Ecclesiastes 5:15
As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labor, which he may carry away in his hand.
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(15) There is a clear use of Job 1:21. (See also Psalm 139:15.) And this passage itself is used in Ecclesiasticus 40:1.



Ecclesiastes 5:15
. - Revelation 14:13.

It is to be observed that these two sharply contrasted texts do not refer to the same persons. The former is spoken of a rich worldling, the latter of ‘the dead who die in the Lord.’ The unrelieved gloom of the one is as a dark background against which the triumphant assurance of the other shines out the more brightly, and deepens the gloom which heightens it. The end of the man who has to go away from earth naked and empty-handed acquires new tragic force when set against the lot of those ‘whose works do follow them.’ Well-worn and commonplace as both sets of thought may be, they may perhaps be flashed up into new vividness by juxtaposition; and if in this sermon we have nothing new to say, old truth is not out of place till it has been wrought into and influenced our daily practice. We shall best gather the lessons of our text if we consider what we must leave, what we must take, and what we may take.

I. What we must leave.

The Preacher in the context presses home a formidable array of the limitations and insufficiencies of wealth. Possessed, it cannot satisfy, for the appetite grows with indulgence. Its increase barely keeps pace with the increase of its consumers. It contributes nothing to the advantage of its so-called owner except ‘the beholding of it with his eyes,’ and the need of watching it keeps them open when he would fain sleep. It is often kept to the owner’s hurt, it often disappears in unfortunate speculation, and the possessor’s heirs are paupers. But, even if all these possibilities are safely weathered, the man has to die and leave it all behind. ‘He shall take nothing of his labour which he can carry away in his hand’; that is to say, death separates from all with whom the life of the body brings us into connection. The things which are no parts of our true selves are ours in a very modified sense even whilst we seem to possess them, and the term of possession has a definite close. ‘Shrouds have no pockets,’ as the stern old proverb says. How many men have lived in the houses which we call ours, sat on our seats, walked over our lands, carried in their purses the money that is in ours! Is ‘the game worth the candle’ when we give our labour for so imperfect and brief a possession as at the fullest and the longest we enjoy of all earthly good? Surely a wise man will set little store by possessions of all which a cold, irresistible hand will come to strip him. Surely the life is wasted which spends its energy in robing itself in garments which will all be stripped from it when the naked self ‘returns to go as he came.’

But there are other things than these earthly possessions from which death separates us. It carries us far away from the sound of human voices and isolates us from living men. Honour and reputation cease to be audible. When a prominent man dies, what a clatter of conflicting judgments contends over his grave! and how utterly he is beyond them all! Praise or blame, blessing or banning are equally powerless to reach the unhearing ear or to agitate the unbeating heart. And when one of our small selves passes out of life, we hear no more the voice of censure or of praise, of love or of hate. Is it worth while to toil for the ‘hollow wraith of dying fame,’ or even for the clasp of loving hands which have to be loosened so surely and so soon?

Then again, there are other things which must be left behind as belonging only to the present order, and connected with bodily life. There will be no scope for material work, and much of all our knowledge will be antiquated when the light beyond shines in. As we shall have occasion to see presently, there is a permanent element in the most material work, and if in handling the transient we have been living for the eternal, such work will abide; but if we think of the spirit in which a sad majority do their daily tasks, whether of a more material or of a more intellectual sort, we must recognise that a very large proportion of all the business of life must come to an end here. There is nothing in it that will stand the voyage across the great deep, or that can survive in the order of things to which we go. What is a man to do in another world, supposing there is another world, where ledgers and mills are out of date? Or what has a scholar or scientist to do in a state of things where there is no place for dictionaries and grammars, for acute criticism, or for a careful scientific research?

Physical science, linguistic knowledge, political wisdom, will be antiquated. The poetry which glorifies afresh and interprets the present will have lost its meaning. Half the problems that torture us here will cease to have existence, and most of the other half will have been solved by simple change of position. ‘Whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away’; and it becomes us all to bethink ourselves whether there is anything in our lives that we can carry away when all that is ‘of the earth earthy’ has sunk into nothingness.

