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Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms Hengstenberg's Commentary
by Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg
it is of great importance accurately to determine the circumstances of the time at which this Book was written. In this way, not only will a sure foundation be laid for investigations respecting its authorship, but a point be secured from which we may start in endeavouring to unfold its meaning. For this latter purpose the inquiry is a specially pertinent one, inasmuch as the book evidently, in the first instance, took its occasion from passing events, was addressed to a particular generation of men, and intended for their admonition and comfort.
The Author has studiously maintained a certain tone of reserve in respect of the circumstances of his time; and of design rather glanced at them, than entered into details. This explains why so many false views have been entertained of the situation of affairs, to the great prejudice of the interpretation and practical application of the book. He had two reasons for restricting himself to bare allusions to the events of his time. In the first place, he felt that though writing primarily for his own generation, his book was destined to form part of the Canonical Scriptures, and, consequently, to be of service to the Church of God in all ages. This consciousness he gives express utterance to in Ecclesiastes 12:11; “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.” This being the case, the writer would naturally endeavour to give prominence to that which was general and eternal in its character, over that which was special and temporary, only lightly glancing at the latter, in order that his teachings might be easier of universal application. The Psalms were generally composed in the same principle. Though connected with, and owing their origin to certain historical events, as a general rule they allude so sparingly and gently to actual occurrences, that a microscopical investigation is required to bring them out with any degree of clearness, precision and fulness. A second reason for his reticence is expressly assigned by the Author himself in Ecclesiastes 10:20: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought: and curse not the rich in thy bed-chamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, aid that which hath wings shall carry the matter.” According to this, it would seem to have been dangerous for the Hebrews to use plain language concerning things, because of the numerous spies and informers employed by their tyrannical heathen rulers. Despite this reserve, however, by gathering up and combining scattered traits we may form a tolerably accurate and complete picture of the period to which the book of Ecclesiastes owes its origin.
First of all, let us bring into view the detached and fragmentary hints which the work itself gives relative to the external circumstances of the people of God at the time of its composition.
Evidently they were in a state of deep misery, and had fallen a prey to vanity; for in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, the writer holds up to the view of his nation the worthlessness of this entire earthly existence, intending thus to bring his fellow-countrymen, to regard the wretched lot under which they were groaning in a more favourable light. If misery is the destined portion of man, if man is born to evil, as it is said in Job 5:7, it surely cannot be of great consequence whether his lot be a shade brighter or a shade darker. For one whose sufferings are peculiarly severe, there is sweet consolation in the thought, that to a certain extent, or rather, that in all the essential characteristics of his condition, all men are his associates. If all is vanity, why need we vex ourselves so much about having a handful or so more of it?
This was a time when all the splendour of the age of Solomon had passed away: for, from Ecclesiastes 1:12, to the end of Ecclesiastes 2, the writer labours to show that that also was vanity, hoping thus to console and tranquillise under their loss, the minds of those who were consuming themselves with looking back upon, and yearning for bygone glories. Vanished also was the radiant wisdom of the generation of Solomon; for in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, those are cheered who were bewailing the past: vanished, according to Ecclesiastes 2, were its great works and projects, its rich possessions, its brilliant relations, its glorious and joyous life, for the author takes the greatest pains to show that it was all “vanity and vexation of spirit,” to the end, that the people might feel less keenly its present lack of wealth and enjoyment.
From Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, we learn that for Israel there had begun a time of death, of the uprooting of what was planted, of the breaking down of what was built up, of mourning, a time when God had gone far away from them and withdrawn His help and grace. The nation was persecuted, was being tried in the furnace of affliction, was under the dominion of heathen rulers.
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, teaches us that the earth was then a scene of injustice and of violence: the times were such as to force on men’s minds the thought that it is better to die than to live, nay more, that it had been best never to have been born. In Ecclesiastes 4:4-6, the writer seeks to console his miserable fellow-countrymen by the consideration that, at all events, they have not to bear the heavy burden of envy. This consolation implies of course, that they were in anything but an enviable condition. According to Ecclesiastes 4:7-12, Israel was then a poor people in contrast with their rich heathen tyrants. The object of the author in pointing this out was to lead his nation to form a just estimate of that which the heathen possessed, and of which they were destitute, to counteract the envy of the riches of the world to which their own circumstances rendered them so liable. From the 7th to the 12th verse, he consoles the people in their beggary for the loss of their possessions; from the 13th to the 16th verse, in their bondage for their loss of liberty.
The heathen tyranny under which the people of God lay groaning, constitutes the point of departure for Ecclesiastes 5:7-8. According to Ecclesiastes 5:7, the Inheritance of the Lord, destined originally to universal dominion, but now degraded to the rank of a mere province, was the scene of oppression of the poor and of perversion of justice and judgment.
In Ecclesiastes 5:9-19, and Ecclesiastes 6, the nation, sighing beneath the extortions of the Gentiles, is again comforted for the loss of earthly good; the rich man represents the Gentile, the poor man Israel
According to Ecclesiastes 7 Israel was then in the house of mourning, the heathen, on the contrary, sat in the house of feasting ( Ecclesiastes 7:2), in the house of mirth ( Ecclesiastes 7:4), had the upper hand, and were floating on a sea of pleasures and delights ( Ecclesiastes 7:5). The times were such as to incline men strongly to deem the day of death better than the day of birth ( Ecclesiastes 7:1). These were times when men asked, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?” ( Ecclesiastes 7:10)—when Israel was compelled to listen to the rebukes of the wise, who took occasion from their misery to reproach them for their sins ( Ecclesiastes 7:5)—when the temptation to cherish a bitter and discontented spirit lay especially near ( Ecclesiastes 7:9)—when there was abundant opportunity of exercising the virtue of patience ( Ecclesiastes 7:8)—when no signs were discernible of the victory over the world promised to the Church of God, but in that respect it was left entirely to faith and hope ( Ecclesiastes 7:6; Ecclesiastes 7:8). According to Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, Israel was then without possessions, and had fallen into the hands of death. Every other portion which should belong, and once had belonged to the people of God, was now taken away, and it was reduced to the one inheritance of the wisdom coming from above—an inheritance, however, the author teaches, which must bring all other blessings in its train, inasmuch as it was itself the good of chief value at that time. In Ecclesiastes 7:19-20, also, power is represented as being entirely on the side of the heathen, whilst to Israel there remained only its inalienable prerogative and birthright of wisdom. Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 complain that Israel is unfortunate, despite its righteousness, and that, on the contrary, the heathens, or the heathen tyrants, are fortunate, notwithstanding their wickedness. According to Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 Israel was forced to listen without reply to the curses and slanders heaped upon them by the Gentiles; and those held the upper hand who, of right, and by God’s ordination, should have been the bondsmen of the nation which, from its very commencement, was exalted to the throne of the world.
From Ecclesiastes 8:9 we learn that it was a time when “one man ruled over other men to their hurt”—when the wicked had in their possession Jerusalem, “the place of the holy” ( Ecclesiastes 8:10)—when this state of things had already lasted long ( Ecclesiastes 8:12)—when the earnestly expected decree of their heavenly king against the usurpers had been long delayed ( Ecclesiastes 8:11). (Throughout the entire book no other king than the heavenly one is spoken of as their own; and it is a very characteristic feature that He is without hesitation designated “the king” ( Ecclesiastes 8:2). Everywhere the Gentiles are introduced as holding external earthly rule over the people of God.)
The commencement of Ecclesiastes 9 gives us to understand that the present position of affairs proved a serious stumbling-block in the way of faith, and caused men to err in respect to God and the righteousness of His rule in the earth, as they saw how the lot of the righteous was interwoven and confounded with the lot of the wicked So truly hopeless and forlorn did the condition of the covenanted people appear to those who looked on it with eyes of flesh alone that they were in danger of utterly despairing. Whilst in other and happier days the men of God regarded it as their bounden duty to counteract frivolity, and to draw attention to the earnestness of life, the author of this work strives, on the contrary, with all diligence to impress on his readers the lesson, “Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart” ( Ecclesiastes 9:7)—a plain proof that his generation was in great danger of yielding to a gloomy and discontented spirit, and that their life was threatened with the loss of all that made it desirable and joyful. The desperate nature of their circumstances is clear also from the earnestness with which the writer warns them against listless inactivity ( Ecclesiastes 9:10; Ecclesiastes 11:4-6). Sluggish hands are to be found wherever men’s circumstances seem hopelessly bad; see Isaiah 13:7; Isaiah 35:3; Ezekiel 7:17; Job 4:3.
