Ecclesiastes 4:5
The fool folds his hands together, and eats his own flesh.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(5) Eateth his own flesh.—Interpreters have usually taken these words metaphorically, as in Psalm 27:2; Isaiah 49:26; Micah 3:3, and understood them as a condemnation of the sluggard’s conduct as suicidal. But it has been proposed, taking the verse in connection with that which precedes and those which follow, to understand them literally, “eats his meat;” the sense being that, considering the emulation and envy involved in all successful exertion, one is tempted to say that the sluggard does better who eats his meat in quiet. There is, however, no exact parallel to the phrase “eats his flesh;” and I think that if the latter were the meaning intended, it would have been formally introduced in some such way as, “Wherefore I praised the sluggard.” Adopting, then, the ancient interpretation, we understand the course of conduct recommended to be the golden mean between the ruinous sloth of the fool and the vexatious toil of the ambitious man.

Ecclesiastes 4:5. The fool foldeth his hands, &c. — Is careless and idle: perceiving that diligence is attended with envy, he runs into the other extreme. And eateth his own flesh — Wastes his substance, and brings himself to poverty, whereby his very flesh pines away for want of bread.4:4-6 Solomon notices the sources of trouble peculiar to well-doers, and includes all who labour with diligence, and whose efforts are crowned with success. They often become great and prosperous, but this excites envy and opposition. Others, seeing the vexations of an active course, foolishly expect more satisfaction in sloth and idleness. But idleness is a sin that is its own punishment. Let us by honest industry lay hold on the handful, that we may not want necessaries, but not grasp at both hands full, which would only create vexation of spirit. Moderate pains and gains do best.Foldeth his hands - The envious man is here exhibited in the attitude of the sluggard (marginal references).

Eateth his own flesh - i. e., "Destroys himself:" compare a similar expression in Isaiah 49:26; Psalm 27:2; Micah 3:3.

5. Still the

fool (the wicked oppressor) is not to be envied even in this life, who "folds his hands together" in idleness (Pr 6:10; 24:33), living on the means he wrongfully wrests from others; for such a one

eateth his own flesh—that is, is a self-tormentor, never satisfied, his spirit preying on itself (Isa 9:20; 49:26).

Foldeth his hands together; is careless and idle, which is the signification of this gesture, Proverbs 6:10 19:24 26:15. Perceiving that diligence is attended with envy, Ecclesiastes 4:4, he, like a fool, runs into the other extreme.

Eateth his own flesh; wasteth his substance, and bringeth himself to poverty, whereby his very flesh pineth away for want of bread, and he is reduced to skin and bone; and if he have any flesh left, he is ready to eat it through extremity of hunger. The fool foldeth his hands together,.... In order to get more sleep, or as unwilling to work; so the Targum adds,

"he folds his hands in summer, and will not labour;''

see Proverbs 6:10. Some persons, to escape the envy which diligence and industry bring on men, will not work at all, or do any right work, and think to sleep in a whole skin; this is great folly and madness indeed:

and eateth his own flesh; such a man is starved and famished for want of food, so that his flesh is wasted away; or he is so hungry bitten, that he is ready to eat his own flesh; or he hereby brings to ruin his family, his wife, and children, which are his own flesh, Isaiah 58:7. The Targum is,

"in winter he eats all he has, even the covering of the skin of his flesh.''

Some understand this of the envious man, who is a fool, traduces the diligent and industrious, and will not work himself; and not only whose idleness brings want and poverty on him as an armed man, but whose envy eats up his spirit, and is rottenness in his bones, Proverbs 6:11. Jarchi, out of a book of theirs called Siphri, interprets this of a wicked man in hell, when he sees the righteous in glory, and he himself judged and condemned.

The fool foldeth his hands together, and {e} eateth his own flesh.

