. Such a woman is described as having a heart which ensnares and nets, and hands which are bonds (the latter would fit Delilah admirably). That is, she plans her strategy to capture the unthinking male, and then binds him to her with her wiles and attractions (Proverbs 5.3-6; 7.5-27). While he would certainly have included prostitutes in this description, his vision was probably wider as we have suggested. He was thinking of all women who led men astray. He had no doubt seen in court what such women could do through their scheming. (We must remember in fairness that in those days any woman who wanted to achieve anything - although there were notable but rare exceptions - had to do it through a man and therefore had to scheme).
‘The one who pleases God will escape from her, but the sinner will be taken by her.’ The writer never ceases to express his admiration for the truly godly. For ‘the ‘one who pleases God’ compare 2.26. Indeed in the end he seems to give the indication that he finally became one of them. The one who pleases God is the one who has a living relationship with God, and is committed to the covenant. He will escape because his mind is set to do good and will not have any truck with such women’s scheming. His obedience to God’s commandments will prevent him from being led astray. But the sinner, who is more casual with God’s commandments, will fall into her web.
7.27-28 “Behold, this have I found,” says the preacher, “putting one thing to another to find out the reason of things, which in myself I am still trying to understand, but have not found, I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all those.”
He concludes this section by admitting that he has still not found the reason behind things, something which he is still striving for. But one thing he has discovered in his striving is the rarity of a good man. Such a man is ‘one among a thousand’. But all the women he had come across, he adds, could not be included as such. This was in fact not really surprising. He met his harem, who were all scheming against each other, and striving to be his favourite. He met the wives of courtiers, who were all doing the same with their men, and scheming for their advancement. He saw the prostitutes on the streets. But when the godly woman went out she would avoid drawing attention to herself, and would usually be safely at home out of men’s gaze . The last thing that such women would want was contact with the court. So he was judging only on the basis of those women that he had come across, which had given him a bad opinion of women. It did not refer to all women.
7.29 “Behold this only have I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”
This is his final comment. We have already seen earlier his awareness of the creation narratives (6.10-12; 2.5; 3.11, 19). Thus his observations and reading have brought him to the conclusion that man was made upright but that men have since gone in all directions morally (the passage is emphasising morality), inventing different ways to enhance themselves and to secure their own situations, which has resulted in their present sinfulness.
So we can see that his knowledge of God’s ways is growing apace. God made man upright. Blessing comes to the one who pleases God (2.26). He has given men a sense of everlastingness (3.11). He will bring to account those who do evil (3.17; 5.8). He watches over the godly who look to Him, worshipping truly (5.1-2), waiting on Him and absorbing His everlastingness (3.11). Those who live sober lives before Him (3.12; 5.18) receive the wisdom and joy which He gives to His own in response to the fact that they are His (2.26; 5.18-20).
These in their turn fear Him, living lives of trust, and obedience to the covenant that God has made with Israel, with each man acknowledging and loving God with all his heart (Deuteronomy 6.4-6). While not being mentioned the covenant is assumed, for each man’s allotment and portion, which the godly enjoy (5.18-19), actually came from the covenant with God. The Preacher has spoken of the ‘one in a thousand’ (verse 27), and he has these people in mind. Thus he is very much aware of the everlasting God at work, both in creation, in judgment, in revealing His everlastingness, and in His own, (those within Israel who are the true Israel, and men everywhere who will truly seek the living God).
Chapter 8 Advice With Regard To Serving The King. The Problem of the Death of the Wicked.
His survey now digresses to consider a wise man’s responsibility when serving the king, followed by a number of expressions of wisdom as befitted the words of a wise man.
Advice With Regard to a Wise Man’s Responsibility in Serving the King (8.1-9).
We must not interpret these verses without regard to what we know about this king. His instruction will surely accord with his own views on authority, and its responsibilities. So our interpretation will depend on our view of who and what the writer is. Some see these instructions as being general advice, given simply in the light of the fact that most kings were despots. Others see them as the instructions of an enlightened king. In fact both interpretations are possible from the wording. It is a question of approach. But it seems to us that the latter is the reasonable position to take.
8.1 ‘Who is as the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine and the severity (‘strength’) of his face is changed.’
No one can compare with a wise man. No one else can solve problems like he can. His very wisdom makes his face glow, and his face is peaceful and content, demonstrating the genuineness of his wisdom. It does not carry the signs of discontent and worry like the faces of others. Thus he has great responsibility.
8.2 ‘I say to you, keep the king’s command and that in regard of your sacred oath (‘the oath of God’). Do not be hasty to leave his presence. Do not persist in an evil thing. For he does whatever pleases him. For the king’s word is powerful (‘has power’), and who may say to him, “What are you doing?”. Whoever does what he is commanded will know no evil thing, and a wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’
First the wise man must recognise that if he serves the king he is under authority, so he must prove that he is wise. He must have regard to his sacred oath and not be too hasty about leaving the king’s presence, that is, in order to avoid giving unpleasant advice. The thought is that he should not be in a hurry to avoid unpleasant problems by suggesting he has no knowledge on the matter, or that he is not the best person to ask, thus basically tactfully refusing his assistance. He must stand firm and give his wise advice.
Or it may refer to planned disloyalty. In which case the ‘evil thing’ would be whatever was being planned against the king.
‘Do not persist in an evil thing.’ That is in continuing to advise, or approve of, something that he feels is wrong, (or alternately something that would displease the king. But it is not likely that this writer would expect his wise men to be so subservient). He must give the king honest advice, and if necessary advise a different course. (We must remember that the writer is against oppression - 4.1).
‘For he does whatever pleases him. For the king’s word is powerful (‘has power’), and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” ’ This might mean that to refuse to assist the king, or to do something that will displease him, will only put him in trouble, because the king’s word is powerful and he can do whatever he wants. But it is more likely that it is pointing out that the wise man should consider that because the king is all powerful, to give him bad advice will be harmful, in view of the fact that he has absolute authority to carry it through (compare the false advice of Hushai the Archite which resulted in the defeat of Absalom (1 Kings 16.31)). Thus he must ensure that he gives only the best of advice.
‘Whoever does what he is commanded will know no evil thing, and a wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’ If the wise man is obedient to what he is commanded he need have no fear of the consequences. For the reason that he has been chosen as a wise man is because he knows what is the right time to do things, and what is the best way to go about it. So he must speak his mind and give good advice in the light of what is known.
‘A wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’ It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that underlying these words are two themes of the book, the passing time-line under the sun (3.1-11) and the fact of final judgment (11.9; 12.14). The wise man discerns both. He is aware both of time and everlastingness.
