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Ecclesiastes, Part 1: Methods of The Preacher
Before beginning a commentary on Ecclesiastes, let me first make the confession that none of my commentaries on Scripture are founded on worldly learning. I never went to Bible school, I never studied other mens’ commentaries, and I have little idea what the supposedly learned men say about most aspects of Scripture, or about individual books of Scripture. Neither am I going to research any of them for any particular commentary. With only a few exceptions, on the infrequent occasions where I have tried to read a popular commentary on a portion of Scripture, I have been disappointed, and sometimes even angered by what I have seen. For the most part, my only experience with the popular commentaries is through the editing work which I have done for Clifton Emahiser, who quotes from them frequently.
So when I write my own commentaries, I seek out only what information I can glean from or about the oldest available manuscripts, and I base my commentaries on what I have come to understand from Scripture itself and from classical histories and whatever I remember from my own readings of these and other works, such as the apocryphal literature or the ancient inscriptions of the neighboring cultures. Therefore, whether I say anything new, or whether I repeat anything old, for me to contend with or to mimic any of the traditional commentaries is not premeditated. Rather, I only seek to provide a discussion of Scripture through the lens of that proper covenant theology which is found in our Christian Identity understanding.
However, in my readings of archaeological journals and other worldly sources I am familiar with at least many of the claims of the critics of Scripture. Concerning this particular book, Ecclesiastes, they point to Aramaic or Persian words or other seemingly foreign aspects of its language, and they assert their own interpretation of these things in order to cast doubt upon the veracity of authorship, whether it be claimed or attributed. Here I will only state that their presumptions do not make inevitable their conclusions, as other reasons may also be given to explain the circumstances. The ancient Hebrews did not live in a vacuum, and often they did have foreign influences. For that they were even chastised by Yahweh their God. The ancient Hebrews themselves also greatly influenced the surrounding nations. Under David, and for a long time after David, they did indeed occupy and rule over all of the lands from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River, and at least as far north as Hamath. So Solomon ruled over a great part of the Aramaic speakers of his time.
The word ecclesiastes, or ἐκκλησιαστής, seems to be a mistranslation of the Hebrew title of the work, even though the title was apparently translated in this manner from the earliest times. An ἐκκλησιαστής is properly only a member of the ἐκκλησία or assembly. But the Hebrew word is qohelet, or preacher, which is a role within the assembly and does not generally designate a mere member, unless one assumes that all members are preachers. That assumption may be fine in theory, but it is certainly not evident in reality. If we could rename the book, we would title it simply, as The Preacher.
As to the identity of this preacher, we are confident, and will attest, that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes. He was the Preacher, the King and the Son of David, by whom authorship was claimed. Perhaps some of the seemingly foreign influences which are found in the language of the book can be explained by the fact that Solomon himself lived a life that exposed him to many foreign influences, whether through his licentiousness, which is well known from the histories, or through his academic quest for wisdom and knowledge. Another explanation for such influences is that, quite possibly, some of the language of the book was updated by the scribes of the early second temple period. There are other books of our Scriptures which also contain Aramaic portions, terms or other influences.
Now we shall discuss some of the citations or opinions of the early Christian writers, those referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers, concerning Ecclesiastes. This book is mentioned in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata, Book 1 chapter 13 where he cited Ecclesiastes 1:16-18, and in Tertullian, in Against Marcion, Book 5, Chapter 4 where he cited Ecclesiastes chapter 3. Both of these men were born in the fifth decade of the 2nd century AD (150, 155 AD). Origen, who was born three decades later (185 AD), in his De Principiis, Book 3 Chapter 2, had cited Ecclesiastes 10:4 twice and credited Solomon with its authorship. In the preface of the fifth book of his Commentary on the Gospel of John, he cited Ecclesiastes 12:12.
