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An exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes online

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The Book of Ecclesiastes has exercised the Church
of God in no common degree. Many learned men
have not hesitated to number it among the most diffi-
cult Books in the Sacred Canon. ^ Luther doubts
whether any Exposition up to his time has fully mas-
tered it.' The Patristic Commentaries, from Jerome
downwards, abound in the wildest fancies ; so that, as
one of the old interpreters observes, ' the trifles of their
allegories it loathetli and wearieth me to set down."
Expositors of a different and later school have too
often " darkened counsel bywords without knowledge"
(Job, xxxviii, 2) ; perplexing the reader's mind with
doubtful theories, widely diverging from each other.
The more difficult the book, the greater the need of
Divine Teaching to open its contents. However val-
uable be the stores of human learning, they will not

^ Merceri Ccmment. fol. 1651 (Hebrew Professor at Paris). See also
Poli Synopsis, Prolegom.; Comment, by Rev. George Holden, 8vo. 1822,
■Prelim. Dissert, ii.

- Quoted in Geier's Comment. 4to. Lips. 1668.

' Serranus on chap. iv. 12, also on iii. 15. *A godly and learned
commentary upon this excellent Book of Solomon, commonly called
"Ecclesiastes." 12 mo. 1585. Translated out of Latin by John
Stock wood (the translator of several of Calvin's Commentaries). A
mass of the various Patristic interpretations may be seen in a Jesuit
commentary Joaun': Lorini, 4to. 1606.



throw one ray of true light upon the word, without the
heavenly influence of the Great Teacher. Separate
from Him, " the light that is in us is darkness." (Matt,
vi. 23.)

The Author confesses that he has felt his measure of
difficulty as to some of the statements of this Book.
But the result of his inquiry into its Divine credentials
has been solidly satisfactory. The conclusion there-
fore was natural, that a Book that ' had God for its
Author/ must have ' truth, witJwut any mixture of er-
ror, for its matter.'-^ Some of its maxims have indeed
been too hastily supposed to countenance Epicurean
indulgence. Nay — even Voltaire and his Monarch
disciple have dared to claim detached passages as fa-
vouring their sceptical philosophy. But ' all of them'
— as Mr. Scott observes — ' admit of a sound and use-
ful interpretation, when accurately investigated, and
when the general scope of the book is attended to.'"^
If any difficulties still remain, as Lord Bacon remarks
— ' If they teach us nothing else, they will at least
teach us our own blindness.' Thus Pascal profoundly
remarks on the Scriptures — ' There is enough bright-
ness to illuminate the elect, and enough obscurity to
humble them. " All things work together for good "
to the elect ; even the obscurities of Scripture, which
these honour and reverence on account of that Divine
clearness and beauty, which they understand.'^ There
is, however, a wide difference between what appears

* Locke.

''Preface to Ecclesiastes. Witsius confirms this judgment. — MiscelL
Sacra, vol. i. chap, xviii. § 36-39. See also Holden, Prelim Dissert. 11.


' Thoughts, xviii. " No learning is sufficient to make a proud man


upon the surface, and what a thoughtful mind in a
prayerful spirit will open from the inner Scripture. It
is most important to study the Bible in the spirit of
the Bible — to exercise a critical habit in a spiritual
atmosphere. Prayer, faith, humility, diligence, will
bring rest and satisfaction to minds exercised in the
school of God. As an able preacher remarks — ' We
expect to find some difficulties in a revelation from a
Being like God to such a creature as man. We even
rejoice in these difficulties. They are the occasion of
our growth in grace. They exercise our humility.
They arc like the leaves and flowers, of which the
crown of faith is woven. They remind us of our own
weakness and ignorance, and of Christ's power and
wisdom. They send us to Him and to the Gospel.'^

Our last testimony on this anxious point we draw
from the highest school of instruction— the death-bed.
' We must acknowledge' — said the late Adolph Monod
— ' that in the beginning of tlie study of Scripture,
there are many difficulties, and much obscurity. Some
labour is necessary to dissipate them ; and the mind of
man is naturally slow and idle ; and he easily loses
courage, and is satisfied with reading over and over
again, without penetrating further than the surface ;
and he learns nothing new ; and the constant perusal
of the same thing causeth weariness, as if the word of
God was not interesting ; as if we could not find some
new instruction in it ; as if it were not inexhaustible
as God Himself. Let us ever' — ^he adds — ' beware of

understand the truth of God, unless he first learn to be humble.' — Bp.
Taylor's Sermon before the University of Dublin.

