Ecclesiastes 5
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
1. Keep thy foot] In the Heb., LXX. and Vulg. this verse forms the conclusion to chap. 4. The English version is obviously right, however, in its division of the chapter. The moralist reviews a new region of experience. “Vanity” has been found in all that belongs to the outward secular life of men. Is their higher life, that which we call their religion, free from it? Must not the Debater, from his standpoint, rebuke the follies and sins even of the godly? Here, as might be expected, we have an intermingling of two elements of thought, the traditional teaching which the thinker has learnt from psalmist and prophet, and the maxims which have come to him from his Greek, probably from his Epicurean, teachers. Both, it will be seen, find echoes in the precepts that follow. The precepts are suggestive as shewing the kind of religion which the Debater had seen in Palestine, the germs of the formalism and casuistry which afterwards developed into Pharisaism. To “keep the foot” was to walk in the right way, the way of reverence and obedience (Psalm 119:32; Psalm 119:101). The outward act of putting the shoes off the feet on entering the Temple (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15), from the earliest times to the present, the custom of the East, was the outward symbol of such a reverential awe. We note, as characteristic, the substitution of the “house of God” for the more familiar “house of the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:20; Isaiah 33:1, and elsewhere). Possibly the term may be used, as in Psalm 74:8; Psalm 83:12, to include synagogues as well as the Temple. The precept implies that he who gives it had seen the need of it. Men went to the place where they worshipped with little thought that it was indeed a Beth-el, or “house of God.”

and be more ready to hear] The words have been differently interpreted: (1) “And to draw near to hear is better than to offer the sacrifice …;” and (2) “To hear (= obey) is nearer (i.e. is the truer way for thy foot to take) than to offer the sacrifice …” The general spirit of the maxim or precept is identical with that of 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6-8; Psalm 50:8-14; Psalm 51:16-17. The “sacrifice of fools” as in Proverbs 21:27 is that offered by the ungodly, and therefore an abomination.

for they consider not that they do evil] The A.V. is perhaps sufficiently expressive of the meaning, but the following various renderings have been suggested: (1) “they know not, so that they do evil,” i.e. their ignorance leads them to sin; (2) “they (those who obey, hear) know not to do evil,” i.e. their obedience keeps them from it. Of these (1) seems preferable. Protests against a superstition that was not godliness, the δεισιδαιμονία of the Greeks (Acts 17:22), were, it need scarcely be said, part of the current teaching of Epicurus and his followers. So Lucretius;

“Nec pietas ullast velatum sæpe videri

Vertier ad lapidem atque omnes accedere ad aras,

Nec procumbere humi prostratum et pandere palmas

Ante deûm delubra, nec aras sanguine multo

Spargere quadrupedum, nec votis nectere vota,

Sed mage pacata posse omnia mente tueri.”

“True worship is not found in veiled heads

Turned to a statue, nor in drawing near

To many an altar, nor in form laid low

Upon the ground, nor sprinkling it with blood

Of bulls and goats, nor piling vows on vows;

But rather in the power which all surveys

With mind at rest and calm.”

De Rer. Nat. v. 1198–1203.

Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.
2. Be not rash with thy mouth] The rule follows the worshipper from the threshold into the Temple-court and tells him how he is to act there. We are reminded of our Lord’s warning against “vain repetitions,” after the manner of the heathen (Matthew 6:7). The second clause, though parallel to the first, carries the thought further. The “heart” or mind of the worshipper also is to be calm and deliberate. We are not to turn every hasty wish into a prayer, but to ask ourselves whether it is one of the things for which we ought to pray. Here also the precept has its analogies in the counsels of the wise of heart outside the covenant of Israel. See especially Juven. Sat. x.

therefore let thy words be few] The Son of Sirach gives the same rule for our speech when in the presence of the “great men” of earth (Sir 32:9), and à fortiori the reverence due to God should shew itself in the same form as our reverence for them. In a Talmudic precept we find the rule in nearly the same words, “the words of a man should always be few in the presence of God” (Berachoth, 61 a, quoted by Ginsburg). Comp. also Hooker E. P. 1. 2. § 3.