Characteristic of the posture of affairs are the words of Ecclesiastes 10:6-7: “Folly (which is everywhere set forth in the book as the soul of Heathendom) has been set on great heights, and the rich (i.e., those who, according to God’s word and promise, should be rich) sit in a low place. I saw servants (i.e, those who by right, and by God’s law, ought to be servants) on horses, and princes (i.e., members of the nation whose vocation it is to rule over the world, Exodus 19:6), walking on foot like servants.” The condition of the power which then ruled the world is depicted in Exodus 19:11-20. It presented a spectacle at once of wickedness and folly ( Exodus 19:11-15); the king and his nobles had surrendered themselves to rioting and drunkenness ( Exodus 19:16-17); nowhere had morality any hold; rottenness, wantonness, and gold prevailed everywhere, consequently ruin was inevitable.
Now, the picture thus drawn corresponds to no period but that when the Persians held dominion over the people of God. During the time embraced by the canonical books of the Old Testament, this was the only power to whose tyranny the people of God was subjected in its own land, the temple at the same time standing, and the worship thereof being kept up (compare Ecclesiastes 5:17).
The time of the Persian rule corresponds to the descriptions given in this book, not only as respects the external, but also as respects the internal condition of the people. Considerable importance must be attached to the fact, that idolatry, the temptation to which had beset the nation so strongly from the days of Solomon to the Babylonish exile, never appears in the delineation of internal evils. During the residence in Babylon false gods seem to have lost their attractions for Israel. On the other hand, however, we find them assailed by enemies and dangers which, from other sources, we know to have been peculiar to the time which succeeded the exile. Malachi, the last of the prophets, delivered his prophecy during the Persian dominion, and in particular during the reign of Artaxerxes, and his warnings and attacks are directed to the same evils as those set forth in this book. Israel’s temptation, then, was to Pharisaism—to a resting contented with a hollow righteousness which sought to supply the lack of living fear of God and spiritual devotion by beggarly outward works, sacrifices (4:17), long prayers, and the like. We encounter here, as in Malachi, that moroseness which ever accompanies unspiritual religion and soulless morality, when the expectations on which they were based prove to be a delusion, and when painful experience teaches the lesson that godliness is not an affair of gain. Covetousness also is here, which can only be uprooted in a soul that rises steadily and truly towards God, and which a Pharisaical piety, instead of destroying, stimulates and fosters. By this sin men are especially tempted, in times of distress; then we fall very easily into a habit of scraping and scraping for gain. Finally, in Ecclesiastes 8:11, our attrition is drawn to the existence of a power tempting men to utter apostacy from God and law, to transgress into the way of the wicked; and from this also we should judge the period to have been one of heavy misfortune.
If such were the external and internal circumstances of the people of God, the idea cannot for a moment be entertained that the book dates from the time of Solomon, and that he was himself the author. For a long time this opinion prevailed both in the Jewish and Christian Church. The true interpretation of the work thus suffered serious detriment, for its practical significance depends in great measure on our clearly and distinctly understanding the historical circumstances to which it owed its origin, and in adaptation to which it was written. The first step towards the overthrow of this prejudice was taken by the Chaldee Paraphrast. It is true, he holds to the opinion that Solomon was its author, but at the same time supposes that through the spirit of prophecy he was transported to, and described the time when, Jerusalem was destroyed and the nation was carried away into exile. We may remark also in passing, that those who start with the groundless prejudice that David composed all the Psalms, resort to a similar mode of explanation in regard to several whose contents it is plainly impossible to understand from the events and circumstances of that particular period. To Grotius belongs the merit of having first clearly recognised the invalidity of the opinion that Solomon wrote this book. He failed, however, to enter into a closer discussion of the main argument for his view, namely, the hints given by the book itself regarding the historical circumstances in the midst of which it was composed. The only ground urged by him was the character of the style and language, which indicated a later period. But he erroneously maintained that it was written under the name of Solomon as the Penitent. In this respect he followed too closely in the footsteps of the older commentators of the Church, who looked upon Ecclesiastes as the fruit of Solomon’s repentance. Grotius found an adherent of his view in the marvellous Hermann, v.d. Hardt (de libro Coheleth, 1716), who, however, was quite incompetent to bring convincing evidence of the correctness of his opinion. Both these men were justly a scandal to the theology of the Church, and, in respect of this question as well as of others it has maintained an attitude of coolness towards them. The Church should take shame to itself for having left Rationalism to make good the truth as to the composition of this book, especially as its very commencement is decidedly against the prevalent prejudice; to its honour, however, be it said that on its revival it gave willing ear to the truth, and since then only a few isolated and unimportant attempts have been made to return to the lower position. In the present work, by more carefully examining the historical relations of the book, we have endeavoured to lay a firmer foundation for the more correct view, and hope thus to render impossible a revival of the old prejudice.
The only argument which is urged with any force in favour of the authorship by Solomon, is the one drawn from the fact that he is named as the author in the title, and is introduced as speaking in the work. “The nullity of this argument we shall endeavour to show at Ecclesiastes 1:1. We shall prove that Solomon is not only not the direct author of the book, but that it does not even profess to be by him, that, on the contrary, the very first words indicate him not to have written it.
Evidence against the authorship of Solomon has been improperly drawn from Ecclesiastes 1:12-16; Ecclesiastes 2:7, where it is said that the fictitious character of the work is for the moment thrown aside; see the remarks on the passage. On the other hand, it is inconsistent with the composition of the book by Solomon that he is represented in Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 2:9, as prosecuting his search after sensual enjoyments, possessions, and renown, in the manner of a philosophical experimenter. Solomon is evidently here introduced, not in his actual historical character, but as an ideal person, as the ideal of wisdom.
The tacit allusion in Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, to Solomon’s evil successor, would lead also to the conclusion we are advocating. Besides, the author, in designating himself “a wise man” ( Ecclesiastes 12:9), gives up any pretence of being personally identical with Solomon.
Hand in hand with the evidence against Solomon drawn from the historical circumstances of the work, goes that which is derived from peculiarities of style and language. These are undeniably not those of the time of Solomon, but of the later post-exile period, as we shall show in specific instances in our commentary. Compare, for example, our observations on רעות and רעיון , Ecclesiastes 1:14; חוץ מן , in the sense of “besides” Ecclesiastes 2:25; on מדינה , Ecclesiastes 5:7; on דברת על , in the sense of “in order that,” Ecclesiastes 7:14; on פשר , Ecclesiastes 8:1; on שלמון , Ecclesiastes 7:4; on בכן , Ecclesiastes 8:10; on פתגם , Ecclesiastes 8:11; on גומץ , Ecclesiastes 10:8; on מדע , Ecclesiastes 10:20; and on בטל , Ecclesiastes 12:3.
Finally, the position the book occupies in the Canon is a proof that Solomon was not its author—it stands, namely, separated from the writings of that period, and is placed after the “Book of the Lamentations” of Jeremiah, with which last of all the poetical books it is directly associated. It comes also immediately before those writings whose history and prophecy find their explanation in the circumstances of the time succeeding the exile. Had the collectors of the canonical books regarded this as the work of Solomon they would certainly not have given it a place between “Lamentations” and “Esther.” For remarks on the arrangement of the third part of the Canon and the Hagiographa, see the “Christology of the Old Testament,” pt. iii.
If we may consider it proved that the book originated within the period of the Persian dominion, our next duty is to examine whether we can determine more exactly the precise date of its composition. In doing this we must be principally guided by the fact that the nation which held the supremacy is represented as deeply deteriorated, as having fallen a prey to folly ( Ecclesiastes 10:1), as demoralised by the exercise of despotic power ( Ecclesiastes 7:7), as sunk in sloth, luxury, debauchery, and mammonism, and as everywhere exhibiting symptoms of the speedy downfall of the entire edifice of the state ( Ecclesiastes 10:18-19; Ecclesiastes 7:1-6). These representations do not permit us to think of the time of Cyrus, but at the same time do not necessitate us to look beyond Xerxes, during whose reign internal corruption and external decay had made the mightiest advances. In these historical circumstances we find then a significant point d’appui for the conviction running through the entire book, that a terrible catastrophe was shortly to befal the Persian empire. From looking beyond the period of Xerxes and Artaxerxes we are prevented by the consideration that then the collection of the canonical scriptures was finally completed; and no book or part of a book can be shown to have had a later origin. Another circumstance also leads us to fix on this time, namely, that this book has strong points of affinity with other productions which then appeared, especially with the prophecies of Malachi, who flourished during the reign of Artaxerxes. The peculiar resemblance between Ecclesiastes 5:5, and Malachi 2:7, is in itself startling. But of much more decided importance is their agreement in reference to the inner condition of the people. Both writers draw attention to the superficial and external spirit, the self-righteousness, and to the germs of Pharisaism which were then in operation, so that in this respect no two others stand so nearly related to each other as these. With the remarks we have made in reference to Ecclesiastes compare our observations on Malachi in the “Christology,” part iii, which are to the following effect: “Immediately after the reproaches uttered by the Prophet follows regularly an inquiry on the part of those who are upbraided as to how they have merited such treatment: and then comes the Prophet’s further and fuller exposition. To regard punishment in this light is essentially the tendency of that Pelagian blindness which knows neither God nor itself.
