Ecclesiastes 2
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.
1. I will prove thee with mirth] The self-communing of the man talking to his soul, like the rich man in Luke 12:18-19, in search of happiness, leads him to yet another experiment. He will lay aside philosophy and try what pleasure will do, and live as others live. The choice of Faust in Goethe’s great drama, presents a striking parallel in the world of creative Art. The fall of Abelard is hardly a less striking parallel in the history of an actual life. Consciously or unconsciously (probably the former) the Debater had passed from the Hebrew and the Stoic ideals of wisdom to that of the school of Epicurus. The choice of the Hebrew word for “pleasure” (literally “good”) implies that this now appeared the summum bonum of existence. But this experiment also failed. The doom of “vanity” was on this also. The “laughter” was like the crackling of burning thorns (chap. Ecclesiastes 7:6) and left nothing but the cold grey ashes of a cynical satiety. In the “Go to now” with which the self-communing begins we trace the tone of the irony of disappointment.

I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?
2. I said of laughter, It is mad] The choice of a word cognate with the madness of chap. Ecclesiastes 1:17, gives a special emphasis to the judgment which the man thus passes on himself. There was as much insanity in this form of life as in the other. He was plunging into madness with his eyes open and might say,

“Video meliora proboque,

Deteriora sequor.”

“I see the better, yet the worse pursue.”

Ovid, Metamorph. vii. 20.

In each case the question might be asked “What does it work? What is its outcome?” And the implied answer is “Absolutely nothing.”

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.
3. to give myself unto wine] Literally, and more vividly, to cherish my flesh with wine. The Hebrew word for “give” is unusual and obscure. The primary meaning is “to draw out,” that of the word for “acquainting” is “to guide” or “drive,” as in Exodus 3:1; 2 Samuel 6:3. Possibly, as Lewis suggests in Lange’s Commentary, the idea is like that of the parable in the Phædrus of Plato (p. 54) and the seeker gives the rein to pleasure, yet seeks to guide or drive the steed with his wisdom. The words point to the next stage in the progress of the pleasure seeker. Pleasure as such, in its graceful, lighter forms, soon palls, and he seeks the lower, fiercer stimulation of the wine cup. But he did this, he is careful to state, not as most men do, drifting along the current of lower pleasures

“Till the seared taste, from foulest wells

Is fain to quench its fires,”

but deliberately, “yet guiding mine heart with wisdom.” This also was an experiment, and he retained, or tried to retain, his self-analysing introspection even in the midst of his revelry. All paths must be tried, seeming folly as well as seeming wisdom, to see if they gave any adequate standard by which the “sons of men” might guide their conduct, any pathway to the “chief good” which was the object of the seeker’s quest.

I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards:
4. I made me great works] The verse may be either a retrospect of the details of the life of the pleasure-seeker as sketched in the previous verse, or, as seems more probable, the account of a new experiment in which the man passed from purely sensual pleasures to the life of what we know as ‘culture,’ the pursuit of beauty and magnificence in Art. Here the writer throws himself into the surroundings of the historical Solomon. We may venture to refer to Tennyson’s Palace of Art as tracing the working out of a like experiment to its inevitable issue. See Appendix II.

I builded me houses] We think of David’s house of cedar (2 Chronicles 2:3) and the storehouses, oliveyards and vineyards (1 Chronicles 27:25-31) which Solomon had inherited, of his own palace, and the house of the forest of Lebanon and the house for Pharaoh’s daughter, which he built (1 Kings 7:1-9), of Tadmor and Hamath and Beth-horon and Baalath, the cities in far off lands which owned him as their founder (2 Chronicles 8:3-6). It is significant, on any theory of authorship, that we find no reference to Solomon’s work in building “the house of the Lord.” That was naturally outside the range of the experiments in search of happiness and too sacred to be mentioned in connexion with them here, either by the king himself or by the writer who personates him. On the assumption of personation the writer may have drawn his pictures of kingly state from the palaces and parks of the Ptolemies, including the botanical and zoological gardens connected with the Museum at Alexandria, or from those of the Persian kings at Susa or Persepolis.

I planted me vineyards] Of these one, that of Baal-hamon, has been immortalised by its mention in the Song of Solomon (Ecclesiastes 8:11). It was planted with the choicest vine, and the value of its produce estimated at a thousand pieces of silver. Engedi seems also to have been famous for its vineyards (Song Song of Solomon 1:14).

