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1. Words of the Preacher The title of the book is already discussed in the Introduction. The writer here announced, whether a real or an assumed personage, challenges the highest reverence, as being fully competent to his proposed task. There is no nobler name in sacred literature.
2. Vanity of vanities This utterance, like a prelude, gives the solemn keynote of the book. As we proceed, we shall see that it means, not that the works of God or the callings of men are unreal and delusive, but that the struggle to satisfy the heart in worldly things is vain. By repetition the writer makes his thought conspicuous and impressive, like a proposition in science which he goes on to prove.
3. What profit hath a man The matter to be investigated is now plainly stated. The question is in Hebrew rhetoric a favourite substitute for the negative “a man hath no profit” in the “toil which he toileth;” (emphatic, like “with desire have I desired.”)
Under the sun Found in this book only of the Bible, and here some twenty-five times; is a lively equivalent to “on the earth.”
4. A view is now given of the race whom the inquiry concerns, and of the visible forms of nature the solemn decorations of their dwelling the self-renewing sun, wind, and streams.
One generation passeth away The oldest Greek poet compares the growths of men to successions of forest leaves. Koheleth suggests, with more than Homeric vigor, that he is to investigate where all, even man, is whirling, and only the dull earth permanent. Man, to his eye, is toiling, strutting, fretting, vanishing, while the stage on which he appears abides, and is ever filled with new actors.
5. The sun also ariseth Not only giving light to man, but, unwearied, never dwindling, it shows as if even superior to him.
Hasteth Hebrew, panteth, as if ambitious to rise “another and the same,” and
“With new spangled eye,
Flame in the forehead of the morning sky.”
6. The wind goeth It is as if the tireless winds were in sympathy with changeful man, and were a fitting companion for him. “O, remember that, my life is wind,” groaned Job, as he thought of its rapid changes and its early vanishing.
Returneth… to his circuits The permanency of the courses of certain winds perhaps of the Etesian winds of the Eastern Mediterranean seems familiar to the writer, though its cause had not been investigated.
7. All the rivers run into the sea None of the ancients understood the system of evaporation, how the sun lifts daily from the sea millions of tons of water, which, carried by clouds, (and even by the blue air,) is returned as rain and snow to the sources of the rivers. They supposed that the rivers returned from the sea by secret, subterranean routes. All their views of nature were childlike, yet in their simplicity they were near to nature’s God.
8. This verse refers to these phenomena of nature.
Things Hebrew, words. In several ancient languages “word” has a secondary meaning thing, affair. But here the primary meaning is better “ All words are ineffectual” to tell the contrast between ever renewing nature and frail, transient man. Countless things addressed to the eye or ear illustrate it. The generations of man “haste stormfully” across the scene and return no more. But in every department of inanimate nature there is renewal. The sun returns to the East, and rejoices as a strong man to run its race; the wind comes freshly to its course; the water is renewed in the river channels.
9. The theme is still of the processes of nature.
Shall be “Shall be done.” The Hebrew, employing here its continuous tense, is, “continues to be,” “continues to be done.” The same sun and wind and stream
“The world’s unwithering countenance,
Is fresh as on creation’s day.”
10. This idea is now carried to less frequent phenomena, as eclipses, earthquakes, etc.
Is there any thing Hebrew, be there any thing; this is not a question but a supposition, “if there be any thing.” Geologists are of opinion that most, if not all, of the processes of nature now observed, have in previous periods taken place, though perhaps with far greater energy than now. Such is the permanence of the constitution and course of nature!
11. Former things But mark the contrast with mankind! Hebrew grammar requires that the word supplied should be men, not things, “former” being masculine. “Former men” are utterly gone. Earth has lost their pattern forever. So, future men will be forgotten by those who in their turn will follow them. This preliminary gives us the view which prompted Koheleth to inquire whether, in this short and unreturning life, there is any good for man, who is but a shadow, and if there be any good for him, what can it be? He commences his researches, assuming the resources of the greatest of kings. So often and profoundly seems Koheleth to have reflected on the character and career of Solomon that the personation sits easily upon him. It was said of a great actor that he, for the time, was Othello. So Koheleth assumes with perfect naturalness the part of the great monarch. It will be seen that he gradually discards it, and at last appears in his own character.
12. I the Preacher was king All scholars agree that was implies am not now, and to fit this word to the historic Solomon many an ingenious fiction has been devised. The Chaldee exposition says, that he was dethroned by Ashmodai, king of the demons. Others think that he wrote in old age, and here referred to his previous lifetime. But in Hebrew, the “was” is emphatic, and no man would use it in speaking of what still continued, and in speaking also to his contemporaries. [But, says Bullock, (Speaker’s Commentary): “This tense does not imply that Solomon had ceased to be king when the word was written. ‘The preterite is frequently used in describing a past which reaches forward into the present.’” Hengstenberg. ] 13. I gave my heart The heart is often used to express the sum of thought and feeling, and this phrase is equal to, “I devoted myself wholly.” Seek and search out are intensive of each other, and mean “seek diligently.”
By wisdom Hebrew, into wisdom. which here means a philosophical view just, acute, and comprehensive. A complete expression for the guidance of life.
Sore travail Plainer, sad task; that of wide observation of human conduct and fortune. One sees much that is painful to see, and one’s inferences must be so often gloomy! Koheleth sets himself to the task as moved by a call from God. Not all “children of men” have taste or faculty for philosophic research. He alludes to himself as belonging to a class to whom this special work is assigned. He feels his calling to be real though peculiar.
14. I have seen Meaning, “I have looked at, or considered.” The author is conscious of having done his work.
Behold, all is vanity Koheleth states the result before he gives us the process by which he reached it. The phrase vexation of spirit is strangely inaccurate. It should be, a grasping after wind. So it is properly rendered in Hosea 12:1, “feedeth on wind.”
15. That which is crooked This refers to the discouraged state of the writer’s mind. It should be translated, That which is bowed cannot be set up. The effort at a philosophical view was vain, for it yielded no relief to his depression previously stated.
That which is wanting Most versions refer this to persons. “He who is gone, cannot be numbered,” and it is as a reason for what is just stated. The appalling and irremediable nature of death is the one thing that spoils all the comfort which philosophy might yield.
16. After his first failure Koheleth computes his resources for a new effort.
Communed That is, “conversed.” The entire phrase, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom, is in Hebrew, I made great and increased in wisdom, that is, “I gained a very great amount of wisdom.” It has been remarked above that Koheleth refers here to a long succession of kings at Jerusalem, which the real Solomon could not have done. [Nothing, however, is said about kings. The all means all preceding thoughtful men, or sages.] 17. I gave… to know Here is stated how this wisdom and knowledge had been gained. Hebrew, Indeed I had given my heart to know wisdom and knowledge, though this devotion to wisdom, etc., is a grasping at wind.
18. Much… grief The philosopher finds disappointment in his philosophy, and the most successful student has painful reactions of mind and body. Never more than at this day, when many sceptical, if not atheistical, minds are giving intense study to science, was the word of Koheleth more true, so little satisfaction of heart do they find in their attainments. The depression and the longings of the soul finding thus no relief in wisdom and knowledge, Koheleth resorts to another experiment.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany