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Thursday, December 7th, 2023
the First Week of Advent
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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 3

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


In regard to the position and circumstances of the children of Israel to which this book owes its origin and character, the following data may be derived from the chapter now coming under notice. Israel was ecclesia pressa: it was in a state of persecution, ( Ecclesiastes 3:15) it was being purified in the furnace of affliction ( Ecclesiastes 3:18). Wickedness triumphed over righteousness: on Israel lay the yoke of heathen dominion, ( Ecclesiastes 3:16-17). It was for the chosen people a period of death, of the rooting up of what was planted, of complaint, of silence and so forth, ( Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In such circumstances they harassed themselves fruitlessly by their own toilsome and anxious undertakings, ( Ecclesiastes 3:9-18). In view of such a situation the author proceeds further in his design of conferring weapons of defence against the attacks of despair. In chapters 1 and 2 he developed the thought, that on earth, the scene of vanity, men may not seek true happiness, that times which seem most fortunate and happy are not so different from wretched ones as a superficial examination might lead us to think, and finally, that all earthly happiness is but glittering misery. In the present chapter, Koheleth seeks to comfort his suffering fellow countrymen by directing their thoughts to the all-ruling providence of God. The theme of his discourse is the words of Jeremiah 10:23,—“I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct, his steps. He labours to impress upon, them the truth, that all prosperity and misfortune comes from God alone,” and admonishes them to humble themselves beneath his mighty hand, that in his own good time he may exalt them. Everything has its season, and there is a time ordained by God, when every desire of the faithful shall be satisfied. Here, then our duty is not to be careful and murmuring, and to harass ourselves, but to surrender and submit ourselves to, and patiently wait on God, ( Ecclesiastes 3:18). “Nothing comes of being early and late at all my works: my care is in vain,” ( Ecclesiastes 3:9-10). What God intends to do man cannot know, and consequently cannot conveniently order his doings: man is not set to work, but simply to wait, and meanwhile to take whatever good falls to his lot unsought, ( Ecclesiastes 3:11). Instead therefore of being anxious and overworking ourselves, we should rather live for the present moment, cheerfully enjoy the pleasures it puts in our way, and at the same time do good, so that we may not hinder the grace of God, ( Ecclesiastes 3:12). In conjunction with this, it is to be remarked, that the capacity of cheerful enjoyment in life is a gift of God, who alone is able to deliver the heart from cares, ( Ecclesiastes 3:13). Our disquietudes and griefs, and self-inflicted pains cannot alter the eternal counsels of God, ( Ecclesiastes 3:14). Everything comes just as God foreordained it, and that is a consoling reflection for the persecuted, inasmuch as in his own good time the Lord must again undertake their cause, ( Ecclesiastes 3:15). When wickedness has risen to power and rule on the earth, we may cherish the hope that there will be a revelation of God’s judgments, ( Ecclesiastes 3:16-17). But when God delays his judgments, it is in order that men may be purified and humbled, seeing that in such times of suffering, experience forces on them the conviction that they are as helpless as the beasts of the field, ( Ecclesiastes 3:18). Man, who so readily puffs himself up is in one respect on a level with the cattle, in that, no less than they, he is exposed to all kinds of accidents, and must die and return to the dust, ( Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). The difference between them, namely, that the spirit of man goes upwards to God, whilst the breath of the beast perishes with the body is one of a very subtle nature, and hard to be discerned in presence of that outward resemblance in their fates which first presses itself on the attention, ( Ecclesiastes 3:21). To give once more the summary of the whole argument—seeing the utter uncertainty of the future, man should not trouble himself about it,—“why should I then harass myself and think about that which is to come?”—but enjoy the present, ( Ecclesiastes 3:22).

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 3:1. To everything there is a season: not one that is based on a blind fate, for that would be but a miserable consolation, but one that is ordered by a God who is compassionate, gracious, long-suffering, of great love and faithfulness, who even in his anger never forgets mercy, who has thoughts of peace towards his people languishing in misery, and who, though he chastises them, never gives them over to the power of death. If things go ill all we have to do is to wait patiently for the hour of redemption, and at the end the people of God must receive that which is best for their portion. Parallel with this are the words of Psalms 75:3, “For I shall take a set time, then shall I judge uprightly.”

This set time is that which God has appointed for the accomplishment of the counsels he has decreed. Compare also Psalms 102:14, “Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favour her, yea the set time is come.” To this time appointed by God we ought to direct our eye in the midst of our afflictions. This point of time will arrive when God’s visitations of His Church have reached their final termination ( Isaiah 10:12). These visitations also have their season, and whoso knows this, whoso recognizes that in afflictions God’s hand lies upon him, cannot surely fail to experience joy and consolation. On this passage are based the words of John 7:30, “They sought to take him; but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come.” Gesenius’ explanation: “Everything lasts but for a time, nothing is permanent,” is quite incorrect. Ecclesiastes 3:14 is sufficient to show this. The idea is rather this, that in misfortune we must learn to wait, inasmuch as man has no power to alter the times and seasons, and can take to himself nothing which is not given him from above. “Accept cheerfully, docile child, what it pleases God to send, and though the winds blow and are so tempestuous as to threaten everything with destruction around thee, be comforted, for that which befalls thee is according to the will of God.” Those also completely miss the right meaning of the words who suppose that they contain a, direction to men to do whatever they have to do at the right time. And a time for every desire under the heaven. It is usually assumed that חפץ is employed here in the sense of “thing, affair.” Elsewhere, however, חפץ is always used to designate “favour, good pleasure.” In this book also, as is universally allowed, it occurs several times in this sense (see Ecclesiastes 12:1-10, Ecclesiastes 5:3); as also in the contemporaneously written book of Malachi (see Ecclesiastes 1:10). Consequently if at all practicable this meaning must be retained here, as well as in Ecclesiastes 3:17, and Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 8:6; here especially, because if we accept the signification “business,” we shall have a mere tautology, for there is no difference whatever between עת and זמן . This clearly ascertained meaning suits the connection also perfectly: חפץ denotes the desire which believers have to see the kingdom of God established. They thought it ought to come immediately, but they will be compelled to wait for the time which has been fixed in the counsels of God. Our wish is not fulfilled when we will, but when God wills. It is enough that it will one day be satisfied. The application of the words, “Every desire,” is, of course, limited and defined by the character of the persons to whom the singer speaks. In reality he refers to the wishes of the people of God which longs for the coming of His kingdom. This limitation is absolutely necessary. Applied to the world, both the declaration here and Paul Gerhard’s paraphrase of it, given below, would be utterly false. Luther’s remarks on this place are as follows—“This then is to be understood, that everything has its time and every human purpose its brief season: i.e., there is a certain fixed hour for everything. As when kingdoms, lands, and principalities are to arise there is an hour for them; if they are to fall there is also an hour for that; for war and tumults there is a season: for peace also and quietude there is a season; and when the time for these things is come, no wit of man can hinder or prevent it. There was a set time for the Roman Empire and all great kingdoms to grow, and no thought of man rendered any help therein. Again, when the hour struck which was to see them decline and fall, no propping and supporting was of any use. All this is, therefore, directed against the free will of man, and against all human purposes and fancies, but especially against the notion that it is in our power to determine seasons, and hours, and persons, and measures, and place; that we can settle how the affairs of this world shall go, how its great potentates shall rise and fall, how joy and sadness, building up and pulling down, war and peace, shall succeed and take the place of each other, how they shall begin and end: it is to impress on us the fact that ere the hour arrives it is wasted effort for men to think, and their proposals are useless and vain: in fine, we are taught that nothing comes to pass before the hour fixed for it by God. His doctrine the writer confirms by examples from all branches of human experience, and says, “Building has its time and breaking down has its time,” and so forth, from which he judges that all the counsels, the thoughts, the devices, and the efforts of men are but as shadows and mock-fighting, unless the thing is already determined on in Heaven. Kings, princes, and lords may take counsel and agree together upon all as they shall think fit, but whenever the hour strikes for any event whatever, it takes place and other matters remain standing and hinder each other; and although it seems as if the well planned scheme must now be executed, nothing comes of it, and nothing can come of it till the predetermined hour has struck, even if all men on earth were to put forth the most violent efforts. God will not suffer the hands of his great clock to be pointed by the kings and princes and lords of the earth: He will Himself point them: nor may we take upon ourselves to inform Him what hour has struck: ‘tis He who will tell us. Wherefore also Christ said, “mine hour is not yet come.” And how many stern counsels, nay, how did all the efforts of the Pharisees and chief men of the Jews remain fruitless until that hour arrived. Wherefore also Christ spake further, “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow because her hour is come.” Thus hath the Lord fixed a season for everything, for being rich and poor, for living and dying, and for every other phase of human experience. In reference to the words, “and a time to every desire under the Heaven,” Luther remarks: “The Hebrew word Chephetz signifies that with which one is occupied, that which is the object of desire, love, purpose. Thus in Psalms 1 it is said, ‘those who have the desire and determination to keep God’s law.’ The writer includes under the term Chephetz everything which men would fain possess, to which their heart inclines, after which their yearnings go forth; and he intends to say here, because thereof they worry and afflict themselves, every man in his season: princes and lords vex themselves for great glory, power, reputation, and renown, and so forth; others for honour, possessions, luxury, and good days, and so forth. But their thoughts and cares will prove in vain, unless they hit upon the appointed hour: and even though they may be the very persons who are destined to receive all these things, still their haste and anticipatory labours are useless until God’s gracious season arrives—then all is speedily effected. Therefore does it behove each of us in our several positions to do the work and discharge the office entrusted to him, to commend all his ways to God, to use cheerfully that which God bestows on him at the present moment, and to leave the arrangement of the future to His Divine Wisdom. Whoso is of the mind to act otherwise, and determines in despectum Dei to rush on before the appointed hour, will reap nothing but misfortune and sorrow of heart for his pains, and, let him rage and murmur as long as he will, God heeds him not.” To these excellent remarks of Luther’s we have only one exception to take, namely, that, as is the case also with Melancthon, too little stress is laid on the special reference to the people and kingdom of God. The general thought here expressed is further discussed in the succeeding seven verses, each of which touches upon two pairs of subjects. That the discussion contained in these verses has respect to the entire Church of God, and not merely to the experiences of individual believers, though of course bearing an analogous application to them, is evident at once from the words of Ecclesiastes 3:2, “a time to bear,” and of Ecclesiastes 3:3, “a time to kill and a time to heal.” Such modes of activity can only be predicated, and therefore suggest the thought, of a great whole; and besides, the highly important words in Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I even I am he, and there is no God with me: I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand,” render it easy to conceive that by this great whole is meant the people of God. That national events are alluded to is implied also in the words, “Gist away stones, and gather stones together.” Further, a guide to the just understanding of the whole is furnished by the concluding verse, the 8th, “A time for war and a time for peace.” The parallel passages moreover involve this reference to the nation; a view which, according to the testimony of Jerome, is exceedingly ancient.

