Before proceeding with our studies in Ecclesiastes it may
be well to point out a peculiar morphological feature of this author. The
five books, though they are independent, are yet "dove-tailed" together by
the way in which the final thought of each leads directly to the next. The
effect is that each successive composition is of the nature of a
digression from the composition standing before it, but a digression which
is expanded into an independent piece of writing.
The Third Book (5:10-6:12) resumes and carries forward to
completion the train of thought developed in Book I. There the Assembler
was engaged in surveying the various departments of human activity; here
he analyzes the spring of all activity under the sun-the soul's desire, or
yearning (6:2). The mode of treatment is both simple and methodic. The
thoughts are drawn in orderly sequence: maxims (5:10-12); illustrations
(5:13-6:6); reflections (6:7-12). The Book opens with a series of maxims
setting forth the vanity of desire in its several phases. These are
followed by a number of typical instances supporting the ideas expressed
in the maxims. Then follow practical reflections suggested by what has
been gleaned in the course of investigation.
Like the preceding, this Book is also followed by a
string of "notes" responding to the questions of 6:12. These embody in
pithy sayings the results which wise thinking has yielded (7:1-12).
In the First Book, where the author successively
subjected to review the various phases of human activity, with the only
result that each was found wanting, the sentiment was voiced that all
labor, though bringing a sense of pleasure, fails to give genuine
satisfaction. Now this line of thought is carried one degree further: What
has been found to be true of outward activity is found to be equally true
of the inward principle which prompted it. Ecclesiastes asserts that the
soul is not satisfied with the attainment of the objects yearned for. This
is the starting-point of the present book:
||One who loves silver is never satisfied with
his silver, |
And one who loves superabundance never
has enough income;
This too is
Having thus stated the main thesis of the present
discussion, the Assembler proceeds to establish it. He points out that
attainment without satisfaction is a familiar experience. He then observes
the added fact, attested by concrete examples in actual life, that
attainment is frequently attended by hurt and followed by failure, while
on the other hand genuine happiness is found to exist where the most
coveted objects of human envy are absent-
||When goods increase those who devour them multiply;
And what profit are they to their possessor save
for the sight of his eyes?
||The sleep of the servant is sweet, |
eats little or much;
Yet the plenty which the rich
man has, it does not permit him to
These considerations have paved the way for introducing
the two contrasts which occupy the place of prominence in this book: On
the one hand is a picture of God-given prosperity and God-given
satisfaction in it, and on the other hand is the opposite picture of the
same God-given prosperity and the satisfaction withheld. These companion
pictures emphasize the idea, which is unweariedly reiterated, that
happiness is not within the power of man, but is the direct and special
gift of God to the individual:
||There is a travailing evil I have seen under the
Riches are kept by their possessor to his
||Then these riches perish through some experience of evil;
Then he begets a son, when there is not anything
left in his hand.
||Just as he came forth from his mother's belly, |
shall he return, to go as he came;
He shall not take up anything
from his toil
which he may carry in his
||This too is a travailing evil; |
Exactly as he came, so
shall he go,
And what advantage is it to him since he
toiled for wind?
||Moreover, all his days are in darkness and mourning,
With much vexation and illness and wrath.
||Behold, that which I have seen that is good, that
is fitting, is: |
To eat and to drink and to see
good in all one's
toil that he is
toiling under the sun,
During the number of days
in his life
that the One,
Elohim, has given to him,
For that is his portion.
||Moreover, concerning any man to whom the One,
Elohim, gives riches and substance,
And gives him power to eat of it and to obtain
his portion and to rejoice in his toil,
This good, it is a gift of Elohim.
||For he shall not be much mindful of the days of his life,
For the One, Elohim, is keeping him humble
in the rejoicing of his
In 5:19 Ecclesiastes speaks of natural happiness as being
God's gift to the individual. The thought is amplified in verse 20 by the
assertion that natural happiness, like all things belonging to the eonian
system, is alloyed with humbling (cp 1:13; 3:10).
That which is wrought under the sun, as also the times
and seasons, has been designed by God for man's discipline and training.
Parents spoil their children by giving free vent to their wishes; rulers
corrupt manhood by lavish prodigality of favors to their supporters. But
God's methods are adapted to man's present constitution, which is a
strange admixture of good and evil. All His ways have in view the debasing
effect of unstinted gratification. His dispensation of the good that
gladdens the heart is tempered by the humbling which chastens the spirit.
In all His methods is discernible a subtle combination, an exquisite of
goodness and severity whereby spiritual rations are developed and
heightened and baser instincts are curbed and subdued.
