Ecclesiastes 10
Pulpit Commentary
Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.
Verses 1-3. - Section 11. A little folly mars the effect of wisdom, and is sure to make itself conspicuous. Verse 1. - Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor. This is a metaphorical confirmation of the truth enunciated at the end of the last chapter, "One sinner destroyeth much good." It is like the apostle's warning to his converts, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6). The Hebrew expression is literally, "flies of death," which may mean either "dead flies," as in our version and the Vulgate (muses morientes), or "deadly, poisonous flies," as in the Septuagint (μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι). The latter rendering seems preferable, if we regard the use of similar compound phrases, e.g., "instruments of death" (Psalm 7:14: [13]); "snares of death" (Psalm 18:5); and in New Testament Greek, ἡ πληγὴ τοῦ θανάτου, "the death-stroke" (Revelation 13:3, 12). The flies meant are such as are poisonous in their bite, or carry infection with them. Such insects corrupt anything which they touch - food, ointment, whether they perish where they alight or not. They, as the Hebrew says, make to stink, make to ferment, the oil of the perfumer. The singular verb is here used with the plural subject to express the unity of the individuals, "flies" forming one complete idea. The Septuagint rendering omits one of the verbs: Σαμπιοῦσι σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος, "Corrupt a preparation of sweet ointment." The point, of course, is the comparative insignificance of the cause which spoils a costly substance compounded with care and skill. Thus little faults mar great characters and reputations. "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Ecclesiastes 7:1), but a good name is ruined by follies, and then it stinks in men's nostrils. The term, "ointment of the apothecary," is used by Moses (Exodus 30:25, etc.) in describing the holy chrism which was reserved for special occasions. So doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor. The meaning of the Authorized Version is tolerably correct, but the actual rendering will hardly stand, and one wants some verb to govern "him that," etc. The other versions vary. Septuagint, "A little wisdom is more precious (τίμιον) than great glory of folly;" Vulgate, "More precious are wisdom and glory than small and short-lived folly;" Jerome, "Precious above wisdom and glory is a little folly." This last interpretation proceeds upon the idea that such "folly" is at any rate free from pride, and has few glaring faults. "Dulce est desipere in loco," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4:12. 28). But the original is best translated thus: "More weighty than wisdom, than honor, is a little folly." It is a painful fact that a little folly, one foolish act, one silly peculiarity of manner or disposition, will suffice to impair the real value of a matt's wisdom and the estimation in which he was held. The little clement of foolishness, like the little insect in the ointment, obscures the real excellence of the man, and deprives him of the honor that is really his due. And in religion we know that one fault unchecked, one Secret sin cherished, poisons the whole character, makes a man lose the grace of God. (For the same effect from another cause, see Ezekiel 3:20; Ezekiel 33:13.) Jerome sees in the "dead flies" wicked thoughts put into the Christian's mind by Beelzebub, "the lord of flies."
A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.
Verses 2, 3. - A tetrastich contrasting wisdom and folly. Verse 2. - A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left. There is here no reference to the classical use of right and left, as ominous of success and disaster, which is never found in the Old Testament. The right hand is the place of honor, the left of inferiority, as a matter of fact, not of superstition and luck. The symbolism is intimated in Christ's account of the judgment (Matthew 25:31, etc.). But in the present passage we should best paraphrase - The wise man's heart, his understanding and sentiments, lead him to what is right and proper and straightforward; the fool's heart leads him astray, in the wrong direction. The former is active and skilful, the latter is slow and awkward. One, we may say, has no left hand, the other has no right. To be at the right hand is to be ready to help and guard. "The Lord is at thy right band," to protect thee, says the psalmist (Psalm 110:5). The wise man's mind shows him how to escape dangers and direct his course safely; the fool's mind helps him not to any good purpose, causes him to err and miss his best object.
Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a fool.
Verse 3. - Yea, also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way. As soon as ever he sets his foot outside the house, and mixes with other men, he exhibits his folly. If he remained at home he might keep his real ineptitude concealed; but such persons as he are unconscious of their inanity, and take no pains to hide it; they go where, they act as, their foolish heart prompts them. There is no metaphor here, nor any reference to the fool being put in the right path and perversely turning away. It is simply, as the Septuagint renders, Καί γε ἐν ὁδῷ ὅταν ἄφρων πορεύηται His wisdom (Hebrew, heart) faileth him. Ginsburg and others render, "He lacketh his mind," want of heart being continually taken in the Book of Proverbs as equivalent to deficiency of understanding (Proverbs 6:32; Proverbs 7:7, etc.). But Delitzsch and Wright consider the order of the words and the suffix to be against this view, and they translate as the Authorized Version, i.e. his understanding is at fault. And he saith to every one that he is a fool. The sentence is ambiguous, and capable of two interpretations. The Vulgate has, Cumipse insipiens sit, omnes stultos aestimat. Jerome quotes Symmachus as rendering, "He suspects all men that they are fools." According to this view, the fool in his conceit thinks that every one he meets is a fool, says this in his mind, like the sluggard in Proverbs 26:16, "Who is wiser in his own conceit than ten men that can render a reason." Another explanation, more closely in accordance with the foregoing clauses, takes the pronoun in "he is a fool" to refer to the man himself, se esse stultum (comp. Psalm 9:21 [20], "Let the nations know themselves to be but men"). As soon as he goes abroad, his words and actions display his real character; he betrays himself; he says virtually to all with whom he has to do, "I am a fool" (comp. Proverbs 13:16; Proverbs 18:2). It is hard to say to which interpretation the Septuagint inclines, giving, Καὶ α} λογιεῖται πάντα ἀφροσύνη ἐστίν, "And all that he will think is folly."
If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.
Verses 4-7. - Section 12. Illustration of the conduct of wisdom under capricious rulers, or when fools are exalted to high stations. Verse 4. - If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee. "Spirit" (ruach) is here equivalent to "anger," as Judges 8:3; Proverbs 29:11. The idea seems to be that a statesman or councilor gives wise advice to a monarch, which the latter takes in bad part, and shows strong resentment against the person who offered it. Now, when a man knows himself to be in the right, and yet finds his counsel rejected, perhaps with scorn and reproach added, he is naturally prone to feel sore, and to show by some overt act his sense of the ill treatment which he has received. But what says wisdom? Leave not thy place (makom); i.e. position, pest, office. Do not hastily resign the situation at court to which you have been appointed. Some, not so suitably, take the expression, "leave thy place," figuratively, as equivalent to "give way to anger, renounce the temper which becomes you, lose your self-possession." But Wright, from the analogous use of matstsale and maamad in Isaiah 22:19, confirms the interpretation which we have adopted. Compare the advice in Ecclesiastes 8:3, where, however, the idea is rather of open rebellion than of a resentment which shows itself by withdrawal. Origen ('De Princip.,' 3:2) explained "the spirit of the ruler" to be the evil spirit; and Gregory, commenting on this passage, writes ('Moral.,' 3:43), "As though he had said in plain words, 'If thou perceivest the spirit of the tempter to prevail against thee in aught, quit not the lowliness of penitence;' and that it was the abasement of penitence that he called 'our place,' he shows by the words that follow, 'for healing [Vulgate] pacifieth great offences.' For what else is the humility of mourning, save the remedy of sin?" (Oxford transl.). For yielding pacifieth great offenses. Marpe, "yielding," is rendered "healing" by the versions. Thus ἴαμα (Septuagint); euratio (Vulgate). But this translation is not so suitable as that of Symmachus, σωφροσύνη, "moderation." The word is used in the sense of" gentleness," "meekness," in Proverbs 14:30; Proverbs 15:4; and the gnome expresses the truth that a calm, conciliating spirit, not prone to take offence, but patient under trying circumstances, obviates great sins. The sins are those of the subject. This quiet resignation saves him from conspiracy, rebellion, treason, etc., into which his untempered resentment might hurry him. We may compare Proverbs 15:1 and Proverbs 25:15; and Horace, 'Cam.,' 3. 3, "Justum et tenacem propositi virum," etc.