Verse 2

Ecclesiastes 3:2. There is a time to bear and a time to die. The mistake with respect to the national reference of this passage led to the adoption of the moaning—“to be born,” Vulgate, nascendi The infinitive of ילד occurs no fewer than twenty-four times, and always in the signification of “to bear,” never in that of “to be born.” An example of this is Genesis 25:24—“and her days wore full ללדת to bear,” not, “to be born:” another is found in Isaiah 26:17, “Like as a woman with child that draweth near the time of her delivery.”עת לדת is “time of bearing, of delivery,” in Genesis 38:27, in Job 39:2: Compare also Luke 1:57; Τῇ? δὲ? Ἐ?λισάβετ ἐ?πλήσθη ὁ? χρόνος τοῦ? τεκεῖ?ν αὐ?τὴ?ν . In fact no instance whatever can be adduced in which the Active Infinitive stands for the Passive. In Proverbs 12:7, to which Gesenius appeals, הפךְ? signifies they destroy,” in 15:22, הפר signifies “they bring to nought.” The people of God personified as a woman is not unfrequently said to “travail and bear,” when in times of prosperity it grows and waxes strong, and the number of its members becomes greater. Thus for example in Isaiah 54:1, “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child, for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.” See also Isaiah 66:7, “Before she travailed, she brought forth, before her pain came she was delivered of a manchild:” Ecclesiastes 3:8, “for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her sons.” If our explanation of the words is correct, the reference to them which John 16:21 unmistakeably bears, becomes perfectly clear. There the hour approaches for the woman who is to bear, and she is the image of the Church. In the main this is for her a time of gladness. The momentary pain which forms necessarily a point of transition therein, is a feature added by the Saviour.—In contradistinction to bearing stands dying. Both however are in like manner under the superintendence of holy love. Both come from our faithful heavenly Father, who has thoughts of peace towards His people, who chastises them even unto death, but never gives them over into the hands of death. A very extensive use is made of death in the Old Testament as the symbol of the severe afflictions of the people of God. “My God and mine Holy One,” cries Israel in Habakkuk 1:12, “let us not die.” In Psalms 85:7, it is said—“Wilt thou not revive us again, and shall not thy people rejoice in thee?—In Psalms 71:20, “Thou which hast shewed me great and sore troubles shalt return and quicken us again:”—In Hosea 6:2, “After two days he will revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” We find the most detailed employment of death to describe the degeneracy of the Church and of resurrection to express its restoration in Ezekiel 37. The chief passage however is Deuteronomy 32:39, “I kill and I make alive.” Compare besides Psalm 48:15, Psalms 68:21, Psalms 80:19. Israel was in a state of death when the author wrote. If it recognised God’s hand working in this death it must prove an easy matter for it to rise to the hope of that life which the same God had promised in His word, and which stands ever at the termination of God’s dealings with His people. Moreover death, although in itself bitter, becomes sweet to the man who is thoroughly penetrated by the conviction that he is in God’s hands, and is drinking from God’s cup. Luther says—“To believers and Christians all this is very consolatory; for they know that no tyrant’s sword can kill or destroy them, and that before their hour comes no creature whatever can harm them. Hence they do not trouble and worry themselves much about death, but when it comes they die unto the will of God as he pleases, like lambs and young children.”—A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted. In this respect also the people of God experience change according to the holy purposes of their Lord, who sends them at one time the undeserved grace of prosperity, and at another time, as punishment merited by their ingratitude, he inflicts upon them the loss of everything. When these troubles befal us we must not murmur nor despair but humble ourselves under the strong hand, repent and hope, Even to feel the angry hand of God upon us is a sweet comfort. Compare Psalms 44:3, where, in regard to the period under Joshua so rich in signs of grace, it is said: “Thou hast with thy hand driven out the heathen and planted them;” also Psalms 80:9, “thou broughtest a vine out of Egypt: thou didst cast out the heathen and didst plant it.” Compare further also what is written in Psalms 80:13-14, in reference to the plucking up of what was planted, which was effected by the power of this world, into whose hands degenerate Israel had been given over for punishment: “Why hast thou then broken down her walls so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.”

Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 3:3. A time to kill and a time to heal. Here also again the principal passage is Deuteronomy 32:39: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” On it are based both the present words and those of Hosea 6:1: “Up and let us return to the Lord; for he hath torn and he will heal; he smites and he will bind us up.” To the הרג of this place corresponds there the “tearing and smiting.” הרג “to murder” is predicated of God in relation to His people in Psalms 78:31; Psalms 78:34: “When he slew them, then they sought him and they returned and inquired after him,” (compare Jeremiah 12:3; Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 19:6). The state of the people must have been desperately bad, if God, who in his treatment of them is gracious and merciful, long-suffering, and of great kindness, finds himself compelled to resort to such terrible means. Still, destruction is never the end of the ways of God with His people. Only as a passage to life, does he ordain death. In regard to the “healing” compare besides Exodus 15:26, where the Lord describes himself as Israel’s physician, (compare Isaiah 6:10).—A time to break down and a time to build up. פרץ signifies not “to destroy,” but “to pull down” It is used especially of pulling down protecting walls and hedges. Compare Isaiah 5:5, where the Lord says in reference to the vineyard of Israel: “Break down its hedges and he will tread it down;”— Psalms 89:4, “Thou tearest down all its hedges,” (compare 80:13). In Ecclesiastes 10:4 the phrase is found in completeness. Nehemiah speaks in Ecclesiastes 2:13 of his book, of the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down, פרוצים , and of its gates which were burned by fire, in consequence of the destruction by the Chaldeans: further in 2 Kings 14:13, it is said, “and he brake down of the wall of Jerusalem four hundred cubits” (compare besides Nehemiah 4:1). This tearing down and building up may take place, in an outward manner, as it did at the time of the occupation of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, and after the return from the captivity, or it may take place spiritually, through the entrance of the Church on times of great degeneracy, and the restoration and elevation thereof to prosperity. Thus in Jeremiah 42:10, where we read—“if ye will settle again in this land, then will I build you and not pull you down, and I will plant you and not pluck you up,”—persons are the object of the building up and pulling down, which terms must therefore be understood figuratively, as Michaelis takes them, longoevitate, liberis, opibus omnibusque bonis vos aucturus. The same thing is true also of Jeremiah 24:6, “and I bring them again to this land; and I will build them and I will not pull them down; and I will plant them and not pluck them up:” and of Jeremiah 31:4, “Again I will build thee and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel.” The second clause of Psalms 51:18—“do good in thy good pleasure unto Sion, build thou the walls of Jerusalem,” is explained by the first:—God builds the walls of Zion in that he furthers its well-being. The mere fact that it was composed by David forbids us taking the external view. In a material sense, the walls of Jerusalem were not destroyed in the days of David. In the same way ire we to understand Psalms 102:14-15: “thou shalt aris and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favour her, yea the set time is come. For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and they grieve over its dust.” Under the image of a building in ruins is brought before us the Church of God in its reduced condition. Consequently the time for pulling down is always present when God abandons his Church to inimical powers. Such a time of pulling down, for example, was that of the dominion of Rationalism. But the men whose hearts bleed during such a period should never forget that above and behind the destructive forces stands the Lord, and that in the long run his counsels, and his alone, shall be accomplished. After a manner very similar to that of this book are the diverse modes of God’s action contrasted in Jeremiah 1:10. The prophet was commissioned on God’s behalf to “destroy, to throw down, to build, and to plant.” In Jeremiah 18:7-9, it is said in regard to Israel—“suddenly I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down, and to destroy it: if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And suddenly I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant.” The people of God has this privilege, however, that God always pulls down and destroys as a means and preparation for building, and that to this latter as a final aim the divine purposes are directed. Hence in the kingdom of God it is possible to be joyous and contented, even when, for the moment, the season of pulling down is present. Up to this point commencement was made with the redemptive and beneficent aspect of human and divine activity: here it forms the conclusion. That the author intentionally makes it form the commencement and the close of the whole, is unmistakeable. It began with “bearing,” and it ends with “peace.” If then beginning is good, and end is good, we may reasonably be less anxious and careful about that which meanwhile befals us, and may look with a calm and cheerful mind on the changes now taking place around us.

Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 3:4. A time to weep and a time to laugh. There are seasons when those who belong to the kingdom of God must weep, because the Lord hides his face from the house of Israel, ( Isaiah 8:17) and there are also times when they can rejoice. Joy always comes last. For this reason the weeping of the children of God is quite different from that of the world. It always has a background of hope. Theirs is not the anguish of despair; it is a sadness which takes comfort. Our Lord allu des to this passage when He says in Luke 6:21, μακάριοι οἱ? κλαίοντες νῦ?ν , ὅ?τι γελάσετε . In close connection also with this passage Stands John 16:20: ἀ?μὴ?ν ἀ?μὴ?ν λέγω ὑ?μῖ?ν ὅ?τι κλαύσετε καὶ? θρηνήσετε ὑ?μεῖ?ς , ὁ? δὲ? κόσμος χαρήσεται· ὑ?μεῖ?ς λυπηθήσεσθε , ἀ?λλʼ? ἡ? λύπη ὑ?μῶ?ν εἰ?ς χαρὰ?ν γενήσεται . When it is the time for weeping it is useless to try and force ourselves to laughter, as is the fashion of the world, which seeks to forget and gild over its misery until at last it falls a victim to despair. Our course should be that which is enjoined on us in 1 Peter 5:6, Ταπεινώθητε οὖ?ν ὑ?πὸ? τὴ?ν κραταιὰ?ν χεῖ?ρα τοῦ? θεοῦ? , ἵ?να ὑ?μᾶ?ς ὑ?ψώσῃ? ἐ?ν καιρῷ? : Bengel—in tempore opportune, when the season for laughter has arrived. This season however we may not endeavour to anticipate: our moods of feelings should go hand in hand with the various phases of divine providence: we should act in short like the children of Israel, who once in the days of their captivity hung their harps on the willows and refused to sing the songs of Zion. A time to mourn and a time to dance. On these words it is remarked in the Berleburger Bible—“If any man at another time is visited by still severer misfortunes, then weeping will not suffice, but wailing must be added thereto, that is, a great and public mourning must take place in that we wring our hands above our heads and express our lamentation in the gestures and attitude of sorrow.”

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 3:5. A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together. What the Lord says in Mark 13:2, Βλέπεις ταύτας τὰ?ς μεγάλας οἰ?κοδομάς ; οὐ? μὴ? ἀ?φεθῇ? ὧ?δε λίθος ἐ?πὶ? λίθῳ? ὃ?ς οὐ? μὴ? καταλυθῇ? , holds good of the Church in all its periods of degeneracy. When the Church ceases to be the true house of God, the time for the scattering of its stones is not far off. With the scattering, however, the gathering always goes hand in hand. At the time when the old Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, there rose up in its stead the glorious edifice of the temple of the Christian Church. Previously God scattered stones by the hands of the Chaldeans: through his servant Cyrus he gathered them together.—A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. There is a season when the Lord embraces his people, and a season when he does not permit them the enjoyment of his love, but repels them from his presence. When He treats us in the latter way we should revolve in our hearts the words of Psalms 13 : “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God;” and we should beg and pray and acknowledge and express our sins until He becomes once more gracious. The expression “embrace” takes its rise in the “Song of Solomon,” Ecclesiastes 2:6, where the bride, which is Zion, says—“His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.” That elsewhere also in Solomon’s writings this transference of embracing to spiritual relations occurs, as for example in Proverbs 4:8; Proverbs 5:20, I have shown in my Commentary on that passage. The name Habakkuk is probably derived from the “Song of Solomon.” It signifies “hearty embrace,” and is used to describe the tender relation of love in which Israel and the Prophet, who is the nation’s representative, stand to the Lord: as in fact Isaiah styles the Lord in Ecclesiastes 5, דודו and ידידו . As to substance, Jeremiah 13 offers a parallel: for there, in consideration of the close and living relation which subsists between them, Israel appears under the image of a girdle which the Lord lays around Him and which He puts off in the time of His anger, only however to put it on again, when the season of wrath has passed away.

Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 3:6. A time to seek and a time to lose. At one period the Lord interests Himself tenderly in His people: at another He lets them go to ruin, yet in such a manner, that in the midst of wrath He remembers mercy. “To seek” is generally predicated of believers who seek the Lord: but God also is said to “seek” when His retributive righteousness comes into play ( Joshua 22:23), and when in love He shows compassion: “God seeks the persecuted” ( Ecclesiastes 3:15). With the word לאבד Jarchi compares Leviticus 26:38, “and ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.” A time to keep and a time to cast away. Now, the Lord protects and preserves His people as a precious jewel: then He casts it from Him as a despicable and hateful thing. Usually God’s casting away signifies banishment from His presence. Thus in 2 Kings 13:23, it is written in respect of the ten tribes, “and the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, and cast them not from his presence.” Michaelis: ut postea factum est (17:18-20), also in Jeremiah 7:15, where the Lord says to Judah, “and I cast you from, my presence, as I cast out all your brethren, the whole tribe of Ephraim.” In Psalms 71:9, also, where Israel, now growing old, cries, “cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth:” and in Psalms 102:11, as here, the word השליךְ? is employed alone. Deuteronomy 29:27, furnishes an example of the use of the verb in regard to God, who in his anger casts out his people into a strange land.

Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 3:7. A time to rend, and a time to sew. There is a time when the people of God must mourn, and again a time when they can rejoice, קרע is used with special reference to the rending of the clothes, which in Israel was a sign of mourning. When it is said in Genesis 37:34, “and Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days,” we recognize in Jacob a type of the people of God and of the Church in all ages, a prophecy in the form of a fact which is being fulfilled ever afresh. Where there is the like cause, there is the like result. Was it necessary that the ancestor should be visited with severe afflictions on account of his sinfulness, for the same reason must his descendants also suffer, and to preserve their heart from exalting itself God ordains that through much tribulation they shall enter his kingdom, that times of refreshing from His presence shall alternate with times of sorrow, and His unchangeable love disguises itself in many ways and frequently appears under forms fitted to awaken terror. In Joshua 7:6 we read, “and Joshua rent his clothes, he and the elders of Israel:” and in 2 Samuel 13:31, “and the king arose and rent his clothes and lay on the earth; and all his servants stood by with their clothes rent.” A time to keep silence and a time to speak. There are times when silence must be observed, as Jacob was compelled to keep silence when he heard how Sichem had defiled Dinah his daughter, until his sons arrived ( Genesis 34:5): and then again come times when we may speak and stand up boldly in the presence of the enemies of God’s people, as when the Lord spake to Paul in the vision by night, when the Jews of Corinth tried to force him to silence—“Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace,” ( Acts 18:9). When the hour appointed by God arrives, the words of Psalms 127:5, “they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate,” come fully true. Till then we must cover our faces and keep silence. But it is notwithstanding a blessed silence, for it is attended by the conviction that a time to speak will inevitably come again.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 3:8. A time to love and a time to hate. There is a time when the Lord causes the world to incline in love towards His people: and again a time when He gives them over to the world’s hatred. In respect to the latter, and in connection with the period of Israel’s residence in Egypt, it is said in Psalms 105:25, “He turned their heart to hate his people, to deal subtilly with his servants.” In regard to the former compare Exodus 11:3, where the Lord is represented as having given the people such favour in the sight of the Egyptians, that they offered them gifts; also Psalms 106:4-6, where concerning the Asiatic oppressors of the nation, it is declared that “he made them to be pitied also of all those that carried them captives,” (compare 1 Kings 8:50); further, Daniel 1:9, “and God brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the Eunuchs;” and lastly, 2 Kings 25:27, according to which the Lord moved the heart of Evilmerodach to compassion towards Jehoiachin. The time at which this book was written might in the main be characterised as one of “hating,” as the faithful were compelled to acknowledge by the painful experience of every day: but the word of God was pledged that a “time of love” should arrive, such as had never previously been witnessed, and in the hope of this, they found it easier to accept temporary hatred from the same kind hand, that would one day bestow upon them love. The era was before the door, of which Isaiah prophesied when he wrote, “and kings shall be thy nursing fathers and their queens thy nursing mothers,” ( Isaiah 49:23), and “thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings” ( Isaiah 60:16), and thus saith the Lord; behold I will extend peace to her like a river and the glory of the Gentiles like an overflowing stream; then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees.” Though Zion was still “deserted and hated” ( Isaiah 60:15), it had no need to be very much concerned on that account. Here also we may apply the saying, “At the end comes the best.” A time of war and a time, of peace. The sweet name of peace, which is an object of such deep affection to the heart of the struggling Church, forms the conclusion to the whole. “Peace, peace, to him that is afar off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord.” ( Isaiah 57:19)

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 3:9. What profit hath he that produceth in that wherein he laboureth? The conclusion which follows from the preceding reflections is here drawn. Inasmuch as there is a time for everything, it follows that “all our toils, early and late, are for nought, all our care is in vain.” The Berleburger Bible remarks, “for he can neither pass beyond nor alter the fixed limits set by divine providence, so as, for example, to be joyful when the hour for mourning is come.” All care and labour, all our exhausting efforts apart from God, (Cartwright deo non aspirante, a quo rerum omnium efectio suspensa tenetur,) are pronounced fruitless. In this, however, are not included the “doing good,” ( Ecclesiastes 3:12) and “unwearied scattering of seed,” ( Ecclesiastes 6:6) with which we must go forward because of God’s command, on whose will it depends whether it prove a blessing or not; much less is there any reference to the prayers of believers, which in fact are as strongly called for and enjoined, as our own anxieties and labours are forbid den and excluded, by the word “there is a time for everything.” Nay, it is even possible that prayer, if earnest, may alter the aspect of the times. If there is really a time for everything, then surely when things press us down as a leaden weight, we should lift up heart and hands to Him who can change the times and seasons.” Luther renders the words—“what can a man do more, let him work as he will? and remarks on them—“it is just this, that till the hour arrives all our thought and labour are lost. Notwithstanding we must all work, each man in his office, and use diligence, for God commands this. If we hit the right moment, then the business succeeds: if we do not, nothing comes of it, and no device of man can be of the least use.”

Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 3:10. I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. The travail does not perhaps consist so much in the occupation of contemplating and inquiring into the government of the world, as, according to Ecclesiastes 3:9, in the useless anxieties and exhaustive labours to which men subject themselves in that they desire, and yet are unable to effect anything, because everything comes to pass as it has been fixed and predetermined by God. On this Luther observes: “they who wish to anticipate God’s appointed hour, weary themselves in vain, and reap only anxiety and trouble of heart.” The faith which looks upward to God and leaves all to Him, which says: “why should I then distress myself? Heart, why art thou cast down? Why dost thou trouble and pain thyself? Trust in God thy Lord who made all things!’ delivers us from this torment. But in this life even faith is liable to become weary and to change, and no sooner does the believer begin to be negligent therein, than he receives his share of the travail to which all the children of men are condemned, in a word, he begins to exhaust himself with cares and toils. And in truth, it is good for him to have his share thereof. The travail is a wholesome discipline. By such means the children of men are constrained to humble themselves, and to feel their own insufficiency. Care and toil begin, when faith and prayer cease: but out of care and toil we rise again to faith and prayer. When the heart is emphatically broken by the sore travail to which God subjects the children of men, it obeys the injunction—“O troubled soul, betake thyself to God.”