Others see it as meaning that he is to understand that obedience is the wise course, because he will then avoid unpleasantness or worse, but this would not be the advice of a benevolent king, and this writer is portrayed as a benevolent king.
8.6-7 ‘For to every proposal (purpose) there is a time and judgment, for the misery of man is great upon him. For he does not know what will be, for who can tell him how it will be?’
The wise man’s advice is needed because every proposal needs to be put into effect at the right time and in the right way, in view of the fact of the heavy burden of misery under which most people live. They do not know what is going to happen next, and have no one to give them guidance. It would not be good to add to their misery by giving bad advice.
8.8 ‘There is no man who has power over the breath to retain the breath, nor has he power over the day of death. And there is no discharge in that war. Nor will wickedness deliver him who is given to it.’
None of the people can prevent themselves from dying, for they do not have control over the breath of life. Nor do they know when the day of their death will be. And none can ask to be discharged from the war of life and death. It is not in their hands. Nor can a wicked man finally avoid it by wicked methods (contrast 7.15). He may avoid it for a time, but in the end death will catch up with him. So death is unavoidable for all.
8.9 ‘All this I have seen, and applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun. There is a time in which one man has power over another to his hurt.’
The writer had paid great attention to all that was being done on the earth. And one thing that he had recognised was that there are times when one person’s action can cause great harm to another. He sees the wise man’s behaviour as an example of this. If he does not give honest advice in some circumstances others may well suffer grievously. Thus he must give his advice honestly. And indeed all who are put in a position where their decisions may affect others, should behave honestly.
This is a reminder to us all that our actions can affect other people. We too must therefore be honest and thoughtful in all we do, considering its effect on others.
The Problem of The Wicked Who Die Unpunished (8.10-16).
The writer now turns to consideration of how and why the wicked die unpunished, and the fact that justice is only carelessly applied, thus encouraging ill-doing. He especially considers cases of some who on burial were treated honourably, and whose wickedness was soon forgotten after their deaths. But in the end he is convinced that in spite of appearances God will surely ensure that justice is finally applied.
8.10 ‘And so I saw the wicked buried, and they came, and from the holy place they went, and they were forgotten (some suggest a rare form meaning ‘were praised’) in the city where they had so behaved (or ‘where they had done right’). This also is vanity.’
This probably means that they were buried after a funeral service in a holy place which was holy to the gods that they worshipped, for to an Israelite a dead body was unclean and would not be allowed in a holy place. However kings were later rebuked by Ezekiel because they had had themselves buried too close to the temple. So it could be that even men in Israel did seek to be buried in places seen as holy, thinking as men foolishly do that somehow it would benefit them, and that this was actually allowed even though they were wicked.
And then, in spite of what their behaviour had been, they were soon forgotten. Their past was not held against them. Humanly speaking they had got away with it. They were both buried in a holy place, and their evil lives were not remembered by those over whom they had misruled. If God was just it appeared to have been a strange thing to have happened.
But it just may mean that they were praised at their funeral and their ‘righteous’ lives were spoken about before they were buried. If so such funerals were little different from modern funerals. Either way the writer is back to his pessimistic mood and declares it is all empty and meaningless. Nothing has been done about their sin.
8.11 ‘Because sentence against a crime (‘evil work’) is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’
Then he points out that wickedness is encouraged by slow or careless justice. Crime must be punished, and be seen to be punished quickly, otherwise others will be encouraged to similar crimes. He probably saw those just mentioned as being wicked, partly as a result of having been allowed to get away with it. Thus justice was simply not working properly. And this is probably also to be seen as preparing for the next verse, which speaks of the sinner who does evil a hundred times because he escaped quick punishment.
8.13 ‘Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and prolong his life, yet surely I know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, nor will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.’
But in the end he convinces himself that though one of these sons of men do evil a hundred times because of the slowness of justice, and the life of this multiple sinner seems still to be prolonged, yet the principle of retribution will eventually apply. It will be well with those who fear God and worship Him, and it will not be well with the wicked man nor will his days be prolonged like a shadow. Long shadows come in the evening when the sun is setting, getting longer and longer. So it may be that he is saying that in the evening of the sinner’s life, because he does not fear God, his days will not be prolonged. In one way or another judgment will come.
Alternately it may be that this hundredfold sinner is seen as the exception, and yet that he maintains that the general principle can still be seen as applying. (Note the use of ‘a hundred’ as meaning simply a large number of times). Either way he has satisfied himself that justice will prevail.
8.14 ‘There is a vanity which is done on earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens in accordance with the work of the wicked. Again there are wicked men to whom it happens in accordance with the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.’
But the Preacher’s thoughts are flowing to and fro, for he sees that the system of retribution does work sometimes, but that it is not working fully. Sometimes sinners do have their lives cut short, but sometimes they do not.
It had not worked with those who were buried in verse 10. It had worked with others (verse 12). But there are still others, now mentioned, with whom it does not work. Indeed we have the converse situation. Righteous men who die young as if they were sinners, and sinners who live on to old age. He cannot understand it. It all appears to be meaningless.
8.15 ‘Then I commended mirth (joy) because a man has no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry (rejoice), for that will accompany him in his labour all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.’
So again he can only fall back on the idea that men may find some kind of true happiness in eating, drinking and rejoicing, together with their labour, all their lives. (The words for mirth and be merry can equally be translated joy and rejoice as earlier. They are the same roots). After seeming to grow in his search for a solution he has now reached his lowest point. Here God is hardly mentioned. He is baffled by the failure of God to exact retribution on the wicked. He recognises that earthly retribution is not the answer, for it often does not happen.
8.16-17 ‘When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how that neither by day nor by night do men sleep with their eyes, then I beheld all the work of God, that men cannot find out the work that is done under the sun, because however much a man exert himself to seek it out, yet he will not find it. Yes moreover, though a wise man think to know it, yet he will not be able to find it.’
So he turns for the answer to the fact that even the wise cannot fathom God’s ways and purposes. His search for wisdom continues, and he scans all business done on earth. He notes that there is never a time when all men are asleep. There are those who watch over the sheep, those who stand guard in palaces, those who scan the stars, those who study through the night, those who stay up all night because of their businesses or in order to travel though the night. Thus man is awake day and night. Yet still man cannot fathom all the work of God. It is beyond him. Even the wise man cannot find or know it. He knows this because he himself has tried. It is all a mystery. So it is not that God’s judgment has failed, but that man cannot comprehend His ways (3.11).