II. What we must take.

We must take ourselves. It is the same ‘he’ who goes ‘naked as he came’; it is the same ‘he’ who ‘came from his mother’s womb,’ and is ‘born again’ as it were into a new life, only ‘he’ has by his earthly life been developed and revealed. The plant has flowered and fruited. What was mere potentiality has become fact. There is now fixed character. The transient possessions, relationships, and occupations of the earthly life are gone, but the man that they have made is there. And in the character there are predominant habits which insist upon having their sway, and a memory of which, as we may believe, there is written indelibly all the past. Whatever death may strip from us, there is no reason to suppose that it touches the consciousness and personal identity, or the prevailing set and inclination of our characters. And if we do indeed pass into another life ‘not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness,’ but carrying a perfected memory and clothed in a garment woven of all our past actions, there needs no more to bring about a solemn and continuous act of judgment.

III. What we may take.

‘Their works do follow them.’ These are the words of the Spirit concerning ‘the dead who die in the Lord.’ We need not fear marring the great truth that ‘not by works of righteousness but by His mercy He saved us,’ if we firmly grasp the large assurance which this text blessedly contains. A Christian man’s works are perpetual in the measure in which they harmonise with the divine will, in the measure they have eternal consequences in himself whatever they may have on others. If we live opening our minds and hearts to the influx of the divine power ‘that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure,’ then we may be humbly sure that these ‘works’ are eternal; and though they will never constitute the ground of our acceptance, they will never fail to secure ‘a great recompence of reward.’ To many a humble saint there will be a moment of wondering thankfulness when he sees these his ‘children whom God hath given him’ clustered round him, and has to say, ‘Lord, when saw I Thee naked, or in prison, and visited Thee?’ There will be many an apocalypse of grateful surprise in the revelations of the heavens. We remember Milton’s noble explanation of these great words which may well silence our feeble attempts to enforce them-

‘Thy works and alms and all thy good endeavour

Stood not behind, nor in the grave were trod,

But as faith pointed with her golden rod,

Followed them up to joy and bliss for ever.’

So then, life here and yonder will for the Christian soul be one continuous whole, only that there, while ‘their works do follow them,’ ‘they rest from their labours.’Ecclesiastes 5:15-17. As he came forth, &c., naked shall he return — Into the womb, or belly of the earth, the common mother of all mankind. And shall take nothing of his labour — This is another vanity. If his estate be neither lost nor kept to his hurt, yet when he dies he must leave it behind him, and cannot carry one handful of it into another world. And what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind — For riches, which are empty and unsatisfying, uncertain and transitory; which no man can hold or stay in their course; all which are the properties of the wind. All his days also — Namely, of his life; he eateth in darkness — He hath no comfort in his estate, but even when he eats, he doth it with anxiety and discontent. And wrath with his sickness — When he falls sick, and presages his death, he is filled with rage, because he is cut off before he hath accomplished his designs, and because he must leave that wealth and world in which all his hopes and happiness lie.5:9-17 The goodness of Providence is more equally distributed than appears to a careless observer. The king needs the common things of life, and the poor share them; they relish their morsel better than he does his luxuries. There are bodily desires which silver itself will not satisfy, much less will worldly abundance satisfy spiritual desires. The more men have, the better house they must keep, the more servants they must employ, the more guests they must entertain, and the more they will have hanging on them. The sleep of the labourer is sweet, not only because he is tired, but because he has little care to break his sleep. The sleep of the diligent Christian, and his long sleep, are sweet; having spent himself and his time in the service of God, he can cheerfully repose in God as his Rest. But those who have every thing else, often fail to secure a good night's sleep; their abundance breaks their rest. Riches do hurt, and draw away the heart from God and duty. Men do hurt with their riches, not only gratifying their own lusts, but oppressing others, and dealing hardly with them. They will see that they have laboured for the wind, when, at death, they find the profit of their labour is all gone like the wind, they know not whither. How ill the covetous worldling bears the calamities of human life! He does not sorrow to repentance, but is angry at the providence of God, angry at all about him; which doubles his affliction.Evil travail - Adverse accident, or unsuccessful employment (compare Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 4:8). 13, 14. Proofs of God's judgments even in this world (Pr 11:31). The rich oppressor's wealth provokes enemies, robbers, &c. Then, after having kept it for an expected son, he loses it beforehand by misfortune ("by evil travail"), and the son is born to be heir of poverty. Ec 2:19, 23 gives another aspect of the same subject. Return to go into the womb or belly of the earth, the common mother of all mankind. See Poole "Job 1:21", See Poole "Ecclesiastes 12:7". And return to go, is put for return and go; and going is here put for dying, as Job 16:22 Psalm 39:13. This is another vanity: if his estate be neither lost, nor kept to his hurt, but enjoyed by him with safety and comfort all his days, yet when he dies he must leave it behind him, and cannot carry one handful of it with him into another world. As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came,.... This may be understood either of the covetous rich man, or of his son; and that supposing what is before said should not be the case of either of them, but they should possess their substance as long as they live; yet, when they come to die, they will be stripped of them all; of their gold and silver, their plate and jewels, and rich household furniture; of their cattle and possessions, farms and estates, which are no longer theirs; and even of their very clothes, and be as naked as they were when they came into the world; and which is indeed the case of every man, Job 1:21; and is used as an argument, and a very forcible one, against covetousness;

