Ecclesiastes 3
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
1. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose] The two Hebrew nouns stand to each other in much the same relation as the Greek χρόνος and καιρός, the former expressing a period of duration, the latter the appointed time at which an event happens. Accepting this view, the words “season” and “time” in the A. V. ought, perhaps, to change places. The thought is one of which we find an echo in the maxim of Pittacus, Καιρὸν γνῶθι—“Know the right season for everything” (Diog. Laert. i. 4, § 6). It is significant, in connexion with the conclusion maintained in the Introduction, Ch. iii., that Demetrius Phalereus, the librarian of Ptolemy Philadelphus, wrote a treatise, περὶ καιροῦ, of opportuneness (Diog. Laert. Ecclesiastes 3:5 § 9). So Theognis, (402), Μηδὲν ἄγαν σπεύδειν, καιρὸς δʼ ἐπὶ πάσιν ἄριστος, “Do nothing in excess, In all we do is the right season precious.” So here the thought with which the new section opens is that it is wisdom to do the right thing at the right time, that inopportuneness is the bane of life. The survey of human occupations and interests that follows has a striking parallel in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (iv. 32), who, from his Stoic standpoint, sees in their perpetual recurrence, evidence of the monotonous iteration of the phenomena of man’s life, analogous to that of the phenomena of Nature.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
2. A time to be born] Literally, a time to bear. It should be noted that in Hebrew MSS. and printed texts, the list of Times and Seasons appears in two parallel columns, as if forming a kind of rhythmical catalogue, what the Greeks called a συστοιχία, or Table of Contrasts. It seems at first strange that the list should begin with events which are (putting aside the exceptional case of suicide) involuntary. It may be, however, that they were chosen for that very reason as representative instances of the fixed order on which the writer dwells. We shrink from the thought of an untimely birth (ch. Ecclesiastes 6:3) or an untimely death; we shudder at the thought of accelerating either, or of hindering the former, and yet the other incidents of life have, not less than these, each of them, their appointed season, if only we could discern it.

a time to plant] Human life in its beginning and its end is seen to have a parallel in that of plants. Here also there is a time for sowing, and after the fruits of the earth have been gathered in (this and not a wanton destruction, which would be a violation of the natural order, is clearly meant) to pluck up that the planting may again come. It is, perhaps, over fanciful to make the words include the “planting” and “uprooting” of nations and kingdoms as in Jeremiah 1:10. It is significant, however, that the word for “pluck up” is an unusual word, and, where it occurs elsewhere, in the O. T. is used figuratively of the destruction of cities as in Zephaniah 2:4.

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3. a time to kill, and a time to heal] The first group had brought together natural death and natural birth. This includes in the induction the death which man inflicts in battle or single combat, in attack or self-defence, or in administering justice, and with it the verb that includes all the resources of the healing art which can raise men from all but actual death. Here also there is an appointed order, and man’s wisdom lies in accepting it. This, rather than a fatalistic theory of Necessity, as being what man cannot, even if he will, resist, seems the thought expressed. The wise man knows when to slay and when to heal.

a time to break down, and a time to build up] The grouping reminds us as before of Jeremiah 1:10 and may possibly be extended so as to take in a figurative as well as a literal building. We may perhaps trace an allusive reference, if not to the text, yet to the thought which it expresses, in St Paul’s language in Galatians 2:18, “If I build again the things which I destroyed I make myself a transgressor.” His wisdom lay in recognising that the “fulness of time” had come for breaking down the old structure of Judaism and building up the new structure of the kingdom of God. Of the mere literal sense we have a striking illustration in the paraphrase of the words of Elisha to Gehazi (2 Kings 5:26) as given in the Christian Year.

“Is this a time to plant and build,

Add house to house and field to field?”

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
4. a time to weep] The two couples are naturally grouped together, the first taking in the natural spontaneous expression of individual feeling, the second the more formal manifestation of the feelings in the mourners and wailers of a funeral (Zechariah 12:10, where the same verb is found) and the dancers at a wedding feast. In the parable of the Children in the Market-place our Lord practically inculcates the lesson of the Debater. The Scribes who sneered at the fasts of John’s disciples, and condemned the disciples of Jesus for not fasting were as the children whose dramatic funerals and weddings were alike out of place and inopportune, and so the true followers after the Wisdom which “is justified of her children,” who recognised that the ascetic and the joyous life had each its true time and season, would not weep to their lamenting or dance to their piping (Matthew 11:16-19).

