Biblical Reparatory and Princeton Review 29 (1857) 419-40.

Public Domain.

 

1857.]. ††††††† The Book of Ecclesiastes. †††††††††††††††††††††††††† 419

 

 

ART. IV.--The Scope and Plan of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

William Henry Green

 

††††††††† IN order to the proper understanding of any treatise, it is

necessary to gain clear and correct ideas of its scope and plan.

There is no book of the Old Testament to which this remark

applies with greater force than Ecclesiastes, and none in which

the neglect of it has been and must be attended with more

serious injury to its exposition. Its proverbial dress creates

a special need of taking comprehensive views of the writer's

main design, and not being diverted from this by cleaving too

anxiously to the tenor of each individual expression. The ill

success of too many attempted expositions has shown, that if

the clue thus furnished to all its intricacies and windings be

not discovered or be lost sight of, the book becomes a labyrinth,

within whose mazes the improvident adventurer is hopelessly

entangled; and each verse becomes to him a new passage lead-

ing to fresh perplexity, however honestly and assiduously he

may labour upon its interpretation. The general truths incul-

cated by proverbs of course admit either of being taken in their

widest extent, or of receiving an indefinite number of particular

applications. Which of these expresses the precise intent of

the writer, in each individual case, can never be learned from

the inspection of single sentences by themselves, but only from

a discovery of the place which it holds in the discussion of his

theme. And an erroneous view of this theme or of the method

of its discussion, will necessarily involve attaching meanings to

passages very different from those which they were intended to

bear.

††††††††† Another difficulty connected with that just spoken of, and of

a like nature, arises from the absence of particles in every case

to indicate the connection or the relation of dependence which

the various sentences or paragraphs sustain to each other. This

is partly due to the venerable simplicity of the Hebrew language,

in which such particles do not abound, and with which it agrees

better to suggest relations by the juxtaposition of related ideas,

than formally and precisely to state them. It is also partly

due to the proverbial style already referred to, which charac-



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teristically delights to state truths in the general and the

absolute, leaving their limitations and specific relations to be

gathered from the connection in which they are adduced.

The inattentive and superficial reader might infer from the

peculiarities now stated, and which would be among the first to

attract his attention, that this book was composed of loose and

detached sentences, without orderly consecution or intimate

coherence. This mistaken view was in fact taken by Grotius,

who supposed that Ecclesiastes contained no proper discussion

of anyone theme, but a miscellaneous collection of the varying

opinions of different sages upon topics connected with human

happiness. He thus explained those contradictions or diversi-

ties of judgment which he imagined to be found in the book;

and likewise escaped the necessity of regarding any sentiment

as authoritative or inspired which he was disinclined to accept.

It is but a slight modification of this opinion of Grotius to

regard the book as a record of the various opinions maintained

in a learned assembly or society presided over by Solomon.

Another view, which rises above this conception of a chaos of

discordant materials, and yet assumes the existence of conflict-

ing sentiments in the book, endeavours to reconcile these into

a common unity by the hypothesis of a dialogue between two

voices, one that of an earnest but rash inquirer, the other his

sage and experienced teacher, who endeavours to curb the hasty

impatience and inconsiderate views of the former, and to incul-

cate upon him the lessons of sobriety and heavenly wisdom.

But the harmony of the sentiments here maintained can be

vindicated without the necessity of this theory, which finds no

support from any intimations in the text itself. The same

may be said of the opinion which supposes instead of different

speakers, different states of mind in the same speaker; who

begins the discussion in a tumult of doubt between conflicting

views, and speaks now under the influence of one, now of

another, as they respectively obtrude themselves upon him,

until at the close of the whole he ultimately reaches clear and

settled convictions.

Among those who admit a single theme consistently dis-

cussed, there is still a divergence as to what that theme is,

arising principally from an undue predominance being given to



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some one part of the book or class of passages in it, instead of

each being held in its just subordination and relations. Some

have paid too exclusive attention to what is said of the vanity

of earthly pursuits. So Jerome, and after him the commenta-

tors of the middle ages, generally made of it an argument for

the renunciation of the world and a life of monasticism. So

in modern times Umbreit thought it to be a treatise on the

chief good, which the author tinged with scepticism and gloom

endeavours to show is unattainable. Others, looking solely at

such passages as declare. that it is good for a man: to eat and

to drink and to enjoy life, have charged the author with Epi-

curean sentiments, as though worldly pleasure were in his

esteem the highest form of good, and what men should chiefly

strive after. This view, and that first stated are directly antag-

onistic and mutuallydestructive. The author cannot teach both

that earthly pleasure is vanity and that it is the chief good. The

book will be involved in endless complication and self-contra-

diction upon either of these views. The only way to harmonize

it is to suffer one class of statements to modify and assist in

explaining the other. To him whose heart is inordinately set

on earthly things, and who fancies that by accumulating what

ever affords gratification, he can fill and satisfy his' soul, every

thing will prove vanity as regards this impracticable end which

he is seeking; for his desires invariably outrun his acquisitions

his feverish toil is incompatible with serene enjoyment; their

continued possession in the future is uncertain and their loss" at

death inevitable. Still, he who knows how to use the world,

who contentedly and thankfully receives the good things which

God gives him, and without immoderate desires partakes of

them rationally and in obedience to the will of God, will find

in them much real satisfaction. This life has a positive value;

which should not be overlooked; and it is a lesson of no small

consequence, how it may be rendered most peaceful and happy.

