Perhaps there is no book within the whole canon of Scripture
so perplexing and anomalous, at first sight, as that entitled "Ecclesiastes."
Its terrible hopelessness, its bold expression of those difficulties with
which man is surrounded on every side, the apparent fruitlessness of its
quest after good, the unsatisfactory character, from a Christian standpoint,
of its conclusion: all these points have made it, at one and the same time,
an enigma to the superficial student of the Word, and the arsenal whence
a far more superficial infidelity has sought to draw weapons for its warfare
against clear revelation. And yet here it is, embedded in the very heart
of those Scriptures which we are told were "given by inspiration of God,
and which are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for
instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly
furnished unto all good works." Then with this precious assurance of its
"profitableness" deeply fixed in our hearts by a living faith, and in absolute
dependence on that blessed One who is the one perfect Teacher, let us consider
First, then, let us seek to get all the light we can from
all the exterior marks it bears before seeking to interpret its contents.
For our primary care with regard to this, as indeed with regard to every
book in the Bible, must be to discover, if possible, what is the object
of the book,--from what standpoint does the writer approach his subject.
And first we find it in that group of books through which
the voice of man is prominent--Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles. In these
is heard the music of man's soul; often--nay, mostly--giving sorrowful
and striking evidence of discord, in wail and groan, in tear and sigh;
and yet again, in response evidently to the touch of some Master hand,
that knows it well,--a tender, gracious, compassionate touch,--rising into
a song of sweetest harmony that speaks eloquently of its possibilities,
and bears along on its chords the promise and hope of a complete restoration.
But we shall search our book in vain for any such expression of joy. No
song brightens its pages; no praise is heard amid its exercises. And yet
perfectly assured we may be that, listened to aright, it shall speak forth
the praise of God's beloved Son; looked at in a right light, it shall set
off His beauty. If "He turns the wrath of man to praise Him," surely we
may expect no less from man's sorrows and ignorance. This, then, we may
take it, is the object of the book, to show forth by its dark background
the glory of the Lord, to bring into glorious relief against the black
cloud of man's need and ignorance the bright light of a perfect, holy,
revelation; to let man tell out, in the person of his greatest and wisest,
when he, too, is at the summit of his greatness, with the full advantage
of his matured wisdom, the solemn questions of his inmost being; and show
that greatness to be of no avail in solving them,--that wisdom foiled in
the search for their answers.
This, then, we will conclude, is the purpose of the book
and the standpoint from which the writer speaks, and we shall find its
contents confirm this in every particular.
It has been well said that as regards each book in holy
writ the "key hangs by the door,"-- that is, that the first few sentences
will give the gist of the whole. And, indeed, pre-eminently is such the
case here. The first verse gives us who the writer is; the second, the
beginning and ending of his search. And therein lies the key of the whole;
for the writer is the son of David, the man exalted by Jehovah to highest
earthly glory. Through rejection and flight, through battle and conflict,
had the Lord brought David to this excellence of glory and power. All this
his "son" entered into in its perfection and at once. For it is that one
of his sons who speaks who is king, and in Jerusalem, the
city of God's choice, the beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole
earth. Such is the story of verse I. Nothing could
possibly go beyond the glory that is compassed by these few words. For
consider them, and you will see that they ascribe "wisdom, and honor,
power" to him of whom they are spoken; but it is human wisdom and
earthly power, all "under the sun." And now listen to the "song" that should
surely accompany this ascription; note the joy of a heart fully and completely
satisfied now that the pinnacle of human greatness is attained. Here it
is: "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all
is vanity!" The word hahvehl
is always translated, as here, "vanity."
It is sometimes applied to "idols," as Deut. xxxii. 21, and would give
the idea of emptiness -- nothingness. What a striking contrast! Man has
here all that Nature can possibly give; and his poor heart, far from singing,
is empty still, and utters its sad bitter groan of disappointment.
Now turn and contemplate that other scene, where the true Son of David,
only now a "Lamb as it had been slain," is the center of every circle,
the object of every heart. Tears are dried at the mention of His name,
and song after song bursts forth, till the whole universe of bliss pours
forth its joy, relieves its surcharged heart in praise. "Vanity of vanities,"
saith the Preacher. That is the
groan. "Thou art worthy to take
the book, and to open the seals thereof, for Thou wast slain, and hast
redeemed to God by Thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people,
and nation, and hast made them kings and priests, and they shall reign
over the earth." That is the new
song. Oh, blessed contrast! Does
it not make Him who Himself has replaced the groan by the song precious?