Hippolytus of Rome, who was born around 170 AD, mentioned Ecclesiastes on several occasions in surviving fragments of his writing, which are found in the editions of the Ante-Nicene Fathers edited by Alexander Roberts. In one place Hippolytus compared Ecclesiastes 11:5 and Psalm 139:15. In another, in Part 1 of the Fragments of Hippolytus, Exegetical. Fragments from Commentaries on Various Books of Scripture, we find the following brief commentary:
On the Song of Songs.
1. Arise, O north wind, and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out (Canticles iv. 16). As Joseph was delighted with these spices, he is designated the King’s son by God; as the Virgin Mary was anointed with them, she conceived the Word: then new secrets, and new truth, and a new kingdom, and also great and inexplicable mysteries, are made manifest.
2. And where is all this rich knowledge? and where are these mysteries? and where are the books? For the only ones extant are Proverbs, and Wisdom, and Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. What then? Does the Scripture speak falsely? God forbid. But the matter of his writings was various, as is shown in the phrase “Song of Songs;” for that indicates that in this one book he digested the contents of the 5,000 songs. In the days moreover of Hezekiah, there were some of the books selected for use, and others set aside. Whence the Scripture says, “These are the mixed Proverbs of Solomon, which the friends of Hezekiah the king copied out.” And whence did they take them, but out of the books containing the 3,000 parables and the 5,000 songs? Out of these, then, the wise friends of Hezekiah took those portions which bore upon the edification of the Church. And the books of Solomon on the “Parables” and “Songs,” in which he wrote of the physiology of plants, and all kinds of animals belonging to the dry land, and the air, and the sea, and of the cures of disease, Hezekiah did away with, because the people looked to these for the remedies for their diseases, and neglected to seek their healing from God.
So while in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, Hippolytus considered the Wisdom of Solomon to be authentic and canonical, it was evidently dropped from the lists when The Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles in the Apostolic Constitutions were formulated in the late 4th century. However the Apostolic Constitutions also attributed Ecclesiastes to Solomon. However to be fair, the 2nd century Christian writer Melito of Sardis listed among his canon "the Proverbs of Solomon, also called the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, [and] the Song of Songs," where he seems not to have known or perhaps he did not accept the separate book known to us as the Wisdom of Solomon, which the somewhat later Hippolytus had accepted.
Furthermore, where Hippolytus is translated as having said concerning the Book of Proverbs that “These are the mixed Proverbs of Solomon, which the friends of Hezekiah the king copied out”, the translation of Proverbs chapter 25 verse 1 found in Brenton’s Septuagint says “These are the miscellaneous instructions of Solomon, which the friends of Ezekias king of Judea copied out.” So citing this, Hippolytus seems to have been speaking in reference to the entire Book of Proverbs, where the words may actually apply only to that final portion found in its last seven chapters. However, reading what is said about Solomon in 1 Kings chapter 4, there is little doubt that we do have only a small portion of his actual writing, as it says that Solomon “spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.” The Septuagint version says that Solomon’s songs were five thousand, to which Hippolytus also attested.
Later, in the 3rd century AD, Gregory Thaumaturgus, also known as Gregory of Neocaesarea, produced a Metaphrase of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Around that same time, Dionysius of Alexandria wrote his Commentary on the Beginning of Ecclesiastes.
In our opinion, Ecclesiastes certainly does represent inspired Scripture, however it is not written in the same manner as other Biblical writings, and therefore care must be employed in its use. Many people use diverse citations from Ecclesiastes in order to provide arguments which are contrary to clear Biblical truths, not understanding that Ecclesiastes contains many purposely skeptical statements, statements from which doctrines should certainly not be developed. Once it is realized that the truth of Scripture is contrary to the assertions made in the skeptical statements of Ecclesiastes, only then can the material be properly assessed, and it is discovered that the work is entirely consistent with the other teachings of Solomon, Those other teachings are found in Proverbs, and in the apocryphal book of the Wisdom of Solomon which we believe actually did belong to Solomon, with which Hippolytus agreed, and in the Song of Solomon, which Solomon also wrote from another entirely different perspective and which is also very frequently misunderstood.