The enjoyment of life, which this book commends, is as far as

possible from a 'Wild and senseless revelry, which it denominates

insane and profitless, ii. 1, 2; it is an enjoyment which is con-

nected with doing good, iii. 12, and is indulged with a constant

recollection of the judgment of God, xi. 9. Piety holds the key

to the chamber of happiness. There is no entrance but by



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her aid. He who would really extract from the world such

enjoyment as it is capable of affording, can only do so by obe-

dience to her injunctions. Otherwise, be a man's possessions

what they may, they will end in vanity and emptiness. This

,is the aspect under which the happiness of men in the present

life is here presented, and if this is Epicurean, the whole Bible

is so too.

Others have given too exclusive prominence to such passages

as i. 4-11, iii. 1-15, vii. 13, 14, ix. 11, in which the fixed

and permanent order of things in the universe is insisted upon,

and the regulation of everything is referred to the will of God;

and they have hence drawn the conclusion th.at the book con-

tains fatalistic sentiments, teaching the doctrine of an undeviat-

ing, inexorable fate, which leaves no room for human freedom,

and allows no man to obtain profit from his labour. This fate

it is vain to think of resisting; man mus~ just submit and get

whatever good his present circumstances put within his reach.

But this is as much as the preceding a distortion of what is

here taught. It is indeed asserted that man is not the un con-

trolled arbiter of his own fortune; not, however, because he is

a creature of fate, but because he is a subject of the Wise and

righteous government of God. The doctrine is not that of fate,

but of Providence: and this, too, is intimately connected with

the theme here discussed. As we look upon the world, every-

thing seems to be moving at random, or to be directed by man's .

free will.' Men act as they please, and the allotments distri-

buted to each bear no manifest relation their respective cha-

racters. There is much that, superficially viewed, has the

appearance of disordered confusion. But that this is the real

state of the case is here emphatically denied. The assertion is

made and the proof given, that instead of confusion the most

perfect and beautiful order prevails. Whether men see his hand

or not, God is guiding and directing all; and everything is, as

respects hIS consummate plan, Just as It should be. He has dis-

sociated sin and happiness; and no man can alter that arrange-

ment so as to bring together what have been thus divinely

separated. He who seeks for happiness in ways of worldliness

and sin, seeks for what" by the very constitution of the uni-

verse, cannot be.



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Too great prominence has again been sometimes given to such

passages as iii. 17, v. 8, xi. 9, xii, 7, 14, and on the basis of

these the future state and the coming judgment have been made

the grand lesson here inculcated, as though it were the intention

of the writer to turn the thoughts of his readers from, the seem-

ing inequalities of this world to; the world to come, where all

shall be rectified or explained. The error in this view is simply

that of limiting the discussion within too narrow a range. The

future judgment is explicitly asserted, and is one of the ele-

ments in the proper presentation of the subject. But this is not

the sole view that is here' taken, nor the sole answer which is

returned to the perplexing problem of human life. It is most

unaccountable how some writers have been able so utterly to

misconceive the teachings of this book as to deny to its author

any confident persuasion of the immortality of the soul, or any-

thing more than a hesitating admission of its possibility. In

basing this opinion upon iii.19-21 and ix. 4-6, they not, only

interpret these passages incorrectly even altering, the text for

this purpose, as will be seen hereafter, but bring them into irre-

concilable conflict, with such passages as those referred to

above; a difficulty from which Knobel endeavours to escape by

a German critic's ready weapon, the denial of the genuineness of

xii. 9~14.

Attention has sometimes been directed to too great an extent

to we seemingly miscellaneous character of the proverbs, in

such passages as iv. 5, 6, 9-13, v. l-7, vii. 1-9, 21, 22,

x. l-xi. 6, and the conclusion has hence been drawn that the

design of the book. is to give rules for the conduct of life, and

to teach wisdom in general. This goes to the extreme of ex-

tending the theme too widely, as the preceding to that of unduly

restricting it. Its aim becomes thus too vague and indefinite,

and the main drift of the discussion is lost sight of. The writer

does not spread his thoughts over the whole range of, human

action or the proprieties of life; but he has one definite subject

before him, to which a proper treatment of the book will show

that all his remarks are directed, and that with a closeness of

argument and a clearness of presentation worthy of the wise

king of Israel.

The problem really discussed is the seeming inequalities of



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divine providence. These are here reconciled with the justice

of God, as they are in the book of Job reconciled with his mercy

and goodness. In other words, while Job had especially to do

with the sufferings of the pious, Ecclesiastes contemplates the

same subject chiefly from the side of the prosperity of the

wicked. The difficulty to be explained is thus stated by the

writer, vii. 15, "There is a just man that perisheth in his right-

eousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in

his wickedness." And viii. 14, "There is a vanity which is

done upon the earth; that there be just men unto whom it hap-

peneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be

wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the

righteous." This apparent anomaly is shown not to be incon-

sistent with the righteousness of God's government. The posi-

tion taken and established is, viii. 12, 13, "Though a sinner do

evil an hundred times and his days be prolonged, yet surely I

know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear

before him; but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither

shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he

feareth not before God." The solution which is furnished is

twofold:--1. A proper estimate of men's fortunes and of their

characters will show these inequalities to be much fewer than

they appear to be. 2. There is a righteous government to rec-

tify whatever inequalities may temporarily exist.