' Canon Wordsworth's Sermon on the Inspiration nf the OM Testament.


thinking these difficulties insurmountable. We must
give ourselves trouble. For here, as in every part of
the Christian life, God will have us to be labourers
with Himself ; and the knowledge of the Bible, and a
relish for the Bible, are the fruit and recompence of this
humble, sincere, and persevering study.' ^

But to come more closely to the difficulties connect-
ed with this Book — Besides the objections brought
against its principles, the peculiar construction of some
of its maxims occasionally gives rise to perplexity.
Mr. Holden adverts to the mistake of — ' taking in
their utmost extent expressions designed to convey a
qualified and limited signification.' He wisely re-
marks — ' General propositions are not always to be
received in the strictest sense of the words. And
particular observations must not be stretched beyond
the intention of the writer. This results from the in-
herent imperfection of language, that his expressions
ought to be interpreted with such restrictions, as are
necessarily required by common sense, and the scope of
the context. If several expressions in the Ecclesiastes,
which have been condemned, be understood in this
qualified sense — a sense clearly suggested by truth and
reason — they will be found in every respect worthy of
the inspired Author, from whom they proceed.'^

But with all its difficulties, we must admit the book
to be fraught with practical interest. It teaches les-
sons peculiarly its own — lessons, which we are too
slow to learn ; and yet, which we must thoroughly
learn for our own personal profit and happiness.

* Adolphus Moaod's Farewell Addresses : xv. Address.
' Prelim. Dissert Ixxviii. Ixxix.


They are essential, as preparatory to our enjoyment
of the Gospel. The precise place of the Book in the
Sacred Canon is somewhat remarkable. Its juxtaposi-
tion with ' The Song' illustrates a fine and striking
contrast between the insufficiency of the creature and
the sufficiency of the Saviour. ' What a stimulus to
seek after the true and full knowledge of Christ is the
realized conviction of the utter vanity of all things
else without Him.'^ To " drink and thirst again" is
the disappointment of the world. To "drink and
never thirst" is the portion of the Gospel.''

We must not however linger upon particular points.
Some preliminaries yet remain to be noticed, ere we
enter upon a detailed Exposition. A few words upon —

I. The Writer of this Book. — This we should have
thought had been a matter placed beyond controversy.
The luords of tJie Son of David — King of Jerusalem —
seem to point with absolute precision to Solomon — the
only Son of David who was the possessor of that roy-
alty. (Ch. i. 1. 12.) ^ But some critics of name* — from
the difference of style — the use of a few words of sup-

* See A Brief Exposition of Ecdesiaste?^ by Mr. John Cotton. Boston,
New England, 12mo. 1654.

« See John, iv. 13, 14.

' I^mpe also (the commentator on St. John) remarks on the descrip-
tion of his extraordinary' wisdom (v. 13), magnificence, and luxury
(Chap, ii.), which could not attach to any other man than Solomon.
He adverts also to the analogy of some of his sentiments as expressed
in the Book of Proverbs, e. g. P^ccles. i. 8, with Prov. xxvii. 20, cf dia.
Not(K in Eccles. 4to. 1741.

* Such as Grotius, Dathe, and others. Even Lampe doubts whether
the whole was written by Solomon. But his ground is weak and in-


posed later origin — the introduction of incidental mat-
ters not — as they, think — falling within the ken of Solo-
mon's vision — on these and other grounds they have
determined the writer to belong to some later era.
The arguments, however, in favour of this hypothesis,
amount only to theoretical doubts or plausibilities ;
while they involve a supposition utterly unworthy of
Inspiration — namely — that some unknown writer has
palmed upon the Church in the Sacred Canon his own
thoughts and words under the deceptive cover of the
name of the Son of David — King of Jerusalem. Apart
from this conjectural hypothesis — if any weight be due
to the unanimous consent of all the Hebrew manu-
scripts and ancient versions — confirmed by the concur-
rent voice of Jewish Tradition — we must without doubt
or hesitation acknowledge the wise Smi of David to
be the Preoxiher in this Book.

