Studies in Ecclesiastes

The Words and Work of God and Man
Part Six
by Vladimir Gelesnoff

The Work of God

In the Fourth Book (Ecc.7:13-9:15) Ecclesiastes returns to the subject dealt with in Book II - the work of God. There he emphasized the antagonism between good and evil. Here he considers the relation between the two opposites. The opening sentence strikes the keynote of the whole section.

13 See the work of the One, Elohim;
For who can set in order that which He has overturned?
14 In a day of good be resting in the good,
And in a day of evil, be vigilant;
Indeed the One, Elohim, has made this one along with that one
For this reason, that a man cannot find out anything about his hereafter.

This is an epitome of the thesis which our author proposes to consider. In accord with God's Word as a whole, the Assembler traces all to God.

A detailed exposition is not in harmony with the suggestive character of these studies. Hence we must content ourselves with noting the general drift of thought and offering a few remarks on the more obscure passages.

Having stated that God has made the day of good along with the day of evil, Ecclesiastes instances familiar experiences supporting the assertion (7:15-22), and then, surveying the totality of things, expresses the conviction that man lacks the power to solve the mystery of the whole.

15 I have seen all this in my days of vanity:
There is the righteous man who perishes in his righteousness,
And there is the wicked man who is prolonged in his evil.
16 Do not be abundantly self-righteous,
And do not be thinking yourself superlatively wise;
Why should you make yourself desolate?
17 Do not be abundantly wicked, and do not be frivolous;
Why should you die when it is not your season?
18 It is good that you hold to this,
And from that also do let your hand rest;
For he who is fearful of Elohim shall come forth from them all.
19 Wisdom itself gives more strength to the wise man
Than ten men of authority who are in a city.
20 For there is no righteous man in the earth
Who does good and never sins.
21 Moreover, to all the words that people speak
    do not give your heart's attention,
That you may not hear your servant maledicting you;
22 For even many times your heart knows
That you yourself also have maledicted others.
23 All this I probed by wisdom;
I said, I shall be wise,
Yet it was far from me;
24 Far away is that which has been, and deep, deep -
Who can find it out?

Accordingly, in what follows, Ecclesiastes endeavors to find a partial solution answering the practical ends of life.

25 I turned about that my heart may know and explore,
That it may seek out wisdom and design
And may know the wickedness of stupidity and the frivolity in raving.
26 I found more bitter than death:
That kind of woman whose heart is like weir traps and seine nets,
And her hands like bonds;
The man doing well before the One, Elohim, he shall escape from her,
And the sinner, he shall be seized by her.
27 See, this is what I found, said the Assembler: -
Adding one thing to another to find a design,
28 Which my soul still sought, but I could not find,
I found one man out of a thousand,
Yet I could not find a woman among all these -
29 See, I found this alone:
That the One, Elohim, made humanity upright,
Yet they seek many devisings.

In seeking to understand this portion of Ecclesiastes the student is confronted with a formidable obstacle. The AV translates the noun cheshbon in three different ways: "reason" (7:25), "account" (7:27) and, later on, "device" (9:10). In addition, the feminine form of this noun is rendered "invention" in 7:29. It must be evident to the least critical reader that the writer's thought is necessarily obscured when a Hebrew term is represented by such different words in English. When attention is given to the usage of these terms and their adjective and verbal forms it becomes clear that the sense of "device" or "scheme" is in view. [The CV uses "design" when the terms are used of divine or truly wise devisings.]

This whole paragraph, more especially verses 26-28, has occasioned many gratuitous remarks. As regards verse 27 the difficulty lies in determining to what the phrase "one to one" may refer. Since the topic consistently discussed throughout the section is the relation between good and evil, the likely point is that to arrive at an intelligent understanding of the universe, good and evil must be considered together as parts of the divine plan. This fits with the special scope of this "book," and throws light on many otherwise obscure passages.

Relating the words of verse 28 to verse 26, the idea develops that one God-pleasing man among a thousand succumbing to feminine temptation can be found; a God-pleasing woman among courtesans is not yet found.

In the progress of his quest concerning all that is done under the sun Ecclesiastes has arrived at the truth that God is universally supreme. This conclusion is reached not by a process of consequence-making resting on presumed premises. It is forced upon our thinker by the existing order of things. When his inquiring mind turned from the consideration of the problems of individual experience to the larger problems of the universe, the world seemed a house hopelessly divided into two irreconcilable rival factions scrambling for the mastery. Chaos and anarchy seemed to reign. Then flashes the idea that good and evil are integral parts of one great plan, and therefore must be taken together and considered as a whole. The thought is firmly grasped that God is absolutely the first great cause; absolutely all things are of Him; all things are His servants working out His will. With the dawning of this truth a mighty change steals over Ecclesiastes. He breaks away from his gloomy thoughts, to apostrophize in a tone of rapture the man who has found wisdom:

