Ecclesiastes 8
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
This book, and those which have affinity with it, both canonical and apocryphal, are in nothing more remarkable than in the stress they lay upon wisdom. This is the quality of the spirit which in its highest manifestation is godliness and piety, which in its ordinary manifestations distinguishes the ruler from the subject, the sage from the fool. The reader of Ecclesiastes cannot fail to admire the independence of the author of common human standards of well-being, such as wealth, prosperity, and pleasure; wisdom is with him "the principal thing." The signs of true wisdom are graphically portrayed in this verse.

I. WISDOM IMPARTS INSIGHT. Ordinary men are not even, as a rule, observant; but there are men who are observant of what strikes the senses, of the phenomena of nature, of external life, but who go no further. Now, it is characteristic of the wise that they are not satisfied to know what lies upon the surface. The first stage of wisdom is science; the scientific man notes resemblances and differences, antecedents and sequences; he arranges phenomena into classes and species and genera upon the one principle, and into physical causes and effects upon the other. He recognizes similarities and uniformities in nature, and terms these arrangements laws. The second stage of wisdom is philosophy, whose province it is not only to proceed to higher generalizations, but to discover in all the processes of nature and in all the activities of mind the presence and operation of reason. The third stage of wisdom is theology, or religion, i.e. the discernment of the ubiquitous presence in the universe of the Eternal Spirit, from whom all individual minds proceed, and whose language, by which he holds communion with those minds, is nature. The scientist, the philosopher, the theologian, are all men who possess wisdom, who are dissatisfied with superficial knowledge, who "know the interpretation of a thing." Their wisdom is limited indeed if they disparage one another's work and service, for the world has need of them all. And there is no occasion why, in a measure, one man should not partake all three characters.

II. WISDOM IMPARTS BRIGHTNESS. The stupid and brutal betray themselves by an expression of stolidity. The cunning and crafty often display their characteristic quality by a keen, designing, "underhand," and sinister glance. But the wise are bright; clearness of perception, width of judgment, decisiveness of purpose, seem written upon the brow, seem to gleam from the steady eye of the wise man. The entrance of a wise man into the council-chamber is like the rising of the sun upon a landscape, - when the mists are cleared away and the dark places are illumined.

III. WISDOM IMPARTS STRENGTH, BOLDNESS, CONFIDENCE. The wise man is prepared for difficulties and dangers, and because he is prepared he is not alarmed. He measures circumstances, and sees how they may be bent to his will, how their threats may be turned into favor. He measures his fellow-men, discerns the strength of the strong, the depth of the thoughtful, the trustworthiness of the firm, the incompetency of the pretender, and the worthlessness of the shifty. He measures himself, and neither exaggerates or underestimates his abilities and his resources. Hence the boldness, the hardness of his face, when he turns to survey his task, to encounter his adversary, to endure his test. His heart is not dismayed, for his trust is ever in his God and Savior. - T.

The wisdom which is here spoken of as conferring upon its possessor an incomparable superiority is not mere wealth of intellectual knowledge, or a wide and accurate acquaintance with any department of science or philosophy. It is rather a moral condition, a state of heart and mind with an outward life consonant with it, a temperament and disposition attained by long and careful endeavor. In our modern use of the word, wisdom is equivalent to knowledge, and generally indicates mental endowments and equipment which may or may not enable its possessor to act sensibly in the ordinary affairs of life. We are familiar enough with the phenomena of men of science who in practical matters are as helpless as children, who betray a gross and astounding ignorance of things which lie outside the department of knowledge which they have cultivated, or who make it manliest to all that their knowledge has not had a refining influence upon them, and delivered them from the evil of being biassed by the disturbing influence of prejudices and passions. Such wisdom which we admire and respect, in spite of its unpractical character, is not of the same order with that which the Preacher eulogizes. The wisdom which is so often spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Proverbs, in this Book of Ecclesiastes, and in Job, is a Divine faculty by which a man is enabled to live a well-ordered life. Its source is in God, but it is not confined to the one nation which he chose, or synonymous with the exceptional revelations made to it. Thus the wisdom of Solomon is declared to have been higher in degree than that attained by any in the neighboring peoples, but not different in kind (1 Kings 4:29-3/). Then, too, its range is very wide. Nothing is too high, nothing is too low, for wisdom "fitly" to "order." Law and government (Proverbs 8:15, 16), and even the precepts of husbandry (Isaiah 28:23-29), are equally her productions with those moral observations which constitute in the main the three books of Scripture to which I have referred. She is the source of skill of every kind, the mistress of the arts, the guardian of the vast and inexhaustible stores garnered by experience, from which men may equip themselves for meeting every emergency of life. The wise man is God-fearing, free from superstition and fanaticism, prudent, shrewd, a good counselor, a safe guide (vide Cheyne,' Job and Solomon,' pp. 117, et seq.). The enthusiastic manner in which the influence of wisdom upon a character is described reminds us of the somewhat similar sentiment expressed by Ovid-

"Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes,
Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros."