"The man whose soul is firm and strong,
Bows not to any tyrant's frown,
And on the rabble's clamorous throng
In proud disdain looks coldly down."

(Stanley.) They who regard the "offenses" as those of the ruler explain them to mean oppression and injustice; but it seems plain from the run of the sentence that the minister, not the monarch, is primarily in the mind of the writer, though, of course, it is quite true that the submission of the former might save the ruler from the commission of some wrong.
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler:
Verse 5. - Koheleth gives his personal experience of apparent confusion in the ordering of state affairs. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun. Power gets into the hands of an unwise man, and then errors are committed and injustice reigns. As an error which proceedeth from the ruler. The כְּ here is cash veritatis, which denotes not comparison, but resemblance, the idealization of the individual, the harmony of the particular with the general idea. The evil which he noticed appeared to be (he does not affirm that it is) a mistake caused by the ruler; it so presented itself to his mind. The caution observed in the statement may be owing partly to the tacit feeling that such blots occasioned difficulties in the view taken of the moral government of the world. He does not intend to refer to God under the appellation "Ruler." The Septuagint renders, Ὡς ἀκούσιον ἐξῆλθεν, "As if it came involuntarily;" Vulgate, to much the same effect, Quasi per errorem egrediens. The idea here is either gnat the evil is one not produced by any intentional action of the ruler, but resulting from human imperfection, or that what appears to be a mistake is not so really. But these interpretations are unsuitable. Those who adhere to the Solomonic authorship of our book see here a prophetic intimation of the evil of Jeroboam's rule, which evil proceeded from the sins of Solomon himself and his son Rehoboam. (So Wordsworth, Motais, etc.)
Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.
Verse 6. - Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. This is an instance of the error intimated in the preceding verse. A tyrannical ruler exalts incompetent persons, unworthy favorites, to "great heights" (ἐν ὅψεσι μεγάλοις, Septuagint), as it is literally - puts them into eminent positions. "Folly" is abstract for concrete, "fools." And the rich sit in low place. "The rich" (ushirim) are not simply those who have wealth, however obtained, but men of noble birth; ἀρχαιόπλουτοι, as Plumptre appositely notes, persons of ancestral wealth, who from natural position might be looked upon as rulers of men. Such men would seek eminent stations, not from base motives of gain, but from an honorable ambition, and yet they are often slighted by unworthy princes and kept in low estate (comp. 1 Samuel 2:7, 8; Proverbs 19:10; Ecclus. 11:5, 6). The experience mentioned in this and the following verses could scarcely have been Solomon's, though it has been always common enough in the East, where the most startling changes have been made, the lowest persons have been suddenly raised to eminence, mistresses and favorites loaded with dignities, and oppression of the rich has been systematically pursued.
I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
Verse 7. - I have seen servants upon horses. A further description of the effect of the tyrant's perversion of equity. Such an allusion could not have been made in Solomon's reign, when the importation of horses was quite a new thing (1 Kings 10:28). Later, to ride upon horses was a distinction of the nobility (Jeremiah 17:25). Thus Amaziah's corpse was brought on horses to be buried in the city of David (2 Chronicles 25:28): Mordecai was honored by being taken round the city on the king's own steed (Esther 6:8, etc.). Princes walking as servants upon the earth. "Princes" (sarim); i.e. masters, lords. Some take the expressions here as figurative, equivalent to "those who are worthy to be princes," and "those who are fit only to be slaves;" but the literal is the true interpretation. Commentators quote what Justin (41:3) says of the Parthians, "Hoc denique discrimen inter serves liberos-que, quod servi pedibus, Liberi non nisi equis iuccdunt." Ginsburg notes that early travelers in the East record the fact that Europeans were not allowed by the Turks to ride upon horses, but were compelled either to use asses or walk on foot. In some places the privilege of riding upon horseback was permitted to the consuls of the great powers - an honor denied to all strangers of lower degree. Among the Greeks and Romans the possession of a horse with its war-trappings implied a certain amount of wealth and distinction. St. Gregory, treating of this passage ('Moral.,' 31:43), says, "By the name horse is understood temporal dignity, as Solomon witnesses .... For every one who sins is the servant of sin, and servants are upon horses, when sinner's are elated with the dignities of the present life. But princes walk as servants, when no honor exalts many who are full of the dignity of virtues, but when the greatest misfortune here presses them down, as though unworthy."
