Ecclesiastes 1:17
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
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(17) Madness and folly are words we should not expect to find in this context, and accordingly some interpreters have attempted by variations of reading to substitute for them words of the same nature as “wisdom and knowledge,” but see Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 7:25. Taking the text as it stands, it means to know wisdom and knowledge fully by a study of their contraries. The word for “madness” is peculiar to this book, but the corresponding verb occurs frequently in other books.

1:12-18 Solomon tried all things, and found them vanity. He found his searches after knowledge weariness, not only to the flesh, but to the mind. The more he saw of the works done under the sun, the more he saw their vanity; and the sight often vexed his spirit. He could neither gain that satisfaction to himself, nor do that good to others, which he expected. Even the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom discovered man's wickedness and misery; so that the more he knew, the more he saw cause to lament and mourn. Let us learn to hate and fear sin, the cause of all this vanity and misery; to value Christ; to seek rest in the knowledge, love, and service of the Saviour.To know madness and folly - A knowledge of folly would help him to discern wisdom, and to exercise that chief function of practical wisdom - to avoid folly. 17. wisdom … madness—that is, their effects, the works of human wisdom and folly respectively. "Madness," literally, "vaunting extravagance"; Ec 2:12; 7:25, &c., support English Version rather than Dathe, "splendid matters." "Folly" is read by English Version with some manuscripts, instead of the present Hebrew text, "prudence." If Hebrew be retained, understand "prudence," falsely so called (1Ti 6:20), "craft" (Da 8:25). I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly, that I might thoroughly understand the nature and difference of truth and error, of virtue and vice, all things being best understood by contraries, and might discern if there were any opinion or practice amongst men which would give him full satisfaction.

Vexation of spirit; or, feeding upon wind, as Ecclesiastes 1:14. And I gave my heart to know wisdom,.... Which is repeated, for the confirmation of it, from Ecclesiastes 1:13, and that it might be taken notice of how assiduous and diligent he had been in acquiring it; a circumstance not to be overlooked;

and to know madness and folly: that he might the better know wisdom, and learn the difference between the one and the other, since opposites illustrate each other; and that he might shun madness and folly, and the ways thereof, and expose the actions of mad and foolish men: so Plato (s) says, ignorance is a disease, of which there are two kinds, madness and folly. The Targum, Septuagint, and all the Oriental versions, interpret the last word, translated "folly", by understanding, knowledge, and prudence; which seems to be right, since Solomon speaks of nothing afterwards, as vexation and grief to him, but wisdom and knowledge: and I would therefore read the clause in connection with the preceding, thus, "and the knowledge of things boasted of", vain glorious knowledge; "and prudence", or what may be called craftiness and cunning; or what the apostle calls "science falsely so called", 1 Timothy 6:20; see Proverbs 12:8;

I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit; See Gill on Ecclesiastes 1:14; the reason follows.

(s) In Timaeo, p. 1084.

And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know {l} madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

(l) That is, vain things, which served to pleasure, in which was no convenience, but grief and trouble of conscience.

17. And I gave my heart] The apparent iteration of the phrase of Ecclesiastes 1:13 expresses the concentration of purpose. The writer adds that his search took a yet wider range. He sought to know wisdom through its opposite, to enlarge his experience of the diseases of human thought. He had fathomed the depths of the “madness and folly;” the former word expressing in Hebrew as in English the wilder forms of unwisdom. There is, perhaps, a touch of self-mockery in the fact that the latter word in the Hebrew is all but identical in sound with a word which means “prudence.” One, the writer seems to say, has the same issue as the other. Some critics, indeed (e.g. Ginsburg), think that the present text originated in an error of transcription and that we ought to read “to know wisdom and knowledge.” It has been thought and, as stated in the Introduction (chap. ii.), with some reason, that in the use of the stronger word we have an echo of the current language of the Stoics who looked on all the weaknesses of mankind as so many forms of insanity. So Horace (Sat. ii. 3. 43),

“Quem mala stultitia et quemcunque inscitia veri

Cæcum agit, insanum Chrysippi porticus et grex

Autumat. Hæc populos, hæc magnos formula reges,

Excepto sapiente, tenet.”