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
5. A time to cast away stones] The vagueness of the phrase has naturally given rise to conjectural interpretations. It seems obvious that the words cannot be a mere reproduction of Ecclesiastes 3:4 and therefore that the “casting away” and the “gathering” of stones must refer to something else than pulling down and building. Possibly we may think, with some interpreters, of the practice of covering fertile lands with stones as practised by an invading army (2 Kings 3:19) and clearing out the stones of a field or vineyard before planting it (Isaiah 5:2). In this case however we fail to see any link uniting the two clauses in the couplet. A possible explanation may be found (as Delitzsch half suggests) in the old Jewish practice, which has passed into the Christian Church, of flinging stones or earth into the grave at a burial, but this leaves the “gathering” unexplained, except so far as it represents the building of a house, and thus contrasts the close of a man’s home life with its beginning. In this case the ceremonial of death would be contrasted with the “embracing” of friends or lovers in the second clause.

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
6. A time to get, and a time to lose] The getting or the losing refer primarily, we can scarcely doubt, to what we call property. There are times when it is better and wiser to risk the loss of all we have rather than to set our minds on acquiring more. Something like this lesson we have in our Lord’s paradox “whosoever will (wills to) save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). In earthly, as in heavenly, things it is the note of a wise man that he knows when to be content to lose. So the Satirist condemns the folly of those who are content,

“Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.”

“And for mere life to lose life’s noblest ends.”

Juven. Sat. viii. 84.

a time to keep, and a time to cast away] The second couplet though closely allied with the foregoing is not identical with it. What is brought before us here is “keeping” as distinct from “getting,” and the voluntarily casting away (2 Kings 7:15) what we know we have, as distinct from the loss of a profit more or less contingent. And here too, as life passes on, it presents occasions when now this, now that, is the choice of wisdom. So the sailor, in danger of shipwreck, casts out his cargo, his tackling, the “furniture” of his ship (Acts 27:18-19; Acts 27:38).

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
7. A time to rent, and a time to sew] The words are commonly connected with the practice of rending the garments as a sign of sorrow (Genesis 37:29; Genesis 37:34; Genesis 44:13; Job 1:20; 2 Samuel 1:2) and sewing them up again when the season of mourning is past and men return again to the routine of their daily life. It is, however, somewhat against this view that it makes this generalisation practically identical with that of Ecclesiastes 3:4. The symbolic use of “rending a garment” to represent the division of a kingdom, as in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite (1 Kings 11:30) and therefore of “sewing” for the restoration of unity (so the “seamless garment” of John 19:23 has always been regarded as a type of the unity of Christ’s Church) seems to suggest a more satisfying sense. There are seasons when it is wise to risk or even to cause discord and division in families (Matthew 10:34-35) or schism in Church or State, other seasons when men should strive to restore unity and to be healers of the breach (Isaiah 58:12). In the parable of the New Patch upon the old Garment we have an instance of an inopportune sewing which does but make the rent worse (Matthew 9:16).

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak] Here again the range of thought has been needlessly limited by interpreters to the silence which belongs to deep sorrow, of which we have an example in the conduct of the friends of Job (Job 2:12-13), of the want of which in the sons of the prophets Elisha complained bitterly (2 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 2:5). This is, of course, not excluded, but the range of the law is wider, and takes in on the one hand, the unseasonable talk of the “prating fool” of Proverbs 10:8, and on the other the “word spoken in due season” (Proverbs 15:23), to one that is weary (Isaiah 50:4), the right word at the right time, in the utterance of which we rightly see a genius akin to inspiration. If it is true at times that speech is silvern and silence golden, there are times when the converse also is true, when the word in season is like “apples of gold (= perhaps, oranges) in a basket of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
8. A time to love, and a time, to hate] Greek thought again supplies us with a parallel,

ἡμεῖς δὲ πῶς οὐ γνωσόμεσθα σωφρονεῖν;

ἐγὼ δʼ, ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ἀρτίως ὅτι

ὅ τʼ ἐχθρὸς ἡμῖν ἐς τοσόνδʼ ἐχθαρτέος,

ὡς καὶ φιλήσων αὖθις, ἔς τε τὸν φίλον

τοσαῦθʼ ὑπουργῶν ὠφελεῖν βουλήσομαι,

ὡς αἰὲν οὑ μενοῦντα.