No better delineation of the constancy with which this tendency remains true to itself could be given than that which is afforded by the repetition of the same question through the whole book. Pharisaism, in its main features, was already in existence When Malachi spoke. Consider only the predominance of the priestly order, the total want of deeper knowledge of the nature of sin and righteousness, the boasting of external obedience to law, the thirst after judgments on the heathen, who are alone regarded as the object of divine retribution, and, lastly, the murmurs against God, and the truth of our remarks will be apparent.” The words, “Be not righteous overmuch” ( Ecclesiastes 7:16), find their proper comment in Malachi 3:7, where the people are represented as replying to the summons, “Return to the Lord,” and saying, “Wherein shall we return?” on which Abarbanel remarks—impudenter dicitis acsi nesciatis peccatum aut iniquitatem. In Malachi the people consider themselves clear as to their own performances, it is only God who is behind-hand in His. To the reproach ( Ecclesiastes 5:3-5) regarding the bad fulfilment of vows—a thing perfectly natural in such a condition, seeing that a dead orthodoxy can never overcome a living selfishness—corresponds what Malachi says in Malachi 1:8. “And if ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? and if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil?” Malachi 1:4, also, “Cursed be the deceiver which hath in his flock a male, and when he hath a vow sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing.” Moroseness and discontent with the arrangements of God’s providence we encounter in Malachi 2:17, “You weary the Lord with your words: yet ye say, wherein do we weary Him? In that you say,—every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord and He delighteth in them; or, where is the God of judgment?” How strong a hold avarice had taken of their souls is clear from Malachi 3:8, where they are accused of having cheated God in the matter of tithes and offerings. Finally, with the unfavourable picture of the internal condition of the nation drawn from the book of Ecclesiastes accords perfectly the superscription to the prophecies of Malachi—“This is the burden which the Lord utters against Israel by Malachi:” a superscription which would not be at all appropriate to those of Haggai and Zechariah, the immediate predecessors of Malachi. In equal accordance also is the circumstance that Malachi so emphatically announces the approaching judgment.
Ewald has advanced a twofold argument against assigning the composition of this book to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in favour of, “the last century of the Persian dominion.” The first is, that the writer complains, “in an entirely new and unheard of manner, of an excess of bookmaking and reading.” It cannot, however, be shown, that a difference in this respect, existed between the last century and the last but one of the Persian rule: and to a time subsequent to this, it is by no means allowable to look. For further remarks, we refer to our comments on Ecclesiastes 12:12. The second reason urged, is that “such harrowing pain, and desperate cries of agony did not characterise the earlier period of the Persian rule.” It must have become, Ewald thinks, in its last years, more oppressive and violent. On this matter, however, history furnishes no authentic information. Nor must we allow ourselves to be led away by the special mention made, in the canonical records of the time, of occasional brighter spots in the history of the nation whilst subject to the Persian yoke;—such as, for example, the permission given by Cyrus to rebuild the Temple, and that accorded by Artaxerxes for the building of the wall of the city. It was rather in accordance with the peculiar purpose of these books, to lay stress on such things, in proof that the Jews were still the chosen people, and that God’s grace continued to watch over them. If we keep in mind that what is said in Ecclesiastes 10:20, indicating that writers were obliged to maintain a certain degree of reserve, holds true also of other works composed during the time of the Persian dominion; and if we carefully gather up scattered hints, it will appear that the people were from the commencement in an extremely oppressed position, that they led a cramped existence, that deep sadness filled all hearts, and that to sink themselves in God was the only remedy against despair.
The characteristic tone of those “Pilgrim Songs,” which belong to the time immediately subsequent to the deliverance from exile, to the years when the building of the Temple was interrupted, is one of deep sadness, which has found consolation in God. In Psalms 123:3-4, we read, “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us; for we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.” The proud and such as live in security, are no other than their Persian tyrants. Again, in Psalms 125:3, we read, “For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the lot of the righteous, lest the righteous put forth their hands unto iniquity.” The sceptre of wickedness is the Persian dominion, which was so pertinacious and cruel in its outrages and provocations, that the chosen people were sorely tempted to fall into utter perplexity about God’s dealings, to apostatise from Him their Lord, and to become partakers in the wickedness of the wicked. The very same temptation presents itself to our notice in Ecclesiastes 8:11 of this book. In Psalms 126:5-6, it is said, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. They who go forth weeping bearing the seed-train come again with rejoicing, bringing their sheaves with them.” Those who sow in tears are themselves. The present has only tears: joy belongs to the future, to the region of hope. Finally, Psalms 130 begins with the words, “Out of the depths do I cry unto thee, O Lord.” Not without cause has the Church set this apart as a funereal Psalm. It is the cry for help sent up by Israel when encompassed with the bands of death.
The words of Ecclesiastes 7:7, “a gift destroyeth the heart,” and of Ecclesiastes 10:19; “Money answereth all things,” find their explanation and justification in Ezra 4:5 of the book of Ezra, where the Persian officials are clearly charged with being open to bribes;—“and hired counsellors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus King of Persia, even until the reign of Darius,” on which Michaelis remarks, “mercede conducebant, qui pecunia a Cuthoeis accepta auctoritate sua effecerunt ne Judaeis nunc pergere liceret” And in Ezra 9:7, of the same book, the state of the Jews under their heathenish oppressors, which still continued, is described as one of extreme wretchedness:—“they were delivered over to spoil and confusion of face;” through the mission of Ezra they received a little life in their bondage. “We are bondsmen,” it is said in Ezra 9:9, “but our God has not forsaken us in our bondage.”
According to Nehemiah 1:3, news is brought to Nehemiah from Jerusalem, “that the remnant in the country are in great affliction and reproach.” What utter poverty was the result of the oppressive tribute, from which, according to Ezra 7:24, only the Priests and Levites were exempt, is plain from Nehemiah 5:4, where such as had been reduced to personal bondage by the usurers, address Nehemiah in the words, “We have borrowed money for the king’s taxes on our lands and vineyards;”—their produce consequently was not sufficient to pay the high imposts. In Ecclesiastes 5:15, Nehemiah relates that “the former governors who had been before him”—who were without doubt Gentiles, for, as it appears, Serubabel and Nehemiah were the only Jews who had held that office—“had been burdensome to the people, and had taken from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver, (daily;) their servants also had used violence towards the people: but so did not I because of the fear of God.” על תעם שלטו compare Ecclesiastes 8:9, “a day when one man exercises power over another to his hurt.” In Ecclesiastes 5:18, Nehemiah says, “The bread of the governor have I not required, because the service was heavy upon this people:” it was already heavily enough burdened with the taxes which it had to pay to its tyrant rulers. At the solemnization of the Feast of Tabernacles under Nehemiah, we read ( Ecclesiastes 8:9) that Ezra said to the people, “this day is holy to the Lord your God: therefore mourn not, nor weep.” For all the people, it is observed, wept “when they heard the words of the law,”—words which had found such a sad fulfilment in their present misery. The description given in Nehemiah 9:30-37, is of itself a sufficient proof that the circumstances alluded to in Ecclesiastes are in no respect more sad and gloomy than those of the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. There the existence of the people appears to be entirely precarious: they have only so much as is left them after the utterly lawless, unjust and arbitrary exactions of their oppressors. Not only does the produce of their lands stand at their disposal, but the cattle, and even the men themselves must do service whenever their heathen tyrants please to claim it: “and over our bodies do they rule, and over our cattle, as they please, and we are in great distress.” In consequence of their wretched condition, religious indifference had gained ground amongst the people; the spirit of sacrifice had died out; and the portion of the Levites was not given to them, so that they fled, every man to his own lands, and the house of God was forsaken, ( Nehemiah 13:10-11) the Sabbath was in many ways desecrated ( Nehemiah 13:15-22), and an usurious disposition gained the upper-hand amongst the people, in that every man believed himself forced to care for himself, (chap. 5).