He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
Verses 8-11. - Section 13. Various proverbs expressing the benefit of prudence and caution, and the danger of folly. The connection with what has preceded is not closely marked, but is probably to be found in the bearing of the maxims on the conduct of the wise man who has incurred the resentment of a ruler, and might be inclined to disaffection and revolt. They are intentionally obscure and capable of a double sense - a necessary precaution if the writer lived under Persian despots. Verse 8. - He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it. This proverb occurs in Proverbs 26:27, and, as expressive of the retribution that awaits evil-doers, finds parallels in Psalm 7:15, 16; Psalm 9:15; Psalm 10:2; Ecclus. 27:25, 26. The" pit" (gummats, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον) is such a one as was made to capture wild animals, and the maker of it is supposed to approach it incautiously, and to fall into it. But the scope of our passage is rather to speak of what may possibly occur than to insist on the Nemesis that inevitably overtakes transgressors. Its object is to inspire caution in the prosecution of dangerous undertakings, whether the enterprise be the overthrow of a tyrant, or any other action of importance, or whether, as some suppose, the arraignment of the providential ordering of events is intended, in which ease there would be the danger of blasphemy and impatience. And whoso breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him. The futures throughout vers. 8 and 9 are not intended to express certainty, as if the results mentioned were inevitable, but rather possibility, and might be rendered, with Delitzsch, "may fall," "may bite," etc. The "hedge" is rather a wall (Proverbs 24:31), in the crevices of which poisonous snakes have made their abode, which are disturbed by its demolition (comp. Ames 5:19). Nachash, here used, is the generic name of any serpent. The majority of the snakes found in Palestine are harmless; but there are some which are very deadly, especially the cobra and those which belong to the viper family. There is no allusion here to the illegal removal of landmarks, a proceeding which might be supposed to provoke retribution; the hedge or wail is one which the demolisher is justified in removing, only in doing so he must look out for certain contingencies, and guard against them. Metaphorically, the pulling down a wall may refer to the removal of evil institutions in a state, which involves the reformer in many difficulties and perils.
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.
Verse 9. - Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith. It is natural to consider this clause as suggested by the breaking of a wall in the preceding verse; but as this would occasion a jejune repetition, it is better to take it of the work of the quarryman, as in 1 Kings 5:17, where the same verb is used. The dangers to which such laborers are exposed are well known. Here, again, but unsuccessfully, some have seen a reference to the removal of landmarks, comparing 2 Kings 4:4, where the word is translated "set aside." As before said, the paragraph does not speak of retribution, but advises caution, enforcing the lesson by certain homely, allusions to the accidents that may occur m customary occupations. He that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby. Cutting up logs of wood, a man may hurt himself with axe or saw, or be injured by splinters, etc. If we take the idea to be the felling of trees, there is the danger of being crushed in their fall, or, according to the tenor of Deuteronomy 19:5, of being killed inadvertently by a neighbor's axe. Vulgate, Qui scindit ligna vulnerabitur ab eis, which is more definite than the general term "endangered;" but the Septuagint has, Κινδυνεύσει ἐν αὐτοῖς, as in the Authorized Version. Plumptre sees here, again, an intimation of the danger of attacking time-honored institutions, even when decaying and corrupt.
If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.
Verse 10. - If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge. The illustration at the end of the last verse is continued. The "iron" is the axe used in cutting wood; if this be blunted by the work to which it is put, and he, the laborer, has not sharpened the edge (Hebrew, the face, as in Ezekiel 21:1), what is the consequence? How is he to carry on his work? Then must he put to more strength. He must put more force in his blows, he must make up for the want of edge by added power and weight. This is the simplest explanation of the passage, which contains many linguistic difficulties. These may be seen discussed at length in the commentaries of Delitzsch, Wright, Nowack, etc. The translation of Ginsburg is not commendable, "If the axe be blunt, and he (the tyrant's opponent)do not sharpen it beforehand (phanim, taken as an adverb of time), he (the tyrant) shall