If it is true that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, and we believe that it is true, then we must imagine that he wrote it in the later portion of his life, after he had great experiences in both his own licentiousness and in his reign as king, by which he came to terms with the vanity of life outside of the hope which is offered in Yahweh his God. Without God, all of the endeavors of men are vanity, and therefore it is necessary that man be obedient to God: that is the primary lesson in Ecclesiastes.
Solomon, having fallen into sin, wandered from Yahweh to the point of chastisement, as it is recorded in 2 Kings chapter 11. If he wrote this book late in his life, as we believe that he did, then it stands as an apology for his sin, where he also seemed to justify his actions, and where he seemed to offer at least some degree of repentance. But in spite of his sin, Solomon excelled in wisdom, and he presaged the vain philosophy of the Greeks by many centuries, where none of them ever came close to his wisdom. This is evident even if our modern translations of his work do not fully and adequately illustrate his wisdom. And in spite of the fact that we do believe that Solomon was the original author of this work, here we will usually refer to our author as “the Preacher”, in the same manner which he had referred to himself.
Making this presentation, we shall follow the King James Version of the Scriptures, and do our best to make note of significant differences with the Septuagint.
Ecclesiastes 1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
While it certainly may be imagined that any of David’s descendants who sat on the throne could fit this description, the content and character of this book best fit the experiences and character of Solomon, his immediate son and succesor. Furthermore, it says in verse 12 that “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem”, while all of the other sons of David who sat on the throne in Jerusalem were only kings over Judah and Benjamin, they were not truly kings over Israel.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
As we shall see in the subsequent chapters, all is vanity – without God. Through pondering the experiences of his life, the Preacher comes to the conclusion that all is hopeless and that all labor is for nought, unless there is hope in God. Immediately the Preacher asks:
3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
In Scripture, we are informed that it is a blessing from Yahweh our God if we are even allowed to enjoy the fruits of our own labor, or even the fruits of our own loins. So after the law was given to the children of Israel, we read in the curses of disobedience, that if they failed to obey the Law, in Deuteronomy chapter 28: “30 Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof…. 32 Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long: and there shall be no might in thine hand…. 38 Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. 39 Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. 40 Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit. 41 Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity. 42 All thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume. 43 The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low. 44 He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail.”
But in those same promises where Yahweh promised curses for disobedience, there were blessings if they were obedient and would keep His commandments, where among other things we read: “2 And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God. 3 Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. 5 Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. 6 Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out. 7 The LORD shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways. 8 The LORD shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 9 The LORD shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, and walk in his ways. 10 And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of thee. 11 And the LORD shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers to give thee.”
The first lesson we should derive from these blessings and curses is that whether we are blessed or cursed, we must work to attain anything at all. Nothing material is granted freely. With few exceptions, material things come to us only in the spoils of war or in the labor of our own hands, and we can keep them only when we are obedient to our God. This is apparent even after the children of Israel were put off for their disobedience, and then promised forgiveness if they would return, which we see, for example, in a promise of reconciliation which is found in Isaiah chapter 65, where it says in part: “21 And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. 22 They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
So when we cannot maintain our households with fidelity, or when we are heavily taxed and oppressed and cannot keep the labor of our own hands, or when our sons and daughters end up in the houses of strangers, it is a curse for our disobedience to Yahweh’s laws. But here, concerning our earthly labors, the Preacher speaks of something apart from fidelity to God: that even when we are allowed to keep our produce, we may acquire our earthly sustenance, but after that there is nothing which we may take with us to the grave. So to work beyond our earthly sustenance, it is apparent that in the end we profit in nothing for ourselves. So the Preacher is skeptical, wondering what good it is for a man to labor all of his life, if he can never have permanent satisfaction from his labor. But Paul of Tarsus answers this skepticism, where he commended the men of Judah, in reference to the captivities of both Israel and Judah, and he wrote in Hebrews chapter 10: “34 For you also sympathized with the prisoners and you accepted the seizure of your possessions with joy, knowing to have and awaiting a better possession yourselves.”
