This book is one of the more difficult books in all of Scripture, one which no one has ever completely mastered. Indeed, it has been so distorted by the miserable commentaries of many writers that it is almost a bigger job to purify and defend the author from the notions which they have smuggled into him than it is to show his real meaning. There are two reasons why this book has been more obscure than others. In the first place, they did not see the purpose and aim of the author, which it is important to keep in mind and to follow in every kind of writing and even more important here. The other reason was the ignorance of the Hebrew language and the special style of this author, which often diverges from the ordinary usage of the language and is very strange to our way of speaking.
As a result, this book, which on many counts deserves to be in everyone’s hands and to be familiar to everyone, especially to government officials because of its graphic and unique description of the administration of human affairs both private and public, has until now been deprived of its reputation and dignity and has lain in miserable neglect, so that today we have neither the use nor the benefit from it that we should. This is the consequence of the temerity or of the ignorance of other people. Therefore our first task will be to hold to the certain aim of the book, what it seeks to accomplish and what it has in view. For if we do not know this, it will be impossible to understand its style and way of speaking.
The summary and aim of this book, then, is as follows: Solomon wants to put us at peace and to give us a quiet mind in the everyday affairs and business of this life, so that we live contentedly in the present without care and yearning about the future and are, as Paul says, without care and anxiety (Phil. 4:6). It is useless to plague oneself with anxiety about the future. By a sort of continuing induction from particulars, Solomon concludes that the efforts and endeavors of men are vain and useless, so that he draws a universal conclusion from particulars and shows that the efforts of all men are vain. He denies (9:11) that bread is to the wise or the race to the swift or the battle to the strong. In fact, the wiser or holier or busier someone claims to be, the less he accomplishes, and his wisdom, his righteousness, and his work are useless. And so if none of these things nor anything else amounts to anything, it follows that everything is vain and useless.
But here at the very beginning it is necessary to eradicate the error and dangerous opinion held by many, that the author is speaking about a contempt for creatures, which Scripture by no means wants to be despised or condemned. For all things that God has made are very good and have been made for the use of man, as Paul says in very clear words in 1 Tim. 4:4–5: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer.” Therefore it is foolish and wicked when many preachers inveigh against glory, power, social position, wealth, gold, fame, beauty, or women, thus openly condemning a creation of God. Government, or power, is a divine ordinance. Gold is good, and riches are conferred by God. A woman is a good thing, made to be a helper for man (cf. Gen. 2:18). For God has made all things to be good and to be useful for some human purpose.
What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures but the depraved affection and desire of us men, who are not content with the creatures of God that we have and with their use but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others. For this is the height of vanity and misery, to cheat oneself of the use of present goods and vainly to be troubled about future ones. Such depraved affection and human striving, I say, is what Solomon is condemning in this book, not the creatures themselves. For about the attitude toward creatures he himself says below (5:18) that there is nothing better for any man than to find enjoyment and make life pleasant for himself, to eat and drink and enjoy his toil, etc. He would be contradicting himself completely if he were to condemn these things themselves rather than the abuse of these things, which comes solely from the affections.
Some foolish men have not understood this and have therefore taught absurd ideas about contempt for the world and flight from it, and they themselves have also done many absurd things. Thus in the Lives of the Fathers we read that there were some who did not even want to look at the sun (such men would deserve to have their eyes gouged out) and who for the sake of religion ate the filthiest of foods. The quality of such behavior is clear enough from what has already been said. The proper contempt of the world is not that of the man who lives in solitude away from human society, nor is the proper contempt of gold that of the man who throws it away or who abstains from money, as the Franciscans do, but that of the man who lives his life in the midst of these things and yet is not carried away by his affection for them. This is the first thing that should be considered by those who are about to read Solomon.
