Ecclesiastes 10:8
He that digs a pit shall fall into it; and whoever breaks an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(8) Commentators cannot be said to have been very successful in their attempts to trace a connection between the proverbs of this chapter. Perhaps nothing better can be said than that the common theme of these proverbs is the advantage of wisdom, and here in particular of caution in great enterprises. It is forcing the connection to imagine that the enterprise from which the writer seeks to dissuade, is that of rebellion against the ruler whose error is condemned (Ecclesiastes 10:5).

Diggeth a pit.—See Proverbs 26:27; Ecclesiasticus 27:26. The word here used for “pit” is found in later Hebrew, and nowhere else in the Old Testament.

An hedge.—Rather, a stone wall, in the crevices of which serpents often have their habitation. (Comp. Proverbs 24:31; Lamentations 3:9; Amos 5:19.) This verse admits of a curious verbal comparison with Isaiah 58:12, “builder of the breach,” in one, answering to “breacher of the building” in the other.

Ecclesiastes

FENCES AND SERPENTS

Ecclesiastes 10:8
.

What is meant here is, probably, not such a hedge as we are accustomed to see, but a dry-stone wall, or, perhaps, an earthen embankment, in the crevices of which might lurk a snake to sting the careless hand. The connection and purpose of the text are somewhat obscure. It is one of a string of proverb-like sayings which all seem to be illustrations of the one thought that every kind of work has its own appropriate and peculiar peril. So, says the Preacher, if a man is digging a pit, the sides of it may cave in and he may go down. If he is pulling down a wall he may get stung. If he is working in a quarry there may be a fall of rock. If he is a woodman the tree he is felling may crush him. What then? Is the inference to be, Sit still and do nothing, because you may get hurt whatever you do? By no means. The writer of this book hates idleness very nearly as much as he does what he calls ‘folly,’ and his inference is stated in the next verse-’Wisdom is profitable to direct.’ That is to say, since all work has its own dangers, work warily, and with your brains as well as your muscles, and do not put your hand into the hollow in the wall, until you have looked to see whether there are any snakes in it. Is that very wholesome maxim of prudence all that is meant to be learned? I think not. The previous clause, at all events, embodies a well-known metaphor of the Old Testament. ‘He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it,’ often occurs as expressing the retribution in kind that comes down on the cunning plotter against other men’s prosperity, and the conclusion that wisdom suggests in that application of the sentence is, ‘Dig judiciously,’ but ‘Do not dig at all.’ And so in my text the ‘wall’ may stand for the limitations and boundary-lines of our lives, and the inference that wisdom suggests in that application of the saying is not ‘Pull down judiciously,’ but ‘Keep the fence up, and be sure you keep on the right side of it.’ For any attempt to pull it down-which being interpreted is, to transgress the laws of life which God has enjoined-is sure to bring out the hissing snake with its poison.

Now it is in that aspect that I want to look at the words before us.

I. First of all, let us take that thought which underlies my text-that all life is given us rigidly walled up.

The first thing that the child learns is, that it must not do what it likes. The last lesson that the old man has to learn is, you must do what you ought. And between these two extremes of life we are always making attempts to treat the world as an open common, on which we may wander at our will. And before we have gone many steps, some sort of keeper or other meets us and says to us, ‘Trespassers, back again to the road!’ Life is rigidly hedged in and limited. To live as you like is the prerogative of a brute. To live as you ought, and to recognise and command by obeying the laws and limitations stamped upon our very nature and enjoined by our circumstances, is the freedom and the glory of a man. There are limitations, I say-fences on all sides. Men put up their fences; and they are often like the wretched wooden hoardings that you sometimes see limiting the breadth of a road. But in regard to these conventional limitations and regulations, which own no higher authority or lawgiver than society and custom, you must make up your mind even more certainly than in regard of loftier laws, that if you meddle with them, there will be plenty of serpents coming out to hiss and bite. No man that defies the narrow maxims and petty restrictions of conventional ways, and sets at nought the opinions of the people round about him, but must make up his mind for backbiting and slander and opposition of all sorts. It is the price that we pay for obeying at first hand the laws of God and caring nothing for the conventionalities of men.

