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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
Introduction to Ecclesiastes
I. This book is placed, in the most ancient Jewish and Christian lists, between the other two books (Proverbs and the Song of Songs) attributed to Solomon, and the constant tradition of the Jewish and Christian congregations has handed down Solomon as the author without question.
Some modern critics have indeed alleged that Solomon could not have written it: (a) because the language is such as no Jew in his age could have used; (b) because the language differs from that of Proverbs and the Song of Songs; and (c) because the historical allusions in the book do not agree with the period and the circumstances of Solomon.
(a) In answer to this, it would appear that every word quoted from Ecclesiastes as impossible to be used before the captivity has been shown either:
(1) to be used in books written, as is generally believed, before the captivity; or
(2) to be formed from words, and by a grammatical process, in use before the captivity; or
(3) to be represented in such books by a derivative; or
(4) to be undoubtedly common to other Semitic dialects besides Chaldee, and therefore, presumably, to Hebrew before the captivity, although not found in extant writings of earlier date than Ecclesiastes.
The allegation, therefore, that the language of this book shows distinct traces of the Chaldean invasion, of the Babylonian captivity, or of any later event which affected the Hebrew tongue, may be considered sufficiently answered.
(b) The dissimilarity in style and diction between this book and Proverbs or the Song of Songs is admitted; but it has been accounted for to some extent, first, by the difference of subject. Abstract ideas may be expressed up to a certain point by words which originally denoted something else: but philosophic thought such as distinguishes this book from the other two, gradually forms its own terminology. Next, it is argued, that there was an interval of many years between the composition of the two former books and of this; and that in that time there was a natural change in the temperament, views, and style of the writer; a change which may be traced partly to Solomon's familiarity with foreign women sprung from various Semitic races, partly also to his extensive negotiations and personal contact with the representatives of other nations, some of whom were not of Semitic origin 1 Kings 10:22.
Lastly, to balance the differences, it is to be noted that there are some characteristic resemblances between these books. It is reasonable to regard these as an indication of a common origin.
(c) It is alleged that the particular mention of Jerusalem Ecclesiastes 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:12 as the seat of Solomon's reign, implies that the book was written at a time when there was more than one seat of kingly authority in Israel, i. e. after the separation of the ten tribes and the erection of another capital, Samaria. The answer is that there is an obvious fitness in the specific mention of Jerusalem previous to the account of Solomon's labors in Ecclesiastes 1; 2, for it was the scene of his special work for many years, and the place which he had made the chief monument of his grandeur.
It is alleged that the expression, "I was king" Ecclesiastes 1:12, implies that, at the time when these words were written, Solomon was no longer king, and that, consequently, the passage must have been written by someone who was impersonating him after his death. But, in Hebrew, the preterite is used with strict grammatical propriety in describing a past. It does not prevent critics, after taking all the facts into account, from considering the whole of these books as the work of the same author. which extends into the present. Solomon is as a speaker who views the action or state expressed by the verb as then first about coming to pass, in progress, or perhaps occurring at the instant. The phrase therefore, would be both grammatically correct, if used by Solomon before the close of his reign, and a natural expression of his feelings in his old age.
It is argued that such a state of violence, popular oppression, and despotic rule, as that which is instanced in Ecclesiastes 4:1 did not exist in Palestine in the peaceful reign of Solomon. This allegation has no foundation in fact. The significant statements of historians (e. g. 1 Kings 12:4 and 2 Chronicles 2:17-18; 2 Chronicles 8:7-9) and the numerous unmistakeable allusions in the Book of Proverbs (e. g. Proverbs 1:10-13; Proverbs 6:16-19; Proverbs 11:26; Proverbs 14:20; Proverbs 22:22-23; Proverbs 24:21; Proverbs 25:5; Proverbs 28:2, Proverbs 28:16) agree with the descriptions in Ecclesiastes in showing that the kingdom of Israel, even in its most prosperous days, afforded grievous instances of the common evils of Asiatic despotism.
It is stated that such passages as Ecclesiastes 12:7, Ecclesiastes 12:14 show a knowledge of revealed truth beyond what was given prior to the captivity. But if the exact words of Ecclesiastes are compared with the obscure intimations given by Moses on the one hand, and with the later utterances of Daniel on the other, this book appears to hold a middle place. It tallies very closely with some of the Psalms which were probably written about the age of Solomon. After all, does not the argument (mentioned above) proceed on an assumption that we are more competent than we really are to find out the ways of the Author of Revelation? Are we qualified to decide positively that so much, as is recorded on those subjects in Ecclesiastes came out of its proper season if it was given to Solomon?
On the whole, therefore, it seems the most reasonable course to accept as a simple statement of fact the words with which Ecclesiastes begins; and, in accordance with the voice of the church from the beginning, to regard solomon as the author of this book.
II. What was the object of the writer in composing this book?
The method of Greek philosophy and its principles - Epicurean, Stoic, and Cynic - have been attributed to the author of Ecclesiastes; but on no better ground than might be found in the writings of any thoughtful and sensitive man who has felt, contemplated, and described the perplexities of human life.
