Christian D. (Christian David) Ginsburg.

Coheleth : commonly called The book of Ecclesiastes ; translated from the original Hebrew, with a commentary historical & critical online

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Online LibraryChristian D. (Christian David) GinsburgCoheleth : commonly called The book of Ecclesiastes ; translated from the original Hebrew, with a commentary historical & critical → online text (page 3 of 65)
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mately be punished (viii. 1-9), and that, though righteous retri-
bution is sometimes withheld (10), which, indeed, is the cause of
increased wickedness (11), yet that God will eventually admi-
nister rewards and punishments (12, 13), that this would satisfy
him during the few years of his life. But as this did not account
for the melancholy fact that the fortunes of the righteous and the
wicked are often reversed all their life-time, this common sense
view of life too proved vain (14) ; and Coheleth therefore recurs
to his repeated conclusion, that there is nothing left for man but
to enjoy the things of this life (15).

The FOURTH section — viii. 15-xii. 7. — To sliew more
strikingly the force of his final conclusion, submitted at the end
of this section, Coheleth gives first a risumi of the investigations
contained in the preceding sections. Having found that it is
impossible to fathom the work of God by wisdom (viii. 16, 17) ;
that even the righteous and the wise are subject to this inscru-
table Providence, just as the wicked (ix. 1, 2); that all must
alike die and be forgotten (3-5), and that they have no more
participation in what takes place here (6) ; that we are therefore
to indulge in pleasures here while we can, since there is no
hereafter (7-10) ; that success does not always attend the strong
and the skilful (11, 12) ; and that wisdom, though decidedly
advantageous in many respects, is often despised and counteracted
by folly (13 -x. 3) ; that we are to be patient under sufferings
from rulers (4), who by virtue of their power frequently pervert
the order of things (5-7), since violent opposition may only tend
to increase our sufferings (8-11); that the exercise of prudence in
the affairs of life will be more advantageous than folly (12-20) ;
that we are to be charitable, though the recipients of our bene-
volence appear ungrateful, since they may after all requite us



(xi. 1, 2) ; that we are always to be at our work, and not be
deterred .by imaginary failures, since we know not which of our
efforts may prove successful (3.-6), and thus make life as agree-
able as we.can (7), for we must always bear in mind that this is
the only, scene of enjoyment; that the future is all vanity (8) :
but-as this too did not satisfy the craving of the soul, Coheleth at
last came to the conclusion, that enjoyment of this life, together
viith a belief in a future judgment, will secure real happiness for
man (9, 10), and that we are therefore to live from our early youth
in the fear of God and of a, final judgment, when all that is
perplexing now shall be rectified (xii. 1-7).

The Epilogue— xii. 8-12.— Thus all human efforts to obtain
real happiness are vain (xii. 8) ; this is the experience of the
wisest and most painstaking Coheleth (9, 10) ; the Sacred
Writings alone are the way to it (11, 12) ; there is a righteous
Judge, who marks, and will in the great day of judgment judge,
everything we do ; we must therefore fear Him, and keep His
commandments (13, 14).


To understand more clearly the" importance of this book, and
the gap it fills up in the Old Testament lessons, it will be neces-
sary briefly to examine the state of things to which the doctrine
of temporal retribution had in the course of time given rise.
Only those who have a special cause to plead will deny that the
principle of virtue and vice being visibly rewarded on earth is
enunciated, wherever the subject of righteousness and wickedness
is spoken of in the Old Testament. God declares, at the very
giving of the Law, that he will shew mercy to thousands of
those who love Him and keep His commandments, and visit the
iniquity of those who hate Him to the third and fourth genera-
tion (Exod. xx. 5, 6) ; that they who honour their parents shall
be blessed with long life (Ibid. 12). The whole of the
twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus and the twenty-eighth chapter
of Deuteronomy are replete with promises of earthly blessings to



those who will walk in the way of the Lord, and threatening^ of
temporal afflictions upon those who shall transgress His law.
The faithful fulfilment of these prymises and threatenings, in the
early stages of the Jewish history, convinced every Israelite
that " God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the
wicked every day" and afforded a source of consolation to which
the righteous resorted when thepqweri.of the wicked threatened
destruction (1 Sam. xxiv. 13-16; xxvi. 23; Ps. vii. ; ix.).
When David, therefore, received the calamitous tidings that
Saul in a malicious freak had caused eighty-five priests to be
killed, and that his own life was in imminent danger, he
addressed the mighty tyrant in the full assurance of this
righteous retribution :

" Why glorieRt thou, hero, in wickedness ?

The favour of God endureth for ever.

