The Book of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes Outline

Chapters & Genres


Ecclesiastes is one of the most elusive books in the Bible. Its message seems profound, but at the
same time empty, gloomy and even full of boredom and despair. It seems to be a handbook of nihilism. The
Hebrew keyword hebel, ‘meaningless,’ occurs 38 times in the book. It is the same word that is found in the
verse: ‘They made me jealous by what is no God and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make
them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.’1
J. Sidlow Baxter, in Exploring the Book, states about Ecclesiastes: ‘This book of Ecclesiastes has
been a much misunderstood book. Pessimists have found material in it to bolster up their doleful hypotheses.
Skeptics have claimed support from it for their contention of non-survival after death. Others have quoted it
as confirming the theory of soul-sleep between the death of the body and the yet future resurrection. Besides
these, many sound and sincere believers have felt it to be an unspiritually-minded composition,
contradictory to the principles of the New Testament, and awkward to harmonize with belief in the full
inspiration of the Bible. It is the more needful, therefore, that we should clearly grasp its real message, and
understand its peculiarities. Misapprehensions such as those just mentioned come about through a wrong
way of reading. People read the chapters simply as a string of verses in which each verse is a more or less
independent pronouncement, instead of carefully perceiving that the verses and paragraphs and chapters and
sections are the component part of a cumulative treatise. Ecclesiastes is not the only part of Scripture which
is wronged by this kind of reading; but it suffers the more by it because when the links in the chain of
reasoning are thus wrenched apart they lend themselves to an easy misunderstanding. Those interpretations
of this or that or the other verse, which contradict the design and drift and declarations of the book as a
whole, are wrong.
Authorship
In its introduction to the book, The Pulpit Commentary states: ‘The book is called in the Hebrew Koheleth, a
title taken from its opening sentence, ‘The words of Koheleth, the son of David, King in Jerusalem.’ In the
Greek and Latin Versions it is entitled ‘Ecclesiastes,’ which Jerome elucidates by remarking that in Greek a
person is so called who gathers the congregation, or ecclesia … In modern versions the name is usually
‘Ecclesiastes; or, The Preacher.’ Luther boldly gives ‘The Preacher Solomon.’ This is not a satisfactory
rendering to modern ears; and, indeed, it is difficult to find a term which will adequately represent the
Hebrew word. Koheleth is a participle feminine from a root kahal (whence the Greek kale>w, Latin calo,
and English ‘call’), which means, ‘to call, to assemble,’ especially for religious or solemn purposes. The
word and its derivatives are always applied to people, and not to things. So the term, which gives its name to
our book, signifies a female assembler or collector of persons for Divine worship, or in order to address
them. It can, therefore, not mean ‘Gatherer of wisdom,’ ‘Collector of maxims,’ but ‘Gatherer of God’s
people’ (… 1 Kings 8:1); others make it equivalent to ‘Debater,’ which term affords a clue to the variation of
opinions in the work. It is generally constructed as a masculine and without the article, but once as feminine
(… Ecclesiastes 7:27, if the reading is correct), and once with the article (… Ecclesiastes 12:8). The
feminine form is by some accounted for, not by supposing Koheleth to represent an office, and therefore as
used abstractedly, but as being the personification of Wisdom, whose business it is to gather people unto the
Lord and make them a holy congregation. In Proverbs sometimes Wisdom herself speaks (e.g. … Proverbs
1:20), sometimes the author speaks of her (e.g. … Proverbs 8:1, etc.). So Koheleth appears now as the organ
of Wisdom, now as Wisdom herself, supporting, as it were, two characters without losing altogether his
identity. At the same time, it is to be noted that Solomon, as personified Wisdom, could not speak of himself
1. Deut. 32:21

as having gotten more wisdom than all that were before him in Jerusalem (… Ecclesiastes 1:16), or how his
heart had great experience of wisdom, or how he had applied his heart to discover things by means of
wisdom (… Ecclesiastes 7:23, 25). These things could not be said in this character, and unless we suppose
that the writer occasionally lost himself, or did not strictly maintain his assumed personation, we must fall
back upon the ascertained fact that the feminine form of such words as Koheleth has no special significance
(unless, perhaps, it denotes power and activity), and that such forms were used in the later stage of the
language to express proper names of men … If, as is supposed, Solomon is designated Koheleth in allusion
to his great prayer at the dedication of the temple (… 1 Kings 8:23-53, 56-61), it is strange that no mention
is anywhere made of this celebrated work, and the part he took therein. He appears rather as addressing
general readers than teaching his own people from an elevated position; and the title assigned to him is
meant to designate him, not only as one who by word of mouth instructed others, but one whose life and
experience preached an emphatic lesson on the vanity of mundane things.’
Date
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary states: ‘King Solomon of Israel, a ruler noted for his great wisdom and
vast riches, has traditionally been accepted as the author of Ecclesiastes. Evidence for this is strong, since
Solomon fits the author’s description of himself given in the book: ‘I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in
Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven’
(1:12-13). But some scholars claim that Solomon could not have written the book because it uses certain
words and phrases that belong to a much later time in Israel’s history. These objections by themselves are
not strong enough to undermine Solomon’s authorship. The book was probably written some time during his
long reign of 40 years, from 970 to 931 B.C.’ Solomon’s authorship has been accepted and refuted
throughout the centuries. We will not enter into the controversy in the context of this study and simply
accept the most ancient traditions that attribute the book to Israel’s wisest king.
The message of Ecclesiastes
The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia probably makes the best comments about the content of the
book, stating: ‘In the preface the speaker lays down the proposition that all things are unreal, and that the
results of human effort are illusive (Eccl 1:2-3). Human generations, day and night, the wind, the streams,
are alike the repetition of an unending round (vs 4-7). The same holds in regard to all human study and
thinking (vs 8-11). The speaker shows familiarity with the phenomena which we think of as those of natural
law, of the persistence of force, but he thinks of them in the main as monotonously limiting human
experience. Nothing is new. All effort of Nature or of man is the doing again of something which has already
been done.
After the preface the speaker introduces himself, and recounts his experiences. At the outset he had
a noble ambition for wisdom and discipline, but all he attained to was unreality and perplexity of mind (vs
12-18). This is equally the meaning of the text, whether we translate ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’ or ‘vanity
and a striving after wind,’ (‘emptiness, and struggling for breath’), though the first of these two translations
is the better grounded.
Finding no adequate satisfaction in the pursuits of the scholar and thinker, taken by themselves, he
seeks to combine these with the pursuit of agreeable sensations-alike those which come from luxury and
those which come from activity and enterprise and achievement (Eccl 2:1-12). No one could be in better
shape than he for making this experiment, but again he only attains to unreality and perplexity of spirit. He
says to himself that at least it is in itself profitable to be a wise man rather than a fool, but his comfort is
impaired by the fact that both alike are mortal (vs 13-17). He finds little reassurance in the idea of laboring
for the benefit of posterity; posterity is often not worthy (vs 18-21). One may toil unremittingly, but what is
the use (vs 22,23)?

He does not find himself helped by bringing God into the problem. ‘It is no good for a man that he
should eat and drink and make his soul see good in his toil’ (vs 24-26, as most naturally translated), even if
he thinks of it as the gift of God; for how can one be sure that the gift of God is anything but luck? He sees,
however, that it is not just to dismiss thus lightly the idea of God as a factor in the problem. It is true that
there is a time for everything, and that everything is ‘beautiful in its time.’ It is also true that ideas of infinity
are in men’s minds, ideas which they can neither get rid of nor fully comprehend (Eccl 3:1-18). Here are
tokens of God, who has established an infinite order. If we understood His ways better, that might unravel
our perplexities. And if God is, immortality may be, and the solution of our problems may lie in that
direction. For a moment it looks as if the speaker were coming out into the light, but doubt resumes its hold
upon him. He asks himself, ‘Who knoweth?’ and he settles back into the darkness. He has previously
decided that for a man to ‘eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good’ is not worth while; and now he
reaches the conclusion that, unsatisfactory as this is, there is nothing better (vs 19-22).
And so the record of experiences continues, hopeful passages alternating with pessimistic passages.
After a while the agnosticism and pessimism recede somewhat, and the hopeful passages become more
positive. Even though ‘the poor man’s wisdom is despised,’ the speaker says, ‘the words of the wise heard in
quiet are better than the cry of him that ruleth among fools’ (Eccl 9:17). He says ‘Surely I know that it shall
be well with them that fear God’ (8:12), no matter how strongly appearances may indicate the contrary.
The gnomic sections are mostly free from agnosticism and pessimism. The book as a whole sums
itself up in the conclusion, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments’ (Eccl 12:13).
Of course the agnostic and pessimistic utterances in Eccl are to be regarded as the presentation of
one side of an argument. Disconnect them and they are no part of the moral and religious teaching of the
book, except in an indirect way. At no point should we be justified in thinking of the author as really
doubting in regard to God or moral obligation. He delineates for us a soul in the toils of mental and spiritual
conflict. It is a delineation which may serve for warning, and which is in other ways wholesomely
instructive; and in the outcome of it, it is full of encouragement. In some passages the speaker in Ecclesiastes
has in mind the solution of the problems of life which we are accustomed to call Epicurean (e.g. Eccl 5:18-
20; 7:16-17; 8:15; but not 2:24) - the solution which consists in avoiding extremes, and in getting from life
as many agreeable sensations as possible; but it is not correct to say that he advocates this philosophy. He
rather presents it as an alternative.
His conclusion is the important part of his reasoning. All things are vanity. Everything passes away.
Yet (he says) it is better to read and use good words than bad words. Therefore because the Great Teacher is
wise, he ever teaches the people knowledge, and in so doing he ever seeks good words, acceptable words,
upright words, words of truth. ‘The words of the wise are as goads; and as nails well fastened’ (‘clinched at
the back’) (Eccl 12:11). Such are the words of all the great masters. So (he ends) my son, be warned! There
are many books in this world. Choose good ones. And his conclusion is: Reverence the Mighty Spirit. Keep
to good principles. That is the whole duty of man. For everything at last becomes clear; and ‘good’ stands
out clearly from ‘evil.’’
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, a commentary in the series of Tyndale Old Testament
Commentaries, states in his introduction, under the heading ‘The Enigma of Ecclesiastes,’ the following:
‘The major interpretative problem of Ecclesiastes is to understand its apparent internal contradiction and
vicissitudes of thought. At times the Preacher seems to be gloomy, pessimistic, a skeleton at the feast;
everything comes under his lashing scorn: laughter, drink, possession, sex, work, wisdom, riches, honor,
children, even righteousness. Yet, at other points he urges that we should enjoy life, that there is nothing
better than to eat well, enjoy our labor, receive with gladness the riches God gives us but be content if he
gives none. A man, he says, should seek wisdom and knowledge, drink his wine with a merry heart, and live
joyfully with the wife whom he loves. The Preacher’s argument and his relationship to Israelite orthodoxy
seems ambiguous. At times he appears to overthrow everything Israel stood for; at other points we see the
traditional view of God as sustainer and judge of all things, who give life to men and who may be
worshipped at Israel’s focal point, the temple. Thus one scholar describes the Preacher as ‘a rationalist, an

agnostic, a skeptic, a pessimist and a fatalist’ … others regard his work as orthodox … or as an indirect
Messianic prophecy.’
It may be helpful to remember that in the Old Testament canon, Ecclesiastes is wedged in between
Proverbs and The Song of songs, making it the second volume of a trilogy attributed to King Solomon. That
perspective may be helpful, particularly if we look at Ecclesiastes as ‘the other side of the coin’ that is
shown to us in Proverbs.
Outline of the book
Michael A Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, gives the following outline, which we will follow throughout
this study:
I. PESSIMISM: ITS PROBLEMS AND ITS REMEDY 1:1-3:22
a. Title 1:1
b. The pessimist’s problem 1:2-2:23
i. The failure of secularism 1:2-11
ii. The failure of wisdom to satisfy secular life 1:12-18
iii. The failure of pleasure-seeking to satisfy secular life 2:1-11
iv. Life’s ultimate certainty 2:12-23
c. The alternative to pessimism: faith in God 2:24-3:22
i. The life of faith 2:24-26
ii. The providence of God 3:1-15
iii. The judgment of God 3:16-22
II. LIFE ‘UNDER THE SUN’ 4:1-10:20
a. Life’s hardships and life’s companions 4:1-5:7
i. Oppression without comfort 4:1-3
ii. Lonesome rivalry and its alternatives 4:4-6
iii. A man without a family 4:7-8
iv. The blessings of companionship4:9-12
v. Isolation breeding folly4:13-16
vi. The approach to God 5:1-7
b. Poverty and wealth 5:8-6:12
i. The poor under oppressive bureaucracy 5:8-9
ii. Money and its drawback 5:10-12
iii. Wealth – loved and lost 5:13-17
iv. Remedy recalled 5:18-20
v. Wealth and insecurity 6:1-6
vi. Insatiable longing 6:7-9
vii. An impasse 6:10-12
c. Suffering and sin 7:1-8:1
i. Instruction from suffering 7:1-6
ii. Four dangers 7:7-10
iii. The need of wisdom 7:11-12
iv. Life under the hand of God 7:13-14
v. Dangers along the way 7:15-18
vi. The need of wisdom 7:19-22
vii. The inaccessibility of wisdom 7:23-24
viii. The sinfulness of man 7:25-29
ix. Who is really wise? 8:1

d. Authority, injustice and the life of faith 8:2-9:10
i. Royal authority8:2-8
ii. Life’s injustices 8:9-11
iii. The answer of faith 8:12-13
iv. The problem restated 8:14
v. The remedy recalled 8:15
vi. The enigma of life 8:16-9:1
vii. ‘The sting of death’ 9:2-3
viii. Where there’s life, there’s hope 9:4-6
ix. The remedy of faith 9:7-10
E. Wisdom and folly 9:11-10:20
i. Time and chance 9:11-12
ii. Wisdom unrecognized 9:13-16
iii. Wisdom thwarted 9:17-10:1
iv. Folly 10:2-3
v. Folly in high places 10:4-7
vi. Folly in action10:8-11
vii. The fool’s talk10:12-14
viii. The fool’s incompetence 10:15
ix. Folly in national life 10:16-20
III. THE CALL TO DECISION 11:1-12:8
a. The venture of faith 11:1-6
b. The life of joy 11:7-10
c. ‘Today, when you hear his voice …’ 12:1-8
IV. EPILOGUE 12:9-14
Michael A. Eaton adds to his outline: ‘This leaves the following loose ends which warn us not to
assume that all of this was too rigidly in the Preacher’s mind as he wrote: (i) 5:1-7 tags on the the end of 4:1-
16 or introduces 5:8-6:12) but is not closely linked to either. One may speculate about a sequence of thought
… but no explicit link is found in the text. (ii) Although 3:16-22 coheres well with 2:24-3:15, it also leads
into the problem of suffering in 4:1-3 (which has its own links in turn with 4:4-16). (iii) There is only a loose
coherence in the minor units of 7:1-8:1 and 8:2-9:10.’
The Text
I. PESSIMISM: ITS PROBLEMS AND ITS REMEDY 1:1-3:22
A. Title 1:1
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
The Hebrew text opens with the words dabar qoheleth, ‘The words of the Preacher.’ Qoheleth is
derived from the word qahal, meaning ‘to convoke,’ or ‘to assemble,’ ‘to preach.’ The Interlinear Hebrew
Bible states that it is ‘used as a ‘nom de plume’, Koheleth.’
The Pulpit Commentary observes about the word Koheleth: ‘It is found nowhere else but in this
book, where it occurs three times in this chapter (vers. 1, 2, 12), three times in … Ecclesiastes 12:8, 9, 10,
and once in … Ecclesiastes 7:27. In all but one instance (viz. … Ecclesiastes 12:8) it is used without the
article, as a proper name. Jerome, in his commentary, translates it, ‘Continuator,’ in his version

‘Ecclesiastes.’ It would seem to denote one who gathered around him a congregation in order to instruct
them in Divine lore. The feminine form is explained in various ways. Either it is used abstractedly, as the
designation of an office, which it seems not to be; or it is formed as some other words which are found with
a feminine termination, though denoting the names of men, indicating … a high degree of activity in the
possessor of the particular quality signified by the stem; … or, as is most probable, the writer desired to
identify Koheleth with Wisdom, though it must be observed that the personality of the author often appears,
as in … Ecclesiastes 1:16-18; 7:23, etc.; the role of Wisdom being for the nonce forgotten.’
About ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem,’ the commentary states: ‘The word ‘king’ in the title is shown by
the accentuation to be in apposition to ‘Koheleth’ not to ‘David;’ and there can be no doubt that the
description is intended to denote Solomon, though his name is nowhere actually given, as it is in the two
other works ascribed to him (… Proverbs 1:1; … Song of Solomon 1:1). Other intimations of the assumption
of Solomon’s personality are found in … Ecclesiastes 1:12, ‘I Koheleth was king,’ etc.; so in describing his
consummate wisdom (… Ecclesiastes 1:13, 16; 2:15; comp. … 1 Kings 3:12; 5:12), and in his being the
author of many proverbs (… Ecclesiastes 12:9; comp. 1 Kings 4:32) — accomplishments which are not
noted in the case of any other of David’s descendants. Also the picture of luxury and magnificence presented
in Ecclesiastes 2. suits no Jewish monarch but Solomon. The origin of the name applied to him may
probably be traced to the historical fact mentioned in … 1 Kings 8:55, etc., where Solomon gathers all Israel
together to the dedication of the temple, and utters the remarkable prayer which contained blessing and
teaching and exhortation … The term, ‘King in Jerusalem,’ or, as in ver. 12, ‘King over Israel in Jerusalem,’
is unique, and occurs nowhere else in Scripture. David is said to have reigned in Jerusalem, when this seat of
government is spoken of in contrast with that at Hebron (… 2 Samuel 5:5), and the same expression is used
of Solomon, Rehoboam, and others (… 1 Kings 11:42; 14:21; 15:2,10); and the phrase probably denotes a
time when the government had become divided, and Israel had a different capital from Judah.’
Bible scholars are not unanimous about the assumption that ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’ is the
obvious identification of King Solomon. Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: ‘Son of David, king in
Jerusalem refers to Solomon, but the artificial name ‘Mr. Preacher’ (for so it might be paraphrased) shows
that the writer is not seriously claiming to be Solomon. The book is a write-up of Solomon’s story; later we
shall be told that the originator of the materials was a care writer, a wise man, a collector of proverbs (12:9-
12).’
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary states: ‘[The words of the Preacher] Literally, ‘The words of
Qoheleth, son of David, king of Jerusalem.’ But the Targum explains it thus: ‘The words of the prophecy,
which Qoheleth prophesied; the same is Solomon, son of David the king, who was in Jerusalem. For when
Solomon, king of Israel, saw by the spirit of prophecy that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son was about to
be divided with Jeroboam, the son of Nebat; and the house of the sanctuary was about to be destroyed, and
the people of Israel sent into captivity; he said in his word-Vanity of vanities is all that I have labored, and
David my father; they are altogether vanity.’ The Wycliffe Bible Commentary adds: ‘Solomon, although not
identified by name, becomes the literary spokesman for the observations and convictions of the author. He is
the king in Jerusalem who, because of his wealth, wisdom, and worldly concern, has ample opportunity to
sample all of life.’
We will continue under the assumption of Solomon’s authorship of this book. The character of this
book with its pessimistic and elusive references to the meaning of life, fits well the biographic information
given to us in the Old Testament. Solomon was given to accesses, as demonstrated in the acquisition of his
harem as well as in his pushing the limits of tolerance and wisdom. In a sense King Solomon was too smart
for his own good. His tolerance led him to idolatry and his wisdom to pessimistic inconclusiveness.

B. The pessimist’s problem 1:2-2:23
i. The failure of secularism 1:2-11
2 ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’
3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its
course.
7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they
return again.
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill
of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the
sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by
those who follow.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: ‘The preacher undermines confidence in the secular
view of life by inviting his readers to face some basic facts: the futility of life (v.2), the consequences for
man (3), the impossibility of getting rid of the earthly realm which embodies the problem (4), and the
implications all this has for man’s view of nature (5-7) and history (8-11).’
There are two observations that must be made here. It has been said that the key to the
understanding of each book in the Bible often hangs at the door. If applied to the book of Ecclesiastes, it
must be found in the inconsistency of the opening statement: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly
meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ If everything is literally meaningless, then so is the Teacher’s
statement! The fact that the Teacher makes an exception for his own words ought to give us a clue to
understanding his message. If the word ‘meaning’ has lost its meaning, it means the death of language, its
means the death of thought and emotions, the death of man. So far no one in the world has accepted that
premise. There is obviously one missing element in the Teacher’s argument and that makes the message of
the book a quest for the missing link to meaning.
Secondly, as was mentioned above, the Hebrew word hebel is used for the first time in Scripture in
connection with idols,1 suggesting that, if an idol embodies meaninglessness, true and ultimate meaning can
only be found in God. It is the Person of God who is the meaning of life and God’s revelation of Himself is
expressed in the word ‘meaning,’ as in the New Testament word logos, ‘Word.’ To the Old Testament
Jewish mind the association of God with meaning and of idols with meaninglessness must have been
immediately obvious. What makes the Teacher’s opening statement so enigmatic to us, must have been very
clear to them. What the Teacher seems to be saying is that everything becomes meaningless when we leave
God out of the picture.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia equated logos with reason and thought. From an
article about Logos we copy: ‘The doctrine of the Logos has exerted a decisive and far-reaching influence
upon speculative and Christian thought. The word has a long history, and the evolution of the idea it
embodies is really the unfolding of man’s conception of God. To comprehend the relation of the Deity to the
world has been the aim of all religious philosophy. While widely divergent views as to the Divine
1. See Deut. 32:21.

manifestation have been conceived, from the dawn of Western speculation, the Greek word logos has been
employed with a certain degree of uniformity by a series of thinkers to express and define the nature and
mode of God’s revelation. Logos signifies in classical Greek both ‘reason’ and ‘word.’ Though in Biblical
Greek the term is mostly employed in the sense of ‘word,’ we cannot properly dissociate the two
significations. Every word implies a thought. It is impossible to imagine a time when God was without
thought. Hence, thought must be eternal as the Deity. The translation ‘thought’ is probably the best
equivalent for the Greek term, since it denotes, on the one hand, the faculty of reason, or the thought
inwardly conceived in the mind; and, on the other hand, the thought outwardly expressed through the vehicle
of language. The two ideas, thought and speech, are indubitably blended in the term logos; and in every
employment of the word, in philosophy and Scripture, both notions of thought and its outward expression
are intimately connected.’
Interestingly, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘vain’ as ‘of no real value: idle,
worthless.’ Note the connection between the words ‘idle’ and ‘idol!’
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, states about ‘vanity’: ‘Vanity of vanities is a Hebrew
superlative: ‘Utter vanity!’ Vanity (hebel) includes (i) brevity and unsubstantiality, emptiness (NEB) spelt
out in Job 7 where the ‘vanity’ (v.16, Heb.) of man’s life is a ‘breath’ (v.7), an evaporating cloud (v.9), soon
to be ended (v.8) and return no more (vv.9f.); (ii) unreliability, frailty, found also in Psalm 62 where God, a
‘Rock’ and a ‘high tower’ (v.6), is compared with man who is ‘vanity’ (v.9), a ‘leaning wall’ and a ‘tottering
fence’ (v.3); (iii) futility, as in Job 9:29 (Heb.), where ‘in vanity’ means ‘to no effect’; (iv) deceit (cf. Je.
16:19; Zc. 10:2). Ecclesiastes includes each of these emphases. All is untrustworthy, unsubstantial; no
endeavor will in itself bring permanent satisfaction; the greatest joys are fleeting. Between 1:2 and 12:8 the
Preacher will echo this key statement about thirty times, showing that his book is in fact its exposition.
Vanity characterizes all human activity (1:14; 2:11): joy (2:1) and frustration (4:4, 7-8; 5:10) alike, life
(2:17; 6:12); 9:9), youth (11:10) and death (3:19; 11:8), the destinies of wise and foolish (2:15, 19), diligent
and idle (2:21, 23, 26).’
The first question asked in the quest for meaning is: ‘What does man gain from all his labor at
which he toils under the sun?’ The Hebrew word used is yithrown, ‘preeminence,’ or ‘gain.’ The word is
found in no other book of the Bible; it is exclusive to Ecclesiastes. The question takes us back to Adam’s last
day in paradise, when God says to him: ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which
I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you
will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of
the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you
were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’’1
The fact that the question is asked indicates that something is missing. There ought to be meaning
to life and to labor, but if returning to dust is all we can see, what is that meaning? Yet, everyone who has
ever witnessed the birth of a baby knows that life has meaning, even if that meaning escapes definition. The
Apostle John, probably, formulated the best definition of meaning, saying: ‘The world and its desires pass
away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.’2
And obedience to the will of God is closely
linked to the love of God. Jesus says: ‘If you love me, you will obey what I command.’3
It is ultimately love
that gives meaning to life.
The Teacher expresses the despair of returning to dust with the phrase: ‘Generations come and
generations go, but the earth remains forever.’ It is not only that death makes birth meaningless, but also that
all the cycles of human life do not change the condition of this present world. And the question is again,
1. Gen. 3:17-19
2. I John 2:17
3. John 14:15

should it? Something must be wrong with this world in the Teacher’s mind, otherwise this question also
would be meaningless.
In vv.5-7, the Teacher uses the examples of the sun, the wind and the rivers, as if their existence
and activity contribute to the meaninglessness of life. Who has ever looked at a sunrise or a sunset and
declared it to be void of meaning? The overwhelming impression the sun at dawn or dusk makes upon us is
one of awe and beauty. Even without any understanding of the solar system, we experience the beauty of the
birth and death of the day. Was the Teacher the only human being who ever got tired looking at this marvel?
Some Bible scholars argue that the description of the wind changing its course from north to south
actually ‘refers to the approximations of the sun to the northern and southern tropics, namely, of Cancer and
Capricorn.’1 But The Pulpit Commentary disagrees, stating: ‘The Septuagint gives, ‘The sun arises, and the
sun sets, and draws … unto its place;’ and then carries the idea into the following verse: ‘Arising there, it
proceeds southwards’ etc. The Vulgate supports the rendering; but there is no doubt that the Authorized
Version gives substantially the sense of the Hebrew text as accentuated.’
In v.8 the Teacher describes the effect of the endless cycles of nature upon the human mind, stating:
‘All things are wearisome, more than one can say.’ The Hebrew word used is yagea`, ‘tiresome,’ ‘full of
labor.’ The Teacher is bored by observing the meaningless repetition. During World War II, the Nazis
invented a special kind of emotional torture by forcing the inmates of a concentration camp to do a certain
job, as for instance piling up stones at a certain place, and then making them undo their labor the next day,
continuing this for weeks on end. It would break the spirit of the people in forcing them to do something that
was obviously meaningless.
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, observes: ‘Despite the fact that creation is active to the point of
inexpressible exhaustion, it is incapable of providing secular man with any lasting satisfaction. Full of
weariness is best taken passively (‘wearied’) rather than actively, following its clear meaning in its other
occurrences (Dt. 25:18; 2 Sa. 17:2). All things may be translated ‘All words,’ which would emphasize that
the dissatisfaction of man is beyond words (cf. NAB All speech is labored). That thought comes in the next
phrase, but here the common translation carries the argument forward more clearly. This ‘under the sun’
viewpoint again contrasts with that of the Old Covenant believer, who loved creation and saw in it the
majesty of God’s name, looked with admiration at the skies, pondered the lessons taught by animals, wind,
grass and trees, and sang to the glory of God because of what he saw and heard. He saw nature sing for joy,
and knew that God’s control of creation was part of his redemption at the time of the exodus. Taking their
cue from Solomon, the wise men also gloried in creation and used its object-lessons for their own purposes.
The preacher’s point is that all this is lost in an ‘under the sun’ viewpoint; all that is left is nature in a state of
exhaustion.’
The Pulpit Commentary comments: ‘Taking the word dabar in the sense of ‘word’ … ‘All words
are wearisome;’ i.e. to go through the whole catalogue of such things as those mentioned in the preceding
verses would be a laborious and unprofitable task. The Targum and many modern expositors approve this
rendering. But besides that, the word yagea implies suffering, not causing, weariness (… Deuteronomy
25:18; … Job 3:17); the run of the sentence is unnecessarily interrupted by such an assertion, when one is
expecting a conclusion from the instances given above … The idea … is this — Man’s life is constrained by
the same law as his surroundings; he goes on his course subject to influences which he cannot control; in
spite of his efforts, he can never be independent. This conclusion is developed in succeeding verses. In the
present verse the proposition with which it starts is explained by what follows. All things have been the
object of much labor; men have elaborately examined everything; yet the result is most unsatisfactory, the
end is not reached; words cannot express it, neither eye nor ear can apprehend it. This is the view of St.
Jerome … and others render, ‘All things are in restless activity;’ i.e. constant movement pervades the whole
world, and yet no visible conclusion is attained. This, however true, does not seem to be the point insisted on
by the author, whose intention is, as we have said, to show that man, like nature, is confined to a circle from
1. The Adam Clarke’s Commentary.

which he cannot free himself; and though he uses all the powers with, which he is endowed to penetrate the
enigma of life and to rise superior to his environments, he is wholly unable to effect anything in these
matters.’
One of the surprises in my own experience after my conversion was that I began to enjoy nature in
a way I never had before. The realization that the joy within caused by the presence of the Lord was related
to the beauty that surrounded me because it was the Creator of creation who had taken residence within me,
made me look at nature in a new way.
The poems of the nineteenth century Belgian poet priest Guido Gezelle come to mind:
‘When the soul listens, everything that lives speaks a language.
Even the softest whisper is a tongue and token.
Clouds, sky and winds, paths of God’s holy foot,
translate the deeply hidden word so sweetly.’
And:
‘Flowers speak a language to me.
Weeds are alive for me.
Everything God created has meaning for me.’
The Teacher’s conclusion in looking at the cycles of nature is a weary ‘déjà vu!’ The Teacher ends
his observation with a statement, rendered by The New International Version: ‘There is no remembrance of
men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.’ The Hebrew
text of v.11 reads literally: ‘There is no remembrance of former [things]; neither to come neither shall there
of any remembrance with [those] that shall come after.’ The Adam Clarke’s Commentary accepts the
reading that inserts ‘things’ instead of ‘people.’ We read: ‘I believe the general meaning to be this:
Multitudes of ancient transactions have been lost, because they were not recorded; and of many that have
been recorded, the records are lost. And this will be the case with many others which are yet to occur. How
many persons, not much acquainted with books, have supposed that certain things were their own
discoveries, which have been written or printed even long before they were born!’ The Wycliffe Bible
Commentary takes the view that ‘men’ is the better translation: ‘There is no remembrance of former things.
This gives the reason for the ‘nothing new’ of verse 10, and probably is best translated former men. Man is
plagued not only by his inability to accomplish anything worth while, but also by the realization that even
the memory of his efforts is soon forgotten. This is the complete answer to the question in verse 3, ‘What
profit hath a man?’ He gains nothing, not even a memory of his struggle. The world of nature is futile;
human activity is also futile.’
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes here: ‘This stage of the argument closes by considering
mankind’s approach to life in the light of the pessimistic evaluation of history in vv.9f. Nihilism not only
dominates his outlook, it also works itself out in life. Past events are forgotten; future events will be
forgotten. Here remembrance, deriving from the verb ‘remember,’ means ‘remembering and acting
accordingly,’ a well-attested usage. Nehemiah’s prayer ‘Remember me for good’ (Ne. 13:31) pleads that
God’s actions may arise out of his past promises (cf. Gn. 40:14; Ex. 20:8). Commentators have debated
whether the translation should read ‘former people’ (NIV, Lys1 and others) or former things (RSV). The
first has parallels in 2:16 and 9:15, but here vv.9f are dealing with history more generally. Aalders2 … is
surely right in thinking the antitheses needless. In the light of the word ages in v.10, he wishes to translate
‘former times’ and to include both people and circumstances. The orthodox Israelite lived in the light of
former events (Dt. 5:15; 8:2; Ps. 77:11). Later the Preacher will invite us to ‘remember’ our Creator (12:1),
1. Author of a French commentary on Ecclesiastes.
2. A Dutch theologian.

live accordingly, and ‘keep in mind’ what lies ahead (11:8). On secular premises that is all pointless. ‘Under
the sun’ the past, the present and the future offer no meaning, no guide-lines. This is the logical outworking
of vv.2-10, the downward spiral of despair. Secular man will confirm the maxim, ‘He who does not learn
from history is destined to repeat it.’’
The Teacher does not mention the word ‘death’ in v.11, but death casts its heavy shadow over what
he is saying here. It is death that makes the need to remember so urgent, yet death also obliterates memory.
That is the cause of nihilistic despair.
ii. The failure of wisdom to satisfy secular life 1:12-18
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden
God has laid on men!
14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the
wind.
15 What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled
over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’
17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned
that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
In v.12 the author re-introduces himself as King Solomon, as he had done in the opening verse of
his book. Bible scholars have debated as to whether the author was King Solomon himself or someone
impersonating Solomon, or someone using the name of the famous king as a pseudonym. The scope of this
study does not allow us to join in the debate. But there is a certain measure of dishonesty in taking
someone’s name without directly or indirectly admitting this. The fact that God allowed this book to be
included in the canon of Scripture means that the Holy Spirit inspired it. That fact by itself seems to plead
for Solomon’s authorship.
Bible scholars disagree also about the phrase ‘I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.’
Some argue that it should read ‘I have been king over Israel in Jerusalem,’ indicating that the book was
written by Solomon while he was the reigning monarch. He calls his God-given wisdom ‘a heavy burden.’
The Hebrew text calls it literally ‘this sore travail.’ The Hebrew word used is `inyan, which is derived from
a word meaning ‘to depress.’ In Proverbs, Solomon puts the principle of search for meaning in a positive
context, saying: ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.’1
Here he shows what happens if ‘the glory of God’ is taken out of it. The same principle that marked man’s
original temptation and sin in paradise is at work here. In the choice between the tree of life and the tree of
knowledge, man chooses knowledge apart from life.
In The Book of Proverbs, which also carries the name of Solomon, the premise is ‘The fear of the
Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’2
Incidentally, the
words are a quotation from a psalm David wrote when he was fleeing from Absalom: ‘The fear of the Lord
is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal
1. Prov. 25:2
2. Prov. 9:10

praise.’1 As suggested earlier, Solomon shows the other side of the coin in Ecclesiastes, by painting a
gloomy tableau of wisdom that leaves ‘the fear of the Lord’ out of the picture.
Barnes’ Notes observes about the Teacher’s use of the name for God: ‘God is named as `Elohiym
thirty-nine times in this book; a name common to the true God AND to false gods, and used by believers
AND by idolaters: but the name Yahweh, by which He is known especially to the people who are in
covenant with Him, is never once used. Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the evil which is the object of
inquiry in this book is not at all unique to the chosen people. All creation (Rom 8) groans under it. The
Preacher does not write of (or, to) the Hebrew race exclusively. There is no express and obvious reference to
their national expectations, the events of their national history, or even to the divine oracles which were
deposited with them. Hence, it was natural for the wisest and largest-hearted man of his race to take a wider
range of observation than any other Hebrew writer before or after him. It became the sovereign of many
peoples whose religions diverged more or less remotely from the true religion, to address himself to a more
extensive sphere than that which was occupied by the twelve tribes, and to adapt his language accordingly.’
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, writes about v.13: ‘The Preacher set his heart, i.e. was sincere
and earnest; heart (RSV mind), as opposed to the ‘outward appearance’ (1 Sa. 16:7), denotes the inner life,
the centre of all mental, emotional and spiritual capacities. His thoroughness is also indicated by study …
explore (NIV; RSV seek … search out). The first means to ‘search deeply’ into something, the latter ‘to
search thoroughly over the widespread’; together they convey exhaustive study. All that is done under
heaven shows that the total resources of a limited word-view are the object of study; the vertical aspect is not
yet in view. Three conclusions follow. First, ‘God has appointed an unhappy task for the sons of men to do.’
The verb ‘give’ sometimes has the force of ‘appoint’ (e.g. Je. 1:5). People may live secularly in the earthly
realm, but the problems they meet are ordained by the God who occupies the heavenly realm. Mankind
cannot be indifferent to or detached from the futility which besets him; it is an ‘inescapable fact of one’s
humanity’ … Business (RSV; Heb ‘inyan; NIV burden), denoting mankind’s restlessness and vigor in the
quest for meaning, derives from ‘ânâh, ‘to engage in something,’ ‘to be active in doing something.’ It points
to the sense of compulsion behind the quest. Mankind thinks and plans. This he can scarcely avoid, for he
wants to understand where his life is going. This is the burden which, by God’s decree, every man bears: the
problem of life is no optional hobby.’
At this point the Teacher introduces the phrase ‘chasing after the wind,’ an expression which he
will repeat nine times after this.
The Teacher quotes a proverb ‘What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be
counted,’ indicating that there is something wrong with creation and that the factor that would explain how
this abnormality came about is hidden from view. The Pulpit Commentary agrees with this interpretation
and states: ‘The above is probably a proverbial saying … The Vulgate takes the whole maxim as applying
only to morals: ‘Perverse men are hardly corrected, and the number of tools is infinite.’ … The writer is not
referring merely to man’s sins and delinquencies, but to the perplexities in which he finds himself involved,
and extrication from which is impracticable.’ And The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary
correctly observes: ‘The imperfection in the arrangements of the world result from the fall. All attempts to
rectify this imperfection without recognition of the fall of man are vain. The dislocated state of all creaturely
things, subject as they are to vanity, is designed to bring us, in despair of bettering them, to take refuge in
God.’ It is not only obvious that something is wrong with creation, something is wrong with man also. G. K.
Chesterton put this succinctly when he wrote to a newspaper: ‘Dear Sirs, In regard to your question ‘What is
wrong with this world,’ I am, faithfully yours, G. K. Chesterton.’2
In the second proverb, ‘For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more
grief,’ if a proverb it is, Solomon refers to God’s answer to his prayer at the time of his ascension to the
1. Ps. 111:10
2. Free rendering as far as I can remember it.