The author was evidently a man of profound faith in God, of large and varied personal experience, of acute observation of people and things, and of deep sensibility. He was probably first moved to write by a mind that was painfully full of the disappointing nature of all things viewed apart from God. Next, he was moved by a deep sympathy with fellow human beings who were touched by the same natural feelings as himself, and suffering like him, though each in their various ways; and thirdly, he was moved by the evident desire to lead other men, and especially young men, out of the temptations which he had felt, and out of the perplexities which once entangled and staggered him. Whether his heart was chilled by old age or by the cold shadow of some former eclipse of faith can only be conjectured; but there is in Ecclesiastes an absence of that fervor of zeal for the glory of God which glows in other books, and which we are justified in regarding as a feature of Solomon's character in his early days. His immediate object would seem then to be to relieve his mind by pouring out the results of his own life, to comfort those who bore the same burden of humanity, and to lift up those who were naturally feeble or depressed by circumstances and to lead them in the way of God's commandments.
As regards a plan, the writer of the book evidently regarded it as complete in itself; the first part of the book being contemplative or doctrinal, and the latter part being practical.
First, there is the writer's statement of his subject, and his detailed account of his personal experience of the influence of vanity pervading human proceedings Ecclesiastes 1-2. Then, there is the announcement of an external law to which also human affairs are subject, i. e. the will of God, Whose plan, incomprehensible in its extent, is found by all to be more or less in conflict with man's will Ecclesiastes 3-4, the result of such conflict being disappointment and perplexity to man. Then there is the commencement Ecclesiastes 5 of personal practical advice, followed by a mixture of reflections, maxims, and exhortations, in which the vanity of riches, the practical superiority of wisdom and patience, and the supreme power of God, are the prominent topics set forth in various ways Ecclesiastes 6-8. The writer's reflections are found in Ecclesiastes 9. His maxims are brought to an end in Ecclesiastes 10. And, in Ecclesiastes 11-12 we have a concluding exhortation to such conduct and sentiments as are most likely to alleviate the vanity of this life, namely, to charity, industry, patience and the reverence of God.
If the book was composed, as seems probable, toward the end of Solomon's reign, its direct tendency is obvious. In an age when "silver were like stones in Jerusalem" (i. e. common), no lesson was more necessary, and none would tell with deeper effect, than those powerful and touching declarations of the vanity of wealth and grandeur which are perhaps the most conspicuous feature in this book. Further, if the book appealed then, as it has ever since appealed, to an inner circle of more thoughtful readers, they especially, who in those days discerned the signs of the approaching dismemberment of the kingdom and the diminution of the glory of Jerusalem, would find their comfort in its lessons of patient endurance and resignation to the sovereign will of God. Whenever the church has been threatened with approaching calamity this book has always shown its consolatory effect upon devout believers. It served, before Christ came, to lighten for Jews the darkness of those "crooked" ways of God which have exercised the Christian penetration of Pascal and Butler. To the desolation of religious doubt, Ecclesiastes brings a special message of consolation and direction: for it shows that a cry of perplexity finds a place even in the sacred books; and it indicates a nearer approach to the living God in reverent worship Ecclesiastes 5:1, in active service Ecclesiastes 11:6, in humble acknowledgment of His power Ecclesiastes 3:10-17, in reliance on His final justice Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, as the means by which that cry has been, and may again be, hushed.
The introductory verses Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 serve to describe the writer, and to state the subject of his book.
1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Preacher - literally, Convener. No one English word represents the Hebrew קהלת qôheleth adequately. Though capable, according to Hebrew usage, of being applied to men in office, it is strictly a feminine participle, and describes a person in the act of calling together an assembly of people as if with the intention of addressing them. The word thus understood refers us to the action of Wisdom personified Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 8:8. In Proverbs and here, Solomon seems to support two characters, speaking sometimes in the third person as Wisdom instructing the assembled people, at other times in the first person. So our Lord speaks of Himself (compare Luke 11:49 with Matthew 23:34) as Wisdom, and as desiring Luke 13:34 to gather the people together for instruction; It is unfortunate that the word "Preacher" does not bring this personification before English minds, but a different idea.
2Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Vanity - This word הבל hebel, or, when used as a proper name, in Genesis 4:2, "Abel", occurs no less than 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and has been called the key of the book. Primarily it means "breath," "light wind;" and denotes what:
(1) passes away more or less quickly and completely;
(2) leaves either no result or no adequate result behind, and therefore
(3) fails to satisfy the mind of man, which naturally craves for something permanent and progressive: it is also applied to:
(4) idols, as contrasted with the Living, Eternal, and Almighty God, and, thus, in the Hebrew mind, it is connected with sin.
In this book it is applied to all works on earth, to pleasure, grandeur, wisdom, the life of man, childhood, youth, and length of days, the oblivion of the grave, wandering and unsatisfied desires, unenjoyed possessions, and anomalies in the moral government of the world.