II. The date of this Treatise is a matter of much
interest. ' He seemeth' — says Bishop Reynolds — ' to
have written it in his old age, when he took a more
serious view of his past life — the honour, pleasure,
wealth, and wisdom he had so abundantly enjoyed —
the errors and miscarriages^ he had fallen into — the
large experience, and many observations he had made
of things natural, moral, domestical, sensual, Divine —
the curious and critical inquiry he had made after true
happiness, and what contributions all things under the
sun could afford thereunto.'^

' Words far too soft to express his gross enormities.
^Annotations on Ecdesiastes — Works, vol. iv. They are not found
in the folio Qdition of his works. They originally formed a part of The


All internal evidence confirms this date. It could
not have been written before his fall — that is — before
that awful state of madness, which he so graphically
describes. Neither could it have been penned at the
time, since it evidently is a record of the past reviewed
in penitence. We are thrown back therefore upon the
later date with clear conviction. Add to which — he
mentions his great works (the building of which em-
ployed upwards of twenfy-five years of his life) (chap,
ii. 4-10. 1 Kings, ix. 10) — his immense riches (chap,
ii. 8 with 1 Kings, x. 20, 25) and multiplied sources of
sensual pleasure (the gathering and enjoyment of many
years) ; his revolt from women — doubtless with the
poignant remembrance of his sinful connexion with
them (chap. vii. 26-28 with 1 Kings xi. 3.) His ex-
quisite picture also of old age (chap. xii. 1-6) bears the
mark of personal identity. And altogether, ' he writeth
in such sort, as if he had learned the doctrine of the
vanity of earthly things by very great experience and
long use.' ^ Assmning therefore the later date to be
accurate, the circumstances remind us of his father's
example — the one writing a Psalm (Ps. Ii.) the other
a Book — as a solemn and perpetual testimony in the
face of the Church of their godly repentance.'^

Assembhfs Annofations, and, as Poole intimates in his Si/nopsis, 'the
most valuable part of the collection.' They were edited separately
by the Rev. D. "Washbourne, 8vo. 1811, and were ultimately included
in Mr. Chalmer's edition of his works, 6 vols. 8vo. 1826.

' Serran.

- This was Lightfoot's judgment. 'After his great fall Solomon re-
covered himself again by repentance, and writeth his Book of Eccle-
siastes, as his peculiar dirge for that his folly' {Works, i. 16). Witsiua
speaks of this book ' as written in his old age, when led, under the


This date is a matter of some anxiety clearly to
ascertain, as bearing upon the momentous point of
Solomon's final salvation. If we admit, that Scripture
hath pronounced no certain judgment upon this matter,
we yet contend, that the balance of testimony and
inference lies strongly upon the favourable side. His
name given to him at his birth — " Beloved of the Lord"
(2 Sam. xii. 24, 25) — was surely the seal and pledge
of unchangeable love. The covenant made with his
father concerning him before his birth included — not
the temporal kingdom only — but the privilege of per-
sonal adoption and mercy (lb. vii. 14, 15 ; 1 Chron.
xxii. 10). His express designation as a type of Christ
(lb. with Heb. 1-5. Comp. also Ps. Ixxii.) leads us
naturally to ask — ' Could an apostate represent the
Saviour — the inexpressible glory of the Son of God V
The notice of " the rest of his acts" — his last days —
speaks of his " wisdom" (1 Kings, xi. 41), as if it had
returned to him — as if he had spoken wise words
(might it not have been this very Book ?) after his fall,
as he had done before it. A posthumous record also
links his "way" with that of his penitent father
(2 Chron. xi. 1^), which surely could not have been,
if he had not a fellowship with him in the way of
repentance. One thing is clear — ^he has not written a
line in this book that tends to give one particle of pal-
liation of his sin. The whole treatise has a sad

influence of the Divine Spirit, to repent of his past Me.'' — Misc. Sacra,
vol. ii. Exercit. vi. 1. See also Scott'-s Preface. The Patristic Exposi-
tions generally confirm this view. See Lorin, Comment. Prolegom c. ii.
The expression, when he loas old, as applied to his turning to sin
(1 Kings, xi. 4), may include a period sufScient to include both his
fall and recovery.


character about it — a mournful commentary — mainly
a book of confession. The brighter exercises of Evan-
gelical repentance are but dimly exhibited.