This fact that man cannot comprehend God’s ways is at the root of his whole thesis. The godless go on seeking after wind. The godly live in quiet confidence and trust in God. That is why the godly eat, drink and are joyful, because while they do not understand God’s ways their lives are lives of trust and obedience to His will. They do what pleases Him. Thus the Preacher acknowledges that his own ignorance and his concept that all is vanity is also due to a failure to understand God’s ways.
Chapter 9 The Same Things Happen to All Whether They Be Righteous, Wise Or Sons of Men. And In The End All Die In The Same Way. So Let The Righteous Live Life As They May And Enjoy It For God Has Accepted All That They Do. But Let Them Not Look For Anything Beyond.
After seeming to be making progress through an examination of religious experience The Speaker now turns to consider what difference there is between the overall treatment of the righteous and the wicked while on earth, and discovers that there is none.
9.1-2 ‘For all this I laid to my heart, even to explore all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hatred, man does not know it. Everything 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 who sacrifices and to him who does not sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner. And he who swears as he who fears oaths.’
As a wise man he ‘laid to his heart’ (decided firmly in his heart), for the purposes of exploring it further, that the righteous and the wise, together with their doings, are in the hand of God. But what holds them there, whether it be love or hate, man cannot tell, for it cannot be discovered by examining God’s behaviour towards them. He treats all alike. For although everything is before men, they see that all things come alike to all.
This is not to deny that the righteous know that God loves them, only that it cannot be told by His behaviour towards them on earth. He would seemingly treat them in just the same way if he hated them, for He behaves the same towards the wicked. This conclusion comes from looking at their general experiences of life. What happens to the wicked happens to the good, and vice versa.
This is confirmed by the fact that identical things happen to the righteous and the wicked, to the good, the clean and the unclean, to the one who sacrifices and to the one who does not sacrifice. All are seemingly treated the same by God. Thus neither morality nor religious observance make any difference to their treatment.
9.3 ‘This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event to all. Yes 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.’
‘The sons of men’ appear to be a new class first introduced in 8.11 (but see 1.13; 3.18). They are clearly seen as sinful. Probably then the idea is of ‘those who by their behaviour show themselves to be but men’, in contrast with the righteous and the wise. But the point is that the same thing happens to all, even to these ‘sons of men’ who are full of evil, and in whose heart there is madness while they live, after which they go to the dead (madness is paralleled with folly. It possibly means wild behaviour). This he sees as an evil. It seems to thrust man back into futility.
9.4-6 ‘For to him who is joined with all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is now perished. Nor have they any more for ever a portion in anything that is done under the sun.’
For it is while they are alive that men have hope, for life is still ahead, even if the quality of life expected is not what it could be. In contrast the dead have no hope. Thus a living dog with its pitiful life (the mangy dog scavengers who live wild in the towns and countryside, the lowest of beasts - 1 Samuel 24.14) is better than a dead lion, which while alive is the proudest and most fearsome of beasts, but once dead is just a corpse.
The living have knowledge. They know for example that they will die (I will die therefore I am?). But the dead do not know anything. They do not even have the reward of being remembered. Everything about them is forgotten, their love, their hatred, their envy, their good deeds, their bad deeds. All is forgotten. And they have no part or portion in anything that is under the sun. They have left it all behind. Death is the ultimate end.
So he tells men that it is better to be alive and looked down on (as a dog) rather than dead and being honoured (as a lion), because the living at least have consciousness.
Thus the conclusion is that God treats all alike while they live, and all die in the same way and finish up a blank. This is the philosopher’s view.
The Righteous Must Therefore Find Joy In Their Present Life For There Is None Beyond The Grave (9.7-10).
The Preacher is still considering the facts on which he is to make his final decision, and he has just reiterated his great problem, that God does not differentiate between the treatment of the righteous and the unrighteous, between the wise and the foolish, and has appointed the same death for all. He has previously been impressed with the lives of the godly. They have something that no others have. But he now feels that that is also futile. He has reached the lowest point of his musings. So he now tells them that they must enjoy it while they may, for it seems to him that they will not enjoy anything beyond the grave. Yet it is clear that he still accepts that the godly ‘have the best of it’. They eat with joy, they drink joyously, they wear festive clothes, they anoint their heads lavishly, they live joyously with their wives. Nevertheless in the end they finish up like everyone else.
9.7-10 ‘Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a joyous heart, for God has already accepted your works. Let your clothes be always white, and do not let your heads lack ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, which he has given you under the sun. For that is your portion in life, and in your labour with which you labour under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave to which you go.’
He tells God’s true people that they must carry on living, eating and drinking joyfully, as normal, for God has already accepted their works as is demonstrated by the fact that they do have food and drink. They must wear festive garments and anoint their heads lavishly (signs of continual joy). They must live joyfully with their wives whom they love. But that is all that they can expect. That is their portion in life and in their labour which ‘He has given you under the sun’. This last phrase links the godly with the futility of the ungodly and limits all things to this earth. In view of that all that is open to them is to do whatever their hands do with all their might. For once they are in the grave there will be no work, no device, no knowledge and no wisdom. Death is the end. So they are told to enjoy their lives in contentment, and make the most of them while they can, for that is what God has allotted to them. The description covers everyone, both the labourer, the businessman, the student, and the professor. No one can work beyond the grave so they should put in every effort here in this life so as to achieve the best.
Until recognition comes of a life beyond the grave this is the best a man can hope for. But he wants us to know that it is a good best.
Sayings About the Wise (9.11-10.12).
His philosophy having come up with the fact that all a man has to look forward to is the life just described, the Preacher now recognises that he is a wise man and must therefore give some advice on living that life. Thus he proceeds to enunciate his wisdom.
Things Do Not Always Go As We Expect (9.11-12).
His first lesson is that men do not necessarily succeed because of their advantages and their abilities, because in the end success is largely a matter of chance
9.11 ‘I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men with business acumen, nor yet favour to men of skill. But time and chance happens to them all.’
Things do not always go as expected. It is not always the swift who win the race. It is not always the strong who win the battle. It is not always the wise who are fed. It is not always those who have business acumen who succeed in business. It is just that some are in the right place at the right time, others are favoured by providence, while still others are unfortunate. Thus it is not always those who are expected to win who gain the prize. It is only too often simply a matter of chance. The truth is that they might fall at the first fence. So all are subject to time and luck. Such are the uncertainties of life.
9.12 ‘For man also does not know his time. As the fish who are taken in an evil net, and as the birds who are caught in the snare, even so are the sons of men snared in an evil time when it falls on them suddenly.’
