Ecclesiastes Chapter 11:1-5, 9-10; 12:13-14 Antique Commentary Quotes

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecc 11:1. Cast thy bread upon the waters] The book, as it draws nearer to its close, becomes more and more enigmatic, and each single verse is as a parable and dark saying. It is not to be wondered at, in such a case, that interpreters should, after their nature, read their own thoughts between the lines and so “find what they have sought.” This precept accordingly has been taken by some commentators (e.g. Grätz) as recommending an unrestrained licentiousness. By others it has been raised almost to the level of the counsel which bids us “do good, hoping for nothing again, even to the unthankful and the evil” (Mat_5:44-46; Luk_6:32-35). The latter is, it need hardly be said, infinitely more in accordance with the context and with the conclusion to which the writer is drawing near. Here again we find guidance in the parallelism of Greek thought. As Lowth pointed out (De Sac. Poes. Heb. x.) the words refer to the Greek proverbial phrase σπείρειν ἐπὶ πόντῳ (“to sow in the ocean”) as indicating a thankless labour. So Theognis, v. 105,

Δειλοὺς δʼ εὖ ἔρδοντι ματαιοτάτη χάρις ἔστιν,

Ἴσον γὰρ σπείρειν πόντον ἀλὸς πολιῆς.

Οὔτε γὰρ ἄν πόντον σπείοων βαθὺ λήϊον ἀμῶς,

Οὔτε κακοὺς εὖ δρῶν εὖ πάλιν ἀντιλάβοις.

“Vain is thy bounty, giving to the base,

Like scattering seed upon the salt sea’s plain;

Sowing the sea, thou shalt no harvest reap,

Nor, giving to the vile, reward shalt gain.”

Other parallels are found (1) in the Aramaic version of the proverbs of Sirach “Cast thy bread upon the water and the land, and at last thou shalt find it again” (Dukes, Rabbin. Blumenl. p. 73). (2) In an Arabic proverb, the moral of a long legend narrating how Mohammed the son of Hassan had been in the daily habit of throwing loaves into a river, how the life of an adopted son of the Caliph Mutewekjil, who had narrowly escaped drowning by clambering to a rock, was thus preserved, and how Mohammed saw in this a proof of the proverb he had learnt in his youth “Do good; cast thy bread upon the waters, and one day thou shall be rewarded” (Diez, Denkwürdigkeiten von Asien, i. p. 106, quoted by Dukes, ut supra). (3) In a Turkish proverb, also quoted by Dukes from Diez, “Do good, cast thy bread upon the water. If the fish know it not, yet the Creator knows.”

The writer holds himself aloof from the selfish prudence of the maxim of Theognis, and bids men not to be afraid “to cast their bread (the generic term stands for “corn,” as in Gen_41:54; Isa_28:28) even upon the face of the thankless waters.” Sooner or later they shall reap as they have sown. Comp. 2Co_9:6-10. It is not without interest to note that this interpretation is adopted by Voltaire in his Précis de l’Ecclesiaste,

“Répandez vos bienfaits avec magnificence,

Même aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas.”

Other interpretations may be briefly noted, but have not much to commend them: (1) that the figure is drawn from agriculture, and that the corn is to be sown in a well irrigated field, but this gives a meaning precisely the opposite of the true one; (2) that it is drawn from commerce and commends a venturous spirit of enterprise like that of exporting corn, which is certain to bring profit in the long run; but this again, unless we make the venture one of benevolence, is foreign to the spirit of the context; (3) that it speaks of throwing cakes of bread upon the water, that float away and seem to be wasted; but this, though leading to the same result as the interpretation here adopted, and having the support of the Arab legend quoted above, lacks the point of the reference to the Greek proverb; (4) last and basest, the imagination of one interpreter mentioned above that the precept sanctions a boundless sensual indulgence.

Pulpit Commentary


Cast thy bread upon the waters. The old interpretation of this passage, which found in it a reference to the practice in Egypt of sowing seed during the inundation of the Nile, is not admissible. The verb shalach is not used in the sense of sowing or scattering seed; it means “to cast or send forth.” Two chief explanations have been given.

(1) As to sow on the water is equivalent to taking thankless toil (compare the Greek proverb, Σπείρειν ἐπὶ πόντῳ), the gnome may be an injunction to do good without hope of return, like the evangelical precept (Mat_5:44-46; Luk_6:32-35).

(2) It is a commercial maxim, urging men to make ventures in trade, that they may receive a good return for their expenditure. In this case the casting seed upon the waters is a metaphorical expression for sending merchandise across the sea to distant lands. This view is supposed to be confirmed by the statement concerning the good woman in Pro_31:14, “She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her bread from far;” and the words of Psa_107:23, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do Business in great waters.” But one sees no reason why Koheleth should suddenly turn to commerce and the trade of a maritime city. Such considerations have no reference to the context, nor to the general design of the book. Nothing leads to them, nothing comes of them. On the other hand, if we take the verse as urging active beneficence as the safest and best proceeding under men’s present circumstances, We have a maxim in due accordance with the spirit of the rest of the work, and one which conduces to the conclusion reached at the end. So we adopt the first of the two explanations mentioned above. The bread in the East is made in the form of thin cakes, which would float for a time if thrown into a stream; and if it be objected that no one would be guilty of such an irrational action as flinging bread into the water, it may be answered that this is just the point aimed at. Do your kindnesses, exert yourself, in the most unlikely quarters, not thinking of gratitude or return, but only of duty. And yet surely a recompense will be made in some form or other. Thou shalt find it after many days. This is not to be the motive of our acts, but it will in the course of time be the result; and this thought may be an encouragement. In the Chaldee Version of parts of Ecclesiasticus there is extant a maxim identical with our verse, “Strew thy bread on the water and on the land, and thou shalt find it at the end of days”. Parallels have been found in many quarters. Thus the Turk says, “Do good, throw it into the water; if the fish does not know it, God does.” Herzfeld quotes Goethe—

“Was willst du untersuchen,

Wohin die Milde fliesst!