Upon the whole therefore we judge of him as a child
of that covenant, which provided a rod for his back-
slidings (Comp. 2 Sam. vii. 14, 15, with 1 Kings,
xi. 25, 26) ; while it secured a happy issue in the end.
If his sun set in a cloud, might not this be the chasten-
ing of the child — not to be cast off?^

But we pass from this interlude — too important
however to be omitted — to mnrk

III. The Divine Authority of the Book. — We admit
that the writers of the New Testament have not given
any express reference to it.^ But we know it to have
formed a part of that canon, which by special Provi-
dence has been preserved to us — -authenticated by the
most ancient nation in the world (Rom. iii. 2) — and
yet more, attested by our Lord and his Apostles as the
final appeal — "the Scripture that cannot be broken."^
The Old Testament as a whole having received this
undoubted sanction, the stamp of authority affixed to
the whole Book obviously attaches to every part of it
— to this Book of Ecclesiastes, as a component part
of the Divine whole.

* Comp. Ps. Ixxxix. 30-35. Henry, adverting to the total omission
of this dark history in the Book of Chronicles, remarks — ' Scripture
silence sometimes speaks. When God pardons sin. he " casteth it
beliind his back, and remembereth it no more." '

" Mr. llolden gives from a German critic (Carpzov) a list of texts
with more or less resemblance. But few of them carry any weight of
strict parallelism or reference.

'Matt. xxii. 29. John, x. 85. Com. Rom. iv. 3.


Nor have the corrupt propensities of the writer any
influence in deteriorating its real authority, which
depends — not upon the instrumentality employed, but
upon the dignity of its great author, and the truthful"
ness of the testimony. There is therefore no solid
ground to question, that this book — like every other
part of " Scripture — is given by inspiration of God."
(2 Tim. iii. 16.) Many surface objections may be pro-
duced ; but all — as we have observed — are grounded
upon misconception, and admit of easy refutation. It
may be noted here — as it has been observed generally
of religion — ' It presents few difficulties to the humble,
many to the proud, insuperable ones to the vain.' ^ To
believe the word, because God hath spoken, is the one
and true resting-place of faith. Every other course is
" going from hill to mountain, and from mountain to
Mil, having forgotten the resting-place." (Jer. 1. 6.)

We advert lastly to

IV. The main scope and object of tJie Book. — It may
be simply stated — to solve the problem, ' which from
the day when Adam fell has been the great enquiry
among men ;' ^ and on which philosophy could throw
no light — " Who will show us any good ?" (Ps. iv. 6.)
It is to bring out into clear view the chief good — the
true happiness of man, in what it does not consist — not
in the wisdom, pleasures, honours, and riches of this
world — in what it does consist — the enjoyment and
service of God. Beggars we are. with alj the riches
of the Indies, without Him. He is the substitute for

^ Guesses at TrniJi, 1st Series, p. 367.
'Hamilton's Roy^l Preacher Leot. ii.


everything. Nothing can be a substitute for Him.
The world is full of gaspers — and, alas 1 they gasp in
vain. They only draw in air. They know not where
the true substance lies — in Him the supreme good and
satisfying portion — in His service — no hard and gloomy
cxercise-;-but full of liberty and joy.

We give a testimony of some interest. — ' Began ex-
pounding the Book of Ecclesiastes. Never before had
I so clear a sight either of its meaning or beauties.
Neither did I imagine, that the several parts of it were
in so exquisite a manner connected together, all tend-
ing to prove that grand truth, that there is no hap-
piness out of God.' ^ If we are living at the Fountain
Head in communion with Him, we shall realize this
summum bonum, or ' true wisdom — not including a
single particle of that which is worldly and carnal ;
but that which is holy, spiritual, and undefiled, and

'The Rev. John Wesley's Journal, Jan. 2, 1777, How melancholy
is it to see the man of letters at the last crisis seeking his happiness in
Heathenism instead of Revelation ! 'Ihus Cosmo de Medic's writes to
his friend Ficino, just before his death.— ' Come to me as quickly as
possible, and bring with you Plato's Treatise on The Summum Bonum,
which I believe you have now translated from the Greek into the
Latin. There is nothing I so ardently desire to know as what way of
life most readily conduces to happiness.' Referring afterwards to this
time, Ficino writes to Cosmo's grandson- the celebrated Lorenzo— in
the same Pagan tone. ' When we had thus read together (as you, who
were present, well know; the treatise of Plato, Cosmo died soon after,
as if to enter on the abundant good he had tasted in discussion.' AVe
are thanki'ul to add, that, in his latter daj's, under the influence and
preaching of the monk Savanarola, Ficino became a humble and devout
learner in the school of Christ, and declared in his last illness, that he
derived more comfort from a single sentence of the New Testament
than from all the dogmas of the whole tribe of Philosophers. See
Harford's Life of Michael Angela, vol. i. pp. 53, 64. 70.