So we see that in Christ we do have a promise of something better than the fruits of earthly labors, however in skepticism the Preacher continues:
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
The Preacher observes that everything in creation operates in a cycle, and while things seem to change they are essentially always of the same nature or character and follow the same general course over and over again. So the rise and passing of generations of men is little different than the risings and settings of the sun or the perceptibly seasonal circuits of the winds. Often we think that our knowledge today is far advanced beyond that of the ancients, yet where he wrote that “all the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again” the Preacher shows an understanding of the processes of evaporation and precipitation in the natural flow of water from the same perspective of natural science as we understand it today.
Here the Preacher illustrates with skepticism the fate of man, consigning it to the same fates as the winds and the rains, in that man runs his course and passes in the same manner, replaced by another man in his turn just as the winds pass and come again. So in this manner the Preacher laments the apparent fate of man. Paul of Tarsus also addressed the apparent transientness of man, but giving a broader overall picture he presented the antithesis to the Preacher’s observations here, where he said in Romans chapter 8 that “20 To transientness the creation was subjected not willingly, but on account of He who subjected it in expectation 21 that also the creation itself shall be liberated from the bondage of decay into the freedom of the honor of the children of Yahweh.” For that word which we translate as transientness, the King James Version has vanity. The Preacher laments the vanity of his existence, but we see that Christ shall deliver us from that vanity. We will later find that the Preacher is being purposely skeptical, because he will attest that while “the dust return to the earth as it was: … the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” So the Preacher concludes in skepticism:
8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
Man spends his life in labor, and if he dies and cannot enjoy the fruits of what he has done, so it is of no profit to him. Through the prophet Isaiah did Yahweh present the antithesis, where he said in Isaiah chapter 64: “4 For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.” So all is vanity only without God, and that is the same point which the Preacher will also eventually realize and admit, although he admits it indirectly by preaching the need for keeping the commandments of God.
We most frequently use the title God here, rather than the name Yahweh, simply because the name Yahweh, or the Tetragrammaton, does not appear in Ecclesiastes. Of course, from Solomon’s other writings, especially from Proverbs, we certainly do know that Yahweh is his God. Here the Preacher continues speaking of the apparent cycles of life:
9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
If any man can conceive of something, it has almost certainly been conceived of in the past. If it exists now, it has almost certainly existed before, even if its nature differed in some degree. The innovations of which man now contrives have all been contrived in the past, so they are not innovations at all. The sins which man commits have all been committed before, and the things which he makes have been made before. So what seems to be new is not new at all. We simply just don’t remember what has already been here before us, as the Preacher now declares:
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Even where we have recorded histories, we have a knowledge of the past which is severely lacking in countless details. And even where we record our present circumstances, little will be left for people to remember our own state of existence in the distant future. The plight and circumstances of man are much greater than a collection of books or even a digital library can accurately maintain over many millennia. Now a declaration is made:
12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Only three men in history can say this, Saul, David and Solomon. This preacher being the son of David must therefore be Solomon, and there is no authentic reason to doubt the veracity of these words. This book, as well as his other writings, certainly does reflect what is said about Solomon in 1 Kings chapter 4: “29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. 30 And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about.” These men are named as sons of Zerah in 1 Chronicles chapter 2: “ 6 And the sons of Zerah; Zimri, and Ethan, and Heman, and Calcol, and Dara [or Darda]: five of them in all.”
Chalcol and Darda appear in Greek literature respectively as the founders of what was later known as Pamphylia and of the colony which later became known as Troy. There was an Ethan the Ezrahite credited as being the author of the 89th Psalm, however that Ethan was contemporary to the time of David. Ezrahite is certainly an error of the translators for Zerahite, referring to the tribe of Judah’s son Zerah. Here we also see that the Israelites of Solomon’s time did indeed have cultural exchanges with the nations around them, as we had asserted earlier in reference to the language which was used in the writing of Ecclesiastes.