(Epp. ex Ponto,' 2:9, 47.) A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed. The words depict very vividly and beautifully the almost transfiguring effect of serene wisdom upon the countenance - how it lights up the face, and gives to even homely features an exquisite charm. The coarse, sullen, vacant stare of ignorance is transformed by the "sweetness and light" with which the soul is suffused. There is a reference probably to the literal shining of Moses' countenance when he came down from the mount on which he had seen God face to face (Exodus 34:29). We must all of us have known cases in which true piety and wisdom, such as is learned from Christ, have had this refining and transforming influence; persons of little ordinary education or culture, to whom religion has given really new intellectual power, and whose tranquility and peace of spirit has given an air of heavenly serenity to their whole bearing and manner. And, indeed, in every ease a holy disposition of mind has a refining effect upon those who cherish it. The face is an index to the character, and if the emotions that are expressed upon it are pure and worthy, they cannot fail in time to transform it in some measure - to tone down what may have been its natural harshness, and to banish from it all traces of coarse and sensual passions. An example of religion giving intellectual power, or rather of drawing out the faculties which but for it would have remained unexercised, we may see in the life of John Bunyan. The genius which is so marvelously displayed in his works, and which gives him a high place in the literature of his country, would never have shown itself but for the wonderful change in his life, when, from being a profane, careless, godless fellow, he became a true-hearted servant of Christ. The abruptness with which this chapter opens may, it has been supposed, have been intended to call the attention of the reader to the hidden significance of the words that are about to be spoken, as our Lord often emphasized his utterances by the saying, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." Something there is in what he is about to add to be read between the lines. And the probable explanation of the suggestive question, and the allusion to a wise man's understanding "the interpretation of a thing," is in the fact that the writer veils a protest against despotism in the garb of the maxims of servility (Plumptre). - J.W.

It is possible that some persons, living under a form of government very different from that presumed in the admonitions of this passage - under a limited monarchy or a republic instead of under an absolute monarchy of a special theocratic kind - may fancy that these verses have no special significance for them, no applicability to the practical conduct of their actual life. But reflection may show us that this is not so, that there are valuable principles of interest and import for the civil life of all men.

I. CIVIL AUTHORITY IS IN ITSELF OF DIVINE ORIGIN, AND POSSESSES DIVINE SANCTIONS. The king, the king's word, commandment, and pleasure, are all significant of order in society, of that great reality and power in human affairs - the state. "Order is Heaven's first law." Right does not, indeed, grow out of civil authority, but it is its Divine basis. That kingship has often become tyranny, and democracy mob-rule, that every form of government may be abused, is known to every student of history, to every reader of the newspapers. But law in itself is good, and its maintenance is the only security for public liberty. One of the first duties of a religious teacher is to impress upon the people the sacredness of civil authority, to inculcate reverence for law, to encourage to good citizenship. He is not called upon to flatter the great and powerful, to repress discussion, to enjoin servility. But that freedom which is the condition of the true development of national life, and which can only be preserved by reverence for rightful authority, for constitutional government, should be dear to every Christian, and should be held in honor by every Christian teacher and preacher. "The powers that be are ordained of God."

II. WISE PATRIOTISM LEADS TO CHEERFUL OBEDIENCE AND SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY. Law for the most part is designed to repress crime, to maintain peace and tranquility, to afford protection to the honest, industrious, and law-abiding. Therefore to commit wrong of any kind, whether theft, or slander, or violence, is both evil in itself and is transgression of the law. A man who simply contents himself with breaking no civil law may indeed be a villain, for civil law is not all; there is a Divine Law which the civil ruler is not bound to enforce. But the bad citizen cannot be a good Christian; to break the laws of the state is not likely to lead to obedience to the commandments of the King of kings. It is, indeed, not to be expected that a man should approve of every command of the king, of every law which is enforced in his country. But if every man were to refuse to obey every statute of which he disapproved, how could government be carried on? The wonderful word of Christ is decisive, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Where no Divine ordinance is violated by conforming to civil law, the duty of the subject, the citizen, is plain; be should obey. He is, of course, at liberty under a constitutional government to use means of an honorable kind to secure a change of law. It is a grand word of the Preacher, "Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing."

III. LOYALTY TO EARTHLY, HUMAN AUTHORITY IS SUGGESTIVE OF LOYALTY TO GOD. When submission is enjoined, it is supported by a religious motive - "and that in regard of the oath of God." It is evident that the authority of a parent or a ruler, the subjection of a child or a citizen, are intended to symbolize the even higher facts of the spiritual kingdom - the empire of the "King, eternal, immortal, and invisible," and the loyalty of those who by the new birth have entered "the kingdom of heaven." - T.

It is scarcely to be denied that the wisdom which the Preacher exhorts his readers to exemplify in their relations as subjects with their kings, has something very like a servile tone about it. "There is not a trace of the enthusiastic loyalty of a Hebrew to a native sovereign, ' whose power loveth righteousness, who judgeth God's people with righteousness; in whose days the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth" (Psalm 72:7). Nor do we find the freeman's boldness, with which an Elijah could confront an apostate or a tyrant king. That fire is spout! The counsels here, as where he recurs to the same subject in the last five verses of Ecclesiastes 10., are those of submission, forbearance, self-control, prudence in dealing with a power irresistible, overbearing, often oppressive, yet which carries within itself the seeds of decay. Such advice may well have been needed by a generation of Jews, proud, intractable, detesting foreign rule, and groaning under the tyranny of an alien monarch" (Bradley). Loyal obedience to a duly constituted authority is declared to be

(1) a matter of conscience (ver. 2);

(2) a prudent course (vers. 3, 4, 5a);

because by it we escape the punishment incurred by rebellion, and enjoy some tranquility even under the worst rule. And as a consolation to those who are indignant at a tyrannous use of power, the reminder is given (5b) that punishment for evil deeds will be meted out in due time by a higher hand than ours.