It is most interesting to observe the harmony of the grand

lessons inculcated by Job and by Ecclesiastes. No two books

could well be more unlike in their style and method of discus-

sion. The problem upon which they are engaged is one of the

most perplexing of human life. They approach it, too, from

quarters the most diverse. And yet the principles which under-

lie their solutions are identical: The book of Job reconciles the

sufferings of the pious by saying, (a) Their afflictions though a

seeming evil are a real good. (b) The perfections of God are

an ample security for the rectitude and goodness of his dispen-

sations. Ecclesiastes says of the prosperity of the wicked,

(a) It yields no real good, but vanity and vexation of spirit.

(b) The justice of God secures that all is and shall be right

under his holy government.

That the main design of this book has been correctly stated,



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shall be shown hereafter in detail. Before proceeding to this,

however, it may be readily established in a general way by the

testimony of the author himself. This is in the first place given

in a formal manner at the close of the book, xii. 13, 14, "Let

us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep

his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man," i. e., the

whole of his duty and destiny, his entire welfare, all that con-

cerns him is centered here and depends on this single thing.

"For God shall bring every work into judgment with every

secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." In

other words, man's true welfare is only to be secured by fearing

God and obeying his will; for in spite of any present appear-

ances to the contrary, every good deed, open or secret, shall be

divinely rewarded, and every evil deed divinely punished. This

is given by the author as the final result of the experience,

observations, and reasonings recorded in his book. And this is

precisely what has been already represented to be its aim.

A second mode in which the writer declares himself as to this

point, is by certain forms of statement which recur again and

again from the beginning to the close. We cannot be mistaken

in deducing from these the topic which is ever in his thoughts,

and to whose illustration his whole argument is directed. There

are two series of these statements; one of which contains the

negative, and the other the positive view of his subject. Their

combination will give a just conception of his idea. The first

consists of those in which it is repeatedly declared of all those

accumulations and sources of gratification which men so eagerly

covet, and after which they so unceasingly toil, that they are

vanity and pursuit of wind, (Eng. ver., vexation of spirit,) They

are no real good, but constantly disappoint their possessors of the

satisfaction which they had hoped by this means to obtain. The

second series consists of those, in which it is declared that there

is nothing better for a man than to, eat and to drink, and to

enjoy the fruit of his labour; and this is the gift of God to

them that please him. That this is not an Epicurean sentiment,

has been already seen. The eating and drinking which Solo-

mon commends, is not the gratification of sensual appetite. To

eat and to drink, by a common figure in all languages, denotes

to partake of what may he either pleasurable or painful. Comp.

 

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Ps. xxxiv. 8, xxxvi. 8; Heb. vi. 4, 5; Job xxi. 20; Matt. xx.

23. Here the connection determines it to refer to what is plea-

surable. In ii. 24, iii. 13, v. 18, "to eat and to drink" is

explained by the parallel phrase, "to enjoy good," and in iii.

22, "to rejoice," stands as its equivalent. In ii. 25, "Who can

eat more than I" certainly does not mean who is a greater

glutton, but who has more sources of gratification at his com-

mand? And in v.19, vi. 2, to eat riches, wealth, and honour,

can only mean to enjoy them. The meaning of this class of

passages then is, that enjoyment, pleasure, happiness is a greater

good than all these vain acquisitions which are attended with so

little satisfaction. And enjoyment is God's gift to them that

are pleasing in his sight. We thus reach once more the theme

before propounded. Outward prosperity may be in possession

of the wicked; but this is empty and unsubstantial. It does

not necessarily confer happiness. This is only for the good.

The scope of the book being thus settled, we proceed to con-

sider its plan. It is of course conceivable that the writer might

discuss his theme without any orderly arrangement or methodi-

cal disposition of parts. He might merely give expression to

his reflections upon it as they spontaneously occurred to him

or were suggested by accidental association, without aiming to

govern himself by any strict logical sequence. Some have

maintained that this is the case with the book of Ecclesiastes.

It is so with another book of Solomon's, the Proverbs. It is to

some extent the case with other books of the Old Testament as

well as with admired productions of uninspired genius. And it

would cast no reflection upon the ability or excellence of this

book to admit the same thing here.

Others have been of the opinion that the writer had a general

plan in his mind, which he followed in the main, yet not so

strictly but that he has indulged upon occasion in considerable

digressions. Others have thought that there was a plan origin-

ally, but it has been obscured by negligent transcription and .

derangement of the text; and attempts have been made by

transpositions and re-arrangement to restore it to its supposed

original form and thus bring to light its proper plan; but the

results have been as unsatisfactory as the procedure was unau-

thorized and the premises groundless. We must take the text

 



1857.] †††††††† ††††††††† Book of Ecclesiastes.†††††††††††††††††††††††† 427

 

as we find it, which there is no reason to believe has been

corrupted. The deficiency of arrangement which has been

alleged, does not exist; and the alterations which have been

proposed are not improvements. There is a clear and consistent

plan in the book of Ecclesiastes, which needs no changes nor

mutilations in order to its discovery; one in fact of the most

strictly logical and methodical kind.Not only is the argument

we conducted, conclusive and complete, but its various points

are so admirably; disposed, its divisions so regular and its differ-

ent parts so conformed in structure, as to give evidence, that the

whole was carefully considered and well digested before it was

put together. This differs' perhaps from; the prevailing opinion;

but we are convinced; that , they who complain, of a want of

method, haerent in cortice.

