Ecclesiastes 11:5
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
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(5) The wording of this passage leaves it ambiguous whether we have here two illustrations of man’s ignorance, or only one; whether we are to understand the verse as declaring that we know neither the way of the wind nor the growth of the embryo, or whether, retaining the translation “spirit,” we take the whole verse as relating to the latter subject. (Comp. John 3:6.) The word for “her that is with child” occurs in that sense here only in the Old Testament, and in later Hebrew.

Ecclesiastes 11:5. As thou knowest not the way of the spirit — Of the soul of man, how it comes into the child in the womb; or how it is united with the body; or how, and whether it goes out of the body. Nor how the bones do grow — That is, the whole body, which is elsewhere signified by the bones, because they are a principal part, and the very foundation and support of the body; that is, thou knowest not how, from small and unpromising beginnings, the various parts of the body, as nerves, arteries, veins, sinews, entrails, bones, flesh, and skin, are gradually formed, nourished, increased, and brought to perfection: even so thou knowest not the works of God — What God is doing, and will do with thee or others; the counsels and methods of his providence in the future time of thy life, what evil God will send upon the earth, how he will chastise or punish mankind for their sins, or how long he will continue thy life, or preserve to thee the enjoyment of thy property; or how soon he will call thee to an account. Therefore use the present opportunity, and commit thyself and all thy affairs to him in well doing.

11:1-6 Solomon presses the rich to do good to others. Give freely, though it may seem thrown away and lost. Give to many. Excuse not thyself with the good thou hast done, from the good thou hast further to do. It is not lost, but well laid out. We have reason to expect evil, for we are born to trouble; it is wisdom to do good in the day of prosperity. Riches cannot profit us, if we do not benefit others. Every man must labour to be a blessing to that place where the providence of God casts him. Wherever we are, we may find good work to do, if we have but hearts to do it. If we magnify every little difficulty, start objections, and fancy hardships, we shall never go on, much less go through with our work. Winds and clouds of tribulation are, in God's hands, designed to try us. God's work shall agree with his word, whether we see it or not. And we may well trust God to provide for us, without our anxious, disquieting cares. Be not weary in well-doing, for in due season, in God's time, you shall reap, Ga 6:9.Spirit - The same Hebrew word (like πνεῦμα pneuma in Greek and "Spirit" in English) signifies both the wind Ecclesiastes 11:4 and the Spirit (compare marginal reference). The Old Testament in many places recognizes the special operation of God Job 10:8-12; Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5, and distinctly of the Spirit of God Job 31:15 in the origination of every child. Compare Genesis 2:7. 5. spirit—How the soul animates the body! Thus the transition to the formation of the body "in the womb" is more natural, than if with Maurer we translate it "wind" (Ec 1:6; Joh 3:8).

bones … grow—(Job 10:8, 9; Ps 139:15, 16).

knowest not the works of God—(Ec 3:11; 8:17; 9:12).

Of the spirit; of the spirit or soul of man, how it first comes into the body of the child in the womb, whether from God by creation, or from the parents by propagation; nor how it is united with and so fixed in the body, that it cannot get out of it when it would; nor how and whither it goes out of the body; all which things are great mysteries. Others translate it, of the wind, whence it cometh, and whither it goeth, as is observed John 3:8, or how violently it will blow, or how long it will last. But the former translation seems to agree better with the following clause.

The bones, i.e. the whole body, which is elsewhere signified by the bones, as Psalm 34:20 35:10, because they are a principal part, and the very foundation and support, of the body. Grow in the womb; how it comes to pass that one and the same small quantity of seed should diversify itself into skin, and flesh, and sinews, and veins, and bones, and entrails, or how it receiveth nourishment and growth.

The works of God; what God is doing, and will do with thee and others; the counsels and methods of God’s providence in the future time of thy life, what evil God will send upon the earth, Ecclesiastes 11:2, or what weather he will send, of which Ecclesiastes 11:4, how long or how little a while God will continue thy life or estate, and how soon God will call thee to an account. These and many other future events thou canst not foresee, and therefore thy wisdom and duty is to cast off all distracting cares and distrustful fears about them, and cheerfully to commit thyself, and all thy affairs, into the hand of God in well doing.