The vanity or transitoriness of the soul's yearning
appears most fully in the light of death. "This too is a travailing evil;
exactly as he came, so shall he go, and what advantage is it to him since
he toiled for wind?" (Ecc.5:16). In concluding this composition
Ecclesiastes dwells on this thought.
||There is an evil under the sun that I have seen,
And it lies great upon humanity:
||When a man to whom the One, Elohim,
gives riches and substance and glory,
And he has no lack to his soul of all that it yearns for,
Yet the One, Elohim, does not give him power to
eat of it
Because a foreign man eats it,
a vanity, and it is a travailing evil.
||If a man begets a hundred children and
lives for many years, |
So that the days of his
years become a multitude,
Yet his soul is not satisfied
And also there is no tomb for him,
A stillborn child is better off than he.
||For it comes in vanity, |
And in darkness it goes away,
And in darkness its name is covered over.
||Moreover, it neither saw the sun nor knew
Thus this had more rest than that
||Even supposing he lived twice a thousand years and saw no
Are not all going to the same
Only two points need to be noted here. He has been
describing the spectacle of accumulated wealth with happiness withheld by
God, and pronounced it the worst of all fates-an abortion is better than
he. He passes on to practical reflections:
||All of a man's toil is for his mouth, |
then the soul is never filled.
||For what advantage has a wise man over the stupid
And what for the humble man who
how to walk in front
of the living?
The recognition of ability to enjoy the details of
passing life as a God-given thing and the spectacle of the man to whom
Elohim does not give the power to eat of his wealth (6:2) naturally lead
on to the thought that God acts on fixed principles which the individual
is powerless to alter.
||Better the sight of the eyes than the
roving of the soul. |
This too is vanity and
a grazing on wind.
||What has come to be has already been called by its
And that which man is has been foreknown;
one can adjudicate against Him Who is mightier
And since man is incapable of resisting his Maker, what
is the use of following "words" ("theories" or "doctrines") which pretend
to further man's welfare but in reality only multiply vanities?
||When there are many words the vanity increases;
What advantage is that to man?
||For who knows what is good for a man in life
During the number of days in his transitory life,
Seeing that He makes them like a shadow?
who can tell a man what shall come after him under the
Who can tell what is good for a human in this life, or
who can tell what shall come afterwards? These questions are dealt with in
the notes which fill the interval between this Book and the next notes
||A good name is better than the best attar, |
the day of one's death than the day of his
||It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting
In that it is the terminus of every human;
the living lay this on his heart.
||Better is vexation than mirth, |
For with a
troubled countenance the heart may be made
||The heart of the wise is in the
house of mourning, |
And the heart of the stupid in
the house of rejoicing.
||Better to hear the rebuke of a wise man
Than for one to hear the song of the
||For as the sound of the briars under the pot, |
is the mirth of the stupid man;
This too is
||Extortion makes a wise man raving, |
And a bribe
destroys the heart.
||The end of a matter is better than its
A long-suffering spirit is
better than a haughty spirit.
||Do not be rash to be vexed in your spirit, |
rests in the bosom of the stupid.
||Do not say, Why is it that the former days
were better than these present
For it is not in wisdom that you ask
||Wisdom is good with an allotment |
advantage to those seeing the sun.
||For in the shadow of wisdom it is as in the shadow of
And the advantage of knowledge is that
wisdom keeps alive those
This series of sayings (7:1-12) is suggested by the two
questions which concluded Book III, and which relate to the present life
and the hereafter. Who knows what is good for a man in life ...Who can
tell a man what shall come after him under the sun?
I understand these questions as the interposition of an
imaginary objector, and the notes that follow as the rejoinder of the
The keynote to these sayings is found in the recurring
word "better," which reveals both the point and purpose of these sayings
and the relation they sustain to the discussion standing before them.
To the roving soul (6:9) casting an envious eye on
another's wealth Ecclesiastes says (in view of the instances considered):
Since appearances are often misleading, it is not possible to decide that
one's life is truly prosperous and happy until we know how it terminates.
To the questions bearing on what is good in life and the hereafter the
Assembler answers: (1) What is really good is not determined by personal
preferences, but by the general effect of a thing upon humanity. (2) Man's
future may, in a general be inferred with a certain degree of probability
from the present. The thought developed in this string of rests upon a
series of "oppositions" arranged in two groups, which must be taken
together, though the proverb of 7:7 separates them:
A good name, established at death and the consideration
of death as the terminus of our lives exert a wholesome influence on the
Vexation and a troubled countenance and the seeking of
self-improvement in the house of mourning work to the heart (7:3,4).
Rebuke from the wise is better than giddy mirth which is
The end of a matter, establishing the truth of a
forecast, is better than the beginning where questions are raised as to
the possible outcome (7:8).
Patience is better than a rash spirit which is a sign of
It is not wisdom to judge the present, which is,
incomplete, by the former days, which afford a complete view by their
Both wisdom and silver defend against external attack,
but wisdom also affects the life - the life of character (7:11,12).