His second lesson is that men do not know what the future holds. Life may be going along smoothly when suddenly they find themselves ensnared in one way or another. It may be by invasion, it may be by the toppling of authority and replacement by a new authority, it may be by pestilence or plague. But it can come suddenly and unexpectedly on men who are unprepared. For a man does not know what time has in store for him. Thus we should seek to prepare for possible emergencies.
A Parable of Wisdom and Ingratitude (9.13-16).
9.13-16 ‘I have seen also wisdom under the sun like this. There was a small city and few men in it. And there came a great king against it, and besieged it and built great bulwarks against it. Now there was found in it a poor 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.’
For in this life men are not treated fairly. Someone who becomes famous for some great act of wisdom which produces wonderful results, may soon be forgotten and summarily dismissed. In this example a poor but wise man delivered a city under siege by some clever scheme, but he was neither rewarded nor commended once the first gratitude was over. He was never consulted again. He was pushed back into obscurity. Such are the ways of an ungrateful world. The story demonstrates two things. That often wisdom is more important than strength, and that men are in general ungrateful and easily forget what has been done for them.
Indeed wisdom is often undervalued. No doubt the king soon convinced himself that in fact he had almost been about to have the idea himself.
9.17-18 ‘The words of the wise spoken in quiet are heard more than the cry of him who rules among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.’
These are further lessons of the parable. It is better to listen to the wise who give their advice quietly than to listen to the noisy rantings of one who rules over the unlearned and thoughtless. Success is more likely in such a case, and the words of the former are more likely to be worth listening to and to provide a solution.
Furthermore wisdom is more effective than weapons of war. This is obviously true, partly because wise discussion will often avoid war, and secondly because clever tactics will make weapons more effective. For wars are often won by those who use the better tactics.
However one who behaves foolishly or unintelligently can destroy much good. Therefore it is better to put one’s concerns in the hands of wise men.
Chapter 10 Contrasts Between The Wise Man and The Unlearned and Thoughtless (The Fool) And Other Useful Sayings.
The point about these sayings is that they illustrate a point to those sensible enough to look for it. They are, of course, not always true. They illustrate wisdom and/or folly. They are the wisdom of the wise.
Sayings Comparing the Wise and the Unlearned and Thoughtless (10.1-3).
10.1 ‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the perfumer to smell and putrefy, so does a little folly outweigh wisdom and honour.’
The effect of dead flies in ointment is to ruin the ointment which had previously been so sweet smelling. In the same way the effect of folly, either his own or another’s, can destroy all of a man’s wisdom and reputation, because one example of such folly may counterbalance all he is and has done, like the fly in the ointment. It may destroy his reputation. It may cause annoyance and result in antagonism or lack of confidence, and thus prevent co-operation. Or it may ruin whatever wisdom has been presented by others. There are some things that are never forgotten, so we should be careful what we say. One piece of folly can counteract a great deal of wisdom.
10.2 ‘A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but an unlearned man’s is at his left.’
The right side is the side of the sword arm and the right arm is the strongest, at least in theory (compare Psalm 16.8; 110.5; 121.5) Thus the heart at the right side is better protected. The point is that the wise man protects what is most important, and allocates his strength accordingly (compare 2.14). Also it could indicate that the wise man ensures that he uses his strength properly in order to protect what he deems is most important. His thinking means that he makes use of his stronger capacity when it is really needed. The unwise may be more careless.
10.3 ‘Yes also when the fool walks by the way his understanding fails him, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.’
The point here is that a man soon reveals by his actions whether he is sensible or thoughtless in whatever he is doing. The wise man used his right hand to protect himself and his wisdom. The fool soon gives himself away. He goes out without protection. The illustration probably has in mind the need in those days to ensure readiness for trouble when using a byway. The unwise are careless and slack and are not on the alert. They travel without their weapons. Thus all know they are fools. They are unprepared.
Behaviour Connected With Superiors (10.4-7).
10.4 ‘If the spirit of the ruler rise up against you, do not leave your place, for deference will compensate for great offences.’
The picture is that of a court with courtiers standing in their allotted place. To leave his place would be a sign of a man’s rebellion and resentment. So the point is that a king’s temporary anger is best dealt with by his showing deference, and remaining in his place. Then all will be quickly forgotten.
The lesson for us is that we should not too quickly take offence or react to someone else’s anger, especially if they hold a superior position. It can result in loss of job, or future unpleasantness, or loss of favour, and often over something quite unimportant. We could put it, ‘do not resign (or do anything else foolish) over a trifle, just because you are temporarily upset’.
10.5 ‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as it were an error that proceeds from a ruler.’
The warning here is that lack of oversight of one in charge can cause great damage. Someone with authority must take care that they carry out their responsibilities properly. Otherwise consequences can be serious. It illustrates also that we should be careful who we put in charge of something.
10.6 ‘Folly is set at great heights, and the rich sit in a low place.’
Those who make themselves out to be over-important reveal their stupidity, while those who would be rich are careful to show due deference and win favour by humility. They are then more likely to become ‘the rich’ and be invited to take a higher place (compare Luke 14.10).
10.7 ‘I have seen servants on horses, and princes walking as servants on the earth.’
The idea here is that some people do not know how to keep their proper place, while others are too great to worry about such details. It is only the unimportant person who has to act so as to ensure that he gets proper recognition. But the danger with such people is that they might try to set themselves higher than they should. The least they then do is make a fool of themselves. More embarrassingly they may be told to get down, or be punished for their arrogance. Servants are often more likely to insist on their proper position because position is important to them. The prince does not mind. His position is sure.
The Importance Of Acting Thoughtfully And With Great Care With Regard To The Affairs Of Life (10.8-11).
10.8 ‘He who digs a pit will fall into it, and whoever breaks through a fence a poisonous snake will bite him.’
Those who seek to do harm to others may find that their plans rebound on themselves. The schemer often finds himself trapped, or put at a disadvantage, by his own schemes. Vandalism and carelessness with other people’s things will bring trouble on the culprit. (Snakes often nest in loose stone walls).
10.9 ‘He who hews out stones will be hurt by them, and he who chops wood is endangered by it.’
It is important to take proper care when doing something dangerous, for over-familiarity with a something can make us careless. But the deeper idea is that we should not play with fire if we do not want to be burned. We should consider the possible effects of what we do.
10.10 ‘If the iron is blunt and one does not whet the edge (literally ‘curse before it, curse its face’), then he must put forward more strength. But wisdom is profitable for success.’