As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit,.... If indeed a man could foresee and be assured of seasonable weather for sowing and reaping, or a proper opportunity for doing good, all circumstances agreeing, it would be right to wait for it, and take it; but as these things are not in our power, nor within the compass of our knowledge, we should take the first opportunity of doing good, and leave the issue to divine Providence: as in many things in nature we are and should be content to be ignorant of them, and leave them with God, who brings them about by his secret power and providence: as, for instance, we know not "the way of the spirit", or "of the wind" (r), as some render it; from whence it comes and whither it goes, where and when it will subside, or what wind will blow next; or of the spirit or soul of man, how it enters into the body. So the Targum,

"how the spirit of the breath of life goes into the body of an infant:''

whether it is by traduction, as some, which is not likely; or by transfusion, or by creation out of nothing, or by formation out of something pre-existent, and by an immediate infusion of it: or, "what is the way of the breath"; of the breath of a child in the womb, whether it breathes or not; if it does, how? if not, how does it live? or what is the way of the soul out of the body, how it goes out of it when the body dies;

nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; or is "full", pregnant, big with child: or "in the womb that is full" (s); full of liquids, and yet bones are separated from them, grow out of them, and in them, and are hardened; all which how it should be is unknown: "bones" are mentioned because they are the more solid and substantial parts of the body, the basis and strength of it; and because it may seem more difficult how any part of the seed should harden into them, while other parts are converted into skin and flesh;

even so thou knowest not the works of God, who maketh all; the Targum adds, in wisdom; as men are ignorant of many of the works of nature, so of those of Providence, especially which are future; as whether men shall be rich or poor, have days of prosperity or adversity; what their latter end will be, whether they shall not stand in need of the assistance of others, it may be of them or theirs to whom they now give; or what will be the issue of present acts of beneficence and liberality; these, with many other things of the like kind, should be left with God. Some understand this of the work of grace and conversion, which is a secret and difficult work, only wrought by the power and grace of God; and may be begun, or shortly will, in a poor person, judged an unworthy object of charity for supposed want of it, a thing unknown.

(r) "venti", Pagninus, Montanus, Junius & Tremellius, Piscator, Drusius, Mercerus, Amama, Cocceius, Gejerus, Rambachius; so Broughton, and the Syriac and Arabic versions. (s) "in utero pleno", Mercerus, Gejerus, Gussetius, p. 936. "in ventre pleno", Cocceius, so Aben Ezra.

As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
5. As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit] The Hebrew word for “spirit” has also the meaning of “wind” as in the verse immediately preceding, and this has led many commentators (as with the corresponding Greek word in John 3:8) to prefer that meaning, here. Two different examples of man’s ignorance of the processes of the common phenomena of nature are adduced on this view as analogous to his ignorance of the “work of God,” of what we call the Divine Government of the Universe. It may be questioned however whether, both here and in John 3:8, a more adequate meaning is not given by retaining the idea of “spirit” as the “breath of life” of Genesis 2:7. The growth of the human embryo was for the early observers of nature an impenetrable mystery (Job 10:11; Psalm 139:13-17). It became yet more mysterious when men thought of life, with all its phenomena of sensation and consciousness entering into the material structure thus “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This sense of the word agrees it will be seen, with its use in chaps. Ecclesiastes 3:21, Ecclesiastes 12:7. The word “nor” has nothing answering to it in the Hebrew and the sentence should run thus, describing not two distinct phenomena but one complex fact, “as thou knowest not the way of the spirit (the breath of life) how the framework of the body (literally the bones, but the word is used commonly for the whole body as in Lamentations 4:7; Job 7:15; Proverbs 15:30; Proverbs 16:24 and elsewhere) is in the womb of her that is with child.

the works of God who maketh all] So in ch. Ecclesiastes 7:13, we had “Consider the work of God.” Here the addition of “who maketh all” indicates a higher stage of faith. That “never-failing Providence orders all things both in heaven and earth.” The agnosticism of the Debater is, like that of Hooker (Eccl. Pol. i. 2. § 3), the utterance of a devout Theism, content to keep within the limits of the Knowable, but not placing the object of its adoration in the category of the Unknown and Unknowable.