only increase the army." The Septuagint is obscure, Ἐὰν ἐκπέσῃ τὸ σιδήριον καὶ αὐτὸς πρόσωπον ἐτάραξε καὶ δυνάμεις δυναμώσει, "If the axe should fall, then he troubles his face, and he shall strengthen his forces (? double his strength);" Vulgate, Si retusum fuerit ferrurn, et hoc non ut prius, sed hebetatum fuerit, multo labore exacuetur, "If the iron shall be blunted, and it be not as before, but have become dull, it shall be sharpened with much labor." But wisdom is profitable to direct; rather, the advantage of setting right is (on the side of) wisdom. Wisdom teaches how to conduct matters to a successful termination; for instance, it prompts the worker to sharpen his tool instead of trying to accomplish his task by an exertion of mere brute strength. The gnome applies to all the instances which have been mentioned above. Wisdom alone enables a man to meet and overcome the dangers and difficulties which beset his social, common, and political life. If we apply the whole sentence to the case of disaffection with the government or open rebellion, the caution given would signify - See that your means are adequate to the end, that your resources are sufficient to conduct your enterprise to success. Septuagint Vatican, Καὶ περίσσεια τῷ ἀνδρὶ οὐ σοφία, "And the advantage to man is not wisdom." But manuscripts A and C read, Καὶ περισσεια τοῦ αηνδρίου σοφία: Vulgate, Post industriam sequetur sapientia, "After industry shall follow wisdom."
Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
Verse 11. - The last proverb of this little series shows the necessity of seizing the right opportunity. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment. The Authorized Version is not quite correct. The particle אם, with which the verse begins, is here conditional, and the rendering should be, If the serpent bite, etc.; the apodosis comes in the next clause. The idea is taken up from ver. 8. If one handles a serpent without due precaution or without knowing the secret of charming it, one will suffer for it. The taming and charming of poisonous snakes is still, as heretofore, practiced in Egypt and the East. What the secret of this power is has not been accurately determined; whether it belongs especially to persons of a certain idiosyncrasy, whether it is connected with certain words or intonations of the voice or musical sounds, we do not know. Of the existence of the power from remote antiquity there can be no question. Allusions to it in Scripture are common enough (see Exodus 7:11; Psalm 58:5; Jeremiah 8:17; Ecclus. 12:13). If a serpent before it is charmed is dangerous, what then? The Authorized Version affords no sensible apodosis: And a babbler is no better. The words rendered "babbler" (baul hallashon) are literally "master of the tongue," and by them is meant the ἐπαοιδός, "the serpent-charmer." The clause should run, Then there is no use in the charmer. If the man is bitten before he has time to use his charm, it is no profit to him that he has the secret, it is too late to employ it when the mischief is done. This is to shut the stable door after the steed is stolen. The maxim enforces the warning against being too late; the greatest skill is useless unless applied at the right moment. The Septuagint translates virtually as above, "If a serpent bites when not charmed (ἐν οὐ ψιθυρισμῷ), then there is no advantage to the charmer (τῷ ἐπᾴδοντι)." The Vulgate departs from the context, rendering, Si mordeat serpens in silentio (i.e. probably "uncharmed"), nihil eo minus habet qui occulte detrahit, "He is nothing better who slanders secretly," which St. Jerome thus explains: the serpent and the slanderer are alike, for as the serpent stealthily infuses its poison, so the secret slanderer pours his venom into another's breast.
The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself.
Verses 12-15. - Section 14. The mention of "the master of the tongue" in ver. 11 leads the author to introduce some maxims concerned with the contrast between the words and acts of the wise, and the worthless prating and useless labors of the fool. Verse 12. - The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; literally, are grace (χάρις, Septuagint); i.e. they net only are pleasing in form and manner, but they conciliate favor, produce approbation and good will, convince and, what is more, persuade. So of our blessed Lord it was said, "All bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words (τοῖς λόγοις τῆς χάριτος) which proceeded out of his mouth" (Luke 4:22; cutup. Psalm 45:2). In distinction from the unready man, who, like the snake-charmer in the preceding verse, suffers-by reason of his untimely silence, the wise man uses his speech opportunely and to good purpose. (A different result is given in Ecclesiastes 9:11.) But the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. This is a stronger ex-prosaic, than "ruin" or "destroy." Speaking without due forethought, he compromises himself] says what he has shamefully to withdraw, and brings punishment on his own head (cutup. Proverbs 10:8, 21; Proverbs 18:7).