throne of Israel. When God appeared to him on the eve of his coronation and asked him what he wanted for
a present, he answered: ‘Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father
David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among
the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a
discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to
govern this great people of yours?’ We read: ‘The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So
God said to him, ‘Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked
for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I
will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there
ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for — both riches and honor — so that in your
lifetime you will have no equal among kings.’’1
Solomon’s great wisdom was a gift from God. At one point in his life, the king must have begun to
forget that his wisdom was a gift; he began to act as if it were the fruit of his own endeavor. Thus, Solomon
became too smart for his own good. When we come to a point in life where Satan begins to pay us
compliments on our achievements, we better flee to God in order to keep the right perspective.
iii. The failure of pleasure-seeking to satisfy secular life 2:1-11
1 I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also
proved to be meaningless.
2 ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’
3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly — my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I
wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.
5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.
6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.
7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more
herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.
8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and
women singers, and a harem as well — the delights of the heart of man.
9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all
my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was
meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
In this section, the Teacher takes, what seems to be a scientific approach to life, subjecting himself
to a series of experiments for the purpose of finding the answer to the reason for his existence. The
experiments break down in four categories: humor, drugs, construction and riches.
The first experiment is in the realm of humor. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘humor’
as: ‘a quality that appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or incongruous.’ Throughout the ages humor has
intrigued the human mind. The American Peoples Encyclopedia states: ‘The nature of humor has engaged
the attention of philosophers from Plato to the present time. Plato recognized the part played by the observer
in lending an object its humorous or laugh-provoking qualities. So did Kant and Schopenhauer and Hobbes.’
The fact that God has endued humans with the ability to laugh indicates that He created humor. The Apostle
Paul seems to advocate humor when he writes to the Colossians: ‘Let your conversation be always full of
1. I Kings 3:7-14

grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’1 Humor is the antidote God has
provided for us to endure the thorns and thistles and the sweat of our brow by which we eat our food.2
There is a self-defeating element in taking a scientific approach to humor. Science lives by the fact
that there are fixed laws and principles that govern everything existing. Humor lives by incongruity, which
is by the fact that the laws and principles do not add up to what they are supposed to. It is tempting to
indulge in giving a series of illustration at this point, but that would leave the field open too widely.
Solomon’s problem was that he took himself too seriously, which disqualified him as a student of humor.
Actually, the Teacher did not study humor itself, but his reaction to it. He heard a joke and laughed
and then wanted to know why he laughed. This kept him from laughing at himself, which is one of the
healthiest things a person can do in life.
The second experiment consisted of inebriation. The Hebrew text reads literally: ‘I sought in my
heart to give myself unto wine; yet acquainting my heart with wisdom and to lay hold on folly till I might see
what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.’ We
could extend the field of research to the modern problem of the use of drugs as a means of escape reality.
Although in modern times alcoholism has not lost its power upon mankind, it has been rivaled by the use of
marijuana, LSD, cocaine and other controlled substances.
The Bible does not condemn the use of wine in general. The psalmist recognizes God as the Creator
of wine, saying: ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate — bringing forth food
from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his
heart.’3
It is overindulgence that leads to drunkenness that is condemned. The Teacher walks a fine line in
drinking just enough for the wine to have a certain effect upon his mood, but not enough to make him lose
his ability to analyze the effects. Some people who have tried to do the same with modern drugs have fallen
victim to the addictive powers. The Pulpit Commentary comments here: ‘Deliberately to enter upon a course
of self-indulgence, even with a possibly good intention, must be a most perilous trial, and one which would
leave indelible marks upon the soul; and not one person in a hundred would be able to stop short of ruin, The
historical Solomon, by his experiment, suffered infinite loss, which nothing could compensate.’
The third experiment pertains to the construction of great projects, such as monuments, buildings,
parks etc. The Book of First Kings testifies to the greatness of these undertakings. It has been observed that
the temple is not specifically mentioned here, which some interpret as proof that Solomon is not the author
of this book. Others note, however, that since the temple was not a building Solomon constructed for
himself, it could not be considered as part of an experiment. The Pulpit Commentary states: ‘Solomon had a
passion for erecting magnificent buildings. We have various accounts of his works of this nature in 1 Kings
7. and 9.; 2 Chronicles 8. There was the huge palace for himself, which occupied thirteen years in building;
there was the ‘house of the forest of Lebanon,’ a splendid hall constructed with pillars of cedar; the porch of
pillars; the hall of judgment; the harem for the daughter of Pharaoh. Then there were fortresses, store-cities,
chariot-towns, national works of great importance; cities in distant lands which he founded, such as Tadmor
in the wilderness. I planted me vineyards. David had vineyards and olive yards (… 1 Chronicles 27:27, 28),
which passed into the possession of his son; and we read in … Song of Solomon 8:11 of a vineyard that
Solomon had in Baal-hamon, which some identify with Belamon (Judith 8:3), a place near Shunem, in the
Plain of Esdraelon.’
The effect that such works would have upon the fame of Solomon is best expressed by the pagan
King Nebuchadnezzar of whom we read: ‘Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the
royal palace of Babylon, he said, ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my
1. Col. 4:6
2. See Gen. 3:18,19.
3. Ps. 104:14,15

mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’’1 For Nebuchadnezzar this was the beginning of an
extended period of lunacy. Solomon, however, saw the folly of this quest of glory, concluding that is was
meaningless and amounted to ‘a chasing after the wind.’
One wonders though if initially King Solomon did not start out his building projects for the specific
purpose of seeking glory for himself and that, at the conclusion, he realized that he failed to find satisfaction
in it. Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated ‘orchards’ is pardeeciym, which sounds like ‘paradise.’
The fourth experiment is the accumulation of wealth. It was God who made Solomon the richest
man who ever lived. This was part of the coronation present. In the dream in which Solomon asked God for
wisdom, God said to him: ‘I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that
there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have
not asked for — both riches and honor — so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And
if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long
life.’2 But the way Solomon presents the matter here makes it appear as if the king’s wealth was the result of
his own effort. In Proverbs, Solomon stated: ‘The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble
to it.’3 But in making the accumulation of wealth the subject of his own endeavor, Solomon inherited the
trouble also. Paul’s admonition is worth inserting here: ‘People who want to get rich fall into temptation and
a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of
money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced
themselves with many griefs.’4
The wealth Solomon acquired consisted of slaves, animals, money, musicians and women. The
New International Version uses the word ‘harem’ for the Hebrew shiddah. The word, in all of Scripture, is
only found in this verse and it is repeated twice. The word is variously interpreted as ‘wife,’ ‘concubine,’ or
‘musical instrument.’ The New King James Version reads: ‘musical instruments of all kinds.’ The Living
Bible: ‘And then there were my many beautiful concubines.’ The Bible testifies to Solomon’s marital
excesses, stating: ‘He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.’5
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, comments on the last verse in this section: ‘Now he comes to
‘the morning after the night before.’ I considered (NIV surveyed) is literally ‘I faced.’ The verb means ‘to
look someone in the eyes’ (Jb. 6:28) or (as here) to ‘face the facts,’ ‘turn one’s full attention.’ The Preacher
is not content to put a bold face on things; he must tell it the way it is. His hands, denoting personal
involvement and activity, had kept him pleasurably occupied. The toil had been enjoyably strenuous. But in
retrospect a verdict passed previously on wisdom (1:17-18) is now applied to pleasure. All the Preacher’s
key terms combine at this point: toil, vanity, stringing after wind, no profit, under the sun. The pile-up of
terms conveys bitter disillusionment. The morality of his project is not under consideration, for secular man
is being shown the failure of his life-style, on its own premises.’
iv. Life’s ultimate certainty2:12-23
12 Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s
successor do than what has already been done?
13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.
1. Dan. 4:29,30
2. I Kings 3:12-14
3. Prov. 10:22
4. I Tim. 6:9,10
5. I Kings 11:3

14 The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the
same fate overtakes them both.
15 Then I thought in my heart, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being
wise? ‘I said in my heart, ‘This too is meaningless.’
16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is
meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes
after me.
19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into
which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.
21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to
someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?
23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
In evaluating the sum of his research and achievements, the Teacher concludes that death
ultimately robs life of its value. Even though there is an obvious difference between wisdom and folly, death
equalizes both the wise man and the fool.
V.12 has been subject to various interpretations. The Hebrew text reads literally: ‘And I turned
myself to behold madness, and wisdom, and folly: for what can the man [do] who comes after the king even
that has been done already?’ The Pulpit Commentary observes: ‘Both the Authorized Version and Revised
Version render the passage thus, though the latter, in the margin, gives two alternative renderings of the
second clause, viz. even him whom they made king long ago, and, as in the Authorized Version margin, in
those things which have been already done. The LXX., following a different reading, gives, ‘For what man
is there who will follow after counsel in whatsoever things he employed it?’ Vulgate, ‘What is man, said I,
that he should be able to follow the King, his Maker?’ [Some Bible scholars] ‘For what is the man that is to
come after the king whom they made so long ago?’ i.e. who can have greater experience than Solomon made
king in old time amid universal acclamation (… 1 Chronicles 29:22)? or, who can hope to equal his fame?
— which does not seem quite suitable, as it is the abnormal opportunities of investigation given by his
unique position which would be the point of the query. The Authorized Version gives a fairly satisfactory
(and grammatically unobjectionable) meaning — What can any one effect who tries the same experiment as
the king did? He could not do so under more favorable conditions, and will only repeat the same process and
reach the same result. But the passage is obscure, and every interpretation has its own difficulty. If the ki
with which the second portion of the passage begins (‘for what,’ etc.) assigns the reason or motive of the
first portion, shows what was the design of Koheleth in contrasting wisdom and folly, the rendering of the
Authorized Version is not inappropriate. Many critics consider that Solomon is here speaking of his
successor, asking what kind of man he will be who comes after him — the man whom some have already
chosen? And certainly there is some ground for this interpretation in vers. 18, 19, where the complaint is that
all the king’s greatness and glory will be left to an unworthy successor. But this view requires the Solomonic
authorship of the book, and makes him to refer to Rehoboam or some illegitimate usurper. The wording of
the text is too general to admit of this explanation; nor does it exactly suit the immediate context, or duly
connect the two clauses of the verse. It seems best to take the successor, not as one who comes to the
kingdom, but as one who pursues similar investigations, repeats Koheleth’s experiments.’
Having stated that v.12 ‘has perplexed commentators,’ Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, writes:
‘The text as it stands may be literally translated, ‘And I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly, for
what kind of person is it who will come after the king, in the matter of what has already been done?’ ‘To

turn’ means ‘to turn one’ attention’ of ‘to take up a new line of thought.’ Since the Preacher has thus far
shown the complete failure of both wisdom and pleasure-seeking to solve his problem, is there any reason
why the king should prefer one to the other? Wisdom is traditionally the special need of the king (1 Ki. 3:5-
28; Pr. 8:14-16). But the Preacher has exposed its failure. Does this mean that wisdom fails in all respects?
The explanatory phrase deals with the reason why the Preacher, Solomon’s ghost writer, should concern
himself with the question whether wisdom is of any value at all. We may paraphrase: ‘How will future kings
handle the same problem I have faced? What kind of person will my successor be in his attitude to the same
problems I have had to deal with?’ This coheres with the Preacher’s concern for the future, mentioned
elsewhere (1:9-11; 2:18f, 21; 3:22; 7:14).’
One wonders if heaven will shed new light on textual problems like these. Will we search
Scriptures in heaven as we have done on earth? Could we ask Solomon what he meant when he wrote or
dictated this? Assuming that Solomon made it into heaven in view of the folly his tolerance led him into! Or
will the real author who inspired the prophets, the Holy Spirit, lead us into all truth that has been hidden
from us? We will have to wait and see.
The Teacher concludes that wisdom is better than folly, but the value turns out to be relative in
view of the fact that death erases all distinctions. The Hebrew word used is yithra’, ‘to excel.’ The word is
only found in Ecclesiastes, as in the verse ‘What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the
sun?’1 The King James Version renders it ‘profit.’ Wisdom is compared to light and folly to darkness. But
since death equals darkness, darkness triumphs in the comparison.
Considering himself to be a wise man, Solomon does some self-evaluation, which leaves him
devastated. Yet, the very fact that there is despair is significant. One cannot conclude that an equation is
wrong unless there are right equations to which the one can be compared. We come back to the opening
statement upon which the whole philosophy of the book is built. If everything is meaningless, there must be
meaning. I recently came across an interesting quote by G. K. Chesterton: ‘If there were no God, there
would be no atheist.’ In view of the fact that hebel, as we saw, is used to denote ‘worthless idols,’2
the quest
for wisdom is ultimately a search for God. The Apostle Paul answers Solomon, saying: ‘It is because of him
that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness
and redemption.’3 For Solomon death closed the door behind which God can be found. Jesus Christ opened
that door in His resurrection from the dead.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.14: ‘The Preacher now considers wisdom from
the angle of its recipient. As God’s gift it is light; as man’s possession it is sight. The fool (ke
sîl) whom we
meet here for the first time is ‘notorious for his babbling, his drunkenness, his tendency to evil,’ one for
whom wickedness is ‘fun’ (Pr. 10:23) and who has more interest in his own pursuits than in wisdom (Pr.
18:2). He too is characterized from two angles. He has no ‘light’ from God, no ‘eyes’ in himself. He
prefigures the New Testament sinner who loves darkness (Jn. 3:19) and is darkness (Eph. 5:8). The second
part of the answer follows. As a cure for the ultimate problem of life, wisdom is useless; both the wise man
and the fool succumb to death. AV event is a good translation. The underlying word (miqreh) is sometimes
translated fate (RSV and NIV), giving the impression of a ‘strange fatalistic concept of God.’ The Hebrew
word is entirely neutral and has no sinister nuance … In Ecclesiastes miqreh (or qârâh) refers almost always
to the ‘event’ of death that will ‘happen’ to all men. On one occasion (9:11) the verb refers to what is totally
unexpected from man’s viewpoint. It would be a mistake to read into it a picture of God in which he is
indifferent or distant.’
1. Eccl. 1:3
2. Deut. 32:21
3. I Cor. 1:30

In the mind of the Old Testament Jew, existence after death seems to have been linked to
remembrance of the name of the one who died. This view of eternity may have been derived from Israel’s
stay in Egypt. The law on the levirate marriage was incorporated into the law by Moses in order to carry on
the name of the man who died without leaving behind a son. We read: ‘If brothers are living together and
one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall
take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on
the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.’1
How far Solomon or his
contemporaries believed that remembrance of a family name had any real bearing upon existence beyond
death, cannot be ascertained.
When Solomon comes to the conclusion that he hates life, he admits that life ought to be enjoyable.
What makes life hateful is death. So the actual object of the Teacher’s hate is not life but death. If animals
that are fattened for slaughter had a mind to understand, they would come to the same conclusion as the
wisest king who ever lived. The fattening part is enjoyable, but the purpose for which it is done makes it into
vanity. The Apostle Paul agrees with Solomon’s conclusion, but he also shows that there is a way out,
saying: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the
present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait
eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’2
It is the fact that death will not have the last
word that makes life enjoyable. David put this even more beautifully in one of his psalms: ‘Because Your
lovingkindness is better than life, My lips shall praise You.’3
Solomon’s despair was due to the fact that he believed that his claim to fame ought to be in what he
achieved. A person’s worth is determined by what he is, not by what he does. What he does will be the fruit
of his character and his character will be formed by his love for God. The greatest commandment is not
about what we adhere to but about the source of our actions: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your strength.’4
That is what gives meaning to life.
The thought that disturbed Solomon was the uncertainty about what would happen to his
achievements. The Pulpit Commentary comments on this: ‘He is disgusted to reflect upon all the trouble he
has taken in life, when he thinks of what will become of the productions of his genius and the treasures
which he has amassed. Because I should leave it (my labor, i.e. its results) unto the man that shall be after
me. It is impossible that Solomon could thus have spoken of Rehoboam; and to suppose that he wrote thus
after Jeroboam’s attempt (… 1 Kings 2:26, etc.), and in contemplation of a possible usurper, is not warranted
by any historical statement, the absolute security of the succession being all along expected, and the growing
discontent being perfectly unknown to, or contemptuously disregarded by, the king. The sentiment is
general, and recurs more than once; e.g. … Ecclesiastes 4:8; 5:14; 6:2.’ The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
Commentary disagrees here, stating: ‘One hope alone was left to the disappointed worldling, the
perpetuation of his name and riches, laboriously gathered, through his successor. For selfishness is mostly at
the root of worldly parents’ alleged providence for their children. But now the remembrance of how he
himself, the piously reared child of David, had disregarded his father’s dying charge (1 Chron 28:9),
suggested the sad misgivings as to what Rehoboam, his son by an idolatrous Ammonitess, Naamah, should
prove to be-a foreboding too fully realized (1 Kings 12; 14:21-31).’
In fact, history confirms Solomon’s gloomy expectations, since the kingdom would break up in two
after his death. The king may have had a flash of prophetic insight when he said this. What he did not
1. Deut. 25:5-6
2. Rom. 8:22,23
3. Ps. 63:3-NKJV
4. Deut. 6:5

understand at this point was that the breakup was the result of his own infidelity to God. If he did, he could
have changed his behavior and avoided the disastrous outcome.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, adds: ‘Hatred of life is followed by hatred of toil (contrast 9:9
with its portion to be enjoyed ‘all the days of your life … and in your labor’). Toil varies in meaning within
Ecclesiastes; sometimes it refers to one’s whole struggle with the problem of life (1:13), sometimes (as here)
to one’s daily responsibilities. Work must be left behind, so what is the point of it? The Preacher is neither
denying nor affirming an afterlife at this point; he is concerned with wisdom as an aid in a world dominated
by futility. Leave is more precisely ‘bequeath’ (JB).’
One would get the impression that King Solomon had begun like a pauper and worked himself up
to the point where he became the wisest and richest man in the world. Yet, when he was born, David’s
kingdom was well established and the young Jedidiah, as the Lord called him,1
grew up in an environment
of ease and wealth. When his father, who did begin as a shepherd boy, died, Solomon became the heir of a
considerable fortune. There seems to be here a tendency to give himself credit for that which he did not do.
Neither his wisdom, nor his riches were the fruits of his own labor; they had been gifts of God. So why
worry about leaving behind a rich heritage? Maybe the king realized that he missed something in life
because he had not started out as a pauper himself. He may have experienced his enormous wealth more as a
burden than a blessing. Those who do not give the credit to God, do have a problem.
C. The alternative to pessimism: Faith in God 2:24-3:22
i. The life of faith 2:24-26
24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is
from the hand of God,
25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives
the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is
meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Bible scholars have puzzled over these verses, trying to change the statement into a question and
inserting Hebrew letters, which supposedly may have been omitted in copying. Some believe that Solomon
advocates an Epicurean philosophy of life. About this The Pulpit Commentary observes: ‘They who read
Epicureanism into the text fall into the error here denounced. They take the expression, ‘eat and drink,’ in
the narrowest sense of bodily pleasure, whereas it was by no means so confined in the mind of a Hebrew. To
eat bread in the kingdom of God, to take a place at the heavenly banquet, represents the highest bliss of
glorified man (… Luke 14:15; Revelation 19:9, etc.). In a lower degree it signifies earthly prosperity, as in
… Jeremiah 22:15, ‘Did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice? then it was well with
him.’ So in our passage we find only the humiliating truth that man in himself is powerless to make his life
happy or his labors successful. There is no Epicureanism, even in a modified form, in the Hebrew text as it
has come down to us.’
We find in these verses the first glimmer of hope in that God is brought into the picture. Although
this is not done with clear, heavily drawn lines, and although the Creator has cast His shadow over the
preceding text also, there is a breakthrough of truth at this point.
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, in introducing the whole section of 2:24-3:22, states: ‘There are
good reasons for seeing a major turning-point at 2:24. Three aspects of the contrast may be highlighted. (i)
God is scarcely mentioned in 1:1-2:23. The only allusion to God is in 1:13, not as the answer to mankind’s
problem but as its cause (‘the travail God gave to the sons of men’). The world is ‘subjected to vanity, not of
1. II Sam. 12:25

its own will’ but of God’s will (cf. Rom. 8:20). That, however, is no solution; it only deepens the problem.
2:24, however, introduces ‘the other side to the unhappy business’ … and a new note is added. The
argument in 1:1-2:23 is dominated by qualifying phrases confining our vision to the earthly realm (1:3; 13f;
2:3,11,17-20,22). In the following section, however, God is often in view. He is the source of wisdom,
knowledge and joy. He is a just governor of sinner and righteous alike. He controls the cosmos not simply to
guarantee its structures and its being ‘subjected unto vanity’ (1:13; cf. 3:10), but also as the originator of
beauty (3:11). (ii) There is a difference in the way wisdom is viewed. In 1:16 it is man’s acquisition; in 2:26
it is God’s gift. Though these are complementary statements and are not necessarily to be put in opposition
(cf. Pr. 2:1-6), it is significant that no reference to God’s gift has been made hitherto. In 2:21 ‘wisdom and
knowledge’ are found in company with ‘skill,’ yet judged a failure; in 2:26 they are found in company with
‘joy’ and considered a blessing. (iii) In the earlier sections the argument has been entirely nihilistic. The
Preacher’s review of creation, history, life and death has ended in a picture of physical and mental anguish.
There is no allusion to beauty, justice or joy. But in 2:24-3:22 we have reference to enjoyment (2:25), beauty
(3:11), God’s gift (3:13), security (3:14), a divine purpose in the midst of injustice (3:18) and joy despite
injustice (3:22). Mankind is to enjoy the created realm. He receives such enjoyment from the hand of God.
Sinner and righteous are appropriately handled by God who disposes the order of every matter under
heaven. The authority which guarantees the emptiness of secularism (cf. 1:13) also guarantees the
fruitfulness of the life of faith. We conclude on exegetical grounds that 2:24 marks a turning-point in the
argument. Coherent exposition is possible if this antithesis is accepted. Having exposed the bankruptcy of
our pretended autonomy, the Preacher now points to the God who occupies the heavenly realm, and to the
life of faith in him. The section begins and ends with the enjoyment of the earthly realm (2:24; 3:22; cf.
3:13). The themes of divine authority (2:26; 3:1-8, 17), human need (2:26; 3:10a,13,18-20) and the joys of
life (2:24; 3:12-13,22) form connecting links. 3:16-22, however, has links in two directions. To view the
enigmas of life in the light of a divine judgment forms a fitting end to 2:24-3:15, yet the theme of unjust
suffering also leads into 4:1-3 and so into the remainder of the book.’
We find the words ‘A man can do nothing better than …’ in more or less the same form, three more
times in this book, as in: ‘I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while
they live,’1
in: ‘So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.
For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?’2
And in: ‘So I commend the enjoyment of life,
because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany
him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.’3
‘Nothing better’ is the translation
of the two Hebrew words ‘ayin towb. ‘Ayin has a simple negative connotation and towb means ‘good’ in the
widest sense of the word. It can have the meaning of ‘better,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘joyful,’ or even ‘prosperity.’
The Teacher believes that fellowship with God will reverse the curse of sin. After God cursed the
ground as punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin, He said to Adam: ‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat
your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will
return.’4
If we cannot find enjoyment without God, it means that with Him, joy will enter into our daily
activities. David confirms this when he exclaims in one of his psalms: ‘You have made known to me the
path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.’5
And the
1. Eccl. 3:12
2. Eccl. 3:22
3. Eccl. 8:15
4. Gen. 3:19
5. Ps. 16:11

Apostle Paul gives us some clues as to how we can enhance our experiences if our motivation is God’s glory
and if we are careful to express our gratitude to God. We read: ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you
do, do it all for the glory of God.’1 And: ‘And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the
name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’2 This all confirms Jesus’ Word: ‘If a
man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’3
The Teacher differentiates between those who please God and those who are called sinners. This
sounds theologically incorrect, since the Scripture declares us all to be sinners. The New King James Version
stays closer to the Hebrew with: ‘to a man who is good in His sight.’ The person who confesses his sins and
believes in God’s forgiveness is given the status of righteousness. The sinner is the one who refuses to
confess.
God’s original intent for man whom He created was not that he would eat his food by the sweat of
his brow, but that he would enjoy life in all its aspects. If death makes life meaningless it is because man’s
sin interrupted the relationship with God. Confession of sin, atonement and forgiveness restores this
relationship and the joy that comes with it. God is willing to share His joy with us, as is obvious from Jesus’
Words: ‘If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s
commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be
complete.’4
ii. The providence of God3:1-15
1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What does the worker gain from his toil?
10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they
cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.
13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil — this is the gift of God.
14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken
from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
15 Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary makes the following introductory remarks about these verses:
‘Two general remarks may be made on the first eight verses of this chapter. 1. God by his providence
governs the world, and has determined particular things and operations to particular times. In those times
1. I Cor. 10:31
2. Col. 3:17
3. John 15:5
4. John 15:10,11

such things may be done with propriety and success; but if we neglect the appointed seasons, we sin against
this providence, and become the authors of our own distresses. 2. God has given to man that portion of
duration called TIME; the space in which all the operations of nature, of animals, and intellectual beings, are
carried on; but while nature is steady in its course, and animals faithful to their instincts, man devotes it to a
great variety of purposes; but very frequently to that for which God never made time, space, or opportunity.
And all we can say, when an evil deed is done, is, there was a time in which it was done, though God never
made it for that purpose. To say any further on this subject is needless, as the words themselves give in
general their own meaning. The Jews, it is true, see in these times and seasons all the events of their own
nation, from the birth of Abraham to the present times; and as to fathers and their followers, they see all the
events and states of the Christian church in them! It is worthy of remark, that in all this list there are but two
things which may be said to be done generally by the disposal of God, and in which men can have but little
influence: the time of birth, and the time of death. But all the others are left to the option of man, though God
continues to overrule them by his providence.’
The Pulpit Commentary states about the first part of this section: ‘The providence of God disposes
and arranges every detail of man’s life. This proposition is stated first generally, and then worked out in
particular by means of antithetical sentences. In Hebrew manuscripts and most printed texts vers. 2-8 are
arranged in two parallel columns, so that one ‘time’ always stands under another. A similar arrangement is
found in … Joshua 12:9, etc., containing the catalogue of the conquered Canaanite kings; and in … Esther
9:7, etc., giving the names of Haman’s tensions. In the present passage we have fourteen pairs of contrasts,
ranging from external circumstances to the inner affections of man’s being.’
Bible scholars disagree about the meaning of the message the Teachers conveys to us in these
verses. Some believe that the overtone is negative and pessimistic, others that the message is positive and
optimistic.
The phrase that explains the purpose of the foregoing statements seems to be v.11 which reads: ‘He
has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot
fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’
The Hebrew word rendered ‘beautiful’ is yapheh, which has the meaning of ‘beauty,’ or ‘pleasant.’
It is used in other verses in Scripture to describe female beauty. When Abraham went to Egypt he said to
Sarah: ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are.’1
We read about Jacob’s two wives: ‘Leah had weak eyes,
but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful.’2
Absalom is described as an example of perfect male
handsomeness: ‘In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom.
From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him.’3
And in Pharaoh’s dream about
the cows we read: ‘When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile,
when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds.’4
Another intriguing statement in v.11 is: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they
cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The Hebrew text reads literally: “Also he has set
the world in their heart, so that no one can find out the work that God makes from beginning to end.”
“Eternity” in The New International Version is the rendering of the Hebrew word `owlam, which literally
means “concealed,” or “the vanishing point.” The idea seems to be “that which is beyond the horizon.” We
find it for the first time in the verse: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us,
knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’”1 And also in: “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called
upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God.”2
A possible interpretation seems to be that the meaning of that which happens ‘under heaven’ lies
behind the horizon and is invisible for those who live on earth.
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, states about this section as a whole: ‘This section elucidates the
world-view underlying the life portrayed in 2:24-26. Just as 1:2-2:23 moved from the pessimistic worldview (1:2-11) to the pessimistic daily life (1:12-2:23), so in a chiastic movement the thought of 2:24-26
proceeds from the believer’s life to his world-view (3:1-22). Verses 1-8 lay down the basic postulate; 9:15
work out its practical implications.’ Eaton proceeds to catalogue the interpretations of various Bible
scholars, whose names we will withhold here. He writes: ‘This reading takes 3:1-15 as orthodox, not, as has
often been maintained, as part of the Preacher’s despair. [One scholar] maintain(s) that ‘although the
passage is one of great beauty and poetry, the burden is that of protest … Its essence is that Koheleth feels
imprisoned by this sequence of times, and he rebels because this is what he must go through, though without
knowing why.’ [Another scholar] similarly sees the Preacher as a fatalist whose rigid predestinarianism is an
obstruction to the quest for a satisfying life; it is an example of men’s striving ‘to anticipate his time-table,
but without their ever guessing everything correctly … Koheleth regards God as the absolute and arbitrary
mast of destiny.’ [A third one] says that it is ‘clear that the purpose of the whole is to emphasize the
frustrating effect of time on human life and labor, whether because God has appointed the events beforehand
or for some other reason.’ This is part of the truth, as indicated by certain conclusions in vv.9-15. Verse 9, 10
and 11b stress human inadequacy under God’s disposal of epochs of life. Events and characteristic seasons
of time are imposed upon men: no-one chooses a time to weep. Equally, the events of life that come our way
undermine our confidence that our endeavors will have any permanence. ‘Whatever may be our skill and
initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons: not only those of the calendar, but that tide
of events which moves us now to one kind of action which seems fitting, now to another which puts it all
into reverse.’ We are not sure that they have any total meaning, and we cannot stand outside the events of
life and view them ‘from the beginning to the end.’ All this puts mankind in his place, far from being master
of his fate and captain of his soul. However, there is more than one conclusion in these verses. Verses 11a,
12-15 stress that the disposal of events which humiliates men may also be the ground of their joy and
security. This section may, therefore, have quite another force, contributing to the Preacher’s solution of the
problem of life’s vanity. [A fourth scholar] is surely right: ‘too often the whole cast of the book has been
determined by certain pessimistic elements, ignoring just as patent constructive elements … Chapter three
has often been interpreted as a lament of the ceaseless round of life. Instead it is part of the basic optimism of
Koheleth.’’
Some of the conflicting opinions mentioned above make us understand that unraveling the meaning
of Solomon’s poem in these verses may be a daunting task or an elusive goal. The main factor that puts
everything in perspective and at the same time prevents from coming to a final conclusion is the contrast
between time and eternity. Whether `owlam is interpreted as ‘eternity’ or as ‘concealed’ does not make any
difference at this point. God is the Creator of time and He placed us within the boundaries of time. God
Himself does not live in time as we do, although, as the Word became flesh, He subjected Himself to it. Our
problem is that time is the only entity we know, which makes us want to interpret eternity as ‘time without
end.’ There is a dimension that would explain what eternity is, but that is not given to us. The only factor
that would solve the equation is withheld. We only know that at the point of death we will move from time
into eternity. ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years …’ is the only way we can imagine or describe it,
however incorrect that may be. Whether we experience our inadequacy at this point as satisfaction or
frustration is up to us. The Teacher seems to invite us to do either.