The Book of Esther presents a picture of the Persian Empire in a state of deep moral degradation, the direct result of which was “oppression,” ( Ecclesiastes 7:7) and violence. Everything was dependent on the humours of the king and his great officers. All moral considerations were disregarded; and there was recognised no higher standard than the pleasure of the king. The Book of Esther furnishes vouchers fur the complaints in Ecclesiastes of the drunkenness of the tyrants, of the unbounded influence of money: Haman urged as a reason for the destruction of the Jews, that it would bring ten thousand talents of silver into the treasury.
The arguments brought forward by Ewald to prove that this book was written towards the close of the Persian rule, are thus shown to be untenable, unsound. On the other hand, even Ewald himself is compelled to acknowledge that “of all biblical books Malachi’s prophecies boar the closest resemblance to Ecclesiastes.”
What are we to say now regarding the plan of the book, which under such circumstances was meant to exercise an influence on the people of God? Herder has given the right answer to this question. “Theologians,” says he, “have taken great pains to ascertain the plan of the book; but the best course is to make as free a use of it as one can, and for such a purpose the individual parts will serve.” A connected and orderly argument, au elaborate arrangement of parts, is as little to be looked for here as in the special portion of the Book of Proverbs which begins with chapter 10, or as in the alphabetical Psalms. Such matters of plan and connection have been thrust into the book by interpreters who wore incapable of passing out of their own circle of ideas, as by degrees became evident from the fact that no one of these arrangements gained anything like general recognition, but that on the contrary each remained the solo property of its originator and of his slavish followers. Carpzov betrays a narrow estimate of Inspiration when, in his “Introduction,” he speaks of it as necessarily implying and producing the “ordo concinnics.” The same limitation of view is chargeable also upon certain more recent writers, who think that a definite plan must be found in the book in order to save the credit of the author. It is a part of the peculiarity of the book to have no such plan: and this characteristic greatly conduces to the breadth of its views and the variety of its modes of representation. The thread which connects all the parts together is simply the pervading reference to the circumstances and moods, the necessities and grievances of the time. This it is that gives it unity: and its author sets a good example to all those who are called to address the men of our own generation in that he never soars away into the clouds, nor wastes his time in general reflections and common-places, but keeps constantly in view the very Jews who were then groaning under Persian tyranny, to whose sick souls it was his first duty to administer the wholesome medicine with which God had entrusted him; by ever fresh strokes and features he depicts their condition to them, little by little he communicates the wisdom that is from above, and in the varying turns of his discourse sets before them constantly the most important and essentially saving truths. It is quite misleading to represent the work as occupied with a single narrow theme, as for example Knobel does when he says that “the affirmation of the vanity of human life and human endeavours forms the subject of the book.” Such also is Keil’s mistake, who says (see Havernick’s “Introduction,”) “The aim of the book is to teach how to enjoy life truly, that is, how to realise in life that solid pleasure of which contentment and piety are constituent elements.” A superficial glance at its contents will amply show that they are of far too rich and varied a nature to be comprehended under one such single theme. And if we are determined that the book shall have one leading topic, we must give it as wide and general a scope as the author himself does in the words of Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Fear God.” To further the fear of God and life in Him is the great purpose of the writer in all that he advances: hence his assertion of the vanity of all earthly things, for he alone can fully appreciate what a precious treasure man has in God, who has learnt by living experience the truth, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Let us now pass to a more careful examination of the contents of the book. Written in the midst of circumstances such as have been just described, its tone is partly one of consolation, and partly one of admonition and reproof, so that in it may be discerned “the rebuke of the wise,” ( Ecclesiastes 7:5). Nor is it by accident that the author girds himself first of all to the discharge of his office as a comforter, using therein all diligence. His prime object was to turn the hearts of the people again to God, for notwithstanding its great weaknesses it was still God’s heritage, and in its midst God had His dwelling-place. Only when this end had been attained could a hearing be gained for admonitions and reproofs. The people had fallen into error regarding God and His ways, and this was the real root of their moral corruption,—on this account were the hearts of the children of men fully set to do evil, ( Ecclesiastes 8:11).
The manner in which the author opens his mission of consolation may at first sight strike us as somewhat singular: from all sides there rose the complaint, “vanity of vanities,”—how evil are our times compared with earlier ones, especially as compared with the glorious days of Solomon? Then the writer breaks in with the proclamation, that the life of man is altogether vanity, that this world is a vale of tears, that the difference between happy and troublous times is much less decided than it appears on a superficial examination, ( Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). The cross is much easier to bear when it is seen to be the universal destiny of man. From Ecclesiastes 1:12, to the end of Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon, whom the writer introduces as the speaker, shows from his own example and experience, the emptiness of everything earthly. He begins with wisdom. This was one of the splendid possessions of the age of Solomon, upon which the after-world looked back in astonished admiration and with painful yearnings: and all the more earnestly, because this had been imposing, even in the eyes of that Gentile world, beneath whose contempt and scorn they now sighed. From wisdom, Solomon then turns to the possession and enjoyment of the good things of this world. Everywhere the author discovers the hollowness which lies concealed beneath glitter and show, the pain which is covered by the mask of pleasure. In this way, he tears up envy and discontent by the roots, and exhorts his fellow countrymen to seek elsewhere their happiness, to draw it from those inexhaustible eternal fountains, which even at that time were open to all who chose to come.
In other places also the author offers to his unhappy contemporaries the consolation which is derivable from a just estimate of earthly possessions. He exhibits most earnestness and keenness in unmasking the hollowness of those riches for the sake of which the Gentile world was an object of envy. “Man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” is the theme of which he treats in Ecclesiastes 6:4;—“Riches expose to envy and involve in uneasiness” is the text of Ecclesiastes 4:7-12, Ecclesiastes 5:9-19, and of the whole of Ecc vi. Here are to be found the properly classical passages of Holy Scripture, on which may be based a true estimate of riches. Nowhere else is the vanity of riches exposed with such depth of penetration, with such fulness of detail, with such caustic pungency. After laying bare the vanity of riches, he proceeds to show the prevalence of folly and falsity in the government of kingdoms, ( Ecclesiastes 4:13-16).
Hand in hand with the exposure of the vanity of what was mourned as lost, attention is directed to sources of joy still remaining open to the people of God, even in its poverty-stricken state, and out of which it is bound thankfully to draw. Life itself is a noble possession, ( Ecclesiastes 11:7-8) and the godly heart may still always find in it a multitude of lesser joys, of which it is its duty, living only for the present moment, to avail itself in freedom from care and covetousness, ( Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 11:9-10). Despite all their losses in wealth and power, they may continue to “eat, drink and be glad.”
But that consolation which springs from setting a true value on earthly happiness and earthly endowments is not sufficient by itself. For on the one hand, however little importance is to be attached to earthly good in itself, God gave a pledge to His people in the earliest days of its existence, that He would never forsake nor neglect it, even as regards external matters, and it must therefore give rise to doubts of God’s omnipotence and love if no evidence can be adduced of the fulfilment of His promises. And, on the other hand, it was not a question here merely of lower blessings and possessions. The real sting of the grief was the prostrate position of the people of God, the crying contradiction existing between its inward idea and its outward manifestation, between the word of God and the realities around them. Koheleth must therefore open up new fountains of comfort if his mission of consolation is to be satisfactorily fulfilled.
In Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, he comforts the poor and wretched who seek water and find it not, by directing their thoughts to the all-superintending providence of God, “who maketh everything beautiful in its time,” who even in days of suffering has thoughts of peace, from whom it behoves to accept everything without reluctance because whatever He does is done well, whose beneficent hand is upon us even when we fail to see it, and who will at last bring all things to a glorious termination. The writer exhorts men also in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, to commit themselves to the fatherly care of God who proceeds ever on the wisest method.
