Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The prophet shows that all human courses are vain, Ecc 1:1-4. The creatures are continually changing, Ecc 1:5-8. There is nothing new under the sun, Ecc 1:9-11. Who the prophet was, his estate and his studies, Ecc 1:12-18.
The words of the Preacher - Literally, "The words of Choheleth, son of David, king of Jerusalem." But the Targum explains it thus: "The words of the prophecy, which Choheleth prophesied; the same is Solomon, son of David the king, who was in Jerusalem. For when Solomon, king of Israel, saw by the spirit of prophecy that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son was about to be divided with Jeroboam, the son of Nebat; and the house of the sanctuary was about to be destroyed, and the people of Israel sent into captivity; he said in his word - Vanity of vanities is all that I have labored, and David my father; they are altogether vanity." The word קהלת Koheleth is a feminine noun, from the root קהל kahal, to collect, gather together, assemble; and means, she who assembles or collects a congregation; translated by the Septuagint, ekklhsiasthv, a public speaker, a speaker in an assembly; and hence translated by us a preacher. In my old MS. Bible it is explained thus: a talker to the peple; or togyder cleping.
Vanity of vanities - As the words are an exclamation, it would be better to translate, O vanity of vanities! Emptiness of emptinesses.
True, substantial good is not to be found in any thing liable to change and corruption.
The author referred to in the introduction begins his paraphrase thus: -
"O vain deluding world! whose largest gifts
Thine emptiness betray, like painted clouds,
Or watery bubbles: as the vapor flies,
Dispersed by lightest blast, so fleet thy joys,
And leave no trace behind. This serious truth
The royal preacher loud proclaims, convinced
By sad experience; with a sigh repeats
The mournful theme, that nothing here below
Can solid comfort yield: 'tis all a scene.
Of vanity, beyond the power of words
To express, or thought conceive. Let every man
Survey himself, then ask, what fruit remains
Of all his fond pursuits? What has he gain'd,
By toiling thus for more than nature's wants
Require? Why thus with endlness projects rack'd
His heated brain, and to the laboring mind,
Repose denied? Why such expense of time,
That steals away so fast, and ne'er looks back?Could man his wish obtain, how short the space
For his enjoyment! No less transient here
The time of his duration, than the things
Thus anxiously pursued. For, as the mind,
In search of bliss, fix'd on no solid point,
For ever fluctuates; so our little frames,
In which we glory, haste to their decline,
Nor permanence can find. The human race
Drop like autumnal leaves, by spring revived:
One generation from the stage of life
Withdraws, another comes, and thus makes room
For that which follows. Mightiest realms decay,
Sink by degrees; and lo! new form'd estates
Rise from their ruins. Even the earth itself,
Sole object of our hopes and fears,
Shall have its period, though to man unknown."
What profit hath a man - What is the sum of the real good he has gained by all his toils in life? They, in themselves, have neither made him contented nor happy.
One generation passeth away - Men succeed each other in unceasing generations: but the earth is still the same; it undergoes no change that leads to melioration, or greater perfection. And it will continue the same לעולם leolam, during the whole course of time; till the end of all things arrives.
ecc 1:5, Ecc 1:6
These verses are confused by being falsely divided. The first clause of the sixth should be joined to the fifth verse.
"The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he ariseth; going to the south, and circulating to the north."
"The wind is continually whirling about, and the wind returneth upon its whirlings."
It is plain, from the clause which I have restored to the fifth verse, that the author refers to the approximations of the sun to the northern and southern tropics, viz., of Cancer and Capricorn.
All the versions agree in applying the first clause of the sixth verse to the sun, and not to the wind. Our version alone has mistaken the meaning. My old MS. Bible is quite correct:
The sunne riisith up, and goth doun, and to his place turnith agein; and there agein riising, goth about bi the south, and then agein to the north.
The author points out two things here:
1. Day and night, marked by the appearance of the sun above the horizon; proceeding apparently from east to west; where he sinks under the horizon, and appears to be lost during the night.
2. His annual course through the twelve signs of the zodiac, when, from the equinoctial, he proceeds southward to the tropic of Capricorn; and thence turneth about towards the north, till he reaches the tropic of Cancer; and so on.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full - The reason is, nothing goes into it either by the; rivers or by rain, that does not come from it: and to the place whence the rivers come, whether from the sea originally by evaporation, or immediately by rain, thither they return again; for the water exhaled from the sea by evaporation is collected in the clouds, and in rain, etc., falls upon the tops of the mountains; and, filtered through their fissures, produce streams, several of which uniting, make rivers, which flow into the sea. The water is again evaporated by the sun; the vapors collected are precipitated; and, being filtered through the earth, become streams, etc., as before.