The way the Teacher’s poem reads by switching back and forth in sequence between positive and
negative gives it a rhythm that is both haunting and beautiful. In v.2 the positive precedes the negative:
‘born’ and ‘die,’ ‘plant’ and ‘uproot.’ In vv.3-5a the sequence is reversed: ‘to kill’ precedes ‘to heal,’ ‘tear
down’ ‘build,’ ‘weep,’ ‘laugh,’ ‘mourn,’ ‘dance,’ ‘scatter,’ ‘gather.’ A similar pattern of reversals is
followed through the rest of the poem. It is obvious that, although the contrast between light and darkness
has its beauty, the elements that form the one and the other are not of the same kind. The contrast between
being born and dying, for instance is more than the light and shadow in a picture; one stands for life, the
other for death. One is identified with God and holiness, the other with Satan and sin. What the Teacher
seems to be saying here is that ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time’ but something went terribly
wrong. God did not make dying beautiful; as a matter of fact He issued a strong warning against the choice
that would bring death into His beautiful creation.
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, states about vv.2 and 3: ‘The most momentous events of human
life are mentioned first: childbearing and death. The Hebrew here is active (to give birth NASV); it is
doubtful whether it can be taken passively (to be born, AV, RSV), although Jeremiah 25:34 is sometimes
cited as an example of an active infinite with passive force (‘your being slaughtered,’ Heb.). The next three
pairs deal with various creative and destructive human activities. Each of the six verbs may be figuratively
used for establishing or undermining. ‘Planting the heavens’ (Is. 51:16) indicates permanence and stability.
Uproot or ‘harvest’ is used figuratively elsewhere of destroying a nation (Zp. 2:4; cf. the Aramaic of Dn.
7:8). Kill probably falls in line with this pattern (cf. its figurative use in Jb. 5:2; Pr. 1:32; 7:26). Certainly
heal does not always refer to medical needs (cf. Is. 6:10 following up the imagery of 1:5-6; Is. 19:22; 57:19;
Je. 33:6 and often elsewhere). Tear down is applied to the LORD when Jehoshaphat’s schemes were ruined
(2 Ch. 20:37; cf. Ps. 60:1). Build is applied to the throne of David, the city of Zion and to the land of Judah,
as well as to literal construction work (cf. Pss. 89:4; 102:16). The widespread figurative uses of these verbs
strongly suggest they were chosen here to express not only specific activities but all the manifold pursuits of
men, creative and destructive, good and evil, benevolent and malevolent. Mankind is not self-sufficient in
these activities; he is within the control of God.’
There is a lack of illustrations in vv.3-8, making the statements refer to principles that can be
applied in a general way rather than referring to specific images. Yet, we tend to see pictures in which the
principle can be applied. In ‘kill’ and ‘heal’ we see a living being, whether man or beast that has been
injured to the point where it might be more merciful to end life than to try to extend it. Again the influence of
sin comes to the foreground; without the fall there would have been no death or need for healing of sickness.
‘Tear down’ and ‘build’ rather evokes a picture of inert matter.
V.4 applies the seasons to man’s emotional life. Weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing are
extreme opposites expressing our reaction to the events that come our way. They express sorrow or joy.
Weeping and mourning point in the direction of death, while laughing and dancing refer to the enjoyment of
life. In a way the theme of v.2 regarding birth and death is repeated here. In as much as God created man
with the capacity to enjoy life, He also gave us the ability to abhor the absence of it. We react to death the
way we do because we understand intuitively that we were created for life and not for death. The promise
that ‘God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes’1
is meant to see us through the sufferings of our days
on earth.
The Pulpit Commentary comments on v.5: ‘There is no question about building or demolishing
houses, as that has been already mentioned in ver. 3. Most commentators see an allusion to the practice of
marring an enemy’s fields by casting stones upon them, as the Israelites did when they invaded Moab (… 2
Kings 3:19, 25). But this must have been a very abnormal proceeding, and could scarcely be cited as a usual
occurrence. Nor is the notion more happy that there is an allusion to the custom of flinging stones or earth
into the grave at a burial — a Christian, but not an ancient Jewish practice; this, too, leaves the contrasted
‘gathering’ unexplained. Equally inappropriate is the opinion that the punishment of stoning is meant, or some game played with pebbles. It seems most simple to see herein intimated the operation of clearing a
vineyard of stones, as mentioned in … Isaiah 5:2; and of collecting materials for making fences, wine-press,
tower, etc., and repairing roads. A time to embrace. Those who explain the preceding clause of the marring
and clearing of fields connect the following one with the other by conceiving that ‘the loving action of
embracing stands beside the hostile, purposely injurious, throwing of stones into a field…’ It is plain that
there are times when one may give himself up to the delights of love and friendship, and times when such
distractions would be incongruous and unseasonable, as on solemn, penitential occasions (… Joel 2:16; …
Exodus 19:15; … 1 Corinthians 7:5); but the congruity of the two clauses of the couplet is not obvious,
unless the objectionable position of stones and their advantageous employment are compared with the
character of illicit (… Proverbs 5:20) and legitimate love.’
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states: “In light of the rest of the verse, the Jewish interpretation
seems best, i.e., that this is a metaphor for the marriage act.’ And Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, adds:
‘The following two pairs deal with friendship and enmity. Four major views have been held of to throw
stones … to gather stones: (i) The Aramaic Targum of Ecclesiastes saw a reference to scattering stones on
old building and preparing to build a new one … (ii) Others see a reference to rendering fields unproductive
by covering its surface with stones (cf. 2 Ki. 3:19,25; Is. 5:2). (iii) [Another scholar] saw here an ‘old Jewish
practice … of flinging stones or earth into the grave at the burial in the first phrase, and preparation to build
a house, in the second. (iv) More recent scholars have seen a sexual reference following the Midrashic
interpretation (cf. GNB1
). The first three possibilities have often been rejected on the ground that they ‘leave
the second half of the verse without any logical connection … possibly it alludes merely to showing
friendship or enmity. If so, it is likely that the first pair puts the same point in national or military terms.
‘Gathering stones together’ will refer to preparing the way for a military conqueror (cf. Is. 62:10); casting
stones will refer to military aggression by ruining an enemy’s fields.”
The reversal of sequence between positive and negative continues through the last verses. While
‘search’ and ‘keep’ can be considered to be positives, ‘give up’ and ‘throw away’ are obviously not. ‘Tear’
and ‘be silent’ fit in the negative category, while ‘mend’ and ‘speak’ are the positives in v.7. V.8 reverses the
order within the same verse. ‘Love’ and ‘peace’ make a good pair, whereas ‘hate’ and ‘war’ obviously
belong together.
In vv.9-14 Solomon looks back at the poem, asking himself and us what the meaning is. Vv.9 and
10 read literally in Hebrew: ‘What profit has he that works in that within he labors? I have seen the travail
which God has given the sons of man to be exercised in it.’ Some of the important Hebrew words used
deserve a closer look. Yithrown means ‘preeminence,’ or ‘gain.’ The New International Version renders it
‘profit.’ The word is nowhere else found in Scripture, but occurs nine times in Ecclesiastes. ‘Labors’ is the
rendering the Hebrew word `amel which adds a sorrowful feature to toil. In Job it is used as ‘misery’ as in:
‘Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul?’2
The Hebrew word for ‘travail’ is
`inyan, ‘ado,’ which seems to add bother to the task. This word again is exclusively used in Ecclesiastes
where it is consistently found in a negative context. Finally, ‘be exercised’ is the translation of the Hebrew
word `anah, which has the primary meaning of ‘looking down,’ or ‘to depress.’ God used the word in His
prophecy to Abraham about the future of his descendants: ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be
strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.’3
As we saw earlier, the Hebrew word `owlam, in v.11, which is rendered ‘eternity’ in The New
International Version, is translated ‘world’ in The Hebrew Interlinear. The Pulpit Commentary observes:
‘The original meaning is ‘the hidden,’ and it is used generally in the Old Testament of the remote past, and
1. The Good News Bible’s rendering of v.5 reads: “the time for making love and the time for not
making love.”
sometimes of the future, as … Daniel 3:33, so that the idea conveyed is of unknown duration, whether the
glance looks backward or forward, which is equivalent to our word ‘eternity.’ It is only in later Hebrew that
the word obtained the signification of ‘age’ … or ‘world’ in its relation to time. Commentators who have
adopted the latter sense here explain the expression as if it meant that man in himself is a microcosm, a little
world, or that the love of the world, the love of life, is naturally implanted in him. But taking the term in the
signification found throughout the Bible, we are justified in translating it ‘eternity.’ The pronoun in ‘their
heart’ refers to ‘the sons of men’ in the previous verse. God has put into men’s minds a notion of infinity of
duration; the beginning and the end of things are alike beyond his grasp; the time to be born and the time to
die are equally unknown and uncontrollable. Koheleth is not thinking of that hope of immortality which his
words unfold to us with our better knowledge; he is speculating on the innate faculty of looking backward
and forward which man possesses, but which is insufficient to solve the problems which present themselves
every day. This conception of eternity may be the foundation of great hopes and expectations, but as an
explanation of the ways of Providence it fails.’
Some Bible scholars have opted for a relationship between `owlam and an Arab word ilham,
meaning ‘wisdom.’ That would suggest that God has given man the ability to comprehend the meaning of
life. But it seems that the Teacher emphasizes man’s inability to understand, rather than his ability. His
conclusion is that the best way to live with the mystery is simply to enjoy life. That emphasis puts the focus
on the positive aspects of the above poem.
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary observes: ‘Since God has so disposed the affairs of this world,
that the great events of providence cannot be accelerated or retarded by human cares and anxieties, submit to
God; make a proper use of what he has given: do thyself no harm, and endeavor as much as possible to do
others good. Enjoy, and bless thyself; let others share the transient blessing: ‘tis the gift of God.’ The
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary adds: ‘Joy is the antidote to worrying care (Matt 6:34); to dare
to trust joyfully in the Lord is His gift (Gal 5:22). To ‘do good’ is to go side by side with enjoying God’s
gifts, for thus a good conscience and the favor of God are retained, upon which true joy depends. Man
cannot fully comprehend God’s works (Eccl 3:11), but he ought joyfully to receive (‘rejoice in’) God’s gifts,
and ‘do good’ with them to himself and to others. This is never out of season (Gal 6:9-10). Not sensual joy
and self-indulgence (Phil 4:4; James 4:16-17).’
The advice would be perfect except for the word ‘toil’ in v.13. Joy is not only the antidote to worry,
it is also the only means that will get us through the curse that condemns us to eat our food by the sweat of
our brow.1
Only The New Testament reveals the secret of the life of fellowship with God, which allows us
to ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’2 When the Teacher says that eating, drinking and finding satisfaction is ‘the
gift of God’ he is not referring to the curse of the sweat of our brow but to the joy.
It is true that there can be satisfaction in labor, in working up a sweat in order to achieve. But I am
not sure that this is what the Teacher has in mind here. He does point out, though, that the limitations God
puts on mankind are meant to draw man to God and stand in awe of Him. Although man cannot add or
subtract anything from God’s eternal work, he must realize that God is greater than he is and that calls for
worship. The Apostle Paul elaborated on this thought in his address to the philosophers of Athens, saying:
‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined
the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him
and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and
move and have our being.’’3
V.15 seems to repeat the Teacher’s conclusion in the first chapter: ‘All things are wearisome, more
than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’1 But the addition ‘God
will call the past to account’ changes the meaning.
‘Call to account’ is the translation of the Hebrew word baqash, which has the basic meaning of ‘to
search out.’ Jacob uses the word when he says to his uncle Laban: ‘I did not bring you animals torn by wild
beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or
night.’2
The word is difficult to translate. The New King James Version translates the phrase: ‘And God
requires an account of what is past.’ The New Living Translation reads: ‘God makes the same things happen
over and over again.’
The Pulpit Commentary states: ‘The meaning is — God brings back to view, recalls again into
being, that which was past and had vanished out of sight and mind. The sentence is an explanation of the
preceding clauses, and has nothing to do with the inquisition at the day of judgment. [One Bible scholar] has
followed the Septuagint, Syriac, and Targum, in translating, ‘God seeks the persecuted,’ and seeing herein
an allusion to the punishment of the Egyptians for pursuing the Israelites to the Red Sea, or a general
statement that God succors the oppressed. But this idea is quite alien to the intention of the passage, and
injures the coherence.’
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, writes: “An addition is found here which is not found in 1:9-11:
God seeks what is pursued or it might be translated ‘… what hurries along.’ The verb (rdp) normally means
‘pursue’ or ‘persecute.’ It is difficult, however, to make sense of the passage with either. Many solutions
have been offered: (i) It has been taken to refer to past events (AV what is passed; RSV driven away; NASV
and Berkeley passed by) or to God’s bringing past events back into being again (NEB God summons each
event back … (ii) NIV will call the past to account (makes it refer to judgment, a fitting preliminary to 3:16-
22. (iii) NAB restores what would otherwise be displaced stretches the Hebrew somewhat (iv) JB cares for
the persecuted is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew and follows IXX and Ben Sira (5:3), but scarcely fits
the context. (v) Nor is it adequate to emend the text … or remove it to the end of v.17. A different solution
seems preferable. The passive/reflective of the verb is used here but scarcely anywhere else in the Old
Testament (only in La. 5:5 where it means ‘persecuted’). In Later Hebrew the passive participle sometimes
lost its force and means ‘quick, rapid.’ It is used for example, of a stream which ‘runs rapidly.’ If, then, the
verb has lost its passive meaning, it could mean ‘hurry along.’ This fits well with 1:5-8 where the same
vocabulary is used for the world hurrying around its circuits (cf. 1:9). Seeks indicates God’s watchful
concern. Earlier, earthly events were portrayed as rushing along a determined course (1:5-7). Now comes an
explanation: the source of earthly movements is God himself. In 1:13 the ‘unhappy business’ of man’s life
was inevitable, said the Preacher, since a divine appointment lay behind it. In 3:1-3 the structure of ‘times’
was seen as a God-ordained pattern in human life. Likewise in 3:15 the hubbub of human activity is
guaranteed and secure because God watches over it all every moment with providential concern.”
iii. The judgment of God3:16-22
16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment — wickedness was there, in the
place of justice — wickedness was there.
17 I thought in my heart, ‘God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be
a time for every activity, a time for every deed.’
18 I also thought, ‘As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals.
19 Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.
All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.
20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’
22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who
can bring him to see what will happen after him?
As Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: ‘This unit makes an observation (v.16), passes two
comments (17, 18-21) and reaches a conclusion (22).’ This is expressed in the verbs ‘I saw’ (v.16), ‘I
thought (vv.17,18), and ‘I saw’ (v.21). But the conclusion ends with a question mark, which lets the
statements, teasingly, hang in midair.
Solomon’s first observation is again that things are not as they ought to be. He refers to ‘the place
of judgment’ and ‘the place of justice,’ using the Hebrew poetical parallel. The Hebrew word for ‘judgment’
is mishpat, which refers particularly in this context to the absolute of divine law. Abraham used the word in
his prayer of intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, when he said to the Lord: ‘Far be it from you to do such
a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from
you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’1
The Hebrew word rendered ‘justice’ is tsedeq, which refers to the same kind of absolute as that
which is morally or legally right. We find it used in: ‘Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah
and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.’2
The same thought was
expressed earlier in ‘What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted,’3 where we
observed that it indicated something wrong with creation and that the factor that could explain how this
abnormality came about is hidden from view.
Like Abraham, we all have a concept of what the divine absolute is, even though we cannot define
or fully understand it. Wickedness, Hebrew resha`, that which is morally wrong, is found in the place of
righteousness and justice. Solomon realizes that such a condition cannot be permanent. It would be
impossible for a holy God to tolerate sin throughout eternity. Consequently, there will be judgment and
punishment for those responsible for wickedness and injustice. The character of God requires that.
This brings him to the second thought that God puts man to the test by withholding the one factor
that would explain the puzzle. The mystery being the incongruity of wickedness at the place of justice. The
Hebrew text of v.18 reads literally: ‘I said in my heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that might
manifest them God, that they might see [that] they [are] beasts themselves.’
In comparing man to animal, Solomon traces their common origin to the dust of the earth. In doing
so, he purposely leaves out the difference between the two species, which is that God simply spoke the
animals into being, but at the creation of man, He breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, making man in
His own image. Any Hebrew reader of Solomon’s words would recall the text ‘The Lord God formed the
man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living
being.’4
The Hebrew word ruwach can mean ‘wind,’ ‘spirit,’ or ‘breath.’ In the Hebrew of vv.19 and 21 the
same word is used three times. But while ruwach refers particularly to exhaling, the Hebrew word used in
the verse that speaks of God’s creation of man is neshamah, which speaks rather of breathing in.
The Pulpit Commentary comments here: ‘Koheleth explains in what respect man is on a level with
the brute creation. Neither are able to rise superior to the law that controls their natural life … Even one
thing befalleth them. A third time is the ominous word repeated, ‘One chance is to both of them.’
Freethinkers perverted this dictum into the materialistic language quoted in the Book of Wisdom (2. 2): ‘We
are born at haphazard, by chance’ … But Koheleth’s contention is, not that there is no law or order in what
happens to man, but that neither man nor beast can dispose events at their own will and pleasure; they are
conditioned by a force superior to them, which dominates their actions, sufferings, and circumstances of life.
As the one dieth, so dieth the other. In the matter of succumbing to the law of death man has no superiority
over other creatures. This is an inference drawn from common observation of exterior facts, and touches not
any higher question (comp. … Ecclesiastes 2:14, 15; 9:2,3). Something similar is found in … Psalm 49:20,
‘Man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.’ Yea, they have all one breath
(ruach). This is the word used in ver. 23 for the vital principle, ‘the breath of life,’ as it is called in Genesis
6:17, where the same word is found. In the earlier record (… Genesis 2:7) the term is nishma. Life in all
animals is regarded as the gift of God. Says the psalmist, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit (ruach), they are
created’ (… Psalm 104:30). This lower principle presents the same phenomena in men and in brutes. Man
hath no pre-eminence above a beast; i.e. in regard to suffering and death. This is not bare materialism, or a
gloomy deduction from Greek teaching, but must be explained from the writer’s standpoint, which is to
emphasize the impotence of man to effect his own happiness. Taking only a limited and phenomenal view of
man’s circumstances and destiny, he speaks a general truth which all must acknowledge. Septuagint, ‘And
what hath the man more than the beast? Nothing.’ For all is vanity. The distinction between man and beast is
annulled by death; the former’s boasted superiority, his power of conceiving and planning, his greatness,
skill, strength, cunning, all come under the category of vanity, as they cannot ward off the inevitable blow.’
Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.18: ‘After a straightforward beginning, I said in
my heart with regard to the sons of men … (RSV), the Hebrew becomes difficult. Probably it should
continue: ‘that God is making it clear to them so that they may see that they – they by themselves – are
animals.’ I said in my heart: he now reflects on God’s purpose in its present continuance. Even the evil
actions of men may unwillingly and unknowingly fulfill the purpose of God (cf. Acts 2:23 for the greatest
example). Equally he maintains that the injustice of men fulfills at least one aspect of purpose of God: it
provides a massive demonstration on the stage of history of our ignorance regarding our own nature and
destiny. God is not indifferent to injustice (v.17); for the present it is an ‘under the sun’ monstrosity which
reveals the essential character of fallen man (7:29). If this appears to be hard cynicism, it must be noted that
the Preacher is careful to include the emphatic phrase ‘they by themselves.’ If, however, we lapse from the
viewpoint of faith, the one element which distinguishes us from the animals is lost. Man by himself becomes
‘a naked ape.’”
This whole section cries out for an answer, which is withheld but suggested in v.21: ‘Who knows if
the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’ Job gives the answer
to Solomon’s query: ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And
after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes —
I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!’1
Job even shares Solomon’s yearning of heart.
V.22 closes this section in an enigmatic way by suggesting that there is a way, there is life after
death and there is someone who can and will show the way. This is answered by Jesus: ‘I am the way and the
truth and the life.’2 Solomon could not hear this answer or see the way, but he suspected it and he suggests
that we enjoy our lot because of the hope of resurrection. The puzzle is given here and the answer is found at
the end of the book. That is the way the Old and New Testament compliment each other.
II. LIFE ‘UNDER THE SUN’ 4:1-10:20
A. Life’s hardships and life’s companions 4:1-5:7
i. Oppression without comfort 4:1-3
1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the
oppressed — and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors — and they have no
comforter.
2 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.
3 But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
In a general introduction to this whole section, Michael A. Eaton , in Ecclesiastes, writes: ‘Between
4:1 and 10:20 Ecclesiastes resembles the book of Proverbs, with short epigrams dealing with various aspects
of life. Groups of sayings, however, can be clustered around particular themes. Every unit between 5:8 and
6:12 deals in some way with wealth; each unit of 4:1-16 bears on the need of companionship; chs. 9:13-
10:20 directly consider the limits of wisdom and the various manifestations of folly. The book bears
evidence, therefore, of structure and arrangement, although it is at times difficult to discern. It is also
conspicuous that the presuppositions in 1:2-3:22 continue to underlie each theme taken up. The vanity of life
‘under the sun’ comes in for heavy fire; the life of faith in a sovereign God is urged from time to time as the
only remedy. It is best, therefore, to treat the middle section of Ecclesiastes as a guide to life ‘under the sun,’
presenting a series of major issues, each in turn from the viewpoint of ‘under the sun’ limitation and from
the viewpoint of faith. The Preacher faces the big issues: the hardships of life and the companionship it
demands, poverty and wealth, the vexations of circumstances and of man himself, the authority of kings and
authority miss-applied, the limits of wisdom and the encroachment of folly. ‘Look!’ he says in effect, ‘This
is what it is really like. Can you face life in this world as it really is? There is only one way to do so.’ The
various themes overlap considerably, so that several topics are considered more than once from different
angles.’
About the section of 4:1-5:7, Eaton writes: ‘The dominant note in this section is the need of
companionship. Successive unites deal with oppression without comforters (and I saw …, 4:1-3), work is
lonely (Then I saw …, 4:7f.), followed by proverbs on the need of companionship (4:9-12). Then comes a
brief glimpse of a lonely king (4:13-16). This leaves a section (5:1-7) which seems to belong neither to ch. 4
nor to 5:8-6:12 (which has its own unity). Perhaps the viewpoint of faith is again being brought in: there is a
God in heaven opposed to earthly injustice and loneliness, the God of Israel, who is worshipped at the
temple of Jerusalem.’
Barnes’ Notes adds: ‘Having arrived (Eccl 3:22) at a partial answer to his question (Eccl 1:3);
namely, that there is positive good (= a portion) in that satisfaction which is found in working, Solomon now
turns to the case of such happiness being interrupted and reduced to vanity by various contingencies-by
oppression (Eccl 4:1-3); by envy (Eccl 4:4-6); by loneliness (Eccl 4:7-12); and by decay of working power
(Eccl 4:13-16). The first two instances seem taken from the lower ranks of life, and the last two derived from
the higher ranks of life.’
One of the strangest features of this section is that these are the words of the king himself. The
question arises whether Solomon gives here an analysis of his own reign. If so, as an absolute monarch, he
certainly would be able to do something about it. It is, however, more likely that the king speaks here about
the kingdoms surrounding Israel, although history indicates that Solomon himself did not completely escape
the trap of his own absolutism. If Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, could say after his father’s death: ‘My little
finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My
father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions,’’ 1 Solomon’s reign must not have been
free of corruption either.
Oppression was never part of God’s plan for mankind. God created man with the intent that he
would submit to God’s rule voluntarily on the basis of love. Such would be the personal relationship of each
individual. When Adam and Eve broke their off intimacy with their Creator, their relationship with one
another went bad and their offspring inherited that part of the curse. Oppression is the fruit of man’s sinful
nature.
So, Solomon looks at oppression which causes mankind to suffer and weep. There were tears that
accompanied the labor pains of Israel’s birth as a nation. While Israel was in Egypt, they were severely
oppressed. When God called Moses, He said: ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have
heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.’1
But
Solomon leaves God and God’s compassion out of the picture, looking only down instead of up. He
concludes that the corruption of human relations, which changed society from living together on a basis of
mutual love into a ‘dog-eat-dog’ state, makes life as a whole unbearable. He deduces that not-to-be is better
than to-be. We are reminded of Job’s reaction to his suffering, which was intensified by the insensitivity of
his ‘comforters’: ‘After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said: ‘May the day of
my birth perish, and the night it was said, ‘‘A boy is born!’’”2
ii. Lonesome rivalry and its alternatives 4:4-6
4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is
meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
5 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
6 Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
The keyword in v.4 in the Hebrew text is qin’ah, ‘jealousy,’ or ‘envy.’ In this verse man can be
seen as the object of envy or as the subject. The New King James Version, for instance, renders it: ‘Again, I
saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor.’ But The New Living
Translation, similar to The New International Version, reads: ‘Then I observed that most people are
motivated to success because they envy their neighbors.’
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: ‘If 4:1-16 is indeed a string of units edited around the
theme of companionship, the underlying concern will be the social fragmentation produced by such toil.
Rivalry never produced companionship yet. The precise thought is not that work causes rivalry (Berkeley),
but that it stems from rivalry. The Hebrew means ‘envy towards one’s neighbor’ (cf. RSV) rather than ‘envy
from one’s neighbor’ (cf. AV, RV) or between ‘man and man’ (cf. Moffatt, NEB, JB).’
Although this sinful tendency is less brutal than the former, oppression of one’s neighbor, it is just
as sinful. Both are the result of man’s fall into sin. It is a sin against the tenth commandment: ‘You shall not
covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant,
his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’3 God’s original plan for mankind was a society
of individuals who love one another to the point where one would be willing to give one’s life for the other.
Jesus modeled this for us. That is why the Apostle John writes: ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus
Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.’4
And the psalmist
expresses God’s delight in: ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’5 Asaph
struggled with envy, particularly because it seems that those who love God and try to obey Him enjoy less
prosperity than those who ignore their Creator. He wrote: ‘Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are
pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the
arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.’1
The antidote to envy as motivation for producing result is to use God, instead of our neighbor, as
our point of reference. The Apostle Paul advised: ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the
name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,’ and ‘Whatever you do, work at it
with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance
from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’2
About vv.4 and 5, The Pulpit Commentary observes: ‘Success itself is no guarantee of happiness;
the malice and ill feeling which it invariably occasions are necessarily a source of pain and distress. — The
connection of this verse with the preceding is this: activity, diligence, and skill indeed bring success, but
success is accompanied by sad results. Should we, then, sink into apathy, relinquish work, let things slide?
Nay, none but the fool (keciyl), the insensate, half-brutish man, doth this.’
The Hebrew text of v.5 reads literally: ‘The fool folds his hands together and eats his own flesh.’
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes about vv.5 and 6: ‘This is the opposite of v.4. We pass from the
rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference. His condition
is analyzed as self-cannibalism, he consumes his own flesh. To fold the hands is to be idle. (cf. Pr. 6:10). The
handful of quietness is the middle way between the clamorous grasping of v.4 and the escapism of v.5. The
two words for hand differ in the Hebrew; the second refers to hands cupped to take as much as possible (cf.
Ex. 9:8). The way of wisdom will attempt much (one handful) but not too much (two hands full), and so will
find life within its grasp (one handful) not an impossible strain (striving for wind). How such a life is
attained is the underlying theme of Ecclesiastes. It is ‘from the hand of God’ (2:24), ‘a gift’ (5:19). A fuller
exposition comes in 9:7-10; 11:1-10. Its embodiment is seen in Christ who withdrew from ‘two hands full’
of trouble (Mt. 12:14f.), but was noted for his ‘handful of quietness’ (Mt. 12:19f.).’
iii. A man without a family 4:7-8
7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
8 There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes
were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of
enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless — a miserable business!
V.8 exposes another form of jealousy, which is avarice. The Adam Clarke’s Commentary
comments: ‘The man who is the center of his own existence, has neither wife, child, nor legal heir; and yet is
as intent on getting money as if he had the largest family to provide for; nor does he only labor with intense
application, but he even refuses himself the comforts of life out of his own gains! This is not only vanity, the
excess of foolishness, but it is also sore travail.’
The drive of a workaholic is usually a hidden factor of dissatisfaction that he cannot cope with and
that he tries to ignore or cover up with an excess of long hours of work. The twin of dissatisfaction is greed.
It is about these two that the author of Proverbs says: ‘The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.
There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’’3
Jesus warned against this,
saying: ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the
abundance of his possessions.’1
Few people are convinced that a man’s life does not consist in the
abundance of his possessions. Who does not want to be a millionaire?
The miser in these verses is identical to the fool in the previous verses. The leech and the man who
eats his own flesh both destroy themselves, without knowing that they are doing it. The interesting part in
this section, however, is that the workaholic asks himself the question, ‘why am I doing this?’ He realizes
that his efforts leave his soul dry and empty. Man is made for fellowship with God and his fellowmen. No
gold or silver or any other dead material can substitute for love and life. And it is ultimately love that gives
meaning to life: love of God and of one’s neighbor.
iv. The blessing of companionship 4:9-12
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him
up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly
broken.
These verses are among the most quoted in this book. They are often applied to marriage, although
the Teacher places them in a larger context than married life alone. Man’s need for fellowship dates from
paradise. ‘The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’’2
That fact that Eve was created from
a rib taken out of Adam’s body emphasizes the fact that we are made for fellowship with one another. A
man’s love for his wife is part of his love of his own body. The Apostle Paul affirmed this when he wrote:
‘No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are
members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and
the two will become one flesh.’’3
The Teacher states the general truth that ‘two are better than one,’ and three are even better. He
illustrates this with five examples from work, support, comfort, safety and strength. The first example
depicts a work relationship. Two heads are better than one, both for reasons of insight and productivity. But
the picture may reveal more than mere financial profit. The Hebrew word rendered ‘return’ is sakar, which
refers to financial benefit as well as to other forms of compensation. The first time sakar is used in Scripture
is in the verse: ‘After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am
your shield, your very great reward.’’4
God’s Word to Abraham makes us realize that fellowship on a
human level is an image of our relationship with God which gives value to all other relationships. That is
probably the truth expressed in the proverb about the cord of three strands. If marriage is a triangle of which
God is the top, the human bond is indestructible.
In the second picture one of the partners falls down and is helped up by his associate. The Pulpit
Commentary states: ‘The verse may be applied to moral falls as well as to stumbling at natural obstacles.
Brother helps brother to resist temptation, while many have failed when tried by isolation who would have