Solomon speaks of the world-wide existence of "vanity," not with bitterness or scorn, but as a fact, which forced itself on him as he advanced in knowledge of men and things, and which he regards with sorrow and perplexity. From such feelings he finds refuge by contrasting this with another fact, which he holds with equal firmness, namely, that the whole universe is made and is governed by a God of justice, goodness, and power. The place of vanity in the order of Divine Providence - unknown to Solomon, unless the answer be indicated in Ecclesiastes 7:29 - is explained to us by Paul, Romans 8, where its origin is traced to the subjugation and corruption of creation by sin as a consequence of the fall of man; and its extinction is declared to be reserved until after the Resurrection in the glory and liberty of the children of God.
Vanity of vanities - A well-known Hebrew idiom signifying vanity in the highest degree. Compare the phrase, "holy of holies."
All - Solomon includes both the courses of nature and the works of man Ecclesiastes 1:4-11. Compare Romans 8:22.
3What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
What profit ... - The question often repeated is the great practical inquiry of the book; it receives its final answer in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. When this question was asked, the Lord had not yet spoken Matthew 11:28. The word "profit" (or pre-eminence) is opposed to "vanity."
Hath a man - Rather, hath man.
4One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
Vanity is shown in mankind, the elements, and all that moves on earth; the same course is repeated again and again without any permanent result or real progress; and events and people alike are forgotten.
Abideth - The apparent permanence of the earth increases by contrast the transitory condition of its inhabitants.
Ever - The word does not here absolutely signify "eternity" (compare Ecclesiastes 3:11 note), but a certainly short period (compare Exodus 21:6): here it might be paraphrased "as long as this world, this present order of things, lasts."
5The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
Hasteth ... - literally, at his place panting (in his eagerness) riseth he there.
6The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
More literally, Going toward the south and veering toward the north, veering, veering goes the wind; and to its veerings the wind returns.
7All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
The place - i. e., The spring or river-head. It would seem that the ancient Hebrews regarded the clouds as the immediate feeders of the springs (Proverbs 8:28, and Psalm 104:10, Psalm 104:13). Genesis 2:6 indicates some acquaintance with the process and result of evaporation.
8All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
All things ... utter it - This clause, as here translated, refers to the immensity of labor. Others translate it, "all words are full of labor; they make weary the hearers," or "are feeble or insufficient" to tell the whole; and are referred to the impossibility of adequately describing labor.
9The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Hath been ... is done - i. e., Hath happened in the course of nature ... is done by man.
10Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Things - Rather, men.
12I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Solomon relates his personal experience Ecclesiastes 2; the result of which was "no profit," and a conviction that all, even God's gifts of earthly good to good men, in this life are subject to vanity. His trial of God's first gift, wisdom, is recounted in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18.
Was - This tense does not imply that Solomon had ceased to be king when the word was written. See the introduction to Ecclesiastes. He begins with the time of his accession to the throne, when the gifts of wisdom and riches were especially promised to him 1 Kings 3:12-13.
13And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
Wisdom - As including both the powers of observation and judgment, and the knowledge acquired thereby (1 Kings 3:28; 1 Kings 4:29; 1 Kings 10:8, ...). It increases by exercise. Here is noted its application to people and their actions.
Travail - In the sense of toil; the word is here applied to all human occupations.
God - God is named as אלהים 'elohı̂ym thirty-nine times in this book; a name common to the true God and to false gods, and used by believers and by idolators: 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 Romans 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. See the Ecclesiastes 5:1 note.
14I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Vexation of spirit - A phrase which occurs 7 times, and may be otherwise translated, "feeding on wind." Modern Hebrew grammarians assert that the word rendered "vexation" must be derived from a root signifying "to feed," "follow," "strive after." This being admitted, it remains to choose between two translations:
(1) "striving after wind," or "windy effort;" adopted by the Septuagint and the majority of modern interpreters; or
(2) feeding on wind. Compare Hosea 12:1 : and similar phrases in Proverbs 15:14; Isaiah 44:20; Psalm 37:3.
15That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
He saw clearly both the disorder and incompleteness of human actions (compare the marginal reference), and also man's impotence to rectify them.
16I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
I am come ... - Rather, I have accumulated (literally "enlarged and added") wisdom more than etc.
They that have been ... - The reference is probably to the line of Canaanite kings who lived in Jerusalem before David took it, such as Melchizedek Genesis 14:18, Adonizedek Joshua 10:1, and Araunah 2 Samuel 24:23; or, it may be, to Solomon's contemporaries of his own country 1 Kings 4:31 and of other countries who visited him 1 Kings 4:34; 1 Kings 10:24. for "in" Jerusalem render over.
17And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
To know madness and folly - A knowledge of folly would help him to discern wisdom, and to exercise that chief function of practical wisdom - to avoid folly.
18For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
We become more sensible of our ignorance and impotence, and therefore sorrowful, in proportion as we discover more of the constitution of nature and the scheme of Providence in the government of the world; every discovery serving to convince us that more remains concealed of which we had no suspicion before.