All things are full of labor - It is; impossible to calculate how much anxiety, pain, labor, and fatigue are necessary in order to carry on the common operations of life. But an endless desire of gain, and an endless curiosity to unfitness a variety of results, cause men to, labor on. The eye sees much, but wishes to, see more. The ear hears of many things; but is curious to have the actual knowledge of them. So desire and curiosity carry men, under the Divine providence, through all the labors and pains of life.
The thing that hath been - Every thing in the whole economy of nature has its revolutions; summer and winter, heat and cold, rain and drought, seedtime and autumn, with the whole system of corruption and generation, alternately succeed each other, so that whatever has been shall be again. There is really, physically, and philosophically, nothing absolutely new under the sun, in the course of sublunary things. The same is the case in all the revolutions of the heavens.
Is there any thing, etc. - The original is beautiful. "Is there any thing which will say, See this! it is new?" Men may say this of their discoveries, etc.; but universal nature says, It is not new. It has been, and it will be.
There is no remembrance - I believe the general meaning to be this: Multitudes of ancient transactions have been lost, because they were not recorded; and of many that have been recorded, the records are lost. And this will be the case with many others which are yet to occur. How many persons, not much acquainted with books, have supposed that certain things were their own discoveries, which have been written or printed even long before they were born! Dutens, in his Origin of the Discoveries attributed to the Moderns, has made a very clear case.
I the Preacher was king - This is a strange verse, and does not admit of an easy solution. It is literally, "I, Choheleth, have been king over Israel, in Jerusalem." This book, as we have already seen, has been conjectured by some to have been written about the time that Ptolemy Philadelphus formed his great library at Alexandria, about two hundred and eighty-five years before our Lard; and from the multitude of Jews that dwelt there, and resorted to that city for the sake of commerce, it was said there was an Israel in Alexandria. See the introduction.
It has also been conjectured from this, that if the book were written by Solomon, it was intended to be a posthumous publication. "I that was king, still continue to preach and instruct you." Those who suppose the book to have been written after Solomon's fall, think that he speaks thus through humility. "I was once worthy of the name of king: but I fell into all evil; and, though recovered, I am no longer worthy of the name." I am afraid this is not solid.
And I gave my heart to seek and search - While Solomon was faithful to his God he diligently cultivated his mind. His giving himself to the study of natural history, philosophy, poetry, etc., are sufficient proofs of it. He had not intuitive knowledge from God; but he had a capacity to obtain every kind of knowledge useful to man.
This sore travail - This is the way in which knowledge is to be acquired; and in order to investigate the operations of nature, the most laborious discussions and perplexing experiments must be instituted, and conducted to their proper results. It is God's determination that knowledge shall be acquired in no other way.
Behold, all is vanity - After all these discussions and experiments, when even the results have been the most successful, I have found only rational satisfaction; but not that supreme good by which alone the soul can be made happy.
O curas hominum! O quantum est in rebus inane!
"How anxious are our cares, and yet how vain
The bent of our desires!"
Pers. Sat. i., 5: 1.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight - There are many apparent irregularities and anomalies in nature for which we cannot account; and there are many defects that cannot be supplied. This is the impression from a general view of nature; but the more we study and investigate its operations, the more we shall be convinced that all is a consecutive and well-ordered whole; and that in the chain of nature not one link is broken, deficient, or lost.
I communed with mine own heart - Literally, "I spoke, I, with my heart, saying." When successful in my researches, but not happy in my soul, though easy in my circumstances, I entered into my own heart, and there inquired the cause of my discontent. He found that, though -
1. He had gotten wisdom beyond all men;
2. Wealth and honors more than any other;
3. Practical wisdom more than all his predecessors;
4. Had tried pleasure and animal gratification, even to their extremes; yet after all this he had nothing but vexation of spirit.
None of these four things, nor the whole of them conjoined, could afford him such a happiness as satisfies the soul. Why was all this? Because the soul was made for God, and in the possession of him alone can it find happiness.
To know madness and folly - הוללות ושכלות holloth vesichluth. Παραβολας και επιστημην, "Parables and science." - Septuagint. So the Syriac; nearly so the Arabic.
"What were error and foolishness." - Coverdale. Perhaps gayety and sobriety may be the better meaning for these two difficult words. I can scarcely think they are taken in that bad sense in which our translation exhibits them. "I tried pleasure in all its forms; and sobriety and self-abnegation to their utmost extent." Choheleth paraphrases, "Even fools and madmen taught me rules."
For in much wisdom is much grief - The more we know of ourselves the less satisfied shall we be with our own hearts; and the more we know of mankind the less willing shall we be to trust them, and the less shall we admire them.
Be that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow - And why so? Because, independently of God, the principal objects of knowledge are natural and moral evils.
The Targum gives a curious paraphrase here: "The man who multiplies wisdom, when he sins and is not converted to repentance, multiplies the indignation of God against himself; and the man who adds science, and yet dies in his childhood, adds grief of heart to his relatives." A man in science; a foolish child in conduct. How pained must they be who had the expense of his education! But there are many men-children of this sort in every age and country.