So repeatedly and emphatically does the author refer to an exaltation of Israel impending in the immediate future, to the revelation of the retributive righteousness of God, to the change of relative positions which their king was about to introduce on a large scale, that we may regard it as one of the prominent ideas of the book. In Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, he expatiates on the thought that so certainly as there is a righteous God in Heaven, who watches over the maintenance of His laws and order upon earth, so certainly must the disorder which characterised the tyrannies of heathendom come to an end, and Israel, which, notwithstanding the false seed that had been mixed up with it, was still God’s people, the congregation of the “righteous” and “upright,” lift up its head amongst the nations. In Ecclesiastes 5:7-8, he teaches that the heavenly King and Judge will bring all things again into order at the proper time. According to Ecclesiastes 7:5-10, the prosperity of the world is the precursor of impending destruction: the people of God on the contrary will receive its best portion at the end, if it only exercise patience and wait on the leadings of divine providence. According to Ecclesiastes 8:5-13, God will one day deliver His own, punish their oppressors, and no power in the world will be able to interrupt the course of His judgments. According to Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, God takes pleasure in the works of His own people, and therefore at the proper time the now failing recompense will be effected. In Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, we are reminded that sudden catastrophes very frequently cast down to the ground that which had exalted itself. In Ecclesiastes 10:5-10, it is foretold that at some future day God will take away the reproach which is offered by the humiliation of His own people, and by the triumph of the world. Several passages hint still more definitely at the imminent downfall of the Persian Empire: as for example, Ecclesiastes 6:2, where the stranger who will consume the wealth of the rich man, is the successor of the Persian on the throne of the world; and Ecclesiastes 6:3, where the words “and he shall have no burial,” set before the Persians the prospect of a mighty and bloody overthrow; and Ecclesiastes 7:6, where the prosperity of the Persians is compared to a fire of crackling thorns which blazes violently up, but is quickly extinguished; and Ecclesiastes 7:7, where the demoralization of the Persians, a result of their exercise of tyrannical power, is represented as the herald of their speedy destruction. Of the same tendency are Ecclesiastes 10:1-3, where the writer dwells on the thought, that whenever folly prevails as it did at that time amongst the Persians, ruin cannot be far off: also Ecclesiastes 10:11-20, where the moral decay of the Persians, which had now reached its extreme point, is conceived to portend a swift extinction; and lastly, Ecclesiastes 11:3, which teaches that the storm of divine wrath will soon uproot and cast down the haughty tree of the Persian Empire: “When the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth; and if a tree falls, be it in the south or be it in the north, in the place where it falleth there shall it be.”
That a great change would at some future day take place in the position of affairs, the people of God might hope with the greater confidence, because they continued to possess the wisdom which is from above—not the glittering and brilliant wisdom of the age of Solomon, but the secret and hidden wisdom peculiar to the children of God, of which they alone amongst all the nations of the earth were the depositaries. This advantage over others was of itself a pledge of their future victory over the world. The Gentile nations are foolish because they are left to the guidance of their own reason, and are cut off from the source of all wisdom. But in the midst of Israel, on the contrary, the nation of revelation, to which God had made known His nature and will, thus delivering it from the sophistries by whose chains the natural man has been completely bound ever since the Fall, wisdom has established its abode. At the fitting time, too, power must certainly follow in the footsteps of wisdom. According to Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, wisdom and life go hand in hand. On this ground, Israel may comfort itself even in death. According to Ecclesiastes 7:19-20, wisdom is the only defence against divine judgments, because it alone preserves from sins which inevitably draw judgments in their train. In Ecclesiastes 9:13-18, the theme is discussed,—wisdom, the treasure that remains, is nobler than the strength which is lost: “wisdom is better than weapons of war, and one sinner destroys much good.”
Still, to point attention merely to a future reconciliation to be brought about between realization and idea, between the destiny assigned to the people of God and its actual visible condition, was not a full discharge of the writer’s mission of consolation. His business was further to open to his fellow-countrymen an insight into the causes of the temporal disturbances of the true and normal relations of things, for until it was shown to have an adequate ground and reason, it would be impossible to look forward with any confidence to a final restoration. If God is capable in any sense or degree of being unrighteous and hard towards the people of His choice, towards those whom He had pledged himself to love, the fear that He might continue so to the end would present itself again and again with fresh force.
The first thing to be learnt is to recognise in temporal afflictions the ordainments of that divine righteousness which cannot leave even the sin of its own children unpunished;—nay more, which must discover itself especially in its treatment of them, as those who by God’s grace “know how to walk before the living,” ( Ecclesiastes 6:8). This is as certain as that the servant who knows his Lord’s will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes; as that God will fulfil what is said in Leviticus 10:3: “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me;” as that it is said ( Amos 3:2): “You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I visit upon you all your iniquities,” and “Judgment must begin at the house of God.” The author leads his sorrowing and afflicted people to this at once painful and consolatory point of view in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22. He works also indirectly towards this end whenever he lays bare their sins before the eyes of the people. Their duty was to be content with God, to see light and justice in His providential arrangements, in the same degree in which they were dissatisfied with themselves. When the writer, in Ecclesiastes 5:1-6, reproaches the nation with a superficial piety, which sought to satisfy God by sacrifices instead of honouring Him with obedience to His laws, which endeavoured to substitute high sounding words for the lacking devotion, and which acted frivolously in respect of vows: and when further, in Ecclesiastes 7:15-18, he demonstrates that the pretended “righteousness” of Israel, that foundation of its proud claims, when more closely examined proves to be but another form of godlessness, and points to the open apostacy of which they were at the same time guilty, he furnishes the people with the key to their troubles, and throws light upon the arrangements of God, which hitherto through the want of self-knowledge had been enshrouded in darkness. He thus treads in the footsteps of Moses, who drew an exalted picture of such a Theodicy in Deuteronomy 32, where his theme was: “God is faithful and without iniquity, just and upright is He. Hath He acted corruptly towards His people? The blot is on His sons, a perverse and corrupt generation.”
The second thing to be learnt is to recognise in suffering an ordainment of divine love—to see that it is grace concealed under the form of severity, that there dwells in it a reformatory virtue for all those who love God, that it is an indispensable means of progress of which Clod cannot without cruelty deprive His children. “Whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth.” Where is there a father who does not chastise his son? Koheleth directs the attention of his sorrowing people to this sweet kernel which lay hidden within the bitter husk of affliction, in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Suffering gives the peaceable fruit of righteousness to such as are exercised thereby. The same purpose is subserved by Ecclesiastes 3:13, “I said in my heart, For the sake of the children of men such things happen, in order that God may purify them, and in order that they may see that by themselves they are beasts.” Suffering is a means of refinement to the people of God, serving especially to strip them of all pride and to lead them to humility. Purification is the general aim of tribulation: but special mention is here made of pride as the root and foundation of sin. That such is its character is evident oven from the words which the Old Serpent whispered in his temptation of our first parents: “In that day ye shall be as God;” and by which he caused them to fall. The greater the privileges vouchsafed by God to the nation to which Ho specially revealed himself, the more liable was it to this particular form of sin. From the same point of view, namely, as a means of “hiding pride from man,” ( Job 33:17) are afflictions regarded also in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14. God permits evil days to alternate with good, “in order that man may not find anything behind himself;” in order that he may not be able to fathom in any measure that which lies behind his present condition, find still less arrange any part thereof according to his own will; and finally, in order that thus he may be fully conscious of his dependence, may become a little child and thoroughly humble.
In this mariner did the writer of Ecclesiastes fulfil his mission as a comforter. Many things may be missed here, specially any definite reference to Christ, the central point of all consolation, and to that future glory with which the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared, but which the Lord will bestow on his own followers. We must bear in mind, however, that the Scriptures are an organic whole consisting of very different members, and that it is therefore preposterous to expect to find the same thing everywhere. To “wisdom,” in the narrower sense of that word, but a limited sphere was assigned amongst the Israelites. Its business lay not with what was bidden but with that which was manifest, not with the proper mysteries of the Faith, which, under the Old Covenant, belonged to the domain of prophecy, but with the truths which had already become thoroughly a part of the consciousness of the community. With these the mind of thoughtful Israelites occupied itself; these it sought to make clear, and bring home to the understanding and the heart. The prophecies of Daniel, and of the three post-exile prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, constitute the nearest supplement to Koheleth.