We must ensure that we use common sense in what we do. Those who maintain their tools, and keep them sharp where necessary, will find that they serve them better and are easier to use. ‘Whet the edge’ is an attempt to make sense of the Hebrew which is literally ‘curse the face’ or ‘curse before (it)’. The idea may be that he finds it blunt and curses it before proceeding to sharpen it. (The iron here was the popular metal for tools and weapons. We would use steel).
This applies to any preparation for any task. Good preparation means the task will be made easier, and not cause hardship. Thus wisdom is like sharpened metal, it accomplishes its purpose well because it is sharp and penetrating. Then it is successful.
10.11 ‘If the snake bites before it is charmed, then there is no advantage in the charmer.’
This has in mind the old snake charmers who were called in to get rid of snakes by use of their enchantments. If the snake has bitten his victim then there is no point in calling the charmer. He should have been called earlier. The thought here is that we should do things while there is still a point to it, and not delay until it is too late.
But it could be translated, ‘Surely the snake will bite where there is no enchantment, and the slanderer is no better.’ The point then is that a slanderer is like a snake, which unless dealt with quickly is dangerous.
The Importance Of Wise Words (10.12-14). .
10.l2-13 ‘The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but the lips of a fool swallow him up. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.’
The wise man always speaks so as to soothe and win favour, except where admonition is necessary and justified. He makes friends and not enemies with his tongue. But the fool speaks in such a way that he brings disaster on himself. When he starts speaking he speaks foolishly, but this develops into wicked madness. He does not watch what he says. He is a fool.
10.14 ‘A fool also multiplies words, a man does not know what will be. And who can tell him what will be after him?’
The fool talk a lot of nonsense about the future. But no one knows what will happen. That being so how can he tell him others what is most important for the future? How can he say what will follow for a man’s family when he is dead? In other words the fool is not the man to sort out your future with, and especially your will. Make sure that you entrust these tasks to the wise.
The Importance Of Listening To The Right Person (10.15-17).
10.15 ‘The effort of fools wearies every one of them, for he does not know how to go to the city.’
‘Them’ is those who listen to him. If we seek advice from a fool, we should not be surprised if we do not get to our destination, or achieve what we are seeking to achieve. Those who seek his advice will be worn down by his explanations and will never get anywhere. For the fool never knows the way to anything important.
‘He does not know how to go to the city.’ This was probably a well known saying indicating ignorance and incompetence.
10.16 ‘Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning.’
It is sad for a land if it has an immature leader and his advisers make merry when they should be dealing with the country’s affairs.
10.17 ‘Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles, and your princes feast at the right time, for strength and not for drunkenness.’
In contrast with the previous land this one has a nobler king and advisers who feast at the right time, and in order to strengthen themselves rather than in order to become drunk. The main point behind both is that the motives and behaviour of those in authority should be considered to ensure the right leaders are in power, those who will care for the country and not for themselves.
The Danger Of Sloth And Idleness (10.18).
10.18 ‘By failing to act (slothfulness) the roof sinks inwards, and through idleness of the hands the house leaks.’
This is the negative of the proverb, ‘ a stitch in time, saves nine.’ The failure to act in time often brings disaster, and often it is through laziness. The lazy person cannot be trusted to look after anything important. If we do not look after our property correctly and maintain it properly in time, then we cannot expect the roof to keep us dry.
The Value Of Silver (10.19).
10.19 ‘A feast is made for laughter, and wine gladdens the life, and silver answers all things.’
The thought here would seem to be that feasting and wine temporarily produce merriment but that a man’s wealth is the mainstay of his whole life. The wise man will therefore make sure that his wealth is preserved and will not fritter it away in feasting and drinking and fruitless activities.
Or the idea may be that while a feast and wine bring a kind of happiness, it is only silver which can be fully persuasive with regard to life.
A Warning Against Unwise Cursing Lest The Fact Reach The One Who Is Cursed (10.20).
10.20 ‘Do not curse the king, no, not in your thought. And do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom. For a bird of the air will carry the voice, and that which has wings will carry the matter.’
We are wise always to watch what we say or think, for there are always those who are willing to carry what we say to those we speak against. So the wise man curbs his tongue and is careful what he says, especially in public, but even in private. He does not speak one way in private and another way in public. He only says what he would not mind others hearing, for who knows who will spread the tale?.
The idea is based on the fact that kings and important people used to plant spies so that they knew what people were saying. But we know that God knows all that we say and are therefore to be even more careful.
Chapter 11.1-8 Advice From The Wise Man To The Wise.
Central to these verses is the recognition of our ignorance. We do not know what will happen when we do things, we do not know what God will work, thus we should seek to make the maximum effort recognising that some of our efforts will be blessed, and we have no idea which.
11.1 ‘Cast (send away) your bread on the waters, for you will find it after many days.’
Various interpretations have been given for the meaning of this verse. The most probable is that he has in mind the waters as representing people. Let a man feed the needy generously and without thought of what he can get from it (‘cast’) and he can be sure that one day he will get his return. What we do now will reap its deserved reward one day, possibly in unexpected ways. A kindness shown will result in kindness being shown. What we sow we will reap (Galatians 6.7-8).
Others have seen in it a reference to overseas trade. Take the risk of sending your bread over the waters and you will eventually receive benefit from it, the profits from trade. To the Israelite the sea was not seen as a friend. To go to sea was a risky venture. But they are being assured that if they were willing to take sensible risks in trade they would benefit by it, although it may take a long time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
If the latter interpretation is correct it is probable that he was not expecting all the people to become sea traders, rather that he intended it as an example of the need to venture out on things and not remain in one’s shell. The idea was that men should not look just at the short term, and be timid and avoid risk, but should be venturesome and consider long term benefits.
11.2 ‘Give a portion to seven, yes, even to eight, for you do not know what evil will be on the earth.’
The idea here would seem to be of the need to spread risk. Compare our proverb, ‘do not put all your eggs in one basket’ (if you drop it you will lose the lot). While he has suggested being venturesome, he also recommends being careful. The wise man will be both.
Seven was the number of divine perfection, and eight thus represented even excess of that. So he has in mind the need to remember that the world can be an evil place, and to take sensible precautions to the widest extent possible, and more.
11.3 ‘If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls towards the south or towards the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will be.
The wise man keeps his eye on things. While it is God Who proposes and disposes it is up to man to use planning and forethought. He should be awake to what is going on around him, and to what God is doing. He knows that if the clouds are full of rain, then eventually it will rain, so he is prepared, and takes advantage of the situation. He knows that if a tree falls down it can fall in a number of directions. Therefore he is prepared. It is no good wishing afterwards that it had fallen the other way. He does not ignore the future, but approaches it sensibly to obtain maximum benefit from it, and to ensure that he has taken all necessary precautions. He cannot necessarily change what is coming, but he can prepare for it.