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 3:11. He maketh everything beautiful in his time, eternity also he hath set in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. The principal thought of the verse is contained in the last words: “man cannot find out the work of God from beginning to end;” which some interpret to mean—“man cannot perfectly comprehend God’s doings;” but which may be more appropriately explained—“To man the knowledge of the future is altogether denied;”—as Luther has it—“neither beginning nor end.” Inasmuch as, apart from revelations concerning the future which God communicates to his servants the prophets ( Amos 3:7), man, as such, is and will remain destitute of this knowledge, to the end that he may learn to humble himself before God, it is impossible for him to order his doings with judgment, and he is consequently directed in all cases to trust not in himself but in God. The following remarks are found in the Berleburger Bible: “The conclusion which Solomon wishes to draw is, that no man can so order and arrange his affairs for the future as that he shall be thoroughly happy in this world, but must leave them to time and destiny; and should he seek by his own energies to secure to himself the object of his desires, his efforts will be useless, and at the end there will be still no other course open to him than to commend himself and his affairs to the fatherly care of God.” A twofold subsidiary thought precedes this main idea of the passage. The first is—“He maketh everything beautiful in his time.” That God’s rule is one with a fixed aim and method is here expressly mentioned, in order to remove as far away as possible the notion of an almighty arbitrary ruler—a notion which might easily take its rise in the fact that the method of divine government is so concealed from our eyes that we cannot tell beforehand what He will do. According to the accents יפה is connected with בעתו . J. D. Michaelis remarks—“The words ‘beautiful in his time,’ according to the accentuation, are closely connected together. And, in view of that which goes before, what other meaning can be attached to them, than the following?—among the things mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3:2-8, there are, it is true, many that are unpleasant and evil, but at the time when God sends them they are not only good but even right beautiful.” These things which in and for themselves are evil, must consequently occur in such a connection that they shall further the good purposes of God. Only at the fit season are they beautiful, and then they form an indispensable link in the chain of this world’s events. Accordingly, that is not a bad saying of Raschi, that “at a good season to reward good works is beautiful: and at an evil season to punish evil works is also beautiful.” The second accessory thought is contained in the words—“Eternity also hath he set in their heart.” In the verse considered as an organic whole this thought occupies the following position:—God makes everything beautiful in his time, but man is unable to see it notwithstanding that God hath set eternity in his heart. מבלי is to be taken in its usual signification of “without” (which occurs moreover oftener than the Lexicons allow), “without that not finds,” which is as much as to say, with this exception or with the exception, that not finds how such knowledge of the future doings of God seems notwithstanding to follow from the fact that in the heart of man, and specially in the heart of his own people, He hath set eternity; for apparently this latter gift stands to the former in the relation of the particular to the general. If God’s nature is accessible to man, surely, one would think, God’s doings will not remain hidden from him, especially as they follow a fixed plan. The commentary to the words, “and he set eternity in their heart,” (Rambach: notitiam dei aeterni), is furnished by Psalms 90:1-5, where the fleeting character of our earthly life is contrasted with the eternity of God: compare especially Ecclesiastes 3:2—“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” And then we must compare also Romans 1:20—τὰ? ἀ?όρατα αὐ?τοῦ? ἀ?πὸ? κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖ?ς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶ?ται , ἥ?τε ἀ?ΐδιος αὐ?τοῦ? δύναμις καὶ? θειότης . According to the Apostle’s words, man has an intellectual intuition of God’s eternal power and Godhead, or as it is here expressed, of the eternity which is manifested and developed in the words of creation. So far as man springs from God, his eternity is inseparably bound up with that of God ( Ecclesiastes 12:7). It is man’s highest privilege to discern something eternal behind the transitory objects of the present world, and to be able to cling closely to this eternal substance. And inasmuch as this eternity of God is set in his heart, it would appear reasonable to expect that the knowledge of the doings of God in time should be attainable by him. But at this point man stumbles all at once upon bars and bolts, and finds that God has reserved something for himself alone. Many interpreters explain עולם by “world;” others by “philosophy,” or by “worldly mind.” But usage is against this, עולם is never used in the entire Old Testament in any other sense than of “unmeasured time,” and of “eternity:” and in this book above all is it employed in the signification “eternity,” (see Ecclesiastes 1:4; Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 9:6; Ecclesiastes 12:5; “long time,” Ecclesiastes 1:10). There is also the additional objection that this explanation of the term gives no appropriate sense. The words, “except that, &c.” would then be unsuitable. For the setting of the world in the heart of man, does not render it in any way probable that he will be able to command a knowledge of the ways of God: it may easily, however, and with justice, be regarded as something exceptional, and so to speak abnormal, that man, in whom there dwells the knowledge of the divine “nature, should be refused the knowledge of the divine works.—In reference to the main idea of the verse, Luther observes, “Man cannot hit upon the work, which God does; that is, no man can know beforehand the hour which is ordained above; and however much he may plague himself, he can never know when it will begin or come to an end.—It behoves us therefore to say, O Lord, to thee belongs the supreme direction, in thine hand it rests entirely, to order and settle everything in the future: under thy control is my life and my death; as I need my life, so long thou givest it and not a moment longer. And inasmuch as in respect of them, no care and thought is of any use, I will act thus in regard to other gifts, using them as they come; care and anxiety I will cast to the winds, and commit the rest to thee.”

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 3:12. I know that there is no good in them, but that one rejoice and do good in his life. Seeing that man is not the lord of his own destiny, it follows that his best course is to let God act and arrange, and, in place of caring for the future, to enjoy the present, instead of labouring and scheming with a mind ever restless and ever looking for results, to do quietly what is given him to do. The Hebrew words which we have rendered “in (or with) them,” that is “men,” (בני אדם of Ecclesiastes 3:10), are rendered by several commentators, most recently by Stier—“therein, in illis rebus omnibus.” But that the former is the correct explanation is evident from Ecclesiastes 2:24, אין טוב באדם , and from Ecclesiastes 8:15, “it is not good” לאדם , where for the ב , in this passage, ל is employed. Joy forms the contrast to restless care and useless worry: compare Matthew 6:34: μὴ? οὖ?ν μεριμνήσητε εἰ?ς τὴ?ν αὔ?ριον , ἡ? γὰ?ρ αὔ?ριον μεριμνήσει ἑ?αυτῆ?ς· ἀ?ρκετὸ?ν τῇ? ἡ?μέρᾳ? ἡ? κακία αὐ?τῆ?ς . Luther observes: “this is all the better u nderstood from what goes before: he means to say, that because so many hindrances and mishaps in their business befal even those who are industrious and who wish to act well and truly, and because there is so much misfortune in the world, there is nothing better than cheerfully to use what God puts into our hands at the present moment, and not vex and distress ourselves with questions and cares about the future.” Not to be careful, but to dare to trust in the Almighty, and consequently to be able to rejoice, is a precious privilege bestowed by God on the children of men ( Psalms 36:8), of which they should take care not to rob themselves by their own wickedness. Doing good should go hand in hand with a cheerful and thankful enjoyment of the blessings which the moment brings, in order that thus we may run in the way commanded by God, may preserve a good conscience, which is the necessary condition of all joy, and not shut but rather open the entrance for God’s goodness and grace. To the “do good” of this verse, corresponds the “fear God and keep his commands” of Ecclesiastes 12:13. Following Luther’s example, several adopt the explanation, “Do good, act kindly, to thyself.” Usage however decides against this view: and, in opposition to usage, such supposed parallel pasages as Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:17-18, are adduced to no purpose. Compare Psalms 34:15: “cease from evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it;” Psalms 37:3, “Trust in the Lord and do good;” and Isaiah 38:3, where Hezekiah says—“I have done that which is good in thine eyes.”

Verse 13

Ecclesiastes 3:13. And every man that eats and drinks and sees good in all his labour, that is a gift of God. The word גם refers to the whole sentence. Not only is it a gift of God that any man’s sufferings are averted, but also that, despite suffering, whether present or threatened, he should be cheerful. It is in the power of God alone alike to bring us happiness and to quiet the heart and free it from cares. Our heart is as little in our own power as is our destiny. The capability of enjoying divine blessings is called in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, a gift of God, because the heart of the natural man is in bondage to avarice: here the same thing is affirmed on the ground that it is bound by care with such bonds as human strength can never loosen. After the words just quoted Luther remarks further: “but that is just the art to be acquired: that we are able to do it at all is the gift of God. I myself, says Solomon, can teach and tell this to others, but I can give it neither to myself nor to others: the heart capable of doing this, God alone can bestow. Solomon thus teaches us, firstly, what we shall do, and secondly, where we are to get the ability to be thus minded and thus to act: that is, he teaches us, that we with our own thoughts, anxieties and cares, can make nothing better or other than it is: our part is to pray with all earnestness, and call upon God that He may deliver us from sadness and useless cares, and give us a calm and believing heart.”

