WORDS of the Spokesman, king David's son, that reigned once at Jerusalem.
A shadow's shadow, he tells us, a shadow's shadow; a world of shadows! How is man the better for all this toiling of his, here under the sun? Age succeeds age, and the world goes on unaltered. Sun may rise and sun may set, but ever it goes back and is reborn. Round to the south it moves, round to the north it turns; the wind, too, though it makes the round of the world, goes back to the beginning of its round at last. All the rivers flow into the sea, yet never the sea grows full; back to their springs they find their way, and must be flowing still. Weariness, all weariness; who shall tell the tale? Eye looks on unsatisfied; ear listens, ill content. Ever that shall be that ever has been, that which has happened once shall happen again; there can be nothing new, hereto under the sun. Never man calls a thing new, but it is something already known to the ages that went before us; only we have no record of older days. So, believe me, the fame of to-morrow's doings will be forgotten by the men of a later time
I was a king in my day, I, the Spokesman; Israel my realm, Jerusalem my capital. And it was my resolve to search deep and find out the meaning of all that men do, here under the sun; all that curse of busy toil which God has given to the sons of Adam for their task. All that men do beneath the sun I marked, and found it was but frustration and lost labour, all of it; there was no curing men's cross-grained nature, no reckoning up their follies.
I at least (so I flattered myself) have risen above the rest; a king so wise never reigned at Jerusalem here is a mind has reflected much, and much learned. And therewith I applied my mind to a new study; what meant wisdom and learning, what meant ignorance and folly? And I is found that this too was labour lost; much wisdom, much woe; who adds to learning, adds to the load we bear.
Next, I thought to give the rein to my desires, and enjoy pleasure, until I found that this, too, was labour lost. Would you know how I learned to find laughter an empty thing, and all joy a vain illusion; how I resolved at last to deny myself the comfort of wine, wisdom now all my quest, folly disowned? For I could not rest until I knew where man's true good lay, what was his life's true task, here under the sun. Great plans I set on foot; I would build palaces, would plant vineyards, I would have park and orchard, planted with every kind of tree; and to water all this greenery there must be pools of water besides. Men-slaves I bought and women-slaves, till I had a great retinue of them; herds, too, and abundance of flocks, such as Jerusalem never saw till then. Gold and silver I amassed, revenues of subject king and subject province; men-singers I had and women-singers, and all that man delights in; beakers a many, and jars of wine to fill them. Never had Jerusalem known such wealth; yet in the midst of it, wisdom never left my side. Eyes denied nothing that eyes could covet, a heart stinted of no enjoyment, free of all the pleasures I had devised for myself, this was to be my reward, this the fruit of all my labours. And now, when I looked round at all I had done, all that ungrateful drudgery, nothing I found there but frustration and labour lost, so fugitive is all we cherish, here under the sun.
Then my mind went back to the thought of wisdom, of ignorance, too, and folly. What (thought I), should mortal king strive to imitate the sovereign power that made him? I saw, indeed, that wisdom differed from folly as light from darkness; the wise man had eyes in his head, while the fool went his way benighted; but the ending of them? In their ending both were alike. Why then (I said to myself), if fool and I must come to the same end at last, was not I the fool, that toiled to achieve wisdom more than he? So my thoughts ran, and I found labour lost, here too. Endlessly forgotten, wise man and fool alike, since to-morrow's memory will be no longer than yesterday's; wise man and fool alike doomed to death.
Thus I became weary of life itself; so worthless it seemed to me, all that man does beneath the sun, frustration all of it, and labour lost. And I, beneath that same sun, what fond labours I had spent! I hated the thought of them now; should heir of mine succeed to them? An heir, would he be wise man or fool? None could tell; but his would be the possession of all I had toiled for so hard, schemed for so anxiously; could there be frustration worse than this? I would hold my hand; no more should yonder sun see labours of mine. What, should one man go on toiling, his the craft, his the skill, his the anxious care, leaving all to another, and an idler? That were frustration surely, and great mischief done.
Tell me, how is a man the richer for all that toil of his, all that lost labour of his, here under the sun? His days all painfulness and care, his very nights restless; what is here but frustration? Were it not better to eat and drink, and toil only at his own pleasures? These, too, come from God's hand; and who has better right to food tasted and pleasure enjoyed than I? Who wins God's favour, has wisdom and skill for his reward, and pleasure too; it is the sinner that is doomed to hardship and to thankless care, hoarding and scraping, and all to enrich some heir God loves better! For him frustration, for him the labour lost.
