The Book of Ecclesiastes translated by m. G. Easton introduction

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The Book of Ecclesiastes



If we look at the world without God, it appears what it is, — a magnificent, graduated combination of diverse classes of beings, connected causes and effects, well-calculated means and ends. But thus contemplated, the world as a whole remains a mystery. If, with the atheist, we lay aside the idea of God, then, notwithstanding the law of causation, which is grounded in our mental nature, we abandon the question of the origin of the world. If, with the pantheist, we transfer the idea of God to the world itself, then the effect is made to be as one with the cause, — not, however, without the conception of God, which is inalienable in man, reacting against it; for one cannot but distinguish between substance and its phenomena. The mysteries of the world which meet man as a moral being remain, under this view of the world, altogether without solution. For the moral order of the world presupposes an absolutely good Being, from whom it has proceeded, and who sustains it; it demands a Lawgiver and a Judge. Apart from the reference to this Being, the distinction between good and evil loses its depth and sharpness. Either there is no God, or all that is and happens is a moment in the being and life of God Himself, who is identical with the world: thus must the world-destructive power of sin remain unrecognised. The opinion as to the state of the world will, from a pantheistic point of view, rise to optimism; just as, on the other hand, from an atheistic point of view, it will sink to pessimism. The commanding power of goodness even the atheist may recognise by virtue of the inner law peculiar to man as a moral being, but the divine consecration is wanting to this goodness; and if human life is a journey from nothing to nothing, then this will be the best of all goodness: that man set himself free from the evil reality, and put his confidence in nothing. “Him who views the world,” says Buddhism, “as a water-bubble, a phantom, the king of death does not terrify. What pleasure, what joy is in this world? Behold the changing form — it is undone by old age; the diseased body — it dissolves and corrupts! ‘I have sons and treasures; here will I dwell in the season of the cold, and there in the time of the heat:’ thus thinks the fool; and cares not for, and sees not, the hindrances thereto. Him who is concerned about sons and treasures, — the man who has his heart so entangled, — death tears away, as the torrent from the forest sweeps away the slumbering village.” The view taken of the world, and the judgment formed regarding it, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, are wholly different. While in the Book of Esther faith in God remains so much in the background that there is nowhere in it express mention made of God, the name of God occurs in Ecclesiastes no fewer than thirty- seven times,1 and that in such a way that the naming of Him is at the same time the confession of Him as the True God, the Exalted above the world, the Governor and the Ruler over all. And not only that: the book characterizes itself as a genuine product of the Israelitish Chokma by this, that, true to its motto, it places the command, “Fear Thou God,” 5:6, [7], 12:13, in the foremost rank as a fundamental moral duty; that it makes, 8:12, the happiness of man to be dependent thereon; that it makes, 7:18; 11:9; 12:14, his final destiny to be conditioned by his fearing God; and that it contemplates the world as one that was created by God very good, 3:11; 7:29, and as arranged, 3:14, and directed so that men should fear Him. These primary principles, to which the book again and again returns, are of special importance for a correct estimate of it.
Of like decisive importance for the right estimate of the theistic, and at the same time also the pessimistic, view of the world presented by Koheleth is this, that he knows of no future life compensating for the troubles of the present life, and resolving its mystery. It is true that he says, 12:7, that the life-spirit of the man who dies returns to God who gave it, as the body returns to the dust of which it is formed; but the question asked in 3:21 shows that this preferring of the life- spirit of man to that of a beast was not, in his regard, raised above all doubt. And what does this return to God mean? By no means such a return unto God as amounts to the annihilation of the separate existence of the spirit of man; for, in the first place, there is the supposition of this separate existence running through the Bible; in the second place,נתנה , 12:7b, does not point to an emanation; and in the third place, the idea of Hades prevailing in the consciousness of the ages before Christ, and which is also that of Koheleth, proves the contrary. Man exists also beyond the grave, but without the light and the force of thought and activity characterizing his present life, 9:5, 10. The future life is not better, but is worse than the present, a dense darkness enduring “for ever,” 9:6; 11:8; 12:5b . It is true, indeed, that from the justice of God, and the experiences of the present life as standing in contradiction thereto, 8:14, the conclusion is drawn, 12:14; 11:9, that there is a last decisive judgment, bringing all to light; but this great thought, in which the interest of the book in the progress of religious knowledge comes to a climax, is as yet only an abstract postulate of faith, and not powerful enough to brighten the future; and therefore, also, not powerful enough to lift us above the miseries of the present.