It would be tedious and confusing to enumerate in; all their

details the various divisions proposed by different commentators.

Very many of them, however diverse in their minor subdivisions,

will be found to rest ultimately upon the same essential scheme,

the division or the book into two parts or grand leading sections.

These are sometimes made unequal by assigning four chapters

to the first and eight to the second; at other times equal, so that

each contains six, chapters; The principle assumed as the basis

of the division is in either" case the same, that the first contains

the theoretical and the second the practical portion of the sub-

ject; the first establishes the vanity of earthly things, and the

second the duties and obligations which this involves, and how

man should demean himself in this vain world. There is so far

a foundation for these schemes, that the tone of the book does

become more hortatory and practical as it approaches its close;

but the line of separation between its doctrine and exhortation

is not so sharply defined as to render such a division between

them practicable, as is shown in fact by the divided sentiment

of those who undertake it. Hitzig's division into three parts

of four chapters each, appears to be a lame attempt to mediate

between the views already recited.

The most satisfactory division is, in our judgment, that into

four parts, which was proposed by Vaihinger in the," Studien

und Kritiken," for 1848, and has since been adopted by Keil

and others. It is a modification of that of Ewald, (whom Heilig-



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stedt follows,) which is itself an improvement upon that of J

Koster, all of whom assume the same number of sections. "His

scheme is the following, viz.

I. i. 2-ii. 26.

II. iii. 1-v. 20.

III. vi. 1-viii. 15.

IV. viii. 16-xii. 14.

It has a sanction of an external kind, inasmuch as it seems

to be indicated by the writer himself, winding up each part by

a formal statement of the conclusion of his argument, which in

the first three is given in almost identical terms. This is the

more worthy of note, as Solomon has indicated the divisions "of

his Song in a precisely similar way by the recurrence of a

refrain. Its full justification depends upon its being shown that

it is coincident with the actual course of the discussion, and

that every part, without forcing or the assumption of arbitrary

senses, fits into the scheme thus presented. Vaihinger was

prevented from exhibiting this in a satisfactory manner by

his predilection for strophes of equal length, into which he

fancied the whole to be in the most precise manner subdivided.

This encumbered his view and rendered it too artificial; while

his too zealous pursuit of a merely mechanical regularity led

him to lose sight of the proper divisions of the thought and of

that regular structure which actually does exist. Each section

contains, in addition to a brief conclusion, three subdivisions,

not counted off into precisely the same number of verses, but

with entire freedom as to length, and arising out of the nature

of the subject discussed. Of the four principal sections the first

and second are preliminary, the third contains the main body of

the argument, and the fourth is supplementary.

The first and second sections/are intended to pave the way

for the discussion proper, by presenting facts and reasonings,

upon which the considerations alleged for the settlement of the

question at issue are then based. The first section, chaps. i.

and ii., contains a preliminary argument from Solomon's own

experience, designed to show that happiness is not in man's

own power; that all his striving and toiling, though it may

surround him with every source of gratification his heart can

desire, is powerless to give that gratification itself. After



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announcing, i. 1, the author, he proceeds to state his theme,

i. 2, 3, the vanity of men's toil and acquisitions; they cannot

yield the happiness so confidently expected from them. To the

illustration of this theme he now proceeds. He first, i. 4-11,

lays down the postulate essential to the validity of any general

deductions from an individual experience of the uniformity of

sequences in the world, where the same phenomena are con-

stantly repeating themselves. The earth, with its established

laws, abides through every shifting generation. The sun, the

wind, the rivers in their constant motions, maintain their uni-

formity. The same is true, ver. 8, of every thing; one would

never have done' telling, seeing, hearing the numberless exam-

ples of like purport. The thing that hath been, it is that which

shall be. There is nothing new. Things will happen in all

time to come just as they have done in the past; though there

is too little disposition to remember and profit by the lessons

of experience.

Having thus established the universality and permanence of

uniform sequences in the world, he proceeds to state his own

experience with its results. The same results must, from the

principle just laid down, follow. in every like case; whence he

is warranted in drawing from these premises the universal con-

clusion at which he is aiming. His experience is given first in

general, i. 12-18, and then with more detail, ii. 1-11. The

general account of it is rendered more emphatic py its repeti-

tion in precisely the same form, vs.12-15, vs. 16-18. He

describes first his favourable situation for trying a satisfactory

experiment, ver. 12, ver. 16, he was a king, and superior to all

former dwellers in Jerusalem; the experiment itself, vs. 13, 14 a,

ver. 17 a, he tested everything, whether wise or foolish; the

result, vs. 14 b, 15, vs.17 b, 18, it was all empty and unsatis-

factory. There was in everything he attempted something

crooked that could not be made straight, or deficient that could

not be rendered complete. There was always something to

render the unalloyed happiness that he sought, unattainable;

and that something could not be got rid of, for it arose from a

vice inherent in earthly things. He then goes on, ii. 1-11,

to specify more particularly some of the methods in which he

sought happiness but failed to find it; merriment, conviviality,



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splendid buildings, fine grounds, retinues, wealth, music. In

fine, he surrounded himself with everything his heart desired;

and yet surveying it all while still in the secure possession of

it, he found it emptiness and vanity. It did not yield him

happiness.