For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool's voice is known by multitude of words.
3. For a dream cometh through the multitude of business] The one psychological fact is meant to illustrate the other. The mind that has lost the power to re-collect itself, haunted and harassed by the cares of many things, cannot enjoy the sweet and calm repose of a dreamless slumber, and that fevered state with its hot thoughts and wild fancies is but too faithful a picture of the worshipper who pours out a multitude of wishes in a “multitude of words.” His very prayers are those of a dreamer. It seems obvious, from the particle that connects this with the preceding verse, that the maxim refers specially to these utterances of the fool and not merely to the folly of his speech in general. The words “is known,” as the italics shew, have nothing answering to them in the Hebrew. The same verb was meant to serve for both the clauses.

When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.
4. When thou vowest a vow unto God] The words are almost a reproduction of Deuteronomy 23:22-24. They point to a time when vows, such as are here referred to, entered largely into men’s personal religion. Memorable instances of such vows are found in the lives of Jacob (Genesis 28:20), Jephthah (Jdg 11:30), Saul (1 Samuel 14:24). In later Judaism they came into a fresh prominence, as seen especially in the Corban of Mark 7:11, the revival of the Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18; Acts 20:23; Joseph. Wars ii. 15, p. 1), and the oath or anathema of Acts 23:21; and one of the treatises of the Mishna (Nedarim) was devoted to an exhaustive casuistic treatment of the whole subject. In Matthew 5:23 we find the recognised rule of the Pharisees, “Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths,” as the conclusion of the whole matter. This the Debater also affirmed, but he, in his deeper wisdom, went further, and bade men to consider well what kind of vows they made.

for he hath no pleasure in fools] The construction of the sentence in the Hebrew is ambiguous, and may give either (1) that suggested by the interpolated words in the A. V., or (2) “there is no pleasure in fools,” i.e. they please neither God nor man, or (3) “there is no fixed purpose in fools,” i.e. they are unstable in their vows as in everything else. Of these interpretations (2) has most to commend it. In Proverbs 20:25, “It is a snare … after vows to make inquiry,” we have a striking parallel.

Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.
5. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow] The point which the Teacher seeks to press is obviously the optional character of vows. They form no part of the essentials of religion, they are to be deprecated rather than otherwise; but to make them, and then delay or evade their fulfilment, is to tamper with veracity and play fast and loose with conscience, and so is fatally injurious. The casuistry condemned by our Lord (Matthew 5:33; Matthew 23:16-22) shews how fertile was the ingenuity of Scribes in devising expedients of this nature.

Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?
6. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin] The “mouth” may refer either to the thoughtless utterance of the rash vow, such as that of Jephthah (Jdg 11:30) or Saul (1 Samuel 14:24), or to the appetite which leads the man who has made a vow, say of the Nazarite type, to indulge in the drink or food which he had bound himself to renounce. The former meaning seems more in harmony with the context. The latter clause is translated by many Commentators to bring punishment (the expiation for sin) upon thy flesh, but the A.V. is probably correct. The “flesh” stands as in Genesis 6:3; Psalm 78:39, and in New Testament language (Romans 7:18; Romans 7:25), for the corrupt sensuous element in man’s nature. The context forbids the extension of the precept to sins of speech in general, as in the wider teaching of James 3:1-12.

neither say thou before the angel] The words have been taken by most Jewish and some Christian interpreters as referring to the “angel” in the strict sense of the term, who was believed in Rabbinic traditions to preside over the Temple or the altar, and who, it is assumed, would punish the evasion of the vow on the frivolous excuse that it had been spoken inconsiderately. 1 Corinthians 11:13 and 1 Timothy 5:21 are referred to as illustrations of the same thought. This interpretation, however, seems scarcely in harmony with the generally Hellenised tone of the book, and in Haggai 1:13 and Malachi 2:7 we have distinct evidence that the term had come to be applied to prophets and priests, as in 2 Corinthians 8:23 and Revelation 1:20 it is used of ministers in the Christian Church, and this, it is obvious, gives a tenable, and, on the whole, a preferable meaning. The man comes to the priest with an offering less in value than he had vowed, or postpones the fulfilment of his vow indefinitely, and using the technical language of Numbers 15:25, explains that the vow had been made in ignorance, and therefore that he was not bound to fulfil it to the letter. Other commentators again (Grätz) look on the word as describing a subordinate officer of the Temple.

wherefore should God be angry at thy voice] The question is in form like those of Ezra 4:22; Ezra 7:23, and is rhetorically more emphatic than a direct assertion. The words are a more distinct assertion of a Divine Government seen in earthly rewards and punishments than the book has as yet presented. The vow made, as was common, to secure safety or prosperity, could have no other result than loss and, it might be, ruin, if it were vitiated from the first by a rashness which took refuge in dishonesty.