He also knows that when chopping down trees they will fall in the direction intended by the axeman. So he considers where he wants it before chopping down the tree, for once it has been chopped down it is too late (see Matthew 3.10). Or if a tree may possibly blown down, the same need for thought applies. He arranges to protect the tree, or to ensure that there is nothing that it could fall on, so that it will not cause damage in a storm. In that case he cannot arrange in which direction the tree will fall, but he can ensure that it will not fall on anything important.
The thought in both cases is of keeping awake to possible eventualities, and planning in the light of eventualities which we cannot change. The wise man does not live life carelessly. Thus he is not caught out and achieves what he wants to achieve. If a person plans to read his Bible and pray every day he should fix a time, otherwise he will never do it. If a person has something he needs to do he should determine when he should do it. Then it may get done.
11.4 ‘He who observes the wind will not sow. And he who regards the clouds will not reap.’
Having warned about the need to take precautions, he now warns against the danger of being too cautious. It is one thing to be sensible, it is another to be over-anxious. Those who are always looking at the difficulties will never get anything done. It is a matter of common sense.
11.5 ‘As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of a pregnant woman (her who is with child), even so you do not know the work of God who does all.’
Even in this scientific age we do not really know the secrets of the wind, nor the secrets of the human body. We may know about genes but we do not fully understand them. Things still happen invisibly that we cannot comprehend. Even more therefore do we not know the workings of God. They are invisible and unpredictable. God works His own will, and does what He will with His own, and none can know what it will be, except in so far as He has revealed it to us.
11.6 ‘In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand. For you do not know which will prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both alike would be good.’
So because we do not know the workings of God we are to take advantage of our time and gifts and sow them at all seasons. For we have no idea which will prosper. Indeed both might prosper. We need to sow in the morning, and sow in the evening (or it may mean from morning until evening), for how sad it would be if we picked and chose, and later we discovered that the time we decided to sow was the wrong one and we had missed the harvest.
I remember once on a beach mission where we needed all our personnel, we were asked to send some to a local ministry in an out of the way spot. We did so out of duty but feeling some regret because of the effect it might have on our own outreach. It was stretching our resources, and the dear brothers were ministering in too barren a place. And it was there the blessing fell. How easily we could have missed out on God’s plan.
So we must be faithful to God with all that we have, recognising that He will work in the way He chooses. And this is just as true in physical things as in spiritual.
11.7-8 ‘Truly the light is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun. Yes, if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.’
The idea of seizing the opportunity and making the most of the time continues. The sunny days are welcome, and bring great joy. For however long we enjoy them we must make the most of them, with gratitude and praise. For they will not last for ever, and we must remember that there will also be days of darkness, dark times, and they too will be many, in which we can do nothing because there is no light to work by. (But compare also 2.13-14. It may thus mean days when we walk as fools in the darkness. We are not always wise). Then we will regret that we did not make better use of the sunny days.
Alternately ‘the days of darkness’ may be referring to death (6.4). Thus it is then saying, make the most of your life whether short or long, for death lasts a long time, and the opportunities will have gone.
Chapters 11.9-12.14 The Venturing Of The Young, The Trials Of The Old and Man’s Final Destiny.
As we come to the end of the writer’s musings we are rewarded with the final conclusions that he has reached. He calls on the young man to arise out of life’s vainness and look to his Creator, recognising that God will bring him into judgment in whatever he does. Interestingly he no longer appears to see life as meaningless, but as something to be treated very seriously, with attitude towards God being seen as of prior importance. Outwardly life is still indeed vanity, but that only refers to life on this earth, life under the sun (12.7-8). What must not be overlooked is what lies beyond life ‘under the sun’. Thus in the light of everlastingness (3.11) the godliness of the godly will turn out to be the one thing that is important after all. Hope is arising out of despair.
Young Men Are To Make The Most Of Their Youth, But Are To Remember While They Are Young That God Is Their Creator And Will One Day Judge Them, And Should Live Accordingly, For One Day They Will Grow Old And Then Their Spirits Must Return To The God Who Gave Them (11.9-12.7).
We have already seen that the Preacher has continually recognised that there is a judgment coming ( (3.17; 8.5). Now he applies that to the young (11.9) and to all men who fear God (12.14).
11.9-12.1 ‘Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove causes of sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh. For youth and the prime of life are vanity. Remember also your creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw near when you will say I have no pleasure in them.’
The young men are told to enjoy the fact that they are young, and their lives while they are yet young, and make the most of their youth, doing the things that they desire, but to remember that for how they behave they will be brought into judgment. Thus they must remove from their lives anything that will cause distress and sorrow to others, and not give way to the evils of the flesh.
But they must remember that youth and the prime of life are soon over (they are ‘vanity’). Or that they are futile and vain. Thus they must consider their ways and not over-exalt themselves.
‘Prime of life.’ Alternately the word possibly means ‘black hair’, and thus the period before they become grey-headed.
Consequently they must in their youth remember their Creator (compare Psalm 100.3; Isaiah 43.15), for it is He Who will call them to account. The thought is that they are to give Him due regard, something that will involve being faithful to Him with regard to the covenant (Deuteronomy 8.18; 15.15; Psalm 78.35; 119.55; Number 15.40; Judges 8.34; 1 Chronicles 16.12; Isaiah 46.9; compare the use in Exodus 20.8; 32.13; Leviticus 26.42, 45). Each will have to answer for what he is and does.
They are reminded that they will one day grow old, and the evil days will come, the days of weakness and failing faculties, the days when life becomes more of a burden than a pleasure. Thus they must enjoy youth while they may, and make the most of the oportunities that it offers, always; however, remembering that God will be their Judge..
12.2-3 ‘Before the sun and the light and the moon are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain. In the day when the keepers of the house will tremble, and the strong men will bend themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look out of the windows are darkened.’
They are to make the most of their lives before they become old and feeble, as described here. For the vivid description that now follows is of old age. The first sentence refers to a heavy enduring storm, when the day goes dark, the sun is hidden by the clouds, the light is simply semi-darkness, the moon also cannot be seen at night behind the clouds, and the rain fails to clear the sky of clouds, thus it is describing the time of life which brings with it the sense of waning strength, when light is hidden by clouds, and all is dull, and promise for the future is no more.