That the author gives utterance to such thoughts of the future as 12:7 and 11:9; 12:14, — to which Wisd. 3:1 (“The souls of the righteous are in God’ hand, and no trouble moves them”) and Dan. 12:2 (“Many that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”) are related, as being their expansion, — warrants the supposition that he disputes as little as Job does in Job. 14 the reality of a better future; but only that the knowledge of such a future was not yet given to him. In general, for the first time in the N.T. era, the hope of a better future becomes a common portion of the church’s creed, resting on the basis of faith in the history of redemption warranting it; and is advanced beyond the isolated prophetic gleams of light, the mere postulates of faith that were ventured upon, and the unconfirmed opinions, of the times preceding Christ. The N.T. Scripture shows how altogether different this world of sin and of change appears to be since a world of recompense and of glory has been revealed as its background; since the Lord has pronounced as blessed those who weep, and not those who laugh; and since, with the apostle (Rom. 8:18), we may be convinced that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed to us. The goal of human life, with its labour and its sufferings, is now carried beyond the grave. That which is done under the sun appears only as a segment of the universal and everlasting operation, governed by the wisdom of God, the separate portions of which can only be understood in their connection with the whole. The estimate taken of this present world, apart from its connection with the future, must be one-sided. There are two worlds: the future is the solution of the mystery of the present.
A N.T. believer would not be able to write such a book as that of Job, or even as that of Ecclesiastes, without sinning against revealed truth; without renouncing the better knowledge meanwhile made possible; without falling back to an O.T. standpoint. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes is related to revealed religion in its O.T. manifestation, — he is a believer before the coming of Christ; but not such an one as all, or as most were, but of peculiar character and position. There are some natures that have a tendency to joyfulness, and others to sadness. The author of this book does not belong to the latter class; for if he did, the call to rejoice, 11:9, 8; 15, etc., would not as it does pervade his book, as the χαίρετε, though in a deeper sense, pervades the Epistle to the Philippians. Neither does he belong to those superficial natures which see almost everything in a rosy light, which quickly and easily divest themselves of their own and of others’ sorrows, and on which the stern earnestness of life can make no deep and lasting impressions. Nor is he a man of feeling, whom his own weakness makes a prophet of evil; not a predominatingly passive man, who, before he could fully know the world, withdrew from it, and now criticises it from his own retired corner in a careless, inattentive mood; but a man of action, with a penetrating understanding and a faculty of keen observation; a man of the world, who, from his own experience, knows the world on all its sides; a restless spirit, who has consumed himself in striving after that which truly satisfies. That this man, who was forced to confess that all science and art, all that table dainties, and the love of women, and riches, and honour yielded him, was at last but vanity and vexation of spirit, and who gained so deep an insight into the transitoriness and vanity of all earthly things, into the sorrows of this world of sin and death, and their perplexing mysteries, does not yet conclude by resigning himself to atheism, putting “Nothing” (NirvaÑna), or blind Fate, in the place of God, but firmly holds that the fear of God is the highest duty and the condition of all true prosperity, as it is the highest truth and the surest knowledge — that such is the case with him may well excite our astonishment; as well as this also, that he penetrates the known illusory character of earthly things in no overstrained manner, despising the world in itself, and also the gifts of God in it, but that he places his ultimatum as to the pure enjoyment of life within the limits of the fear of God, and extends it as widely as God permits. One might therefore call the Book of Koheleth, “The Song of the Fear of God,” rather than, as H. Heine does, “The Song of Scepticism;” for however great the sorrow of the world which is therein expressed, the religious conviction of the author remains in undiminished strength; and in the midst of all the disappointments in the present world, his faith in God, and in the rectitude of God, and in the victory of the good, stands firm as a rock, against which all the waves dash themselves into foam. “This book,” says another recent author,2 “which contains