But apart from that altogether, let me just remind you, in half a dozen sentences, of the various limitations or fences which hedge up our lives on every side. There are the obligations which we owe, and the relations in which we stand, to the outer world, the laws of physical life, and all that touches the external and the material. There are the relations in which we stand, and the obligations which we owe, to ourselves. And God has so made us as that obviously large tracts of every man’s nature are given to him on purpose to be restrained, curbed, coerced, and sometimes utterly crushed and extirpated. God gives us our impulses under lock and key. All our animal desires, all our natural tendencies, are held on condition that we exercise control over them, and keep them well within the rigidly marked limits which He has laid down, and which we can easily find out. There are, further, the relations in which we stand, and the obligations and limitations, therefore, under which we come, to the people round about us. High above them all, and in some sense including them all, but loftier than these, there is the all-comprehending relation in which we stand to God, who is the fountain of all obligations, the source and aim of all duty, who encompasses us on every side, and whose will makes the boundary walls within which alone it is safe for a man to live.

We sometimes foolishly feel that a life thus hedged up, limited by these high boundaries on either side, must be uninteresting, monotonous, or unfree. It is not so. The walls are blessings, like the parapet on a mountain road, that keeps the travellers from toppling over the face of the cliff. They are training-walls, as our hydro-graphical engineers talk about, which, built in the bed of a river, wholesomely confine its waters and make a good scour which gives life, instead of letting them vaguely wander and stagnate across great fields of mud. Freedom consists in keeping willingly within the limits which God has traced, and anything else is not freedom but licence and rebellion, and at bottom servitude of the most abject type.

II. So, secondly, note that every attempt to break down the limitations brings poison into the life.

We live in a great automatic system which, by its own operation, largely avenges every breach of law. I need not remind you, except in a word, of the way in which the transgression of the plain physical laws stamped upon our constitutions avenges itself; but the certainty with which disease dogs all breaches of the laws of health is but a type in the lower and material universe of the far higher and more solemn certainty with which ‘the soul that sinneth, it shall die.’ Wherever a man sets himself against any of the laws of this material universe, they make short work of him. We command them, as I said, by obeying them; and the difference between the obedience and the breach of them is the difference between the engineer standing on his engine and the wretch that is caught by it as it rushes over the rails. But that is but a parable of the higher thing which I want to speak to you about.

The grosser forms of transgression of the plain laws of temperance, abstinence, purity, bring with them, in like manner, a visible and palpable punishment in the majority of cases. Whoso pulls down the wall of temperance, a serpent will bite him. Trembling hands, broken constitutions, ruined reputations, vanished ambitions, wasted lives, poverty, shame, and enfeebled will, death-these are the serpents that bite, in many cases, the transgressor. I have a man in my eye at this moment that used to sit in one of these pews, who came into Manchester a promising young man, a child of many prayers, with the ball at his foot, in one of your great warehouses, the only hope of his house, professedly a Christian. He began to tamper with the wall. First a tiny little bit of stone taken out that did not show the daylight through; then a little bigger, and a bigger. And the serpent struck its fangs into him, and if you saw him now, he is a shambling wreck, outside of society, and, as we sometimes tremblingly think, beyond hope. Young men! ‘whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.’

In like manner there are other forms of ‘sins of the flesh avenged in kind,’ which I dare not speak about more plainly here. I see many young men in my congregation, many strangers in this great city, living, I suppose, in lodgings, and therefore without many restraints. If you were to take a pair of compasses and place one leg of them down at the Free Trade Hall, and take a circle of half a mile round there, you would get a cavern of rattlesnakes. You know what I mean. Low theatres, low music-halls, casinos, haunts of yet viler sorts-there the snakes are, hissing and writhing and ready to bite. Do not ‘put your hand on the hole of the asp.’ Take care of books, pictures, songs, companions that would lead you astray. Oh for a voice to stand at some doors that I know in Manchester, and peal this text into the ears of the fools, men and women, that go in there!

I heard only this week of one once in a good position in this city, and in early days, I believe, a member of my own congregation, begging in rags from door to door. And the reason was, simply, the wall had been pulled down and the serpent had struck. It always does; not with such fatal external effects always, but be ye sure of this, ‘God is not mocked; “whatsoever a man,” or a woman either, “soweth, that shall he also reap.”‘ For remember that there are other ways of pulling down walls than these gross and palpable transgressions with the body; and there are other sorts of retributions which come with unerring certainty besides those that can be taken notice of by others. I do not want to dwell upon these at any length, but let me just remind you of one or two of them.