For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God.
7. For in the multitude of dreams] The order of the words in the A. V. is not that of the Hebrew, which gives For in the multitude of dreams and vanities and many words, but is adopted by many commentators as representing a more correct text. The introduction of the word “vanities” (the “divers” of the A. V. has, as the italics shew, nothing answering to it in the Hebrew,) indicates the purpose of the writer in thus noting the weak points of popular religionism. They also, the dreams which seemed to them as messages from heaven, the “many words” of long and resounding prayers, took their place in the induction which was to prove that “all is vanity.” So Theophrastus (Charact. xvi.) describes the superstitious man (δεισιδαίμων) as agitated when he sees a vision and straightway going off to consult a soothsayer. In contrast with the garrulous rashness and the inconsiderate vows and the unwise reliance on dreams which Judaism was learning from heathenism (Matthew 6:7) Koheleth falls back on the “fear of God,” the temper of reverential and silent awe, which was “the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28). It is significant that here again the teaching of Koheleth has a parallel in that of the Epicurean poet who traces the “religions” of mankind (in his sense of the word) in no small measure to the influence of dreams.

“Quippe etenim jam tum divum mortalia sæcla

Egregias animo facies vigilante videbant,

Et magis in somnis mirando corporis auctu.”

“Even then the race of mortal men would see

With waking soul the mighty forms of Gods,

And in their dreams with shapes of wondrous size.”

Lucret. De Rer. Nat. v. 1169–71.

If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.
8. If thou seest the oppression of the poor] From the follies of the religious life we pass to the disorders of the political. As in ch. Ecclesiastes 4:16, the thinker looks on those disorders of the world, “the poor man’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,” and teaches others how he has learnt to think of them. The words “wonder not” tells us with scarcely the shadow of a doubt who had been his teachers. In that counsel we have a distinct echo from one of the floating maxims of Greek proverbial wisdom, from the Μηδὲν θαυμάζειν (“wonder at nothing”) of Pythagoras, and Cebes (Tabula, p. 232), which has become more widely known through the Nil admirari of Horace (Epist. i. 6. 1). Why men were not to wonder at the prevalence of oppression is explained afterwards. The word for “province” may be noted as one distinctly belonging to later Hebrew, found chiefly in the books of the Persian period, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel; once only in those of earlier date, 1 Kings 20:14-17.

for he that is higher than the highest] The first impression made by the verse is that the Debater tells men not to wonder or be dismayed at the prevalence of wrong, on the ground that God is higher than the highest of the tyrants of the earth and will in the end punish their wrong-doing. So understood, the first and the last “higher” both refer to “God,” or, as some take it, the last only, the first referring to the king as distinct from satraps or other officers, and the train of thought is supposed to be “Wonder not with the wonder of despair, at the seeming triumph of evil. The Supreme Judge (ch. Ecclesiastes 3:17) will one day set all things right.” The last “higher” is however plural in the Hebrew, and if it be understood of God, it must be by a somewhat unusual construction connecting it with the plural form (Elohim) of the name of God. We have, it may be noted, another example of a like construction in the use of the plural form for Creator in ch. Ecclesiastes 12:1, and for “the Holy” in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 30:3. Over and above the grammatical difficulties, however (which, as has been shewn, are not insuperable), it may be said that this thought is hardly in keeping with the tone of the Debater’s mind at this stage of his progress. Belief in the righteous government of God can hardly remove, though it may perhaps silence, the wonder which men feel at the prevalence of evil. It seems better accordingly to fall back upon another interpretation. The observer looks upon the state of the Persian or Syrian or Egyptian Monarchy and sees a system of Satraps and Governors which works like that of the Pachas in modern Asiatic Turkey. There is one higher than the high one, the king who is despotic over the satraps: there are others (the court favourites, king’s friends, eunuchs, chamberlains) who are higher or, at least, of more power, than both together, each jealously watching the others, and bent on self-aggrandisement. Who can wonder that the result should be injustice and oppression? The system of government was rotten from the highest to the lowest, suspicion and distrust pervading its whole administration. Comp. Aristotle’s description of Asiatic monarchies as suppressing all public spirit and mutual confidence (Pol. Ecclesiastes 5:11). It may be suggested, lastly, that the enigmatic form of the maxim may have been deliberately chosen, so that men might read either the higher or the lower interpretation into it, according to their capacities. It was a “word to the wise” after the measure of their wisdom. The grave irony of such an ambiguous utterance was quite after the Teacher’s method. See notes on ch. Ecclesiastes 11:1-2.

Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.
9. Moreover the profit of the earth is for all] The verse is difficult and has been very variously interpreted. The most satisfactory renderings follow: But the profit of a land every way is a king for the field under tillage, or, as some take the words, a king devoted to the field. In either case the main sense is the same. The writer contrasts the misery of the Oriental government of his time with the condition of Judah under the model kings who gave themselves chiefly to the development of the resources of the country by agriculture, such e.g. as Uzziah who “loved husbandry” (2 Chronicles 26:10). This gives, it is obvious, a much better sense than the rendering that “the king is served by the field” or “is subject to the field,” i.e. dependent on it. Assuming the Alexandrian origin of the book, we may perhaps see in the maxim a gentle hint to the Ptolemy of the time being to improve his agricultural administration and to foster the growing export-trade in corn.

He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.
10. He that loveth silver] The sequence of thought led the Debater from the evils of the love of money as seen in mis-government to those which are seen in the life of the individual man. The conspicuous fact was the insatiableness of that passion for money;

“Semper avarus eget; hunc nulla pecunia replet.”

“The miser still is poor, no money fills his purse.”

Juven. Sat. xiv. 139.

The second clause may be taken either as in the A. V. as a maxim He who clings to wealth (the word implies the luxury that accompanies wealth as in Psalm 37:16; 1 Chronicles 29:16; Isaiah 60:5), there is no fruit thereof, or as a question, Who clings to wealth? There is no fruit thereof, i. e. no real revenue or return for the labour of acquiring it. In this the Teacher found another illustration of his text that “all is vanity.”

When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes?
11. When goods increase, they are increased that eat them] The fact is one which has met the gaze of the moralists of all countries. A large household, numerous retainers, these are but so many elements of trouble. In the dialogue of Crœsus and Solon (Herod. i. 32), yet more closely in that of Pheraulas and Sacian (quoted by Ginsburg) in Xenophon (Cyrop. viii. 3, pp. 35–44), we have distinct parallels. The latter presents so striking a resemblance as to be worth quoting, “Do you think, Sacian, that I live with the more pleasure the more I possess.… By having this abundance, I gain merely this, that I have to guard more, to distribute more to others, and to have the trouble of taking care of more; for a great many domestics now demand of me their food, their drink, and their clothes … Whosoever, therefore, is greatly pleased with the possession of riches will, be assured, feel much annoyed at the expenditure of them.”

saving the beholding of them with their eyes] So Horace paints the miser:

“Congestis undique saccis

Indormis inhians, et tanquam parcere sacris

Cogeris, aut pictis tanquam gaudere tabellis.”

“Sleepless thou gazest on thy heaped-up bags,

And yet art forced to hold thy hand from them,

As though they were too sacred to be touched,

Or were but painted pictures for thine eyes.”

Sat. i. 1. 66.

The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.
12. The sleep of a labouring man is sweet] We may probably, as suggested in the “Ideal Biography” of the Introduction ch. iii., see in this reflection the reminiscence of a state with which the writer had once been familiar, and after which, now that it had passed away, he yearned regretfully. Again we get on the track of the maxims of Epicurean teachers. So Horace;

“Somnus agrestium

Lenis virorum non humiles domos

Fastidit umbrosamque ripam,

Non Zephyris agitata Tempe.”

“Gentle slumber scorneth not

The ploughman’s poor and lowly cot,

Nor yet the bank with sheltering shade,

Nor Tempe with its breezy glade.”

Od. iii. 1. 21–24.

See the passage from Virgil, Georg. iv., already quoted in the note on ch. Ecclesiastes 2:24, and

“Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade

To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,

Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy

To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.

And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,

His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,

His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,

All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,

Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,

His viands sparkling in a golden cup,

His body couched in a curious bed,

When care, mistrust, and treason wait on him.”

Shakespeare, Henry VI. Act ii. Sc. 5.

There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.
13. riches kept for the owners thereof] Yet another aspect of the evils attendant on riches is brought before us, as in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19. Not only do they fail to give any satisfying joy, but the man who reckoned on founding a family and leaving his heaped-up treasures to his son gains nothing but anxieties and cares, loses his wealth by some unforeseen chance, and leaves his son a pauper. By some commentators the possessive pronoun in “his hand” (Ecclesiastes 5:14) is referred to the father. The crowning sorrow for him is that he begets a son and then dies himself in poverty. The upshot of the two constructions is, of course, practically the same.