I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits:
5. I made me gardens and orchards] The latter word, originally Persian, and found only in the O. T. in this book, in Song Song of Solomon 4:13, and Nehemiah 2:8, is the “paradise” of Xenophon, of later Rabbinic writings and of the New Testament (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:4). It indicates what we call a park, with flowing streams and shady groves and fruit trees, and deer feeding on the fresh green grass, and doves flitting through the trees, such as seemed to the Eastern imagination the fittest type of the highest blessedness. The whole scenery of the Song of Solomon is such a garden, planted with pomegranates and pleasant fruits, spikenards and camphire, calamus and cinnamon, and trees of frankincense, and lilies (Song Song of Solomon 4:13-15; Song of Solomon 6:2). The pools of Solomon at Etam, on the south-west of Bethlehem, described by Josephus (Ant. viii. 7. 3) still preserve the memory of such a “paradise.” Other traces of these surroundings of the palaces of Jewish kings are found in the history of Naboth’s vineyard, where the “garden of herbs” can hardly be thought of as merely a “kitchen garden” (1 Kings 21:2) and in the garden of Zedekiah (Jeremiah 52:7).

all kind of fruits] The horticulture of Palestine included the apple, the fig, the pomegranate, the date, the caper-tree, nuts, almonds, raisins and mandrakes. The account is in strict keeping with the character of the king who spake of trees “from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop on the wall” (1 Kings 4:33).

I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:
6. I made me pools of water] Those at Etam have been mentioned above. Besides these we have the fish-pools of Heshbon (Song Song of Solomon 7:4), the pool of the king (Nehemiah 2:14), possibly also, the pools of Siloam (John 9:7), and Beth-esda (John 5:2). In Palestine, as in India, these large tanks or reservoirs of water, as meeting the necessities of the climate, were among the favourite works of kingly munificence. Stress is laid on the fact that they were not for beauty only, but for service in irrigating the extensive park.

the wood that bringeth forth trees] Better, “a grove making trees to bud,” i. e. in the language of modern gardening, a “nursery” for young trees.

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:
7. I got me servants and maidens] Better, I bought. The picture of Oriental state was incomplete without this element, and the slave trade, of which the Midianites were the chief representatives in the patriarchal history. (Genesis 37:28), had probably been carried on without intermission, and supplied both the household and the harem of Solomon. In the Cushi of 2 Samuel 18:21, in his namesake of Jeremiah 36:14, in Ebedmelech, the Cushite, or Ethiopian, of Jeremiah 38:7, we have instances of the presence of such slaves in the royal households. The history of every ancient nation shews the universality of the traffic. Of these slaves each great household had two classes: (1) those “bought with money,” men of other races, captives in war, often, probably, (Jeremiah 38:7) who were employed in the more menial offices (Genesis 11:11-12; Genesis 11:23), and (2) those born in the house (Genesis 14:14; Genesis 15:3; Jeremiah 2:14), the ‘sons of the handmaids’ (Exodus 23:12), who rose into more confidential service, the οἰκογενεῖς of the Greeks, the vernae of the Latins. On the assumption that the book was written under the Ptolemies, their court would present the same features in an even more conspicuous manner.

great and small cattle] Better, oxen and sheep. The daily provision for Solomon’s household (1 Kings 4:22) gives some idea of the magnitude of his flocks and herds. See also 1 Chronicles 27:29; 1 Kings 5:3.

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.
8. I gathered me also silver and gold] Here also we find a counterpart in what is recorded of the wealth of Solomon, the ships of Hiram that brought gold from Ophir, to the amount of 420 talents (1 Kings 9:28), the gifts from the queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1), the total revenue of 666 talents (1 Kings 10:15), the 200 targets and 300 shields of beaten gold, and the throne of gold and ivory and the drinking vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon, and the silver that was in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kings 10:16-27).

the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces] The words may point to the special gifts which came to Solomon by way of tribute from other lands, from Seba and Sheba (Psalm 72:10), from the “kings of Arabia and the governors of the country” (1 Kings 9:15; 1 Kings 10:27). Many commentators, however, see in the phrase a description of the treasures of Solomon as being such as were the special possessions of sovereign rulers and sovereign states as distinct from the wealth of private citizens. The word for “province” may be noted as a comparatively late word, hardly coming into use till the time of the Captivity (Lamentations 1:1; Ezekiel 19:8), and prominent chiefly in the books of the Persian period, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel. It probably designates here the twelve districts into which Solomon divided his empire (1 Kings 4:7-19).

men singers and women singers] The mention of women shews that the singers meant are not those connected with the choir of the Temple, but those who, as in the speech of Barzillai (2 Samuel 19:35), figured at state banquets. These women, as in Isaiah 23:6, were commonly taken from the class of harlot aliens, and as such were condemned by the counsel of the wise of heart (Sir 9:4). For the general use of music at feasts, comp. Isaiah 5:11-12; Amos 6:5; Sir 32:5-6; Sir 49:1.

the delights of the sons of men] The use of the word in Song Song of Solomon 7:6 leaves little doubt that the phrase is an euphemism for sensual pleasures, and as such it helps to determine the meaning of the words that follow.

musical instruments, and that of all sorts] The Hebrew substantive, which is not found elsewhere, is first given in the singular and then in the plural, as an emphatic way of expressing multitude, and has been very variously interpreted, as meaning, with the A.V., following Luther, a “musical instrument,” or with the Vulgate “cups,” or with the LXX. “cup-bearers,” or a “bath,” or “heaps” of treasure, or a “chariot,” or a “palanquin,” or even “male and female demons.” Most modern scholars however agree, though differing as to its etymology, some finding its root-meaning in “couch,” and some in the “female breast,” and others in “captives taken in war,” in rendering it as a “concubine.” This agrees, it is obvious, with the context and with what is recorded of Solomon’s seraglio with its thousand inmates (Song Song of Solomon 6:8; 1 Kings 11:3). It was not likely, we may add, that so characteristic a feature in that monarch’s prodigal excesses should have been altogether passed over in a picture so elaborate. “Musical instruments,” it may be added, would have formed a somewhat poor climax to the long catalogue of kingly luxuries. The interpolated “as” should be omitted.

So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
9. I was great, and increased] There is something significant in the repetition of the formula of ch. Ecclesiastes 1:16. The king had surpassed all others in wisdom, he was now surpassing all others in magnificence.

also my wisdom remained with me] The thought expressed seems to be, as in Ecclesiastes 2:3, that the seeker, though he plunged into the pleasures of a sensual life, was never altogether their slave. They were for him experiments which he watched as with an intellectual impartiality. Like Goethe, he analysed his voluptuousness, and studied his own faculties of enjoyment.

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.
10. whatsoever mine eyes desired] From such a life the idea of self-denial, even of self-control, was absolutely excluded. Money and power were but means to the end, and the end proposed was the gratification of the “desire of the eyes,” not identified with the “lust of the flesh,” but closely allied to it (1 John 2:16), in all its restless cravings. It was not altogether a fruitless effort. Such joy as these things could bring he had in abundant measure. It was for a time his “portion.” Like the rich man in the parable of Luke 16:25 he had his “good things,” and could not complain that the experiment failed as through imperfect apparatus. He also was tasting of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” and found that it was “good for food, and pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

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.
11. Then I looked] Here also, however, the result was as before. There came the afterthought which scrutinised the enjoyments and found them wanting. The pursuit of pleasure was as unsatisfying as the pursuit of knowledge. Like others who have trodden the same path, he had to confess that

“Medio de fonte leporum

Surgit amari aliquid.”

“E’en from the centre of the fount of joys

There springs an element of bitterness.”

Lucret., De Rer. Nat. iv. 1127.

All was vanity and feeding on the wind. There was no real “profit” (see note on chap. Ecclesiastes 1:3) that could take its place among his permanent possessions, no surplus to his credit on the balance-sheet of life. In the more solemn words of Matthew 16:26, “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” we have substantially the same teaching.

And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.
12. I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly] We enter on yet another phase of the life of the seeker after happiness. He falls back with a cynical despair, when mere pleasure left him a prey to satiety and ennui, upon his former study of human nature in its contrasted developments of wisdom, and madness, and folly (see note on chap. Ecclesiastes 1:17).

what can the man do that cometh after the king?] Literally, What is the man.… The words are apparently a kind of proverb. No other child of man could try the experiment under more promising conditions than a king like the Solomon of history, and therefore the answer to the question, What can such a man be or do? is simply (if we follow the construction of the A. V.) “Even that which men did before.” He shall tread the same weary round with the same unsatisfying results. The verse is, however, obscure, and has been very variously rendered. So (1) the LXX., following another text, gives “What man will follow after counsel in whatsoever things they wrought it;” (2) the Vulgate, “What is man, said I, that he can follow the King, his Maker;” and (3) many modern interpreters. “What can the man do that comes after the king, whom they made long ago?” i.e. Who can equal the time-honoured fame of Solomon?

Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
13. I saw that wisdom excelleth folly] Better, as keeping up, in the English as in the Hebrew, the characteristic word of the book, There is profit in wisdom more than in folly, and so in the second clause. Something then had been gained by the experience. In language like that of the Stoics he sings the praises of wisdom. Even the wisdom that brings sorrow (ch. Ecclesiastes 1:13) is better than the mirth of fools. A man is conscious of being more truly man when he looks before and after, and knows how to observe. Light is, after all, better than darkness, even if it only shews us that we are treading the path that leads to nothingness. The human heart obeys its instincts when it cries out with Aias,

ἐν δὲ φάει καὶ ὄλεσσον.

“And if our fate be death, give light, and let us die.”

Hom. Il. xvii. 647.

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.
14. The wise man’s eyes are in his head] The figurative language is so much of the nature of an universal parable that we need hardly look to any special source for it, but we are at least reminded of those that “walk on still in darkness,” who have eyes and yet “see not” in any true sense of seeing (Isaiah 6:10). In Proverbs 17:24 we have the opposite form of the same thought: “The eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth.” Comp. also John 11:10; John 12:33.

and I myself perceived also] Better, And yet I myself perceived. The thought of Ecclesiastes 2:13 which had given an apparent resting-place for the seeker, is traversed by another which sends him once more adrift. Wisdom is better than folly. True, but for how long? With an emphasized stress on his own personal reflections, he goes on, “Yes, I myself, learning it for myself, and not as a topic of the schools, saw that there is one event for the wise and for the fool.” In a few short years the difference in which the former exults will vanish, and both will be on the same level. So sang the Epicurean poet:

“Omnes una manet nox,

Et calcanda semel via lethi.”

“One dark black night awaits us all;

One path of death we all must tread.”

Hor. Od. i. 28. 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.
15. why was I then more wise?] Better, Why have I been wise now overmuch? The very wisdom of the seeker might lead him to see that he has not only been wiser than others, but wiser than it was wise to be. The last word is almost identical with the “profit” which occurs so frequently. He found that he had a surplus of wisdom, and that it was but surplusage. We seem to hear an echo of the Μηδὲ νἀγὰν, the Ne quid nimis (“Nothing in excess”) of Greek and Roman sages. So, with the same Hebrew word, we have in chap. Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Be not righteous over much.” So it was that the sentence of ‘Vanity’ was once more written on wisdom as well as folly. It is not without significance that the man feels the bitterness of the sentence, because, even in his wisdom, he, like the Stoics, had been egoistic. That he and the fool, the man of large discourse, and the man to whom culture was an unknown word, should die the same death, this made him curse his destiny.

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.
16. there is no remembrance of the wise] More accurately, For the wise man as for the fool there is no remembrance for ever, the last two words being emphatic, almost as if intentionally calling in question the teaching of Psalm 112:6, that “the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.” The assertion seems at first too sweeping. There are sages, we say, who live yet in the memory of men whose names the world will not willingly let die. Practically, however, as regards the influence of the desire for posthumous fame as a motive, the number of such names is inappreciably small, even with the manifold resources of monuments and written records. The scribes and doctors, the artists and the poets of one age are forgotten in the next, and only here or there can any man be bold to say with Bacon that he commits his memory “to the care of future ages.” (See note on ch. Ecclesiastes 1:11.) Even a biographical dictionary is often but as the sepulchre of the mouldering remains of reputations that have been long since dead, and their place knoweth them no more. Then, as in later days, there were those who substituted the permanence of fame for that of personal being, and the Debater, with his incisive question shatters the unsubstantial fabric.

And how dieth the wise man? As the fool] Literally, “with the fool,” as if in partnership with him, sharing the same lot. Better, perhaps, as an exclamation, not a question, “How dieth the wise man with (= as) the fool. The absence of any hope of an immortality beyond that of fame has been already implied. The present clause brings before us the manner and circumstances of death. We stand, as it were, by the two death-beds, of the wise and of the fool, and note the same signs of the end, the same glazed eye, the same death-dew on the brow, the same failing power of thought. The picture of chap. Ecclesiastes 12:1-6 is true of both. The seeker had apparently never stood by the death-bed of one whose face was lit up, and, as it were, transfigured by a “hope full of immortality.” Here also we may trace in the later personator of Solomon a deliberate protest against what seemed to him the teaching of Ecclesiastes (Wis 2:1-9).

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.
17. Therefore I hated life] Better, And I hated. Of such a temper, the extremest form of pessimism, suicide would seem the natural and logical outcome. In practice, however, the sages who have thus moralized, from Koheleth to Schopenhauer, have found life worth living for, even when they were proving that it was hateful. Even the very utterance of the thought has been a relief, or, like Hamlet, they have been deterred by the vague terror of the “something after death” which their scepticism cannot quite shake off. The actual self-murderers are those who cannot weave their experiences into poems and confessions, and find the burden of life, including its sin and shame, more than they can bear. It may be questioned whether mere weariness of life, able to find vent for itself in verse or prose, has ever led to suicide. The man, as here, seems to come to the very verge of it, and then draws back. It is suggestive that in the history of Greek and Roman philosophy suicide was more frequent and more honoured among the Stoics than the Epicureans (Zeller, Stoics and Epic. c. xii.). The recurrence of the burden “vanity and feeding upon wind” rings, as it were, the death-knell of life and hope.

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.
18. because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me] The history of the great ones of the earth presents not a few parallel utterances. Mazarin walks through the galleries of his palace and says to himself, “Il faut quitter tout cela.” Frederick William IV. of Prussia turns to his friend Bunsen as they stand on the terrace at Potsdam, and says, as they look out on the garden, “Das auch, das soll ich lassen,” (“This too I must leave behind me”.) The thought recurs again and again (chs. Ecclesiastes 4:8, Ecclesiastes 5:14, Ecclesiastes 6:2).

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.
19. who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man] We note in this rather the utterance of a generalized experience than, as some have thought, the special thought of the historical Solomon watching the growth of a character like Rehoboam. No man, whatever care he may take to entail his possessions, can secure an entail of character. And there is something irritating at times,—the writer seems to hint, almost maddening,—in the thought that whatever may be the character of the heir, he will have power to scatter in random waste what has been brought together, as with a purpose and a policy. Lands, libraries, galleries are all liable to be scattered and broken up. So in Psalm 39:6 we have as the doom of the mammon-worshipper, “He heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.” So the sting of the message that comes to the Rich Fool of the parable is “Then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” Luke 12:20.

Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.
20. I went about to cause my heart to despair] The verb for despair is not a common one. Another form of it meets us in the emphatic cry, “There is no hope” of Jeremiah 2:25; Jeremiah 18:12. What he had felt had made the seeker renounce the very impulse that led to labour. In the phrase “I went about,” literally, “I turned,” we have, as it were, the attitude of one who looks behind him on the road on which so far he has travelled. The retrospect was so dreary that it made the prospect drearier still.

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.
21. For there is a man] It is characteristic of the Debater that he broods over the same thought, and contemplates it as in a variety of aspects. It is not merely, as in Ecclesiastes 2:19, that another possessed his heaped up riches who may use them quite otherwise than he would have them used, but that the man who by his wisdom has achieved wealth (for “equity” we should rather read here and in chap. Ecclesiastes 4:4, Ecclesiastes 5:11skill” or “success,” the moral character of the success not being here in question) has to leave it to one who has not worked at all, it may be to an alien in blood.

For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?
22. the vexation of his heart] The word differs from that for which “feeding on wind” has been suggested, but is akin to it, and has been, as in Ecclesiastes 1:17, rendered by meditation. Here, perhaps, “corroding care” would best convey its meaning.

For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.
23. yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night] The verse speaks out the experience of the men who labour for that which does not profit. There is no real pleasure, even at the time. The “cares of this world” come together with “the pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). We trace the same yearning after the “sweet sleep” that lies in the far-off past as in ch. Ecclesiastes 5:12, perhaps also in the “almond tree” of ch. Ecclesiastes 12:5. So has the great master-poet portrayed the wakefulness of successful ambition, the yearning for the sleep of the “smoky crib,” or even of the ship-boy on the mast, the terrible conclusion,

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Shakespeare, Henry IV. Part II. Act iii. 1.

No “poppies” or “mandragora” can restore that sleep to the slave of mammon or the worn out sensualist.