II. OBEDIENCE A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE. (Ver. 2.) "I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God." Though the words "counsel thee" are not in the Hebrew text, no better have been suggested to fill up the gap. But the emphasis which is laid upon the I by the omission of the verb may be interpreted to mean that the writer is giving a personal opinion, and not speaking authoritatively on a matter concerning which different men might form very diverse judgments. And we may compare with it St. Paul's manner of speaking, "But to the rest say, not the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:12, Revised Version), as contrasted with "I command, yet not I, but the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:10). If we interpret the words in this way, a considerable measure of what I have called the servility of their tone is taken away. The writer is giving us prudential counsels, but of course the question still remains open whether there are not in certain emergencies higher considerations than those of prudence. He tells how tranquility may be preserved even under the rule of a tyrant; but it is for us to decide whether higher blessings than that of tranquility are not to be striven for. The great cautiousness with which he speaks is not unreasonable when we remember how ready men are to make use of passages of Scripture to justify even questionable conduct, and how many errors have sprung from an ignorant and self-willed misinterpretation of isolated texts. The advice, then, given is "to keep the king's commandment" out of regard to the oath of allegiance taken to him or imposed by him. No hasty or ill-advised breach of such an oath is justifiable. It would seem that this passage was in St. Paul's mind, though he does not directly quote from it, when he says, "Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake (Romans 13:5). As is well known, both the words of the Preacher, and the teaching of St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, have been taken as laying down the rule of passive obedience for all subjects in all circumstances. However cruel the despot, the duty of subjects to obey him implicitly, and to make no attempt to deprive him of his power, has been held by many to be clearly laid down by the Word of God. And great stress has been laid upon the fact that the ruler of the civilized world, when St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans, was Nero, one of the most infamous and cruel tyrants who ever wore the purple. In our own country during the seventeenth century, when the question of the prerogative of the sovereign and the rights and duties of subjects engaged the attention of all, these portions of Scripture were often interpreted to teach that the king's will was by right, and by the authority of God's Word, above all charters and statutes and acts of parliament, and that no misuse of his power could justify rebellion against him. But those who took up this ground forgot or ignored the fact that kings gave duties towards their subjects, that coronation oaths bind them to keep the laws; and that St. Paul, in the very same place in which he commands subjects to obey, describes the kind of rule which has an absolute claim upon their allegiance. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.... Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good... a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." It must surely be evident to all whose minds have not been blinded by a grotesque and monstrous theory, that a ruler who is a terror to good works, who rewards vice and punishes virtue, and uses the sword of justice to enforce his own selfish and cruel purposes, cannot claim from subjects the obedience which the apostle commands them to render to one of the very opposite character. But though passive obedience to tyrannical government cannot be commended on any higher ground than that of prudence, there can be no doubt that in ordinary circumstances the faithfulness of subjects to their rulers is a religious duty. And so we find in many passages of Scripture blame attached to those who thought that rebellion against the authority even of heathen kings, to whom the chosen people might be in subjection, was justifiable (Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 30:1; Ezekiel 17:15; Jeremiah 27:12; of. Matthew 22:21).

II. A PRUDENT COURSE. (Vers. 3, 4, 5a.) In these verses the Preacher "seeks to dissuade his readers from casting off their allegiance to the king, or taking part with the enemies of the monarch under any hasty impulse whatever." "Do not lightly forsake the post of duty, join in no conspiracy against the king's throne or life," the words might be paraphrased. His power is absolute; he is above courts of law, and therefore any action against him must be attended with great risk. Of course, as I have said, the course recommended is a prudential one, and there are circumstances in which many will think that the oppressiveness of a tyrannical government has reached a pitch justifying rebellion against it. But those who seek tranquility will bear a great deal, and not be eager to enter on any such undertaking. In ordinary circumstances, those who obey the king's commandment will experience no evil thing (5a), cases being left out of view in which the king requires obedience to decrees contrary to the Divine laws (Daniel 3., 6.); while the risk of failure in attempts to overthrow his power, and the anarchy and crime that generally attend insurrection against constituted authority, are calculated to make the wise man pause before he resolves to become a rebel. The advice given by the Preacher is so carefully stated, and based on such reasonable grounds, that perhaps one should not term it servile. And this impression is strengthened by a consideration of what is implied rather than expressed in the latter part of ver. 5. There is hope of a beneficial change even for those who submit in silence to the worst evils of despotism. It is to be found in the conviction of there being a power higher than that of earthly sovereigns, which will in its own time mete out punishment to all transgressors. The wise man's heart "discerneth both time and judgment;" he will wait patiently for the "time and season of judgment which God hath put in his own power" (Lamentations 3:26; Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11, 17). Evil doing cannot escape punishment; however exalted in station the offender may be, the time will come round when his deeds will be weighed in an unerring balance, and receive the chastisement they deserve. His high-handed disregard of equity and mercy may prevail up to a certain point, but retribution will come when the measure of his iniquity has been filled up. And the knowledge that this is so will help to console and strengthen the wise in the dark and evil day. - J.W.

In words which are purposely dark the writer speaks of the fall of unrighteous tyrants. It is with bated breath that he whispers to those who are writhing helplessly under the oppressive rule of cruel despots, that the coil under which they suffer works its own cure in time, and that those who have their own way at present will sooner or later have to succumb to a power greater than their own. it is with considerable difficulty that the drift of the passage is to be made out, but with this clue in our hands it becomes intelligible. In the sixth and seventh verses there are four statements, each introduced by the same conjunction, כִּי, "for," or "because," and by retaining it in each case, instead of varying it as is done in our English versions, the sequence of thought becomes clearer. The sense of the verses is as follows: "The heart of the wise man will know the time and judgment, and will keep quiet; for

(1) there is a time and a judgment appointed by God in which the wicked ruler will be duly punished (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:17);

(2) the wickedness of man is heavy upon him, and will entail its own punishment, - the misery caused by a tyrant is a weight which will bring him down at last;

(3) no man knows the future, or that which will take place, and therefore no despot is able absolutely to guard himself against the stroke of vengeance; for

(4) who can tell him how the vengeance wilt be brought about? He may look in this direction and in that for the longed-for information, but in vain (cf. Isaiah 47:13, etc.). One thing, however, is certain, that whilst the wicked "are drowned in their carousing, they shall be consumed like stubble fully dry" (Nahum 1:10). The inexorable nature of the doom which will fall upon the cruel despot is described in highly vivid language. There are four things which are impossible for him to do.