Everything must be done by turns; no activity, here beneath the heavens, but has its allotted time for beginning and coming to an end. Men are born only to die, plant trees only to displant them. Now we take life, now we save it; now we are destroying, now building. Weep first, then laugh, mourn we and dance; the stones we have scattered we must bring together anew; court we first and then shun the embrace. To-day's gain, to-morrow's loss; what once we treasured, soon thrown away; the garment rent, the garment mended; silence kept, and silence ended; love alternating with hatred, war with peace. For all this toiling of his, how is man the richer? Pitiable indeed I found it, this task God has given to mankind; and he, meanwhile, has made the world, in all its seasonable beauty, and given us the contemplation of it, yet of his own dealings with us, first and last, never should man gain comprehension. To enjoy his life, to make the best of it, beyond doubt this is man's highest employment; that gift at least God has granted him, to eat and drink and see his toil rewarded. But be sure all God has made will remain for ever as he made it; there is no adding to it, no taking away from it; so he will command our reverence. Nothing that has been, but lasts on still; nothing that will be, but has been already; he is ever repeating the history of the past. I marked, too, how wrong was done instead of right, injustice instead of justice, there under the sun's eye; and I told myself that God would give judgement one day between the just and the sinners, and all things would reach their appointed end then. I told myself that God's purpose with the sons of men was to test them...
...And that they might see they were only like the beasts... After all, man comes to the same ending as the beasts; there is nothing to choose between his lot and theirs; both alike are doomed to die. They have but one principle of life; what has man that the beasts have not? Frustration everywhere; we are all making for the same goal; of earth we were made, and to earth we must return. Who has a right to tell us that the spirit of man mounts upwards, and the spirit of a beast sinks down to the depth? So I became aware that it is best for man to busy himself here to his own content; this and nothing else is his allotted portion; who can show him what the future will bring?
And then my thoughts would turn back to all the wrongs that are done under the sun's eye. Innocent folk in tears, and who is to comfort them? Who is to comfort them, powerless against their oppressors? The dead, it seemed, were more to be envied than the living; better yet to be still unborn, never to have known the shameful deeds that are done, out here in the sunlight. I thought, too, of human toil and striving; how much it owed to man's rivalry with his fellows! All was frustration and lost labour here. What wonder if the fool sits idle, and starves to death? Better a handful (says he) quietly come by, than a whole armful that is all striving and labour lost. And there was another kind of frustration I marked, here under the sun. Here is one that works alone, partner nor son nor brother to aid him, yet still works on, never content with his bright hoard, never asking, as he toils and stints himself, who shall gain by it. Frustration and lost labour, here too. Better to be in partnership with another, than alone; partnership brings advantage to both. If one falls, the other will give support; with the lonely it goes hard; when he falls, there is none to raise him. Sleep two in one bed, each shall warm the other; for the lonely, there is no warmth. Two may withstand assault, where one is no match for it; a triple cord is not lightly broken.
There is more hope for a wise servant that is in hard straits, than for a dotard king that foresight has none. Men have risen to a throne that till now were bound in prison; men born to rule a kingdom have died of want. I have seen the whole world, from east to west, take part with the young man, the usurper that rises in the old king's stead. The old king, that had an immemorial line of ancestors; and now posterity shall take no pride in him! All is frustration, and labour lost. Look well what you are doing when you go into God's house; present yourself there in a spirit of obedience. Obedience is far better than the sacrifice made by fools, that are guilty of unwitting sacrilege.
When you stand in God's presence, do not pour out with rash haste all that is in your heart. God sees as heaven sees, you as earth; few words are best. Sure as dreams come from an over-wrought brain, from glib utterance comes ill-considered speech. Vow to God if you utter, without delay perform it, he will have no light and rash promises; vow made must be vow paid. Far better undertake nothing than undertake what you do not fulfil. Would you defile your whole nature through the tongue's fault? Would you find yourself saying, with God's angel to hear you, No thought I gave to it? Little wonder if God disappoints every ambition of the man who speaks so. Dreams, empty dreams, led to those glib promises of yours; content yourself rather with the fear of God.
You see, it may be, in this province or that, oppression of the poor, false award given, and wrong unredressed? Let not such things bewilder you; trust me, authority is watched by higher authority, subject in turn to higher authority yet; and, above them all, the King of the whole earth rules it as his dominion. What is his decree? Why, that covetousness should never fill its own maw; never did he that loved money taste the enjoyment of his money; here is frustration once again. Richer if you grow, riches will give you more mouths to feed; profit he has none that owns them, save the feasting of his eyes on them if he will. Full belly or empty, sound is the cottar's sleep; sleep, to the pampered body of the rich still denied.