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.
24. There is nothing better for a man] The Hebrew, as it stands, gives a meaning which is partly represented by the LXX., “There is no good for a man which he shall eat and drink,” as though the simplest form of bodily pleasure were condemned. Almost all interpreters however are agreed in adopting a conjectural emendation, which again in its turn has given rise to two different renderings: (1) “Is it not better (or “Is it not good”) for a man to eat and drink …?” or (2) “there is nothing good for a man but to eat and drink.…” The two last are of course substantially the same in their teaching, and both express what we may call the higher type of Epicureanism which forms one element of the book. The pursuit of riches, state, luxury, is abandoned for the simple joys that lie within every man’s reach, the “fallentis semita vitae” of one who has learnt the lesson of regulating his desires. The words “to eat and drink” are closely connected with “enjoying good in his labour.” What is praised is not the life of slothful self-indulgence or æsthetic refinement, but that of a man who, though with higher culture, is content to live as simply as the ploughman, or the vinedresser, or artificer. Λάθε βιώσας, “live in the shade,” was the Epicurean rule of wisdom. Pleasure was not found in feasts and sensual excess but in sobriety of mind, and the conquest of prejudice and superstition (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 132). The real wants of such a life are few, and there is a joy in working for them. Here again the thought finds multiform echoes in the utterances of men who have found the cares and pleasures and pursuits of a more ambitious life unsatisfying. It is significant that the very words “eat and drink” had been used by Jeremiah in describing the pattern life of a righteous king (Jeremiah 22:15). The type of life described is altogether different from that of the lower Epicureans who said “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).

So we have one Epicurean poet singing

“Si non aurea sunt iuvenum simulacra per aedes

Lampadas igniferas manibus retinentia dextris,

Lumina nocturnis epulis ut suppeditentur,

Nec domus argento fulget auroque renidet

Nec citharae reboant laqueata aurataque templa,

Cum tamen inter se prostrati in gramine molli

Propter aquae rivum sub ramis arboris altae

Non magnis opibus iucunde corpora curant,

Praesertim cum tempestas adridet et anni

Tempora conspergunt viridantis floribus herbas.”

“What though no golden statues of fair boys

With lamp in hand illumine all the house

And cast their lustre on the nightly feast;

Nor does their home with silver or with gold

Dazzle the eye; nor through the ceilèd roof,

Bedecked with gold, the harps re-echo loud.

Yet, while reclining on the soft sweet grass

They lie in groups along the river’s bank,

Beneath the branches of some lofty tree,

And at small cost find sweet refreshment there,

What time the season smiles, and spring-tide weeks

Re-gem the herbage green with many a flower.”

Lucret. De Rer. Nat. ii. 24–33.

So Virgil sang:

“O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,


and of these good things dwelt chiefly on

“At secura quies et nescia fallere vita.

Dives opum variarum, at latis otia fundis,

Speluncae, vivique lacus, et frigida Tempe,

Mugitusque boum, mollesque sub arbore somni

Non absunt; illic saltus ac lustra ferarum,

Et patiens operum exiguoque adsueta juventus,

Sacra deum, sanctique patres; extrema per illos

Justitia excedens terris vestigia fecit.”

“Ah! but too happy, did they know their bliss

The tillers of the soil!…

Their’s the calm peace, and life that knows no fraud,

Rich in its varied wealth; and leisure their’s

In the broad meadows; caves and living lakes

And Tempe cool, and lowing of the kine;

Nor want they slumber sweet beneath the trees;

There are the thickets and the wild beasts’ haunts,

And youth enduring toil and trained to thrift;

There Gods are worshipped, fathers held in awe,

And Justice, when she parted from the earth

Left there her latest foot-prints.”

Georg. ii. 467–474.

So Horace, in the same strain:

“Beatus ille qui procul negotiis,

Ut prisca gens mortalium,

Paterna rura bubus exercet suis,

Solutus omni foenore.”

“Thrice blest is he who free from care

Lives now, as lived our fathers old,

And free from weight of honoured gold,

With his own oxen drives the share

O’er fields he owns as rightful heir.”

Horace, Epod. ii. 1.

So Shakespeare once more makes a king echo the teaching of Ecclesiastes:

“And to conclude: the shepherd’s homely curds,

His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,

His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,

All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,

Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,

His viands sparkling in a golden cup,

His body couched in a curious bed,

When care, mistrust, and treason wait on him.”