Has it, then, no value?
And this is just the purpose of the whole book, to furnish
such striking contrasts whereby the "new" is set off in its glories against
the dark background of the "old,"--rest against labor, hope against despair,
song against groan; and so the third verse puts this very explicitly,--"What
profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?"
The wisest and the greatest of men is seeking for an answer
to this question. And this verse is too important in its bearing on the
whole book to permit our passing it without looking at that significant
word "profit" a little closer. And here one feels the advantage of those
helps that a gracious God has put into our hands in these days of special
attack upon His revelation, whereby even the unlearned may, by a little
diligence, arrive at the exact shade of the meaning of a word. The word
"profit," then, is, in the Hebrew,
yithrohn, and is found in this
exact form only in this book, where it is translated "profit," as here,
or "excellency," as in chap. ii. 13. The Septuagint translates it into
a Greek one, meaning "advantage," or perhaps more literally, "that which
remains over and above." In Eph. iii. 20 it is rendered "exceeding abundantly
above." Hence we gather that our word intends to convey to us the question,
"After life is over, after man has given his labor, his time, his powers,
and his talents, what has he received in exchange that shall satisfy him
all that he has lost? Do the pleasures obtained during life fully compensate
for what is spent in obtaining them? Do they satisfy? and do they remain
to him as "profit" over and above that expenditure? In a word, what "under
the sun" can satisfy the longing, thirsting, hungering heart of man, so
that he can say, "My heart is filled to overflowing, its restless longings
are stilled, I have found a food that satisfies its hunger, a water that
quenches its thirst"? A question all-important, surely, and it will be
well worth listening to the experience of this seeker, who is fitted far
above his fellows for finding this satisfactory good, if it can be found
"under the sun."
First, then, the Preacher, like a good workman, takes
account of what material he has to work with. "Have I," he says, "any thing
that others have not had, or can I hope to find any thing that has not
been before?" At once he is struck with that "law of circuit" that is stamped
on every thing: generation follows generation; but no new earth, that
ever the same; the sun wheels ceaselessly in its one course; the winds
circle from point to point, but whirl about to their starting-place; the
waters, too, follow the same law, and keep up one unbroken circuit, Where
can rest be found in such a scene? Whilst there is unceasing change, nothing
is new; it is but a repetition of what has been before, and which
again soon passes, leaving the heart empty and hungry still. Again, then,
let us use this dark background to throw forward another scene. See, even
now, "above the sun" Him who is the Head and perfect Exponent of the creation
called the new. Is there any law of constant unsatisfying circuit
in Him? Nay, indeed, every sight we get of Him is new; each revelation
of Himself perfectly satisfies, and yet awakens appetite for further views.
"No pause, no change those pleasures
Shall ever seek to know;
The draught that lulls our thirsting
But wakes that thirst anew."
Or, again, look at that blessed "law of circuit" spoken
of in another way by one who has indeed been enlightened by a light "above
the sun" in every sense of the word, in 2 Cor. ix. It is not the circling
of winds or waters, but of "grace" direct from the blessed God Himself.
Mark the perfection stamped upon it both by its being a complete circle--never
ending, but returning again to its Source,--and by the numerical stamp
of perfection upon it in its seven distinct parts (or movements) as shown
by the sevenfold recurrence of the word "all," or "every," both
coming from the same Greek word.
1. "God is able to make all grace abound unto you."
There is an inexhaustible source.
We may come and come and come
again, and never find that fountain lowered by all our drafts upon
it. Sooner, far sooner, should the ocean be emptied by a teacup than infinite
"power" and "love" be impoverished by all that His saints could draw from
2. "That ye always." There is no moment when this
circle of blessing need stop flowing. It is ever available. No moment--by
day or night, in the quiet of the closet or in the activities of the day's
duties, when in communion with friends or in the company of foes,--when
that grace is not available. At all times.