8:1 Who is like the wise man?
And who knows the interpretation of a matter?
Wisdom for a man lightens up his countenance,
And the harsh strength of his face is altered.
2 Observe the king's bidding,
And that on account of the oath of Elohim.
3 Do not be rash in going from his presence;
Do not stand in an evil matter,
For all that he desires he does.
4 Since a king's word has authority,
Who can say to him, What are you doing?
5 He who observes instruction shall know no evil matter,
And the wise heart shall know season and judgment.
6 For there is season and judgment for every event,
Since the evil for a man is abundant upon him.
7 For no one knows what shall come,
For just as it shall be, who can tell him?
8 No man has authority over the spirit to detain the spirit,
And no one has authority over the day of death;
There is no dismissal in war,
And wickedness shall make no way of escape for its possessor.
9 All this I have seen and have applied my heart
to all work that is done under the sun,
At a season when a man has authority over another man to his peril;
10 In such a case I saw the wicked entombed,
Those who used to come and go from the holy place
And were lauded in the city where they had done such things.
This too is vanity.
11 Because there is no sentence executed quickly against the evil deed,
Therefore the heart of the sons of humanity
    in them is fully given to do evil.
12 Though a sinner does a hundred evils and days are prolonged for him,
Yet I know that good shall come to those fearful of the One, Elohim,
Who stand in fear before Him.
13 Yet good shall not come to the wicked one,
Nor shall he prolong his days which are like a shadow,
Because he has no fear before Elohim.
14 There is another vanity that is done on the earth:
There are righteous men for whom retribution
    is according to the work of the wicked,
And there are wicked ones for whom retribution
    is according to the work of the righteous;
I say that this too is vanity.
15 So I lauded rejoicing,
Since there is no good for a man under the sun
Save to eat and to drink and to rejoice.
And it shall be allied with him in his toil through the days of his life,
Which the One, Elohim, gives to him under the sun.

The difficulty which many experience with 8:9 arises from considering the verse by itself. The passage becomes clear (though not free from all difficulty)when 8:9-13 is treated as a whole paragraph elaborating one phase of the common argument. The thought is: There is a time (season) when one individual has the power to oppress another. The wicked tyrant who brings evil to another is buried without having received quick sentence for his evil, and the sight of this transitory vanity of providence encourages sin.

Though a sinner does evil, and his days are prolonged, yet I know that good shall come to those who fear God. A paradox: In spite of appearances it is not so; or in spite of individual cases the principle of judgment on the wicked is sound. Ecclesiastes impresses the importance of maintaining moral principle side by side with our inability to perceive the justice of God's ways.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom,
And to see the experience that is appointed on earth
(Even though by day and night, one does not see sleep with his eyes),
17 Then I saw in all the work of the One, Elohim,
That a man is not able to find out the work that is done under the sun,
Forasmuch as a man may toil in seeking it out but shall not find it;
And even if a wise man says he knows, he is not able to find it out.
9:1 For I laid all this on my heart, and my heart saw all this:
That the righteous and the wise and their services are in the hand of the One, Elohim;
Whether it will be love or hate, a man is not able to know; Everything before them is vanity.
2 Just as to all, there is one destiny for the righteous one and for the wicked one, For the good one and for the bad one,
For the clean one and for the unclean one,
For the one who sacrifices and for him who makes no sacrifice,
So it is for the good person as for the sinner,
For the one who swears just as for one fearful of an oath.
3 This is the evil in all that is done under the sun:
That one destiny is for all; Moreover the heart of the sons of humanity is full of evil,
And ravings are in their heart throughout their lives,
Yet after it, they are joined to the dead.
4 Indeed for anyone who is joined with all the living there is trust;
For it is better to be a living cur than a dead lion.
5 For the living know that they shall die,
But the dead know nothing whatsoever; There is no further reward for them;
Indeed remembrance of them is forgotten.
6 Both their love and their hate as well as their jealousy have perished already,
And there is no further portion for them for the eon
In all that is done under the sun.
7 Go, eat your bread with rejoicing, and drink your wine with good heart,
For already the One, Elohim, has approved of your works.
8 In every season, let your garments be white,
And oil on your head, let it not be lacking.
9 See life with a wife whom you love all the days of your transitory life,
Which He gives to you under the sun - all your transitory days,
For this is your portion in life
And in your toil that you are toiling under the sun.
10 All that your hand finds to do, do with your vigor,
For there is no doing or devising or knowledge or wisdom
In the unseen where you are going.
11 Again I saw under the sun
That the race is not to the fleet,
Nor the battle to masters of war,
Nor even bread for the wise,
Nor even riches for the understanding,
Nor even favor for the knowing,
For a season of mischance shall happen to them all.
12 For, moreover, a man does not know his season;
Like fish that are held in a vicious weir,
And like birds that are held in a snare,
So the sons of humanity themselves are trapped by a season of evil,
When it falls on them suddenly.
13 I also saw this wisdom under the sun,
And it seemed great to me:
14 There was a small city with only a few mortals in it,
And a great king came against it and surrounded it,
And he built great siege works against it.
15 Now a man was available in it, provident and wise,
And he would have provided escape for the city by his wisdom,
Yet not one person remembered that provident man.


The tone of confidence deepens as the thinker advances toward his conclusion. From the vantage point of God's immutable, sovereign "design" he can, with perfect composure, look down upon the "many devisings" of puny men with the assurance that they work out the will of God. Can the knowledge that all things have their origin in a divine forepurpose, that they are under absolute divine control, and that neither wicked men, nor any other evil power, nor all of them combined, can act independent of God, fail to give rest to the heart? Under the shadow of this great truth we may abide in perfect safety.

The word "mischance" is connected with the term "season" in 9:11 and refers to the season, not when things are favorable to man, but are adverse to him. It is a fresh reiteration of the dominant thought of the book that adverse and favorable seasons take place in accordance with God's pleasure and affect all men alike, irrespective of character, ability or personal accomplishments. Ecclesiastes dwells with all possible emphasis on the absolute deity of God. Herein lies the reason why his book is neglected and misrepresented. The dualistic theology of Christendom, with its Manichean idea of conflict between two rival deities and its dogma of the permanence of evil, found itself at irreconcilable variance with absolute supremacy of God postulated by the Assembler. Accordingly, theology contrived to set aside the testimony of this unique book by throwing over it the veil of false interpretation.

Vladimir Gelesnoff

[Return to main indexpage]