1. "There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit." Life can be shortened or cut off at any moment, but can by no art be prolonged beyond the fixed term. The despot cannot by his power escape the (loom of death, any more than can the meanest of his subjects. Or understanding by רוַּה not "the spirit of man," but "the wind," to which Divine judgments are often likened (Isaiah 41:16; Isaiah 57:13; Jeremiah 4:11-13; Jeremiah 22:22), it is as fruitless to try to keep back the Divine judgments as to prevent the wind from bursting forth.

2. There is no one who has power over the day of death, or is able to avert the arrival of that "king of terrors" (Job 18:14); the pestilence walketh forth in darkness, and the sickness wasteth at noonday (Psalm 91:6).

3. There was no discharge granted from the ranks in the time of war under the vigorous law of Persia, and the Divine law of requital cuts off with equal certainty all hope of escape from the guilty transgressor; and lastly:

4. Wickedness will not deliver its master. When the hour of Divine vengeance strikes, the sinner shall receive the meet reward of his actions. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) (Wright). By no lavish bribes, by no use of power, by no arts or endeavors, can the evil-doer, however high his rank may be, avert the day of judgment, which may precede, but which, if it does not precede, will certainly coincide with the day of death. And in that time, when he will have to stand before the tribunal of the King of kings, none of his deeds of cruelty and oppression will be passed over. Such is the teaching half concealed beneath the words of the Preacher; but not so veiled as to be hidden from the discernment of a reader made sensitive by the righteous indignation which oppression excites in a healthy mind. His words pass from an apparent servility of tone into a generous anger, and there is a triumphant ring in his voice as he speaks of the immutability of the law or of the will, upon which the moral government of the world is based. But though horror of injustice and hardness of heart is manifest in his words, they are not instinct with any less worthy feeling. He does not justify revenge, or hint at the advisability of subjects taking the law into their own hands when their patience has been long tried. But he raises the matter to a higher level, and makes faith in God the source of consolation; and in his very words of counsel to subjects adduces considerations which are calculated to weigh with their rulers, and make those of them who are still amenable to reason, pause in a course of oppression and cruelty. - J.W.

The Preacher brings before us the familiar fact of -

I. OUR POWERLESSNESS IN THE PRESENCE OF DEATH. There are evils from which large resources, or high rank, or exceptional abilities may secure us; but in these death is not included. No man may escape it. Some men have lived so long that "death has seemed to have forgotten them;" but their hour has come at last. Death is a campaign in which there is "no furlough" given. Therefore:

1. Let every man be in readiness for it; let us live "as those who today indeed are on the earth, but who to-morrow may be in heaven." Let not death surprise us with some urgent duty undone, he neglect of which will leave our nearest relatives or dearest friends in difficulty or distress.

2. Let us all measure the limit of our life; and let us feel that since so much is to be done by us if we can, for narrower and for wider circles, and since there is but a brief period in which to do it, let us address ourselves seriously, energetically, patiently, devoutly, to the work which the Divine Husbandman has given us to do. But the statement of the Preacher, reminding us of this familiar truth, may suggest to us, by contrast -

II. OUR PROVINCE AND OUR POWER IN THE PROSPECT OF DEATH. Although it is utterly hopeless that we can avert the stroke of the" last enemy," we may do much in regard to it.

1. We can often defer its coming by the wise regulation of our life; we cannot "retain our spirit" when our hour is come, but we may put that hour much further on by prudence and virtue. Folly will ante-date, but wisdom will post-date it. We cannot, indeed, measure Divine favor by the number of our years - there is a Christian reading of the heathen adage, "Whom the gods love die young" - but it is very often true that "with long life" God will "satisfy" the man who "sets his love upon him" (Psalm 91:14-16).

2. We can gain a spiritual victory over it; we can

" live, that we may dread
The grave as little as our bed." We may so abide in Jesus Christ, and so live in the light of his holy truth, that the idea of death, instead of being a terror or even a dark shadow at its close, will be positively welcome to our spirit.

3. We may find a friend in it when it comes; the friend whose kind hand opens for us the door of immortality, and ushers into the life which is free and full and endless. - C.

Amid the obscurities and uncertainties in which the precise meaning of this verse is lost, we may allow it to speak to us of the truth that when sin is in power it is in all respects an unsatisfactory thing. It is -

I. INJURIOUS TO THE PEOPLE. "A man ruleth over men to their hurt" (Cox). The evils of misrule are obvious, for they have been only too often illustrated; they are these: the infliction of grave injustice; the encouragement of iniquity and discouragement of righteousness; disturbance and unsettlement, and consequent reduction in various spheres of useful industry; decline of activity, morality, worship.

II. HURTFUL TO THE HOLDER HIMSELF. "One man hath power over another to his own hurt" (Revised Version marginal reading). It is certainly and most profoundly true, whether here stated or not, that the holding of power by a bad man is hurtful to himself. It elevates him in his own eyes when he needs to be humbled therein; it gives him the opportunity of indulgence, and indulgence is certain to feed an evil inclination, or to foster an unholy habit; it makes injurious flattery the probable, and a beneficial remonstrance the unlikely, thing in his experience.

III. OF BRIEF DURATION. If we only wait awhile we shall "see the wicked buried." It is probable enough that sin in power will be guilty of serious excesses, and will therefore bring down upon itself those human resentments or those Divine judgments which end in death. But, apart from this, an evil course must end at death. God has put a limit to our human lives which, though it sometimes takes from the field a brave and powerful champion, on the other hand relieves society of the impure and the unjust. Sin in power is bound fast by the tether which it is quite unable to snap (see Psalm 37:35, 36).