“Him, whom weak folly leads in blindness on,

Unknowing of the Truth, the Porch and tribe

Who call Chrysippus Master, treat as mad.

Peoples and mighty kings, all but the wise

This formula embraces.”

So also Diog. Laert. vii. 124,

λέγουσι πάντας τοὺς ἄφρονας μαίνεσθαι.

“All that are foolish they pronounce insane.”

vexation of spirit] Better, feeding on wind, as before. See note on Ecclesiastes 1:14. The word is, however, not identical in form, but expresses a more concrete idea. By some it is rendered “meditation.” The fact that the writer uses a word not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, suggests the thought that he wanted a new word for the expression of a new thought.Verse 17. - And I gave my heart. He reiterates the expression in order to emphasize his earnestness and energy in the pursuit of wisdom. And knowing, as St. Jerome says, that "contrariis contraria inteiliguntur," he studies the opposite of wisdom, and learns the truth by contrasting it with error. And to know madness and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12). The former word, holeloth (intensive plural), by its etymology points to a confusion of thought, i.e. an unwisdom which deranges all ideas of order and propriety; and folly (hero sikluth), throughout the sapiential books, is identified with vice and wickedness, the contradictory of practical godliness. The LXX. has παραβολὰς καὶ ἐπιστήμην, "parables and knowledge," and some editors have altered the Hebrew text in accordance with this version, which they consider more suitable to the context. But Koheleth's standpoint is quite consistent. To use the words of St. Jerome in his 'Commentary,' "AEqualis studii fuit Salomoni, scire sapientiam et scientiam, et e regione errores et stultitiam, ut in aliis appetendis et aliis declinandis vera ejus sapientia probaretur." On the other hand, Den-Sirs gives a much-needed warning against touching pitch (Ecclus. 13:1), and argues expressly that "the knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom" (Ecclus. 19:22). Plumptre unnecessarily sees in the use of the term" madness 'an echo of the teaching of the Stoics, who regarded men's weaknesses as forms of insanity. The moralist had no need to travel beyond his own experience in order to learn that sin was the acme of unwisdom, a declension from reason which might well be called madness. The subject is handled by Cicero, 'Tusc. Disput.,' 3:4, 5. We are reminded of Horace's expression ('Carm.,' 2:7. 27) -

"Recepto Dulce mihi furere est amico." And Anacreon's (31.), Θέλω θέλω μανῆναι. Thus far we have had Koheleth's secret thoughts - what he communed with his own heart (ver. 16). The result of his studies was most unsatisfying I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit; or, a striving after wind, as ver. 14 Though the word is somewhat different. As such labor is wasted, for man cannot control issues. "There is no remembrance of ancestors; and also of the later ones who shall come into existence, there will be no remembrance for them with those who shall come into existence after them." With זכּרון (with Kametz) there is also זכרון, the more common form by our author, in accordance with the usage of his age; Gesen., Elst., and others regard it here and at Ecclesiastes 2:16 as constr., and thus לרא as virtually object-gen. (Jerome, non est priorum memoria); but such refinements of the old syntaxis ornata are not to be expected in our author: he changes (according to the traditional punctuation) here the initial sound, as at Ecclesiastes 1:17 the final sound, to oth and uth. אין ל is the contrast of היה ל: to attribute to one, to become partaker of. The use of the expression, "for them," gives emphasis to the statement. "With those who shall come after," points from the generation that is future to a remoter future, cf. Genesis 33:2. The Kametz of the prep. is that of the recompens. art.; cf. Numbers 2:31, where it denotes "the last" among the four hosts; for there הא is meant of the last in order, as here it is meant of the remotely future time.
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