Ins Wasser wirf deine Kuchen;

Wer weiss wet sie geniesst?”

“Wouldst thou too narrowly inquire

Whither thy kindness goes!

Thy cake upon the water cast;

Whom it may feed who knows?”

Voltaire paraphrases the passage in his ‘Precis de l’Ecclesiaste’—

“Repandez vos bienfaits avec magnificence,

Meme aux moins vertueux ne les refusez pas.

Ne vous informez pas de leur reconnoissance;

Il est grand, il est beau de faire des ingrats.”

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:2

2. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight] The precept is clearly a pendant to Ecc_11:1 and has received the same variety of interpretations. Following the same line of thought as before, we find in it the counsel to give freely as opportunities present themselves. The combination of “to seven and also to eight,” is, like that of “six and seven” in Job_5:19, of “three and four” in Amos 1, 2, like the “seventy times seven” of Mat_18:22, a Hebrew form of the definite for the indefinite. There is, in our acts of kindness, to be no grudging narrowness. In such things

“Kind heaven disdains the lore

Of nicely calculated less or more.”

And the reason given fits in with the counsel, “Thou knowest not what evil shall be on earth.” “Hard times may come, when thou shalt have no means for giving; therefore waste not the present opportunity. Help those to whom thou givest to meet the hazards of the uncertain future.” Here again men interpret according to their character, and so, we have, as before, the licentious moralist finding a plea for unlimited voluptuousness, while the prudential adviser sees in the precept, which he renders “Divide the portion into seven, yea eight parts,” a caution like that which led Jacob to divide his caravan into two portions for the sake of safety (Gen_32:7-8). Taken in this last sense the precept stands on a level with the current saying of the Stock Exchange that it isn’t wise to “put all your eggs into one basket,” with the “hedging” of those who bet on more than one horse at the Derby and other races. It may well be left to the student to decide which of these interpretations has most to commend it.

It may be admitted, however, as it is the enigmatic form of the precept which has given rise to these discordant views as to its meaning, that the grave irony of the writer, which we have already traced in ch. Ecc_10:4; Ecc_10:20 may have led him to adopt that form because it served as a test of character, each scholar finding what he sought. Here also it might be added “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mat_13:9).

Pulpit Commentary


Give a portion to seven, and also to eight. This further explains, without any metaphor, the injunction of beneficence in Ecc_11:1. Give portions of thy “bread” to any number of those who need. Delitzsch and others who interpret the passage of maritime enterprise would see in it a recommendation (like the proceeding of Jacob, Gen_32:16, etc.) not to risk all at once, to divide one’s ventures into various ships. But the expression in the text is merely a mode of enjoining unlimited benevolence. The numbers are purposely indefinite. Instances of this form of speech are common enough (see Pro_6:16; Pro_30:7-9, etc.; Amo_1:3. etc.; Mic_5:5; Ecclesiasticus 23:16; 26:5, 28). Wordsworth notes that the word for “portion” (chelek) is that used specially for the portion of the Levites (Num_18:20); and in accordance with his view of the date of the book, finds here an injunction not to confine one’s offerings to the Levites of Judah, but to extend them to the refugees who come from Israel. For thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth. A time may come when you yourself may need help; the power of giving may no longer be yours; therefore make friends now who may be your comfort in distress. So the Lord urges, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luk_16:9). It seems a low motive on which to base charitable actions; but men act on such secondary motives every day, and the moralist cannot ignore them. In the Book of Proverbs secondary and worldly motives are largely urged as useful in the conduct of life. St. Paul reminds us that we some day may need a brother’s help (Gal_6:1). The Fathers have spiritualized the passage, so as to make it of Christian application, far away indeed from Koheleth’s thought. Thus St. Gregory: “By the number seven is understood the whole of this temporal condition … this is shown more plainly when the number eight is mentioned after it. For when another number besides follows after seven, it is set forth by this very addition, that this temporal state is brought to an end and closed by eternity. For by the number seven Solomon expressed the present time, which is passed by periods of seven days. But by the number eight he designated eternal life, which the Lord made known to us by his resurrection. For he rose in truth on the Lord’s day, which, as following the seventh day, i.e. the sabbath, is found to be the eighth from the creation. But it is well said, ‘Give portions,’ etc. As if it were plainly said, ‘So dispense temporal goods, as not to forget to desire those that are eternal. For thou oughtest to provide for the future by well-doing, who knowest not what tribulation succeeds from the future judgment’” (‘Moral,’ 35.17, Oxford transl.).

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:3

3. If the clouds be full of rain] The thought is linked to that which precedes it by the mention of the “evil coming upon the earth.” In regard to that evil, the sweeping calamities that lie beyond man’s control, he is as powerless as he is when the black clouds gather and the winds rush wildly. He knows only that the clouds will pour down their rain, that the tree will lie as the tempest has blown it down. Is he therefore to pause, and hesitate and stand still, indulging the temper

“over exquisite

To cast the fashion of uncertain evils”?