Thy tongue deviseth mischief

Like a sharp razor, thou mischief-maker !

Tbon lovest evil more than good,

Lying more than speaking uprightly.

Thou lovest all sorts of destruction, deceitful tongue !

God shall therefore smite thee down for ever,

He will seize thee, and snatch thee out of the tent,

And root thee out of the li*.'-ng land.

The righteous shall see it and fear,

And they shall laugh over him —
' See there the man who made not God his bulwark,

And trusted in the multitude of his riches, strengthened himself
in his wickedness ;'

But I am as a green olive tree in the house of God ;

I trust in the favour of God for ever and ever ;

I will praise Thee, because thou hast executed it,

And hope in Thy name, because it is good before thy saints."

Ps. lii.

Like a net of fine threads is thisi doctrine spread over the! entire
Old Testament (compare Psalms xvii.l, 2 ;< xxvi. 1, 2; xxviii.
1-3; xxxv.; liv. 7-9 ; lv. 20-24; xc. ; cxiijic^xv. 3 ; cjxxvii. ;
cxl. ; cxli. 10 ; Prov. x. 6 ; xi. 5 - 8. 19 ; < xii. 7; Ha£..#L 15 - 20; %
Zech. i. 2 - 6 ; viii. 9-17; Malachi ii. 17). It is also propounded
in the New Testament. Thus our Saviour says, in his sermon






on the Mount, « Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the
earth" (Matt. v. 5); and declares that "every one that hath
forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or
wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall " not only
" inherit everlasting life," but shall receive « an hundredfold here
in this life " (comp. Matt. xix. 29, with Mark x. 29, 30 ; Luke
xviii. 29, 30).

But whilst provision was made in the New Testament against
the difficulties arising from the mysterious inequalities in the
distribution of the fortunes of man by the removal of the
boundary line between the world that is now and the world that
is to come, and the extension of the sphere of retribution, thus
affording transcendent consolation to the suffering saint, in the
face of the prosperous sinner, and enabling him to say, " Sorrow-
ful, yet alway rejoicing ; poor, yet making many rich ; having
nothing, yet possessing all things " (2 Cor. vi. 10) ; " I have
learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content" (Phil,
iv. 11) ; " for the sufferings of this present time are not worthy
to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us "
(Eom. viii. 18) : the Old Testament, by limiting the bar of
judgment to this side of the grave, yielded no explanation of, or
succour under, the distracting sight of the righteous suffering
all their life, and then dying for their righteousness, and the
wicked prospering an d prolonging their days through their

Such a bewildering state of things, as permitted by an

inscrutable Providence, frequently engendered jealousy, anger,

malice, and revenge on the part of the righteous, who, in despair,

were alternately ready to join issue with, or to rise against, the

wicked. It was under such circumstances that Psalm xxxvii.

was written —

11 Be not inflamed against the wicked,
Be not envioiiB at the evil-doers,
For soon shall they he cut down as the grass,
And wither as the green herbage.
Trust in Jehovah and do good,


Rest quietly in the land, and cherish truth,

And delight in Jehovah,

And He shall grant thee thy heart's desire.

Roll tby cause upon Jehovah,

And trust in Him, He will accomplish it,

And shall display thy righteousness as the light,

And thy justice as the noon-day.

lie silent before Jehovah, and wait on Him,

Be not inflamed against the successful in his course,

Against the man who practiseth deceit.

Abstain from anger, and leave wrath,

Be not inflamed, so that tbou also dost evil;

For evil-doers shall be cut off,

And they that wait on Jehovah, they shall possess the land.

Only a little longer, and the wicked is no more,

And thou sbalt search in bis place, but he will be gone ;

While the meek shall possess the land,

And delight in great peace.

Let the wicked plot against the righteous,

And gnash upon him with his teeth ;

The Lord shall laugh at him,

For ho seeth that his day is coming.

Let the wicked draw the sword, and stretch their bow,

To cut down the poor and the needy,

To murder the upright in conduct;

Their sword shall enter into their own hearts,

And their bows shall be broken.

Better the little of a righteous man,

Than the abundance of many wicked.

For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,

But Jehovah upholdeth the righteous.

Jehovah knoweth the days of the pious,

And their inheritance shall be for ever ;

They shall not be ashamed in the time of distress,

And in the days of famine they shall be satisfied.

But the wicked shall perish,

And the enemies of Jehovah shall vanish like the excellency

of pastures ;
They shall vanish in smoke.
The wicked borroweth and repayeth not,
But the righteous is merciful and giveth;
For the blessed of Him shall inherit the land,
And the cursed of Him shall be cut off.
By Jehovah are the steps of this man fixed,


And He delighteth in his way;

Though he stumble, he shall not fall,

For Jehovah eupportetb his band.