which in the writings of Solomon is but another word
for religion. Guided by this clue, we can easily
traverse the intricate windings and mazes, in which so
many commentators upon ' The Ecclesiastes' haA- e been

The Preacher\s object. — as the learned Whitakerbas
determined — is, ' not to allure men to the pleasures
of the world, but rather to deter them from such
pleasures, and exhorts them with a Divine eloquence
to despise the world. After having disputed through
the whole book against those, who desire to satisfy
themselves with such good, he at the close teaches them
that happiness consisteth not in things of this kind,
but in true piety — and thus concludes. Fear God, and
keep Ids commandments ; for tJds is the lahole of man.
This is not the judgment of an Epicurean, but of an
holy prophet, withdrawing foolish men from the pur-
suit of worthless objects, and recalling them into the
true path of a pious and happy life.' "

Nor is the great object of the Book limited to any
age or nation. It is not, like many of the prophetic
messages, the burden of this or the other nation — a
distinct message to a distinct people. The book, with
all its lessons and illustrations, is the property of the
Church and of the world in every age. The Preacher
— as upon a former occasion — lifts up his voice, and
causes it to be heard amid the din and dissipation of a
careless world — " Unto you, men, I call ; and my
voice is to the sons of men." (Prov. viii. 4.) Is there
not in our hearts an awakened conviction of an evil

' Holden, Prelim, Dissert. Ixv.

^ Dkpuiatiom on Holy Scripture, pp. 31, 32. Parker Society's edit


course ? Then let the voice be heard once more in
tender seriousness — 3Ioreovey, by these, my son, he ad-
monished. (Chap. xii. 12.)

On no account therefore could we have spared this
book from the canon. It has its own sphere of instruc-
tion—and that — as we have before hinted — of no
common value. Does not its full development of this
world's delusions excite us to search for the true rest ?
The water of gall, springing up from the " broken
cisterns," stirs up the search for " the Fountain of
living waters." May it not be, that we are permitted
to taste the bitter wormwood of the earthly streams,
in order that, standing by the heavenly Fountain, we
may point our fellow-sinners to the world of vanity
we have left, and to the surpassing glory and delights
of the world we have newly found ? At all events
success is the sure issue -of the persevering search. The
desponding cry — " All is vanity f" is now clianged for
the joyous burst of experimental confidence — " Precious
Saviour ! be thou my portion. All without thee is
vanity. All with thee — all in thee — is true substance."
* My blessed hope' — said a dying Christian — ' is worth
a thousand worlds.' — This is the grand discovery —
tke summum honiim indeed. How does this discovery
once made and enjoyed, become the living principle of
every godly grace — " perfecting holiness in the fear of
God!" (2 Cor.vii. 1.)

The Writer has only to add a few words relative to
his own labour. The various commentaries on this
book would fill a large compass. A few only need to
be mentioned, that have been more prominently useful.
Bp. Reynolds' Annotations are richly fraught with


scriptural instruction. Dr. Wardlaw's Lectures are a
fine specim::i of exposition.^ Dr. Hamilton's Royal
Preacher sparkles with brilliant imagination, perhaps
sometimes with a colouring too gorgeous for the pure
simplicity of Scripture. The Rev. G. Holden's Com-
mentary stands foremost for the accuracy of critical
exegesis. Scott's Notes in solid weight of instruction
rarely disappoint. Henry brings out from his lively
store original and profitable thought. Other commen-
taries less known — Ancient and Modern — Romish and
Protestant — Home and Foreign — will be found to
have been consulted. A few may be wanting from the
list, not having come across the Author's path. In
the use of them sometimes a train of thought has been
suggested, where exact quotation inadvertently may
not have been given. Practical instruction and Chris-
tian edification have been considered, rather than
novelty or originality. The Author has felt warrant-
ed to expound this Old Testament treatise as " a

Online LibraryCharles BridgesAn exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes → online text (page 1 of 27)