manfully withstood if they had had the countenance and support of others.’ The Indian evangelist Sadhu
Sundar Sing tells a story of a man traveling in the snow in the mountains, who finds a fellow traveler who
fell down and is in danger of freezing to death. The man hoists him on his shoulders and carries him down to
safety. In the process he saves himself from freezing to death, but the warmth of his body revives the fallen
man and saves his life also.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states here: ‘The Hebrew is strictly plural (‘If they fall…’), but
occasionally the plural may denote an indefinite singular and thus mean ‘If either of them should fall …’
V.11 may refer to more than comfort. Although the first reference is to body warmth, evoking the image of a
married couple sleeping together, it can be applied to a wider field with spiritual applications. The Pulpit
Commentary observes: ‘The winter nights in Palestine are comparatively cold, and when, as in the case of
the poorer inhabitants, the outer garment worn by day was used as the only blanket during sleep … it was a
comfort to have the additional warmth of a friend lying under the same coverlet.’ The commentary refers to
the Mosaic Law about the subject, which reads: ‘If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to
him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When
he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.’1 The commentary adds rather wryly: ‘Solomon
could have had no such experience,’ not specifying whether the reference is to the fact that Solomon had a
thousand wives to keep him warm, or an abundance of cloaks to keep him covered.
The Matthew Henry’s Commentary emphasizes the spiritual implications of ‘mutual warmth,’
stating: ‘As a fellow-traveler is of use (a friend is a good substitute for a carriage) so is a bedfellow: If two
lie together, they have heat. So virtuous and gracious affections are excited by good society, and Christians
warm one another by provoking one another to love and to good works.’
Safety is the concern of the first part of v.12. This applies to a variety of situations. Some Bible
scholars see in it a picture of highway robbery, such as occurred in The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
2
Whether such unsafe travel conditions existed during Solomon’s reign is not known. There are, of course,
numerous conditions in which a double defense provides superior protection, both in the physical and
spiritual realm. We think particularly of Paul’s exclamation: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’3
This brings us to the last image of the three-strand cord, representing indestructible strength. The
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary states about a threefold cord: ‘proverbial for a combination of
many, e.g., husband, wife, and children (Prov 11:14); so Christians (Col 2:2,19). Christ sent forth the
seventy by pairs, not singly (Luke 10:1), and promised, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my
name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt 18:18; cf. 19).’
v. Isolation breeding folly 4:13-16
13 Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning.
14 The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his
kingdom.
15 I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor.
16 There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased
with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes about these verses: ‘The next section has links with the
themes of isolation (4:7f) and companionship (4:9-12), for v.13 continues to underline the folly of self1. Ex. 22:26,27
sufficiency and growing isolation. Attempts have been made to identify the characters of these verses, but
none is entirely convincing. The scene is too commonplace. Generally in the Old Testament wisdom is
reckoned to lie with increasing age and experience, and the elderly were honored accordingly (Lv. 19:32).
But it is also realized that the aged may lose their wisdom (Jb. 12:20) and that the young may be wiser than
their elders (Ps. 119:100). Elihu’s is the balanced position, giving his elders the first hearing but not
regarding them as infallible, since the Spirit of God may give wisdom beyond one’s years (Jb. 32:4-11). The
Preacher applies the same point to an unnamed, probably hypothetical, king. He once (no longer) listened to
advice, but now is growingly isolated as he becomes ‘wise in his own eyes’ (Pr. 26:12). The whole process
is unconscious, as implied by the phrase no longer knows (NIV; the reference to knowing is omitted in RSV,
NEB). In this situation a youth of humble origins may outstrip him. The word is not ‘teenager’ but ‘young
man,’ for it takes in Joseph at seventeen years (Gn. 37:30) and Rehoboam’s advisers who were over forty (1
Ki. 12:8; 14:21).’
Barnes’ Notes comments: ‘These verses set forth the vanity of earthly prosperity even on a throne.
Opinion as to their application is chiefly divided between considering them a parable or fiction like that of
the childless man in Eccl 4:8; or as setting forth first the vicissitudes of royal life in two proverbial sayings
(Eccl 4:13-14), and then (Eccl 4:15-16), the vicissitudes or procession of the whole human race, one
generation giving place to another, which in its turn will be forgotten by its successor.’ The Wycliffe Bible
Commentary adds: ‘Often age and experience teach a man nothing. The king who himself was once poor,
who arose out of prison to the throne, who caused the downfall of another, did not learn the chief lesson of
his struggle-popular favor is uncertain and unpredictable. The rendering he that is born in his kingdom
becomes poor suggests that the king, through his failure to learn the lessons of popularity, may someday
become a pauper in his own kingdom.’
Some Bible scholars have seen in these verses a picture of Solomon’s own folly. That is certainly a
fitting application, but there is no scriptural proof that Solomon ever confessed his sins at the end of his life.
If that were the case, a reference to such an act of repentance could hardly have been omitted, especially in
The Book of Chronicles. Those who reject the possibility of Solomon being the author of this book find it
easier to see a reference to Solomon here.
Even if Solomon wrote this about himself because the Holy Spirit gave him this prophetic insight,
he could not have thought of his own son, Rehoboam as poor and coming out of prison. That picture would
apply to Jeroboam whose reign began as a successful enterprise and ended in disaster.
vi. The approach to God 5:1-7
1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of
fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in
heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.
3 As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.
4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.
5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.
6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the [temple] messenger, ‘My vow was a
mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?
7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
As Barnes’ Notes observes, the teacher switches here from a soliloquy to addressing an audience,
advising them to realize who the One is they are facing when they enter the temple. C. S. Lewis, in The
Chronicles of Narnia, says about Aslan, the lion who represents Christ, ‘He is not a tame lion!’ And the
author of Hebrews warns us that ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’1
The Hebrew text of v.11 reads literally: ‘Keep your foot when you go to the house of God, and be
more ready to hear than to give: for the fools sacrifice not for they consider evil.’ The Pulpit Commentary
explains: ‘To keep the foot’ is to be careful of the conduct, to remember what you are about, whither you are
going. There is no allusion to the sacerdotal rite of washing the feet before entering the holy place (…
Exodus 30:18,19), nor to the custom of removing the shoes on entering a consecrated building, which was a
symbol of reverential awe and obedient service. The expression is simply a term connected with man’s
ordinary life transferred to his moral and religious life.’
In introducing this section, Michael A Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states: “Earth’s ‘vanity’ has been
recognized (1:2-2:23), but considered in the light of the life God gives (2:24-26) and the assurance of his
sovereignty (3:1-15). Injustice (3:16-22) and various forms of isolation (4:1-16) have been faced. We stand
in need of an altogether greater companionship. The Preacher earlier told of a God who gives a life of joy
and pleasure. May he be approached? This question is now answered in terms of the house of God,
obedience, sacrifice (v.1), prayer (vv.2f.), vows (v.4). But there are dangers. If God is ‘in heaven,’ the ruler
(3:1-15) and judge (3:16-22), he cannot be approached casually. So a proverbial unit is inserted dealing with
our approach to God. The first note of exhortation in Ecclesiastes comes here, and assumes God may be
approached, addressed in prayer, and will receive our vows.”
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary captures well the meaning of these verses, stating: ‘Make sure you
know what you are doing when you go to the house of God. In the phrase be more ready to hear, the author
is not speaking of coming to the Temple to listen to the exposition of the Law, but rather he is cautioning
against approaching the worship of God in the wrong way. The word hear often has the sense of ‘obey’ in
the OT. The contrast is between those who come to God in obedience, that is, out of a background of ethical
and moral conduct (cf. Ps 119:101), and those who are fools, that is, those who worship with unrepentant
hearts.’
Barnes’ Notes states: ‘There is a striking resemblance between the line of thought pursued in this
book and that of Asaph in Ps 73. As the Psalmist, so the Preacher, after setting forth his view of human life,
takes his hearer into the house of God for an explanation and directions. If the expression ‘goest to the house
of God’ (Eccl 4:1) has also the spiritual sense of entering into communion with God, Solomon here
admonishes generally that reverence is due to God, and particularly that the ‘vanity’ which is mingled with
the ‘portion’ that God assigns to every man, ought to be treated as a divine mystery, not to be made an
occasion of idle thought, hasty words, and rash resolutions, but to be considered in the fear of God (Eccl.
4:1-7); that the spectacle of unjust oppression is to be patiently referred to God’s supreme judgment (Eccl.
4:8-9); that mere riches are unsatisfying, bring care with them, and if hoarded are transitory (Eccl. 4:10-17);
and that a man’s enjoyment of his portion in life, including both labor and riches, is the gift of God (Eccl.
4:18-20 ).
The Teacher’s advice is well illustrated in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We
read: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee
stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers,
adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax
collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have
mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For
everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ It is not only
important that we realize who God is, when we enter into His presence, but also that we recognize who we
are ourselves.
There is a good deal of confusion about the phrase that reads in Hebrew: ‘for the fools sacrifice not
for they consider evil.’
The Hebrew word for ‘fool’ in this section is keciyl, which literally means: ‘fat,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘silly.’
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words explains about the word: ‘The kecil is ‘insolent’ in religion
and ‘stupid or dull’ in wise living (living out a religion he professes). In Ps 92:6 the first emphasis is
especially prominent: ‘A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this.’ The psalmist is
describing an enemy of God who knew God and His word but, seeing the wicked flourishing, reasoned that
they have the right life-style Ps 92:7. They have knowledge of God but do not properly evaluate or
understand what they know. The second emphasis is especially prominent in wisdom contexts: ‘How long,
ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate
knowledge?’ Prov 1:22. In such contexts the person so described rejects the claims and teachings of wisdom.
However, in the Bible wisdom is the practical outworking of one’s religion. Therefore, even in these
contexts there is a clear connotation of insolence in religion.’
The Pulpit Commentary observes: ‘There is much difficulty in understanding the passage
according to the received reading, and [one Bible scholar], with others, deems the text corrupt. If we accept
what we now find, it is best to translate, ‘They know not, so that they do evil;’ i.e. their ignorance
predisposes them to err in this matter. The persons meant are the ‘fools’ who offer unacceptable sacrifices.
These know not how to worship God heartily and properly, and, thinking to please him with their formal acts
of devotion, fall into a grievous sin.’
A few samples of different readings will demonstrate that there are difficulties in rendering the
Hebrew text correctly. The King James Version reads: ‘for they consider not that they do evil.’ The Living
Bible paraphrases the text, blending the problem into the whole sentence: ‘Don’t be a fool who doesn’t even
realize it is sinful to make rash promises to God.’ The Good News Bible: ‘It is better to go there to learn than
to offer sacrifices like foolish people who don’t know right from wrong.’ The New Living Translation reads:
‘It is evil to make mindless offerings to God.’ The Amplified Bible presents the choice: ‘for to draw near to
hear and obey is better than to give the sacrifice of fools [carelessly, irreverently], too ignorant to know that
they are doing evil.’ The Contemporary English Version, less theologically correct, even reads: ‘Some fools
go there to offer sacrifices, even though they haven’t sinned.’
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, quotes different Bible scholars’ interpretations of the phrase,
which vary from ‘They (who obey) know not how to do evil,’ and ‘They do not know to do evil,’ or ‘they do
not know except to do evil,’ to ‘… and so they do wrong,’ and ‘… when they do wrong,’ to ‘… in doing
wrong.’ Eaton believes the last to be best grammatically.
It is difficult to read this passage and not to think about what James writes in his epistle about the
sins of the tongue. We read: ‘My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to
speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in
you, which can save you. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his
whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the
whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they
are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the
body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also
is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of
his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are
being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly
poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in
God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both
fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine
bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.’1 We may assume that Solomon inspired James, or
rather that it was the same Spirit that inspired Solomon, who worked in James also.
Solomon sets the stage by advising us to realize Who the God is we approach. ‘God is in heaven
and you are on earth, so let your words be few.’ Realizing who God is should leave us speechless. Solomon
may have had his father David’s psalm in mind in which he looked up to the heavens and said: ‘When I
consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is
man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’1
The distance between God and us
is not just a matter of space. When we look at God’s fingers and what they produced from the endless
galaxies to the tiny atoms of which we are made, we can do nothing but stand in awe. Only the fool can miss
this point.
It seems that the reference to ‘a dream’ in v.3 does not fit the context of the babbling fool too well.
The Pulpit Commentary observes: ‘The verse is meant to confirm the injunction against vain babbling in
prayer. Cares and anxieties in business or other matters occasion disturbed sleep, murder the dreamless
repose of the healthy laborer, and produce all kinds of sick fancies and imaginations.’”
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary remarks: ‘As much ‘business,’ engrossing the
mind, gives birth to incoherent ‘dreams,’ so many words, uttered inconsiderately in prayer, give birth to and
betray ‘a fool’s speech’ (Eccl 10:14). … But Eccl 5:7 implies that the ‘dream’ is not a comparison, but the
vain thoughts of the fool (sinner) (Ps 73:20), arising from multiplicity of (worldly) ‘business.’ His ‘dream’
is, that God hears him for his much speaking (Matt 6:7), independently of the frame of mind. ‘Fool’s voice’
answers to ‘dream’ in the parallel; it comes by the many ‘words’ flowing from the fool’s ‘dream.’
‘Multitude of words’ is parallel to ‘multitude of business.’” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states: “The
author quotes a proverb in support of his previous point. Just as a night of dreams is the result of too much
preoccupation with one’s business, so nonsensical speech is the result of too many words at worship.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, refers to the way The New English Bible handles the verse. We
read: “NEB loses all reference to a dream, apparently amending haha
lôm (the dream) to a hypothetical
hehâlûm, translated ‘the sensible man’ but unattested elsewhere.” Yet, that approach seems preferable.
The “dream” pops up again in the section that deals with the making of vows. V.7 reads: “Much
dreaming and many words are meaningless.” The New Living Translation renders this: “Talk is cheap, like
daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states on this:
“This difficult proverb is probably an allusion to verse 3, and the author is summing up his point. Just as too
much concern over business brings dreams, so too many words spoken at worship bring rash promises and
punishment by God.”
But “dream” is not the only problem in these verses. The whole reads as follows in The Interlinear
Hebrew Bible: “[It is] better that you should not than that you should vow and not pay. Suffer not your
mouth to cause your flesh to sin; neither say you before the angel that it was an error: wherefore should God
be angry at your voice and destroy the works of your hands?”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes about this section: “The Preacher moves to vows paid in
the temple (4-7). The vow in ancient Israel was a promise to God, which might be part of prayer for blessing
(Nu. 21:2) or a spontaneous expression of gratitude (Jon. 2:9). It might take the form of a promise of
allegiance (Gn. 28:20-22), a free-will offering (Lv. 22:18) or the dedication of a child as Nazirite (I Sa.
1:11). As in the matter of prayer, haste in taking a vow is cautioned against elsewhere (Pr. 20:25). Here the
Preacher warns against delay (cf. Dt. 23:21-23) and evasion: Pay what you vow! Failure in these respects is a
mark of fools. Because the vow was voluntary, there was danger of its becoming a form of bribery,
especially in times of distress. God does not take broken vows lightly. A broken vow may incur his
judgment upon our endeavors. One who ‘swears to his own hurt and does not change’ pleases God (Ps.
15:4). Thus the mouth may lead the flesh into sin. Flesh here apparently refers to the whole man, hence RSV
… lead you into sin. It is possible that it also stresses moral frailty, a point which becomes more explicit in
its New Testament usage (cf. Gal. 5:16-21) but is rare in the Old Testament.” In two footnotes to his
comments, Eaton states: “In Ec. 5:6 it is a sacrifice at the temple that is in mind. The Preacher does not deal
with a vow which was downright sinful in the first place; that is a matter for repentance rather than
fulfillment.” And: “[One scholar] maintains that ‘The idea here is that something small, i.e. the mouth may
bring guilt upon the whole, i.e. the entire person’ (cf. Jas. 3:5).”
The above reference to the verse in Proverbs 20:25 is worth spelling out here; it reads: “It is a trap
for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows.”
The Hebrew word translated “messenger” is mal’ak, which can mean any kind of messenger:
“angel,” but also “prophet, priest,” or “teacher.” Eaton comments on this word: “Hebrew draws no
distinction between messenger and angel, so several interpretations are open to us here. Does the verse refer
to (i) the angel of the Lord who is called in the Old Testament ‘a man’ or ‘an angel’ but is addressed as
divine? Or (ii) to a prophet (Hg. 1:3; Mal. 3:1); or (iii) to a priest (Mal.2:7); or (iv) to a messenger sent by a
priest? One of the last two is almost certainly correct. A voluntary offering vowed to a temple priest is
unfulfilled; the temple priest or his messenger comes to enquire. ‘Oh, it was a mistake’ is the worshipper’s
evasion. But God sees, and a careless approach to him may bring his anger upon our word and his judgment
upon our works, if not immediately (cf. 8:11) at least ultimately (12:14).”
B. Poverty and wealth 5:8-6:12
In introducing this section, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “The various proverbs of this
section are bound together by the theme of poverty and wealth. We have reference to ‘the poor’ (5:8),
‘money’ (5:10), the increase of ‘good things’ (5:11), the ‘rich man’ (5:12), ‘riches’ (5:13-14), ‘riches and
wealth’ (5:19; 6:2), the ‘poor man’ (6:8).”
i. The poor under oppressive bureaucracy 5:8-9
8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such
things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.
9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary observes about the whole chapter: “Here riches are viewed from
three angles. Though God may give a man a certain power to enjoy wealth, yet (1) riches are the cause of
much greed and injustice among government officials (Eccl 5:8-9); (2) the gaining of wealth never brings
satisfaction, for the more one gets, the more one wants (5:10-12); and (3) riches are an insecure possession,
for a man acquires wealth only to pass it on to others (5:13-17). So in 5:18-20 the author gives his oft
repeated counsel: Enjoy life while you can.”
The picture drawn for us is one of government corruption, practiced by the lower officials, but
working its way up to the top, to the king himself. God’s original intent with the nation of Israel was that it
would function as a theocracy, as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”1
When, in the days of Samuel,
the people began to demand to have a king, God said to Samuel: “It is not you they have rejected, but they
have rejected me as their king.”2 Thereupon Samuel issued this warning to the people: “This is what the
king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and
horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and
commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons
of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He
will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take
a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and
maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of
your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief
from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.”1
Here, Solomon himself, the third king of Israel, looks at his kingdom and concludes that absolute
power has made corruption absolute. And laconically, he says to his audience “do not be surprised at such
things.” The Hebrew text reads: “Marvel not at the matter.”
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary states about the text: “If thou seest the oppression
of the poor ... As in Eccl 3:16, so here the difficulty suggests itself. If God is so exact in even punishing
hasty words (Eccl 5:1-6), why does He allow gross injustice? In the remote ‘provinces’ (Hebrew, mediynah
jurisdiction) the ‘poor’ often had to put themselves, for protection from the inroads of Philistines, etc.,
under, chieftains, who oppressed them even in Solomon’s reign, and the exaction of the tribute was often
attended with oppression of the poor (1 Kings 12:4). The matter - literally, the pleasure, or purpose (Isa
53:10). Marvel not at this dispensation of God’s will, as if He had abandoned the world. Nay, there is
coming a capital judgment at last, and an earnest of it in partial punishments of sinners meanwhile (Eccl
3:17). God cannot let such things remain unpunished: for He ‘hates’ robbery (Isa 61:8).”
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “One thinks of the Persian satraps, who acted much as the
Turkish pashas in later times, the petty rulers oppressing the people, and being themselves treated in the
same fashion by their superiors. The whole is a system of wrong-doing, where the weaker always suffers,
and the only comfort is that the oppressor himself is subject to higher supervision. The verb (shamar)
translated ‘regardeth’ means to observe in a hostile sense, to watch for occasions of reprisal, as … 1 Samuel
19:11; and the idea intended is that in the province there were endless plottings and counter plottings, mutual
denunciations and recriminations; that such things were only to be expected, and were no sufficient cause
for infidelity or despair. ‘The higher one’ is the monarch, the despotic king who holds the supreme power
over all these mal-administrators and perverters of justice.”
The Hebrew text of v.9 has caused difficulties of translation and interpretation. It reads literally:
“Moreover the profit of the earth is for the king himself: for all is served by the field.” Michael A. Eaton, in
Ecclesiastes, states: “The beginning of the verse may be translated: And an advantage to (or for, or of) a
land is …. Then the Hebrew becomes difficult. Should it be translated ‘for all’ (AV, JB), ‘in all’ (RSV), ‘on
the whole’…, ‘over everything’ …, ‘after all’ (NASV, Moffatt) or ‘always’ …? Is the word ‘served’ (Heb.
ne`â
bâd) to be attached to ‘king’ or (as the Massoretic pointing suggests) to ‘land,’ and does it have a simple
adjectival sense (‘served,’ ‘cultivated’) or a permissive sense (‘allowed to be cultivated’)? This in turn leads
to numerous possibilities of translation. Is the advantage ‘a king whose own lands are well tilled’ (NEB)? Or
that ‘even a king is subject to the soil’ …? Or ‘a king who has control’ (Moffatt)? Or ‘that a cultivated land
has a king’ (as a counterweight to bureaucratic corruption …)? In context the main point must be that
bureaucratic officialdom does not totally override the value of kingly authority. A likely translation is
therefore: ‘But an advantage to a land for everyone is: a king over cultivated land.’ This understand the ‘all’
to refer back to the poor, the officials and the higher officials of v.8; hence ‘for everyone.’ It is also possible
to take ‘land’ (sadeh) to refer to a specific country (…, RSV). … Another likely translation is ‘… a king
over a land which is allowed to be cultivated.’ If either of these two translations is correct, the writer is
sensitive to oppression (v.8) but does not hold that anarchy or violent revolution is a viable alternative.”
ii. Money and its drawbacks 5:10-12
10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his
income. This too is meaningless.
11 As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to
feast his eyes on them?
12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits
him no sleep.
The Pulpit Commentary introduces this whole section from vv.10-17 with the comment: “The
thought of the acts of injustice and oppression noticed above, all of which spring from the craving for
money, leads the bard to dwell upon the evils that accompany this pursuit and possession of wealth, which is
thus seen to give no real satisfaction. Avarice has already been noticed (… Ecclesiastes 4:7-12); the
covetous man now reprobated is one who desires wealth only for the enjoyment he can get from it, or the
display which it enables him to make, not, like the miser, who gloats over its mere possession.”
Michael A Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “Three perennial drawbacks to wealth are crisply
presented: it cannot satisfy the covetous (10); it attracts a circle of dependents (11); it disturbs one’s peace
(12).”
The Hebrew text of v.10 reads literally: “He that loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor
he that loves abundance [with] increase: this is also vanity.” These words were spoken by the richest man
who ever lived. The problem with greed is that it misses the point of what life is all about. The Apostle Paul
issued strong warnings against greed. In writing to Timothy, he said: “If anyone teaches false doctrines and
does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and
understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in
envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have
been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with
contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if
we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and
a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of
money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced
themselves with many griefs.”1
Jesus made the most profound statement ever made on the topic of greed:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of
his possessions.”2
God created us in such a way that we crave for satisfaction, a craving that only He can satisfy. Even
on the lower level of physical satisfaction, this is a lesson to be learned. Moses reminded the Israelites of
their experience of being hungry and being satisfied with the manna God rained down from heaven. He said:
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your
fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from
the mouth of the Lord.”3
Yet, most people would love to be a millionaire. The Scottish writer George MacDonald once said:
“Do you believe that God can punish people by making them rich?” There is no sin in possessing money, but
there is in the greed that is involved in the possession. John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much riches
was enough. He answered: “Just a little more!”
Greed belongs to the devil. He uses it in his temptations. He even submitted Jesus to the test. We
read: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and
their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’”1 The wise Agur
son of Jakeh prayed: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me
only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may
become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”2
But there is a healthy craving that God created within us to draw us to the goal He has set for our
lives. God went to a lot of trouble to evoke in Adam a desire for companionship. We read how this kind of
healthy “greed” was awakened in him: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will
make a helper suitable for him.’ Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field
and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the
man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of
the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the
man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the
place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought
her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called
‘‘woman,’’ for she was taken out of man.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be
united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”3
The sons of Korah expressed this longing in the psalm they wrote about the temple: “How lovely is
your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and
my flesh cry out for the living God.”4
And David wrote beautifully about the deepest desire of his life: “One
thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”5
Those good cravings are the antidotes
to the greed Satan wants to implant in the human heart.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on these verses: “If poverty has its problems, love of
wealth is not an appropriate alternative (cf. Ps. 37:16). The words money (kesep, ‘silver’) and wealth
(hamôn, ‘abundance, ‘plenty’) are respectively silver used as a medium of exchange, and wealth in the form
of goods and possession (cf. Ezk. 29:19, RSV). They speak of the capital one has, while gain (t
e
buw’â,
‘income, increase, harvest’) is the hope of the further income, a ‘harvest’ in store (for the word has
agricultural associations.) In general (for wisdom literature deals in generalizations) promotion anticipated is
more attractive than promotion in the event. Increased wealth brings increased taxation (in more than one
sense!). For riches have a knack of disappearing down a drain of increased responsibilities. An ‘extended
family’ will extend a bit further with each increment; the wage-earner will see the goods but no more. A
glimpse is given of two case histories. The rich man suffers from insomnia. Either his physique or his cares
keep him awake. On the other hand a laborer, though comparatively poorer, finds that both his daily work
and his freedom from care enable him to sleep soundly. The Preacher asks: whose position is preferable?
The rich man’s surfeit (RSV) has been taken to refer to his wealth (NIV, JB; cf. GNB has so much) or his full
stomach (NASV). Translations which retain the ambiguity are best.”
iii. Wealth-loved and lost 5:13-17
13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
14 or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him.
15 Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from
his labor that he can carry in his hand.
16 This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the
wind?
17 All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.
In introducing these verses, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “We now pass to those who
have had wealth and lost it. First the tale is presented; we see wealth acquired (13) and lost (14a), and man’s
inability to pass anything on (14b) or take anything with him (15). Then follows a grim view of the life of
the one who loved and lost his wealth (16f.).”
The picture of Job comes to mind, who, when stripped of everything that made life good and
meaningful to him, exclaimed: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord
gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”1 But this is not the conclusion the
Teachers comes to in these verses. It is true that for Solomon the case was hypothetical. He never lost his
wealth during his life, but in a sense he left this world poorer than he came into it. At his birth God gave him
the name Jedidiah.2
He ended his life as an idol worshipper.3
The Teacher describes the experiences as “a grievous evil,” (Hebrew: ra chalah). Chalah means
literally: “to be rubbed” or “worn,” “to be weak,” or “sick,” or “to make sick.” The addition “under the sun,”
however, means that the heavenly perspective is purposely omitted. God is left out of the picture, which
causes a reaction to be opposite to Job’s.
The Hebrew of v.13 (v.12 in The Interlinear Hebrew Bible) reads literally: “There is a sore evil
which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.”
Most commentators, commenting on the thought of hurt possessions can bring to the owner,
concentrate on outside factors. The Adam Clarke’s Commentary, for instance, states: “This may be the case
through various causes: 1. He may make an improper use of them, and lose his health by them. 2. He may
join in an unfortunate partnership and lose all. 3. His riches may excite the desire of the robber; and he may
spoil him of his goods, and even take away his life. 4. Or, he may leave them to his son, who turns profligate,
spends the whole, and ruins both his body and soul. I have seen this again and again.” I believe that, more
than material loss, it is the damage wealth can do to a person’s soul that should be thought of. The Apostle
Paul captures best the thought when, in writing to Timothy, he states: “People who want to get rich fall into
temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the
faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”4 And Jesus, of course, captures it best in the statement:
“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in
exchange for his soul?”5
V.14 does seem to refer to loss of wealth through one misfortune or another. But the Hebrew text is
open for different interpretations. The Hebrew reads literally: “But those riches perish by evil travail …”
The Hebrew word, rendered “travail,” “misfortune,” (The New International Version), “risky investments
that turn sour” (The New Living Translation) is the translation of the Hebrew word `inyan, which can be
rendered “ado,” “employment,” or “an affair.” The word only appears in Ecclesiastes and it is therefore
difficult to determine how it could be used in other contexts. In other verses in this book, the word is
variously translated as “burden,” “work,” “task,” “toil,” “cares,” or “labor.”
The text introduces the thought of leaving some capital behind which may profit the son, or
children in general. About this, The Pulpit Commentary coments: “His misery is doubled by the reflection
that he has lost all hope of securing a fortune for his children, or founding a family, or passing on an
inheritance to posterity. It is doubtful to whom the pronoun ‘his’ refers. Many consider that the father is
meant, and the clause says that when he has begotten a son, he finds he has nothing to give him. But the
suffix seems most naturally to refer to the son, who is thus left a pauper.” Thus, as the father was born naked
and died in similar fashion, so the son is left naked and out in the cold.
More than the material heritage a person may leave behind, the Teacher may have had in mind
another, more spiritual, legacy we all leave, or fail to leave behind at death. The thought that ought to occupy
the mind of every person is how much lasting fruit we produce during life on earth.
No one lives in vain in this world. Even if we leave God out of the picture during life on earth, we
contribute to the glory of God. The Book of Proverbs states: “The Lord works out everything for his own
ends — even the wicked for a day of disaster.”1 The Apostle Paul states: “For we will all stand before God’s
judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every
tongue will confess to God.’”2 And: “Therefore God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the
name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”3 This
does not mean eternal salvation for every individual, but it means that even the lost will recognize the reality
of God’s plan of life on which they missed out.
V.16 is a comment on v.15 about the way we enter and leave this world naked. The saying “You
can’t take it with you!” says it all. So what is the importance of accumulation? The answer is “nothing!”
Asaph elaborates the thought in one of his psalms where the theme is jealousy. We read: “Do not be
overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with
him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him. Though while he lived he counted himself blessed
— and men praise you when you prosper — he will join the generation of his fathers, who will never see the
light [of life]. A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.”4 Michael A.
Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on vv.15 and 16: “The verse does not say he takes nothing with him; he
takes nothing in his hand (i.e. tangible, material possessions). With him go his character and his conscience.
The Hebrew for just as is emphatic and may be translated ‘quite exactly as.’ What a man has in his hand at
birth signifies what capital he brought with him – nothing. What he may take with him exactly corresponds.
The accumulation was futile.”
iv. Remedy recalled 5:18-20
18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his
toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him — for this is his lot.
19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept
his lot and be happy in his work — this is a gift of God.
20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
The Hebrew text of v.18, which is v.17 in The Interlinear Hebrew Bible, reads literally: “Behold
that which I have seen: it is good and comely [for one] to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his
labor that he takes under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him: for it [is] his portion.”
Michael A Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on this section: “The bitterness of the life-story just
sketched makes this an appropriate place for the Preacher to recall his remedy. No mention was made of
God in 5:13-17; under the sun indicated his world-view (5:13). But the Preacher does not allow any to forget
that there is another aspect to life. Behold introduces a different angle altogether. There is another life,
equally outward, real, observable. I have seen it, says the Preacher. It is enjoyable in toil, not in its absence.
It is a God-given provision in a brief life. To eat and drink is expressive of companionship, joy and
satisfaction, including religious celebration (Dt. 14:26); here it is the symbol of a contented and happy life.
In 1 Kings 4:20 the phrase summarizes the peaceful contentment of Solomon’s reign (cf. also Je. 22:15).
This is the wise man’s portion … Wealth in a secular context (for the word God is absent throughout 5:8-17)
may lead to misery. But not all wealth is thereby condemned. The possibility is held out of wealth combined
with power to enjoy it. Secular-minded men may assume the two invariably go together; the Preacher
regards them as distinct. The secret of such a life is God’s will, for all depends on whether God gives the
wealth and the power of enjoyment. On man’s side it depends on acceptance of the style of life God
apportions, and awareness of the God-given nature of all wealth. The Hebrew (‘God … makes a master/
gives mastery in order to enjoy …’) suggests that a man must be in control of his attitude to wealth rather
than his attitude to wealth in control of him (cf. Phil. 4:12). Secular man may live a life of drudgery, but for
the God-centered man it will be otherwise. The thought here is not that life will be so quiet that nothing
memorable will take place … but that life will be so occupied with jubilation that the vanity of life will be
well-nigh forgotten. It is not entirely forgotten, however, for the word much (translated ‘overmuch’ by RSV
in 7:16, a meaning suitable here) implies that life’s brevity will be kept in mind (cf. Ps. 90:12), but not so as
to give the sleepless nights of 2:23. The Hebrew of keeps him occupied with is linked with the term
‘business’ that has occurred throughout Ecclesiastes. There is a business that vexes and frustrates (cf. 1:13;
4:8), the life given to man to live within a vain world with its kinks and gaps (cf. 1:15). The Preacher repeats
his remedy of a God-given life of faith and joy which is even more preoccupying.”
As always in reference to toil there is the underlying thought of the curse of sin that made man to
eat his food by the sweat of his brow.1 There can be no enjoyment of toil without atonement and
forgiveness. On this we have more insight than Solomon could ever have. It is what Jesus accomplished for
us in dying on the cross and rising from the dead that made the Apostle Paul say: “So whether you eat or
drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”2 And: “And whatever you do, whether in word or
deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”3
That is the
point no Old Testament saint could ever reach.
v. Wealth and its insecurity 6:1-6
1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men:
2 God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does
not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot
enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.
5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man—
6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same
place?
The “evil” in these verses is not, as The Pulpit Commentary assumes, the fact that God gives a man
wealth, possessions and honor, but rather that he is unable to enjoy it. The Teacher does not explain why the
rich man does not experience satisfaction from his riches. We only learn that someone else does. The main
lesson to be drawn from this is that material possessions are unable to give the satisfaction that the human
soul craves. But that is not what is stated here. What Moses said about food for the stomach can be applied to
any kind of physical enjoyment. Speaking about the way God fed Israel in the desert, he stated: “[The Lord]
humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers
had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth
of the Lord.”1
And Jesus advised: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust
destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth
and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your
heart will be also.”2 God created the human heart in such a way that only He could satisfy its longings.
We can see in these words how Solomon reacted to the riches and honor God bestowed upon him
as the fulfillment of the dream he had in which he asked God to give him primarily wisdom. Yet, the picture
does not completely fit Solomon’s experience either. He may have fathered “a hundred children,” as the man
in the text, but there the comparison ends.
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “Two of the words here given, ‘riches’ and ‘honor,’ are those
used by God in blessing Solomon in the vision at Gibeon (… 1 Kings 3:13); but all three are employed in the
parallel passage (… 2 Chronicles 1:11). So that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth. ‘His
soul’ is the man himself, his personality, as … Psalm 49:19. So in the parable (… Luke 12:19) the rich fool
says to his soul, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years.’ In the supposed case the man is able to
procure for himself everything which he wants; has no occasion to deny himself the gratification of any
rising desire. All this comes from God’s bounty; but something more is wanted to bring happiness. Yet God
giveth him not power to eat thereof. ‘To eat’ is used in a metaphorical sense for ‘to enjoy,’ take advantage
of, make due use of …. The ability to enjoy all these good things is wanting, either from discontent, or
moroseness, or sickness, or as a punishment for secret sin. But a stranger eateth it. The ‘stranger’ is not the
legal heir, but an alien to the possessor’s blood, neither relation nor even necessarily a friend. For a childless
Oriental to adopt an heir is a common custom at the present day. The wish to continue a family, to leave a
name and inheritance to children’s children, was very strong among the Hebrews — all the stronger as the
life beyond the grave was dimly apprehended. Abraham expressed this feeling when he sadly cried, ‘I go
childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Dammesek Eliezer’ (… Genesis 15:2). The evils are
two — that this great fortune brings no happiness to its possessor, and that it passes to one who is nothing to
him. An evil disease; Septuagint, an evil as bad as the diseases spoken of in … Deuteronomy 28:27, 28.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “The man under the blessing of God (5:18-20) has
passed from view. We see instead one to whom God has given wealth, though there is no indication that he
recognized the source of his wealth. The previous man was given ‘power to enjoy’ what he had (5:19); this
one is not, and accordingly is unable to be contented. Again the man’s plight is described in general terms,
leaving the reader to envisage what takes away his power to enjoy. Is it some calamity, or simply the
playboy’s boredom? He had all a man might ask for (cf. 2 Ch. 1:11f., echoing the same terms), but either no
appetite or no opportunity to enjoy it. Honor adds a note unmentioned in 5:8-20; this man has fame to go
with his wealth. The word (kâbôd) need not to be taken as a further term for wealth on the grounds that one
can scarcely eat it …; eat means ‘enjoy’ here (cf. Is. 3:10). His riches do not enable him personally to
achieve anything: ‘a stranger may enjoy them’ (as the Hebrew can be translated). He cannot even feel that at
least he has passed his wealth on to a son who will fulfill his father’s ambitions. The clause is a contrast (but
a stranger …), not an explanation (for, NASV). What if the man of 6:1f. was cut off in his prime? The
Preacher takes a further example. Another man lives a long life and has a very large family. Yet that is not
guarantee of happiness, for he may die unsatisfied and unmourned. The reference to a hundred children,
although only a generalization and an exaggeration (cf. a thousand years, v.6), is less extravagant than
modern urbanized man might imagine (cf. Jdg. 8:30). RSV lives many years, so that the days of his years are
many (cf. AV, RV) is needlessly repetitive. Others see here a concessive clause: ‘great as may be the days of
his years’ (most modern translations …). But Hebrew ‘great’ (rab) may mean ‘eminent,’ ‘great in
reputation’ (cf. La. 1:1), giving the better translation ‘If a man lives many years and is great as are the years
of his life …’. The man’s fame is great as his years are long. Despite family, longevity and fame, life may so
miscarry as to incur lifelong dissatisfaction and an unmourned death. The soul in AV his soul is not filled
with good is the whole inner ‘life’ of man, and is used here as his capacity for feelings, inclinations,
enjoyment, satisfaction. In most modern translations it is simple he. To die unburied was the mark of a
despised and unmourned end (cf. Je. 22:18f. …). Better to miscarry throughout life. The child born dead is
compared in vv.4f. with the dissatisfied rich man of v.3. Comes refers to its disastrous birth (cf. 1:4). Into
vanity may mean ‘into this vain world,’ but in this setting ‘to no purpose’ is a better translation. The
darkness is the realm of the dead, a contrast to the real under the sun (cf. Ps. 58:8). It would be pressing the
text unduly to take it as implying misery. The name in Hebrew thought is more than a label; it includes the
personality and the character. The still-born child has no chance to develop a character or acquire a
reputation. This puts negatively what v.4 said positively. The still-born child has no experience of life (has
not seen the sun) or knowledge of this world. But the discontented rich man is worse off. The child at least
has rest; he does not have to endure the conflicts of life ‘under the sun.’ Some translations lose the reference
to rest (NASV, Moffatt, NEB; JB never knowing rest is an unlikely translation; it results from punctuating
the Hebrew differently). The question of the long life raised in v.3 is taken up. What is the use of it if it is but
prolonged misery? A thousand years twice over is ironic exaggeration: Methuselah’s life twice over cannot
satisfy if the outlook is awry. The abrupt intrusion of the next comment: Do not all go to the same place?
brushes the question of longevity aside. The destination is common to all, no matter how long it takes to get
there. The one place is ‘Sheol,’ the realm of the dead.”
The question in v.6: “Do not all go to the same place?” is left unanswered, but the answer is
understood as affirmative. This leaves resurrection or afterlife out of the picture. And if death would have in
fact the last word, everything does become meaningless and examples could be multiplied.
This leaves the puzzling question whether the fate of a stillborn child is better than that of the
victim of life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And since we are quoting Hamlet, we could ask if
it is better “not to be than to be.” The fact that the Teacher compares one to the other means that he considers
both to have personality, otherwise the comparison would be meaningless. It is obvious that a miscarriage or
death at birth is not part of God’s original plan with mankind. But neither is what happens to the luckless
fellow who loses all his wealth. Since death is seen as the equalizer here, it means that sin plays a role. Both
the fetus and the loser were alive. The difference between one and the other is that for the baby’s life ceased
before it could be lived in this world. The womb was the only place it ever knew. The hapless man knew
both. Since God created both the child and the man, their existence was God-given, which means that is was
good. There is only one case in all of Scripture in which a person is said to be better off if he had never
existed: Judas. Jesus said to him: “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him
if he had not been born.”
vi. Insatiable longing 6:7-9
7 All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied.
8 What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct
himself before others?
9 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the
wind.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated “appetite” is nephesh, which means “soul.” We find it in
the verse describing the creation of Adam: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”1
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “All the labor of man is for his mouth: i.e. for self-preservation
and enjoyment, eating and drinking being taken as a type of the proper use of earthly blessings (comp; …
Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:13, etc.; … Psalm 128:2). The sentiment is general, and does not refer specially to the
particular person described above, though it carries on the idea of the unsatisfactory result of wealth.”
Two thoughts come to mind. The first is Moses’ statement: “Man does not live on bread alone but
on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”2 Leaving God out of the picture and concentrating
exclusively on the satisfaction of physical appetites will leave the human soul empty. Only God can fill our
deepest longings.
The second important truth is that joy is a fruit of obedience. Jesus said to His disciples: “If you
obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in
his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”3
If joy
becomes the sole goal of life’s search it will never be found.
On v.8, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: “Expositors differ widely on this verse. Most
take the first question as purely rhetorical; some … take it as a real question. The second half may then be a
further question, or a reply to the first question: ‘That which the poor man who knows how to conduct
himself also has.’ Others see a different question: ‘What advantage does the poor man have over him who
knows how to …? Or: ‘Why should a poor man know how to face life?’ The Preacher seems to ask two
questions, implying a negative answer: Does the wise man have an advantage in his life? Does it help the
poor man that he learns to ingratiate himself before others and so improve his lot? The last word may mean
‘life’ or ‘the living.’ The mention of the poor man indicates the continuance of the themes of poverty and
wealth. To walk before someone is to live as to please him (cf. 1 Ki. 2:4).”
The Hebrew of v.9 reads literally: “Better [is] the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire:
this is also vanity and vexation of spirit.” The Hebrew word for “wandering” is halak, which is the same
word, rendered “to conduct himself,” or “to walk before” in the previous verse.
The question about the advantage of wisdom brings us back to the first test to which Adam and Eve
were subjected, the test they failed. In choosing to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge instead of from
the tree of life, they separated wisdom from fellowship with God, forfeiting life. We see again what the
results are when man leaves God out of the picture. Knowledge and the ability to apply it, which is wisdom,
is indeed vanity if it is not seen in relationship with God. The words of the Apostle Paul fit well into this
context: “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God —
that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in
the Lord.’”
vii. An impasse 6:10-12
10 Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with
one who is stronger than he.
11 The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?
12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through
like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?
The basic question in v.10 is the one David asked most eloquently in one of his psalms. Looking at
the night sky into the universe, he said: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon
and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you
care for him?”1 But where David voiced amazement at the greatness God had given to His puny creatures,
Solomon concludes that man is too tiny and insignificant to face his Creator.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.10: “To ‘give something a name’ is to study or
(as here) to appoint its character. Both the world (what is) and man have settled characters. One who is
stronger than he is God. Thus the Preacher is underlining the impossibility of changing the basic character
of life. Man cannot escape his limitations, nor can he completely unravel the world’s anomalies (cf. 1:14).
He may, like Job, wish to debate the matter with God, but God is altogether greater.”
Barnes’ Notes observes: “Or, ‘That which has been named-i.e., events past or current, either (Eccl
1:9) as they present themselves to man, or (Eccl 3:15) as they are ordered by God-was long ago (i.e., was
decreed, its nature and place were defined by the Almighty), and was known that it is man;’ i.e., the course
of events shapes the conduct and character of man, so that what he does and suffers is said to be or constitute
the man. God from the beginning definitely ordained the course of events external to man, and constituted
man in such a way that events materially affect his conduct and his destiny. Hence, God, by withholding
from certain people the gift of contentment, and thus subjecting them to vanity, is acting according to the
predetermined course of His Providence which man cannot alter (compare Rom 8:20). Others translate,
‘What there is, its name is named long ago and known, that it is man;’ i.e., ‘What hath been and is, not only
came into existence long ago (Eccl 1:9; 3:15), but also has been known and named, and is acknowledged
that it, besides other things, is specially man; that man always remains the same, and cannot go beyond his
appointed bounds.’”
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary writes: “It is ultimately useless to try to change things, and to wish
for more than one has. Submission to the fixed order is best, since God has determined things the way they
are. Man is powerless even to argue the issue.”
The Pulpit Commentary states about v.10: “That which hath been is named already; better,
whatsoever hath been, long ago hath its name been given. The word rendered ‘already,’ kebar (…
Ecclesiastes 1:10; 2:12; 3:15; 4:2), ‘long ago,’ though used elsewhere in this book of events in human
history, may appropriately be applied to the Divine decrees which predetermine the circumstances of man’s
life. This is its significance in the present passage, which asserts that everything which happens has been
known and fixed beforehand, and therefore that man cannot shape his own life. No attempt is here made to
reconcile this doctrine with man’s free-will and consequent responsibility. The idea has already been
presented in … Ecclesiastes 3:1, etc. It comes forth in … Isaiah 45:9, ‘Shall the clay say to him that
fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?’ (comp. … Romans 9:20); … Acts 15:18
(according to the Textus Receptus), ‘Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.’
The same idea is brought out more fully in the following clauses. Septuagint, ‘If anything ever was, already
hath its name been called,’ which gives the correct sense of the passage. … And it is known that it is man.
What is meant by the Authorized Version is doubtful. If the first clause had been translated, as in the margin
of the Revised Version, ‘Whatsoever he be, his name was given him long ago,’ the conclusion would come
naturally, ‘and it is known that he is man’ (Adam), and we should see an allusion to man’s name and to the
ground (adamah) from which he was taken (… Genesis 2:7), as if his very name betokened his weakness.
But the present version is very obscure. Cox gives, ‘It is very certain that even the greatest is but a man, and
cannot contend with him,’ etc. But the Hebrew will not admit this rendering. The clause really amplifies the
previous statement of man’s predetermined destiny, and it should be rendered, ‘And it is known what a man
shall be.’ Every individual comes under God’s prescient superintendence. … ‘It is known what man is’ ….
But it is not the nature of man that is in question, but his conditioned state. Neither may he contend with him
that is mightier than he. The mightier One is God, in accordance with the passages quoted above from
Isaiah, Acts, and Romans. Some consider that death is intended, and that the author is referring to the
shortness of man’s life. They say that the word taqqiph, ‘mighty’ (which occurs only in Ezra and Daniel), is
never used of God. But is it used of death? And is it not used of God in … Daniel 4:3 (3:33, Hebrew), where
Nebuchadnezzar says, ‘How mighty are his wonders’? To bring death into consideration is to introduce a
new thought having no connection with the context, which is not speaking of the termination of man’s life,
but of its course, the circumstances of which are arranged by a higher Power. … With this we may compare
… 1 Corinthians 10:22, ‘Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?”
What the Teacher seems to say here is that God predestined everything in life, leaving man without
choices. The question whether man has a free will has been the subject of discussion all through the history
of mankind. One remarkable thing, however, is, that those who deny man’s ability to choose freely do not
act accordingly. They go through life making their own choices, as if God’s predestination does not affect
the matters they are dealing with. This brings us back again to the Genesis record in which we read how God
involved Adam in His creation and made him lord over the animal world. We read: “Now the Lord God had
formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to
see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the
man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.”1
In that instant, at
least, the “naming,” that is the predestination of roles of the species was not determined by God but by man.
There is no doubt that the coming of sin damaged man’s ability to choose freely and wisely. Sin is slavery
and slaves have little choice. But to say that sin eliminated man’s will does not bear out in daily life either.
One of man’s problems, if that is the right word to use, is that he is created in time and space. Since
that is the only life he knows, he cannot understand eternity. God created time, but He is not subject to it. To
say that God predetermines puts God into the framework of time, which does not correspond to the reality of
eternity. But we can only speak about eternity in terms of time. We have no word or concept to conceive of
anything that is outside of time and space. That is at the core of the Teacher’s problem here.
The Hebrew word rendered “contend” is diyn, which implies the ability to judge. The idea of
“striving with God” would be to take God to task. To this the Apostle Paul replies: “But who are you, O
man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘ ‘Why did you make me like
this?’ ‘”2
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.12: “Previously the Preacher had asked who
appreciates the nature of man’s life as it goes beyond death (3:21, Heb.); now he asks who is able to point
out what will truly satisfy as a basis of life. What is needed is something which will be adequate for every
day (according to the number of the days), which will be lifelong and not merely passing (in life), which can
cope with the inherent futility of the earthly realm (his vain life), and the brevity of man (compared to a
shadow, as in 8:13). Who know …? is followed by Who can tell man …? (cf. 3:21f.). The two types of
question indicate a double problem. The generality of men have no wisdom in themselves (Who knows …?);
nor can others easily be found to help (Who can tell …?). As Kidner puts it: ‘He is left with no absolute
values to live for (‘‘what is good?’’); not even any practical certainties (‘‘what will be?’’) to plan for.’ Like
the Mosaic law (cf. Gal. 3:22), the Preacher is slamming every door except the door of faith.”
C. Suffering and Sin 7:1 – 8:1
In introducing this section, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states: “The proverbial units of this
section deal with aspects of life that anger or infuriate. The early proverbs deal with death or suffering (7:1-
4, 7, 10, 14). Seven proverbs in 7:1-3, 5, 8, 10 are comparisons involving the words ‘better than,’ a common
proverbial style. Since the Preacher was a collector of proverbs (12:9f.), these may be fragmentary
collection of ‘Better than’ proverbs, though the subject-matter provides a fundamental unity. First the reader
is shown the possible instructiveness of sufferings (1-6), then the dangers of trials, compromise, impatience,
anger, discontent (7-10). Wisdom is indispensable (11f.); life is under the hand of God (13f.). Thus the first
half of ch.7 follows up the theme of Ecclesiastes as a whole with the question: Will the life of faith survive
hard and troublesome times when the ‘good old days’ have gone and the ‘days of adversity’ come? The
second half of the chapter moves from the crookedness of life (13) to that of mankind (29). Basic questions
touching the origin, universality, inequity and perverseness of evil are posed in a mixture of factual
statement and exhortation, urging also the need for wisdom which is so rare and remote (19, 23f.) and
concluding in 8:1 with a further appeal for wisdom.”
i. Instruction from sufferings 7:1-6
1 A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.
2 It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of
every man; the living should take this to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
5 It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.
6 Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary comments on this section: “To have a good name, that is, a good
reputation (cf. Prov 3:4; 22:1), is better than having the luxury of much fine perfume. An honorable life
makes a man’s day of death better than his day of birth, for at the end he knows he has made something out
of life.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes about the opening verse: “There is no need to hold that
the first half of v.1 is ‘a proverbial phrase which has no relation to the content,’ … or a conventional proverb
followed by an unconventional deduction …. We may translate: ‘As a name is better than oil, so the day of
death is better than the day of birth,’ thus avoiding the anomaly of a dangling irrelevance. The first half may
well have been a popular saying; if so, the Preacher is comparing his point (1b) with a well-known
distinction (1a; cf. Song 1:3). Hebrew comparisons often put two statements alongside each other leaving
out ‘As … so’ (cf. Pr. 17:3). The word-play of name (šçm) and oil (šemen) is preserved in Williams’ ‘Better
is name than nard’ and Martin’s ‘Fair fame is better than fine perfume.’ In Israel a name was no mere label
but intended to express an underlying nature. What is in view is not simply a good name (which may be
undeserved), but a reputation which flows from character. Such a name was highly valued; even God at the
time of the exodus ‘got himself a name’ (Ne. 9:10). As inner character is more crucial than outer fragrance,
so is the funeral, not the rowdy birthday party, that poses the ultimate questions about life the Preacher is
pressing. This severe statement arises not from despondency but from sheer realism.”
The Pulpit Commentary also suggests a translation that reflects the wordplay of the Hebrew:
“Better is good favor than good flavor.” The commentary states furthermore: “We employ a metaphor like
that in the clause when we speak of a man’s reputation having a good or ill odor; and the Hebrews said of ill
fame that it stank in the nostrils (… Genesis 34:30; … Exodus 5:21; see, on the opposite side, … 2
Corinthians 2:15)”
An interpretation that circumvents the tension of the limping comparison between the two thoughts
would be to place the Teacher’s observation at the time of the person’s death. The “good name” is then the
reputation the deceased leaves behind, which is mentioned at the memorial service, and the “fine perfume”
is that which is used to embalm the body. The “fine perfume” is then a status symbol for the rich. The dead
man could afford to expensive embalmment, which covers up his bad reputation. It is true that in modern
Western society the dead man’s faults and failures are rarely mentioned at the time of death. But that may
not have been so in ancient times. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony begins his eulogy of the
murdered emperor with the words: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury
Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft entered with their bones. So
let it be with Caesar.”
Few people will agree with the Teacher’s assessment that “the day of death is better than the day of
birth.” This amounts to saying that death is better than life. Yet, when we take a closer look at the thought
the Teacher’s wants to impress, we understand that the point he is making is a valid one. His main concern is
the condition of the human heart. The heart of the fool seeks pleasure in order to avoid facing the reality of
life. The realization that we all stand at death’s door can bring about a sense of reality. It has been said that
nothing clears the head like a hanging. Jeremiah’s statement comes to mind: “The heart is deceitful above all
things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”1
The thought of death serves to give us a sense of
accountability. The “good name” has in it the suggestion of a character that has come to grips with its own
sinful tendencies. To cover up the stench of sin by the use of perfume does not help in the presence of God.
It is only when we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ that our name is changed and we acquire a
good testimony. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ
among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the
other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?”2 When God smells the aroma of Christ in us,
people will also.
Although death has so far only been presented as an equalizer and as the only visible end of life,
there is in these verses a glimmer of hope. After all, if death is presented as “better” it cannot merely be the
end of everything.
In the Hebrew text of v.6 there is a play-on-words which is lost in most translations. The Hebrew
word for “thorns” and for “pot” is almost identical: cirah or ciyrah. Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes
about this: “The pun ‘Like the sound of sîrîm (thorns) under the sîr (pot, cauldron)’ is caught by Moffatt’s
Like nettles under kettles. Thorns were rapidly burning, easily extinguishable fuel in the ancient world (Ps.
58:9). Thus fools’ laughter is a sudden flame, a fine display of sparks, accompanied by plenty of noise, but
soon spent and easily put out. The last phrase notes that the superficiality of the fool is part of life’s vanity,
which elsewhere is said to characterize both the environment of man (1:22ff.) and man himself (6:12).”
7 Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.
9 Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
10 Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions.
The Hebrew text of v.7 reads literally: “Surely oppression makes a wise man mad; and a gift
destroys the heart.” The Adam Clarke’s Commentary states: “This has been translated with good show of
reason, ‘Surely oppression shall give luster to a wise man: but a gift corrupteth the heart.’ The chief
difference here is in the word y-howleel, which, from the root haalal, signifies to glister, irradiate, as well as
to move briskly, to be mad, furious, in a rage; and certainly the former meaning suits this place best. We
cannot think that the wise man-he that is truly religious, (for this is its meaning in the language of Solomon,)
can be made mad by any kind of oppression; but as he trusts in God, so in patience he possesses his soul.”
The Pulpit Commentary observes: “The verse begins with ki, which usually introduces a reason for
what has preceded; but the difficulty in finding the connection has led to various explanations and evasions.
The Authorized Version boldly separates the verse from what has gone before, and makes a new paragraph
beginning with ‘surely.’” Agreeing with this observation about the problem in connection with the word ki,
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, adds: “Thus vv.7-10 introduce the less beneficial effects of trials.
Oppression ‘makes a man mad’ and may cause even a wise man to lose his head (cf. Dt. 28:33f.). Similarly
the whole inner life of man may be brought to spiritual ruin by the temptations that belong to an oppressive
regime. To secure a perfect parallelism some have understood oppression (NIV extortion) to refer to the
exercise of it rather than the suffering under it (JB laughter … merriment follows an amended text). The
Preacher would thus be urging that the ‘very exercise of oppression tends to infatuate and bewilder’ ….
Alternatively the Hebrew word (`ôðeq) has been taken to mean ‘bribe’ or ‘slander’ … this securing a
synonymous parallelism. Verses 1-14, however, deal with the suffering of oppression, not its exercise. It is
better, therefore, to see here not synonymous parallelism (taking the thought further). The first line, then,
speaks of a pressure which oppression may exert on the faithful; the second goes further and provides an
example of how a wise man may be ‘made mad’ by another kind of folly.”
The Hebrew text of v.8 reads literally: “Better [is] the end of a thing than the beginning thereof:
[and] better [is] the patient in spirit than the proud in spirit.” This sounds like “All’s well that ends well.” But
the Teacher does not mention whether the end is good or bad. The New Living Translation renders this as
“Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes here: “The second warning concerns patience. NAB
end of speech takes a Hebrew word (dâbâr) in its other meaning, but end of a thing fits better and has the
assent of most translators. In a number of passages end has the sense of ‘outcome,’ ‘end-product’ (cf. Pr.
14:12) and this is suitable here. The proverb implies that times of trial may be purposeful, that they are
confined to limited seasons, that the end-product makes them worth while (cf. Jas. 1:2-4). Thus the reader is
invited to grasp the hope of an ‘outcome’ to trials and to face them accordingly. This will enable him to
overcome premature complaint, boasting or arrogance and thus be patient in spirit. The antithesis patient …
proud suggest that patience is an aspect of humility and impatience a proud irritation at God’s ways with
men (Pr. 16:5).”
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary comments on this verse, stating: “Dr. Byrom gives good advice
on such a subject:
‘With patient mind thy course of duty run:
God nothing does, nor suffers to be done,
But thou wouldst do thyself, couldst thou but see
The end of all events, as well as HE.’
I may add, in the words of our paraphrasist:
‘Wait the result, nor ask with frantic rage
Why God permits such things. His ways, though now
Involved in clouds and darkness, will appear
All right, when from thine eyes the mist is clear’d.
Till then, to learn submission to his will
More wisdom shows, than vainly thus to attempt
Exploring what thou canst not comprehend,
And God for wisest ends thinks fit to hide.’”
The question remains whether the Teacher makes the statement as a continuation of the negative
insinuation that death is better than life, or if he makes us look at the results of our efforts, the harvest of the
fruit of our labor. He leaves the answer to this question dangling before us as a mind teaser. The fact that
“patience” is put in opposition to “pride” suggests that, more than showing us the light at the end of the
tunnel, the Teacher wants to remind us that God is more interested in our attitude than our achievements.
The words of the Apostle Peter come to mind, who, speaking about trials, writes: “These have come so that
your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved
genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”1
If we become angry with God because of the troubles we go through in life, we miss the purpose
for which they come our way. Faith means trusting God in the dark.
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary observes about the phrase “Why were the old days better than
these?”: “This is a common saying; and it is as foolish as it is common. There is no weight nor truth in it; but
men use it to excuse their crimes, and the folly of their conduct. ‘In former times, say they, men might be
more religious, use more self-denial, be more exemplary.’ This is all false. In former days men were wicked
as they are now, and religion was unfashionable: God also is the same now as he was then; as just, as
merciful, as ready to help: and there is no depravity in the age that will excuse your crimes, your follies, and
your carelessness. Among the oriental proverbs I find the following: ‘Many say, This is a corrupt age. This
mode of speaking is not just; it is not the age that is corrupt, but the men of the age.’”
G. K. Chesterton once wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper: “Dear Sirs, Regarding your
question: ‘What is wrong with this world?’ I am, faithfully yours, G. K. Chesterton.”
What makes people ask the question is usually the fact that memory has a tendency to distort.
Having spent part of my youth during World War II under Nazi occupation, I cannot imagine any period in
my life that could be worse. “The good old days” were for me the most horrible episode imaginable.
Yet, the human tendency seems to be to idealize the past, conveniently forgetting the trouble. The
Pulpit Commentary observes: “In yearning again for the fleshpots of Egypt, the Israelites forgot the bondage
and misery which were the accompaniments of those sensual pleasures.” In remembering the fleshpots and
garlic of Egypt, the Israelites forgot the murder of their infant sons.
We do well to remember the words of Jesus, who, promising us His peace, said: “In this world you
will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”2
iii. The need of wisdom 7:11-12
11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.
12 Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom
preserves the life of its possessor.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, believing that the inheritance refers to the Promised Land,
comments on these verses: (11). “The Hebrew could be translated ‘Wisdom is good with an inheritance’ or
‘… as good as an inheritance’ (Heb. `im meaning ‘in common with,’ ‘like’ ‘as … as’ is found in Ps. 73:5b;
Ec. 2:16 and elsewhere). In the first case the thought is that family wealth is desirable – the Bible never sees
any inherent blessing in poverty – but unaccompanied by wisdom it will not sustain in times of adversity. If
‘as … as’ is the right translation, wisdom is being compared to an inheritance: it comes supremely from the
Lord (cf. Dt. 4:21), is greatly to be desired (cf. Pr. 3:13-18), and should be the inalienable possession of the
people of God. (12). This should be translated: ‘To be in the shadow of wisdom is like being in the shadow
of silvers; and knowledge is an advantage; wisdom keeps the life of him who has it.’ To be ‘in the shadow of
silver’ refers to the protective power of wealth. Like riches, knowledge and wisdom protect, but at a deeper
level.”
Interestingly, the readers’ attention is drawn here to the sun instead of the focus being on things
“under the sun.” And as it had been stated about money that “you cannot take it with you,” wisdom is here
represented as something that can cross the great divide into eternity.
The Pulpit Commentary states: “The inheritance spoken of is a hereditary one; the man who is ‘rich
with ancestral wealth’ is enabled to employ his wisdom to good purpose, his position adding weight to his
words and actions, and relieving him from the low pursuit of moneymaking. Many commentators, thinking
such a sentiment alien from the context, render the particle `im- not ‘with,’ but ‘as’ ‘Wisdom is [as] good as
an inheritance’ …. This is putting wisdom on rather a low platform, and one would have expected to read
some such aphorism as ‘Wisdom is better than rubies’ (… Proverbs 8:11), if Koheleth had intended to make
any such comparison. It appears then most expedient to take im in the sense of ‘moreover,’ ‘as well as,’
‘and’ (comp. … 1 Samuel 17:42, ‘ruddy, and (ira) of a fair countenance’). ‘Wisdom is good, and an
inheritance is good’; both are good, but the advantages of the former, as ver. 12 intimates, far outweigh those
of the latter.” It is true that, generally speaking, the words of people with money weigh heavier than the
speech of the penniless, regardless of the presence of wisdom.
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary comments on v.12: “The excellency of knowledge
(is, that) wisdom giveth life to them that have it. Or, as the Chaldaic, Septuagint, Syriac, and Arabic, ‘the
excellency of the knowledge of wisdom giveth life’ - i.e., life in the highest sense, here and hereafter (Prov
3:18; John 17:3; 2 Peter 1:3). But the Hebrew accent supports the English version. Wisdom (religion) cannot
be lost, as money can. It shields one in adversity, as well as prosperity; money, only in prosperity. The
question in Eccl 7:10 implies a want of it.” Solomon’s suggestion “that wisdom preserves the life of its
possessor” becomes a prophecy of New Testament truth if we see it in the light of Paul’s statement: “It is
because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our
righteousness, holiness and redemption.”1
iv. Life under the hand of God 7:13-14
13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as
the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.
The Teacher makes it sound as if God is responsible for the evil that is in the world. A superficial
glance at some biblical truth may suggest this. Job’s words to his wife: “Shall we accept good from God, and
not trouble?” seem to affirm this. Amos asks the question: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord
caused it?”2
And when God called Moses, He seemed to take responsibility for Moses’ speech impediment,
saying: “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him
blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”1
All this seems to contradict James’ assurance that “Every good and perfect gift
is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting
shadows.”2
Michael A. Eaton’s comment in Ecclesiastes, on v.13 states the issue but does not answer the
question it evokes. We read: “This echoes 1:15; crookedness of the world, which is being expounded
throughout, is not mere ‘fate.’ It is subject to God’s will (cf. Rom. 8:20). We may wish to quarrel with it, but
we can effect no change in the basic structure of things.” But this leaves the question whether God must be
seen as the author of evil hanging in midair. Our whole human nature rebels against the thought that God
could be evil, or wants it to exist. A French philosopher’s conclusion was: “If there is a God he is the devil!”
The only natural reaction to such statements would be atheism.
The Pulpit Comment appears to move in the right direction for finding a satisfying interpretation,
without, however, achieving its goal. We read: “True wisdom is shown by submission to the inevitable. In
all that happens one ought to recognize God’s work and God’s ordering, and man’s impotence. For who can
make that straight, which he hath made crooked? The things which God hath made crooked are the
anomalies, the crosses, the difficulties, which meet us in life. Some would include bodily deformities, which
seems to be a piece of unnecessary literalism. Thus the Septuagint … ‘Who will be able to straighten him
whom God has distorted?’ and the Vulgate … ‘No one can amend him whom he hath despised.’ The thought
goes back to what was said in … Ecclesiastes 1:15, ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight;’ and in
… Ecclesiastes 6:10, man ‘cannot contend with him that is mightier than he.’ ‘As for the wondrous works of
the Lord,’ says Ben-Sirs,’ there may be nothing taken from them, neither may anything be put unto them,
neither can the ground of them be found out’ (Ecclus. 18:6). We cannot arrange events according to our
wishes or expectations; therefore not only is placid acquiescence a necessary duty, but the wise man will
endeavor to accommodate himself to existing circumstances.”
The only thing God could be “blamed for,” if “blamed” is the word to use, is that He endowed His
creatures with a free will. The only reason for this, as far as our limited understanding can comprehend this,
is that love is a choice and God created living beings who He wanted to express love. The risky turn-side of
this is that we all, humans and angels have the option of choosing good or evil, life or death. The
crookedness the Teacher speaks about is the result of the wrong choice, first Satan’s and afterward ours. The
crookedness is of our making and we are unable to straighten it ourselves. We read that Jesus said: “‘It is
easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ When
the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at
them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”3 We may not be able to
straighten out our own crookedness, but God can.
These verses speak about more than the hardships of life; they point to the purpose of trials and
temptations, although this is not specifically stated. When God explained to Moses that Moses’ speech
impediment was His doing, He also made him understand that he was kept that way because of the
extraordinary task that God would allow him to perform. Moses found out what Jesus explained to His
disciples to be the secret of His life. He said to Philip: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been
among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the
Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are
not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”4 No one can read Moses’
speeches in Deuteronomy and guess that this eloquence came from a man who couldn’t express himself
clearly. The Apostle Paul has given the best definition of this by saying: “We have this treasure in jars of
clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”1
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary wisely observes: “God has balanced prosperity and adversity
against each other; and were it not so, how many would put the former in the place of God himself!”
There is a blessing in the fact that “a man cannot discover anything about his future,” specifically in
the context of adversity. The fear of tomorrow can be paralyzing. We ought to have faith that God, who has
seen us through yesterday, will be the same when we face tomorrow’s issues.
Jesus says: “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not
labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is
how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not
much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we
drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows
that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to
you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has
enough trouble of its own.”2
v. Dangers along the way 7:15-18
15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his
righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.
16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes].
The two words that stick out like thorns in these verses are “overrighteous” and “overwicked.”
They are the composite rendering of two Hebrew words tsaddiyq rabah and rasha` rabah; tsaddiyq meaning
“righteous,” rasha` “wrong,” and rabah “increase.” Rabah is found for the first time in Scripture in “So God
created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems,
according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God
blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds
increase on the earth.’”3
We have no problem accepting that someone can abound in wickedness, but how could one be too
righteous? There may be some “tongue-in-cheek” element in the Teacher’s statement here, which is meant
to catch our attention. As far as that is concerned, the author reaches his goal quite effectively. The solution
to the apparent contradiction is probably in the phrase “this meaningless life of mine,” Hebrew: “the days of
my vanity.” The Hebrew word hebel, “vanity,” is the keyword in this book. As we have seen earlier, the first
time it is used in Scripture, is in the context of idolatry: “They made me jealous by what is no God and
angered me with their worthless idols.”
The Pulpit Commentary observes: “The exhortation has been variously interpreted to warn against
too scrupulous observance of ritual and ceremonial religion, or the mistaken piety which neglects all
mundane affairs, or the Pharisaical spirit which is bitter in condemning others who fall short of one’s own
standard. Cox will have it that the advice signifies that a prudent man will not be very righteous, since he
will gain nothing by it, nor very wicked, as he will certainly shorten his life by such conduct. But really
Koheleth is condemning the tendency to immoderate asceticism which had begun to show itself in his day
— a rigorous, prejudiced, indiscreet manner of life and conduct which made piety offensive, and afforded no
real aid to the cause of religion. This arrogant system virtually dictated the laws by which Providence should
be governed, and found fault with divinely ordered circumstances if they did not coincide with its
professors’ preconceived opinions. Such religionism might well be called being ‘righteous over much.’
Neither make thyself over wise; … Vulgate … show not thyself too wise; i.e. do not indulge in speculations
about God’s dealings, estimating them according to your own predilections, questioning the wisdom of his
moral government. Against such perverse speculation St. Paul argues (… Romans 9:19, etc.). ‘Thou wilt say
unto me, Why doth he still find fault? For who withstandeth his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that
repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus?’ A
good principle carried to excess may bring evil results.”
Barnes’ Notes may have the best explanation yet of this apparent contradiction. We read: “The
meaning may be best explained by a paraphrase. Solomon states how the wise man should regard the
‘crooked (Eccl 7:13) work of God’ when it bears upon him. He says in effect, ‘Do not think that thou
couldest alter the two instances (described in Eccl 7:15) of such crooked work so as to make it straight, that
thou art more righteous or more wise than He is Who ordained these events. To set up thy judgment in
opposition to His would imply an excess of wickedness and folly, deserving the punishment of premature
death. But rather it is good for thee to grasp these seeming anomalies; if thou ponder them they will tend to
impress on thee that fear of God which is a part of wisdom, and will guide thee safely through all the
perplexities of this life’ (compare Eccl 8:12-13). The suggestion that these verses are intended to advocate a
middle course between sin and virtue is at variance with the whole tenor of the book.”
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary adds: “There cannot be over much of the
righteousness which is by faith. But there is over much of the righteousness that consists in punctiliousness
as to external ordinances, when these are substituted for ‘the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy,
faith, and the love of God’ (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42); and when they blind a man to his utter guiltiness.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, says about being “overrighteous” and “overwicked”: “The
Preacher holds that there is no righteous man (7:20). ‘Do not be greatly righteous’ must be taken ironically
and must refer to the way a person thinks about himself and presents himself. The translation too or
overmuch goes somewhat beyond the Hebrew, which means ‘greatly’ and does not express the judgment
implicit in ‘too great’ or ‘overmuch.’ This view is confirmed in the next line where the Hebrew for Do not
make yourself overwise (RSV) contains a Hebrew hithpael which may mean ‘to play the wise man’ (cf. Nu.
16:13 ‘play the part of a prince’; and 2 Sa. 13:5 ‘pretend to be ill’). Play-acting righteousness delights in the
reputation of wisdom (cf. Mt. 23:7). The contrary danger is capitulation to evil. Greatly (RSV) overmuch)
does not imply that wickedness in moderation is acceptable! To have omitted overmuch, apart from
breaking the parallel in v.16, would have contradicted vv.20, 29. The Preacher recognizes wickedness as a
fact of human experience. The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness,
but not allowing one’s native wickedness to run its own course. The end-product of wickedness run riot may
be an untimely death (Ps. 55:23).”
vi. The need of wisdom 7:19-22
19 Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city.
20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.
21 Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—
22 for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.
The Hebrew of v.19 reads literally: “Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten [men] who are in
the city.” The Hebrew word rendered “strengthen” is `azaz which means “to be stout,” or “be strong.” We
find it in the verse “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war.
The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.”1
The Teacher contrasts two kinds of power in this verse, the natural human clout of those elected to
an office, who exercise authority over those under them, and the power that comes from a relationship with
God. The wise man may lack the first kind of power and consequently he does not influence the course of
human affairs, but he has power where it counts. Humanly speaking he may go unobserved, but God uses
him for the execution of His divine plans. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: “For the foolishness
of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers,
think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many
were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the
wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world
and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may
boast before him.”2
And “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary,
they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets
itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”3
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes about vv.19 and 20: “Both general attitude (fear) and
detailed application (wisdom) are required if the right path between moral legalism and moral indifference is
to be maintained … Either way, the meaning is that wisdom in the fear of God may be greater than the
collective wisdom of a group of experienced leaders. Power from within is needed, more than advice from
without. The argument of vv.16-19 is brought to a climax echoing Solomon’s words in 1 Kings 8:46. It is
put emphatically (with the Heb. emphatic kî, surely); it is a universal truth (not a righteous man on earth); it
covers sins of omission (does good) and commission (never sins).”
The advice of v.21 is intriguing. There are two important points the Teacher wants to make here:
the relative value of the spoken word and the intrinsic honor of being human. To begin with the latter, most
of us take the approval of our fellowmen quite seriously. We want to be appreciated by others and seeking
the honor of our peers is an important feature of life. Actually we pay more attention to the approval of
others than to the approval of God. Jesus said to the people of His time: “How can you believe if you accept
praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?”4 The main
reason we ought to honor one another as human beings is that we have all been created in the image of God.
Failing to recognize this in our fellowmen amounts to belittling God Himself.
The other point is the way we use words. Compared to the Word of God our human speech seems
virtually devoid of meaning. The Word is God; it is His powerful arm of creation. Our speech consists of a
string of syllables, most of which are used to fill empty spaces. We do not create when we utter sound. It is
about this flippant use of the gift God has given to mankind that the Teacher issues his warning here. The
more we fill our lives with the Word of God the less attention we will pay to what man says. God’s Word is
truth; many human words are lies.
In vv.21 and 22 the Teacher warns against the consequence of listening too closely to what people
say. If we do, we may hear people say things about us that are less than flattering. The Hebrew word for
“curse” in “you may hear your servant cursing you” is qalal, which can mean “to curse,” but it has the
primary meaning of “making light of something.” As such we find it in the verse: “They repeated these
words to David. But David said, ‘Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only
a poor man and little known.’”1
Matthew Henry’s Commentary comments here: “Vex not thyself at men’s peevish reflections upon
thee, or suspicions of thee, but be as a deaf man that hears not, Ps 38:13,14. Be not solicitous or inquisitive
to know what people say of thee; if they speak well of thee, it will feed thy pride, if ill, it will stir up thy
passion. See therefore that thou approve thyself to God and thy own conscience, and then heed not what men
say of thee. Hearkeners, we say, seldom hear good of themselves; if thou heed every word that is spoken,
perhaps thou wilt hear thy own servant curse thee when he thinks thou dost not hear him; thou wilt be told
that he does, and perhaps told falsely, if thou have thy ear open to tale-bearers, Prov 29:12.”
Jesus compares this to murder, saying: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do
not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry
with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to
the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”2
The Apostle John
adds to this: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in
him.”3
vii. The inaccessibility of wisdom 7:23-24
23 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, "I am determined to be wise"— but this was beyond me.
24 Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound — who can discover it?
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes writes: “The argument of Ecclesiastes demands that we refer
That which is not only to all that exists (… ‘all that is come into being), but also to the very way in which it
is constituted by God. It is all that exists as God controls and decrees it that is beyond the Preacher’s
comprehension. God appoints man’s life and environment (cf. 1:13; 3:10f., etc). As Moffatt puts it: Reality
is beyond my grasp, says the Preacher. Who can find …? is a rhetorical question. No-one can grasp God’s
plan and purpose.”
What catches the eye is the oxymoron in these verses. The Teacher uses his wisdom to prove that
wisdom cannot be obtained! We cannot really contrast human wisdom here with the divine gift of wisdom,
since Solomon did receive his wisdom from God. When Solomon ascended the throne of Israel, he prayed
for “a discerning heart” and God said to him: “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and
discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.”4
But like the
rich young ruler who searched for eternal life and asked Jesus how to find it,5 so Solomon recognizes here
the limitations of his wisdom and searches for the fullness of it.
The Apostle Paul answers Solomon’s question, stating that Christ is our wisdom and that we only
find full understanding of God’s mysteries in a relationship with Him. Paul writes: “My purpose is that they
may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete
understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the
treasures of wisdom and knowledge,”1
and “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has
become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”2
The Matthew Henry’s Commentary observes: “His searches were industrious. God had given him a
capacity for knowledge above any; he set up with a great stock of wisdom; he had the largest opportunities
of improving himself that ever any man had; and, (1.) He resolved, if it were possible, to gain his point: I
said, I will be wise. He earnestly desired it as highly valuable; he fully designed it as that which he looked
upon to be attainable; he determined not to sit down short of it, Prov 18:1. Many are not wise because they
never said they would be so, being indifferent to it; but Solomon set it up for the mark he aimed at. When he
made trial of sensual pleasures, he still thought to acquaint his heart with wisdom (ch. 2:3), and not to be
diverted from the pursuits of that; but perhaps he did not find it so easy a thing as he imagined to keep up his
correspondence with wisdom, while he addicted himself so much to his pleasures. However, his will was
good; he said, I will be wise. And that was not all: (2.) He resolved to spare no pains (v. 25): ‘I applied my
heart; I and my heart turned every way; I left no stone unturned, no means untried, to compass what I had in
view. I set myself to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, to accomplish myself in all useful
learning, philosophy, and divinity.’ If he had not thus closely applied himself to study, it would have been
but a jest for him to say, I will be wise, for those that will attain the end must take the right way. Solomon
was a man of great quickness, and yet, instead of using that (with many) as an excuse for slothfulness, he
pressed it upon himself as an inducement to diligence, and the easier he found it to master a good notion the
more intent he would be that he might be master of the more good notions. Those that have the best parts
should take the greatest pains, as those that have the largest stock should trade most. He applied himself not
only to know what lay on the surface, but to search what lay hidden out of the common view and road; nor
did he search a little way, and then give it over because he did not presently find what he searched for, but he
sought it out, went to the bottom of it; nor did he aim to know things only, but the reasons of things, that he
might give an account of them.”
The Teacher reflects Job’s search for wisdom, which made him compose the following beautiful
poem:
“There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined. Iron is taken from the earth, and
copper is smelted from ore. Man puts an end to the darkness; he searches the farthest recesses for ore in the
blackest darkness. Far from where people dwell he cuts a shaft, in places forgotten by the foot of man; far
from men he dangles and sways. The earth, from which food comes, is transformed below as by fire;
sapphires come from its rocks, and its dust contains nuggets of gold. No bird of prey knows that hidden path,
no falcon’s eye has seen it. Proud beasts do not set foot on it, and no lion prowls there. Man’s hand assaults
the flinty rock and lays bare the roots of the mountains. He tunnels through the rock; his eyes see all its
treasures. He searches the sources of the rivers and brings hidden things to light. But where can wisdom be
found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land
of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me’; the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought with the
finest gold, nor can its price be weighed in silver. It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir, with precious
onyx or sapphires. Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it, nor can it be had for jewels of gold. Coral
and jasper are not worthy of mention; the price of wisdom is beyond rubies. The topaz of Cush cannot
compare with it; it cannot be bought with pure gold. Where then does wisdom come from? Where does
understanding dwell? It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds of the
air. Destruction and Death say, ‘Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.’ God understands the way to it and
he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to man, ‘The fear of the Lord — that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’”1
viii. The sinfulness of man 7:25-29
25 So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.
26 I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are
chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.
27 "Look," says the Teacher, "this is what I have discovered: "Adding one thing to another to discover
the scheme of things—
28 while I was still searching but not finding — I found one [upright] man among a thousand, but not
one [upright] woman among them all.
29 This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes."
“The scheme of things” is the translation of the Hebrew word cheshbown, meaning “contrivance,”
or “device.” The word is only found in Ecclesiastes, one more time in this chapter (v.27) and another in
Ecclesiastes 9:10, where it is render “planning.” Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, explains: “RSV the sum
of things derives from a word meaning ‘to reckon’ in both the mathematical and intellectual sense, and
translates it as ‘though’ in 9:10. Here the point is that the Preacher has pondered long and hard enigma of
human character. What did it all mount to?”
A superficial glance at these verses could lead to the conclusion that the Teacher was a chauvinist
male, despising all women. But, as Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “Any accusation of
misogyny misses the Preacher’s point, as we see from the contrasting picture of married love in 9:9.” The
verse referred to reads: “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that
God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your
toilsome labor under the sun.”
The woman the Teacher has in mind is the one described in Proverbs as a prostitute, who ensnares
gullible young men.2 Although King Solomon probably never indulged in prostitution, he had enough
understanding to speak from experience. We could consider the text before us as a confession of sorts,
although there is no historical record of the king’s repentance. Solomon’s love-life became his undoing and
that of the nation of Israel. His polygamy led him to spiritual idolatry of which prostitution is the physical
expression.3
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary observes about these verses: “And I find more
bitter than death - (Prov 7:26-27; 9:18.) ‘I find’ that of all my sinful follies, none has been so ruinous a snare
in seducing me from God as idolatrous women (1 Kings 11:3-4; Prov 5:3-4). Since ‘God’s favor is better
than life,’ she who seduces from God is ‘more bitter than death.’ [One Bible scholar] allegorizes ‘the
woman’ as an ideal personage, representing ‘earthly, sensual, devilish wisdom,’ in contrast to ‘the wisdom
from above’ (James 3:15,17), answering to Koheleth, the Assembling one, an ideal Female. Hence, here
only in the book Qoheleth is connected with the feminine verb (Eccl 7:27). Everywhere else the Assembling
one is incarnate in the person of Solomon in the masculine. The strange woman answers to ‘philosophy and
vain deceit after the tradition of men’ (Col 2:8; cf. 1 Tim 6:20; contrast Prov 2:16-17 with Jer 3:4,20). I prefer the literal sense primarily; secondarily, the literal harlot is in the wider application designed by the
Spirit to be representative of all that seduce from God, the true Husband of the Church, whether worldly
gain, pleasure, or wisdom so called. Compare Rev 2:20, the symbolical Jezebel.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes furthermore about v.26: “The Preacher sets out his
conclusions; first, about a particular kind of woman. She is more bitter than death, her personality (heart) is
dominated by the instinct of the hunter (snares and nets), and she is forceful in her attentions (hands as
prison fetters). The wisdom to perceive the snare and traps is given only to one who pleases God (cf. 2:26).”
The Pulpit Commentary, in an effort to rehabilitate the female gender in general, has the following
interesting comment on these verses: “If Solomon himself were speaking, he had indeed a bitter experience
of the sin and misery into which women lead their victims (see … 1 Kings 11:1, 4, 11). It may be thought
that Koheleth refers here especially to ‘the strange woman’ of … Proverbs 2:16, etc.; 5:3, etc.; but in ver. 28
he speaks of the whole sex without qualification; so that we must conclude that he had a very low opinion of
them. It is no ideal personage whom he is introducing; it is not a personification of vice or folly; but woman
in her totality, such as he knew her to be in Oriental courts and homes, denied her proper position, degraded,
uneducated, all natural affections crushed or undeveloped, the plaything of her lord, to be flung aside at any
moment. It is not surprising that Koheleth’s impression of the female sex should be unfavorable. He is not
singular in such an opinion. One might fill a large page with proverbs and gnomes uttered in disparagement
of woman by men of all ages and countries. Men, having the making of such apothegms, have used their
license unmercifully; if the maligned sex had equal liberty, the tables might have been reversed. But, really,
in this as in other cases the mean is the safest; and practically those who have given the darkest picture of
women have not been slow to recognize the brighter side. If, for instance, the Book of Proverbs paints the
adulteress and the harlot in the soberest, most appalling colors, the same book affords us such a sketch of the
virtuous matron as is unequalled for vigor, truth, and high appreciation. And if, as in our present chapter,
Koheleth shows a bitter feeling against the evil side of woman’s nature, he knows how to value the comfort
of married life (… Ecclesiastes 4:8), and to look upon a good wife as one who makes a man’s home happy
(… Ecclesiastes 9:9). Since the incarnation of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, ‘the Seed of the woman,’ we
have learned to regard woman in her true light, and to assign her that position to which she is entitled, giving
honor unto her as the weaker vessel, and, at the same time, heir with us of the glorious hope and destiny of
our renewed nature (… 1 Peter 3:7). Whose heart is snares and nets; more accurately, who is snares, and
nets in her heart; Septuagint, ‘The woman who is a snare, and her heart nets’ … The imagery is obvious
(comp. … Proverbs 5:4, 22: 7:22; 22:14; … Habakkuk 1:15); the thoughts of the evil woman’s heart are
nets, occupied in meditating how she may entrap and retain victims; and her outward look and words are
snares that captivate the foolish.”
Reading v.28 we are tempted to dismiss Solomon as the greatest anti-feminist who ever existed.
The verse is part of the Teacher’s scientific research that led him to examine different facets of human
experience. The topic here is uprightness or integrity. The Hebrew word used is yashar, which is derived
from a word meaning “straight.” The first time the word is used in Scripture is in the verse: “If you listen
carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his
commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians,
for I am the Lord, who heals you.”1
The Hebrew in that verse for “the Lord, who heals you” is Yahweh
rapha`, making the phrase into a name of God.
The fact that Solomon limited his research to one thousand, if taken literally, suggests that he
speaks about his harem of three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines. If this is true, we must
conclude that the Teacher not only carried out his experiments in a limited circle, but also that the kind of
uprightness he searched for was tainted by the kind of love he experienced in his marriages. Solomon’s love
life can hardly be called marriage as God intended it between one man and one woman. We do not need to
stretch our imagination to answer the question whether any of the women in Solomon’s life could really have loved him and be devoted to him as a woman in marriage ought to be. The circle of research also
changes the definition of the word “uprightness.” It is not merely a characteristic of moral behavior, but an
experience of oneness and unity of being one flesh and one soul. What Solomon searched for was a soul
mate among his wives and he confessed that he failed to find one.
The question could be asked whose fault this was. It was Solomon who had decided to stretch the
concept of marital fidelity to the limit in his gross polygamy. He searched among his wives for something he
could not find in his own soul.
This leaves us with the question who the single male figure is among the thousand others. It could be the
eunuch who had the charge of the king’s harem. He was upright in the sense that his physical condition
made him immune to sexual temptation. The answer seems rather cheap. We could look at the statement as a
prophecy regarding the Messiah. As The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary observes: “Jesus
Christ alone of men fully realizes the perfect ideal of ‘man.’ ‘Chiefest among ten thousand’ (Song 5:10) ….
Spiritual uprightness is an indispensable qualification for a right research after the wisdom in question.
Solomon disqualified himself for it so long as he sinned with the strange women (Eccl 7:26).”
The Biblical Illustrator remarks about “Solomon’s estimate of woman: -- This sentence of
Solomon has been often quoted to show the utter worthlessness of the female character. It is, however, an
entirely worthless conclusion as regards woman when placed in her legitimate and appropriate sphere as the
one sole companion of man’s life in love, cares and labors. As well might the tyrant who, by cruelty, has
alienated his subjects, complain that he has failed to find loyal men, as the debauchee, who has subjected
hundreds to his lust, that he had found no noble, virtuous woman. It is not thus that the commerce of love is
carried on. Pearls are not to be exchanged for pebbles. The law of love which God has established is heart
for heart; and the affections that are dissipated among a thousand objects must ever be without return of that
which yet the soul seeks -- the undivided love. Of this fact Solomon seems to have had a dim perception
when he gives those never-to-be-forgotten advises to the young man, to avoid the strange woman whose
steps take hold on hell, and to live joyfully with the wife of his youth. It was not given to Solomon, wise as
he was, to limn the picture of the virtuous woman, but to another king whose wisdom was derived from the
inspiration of his mother. The words of Lemuel are well worthy of our attention, both as neutralizing the
false impression produced by Solomon’s philosophy, and as showing what the true woman is (Prov 31:10-31).”
In his conclusion the Teacher goes back to the creation of man and God’s original intent for the
person He created in His image as male and female. The verse emphasizes man’s sinful nature. What God
made was good and perfect, but man separated himself from God and tries to live independently from his
source “in search of many schemes.”
ix. Who is really wise? 8:1
1 Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and
changes its hard appearance.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes here: “This verse belongs more to what precedes than
to what follows, for it forms a fitting conclusion to proverbs which have appealed for wisdom in relation to
suffering and sin; it is reminiscent of a similar final challenge at the end of Hosea (14:9). The Hebrew word
translated like sometimes speaks of exact likeness to an ideal. It could be translated ‘Who is really wise …?’.
Interpretation (pçser) is the word well-known to students of the Qumran scrolls, where it is used of the
distinctive out-of-context interpretations of the Old Testament by the Qumran community. Another form of
the word (pitrôn) is used in Genesis of the interpretation of dreams (Gn. 40:5). Where, asks the Preacher, is
the man who discerns his way through the problems detailed in 7:1-29, and who will interpret aright the
mysteries of providence? The shining face generally speaks of favor (cf. Nu. 6:25). Here is speaks of the wise man who is visibly gracious in his demeanor, and (as the next phrase says) whose gentleness is obvious
in his facial expression (contrast Dt. 28:50; Dn. 8:23).”
D. Authority, Injustice and the Life of Faith 8:2-9:10
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, introduces this section with: “The justification for treating this
as a single section in the Preacher’s mind is that the sequence of thought runs parallel to 1:2 – 3:22 … He
faces the grim realities of kingly authority (8:2-9) and the injustices of life (8:10-15), and perplexed with the
enigma of life (8:16-17) and the ultimate certainly of death (9: 1-6), he again turns to a position of faith as
the only remedy (9:7-10).”
i. Royal authority 8:2-8
2 Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God.
3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do
whatever he pleases.
4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, "What are you doing?"
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and
procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon
him.
7 Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?
8 No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death. As no one
is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it.
The Pulpit Commentary states: “The warning implies that the writer was living under kingly, and
indeed despotic, government, and it was the part of a wise man to exhibit cheerful obedience. Ben-Sira
observes that wise men teach us how to serve great men (Ecclus. 8:8). Such conduct is not only prudent, but
really a religious duty, even as the prophets counsel submission to Assyrian and Chaldean rulers (see …
Jeremiah 27:12; 29:7; … Ezekiel 17:15). The liege lord, being God’s vicegerent, must be reverenced and
obeyed. St. Paul, though he does not quote Ecclesiastes, may have had this passage in mind when he wrote
(… Romans 13:1), ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the
powers that be are ordained of God,’ etc.; and (ver. 5), ‘Ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but
also for conscience’ sake.’ The ‘king’ in the text is understood by some to mean God, but the following
clause renders this improbable, and it is wisdom in its political aspect that is here regarded. And that in
regard of the oath of God. The ray is explicative; ‘in regard of,’ or ‘because of,’ as … Ecclesiastes 3:18.
‘The oath of God’ is the oath of allegiance to the king, taken in the name of God, under his invocation
(comp. … Exodus 22:11; … 1 Kings 2:43). So we read (… 2 Kings 11:17) of a covenant between king and
people, and people and king, in the time of Jehoiada; Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah swear by God to be
his vassal (… 2 Chronicles 36:13); and Josephus (‘Ant.,’ 12:1; 11:8. 3) relates that Ptolemy Soter, son of
Lagus (following herein the example of Darius), exacted an oath from the Jews in Egypt to be true to him
and his successors. We know that both Babylonian and Persian monarchs exacted an oath of fealty from
conquered nations, making them swear by the gods whom they worshipped, the selection of deities being
left to them.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments furthermore on v.2 and the first part of v.3: “The first
few words of the Hebrew are enigmatic (reading literally ‘I – attend to the mouth of the king’) but may be
paraphrased ‘I advise you, be attentive to what the king says.’ The seemingly unattached ‘I’ has perplexed translators. Most assume that a verb such as ‘say’ or ‘counsel’ is understood (AV, RV). Others ignore the
word entirely (LXX, Peshitta, Targum, RSV), amend it to ‘My son’ …, or the sign of the accusative …, or
assume that ‘say’ has dropped out of the text …. The enigma is as yet unsolved, but the general sense is
clear. The mouth of the king is not simply his commands (as in most translations), but more generally ‘what
he says’ (cf. Pr. 13:3). The latter part of the verse gives the reason for the command: … and that on account
of the oath of God …. Evidently it was a custom for the king’s subjects to take an oath of loyalty. 2
Chronicles 36:13 and Ezekiel 15:13 have been cited as throwing some light on the matter, but here the oath
is one taken more generally among the populace (cf. 1 Ch. 29:24 …) A less likely view … takes the oath as
given by God to the king. Phrases elsewhere parallel to ‘oath of God’ (Ex. 22:10f.; 2 Sa. 21:7; 1 Ki. 2:42f.)
make it more likely that it is an oath taken by men, but sanctioned or approved by God. A good translation of
the first clause of v.3 is NASV Do not be in a hurry to leave him. ‘To go from someone’s presence’
elsewhere signifies disaffection or disloyalty (cf. Ho. 11:2). Thus the Preacher warns against a capricious
desertion of one’s post (cf.10:4) and against persistence in any disloyalty (RV persist is better than NASV
join in or RV delay). It is possible, however, to punctuate otherwise and construe the grammar differently.
The Hebrew verb bâhal may mean ‘hasten’ or ‘fear.’ If the latter be adopted, and if the opening phrase
belongs to v.2, we have: … because of your oath be not dismayed; go from his presence …. In this case v.3
warns against high office. But the parallel in 10:4 argues decisively against RSV and in favor of RV, NASV
and similar translations.”
The tension in these verses is in the atmosphere of absolutism. The king here, evidently, required
his subjects to pledge total allegiance to his person. Adolph Hitler used this device during his reign over the
Nazi empire, by demanding such an oath of loyalty to his person from all the members of his military
machine.
The amazing part of the lesson here seems to be that God wants those who do this to be true to their
pledge. We tend to think that a pledge of allegiance to the devil or any of his minions can be broken without
moral consequences. During the Hitler regime the choice was a matter of life and death. Paul’s command in
Romans seems to confirm this. We read: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for
there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established
by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and
those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for
those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he
will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not
bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also
because of conscience.”1 It is not easy to come to terms with the demands of these texts. It would condemn
and eliminate any kind of resistance against absolutism and amoral governing. It would also rob the Second
World War from its predicate of being a “Just War.” Yet, the Bible teaches that there are instances in which
civil disobedience is a must for those who belong to God. As the Apostles Peter and John stated before the
Sanhedrin: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.”2
Another way of looking at the text is to see it as a prophecy pointing to the Messiah. This may not
have been the Preacher’s intent, but the Holy Spirit would be free to apply it as such. The words of the
psalmist come to mind: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord
with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his
wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”3 To take an oath of allegiance to
the Lord Jesus Christ puts us under obligation to obey Him unconditionally because we love Him.
Vv.5 and 6 read like another brain teaser in this context. The mention of “time and procedure,”
(`eth, time in the sense of “now,” or “when,” and mishpat, rendered “procedure,” but literally meaning “a
verdict”) evokes various questions about the meaning. Barnes’ Notes states: “The meaning is, ‘He who
obeys the commandment (i.e., the word of the king, Eccl 8:4), will not be an accomplice in any act of
rebellion; and if he be a wise man he discerns (literally knows) that the king’s commandment or action is
liable to correction, if it be wrong, in God’s time and by God’s judgment.’ Compare Eccl 3:11,17.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “Previously it has been urged that life is to be lived under
God’s sovereign disposal of events (3:1-15). The same idea is now applied to the difficulties of living under
an autocratic king. Submission is not to be blind passivity. RSV way (Heb. mišpât) means ‘custom,’
‘procedure’ as well as ‘verdict, judgment’; the wise man will be alert to God’s timing and ‘proper
procedures,’ as were Jonathan (1 Sa. 19:4-6), Nathan (2 Sa. 12:1-14) and Esther (Est. 7:2-4). Looking for
‘times’ and ‘procedures’ is a general principle for every matter. The explanatory phrase, for the calamity of
man is great upon him, has been taken to refer to (i) a burdensome punishment which rests upon man; (ii)
man’s inherent weakness or evil: ‘A wise courtier will find an opportunity to execute his designs, because
human weakness is widespread and an opening is sure to appear’ … (iii) Jones’s explanation, that ‘Man has
enough trouble already without asking for further difficulty through open defiance of the king. He should
wait and his time will come.’ Taken within the total context of Ecclesiastes the ‘calamity’ must be human
frustration, perplexity and strain at the oppressive (‘great upon man’) burden of life. Hence (RSV although
is better translated ‘Because’ or ‘For,’ as in RV) the need to mark well the ‘times’ and ‘procedures’ of wise
action.”
The Pulpit Commentary’s comment: “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing.
This is an encouragement to obedience to royal authority (comp. … Proverbs 24:21, 22; … Romans 13:3).
The context plainly shows that it is not God’s commandment that is spoken of (though, of course, the maxim
would be very true in this case), but the king’s. Nor is it necessarily a servile and unreasoning obedience that
is enjoined. Koheleth is dealing with generals. Such cases as that of Daniel and the three children, where
obedience would have been sinful, are not here taken into consideration. ‘Shall feel,’ literally, ‘shall know,’
i.e. experience no physical evil. Quiet submission to the powers that be guarantees a peaceful and happy life.
Ginsburg and others translate, ‘knoweth not an evil word,’ i.e. is saved from abuse and reproach, which
seems somewhat meager. And a wise man’s heart discerneth (knoweth) both time and judgment. The verb is
the same in both clauses, and ought to have been so translated. The ‘heart’ includes the moral as well as the
intellectual faculties; and the maxim says that the wise man bears oppression and remains unexcited even in
evil days, because he is convinced that there is a time of judgment coming when all will be righted (…
Ecclesiastes 12:14). The certainty of retributive justice is so strong in his mind that he does not resort to
rebellion in order to rectify matters, but possesses his soul in patience, leaving the correction of abuses in
God’s hands. Septuagint, ‘The wise man’s heart knoweth the time of judgment,’ making a hendiadys of the
two terms … Verse 6 – Because. This and the three following clauses all begin with ki, ‘since,’ ‘for,’ and the
conjunction ought to have been similarly rendered in all the places. Thus here, for to every purpose there is
time and judgment. Here commences a chain of argument to prove the wisdom of keeping quiet under
oppression or evil rulers. Everything has its appointed time of duration, and in due course will be brought to
judgment (see … Ecclesiastes 3:1, 17; 41:14). Therefore (for) the misery of man is great upon him. This is a
further reason, but its exact signification is disputed. Literally, the evil of the man is heavy upon him (comp.
… Ecclesiastes 6:1). This may mean, as in the Authorized Version, that the affliction which subjects suffer
at the hand of a tyrant becomes insupportable, and calls for and receives God’s interposition. Or ‘the evil’
may be the wickedness of the despot, which presses heavily upon him, and under retributive justice will ere
long bring him to the ground, and so the oppression will come to an end. This seems to be the most natural
interpretation of the passage. The Septuagint, reading differently, has, ‘For the knowledge of a man is great
upon him.’ Though what this means it is difficult to say.”
In the phrase “No man has power over the wind to contain it” the Hebrew word rendered “wind” is
ruwach, which may have the primary meaning of “wind” but it is also used in the sense of “breath,” and even of “life.” The first time we find it in Scripture is in the verse: “Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”1
But it is
also in the verse: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the
garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”2 Jesus carried
this Hebrew concept over in His conversation with Nicodemus, when He said: “The wind blows wherever it
pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with
everyone born of the Spirit.”3
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on vv.7 and 8: “The key to human perplexity is
frustration and ignorance concerning the future. In this we can find help neither in ourselves nor from
anyone else. Four limitations to all authority are set forth (in v.8). First, ‘no man is master over the spirit, to
confine the spirit.’ Some have understood the clause to be identical in meaning to the next, but since the
third and fourth are distinct, the first two are best taken as distinct also. The meaning ‘confine’ is well
established; it is used of ‘locking up’ cattle and ‘confining’ a prisoner (1 Sa. 6:10; Je. 32:2f.). The cognate
noun (kele’) means ‘prison.’ No prison can be found which will hold the spirit, the inner life of man, with its
longings, impulses and convictions. Our Lord drew a similar distinction (Mt. 10:28). Second, there is no
master over the day of death. This puts negatively the positive point (3:2) that death is within God’s
appointed ‘times.’ Third, ‘there is no release in war.’ As the indicates (in the Hebrew), the war in mind is
death (hence AV that war). This is one realm where ‘every man must advance; and every man must advance
alone, to single combat; and every man in succession must fall.’ … Fourth, ‘wickedness will not deliver its
owner.’ The deliverance envisaged is that from death. No measure, foul or fair, will rescue from this
intrusion. Kingly authority meets its match here.”
ii. Life’s injustices 8:9-11
9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords
it over others to his own hurt.
10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried — those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive
praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.
11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with
schemes to do wrong.
The repetition of the theme of a scientific research into the matter seems to indicate that the
Teacher needed a reminder of the goal of his endeavor. It is as if he asks himself the question: “What am I
doing this for?” King Solomon takes a new look at the absolute power with which he ruled over the people
of Israel. He exercised that power “under the sun,” meaning that he did not see himself as a king ruling by
the grace of God. The conclusion is that exercise of such power without the realization that it is delegated by
a higher authority is self destructive. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord
Acton.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, disagrees with the above. He writes: “So in summarizing his
observations in 8:2-8 the Preacher also starts a new line of thought. Again we see his careful observation (I
observed) combined with shrewd evaluation (applying my mind), his breadth of view (All this … all that is
done) and his earthbound horizon (under the sun). The Hebrew wording (… a time when man lords it …)
recalls 3:1-15 with its assurance concerning God’s control of all of the seasons of life. ‘To his hurt’ (Heb.) is not to his own hurt (AV) but to the hurt of the one under the abuser of power. Two passages containing the
same verb ‘lord it’ (ðâlat) illustrate the point (Ne. 5:15; Est. 9:1).”
The Pulpit Commentary takes a more conciliatory view, stating: “Most modern commentators
consider that the hurt is that of the oppressed subject; but it is possible that the sense is intentionally
ambiguous, and the injury may be that which the despot inflicts, and that which he has to suffer. Both these
have been signified above.”
The New International Version states in a footnote to the words “to his own hurt”: “Some Hebrew
manuscripts and Septuagint … ; most Hebrew manuscripts and are forgotten.” That reading suggests that
the hurt consists in a loss of eternity, which, in the public mind, meant no longer being remembered. Once a
person’s name is no longer carried on in his offspring that person could, just as well, never have been born.
That kind of philosophy of life would provide a link to the following verse in which the wicked is
buried, that is forgotten, and that in spite of a reputation of goodness and godliness in the person’s lifetime.
This sounds more like a judgment from above, a divine assessment, as opposite to the public opinion
expressed in the previous verse.
The Hebrew of v.10 reads literally: “And so I saw the wicked who had come and gone from the
place of the holy buried, and they were forgotten in the city where they had done: this [is] also vanity.”
The New Living Translation renders this: “I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they
were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed
their crimes! This, too, is meaningless.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “In the Hebrew this is ‘one of the most difficult
passages in the book.’ The final phrase, This also is vanity, requires that the passage be reporting something
frustrating or vexatious. The preceding and following verses (9, 11-12a) make it likely that this is pointing
out some injustice. Only in vv.12b-13 is any statement of faith introduced. RSV grasps the gist, but the
details are debatable. The following comments are based mainly on RSV, with variant interpretations in the
footnotes. The opening phrase (RSV Then) is used elsewhere in Esther 4:6, where it apparently means ‘In
such circumstances.’ Here we may translate: ‘And in such a case I saw the wicked buried.’ A proper burial
was part of honorable treatment in ancient Israel, and its omission was considered a great misfortune (Je.
16:6). Even criminals (Dt. 21:22f.) suicides (2 Sa. 17:23) and enemies of the nation (Jos. 8:29) were
generally buried (hence the ferocity of Am. 2:1). The preacher is troubled by the honor that comes to the
wicked. The Hebrew continues: ‘… and they came and from the holy place they went.’ RSV takes this to
mean: they went in and out of the holy place [Jerusalem], and were praised in the city where they had done
such things. This involves a minute emendation of w’yeštakku’hu (‘they were forgotten’) to w’yištabb’hu
(‘they were praised’), which is almost certainly correct. The Hebrew letters beth and kaph are similar; there
is support in the ancient version and in some Hebrew manuscripts. The verse is dealing with and injustice
(they were praised), not a rightful retribution (they were forgotten).”
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “Koheleth is troubled by apparent anomalies in God’s moral
government. He notes the prosperity of the godless and the misery of the righteous, God’s abstention and the
seeming impunity of sinners make men incredulous of Providence; but God is just in reward and
punishment, as the end will prove. Meantime, returning to his old maxim, he advises men patiently to
acquiesce in things as they are, and to make the best of life. And so … then, in like manner, under the same
circumstances (… Esther 4:16). The writer notes some apparent exceptions to the law of retribution of which
he has just been speaking, the double particle at the beginning of the verse implying the connection with the
preceding statement. I saw the wicked buried. ‘The wicked’ are especially the despots (ver. 9). These are
carried to their graves with every outward honor and respect, like the rich man in the parable, who ‘died, and
was buried’ (… Luke 16:22). Such men, if they had received their due reward, far from having a pompous
and magnificent funeral (which would befit only a good and honored life), would have been buried with the
burial of an ass (comp. … Isaiah 14:19; … Jeremiah 22:19). So far the Authorized Version is undeniably
correct. What follows is as certainly inaccurate as it is unintelligible. Who had come and gone from the place
of the holy; literally, and they came, and from the place of the holy they went. The first verb seems to mean,
‘they came to their rest,’ they died a natural death. The words, in themselves ambiguous, are explained by
the connection in which they stand (comp. … Isaiah 57:2). [One scholar] renders, ‘they came into being,’
and explains it with the following clause, ‘they went away from the holy place,’ as one generation coming
and another going, in constant succession. But if, as we suppose, the paragraph applies to the despot, such an
interpretation is unsuitable. [Another scholar’s] idea, that oppressive despots ‘come again’ in the persons of
their wicked children, is wholly unsupported by the text. The verse admits and has received a dozen
explanations differing more or less from one another. A good deal depends upon the manner in which the
succeeding clause is translated, And they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. As the particle
rendered ‘so’ (ken) may also mean ‘well,’ ‘rightly,’ we get the rendering, ‘even such as acted justly,’ and
thus introduce a contrast between the fate of the wicked man who is honored with a sumptuous funeral, and
that of the righteous whose name is cast out as pollution and soon forgotten. So [a third scholar] (‘Job and
Solomon’) gives, ‘And in accordance with this I have seen ungodly men honored, and that too in the holy
place (the temple, … Isaiah 18:7), but those who had acted rightly had to depart, and were forgotten in the
city.’ Against this interpretation, which has been adopted by many, it may reasonably be argued that in the
same verse ken would hardly be used in two different senses, and that there is nothing in the text to indicate
a change of subject. It seems to me that the whole verse applies to the wicked man. He dies in peace, he
leaves the holy place; the evil that he has done is forgotten in the very city where he had so done, i.e. done
wickedly. ‘The place of the holy’ is Jerusalem (… Isaiah 48:2; … Matthew 27:53) or the temple (…
Matthew 24:15). He is removed by death from that spot, the very name of which ought to have cried shame
on his crimes and impiety. The expression seems to picture a great procession of priests and Levites
accompanying the corpse of the deceased tyrant to the place of burial, while the final clause implies that no
long lamentation was made over him, no monument erected to his memory (see the opposite of this in the
treatment of Josiah, … 2 Chronicles 35:24, 25). They who consider ‘the righteous ‘to be the subject of the
last clauses see in the words, ‘from the holy place they departed,’ an intimation that these were
excommunicated from the synagogue or temple, or banished from the promised land, on account of their
opinions. I would translate the passage thus: In like manner have I seen the wicked buried, and they came to
their rest, and they went from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city where they had so (wickedly)
acted. The versions have followed various readings. Thus the Septuagint: ‘And then I saw the impious
brought unto graves, and from the holy place; and they departed and were praised in the city, because they
had so done;’ Vulgate, ‘I have seen the impious buried, who also, while they still lived, were in the holy
place, and were praised in the city as if men of just doings.’ Commenting oh this version, St. Gregory writes,
‘The very tranquility of the peace of the Church conceals many under the Christian name who are beset with
the plague of their own wickedness. But if a light breath of persecution strikes them, it sweeps them away at
once as chaff from the threshing-floor. But some persons wish to bear the mark of Christian calling, because,
since the name of Christ has been exalted on high, nearly all persons now look to appear faithful, and from
seeing others called thus, they are ashamed not to seem faithful themselves; but they neglect to be that which
they boast of being called. For they assume the reality of inward excellence, to adorn their outward
appearance; and they who stand before the heavenly Judge, naked from the unbelief of their heart, are
clothed, in the sight of men, with a holy profession, at least in words’ (‘Moral.,’ 25:26). This is also vanity.
The old refrain recurs to the writer as he thinks on the prosperity of the wicked, and the conclusions which
infidels draw therefrom. Here is another example of the vanity that prevails in all earthly circumstances.”
This seems enough attention paid to a problem text that cannot be rewritten.
iii. The answer of faith 8:12-13
12 Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go
better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.
13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen
like a shadow.
Solomon must have known Asaph, the worship leader under his father David. There is no
indication that Asaph continued his ministry under Solomon’s reign. But Asaph’s psalms must have been
well-known to the king and he may have received the inspiration for the above verses from the lines of
Asaph: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then
I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when
you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.”1 The right perspective on life’s problems comes
always from the sanctuary. It is from the viewpoint of fellowship with God that we understand some of the
mystery of His dealings with man.
Our problem, which is the reason for the brazenness of wickedness, is the time factor. If
punishment for sin were always instantaneous, it would satisfy our sense of justice. Our impatience often
blurs our understanding. We cannot image how God, who lives and operates in eternity, does not operate
under the laws and demands of time. We live in a chronological system which God created but to which He
is not a subject. The Apostle Peter gives the best answer to this problem: “But do not forget this one thing,
dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is
not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone
to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”2
Every person’s conscience gives him sufficient warning that the evil he does is not acceptable to
God or beneficial to himself. The mistaken impression that God is not affected by our sins, because He does
not react to them instantaneously, makes him believe that he can continue undetected. God often uses
measures that fill up and He closes the case when the measure is full. It would take the Amorites four
centuries to fill up theirs.3 Instead of being shocked by this, they took it as a license of liberty to sin. Such is
man’s folly!
If we could but understand that sin robs us of the glory of God, we would live life more cautiously.
Taking Paul’s definition of sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”4
and understanding
that God intends to share His glory with us, we can see how much we miss out on both in life below and in
eternity if we keep on living in sin, without ever repenting and accepting God’s atonement in Christ. The
New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, will shine with the glory of God.5 If that vision does not kindle in us a
desire for holiness, we fail to understand what life is all about.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes about vv.12 and 13: “It is noteworthy that, whereas the
Preacher so often says ‘I have seen … I saw’ (8:9f), here his reply is introduced by I know. The injustices of
life are open for all to see; the Preacher’s reply is not an observation, but the answer of faith. Equally, he is
certain that, despite the delay, calamity will finally befall the sinner. Though he may ‘lengthen (his days)’
(v.12, Heb.), the judgment falling upon him is that he will not lengthen his days! The paradox has been
elucidated in various ways. Some see a quotation … or the hand of a redactor … [One scholar] sees a play
on words which may be paraphrased: ‘though he go on long (in sin) he shall not make his days long.’ This is
possible, since ‘his days’ occurs in the Hebrew of v.13 but not of v.12. The present writer believes that the
Preacher ‘drops the veil of secularism’ … and puts the two statements side by side to be deliberately provocative. It is typical of the duality which pervades Ecclesiastes: from the ‘under the sun’ viewpoint the
sinner is infuriating in his long survival; from the perspective of faith time looks different and the Preacher
cannot imagine sin endlessly unrebuked and unjudged (cf. Jas. 4:13f.). The paradox also raises the
possibility of a life after death, where the sinner will no longer go on in his sin. This is confirmed in that a
shadow is a figure of the insecurity of human life (cf. Pss. 102:11; 109:23). In the light of this, AV neither
shall he prolong his days which are as a shadow (cf. RV) is preferable to RSV neither will he prolong his
days like a shadow. This accords with the context, and the verse can only mean that the unrighteous will not
flourish beyond the grave (cf. Pss. 49; 73; Ec. 3:16-21; 12:14).”
iv. The problem restated 8:14
14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked
deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
In spite of the heading given to this verse, this is not quite a restatement of the problem mentioned
above in which the sinner had a long and apparently happy life. The problem here is not the time factor, but
the limited perspective. What the wicked deserves is, obviously, suffering and hardship. The limitation is the
fact that the Teacher can only observe what happens “on earth,” which is the equivalent of “under the sun.”
Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man reveals what happens in the afterlife. There father Abraham
explains to the rich man in hell: “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while
Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”1
The Teacher believes
that people ought to receive what is due to them while they are still on earth.
There is also a lack of understanding that, as believers, we live in enemy territory. In the words of
the Apostle John: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of
the evil one.”2 It is our resistance against the evil one that makes us the target of his attacks. We must not
lose sight of the fact that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”3
What is meaningless is not the way God deals with human sin and righteousness, but what the devil
does in rewarding those who will spend eternity with him in separation from God.
The Hebrew text reads literally: “There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just
men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again there be wicked men to whom it
happens according to the work of the righteous: I said this also [is] vanity.” The Hebrew verb “to happen” is
naga`, which literally means “to touch,” “to lay the hand upon,” or “to strike,” in the sense of to punish. If
we see the hand of God in the touch, we understand that there is a great difference between the result of
being touched by God as to whether one is righteous or evil. For the righteous, the touch of God in adverse
circumstances means a world of difference between despair and hope of glory. To be touched by God in
wickedness, even if it seems to result in outward gain, leads to disaster unless there is repentance. It has been
said that God can punish someone by making him rich.
v. The remedy recalled 8:15
15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and
drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him
under the sun.
1. Luke 16:17
2. I John 5:19
3. Acts 14:22
The Hebrew of this verse reads literally: “Then I commended mirth because a man has no better
[thing] under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labor
which God gives his life under the sun.” Whether we consider the Preacher’s advice here as a tongue-incheek recommendation, or as a serious conclusion, depends on the perspective we attribute to “under the
sun.” If it refers to what the options are when God is left out of the picture, that is the best advice that can be
given. If eating and drinking are seen as God’s gifts under the circumstances, it changes the tone of the
admonition.
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary comments: “For that shall abide with him -
‘abide’ - Hebrew, adhere; not for ever, but it is the only sure good to be enjoyed from earthly labors
(equivalent to ‘of his labor the days of his life’). Still, the language resembles the skeptical precept (1 Cor
15:32), introduced only to be refuted. But the ‘mirth’ commended is more probably that of the cheerful saint,
who, instead of fretting himself about seeming anomalies (Eccl 8:14), and discontentedly complaining in
self-righteousness, as if he were treated unjustly, makes the best of present mercies. This is the only abiding
good from earthly toils (1 Tim 6:6).” The embedded Scripture references read: “I fought wild beasts in
Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for
tomorrow we die.’” And: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, opines: “The Preacher does not try to unravel the enigma
completely. Rather he presents a practical solution, along lines now familiar. Again he is concerned about
earthy life (under the sun), commends joy (cf. 2:26; 3:12; 5:18,20 and contentment (to eat and drink; cf.
2:24f.; 3:13; 5:18). This is to be our encouragement amid daily life and activity, a life-long (through the days
of life) close companion (go with him translates Heb. yilwennû, ‘cleave to him,’ ‘join on to him’). The secret
of it all is: it is God-given.”
vi. The enigma of life 8:16 – 9:1
16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth — his eyes not seeing
sleep day or night—
17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his
efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot
really comprehend it.
9:1 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s
hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.
Obviously, the division that lands the concluding thought in these verses into a new chapter is as
artificial as it is misleading. Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: “The Hebrew is obscure. After
the opening, ‘When I gave my heart to …’ comes a parenthetical remark (‘For neither in the day nor in the
night do one’s eyes see sleep’). The sense is completed in v.17 (‘Then I saw …’). Again the Preacher sees
that man’s problem gives him restless days and sleepless night (cf. 2:23).”
The New Living Translation may make most sense here with the rendering: “In my search for
wisdom and in my observation of people’s burdens here on earth, I discovered that there is ceaseless
activity, day and night. I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even
the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim. This, too, I carefully explored: Even
though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them
favor.”
According to The Adam Clarke’s Commentary the meaning of these verses is: “This is the state of
probation; and in it neither can the wicked be punished, nor the righteous rewarded. But eternity is at hand;
and then shall every man receive according to his works. He that spends his life in eat, drink, and play, will
find in that day that he has lost the time in which he could have prepared for eternity.”
About the last verse, the first one in the new chapter, Eaton states: “This might be translated: ‘Now,
I have taken all this to heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the care of
God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; everything awaits him.’ The first word is little
more than ‘Well now’; it is neither an explanation (AV For) nor a contrast (RSV But). RSV in the hand of is
a well-known expression meaning ‘at the disposal of’ (Gn. 14:20; 16:6, etc.), ‘under the supervision of’ (Gn.
9:2, etc.), or ‘in the care of’ (best here; cf. Est. 2:3, 8; Jb. 12:10; Ps. 31:5, etc.). If, as is widely thought, the
second half refers to God’s acceptance of rejection of men, the thought will be that ‘it takes more than
observation to discover how He is disposed toward us’ …. But the love and hatred mentioned a few
sentences later (v.6) are clearly human. Nor does this view cohere easily with statements elsewhere that the
righteous have an assurance of God’s approval (cf. 2:24; 3:12f.; 5:19f. 9:7-19). More likely, the point is that
the treatment the righteous will receive is unknown; who can tell what the future will bring? Righteousness
and wisdom have not built-in guarantees of an easy life. The Hebrew before them, meaning ‘awaiting them,’
is a rare usage; but though its reference may be spatial (Gn. 32:21, etc.), there is no reason why it should not
also be temporal.”
vii. The sting of death 9:2-3
2 All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the
unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner;
as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.
3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of
men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they
join the dead.
The New International Version, evidently, follows the Septuagint and the Vulgate, because,
according to a footnote “Hebrew does not have and the bad.” The Hebrew words rendered “clean” and
“unclean” are tahowr and tame’. Both have the main meaning of ceremonial clean or unclean, as is obvious
from the first instances in Scriptures in which they are used. Tahowr is first found in: “Take with you seven
of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its
mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the
earth.”1 And we find tame’ in “Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean — whether the
carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the
ground — even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.” 2 “Unclean” in the first
reference is not the same word as below. The Hebrew has “not clean” at that place.
We could question the Teacher’s theology at this point, asking why he believes that “the righteous”
ought not to die. This is particularly questionable since the righteous person is the one who is ceremonial
righteous, not necessarily perfect in character. His righteousness comes from the fact that his
unrighteousness has been atoned for by the death of a sacrificial animal, symbolizing his guilt and the
punishment he ought to have received in his own person.
The way the Teacher puts it makes it sound as if the evil is in the way God treats His subjects,
without making a difference in man’s character. Yet, Solomon’s father, David, prophesied: “All have turned
aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”3 Isaiah confirms
this in the statement: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the
Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”1
And the Apostle Paul states without exception: “All have
sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”2
The Teacher is correct, however, in qualifying death as an evil. Death is both the enemy of man and
of God. Death is “the last enemy.”3
That is why there will be a resurrection. As Jesus said to His
contemporaries: “But about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the
living.”4
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.3: “Death is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon to the
Preacher, but an invincible evil. Also linked with evil is madness, connected elsewhere with glib frivolity
(2:2), corruption in society (7:7), folly (10”12f.), self-justifying disobedience (1 Sa. 13:13) and inclinations
to violence (1 Sa.26:21) or pride (2 Sa. 24:1); its usage suggests, therefore, a moral wildness that is
impetuous and irrational. The problem of our fallen nature (cf. 7:29) is universal, for evil is ascribed to the
sons of men in general. It characterizes the whole inner nature of man (the heart), irremediable (life-long,
while they live), dominant (we are full of it). The grimmest aspect (the ‘sting,’ 1 Cor. 15:56) of death is
found here, for with such a heart are we brought ‘to judgment … to his eternal home … to God (11:9;
12:5,7).”
viii. Where there’s life, there’s hope 9:4-6
4 Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and
even the memory of them is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in
anything that happens under the sun.
The ambiguity of these verses is their most arresting feature. The word “hope” in our vocabulary is
one with a positive and encouraging content. In the way the Teacher uses it, it becomes almost a vehicle of
despair. What he seems to be saying is that the object of hope of the living is that death awaits them as the
equalizer of all things.
The illustration says it all, at least in the context of the time it is placed. The teacher is not speaking
of pets, which is the category in which we would place man’s best friend. The dog in Old Testament times
was a scavenger, an emblem of uncleanness. The lion represents life in its most powerful form. In the picture
the animal that ought to die is alive and the one that ought to live is dead. And that is the background against
which the word “hope” is used.
A closer look, however, will reveal greater depth than a casual glance would anticipate. In the
catalogue of evils that characterize life, we find love, hate and jealousy. In this death has the advantage over
life in that those elements that poisoned life have also ceased to exist. In using another illustration we could
present a person who is suffering from an incurable disease. The only hope of deliverance from the cancer
that ravages the body is death. The death of the body will mean the death of cancer also.
In a way the Teacher goes back to the days following our first parents’ fall into sin. At Adam and
Eve’s expulsion from Paradise, we read: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us,
knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and
eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from
which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden
cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”1
So Adam was
forcefully removed from the garden, and the presence of supernatural beings, cherubim, prevented him from
returning. Paradise was not taken away from man; man was driven out of the garden into a world that would
become more and more hostile to him. The issue was the tree of life. It turns out that this tree had been the
most important feature of the Garden of Eden. It always was, but man had paid no attention to it. Eating
from the tree of life would have meant a conscious choice, an act of surrender to God. Adam and Eve had
enjoyed Paradise, but they had never responded to the love of God. They were sinless, but not ripe. After the
fall this surrender was no longer an option. God could not accept fallen man as he is. This would have
compromised God’s absolute holiness. It would have made God less God, which would have had disastrous
consequences for all of heaven and earth. The only solution for man is death. Death was his only hope.
Fortunately, that is not the only way the Bible gives content to the word “hope.” It is true that when
the cancer dies, the body dies also, but when God brings the body back to life in the resurrection, the cancer
remains dead. God’s ultimate solution to man’s problem of sin is in the death of His Son Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul has given us some wonderful definitions of the word “hope” in its new context,
showing that hope means bodily resurrection. We read: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope
we were saved.”2 Hope is connected to our final destination in glory, as is evident from: “To them God has
chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the
hope of glory.”3
Paul identifies Christ with hope, writing to Timothy: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by
the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope …”4
In his letter to Titus, Paul equates hope
with resurrection, saying: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us
to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this
present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus
Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are
his very own, eager to do what is good.”5
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.6: “Among earthly experiences which will cease
are love and hate. The next word often means zeal (NASV) or jealousy (NIV), but here a more general term,
such as GNB their passions, suits the context. The phrase under the sun confirms that the previous verse
have in view the irreparable loss of earthly life. One’s portion (AV) or share (RSV) is the measure of joy
and satisfaction that come through one’s daily activities (cf. 3:22; 5:18, where it is sometimes translated lot),
found not in self-centered pleasures (2:1-11) but only when taken as the gift of God (3:22; 5:19). The
Preacher repeatedly warns that it cannot be recaptured after death. Here is the strongest statement of the
point: at death its passing is total (no more) and permanent (for ever).”
ix. The remedy of faith 9:7-10
7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors
what you do.
8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.
9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you
under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under
the sun.
10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there
is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Eaton’s heading of this section renders it the most positive interpretation, which does not seem to
be completely warranted by the modifier “meaningless.” The Hebrew word used here is hebel, “vanity,”
which is the theme word of this book, as is stated in the opening verse: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says
the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”1 The comment Michael A. Eaton gives
here in Ecclesiastes reads: “A note of imperious exhortation breaks in: Go …! What had previously been put
as advice (2:24-26; 3:12f., 22; 5:18-20) is now an urgent summons to action. The believer must give himself
to a contended life … and to a joyful life (cf. also 11:9). The basis of contentment is that God has already
approved what you do. This almost Pauline touch is the nearest the Preacher came to a doctrine of
justification by faith. Man has but to receive contentment as God’s gift (cf. 3:13); God will approve of him
and his works. The believer is not struggling for acceptance; he is ‘already’ accepted. On that basis (moving
from Paul to James, one might say) the wise man ‘works with all his might (9:10).”
The Pulpit Commentary observes: “This is not an injunction to lead a selfish life of Epicurean
pleasure; but taking the limited view to which he here confines himself, the Preacher inculcates the practical
wisdom of looking at the bright side of things; he says in effect (though he takes care afterwards to correct a
wrong impression which might be given), ‘Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die’ (… 1 Corinthians
15:32). We have had the same counsel in … Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12, 13, 22; 5:18; 8:15.”
Yet, it is difficult to read these verses and not suppose a touch of irony that colors the content. If life
in its totality is meaningless, the enjoyment of it would be meaningless also. The paradox of finding “God”
and “under the sun” in the same phrase must be the key to understanding the Teacher’s statement. One
cannot leave God out of the picture and keep Him in it at the same time! Again, we must conclude that what
makes life as a whole meaningless is the absence of God.
For obvious reasons, I have never seen v.9 used as an appropriate verse for a wedding ceremony.
Not only would the negative content be frowned upon, but also the mainly masculine emphasis would not go
over well in our emancipated modern society. Only the bridegroom is addressed in this verse and the
question would arise “what about the bride?” If a marriage relationship would only be for male enjoyment
“under the sun,” it would indeed be meaningless. It is Paul’s interpretation of marriage that gives to conjugal
relations its true value. The Apostle said: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be
united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about
Christ and the church.”2
E. Wisdom and Folly 9:11 – 10:20
In his general introduction to this section, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “In the opinion
of many commentators there is no sustained argument in these verses. [One Bible scholar] speaks of the
‘variety of subject matter and the lack of logical organization in this section.’ [Another] complained, ‘How
much time, thought and paper have been wasted in order to connect this verse-group with the preceding!’ A
few scholars, however … have attempted to trace an argument. [One] thought ‘that the author is writing
coherent discourse and has logical sequence of thought.’ The truth of the matter is not easily determined.
Certainly attempts to trace a detailed argument have been unconvincing; on the other hand coherence of
argument is different from coherence of subject-matter. If the former is not in evidence in these verses, the
latter is to a large extent, for each unit deals directly in some way with folly or wisdom.”
i. Time and chance 9:11-12
11 I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor
does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen
to them all.
12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are
taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
The most striking word in these verses is the word “chance,” Hebrew word pega`, which is derived
from a word meaning “impact.” The word only appears one other time in Scripture where Solomon,
answering King Hiram of Tyre, writes: “You know that because of the wars waged against my father David
from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies
under his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or
disaster.”1
The Pulpit Commentary observes: “Our English word ‘chance’ conveys an erroneous impression.
What is meant is rather ‘incident,’ such as a calamity, disappointment, unforeseen occurrence. All human
purposes are liable to be changed or controlled by circumstances beyond man’s power, and incapable of
explanation. A hand higher than man’s disposes events, and success is conditioned by superior laws which
work unexpected results.” The term “act of God” as used by insurance companies to indicate events beyond
human control would explain the matter quite sufficiently. When questioned, however, most insurance
companies would deny any spiritual connotation in the use of the phrase.
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary comments: “Chance - seemingly, really
Providence. But as man cannot ‘find it out’ (Eccl 3:11), he needs ‘with all might’ to use opportunities.
Duties are ours; events, God’s (Ps 31:15, ‘My times are in thy hand’) Chance is not a power independent of
God; but is that which happens to man independently of his control. If God be our friend, the powers arrayed
against us, however formidable they look, cannot destroy us. If it depended on human strength, the people of
God could not withstand their foes.”
The Teacher’s premise is that the swift ought to win the race and the strong the battle. The wise and
brilliant minds should be rewarded according to their giftedness. But that is not how life deals with its
subjects. The Hebrew word for “favor” is chen, which is sometimes rendered “grace,” in the sense of
graciousness. As such we find it in Proverbs in: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not
forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.”
This time Solomon does not go so far as to say that this is part of life’s “vanity,” but the limitation “under the
sun” leaves open the possibility that there may be rewards in the afterlife.
Fanny Crosby borrowed Solomon’s words in her hymn Victory through Grace, in the lines: “Not to
the strong is the battle, not to the swift is the race. Yet to the true and the faithful victory is promised through
grace.” This opens the window to Paul’s majestic statement about the Christian’s options in adversity: “Who
shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or
danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be
slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am
convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any
powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of
God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”1
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments here: “Two factors may upset all human calculations.
First, time limits us, an echo of the teaching throughout Ecclesiastes that the seasons of our life are in the
hand of God; this is a warrant for faith but also a death-blow for self-confidence. Second, chance is the
unexpected event which may throw the most accomplished off course, despite the most thoroughly prepared
schemes.”
Most likely, the “hour” in v.12 is the time of a person’s death. Yet, The Pulpit Commentary
suggests that “it may include any misfortune or accident.” “Evil times” may in fact cover more than the final
day of a person’s life. The Teacher sees man trapped in life in the same way as a fish in a net or a bird in a
snare. Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, agrees, saying: “One’s evil time might be thought to refer
exclusively to the time of death, as [one Bible scholar] suggests (cf. 7:17). But since in other places (cf. 8:5-
7) the Preacher envisages the flow of events working against all a man’s aims and hopes, evil time may well
refer to other calamities besides the final one.”
But if we go through life, not keeping in mind that we are merely passing through and that our days
are limited, we lack a sense of realism. We all ought to pray Moses’ prayer: “Teach us to number our days
aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”2
We tend to think that death is something that only happens to
other people. Some of the psalmists answer Solomon’s predicament in singing about the New Testament
hope of resurrection. We read: “Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from
death.”3
And: “We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we
have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”4
ii. Wisdom unrecognized 9:13-16
13 I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me:
14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it,
surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it.
15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody
remembered that poor man.
16 So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are
no longer heeded.
Bible scholars have argued about whether the example the Teacher uses here is fact or parable. The
Adam Clarke’s Commentary states: “Those who spiritualize this passage, making the little city the
CHURCH, the few men the APOSTLES, the great king the DEVIL, and the poor wise man JESUS
CHRIST, abuse the text. But the Targum is not less whimsical: ‘The little city is the human body; few men
in it, few good affections to work righteousness; the great king, evil concupiscence, which, like a strong and
powerful king, enters into the body to oppress it, and besieges the heart so as to cause it to err; built great
bulwarks against it-evil concupiscence builds his throne in it wheresoever he wills, and causes it to decline
from the ways that are right before God; that it may be taken in the greatest nets of hell, that he may burn it
seven times, because of its sins. But there is found in it a poor wise man-a good, wise, and holy affection,
which prevails over the evil principle, and snatches the body from the judgment of hell, by the strength of its
wisdom. Yet, after this deliverance, the man did not remember what the good principle had done for him;
but said in his heart, I am innocent,’ etc.”
The author does not state here that the conclusion of his observation is another example of the
vanity of life. He merely states that he is “greatly impressed.” It has been argued that the Hebrew text, which
is rendered “he saved the city by his wisdom,” can also be translated: “he might have saved …,” implying
that it could have happened, but did not. That reading would actually fit better in the lesson the Teacher
wants us to draw from the story. It would give full strength to the conclusion: “But the poor man’s wisdom
is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.” If the wisdom of the poor man was effective, but remained
unrewarded, the lesson would be that of previous sections in which it was stated that good is seldom
rewarded and sin rarely punished during life on earth. The reward intended would be the appreciation of
fellow humans, not God’s recognition of human achievement. We are left with the unasked question “what
do we seek?”
Whether the story is hypothetical or the wise man’s wisdom saved the city or could have saved it, is
not the most important lesson to be learned. There is the antithesis of power and wisdom, which leads to the
question which is greater. A classic example is the remark Joseph Stalin made to Winston Churchill, when
the latter mentioned the Pope in a series of allies in the confrontation of Nazism. Stalin asked
contemptuously: “The Pope, how many divisions does he have?” Stalin forgot Paul’s statement: “The
foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”1
iii. Wisdom thwarted 9:17-10:1
17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
10:1 As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
The point the Teacher makes in these three verses is that folly is contagious and wisdom is not. We
could take this a step further and say that sin is contagious and holiness is not. The prophet Haggai gave a
good illustration of the principle when he said: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what
the law says: If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some
bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’ The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then
Haggai said, ‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become
defiled?’ ‘Yes,’ the priests replied, ‘it becomes defiled.’”2
It all comes down to the fact that when Adam and Eve sinned, their nature changed from innocent
to sinful. They bequeathed this to their offspring, making that every human being born comes into the world
with a sinful nature. The only person exempt was the man Jesus Christ. He alone could say: “Can any of you
prove me guilty of sin?”1
No one could touch a leper without becoming defiled. But Jesus remained
uncontaminated when He touched a leper. Actually, the leper became pure when Jesus touched him.2
The Teacher indicates that characteristics of wisdom are quietness, power and sweetness. Wisdom
is soft-spoken; it is stronger than human violence and it emits a pleasant aroma. It is the devil’s tactic to
increase the volume when the numbers are small. A minority can influence public opinion by shouting down
a majority. Demagogues know this and use the principle to their advantage. Hitler and Mussolini were clear
examples in the events that led to the Second World War.
Although the point the Teacher makes in v.18 remains valid, the sinful nature of man will not
defeat the wisdom of God. In the same way as sin did not contaminate Jesus, so no human power can
eliminate the strength of God’s wisdom. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this. Writing to the Corinthians, he
says: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are
not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”3
Paul also has something to say about the smell of holiness and of sin. In the same epistle to the
Corinthians, he writes: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those
who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”4
Although man’s
sinful nature permeates all aspects of life on earth in this present age, it is not permanent. Sin and death, well
illustrated in the picture of the dead fly, are not eternal. God’s solution to human sin in the atonement of
Jesus Christ is.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states about 10:1: “Despite the chapter division, this verse
continues the themes of the previous verses, on a more individual level. The two halves are a comparison
and may be translated, ‘As dead flies…so a little folly….’ The proverb underlines the fragrance of the wise
man’s character (performer’s oil…wisdom and honor). Yet only a small mistake makes the smell of his folly
greater than the fragrance of his wisdom. Again the proverb warns the reader not to place an ultimate trust
even in wisdom. Life must be taken day by day from the hands of God. There is security nowhere else, not
even in wisdom. Folly (sekel) or a fool (sâkâl) is associated with wickedness (7:17) and is the opposite of
wisdom (2:19). It results from an inner deficiency of the personality (v.2) which becomes obvious to
observers (v.3), especially in the fool’s speech (v.14). Elsewhere the foolish are said to be ‘skilled in doing
evil’ (Je. 4:22) and to be characterized by moral insensitivity (cf. Je. 5:21). It is a moral rather than an
intellectual complaint.”
In a footnote Eaton explains: “The Heb. may be translated ‘dead flies’ or deadly flies.’ Analogy of
usage (cf. Heb of 1 Sa. 5:11; Pss. 7:13; 18:5; Pr. 14:27) points to the latter and is adopted by [some scholars].
Yet the proverb is much better taken as stressing the smallness of the putrefying influence rather than its
deadliness. The analogy of usage is not sufficient to outweigh what is required by the thrust of the
argument.”
The Pulpit Commentary adds: “The Hebrew expression is literally, ‘flies of death,’ which may
mean either ‘dead flies,’ as in our version and the Vulgate … or ‘deadly, poisonous flies,’ as in the
Septuagint …. The latter rendering seems preferable, if we regard the use of similar compound phrases, e.g.
‘instruments of death’ (… Psalm 7:14: [13]); ‘snares of death’ (… Psalm 18:5); and in New Testament
Greek ‘the death stroke’ (… Revelation 13:3, 12). The flies meant are such as are poisonous in their bite, or
carry infection with them. Such insects corrupt anything which they touch — food, ointment, whether they
perish where they alight or not. They, as the Hebrew says, make to stink, make to ferment, the oil of the perfumer. The singular verb is here used with the plural subject to express the unity of the individuals, ‘flies’
forming one complete idea.”
Finally, it must be observed that it is not a large amount of corruption that is needed to spoil. As in
Jesus’ parable of the woman baking bread,1 it is only a small amount of yeast that makes the bread rise.
Paul’s warning concurs with this: ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’2
A person’s
whole life and ministry can be spoiled by one moment of folly.
iv. Folly 10:2-3
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.
3 Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is.
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states: “The rest of the section (10:2-20) considers folly,
describing it first in general terms.”
In modern terms v.2 would be a reference to one’s political inclination, either as conservative or
liberal. But that can hardly be what is meant here. The Hebrew text of v.2 reads literally: “A wise man’s
heart [is] at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.”
The Pulpit Commentary observes: “There is here no reference to the classical use of right and left,
as ominous of success and disaster, which is never found in the Old Testament. The right hand is the place of
honor, the left of inferiority, as a matter of fact, not of superstition and luck. The symbolism is intimated in
Christ’s account of the judgment (… Matthew 25:31, etc.). But in the present passage we should best
paraphrase — The wise man’s heart, his understanding and sentiments, lead him to what is right and proper
and straightforward; the fool’s heart leads him astray, in the wrong direction. The former is active and
skilful, the latter is slow and awkward. One, we may say, has no left hand, the other has no right. To be at the
right hand is to be ready to help and guard. “The Lord is at thy right band,” to protect thee, says the psalmist
(… Psalm 110:5). The wise man’s mind shows him how to escape dangers and direct his course safely; the
fool’s mind helps him not to any good purpose, causes him to err and miss his best object.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “Folly is traced to a fault in the heart, the invisible inner
side of man’s life contrasted with the face (7:3), hand, (7:26)) and body (11:10), part of our outer visible
being (cf. 1 Sa. 16:7). It includes the mind, for ‘to give the heart’ to something is to study it (1:13,17;
8:9,16). The nature of the heart produces the problems the Preacher wrestles with. On the one hand
‘eternity’ is set within it; we cannot be content with the limitations of the world (3:11); yet it is an evil (8:11;
9:3) and defective hear (10:2). However, God may so deal with us that the heart is occupied with joy (5:20);
the heart may be ‘put right’ (7:3); it may be ‘wise’ (8:5). The dubious anatomy … is deliberate and
humorous, as is often the case in wisdom literature, AV and RV translate accurately A wise man’s heart is at
his right hand….”
The Hebrew of v.3 reads literally: “Yea, also when he who is a fool walks by the way, his wisdom
fails [him], and he says to everyone that he [is] a fool.” We could say that a fool can be recognized by the
way he walks, meaning that he does not even have to say anything. His whole demeanor breathes
foolishness. Our body-language says often more about us than what our mouth says. The Pulpit Commentary
observes rather dryly: “If he remained at home he might keep his real ineptitude concealed; but such persons
as he are unconscious of their inanity, and take no pains to hide it; they go where, they act as, their foolish
heart prompts them.”
v. Folly in high places 10:4-7
4 If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.
5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler:
6 Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones.
7 I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.
V.4 seems to be less fitting in the context of folly. If we want to cling to unity of thought in this
section, the interpretation could be the advice not to be a fool in the face of the ruler’s wrath. The Hebrew of
this verse reads literally: “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against you, leave not your place; for yielding
pacifies great offence.” Bible scholars have had problems in interpreting the text.
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “The idea seems to be that a statesman or councilor gives wise
advice to a monarch, which the latter takes in bad part, and shows strong resentment against the person who
offered it. Now, when a man knows himself to be in the right, and yet finds his counsel rejected, perhaps
with scorn and reproach added, he is naturally prone to feel sore, and to show by some overt act his sense of
the ill treatment which he has received. But what says wisdom? Leave not thy place (makom); i.e. position,
post, office. Do not hastily resign the situation at court to which you have been appointed. Some, not so
suitably, take the expression, ‘leave thy place,’ figuratively, as equivalent to ‘give way to anger, renounce
the temper which becomes you, lose your self-possession.’” Quoting Pope Gregory, the commentary
continues: “As though he had said in plain words, ‘If thou perceivest the spirit of the tempter to prevail
against thee in aught, quit not the lowliness of penitence;’ and that it was the abasement of penitence that he
called ‘our place,’ he shows by the words that follow, ‘for healing [Vulgate] pacifieth great offences.’ For
what else is the humility of mourning, save the remedy of sin?”
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary gives this interesting comment: “If the king get incensed against
thee. [Leave not thy place] Humble thyself before him, that is thy place and duty; for yielding to him, and
not standing stoutly in thy defense, pacifieth great offences: and then, when his anger is appeased, he will
hear anything in thy justification, if thou have anything to offer. This is good advice to a child in reference to
his parents, and to an inferior of any kind in reference to his superiors. Several of the fathers understood this
differently, If the spirit of the ruler-the influence of Satan-hath risen up against and prevailed over thee, to
bring thee into some sin; leave not thy place-do not despair of God’s mercy; humble thyself before him, and
seek pardon through the Son of his love, and this will be marpee’, a remedy or cure even for chaTaa’iym
gadowliym, great errors or sins. All this is true in itself, whether found in this text or not.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments on v.5: “The passage turns to observable (I have
seen) evils behind the warning of v.4. Some versions soften the statement (NIV sort of; RSV as it were), but
the Hebrew is more likely asseverate (‘truly,’ ‘really’) than comparative (‘like,’ ‘as it were.’). [One scholar]
holds that the ruler is God, arguing that (i) the context makes this plausible; (ii) the Hebrew word (šallît) is
different from that in v.4 (môšçl) and indicates two kinds of ruler; (iii) the definite article in Hebrew points
in the same direction; (iv) šallît is used of God in Daniel 4:17,25,32; 5:21. To which it may be replied (i) the
change of work is merely stylistic variation; (ii) the usage in Daniel is not significant; if melek (‘king’) may
be used of both earthly (Is. 6:1) and heavenly (Is. 6:5) šallît kingship, may vary in usage similarly; (iii) the
article refers to the one ruler on the throne at any one time; (iv) the determining factor is the context, which
does not support [that scholar’s] contention. It is concerned with folly in national leadership. It is also
unlikely that the Preacher would speak of ‘something like an oversight’ proceeding from God.”
The two Hebrew words in v.6 that depict the contrast that is so shocking to the Teacher are cekel,
“folly,’ and `ashiyr “rich.” The first refers more to a mentality than to a person. The word is not found
anywhere else in Scripture. The second word can also be rendered “noble,” which would make the
comparison more suitable. The New King James Version sticks closer to the original with: “There is an evil I
have seen under the sun, As an error proceeding from the ruler: Folly is set in great dignity, While the rich sit
in a lowly place.” The New Living Translation reads: “Kings and rulers make a grave mistake when they
give great authority to foolish people and low positions to people of proven worth. I have even seen servants
riding horseback like princes—and princes walking like servants!” V.7 illustrates the statement made in v.6.
What makes the Teacher’s comparison less than palatable to us is the way he uses the class
distinction as an indicator of moral values. The assumption seems to be that casts in society are God-given.
It sounds as if to be rich or to be a prince means to be righteous and to be a slave stands for being immoral.
Maybe the Teacher’s intent is to shock us. If God is in fact the ruler, we know that He shows a preference for
underdogs. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were
called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble
birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the
world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things
that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that
you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and
redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”1
vi. Folly in action 10:8-11
8 Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
9 Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.
10 If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success.
11 If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.
The snake is mentioned twice in the six pictures the Teacher draws here for us. The Pulpit
Commentary introduces these verses with: “The connection with what has preceded is not closely marked,
but is probably to be found in the bearing of the maxims on the conduct of the wise man who has incurred
the resentment of a ruler, and might be inclined to disaffection and revolt. They are intentionally obscure and
capable of a double sense — a necessary precaution if the writer lived under Persian despots.” The reference
to a “Persian despot” suggests that Solomon would not be the writer.
One of the problems of interpretation seems to be that the activities mentioned (digging a pit,
breaking through a wall, working in a quarry, splitting logs or charming snakes) are legitimate in
themselves. And the question arises as to the reason for the warning. The intent seems to be malice. The
Pulpit Commentary states: “The ‘pit’ (gummats) is such a one as was made to capture wild animals, and the
maker of it is supposed to approach it incautiously, and to fall into it. But the scope of our passage is rather
to speak of what may possibly occur than to insist on the Nemesis that inevitably overtakes transgressors. Its
object is to inspire caution in the prosecution of dangerous undertakings, whether the enterprise be the
overthrow of a tyrant, or any other action of importance, or whether, as some suppose, the arraignment of the
providential ordering of events is intended, in which ease there would be the danger of blasphemy and
impatience.”
In Proverbs, the author uses the same image to illustrate what happens to malicious people. We
read: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.”2
The Matthew Henry’s Commentary sees the images as parables representing the desire of some to
change the God-given order of society. We read: “Let neither prince nor people violently attempt any
changes, nor make a forcible entry upon a national settlement, for they will both find it of dangerous
consequence, which he shows here by four similitudes, the scope of which is to give us a caution not to meddle to our own hurt. Let not princes invade the rights and liberties of their subjects; let not subjects
mutiny and rebel against their princes.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: “Vindictiveness has its own built-in penalties. The
imagery is similar in Jeremiah 18:18-22. The malicious endeavors of men, often willful and requiring much
trouble (digs a pit … breaks through a wall), have a rebound which may be apposite (He…falls in),
unexpected (8b), and deadly (bitten by a snake). Thus was Haman hanged on his own gallows (Est. 7:9f.).”
The imbedded reference to Jeremiah reads: “They said, ‘Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah; for the
teaching of the law by the priest will not be lost, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the
prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.’ Listen to me,
O Lord; hear what my accusers are saying! Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for me.
Remember that I stood before you and spoke in their behalf to turn your wrath away from them. So give
their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless
and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle. Let a cry be heard
from their houses when you suddenly bring invaders against them, for they have dug a pit to capture me and
have hidden snares for my feet.”
About v.9 Eaton comments: “It may be thought that more constructive activities such as quarrying
stones and chopping logs are safer than the malicious activities of v.8. Two more proverbs warn against the
false assumption: all life has its inherent dangers.”
The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary states about v.10: “This proverb of iron, i.e., iron instruments,
to pierce … is one of the most difficult in the Book of Koheleth-linguistically the most difficult, because
scarcely anywhere else are so many peculiar and unexampled forms of words to be found.”
One of the problem Hebrew words is chayil, here rendered “strength.” It can mean “force” in
different contexts, such as people, resources, army, wealth, virtue or valor. We see the gamut of uses in the
following verses: “They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder
everything in the houses.”1
“And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of
my own livestock.’2 “The Egyptians — all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops — pursued
the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.”3
“Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong.”4
Some Bible scholars interpret the verse as if someone tries to overthrow a tyrant without making
sufficient preparation, giving the opposite party time to strengthen his army. Others see in it a continuation
of the log-splitting in the previous verse. The lesson to be drawn from it may be that wisdom consists in
counting the cost, which is what Jesus emphasized in His admonition: “Suppose one of you wants to build a
tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he
lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow
began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will
he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming
against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long
way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has
cannot be my disciple.”5
But we can hardly assume that the Teacher foresaw the consequences of
discipleship, which does not mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t!
About the last verse in this section, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: “The opposite
danger is envisaged: one who is able to handle a difficult matter (a charmer) fails for lack of promptitude
(the serpent bites…before charmed). Slackness may nullify inherent skill.”
There seems, however, to be more involved here than being fast. The Hebrew text is intriguing; we
read: “Surely a snake will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.” The Hebrew word rendered
“enchantment” is lachash, which has the primary meaning of “a whisper.” It can also mean a private prayer
or an incantation. Isaiah uses the word in different context, meaning either “an orator,”1
“an amulet”2
or “a
prayer.”3
Jeremiah uses it in the context of charming vipers.4
The word rendered “babbler” in the Hebrew text, “charmer” in The New International Version, is a
double in Hebrew word: ba`al lashown, literally meaning “lord of the tongue.” It depends upon the context
in which it is used as to what the meaning is. It is difficult to look at this verse and not think of an application
in relationship with the one who is called “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the
whole world astray.”5 The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary observes here: “This name for the charmer, one
of many, is not unintentional; the tongue is an instrument, as iron is, v. 10: the latter must be sharp, if it
would not make greater effort necessary; the former, if it is to gain its object, must be used at the right time.”
vii. The fool’s talk 10:12-14
12 Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips.
13 At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness —
14 and the fool multiplies words. No one knows what is coming — who can tell him what will happen
after him?
The New International Version’s “is consumed by his own lips” is the translation of a single
Hebrew word bala`, which literally means “to make away with,” specifically by swallowing. It is what the
fish did to Jonah.6
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, comments: “All wisdom writings deal with the tongue sooner or
later, for the character of one’s talk is the acid test of wisdom, the ‘small rudder’ that steers the ship (Jas.
3:4f.). Wise words are said to be gracious; the Hebrew says they are ‘grace,’ embodying all that is gracious
or kindly (cf. Ps. 45:2; Pr. 22:11 where the same word is used): appropriate (Pr. 15:23; 25:11), helpful (Eph.
4:29; Col. 3:8), likeable (Pr. 25:12,15). Words may devour (literally swallow up,’ (cf. Ps.52:4). They
consume the fool’s reputation (v.3), his character (Jas. 3:6), his impact for good (Eph. 4:29), and finally the
man himself (Mt. 12:36f). The source of the fool is talk is traced to the inner character (cf. Mt. 12:34), the
folly that has been expounded earlier (cf. 10:2f. and the whole of 9:17 – 10:20). Its end (outcome; cf. 7:8) is
wicked madness (RSV, NIV), an irrationality which is morally perverse. The Preacher now points to the
arrogance of the fool’s speech. His verbosity is not founded on any esoteric wisdom or knowledge. He has
no knowledge of the present, let alone the future. Nor can any man give him any knowledge of the future.
Yet he speaks with conviction on such things.”