The human side of this book, as to which it belongs to the sphere of sacred philosophy,—for the writer does not profess himself to be an organ of immediate divine revelations,—is brought to view especially in Ecclesiastes 7:23-29, where the author himself reflects on the way and manner of his acquaintance with higher truth. Compare particularly Ecclesiastes 7:25: “I applied myself with my heart to know and to search and to seek out wisdom and thoughts,” and Ecclesiastes 7:27: “Lo, this have I found, said Koheleth, one by one, finding thoughts.” His method he describes to have been that of taking separately single thoughts, and by meditation drawing out their fulness and significance. This is the reflective and speculative method, not that of direct intuition. That there is a higher degree of wisdom in its more general sense, the degree to which a Moses or an Isaiah arose, who received truth by direct revelation, the writer himself confesses in Ecclesiastes 7:28. But he does not for this reason relinquish the claim to be inspired: his inspiration must be conceived specially as preserving, purifying, and heightening the natural powers of his mind. In Ecclesiastes 12:11, he expressly co-ordinates his work with the sacred writings, the distinguishing characteristic of which in relation to all other literary productions is, as he himself states, “that they are given by the one shepherd,” who ever relieves the wants of his people, who feeds them in green pastures, and leads them by the fresh waters, and in consequence are living and mighty, laying hold of heart and spirit in their inmost depths. With this expression of the author all will agree whom God’s Spirit has qualified for forming a judgment in this sphere. What Picus of Mirandola says of the entire sacred Scriptures, holds perfectly true of this book: “Nothing so strongly affects both heart and judgment as the reading of Holy Scripture, and yet they are but simple words without art, which thus overpower us. These words, however, are full of life, soul, and fire,—they penetrate deeply into the spirit, and transform the whole man.” In agreement with the circumstances of the time wisdom walks here in the form of a servant, and in the utterly unadorned garment of poverty; but its words are as goads and nails, and there dwells in them a power to refresh and sanctify the spirit and heart.
The writer’s peculiar use of the name of God furnishes a noteworthy indication that he deliberately purposed to confine himself to a circumscribed sphere of thought. Amongst the Hebrew names of God Elohim had the most general signification: and this name occurs in the book no fewer than thirty-nine times, seven times with, and thirty-two times without the article. Nowhere do we meet with another designation; especially, be it remarked, we do not find the name Jehovah, which answered to the fully developed religious consciousness, and the use of which absolutely predominates in the Prophets who preceded and were contemporary with Koheleth. The writer thus emphatically shows that he makes no pretensions to be an organ of direct revelations from God, but that his purpose is to unfold a sacred philosophy.
That the author refrains from employing the designation Jehovah has been ascribed by some to the superstitious fear which the later Jews had of giving utterance to that name. Such dread, however, belonged to the post-canonical period: within the canon itself there is nowhere a trace of it. Within the canon the use of the names of God is everywhere determined by their inherent difference of signification, and it was a matter for the free choice of the several writers which of the two names was employed It is so in the Pentateuch: it is so in the Psalms. To the use of these names here, that of the book of Job bears the nearest resemblance: and with it Koheleth was without doubt well acquainted. In the Prologue to the book of Job יהוה is generally used;—as also in the Epilogue and in the historical remarks which are interspersed. In the discourses of Job and his friends, on the contrary, the general names of God, Eloah, El, &c., are employed, with the single exception of Ecclesiastes 12:9, where we find Jehovah. The problem before the writer is considered from the point of view of Natural Theology with the aid of experience, and of reason as purified by the Spirit of God. If the author’s intention was to treat his subject from the point of view afforded by that consciousness of God which is common to men in general, then it was perfectly natural that he should confine his speakers to the corresponding divine name. Once only does he permit Job to break through this rule, and then in order that the avoidance elsewhere of the name Jehovah might be more distinctly seen to be intentional, and might not be traced to any merely external reasons. The Book of Nehemiah, which was nearly contemporaneous with Ecclesiastes, also furnishes an analogy. The facts of the case are presented as follows by Kleinert in the Dorpat Beitrage zu den Theologischen Wissenschaften,” 1. §. 132. “In the entire Book of Nehemiah,” (i.e., in chapters 1-7 and 11-13; for chapters 8-10 were written by Ezra, and only adopted into his work by Nehemiah), “the name Jehovah occurs only once, namely, in Ecclesiastes 1:5, in conjunction with Elohim: besides, Adonai occurs only twice: and elsewhere Nehemiah always designates God by the term Elohim.” In the Book of Ezra, on the contrary, and in chapters 8-10 of Nehemiah, which, as was observed before, are by Ezra, the name Jehovah predominates. Nehemiah wrote as a layman, as a politician mixed up with the affairs of the world. His humility did not permit him frequently to take God’s holiest name upon his lips. In all these cases, and in Ecclesiastes as well, there was no absolute necessity for abstaining from the use of the name Jehovah; other reasons might have decided for its employment; but the authors were guided by such considerations as seemed to them to favour their abstinence.
It being the purpose of the writer to expound a sacred philosophy, and not to touch upon the sphere of the mysteries of the faith, we might thence explain why nothing was said about immortality and eternal life, if this were actually the case, as Rationalistic interpreters with one voice affirm. In the course of our Commentary we shall plainly show that such is not the case. According to Ecclesiastes 3:11, God has put eternity into the heart of man: according to Ecclesiastes 3:21, the spirit of man rises upwards at death, whilst the souls of beasts perish with their bodies; according to Ecclesiastes 12:7, the spirit of man returns at death to God who gave it, in order that it may receive that which its deeds have deserved ( Ecclesiastes 12:14). It is, however, so far correct that the author maintains a gentle reserve in respect of this doctrine, limiting himself to slight though distinct and unambiguous hints, in order thus not to pass the boundary line which separates “wisdom “from prophecy. The comparison of Isaiah 25:7-8; Isaiah 26:19, and of Daniel 12:2-3, will throw light on this distinction.
Thus far we have occupied ourselves only with the consolatory part of the mission of Koheleth: let us now turn our attention to its admonitory and punitive aspect.
Several of the admonitions of the Preacher are so general in their character, that they are equally well adapted to all times. In Ecclesiastes 12:13, he exhorts to the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments. This he describes as a duty universally binding upon men, and as the only preservative from the judgments of God who cannot permit that man, whom He made in His own image, should emancipate himself from Him. That, says he, is the conclusion and sum of the whole matter; this is the Alpha and Omega of an upright life, the starting-point and basis of all the special teachings and exhortations of the book. “Fear God”—in these two words he sums up, in Ecclesiastes 5:7 also, all that he has to say to his readers. Hand in hand with this goes another brief saying which applies to the faithful of all times, namely, “Do good,” ( Ecclesiastes 3:12, with which compare Ecclesiastes 7:20). “Remember thy Creator;” such is the writer’s exhortation in Ecclesiastes 12:1, and the strongest motive he can urge for the following of his advice is, that those who refuse to listen to it, being separated from God, the source of all health, will have to mourn in this world a misspent existence, and ‘after death will fall under Divine judgment. The author makes repeated and emphatic reference to the judgment of God both in this life and in that which is to come, which visits inevitably every deed however secret; and he shows himself to be most livingly penetrated by the thought that God will recompense to every man according to his works (compare Ecclesiastes 7:16-17; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Ecclesiastes 12:14).
Along with general exhortations like these we find such as have a special bearing on the circumstances and tendencies of the time. The writer lays bare the evils of the time, and seeks to effect their removal, not after the manner of the Prophets by raising his voice in trumpet tones against them, but by calmly reasoning and exposing their preposterous character.
At all periods in which the powers of this world have weighed oppressively on the people of God, the temptation has been peculiarly strong to approve and adopt the worldly wisdom which prevailed amongst the surrounding heathen nations. The danger lay very near of coming, in that manner, to terms with the world, and seeking thus to be on equal footing with it. Against this false heathenish wisdom, which seeks out many inventions, ( Ecclesiastes 7:29) and which should be regarded as the great foe of their welfare and safety, the writer utters his warning in Ecclesiastes 7:25-26; he further admonishes the Israelites to offer energetic resistance to its attacks upon themselves In Ecclesiastes 12:12, he warns them against familiarising themselves with worldly literature. In opposition to the false foreign wisdom he sets before them the genuine, viz., their own native wisdom, which “knows the meaning of things,” which leads men to a knowledge of their true nature, and thus affords the basis for a right practical conduct in relation to them. With the manifold divisions of heathendom which though ever learning never comes to a knowledge of the truth, he contrasts their own book of books, ( Ecclesiastes 12:11) which, whilst seeming to have many authors had in reality but one, even the Shepherd of Israel, and the words thereof are consequently as goads and nails, penetrating heart and spirit and laying hold of their inmost depths.
Hand in hand with the temptation to adopt the wisdom of the heathens went that of falling into their sinful way of life. Those who saw misery weighing heavily on the people of God, and on the contrary all things going well and happily with the heathen in their life of sin: those who saw how these latter “tempted God and escaped,” and how the “doers of crime were established,” ( Malachi 3:15) must have felt a strong temptation to doubt and despair of God, and to let the evil desires of the heart have full and free play. Against this danger the author warns men in Ecclesiastes 8:1-4; Ecclesiastes 8:11; Ecclesiastes 7:17.