That question is answered in the next verse. It may be noted, as an illustration of the way in which the after-thoughts of theology have worked their way into the interpretation of Scripture, that the latter clause has been expounded as meaning that the state in which men chance to be when death comes on them is unalterable, that there is “no repentance in the grave.” So far as it expresses the general truth that our efforts to alter the character of others for the better must cease when the man dies, that when the tree falls to south or north, towards the region of light or that of darkness, we, who are still on earth, cannot prune, or dig about, or dung it (Luk_13:8), the inference may be legitimate enough, but it is clear that it is not that thought which was prominent in the mind of the writer.

Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown

Ecclesiastes 11:3

clouds — answering to “evil” (Ecc_11:2), meaning, When the times of evil are fully ripe, evil must come; and speculations about it beforehand, so as to prevent one sowing seed of liberality, are vain (Ecc_11:4).

tree — Once the storm uproots it, it lies either northward or southward, according as it fell. So man’s character is unchangeable, whether for hell or heaven, once that death overtakes him (Rev_22:11, Rev_22:14, Rev_22:15). Now is his time for liberality, before the evil days come (Ecc_12:1).

Pulpit Commentary


If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth. This verse is closely connected with the preceding paragraph. The misfortune there intimated may fall at any moment; this is as certain as the laws of nature, unforeseen, uncontrollable. When the clouds are overcharged with moisture, they deliver their burden upon the earth, according to laws which man cannot alter; these are of irresistible necessity, and must be expected and endured. And if the tree fall toward the, south, etc.; or, it may be, in the south; i.e. let it fall where it will; the particular position is of no importance. When the tempest overthrows it, it lies where it has fallen. When the evil day comes, we must bend to the blow, we are powerless to avert it; the future can be neither calculated nor controlled. The next verse tells how the wise man acts under such circumstances. Christian commentators have argued from this clause concerning the unchangeable state of the departed—that there is no repentance in the grave; that what death leaves them judgment shall find them. Of course, no such thought was in Koheleth’s mind; nor do we think that the inspiring Spirit intended such meaning to be wrung from the passage. Indeed, it may be said that, as it stands, the clause does not bear this interpretation. The fallen or felled tree is not at once fit for the master’s use; it has to be exposed to atmospheric influences seasoned, tried. It is not left in the place where it lay, nor in the condition in which it was; so that, if we reason from this analogy, we must conceive that there is some ripening, purifying process in the intermediate state. St. Gregory speaks thus: “For when, at the moment of the falling of the human being, either the Holy Spirit or the evil spirit receives the soul departed from the chambers of the flesh, he will keel, it with him for ever without change, so that neither, once exalted, shall it be precipitated into woe, nor, once plunged into eternal woes, any further arise to take the means of escape” (‘Moral.,’ 8.30).

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:4

4. He that observeth the wind shall not sow] This is, as has been said above, the answer to the question suggested in Ecc_11:3. Our ignorance of the future is not to put a stop to action. If we allowed that “taking thought for the morrow” (Mat_6:25) to hinder us from doing good, we should be as the husbandman who is always observing the clouds and lets the time of sowing pass by; who when harvest comes, watches the wind as it blows round him, till “the harvest is past, and the summer ended” (Jer_8:20) and he can no longer reap. The very watching for opportunities may end in missing them. There are times when it is our wisdom to “be instant out of season” (2Ti_4:2).

Adam Clarke

Ecclesiastes 11:4

He that observeth the wind shall not sow! – The man that is too scrupulous is never likely to succeed in any thing. If a man neither plough nor sow till the weather is entirely to his mind, the season will in all probability pass before he will have done any thing: so, if thou be too nice in endeavoring to find out who are the impostors among those who profess to be in want, the real object may perish, whom otherwise thou mightest have relieved, and whose life might have been thereby saved. Those very punctilious and scrupulous people, who will sift every thing to the bottom in every case, and, before they will act, must be fully satisfied on all points, seldom do any good, and are themselves generally good for nothing. While they are observing the clouds and the rain, others have joined hands with God, and made a poor man live.

Pulpit Commentary


He that observeth the wind shall not sow. The fact of the uncertainty and immutability of the future ought not to make us supine or to crush out all diligence and activity. He who wants to anticipate results, to foresee and provide against all contingencies, to be his own providence, is like a farmer who is always looking to wind and weather, and misses the time for sowing in this needless caution. The quarter from which the wind blows regulates the downfall of rain (comp. Pro_25:23). In Palestine the west and north-west winds usually brought rain. He that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. For the purpose of softening the ground to receive the seed, rain was advantageous; but storms in harvest, of course, were pernicious (see 1Sa_12:17, etc.; Pro_26:1); and he who was anxiously fearing every indication of such weather, and altering his plans at every phase of the sky, might easily put off reaping his fields till either the crops were spoiled or the rainy season had set in. A familiar proverb says,” A watched pot never boils.” Some risks must always be run if we are to do our work in the world; we cannot make a certainty of anything; probability in the guide of life. We cannot secure ourselves from failure; we can but do our best, and uncertainty of result must not paralyze exertion. “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy” (Rom_9:16). St. Gregory deduces a lesson from this verse: “He calls the unclean spirit wind, but men who are subjected to him clouds; whom he impels backwards and forwards, hither and thither, as often as his temptations alternate in their hearts from the blasts of suggestions. He therefore who observes the wind does not sow, since he who dreads coming temptations does not direct his heart to doing good. And he who regards the clouds does not reap, since he who trembles from the dread of human fickleness deprives himself of the recompense of an eternal reward” (‘Moral.,’ 27.14).