“Shall not we too learn

Our lesson of true wisdom? I indeed

Have learnt but now that we should hate a foe

Only so far as one that yet may love,

And to a friend just so much help I’ll give

As unto one that will not always stay.”

Soph. Aias, 680–686.

a time of war, and a time of peace] The change in the Hebrew, as in the English, from verbs in the infinitive to substantives is probably intended to emphasize the completion of the list. The words are of course closely connected with the “love” and “hate” of the preceding clause, but differ in referring to the wider range of national relations. Here also the wisdom of a king or statesman lies in discerning the opportuneness of war or peace, in seeing when the maxim “si vis pacem para bellum” is applicable or inapplicable.

It may be well to repeat here what was said at the outset in reference to this list of times and seasons, that the idea of a Necessity, Fate, Predestination, which many interpreters, bent on finding traces of a Stoic fatalism, have read into the teaching of the section, is really foreign to the writer’s thoughts. That which he insists on is the thought that the circumstances and events of life form part of a Divine Order, are not things that come at random, and that wisdom, and therefore such a measure of happiness as is attainable, lies in adapting ourselves to the order and accepting the guidance of events in great things and small, while shame and confusion come from resisting it. The lesson is in fact identical with one very familiar to us at once in the commonest of all proverbs, “Take time by the forelock;” “Time and tide wait for no man,” and in a loftier strain,

“There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the remnant of their lives

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, iv. 3.

It is well to remember such counsels of prudence. It is well also to remember that a yet higher wisdom bids us in the highest work “to be instant, in season, out of season” (εὐκαίρως, ἀκαίρως, 2 Timothy 4:2).

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
9. What profit hath he that worketh?] The long induction is completed, and yet is followed by the same despairing question as that of ch. Ecclesiastes 1:3, asked as from a stand-point that commands a wider horizon. Does not this very thought of a right season for every action increase the difficulty of acting? Who can be sure that he has found the season? The chances of failure are greater than the chances of success.

I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
10. I have seen the travail, which God hath given] Better perhaps, I have seen the labour, or the business. As before, in the preceding verse, the thinker, once back in the old groove of thought, repeats himself, and we have the very words of ch. Ecclesiastes 1:13, but, as before, here also developed by a wider experience. In this feeling after the right “season” for each act, this craving for a harmony between man’s will and the divine order, he recognises a divinely implanted instinct which yet finds no full satisfaction.

He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
11. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time] Better, as removing the ambiguity of the possessive pronoun in modern English ears, “in its time.” The thinker rests for a time in the primeval faith of Israel that all things were created “very good” (Genesis 1:31), in the Stoic thought of a divine system, a Cosmos of order and of beauty, of a plan, even in the development of human history, in which all things work together for good. So even in Lucretius,

“Certa suo quia tempore semina rerum

Cum confluxerunt, patefit quodcumque creator.”

“So when the germs of things in season due

Have met together, all creation’s work

Is to our eyes made open.”

De Rer. Nat. i. 176.

What hinders it from being a final resting-place of thought is that his knowledge is confined within narrow limits. He sees but a fragment, and the “most part” of the Divine Work “is hid.”