and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand; nothing of his substance, which he has got by his labour, and hoarded up with great care; not the least portion of it can he carry away with him when he dies; not any of his jewels, nor bags of gold and silver; and if any of these should be put into his grave, which has been sometimes done at the interment of great personages, these are of no manner of use and service to him, either to comfort and refresh his body, or to save his soul from hell, and procure it an entrance into the heavenly glory; see 1 Timothy 6:7. The Targum allegorizes this in a very orthodox way, not very usual, in favour of original sin, and against the doctrine of merit;

"as he goes out of his mother's womb naked, without a covering, and without any good; so he shall return to go to the house of his grave, indigent of merit, as he came into this world; and no good reward shall he receive by his labour, to take with him into the world to which he goes, that it may be for merit in his hand.''

As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.
15. As he came forth of his mother’s womb] The words so closely resemble those of Job 1:21 that it is natural to infer that the writer had that history in his mind as an example of a sudden reverse of fortune. In both, earth, as the mother of all living, is thought of as the womb out of which each man comes (Psalm 139:15) and to which he must return at last, carrying none of his earthly possessions with him. Comp. a striking parallel in Sir 40:1.Verse 15. - The case of the rich man who has lost his property is here generalized. What is true of him is, in a measure, true of every one, so far as he can carry nothing away with him when he dies (Psalm 49:17). As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came. There is a plain reference to Job 1:21, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither." The mother is the earth, human beings being regarded as her offspring. So the psalmist says, "My frame was curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth" (Psalm 139:15). And Ben-Sira, "Great trouble is created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother's womb till the day that they return to the mother of all things." 1 Timothy 6:7, "We brought nothing into the world, neither can we carry anything out." Thus Propertius, 'Eleg.,' 3:5. 13 -

"Hand ullas portabis opes Acherontis ad undas,
Nudus ab inferna, stulte, vehere rate."