In addition to the unsatisfactory nature of these things in

themselves, the brevity of their possession, and the uncertainty

of what shall become of that which has been accumulated with

iso much pains and toil, are alleged, ii.12-23, as fresh reasons

for disappointment and vexation. Solomon had tried his expe-

riment under circumstances as favourable as any man could have,

ver. 12, and yet he found that whatever might be the intrinsic

superiority of wisdom over folly, it could not preserve from

death, which would consign him to oblivion, vs. 13-17, and

hand over all his acquisitions, so painfully accumulated, to no

one knows whom, vs. 18-23. And yet, for such a good as this,

so unsatisfactory, so fleeting, and so precarious, men will toil

and make themselves miserable all their days.

The conclusion from this experience of his own is drawn,

vs. 24-26. Translated as it is in the .common version, ver. 24

yields a good sense, and is conformed to iii. 12, 13, 22, v. 18,

viii. 15. The meaning would be, that enjoyment or happiness

is a better thing than all these unsatisfying accumulations which

have been described, and which men toil so to obtain.The

precise form of the conclusion in the original Hebrew is, how-

ever, slightly different. The word rendered "better," is not

properly in the comparative degree. It should be read, "Good

is not in man (i. .e. within his power or control) that he should

eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in

his labour." Man has not the ability in himself to extract

enjoyment from his acquisitions. The ability to enjoy, which is

quite distinct' from the possession of things to be enjoyed, is the

gift of God. Solomon's experience is conclusive upon this

point; for no man could go beyond what he did. As enjoyment

is the gift of God, he assigns it only to the good; but to the

wicked he gives the empty and vexatious toil of accumulating

what shall afterwards be converted to the uses of the good.

This point thus proved from Solomon's personal experience

is in the second section, chaps. iii.-v., proved again from current



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facts of observation. He here passes from what he had himself

done and felt to what he had seen. The structure of the argu-

ment is precisely the same as before. ..There is first a postulate

essential to its validity, iii. 1-15, then the facts observed,

iii. 16-iv. 16, then reasonings upon them, v. 1-17, and finally

the conclusion, v. 18-20. The uniform sequences of the first

postulate are in the second, to meet the exigencies of this new

argument, traced to their source in the all-embracing and admi-

rable plan of God. He has a scheme in which every event, and

all the multifarious actions of men, with the time of their occur.,.

rence, are definitely arranged. This scheme is, ver. 11, a beauti-

ful one, though from their prevailing worldliness men do not

comprehend it. (So the English version. It is probable, how-

ever, that this verse ought to be translated, "He hath set eter-

nity in their heart, because no man can find out the work that

God maketh from the beginning to the end;" i. e., He gives

men an idea of the vastness and eternity of his plan from their

very incapacity to comprehend the whole of it.) Human wel-

fare consisting, ver. 12, in happiness and goodness is, ver. 13,

constituted the gift of God by this, ver. 14, permanent' and

unalterable plan, whose aim is to lead to piety, and which,

v. 15, embraces within itself that uniformity of sequence before

insisted on.

He next proceeds to allege various facts, of constant occur-

rence in the world, upon which his argument is to be con-

structed. The first is, ill. 16, unrighteousness in halls of jus-

tice. It is so grievous an anomaly, that tribunals which are

looked to for the rectifying of abuses existing elsewhere, should

themselves originate injustice from which there appears to be no

appeal; and this seems to be so serious an exception to his grand

doctrine, that justice rules in the world and happiness attends

right-doing, that he pauses to give its explanation before adduc-

ing the other facts which he has to allege. His postulate ensures,

ver. 17, that this seeming inequality shall be rectified by God's

future judgment, though meanwhile its existence is temporarily

permitted, vs. 18-21, to prove men and to exhibit to them their

frailty; for, however they may tyrannize over each other, death

shall level them with the brutes. And yet how few consider

their immortal nature, in which their real eminency lies? The



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conclusion previously drawn is valid, therefore, even in this case,

ver. 22, happiness, which requires no crime in order to its attain-

ment, is better than the gains of the unjust judge, which he

can no longer enjoy (b hxr) after death.

We are certainly not disposed to yield to those who would

alter the text of iii. 21, so as to change its assertion of man's

immortality into an expression of doubt, "Who knoweth whe-

ther the spirit of man goeth upward, etc.," for the mere sake of

Imaking the writer contradict himself, and express a sentiment

unworthy of his inspiration.

The remaining facts alleged are, iv. 1-3, oppressions so

grievous as to make life a burden; vs. 4-6, the envy attendant

upon success, which is an argument not for idleness but for mode-

ration; vs. 7-12, the selfish toil of the solitary, unmindful of

the advantages to be derived from society; vs.13-16, the tem-

porary nature of the most brilliant rewards of wisdom, illus-

trated by the case of one who raised himself by wise conduct

from poverty to a throne, and yet who, after all, formed one in

the endless procession of mankind unremembered and unpraised.