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:5

5. As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit] The Hebrew word for “spirit” has also the meaning of “wind” as in the verse immediately preceding, and this has led many commentators (as with the corresponding Greek word in Joh_3:8) to prefer that meaning, here. Two different examples of man’s ignorance of the processes of the common phenomena of nature are adduced on this view as analogous to his ignorance of the “work of God,” of what we call the Divine Government of the Universe. It may be questioned however whether, both here and in Joh_3:8, a more adequate meaning is not given by retaining the idea of “spirit” as the “breath of life” of Gen_2:7. The growth of the human embryo was for the early observers of nature an impenetrable mystery (Job_10:11; Psa_139:13-17). It became yet more mysterious when men thought of life, with all its phenomena of sensation and consciousness entering into the material structure thus “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This sense of the word agrees it will be seen, with its use in chaps. Ecc_3:21, Ecc_12:7. The word “nor” has nothing answering to it in the Hebrew and the sentence should run thus, describing not two distinct phenomena but one complex fact, “as thou knowest not the way of the spirit (the breath of life) how the framework of the body (literally the bones, but the word is used commonly for the whole body as in Lam_4:7; Job_7:15; Pro_15:30; Pro_16:24 and elsewhere) is in the womb of her that is with child.

the works of God who maketh all] So in ch. Ecc_7:13, we had “Consider the work of God.” Here the addition of “who maketh all” indicates a higher stage of faith. That “never-failing Providence orders all things both in heaven and earth.” The agnosticism of the Debater is, like that of Hooker (Eccl. Pol. i. 2. § 3), the utterance of a devout Theism, content to keep within the limits of the Knowable, but not placing the object of its adoration in the category of the Unknown and Unknowable.

Pulpit Commentary


As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit. In this verse are presented one or two examples of man’s ignorance of natural facts and processes as analogous to the mysteries of God’s moral government. The word translated “spirit” (ruach) may mean also “wind,” and is so taken hero by many commentators (see Ecc_1:6; Ecc_8:8; and comp. Joh_3:8). In this view there would be two instances given, viz. the wind and the embryo. Certainly, the mention of the wind seems to come naturally after what has preceded; and man’s ignorance of its way, and powerlessness to control it, are emblematic of his attitude towards Divine providence. The versions, however, seem to support the rendering of the Authorized Version. Thus the Septuagint (which connects the clause with Ecc_11:4), ἐν οἷς (“among whom,” i.e. those who watch the weather), “There is none that knoweth what is the way of the spirit (τοῦ πνεύματος);” Vulgate. Quomodo ignoras quae sit via spiritus. If we take this view, we have only one idea in the verse, and that is the infusion of the breath of life in the embryo, and its growth in its mother’s womb. Nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child. Our version, by its insertions, has made two facts out of the statement in the Hebrew, which is literally, holy the bones (are) in the womb of a pregnant woman. Septuagint, “As (ὡς) bones are in the womb,” etc.; Vulgate, Et qua ratione compingantur ossa in ventre praegnantis, ” And in what way the bones are framed in the womb of the pregnant.” The formation and quickening of the foetus were always regarded as mysterious and inscrutable (comp. Job_10:8, Job_10:9; Psa_139:15; Wis. 7:1, etc.). Wright compares M. Aurelius, 10:26, “The first principles of life are extremely slender and mysterious; and yet nature works them up into a strange increase of bulk, diversity, and proportion.” Controversies concerning the origin of the soul have been rife from early times, some holding what is called Traducianism, i.e. that soul and body are both derived by propagation from earthly parents; others supporting Creationism, i.e. that the soul, created specially by God, is infused into the child before birth. St. Augustine confesses (‘Op. Imperf.,’ 4.104) that he is unable to determine the truth of either opinion. And, indeed, this is one of those secret things which Holy Scripture has not decided for us, and about which no authoritative sentence has been given. The term “bones” is used for the whole conformation of the body (comp. Pro_15:30; Pro_16:24); meleah, “pregnant,” means literally, “full,” and is used like the Latin plena can here and nowhere else in the Old .Testament, though common in later Hebrew. Thus Ovid, ‘Metam.,’ 10.469—

“Plena patris thalamis excedit, et impia dire

Semina fert utero.”

And ‘Fast.,’ 4.633—

“Nunc gravidum pecus est; gravidae sunt semine terrae

Telluri plenae victima plena datur.”

Even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. Equally mysterious in its general scope and in its details is the working of God’s providence. And as everything lies in God’s hands, it must needs be secret and beyond human ken. This is why to “the works of God” (Ecc_7:13) is added, “who maketh all.” The God of nature is Lord of the future (comp. Amo_3:6; Ec 18:6); man must not disquiet himself about this.