almost as many contradictions as verses, may be regarded as the Breviary of the most modern materialism, and of extreme licentiousness.” He who can thus speak has not read the book with intelligence. The appearance of materialism arises from this, that the author sees in the death of man an end similar to that of beasts; and that is certainly so far true, but it is not the whole truth. In the knowledge of the reverse side of the matter he does not come beyond the threshold, because His hand was not yet there — viz. the hand of the Arisen One — which could help him over it. And as for the supposed licentiousness, 9:7-9 shows, by way of example, how greatly the fear of God had guarded him from concluding his search into all earthly things with the disgust of a worn-out libertine. But there are certainly self-contradictions in the Book of Ecclesiastes. They have a twofold ground. They are, on the one hand, the reflection of the self- contradicting facts which the author affirms. Thus, e.g., 3:11, he says that God has set eternity in the heart of man, but that man cannot find out from the beginning to the end the work which God maketh; 3:12, 13, that the best thing in this world is for a man to enjoy life; but to be able to do this, is a gift of God; 8:12, 14, that it goes well with them that fear God, but ill with the godless. But there is also the contrary — which is just the ground-tone of the book, that everything has its But; only the fear of God, after all that appertains to the world is found to be as vanitas vanitatum, remains as the kernel without the shell, but the commandment of the fear of God as a categorical imperative, the knowledge that the fear of God is in itself the highest happiness, and fellowship with God the highest good, remain unexpressed; the fear of God is not combined with the love of God, as e.g., in Psa. 73 it serves only for warning and not for comfort. On the other hand, the book also contains contradictions, which consists in contrasts which the author is not in a condition to explain and adjust. Thus, e.g., the question whether the spirit of a dying man, in contrast to that of a beast, takes its way upwards, 3:21, is proposed as one capable of a double answer; but 12:7 answers it directly in the affirmative; the author has good grounds for the affirmative, but yet no absolute proofs. And while he denies the light of consciousness and the energy of activity to those who have gone down to Hades, 9:10, he maintains that there is a final decisive judgment of a holy and righteous God of all human conduct, 11:9; 12:14, which, since there is frequently not a righteous requital given on earth, 8:14, and since generally the issue here does not bring to light, 9:2, the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, will take place in eternity; but it is difficult to comprehend how he has reconciled the possibility of such a final judgment with the shadowy nature of existence after death.
The Book of Koheleth is, on the one side, a proof of the power of revealed religion which has grounded faith in God, the One God, the All-wise Creator and Governor of the world, so deeply and firmly in the religious consciousness, that even the most dissonant and confused impressions of the present world are unable to shake it; and, on the other side, it is a proof of the inadequacy of revealed religion in its O.T. form, since the discontent and the grief which the monotony, the confusion, and the misery of this earth occasion, remain thus long without a counterbalance, till the facts of the history of redemption shall have disclosed and unveiled the heavens above the earth. In none of the O.T. books does the Old Covenant appear as it does in the Book of Koheleth, as “that which decayeth and waxeth old, and is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). If the darkness of earth must be enlightened, then a New Covenant must be established; for heavenly love, which is at the same time heavenly wisdom, enters into human nature and overcomes sin, death, and Hades, and removes the turning-point of the existence of man from this to the future life. The finger of prophecy points to this new era. And Koheleth, from amid his heaps of ruins, shows how necessary it is that the heavens should now soon open above the earth.
It is a view of the world, dark, and only broken by scattered gleams of light, not disowning its sullenness even where it recommends the happy enjoyment of life, which runs through the book in a long series of dissonances, and gives to it a peculiar character. It is thus intentionally a homogeneous whole; but is it also divided into separate parts according to a plan? That we may be able to answer this question, we subject the contents of the book to a searching analysis, step by step, yet steadily keeping the whole in view. This will at the same time also serve as a preparation for the exposition of the book.