Now that he declares his identity, the Preacher attests to his ambitions in pursuit of learning:
13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Employing skepticism the Preacher illustrates the hopelessness of man before God, also explaining that God purposely subjected man to be exercised in such vanity. Later, Paul of Tarsus also explained this, but from a more hopeful perspective, where he wrote in Romans chapter 8 that “20 To transientness the creation was subjected not willingly, but on account of He who subjected it in expectation 21 that also the creation itself shall be liberated from the bondage of decay into the freedom of the honor of the children of Yahweh.” That creation of which Paul spoke was the Adamic man himself, which he explained later in that same chapter of Romans.
So again the Preacher laments:
15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
Man alone cannot make the crooked straight, as he has no real power over Creation. Neither can man provide for his own needs, or even imagine the things he may need. However we see that in Yahshua Christ we do have hope, as the prophet Isaiah (40:4) had announced, and as it is recorded in reference to Christ in Luke chapter 3, that in Him: “5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; 6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Now as for “that which is wanting”, Paul of Tarsus also addressed that a few verses later in that same chapter of Romans, almost as if he was writing in response to the Preacher’s skepticism here, where he wrote of the needs of men that “26 … in like manner the Spirit assists us with our weakness; for that which we should pray for, regarding what there is need of, we do not know, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible utterances.”
The Preacher continues to lament his own dilemma:
16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
Ostensibly, the lesson is that the plight of man in his vanity, or transientness, is not corrected by wisdom and knowledge, but with wisdom and knowledge the plight of man becomes all the more evident, and that is a source of great grief.
So where we begin chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher turns to pleasure, and to worldly satisfaction found in wine, which he also describes as folly, and of course neither will he find true satisfaction in that:
Ecclesiastes 2:1 I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth [joy, gladness], therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. 2 I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?
He turned to these things in spite of the fact that he knew they would not amount to any worldly fulfillment. In them he also found vanity, so he told laughter that it was mad, and he asked mirth why he should engage in it. Now he continues, and speaks of wine:
3 I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.
Here I do not agree with Brenton’s reading of the Greek in his Septuagint, where it says “I examined whether my heart would excite my flesh as with wine”. I find that reading disingenuous, as it is clear that the Preacher admits giving his flesh over to wine. Perhaps the New American Standard Bible best represents the Preacher’s intended meaning: “3 I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” Evidently, Solomon thought he could take to drunkenness and still be able to control himself in it.
Once he became king over Israel, Solomon lived a licentious life. For instance, we read in 1 Kings chapter 4 “7 And Solomon had twelve officers over all Israel, which provided victuals for the king and his household: each man his month in a year made provision.” Then a little further on, a longer portion of a passage which we have already cited: “21 And Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river [referring to the Euphrates] unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt: they brought presents, and served Solomon all the days of his life. 22 And Solomon's provision for one day was thirty measures of fine flour, and threescore measures of meal, 23 Ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pastures, and an hundred sheep, beside harts, and roebucks, and fallowdeer, and fatted fowl. 24 For he had dominion over all the region on this side the river, from Tiphsah even to Azzah, over all the kings on this side the river: and he had peace on all sides round about him. 25 And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon. 26 And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. 27 And those officers provided victual for king Solomon, and for all that came unto king Solomon's table, every man in his month: they lacked nothing. 28 Barley also and straw for the horses and dromedaries brought they unto the place where the officers were, every man according to his charge. 29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. 30 And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. 32 And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. 33 And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. 34 And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom.”