The Pulpit Commentary adds: “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; literally, are grace
… i.e. they not only are pleasing in form and manner, but they conciliate favor, produce approbation and
good will, convince and, what is more, persuade. So of our blessed Lord it was said, ‘All bare him witness,
and wondered at the gracious words … which proceeded out of his mouth’ (… Luke 4:22; … Psalm 45:2).
In distinction from the unready man, who, like the snake charmer in the preceding verse, suffers-by reason
of his untimely silence, the wise man uses his speech opportunely and to good purpose. (A different result is
given in … Ecclesiastes 9:11.) But the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. This is a stronger ex-prosaic,
than ‘ruin’ or ‘destroy.’ Speaking without due forethought, he compromises himself says what he has
shamefully to withdraw, and brings punishment on his own head (… Proverbs 10:8, 21; 18:7).”
The Teacher speaks here primarily about human speech, comparing the way the wise use words and
what fools do with them. He does not go back far enough to trace the origin of speech. God invented the
word; He even became the Word. We read in the opening verses of the Bible how God used the word to
create out of nothing: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”1
When Satan tempted Eve he
did this by attacking first of all the Word of God. “Did God really say?”2
In describing Satan, Jesus says of
him: “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he
lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”3 In order to understand the
background of speech of the wise and of the fool, we must trace the word back to its source.
viii. The fool’s incompetence 10:15
15 A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town.
The Hebrew text of this verse reads literally: “The labor of the foolish wearies every one of them,
because he knows not [how] to go to the city.” Bible scholars have come up with different explanations for
the fool’s ignorance about going to town. The Pulpit Commentary states: “Not to know the way to the city is
probably a proverbial saying expressive of gross ignorance concerning the most obvious matters. How
should one, who fails in the knowledge open to all experience, be able to investigate and give an opinion
about abstruse questions (comp. … Isaiah 35:8)? For the last clause other interpretations have been
proposed, such as, the fool knows not how to transact public business (which is introducing a modern idea);
the oppressed peasant knows not the way to the town where he might obtain redress; he is so foolish that he
does not understand where he may find patrons whom he may bribe to plead his cause; he is an Essene, who
avoids cities; he cannot make his way to the new Jerusalem, the city of God. But these artificial explanations
are to be rejected, while the simple interpretation given above is plainly consistent with the context. The
lesson is not to meddle with things too high, especially when you are ignorant of the commonest matters. A
little wisdom would prevent endless and useless trouble.”
The imbedded reference to Isaiah reads: “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of
Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not
go about on it.”
It does not seem illogical, however, to see more in this verse than merely a reference to ignorance
about carrying out business. The fool’s problem is that he does not understand what life is all about. He has
no clue why God allowed him to be born in this world. The Psalmist’s observation about people wandering
in the desert fits him well. If the fool could take the Psalmist’s advice and cry out to the Lord, he would find
the way, as we read in the Psalms: “Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where
they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. Then they cried out to the Lord
in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way to a city where they
could settle. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men, for he
satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”1
ix. Folly in national life 10:16-20
16 Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.
17 Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time — for
strength and not for drunkenness.
18 If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.
19 A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.
20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the
air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.
In introducing these verses, Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “The whole section reaches a
rhetorical climax. Already the Preacher has viewed wisdom and folly in their bearing upon the nation as a
whole (10:4-7). Now the cruciality of the issue is pleaded as he weighs up the two ways through life which
point to two national destinies: the way of disaster (Woe…, v.16) and the way of safety (Blessed…, v.17).”
The Hebrew of v.16 reads literally: “Woe to you o land when your king is a child and your princes
eat in the morning.” The Hebrew word rendered “child,” “servant” in The New International Version, is
na`ar, which means “boy.” The connotation “servant” seems to be implied. We find it in the latter sense in
the verse: “Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to
prepare it.”2
The Hebrew word for “noble” is chor, which literally means “white or pure,” referring to
character. It is generally translated “noble,” as in: “There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons
of Zedekiah before his eyes and also killed all the nobles of Judah.”3
Eaton observes about this: “A nation’s first need is a mature leader. RSV is a child refers not to age
but to general maturity. The term often means ‘servant’ …. In 1 Kings 3:7 Solomon considers himself ‘a
child’ and recognizes his immaturity as a disadvantage to be remedied only by God-given wisdom. The son
of free men is one whose position in society enables him to act with an independent spirit. The contrast,
therefore, is not so much between young and old as between a mature, bold approach to life and an
immature, servile manner. Another criterion of national wisdom is self-control. Drinking in the early hours
of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on luxury and personal indulgence.
As we have frequently seen (e.g. 9:7-10) personal enjoyment had a place for the Preacher; and the antithesis
to indulgence here is not asceticism, but self-control. The mark of such pleasure is that it is to be enjoyed ‘in
a state of strength,’ not ‘in a state of drunkenness.’ The enjoyment of life’s pleasures as the outworking of a
position of wisdom-strength is a mark of national bliss; the pseudo-enjoyment of self-centered indulgence is
a mark of national danger.”
The Hebrew text of v.18 reads literally: “By much slothfulness the building decays; and through
idleness of the hands the house drops through.” The general consensus of Bible scholars is that the topic is
still the nation, not just a single building. The Hebrew word for “slothfulness” is `atslah, but it is used in the
text as ba`atsaltayim, making it a double. Some translate is as “two idle hands.” The “ship of state” is in
need of repairs but no one cares or moves a finger. The prophet Amos speaks of similar conditions in the
Northern Kingdom at a later date. The tent of David is in disrepair, but no one care, except God. We read:
“Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men
of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come! You put off the evil day and bring near a reign of
terror. You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened
calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by
the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. ‘In that day I will restore
David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they
may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,’ declares the Lord, who will do
these things.”1
Some Bible scholars find it difficult to see the connection between v.19 and the preceding texts. If
the deplorable condition of the country is due to indifference of its leaders, this verse may depict their
attitude and lifestyle. It is not unusual to see corruption in leadership and illegal use of state funds for
personal enrichment. The Teacher describes the feasting of the nobles and refers to the means employed. It
is not so much the use of wine that is condemned here but the means used to pay for the excessive use of it.
It is while the upper class is feasting that the rest of the country is suffering.
This leaves us with the last and most intriguing verse of the chapter, v.20. The Hebrew reads
literally: “Do not in your thoughts and in your bedroom curse the king: and in your bedroom curse not the
rich for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall carry the matter.” There are two
different Hebrew words which are translated “bedroom.” The first is cheder, which refers to the place, “an
apartment,” the second is mishkab, a bed, which can refer to sleep or that which is done in bed. The second
word may express the way we sometimes use it when we say: “He went to bed with her.”
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “Under the above mentioned circumstances, a man might be
tempted to abuse and curse these ill-conditioned rulers. Koheleth warns against this error; it is dangerous to
give way to it (comp. … Exodus 22:28). In … Ecclesiastes 8:2 the motive for submission to the king is
placed on religious grounds; in the present passage the ground is prudence, regard for personal safety, which
might be compromised by plain speaking, especially when one has to do with such depraved and
unscrupulous persons. We may compare David’s generous conduct to his cruel persecutor Saul, whom he
spared because he was the Lord’s anointed (… 1 Samuel 24:6, l0; 26:9, etc.; … 2 Samuel 1:14) … To
encourage such thoughts in the mind is to run the risk of openly expressing them at some unguarded
moment; for ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.’”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “Neither the king nor the leadership of a nation (the
rich) must give rise to foolish anger in the wise man’s life. The verse challenges us to remain calm in days of
national sloth, immaturity and indulgence, and calls for a submissive approach to authority, giving an
expedient reason for obedience. The word translated thoughts has been rendered ‘repose’ or ‘bedroom,’ but
the common translation is perfectly justified. ‘A little bird told me’ is a proverb which appears in a variety of
forms and cultures, including Aristophanes’ The Birds and the Hittite Tale of Elkuhirsa. Everything that has
been said about wisdom and folly points again to the main lesson of Ecclesiastes: the need to face life as it
really is, and take our life day by day from the hand of a sovereign God.”
III. THE CALL TO DECISION 11:1-12:8
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, in introducing this section, writes: “Already the book of
Ecclesiastes has had an element of exhortation, for the life of faith has been not merely described but
commended. The life of indifference and unbelief has been placed against it on the scales and been found
wanting. Now the preacher calls for a verdict. Often the proverbs of ch. 11 have been treated by expositors as merely a series of shrewd maxims concerning everyday life, dealing only with commerce or sensible
agricultural methods (1, 4, 6). It is necessary, however, to understand the over-all thrust as going beyond
that, for the Preacher is concerned not merely with details, but with life as a whole. The following factors
support this approach. First, the section is bound together by sustained exhortation, indicating that the whole
section is concerned with decisive obedience. Second, the note of command comes to an impressive and
sustained climax in 12:1-7. It is noteworthy that the passage constitutes a single sentence in English
translation. The repeated ‘before…before…before (1, 2, 6) rivets our mind to the initial command
‘Remember your Creator.’ Third, the whole section highlights the nature of commitment to Israelite theism.
Through a series of minor appeals in ch. 11 flows the theme of faith in the Creator God who is in control of
men and their affairs. These epigrammatic commands add up to a grand total underlined in 12:1-8. The
whole section is a sustained call to decision, presented in such a way as to call attention to the nature of that
decision. We must respond to God without delay, in whole-hearted faith, whether life is adverse or
comfortable, for we are marching towards the day of our death. The Preacher uses homely images in
emphasizing the urgency of his message. Modern thinkers might prefer at times to use abstract terms, and
we must not miss the Preacher’s point in our enjoyment of his picturesque style. For the whole section,
coming at this particular point in the book and achieving an elegiac climax of rare beauty in 12:1-7, calls
with great urgency for faith in the Preacher’s God, the God of Israel.”
A. The venture of faith 11:1-6
1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.
2 Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
3 If clouds are full of water, they pour rain upon the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the
north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie.
4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
5 As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot
understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
6 Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will
succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.
The Pulpit Commentary states here: “Approaching the end of his treatise, Koheleth, in view of
apparent anomalies in God’s moral government, and the difficulties that meet man in his social and political
relations, proceeds to give his remedies for this state of things. Leaving alone unanswerable questions,
man’s duty and happiness are found in activity, especially in doing all the good in his power, for he knows
not how soon he himself may stand in need of help. This is the first remedy for the perplexities of life. The
wise man will not charge himself with results.”
Literally taken, the recommendation to throw bread upon the water seems irreconcilable to the
assurance that it will not be lost but found again after several days. People who throw bread on water
nowadays mainly do it to feed ducks or fish. It is not unreasonable to look for further meaning beyond the
poetic words, which is what most interpreters do.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary observes: “There is no certain explanation of this proverb.
Traditionally, it has been seen as an exhortation to liberality or charity, which one is to cast (lit., (send forth)
before others without any immediate realization of gain, but which will return someday to reward its giver
(cf. Luke 16:9). But perhaps the verse is to be read. ‘Cast your bread upon the waters (strange though this
may seem), yet you may find it after many days.’ Read thus, it refers to the uncertainty of this life, in which
even an apparently unwise action may yield reward.”
According to The Adam Clarke’s Commentary, “The Targum understands it of giving bread to poor
sailors.” Barnes’ Notes comments: “There ought to be no division between Eccl 10:20 and Eccl 11:1. As if