But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand.
As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.
15. As he came forth of his mother’s womb] The words so closely resemble those of Job 1:21 that it is natural to infer that the writer had that history in his mind as an example of a sudden reverse of fortune. In both, earth, as the mother of all living, is thought of as the womb out of which each man comes (Psalm 139:15) and to which he must return at last, carrying none of his earthly possessions with him. Comp. a striking parallel in Sir 40:1.

And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?
16. what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?] The ever-recurring question (ch. Ecclesiastes 1:3, Ecclesiastes 2:22, Ecclesiastes 3:9) rises once again, “What profit?” In “labouring for the wind” we have a phrase almost identical with the “feeding on wind” or, as some render it, the “striving after the wind” which is the key-note of the whole book. As in Proverbs 11:29; Isaiah 26:18; Job 16:3 the “wind” is the emblem of emptiness and nothingness.

All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness.
17. he eateth in darkness] The words are so natural a figure of a cheerless life with no “sweetness and light” in it (comp. Micah 7:8), that there is something almost ludicrous in the prosaic literalism which interprets them, either (1) of the miser as eating in the dark to save candlelight, or (2) working all day and waiting till nightfall before he sits down to a meal.

much sorrow and wrath with his sickness] Better, and sickness and wrath. The Hebrew gives a conjunction and not a preposition. The words have been variously taken, (1) “is much disturbed and hath grief and vexation,” (2) “grieveth himself much, and oh! for his sorrow and hatred,” but the general meaning remains the same. Koheleth teaches, as St Paul does, that “they that will be (i.e. set their hearts on being) rich, pierce themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:6).

Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
18. Behold that which I have seen] The thinker returns to the maxim of a calm regulated Epicureanism, as before in chs. Ecclesiastes 2:24, Ecclesiastes 3:22. If a man has little, let him be content with that little. If he has much, let him enjoy it without excess, and without seeking more. In the combination of “good” and “comely” we have perhaps an endeavour to reproduce the familiar Greek combination of the ἀγαθὸν and the καλόν.

Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.
19. this is the gift of God] The words indicate a return to the sense of dependence on the Divine bounty, which we have seen in chs. Ecclesiastes 2:24, Ecclesiastes 3:13. Life itself, and the outward goods of life, few or many, and the power to enjoy these, all are alike God’s gifts.

For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.
20. he shall not much remember the days of his life] This follows the order of the Hebrew and gives a satisfying meaning: The man who has learnt the secret of enjoyment is not anxious about the days of his life, does not brood even over its transitoriness, but takes each day tranquilly, as it comes, as God’s gift to him. By some commentators, however, the sentence is construed so as to give just the opposite sense, “He remembereth (or should remember) that the days of his life are not many,” i.e. never loses sight of the shortness of human life. It is difficult to see how the translators of the A. V. could have been led to their marginal reading “Though he give not much, yet he remembereth the days of his life.”

because God answereth him in the joy of his heart] The verb has been very variously rendered, (1) “God occupies him with the joy …,” or (2) “God makes him sing with the joy …,” or (3) “God causeth him to work for the enjoyment …,” or (4) “God makes all answer (i.e. correspond with) his wishes,” or (5) “God himself corresponds to his joy,” i.e. is felt to approve it as harmonizing, in its calm evenness, with His own blessedness. The last is, perhaps, that which has most to commend it. So taken, the words find a parallel in the teaching of Epicurus, “The Blessed and the Immortal neither knows trouble of its own nor causeth it to others. Wherefore it is not influenced either by wrath or favour,” (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 139). The tranquillity of the wise man mirrors, the Teacher implies, the tranquillity of God. So Lucretius;

“Omnis enim per se divum natura necessest,

Immortali ævo summâ cum pace fruatur,

Semota ab nostris rebus sejunctaque longe;

Nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,

Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nil indiga nostri,

Nec bene promeritis capitur neque tangitur ira.”

“The nature of the Gods must need enjoy

Life everlasting in supreme repose,

Far from our poor concerns and separate:

For from all pain exempt, exempt from risks,

Rich in its own wealth, needing nought of ours,

’Tis neither soothed by gifts nor stirred by wrath.”

De Rer. Nat. ii. 646–651.

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