In proceeding to reason upon the facts now stated, he first,

v. 1-7, utters a caution against being seduced to irreligion, to

a neglect of religious duty, or to inconsiderate language reflect-

ing upon God's providence by such contemplations. In regard

to the case of oppression, which was the first that had been

alleged, he appeals, ver. 8, to the fact that there is always a

tribunal higher than those by whom it is perpetrated, to which

appeal may be made, and ultimately, as the highest of all, there

is the tribunal of God. Ver. 9 continues the same thought, and

should be rendered, "Moreover a profit to the land in all is a

king served by the field," (i. e., land. Comp., field of Zoan, Ps.

lxx. 12, 43.) Good government by a supreme officer, to whom

respect and obedience are yielded, is a great blessing to a coun-

try. It is a source of .the rectification of abuses such as those

described. These wrongs, which are acknowledged to exist,

find redress therefore in a superior government, human or

divine.

In respect to the other cases alleged, considerations are

adduced, vs.10-17, freshly confirming the truth to which they

point, of the unsatisfying nature of human toil and accumu-



1857.] ††††††††††††††††† Book of Ecclesiastes. ††††††††††††††††††††††† 433

 

lations. The first is, ver. 10, to the insatiable, character of

human desire, which always outruns acquisition, however great

that may be. The second, ver. 11, that wealth is consumed by

others more than by its owners.. The third, ver. 12, that it

occasions disquiet of mind. The fourth, vs. 13-16, that its

possession is uncertain and brief. Its owner may lose it by

"evil travail," 'by some unfortunate enterprise. He will cer-

tainly be stripped of the whole at death, and leave the world as

naked as he entered it. And yet for so empty a good as this

he will, ver. 17, spend all his days in painful and distressing

toil.

The conclusion is, vs. 18-20, that not riches but enjoyment

is the thing to be desired. The capacity to enjoy is independ-

ent of, and additional to worldly accumulations, and is the gift

of God. He to whom God gives it, shall not distress himself

with frequent recollections of past sorrows, or anxious solicitude

for the future. The condition of this gift has been stated before,

ii. 26, and is not here repeated. Men may be striving after it

all their days and never attain it, if they do riot seek it in that

way in which, according to his uniform plan, he chooses to bestow

it. Happiness and goodness are by him linked together. And

only they who possess the latter can gain the former.

Having settled this preliminary point, both by his own experi-

ence and observation, he is now prepared in the third section, vi. 1,

viii. 15, to grapple with the main question. He has shown, but

without stating as yet to what he means to apply it, that enjoyment

is preferable to worldly accumulations, that it does not necessarily

result from them, but is the gift of God, and its bestowment is

regulated by his grand and beautiful plan. The next step, and

this constitutes the central portion of the whole book, is to apply

this to the explanation of the inequalities of divine providence.

Three considerations are adduced as furnishing the solution of

this perplexing problem, so that we have, as in the preceding

sections, three divisions and a conclusion. The inequalities in

question may be explained,

1. vi. I-vii. 15, by a just estimate of men's outward fortunes.

2. vii. 16-29, by a just estimate of their characters.

3. viii. 1-14, by a reference to government, human and

divine, which will sooner or later distribute evenhanded justice.

 

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In relation to the fortunes of men it is shown, chap. vi., that

prosperity may not be a good. For a man may have, wealth

and honour and everything he wishes, and yet never have any

enjoyment of them. The same is true of other forms of out-

ward good, numerous children and long life, which even putting

the case In the most extravagant and exaggerated form, may

yield no pleasure. Human desires are insatiable. The advan-

tage of the wise over the fool is, that he knows that the sight

of the eyes is better than the wandering of the desire; he con-

tents himself with what he has in actual possession, Instead of

allowing his desires to rove unsatisfied after unattained good.

This incapacity of worldly things to yield enjoyment is, ver.10,

permanent and unalterable fact, because resting upon the

ordinance of God. As man is mere man, he cannot contend

with nor set aside that connection between earthly things and

dissatisfaction which the Almighty has established. Hence,

vs. 11, 12, if external prosperity in so many cases only increases

what is empty and unsatisfying, what real good or intrinsic

advantage is there in it? In point of fact, no man knows in

his ignorance of the future, whether outward prosperity will be

an actual good to him or not.

Having thus presented one side of the subject, that prosperity

is not always nor necessarily a good, he goes on, vii. 1-14, to

state the converse, that adversity or affliction is not necessarily

an evil, but may be, and often is, a greater good than pros-

perity itself. This is expressed by bringing together a number

of proverbs, showing, vs. 1-4, that scenes of sadness, and, vs.

5, 6, what may occasion present pain, may prove more salutary

in their effect than festivity and mirth. Ver. 7, "Oppression

maketh a wise man mad;" the opportunity or the habit of

oppressing others will turn the head of the best of men. Such

elevation so abused will be no advantage, but the most serious

spiritual injury. "And a gift, i. e. one received as a bribe by

a person exercising judicial functions, "destroyeth the heart,"

blinds or corrupts the understanding. It is better, vs. 8, 9, to .

wait the issue of Godís dispensations than an impatiently to fret

and find fault with them, or, ver. 10, to contrast the real or

imaginary discomforts of the present with the pleasures of the

past, as though a condition less agreeable were therefore worse.