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:9

9. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth] Strictly speaking, as the beginning of the end, the opening of the finale of the book, these should be read in close connexion with chap. 12. The Debater turns with his closing counsel to the young. That counsel, like the rest of the book, has been very variously interpreted. (1) Men have seen in it the stern irony of the ascetic, killing the power of rejoicing in the very act of bidding men rejoice, holding before the young man the terrors of the Lord, the fires of Gehenna. Coarsely paraphrased, the counsel so given is practically this, “Follow your desires, take your fling, sow your wild oats, go forth on the voyage of life, ‘youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm,’ but know that all this, the ‘primrose path of dalliance,’ ends in Hell and its eternal fires.” It is not without significance, from this point of view, that the counsel given is almost in direct contradiction to the words of the Law, brought, we may believe, into notice by the growing stress laid on the use of phylacteries, on which those words were written, which warned men that they should not “seek after their own heart and their own eyes” (Num_15:39). (2) Men have also seen in it the unchastened counsel of the lowest form of Epicureanism, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Leave no desire ungratified, seek the maximum of intense enjoyment, crowd the sensations of a life-time into a few short years.” (3) Even the closing words have, by a strange ingenuity, been turned into a protest against asceticism. “God will judge you, if you slight His gifts. Self-denial is for Him no acceptable service. He rejoices in your joy, will punish the gloomy Pharisee or Essene who mortifies the flesh, by leaving him to his self-inflicted tortures.” Once again men have looked at the shield on its gold or its silver side: and the Truth is found in seeing it on both. Once again we may recognise the method of one who spoke φωνήεντα συνέτοισιν (“full of meaning to those who have eyes to see”), and uttered his precepts with a double sense as a test of the character of those who heard or read them. The true purport of the words seems to be as follows. After the manner of chs. Ecc_2:24, Ecc_3:12; Ecc_3:22, Ecc_5:18, Ecc_9:7, the Debater falls back on the fact that life is after all worth living, that it is wise to cultivate the faculty of enjoyment in the season when that faculty is, in most cases, as by a law of nature, strong and capable of being fashioned into a habit. So moralists in our own time, preachers of “sweetness and light,” have contrasted the gloomy plodding Philistinism or Puritanism of the English as a people, “qui s’amusent moult (= bien) tristement” (Froissart), with the brightness and gaiety of the French, and have urged us to learn wisdom from the comparison. In good faith he tells the young man to “rejoice in his youth,” to study the bent of his character, what we should call his æsthetic tastes, but all this is not to be the reckless indulgence of each sensuous impulse, but to be subject to the thought “God will bring thee into judgment.” What the judgment may be the Debater does not define. It may come in the physical suffering, the disease, or the poverty, or the shame, that are the portion of the drunkard and the sensualist. It may come in the pangs of self-reproach, and the memory of the “mala mentis gaudia.” “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make whips to scourge us.” It is singularly significant to find an echo of the precept so given in the teaching of the great Poet of the more atheistic type of Epicureanism, obliged, as in spite of himself, to recognise the fact of a moral order in the world:

“Inde metus maculat pœnarum præmia vitæ.

Circumretit enim vis atque injuria quemque,

Atque, unde exorta est, ad eum plerumque revertit;

Nec facile est placidam ac pacatam degere vitam,

Qui violat facteis communia fœdera pacis.

Etsi fallit enim divom genus humanumque,

Perpetuo tamen id fore clam diffidere debet.”

“Hence fear of vengeance life’s best prizes mars;

For violence and wrong take him who works them,

As in a net, and to their source return.

Nor is it easy found for him who breaks

By deeds the common covenants of peace

To lead a placid and a peaceful life.

For grant he cheat the gods and all mankind,

He cannot hope the evil done will be

For ever secret.”

Lucr. De Rer. Nat. v. 1151.

Did the judgment of which the thinker speaks go beyond this? That question also has been variously answered. The Debater, it is obvious, does not draw the pictures of the Tartarus and Elysian Fields of the Greek, or of the Gehenna and the Paradise of which his countrymen were learning to speak, it may be, all too lightly. He will not map out a country he has not seen. But the facts on which he dwells, the life of ignoble pleasure, or tyranny, or fraud carried on successfully to the last, the unequal distribution of the pleasures and the pains of life, the obvious retort on the part of the evil-doer that if this life were all, men could take their fill of pleasure and evade the judgment of man, or the misery of self-made reproach and failure, by suicide, all this leads to the conclusion that the “judgment” which the young man is to remember is “exceeding broad,” stretching far into the unseen future of the eternal years. Faith at last comes in where Reason fails, and the man is bidden to remember, in all the flush of life and joy, that “judgment” comes at last, if not in man’s present stage of being, yet in the great hereafter.

Pulpit Commentary


Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth. Koheleth continues to inculcate the duty of rational enjoyment. “In youth” is during youth; not in the exercise of, or by reason of, thy fresh, unimpaired powers. The author urges his hearers to begin betimes to enjoy the blessing with which God surrounds them. Youth is the season of innocent, unalloyed pleasure; then, if ever, casting aside all tormenting anxiety concerning an unknown future, one may, as it is called, enjoy life. Let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth. Let the lightness of thy heart show itself in thy bearing and manner, even as it is said in Proverbs (Pro_15:13), “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance.” Walk in the ways of thine heart (comp. Isa_57:17). Where the impulses and thoughts of thy heart lead thee. The wording looks as if the personal identity, the “I,” and the thought were distinct. We have a similar severance in Ecc_7:25, only there the personality directs the thought, not the thought the “I,” And in the sight of thine eyes. Follow after that on which thy eyes fix their regard (Ecc_2:10); for, as Job says (Job_31:7), “The heart walketh after the eyes.” The Septuagint, in deference to the supposed requirements of strict morality, has (at least according to the text of some manuscripts) modified the received reading, translating the passage thus: Καὶ περιπάτει ἐν ὁδοῖς καρδίας σου ἄμωμος καὶ μὴ ἐν ὁράσει ὀφθαλμῶν, “And walk in the ways of thine heart blameless, and not in the sight of thine eyes.” But μὴ is omitted by A, C, S. Others besides the Seventy have felt doubts about the bearing of the passage, as though it recommended either unbridled license in youth, or at any rate an unhallowed Epicureanism. To counteract the supposed evil teaching, some have credited Koheleth with stern irony. He is not recommending pleasure, say they, but warning against it. “Go on your way,” he cries, “do as you list, sow your wild oats, live dissolutely, but remember that retribution will some day overtake you.” But the counsel is seriously intended, and is quite consistent with many other passages which teach the duty of enjoying life as man’s lot and part (see Ecc_2:24; Ecc_3:12, Ecc_3:13, Ecc_3:22; Ecc_5:18; Ecc_8:15, etc.). The seeming opposition between the recommendation here and in Num_15:39 is easily reconciled. The injunction in the Pentateuch, which was connected with a ceremonial observance, ran thus: “Remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart, and your own eyes, after which ye used to go a-whoring.” Here unlawful pleasures, contrary to the commandments, are forbidden; Ecclesiastes urges the pursuit of innocent pleasures, such as will stand scrutiny. Hoelemann, quoted by Wright, observes that this verse is the origin of a famous student-song of Germany, a stanza or two of which we may cite—

“Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus;

Post exactam juventutem, post melestam senectutem,

Nos habebit humus ….

“Vita nostra brevis est, brevi finietur,

Venit mors velociter, rapit nes atrociter,

Nemini parcotur.”

It is not Epicureanism, even in a modified form, that is here encouraged. For moderate and lawful pleasure Koheleth has always uttered his sanction, but the pleasure is to be such as God allows. This is to be accepted with all gratitude in the present, as the future is wholly beyond our ken and our control; it is all that is placed in our power, and it is enough to make life more than endurable. And then to temper unmixed joy, to prove that he is not recommending mere sensuality, to correct any wrong impression which the previous utterances may have conveyed, the writer adds another thought, a somber reflection which shows the religious conclusion to which he is working up. But know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment (mishpat). It has been doubted what is meant by “judgment,” whether present or future, men’s or God’s. It has been taken to mean—God will make thy excesses prove scourges, by bringing on thee sickness, poverty, a miserable old age; or these distresses come as the natural consequences of youthful sins; or obloquy shall follow thee, and thou shall meet with deserved censure from thy fellow-men. But every one must feel that the solemn ending of this paragraph points to something more grave and important than any such results as those mentioned above, something that is concerned with that indefinable future which is ever looming in the dim horizon. Nothing satisfies the expected conclusion but a reference to the eternal judgment in the world beyond the grave. Shadowy and incomplete as was Koheleth’s view of this great assize, his sense of God’s justice in the face of the anomalies of human life was so strong that he can unhesitatingly appeal to the conviction of a coming inquisition, as a motive for the guidance of action and conduct. That in other passages he constantly apprehends earthly retribution, as the Pentateuch taught, and as his countrymen had learned to expect (see Ecc_2:26; Ecc_3:17; Ecc_7:17, Ecc_7:18), is no argument that he is not here rising to a higher view. Rather, the fact that the doctrine of temporal reward and punishment is found by experience to fail in many cases (comp. Ecc_8:14) has forced him to state his conclusion that this life is not the end of everything, and that there is another existence in which actions shall be tried, justice done, retribution awarded. The statement is brief, for he knew nothing more than the fact, and could add nothing to it. His conception of the soul’s condition in Sheol (see Ecc_9:5, Ecc_9:6, Ecc_9:10) seems to point to some other state or period for this final judgment; but whether a resurrection is to precede this awful trial is left in uncertainty here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament. Cheyne and some other critics consider this last clause to be an interpolation, because it appears to militate against previous utterances; but this argument is unreasonable, as the paragraph comes in quite naturally as the needed conclusion, and without it the section would halt and be incomplete. A similar allusion is contained in the epilogue (Ecc_12:14). A correcter, who desired to remove all seeming contradictions and discrepancies from the work, would not have been satisfied with inserting this gloss, but would have displayed his remedial measures in other places. Of this proceeding, however, no traces are discernible by an unprejudiced eye.

Cambridge BiblePlumptre

Ecclesiastes 11:10

10. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart] The two clauses recognise the two conditions of happiness so far as happiness is attainable by man on earth. “Sorrow,” better perhaps, discontent or vexation, is by a deliberate effort to be put away from our “heart,” i.e. from our mind. We are not to look on the dark side of things, but to cultivate cheerfulness, to be “content” (αὐτάρκης) with whatever life brings us (Php_4:11). And the “flesh” too has its claims which may legitimately be recognised. We need not vex it with the self-inflicted tortures of the ascetic, but, in a sense as far as possible different from “the rehabilitation of the flesh” which has been made the plea for an unrivalled sensuality, consider and meet its capacities for pure and innocent enjoyment.

childhood and youth are vanity] The Hebrew word for “youth” is an unusual one and is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament. It has been differently explained: (1) as the dawn or morning of life, the period of its brightness; and (2) as the time when the hair is black as contrasted with the grey hair of age. Of these (1) seems preferable. The prominent idea of “vanity” here is that of transitoriness. The morning will not last. It is wise to use it while we can.