Some serpents’ bites inflame, some paralyse; and one or other of these two things-either an inflamed conscience or a palsied conscience-is the result of all wrongdoing. I do not know which is the worst. There are men and women now in this chapel, sitting listening to me, perhaps half interested, without the smallest suspicion that I am talking about them. The serpent’s bite has led to the torpor of their consciences. Which is the worse-to loathe my sin and yet to find its slimy coils round about me, so that I cannot break it, or to have got to like it and to be perfectly comfortable in it, and to have no remonstrance within when I do it? Be sure of this, that every transgression and disobedience acts immediately upon the conscience of the doer, sometimes to stir that conscience into agonies of gnawing remorse, more often to lull it into a fatal slumber.

I do not speak of the retributions which we heap upon ourselves in loading our memories with errors and faults, in polluting them often with vile imaginations, or in laying up there a lifelong series of actions, none of which have ever had a trace of reference to God in them. I do not speak, except in a sentence, of the retribution which comes from the habit of evil which weighs upon men, and makes it all but impossible for them ever to shake off their sin. I do not speak, except in a sentence, of the perverted relations to God, the incapacity of knowing Him, the disregard, and even sometimes the dislike, of the thought of Him which steal across the heart of the man that lives in evil and sin; but I put all into two words-every sin that I do tells upon myself, inasmuch as its virus passes into my blood as guilt and as habit. And then I remind you of what you say you believe, that beyond this world there lies the solemn judgment-seat of God, where you and I have to give account of our deeds. O brother, be sure of this, ‘whoso breaketh an hedge’-here and now, and yonder also-’a serpent shall bite him’!

That is as far as my text carries me. It has nothing more to say. Am I to shut the book and have done? There is only one system that has anything more to say, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

III. And so, passing from my text, I have to say, lastly, All the poison may be got out of your veins if you like.

Our Lord used this very same metaphor under a different aspect, and with a different historical application, when He said, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.’

There is Christ’s idea of the condition of this world of ours-a camp of men lying bitten by serpents and drawing near to death. What I have been speaking about, in perhaps too abstract terms, is the condition of each one of us. It is hard to get people, when they are gathered by the hundred to listen to a sermon flung out in generalities, to realise it. If I could get you one by one, and ‘buttonhole’ you; and instead of the plural ‘you’ use the singular ‘thou,’ perhaps I could reach you. But let me ask you to try and realise each for himself that this serpent bite, as the issue of pulling down the wall, is true about each soul in this place, and that Christ endorsed the representation. How are we to get this poison out of the blood? Reform your ways? Yes; I say that too; but reforming the life will deliver from the poison in the character, when you cure hydrophobia by washing the patient’s skin, and not till then. It is all very well to repaper your dining-rooms, but it is very little good doing that if the drainage is wrong. It is the drainage that is wrong with us all. A man cannot reform himself down to the bottom of his sinful being. If he could, it does not touch the past. That remains the same. If he could, it does not affect his relation to God. Repentance-if it were possible apart from the softening influence of faith in Jesus Christ-repentance alone would not solve the problem. So far as men can see, and so far as all human systems have declared, ‘What I have written I have written.’ There is no erasing it. The irrevocable past stands stereotyped for ever. Then comes in this message of forgiveness and cleansing, which is the very heart of all that we preachers have to say, and has been spoken to most of you so often that it is almost impossible to invest it with any kind of freshness or power. But once more I have to preach to you that Christ has received into His own inmost life and self the whole gathered consequences of a world’s sin; and by the mystery of His sympathy, and the reality of His mysterious union with us men, He, the sinless Son of God, has been made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. The brazen serpent lifted on the pole was in the likeness of the serpent whose poison slew, but there was no poison in it. Christ has come, the sinless Son of God, for you and me. He has died on the Cross, the Sacrifice for every man’s sin, that every man’s wound might be healed, and the poison cast out of his veins. He has bruised the malignant, black head of the snake with His wounded heel; and because He has been wounded, we are healed of our wounds. For sin and death launched their last dart at Him, and, like some venomous insect that can sting once and then must die, they left their sting in His wounded heart, and have none for them that put their trust in Him.