1857.] ††††††††††††††††† Book of Ecclesiastes. ††††††††††††††††††††††† 435

 

This is not a wise view of the case, for, vs. 11, (marg.) 12,

there is something better than outward good, and which may

be furthered by affliction. Besides, vs; 13, 14, affliction is the

appointment of God, which ma~ cannot alter; and it and pros-

perity are distributed in the manner that they are "to the end

that man should find nothing after him," that he may not

anticipate the future, but may be kept in a state of constant

dependence and trust in God for whatever lies beyond the pre-

sent; which would not be so much the case if there were some

evident rules for the distribution of good and evil. Whence it

is, ver. 15, that men often seem in the divine allotments to be

treated irrespective of their characters, the just man perishing

in his righteousness, and the wicked prolonging his life in his

wickedness. This, then, is the first consideration adduced

for the settlement of this difficult enigma. The perishing of

the one may not be in reality the evil that it is supposed to be,

nor the prolongation of the life of the other the good that it is

imagined. So that while their fortunes, viewed externally,

appear to be in contrast with their characters, if we but pene-

trate beneath the surface the opposition will disappear.

The second. consideration is drawn, vii. 16-29, from the

character of men. Those whom we suppose to be suffering

unjustly, may not be so good as we think they are. Conformity

to the preceding might lead us to expect a converse to this

argument also, but it does not admit of one. When bad men

prosper, it is not because they are inwardly better than they

outwardly appear. There is, ver. 16, an excess of seeming

righteousness, or of what passes for it in the estimate of its

possessor and of others, which will as surely and as justly be

visited with destruction as, ver. 17, the opposite extreme of

wickedness. That the caution, not to be "righteous overmuch,"

cannot mean that there is danger of possessing too much real

piety, is apparent not only from the absurdity of such a senti-

ment in itself, its opposition to other passages in this book

where piety is inculcated without any such limit, and the incon-

gruity of such an utterance from an inspired writer; but also,

from ver. 18, where the fear of God is declared to be an effectual

preservative against this extreme, as well as its opposite. What

precise form of religious excess Solomon had in his mind, it



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may not be easy to determine, as he does not more precisely

define it. It may have been purposely left indefinite, with the

view of covering all such pseudo-religious manifestations, as

Pharisaical ostentation, sanctimoniousness and self-righteous

conceit, censoriousness of others, multiplied acts of uncom-

manded will-worship, &c. Wisdom will, ver. 19, be a surer

protection against all such errors and excesses than ten valiant.

captains with their armies would be to a city.

Besides the fact already stated, that much which passes under

the guise of piety is not really such, but is as punishable as

grosser acts of sin; It 18 added, vs. 20-22, that none are fault-

less in deed and word, as every man's heart must assure him

with regard to himself; and, vs. 23-29, notwithstanding the

original uprightness of man's nature, the truly virtuous and

good are as one in a thousand. Whether the abandoned woman,

ver. 26, is spoken of with the view of instancing a particular

sin of great enormity, or whether she is, as some suppose, the

personification of folly or sin in general, ensnaring men by its

meretricious charms, the sense of .the entire passage is not

affected.

A right application of the considerations already urged will

doubtless remove a large proportion of the apparent inequali-

ties of providence. Those which still remain are provided for

by the third consideration, viii. 1-14, of the existence. of a

righteous government. After bestowing, ver. 1, a passing com-

mendation on the wisdom which can solve such perplexing

enigmas as this, and can dissipate the gloom which they occa-

sion, he proceeds, vs. 2-5, to refer to the righteous a wards of

human government. The obligation of obedience to its authority

is attended with a divine sanction. Persistence in evil provokes

its penalties, good conduct escapes them. The doctrine is pre-

cisely that of Rom. xiii. 1-5. It is not that human govern-

ments are never unjust and oppressive; the contrary is admitted

and provided for, ver. 9. But the administration of justice is

the design for which they are ordained of God and instituted

amongst men; this is the professed end of those who conduct

them; and in spite of every perversion this is to a considerable

degree really accomplished.

From human government, considered as rectifying disorders,



1857.] ††††††††††††††††† Book of Ecclesiastes. ††††††††††††††††††††††† 437

 

he passes in the last clause of ver. 5, to God's supreme control,

employing language similar to that used, iii. 1, of the same sub-

ject, only adding to his previous announcement that God has a

time for everything in his admirable plan, the fact which is

of equal consequence here, that he has "judgment" likewise.

Everything is harmoniously disposed precisely at. the right

time, and all is equitably administered upon principles of

.justice. The meaning of ver. 6 is obscured by an improper

rendering of its particles. Instead of "because. . . there-

fore," it should read "for . . for." God's harmonious and

equitable administration is not productive of misery to men.

But the greatness of human misery, man's utter ignorance of

the future, his inability to resist the assaults of death or to

escape from peril by his wickedness, are so many proofs that

the sovereign control of all things is vested not in his hands, but

in those of God, whose sway must be well-ordered and just.