1 have been young and am grown old,

And never have I 8 een the righteous forsaken,

Or his seed begging bread ;

Every day he is merciful and lendeth,

And his seed must be blessed.

• " Depart from evil and do good,
And ever rest quietly ;
For Jehovah lovetb righteousness
And forsaketh not his saints,
They are always preserved ;
But the seed of the wicked are cut off.
The righteous shall possess the laud,
And shall dwell therein for ever.
The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom,
And his tongue uttereth justice,
The law of his God is in his heart,
His steps shall not totter.
The wicked lurketh for the righteous,
And Beeketh to slay him ;
Jehovah Jeaveth him not in his hand,
Gondemnetb him not when he is judged.
Wait upon Jehovah, and heed His way,
And He shall raise thee to the heritage of the land.
Thou sbalt see the destruction of the wicked ;
1, too, saw a wicked man, overhearing,
And spreading as a greeu, deep-rooted tree,
Yet he disappeared, and lo ! be was no more,
And I searched for him but ho could not be found.
Mark the pious, and behold the upright,
For there is a future for the man of peace.
While the impious are destroyed together,
The future of the wicked is cut off.
And the salvation of the righteous is from Jehovah,
Their strength in time of distress;
And Jehovah holpeth them and delivereth them,
He delivereth them from the wicked, and saveth them,
For they trust in him."

Since, however, this Psalm, as well as Psalms xlix. and lxxiii.,
called forth by similar circumstances, endeavour to console the



distressed, and allay the prevailing scepticism in the moral
government of God, by assuring the people that this contrariety
of fortunes is only temporary, and that the righteous shall ulti-
mately prosper and prolong their days upon the earth, and the
wicked shall suddenly be cut off in great misery, thus keeping
within the narrow limits of present reward and punishment;
they leave the main difficulty unsolved. Hence the recurrence
of this perplexity passing over almost into despair, when these
reassurances and consolations were not realised by experience,
and when, moreover, the sufferers, however conscious of their
innocence, were looked upon as rejected of God, in consequence
of some secret guilt. The book of Job, which has so successfully
combated the latter notion, shewing that the afflictions of the
righteous are not always a proper test of sin committed, only
confirmed the old opinion that the righteous are visibly rewarded
here, inasmuch as it represents their calamities as transitory, and
Job himself as restored to double his original happiness in this


After the Babylonian captivity, when the political affairs of
the nation were such as to render the disparity of the destinies of
men and their moral life still more striking, the people began to
arraign the character of God —

" Every one that doeth evil
Is good in the sight of Jehovah, and he delighteth in them,
Or where is the God of justice ?" — Mai. ii 17.

" It is vaiu to serve God,
And what profit is it that we keep his ordinance,
And that we walk mournfully before Jehovah of Hosts ?
For now we pronounce the proud happy ;
They also that work wickedness are built up;
They even tempt God, yet they are delivered."— Ibid. iii. 17. 18.

Awful as this language appears, it had by no means reached
its climax. The inheritance of the Lord, which was to be the
praise and the ruler of all the earth, was now reduced and
degraded to the rank of a mere province by the Persians ; her
inhabitants, to whom the idea of bondage was most revolting




(comp. Matt. xxii. 17, with John viii. 33), were groaning under
the extortions and tyranny of satraps ; her seats of justice were
filled with most unprincipled and wicked men (Coheleth iii. 16) ;
might became right, and the impunity and success with which
wickedness was practised swelled most alarmingly the ranks of
the wicked (Ibid. viii. 10, 11).

* Tinder these circumstances, when the old cherished faith in
temporal retribution was utterly subverted by the melancholy
experience of the reversion of destinies; when the diversified
minds of the desponding people, released from the terrors of the
Law, began to import as well as to construct philosophic systems
to satisfy the cravings of their minds {Ibid. xii. 12), and to resort
to various other experiments to obtain happiness, the paramount
importance of a book which opens a new bar of judgment in the
world to come, when all present irregularities shall be rectified
by the Judge of the quick and dead, will at once be obvious.


Few books in the Bible have given rise to greater diversities
of opinion than Coheleth. So conflicting were the views about
it up to his time, that Luther remarked, " difficult as this book
is, it is almost more difficult to clear the author of the visionary
fancies palmed upon him by his numerous commentators, than
to develop his meaning." What would this sagacious reformer
have said, if he could have forseen the countless speculations of
which it has been the subject for the last three hundred years?
A complete history of the interpretation of this book would of
itself form a large folio. Our object, therefore, in this sketchy is
simply to give the leading and most striking views which Jews
and Christians, in different ages, have formed of Coheleth.