Verse 5. - As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit. In this verse are presented one or two examples of man's ignorance of natural facts and processes as analogous to the mysteries of God's moral government. The word translated "spirit" (ruach) may mean also "wind," and is so taken here by many commentators (see Ecclesiastes 1:6; Ecclesiastes 8:8; and comp. John 3:8). In this view there would be two instances given, viz. the wind and the embryo. Certainly, the mention of the wind seems to come naturally after what has preceded; and man's ignorance of its way, and powerlessness to control it, are emblematic of his attitude towards Divine providence. The versions, however, seem to support the rendering of the Authorized Version. Thus the Septuagint (which connects the clause with ver. 4), ἐν οῖς ("among whom," i.e. those who watch the weather), "There is none that knoweth what is the way of the spirit (τοῦ πνεύματος);" Vulgate. Quomodo ignoras quae sit via spiritus. If we take this view, we have only one idea in the verse, and that is the infusion of the breath of life in the embryo, and its growth in its mother's womb. Nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child. Our version, by its insertions, has made two facts out of the statement in the Hebrew, which is literally, holy the bones (are) in the womb of a pregnant woman. Septuagint, "As (ὡς) bones are in the womb," etc.; Vulgate, Et qua ratione compingantur ossa in ventre praegnantis, " And in what way the bones are framed in the womb of the pregnant." The formation and quickening of the foetus were always regarded as mysterious and inscrutable (comp. Job 10:8, 9; Psalm 139:15; Wisd. 7:1, etc.). Wright compares M. Aurelius, 10:26, "The first principles of life are extremely slender and mysterious; and yet nature works them up into a strange increase of bulk, diversity, and proportion." Controversies concerning the origin of the soul have been rife from early times, some holding what is called Traducianism, i.e. that soul and body are both derived by propagation from earthly parents; others supporting Creationism, i.e. that the soul, created specially by God, is infused into the child before birth. St. Augustine confesses ('Op. Imperf.,' 4:104) that he is unable to determine the truth of either opinion. And, indeed, this is one of those secret things which Holy Scripture has not decided for us, and about which no authoritative sentence has been given. The term "bones" is used for the whole conformation of the body (comp. Proverbs 15:30; Proverbs 16:24); meleah, "pregnant," means literally, "full," and is used like the Latin plena can here and nowhere else in the Old Testament, though common in later Hebrew. Thus Ovid, 'Metam.,' 10:469 -

"Plena patris thalamis excedit, et impia dire
Semina fert utero."
And 'Fast.,' 4:633 -

"Nunc gravidum pecus est; gravidae sunt semine terrae
Telluri plenae victima plena datur."
Even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. Equally mysterious in its general scope and in its details is the working of God's providence. And as everything lies in God's hands, it must needs be secret and beyond human ken. This is why to "the works of God" (Ecclesiastes 7:13) is added, "who maketh all." The God of nature is Lord of the future (comp. Amos 3:6; Ecclus. 18:6); man must not disquiet himself about this. Ecclesiastes 11:5"As thou hast no knowledge what is the way of the wind, like as the bones in the womb of her who is with child; so thou knowest not the work of God who accomplisheth all." Luther, after Jerome, renders rightly: "As thou knowest not the way of the wind, and how the bones in the mother's womb do grow; so," etc. The clause, instar ossium in ventre praegnantis, is the so-called comparatio decurtata for instar ignorantiae tuae ossium, etc., like thy ignorance regarding the bones, i.e., the growth of the bones. כּעץ,

(Note: The Targ. reads בעץ, and construes: What the way of the spirit in the bones, i.e., how the embryo becomes animated.)

because more closely defined by 'בּב הם, has not the art. used elsewhere after כ of comparison; an example for the regular syntax (vid., Riehm, under Psalm 17:12) is found at Deuteronomy 32:2. That man has no power over the wind, we read at Ecclesiastes 8:8; the way of the wind he knows not (John 3:8), because he has not the wind under his control: man knows fundamentally only that which he rules. Regarding the origin and development of the embryo as a _secret which remained a mystery to the Israel. Chokma, vid., Psychol. p. 209ff. For עצם, cf. Psalm 139:15 and Job 10:11. Regarding meleah, pregnant (like the Lat. plena). With fine discrimination, the fut. תדע לא in the apodosis interchanges with the particip. יודע אינך in the protasis, as when we say: If thou knowest not that, as a consequence thou shalt also not know this. As a man must confess his ignorance in respect to the way of the wind, and the formation of the child in the mother's womb; so in general the work of God the All-Working lies beyond his knowledge: he can neither penetrate it in the entireness of its connection, nor in the details of its accomplishment. The idea 'oseh kol, Isaiah 44:24, is intentionally unfolded in a fut. relat. clause, because here the fut. in the natural world, as well as in human history, comes principally into view. For that very reason the words את־הכּל are also used, not: (as in passages where there is a reference to the world of creation in its present condition) eth-kol-elleh, Isaiah 66:2. Also the growth of the child in the mother's womb is compared to the growth of the future in the womb of the present, out of which it is born (Proverbs 27:1; cf. Zephaniah 2:2). What is established by this proof that man is not lord of the future, - viz. that in the activity of his calling he should shake off anxious concern about the future, - is once again inferred with the combination of what is said in Ecclesiastes 11:4 and Ecclesiastes 11:2 (according to our interpretation, here confirmed).

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