The second sentence describes picturesquely the failing faculties of old age. The keepers of the house which tremble are probably the shaking hands, the strong men which bend are the legs which can longer fully bear their weight, and the grinders which cease or are few are the teeth which have mainly decayed or fallen out, and are no longer any use for grinding, and what looks out of the windows are the eyes whose sight is dimmed. If anything is to be accomplished it must be before this assails a man.
12.4 ‘And the doors will be shut in the street, when the sound of the grinding is low, and one will rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music will be laid low.’
This may refer to the fact that the doors will be shut because the aged man no longer goes out into the street. He also eats with difficulty with little use of the decayed teeth, so that there is little sound of grinding. Or the closed doors may be the man’s lips as he grows weaker, seen along with the non-use of the teeth as eating and drinking becomes more difficult, or reference may be to the approach of deafness, the doors being closed so that he cannot hear sounds. Whichever way it is, it is emphasising his incapacity through old age.
Furthermore he cannot sleep through the night and rises with the birds, and yet is unable to hear the songbirds (the daughters of music) clearly so as to enjoy their music. Or the idea may be that when through the dimness he catches the song of the early bird he rises as he always has, only to remember that he cannot hear their songs properly, and that life no longer offers him anything but to endure until the end.
12.5 ‘Yes they will be afraid of what is high, and terrors are in the way, and the almond tree will blossom, and the grasshopper will be a burden, and the desire will fail, because man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets.’
As people age heights can become a problem, especially as their sense of balance worsens and they, and others, become afraid that they will misjudge distances and fall over the edge. Travelling becomes a nightmare, both because of stumbling weakness, and their own defencelessness against both man and wild beast. The blossoming of the almond tree refers to their whitened hair, which will be like an almond tree in blossom. The grasshopper represents what is small compared with others (Numbers 13.33; Isaiah 40.22). Even a grasshopper will be too heavy a burden to bear. ‘The desire will fail’ may refer to the fact that the private parts will no longer expand and react to women, or work efficiently in giving relief. They are simply limp and listless, as he is on the way to his everlasting home.
‘Because man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets.’
The thought here is finally of death. This is the final end. Man goes to his everlasting home, while the mourners parade around the streets, wailing because he has gone.
But the mention of the ‘everlasting home’ is interesting and significant in the light of what he had said earlier. God has previously been seen as having brought home to man His own everlastingness which is in man’s heart (3.11), and in 12.10 there is now no doubt in his mind, in contrast with 3.21, that man’s ‘spirit’ returns to God, Who gave it to Him when He made him in His image (Genesis 2.7 with Genesis 1.26-27) thus making him ‘one of us’. And in verse 14 every work is to be brought into judgment, even though he has previously acknowledged that this does not happen in this life (9.2-3; 4.1; 8.12-13; 9.11). Thus the conclusion had to be that it must happen in God’s everlastingness, which adds meaning to the idea of his going to his everlasting home as not signifying the grave, but a life beyond.
It would probably be an error to suggest that this is definitely a clear statement of everlasting life beyond the grave. But it does seem that there is reference here to the fact that the writer has come to his final conclusion that somehow those who die are connected with God’s everlastingness, whether for good or bad. For he knows that somehow in God’s everlastingness every work will be brought into judgment (12.14). That somehow man’s spirit is re-absorbed into God’s everlastingness (12.7). That somehow man goes home.
So we may see that in the Preacher’s view Man’s death and entry into his everlasting home somehow brings him into contact with God’s everlastingness. Compare the similar hope, and yet vagueness in Psalm 16.10-11; 17.15; 23.6. It is one of those mysteries of His everlastingness that man cannot fathom (3.11), but it offers hope, although finally having to be left with God. As we have suggested it is the faith of the Psalmists when they were absorbed with God. ‘In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalm 16.10-11); ‘As for me I will behold your face in righteousness, I will be satisfied when I awake with your likeness’ (Psalm 17.15); ‘I will dwell in the house of Yahweh for ever’ (Psalm 23.6); ‘in your light we will see light - they (the workers of iniquity) are thrust down and will not be able to rise’ (Psalm 36.8-9 compare with 12); ‘God will redeem my being from the power of the grave, for He will receive me’ (Psalm 49.15); ‘You will guide me with your counsel and afterwards receive me to glory’ (Psalm 73.24-25); ‘If I make my bed in the grave, behold, you are there’ (Psalm 139.8); ‘If I say surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light about me will be night, even the darkness does not hide from you, but the night shines as the day, the darkness and the light are both alike to you’ (Psalm 139.11-12); ‘Lead me in the everlasting way’ (Psalm 139.24); not clear doctrine, but a certainty of soul that God will not abandon them to the grave, but will draw them to Himself.
Thus in these words and in verse 7 The Speaker breaks free from the futility of all things into the everlastingness of God.
12.6 ‘Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.’
There seems to be here a twofold thought. The golden bowl, holding the lighted oil to give light in the house, and held by a silver chord, breaks when the cord snaps with age. And the pitcher at the fountain is broken when the wheel which draws it up from the water is broken, again with age. (Although some see both as portraying the one event). Thus when a man dies his aged silver cord breaks and his golden light-containing bowl, the bowl of life, is broken. When a man dies it is because the wheel which drew up the pitcher full of water, the pitcher of the water of life, has broken with age, crashing down into the cistern and causing the pitcher also to break. The gold and silver reflect the value of a man’s life. The cord and the earthenware pitcher its fragility.
12.7 ‘And the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return to God who gave it.’
There is a clear reference here to the idea behind Genesis 2.7, although ‘spirit’ (ruach = spirit, wind, breath) replaces ‘breath’ (neshumah), possibly to suggest more permanence. In view of his earlier reference to the mystery of the everlastingness of God set in man’s heart (3.11), and the contrast between the certainty in this verse and his uncertainty in 3.21, and the reference to man’s ‘everlasting home’ above in verse 5, we must see this also as significant. Unless the writer is extremely careless it indicates that his thought has advanced to a recognition of something beyond the grave. The God Who breathed into man the breath of life, and made him like one of the heavenly beings with a moral sense (Genesis 3.22) and an awareness of God, now receives him back into His everlastingness.
So the body has gone to the grave to become once again dust, but something within man, his very life, that special something that God uniquely gave him, has gone up to the everlasting God. Thus does the speaker finally come out of his pessimistic search into a positive conclusion of optimism in God and His everlastingness.
It is no argument to say that animals are also elsewhere seen as having ‘the breath of life’ (Genesis 6.17). There is no hint of that in Genesis 2, where the idea is positively linked with God breathing it uniquely into Man, an idea which is there central and distinctive. As we have pointed out above, what man became was unquestionably seen as unique, he became ‘as one of us’ (Genesis 3.22) in ‘God’s image and likeness’ (Genesis 1.26-27). The animals are simply a by-product. Theirs is not said to be God’s breath. It is simply a form of created life (1.21).