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 3:14. I know that whatsoever God doeth it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it and nothing can be taken from it; and God doeth it that they should fear before Him. No one can frustrate his plans: no one can hinder their fulfilment. Wherefore, “it behoves thee to trust the Lord, if it shall go well with thee. With care, dejection and self-inflicted pains thou canst gain nought from God;—he must be sought unto.” Compare Isaiah 46:10, where God says—“my counsel shall stand fast, and all my will, will I accomplish:” Psalms 33:11, “The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever. the thoughts of His heart to all generations:” and further, Psalms 127,—“it is in vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrow; thus giveth He it to His beloved in sleep.” In face of the eternal decrees of God, it is to no purpose that we resolve to carry any undertaking through: our part is to cast ourselves as a child into our Father’s arms, and entreat Him to have pity on us. Of God’s counsels, however, it is not true to say with the poet, that, “Bound by the brazen laws of eternity, men accomplish the cycles of their existence.” God’s counsels are undoubtedly unalterable from without; no creature, let him commence as he will, can effect an encroachment upon them: but they do not stand above God himself as a foreign power, as a kind of fate; so that it is not our prayers, but our own workings that are useless. “And God doeth it that they should fear before Him.” Driven by sheer necessity, and feeling their absolute weakness, they cry out, in the words of Psalms 123:1-2, “unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Behold as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look unto the Lord God until that he have mercy upon us.” Luther’s remarks on this subject are: “But why does God afflict men with such countless, varied, and great cares of government, of household, of trade, of business, compelling them to run and race, and ride and drive, and travel by land and water, and often to risk their lives, whilst He has kept in His own hands the right moment when any thing shall take place, and all the rest is in vain? The answer is: in order that men may fear Him, that they might keep his first commandment, that He may remain Lord and God, and that all may recognise Him to be God: further, that we may all learn thorough and hearty obedience and humility, and begin nothing trusting to our own wisdom, thoughts, abilities; as St Paul admonishes the Romans in Ecclesiastes 9:16, saying,—“it is not in him that willeth, nor in him that runneth, but in God, who sheweth mercy.” Whoever believeth that the aforementioned things are not in his own power, will not undertake anything on his own responsibility, will not worry and vex himself too much, but let God rule in all things: what God gives, he uses, what God withholds he dispenses with; if God takes aught away he endures it patiently. In this way God maintains fully His own divine honour, and at the same time restrains us from arrogance, inasmuch as no man then can say—I am king, prince, lord, manager, governor, learned or otherwise, but must always confess that God also is Lord. That is the true fear of God, that is the highest, holiest and most suitable service of God, the service to which Solomon, David, and all the prophets earnestly summon men, namely to believe and be certain that God sees all our doings, and works all in all, ( Ephesians 1:11).

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 3:15. That which hath been is now and that which is to be hath already been, and God seeketh the persecuted. The commentary to these words is furnished by the parallel passages: Psalms 139:16: “Thine eyes did see me when I was yet imperfect, and in thy book were they all written, the days which should yet be, and none of them was there;” on which I have remarked in my Commentary to the Book of Psalms, “if our whole existence from beginning to end is pre-ordained by God, bow is it possible that anything should over befal us, with which His hand was not concerned, which He did not see, and which in His own good time He did not help on? A further illustrative passage is Job 14:5, “His days are determined, the number of his months with thee.” What was (or became) is already, existed already in the divine counsels before it was openly manifested, and hence we learn, that God’s decrees decide everything, that in all the circumstances and ways of life we should look up to God, and that we may not look to our fellowmen, who are the companions of our weakness, and who, however much they may puff themselves, and however great pretensions they may make, are, in truth, but instalments in the hand of providence. The word is refers us to the timeless, the eternal nature of that which God pre-ordains,—which timeless element is able to represent itself in the form of the present. Knobel’s explanation, “it is already, i.e., it is now,” is inadmissible, for the simple reason that כבר cannot possibly mean “already.” The third member of the sentence, “and God seeks the persecuted,” falls into harmony with the other two, so soon as it is perceived that the reference they contain to the divine preordination is intended as a consolation: “Nothing can happen to us which He has not sent, and which will not conduce to our blessedness.” Of the accuracy of the translation given of the third clause of the sentence there can be no doubt. Just in the same way is seeking ascribed in Ecclesiastes 3:6 to God, who takes compassion on his forlorn and wretched children. In the only place where it occurs besides here, namely, in Lamentations 5:5, the Niphal form of רדף has the signification “be persecuted.” The people of God there give utterance to the complaint נרדפנו , “we are persecuted,” and the Niphal form in itself would scarcely allow of being otherwise interpreted. This explanation is further confirmed by Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, where we find exactly the same thought. To those verses this 15th verse forms a link of transition. Following the Vulgate (Dens instaurat quod abiit) most modern interpreters assume that נרדף signifies “the past,” and that the idea is, “the phenomena and events of life keep repeating themselves in a fixed circle.” This idea, however, would do violence to the whole connection, and besides, that נרדף cannot signify “the past,” is as certain as that רדף means “to persecute” and nothing else. Following the correct view, the Berleburger Bible remarks: “Therefore thou shouldst not so take offence thereat as to allow thyself on i ts account to be drawn away from the highest good. For God will not leave unpunished the injustice and the violence which are done to those that fear Him.” “We have in this passage the Old Testament basis for the words of our Lord in Matthew 5:10: μακάριοι οἱ? δεδιωγμένοι ἕ?νεκεν δικαιοσύνης , ὅ?τι αὐ?τῶ?ν ἐ?στιν ἡ? βασιλεία τῶ?ν οὐ?ρανῶ?ν .

Verses 16-17

Ecclesiastes 3:16-17. These two verses comfort the people of God whilst groaning beneath the unrighteous oppression of worldly powers by pointing them to the divine judgments which are shortly to be executed. Ecclesiastes 3:16. And further saw I under the sun. In the previous Ecclesiastes 3 :allusion is made to the overthrow of the people of God and the triumph of the world: here to the misapplication of authority to purposes of tyranny and oppression. The place of judgment, wickedness is there: the seat of judgment is the place whence, by divine appointment and legal sanction, justice should be administered, for Rulers and Judges govern and give sentence in God’s stead ( 2 Chronicles 19:6-7). שמה signifies always “thither,” never “there:” wickedness moves thitherwards, takes possession of the place. The wickedness is that of the heathen authorities. Parallel to this is Psalms 94:20, where, in view of the deluge of Chaldeans which overwhelmed the people of God, they ask—“Is the throne of iniquity in fellowship with thee, which frameth misery by a law?”—misery, which is the result of violence and wickedness. In Psalms 125, which like the present book was composed during the time of the Persian dominion, it is said ( Psalms 125:2-3): “The mountains are round about Jerusalem, and the Lord is round about his people from henceforth even for ever. For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the lot of the righteous, lest the righteous put forth their hands to iniquity.” From beneath the yoke of their heathen oppressors will the people of God once again rise to the glorious liberty of children. The place of righteousness, the wicked is there. In Daniel 4:27, Daniel says to Nebuchadnezzar—“break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” The righteous and the wicked God will judge, ( Ecclesiastes 3:17). Here the righteous man is Israel: the wicked is the Heathen: arid the ungodly in Israel as being degenerate are left unnoticed. By destiny, and at the core, Israel is the nation of the upright, Numbers 23:10. In Habakkuk 1:13, it is written in reference to the Chaldean catastrophe: “wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and boldest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth him that is more righteous than he?” i.e., him that stands opposed to the evil one, as being righteous. On this passage compare Delitzsch, who considers the merely relative view of righteousness untenable. The judgment of the wicked may be looked for with the greater confidence, when they are found occupying the seat of law and justice, thence practising wickedness, and misusing their authority for injustice. The tribunal of justice is of God ( Deuteronomy 1:17); whoever appears there appears before God ( Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:7-8). For this reason it is impossible that God should leave unpunished the misuse of authority: a thought which is further carried out in Psalms 82. Our duty is to wait patiently for this judgment of God’s. The more shamelessly and wantonly their heathen rulers abuse their authority, the more certain may we be that it will come, and the more cheerfully may we wait. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul describes the persecutions and oppressions of believers as an ἔ?νδειγμα τῆ?ς δικαίας κρίσεως τοῦ? θεοῦ? , “a notice, a proof, that God will shortly interpose.”—For there is a time therefor every desire and about every work, with God, Psalms 58:11: “and man says, Verily, the righteous has a reward: verily, God judgeth on the earth.” Koheleth points as it were with lifted finger away from the earth, the seat of unrighteousness, to heaven. “There” is employed in the same way in Genesis 11, Genesis 9:24.