in contrast to the self-indulgence described in Eccl 10:16-19, the opposite virtue, readiness to give to others,
is inculcated. The use of the word ‘bread’ in both Eccl 10:19 … and Eccl 11:1 points the contrast. Verse 1.
The verse means: ‘Show hospitality, even though the corresponding return of hospitality to you may seem
improbable; nevertheless, be hospitable in faith.’ Compare Luke 14:13-14; Heb 13:2. Some interpreters (not
unreasonably) understand by ‘bread’ the seed from the produce of which bread is made. Seed cast upon the
fertile soil flooded by the early rains would be returned to the sower in autumn with large increase.”
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, seeks the meaning in mercantile shipping, stating: “The first
proverb crystallizes the essence of the Preacher’s appeal: it is a call to a venture of faith. The allusion is to
the element of trust in much ancient business. Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before
any profit resulted. Yet one’s goods had to be committed to them. Solomon’s fleet which brought back
‘gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks’ (1 Ki. 10:22) sailed once in three years. Similarly the Preacher has
called his readers to take life as from the hand of God, and to enjoy it despite its trials and perplexities. Such
a life contains within it the elements of trust and adventure (Cast), demands total commitment (for your
bread is used in the sense of ‘goods,’ livelihood,’ as in Dt. 8:3; Pr. 31:14), and has a forward look to it (you
will find), a reward which requires patience (after many days).”
Looking at the various interpretations of the verse, the overall conclusion leaves us with a puzzle.
There is an element of risk-taking, of doing things that go against human logic. There is a recognition that
some things, rather many, are beyond our control. But faith takes into account that God is in control of
everything. That fact gives us the assurance that what we give away liberally in this life on earth will yield a
harvest in eternity that is way out of proportion to what could be expected here below. “Give, and it will be
given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your
lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”1
And: “Do not store up for yourselves
treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for
yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and
steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”2
The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary remarks: “The very argument which covetous
men use against liberality-namely, that bad times may come-the wise man uses for it. The only gain which
you can ensure to yourself in the prospect of bad times, which may rob you of all your earthly goods, is that
heavenly gain which you make by now giving liberally to the poor, and to the cause of God.”
The Hebrew word for “portion” in v.2 is cheleq, which literally means “smoothness of speech,” or
“allotment.” The King James Version sometimes renders it “flattery.” But in the context of Ecclesiastes it
means “portion.” The word is used for the first time in the verse where Abraham, after defeating the army of
five kings, says to the king of Sodom: “I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that
belongs to the men who went with me — to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”3
It is also
used in the verse: “The Lord said to Aaron, ‘You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have
any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.’”4
Jesus’ Parable of the Crooked Manager comes to mind. In that case the Hebrew meaning of
“smoothness” is evident in the slick way the manager uses his master’s business relations to invest in his
own future. Jesus comments on the story: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so
that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
The Pulpit Commentary comments on the mentality of the crooked manager, (if that is what the
Preacher advertises here): “It seems a low motive on which to base charitable actions; but men act on such
secondary motives every day, and the moralist cannot ignore them. In the Book of Proverbs secondary and
worldly motives are largely urged as useful in the conduct of life …. St. Paul reminds us that we some day
may need a brother’s help (… Galatians 6:1).” The same commentary continues: “The Fathers have
spiritualized the passage, so as to make it of Christian application, far away indeed from Koheleth’s thought.
Thus St. Gregory: ‘By the number seven is understood the whole of this temporal condition… this is shown
more plainly when the number eight is mentioned after it. For when another number besides follows after
seven, it is set forth by this very addition, that this temporal state is brought to an end and closed by eternity.
For by the number seven Solomon expressed the present time, which is passed by periods of seven days. But
by the number eight he designated eternal life, which the Lord made known to us by his resurrection. For he
rose in truth on the Lord’s day, which, as following the seventh day, i.e. the sabbath, is found to be the eighth
from the creation. But it is well said, ‘Give portions,’ etc. As if it were plainly said, ‘So dispense temporal
goods, as not to forget to desire those that are eternal. For thou oughtest to provide for the future by welldoing, who knowest not what tribulation succeeds from the future judgment.’”
The connection of v.3 and following with the preceding verses is not very obvious and has puzzled
Bible scholars. Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “Some understand the point of this verse to be:
God’s plan is relentless, therefore carry on regardless … Others: Imitate the generosity of the clouds, your
destiny cannot be changed after death (Luther). Others: One cannot control nature, so be prepared for the
worst.” Eaton continues by quoting others who observe that “the two form a chiasmus: rain – wind – wind –
rain. The first picture is a storm with heavy rain and violent wind. The second seems to be an uprooted tree.
The point is not that the tree could not be moved, but that its fall could not have been anticipated. … The
sudden fall of the tree thus contrasts with the gathering of the storm-clouds, which can be watched with
apprehension. The two points involved, therefore seem to be: Mankind cannot control the difficulties of life,
(i) even when he anticipates them, and (ii) because often there are totally unexpected events. These points
are made in terms of the farmer’s problems, but the over-all unit of 11:1 – 12:8 gives them wider
application.”
The Pulpit Commentary states about v.3: “This verse is closely connected with the preceding
paragraph. The misfortune there intimated may fall at any moment; this is as certain as the laws of nature,
unforeseen, uncontrollable. When the clouds are overcharged with moisture, they deliver their burden upon
the earth, according to laws which man cannot alter; these are of irresistible necessity, and must be expected
and endured. And if the tree fall toward the south, etc.; or, it may be, in the south; i.e. let it fall where it will;
the particular position is of no importance. When the tempest overthrows it, it lies where it has fallen. When
the evil day comes, we must bend to the blow, we are powerless to avert it; the future can be neither
calculated nor controlled. The next verse tells how the wise man acts under such circumstances. Christian
commentators have argued from this clause concerning the unchangeable state of the departed — that there
is no repentance in the grave; that what death leaves them judgment shall find them. Of course, no such
thought was in Koheleth’s mind; nor do we think that the inspiring Spirit intended such meaning to be wrung
from the passage. Indeed, it may be said that, as it stands, the clause does not bear this interpretation. The
fallen or felled tree is not at once fit for the master’s use; it has to be exposed to atmospheric influences
seasoned, tried. It is not left in the place where it lay, nor in the condition in which it was; so that, if we
reason from this analogy, we must conceive that there is some ripening, purifying process in the
intermediate state. St. Gregory speaks thus: ‘For when, at the moment of the falling of the human being,
either the Holy Spirit or the evil spirit receives the soul departed from the chambers of the flesh, he will keel,
it with him for ever without change, so that neither, once exalted, shall it be precipitated into woe, nor, once
plunged into eternal woes, any further arise to take the means of escape.’”
In vv.4-6 the Teacher wants us to draw the right conclusion of the fact that most issues in life are
beyond human control, but that this fact does not dismiss us of our obligation to take responsibility for our
own actions. There is a difference between being cautious and reckless. The fact that we cannot understand the mystery of birth does not mean that women should not get pregnant and that children ought not to be
born. The fact that there will be storms and floods does not mean that we must not sow and reap.
B. The life of joy 11:7-10
7 Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
8 However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness,
for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.
9 Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will
bring you to judgment.
10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are
meaningless.
It is painful to have chosen an outline for Ecclesiastes from a trusted author like Michael A. Eaton
and then come to the conclusion that one does not really agree with his interpretation. That is the point we
seem to have come to now. It is difficult to see in the section before us nothing but a celebration of life as
Eaton proposes. What the Teacher says here corresponds with the witty remark George Bernard Shaw made
about youth: “Youth is a wonderful thing; it is too bad it is wasted on young people!”
The Teacher stands here as an old man, looking back upon his own life, remembering how easy and
painless it used to be. Looking forward, the only visible future is death, which he declares to be totally
meaningless. The picture that would illustrate his philosophy would be of a musician on death row, who has
been informed of the time of his execution and to whom the prison guard says: “Why don’t you play us some
nice music!”
That is the first reaction we feel in looking at the Teacher’s utterances. Another way is to see the
enjoyment he advertises here as a protest against death. As if the musician takes up his instrument in the face
of death and plays his most beautiful tones as a remonstrance in the same way as a martyr singing psalms
while being burned at the stake. Whether we can read this in the Preacher’s words or not I do not know, but
it would be the interpretation I prefer.
If “Everything to come is meaningless” refers to death, we could interpret this positively in the
sense that, if death were in fact the end of everything, life would be meaningless. To live life meaningfully
in the hope of the resurrection would indeed be the ultimate way to protest the devil’s propaganda. Taking a
second deeper look at the Teacher’s pessimistic words make us believe that he may want us to contradict
him. That is not a bad method of teaching if the class to be taught consists of intelligent students.
A note of warning to the youthful audience the Teacher envisions here is that youth is not a lasting
condition. This fact is not something many young people take into consideration. As we grow up and we feel
our physical energy and mental capacity increasing, we may conceive the thought that life is a continuous
upswing. Old age takes many by surprise. Some of us get over the hill and enjoy the view, but that is not the
general reaction to physical and mental wear that creeps up on us. The problem with youth is that the future
is blocked from view; the wisdom of old age is in a rearview mirror.
The Pulpit Commentary comments: “The apodosis begins with ‘rejoice,’ and the translation is, For
if a man live many years, he ought to rejoice in them all. Koheleth has said (ver. 7) that life is sweet and
precious; now he adds that it is therefore man’s duty to enjoy it; God has ordained that he should do so,
whether his days on earth be many or few. Yet let him remember the days of darkness. The apodosis is
continued, and the clause should run, And remember, etc. ‘The days of darkness’ do not mean times of
calamity as contrasted with the light of prosperity, as though the writer were bidding one to be mindful of
the prospect of disastrous change in the midst of happiness; nor, again, the period of old age distinguished
from the glowing light of youth …. The days of darkness signify the life in Hades, far from the light of the