(e) For idleness he is compelled to destroy himself.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
5. The fool foldeth his hands together] Simple as the words seem they have received very different interpretations: (1) The fool (the word is the same as in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, and is that, the prominence of which in both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes serve as a connecting link between the two Books), the man without aim or insight, leading a half brutish life, “folds his hands” in the attitude of indolence (Proverbs 6:10; Proverbs 24:33), and yet even he, with his limited desires, attains to the fruition of those desires, “eats his meat” and rejoices more than the wise and far-sighted who finds his dexterous and successful work empty and unsatisfying. (So Ginsburg.) For this sense of the words “eateth his flesh,” we have the usage of Exodus 16:8; Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17. So taken, this thought coheres with the context, and expresses the sense of contrast between the failure of aspiring activity and skill to attain the happiness they aim at, and the fact that those who do not even work for enjoyment get as full a share of it—perhaps, even a fuller—as those who do. (2) The last clause has been interpreted, as in the A.V., as meaning literally that the slothful man “consumes his own flesh,” i.e. reduces himself literally to the poverty and starvation which culminates in horrors such as this, as in Isaiah 9:20; Jeremiah 19:9, or, figuratively, pines away under the corroding canker of envy and discontent. For the latter meaning, however, we have no authority in the language of the Old Testament, and so taken, the passage becomes only a warning, after the manner of the Proverbs, against the sin of sloth, and as such, is not in harmony with the dominant despondency of this stage of the writer’s experience. The view which sees in Ecclesiastes 4:5, the writer’s condemnation of sloth, and in Ecclesiastes 4:6 the answer of the slothful, seems out of keeping with the context.Verse 5. - The connection of this verse with the preceding is this: activity, diligence, and skill indeed bring success, but success is accompanied by sad results. Should we, then, sink into apathy, relinquish work, let things slide? Nay, none but the fool (kesil), the insensate, half-brutish man, doth this. The fool foldeth his hands together. The attitude expresses laziness and disinclination for active labor, like that of the sluggard in Proverbs 6:10. And eateth his own flesh. Ginsburg, Plumptre, and others take these words to mean "and yet eats his meat," i.e. gets that enjoyment from his sluggishness which is denied to active diligence. They refer, in proof of this interpretation, to Exodus 16:8; Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 22:13; Ezekiel 39:17, in which passages, however, the phrase is never equivalent to "eating his food." The expression is really equivalent to "destroys himself," "brings ruin upon himself." Thus we have in Psalm 27:2, "Evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh;" and in Micah 3:3, "Who eat the flesh of my people" (comp. Isaiah 49:26). The sluggard is guilty of moral suicide; he takes no trouble to provide for his necessities, and suffers extremities in consequence. Some see in this verse and the following an objection and its answer. There is no occasion for this view, and it is not in keeping with the context; but it contains an intimation of the true exposition, which makes ver. 6 a proverbial statement of the sluggard's position. The verbs in the text are participial in form, so that the Vulgate rendering, which supplies a verb, is quite admissible: Stultus complicat manna suas, et comedit carnes suas, dicens: Melior est, etc. "Who knoweth with regard to the spirit of the children of men, whether it mounteth upward; and with regard to the spirit of a beast, whether it goeth downward to the earth?" The interrogative meaning of העלה and הירדת is recognised by all the old translators: lxx, Targ., Syr., Jerome, Venet., Luther. Among the moderns, Heyder (vid., Psychol. p. 410), Hengst., Hahn, Dale, and Bullock take the h in both cases as the article: "Who knoweth the spirit of the children of men, that which goeth upward ... ?" But (1) thus rendered the question does not accord with the connection, which requires a sceptical question; (2) following "who knoweth," after Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 6:12, cf. Joshua 2:14, an interrogative continuance of the sentence was to be expected; and (3) in both cases היא stands as designation of the subject only for the purpose of marking the interrogative clause (cf. Jeremiah 2:14), and of making it observable that ha'olah and hayorěděth are not appos. belonging as objects to רוח and ורוח. It is questionable, indeed, whether the punctuation of these words, העלה and היּרדת, as they lie before us, proceeds from an interrogative rendering. Saadia in Emunoth c. vi., and Juda Halevi in the Kuzri ii. 80, deny this; and so also do Aben Ezra and Kimchi. And they may be right. For instead of העלה, the pointing ought to have been העלה (cf. העלה, Job 13:25) when used as interrog. an ascendens; even before א the compens. lengthening of the interrog. ha is nowhere certainly found

(Note: For ה is to be read with a Pattach in Judges 6:31; Judges 12:5; Nehemiah 6:11; cf. under Genesis 19:9; Genesis 27:21. In Numbers 16:22 the ה of האישׁ is the art., the question is not formally designated.

instead of the virtual reduplication; and thus also the parallel היּר is not to be judged after היּי, Leviticus 10:19, הדּ, Ezekiel 18:29, - we must allow that the punctation seeks, by the removal of the two interrog. ha (ה), to place that which is here said in accord with Ecclesiastes 12:7. But there is no need for this. For יודע מי does not quite fall in with that which Lucretius says (Lib. I):

"Ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai,

Nata sit an contra nascentibus insinuetur?

An simul intereat nobiscum morte diremta?"

It may certainly be said of mi yode'a, as of ignoratur, that it does not exclude every kind of knowledge, but only a sure and certain knowledge resting on sufficient grounds; interire and ירד לם are also scarcely different, for neither of the two necessarily signifies annihilation, but both the discontinuance of independent individual existence. But the putting of the question by Koheleth is different, for it discloses more definitely than this by Lucretius, the possibility of a different end for the spirit of a man from that which awaits the spirit of a beast, and thus of a specific distinction between these two principles of life. In the formation even of the dilemma: Whether upwards or downwards, there lies an inquiring knowledge; and it cannot surprise us if Koheleth finally decides that the way of the spirit of a man is upwards, although it is not said that he rested this on the ground of demonstrative certainty. It is enough that, with the moral necessity of a final judgment beyond the sphere of this present life, at the same time also the continued existence of the spirit of man presented itself to him as a postulate of faith. One may conclude from the desiderium aeternitatis (Ecclesiastes 3:11) implanted in man by the Creator, that, like the instincts implanted in the beasts, it will be calculated not for deception, but for satisfaction; and from the למעלה, Proverbs 15:24 - i.e., the striving of a wise man rising above earthly, temporary, common things, - that death will not put an end to this striving, but will help it to reach its goal. But this is an indirect proof, which, however, is always inferior to the direct in force of argument. He presupposes that the Omnipotence and Wisdom which formed the world is also at the same time Love. Thus, though at last, it is faith which solves the dilemma, and we see from Ecclesiastes 12:7 that this faith held sway over Koheleth. In the Book of Sirach, also, the old conception of Hades shows itself as yet dominant; but after the οὐκ ἀτηάνατος υἱὸς ἀντηρώπου, 17:25, we read towards the end, where he speaks of Elias: καὶ τὰρ ἡμεῖς ζωῇ ζησόμεθα, 48:11. In the passage before us, Koheleth remains in doubt, without getting over it by the hand of faith. In a certain reference the question he here proposes is to the present day unanswered; for the soul, or, more correctly, according to the biblical mode of conception the spirit from which the soul-life of all corporeal beings proceeds, is a monas, and as such is indestructible. Do the future of the beast's soul and of man's soul not then stand in a solidaric mutual relation to each other? In fact, the future life presents to us mysteries the solution of which is beyond the power of human thought, and we need not wonder that Koheleth, this sober-minded, intelligent man, who was inaccessible to fantastic self-deception, arrives, by the line of thought commenced at Ecclesiastes 3:16, also again at the ultimatum.

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