Verse 18

Ecclesiastes 3:18. The introductory words, “I said in mine heart,” set this verse on the same footing as Ecclesiastes 3:17, and show that the question raised in Ecclesiastes 3:16, is here examined from another point of view. The problem is this—How is the singular fact of the prosperity of wickedness to be explained and justified? The first answer is given in Ecclesiastes 3:17, and the consideration is brought forward, that this prosperity is only temporal, and that by God’s judgments the disturbed order will in due time be established. But this by itself is not fully satisfactory. There is the further and more difficult task of showing why the righteous, why God’s own people, are visited with temporal misfortune. This is done here. The cross of the righteous is disguised mercy. It serves to purify them: specially does it help to purge them altogether from pride, and to lead them to humility. Because of the children of men, do these things happen: for their sake does wickedness sit in the seat of judgment, and the wicked one in the place of righteousness. Koheleth speaks of the “children of men” in general, but has specially in view the children of Israel. We find a case exactly similar to this in Psalms 36:7-8. This designation is chosen because it expresses human baseness, the consciousness of which, according to the close of the verse, is intended to be awakened by the cross. Knobel’s explanation is as follows—“I thought in my mind on the relation of the children of men.” But על דברת occurs in this book as well as in the Chaldee portion of the Book Daniel, only in the sense of “Because of, on account of;” and then further the accents are decisive against this view. The general and vague expression—“for the sake of the children of men,” is more precisely defined to mean—“in order to purify them;” and then amongst the evils from which they are to be purged, special mention is made of pride. ברר signifies properly “to separate,” ( Ezekiel 20:38) and then “to purify.” It occurs in a sense precisely correspondent to that of this passage in Daniel 11:35—“and some of them of understanding shall fall to try them, and to purge and to make them white for the time of the end.” ברר stands there between צרף and לבן “to make white, to make clear.”

The “time of the end,” is the period when these visitations of God shall terminate. That such an end must of necessity come, is here taken for granted, in agreement with Ecclesiastes 3:17. The process of purification is only a temporary one. ברר is employed also in Daniel 12:10, “many shall be purified and made white and tried:”—Ch. B. Michaelis—per tyrannicas illas afflictiones ex divina sapientia, et directione a vitiis suis purgabuntur et a maculis albabuntur et velut metalla excoquentur multi, scil, intelligentes quod sequitur. Hitzig is disposed to give ברר here the meaning of “try,” but entirely without grounds that will bear investigation, and contrary to the remarkable agreement between this verse and the parallel passage in Daniel. בור in Ecclesiastes 9:1, is not to be brought into comparison. It is rather a cognate of the word באר . And in order that they may see that in themselves they are beasts. That is the result to be gained by the purification. Substantially parallel is Job 36:8-9, where it is said concerning the sufferings of the righteous—“and if they be bound in fetters and be holden in cords of affliction; then he showeth them their works, and their transgression that they have become proud.” Among the stains from which we are to be cleansed by means of the cross, pride is the worst. לראות is not so much “that he may see,” as “that they may see,” being convinced by facts, by stern and terrible realities. Here it is not as in Psalm 72:22, the behaviour of beasts that is referred to, but their fate, that which happens to them, just as in Habakkuk 1:14, where the community of the Lord complains—“thou makest men like the fishes of the sea, like the beasts, that have no ruler over them.” Catastrophes in which men are treated as beasts, are well fitted to teach them their nothingness. Through the fall man received the disposition and feelings of an animal. In righteous retribution, therefore, and to cure him of the pride which occasioned his fall, the fate of mere animals befals him, and he is subjected to death like the beasts. But not content even with this, God allows catastrophes to befal His people ‘from time to time, which bring men into still closer relation to the beasts, המה stands for the verb, subst. “are.” להם , “in themselves,” apart from God’s protecting care, and when He does not extend to them his helping hand; which is as much as to say, that they themselves are as powerless to aid and protect themselves, as are the unreasoning beasts. When they see this, a thing which their pride causes them constantly to forget again, they turn to God saying—“Asshur shall not save us: we will not ride on horses; neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, our God! for in thee the fatherless find mercy.

Then comes forth the divine answer: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely,” ( Ecclesiastes 3:5 ff). For, as he goes on in Ecclesiastes 3:19 to say, such is actually the state of the case: as a part of mere nature, in contrast to God, and apart from the bond uniting him “with his creator, from that which becomes his through the life in God, who by breathing into him His Spirit raised him above the beasts of the field, (see Genesis 2:7)—man, godless man, is in truth no better than the cattle. מקרה being in the stat. absol. can only be translated—“for haphazard are the children of men, and haphazard are the cattle,” which is as much as to say that the children of men are no less haphazard than the cattle. Men themselves are designated chance, because they stand under the dominion of chance, of casualty. Chance or haphazard is opposed to the free determination of one’s own fate. Their lot is irresistibly determined and fixed from without, מקרה , “occurrence,” from קרה “to occur,” in 1 Samuel 6:9, is set in contrast or opposition to that which arises out of the determined decree of the God of Israel: in the present passage, on the contrary, it forms the contrast to that which is the effect of the free self-determination of man. It is used in a similar manner in 1 Samuel 20:26, (viz. of pollution in accordance with Deuteronomy 23:11) and in a strikingly similar way in Ruth 2:3, where, in regard to the most important event in the life of Ruth, which must certainly be looked upon as under the special leading of God, it is said—“and there happened to her an occurrence,” that is, it happened accidentally. In that place also מקרה designates “haphazard, chance” in one particular aspect thereof. Similar also is Luke 10:31: κατὰ? συγκυρίαν δὲ? ἱ?ερεύς , and s o forth. “Accident,” there, is put in contrast to the intention or purpose of the priest himself. The words—“and one accident or chance befalleth them,” i.e., they are both under the rule of the same chance, serve to explain the somewhat obscure expression—“they are chance.” Hitzig observes: “the author means, and, as we learn from what follows immediately after, can only mean, the same final fate, namely, death.” But the relation of this to what follows is rather that of the general to the particular.

The general is, that men, no less than the cattle, are subjected to a foreign power; the special or particular is, that they must die. מקרה is employed of fates in general in Ecclesiastes 2:15 also; there is nothing to justify limitation of its application. And one breath have they all. רוח signifies here “the breath of life,” as in chap 8:8, and in Psalms 104:29, where we read, “thou gatherest , together their breath, they depart and return to their dust.” See also Genesis 7:21-22. “And all flesh died that moves upon the earth, both fowl and cattle and wild beasts, and all men. All, in whose nostrils was the breath of the Spirit of life, died.” The flood, that type of all other judgments, was a sublime confirmation of the indisputable truth here expressed. Then were the “heroes,” “the men of name,” compelled to experience that everything on earth has the same breath. “No pre-eminence has man above the beast,” that is, of course, in those aspects which have already been brought under notice. That Koheleth had not the remotest intention of setting man in general on a level with the brute creation is evident, both from Ecclesiastes 3:11, where he makes man’s exalted pre-eminence to consist in the eternity which God hath put in his heart, and further, from the entire relation in which Koheleth stood to the faith of Israel, of which faith, the likeness of man to God was so important an element. Luther says—“Why are we then proud and arrogant, we, who are no more certain of the hour of our death than the beasts or the cattle?”—The foundation of Ecclesiastes 3:20 is Genesis 3:19, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” That is a truth which man is led ever afresh by his pride to forget. All go unto one place: in Job 30:23, Sheol is designated “the assembly house for all living,” i.e. for all living men. Of that however the writer is not speaking here, but, as Hitzig remarks, “of the place whither the body comes (all was formed from the dust, and all returns to the dust). Beasts ( Genesis 2:19, Genesis 1:24) as well as men ( Genesis 2:7) are originally born of dust, and return to the dust. ( Psalms 104:29, Genesis 3:19, Psalms 146:4). This holds good of the body in both spheres.”