sun, gloomy, uncheered. The thought of this state should not make us hopeless and reckless, like the
sensualists whose creed is to ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (… 1 Corinthians 15:82…), but rouse us
to make the best of life, to be contented and cheerful, doing our daily duties with the consciousness that this
is our day of labor and joy, and that ‘the night cometh when no man can work’ (… John 9:4). Wisely says
Beu-Sira, ‘Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss’ (Ecclus. 7:36).
… For they shall be many; rather, that they shall be many. This is one of the things to remember. The time in
Sheol will be long. How to be passed — when, if ever, to end — he says not; he looks forward to a dreary
protracted period, when joy shall be unattainable, and therefore he bids men to use the present, which is all
they can claim. All that cometh is vanity. All that comes after this life is ended, the great future, is
nothingness; shadow, not substance; a state from which is absent all that made life, and over which we have
no control. Koheleth had passed the sentence of vanity on all the pursuits of the living man; now he gives the
same verdict upon the unknown condition of the departed soul (comp, … Ecclesiastes 9:5). Till the gospel
had brought life and immortality to light, the view of the future was dark and gloomy. So we read in Job
(10:21, 22), ‘I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and of the shadow of death; a land
of thick darkness, as darkness itself; a land of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is
as darkness.’ … Ver. 9. — Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth. Koheleth continues to inculcate the duty of
rational enjoyment. ‘In youth’ is during youth; not in the exercise of, or by reason of, thy fresh, unimpaired
powers. The author urges his hearers to begin betimes to enjoy the blessing with which God surrounds them.
Youth is the season of innocent, unalloyed pleasure; then, if ever, casting aside all tormenting anxiety
concerning an unknown future, one may, as it is called, enjoy life. Let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy
youth. Let the lightness of thy heart show itself in thy bearing and manner, even as it is said in Proverbs (…
Proverbs 15:13), ‘A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance.’ Walk in the ways of thine heart (comp. …
Isaiah 57:17). Where the impulses and thoughts of thy heart lead thee. The wording looks as if the personal
identity, the ‘I,’ and the thought were distinct. We have a similar severance in … Ecclesiastes 7:25, only
there the personality directs the thought, not the thought the ‘I,’ And in the sight of thine eyes. Follow after
that on which thy eyes fix their regard (… Ecclesiastes 2:10); for, as Job says (… Job 31:7), ‘The heart
walketh after the eyes.’ … To counteract the supposed evil teaching, some have credited Koheleth with stern
irony. He is not recommending pleasure, say they, but warning against it. ‘Go on your way,’ he cries, ‘do as
you list, sow your wild oats, live dissolutely, but remember that retribution will some day overtake you.’
But the counsel is seriously intended, and is quite consistent with many other passages which teach the duty
of enjoying life as man’s lot and part (see … Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12,13,22; 5:18; 8:15, etc.). The seeming
opposition between the recommendation here and in … Numbers 15:39 is easily reconciled. The injunction
in the Pentateuch, which was connected with a ceremonial observance, ran thus: ‘Remember all the
commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart, and your own eyes,
after which ye used to go awhoring.’ Here unlawful pleasures, contrary to the commandments, are
forbidden; Ecclesiastes urges the pursuit of innocent pleasures, such as will stand scrutiny. … It is not
Epicureanism, even in a modified form, that is here encouraged. For moderate and lawful pleasure Koheleth
has always uttered his sanction, but the pleasure is to be such as God allows. This is to be accepted with all
gratitude in the present, as the future is wholly beyond our ken and our control; it is all that is placed in our
power, and it is enough to make life more than endurable. And then to temper unmixed joy, to prove that he
is not recommending mere sensuality, to correct any wrong impression which the previous utterances may
have conveyed, the writer adds another thought, a somber reflection which shows the religious conclusion to
which he is working up. But know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment (mishpat).
It has been doubted what is meant by ‘judgment,’ whether present or future, men’s or God’s. It has been
taken to mean — God will make thy excesses prove scourges, by bringing on thee sickness, poverty, a
miserable old age; or these distresses come as the natural consequences of youthful sins; or obloquy shall
follow thee, and thou shall meet with deserved censure from thy fellow-men. But every one must feel that
the solemn ending of this paragraph points to something more grave and important than any such results as
those mentioned above, something that is concerned with that indefinable future which is ever looming in
the dim horizon. Nothing satisfies the expected conclusion but a reference to the eternal judgment in the
world beyond the grave. Shadowy and incomplete as was Koheleth’s view of this great assize, his sense of
God’s justice in the face of the anomalies of human life was so strong that he can unhesitatingly appeal to
the conviction of a coming inquisition, as a motive for the guidance of action and conduct. That in other
passages he constantly apprehends earthly retribution, as the Pentateuch taught, and as his countrymen had
learned to expect (see … Ecclesiastes 2:26; 3:17; 7:17, 18), is no argument that he is not here rising to a
higher view. Rather, the fact that the doctrine of temporal reward and punishment is found by experience to
fail in many cases (comp. … Ecclesiastes 8:14) has forced him to state his conclusion that this life is not the
end of-everything, and that there is another existence in which actions shall be tried, justice done, retribution
awarded. The statement is brief, for he knew nothing more than the fact, and could add nothing to it. His
conception of the soul’s condition in Sheol (see … Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,10) seems to point to some other state
or period for this final judgment; but whether a resurrection is to precede this awful trial is left in uncertainty
here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament.”
C. ‘Today, when you hear his voice …’ 12:1-8
1 Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years
approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"—
2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they
are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound
of birds, but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the
grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and
mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him — before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is
shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
8 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
These verses are among the most outstanding examples of poetry. Poetic expression has reached a
pinnacle of beauty here and that in a subject that is one of deterioration and frailty which ends in death. The
Teacher manages to make old age and death look beautiful, while at the same time exclaiming that it is
man’s enemy that robs life of his meaning and beauty.
We must note that the words are addressed to young people. That is the reason some Bible scholars
complain about the chapter division here, claiming that the opening words of chapter twelve are actually part
of chapter eleven.
The advice is “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” The Hebrew word for Creator
used here is bowra`eykaa which is a plural form of the verb bara’, “to create.” We find it in the first verse of
the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”1 The general gist of the advice seems
to be that a relationship with the Creator is best begun early in life. It is true that most people who enter into
a lifelong relationship with God do so during childhood or adolescence. Accepting Christ later in life or
toward the end is not impossible, but it is not common and more difficult.
The advice places the following verses into a dark and bad light, depicting old age as something
undesirable, although unavoidable. It has been said that the only antidote against growing old is to die
young, which is not a desirable alternative.
It must be noted that the Teacher’s description of old age pertains to physical deterioration. There is
no poetic equivalent in the text for mental decline, which, however, can accompany the former. That
cerebral capacity can diminish may be a warning implied in the advice to begin remembering God while still
young. There is no guarantee to the young person that he will have the ability to turn to God toward the end
of life. That is the period the Teacher calls “the days of trouble,” Hebrew: yowm ra`, “evil day.” The word
yowm may actually refer to “the heat of the day.” It is about this “evil day” that the Teacher bursts out in a
poetic language that is unparalleled in all of Scripture!
The Pulpit Commentary states: “The phrase refers to the grievances and inconveniences of old age,
which are further and graphically described in the following verses, though whether the expressions therein
used regard literal anatomical facts, or are allegorical representations of the gradual decay of the faculties,
has been greatly disputed. Probably both opinions contain a partial truth.”
There may be a veiled reference to mental decline in the words that qualify life’s last days on earth
in the phrase: “I find no pleasure in them.” The Hebrew word for “pleasure” is chephets, which refers to
“pleasure,” “desire,” or “delight.” It is the time when the joy of living is not longer there, because the body
no longer reacts to the normal stimuli. Then follows a list of failure of bodily functions. About this, The
Pulpit Commentary writes: “Under these figures the evil days spoken of above, the advent and infirmities of
old age, are represented. It would be endless and unprofitable to recount the explanations of ‘the terms used
in the following verses. Every commentator, ancient and modern, has exerted his ingenuity to force the
poet’s language into the shape which he has imagined for it. But … there are at least two distinct lines of
interpretation which have found favor with the great majority of expositors. One of these regards the
imagery as applicable to the effects of a heavy storm upon a house and its inmates, explaining every detail
under this notion; the other regards the terms used as referring to the man himself, adumbrating the gradual
decay of old age, the various members and powers that are affected being represented under tropes and
images, Both interpretations are beset with difficulties, and are only with some straining and
accommodation forced into a consistent harmony. But the latter seems to us to present fewer perplexities
than the other, and we have adopted it here. At the same time, we think it expedient to give the other view,
together with our own, as there is much to be said in its favor, and many great writers have declared
themselves on its side.”
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states: “These verses are probably, then, an allegory on the decay
of old age and the approach of death. The figures of the sun, the light, the moon, the stars, and the clouds
depict old age as a storm that gathers and obscures the light and the heavenly bodies, so that there is no
warmth or brightness, that is, no enjoyment of life.”
The Adam Clarke’s Commentary observes about the advice to young people: “There is another
consideration which should weigh with you: should you live to old age, it is a very disadvantageous time to
begin to serve the Lord in. Infirmities press down both body and mind, and the oppressed nature has enough
to do to bear its own infirmities; and as there is little time, so there is generally less inclination, to call upon
the Lord. Evil habits are strengthened by long continuance; and every desire and appetite in the soul is a
strong hold for Satan. There is little time for repentance, little for faith, none for obedience. The evil days are
come, and the years in which you will feelingly be obliged to say, Alas! ‘we have no pleasure in them;’ and,
what is worse, the heart is hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
The first mention is light that diminishes, which probably refers to eyesight. We remember Jesus’
words about the eye: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is
full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within
you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be completely
lighted, as when the light of a lamp shines on you.”1
Jesus takes physical eyesight as an image of spiritual
insight, which maybe a truth present in the Teacher’s poem also. We express the same spiritual meaning in
the phrase: “I see the light.” Since there is another mention of the eyes in the following verse, “those looking
through the windows,” eyesight here may be more referring to insight than to sight.
The Matthew Henry’s Commentary observes about the first image: “The decays and infirmities of
old age are here elegantly described in figurative expressions, which have some difficulty in them to us now,
who are not acquainted with the common phrases and metaphors used in Solomon’s age and language; but
the general scope is plain—to show how uncomfortable, generally, the days of old age are. First, Then the
sun and the light of it, the moon and the stars, and the light which they borrow from it, will be darkened.
They look dim to old people, in consequence of the decay of their sight; their countenance is clouded, and
the beauty and luster of it are eclipsed; their intellectual powers and faculties, which are as lights in the soul,
are weakened; their understanding and memory fail them, and their apprehension is not so quick nor their
fancy so lively as it has been; the days of their mirth are over (light is often put for joy and prosperity) and
they have not the pleasure either of the converse of the day or the repose of the night, for both the sun and
the moon are darkened to them. Secondly, Then the clouds return after the rain; as, when the weather is
disposed to wet, no sooner has one cloud blown over than another succeeds it, so it is with old people, when
they have got free from one pain or ailment, they are seized with another, so that their distempers are like a
continual dropping in a very rainy day. The end of one trouble is, in this world, but the beginning of another,
and deep calls unto deep. Old people are often afflicted with defluxions of rheum, like soaking rain, after
which still more clouds return, feeding the humor, so that it is continually grievous, and therein the body, as
it were, melts away.”
V.3 probably refers to the arms, “the keepers of the house,” the legs, or the shoulders “the strong
men,” the teeth, “the grinders” that “are few,” and “those looking through the windows,” the eyes.
V.4 pertains to hearing, or its deficiency, contrasting beautifully the hearing of everyday sounds
and understanding of conversation with the faint sounds that disturb sleep. The Adam Clarke’s Commentary
understands “the doors to the street” to refer to the lips. We read: “The doors-the lips, which are the doors by
which the mouth is closed. Be shut in the streets-The cavities of the cheeks and jaws, through which the food
may be said to travel before it is fitted by mastication or chewing to go down the esophagus into the
stomach. The doors or lips are shut to hinder the food in chewing from dropping out; as the teeth, which
prevented that before, are now lost.” But since most of the verse refers to sound, the ears seem to be the topic
of the verse rather than the lips.
About the phrase “when men rise up at the sound of birds,” The Pulpit Commentary observes:
“This is a very difficult sentence, and has been very variously explained. It is usually taken to mean that the
old man sleeps lightly and awakes (for ‘rises up’ may mean no more than that) at the chirrup of a bird. The
objection to this interpretation is that it destroys the figurative character of the description, introducing
suddenly the personal subject. Of course, it has another signification in the picture of the terror-stricken
household; and many interpreters who thus explain the allegory translate the clause differently. Thus [one
Bible scholar] renders, ‘The swallow rises to shriek,’ referring to the habits of that bird in stormy weather.
But there are grammatical objections to this translation, as there are against another suggestion, ‘The bird (of
ill omen) raises its voice.’ We need not do more than refer to the mystical elucidation which detects here a
reference to the resurrection, the voice of the bird being the archangel’s trumpet which calls the dead from
their graves. Retaining the allegory, we must translate the clause, ‘He [or, ‘it,’ i.e. the voice] rises to the
bird’s voice;’ the old man’s voice becomes a ‘childish treble,’ like the piping of a little bird. The relaxation
of the muscles of the larynx and other vocal organs occasions a great difference in the pitch or power of tone
(compare what Hezekiah says … Isaiah 38:14, ‘Like a crane or a swallow so did I chatter,’ though there it is
the low murmur of sorrow and complaint that is meant).”
The Hebrew text of the latter portion of v.4 contains a reference that seems to be almost
mythological, like the muses of the Greek mythology. It reads literally: “and shall be brought low all
daughters of the music.” There is an intriguing antithesis between the sound of the bird that keeps the old
person from his sleep and the bird’s singing that can no longer be heard.
V.5 seems to suggest that old age comes with diminishing self-confidence. Fear creeps in where
poise was present. Few people in their eighties volunteer for skydiving. (Excuse the anachronism). Older
people use their canes to go out; some are afraid they will fall. The blossoming of the almond tree is not a
reference to youth but to gray or white hair. For a dark-haired race like the Jews white hair was a sure sign of
age. In The Book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote: “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous
life.”1
And: “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.”2
The dragging
grasshopper probably refers to failing gait in walking.
The word “desire” in v.5 is not the same as “pleasure” in v.1. The Hebrew word 'abiyownah refers
to the caperberry. The New Living Translation renders this: “the caperberry no longer inspires sexual
desire.”
In the last part of the verse metaphors are dispensed with: “Then man goes to his eternal home and
mourners go about the streets.” The Hebrew text reads: “because man goes to his long home, and the
mourners go about in the street.” The Hebrew word, rendered “eternal” in The New International Version is
`owlam, which literally means “(something) concealed,” or “the vanishing point.” The word is first used in
the verse: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He
must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’”3
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, observes: “The explanation for this decay is now given: man is
en route to a new home. Various expressions stress different aspects of the climax of decay which is death.
First, the Hebrew participle is going underlines that ‘the going is a continuous act of dissolution which may
involve many years in the case of some people’ … Thus death is the climax of a process which begins in life
– a Pauline touch (Rom. 8:10; Phil. 3:21). Second, the transition is irreversible, since it leads to an eternal
home, a phrase found in the Egyptian Instructions of ‘Onchseshonqy … Third, the sadness inevitably linked
with the process of dying is stressed literally, the wailers go about outside.” One objection to Eaton’s
suggestion that a process, rather than an incident is emphasized, is the mention of the mourners. They are
only employed when a person is actually deceased.
In v.6 the text returns to poetry in its most exquisite form. “Remember” is a reminder addressed to
young people, a repeat of the admonition with which the chapter began. Then the actual moment of death is
described, about which Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, writes: “The beauty of the words has a practical
purpose: ‘Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom’ (Robert Frost). The final act of dying is pictured in
four expressions, which divide into two pairs. In the first pair a golden bowl is attached to a silver cord or
chain. When the chain is removed (Hebrew; a variant reading is is unbound) the bowl falls and is irreparably
damaged. The image points to the value of life (silver … gold), and the drama in the end of a life whose
pieces cannot be put together again. The second pair of images visualizes a pitcher lowered into a well by a
rope running round a wheel. Death is the smashing of the jar. The terse Hebrew ‘The wheel breaks into the
well’ may be expanded ‘The wheel breaks so as to crash down into the well.’ The precise wording ‘gives us
a picture of the ruined apparatus plus the wheel as they have crashed down into the old cistern …’”
The image of the human soul as a device for drawing water out of a well is beautiful beyond
imagination. It evokes truths that only the Holy Spirit could reveal to the human mind. For people who get
their water from a faucet that connects them to a city-wide system, the picture lacks the meaning that it had
for those in Solomon’s day and later, who would draw their water from wells. Water is essential for life.
Here life is identified with the drawing of water.
In the New Testament the symbol is transferred from physical to spiritual life. We think particularly
of the conversation of Jesus with the woman at the well in Samaria. Jesus said to her: “‘If you knew the gift
of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you
living water.’ ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get
this living water? ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as
did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’ Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty
again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in
him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”1
In Solomon’s picture death is depicted as a breakdown at
the well. David describes life in fellowship with God as drinking from God’s fountain: “You give them
drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”2
Not many Bible scholars agree with the above interpretation. The Adam Clarke’s Commentary see
in Solomon’s picture the breakdown of physical aspect, such as the severance of the spinal cord and aorta.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary partly agrees, stating: “The figure represents an expensive gold and silver
lamp hung from the ceiling. Its chain is snapped so that it comes crashing to the ground. The oil spills out of
the broken bowl, and the light is gone. Light is the symbol of life. The pitcher and the wheel continue the
same idea, but from the symbolism of the drawing of water. The pitcher is broken, and so it can contain no
more water, that is, life; the wheel is broken, so that water can no longer be drawn.”
In the last line of v.7 the Teacher returns to the Genesis account of man’s creation and demise,
although in reversed order: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his
nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”3
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat
your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will
return.”4
The statement: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!” is
more than a repetition of the theme of the book with which the Teacher had opened. It is even more than a
beautiful frame that encloses the whole message of the book. In connection with the opening statement we
commented that Solomon wanted to provoke a reaction to the meaning of life. We mentioned that “If
everything is literally meaningless, then so is the Teacher’s statement! The fact that the Teacher makes an
exception for his own words ought to give us a clue to understanding his message. If the word ‘meaning’ has
lost its meaning, it means the death of language, its means the death of thought and emotions, the death of
man. So far no one in the world has accepted that premise. There is obviously one missing element in the
Teacher’s argument and that makes the message of the book a quest for the missing link to meaning.”
Here the statement is made at the end of life on earth. In the first chapter of the book Solomon stood
at the cradle, here he stands at a graveside and he pronounces life as a whole meaningless. And if a
graveyard is all that is left of life under the sun, then life is devoid of meaning.
The Pulpit Commentary observes about v.8: “It has been much questioned whether this verse is the
conclusion of the treatise or the commencement of the epilogue. For the latter conclusion it is contended that
it is only natural that the beginning of the final summing-up should start with the same words as the opening
of the book (… Ecclesiastes 1:2); and that thus the conjunction ‘and,’ with which ver. 9 begins, is readily
explained. But the treatise is more artistically completed by regarding this solemn utterance as the
conclusion of the whole, ending with the same burden with which it began — the nothingness of earthly
things. Koheleth has labored to show this, he has pursued the thought from beginning to end, through all
circumstances and conditions, and he can only re-echo his melancholy refrain. Vanity of vanities, saith the
Preacher. He does not follow the destiny of the immortal spirit; it is not his purpose to do so; his theme is
the fragility of mortal things, their unsatisfying nature, the impossibility of their securing man’s happiness:
so his voyage lands him at the point whence he set forth, though he has learned and taught faith in the
interval. If all is vanity, there is behind and above all a God of inflexible justice, who must do right, and to
whom we may safely trust our cares and perplexities. Koheleth,” Preacher,” here has the article, the
Koheleth, as if some special reference was made to the meaning of the name — he who has been debating, or
haranguing, or gathering together, utters finally his careful verdict. This is the sentence of the ideal
Solomon, who has given his experiences in the preceding pages.”
IV. EPILOGUE 12:9-14
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and
searched out and set in order many proverbs.
10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails — given by one
Shepherd.
12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much
study wearies the body.
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole [duty] of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Bible scholars have argued whether the author identifies himself as King Solomon in this epilogue
or whether he reveals that he impersonated the famous king. The Pulpit Commentary states: “The author
throws aside his disguise, and speaks of his object in composing the book, with a glance at the historical
Solomon whom he had personated. That he uses the third person in relation to himself is nothing uncommon
in historical memoirs, etc. Thus Daniel writes; and St. John, Thucydides, Xenophon, Caesar, mask their
personality by dropping their identity with the author (comp. also … Ecclesiastes 1:2; 7:27). The attestation
that follows is compared with that at the end of St. John’s Gospel (… John 21:24), and is plainly intended to
confirm the authority of the writer, and to enforce on the hearer the conviction that, though Solomon himself
did not compose the work, it has every claim to receive attention, and possesses intrinsic value.”
Another question is whether this epilogue is from the same hand as the rest of the book, or whether
an editor added it as a note of explanation. “Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge
to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.” If Solomon wrote those
words, he cannot be accused of an excess of humility. On the other hand, the fact that Solomon’s wisdom
was a gift from God,1 and denying that one has received a gift is not a demonstration of humility either.
In the reference to the many proverbs the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, he could be identified as the
author of The Book of Proverbs. The testimony of Solomon’s life also states: “He spoke three thousand
proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.”2
Michael A. Eaton, in Ecclesiastes, states on v.11: “The goad (dorbânâ) is mentioned in the Old
Testament only here and in 1 Samuel 13:21 (dorbân). It was probably a large sharp-pointed stake used to
prod an animal. The nail (maœmer, elsewhere spelled with a different sibilant, masmer) ranged from the
large gold nails used in Solomon’s temple (2 Ch. 3:9) to the smaller iron nails used for ‘doors … and …
clamps’ (1 Ch. 22:3). The two words speak of the twofold effect of the Preacher’s words, which stimulate to action and establish teaching in the memory. The phrase ‘masters of assemblies/collection’ (Heb.) is
probably correctly rendered collected sayings (RSV). The Hebrew idiom ‘master of x’ is used to mean ‘a
person or thing whose dominant characteristic is x.’ The meaning here depends on whether people
(assemblies) or things (collections) are in mind. The latter is more likely because of the parallelism: The
saying of the wise…goads…collected sayings…nails. The Shepherd has been taken to refer to the king (cf. 1
Sa. 25:7) or to God himself (cf. Pss. 23:1; 80:1). The latter is more likely, since the name ‘Preacher’ has
already been given to the originator of the material of the book (vv.9f). Although his words are the result of
his own reflections, at the same time they come from God. There is here, therefore, a doctrine of inspiration.
The Preacher (or his editor) is conscious of his own activity (v.10) with regard to both the form (v.9) and the
content (v.10) of his work; yet he contends that the finished product is the word of God as well as the word
of man. There are different kinds of inspiration within Scripture. Some involve a high degree of personal
involvement and reflection on the part of the inspired writer; at the other end of the scale is the writer who
records a revelation presented by an angelic messenger, which may totally bewilder the recipient. Wisdominspiration is un-dramatic in its mode; the world of the Spirit and the reflection of the writer from an
inseparable continuum. Wise men as well as prophets ‘moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God’ (2 Pet.
1:21).”
The admonition “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them” reminds us of the warning
the Apostle John issues at the end of Revelation: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of
this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if
anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of
life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”1
But it seems that in the context of Ecclesiastes
the warning does not refer to tampering with the inspired Word of God.
The addition: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” sounds
more like “writers’ fatigue” than spiritual admonition. But there is more depth in Solomon’s observation
than appears on the surface. The Teacher does not merely say that teaching and learning are occupations that
are physically exhausting, however true that may be. He may be referring here to the way knowledge entered
this world by the door of sin. There may be a reference to the tree in Paradise that was called “the tree of
knowledge of good and evil.” Satan succeeded in making our first parents fall by eating its fruit, thus
severing knowledge from fellowship with God. The source of all knowledge must be knowledge of God. In
His last prayer for His disciples, Jesus said: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true
God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”2
Knowing Jesus Christ means being connected to the source
of wisdom. In writing to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul stated: “My purpose is that they may be
encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in
order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of
wisdom and knowledge.”3 If that is what the Teacher is saying here to his son, he breaks through all the
limitations he had imposed upon his own writing by considering everything from the perspective of “under
the sun.” He draws our gaze to that which is beyond and eternal. Again, in the words of the Apostle Paul:
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is
unseen is eternal.”4
The Pulpit Commentary comments on the last two verses of the book: “Perhaps the passage is best
translated, The end of the matter, when all is heard, is this. The first word of this verse, soph, ‘end,’ is
printed in the Hebrew text in large characters, in order to draw attention to the importance of what is coming.