also he hath set the world in their heart] The Hebrew for “world” (primarily, “the hidden”) is that which, in its adverbial or adjectival use, constantly appears in the English Version as “for ever,” “perpetual,” “everlasting,” “always,” “eternal,” and the like. No other meaning but that of a duration, the end or beginning of which is hidden from us, and which therefore is infinite, or, at least, indefinite, is ever connected with it in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and this is its uniform sense in this book (chs. Ecclesiastes 1:4; Ecclesiastes 1:10, Ecclesiastes 2:16, Ecclesiastes 3:14, Ecclesiastes 9:6, Ecclesiastes 12:5). In post-Biblical Hebrew it passes into the sense of the Greek αἰῶν, for the age, or the world considered in its relation to time and, on the theory of authorship adopted in the Introduction there is, perhaps, an approximation to that sense here. We must however translate, as the nearest equivalent, He hath set eternity (or, the everlasting) in their heart. The thought expressed is not that of the hope of an immortality, but rather the sense of the Infinite which precedes it, and out of which at last it grows. Man has the sense of an order perfect in its beauty. He has also the sense of a purpose working through the ages from everlasting to everlasting, but “beginning” and “end” are alike hidden from him and he fails to grasp it. In modern language he sees not “the beginning and the end,” the whence and the whither, of his own being, or of that of the Cosmos. He is oppressed with what German thinkers have named the Welt-Schmerz, the world-sorrow, the burden of the problems of the infinite and unfathomable Universe. Here again we have an echo of Stoic language as reproduced by Cicero, “Ipse autem homo natus est ad mundum contemplandum et imitandum” (de Nat. Deor. ii. 14. 37). All interpretations resting on later ideas of the “world,” as meaning simply the material universe, or worldly pleasures, or worldly wisdom, have to be rejected as inconsistent with lexical usage. By some writers, however, the word, with a variation in the vowels, has been taken as itself meaning “wisdom,” but though this signification is found in a cognate word in Arabic, it is unknown in Hebrew.

I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.
12. for a man to rejoice, and to do good] There is no instance in O. T. language of the phrase “do good” being used, like the Greek εὖ πράττειν, in the sense of “prospering,” or “enjoying one’s self,” and in ch. Ecclesiastes 7:20 it can only have its full ethical meaning, such as it has in Psalm 34:14; Psalm 37:3; Isaiah 38:3. On the whole, therefore, we are led to assign that meaning to it here. Over and above the life of honest labour and simple joys which had been recognised as good before, the seeker has learnt that “honesty is the best policy,” that “doing good” (the term is more comprehensive in its range than our “beneficence”) is in some sense the best way of getting good. It is not the highest ethical view of the end of life, but it was an advance on his previous conclusion.

And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
13. And also that every man] The addition of this clause confirms the interpretation just given of the “doing good” of the preceding verse. Had that meant simply enjoyment, this clause would have been an idle repetition. As it is, “doing good” takes its place, as it did with the nobler Epicureans, among the elements of happiness. So Epicurus himself taught that “it is not possible to live happily without also living wisely, and nobly, and justly” (Diog. Laert. x. 1, § 140).

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
14. I know that, whatsoever God doeth] We ask once again whether we are brought face to face with the thought of an iron destiny immutably fixing even the seeming accidents of life, and excluding man’s volition from any share in them, or whether the writer speaks of an order which men may, in the exercise of their freedom, transgress. And the answer, as before, is that the Debater, while he recognises man’s freedom, has come to see a purpose and an order even in those accidents. So Epicurus himself taught that it was better to hold even the popular belief as to the Gods than to be in bondage to the dogma of a destiny (Diog. Laert. x. 1, § 134). The Eternal Law fulfils itself “whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.” They cannot add to it or take from it, but they retain the power of obeying or resisting it. It partakes so far of the character which was afterwards ascribed to a special revelation (Revelation 22:18-19).

God doeth it, that men should fear before him] There is a profound psychological truth in the thought thus expressed. Men may dream that they can propitiate or change an arbitrary will, but no reverential awe, no fear of God, is so deep as that which rises from the contemplation of a Righteousness that does not change. So, in like manner, the unchangeableness of the Divine Will is made a ground of confidence and hope in the midst of perturbations (Malachi 3:6).

That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
15. God requireth that which is past] Better, seeks after that which is put to flight. The old thought of the uniformity of sequence in nature and in history which had before seemed oppressive in its monotony, has been balanced by the thought of God’s perfection and the beauty of His order, and by the “fear” which grows out of it. It is followed up by a new aspect of the same truth. The past is thought of as vanishing, “put to flight,” receding into the dim distance. It might seem to be passing into the abyss of oblivion, but God recalls it (this is obviously the meaning of “require” as used by the translators of the A. V. in its strict etymological sense), brings back the same order, or an analogous order of events, and so history repeats itself. The strange rendering adopted by the Targum and some modern interpreters, “God seeks the persecuted,” i.e. visits and protects them, though tenable as a translation, introduces an idea quite foreign to the train of thought.

