Ecclesiastes 10:11
Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
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(11) This also is a difficult verse. Literally translated it is, If the serpent bite for lack of enchantment, there is no advantage to the master of the tongue. It seems best to follow the LXX. and other interpreters, and take the “master of the tongue” to mean the snake charmer, who possesses the “voice of the charmer” (Psalm 58:5). The whisperings of the snake charmer, so often described by Eastern travellers, are referred to also in Jeremiah 8:17, and in a passage, probably founded on the present text (Ecclesiasticus 12:13), “Who will pity a charmer that is bitten with a serpent?” The mention of the serpent in Ecclesiastes 10:8 seems to have suggested another illustration of the advantage of wisdom in the different effects of snake-charming, as used by the expert or the unskilful. The phrase, “master of the tongue,” seems to have been chosen in order to lead on to the following verses, which speak of the different use of the tongue by the wise man and the fool.

Enchantment.—According to the primary meaning “whispering” (2Samuel 12:19; Isaiah 26:16).

No better.—No advantage to. (See Note on Ecclesiastes 1:3.)

Ecclesiastes 10:11. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment — Unless it be seasonably prevented by the art and care of the charmer. This is an allusion to the general opinion, then and still prevailing in the eastern countries, that serpents might be charmed so as to be prevented from biting by certain incantations, or by singing and music. See note on Psalm 58:4-5. And a babbler is no better — Hebrew, בעל הלשׁון, the master of the tongue; which may be understood either of a rash, loose talker, a mere babbler, or of a backbiter and slanderer. Each of these is in the habit of using his tongue as if he were lord of it, and often does much mischief thereby, especially the latter, who, by his malicious words, bites secretly like a serpent, and gives deadly wounds to the characters of the absent.

10:11-15 There is a practice in the East, of charming serpents by music. The babbler's tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison; and contradiction only makes it the more violent. We must find the way to keep him gentle. But by rash, unprincipled, or slanderous talk, he brings open or secret vengeance upon himself. Would we duly consider our own ignorance as to future events, it would cut off many idle words which we foolishly multiply. Fools toil a great deal to no purpose. They do not understand the plainest things, such as the entrance into a great city. But it is the excellency of the way to the heavenly city, that it is a high-way, in which the simplest wayfaring men shall not err, Isa 25:8. But sinful folly makes men miss that only way to happiness.Rather: "If a serpent without enchantment (i. e., not being enchanted) bites, then there is no advantage to the charmer": i. e., if the charmer is unwisely slack in exercising his craft, he will be bitten like other people. See Psalm 58:4 note. 11. A "serpent will bite" if "enchantment" is not used; "and a babbling calumniator is no better." Therefore, as one may escape a serpent by charms (Ps 58:4, 5), so one may escape the sting of a calumniator by discretion (Ec 10:12), [Holden]. Thus, "without enchantment" answers to "not whet the edge" (Ec 10:10), both expressing, figuratively, want of judgment. Maurer translates, "There is no gain to the enchanter" (Margin, "master of the tongue") from his enchantments, because the serpent bites before he can use them; hence the need of continual caution. Ec 10:8-10, caution in acting; Ec 10:11 and following verses, caution in speaking. Without enchantment; if not seasonably prevented by the art and care of the charmer; which practice he doth not justify, but only mention by way of resemblance. See on Psalm 58:5.

A babbler, Heb. a master of the tongue; which may be understood, either,

1. Of the detractor or slanderer, who like a serpent bites secretly; who may be so called, because he takes liberty to use his tongue as he lists, without any regard either to the offence of God, or to the injury of others; like them who said, Our lips are our own; who is lord over us? But I do not see either why this phrase should be limited to the detractor, which equally belongs to all abusers of the tongue in any other way; or how this particular vice of detraction comes to be inserted here among things of a quite differing nature. Or,

2. Of an eloquent person, who may well be called a master of the tongue, or of speech, nothing being more usual in the Hebrew, than to call a man master of that which he excels in, or hath a full and free power to use. And this clause is and may be rendered thus, And there is no excellency or profit to the master of the tongue, i.e. the most eloquent person, who doth not understand and in due time use the charmer’s art, cannot by all his eloquence afterward hinder the biting of the serpent, or mischievous effects of it; and so this agrees with the principal scope of the chapter, which is to show the necessity and usefulness of wisdom, and the mischief of folly.

Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment,.... See Jeremiah 8:17. Or rather, "without a whisper" (t); without hissing, or any noise, giving no warning at all: so the Vulgate Latin version renders it, "in silence"; some serpents bite, others sting, some both; see Proverbs 23:32; some hiss, others not, as here;

and a babbler is no better; a whisperer, a backbiter, a busy tattling body, that goes from house to house, and, in a private manner, speaks evil of civil governments, of ministers of the word, and of other persons; and; in a secret way, defames men, and detracts from their characters: such an one is like a venomous viper, a poisonous serpent or adder; and there is no more guarding against him than against such a creature that bites secretly.

(t) "absque susurro", Pagniuus; "absque sibilo", Tigurine version.

Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
11. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment] Literally, If the serpent will bite without enchantment, i.e. in the absence of skill to charm it. It is hardly necessary to dwell at length on a topic so familiar as the serpent-charming of the East. It will be enough to say that from time immemorial in Egypt, Syria, Persia, India, there have been classes of persons who in some way or other have gained a power over many kinds of snakes, drawing them from their retreats, handling them with impunity, making them follow their footsteps like a tame dog. The power was really or ostensibly connected with certain muttered words or peculiar intonations of the voice. We find the earliest traces of it in the magicians of Pharaoh’s court (Exodus 7:11). So the “deaf adder that cannot be charmed” becomes the type of those whom no appeal to reason or conscience can restrain (Psalm 58:5; Jeremiah 8:17; Sir 12:13). The proverb obviously stands in the same relation to the “breaking down of walls” in Ecclesiastes 10:8, as that of the “blunt axe” did to the “cutting down trees” of Ecclesiastes 10:9. “If a serpent meets you as you go on with your work, if the adder’s poison that is on the lips of the traitor or the slanderer (Psalm 140:3; Romans 3:13) is about to do its deadly work, are you sure that you have the power to charm? If not, you are not likely to escape being bitten.” The apodosis of the sentence interprets the proverb. “If a serpent will bite in the absence of the charmer, there is no profit in a babbler (literally, a lord or master of tongue, see note on ch. Ecclesiastes 5:10), who does not know the secret of the intonation that charms it.” No floods of wind-bag eloquence will-avail in the statesman or the orator if the skill that persuades is wanting.

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. Ecclesiastes 10:11The last proverb of this series presents for consideration the uselessness of him who comes too late. "If a serpent bite without enchantment, the charmer is of no use." The Talm. interprets this אם, like that of Ecclesiastes 10:10, also as interrog.: Does the serpent bite without its being whispered to, i.e., without a providential determination impelling it thereto? Jer. Peah, i. 1. But לחשׁ, except at Isaiah 26:16, where whispering prayers are meant, signifies the whispering of formulas of charming; "serpents are not to be charmed (tamed)," לחששׁ, Jeremiah 8:17. Rather for הלּ בּעל the meaning of slander is possible, which is given to it in the Haggada, Taanith 8a: All the beasts will one day all at once say to the serpent: the lion walks on the earth and eats, the wolf tears asunder and eats; but what enjoyment hast thou by thy bite? and it answers them: "Also the slanderer (לבעל הלשׁון) has certainly no profit." Accordingly the Targ., Jerome, and Luther translate; but if אם is conditional, and the vav of veēn connects the protasis and the apodosis, then ba'al hallashon must denote a man of tongue, viz., of an enchanting tongue, and thus a charmer (lxx, Syr.). This name for the charmer, one of many, is not unintentional; the tongue is an instrument, as iron is, Ecclesiastes 10:10 : the latter must be sharp, if it would not make greater effort necessary; the former, if it is to gain its object, must be used at the right time. The serpent bites בּל לח, when it bites before it has been charmed (cf. belo yomo, Job 15:32); there are also serpents which bite without letting themselves be charmed; but here this is the point, that it anticipates the enchantment, and thus that the charmer comes too late, and can make no use of his tongue for the intended purpose, and therefore has no advantage from his act. There appropriately follow here proverbs of the use of the tongue on the part of a wise man, and its misuse on the part of a fool.
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