Another evil I have found past remedy, here under the sun; riches that a man hoards to his own undoing. By cruel misadventure they are lost to him, and to the son he has begotten nothing he leaves but poverty. Naked he came, when he left his mother's womb, and naked still death finds him; nothing to show for all his long endeavour. Alas, what ailed him, that he should go away no richer than he came? Nothing left of all those wasted labours of his; all his life long the cheerless board, the multitudinous carts, the concern, the melancholy! Better far, by my way of it, that a man should eat and drink and enjoy the revenues of his own labour, here under the sun, as long as God gives him life; what more can he claim? God's gift it is, if a man has wealth and goods and freedom to enjoy them, taking what comes to him and profiting by what he has earned. Few be his days or many, he regards little, so long as God gives his heart content.
With another hardship I have seen men visited here beneath the sun, and commonly. God gives a man wealth, and goods, and state, till there is nothing more left for his appetites to desire; and then God denies him the enjoyment of all this, throws the coveted morsel to a stranger instead; here is frustration, here is cold comfort indeed. Ay, let a man have a hundred children to his name, years let him have a many, and be near his end; yet, if he is not to enjoy the revenues of his land still, and lay his bones in it, I say it were better for him never to have come to the birth. Well made, the empty passage from light to darkness, well lost, the chance of earthly renown, if only a man never sees the sun, never learns the meaning of good fortune and ill! Though he should have lived two thousand years, he were none the better for it, if he might not continue in the enjoyment of his goods. Do we not all reach the same goal at last?
What is all our striving, but a full mouth and an empty belly? Is wise man more to be envied than fool? Where should a man go when he is poor, save where he can find a livelihood?
Better aim at what lies in view than hanker after dreams. But indeed all is frustration, and labour lost. He is known already by name, that is still unborn; and this at least is known of him, that he is but man, and cannot plead his cause, matched against too strong an adversary.
Words, they be spun endlessly; yet what should lie at the heart of our reasoning, but frustration?
What need for man to ask questions that are beyond his scope? There is no knowing how best his life should be spent, this brief pilgrimage that passes like a shadow, and is gone. And what will befall after his death, in this world beneath the sun, who can tell?
There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man's true birthday is the day of his death.
Better a visit paid where men mourn, than where they feast; it will put you in mind of the end that awaits us all, admonish the living with the foreknowledge of death. Frown ere you smile; the downcast look betokens a chastened heart. Sadness, a home for the wise man's thoughts, mirth for the fool's.
Better receive a wise man's rebuke, than hear your praises sung by fools. Loud but not long the thorns crackle under the pot, and fools make merry; for them, too, frustration.
Oppression bewilders even a wise man's wits, and undermines his courage.
Speech may end fair, that foul began; patience is better than a proud heart. Never be quick to take offence; it is a fool's heart that harbours grudges.
Never ask why the old times were better than ours; a fool's question.
Great worth has wisdom matched with good endowment; more advantage it shall bring you than all the rest, here under the sun. Wealth befriends whom wisdom befriends; better still, who learns wisdom wins life.
Mark well God's doings; where he looks askance, none may set the crooked straight.
Come good times, accept the good they bring; come evil, let them never take you unawares; bethink you, that God has balanced these against those, and will have no man repine over his lot.
In my days of baffled enquiry, I have seen pious men ruined for all their piety, and evil-doers live long in all their wickedness. Why then, do not set too much store by piety, nor play the wise man to excess, if you would not be bewildered over your lot. Yet plunge not deep in evil-doing; folly eschew; else you shall perish before your time. To piety you must needs cling, yet live by that other caution too; fear God, and you have left no duty unfulfilled.
Wisdom is a surer ally than ten city magistrates; there is no man on earth so exact over his duties that he does ever the right, never commits a fault.
The chance words men utter, heed but little; how if you should hear your own servant speaking ill of you? Your own conscience will tell you how often you too have spoken ill of other men.
Thus, by the touchstone of my wisdom, I would test all things; Wisdom, cried I, I must have; yet all the while she withdrew from me, further away than ever. Deep, deep is her secret; who shall read it?