So, dear brother, here is the simple condition-namely, faith. One look of the languid eye of the poisoned man, howsoever bloodshot and dim it might be, and howsoever nearly veiled with the film of death, was enough to make him whole. The look of our consciously sinful souls to that dear Christ that has died for us will take away the guilt, the power, the habit, the love of evil; and, instead of blood saturated with the venom of sin, there will be in our veins the Spirit of life in Christ, which will ‘make us free from the law of sin and death.’ ‘Look unto Him and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth!’Ecclesiastes 10:8-9. He that diggeth a pit, &c. — The meaning of these verses, which may be considered as common proverbs, is, that those who are seeking and striving to injure others, often bring mischiefs thereby on their own heads; as he that digs a pit for another may, unawares, fall into it himself; and he who, in those hot countries, was pulling up a hedge, was in danger of being bit by a serpent lurking in it; and he that removes stones to undermine his neighbour’s house, may possibly be hurt, if not killed, by the upper stones falling on himself. It may be observed here, however, that Melancthon, Bishop Patrick, and many other interpreters, consider these verses as containing warnings to princes and people to take heed they do not rashly, and with violence, attempt to make changes in the established order of things in churches or states. “Let neither prince nor people,” says Henry, “violently attempt any changes, nor make a forcible entry upon a national settlement, for they will both find it of dangerous consequence. Let not princes invade the rights and liberties of their subjects; and let not subjects mutiny and rebel against their princes, but let both be content within their own bounds. God, by his ordinance, as by a hedge, hath enclosed the prerogatives and powers of princes, and their persons are under his special protection; those, therefore, that form any treasonable designs against their peace, their crown, and dignity, are but twisting halters for themselves. And those that go about to alter a well-modelled, well-settled government, under colour of redressing some grievances, and correcting some things amiss in it, will quickly perceive, not only that it is easier to find fault than to mend; to demolish that which is good, than to build up that which is better;” but that they pull a house down upon themselves, under the ruins of which they may perhaps be crushed to death. But this latter verse is thus interpreted by some, He that removeth stones — That rashly attempts things too high and hard for him; shall be hurt therewith — Shall suffer injury from such attempts. And he that cleaveth wood — With an iron instrument; shall be endangered thereby — May peradventure cut himself: that is, he that deals with men of knotty, stubborn tempers, shall have much vexation and trouble thereby, and probably shall find his character as well as peace much wounded.10:4-10 Solomon appears to caution men not to seek redress in a hasty manner, nor to yield to pride and revenge. Do not, in a passion, quit thy post of duty; wait awhile, and thou wilt find that yielding pacifies great offences. Men are not preferred according to their merit. And those are often most forward to offer help, who are least aware of the difficulties, or the consequences. The same remark is applied to the church, or the body of Christ, that all the members should have the same care one for another.The figures seem to be taken from the work of building up and pulling down houses. In their general application, they recommend the man who would act wisely to be cautious when taking any step in life which involves risk.

Ecclesiastes 10:8

Breaketh an hedge - Rather: "breaks through a wall."

Serpent - The habit of snakes is to nestle in a chink of a wall, or among stones (compare Amos 5:19).

8. The fatal results to kings of such an unwise policy; the wrong done to others recoils on themselves (Ec 8:9); they fall into the pit which they dug for others (Es 7:10; Ps 7:15; Pr 26:27). Breaking through the wise fences of their throne, they suffer unexpectedly themselves; as when one is stung by a serpent lurking in the stones of his neighbor's garden wall (Ps 80:12), which he maliciously pulls down (Am 5:19). He that diggeth a pit with this design, that another may unawares fall into it,

shall fall into it; shall through God’s just judgment be destroyed by his own wicked devices.

Breaketh an hedge; whereby another man’s fields, or vineyards, or orchards are distinguished and fenced, that he may either enter upon them, and take away their fruits, or by that means enlarge his own adjoining fields. Possibly he may have a particular respect unto magistrates or rulers, whom God hath hedged or fenced in, both with his own institution of magistracy, and with his laws, strictly requiring obedience from their subjects; and so he notes the danger of rising and rebelling against them.