IV. CONTRACTING GUILT. They "had come and gone from the place of the holy." They had either

(1) been professing to administer justice, and had done injustice; or

(2) attended the place of privilege, and had despised their opportunity. Either way, they bad been "laying up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath."

V. GOING DOWN INTO OBLIVION. The sense may be that this happens too often to the righteous; but it is certainly appropriate to the wicked. And is it not more applicable to them? For no man tries to remember them. No one proposes to erect monuments or institute memorials of them. There is a tacit understanding, if nothing more, that their name shall be dropped, that their memory shall perish. The only kind thing that can be done concerning them is to leave their name unspoken.

1. Be content with the exercise of a holy and benignant influence. It is well to be powerful if God wills it. But most men have to live without it, and a human life may be destitute of it, and yet be truly happy, and be of real service to a great many souls.

2. Resolve to leave a holy influence and a fragrant memory behind. We may have to content ourselves with a very simple memorial stone, but if we leave kindly memories and good influences in many hearts, so that in our case" the memory of the just is blessed," we shall not have lived in vain. - C.

The enunciation in the preceding verses of a firm conviction in the moral government of the world by God might have been expected to have silenced for ever doubts excited by the inequalities and irregularities so often apparent in human society. The possession of a master key might have been expected to deliver the wanderer from the mazes of the labyrinth. But so great is the power of the actual, so varying is the strength of faith, that at times belief in a God of infinite wisdom and power and love seems a fallacious theory, contradicted and disproved by the facts of everyday life. And so our author, after bidding his readers to wait patiently for the manifestation of God's justice against evil-doers, gives utterance to the perplexity and distress occasioned by his long delay. He thinks of the successful oppressor, prosperous in life and honored in burial, and contrasts with him the righteous driven into exile, and dying in obscurity and forgotten by all his fellows. Such seems to be the meaning of these verses, according to the translation given in the Revised Version, "All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work under the sun: there is a time wherein one man hath power over another to his hurt. And withal I saw the wicked buried, and they came to the grave; and they that had done right went away from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city: this also is vanity." It is just the state of matters described in the first part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus - the one enjoying in this life good things, the other evil - and because the Preacher is not able to draw aside the veil that divides the temporal from the eternal, he cannot be sure that the inequality of the lots of the wicked and the righteous is ever remedied. He describes

(1) the prosperity of the wicked; and

(2) the adversity of the righteous.

I. THE PROSPERITY OF THE WICKED. It is still the despot whom he has in his mind's eye. He sees him ruling over others to their hurt, and at last receiving honorable burial, and finding rest in the grave. No insurrection of oppressed and pillaged subjects cuts short his tyrannous rule; he is undisturbed by enemies from without; he escapes the dagger of the assassin, and dies peacefully in his bed. And even then, when the fear he inspired in his lifetime is relaxed, no outbreak of popular indignation interferes with the stately ceremonial with which he is laid in the tomb. "There is not wanting the long procession of the funeral solemnities through the streets of Jerusalem, the crowd of hired mourners, the spices and ointment very precious, wrapping the body; nor yet the costly sepulcher, with its adulatory inscription." He might have been the greatest benefactor his subjects had known, the holiest of his generation, so completely has he received the portion of those who have lived prosperous and honored lives (cf. 2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 26:23; 2 Chronicles 28:27). The punishment merited by an evil life has not fallen upon him; the Divine Judge has delayed his coming until it is too late, as far as this life is concerned, for justice to be done, and therefore the faith of those who wait patiently upon God is subjected to a severe strain.

II. THE ADVERSITY OF THE RIGHTEOUS. While the wicked flourish in undisturbed peace, the righteous have often to endure hardships. The decree of banishment goes out against them; with slow and lingering steps they are compelled against their will to depart from the place which they love. They must go forth, and only too soon are they forgotten in the city, i.e. the holy city; a younger generation knows nothing more of them, and not even a gravestone brings them back to the memory of their people. This also is vanity, like the many others already registered - this, viz., that the wicked while living, and also in their death, possess the sacred soil; while, on the contrary, the upright are constrained to depart from it and are soon forgotten (Delitzsch). It seems a stain upon the Divine righteousness that this should be so; that so long an interval should elapse between the commission of the offence and the dawning of the day of retribution, and that in so many cases it would appear as if retribution never came. This is calculated to try our faith, and happy are we if the trial strengthens our faith. But one thing must not be left out of account - the Preacher dwells upon it in a subsequent verse - and that is that external circumstances of prosperity or adversity are not of supreme importance; that righteousness even with misfortunes is infinitely preferable to wickedness, whatever measure of external prosperity it may enjoy. Whether happiness or misery in this life be their outward lot, in the end "it shall be well with them that fear God" (ver. 12). - J.W.

In the case of some this conclusion may be reached deliberately, but in that of others the process may be unconscious, or at all events without attentive consideration and reasoned purpose.

I. THE DATA. There is delay in retribution. When we perceive immediate punishment follow upon flagrant sin, we are surprised and startled. We often remark that the course of the wrongdoer who avoids collision with the civil government is a course of uninterrupted prosperity. We see families advanced to honor and wealth who are lacking in moral character. We read of nations persevering for years, and even for centuries, in paths of injustice, rapacity, and violence, and yet growing in power and acquiring renown. And we cannot doubt that many evil deeds wrought in secret remain unpunished. The facts must be admitted. But they are explicable, and may be reconciled with a firm belief in the righteous retribution, the perfect moral government, of God. Stress is to be laid upon the word "speedily." It must be remembered that with God "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day."

"Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience he stands waiting, he exactly judgeth all." Judgment deferred is not judgment abandoned. From the time of Job the facts here referred to have been a perplexity to the observer of human society.