Here is a mind that has passed the whole world of things in review, examining everything, weighing everything, so as to have a wise estimation of them, eager to understand the fool's rebelliousness, the false calculations of rash souls. And this I have ascertained; death itself is not so cruel as woman's heart that wheedles and beguiles, as woman's clutches that release their captive never. God's friends escape her; of sinners she makes an easy prey. I weighed this against that (he, the Spokesman, tells us), and the sum of my enquiry was this. One thing I ever longed to find, and found never, a true woman. One true man I might find among a thousand, but a woman never.
Of this, beyond all else, I have satisfied myself; man's nature was simple enough when God made him, and these endless questions are of his own devising.
The wise man, there is none like him. O for one who should read the riddle!
When a man is given wisdom, it shines out in his face; Omnipotence will set a new stamp on his brow. Mine to do a king's bidding, to hold fast by an oath taken in the name of God. Do not hasten away from his presence, or rebelliously withstand him; he can do all he will, with such authority his word runs; none may call his acts in question. Do as you are bidden, and fear no harm. A time will come, the wise man knows, when he shall win a hearing; time brings every man his chance, be his business what it may, only this curse lies upon man, that he cannot learn from the past, cannot get word of the future.
The breath of life man must resign at last; the day of his death he cannot determine; nor ever does war give release from service, nor sin discharge to the sinner.
This, too, I have marked, as I gave heed to all that befalls us, here beneath the sun. There are times when man rules over man so to his undoing. I have seen godless men go peacefully to the grave, that had lived their lives out in haunts of holiness, and won the name of good men from their fellow citizens; here, too, is frustration. Because sentence is not pronounced upon the evil-doers without more ado, men are emboldened to live sinfully. And yet, though the sinner presume on the divine patience that has borne with a hundred misdeeds, I know well enough that blessings are for those who fear God, who fear his frown. Never a blessing for sinners; never be it said they lived out their full span of days! Reckless of God's frown, see, they pass like a shadow, and are gone!
Another kind of frustration, too, earth sees; there are upright men that are plagued as though they lived the life sinners live, just as there are sinners who take no more harm than if they could plead innocence; I say this is frustration indeed.
For me, then, mirth! No higher blessing could man attain, here under the sun, than to eat and drink and make merry; nothing else had he to show for all those labours of his, for all that life-time God has given him, here under the sun. Should I cudgel my wits to grow wise, and know the meaning of all earth's tasks; be like the men that allow their eyes no sleep, day or night? Nay, I understood too well that God's dealings with man, here under the sun, are past all accounting for; the more a man labours to read that riddle, the less he finds out, and he least of all, that boasts himself wise in the reading of it.
All this, too, I pondered in my heart, and would spare no pains to find out the meaning of it. Here are upright men and wise; and every task of theirs is in God's keeping, nor can any tell whether they have earned his love, or his displeasure! This remains as yet uncertain, and meanwhile all have the same lot, upright and godless, good and wicked, clean and unclean alike. Brought they offerings or brought they none, well did they or ill, true swore they or false, it is all one. Of all that goes amiss, here under the sun, nothing does more hurt than this equality of fortunes; what wonder if men's hearts, while yet they live, are full of malice and defiance? And so they journey on to the grave. Were but immortality the prize! But no, hope of that is none; living dog is better off than dead lion. They live under sentence of death; and when death comes, of nothing will they be aware any longer; no reward can they receive, now that every trace of them has vanished away; no love, no hatred, no envy can they feel; they have said good-bye to this world, and to all its busy doings, here under the sun.
Go your ways, then, eat your bread with a stout heart, and drink wine to your contenting; that done, God asks no more of you. Ever be your garments of white, ever let your brow glisten with oil; live at ease with the wife that is your heart's love, long as this uncertain life is granted you; fugitive days, here beneath the sun. Live you and labour you under the sun as you will, this your portion shall be, and nothing more. Whatever lies in your power, do while do it you can; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to you in the grave, that soon shall be your home.
Then my thought took a fresh turn; man's art does not avail, here beneath the sun, to win the race for the swift, or the battle for the strong, a livelihood for wisdom riches for great learning, or for the craftsman thanks; chance and the moment rule all. Nor does man see his end coming; hooked fish or snared bird is not overtaken so suddenly as man is, when the day of doom falls on him unawares.
And here, too, is wise warning, most wise, as I judge it. There was a small city once, with few men to hold it; and there was a great king that marched out against it, raised a mound and ringed it with siege-works, till it was beleaguered on every side. To such a city, how came relief? By the wise counsel of one poor man that had his wits about him. And was there anyone, think you, that remembered the poor man afterwards? Not one. Sure enough, said I, wisdom has the better of valour; but see how the poor man's wisdom goes for nothing, and no one listens to him now!