Verse 21

Ecclesiastes 3:21. In this verse Koheleth goes on further to say, that man has notwithstanding a great and glorious superiority over the beasts, in that, when his body crumbles to “dust, the spirit returns to God who gave it (12:7); whereas the soul of the beast perishes with the body. This pre-eminence is, however, hard to be perceived; it is concealed beneath that which we have in common with the beasts; and the fact, that his pre-eminence is thus hidden, ought in itself to be sufficient to lead man to humility and extinguish in him all proud thoughts. Who knoweth the spirit of the children of men that goeth upward? Precisely as in Psalms 90:11 (compare Isaiah 53:1), the words מי יודע direct attention to the difficulty of discerning this superiority, which does not lie on the surface: whereas, on the contrary, the resemblance man bears to the beasts forces itself on our notice. העלה is the participle with the article, which here, on account of the guttural that follows, is pointed with Kametz, instead of with Patach and a following Dagesh, as in the corresponding word היורדת . The participle with the article is often employed for the verb finit. with a relative: as for example “the ascending one,” instead of, “he who ascends,” (see Ewald, § 335). In regard to the word הוא Ewald’s remarks, § 314, hold good: he says—“the most delicate manner of giving prominence to a person is by means of the pronoun הוא , αὐ?τός , Latin ipse; a person is thus specially referred back to, and distinguished from others. As הוא adds only a freer kind of accessory distinction, it stands without article after the particular noun.” This consideration does away altogether with the objection urged by J. D. Michaelis, that: “According to the grammar, another ה would be required before הוא , in case it should be said that הוא is added by way of emphasis, and that the translation may run as follows, quis novit spiritum hominis ascendentem ilium?”

Compare, for example, Numbers 18:23; הלוי הוא , “he, the Levite.” The foundation of the characteristic of man here brought into prominence is contained in Genesis 2:7—“He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” If the spirit of man is a breath from God, it cannot perish with the body, but, when the dust returns to the dust, must return to Him who gave it. That which belongs to the earth is given back to the earth; and so that which belongs to heaven must be rendered back to heaven. And the breath of the beast, that goeth downward to the earth. This is in itself easy to be known. The sense however here is the following—“Who knows both,—the immortal soul of man, and the perishable soul of the beast, in their difference from each other?” The Septuagint, Chaldee, and Syriac, take the ה in העלה and in היורדת to be interrogative, rendering the words—“Who knows whether the spirit of the children of men goeth upward, and whether the breath of the beast goeth downward?” and this interpretation, the rationalistic exegesis has adopted. From the point of view offered by this translation Knobel remarks—“Koheleth shews an acquaintance with the dogma of the immortality of the soul, but he throws doubt on it, in order not to invalidate the view expressed in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20. Had he believed in a going upward of the soul to God, he would have contradicted himself.” But the contradiction here affirmed exists only in appearance. Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 speak only of the physical, bodily nature; of man. The fact that as to his body man is under the same necessity of dying as the beasts, should suffice to humble him, and to make clear the folly of arrogance. Against this view of ה as used interrogatively the following reasons may be urged:

I. According to the points ה can only be the article, and cannot be the interrogative particle, (compare Ewald, § 104): and this ground, by itself, is sufficient. That the present pointing, which rests on the authority of tradition, is incompatible with the interrogative view, is frankly conceded by Ewald: “In Ecclesiastes 3:21,” says he, “the Masorah has twice changed the interrogative הֲ? into the article—manifestly, because it deemed the question objectionable.” If the vowels of the Old Testament were really the work of narrow minds, whose judgment was guided only by what the exegesis seemed to them to require, the vocalization would present a very different appearance.

II. This interrogative view, wrung from the text by the alteration, involves the author in a glaring contradiction with himself. That which he is here said to call in question and deny, he distinctly avows his belief of in Ecclesiastes 12:7. It is the more difficult to allow the existence of such a glaring contradiction, as elsewhere the writer is always self-consistent, never following the suggestions of the moment, but everywhere setting before his readers fixed and clearly defined teachings. The words of Ecclesiastes 9:10 also,—“the Sheol whither thou goest,”—are decisive against the supposition that Koheleth sets the soul of man on an equality with that of the beast which goeth downward to the earth, that is, which perishes along with the body. III. The interrogative view, further, involves the author in a contradiction with the original records of the Jewish religion, the possibility of which no one will allow who has entered into the spirit of the book, and the presence of which would make the admission of the book into the Canon an insoluble problem. To co-ordinate the soul of man and the soul of the beast is manifestly to contradict the Thorah, which was the standard of all thinking in Israel; “In the Pentateuch man is exalted to a very high position. He is created last of all and is set at the head of creation. Everything else exists for his sake. According to Genesis 1:26-27, he is created in the image of God, namely, so that the whole divine glory shines forth from him in a reduced measure.

According to Genesis 2:7, two elements are united in man, an earthly and a divine, which latter no other creature shares with him.—We have here the anthropological basis of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. As in the earthly element of man’s nature, there lies not only the possibility, but even, so far as it is not penetrated pervaded and glorified by the spirit, the necessity of death: so in the fact that man shares the divine image, participates in the life which comes from God, there is involved the possibility, yea, the necessity, not only of immortality in general, but of an immortality of blessedness or misery, of eternal life or damnation. The soul which bears the divine image, is, as such, removed not only from the sphere of the perishable, but also from the ranks of those creatures which merely exist or vegetate.” Beitr. 3 s. 570. Throughout the entire Old Testament this all-important distinction between the soul of man and the soul of the beast is firmly maintained; so that this passage would occupy quite an isolated position. Everywhere, at all events, we find the doctrine of the Sheol.

Verse 22

Ecclesiastes 3:22. Here the practical conclusion is drawn not only from Ecclesiastes 3:21, but from the whole chapter. Such a close was the more necessary because Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 are pretty far removed from the main thought,—so far removed indeed that they might form a parenthesis. Man, this is the thought, is not master of the future: therefore he must rejoice in the present. The same practical conclusion had been already drawn in Ecclesiastes 3:12. To that our attention is here again directed. And I saw that nothing is better (טוב מן “better,” Ecclesiastes 4:3, 1 Samuel 1:8), than that a man should rejoice in his own works, in the works themselves, and in that which is produced and effected by their means, so that he has his portion from them ( Ecclesiastes 5:18). For who shall bring him to see what shall take place after him? “After him,” that is, not after his death, but after the condition in which he now finds himself. Jerome says: Pro eo quod nos posuimus: ut videat id quod futurum est post ipsum, apertius interpretatus est Symmachus dicens: ut videat ea quae futura sunt post haec. In the parallel passage, Ecclesiastes 6:12, it is said, “What will happen after him under the sun.” According to this, those general events are referred to, which exercise a decisive influence on his fate. It is not, therefore, permissible to explain plain the words to mean—“what will become of him,”—as those are compelled to do who suppose that a conclusion is being drawn from the verse immediately preceding. This supposition is based moreover on a false interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:21, where immortality is not denied but affirmed (Knobel: “one must enjoy before death in order not to go away empty”). If Ecclesiastes 3:21 has been rightly explained, this present verse would not form at all a suitable conclusion from it alone. Man knows not what God will do to him ( Ecclesiastes 3:11). Therefore is it foolish to give ourselves up to wearisome exertions in pursuit of happiness, to distress ourselves with care s ( Ecclesiastes 3:9-10); and quite as foolish is it to enter upon many distracting schemes and occupations, to hunt after the πλούτου ἀ?δηλότητης ( 1 Timothy 6:17), to gather together and to heap up for him on whom it shall please God to bestow it ( Ecclesiastes 2:26); wise, on the contrary, is it, to rejoice in the present.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ecclesiastes-3.html.
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