"No wealth thou'lt take to Acheron's dark shore,
Naked, th' infernal bark will bear thee o'er."
Shall take nothing of his labor; rather, for his labor, the preposition being בְּ of price. He gets nothing by his long toil in amassing wealth. Which he may carry away in his hand, as his own possession. The ruined Dives points a moral for all men. The author, on the other hand, now praises the patriarchal form of government based on agriculture, whose king takes pride, not in bloody conquests and tyrannical caprice, but in the peaceful promotion of the welfare of his people: "But the advantage of a country consists always in a king given to the arable land." What impossibilities have been found here, even by the most recent expositors! Ewald, Heiligst., Elster, Zckl. translate: rex agro factus equals terrae praefectus; but, in the language of this book, not עבד but מלך עשׁה is the expression used for "to make a king." Gesen., Win., de Wette, Knobel, Vaih. translate: rex qui colitur a terra (civibus). But could a country, in the sense of its population in subjection to the king, be more inappropriately designated than by שׂדה? Besides, עבד certainly gains the meaning of colere where God is the object; but with a human ruler as the object it means servire and nothing more, and נעבּד

(Note: Thus pointed rightly in J., with Sheva quiesc. and Dagesh in Beth; vid., Kimchi in Michlol 63a, and under עבד.)

can mean nothing else than "dienstbar gemacht" made subject to, not "honoured." Along with this signification, related denom. to עבד, נעבד, referred from its primary signification to שׂדה, the open fields (from שׂדה, to go out in length and breadth), may also, after the phrase עבד האדמה, signify cultivated, wrought, tilled; and while the phrase "made subject to" must be certainly held as possible (Rashi, Aben Ezra, and others assume it without hesitation), but is without example, the Niph. occurs, e.g., at Ezekiel 36:9, in the latter signification, of the mountains of Israel: "ye shall be tilled." Under Ecclesiastes 5:8, Hitzig, and with him Stuart and Zckler, makes the misleading remark that the Chethı̂b is בּכל־היא, and that it is equals בּכל־זאת, according to which the explanation is then given: the protection and security which an earthly ruler secures is, notwithstanding this, not to be disparaged. But היא is Chethı̂b, for which the Kerı̂ substitutes הוּא; בּכּל is Chethı̂b without Kerı̂; and that בּכל is thus a modification of the text, and that, too, an objectionable one, since בכל־היא, in the sense of "in all this," is unheard of. The Kerı̂ seeks, without any necessity, to make the pred. and subj. like one another in gender; without necessity, for היא may also be neut.: the advantage of a land is this, viz., what follows. And how בּכּל is to be understood is seen from Ezra 10:17, where it is to be explained: And they prepared

(Note: That כלה ב may mean "to be ready with anything," Keil erroneously points to Genesis 44:12; and Philippi, St. Const. p. 49, thinks that vǎkol ǎnāshim can be taken together in the sense of vakol haanashim.)

the sum of the men, i.e., the list of the men, of such as had married strange wives; cf. 1 Chronicles 7:5. Accordingly בכל here means, as the author generally uses הכל mostly in the impersonal sense of omnia: in omnibus, in all things equals by all means; or: in universum, in general. Were the words accentuated מלך לשדה נעבד, the adject. connection of לשׂ נע would thereby be shown; according to which the lxx and Theod. translate τοῦ αγροῦ εἰργασμένου; Symm., with the Syr., τῇ χώρα εἰργασμένη: "a king for the cultivated land," i.e., one who regards this as a chief object. Luzz. thus indeed accentuates; but the best established accentuation is מלך לשדה נעבד. This separation of נעבד from לש can only be intended to denote that נעבד is to be referred not to it, but to מלך, according to which the Targ. paraphrases. The meaning remains the same: a king subject (who has become a servus) to the cultivated land, rex agro addictus, as Dathe, Rosenm., and others translate, is a still more distinct expression of that which "a king for the well-cultivated field" would denote: an agriculture-king, - one who is addicted, not to wars, lawsuits, and sovereign stubbornness in his opinions, but who delights in the peaceful advancement of the prosperity of his country, and especially takes a lively interest in husbandry and the cultivation of the land. The order of the words in Ecclesiastes 5:8 is like that at Ecclesiastes 9:2; cf. Isaiah 8:22; Isaiah 22:2. The author thus praises, in contrast to a despotic state, a patriarchal kingdom based on agriculture.

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