Here it seems, that where the Preacher writes that “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom”, that he is really seeking to justify his licentiousness as an experiment in profligacy, that he was purposely sinful in the pursuit of even greater knowledge. The same writer told us in Proverbs chapter 16 that “2 All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits.” Solomon could not have been exempt from his own wisdom, so that must have described him as well. Christians are to learn self-restraint, however we can probably be certain that such a purposeful adventure in licentiousness is not the way to do it. So the Preacher continues to boast of his excess:
4 I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: 5 I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: 6 I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: 7 I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: 8 I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. 9 So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
All of this agrees with the life of Solomon, after he became king, which is evident in the fleets of ships, the completion of the Temple of Yahweh, and the buildings of other public works which we see recorded in 1 Kings chapters 4 through 9. Then after that we read in chapter 10: “4 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built, 5 And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD; there was no more spirit in her.” From there the wonders of Solomon’s palace are described, from which we read “ 21 And all king Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver: it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon.” There is little doubt that this Preacher is Solomon, and that here Solomon himself is describing the profligate and lascivious lifestyle which is also described for him in 1 Kings.
Now the Preacher continues:
10 And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.
And this is certainly attested in 1 Kings chapter 11, where we read: “1 But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; 2 Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. 3 And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. 4 For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.”
So here we can only wonder, whether Solomon had written Ecclesiastes as a declaration of apology for these things, where he makes an admission and perhaps takes the first step towards repentance – which is a recognition of one’s sin. One must acknowledge his sins before he can repent, and Solomon seems to do that here even if he does not explicitly express sorrow for his sin. This is conjectural, but it certainly also seems plausible, it seems to be the case. We will leave it at that. The Preacher continues by lamenting that there was not even satisfaction in either his majesty, in his excess, or his sin:
11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. 12 And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after [or succeeds] the king? even that which hath been already done.
So in spite of all of his wealth and all of his licentiousness in the fulfillment of his covetousness, which is what he seems to mean by folly here, that “whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them”, in the end he had no satisfaction from any of it. He laments the fact that he had no satisfaction from all of the works he had wrought, nor in his wisdom, nor in all of the sins which he had committed in his folly. Then he laments the fact that no man who came before him, nor any man that would come after him, could do better than he did. He had reached the zenith of life beyond all other men who were remembered, and he found no permanent fulfillment in living, as all of his enjoyment was vanity. Nevertheless, he admits that:
13 Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
The folly of which the Preacher speaks is the folly of wickedness, as he confesses much later here, in chapter 7: “ 25 I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness…” This certainly seems to accord with the life of Solomon, if indeed he made this apology for his sin in the latter portion of his life. This is the conclusion of his experiment with folly, and this is why we are persuaded that Ecclesiastes was written later in Solomon’s life, after he had experienced his many hundreds of wives and the idolatry and luxury of his riches.
Solomon had already been told of the punishment for his sin, which we read in 1 Kings chapter 11, where after his hundreds of alien wives and concubines and his acceptance of idolatry were described, we read: “9 And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the LORD God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice, 10 And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the LORD commanded. 11 Wherefore the LORD said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant. 12 Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father's sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son. 13 Howbeit I will not rend away all the kingdom; but will give one tribe to thy son for David my servant's sake, and for Jerusalem's sake which I have chosen.”
So the Preacher, who certainly seems to at least be in a confessive mood, in spite of his continued skepticism, writes concerning the wise man and the fool:
14 The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
This reminds me of an adage which I heard as a youth, “put your eyes back in your head”, words which were spoken when someone was caught coveting something, or someone, that he shouldn’t have been coveting. So a wise man’s eyes remain in his head, but the fool’s eyes are full of desire. As the Preacher continues, we learn that the one event that befalls both the wise and the fool in common is death:
15 Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. 16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
The Preacher seems to be offering his own life as an example of the folly of sin, and how there is no reward in it, and also of the hopelessness of wisdom itself to save men from death, while exerting that in any case, wisdom is the far better choice than folly.
In most cases, the generations that come in the future do not remember either the wise man or the fool. As the Preacher avows, both are equally forgotten. An immediate example are the seven sages of ancient Greece, who are only memories at all because they are mentioned by many later writers. While the lists of their names sometimes has variations, even if we expand it to include eight or even nine or ten sages, only a handful of their sayings survive, while most of them lived 400 or 500 years after Solomon.