Still even these temptations were by no means the most dangerous. The most critical and suspicious elements of the present condition of the Jews, were those which prepared the way for the later Pharisaism.
The prime evil of the time, was that righteousness which owed its origin to speculations on the advantages it would bring, which was full of claims, full of merits, and full of murmurs against God, who refused to honour the drafts drawn on Him. In Ecclesiastes 7:15-18, he enters the lists against this destructive tendency, which at a later period grew so much more hardened and decided that the Lord was driven to utter, against those who in His day were its representatives, the terrible words: “ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” This counterfeit righteousness which then gave itself such pretentious airs, he describes as but another form of ungodliness, running parallel with open apostacy; and he shows, that so far from ensuring salvation, it involves us in the divine condemnation: for God cannot allow himself to be put off with such a hollow and heartless piety, but demands, and must have genuine fear and faith.
In Ecclesiastes 8:14-15, the book speaks out against the hireling spirit which was bound up with such an evil righteousness. Godliness ought not to be a question of gain, nor righteousness to originate in speculations of future good. Therefore are the ways of the recompensing God quite darkened: and things go very differently from men’s fancies. If they went according to men’s thoughts, that is, in other words, if for every work really or apparently good, and for every evil deed, the reward were forthwith weighed and measured out piece by piece, there would soon be no genuine uprightness left on earth, for true righteousness is the daughter of hearty and unselfish love. The happiness of life must not then be regarded as a hireling regards his wages; it must not have this basis. Our duty is rather cheerfully to enjoy in the present what God graciously bestows, to use the present moment and not to speculate on the future.
Moroseness also is inseparably conjoined with false righteousness, as was clearly shown in the example of Cain at the very commencement of the human race. The punishment inflicted or sin, where there is defective knowledge of the sin itself, produces dark despondency, and discontent with God’s arrangements, ( Isaiah 58:3; Malachi 3:14).
With this spirit of gloom, dejection and ill humour the self-righteous had more or less infected the whole people. This too was the one amongst the chief evils of the age, which even the really righteous were least able to resist. To the healing of this disorder the author has directed his special attention. See Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 8:15: “Then I commended mirth because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat and to drink and be merry:” compare also Ecclesiastes 9:7; Ecclesiastes 11:8-10. Koheleth is from his heart an enemy to extravagant mirth and sensual feasting. He says to laughter, “thou art mad, and to mirth, what doest thou?” ( Ecclesiastes 2:2) “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth,” ( Ecclesiastes 7:4). Indeed the entire book, and in particular Ecclesiastes 7:1-5, breathes the intensest earnestness. In Ecclesiastes 12:1, he points out how devotion is the foundation of all happiness, of all joy, and in Ecclesiastes 12:1, warns the extravagant and dissolute that God will bring all their doings and ways into judgment. At the same time, he recommends that cheerful confidence in God which does not allow itself to be led astray by the aspect of affairs at the present moment, but waits joyfully in hope of a better future: and enjoins an unbroken courage which can proceed steadily forward in the path of duty, and can calmly wait until the actual arrangements of this world are once more brought into agreement with the word and nature of God. He warns against thanklessly despising that which God graciously offers. The Saviour set His seal of confirmation to the utterances of this book, when, with a reference to it, he said, “the Son of man is come eating and drinking.” And the offence winch the Pharisees took at His manner of life, proves that in them was still perpetuated the tendency against which the author of this book directs his observations.
In conjunction with this morose and melancholy spirit were found a slothful feebleness and timidity. Men had no courage or pleasure in doing anything, because they regarded it all as useless. Against such conduct the author raises his voice in Ecclesiastes 9:10, and again in Ecclesiastes 11:4-6. Precisely in dark find troublous times ought we to be the more earnest in fulfilling the vocation, wherewith God has called us: we should sow incessantly in tears that we may reap in joy.
The religious superficiality of the age, the want of a living fear of God, manifested itself not only in self-righteousness, and in the gloomy discontent and hopeless inactivity which it produced, but also in a disposition to put off God with soulless sacrifices instead of honouring Him by obedience, in the efforts made to cover the absence of a heart which constantly seeks and supplicates God by the show and pretence of offering long prayers, and finally, in the extreme readiness to vow vows in the fulfilment of which they showed little conscientiousness, and the obligations of which they thought themselves able to discharge by a mere formality. Against such things the writer speaks in Ecclesiastes 5:1-6.
It is not a superficial piety that can give in arduous circumstances the precious pearl of peace of soul, and preserve from that irritability, whose inevitable result is a heightening of our suffering. Only a deep and hearty godliness, which sees in all, even in the most afflictive events a Father’s hand, and submits itself with quiet resignation, can do this. Against that dangerous enemy irritability the author warns his fellow-countrymen in Ecclesiastes 10:4. Side by side with this we may place his recommendation of patience. ( Ecclesiastes 7:8)
The Pharisees, as the New Testament says, were covetous. Covetousness flourishes most luxuriantly where a religiousness which is merely external, and changes not the heart, presents it with a covering of fig leaves. When men conclude a peace with God by means of services which do not flow from the heart, their darling inclinations come all the more freely into play. In battling with this enemy of the divine life, the book displays peculiar zeal—a plain proof that it was then specially dangerous. They are the same passages as those in which the author opposes the prevalent envy of the riches of the heathen; and envy has the same root as avarice, ( Ecclesiastes 4:7-12; Ecclesiastes 5:9-19; Ecclesiastes 6).
The preacher rightly discerned the signs of the times. He saw that a great catastrophe drew nigh, that a time approached when the “the peoples will rage and the kingdoms be moved” ( Psalms 46:7). Whilst teaching how men should make preparations for this, so that they may feel that they have a gracious God through it all, he sets in opposition to the bosom sin of the age, namely, covetous narrow-heartedness, that generous-minded liberality which is closely allied with a true love of God and is a proof that we are his children ( Ecclesiastes 11:1-3).
In this manner has the writer discharged the mission of reproof and admonition, with which, as well as with that of consolation, he was intrusted.
Various judgments have been passed upon this book. As the representative of the theology of the Church let us hear what Luther says about it. He styles it—“This noble little book, which for good reasons it were exceedingly worth while that it should be read of all men with great carefulness every day.” “The main point (or more correctly, a main point) in this book,” says he, “is, that there is no higher wisdom on earth under the sun than that every man should fill his post industriously and in the fear of God, not troubling himself whether or no his work turn out as he would fain have it, but contenting himself, and leaving the ordering of all things great and small entirely to God. In fine, that he be contented, and abide by that which God gives him at the present moment, taking for motto the words, ‘The Lord’s behest will turn out best.’ And thus a man should not worry and question and trouble himself how things will or should turn out in the future, but think within himself—God has entrusted me with this office, with this work, and I urn resolved to discharge it diligently: if my counsels and plans do not succeed as I expected, let God dispose, ordain, and rule as He will.” Even on profounder minds, who held a freer position in relation to Holy Scripture, this book has exercised an attracting influence. Herder, for example, says—“No ancient book that I am acquainted with describes more fully, impressively, and concisely the sum of human life, the uncertainty and vanity of its business plans, speculations and pleasures, along with that in it which is alone true, lasting, progressive, and compensatory.” On the contrary, the soulless, spiritless, vulgar Rationalism has been capable of little sympathy with the book. A. Th. Hartman gave most open expression to his antipathy to it. He describes it as “the work of a morose Hebrew Philosopher, composed when he was in a dismal mood, and in places thoroughly tedious.”
Even at an early period objections were raised against this book amongst the Jews. In the Talmud, in Tractate Schabbath, f. 30, b., it is said that the wise men wished to suppress the book of Koheleth, because it contains contradictions. “But why have they not suppressed it? Because its beginning and its end are words of the law.” According to the Midrasch, the wise men wished to suppress Koheleth, because all its wisdom ended in the injunction of Ecclesiastes 11:9: “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes,” which passage contradicts Numbers 15:39. Inasmuch, however, as Solomon has added, “But know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment,” therefore, they said, “Solomon has spoken well,” יפה אמו שלמה . Jerome has reported similar words as uttered by Jews; for which see the quotation given at Ecclesiastes 12:14.
Some have supposed that by the “wise men “are meant the collectors of the Canon—but wrongly. Had these been meant they would have been more distinctly designated. We have before us reflections on the book as one which had already had. its place assigned to it in the Canon. A distinction should further be drawn between the thoughts and their dress, between the mode of saying and the thing said. The thought is, that examining the book only superficially it awakens hesitations, but these vanish after deeper consideration. The opinion is not, that we should be content to put up with the offensive passages for the sake of such as are of an edifying nature, but that the latter should be our guide in investigating and understanding the former.
The assertion which Augusti, Schmidt, and, in part also, Knobel have ventured to make, that the author of the “Book of Wisdom” attacks Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 2, has so little foundation that it is not worth the trouble of examining and refuting,
Early in the Christian era also single individuals raised their voices against this book. Philastrius in his “Hoer. 130” speaks of heretics who reject Solomon’s Ecclesiastes, because, after having declared all things to be vanity, he leaves but one thing worth caring for, namely, to eat, drink, and gratify one’s own soul
Knobel has, last of all, summed up the rationalistic attacks, bringing against the book the reproach of fatalism, moral scepticism, and moral Epicureanism. “All the moral lessons and admonitions of Koheleth,” he maintains, “end in recommending ease and enjoyment in life.” Ewald has already given a partial, though a very striking refutation of this assertion: a complete one is contained in the investigation of the contents which has preceded, and in the commentary which follows. Such charges it would be impossible to advance but for the low state to which exegesis has been reduced. But in face of such attacks we feel ourselves able confidently to say, “Come and see.”
Against any such profane view of the book as brings it into conflict with the remaining Old Testament canonical literature one fact is by itself a sufficient argument, viz., that the author stands in a most friendly relation thereto. The passage of most importance in this respect is Ecclesiastes 12:11, where the writer incorporates his work with the other canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, ascribes to it a deeply penetrating influence, and finds its origin in that divine inspiration which constitutes the boundary line between the literature of revelation and the literature of the world, against which latter, moreover, he gives an emphatic warning in the following verse. In Ecclesiastes 12:7 and in Ecclesiastes 5:3-4, he refers to the Pentateuch; to the book of Job in the passages already adduced; to Psalms 118:12, in Ecclesiastes 7:6; to Psalms 139:15, in Ecclesiastes 11:5; probably to Psalms 41, in Ecclesiastes 11:1-3; to Proverbs 22:1, in Ecclesiastes 7:1; to Zechariah 4:3, in Ecclesiastes 12:6.
A guide to a true estimate of the book may be found in the numerous links of connection between it and the New Testament—especially in the frequent allusions made to it in the discourses of our Lord. Amongst the passages adduced from the New Testament by Carpzov in his Introd. ii., p. 212, which he supposes to have reference to Koheleth, only one will bear examination, namely John 3:8, with which compare Ecclesiastes 11:5, “As thou knowest not the way of the wind.” There are, however, other undeniable references which he overlooked. Compare with Ecclesiastes 1:1 of Koheleth, Luke 13:34; with Ecclesiastes 2:1-2, Luke 12:16-21; with Ecclesiastes 2:24, and its parallels, Matthew 11:19; with Ecclesiastes 3:1, John 7:30; with Ecclesiastes 3:2, John 16:21; with Ecclesiastes 5:1, Luke 23:34; with Ecclesiastes 5:1, James 1:19; with Ecclesiastes 5:1, Matthew 6:7-8; with Ecclesiastes 5:5; Ecclesiastes 12:6, James 3:6; with Ecclesiastes 7:18, Matthew 23:23; with Ecclesiastes 9:10, John 9:4.
Through a too great dependence on exegetical works such as that of Knobel, a respectable and esteemed representative and upholder of the theology of the church, Dr Oehler, has allowed himself in his Prolegomena to the Theology of the Old Testament, and in his V. T, sententia de rebits post mortem futuris, to be led into views of this book which in reality do endanger its canonical dignity, however strongly he may disclaim any such intention. According to his opinion the writer is involved in a conflict between faith and knowledge. “The contradiction between the divine perfection and the vanity of the world (more correctly, the sufferings of the people of God) is set before us without any reconciliation being effected. The latter is treated as a matter of undeniable experience: the former is assumed as a religious postulate. The only real wisdom, therefore, in life is resignation, which enables a man to use this vain and empty life as well as he can, and at the same time leaves all at the disposal of God.” On the one hand, the author teaches that there is a providence and a retribution, and on the other hand, omnia, vana et consilii expertia esee. From the point of view of faith, he teaches, in Ecclesiastes 12:7, that there is an eternal life: from the point of view of reason, he judges that the soul perishes with the body ( Ecclesiastes 3:19), that between the good and evil in and after death there is no difference. ( Ecclesiastes 9:2 f.) On this view the book of Koheleth would be the work, and present us the picture, of a distracted heart, of a divided spirit, ἀ?νὴ?ρ δίψυχος , such as are produced in masses in our own time; and the Holy Scriptures themselves would thus be invo lved in the conflict they were destined to heal.
Against this we would observe, that it is not correct to say that the book presents to us an unadjusted discord between faith and knowledge, idea and experience. There is of course no denying that, just as in the Psalms, the writer lets scepticism have its say. So far there is truth in the view which distinguishes in the work two voices: but wherever that of scepticism is allowed to speak, it is only for the purpose of at once overcoming it. Nowhere, as a sort of model for the Theology of a de Wette, do doubt and faith stand in front of each other, as forces equally entitled to hearing and existence, but everywhere when the voice of the flesh has spoken, the voice of the Spirit replies in confutation. Such is precisely the case in Psalms 39. This is most remarkably evident just in that passage, ( Ecclesiastes 9:1-10) in which scepticism pours itself forth like a mighty stream. The expression of “the mood of scepticism and of discontent with life” goes there only as far as Ecclesiastes 9:6: in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, it is vanquished by the sword of faith. The pretended dualism in regard to the doctrine of eternal life is set aside by the observation that in Ecclesiastes 9:2, the voice of the flesh is allowed to be heard in order that immediately afterwards it may be judged and convicted. Ecclesiastes 3:21, when interpreted on correct philological principles, so far from containing a denial, is an express affirmation of eternal life.
Nor is it just to maintain that the author knows of no higher wisdom in life than resignation. Without doubt he teaches that human life often presents difficult enigmas, that it is very hard to understand God’s arrangements, and that not unfrequently we find ourselves reduced to blind faith. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, for example, he says: “Man cannot find out the whole of the work which God doeth, neither beginning nor end;” in Ecclesiastes 7:24: “far off is that which was made, and deep, deep, who can find it?” in Ecclesiastes 8:7: “Man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun;” in Ecclesiastes 11:5: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, like the bones in the womb of her that is with child, even so thou knowest not the work of God, who doeth all.” But who does not see that these are truths which apply still even to those who live in the light of the Gospel? It was not in vain and for nought that the Lord pronounced those blessed who see not and yet believe. The Apostle recommends it to our consideration that we walk by faith and not by sight.
To recognise everywhere the causes of the divine arrangements, to thread the ways of God so often intricate, demands an eye clearer than the clearest possessed by man. Ever afresh is attention called to the fact that all our knowledge is but fragmentary. In the times of the writer of this book, it was specially important to give prominence to this side, for there were too many who were destitute of clearly seeing eyes, and above all, of that knowledge of sin which gives the key to the sanctuary of God to all those who desire to find there the solution of the problem of this earthly life. But he has not the slightest intention of leaving us altogether to blind faith. The idea never occurs to him of handing over the region of knowledge to unbelief. “Who is as the wise man,” he exclaims in Ecclesiastes 8:1, “and who knoweth the interpretation of things ?” He believes, therefore, that there exists a wisdom which introduces men into the essence of things, which especially throws light into the dark depths of the cross, and justifies the ways of God. The consciousness that he himself, in struggling for wisdom, has attained to important results is expressed in Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 7:27: according to Ecclesiastes 12:9, he is, by God’s grace, a wise man, and competent to instruct the people in a wisdom which harmonises with what was taught by the wise of former ages, who were all sent by the one Shepherd, ( Ecclesiastes 12:11). How far the writer’s counsels are from ending in simple “Resignation,” to which none are limited but those whom God, because of unbelief, has forsaken, and to whom the gates of the sanctuary do not stand open, ( Psalms 72:7) is plain from the long series of passages in which he announces a termination to the sufferings of the people of God and their approaching victory, at the same time laying bare the causes of their present depression, and justifying it as ordered of the ordering of divine love and righteousness.