So the Preacher’s thinking has now moved from the vanity and meaninglessness of the earth to something mysterious in heaven, which man cannot fathom, the reception back by God of that which made man distinctive. And that is where his faith lies. He does not seek to define it, or even to understand it. It is one of God’s mysterious everlasting works (3.11). But it lifts man into hope. (It is something illustrated by the fact that ‘Enoch was not, because God took him’ (Genesis 5.24), and by the fact that that Elijah was taken up by God into heaven (2 Kings 2.11), something equally mysterious, but providing hope). The future was left with God.
12.8 ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity.’
This is a reference to the whole of man’s existence on earth. It signals the completion of what was commenced in 1.2, and the sum total of what the human mind can achieve. All that is done, or happens, on earth has been seen to be finally meaningless, temporary and transient. All hope of meaning and worth therefore depends on living before God and the final event just described, that the spirit returns to the God Who gave it. It depends on the fact that on death man is drawn back up to God and His mysterious everlastingness, (something that will one day gain clearer light in the coming and teaching of Jesus, and in His final conquest of death). But meanwhile all that is on earth is, and remains, ‘total vanity’.
Having given his final verdict on his musings the writer changes into the third person. This was in order to stress the solemnity of what he was saying. Moving into the third person in this way occurs regularly in Scripture, and there is no reason for seeing it as indicating the work of another writer. It stresses that this is his solemn conclusion.
12.9-10 ‘And further, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge. Yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words (literally ‘words of delight’) and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth.’
These words were written as an epilogue in the third person in order to give authentification to the book. Having reached his ultimate conclusion the Preacher now reverts to his normal position as teacher and speaker at the court assembly of the wise. As God had made him wise he felt that he had a wider duty and so he also taught ‘knowledge’ to the people, setting before them many proverbs.
He states his research methods. He ‘pondered and sought out and set in order’ many proverbs. Thus he did not just look to his own ideas. He read books written by wise men, no doubt from far and wide. He pondered them and selected out sayings and proverbs, and then set them in order. He produced many wisdom sayings, of the kind which we already seen in the book, to help man through this vain and short life. He sought words which would delight, and yet were upright words, words of truth. So his view of life did not prevent him from seeking to guide men through it. Even though a king he prided himself rather on being ‘a wise man’. To him that was what was most important to him
12.11 ‘The words of the wise are as goads and as nails well driven home, they are those of the leaders of groups, which are given from one shepherd.’
He saw the words of the wise as goads to spur people on and as nails driven home which would help them to establish in their own minds what is true. Suitable proverbs stick in people’s minds and thus give them guidance in the future. The goad was a long handled pointed instrument used to urge on the oxen when ploughing. Nails driven home help to keep things firmly fixed. And that was the aim of the Preacher.
The writer had gathered his material from fellow wise men and leaders of wisdom groups, but the one Shepherd is God Who is to be seen as the source of all wisdom.
12.12 ‘And furthermore, my son, be admonished. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.’
He finally cautions against leaping into becoming an author. Preparation for a worthwhile book requires sweat and toil and hardship, and there are so many books that the book may easily become lost among the many and never be read. Thus it is best to approach such things cautiously.
12.13 ‘This is the end of the matter. All has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of what man is about.’
Now he stresses that he has come to his final conclusion. He has said all that he wishes to say. Now he hopes that in the light of the hope he has offered to his readers, they may be a godly men. They must fear God (as he has continually stressed - 3.14; 5.7; 7.18; 8.12-13), waiting before Him in reverence and awe, and living before Him in obedience to His covenant commands. For this is the whole of what man is about.
This fear (loving reverence) of God is a central theme in the book (3.14; 5.7; 7.18; 8.12-13), a fear that he has sought to inculcate in his readers. This fear of God was also central in the giving of the covenant, deliberately enhanced when God, the great King, declared to His people from the fiery mount that He was their God and their Deliverer, and that they should respond to His Lordship and deliverance by fulfilling His commandments (Exodus 19-20). And it is this that has constantly lain beneath the Preacher’s advice to the godly. For this fear of God is to be revealed in worship, reverence and awe (5.1-2) and in living constantly before God (5.18-20; compare 2.24; 3.12-14, 22; 8.15).
It should be noted that these are not two commands but one. This does not present two alternatives as though we could fear God and not keep His commandments, or keep His commandments but not fear God. Both are required. The keeping of the commandments is seen as a response to the fear of God. It is indicating a personal and real daily relationship with Him. And it is what man is all about. Note the assumption that God’s commandments were known. The book was not written in a vacuum.
12.14 ‘For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.’
In the light of what has been said earlier in the book this cannot refer simply to retribution in this life. He has clearly stated that that is precisely what does not happen. Even though God is active in the world (3.14-15) and will judge the righteous and the wicked (3.17), he knows that oppression continues apace (4.2; 5.8-9), so much so that it were better not to have been born (4.3). That is not genuine retribution. The judgment is not carried out on earth (3.16; 7.15; 8.10, 14; 9.1-3). The righteous are not rewarded and the wicked punished. Indeed this was something that had almost caused him to despair.
So these final words must be seen in the light of the fact that man’s essential life returns to God in His everlastingness. There all will in some way be righted. Every work will be brought into judgment. Every hidden thing will accounted for. Finally God will fulfil His warning and reveal His justice, although no further detail is given. It is simply left to be pondered on. That is why in the end the covenant life, the life lived in response to God, is the only life. Only those who are genuinely responsive to the covenant will be pleasing to God. Those who simply offer sacrifices as a duty, the ‘sacrifice of fools’ (5.1), and those who refuse to obey His revealed will in His commandments, rejecting Him as King, will be judged and condemned.
We may wonder why this does not lead on to a more positive view of the afterlife. The answer may lie in the mythology that was round about, which had to be avoided. The Egyptians had their own views on life beyond the grave, as did the Mesopotamian world, imagining worlds of gods and men, of shadows and unreality. Israel avoided these ideas like the plague. Thus they concentrated on God’s goodness in this life, and when they at times considered the future beyond death it was simply described in terms of being with God. That was seen to be the situation of Enoch and Elijah, it was expressed in the words of the Psalmists (16.10-11; 17.15; 23.6; etc). It was all that needed to be said.
Perhaps we may conclude with a brief resume of what conclusions the Preacher has come to.
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