Henry VI., Part III. Act ii. 5.

This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God] In the thought which is thus expressed, we find, however, something more than an echo of Greek Epicureanism. The Debater recognises a Divine Will in this apportionment of happiness, just as he had before recognised that Will in the toil and travail with which the sons of man were exercised (ch. Ecclesiastes 1:13). The apparent inequalities are thus, in part at least, redressed, and it is shewn as the teaching of experience no less than of the Divine Master, that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).

For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?
25. For who can eat] The sequence of thought is obscure, and many commentators follow the LXX. and the Syriac version, as implying an original text which gives a better meaning, Who can eat and who can hasten (i.e. be eager in this pursuit of pleasure), or, as some take the words, have enjoyment, without Him, i.e. without God. This, it is obvious, follows on the thought of the preceding verse, that the calm enjoyment of which it speaks as “good,” is “from the hand of God.” Those who keep to the received text give it very different meanings, of which the two most prominent are: (1) that we have, as it were, the words of the labourer whose lot the Debater here admired, “Who has a right to eat and enjoy himself, if not I?” the thought being parallel to that of 2 Timothy 2:6 (“The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits”); and (2) that the Debater speaks in his own person, “Who could eat or enjoy more than I? Who therefore can better attest that it is all in vain without the gift of God.” On the assumption that the writer was one who had come into contact with Greek thought, we may trace in this utterance partly the old faith of Israel reasserting itself and giving a higher sanction to the life of regulated enjoyment which the Greek teachers counselled, partly, perhaps, the mingling of Stoic and Epicurean counsels natural in a mind that had listened to both and attached himself definitely to neither. So in the Meditations of Aurelius we have like thoughts: πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα θεῶν βοηθῶν καὶ τύχης δειται (“all these things require the help of the Gods and of Fortune”); and again τὰ τῶν Θεῶν προνίας μεστὰ (“the works of the Gods are full of Providence” (Meditt. ii. 3). Koheleth, of course, as an Israelite, used the language of the wiser Stoics, like Cleanthes, and spoke of one God only.

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.
26. For God giveth] The word for God, as the italics shew, is not in the Hebrew, but it is obviously implied, and its non-appearance justifies the change in the text of the previous verse, which preserves the sequence of thought unbroken. What we get here is the recognition of what we have learnt to call the moral government of God in the distribution of happiness. It is found to depend not on outward but inward condition, and the chief inward condition is the character that God approves. The Debater practically confesses that the life of the pleasure-seeker, or the ambitious, or the philosopher seeking wisdom as an end, was not good before God, and therefore failed to bring contentment.

wisdom, and knowledge, and joy] The combination forms an emphatic contrast with ch. Ecclesiastes 1:18, and marks a step onward in the seeker’s progress. There is a wisdom which is not grief, an increase of knowledge which is not an increase of sorrow. We are reminded of the parallel thought which belongs to a higher region of the spiritual life, “The Kingdom of God … is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Here the lesson is that the man who seeks great things fails to find them, that he who is content with a little with God’s blessing on it, finds in that little much. He becomes αὐτάρκης (= self-sufficing)—and has enough.

but to the sinner he giveth travail] The words point to a further perception of a moral order in the midst of the seeming disorders of the world. The fruitless labour of the sinner in heaping up his often ill-gotten gains is not altogether wasted. His treasure passes into hands that make a better use of it than he has done. So we find a like thought in Proverbs 28:8, “He that by usury and unjust gains increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor,” and in Job 27:16-17, “Though he heap up silver as the dust, and prepare raiment as the clay; he may prepare it, but the just shall put it on, and the innocent shall divide the silver” (comp. Proverbs 13:22).

This also is vanity] The question which we have to answer is whether this sentence is passed only on the travail of the sinner, as in Ecclesiastes 2:11, or whether it includes also the measure of joy attainable by him who is “good” in the sight of God. From one point of view the former interpretation gives a preferable meaning, as more in harmony with what immediately precedes. On the other hand, it is characteristic of the cynical pessimism into which the Preacher has, by his own confession, fallen, that he should fall back into his despondency even after a momentary glimpse of a truth that might have raised him from it. The “Two Voices” utter themselves, as in Tennyson’s poem, (see Appendix II.) in a melancholy alternation and there comes a time when the simple joys which God gives to the contented labourer, no less than the satiety of the voluptuous and the rich, seem to him but as “vanity and feeding upon wind.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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