II. THE ERRONEOUS INFERENCE. "The heart of the sons of men is fully set in them [is emboldened] to do evil." The supposition is that sin may be committed with impunity, and the conclusion is that those sins which yield pleasure should be committed, since they will entail upon the sinner no evil consequences. Of course, an upright, conscientious, and godly man does not reason thus. He does what is right from a conviction of the nobility and beauty of goodness, and from a desire to act in conformity with the will of God, and to enjoy the approval of God; he abstains from evil because his conscience condemns it, because it is contrary to the universal order, because it is a grief to his Savior's heart. But the self-seeking, pleasure-loving, base mind looks only to the consequences of actions, and does what affords pleasure, and evades painful duty. It is such a man who is referred to in 'this passage, whose heart is emboldened to sin by the foolish persuasion that no penalty will follow.


1. The sinner should reflect upon the facts of the Divine government, and upon the express statements of the revealed Word of God. He may thence learn the certainty of retribution. "The wicked shall not go unpunished;" "The way of transgressors is hard;" "The wages of sin is death." The sentence may not be executed speedily; but it is passed, and it will in God's time be carried out.

2. The godly man should rest assured that, however he may be perplexed by the mysteries of Divine providence, however he may be unable to reconcile what he sees in society with his religious convictions, nevertheless the Lord reigneth, and it shall be well with those who fear, obey, and love him. And he may well think less of the consequences of conduct, and more of those principles by which conduct is governed, of those motives by which action is inspired. Loyalty and gratitude, devotion and sympathetic admiration, may well lead to such a life as shall be its own reward. However it may faro with a man in this life, he chooses the good part who hates that which is evil and loves that which is good, whose convictions are just, and whose life is in harmony with his convictions. For such a man all things work together for good. - T.

No obscurity hangs over this passage; the evil to which the Preacher refers is clear enough and common enough, while his condemnation of it is distinct and decisive.

I. A PALPABLE FACT IN THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD. The fact is that God often lets sin go unpunished, or, as we should rather say, partly unpunished. The tyrant is not dethroned; the fraudulent dealer is not convicted and sentenced; the murderer is not apprehended; the drunkard and the debauchee are not driven from the society which they disgrace; the hypocrite is not exposed and expelled; the men who fill their purses or satisfy their cravings at the expense of the property or even the character of their neighbors are sometimes allowed to remain in positions of comfort and of honor. And it may be that even their health and their spirits appear untouched by their sins, and even by their vices.

II. ITS MISINTERPRETATION BY MANY. What does it mean that God allows this to happen? The guilty are not slow to convince themselves that it means safety to themselves. It is, they think, that God does not concern himself with the small particulars of human life, and will not therefore visit them with his penalties; or it is that God is too "good," too kind, to punish his children for following the bent of their own nature; or it is that the world is not under the government of any righteous Ruler at all, but only subject to certain laws of which they may prudently make use for their ultimate immunity. It is that they may safely go on in their evil course without fear of consequences.

III. THEIR COMPLETE MISTAKE. They argue that because we always make penalty follow crime as soon as we can, and because our non-infliction of it argues our intention to condone it altogether, it is the same with God, and that his forbearance to punish is proof that he does not intend to do so. Thus they think that "God is altogether such a one as ourselves." But they are wrong; he "will reprove us and set [our sins] in order before our eyes" (see Psalm 1:21). We always make penalty pursue wrongdoing without any interval, because

(1) we are afraid the criminal will escape us, or

(2) we fear that we ourselves may be taken from the scene. But God is not hurried by such considerations as these. The guilty can never get beyond his reach, and he is ever present. Time does not enter into the account of him who is "from everlasting to everlasting." God's long forbearance is, therefore, no proof of Divine indifference or of the absence of a ruling hand from the affairs of men.

IV. ITS TRUE SIGNIFICANCE. What the Divine long-suffering really means is that God is patient with us in the hope that we shall repent and live (see Ezekiel 33:11; Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:4; and especially 2 Peter 3:9). The truth is that

(1) while men do often seem to escape the retribution that is due to them, and while they do in fact enjoy a large measure of Divine forbearance;

(2) sin is always suffering, and is on its way to doom.

(a) If outward and visible evils are not attending it, inward and spiritual evils are.

(b) Sin always tends toward misery and shame, and is working it out, as the event will show. Even if it should escape the hundredth time, there is a number that will prove fatal.

(3) The righteous man has a distinct and immeasurable advantage. It is "well with them that fear God."

(a) Piety and virtue have the promise of the life that now is. Sobriety, chastity, uprightness, diligence, prudence, courtesy, kindness, - these are all making for health and for prosperity, and for the best friendship which earth can offer.

(b) They lead up to the gates of the heavenly city. - C.

The prosperity of the wicked is not only an evil in itself, but it leads the way to a more deliberate and unrestrained course of sin. The fact that the Divine sentence that condemns evil is not executed speedily, leads many to think that they can sin with impunity. They do not see that the slowness with which the messenger of vengeance often travels gives opportunity for repentance and amendment before the stroke of punishment falls. Men think they are secure, and give themselves fearlessly to the practice of evil. Yet the Preacher could not give up his conviction that punishment of evil was but delayed and not averted. Though he saw the sinner do evil a hundred times and prolong his days, he knew that the righteousness of God, which in the present world seems so often obscured and thwarted, would in the end assert itself (ver. 12). Though the sinner enjoyed prosperity, it was a deceitful calm before the storm; but the righteous who truly feared God had a peace of spirit which no outward misfortunes or persecutions could disturb. "Appearances, the Preacher saw clearly enough, were against him, yet his faith was strong even under all such difficulties, and through it he was victorious" (Wright) (cf. 1 John 5:24). The prosperity of the wicked is, after all, only apparent. It has no sure foundation; can anticipate no long duration. His days may be many in number, but they soon pass away "as a shadow;" and when the last comes, every wish for prolonged life will be in vain. He may be at the very height of enjoyment when the hour strikes for his enforced departure from the world in which he has abused the long-suffering of God; and no prayers or entreaties or struggles will avail to prolong his days. The shadow on the dial cannot be forced to retrace its course, or to journey more slowly. "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his dust; in that very day his thoughts perish." - J.W.