Pulpit Commentary


Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart. The writer reiterates his advice concerning cheerfulness, and then proceeds to inculcate early piety. Kaas, rendered “sorrow,” has been variously understood. The Septuagint has θυμόν, the Vulgate gram; so the margin of the Authorized Version gives “anger,” and that of the Revised Version “vexation,” or “provocation.” Wordsworth adopts this last meaning (relating to 1Ki_15:30; 1Ki_21:22; 2Ki_23:26, etc; where, however, the signification is modified by the connection in which the word stands), and paraphrases, “Take heed lest you provoke God by the thoughts of your heart.” Jerome affirms that in the term “anger” all perturbations of the mind are included—which seems rather forced. The word is better rendered, low spirits, moroseness, discontent. These feelings are to be put away from the mind by a deliberate act. Put away evil from thy flesh. Many commentators consider that the evil here named is physical, not moral, the author enjoining his young disciple to take proper care of his body, not to weaken it on the one hand by asceticism, nor on the other by indulgence in youthful lusts. In this ease the two clauses would urge the removal of what respectively affects the mind and body, the inner and outer man. But the ancient versions are unanimous in regarding the “evil” spoken of as moral. Thus the Septuagint gives πονηρίαν, “wickedness;” the Vulgate, malitiam. Similarly the Syriac and Targum. And according to our interpretation of the passage, such is the meaning here. It is a call to early piety and virtue, like that of St. Paul (2Co_7:1), “Having these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Do not, says Koheleth, defile thy body by carnal sins (1Co_6:18), which bring decay and sickness, and arouse the wrath of God against thee. For childhood and youth are vanity. This time of youth soon passes away; the capacity for enjoyment is soon circumscribed; therefore use thy opportunities aright, remembering the end. The word for “youth” (shacharuth) occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, and is probably connected with shachon, “black,” used of hair in Le 13:31. Hence it means the time of black hair, in contradistinction to the time when the hair has become grey. The explanation which refers it to the time of dawn (Psa_110:1-7 :8) seems to be erroneous, as it would then be identical with” childhood.” The Septuagint renders it ἄνοια, “folly;” the Vulgate, voluptas, “pleasure;” the Syriac, “and not knowledge, but the word cannot be rightly thus translated. The two terms are childhood and manhood, the period during which the capacity for pleasure is fresh and strong. Its vanity is soon brought home; it is evanescent; it brings punishment. Thus Bailey, ‘Festus’—

“I cast mine eyes around, and feel

There is a blessing wanting;

Too soon our hearts the truth reveal,

That joy is disenchanting.”

And again—

“When amid the world’s delights,

How warm soe’er we feel a moment among them—

We find ourselves, when the hot blast hath blown,

Prostrate, and weak, and wretched.”

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 12:13

13. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter] The word for “let us hear” has been taken by some scholars as a participle with a gerundial force, “The sum of the whole matter must be heard,” but it admits of being taken as in the English version, and this gives a more satisfying meaning. The rendering “everything is heard,” i.e. by God, has little to recommend it, and by anticipating the teaching of the next verse introduces an improbable tautology. The words admit of the rendering the sum of the whole discourse, which is, perhaps, preferable.

Fear God, and keep his commandments] This is what the Teacher who, as it were, edits the book, presents to his disciples as its sum and substance, and he was not wrong in doing so. In this the Debater himself had rested after his many wanderings of thought (ch. Ecc_5:7, and, by implication, Ecc_11:9). Whatever else might be “vanity and feeding on wind,” there was safety and peace in keeping the commandments of the Eternal, the laws “which are not of to-day or yesterday.”

for this is the whole duty of man] The word “duty” is not in the Hebrew, and we might supply “the whole end,” or “the whole work,” or with another and better construction, This is for every man: i.e. a law of universal obligation. What is meant is that this is the only true answer to that quest of the chief good in which the thinker had been engaged. This was, in Greek phrase, the ἔργον or “work” of man, that to which he was called by the very fact of his existence. All else was but a πάρεργον, or accessory.

Adam Clarke

Ecclesiastes 12:13

After all, the sum of the great business of human life is comprised in this short sentence, on which some millions of books have been already written!

Fear God, and Keep His Commandments

1. Know that He Is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

2. Reverence him; pay him adoration.

3. Love him, that you may be happy.

Keep his commandments – They are contained in two words:

1. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart;”

2. “And thy neighbor as thyself.”

Blessed be God, much reading and much study are not necessary to accomplish this, which is called כל האדם col haadam, the whole of Adam; the whole that God required of the first man and of all his posterity. But the gospel of Jesus Christ must be understood to comprehend the full force of this short saying.

The word duty, added here by our translators, spoils, if not Perverts, the sense.

The whole passage is rendered with great simplicity by Coverdale: -

“The same preacher was not wyse alone: but taught the people knowledge also. He gave good hede, sought out the grounde, and set forth many parables. His diligence was to fynde out acceptable wordes, right scripture, and the wordes of trueth. For the wordes of the wyse are like prickes and nales that go thorow, wherewith men are kepte together: for they are geven of one Shepherd onely. Therefore be warre (my sonne) that above these thou make thee not many and innumerable bookes, nor take dyverse doctrynes in hande, to weery thy body withall.

“Let us heare the conclusion of all thinges; Feare God, and kepe his comaundementes, for that toucheth all men; for God shall judge all workes and secrete thinges, whether they be good or evell.”

I shall give the same from my old MS. Bible: -

And wan Ecclesiastes was most wiis he taght the peple, and told out what he had don, and enserchinge maade many parablis. He soght profitable wordis, and wrote most right sermons, and ful of trewth, The wordis of wismen as prickis and as nailis into herte pigt: that bi the counseyle of maisteris ben geven of oon scheperd. More thann thes sone myn, ne seche thou; of making many bokes is noon eend, and oft bethinking is tormenting of the flesche. Eend of spekinge alle togydir heere mee. Drede God, and his hestis kepe; that is eche man. Alle thingis that ben maad schal bringen into dome, for eche erid thinge, whithir good or evyl it be.

Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown

Ecclesiastes 12:13

The grand inference of the whole book.