3. "Having all sufficiency"-- perfect competence
to meet just the present emergency. A sufficiency, let us mark, absolutely
independent of Nature's resources,-- a sufficiency beautifully illustrated
by "unlearned and ignorant" Peter and John in the presence of the learned
Sanhedrim. Let us rejoice and praise God as we trace these three glorious
links in this endless chain of blessing. All sufficiency.
4. "In all things" (or "in every way").
It is no matter from what side the demand may come, this precious grace
is there to meet it. Is it to deal with another troubled anxious soul,
where human wisdom avails nothing? Divine wisdom and tact shall be supplied.
Courage if danger presents itself, or "all long-suffering with joyfulness"
if afflictions tear the heart. In all things.
5. "May abound to every good work." Now
filled to the brim, and still connected with an inexhaustible supply, the
vessel must overflow, and that on every side. No effort, no toil,
no weariness, no drawing by mechanical means from a deep well; but the
grace-filled heart, abiding (and that is the only condition) in complete
dependence upon its God, naturally overflows on every side--to all good
6. "Being enriched in every thing" (we omit the
parenthesis, although full of its own divine beauty), (or, "in every way").
This is in some sort a repetition of No. 5, but goes as far beyond it as
the word "enriched" is fuller than the word "sufficient." The latter fills
the vessel, as we have said, up to the brim; the former adds another drop,
and over it flows. In view of these "exceeding great and precious promises,"
we may say,--
"Oh wherefore should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others, that we are not always strong?"
since we may be enriched in all things.
7. "To all bountifulness." This stream of grace
is never to stagnate, or it will lose all its character of blessing, as
the manna hoarded for a second day "bred worms, and stank." Thus every
single Christian becomes a living channel of blessing to all around, and
the circle is now completed, by once more returning to the point whence
it started, "Which causeth through us thanksgiving to God," and closes
with no weary wail of "All things are full of labor," but joyful songs
resound on every side, and at every motion of this circle of blessing ascends
"thanksgiving to God." For just exactly the same full measure is seen in
the thanksgiving ascending at the end as in the grace descending in the
beginning." There it "abounded," filling the vessel full till it overflowed
in the same measure, "abounding" in blessings to others who needed, and
these forthwith pass on the stream in "abounding" thanksgiving to God.
The apostle himself, as if he could not suffer himself to be excluded from
the circle of blessing, adds his own note at the close with "Thanks be
unto God for His unspeakable gift." And shall we not, too, dear brother
or sister now reading these lines, let our feeble voice be heard in this
sweet harmony of praise? Has not this contrast between the new song and
the old groan, again we may ask, great value?
Having, then, seen in these first few verses the purpose
of the book and the standpoint of the writer, we may accompany him in the
details of his search. First he repeats, what is of the greatest importance
for us to remember (v. 12), "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem."
He would not have us forget that, should he fail in his search for perfect
satisfaction, it will not be because he is not fully qualified both by
his abilities and his position to succeed. But Infidelity, and its kinsman
Rationalism, raise a joyful shout over this verse; for to disconnect the
books of the Bible from the writers whose name they bear is a long step
toward overthrowing the authority of those books altogether. If the believer's
long-settled confidence can be proved vain in one point, and that so important
a point, there is good "hope" of eventually overthrowing it altogether.
So, with extravagant protestations of loyalty to the Scriptures, they,
Joablike, "kiss" and "stab" simultaneously, wonderfully manifesting in
word and work that dual form of the evil one, who, our Lord tells us, was
both "liar and murderer from the beginning." And many thousand professing
Christians are like Amasa of old, their ear is well pleased with the fair
sound of "Art thou in health, my brother?" and they, too, take "no heed
to the sword" in the inquirer's hand. Judas, too, in his day, illustrates
strongly that same diabolical compound of "deceit and violence," only the
enemy finds no unwary Amasa in Jesus the Lord. "Betrayest thou the Son
of man with a kiss" tears the vail from him at once; and in the same way
the feeblest believer who abides in Him, is led of that same spirit; and
"good words and fair speeches" do not deceive, nor can betrayal be hidden
behind the warmest protestations of affection.
But to return: "How could," cries this sapient infidelity,
which today has given itself the modest name of "Higher Criticism,"--"how
could Solomon say, 'I was king,' when he never ceased to be that?"