Here below, all things under the sun are vanity. The labour of man effects nothing that is enduring, and all that is done is only a beginning and a vanishing away again, repeating itself in a never-ending circle: these are the thoughts of the book which stand as its motto, 1:2-11.
Koheleth-Solomon, who had been king, then begins to set forth the vanity of all earthly things from his own experience. The striving after secular knowledge, 1:12ff., has proved to him unsatisfactory, as has also the striving after happiness in pleasure and in procuring the means of all imaginable gratifications, 2:1-11; wisdom is vanity, for the wise man falls under the stroke of death as well as the fool, and is forgotten, 2:12-17; the riches are vanity, for they become the inheritance, one knows not whether or a worthy or of an unworthy heir, 2:18- 21; and, besides, pure enjoyment, like wisdom and knowledge, depends not merely on the will of man, but both are the gift of God, 2:22ff. Everything has its time appointed by God, but man is unable to survey either backwards or forwards the work of God, which fills eternity, notwithstanding the impulse to search into it which is implanted within him; his dependence in all things, even in pure enjoyment, must become to him a school in which to learn the fear of God, who maintains all things unchangeably, for forms the course of that which is done, 3:1-15. If he sees injustice prevailing in the place of justice, God’s time for righteous interference has not yet come, 3:16, 17. If God wishes to try men, they shall see that they are dependent like the beasts, and liable to death without any certain distinction from the beasts — there is nothing better than that this fleeting life should be enjoyed as well as may be, 3:18ff.
Koheleth now further records the evils that are under the sun: oppression, in view of which death is better than life, and not to have been at all is better than both, 4:1-3; envy, 4:4; the restlessness of labour, from which only the fool sets himself free, 4:5, 6; the aimless trouble and parsimony of him who stands alone, 4:7-12; the disappointment of the hopes placed on an upstart who has reached the throne, 4:13-16.
Up to this point there is connection. There now follow rules, externally unconnected, for the relation of man to Him who is the Disposer of all things; regarding his frequenting the house of God, 4:17 [5:1]; prayer, 5:2; and praise, 5:3-6.
Then a catalogue of vanities is set forth: the insatiable covetous plundering of the lowly by those who are above them in despotic states, whereat the author praises, 5:7, 8, the patriarchal state based on agriculture; and the nothingness and uncertainty of riches, which do not make the rich happier than the labourer, 5:9-11; which sometimes are lost without any to inherit them, 5:12-14; and which their possessor, at all events, must leave behind him when he dies, 5:15, 16. Riches have only a value when by means of them a purer enjoyment is realized as the gift of God, 5:17ff. For it happens that God gives to a man riches, but to a stranger the enjoyment thereof, 6:1, 2. An untimely birth is better than a man who has an hundred children, a long life, and yet who has no enjoyment of life even to his death, 6:3-6. desire stretching on into the future is torment; only so much as a man truly enjoys has he of all his labour, 6:7-9; what man shall be is predestinated, all contendings against it are useless: the knowledge of that which is good for him, and of the future, is in the power of no man, 6:10ff.
There now follow, without a premeditated plan, rules for the practical conduct of life, loosely connecting themselves with the “what is good,” 6:12, by the catchword “good:” first six (probably originally seven) proverbs of two things each, whereof the one is better than the other, 7:1-9; then three with the same catch-word, but without comparison, 7:10, 11-12, 13-14. This series of proverbs is connected as a whole, for their ultimatum is a counsel to joy regulated by the fear of God within the narrow limits of this life, constituted by God of good and bad days, and terminating in the darkness of death. But this joy is also itself limited, for the deep seriousness of the memento mori is mingled with it, and sorrow is declared to be morally better than laughter.
With 7:15, the I , speaking from personal experience, again comes into the foreground; but counsels and observations also here follow each other aphoristically, without any close connection with each other. Koheleth warns against an extreme tendency to the side of good as well as to that of evil: he who fears God knows how to avoid extremes, 7:15-18. Nothing affords a stronger protection than wisdom, for (?) with all his righteousness a man makes false steps, 7:19, 20. Thou shalt not always listen, lest thou hear something about thyself, — also thou thyself hast often spoken harshly regarding others, 7:21, 22. He has tried everything, but in his strivings after wisdom, and in his observation of the distinction between wisdom and folly, he has found nothing more dangerous than the snares of women; among a thousand men he found one man; but one woman such as she ought to be, he found not; he found in general that God made men upright, but that they have devised many kinds of by-ways, 7:23ff.