Fear God — The antidote to following creature idols, and “vanities,” whether self-righteousness (Ecc_7:16, Ecc_7:18), or wicked oppression and other evils (Ecc_8:12, Ecc_8:13), or mad mirth (Ecc_2:2; Ecc_7:2-5), or self-mortifying avarice (Ecc_8:13, Ecc_8:17), or youth spent without God (Ecc_11:9; Ecc_12:1).

this is the whole duty of man — literally, “this is the whole man,” the full ideal of man, as originally contemplated, realized wholly by Jesus Christ alone; and, through Him, by saints now in part, hereafter perfectly (1Jo_3:22-24; Rev_22:14).

Pulpit Commentary


The teaching of the whole book is now gathered up in two weighty sentences. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. The Revised Version gives, This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard. The Septuagint has, Τέλος λόγου τὸ πᾶν ἄκουε, “The end of the matter, the sum, hear thou;” Vulgate, Finem loquendi pariter omnes audiamus. Another rendering is suggested, “The conclusion of the matter is this, that [God] taketh knowledge of all things;” literally, “everything is heard.” Perhaps the passage is best translated, The end of the matter, when all is heard, is this. The first word of this verse, soph, “end,” is printed in the Hebrew text in large characters, in order to draw attention to the importance of what is coming. And its significance is rightly estimated. These two verses guard against very possible misconception, and give the author’s real and mature conclusion. When this is received, all that need be said has been uttered. Fear God (ha-Elohim), and keep his commandments. This injunction is the practical result of the whole discussion. Amid the difficulties of the moral government of the world, amid the complications of society, varying and opposing interests and claims, one duty remained plain and unchanging—the duty of piety and obedience. For this is the whole duty of man. The Hebrew is literally, “This is every man,” which is explained to mean, “This is every man’s duty.” Septuagint, Ὅτι τοῦτο πᾶς ὁ ἄνθρωπος: Vulgate, Hoc est enim omnis homo. For this man was made and placed in the world; this is his real object, the chief good which he has to seek, and which alone will secure contentment and happiness. The obligation is put in the most general terms as applicable to the whole human family; for God is not the God of the Jews only, but of Gentiles also (Rom_3:29).

Cambridge Bible Plumptre

Ecclesiastes 12:14

14. For God shall bring every work into judgment] Once again the Teacher brings into prominence what was indeed the outcome of the book; though, as history shews, the careless reader, still more the reader blinded by his passions, or prejudice, or frivolity, might easily overlook it. The object of the writer had not been to preach a self-indulgence of the lowest Epicurean type, or to deny the soul’s immortality, though for a time he had hesitated to affirm it, but much rather to enforce the truth, which involved that belief, of a righteous judgment (ch. Ecc_11:9), seen but imperfectly in this life, with its anomalous distribution of punishments and rewards, but certain to assert itself, if not before, when “the spirit shall return to God who gave it” (Ecc_12:7). From the standpoint of the writer of the epilogue it was shewn that the teaching of Ecclesiastes was not inconsistent with the faith of Israel, that it had a right to take its place among the Sacred Books of Israel. From our standpoint we may say that it was shewn not less convincingly that the book, like all true records of the search after Truth, led men through the labyrinthine windings of doubt to the goal of duty, through the waves and winds of conflicting opinions to the unshaken rock of the Eternal Commandment.

Adam Clarke

Ecclesiastes 12:14

For God shall bring every work into judgment – This is the reason why we should “fear God and keep his commandments.”

1. Because there will be a day of judgment.

2. Every soul of man shall stand at that bar.

3. God, the infinitely wise, the heart-searching God, will be judge.

4. He will bring to light every secret thing – all that has been done since the creation, by all men; whether forgotten or registered; whether done in secret or in public.

5. All the works of the godly, as well as all the works of the wicked, shall be judged in that day; the good which the godly strove to conceal, as well as the evil which the wicked endeavored to hide.

This, then, will be the conclusion of the whole mortal story. And although in this world all is vanity; yet there, “vanities will be vain no more.” Every thing whether good or evil, will have its own proper stable, eternal result. O God! prepare the reader to give up his accounts with joy in that day! Amen.

Masoretic Notes

Number of verses, 222.

Middle verse, Ecc_6:10.

Sections, 4.

The Arabic subjoins this colophon: – “Praise be to God for ever and ever!”

“By the assistance of the Most High God this book of Ecclesiastes, which is vanity of vanities, written by Solomon the son of David who reigned over the children of Israel, is completed.”

The Syriac has, “The end of the book of Koheleth.”

There are others, but they are of no importance.

Pulpit Commentary


The great duty just named is here grounded upon the solemn truth of a future judgment. For God shall bring every work into judgment. It will then be seen whether this obligation has been ‘attended to or not. The judgment has already been mentioned (Ecc_11:9); it is here more emphatically set forth as a certain fact and a strong motive power. The old theory of earthly retribution had been shown to break down under the experience of practical life; the anomalies which perplexed men’s minds could only be solved and remedied by a future judgment under the eye of the omniscient and unerring God. With every secret thing. The Syriac adds, “and manifest thing.” The Septuagint renders, “with everything that has been overlooked”—a very terrible, but true, thought. The doctrine that the most secret things shall be revealed in the dies irae is often brought forward in the New Testament, which makes plain the personal nature of this final investigation, which the earlier Scriptures invest with a more general character (see Rom_2:16; Rom_14:12; 1Co_4:5). So this wonderful book closes with the enunciation of a truth found nowhere else so clearly defined in the Old Testament, and thus opens the way to the clearer light shed upon the awful future by the revelation of the gospel.

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