The sentiment which the Preacher expresses here is, in my opinion, best expressed by the early 19th century romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his sonnet Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The name Ozymandias is the Anglicized form of the Greek name for the 13th century BC Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II. The point of the sonnet is that regardless of the magnitude of the works of men and their boasts, and regardless of the majesty which they attain in this life, their words and their works are transient, and therefore, they are vanity.
Now it may be asked, that if all of this were vanity, how could we know these things today? Yet even the words of our Preacher would not have survived to us without Yahweh our God, and the words of the ancient Greeks were preserved only through the efforts of Medieval Christian monasteries, so we may even credit our God for that.
The Preacher continues:
17 Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 18 Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.
Imagine having so much wealth that you can hold sumptuous feasts for all of your friends and family every day of the year, that you could build any building that you could imagine, that you could satiate your appetite for women with a thousand wives and lovers, and that you could drink yourself drunk every evening with little consequence, except perhaps your long-term health. But in all of that, you have no lasting satisfaction and you end up hating life itself because it is all transient, and the fruits of all of your labors shall be left to another. This is the confession of Solomon, and therefore we must know that there is something beyond this transient life, so again, the same writer said in Proverbs chapter 16: “3 Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.” Later in Ecclesiastes, he will express a similar sentiment in different ways.
Now he continues his lamentation, speaking of what he must leave to his succesor, which he must be certain is his own son, although he is still in doubt concerning his character:
19 And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. 20 Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.
Solomon was left a great kingdom by his own father, David, and under his rule it became even more magnificent. Yet because of his sin it was destined to be diminished, as he was warned by Yahweh where we have record in 1 Kings chapter 11, which we have already cited here. We do not know whether Solomon knew this fate when he wrote these things, but the example stands regardless of whether he knew it. No man voluntarily leaves his estate to his succesor, but is rather compelled to do so in death. After he dies, no man can assure that his succesor will be wise or a fool, whether his labors were treated well or squandered away foolishly.
21 For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
Solomon recognized this seeming injustice even though he himself was a beneficiary of the same process. But one fact which he does not consider here is found in Deuteronomy chapter 8, where the Word of Yahweh says, in summary: “11 Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: 12 Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; 13 And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; 14 Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage… 17 And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. [This is what Solomon seems to have forgotten.] 18 But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.”
In Solomon’s skepticism he seems to have forgotten that his magnificent kingdom and all of his wealth were given to him by Yahweh his God. As we had earlier described, it is a blessing when a man is able to enjoy even the fruits of his own hands. In that manner he continues:
22 For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? 23 For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.
As we have explained, all is vanity without God, and by this men must learn to obey their God. When Adam sinned, we see Yahweh inform him, as it is recorded in Genesis chapter 3: “17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; 18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” This is the transientness, or vanity, which man must suffer, and which Yahweh had committed him to, in order that He may ultimately deliver him from corruption.
Now in the meantime, our Preacher is indeed correct where he continues and says:
24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
As we have seen, it is indeed a blessing for a man if he may enjoy the fruits of his own labor, and here the Preacher acknowledges that such is from God. Then he asks rhetorically:
25 For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?
Of course, there must have been men of might and girth who could eat or drink more than Solomon at any given time, but there was probably no man who could afford to eat or drink more than Solomon, which was the purpose of the question. So by asking it Solomon asserts that he of all men should know the truth of the statement made before the question was asked, that “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.”
So the Preacher concludes by giving God the credit:
26 For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
So whether a man is blessed in this life, or if he is cursed, it is all vanity, the situation is temporary, even though it causes vexation of spirit. As Ecclesiastes unfolds, we shall see the Preacher repeat these same lamentations, and add to them the need to keep the commandments of God, because all the deeds of men are vanity. Once we see that, we shall see that in spite of his skepticism, he too must have anticipated something greater, something which could transcend this vanity. So the primary method of the Preacher is to illustrate hope with skepticism.