A. Jewish Expositions.
217, B.C. — 50, A.D. — The Apocryphal book called "the
Wisdom of Solomon" " may, in a certain sense, be regarded as
1 The age of .this book is a poiut of *reat contention ; the above figures shew





the first comment upon Coheleth, inasmuch as it imitatively
combats the same errors. The evils which were occasioned by
the absence of retributive justice, and which had called forth
Coheleth, became more general and formidable with the pro-
longed and increased sufferings of the people, and hence gave
rise also to the book of Wisdom. To invest its solemn warnings
and salutary lessons with greater weight, the author of the book
of Wisdom personates Solomon, and both imitates and quotes the
very language of Coheleth, which for similar reasons was also
ascribed to this wise monarch.

Having shewn, in the first chapter, that sin separates man
from God, and renders him unfit for the acquisition of wisdom,
the author of the book of Wisdom introduces, in the second
chapter, the wicked as declaring their own views of the life and
destiny of man (1-9).


ii. 1. For those who do not judge
aright speak among themselves thus:
Short and gloomy is our life, aud
there is no remedy in the death of a
man; and no one is known to have
returned from Hades.

2. For we are horn by chance, and
ul'ter it we shall he as if we had
never existed ; for the breath in our
nostrils is smoke, and thought is a
eparlc in the beating of our heart.


Not many are the days of his life
(v. 19) ; all his days he eats in dark-
ness, and has much trouble and
grief and anger (v. 16) ; no one has
power over the day of death (viii. 8) ;
no one can release from Hades
(iii. 22).

For man is chance (iii. 19), and
after it be goes to the dead, i.e.,
to oblivion (is. 3) ; the death of man
and beaet is the same, and both
have the same breath or spirit
(iii. 19).

the two extremes of the hypotheses about it. As it is beyond our range to enter
into a discussion upon this subject, we refer to Calmet's Preface to this book,
given by Arnold in his commentary upon the apocryphal books, being a con-
tinuation of Patrick and Lowth's commentary on the Bible ; Kitto, Cyclop. Bib.
Lit., art. Wisdom of Solomon; De Wette, Einleitung in das Alte Test., $ 314;
Ewald, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, iv., p. 554 ; Graetz, Geschichte der Juden,
iii., pp. 315, 493; Jost, Geschichte des Judenthums, i., p. 370, <fec; Herzfeld,
Geschichte des Volkes Israel, ii., p. 75 ; Grimm, Das Bucb der Weisheit, Kurz-
gefasstes Exegetisches Handbuch zu den Apocryphen des Alten Test, sechste
Liefening, p. 32, &c.



8. When extinguished, the body
turns into dust, and the spirit
vanishes like the subtle air.

4. And our name is forgotten in
time, and no one remembers our
works; and our life passes away
like the residue of a cloud, and is
dispersed like a mist driven away by
the beams of the sun, and crushed
by the heat thereof.

6. For our life is a passing shadow,
and there is uo returning of our end ;
for it is closed, and no one returns.

6. Come, then, let us enjoy present
pleasures, and diligently use the
world while young.

7. Let us fill ourselves with costly
wine and perfumes, let no flower of
the spring escape us.

8. Let us crown ourselves with
rose buds before they wither.

9. Let none of us be without his
share of voluptuousness; let us leave
everywhere tokens of our joy fulness,
for this is our portion, and this our


Man, like beast, is of the dust, and
turns into dust; his spirit vanishes
away like the beast's (iii. 20, 21).

Their name is forgotten (ix. 5),
there is no remembrance of those
who passed away (i. 11).

When man departs he returns no
more (see comment, on i. 11).

Go eat thy bread with joy, and
drink thy wine with a cheerful
heart (ix. 16); rejoice, young man,
while young, and let thy heart cheer
thee in the days of thine early life
(xi. 9).

Let thy garments at all times be
white, and let no perfume be lacking
upon thy head (ix. 8).

I did not keep back my heart from
any pleasure, this was to be my
portion from all my toil (ii. 10) ;
there is nothing better for man than
to rejoice in bis works, for this is his
portion (iii. 22; corap. also ix. 17,
and ix. 9).

Those who assert that the book of Wisdom was written either
to oppose the erroneous sentiments expressed in Coheleth, or to
supplement and vindicate its misunderstood passages, 1 have failed
to see that both books owe their origin to the same circum-
stances, and combat the same errors. 9

1 Augusti, Einleitung in das Alte Test, p. 249 ; Schmidt, Salomo's Prediger
oder Koheleths Lehren, p. 71, note.

* Comp. Grimm, Introduction to his Comment on the Book of Wisdom,
p. 29, Ac.