A serpent, which oft lurks in hedges, and bites those who come within its reach. He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it,.... This and the three following clauses are proverbial expressions, teaching men to be wise and cautious, lest by their conduct they bring mischief upon themselves; as it often is, the one that digs a pit for another, falls into it himself, as the wise man's father before him had observed, Psalm 7:15; as kings that lay snares for their people, and subjects that plot against their sovereign; or courtiers that form schemes for the rain of those that are in their way; or any man that devises mischief against another, frequently so it is, that the same befalls them; as Haman, who prepared a gallows for Mordecai, was hanged on it himself;

and whoso breaketh an hedge a serpent shall bite him; which often lies hid in fences, in old walls, and rotten hedges (s), Amos 5:19; so he that breaks down the hedges and fences of kingdoms and commonwealths, and breaks through the fundamental laws of a civil constitution, and especially that transgresses the laws of God, moral or civil, may expect to smart for it. Jarchi interprets this hedge of the sayings of their wise men, which those that transgress shall suffer death by the hand of heaven: but it would be much better to apply it to the doctrines contained in the word of God, which are a hedge and fence to the church of God, and whoever transgress them will suffer for it; see 2 John 1:8; The Targum, by the "serpent", understands an ungodly king, who bites like a serpent, into whose hands such transgressors shall be delivered: and some have thought of the old serpent the devil, as Alshech, who deceived Adam and Eve.

(s) Nicander apud Bochart. Hierozoic. par. 1. l. 1. c. 4. Colossians 26.

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
8. He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it] It is scarcely a profitable task to endeavour to trace a very close connexion between this and the preceding verses. The writer has got into what we may call the gnomic, or proverb-making state of mind, and, as in the Book of Proverbs, his reflections come out with no very definite or logical sequence. All that we can say is that the context seems to indicate that the maxims which follow, like those which have gone before, indicate a wide experience in the life of courts, and that the experience of a courtier rather than of a king, and accordingly find their chief application in the region of man’s political life, and that their general drift is that all great enterprises, especially perhaps all enterprises that involve change, destruction, revolution, have each of them its special danger. The first of the proverbs is verbally from Proverbs 26:27, and finds parallels in Psalm 7:15-16; Psalm 9:15; Psalm 10:2; Psalm 57:6. The thought is that of the Nemesis which comes on the evil doer. He digs a pit that his enemy may fall into it, and he falls into it himself. Plots and conspiracies are as often fatal to the conspirators as to the intended victims. The literature of all nations is full of like sayings, among which that of the engineer “hoist with his own petard” is perhaps the most familia

whoso breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him] Better, whoso breaketh down a fence or a stone wall, as in Proverbs 24:31; Lamentations 3:9, and elsewhere. Hedges, in the English sense of the word, are rare in the landscapes of Syria or Egypt. The crannies of such structures were the natural haunts of serpents (Isaiah 34:15; Amos 5:19), and the man who chose to do the work of destruction instead of being “a repairer of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12), might find his retribution in being bitten by them. The proverb, like many like sayings, is double-edged, and may have, as we consider the breaking down of the wall to be a good or evil work, a twofold meaning: (1) If you injure your neighbour’s property, and act as an oppressor, there may come an instrument of retribution out of the circumstances of the act itself. (2) If you are too daring a reformer, removing the tottering wall of a decayed and corrupt institution, you may expect that the serpents in the crannies, those who have “vested interests” in the abuse, will bite the hand that disturbs them. You need beforehand to “count the cost” of the work of reformation.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. A double proverb regarding wisdom and folly in their difference: "The heart of a wise man is directed to his right hand, and the heart of the fool to his left. And also on the way where a fool goeth, there his heart faileth him, and he saith to all that he is a fool." Most interpreters translate: The heart of the wise man is at his right hand, i.e., it is in the right place. But this designation, meant figuratively and yet sounding anatomically, would be in bad taste

(Note: Christ. Fried. Bauer (1732) explains as we do, and remarks, "If we translate: the heart of the wise is at his right hand, but the heart of the fool at his left, it appears as if the heart of the prudent and of the foolish must have a different position in the human body, thus affording to the profane ground for mockery.")

in this distinguishing double form (vid., on the contrary, Ecclesiastes 2:14). The ל is that of direction;

(Note: Accordingly, Ecclesiastes 10:2 has become a Jewish saying with reference to the study of a book (this thought of as Heb.): The wise always turn over the leaves backwards, repeating that which has been read; the fool forwards, superficially anticipating that which has not yet been read, and scarcely able to wait for the end.)

and that which is situated to the right of a man is figuratively a designation of the right; and that to the left, a designation of the wrong. The designation proceeds from a different idea from that at Deuteronomy 5:32, etc.; that which lies to the right, as that lying at a man's right hand, is that to which his calling and duty point him; השׂ denotes, in the later Hebrew, "to turn oneself to the wrong side."

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