As the wise man considers women and men in general, wisdom teaches him obedience to the king to whom he has sworn fealty, and, under despotic oppression, patient waiting for the time of God’s righteous interference, 8:1-9. In the time of despotic domination, it occurs that the godless are buried with honour, while the righteous are driven away and forgotten, 8:10. God’s sentence is to be waited for, the more deliberately men give themselves to evil; God is just, but, in contradiction to His justice, it is with the righteous as with the wicked, and with the wicked as with the righteous, here on earth, 8:11-14. In view of these vanities, then, it is the most desirable thing for a man to eat and drink, and enjoy himself, for that abides with him of his labour during the day of his life God has given him, 8:15. Restless labour here leads to nothing; all the efforts of man to comprehend the government of God are in vain, 8:16ff. For on closer consideration, it appears that the righteous also, with all their actions, are ruled by God, and generally that in nothing, not even in his affections, is man his own master; and, which is the worst thing of all, because it impels men to a wicked, mad abuse of life, to the righteous and the unrighteous, death at last comes alike; it is also the will of God towards man that he should spend this transient life in cheerful enjoyment and in vigorous activity before it sinks down into the night of Hades, 9:1-10. The fruits of one’s labour are not to be gained by force, even the best ability warrants it not, an incomprehensible fate finally frustrates all, 9:11, 12.
There now follows, but in loose connection as to thought with the preceding, a section relating to wisdom and folly, and the discordances as to the estimate of both here below, along with diverse kinds of experiences and proverbs, 9:13- 10:15. Only one proverb is out of harmony with the general theme, viz., 10:4, which commends resignation under the abullition of the wrath of the ruler. The following proverb, 10:5, 6, returns to the theme, but connecting itself with the preceding; the relation of rulers and the ruled to each other is kept principally in view by Koheleth.
With a proverb relating to kings and princes, good and bad, a new departure is made. Riotous living leads to slothfulness; and in contrast to this (but not without the intervention of a warning not to curse the king) follow exhortations to provident, and, at the same time, bold, and all-attempting activity; for the future is God’s, and not to be reckoned on, 10:16-11:6. The light is sweet; and life, however long it may last, in view of the uncertain dark future, is worthy of being enjoyed, 11:7, 8. Thus Koheleth, at the end of this last series of proverbs, has again reached his Ceterum censeo; he formulates it, in an exhortation to a young man to enjoy his life — but without forgetting God, to whom he owes it, and to whom he has to render an account — before grey-haired old age and death overtake him, into a full-toned finale, 11:9-12:7. The last word of the book, 12:8, is parallel with the first (Ecc. 1:1): “O! vanity of vanities; All is vain!”
An epilogue, from the same hand as the book seals its truth: it is written as from the very soul of Solomon; it issues from the same fountain of wisdom. The reader must not lose himself in reading many books, for the sum of all knowledge that is of value to man is comprehended in one sentence: “Fear God, for He shall bring every work into judgment,” 12:9ff.