A wise man's whisper carries further than great outcry from a king of fools. Arms cannot match wisdom; by one slip, what great advantage is lost!
No ointment can perfumer brew so sweet, but it grows foul when dead flies are lodged in it. And would you barter away wisdom and honour both, for a moment's folly?
The fool's wits are astray; the wise man's right is to him left. By his way of it, every passer-by on the road is a fool, save he.
Though a prince's anger should mount against you, do not desert your post; great harm by your healing touch may yet be assuaged.
This is a source of trouble I have marked, here under the sun; the causeless whim of tyrants.
Fools come to the top, down go rank and riches; slaves you will see riding on horseback, and princes going afoot at their bridle-rein.
Fall into pit you shall not, if you dig none; breach no walls, if you would avoid the adder's sting. Stone crushes his foot that stone carries, and wood scratches him that wood cuts.
Blunt tool that has grown dull from long disuse shall cost you pains a many; if you had been wise sooner, you should have toiled less. Bite snake ere the spell begins, he is no better off that has the master-word.
Wise utterance wins favour; the fool that opens his mouth does but ruin himself, his preface idle talk, his conclusion madness. Of words a fool has no stint...
...What went before, is lost to man's view, and what shall befall when he is gone, none can tell him.
He is on a fool's errand, that does not even know his way to town.
Woe to the land that has young blood on the throne, whose court sits feasting till daybreak! And happy the land whose king is of true princely breed, whose courtiers feast when feast should be, to comfort their hearts, not all in revelry.
Roof sags where idleness dwells; a leaking gutter means nerveless hands within.
Food will cheer you, wine bring you gladness, but money, it answers every need.
Of the king, no treasonable thought; of the nobles, no ill word even in your bed-chamber; the very birds in heaven will catch the echoes of it, and fly off to betray your secret.
Here, on the stream's bosom, venture your livelihood; wait long you may, but be sure you shall recover it at last. Seven claims you have satisfied, do not refuse the eighth. Not yours to foresee what general calamities the future holds in store; there the rain comes, where the clouds gather; north or south as the tree falls, north or south the trunk will lie. Still waiting for a wind? Never shall your seed be sown. Still watching the clouds? Never shall your harvest be carried. Breath that comes and goes, the fashioning of man's frame in the womb, of all this you know nothing; and think you to understand God's doings, that is Maker of all? Early abroad, to sow your seed, and let evening find you still at work; which sowing shall speed better, none knows, or whether both shall thrive to your profit.
Ay, it is good to look upon, the light of day; never was eye yet but loved to see the sun. Only be your years never so many, never so happy, do not forget the dark days that are coming, the long days, when frustration will be the end of it all. While you are young, take your fill of manhood's pride, let your heart beat high with youth, follow where thought leads and inclination beckons, but remember that for all this God will call you to account. Rid your heart, then, of resentment, your nature of ill humours; youth and pleasures, they are so quickly gone!
Do not forget your Maker, now, while youth lasts; now, while the evil days are still far off, the years that pass unwelcomed. Not yet the obscuration of sun and moon and starlight; and the clouds that still gather when the rainy season is done. One day, palsy will shake those door-keepers, those stalwart guards will be bowed with age; rarer, now, the busy maidens at the mill, dimmer, now, those bright glances from the windows. The street-doors shut, muffled the hum of the mill, bird-song for waking-time, and all the echoes of music faint! Fear upon every height, terrors on the road; almond-blossom matched for whiteness; the grasshopper's weight a burden now; the spiced food untasted! Man is for his everlasting home, and already the mourners are astir in the streets. That, or else yonder cord of silver will be loosed, yonder golden skein unravelled; pitcher broken beside the fountain, wheel lost in the well; with that, back goes dust to its parent earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
A shadow's shadow, he, the Spokesman, tells us, a world of shadows!
Abundant wisdom the Spokesman had, to be the oracle of his people; the story of his life he made known to them, laid secrets bare, and proverbs framed a many. Sayings of much import he devised, and nothing his pen set down but was truth unalloyed. Sharp goads they are to sting us, sharp nails driven deep home, these wise words left to us by many masters, but all echoing one shepherd's voice. Let these, my son, be all the wisdom you crave; this writing of books is an endless matter, and from overmuch study nature rebels.
Conclude we then thus in general; Fear God, and keep his commandments; this is the whole meaning of man. No act of yours but God will bring it under his scrutiny, deep beyond all your knowing, and pronounce it good or evil.