Again and again the writer of this remarkable book reverts to the same mysterious and perplexing facts of human society. As soon as men began to observe carefully and to think seriously, they were distressed by the inequality of the human lot, and by the apparent absence of a just arrangement of human affairs. If a family is wisely and righteously ordered, the obedient children are rewarded; whilst the selfish, willful, rebellious children are chastised. In a well-administered government the law-abiding citizens are regarded and treated with favor, whilst the strong arm of the law is brought down heavily upon the idle and the criminal. Now, if God be the Father and the King of humanity, how is it that the affairs of the world are not so administered that the good are recompensed, and the wicked duly, swiftly, and effectively punished? Can there be a just Ruler who is also omniscient to observe and almighty to carry out his purposes of righteous government? Such are the thoughts which have passed through the minds of reflecting men in every age, and which passed through the mind of the writer of this Book of Ecclesiastes, and which are expressed in this passage.

I. THE PERPLEXING FACTS OF OBSERVATION. These are recorded in the fourteenth verse, and are described as "a vanity which is done upon the earth."

1. The just suffer the inflictions which seem appropriate to the wicked.

2. The wicked reap the prosperity which might be expected to recompense the righteous. These are facts of human life which belong to no age, to no state of society more than to another. Taken by themselves, they do not satisfy the intellect, the conscience, of the inquirer.

II. THE ASSURED CONVICTION OF FAITH. The Preacher, regarding the admitted facts with the eye of faith, comes to a conclusion which is not supported by mere reasoning upon observed facts. For him, and indeed for every truly religious man, there is a test of character which determines the destiny of spiritual beings; the discrimination is made between those who fear God and those who fear him not. Time and earth may not witness the award; but it is the award of the Almighty Judge and Lord.

1. It will not be well with the wicked, even though he may be permitted to continue anti to repeat his offences.

2. On the other hand, it shall be well with them that fear God. Such convictions are implanted by God himself; the righteous Lord has implanted them in the mind of his righteous people, and nothing can shake them, deep-seated as they are in the moral nature, which is the most abiding work of the Creator-Spirit.

III. THE ATTITUDE OF GODLY WISDOM. Those who, in the face of the facts described, nevertheless cherish the convictions approved, may reasonably apply such convictions to the practical control of the moral life.

1. Patience should be cultivated in the presence of perplexing and often distressing anomalies. We must wait in order that we may see the end, which is not yet.

2. Quiet confidence is ever the strength of God's people. They do not lean upon circumstances; they lean upon God, who never changes, and who will not fail those who place their trust in him.

3. Expectation of deliverance and acceptance. God may tarry; but he will surely appear, and will vindicate and save his own. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Much has happened to test our faith, our endurance; but when the trial has been sufficiently prolonged and severe to answer the purpose of our all-wise Father, it will be brought to an end. "Unto the upright light ariseth out of darkness;" "The Lord is mindful of his own." - T.

The Preacher has just attained for a moment to higher ground, from which he may get a wider view of life with all its changes and anomalies (vers. 12, 13). His hope revives, his faith comes back. "For a moment he has pierced through the ring which has confined him to the interests of common life, and risen also above his own dark misgivings; and there has flashed across his soul for a moment the certainty that there is a power in the world that 'makes for righteousness,' a Divine and supreme law behind all the puzzles and anomalies of life, which will solve them all. He lays his hand on this, but he cannot grasp it" (Bradley.). The inequalities in human lot, the just suffering as though they had been wicked, the wicked prospering as though they had been righteous, afflict his heart once more (ver. 13). His recurrence so often to this perplexing phenomenon is almost painful; it reveals a distress so deep that no arguments can diminish it, no exercise of faith can charm it away. Nothing but fresh light upon the mysteries of life and death can give relief, and this is denied him. He is one of those of whom the Savior spoke (Luke 10:24) who desired to see and hear the things seen and heard by those who were privileged to receive a revelation of God in Christ, but whose longings were doomed never to be satisfied on earth. In the mean time to what conclusion did the Preacher come? To that which he has already expressed four times over (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, 22; Ecclesiastes 5:18) - that it is better to enjoy the good things of life than to pine after an impossible ideal; to eat the fruit of one's toil in spite of all that is calculated to sadden and perplex (ver. 14). Yet we must be fair to him. He does not recommend riot and excess, or a life of mere epicurean enjoyment. There is work to be done in life before enjoyment is won; there is a God from whom the blessings come as a gift, and the remembrance of this fact will prevent mere brutish self, indulgence. The fear of God gives a dignity to his counsel which is wanting in the somewhat similar words of heathen poets, in which we have Epicureanism pure and simple - in the songs of Anacreon and Horace and Omar Khayyam. It would indeed be a mistake to imagine that the advice he gives, however often it is repeated, is the best that can be given, or even the best that he has to give. It prescribes but a temporary relief from sorrow and care and perplexity. And even when he makes the most of the satisfaction gained by "eating and drinking and being merry," we remember his own words, that "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). - J.W.

The Preacher was observant, not only of the phenomena and processes of nature, but also of the incidents and transactions of human life. In fact, man was his chief interest and his chief study. He observed the diligence of the laborious; the incessant activity of the scheming, the restless, the acquisitive. How he would have been affected by the spectacle of modern commercial life - say in London or Paris, New York or Vienna - we can only imagine; but as things were then, he was impressed by the marvelous activity and untiring energy which were displayed by his fellow-men in the various avocations of life.