Ah! one fears if that same Lord were to speak once more as of old, He would
again say, "O fools and blind!" For is it not meet that the writer who
is about to give recital of his experiences should first tell us what his
position was at the very time of those experiences? That at the
very time of all these exercises, disappointments, and groanings, he was
the highest monarch on earth, king over an undivided Israel, in Jerusalem,
with all the resources and glories that accompany this high station, preeminently
fitting him to speak with authority, and compelling
listen with the profoundest respect and attention.
Yes, this glorious monarch "gives his heart"--that is,
applies himself with singleness of purpose "to seek and search out by wisdom
concerning all things that are done under heaven." No path that gives the
slightest promise of leading to happiness shall be untrodden; no pleasure
shall be denied, no toil be shirked that shall give any hope of satisfaction
or rest. "This sore travail hath God given to the sons of men to be exercised
therewith." That is, the heart of man hungers and thirsts, and he must
till he does find something to satisfy; and if, alas! he fail to find it
in "time," if he only drinks here of waters whereof he "that drinks shall
thirst again," eternity shall find him thirsting still, and crying for
one drop of water to cool his tongue. But then with what bitter despair
Ecclesiastes records all these searchings! "I have seen all the works that
are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit,"
or rather, "pursuit of the wind." Exactly seven times he uses this term,
"pursuit of the wind," expressing perfect, complete, despairing failure
in his quest. He finds things all wrong, but he has no power of righting
them; "that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is
wanting cannot be numbered." But perhaps we may get the secret of his failure
in his next words. He takes a companion or counselor in his search. Again
exactly seven times he takes counsel with this companion,
"his own heart,"--"I
communed with my own heart." That is the level of the book; the writer's
resources are all within himself; no light from without save that which
nature gives; no taking hold on another; no hand clasped by another. He
and his heart are alone. Ah! that is dangerous as well as dreary work to
take counsel with one's own heart. "Fool" and "lawless one" come to their
foolish and wicked conclusions there (Ps. xiv. 1); and what else than "folly"
could be expected in hearkening to that which is "deceitful above all things"--what
else than lawlessness in taking counsel with that which is "desperately
Take not, then, for thy counselor "thine own heart," when
divine love has placed infinite wisdom and knowledge at the disposal of
lowly faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, "who of God is made unto us wisdom,
" and "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
But does our Preacher find the rest he desires in the
path of his own wisdom? Not at all. "For in much wisdom is much grief,
and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." "Grief and sorrow"
ever growing, ever increasing, the further he treads that attractive and
comparatively elevated path of human wisdom. Nor has Solomon been a lonely
traveler along that road. Thousands of the more refined of Adam's sons
have chosen it; but none have gone beyond "the king," and none have discovered
anything in it, but added "grief and sorrow"--sorrowful groan! But the
youngest of God's family has his feet, too, on a path of "knowledge," and
he may press along that path without the slightest fear of "grief or sorrow"
resulting from added knowledge. Nay, a new song shall be in his mouth,
peace shall be multiplied through the knowledge of God and Jesus
our Lord." (2 Pet. i. 2). Blessed contrast! "Sorrow and grief"
multiplied through growth in human wisdom: "Grace and peace" multiplied
through growth in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord!
My beloved reader, I pray you meditate a little on this
striking and precious contrast. Here is Solomon in all his glory, with
a brighter halo of human wisdom round his head than ever had any of the
children of men. Turn to 1Kings iv. 29:--
"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding
much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.
And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children
of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.
For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite,
and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was
in all nations round about.
And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were
a thousand and five.
And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in
Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also
of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.
And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom."
Is it not a magnificent ascription of abounding wisdom?
What field has it not capacity to explore? Philosophy in its depths --
poetry in its beauties -- botany and zoology in their wonders. Do we envy
him? Then listen to what his poor heart was groaning all that time: "In
much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth
sorrow"! Now turn to our portion above the sun--"the knowledge of God and
of Jesus our Lord": infinitely higher, deeper, lovelier, and more wondrous
than the fields explored by Solomon, in constant unfoldings of riches of
wisdom; and each new unfolding bringing its own sweet measure of "grace
and peace." Have not the lines fallen to us in pleasant places? Have we
not a goodly heritage? Take the feeblest of the saints of God of today,
and had Solomon in all his glory a lot like one of these?