Ῥῆμα παρὰ καιρὸν ῤιφθὲν ἀνατρέπει βίον.

"Untimely speech has ruined many a life."
The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.
Verse 13. - The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness. A confirmation of the last clause of the preceding verse. The fool speaks according to his nature. "As saith the proverb of the ancients, Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness" (1 Samuel 24:13; cutup. Proverbs 15:2; Isaiah 32:6). As soon as he opens his month he utters folly, unwisdom, silliness. But he does not stop there. The end of his talk is mischievous madness. By the time he has finished, he has committed himself to statements that are worse than silly, that are presumptuous, frenzied, indicative of mental and moral depravity. Intemperate language about the secrets of God's providence and the moral government of the world may be intended. Some think that the writer is still alluding to dangerous talk concerning a tyrannical ruler, seditious proposals, secret conspiracies, etc. The text itself does not confirm such notion with any certainty.
A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?
Verse 14. - A fool also is full of words. The word for "fool" here is oaks/, which implies a dense, confused thinker. Alive the word was kesil, which denotes rather the self-confidence of the dull and stupid man. Moreover the fool multiplieth words. He not only speaks foolishly, but he says too much (cutup. Ecclesiastes 5:2). It is not mere loquacity that is here predicated of the fool, though that is one of his characteristics, but, as-the rest of the verse shows, the prating of things about which he knows nothing. He talks as though he knew everything and there were no limitation to human cognition. A man cannot tell what shall be. And yet, or although, no man can really predict the future. The fool speaks confidently of such things, and thereby proves his imbecility. Instead of "what shall be," the Septuagint has, Τί τὸ γενόμενον καὶ τί τὸ ἐσόμενον, "What has been and what shall be;" the Vulgate, Quid ante se fuerit, "What has been before him." This reading was introduced probably to obviate a seeming tautology in the following clause, And what shall be after him, who can tell? But this clause has a different signification from the former, and presents a closer definition. The future intended may be the result of the fool's inconsiderate language, which may have fatal and lasting consequences; or it may refer to the visitation of his sins upon his children, in accordance with the denunciation of Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 29:20-22; or it may include the life beyond the grave. The uncertainty of the future is a constant theme; see Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 6:11, 12; Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 8:17; and compare Christ's parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-20), and St. James's warning in his Epistle (James 4:13-16).
The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.
Verse 15. - The labor of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city. The transition from plural to singular is here made, The work of fools wearieth him that knoweth not, etc. "Fools' work" signifies, perhaps, the vain speculations about Providence which Koheleth constantly condemns; or at any rate, all vain and objectless toil and trouble. Not to know the way to the city is probably a proverbial saying expressive of gross ignorance concerning the most obvious matters. How should one, who fails in the knowledge open to all experience, be able to investigate and give an opinion about abstruse questions (comp. Isaiah 35:8)? For the last clause other interpretations have been proposed, such as, the fool knows not how to transact public business (which is introducing a modern idea); the oppressed peasant knows not the way to the town where he might obtain redress; he is so foolish that he does not understand where he may find patrons whom he may bribe to plead his cause; he is an Essene, who avoids cities; he cannot make his way to the new Jerusalem, the city of God. But these artificial explanations are to be rejected, while the simple interpretation given above is plainly consistent with the context. The lesson is not to meddle with things too high, especially when you are ignorant of the commonest matters. A little wisdom would prevent endless and useless trouble.
Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!
Verses 16-20. - Section 15. Koheleth returns to the theme mentioned in vers. 4-7. and speaks of folly in one who holds the position of king, and the need of wisdom and prudence in the subjects of an unworthy ruler. Verse 16. - Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child! "Child" is naar, which term included any age up to manhood. Some interpret the word here, as παῖς in Greek, in the sense of "slave," contrasting it with "the son of nobles" in the following verse. But it can hardly signify more than servitor, attendant; and in ver. 7 the antithesis to "prince" is ebed, not naar. The child in the present case is a youthful, inexperienced ruler, who does not realize his responsibilities, and is the tool of evil advisers. What particular instance, if any, Koheleth had in view it is impossible to say. Of course, many expositors see a reference to Rehoboam. whom, at forty years of age, his own son Abijah calls naar (2 Chronicles 13:7), and who was certainly childish in his conduct (1 Kings 12:1-14). Hitzig connects the passage with the reign of Ptolemy Epiphanes, who was but five years old at the death of his father, B.C. 205, the reins of government being assumed by Agathocles and his sister Agathoclea, who occasioned serious disasters to the laud. To support this opinion, the date of our book has to be considerably reduced (see Introduction). It is best to take the gnome as a general expression, like that in Isaiah 3:12, "As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them." Thy princes eat in the morning. Eating here implies feasting and banqueting, beginning the day with sensual enjoyment instead of such honest work as attending to state matters, administering justice, etc., as becomes good rulers. None but profligates would thus spend the early morning. "These are not drunken, as ye suppose; seeing it is but the third hour of the day," says St. Peter, repudiating the charge of intoxication (Acts 2:15). "Woe unto them," cries Isaiah (Isaiah 5:11), "that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink!" Even the heathen censured such debauchery. Cicero thus abuses Antonius: "At quam multos dies in ea villa turpissime es per-bacchatus. Ab hora tertia bibebatur, ludebatur, vomebatur" ('Philipp.,' 2:41). Curtius (5. 7. 2) reprehends" de die convivia inire." The Greeks had a proverb to denote abnormal sensuality, Ἀφ ἡμέρας πίνειν
Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness!
Verse 17. - Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles! cujus rex nobilis est (Vulgate), υἱὸς ἐλευθέρων, "son of free men" (Septuagint). Some would regard "son of nobles" as a periphrasis expressive of character, equivalent to the Latin generous, as "son of strength," equivalent to "strong man;" "son of wickedness," equivalent to "wicked man;" but the phrase may well be taken literally. Koheleth (ver. 7) has expressed his disgust at the exaltation of unworthy slaves to high positions; he here intimates his adherence to the idea that those who descend from noble ancestors, and have been educated in the higher ranks of society, are more likely to prove a blessing to their land than upstarts who have been placed by caprice or favoritism in situations of trust and eminence. Of course, it is not universally true that men of high birth make good rulers; but proverbs of general tenor must not be pressed in particulars, and the author must be understood to affirm that the fact of having distinguished ancestors is an incentive to right action, stirs a worthy emulation in a man, gives him a motive which is wanting in the lowborn parvenu. The feeling, noblesse oblige, has preserved many from baseness (comp. John 8:39). Thy princes eat in due season; not like those mentioned in ver. 16, but in tempore, πρὸς καιρόν, at the right time, the "season" which appertains to all mundane things (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). For strength, and net for drunkenness. The preposition here is taken as expressing the object - they eat to gain strength, not to indulge sensuality; but it is more in accordance with usage to translate "in, or with, manly strength," i.e. as man's strength demands, and not degenerating into a carouse. If it is thought incongruous, as Ginsburg deems, to say, "princes eat for drunkenness," we may take drunkenness as denoting excess of any kind The word in the form here used occurs nowhere else. The Septuagint, regarding rather the consequences of intoxication than the actual word in the text, renders, Καὶ οὐκ αἰσχυνθήσονται, "And they shall not be ashamed." Thus, too, St. Jerome, Et non in confusione. St. Augustine ('De Civit.,' 17:20) deduces from this passage that there are two kingdoms - that of Christ and that of the devil, and he explains the allegory at some length, going into details which are of homiletic utility. Another interpretation is given by St. Jerome, quoted at length by Corn. a Lapide, in his copious commentary.
By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.
Verse 18. - By much slothfulness the building decayeth. The subject is still the state. Under the image of a house which falls into ruin for lack of needful repairs, is signified the decay that surely overtakes a kingdom whose rulers are given up to indolence and debauchery, and neglect to attend to the affairs which require prompt care (comp. Amos 9:11). Such were they whom Amos (Amos 6:6) denounced, "That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph." "Much slothfulness" is expressed in the original by a dual form, which gives an intensive signification. Ewald and Ginsburg take it as referring to the "two idle hands;" but the intensifications of the dual is not unprecedented (see Delitzsch, in loc.). The rest of this clause is more accurately rendered, the rafters sink, i.e. the timber framework, whether of roof or wall, gives way. This may possibly not be noticed at once, but it makes itself known unmistakably ere long. And through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through; rather, the house leaketh, the roof lets in the rain. Septuagint, Ἐν ἀρχία χειρῶν στάξει ἡ οἰκία, "Through laziness of hands the house will drip." The very imperfect construction of the fiat roofs of Eastern houses demanded continual attention. Such common and annoying occurrences as a leaky roof are mentioned in the Book of Proverbs (see 19:13; 27:15). Plautus, ' Mostell.,' 1:2.28 -

"Ventat imber, lavit parietes; perpluunt
Tigna; putrefacit aer operam fabri."

"The rain comes down, and washes all the walls,
The roof is leaky, and the weather rough
Loosens the architect's most skilful work."
A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.
Verse 19. - A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry. Here is a cause of the decay spoken of above. The rulers spend in revelry and debauchery the time and energy which they ought to give to affairs of state. More literally, for merriment they make bread, and wine [that] cheereth life; i.e. they use God's good gifts of bread and wine as means of intemperance and thoughtless pleasure. So a psalmist speaks of wine as making glad the heart of man (Psalm 104:15); and Ben-Sira says, "Wine is as good as life to a man, if it be drunk moderately: what life is there to a man that is without wine? for it was created to make men glad. Wine measurably drunk and in season bringeth gladness of the heart, and cheer fullness of the mind" (Ecclus. 31. [34.] 27, 28). But money answereth all things; i.e. grants all that such persons want. It requires money to provide rich food and costly wines; this they possess, and they are thus able to indulge their appetites to the utmost. It concerns them not how such resources are obtained - won by extortion from a starving people, exacted in exorbitant taxation, pillaged by unscrupulous instruments; they want gold to expend on their lusts, and they get it same-how, and with it all that in their view makes life worth living. Commentators alto Horace, ' Ep.,' 1:6.36, "Scilicet uxorem," etc.

"For why - a portioned wife, fair fame, and friends,
Beauty and birth on sovereign Wealth attends.
Blest is her votary throned his bags among?
Persuasion's self sits perched upon his tongue;
Love beams in every feature of his face,
And every gesture beams celestial grace."

(Howes.) Corn. a Lapide appositely quotes -

"...quidquid nummis praesentibus opta,
Et veniet; clausum possidet arca Jovem."

"If thou hast gold, then wish for anything,
And it will surely come; the money-box
Hath in it a most potent deity."
Pineda, followed by Metals, suggests that this verse may be taken in a good sense. He would make ver. 18 correspond to ver. 16, characterizing the government of debauchees, and ver. 19 correspond to ver. 17, representing the rule of temperate princes where all is peace and prosperity. But there is nothing grammatical to indicate this arrangement; and the explanation given above is doubtless correct. The Septuagint Version is not faithful in our present text, though it is followed virtually by the Syriac: Αἰς γέλωτα ποιοῦσιν ἄρτον καὶ οϊνον καὶ ἔλαιον τοῦ εὐφρανθῆναι ζῶντας καὶ τοῦ ἀργυρίου ταπεινώσει ἐπακούσεται τὰ πάντα "For gladness they make bread and wine and oil, that the living may rejoice, and to money all things will humble themselves, will obey" (doubly translating the word).
Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
Verse 20. - Curse not the king, no not in thy thought. Under the above-mentioned circumstances, a man might be tempted to abuse and curse these ill-conditioned rulers. Koheleth warns against this error; it is dangerous to give way to it (comp. Exodus 22:28). In Ecclesiastes 8:2 the motive for submission to the king is placed on religious grounds; in the present passage the ground is prudence, regard for personal safety, which might be compromised by plain speaking, especially when one has to do with such depraved and unscrupulous persons. We may compare David's generous conduct to his cruel persecutor Saul, whom he spared because he was the Lord's anointed (1 Samuel 24:6, l0; 26:9, etc.; 2 Samuel 1:14). Madda, "thought," "consciousness," is rare, and is supposed to belong to late Hebrew (see 2 Chronicles 1:10, 11, 12; Daniel 1:4, 17). The Septuagint translates it συνείδησις: Vulgate, cogitatio. To encourage such thoughts in the mind is to run the risk of openly expressing them at some unguarded moment; for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Curse not the rich in thy bedchamber. In ability to injure, the rich stand in the same category as the king. You are not safe ἐν τανιείοις κοιτώνων σου, "in your very bedchamber," where, if anywhere, you would fancy yourself free from espionage. But "walls have ears," says the proverb (comp. Habakkuk 2:11; Luke 19:40); and the King of Syria is warned, "Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the King of Israel the words thou speakest in thy bedchamber" (2 Kings 6:12). "That which ye have spoken in the ear in closets (ἐν τοῖς ταμιείοις) shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:3). For a bird of the air shall carry the voice. A proverbial saying, common to all languages, and not to be referred especially to the story of the cranes of Ibycus (see Erasmus,' Adag.,' s.v. "Ultio malefacti") or to the employment of carrier pigeons. We say of secret information, "a little bird told me." Plumptre quotes Aristophanes, 'Aves,' 575 -

 Οὐδείς οϊδεν τὸν θησαυρὸν τὸν ἐμὸν πλὴν εἴ τις ἄρ ὄρνις

"No one knows of my treasure, save, it may be, a bird." On which the Scholiast notes, "There is a proverb extant, ' No one observes me but the passing bird'" (comp. Erasmus, ' Adag.,' s.v. "Occulta"). In Koheleth's day informers evidently plied their trade industriously, and here meet, not only with notice, but ironically with reprobation. On the general sentiment of the verse, we may quote Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 9:102, "O Corydon, Corydon," thus versified in Ginsburg's commentary -

"And dost thou seriously believe, fond swain,
The actions of the great unknown remain?
Poor Corydon! even beasts would silence break,
And stocks and stones, if servants did not, speak.
Bolt every door, stop every cranny tight,
Close every window, put out every light;
Let not a whisper reach the listening ear,
No noise, no motion; let no soul be near;
Yet all that passed at the cock's second crow,
The neighboring vintner shall, ere day-break, know."
That which hath wings (compare Latin ales); the possessor (haul) of a pair of wings, a periphrasis for "a bird," as in Proverbs 1:17. We had "master of the tongue," ver. 11; so in Daniel 8:6, 20, "having horns," is "master (haul) of horns."

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

Bible Hub
Ecclesiastes 9
Top of Page
Top of Page