If we look back on this compendious reproduction of the contents and of the course of thought of the book, there appears everywhere the same view of the world, along with the same ultimatum; and as a pictorial overture opens the book, a pictorial finale closes it. But a gradual development, a progressive demonstration, is wanting, and so far the grouping together of the parts is not fully carried out; the connection of the thoughts if more frequently determined by that which is external and accidental, and not unfrequently an incongruous element is introduced into the connected course of kindred matters. The Solomonic stamp impressed on Ecc. 1 and 2 begins afterwards to be effaced. The connection of the confessions that are made becomes aphoristic in Ecc. 3; and the proverbs that are introduced do not appropriately fall into their place. The grounds, occasions, and views which determine the author to place confessions and moral proverbs in such an order after one another, for the most part withdraw themselves from observation. All attempts to show, in the whole, not only oneness of spirit, but also a genetic progress, an all-embracing plan, and an organic connection, have hitherto failed, and must fail.3
In presenting this view of the spirit and plan of the Book of Koheleth, we have proceeded on the supposition that it is a post-exilian book, that it is one of the most recent of the books of the O.T. It is true, indeed, that tradition regards it as Solomonic. According to Bathra 15a, the Hezekiah-Collegium [vid., Del. on Proverbs, p. 5] must have “written” — that is, collected into a written form — the Book of Isaiah, as also the Proverbs, the Song, and Koheleth. The Midrash regards it as Solomon’s, and as written in the evening of his days; while the Song was written in his youth, and the Proverbs when he was in middle age (Jalkut, under 1:1). If in Rosch haschana 21b it is said that Koheleth sought to be a second Moses, and to open the one of the fifty gates of knowledge which was unopened by Moses, but that this was denied to him, it is thereby assumed that he was the incomparable king, as Moses was the incomparable prophet. And Bloch, in his work on the origin and era of the Book of Koheleth (1872), is right in saying that all objections against the canonicity of the book leave the Solomonic authorship untouched. In the first Christian century, the Book of Koheleth was an antilegomenon. In the Introduction to the Song (p. 505) we have traced to their sources the two collections of legal authorities according to which the question of the canonicity of the Book of Koheleth is decided. The Synod of Jabne (Jamnia), about 90, decided the canonicity of the book against the school of Shammai. The reasons advanced by the latter against the canonicity are seen from Shabbath 30b, and Megilla 7a . From the former we learn that they regarded the words of the book, particularly 2:2 (where they must have readמְהוּלָּל , “worthy to be praised”), cf. 7:3, and 8:15, cf. 22, as contradictory (cf. Proverbs, p. 31); and from the latter, that they hence did not recognise its inspiration. According to the Midrash Koheleth, under 11:9, they were stumbled also by the call to the enjoyment of pleasure, and to walk in the way of the desire of the heart, which appeared to stand in contradiction to the ToÑra (cf. 11:9 with Num. 15:39), and to savour of heresy. But belief in the Solomonic authorship remained, notwithstanding, uninjured; and the admonitions to the fear of God, with reference to the future judgment, carried them over the tendency of these observations. Already, at the time of Herod the Great (Bathra 4a), and afterwards, in the time of R. Gamaliel (Shabbath 30b), the book was cited as Holy Scripture; and when, instead of the book, the author was named, the formula of citation mentioned the name of Solomon; or the book was treated as equally Solomonic with Proverbs and the Song (Erubin 21b).
Even the doubtfulness of its contents could give rise to no manner of doubt as to the author. Down till the new era beginning with Christianity, and, in the main, even till the Reformation-century, no attention was paid to the inner and historico-literary marks which determine the time of the origin of a book. The Reformation first called into existence, along with the criticism of dogmatic traditions, at the same time also biblical criticism, which it raised to the place of an essential part of the science of Scripture. Luther, in his Tischreden (Table- Talk), is the first who explained the Preacher as one of the most recent books of the O.T.: he supposed that the book had not reached us in its completed form; that it was written by Sirach rather than by Solomon; and that it might be, “as a Talmud, collected from many books, perhaps from the library of King Ptolemy Euergetes, in Egypt.”4
These are only passing utterances, which have no scientific value; among his contemporaries, and till the middle of the century following, they found no acceptance. Hugo Grotius (1644) is the first who, like Luther, rejects its Solomonic authorship, erroneously supposing, with him, that it is a collection of diverse sayings of the wise, περι τῆς εὐδαιμονίας; but on one point he excellently hits the nail on the head: Argumentum ejus rei habeo multa vocabula, quae non alibi quam in Daniele, Esdra et Chaldaeis interpretibus reperias. This observation is warranted. If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language. But Bernstein (Quaestiones nonnullae Kohelethanae, 1854) is right in saying that the history of the Hebrew language and literature is certainly divided into two epochs by the Babylonish exile, and that the Book of Koheleth bears the stamp of the post-exilian form of the language.

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