300, B.C. — 550, A.D. — The exact age of the Midrashic lite-
rature upon Coheleth cannot now be ascertained. When the
prophetic fire began to be extinguished, and the voice of the
prophets was gradually dying away, a number of God-fearing
teachers arose, who, by their instruction, encouragement, and
solemn admonitions, rooted and builded up the people in their
most holy faith. As the Bible formed the central point, around
which their legends, sermons, lectures, discussions, investiga-
tions, &c, clustered, a homiletico-exegetical literature was, in the
course of time, developed, called Midrash (^"lTD 1 ), which became
as mysterious in its gigantic dimensions, as it is in its origin.
Starting with the conviction that all sciences, as well as the
requirements of man for time and eternity, are contained in the
Scriptures, and that every repetition, figure, parallelism, synonym,
word, letter, nay the very shape and ornaments of the letter, or
titles, must have some recondite meaning, "just as every fibre of
a fly's wing, or an ant's foot, has its peculiar significance," the
text was explained in a fourfold manner, viz., 1. IDVi), in a
simple, primary, or literal ; 2. Kni, secondary, homiletic, or spi-
ritual; 3. TD^, allegorical; 4, T1D, recondite or mysterious sense,
which was afterwards designated by the acrostic Pardes, DT19,
transposing the 1 aud the 1.

The rules for this exegesis afforded as great a facility for
introducing into the text, as for deducing from it, any and every
imaginable conceit. A few of them will suffice as a specimen.

1. A word is to be explained both with the preceding and
following words ("innM 1 ^ VJE)^ ttTTU mpD). Thus, ntftf ilty)

■un notch /vi2D nns>tf tfy\ Sb rrfp tib bim. and Sarai

tt t; ••• t : " t; t: t t; ■ ' '

1 «mo (from vrn, to invettigate) properly denotes the investigation or study of
the Bible, which, in accordance with the above-mentioned manner in which it
was pursued, developed itself in the rota (from TVn, to go), current law, fixed rule
of life, also called MTMPOttJ (from Vnv, to hear), what was heard or accepted, and
man, Ghaldee, ma», what was said, wituout having the authority of a law, i.e.,
free exposition, homilies, moral sayings and legends. It is the collection of the
latter development {i,e., of the homilies and legends) which is now called tmo,
or man wm



tnt*ir f t are him no **■* and ° h ° hadan *-*-l

1 /T^T' 4mham ° Wi & bare n ° child ™ to **"«*! to
herself ffe fy and thm ^ fo ^ ( . ^ ^^ ^ ^

ner (t. e., Sarai) there was an handmaid (nnstf pftl ft)

2. -Letters are to be taken from one worefand joined to another
s°™Tl.i nt0 a neWWOrd ( ^' y " ini V* ™ m«); thus tm/u!

ry& WmrMt, then ye shall give his inheritance unto &
kinsman (Numb, xxvii. 11), is explained, and ye shall give the
tnhentance of his wife to him, i. e, the husband, taking away the
1 from , Vrtm, and the «, from T^ft, and forming the word ft,
t.e, ft TOf rhrgrn* D W deducing therefrom that a man
inherits the property of his wife, pwtf) (Baba Bathra, iii 6 )

3 Words containing the same letters are exchanged for one
another. Comp. my Commentary on the Song of Songs, p 27

4. The letters of a word are transposed ; thus vhw, our labour
(Deut. xxv. 7), is made to mean our children, Ud'w, by trans-
posing the D and the !?. '

5. Letters resembling each other in sound or appearance, or
belonging to the same organ, are interchanged; accordingly
*?? /JTJ? My, H0D Vfrtm rrtta is explained, the Lai
which Moses has given us is (HtonKD) the betrothed or wife
of, the congregation of Jacob (Deut.'xxx. 4), by changing the 1
in TVti~\\o for the N, and the V) for the \l).

6. Every letter of a word is reduced to its numerical value,
and the word is explained by another of the same quantity j
thus, from the passage, And a'l the inhabitants of the earth were
of one language (Gen. xi. 1), is deduced that they all spoke
Hebrew, H3to being changed for its synonym fnh* and than
5 + 100 + 4 + 300 = 409, is substituted for its equivalent /!rw

Online LibraryChristian D. (Christian David) GinsburgCoheleth : commonly called The book of Ecclesiastes ; translated from the original Hebrew, with a commentary historical & critical → online text (page 3 of 65)