And its significance is rightly estimated. These two verses guard against very possible misconception, and
give the author’s real and mature conclusion. When this is received, all that need be said has been uttered.
Fear God (ha-Elohim), and keep his commandments. This injunction is the practical result of the whole
discussion. Amid the difficulties of the moral government of the world, amid the complications of society,
varying and opposing interests and claims, one duty remained plain and unchanging — the duty of piety and
obedience. For this is the whole duty of man. The Hebrew is literally, ‘This is every man,’ which is
explained to mean, ‘This is every man’s duty.’ … For this man was made and placed in the world; this is his
real object, the chief good which he has to seek, and which alone will secure contentment and happiness.
The obligation is put in the most general terms as applicable to the whole human family; for God is not the
God of the Jews only, but of Gentiles also (… Romans 3:29). Ver. 14. — The great duty just named is here
grounded upon the solemn truth of a future judgment. For God shall bring every work into judgment. It will
then be seen whether this obligation has been attended to or not. The judgment has already been mentioned
(… Ecclesiastes 11:9); it is here more emphatically set forth as a certain fact and a strong motive power. The
old theory of earthly retribution had been shown to break down under the experience of practical life; the
anomalies which perplexed men’s minds could only be solved and remedied by a future judgment under the
eye of the omniscient and unerring God. With every secret thing. The Syriac adds, ‘and manifest thing.’ The
Septuagint renders, ‘with everything that has been overlooked’ — a very terrible, but true, thought. The
doctrine that the most secret things shall be revealed in the dies irae is often brought forward in the New
Testament, which makes plain the personal nature of this final investigation, which the earlier Scriptures
invest with a more general character (see … Romans 2:16; 14:12; … 1 Corinthians 4:5). So this wonderful
book closes with the enunciation of a truth found nowhere else so clearly defined in the Old Testament, and
thus opens the way to the clearer light shed upon the awful future by the revelation of the gospel.”
Michael A. Eaton ends his commentary of Ecclesiastes with the observation: “The reader is urged
to keep his commandments. The order of the two points (fear…keep) is significant. Conduct derives from
worship. A knowledge of God leads to obedience, nor vice versa. This is the only place in Ecclesiastes
where the commands of God are mentioned. The body of the book has simply placed two alternative views
of life over against each other and the life of faith has been commended. Now in the epilogue, almost as an
aside, it is pointed out that such a life will have implications. It must not be restricted to the Mosaic law. It
refers to all that is known to be God’s will. The last phrase reads literally: ‘For this is the whole of man.’
Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, however, the ‘whole of the man’ is a Hebrew idiom for ‘every man’ (cf. 3:13;
5:10). The sense, therefore, is ‘This applies to everyone.’”
“God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or
evil.” The Hebrew word rendered “every hidden thing” is `alam, which means: “to veil from sight.” We find
the word in Moses’ psalm: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your
presence.” An appropriate response to this would be David’s prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my
heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the
way everlasting.”1 Paul’s words come to mind: “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it
is light that makes everything visible.”2 The Greek can be interpreted to read that everything upon which the
light of God shines becomes light. The grace of God turns our night to day, our darkness into light. That is
where faith comes in. For Jesus said about God’s judgment upon our lives: “I tell you the truth, whoever
hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed
over from death to life.”1 For those who have crossed over from death to life while living on earth, nothing
is meaningless; all is filled with the meaning of God’s glory.
Toccoa Falls, GA. September 26, 2009
1. John 5:24

Ecclesiastes 1
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Ecclesiastes 2
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Ecclesiastes 3
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Ecclesiastes 4
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Ecclesiastes 5
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Ecclesiastes 6
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Ecclesiastes 7
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Ecclesiastes 8
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Ecclesiastes 9
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Ecclesiastes 10
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Ecclesiastes 11
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Ecclesiastes 12
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