In the second place, this, too, should be diligently observed: in this book Solomon is speaking simply about the human race and is clearly confining himself within the limits of human nature. That is, he is speaking about the efforts, the endeavors, and the desires of man, about the counsels of man. Therefore we should not follow the imaginations of the interpreters who suppose that the knowledge of nature, the study of astronomy or of all of philosophy, is being condemned here and who teach that such things are to be despised as vain and useless speculations. For the benefits of these arts are many and great, as is plain to see every day. In addition, there is not only utility, but also great pleasure in investigating the nature of things. Holy Scripture also points to things to show their properties and powers; for example, in the psalm (Ps. 103:5), “Your youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” or (Deut. 32:11), “As an eagle provokes its young to fly,” or (Ps. 42:1), “As a hart longs for flowing streams,” or (Prov. 6:6), “Go to the ant, O sluggard.” The Scriptures are all so full of such metaphors and parables taken from the nature of things that if someone were to remove these things from the Holy Scriptures, he would also remove a great light.
Thus the subject or matter of this book is simply the human race, which is so foolish that it seeks and strives for many things by its efforts which it cannot attain or which, even if it does attain them, it does not enjoy but possesses to its sorrow and harm, as the fault not of the things themselves but of its own foolish affections. Julius Caesar was occupied with the effort to achieve the imperial power. How much danger and how much labor did this cost him? And when he had achieved it, he still was not satisfied. He still did not have what he wanted, but in the strenuous attempt to gain more he perished miserably. This is what happens in all human efforts.
When things come flowing in, boredom soon takes over; if they do not flow in, there is an insatiable desire to have them, and there is no peace. This vice of the human spirit was seen by pagan writers. Thus Ovid says: “Whatever is permissible is unpleasant, but what is not permissible inflames us more violently. I run away from what follows me, and I follow what runs away from me.” Again: “No one lives content with his lot, and no one has learned to remain within his destiny.” This is the vanity of the human heart, that it is never content with the gifts of God that are present but rather thinks of them as negligible; it continually looks for others, and then still others, and is not satisfied until it achieves what it wishes, whereupon it despises what it has achieved and looks for something else.
To reiterate, the point and purpose of this book is to instruct us, so that with thanksgiving we may use the things that are present and the creatures of God that are generously given to us and conferred upon us by the blessing of God. This we are to do without anxiety about the things that are still in the future. The important thing is that we have a tranquil and quiet heart and a mind filled with joy, that is, that we be content with the Word and work of God. Thus in the verses that follow he exhorts us (9:7–9) to eat and drink and enjoy life with the wife of our youth; oil should not be lacking on our head, and our garments should always be white. This is in accord with the saying of Christ (Matt. 6:34): “The day’s own trouble is sufficient for the day”; and Paul says (Rom. 13:14): “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” If a man were to follow this, he would have a peaceful and tranquil heart, and God would abundantly supply everything. But now a man tortures himself with a twofold evil, depriving himself of the use of things that are present and uselessly troubling himself with anxiety about things that are in the future; or if some use is made of things, it is only in bitterness. Cicero was a man of such eloquence that he could have been completely happy if he had known how to use his tranquillity. But that good man always wanted something bigger and vainly pressed his plans, and see how many good things he robbed himself of and what calamity and ruin he brought down upon himself! Therefore St. Augustine says aptly: “Thou hast commanded, Lord, that a man who is not content with what he has receive a restless heart as a punishment.”
But if someone compares the good things he has with the bad things he does not have, he will finally recognize what a treasure of good things he has. Someone who has sound and healthy eyes does not estimate this blessing of God very highly nor take pleasure in it. But if he is deprived of them, what a treasure he would be willing to give in exchange for them! That is how it goes with health and with everything else. If God were to give me the eloquence of Cicero, the power of Caesar, or the wisdom of Solomon, I would still not be satisfied. We are always looking for something that is lacking, and we despise what is present. When a man does not have a wife, he looks for one; when he has one, he becomes bored with her. We are just like quicksilver, which never remains still. Such is the inconstancy of the human heart, which does not deserve to enjoy a single blessing of God. In this book Solomon inveighs against this miserable state of human affections. He denounces the inconstancy and vanity of the human heart, which enjoys neither present nor future goods; it does not acknowledge or give thanks for the blessings it has received, and it vainly pursues the things it does not have. This is really being suspended between heaven and earth!