I. MAN'S OWN NATURE AND CONSTITUTION IS ACTIVE. It would be an absurd misrepresentation of man's being to consider him as capable only of feeling and of knowledge. Intellectual and emotional he is; but, possessed of will, he is enterprising, inquiring, and active. Nature does indeed act upon him; but he reacts upon nature, subdues it to his purposes, and impresses upon it his thoughts.

II. MAN'S CIRCUMSTANCES ARE SUCH AS TO CALL FORTH HIS ACTIVITY. Human nature is endowed with wants, which prove, as a matter of fact, to be the means to his most valuable possessions and his chief enjoyments. His bodily necessities urge him to toil; and their supply and satisfaction, in many cases, absorb almost all disposable energy. His intellectual aspirations constrain to much endeavor; curiosity and inquiry prompt to efforts considerable in themselves, and lasting all through life. The family and social relations are the motive to many labors. Could one enter a market, an exchange, a port, and could one not merely witness the movements of body and of features which strike every eye, but penetrate the motives and purposes, the hopes anti fears, which dwell in secret in the breasts of the busy throng, something might be discerned which would furnish a key to the busy activity of life.

III. BUSINESS ACTIVITY IS ACCOMPANIED WITH MANY PERILS. The laborer, the craftsman, the merchant, the lawyer, all have their various employments and interests, which are in danger of becoming engrossing. Perhaps the main temptation of the very busy is towards worldliness. The active and toiling are prone to lose sight of everything which does not contribute to their prosperity, and especially of the higher relations of their being and their immortal prospects. Young men entering upon professional and commercial life need especially to be warned against worldliness, to be reminded that it is possible to gain the whole world, and yet to lose the, soul, the higher and worthier life. A man may become covetous, or at least avaricious; he may lose his sensibilities to what is noblest, purest, and best; he may adopt a lower standard of value, may move upon a lower plane of life.

IV. YET THE LIFE OF CONSTANT ACTIVITY IS DESIGNED BY DIVINE WISDOM TO BE THE MEANS OF SPIRITUAL PROFIT. Like all the appointments of providence, this is disciplinary. Business is not only a temptation, it may be an occasion of progress, a means to moral improvement. A busy man may learn to consecrate his powers to his Creator's service and glory; in the discharge of active duties he may grow in wisdom, in patience, even in self-denial lie may do with his might that which his hand findeth to do, he may redeem the time, he may prepare for the account to be rendered at last of the deeds done in the body. - T.

The endeavor had been in vain to discover the principle according to which it happens that the just sometimes receive the reward of the wicked, and the wicked that of the righteous (Ecclesiastes 8:14). Equal failure attends the endeavor to understand the purpose and end of the toil and labor in which men are ceaselessly engaged. That all that was done was "a work of God," the carrying out of a Divine law. the accomplishment of a Divine plan, he did not doubt (ver. 17); but he was unable {o see the connection of the individual parts with the whole - the order and symmetry of events in their course he could not recognize. Two things he had sought to attain:

(1) to know wisdom, to understand the essence and causes and objects of things; and

(2) to bring this wisdom to bear upon the facts of life, to find in it a clue for the interpretation of that which was perplexing and abnormal. But success in his endeavor was denied him. The toils and cares which fill up laborious days, and drive away sleep from the eyes of the weary, seemed to him to be in many cases utterly fruitless; to be imposed upon men for no end; to have no connection with any higher plan or purpose by which one might suppose the world to be governed. What, then, is his conclusion? It is that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite; that no effort is adequate for the task; that the highest human wisdom is but as folly when it is bent upon forcing a solution of this great problem (ver. 17). "Then I beheld all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because however much a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea, moreover, though a wise man think to know it, yet he shall not be able to find it." The agnosticism of the writer does not tend to atheism. He does not deny - on the contrary, he affirms - his faith in a great Divine plan to which all the labors of men are related, though what it is and how it is being fulfilled he does not know. The tone in which he records his failure is not without a strain of bitterness; but one would wish to believe that its prevailing note is that of reverent submission to the Almighty, whose ways he could not comprehend, and that the writer's thoughts would find adequate expression in the devout ejaculation of the apostle, "Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out?" (Romans 11:33). The pregnant words of Hooker describe the attitude appropriate for creatures in presence of their Creator: "Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his -Name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can know him, and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, his greatness above our Capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon the earth; therefore it behooveth our words to be wary and few" ('Eccl. Pol.' 1:2, 3). - J.W.

Plain people often think that a wise man is a man who knows, if not all things, yet all things to which he has directed his attention. It does not enter into their mind that wisdom lies largely in the consciousness of the limitation of the human powers. A great thinker has justly and beautifully said that the larger the circle of knowledge, the larger the external circumference which reveals itself to the apprehension. The writer of Ecclesiastes was a wise man, but he confesses himself to have been baffled in his endeavor to find out and master all the work of man, and much more the work of God. In this confession he was not singular. The man who knows a little may be vain of his knowledge; but the man who knows much knows full well how much there is which to him is unknown, and how much more is by him unknowable.



(1) man's finite nature, and

(2) God's infinite wisdom.


1. It tends to raise our thought of God to a juster elevation.

2. It calls forth

(1) humility,

(2) submission, and

(3) faith.

3. It makes the future infinitely interesting and attractive. What we know not here we shall know hereafter. Sow we know as in a mirror, dimly; then, face to lace.

"Here it is given only to survey
Dawnings of bliss and glimmerings of day;
Heaven's fuller affluence mocks our dazzled sight -
Too swift its radiance and too clear its light." T.

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