And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
16. I saw under the sun the place of judgment] The Hebrew gives slightly different forms of the same noun, so as to gain the emphasis, without the monotony, of iteration, where the A.V. has the needless variation of “wickedness” and “iniquity.” Either word will do, but it should be the same in both clauses. We enter on another phase of the seeker’s thoughts. The moral disorder of the world, its oppressive rulers, its unjust judges, its religious hypocrisies, oppress him even more than the failure of his own schemes of happiness. In part the feeling implies a step out of selfishness, sympathy with the sufferers, the perception of what ought to be, as contrasted with what is, and therefore an upward step in the seeker’s progress. In the “place of judgment” we may see the tribunal where justice is administered: in that of “righteousness” the councils, secular, or, it may be, ecclesiastical, in which men ought to have been witnesses for the divine law of Righteousness and were self-seeking and ambitious.

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
17. God shall judge the righteous and the wicked] The words “I said in my heart” introduce this as the first thought that rises unbidden at the sight of the wrong-doing in the world. It was, as it were, an immediate intuitive judgment, as distinguished from those which are introduced by “I returned,” or “I considered” (chap. Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:7; Ecclesiastes 4:15). In the emphatic “there is a time there,” we may, perhaps, trace, as in the grand abruptness of Medea’s blessing on her children,

Εὐδαιμονοίτονἀλλʼ ἐκείτὰ δʼ ἐνθάδε

Πάτηρ ἀφείλετʼ.

“All good be with you!—but it must be there;

Here it is stolen from you by your sire.”

Eurip. Med. 1065.

or in Plato, ἡ ἐκείσε πορεία, (= “the journey thitherPhaed. p. 107 d), and in the “that world” of Luke 20:35, a passing belief in a judgment after death as redressing the wrongs of earth, soon to be, for a time, at least, traversed and overclouded by the sceptical thoughts with which the writer had come in contact. It is, however, possible that “there” may refer to the unfathomed depths of the divine Judgment which works, through long delay, at its appointed time, and in this case the thought finds a parallel in the complaint and confession of Psalm 73:17-28. The one immediate conviction is, however, balanced in the conflict of thought through which the Debater is passing, by another which seems incompatible with it.

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
18. I said in mine heart] The word “estate” expresses fairly the meaning of the Hebrew noun, which may be rendered “word,” “matter,” or “subject.” In the next clause for “that God might manifest them,” we may better read, that God might separate, sift, or try them, i.e. in modern phrase, He leaves the disorders of the world unredressed, as part of man’s probation. This comes into the heart of the seeker as a partial explanation of the disorders noted in Ecclesiastes 3:16.

that they might see that they themselves are beasts] The pronoun in the original has, as in the English version, the strong emphasis of iteration, that they are beasts, they by themselves. The thought implied is that without a higher faith of some kind—whether in the Divine Righteousness or in Immortality, is not yet defined—Man stands, as having only an animal life, on the same level as other animals. In the words of an old English poet:

“Unless above himself he can

Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!”

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
19. that which befalleth the sons of men] More accurately, chance are the sons of men; chance is the beast; one chance is to both of them. The thought is emphasized by the threefold iteration of the depressing word. As so often throughout the book, we have an echo, almost a verbal translation, of a Greek saying. So Solon had said to Crœsus in a discourse which breathes the very spirit of Ecclesiastes (Herod. i. 32), πᾶν ἐστι ἄνθρωπος συμφορή (“man is altogether a chance”).

as the one dieth, so dieth the other] The words are not without a partial parallel in the more devotional literature of Israel. The writer of Psalms 49 had given utterance to the thought “man that is in honour … is like the beasts that perish.” With him, however, this was affirmed only of those that “trust in their wealth,” the triumphant, self-indulgent evildoers, and it was balanced by the belief that “God would redeem” his soul “from the power of the grave.” Here the same thought is generalised in the tones of a half cynical despair, all the more striking if we assume that the belief in immortality, as afterwards developed in the creed of Pharisaism, was at the time gaining a more definite form among the writer’s countrymen. It may be traceable either to the reaction against the germs of Pharisaism which was afterwards represented by the Sadducees, or, as seems more probable from the general tone and character of the book, to the influence of the Greek thought, such as was embodied in the teaching of Epicurus and Pyrrho, with which the writer had come in contact.