Rulers inflicting injury upon their subjects, ver. 9; the wicked

honoured (with burial,) ver. 10; the righteous maltreated, (lit.

they who have done right must go from the holy place and be

forgotten. in the city,) and such delays of justice, ver. 11, as

encourage men in their transgression, do not prevent but that,

vs. 12, 13, the most exact justice shall be meted out to all.

This shall be the case notwithstanding the apparent contrariety

of the fact, ver. 14, that the fate of the wicked sometimes seems

to befall the just, and vice versa. The enigma is now solved,

as far at least as a solution is practicable. The considerations

adduced embrace all that can be offered in its explanation. The

section is accordingly brought to a close, ver. 15, by the stand-

ing formula which these reasonings have served freshly to con-

firm, that enjoyment is the best thing which earth affords.

That serene enjoyment which is the portion only of the good,

is to be preferred above all those accumulations which the

wicked may possess, and which men are tempted to do wickedly

in order to obtain.

The fourth section, viii. 16-xii. 14, is, as has been before

said, supplementary to the preceding. It does not re-open the

argument, which is not finished, but is occupied with the removal

of discouragements and the enforcing of practical lessons. We

have, as in former cases, three divisions and a conclusion. The



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remaining mystery of this subject need be no obstacle to human

joy, viii. 16-ix. 9, nor to the most strenuous activity, ix..l0-

xi. 6, while in both their joy and their activity men should be

mindful of death and judgment, xi. 7 -xii. 8. The conclusion

follows, xii. 9-14.

After all that can be said toward their explanation, there are

yet, viii. 17, insolvable mysteries in divine providence. No one

can tell, ix.l, by God's treatment of particular individuals, whe-

ther they are objects of his love or hatred, ver. 2, the good and the

bad appear to fare alike, vs. 3-6, the existence of sin and death

involve the most perplexing mysteries. But this, vs. 7-9,

should prevent no one from enjoying life with a constant sense

of the divine favour.

Nor is it any obstacle to the most energetic action, ver. 10,

but the reverse. When it is said that "there is no work, nor

device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou

goest," it is manifest that this is no denial of a future state of

intelligent activity, any more than, vs. 5, 6, where the meaning

is more fully explained by saying that the dead "have no more ,

a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun," i. e., in

this world. Men should labour with their might. It is true,

vs. 11, 12, that the results attained do not always correspond

with what might be expected from the means employed. And

yet on the whole and .as a general rule, ix..13-x. 20, wisdom

is advantageous and folly is ruinous. And, xi. 1-6, this

general certainty, even though no positive assurance of a suc-

cessful result can be attained in each individual case, is a suffi-

cient warrant and incitement to vigorous exertion.

The advantages of wise action are first illustrated, ix. 13-16,

by the case of a city delivered by a poor wise man from the siege

of a powerful king. The same thought is then exhibited in a

series of apothegms to the close of chap. x. This passage, it

will be perceived; is directed to precisely the same point with

the entire book of Proverbs. And it is observable to what an

extent the style of the two books is here identical, possessing

the same terse brevity and the same lack of connection between

the individual sentences, while all conspire to teach the same

general truth. The attempt to force a more intimate connection

upon this passage than the writer designed or than its nature



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will allow, has resulted in the strangest misinterpretations.

Thus because rulers are referred to, vs. 4-7, and again, vs. 16,

17, and ver. 20, it has been quite common for interpreters to

insist upon explaining all the intermediate verses in reference

to the same subject. So vs. 8-10 are made to teac4 the evils

resulting from premature or ill-concerted attempts to throw off

the yoke of bad government; and ver. 18, the injury arising to

the edifice of the state from negligent rulers, whose revels and

avarice are supposed to be described, ver. 19. Upon the

wretched government, under which it is thus (with the help of

viii. 2-5, perverted to precisely its opposite sense, and ver. 17

being pronounced spurious, as inconsistent with the context)

made out that the author must have lived, is based the conclu-

sion that this could not have been written by Solomon. Our

answer to which is, that the argumentation has about as much

connection with the text as Geier's notion that the times spoken

of, iii. 2-8, are the seven periods of the church militant.

The propriety and even necessity of acting upon a general

presumption, without demanding particular certainties, is vari-

ously illustrated, xi. 1-6. Even where there seems so little

antecedent likelihood of return as in casting bread upon the

waters, it should be done in the hope of finding it after many

days. The possibility of some time needing their assistance, is

a reason for making friends everywhere by benevolent action.

When the clouds are full, they empty themselves upon the earth,

it may be sometimes uselessly on the rock or on barren land,

yet on the whole the benefit .is immense. So a tree may fall

this way or that, on one man's land or another's, but it will be

likely in any case to do somebody good. If a man were to

insist on certainties, or even on having always the most favour-

able conditions prior to his acting, he would never do anything.

"He that observeth the wind, shall not sow; and he that

regardeth the clouds shall not reap." As, therefore, we neither

understand God's natural, nor his providential operations, the

only proper course is to be diligent in right action; some of it

will succeed, even if all does not.

After placing death and the coming judgment before its

readers as a solemn fact which should never be lost sight of

amid their pleasures, and which should influence all their con-



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duct, the book is brought to a formal close. The conclusion of

the entire discussion is stated to be: Fear God and keep his

commandments; for this is the whole welfare of man; for God

shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing,

whether it be good or whether it be evil.

 

 

 

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:thildebrandt@gordon.edu