The Pulpit Commentary

Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 (Ecclesiastes 2:12-26)

Section 3. Vanity of wisdom, in view of the fate that awaits the wise man equally with the fool, and the uncertainty of the future of his labors, especially as man is not master of his own fate.

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Ecclesiastes 2:21-26 (Ecclesiastes 2:21-26)

From what has been said, Koheleth concludes that man may indeed enjoy the good things which he has provided, and find a certain happiness therein, but only according to God's will and permission; and to expect to win pleasure at one's own caprice is vain.

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Ecclesiastes 2:24 (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink . The Vulgate makes the sentence interrogative, which the Hebrew does not sanction, Nonne melius est comedere et bibere? Septuagint οὐκ ἔστιν ἀγαθὸν ἀνθρώπῳ ὃ φάγεται καὶ ὃ πίεται , "There is naught good to a man to eat or drink;" St. Jerome and others insert misi , "except for a man to eat," etc. This and the Authorized Version, which are more or less approved by most critics, make the writer enunciate a kind of modified Epicureanism, quotations in confirmation of which will be found set forth by Plumptre. It is not pretended that the present Hebrew text admits this exposition, and critics have agreed to modify the original in order to express the sense which they give to the passage. As it stands, the sentence runs, "It is not good in ( בָּ ) man that he should eat," etc. This is supposed to clash with later statements; e.g. Ecclesiastes 3:12 , Ecclesiastes 3:13 ; Ecclesiastes 8:15 ; and to condemn all bodily pleasure even in its simplest form. Hence commentators insert מ ("than") before שֶׁיּאֹכַל , supposing that the initial mere has dropped out after the terminal of the preceding word, adam (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:22 ). This solution of a difficulty might be allowed were the Hebrew otherwise incapable of explanation without doing violence to the sentiments elsewhere expressed. But this is not the case. As Metals has seen, the great point lies in the preposition , ב and what is stated is that it does not depend on man, it is not in his power, he is not at liberty to eat and drink and enjoy himself simply at his own will; his power and ability proceed wholly from God. A higher authority than his decides the matter. The phrase, "to eat and drink," is merely a periphrasis for living in comfort, peace, and affluence. St. Gregory, who holds that here and in other places Koheleth seems to contradict himself, makes a remark which is of general application, "He who looks to the text, and does not acquaint himself with the sense of the Holy Word, is not so much furnishing himself with instruction as bewildering himself in uncertainty, in that the literal words sometimes contradict themselves; but whilst by their oppositeness they stand at variance with themselves, they direct the reader to a truth that is to be understood" ('Moral.,' 4.1). They who read Epicureanism into the text fall into the error here denounced. They take the expression, "eat and drink," in the narrowest sense of bodily pleasure, whereas it was by no means so confined in the mind of a Hebrew. To eat bread in the kingdom of God, to take a place at the heavenly banquet, represents the highest bliss of glorified man ( Luke 14:15 ; Revelation 19:9 , etc.). In a lower degree it signifies earthly prosperity, as in Jeremiah 22:15 , "Did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice? then it was well with him." So in our passage we find only the humiliating truth that man in himself is powerless to make his life happy or his labors successful. There is no Epicurean-ism, even in a modified form, in the Hebrew text as it has come down to us. With other supposed traces of this philosophy we shall have to deal subsequently (see on Ecclesiastes 3:12 ; Ecclesiastes 6:2 ). And that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor ; i . e . taste the enjoyment of his labor, get pleasure as the reward of all his exertions, or find it in the actual pursuit. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God . This is the point—the power of enjoyment depends on the will of God. The next verse substantiates this assertion.

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