yea, they have all one breath] The word is the same as the “spirit” of verse Ecclesiastes 3:19, and seems deliberately chosen with reference to the record of Genesis 2:7. The writer asks, What after all was that “breath of life?” Was there not a like “breath of life” in every beast of the field? It is significant that this is the only passage in the Old Testament in which the word is used definitely for the living principle of brutes, though we find it in Genesis 6:17; Genesis 7:15; Genesis 7:22; Psalm 104:30 for the life which is common both to them and man. Commonly, as in Job 12:10; Job 32:8, it is contrasted with the “soul” which represents their lower life.

a man hath no preeminence above a beast] This then was the conclusion to which the thinker was led by the materialism which he had imbibed from his Greek or Sadducean teachers. Put aside the belief in the prolongation of existence after death, that what has been begun here may be completed, and what has gone wrong here may be set right, and man is but a more highly organised animal, the “cunningest of Nature’s clocks” (to use Huxley’s phrase), and the high words which men speak as to his greatness are found hollow. They too are “vanity.” He differs from the brutes around him only, or chiefly, in having, what they have not, the burden of unsatisfied desires, the longing after an eternity which after all is denied him.

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
20. All go unto one place] The “place” thus spoken of is not the Sheol of the Hebrews or the Hades of the Greeks, which implied, however vaguely, some notion of a shadowy disembodied existence, for the souls of men as distinct from those of brutes, but simply the earth as at once the mother, the nourisher, and the sepulchre of every form of life. So Lucretius, as a disciple of Epicurus, speaks (De Rer. Nat. v. 259) of earth as being

“Omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulcrum.”

“The mother and the sepulchre of all.”

all are of the dust] There is an obviously deliberate reference to the narrative of the Creation in Genesis 2:7. To those who did not see below the surface, it seemed to affirm, as it did to the Sadducee, the denial of a life to come. “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return” was the sentence passed, they might say, as on the brute creation, so on man also (Genesis 3:19).

Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
21. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward] The words imply a strictly sceptical rather than a negative answer. They do not actually deny, still less do they affirm, as some have thought, that the spirit of man does ascend to a higher life, while that of the brute returns to dust. This would indeed be inconsistent with the whole context, and the consensus of the LXX., the Vulgate, the Targum, and the Syriac versions, all of which give “Who knoweth whether the spirit of man goeth upward?” is practically decisive. It is not till nearly the close of the book, with all its many wanderings of thought, that the seeker rests in that measure of the hope of immortality which we find in ch. Ecclesiastes 12:7. Here we have the accents, almost the very formula, of Pyrrhonism (Diog. Laert. ix. 11, §. 73), as borrowed from Euripides:

τίς δʼ οἶδεν εἰ τὸ ζῇν μὲν ἐστι κατθανεῖν,

τὸ κατθανεῖν δὲ ζῇν νομίζεται βροτοῖς.

“Who knoweth if true life be found in death,

While mortals think of what is death as life?”

Once more Lucretius echoes the phase of thought through which the Debater was passing:

“Ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai,

Nata sit an contra nascentibus insinuetur,

Et simul intereat nobiscum morte dirempta,

An tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas.”

“We know not what the nature of the soul,

Or born, or entering into men at birth,

Or whether with our frame it perisheth,

Or treads the gloom and regions vast of death.”

De Rer. Nat. i. 113–116.

So far, however, as scepticism is a step above denial, we may note this as an advance. There is at least the conception of a spirit that ascends to a life higher than its own, as a possible solution of the great enigma presented by the disorders of the world.

Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
22. Wherefore I perceive] The lesson of a tranquil regulated Epicureanism with its blending of healthy labour and calm enjoyment, is enforced as the conclusion from our ignorance of what comes after death, as before it flowed from the experience of life (ch. Ecclesiastes 2:24). Who knows whether we shall even have the power to take cognizance of what passes on earth after we are gone, or what our own state will be, if we continue to exist at all? The feeling was not unknown even to men of a higher faith than the Debater (Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:10-12, Isaiah 38:18).

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

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Ecclesiastes 2
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