Ecclesiastes 5:8
If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.
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(8) The interpretation of this verse depends on the sense we give to “marvel.” There are some who take it of simple surprise. “You need not think it strange; the instances of oppression which you observe are only parts of a gigantic scheme of mutual wrong-doing, the oppressors of one being themselves oppressed in turn by their superiors.” But instead of “Do not wonder,” the meaning “be not dismayed” is preferable. (Comp. Psalm 48:5; Job 26:11; Isaiah 13:8; Jeremiah 4:9.) The verse then supplies the answer to the gloomy view of Ecclesiastes 4:4. In the view that the last clause speaks of the Divine rectification of earthly injustice, I am confirmed by observing that the author of this book delights in verbal assonances, and constantly links together words similar in sound. An English version might admit the meaning: “Over the high oppressor stands a higher, and over both, those who are higher still; “though even here there is the difficulty that the highest of all are spoken of in the plural number, of which it is a very awkward explanation that the “higher” is the king, and that the women and favourites who govern him are the “higher still.” But I cannot but think that the language of the Hebrew, that over the “gebōh” there be “gebōhim,” is intended to suggest Elohim to the reader’s mind.

On the word “province,” see Note, Ecclesiastes 2:8; and on “matter,” Ecclesiastes 3:1.

Ecclesiastes 5:8. If thou seest the oppression: &c. — Here is an account of another vanity, and a sovereign antidote against it. Marvel not — As if it were inconsistent with God’s wisdom and justice to suffer such disorders. For he that is higher than the highest — The most high God, who is infinitely above the greatest of men. Regardeth — Not like an idle spectator, but a judge, who diligently observes, and will effectually punish them. And there be higher than they — Namely, God; it is an emphatical repetition of the same thing.

5:4-8 When a person made engagements rashly, he suffered his mouth to cause his flesh to sin. The case supposes a man coming to the priest, and pretending that his vow was made rashly, and that it would be wrong to fulfil it. Such mockery of God would bring the Divine displeasure, which might blast what was thus unduly kept. We are to keep down the fear of man. Set God before thee; then, if thou seest the oppression of the poor, thou wilt not find fault with Divine Providence; nor think the worse of the institution of magistracy, when thou seest the ends of it thus perverted; nor of religion, when thou seest it will not secure men from suffering wrong. But though oppressors may be secure, God will reckon for all.Matter - Rather, purpose (as in the margin, and Ecclesiastes 3:1), referring either to the will of God or to the edict of an oppressive ruler.

For he ... they - literally, for high watches over high and the highest over them, i. e., the king in the capital watches over the judge or governor in the province, and God over both. This seems more in harmony with the preceding verses, and more agreeable to the scope of this passage than to understand the passage only of earthly rulers.

8. As in Ec 3:16, so here the difficulty suggests itself. If God is so exact in even punishing hasty words (Ec 5:1-6), why does He allow gross injustice? In the remote "provinces," the "poor" often had to put themselves for protection from the inroads of Philistines, &c., under chieftains, who oppressed them even in Solomon's reign (1Ki 12:4).

the matter—literally, "the pleasure," or purpose (Isa 53:10). Marvel not at this dispensation of God's will, as if He had abandoned the world. Nay, there is coming a capital judgment at last, and an earnest of it in partial punishments of sinners meanwhile.

higher than the highest—(Da 7:18).

regardeth—(2Ch 16:9).

there be higher—plural, that is, the three persons of the Godhead, or else, "regardeth not only the 'highest' kings, than whom He 'is higher,' but even the petty tyrants of the provinces, namely, the high ones who are above them" (the poor) [Weiss].

Here is an account of another vanity, and a sovereign antidote against it.

Marvel not, as if it were inconsistent with God’s wisdom, and justice, and truth to suffer such disorders, or a just cause for any man to throw off that fear and service of God which I have now commended to thee.

He that is higher than the highest, the most high God, who is infinitely above the greatest of men, and therefore, if he saw meet, could crush them in an instant,

regardeth, not like an idle spectator, but like a judge, who diligently observes and records all these miscarriages, and will so effectually punish them, that neither they shall have any cause of triumph in their former successes, nor good men to be grieved at the remembrance of them.

There be higher than they; either,

1. The high and holy angels, who are employed by God in the government of kings and kingdoms, as we read in the Book of Daniel, and elsewhere, and for the defence of God’s people, Psalm 34:7 91:11 Hebrews 1:14. Or,

2. God; and so it is an emphatical repetition of the same thing, which is frequent in Scripture; there is a higher than they. Or, as the words are by others fitly rendered, the Most High (for plural words are oft understood of God singularly) is above them, and therefore can control them, and will certainly call them to an account.

If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of justice in a province,.... Which is a very disagreeable sight, but often seen; the poor are oppressed, and judgment and justice perverted, and that in a very violent and flagrant manner, in open courts of judicature, in the several provinces and kingdoms of the world;

marvel not at the matter; as though it was some strange and uncommon thing, when nothing is more common: or "marvel not at the will" or "pleasure" (t); that is, of God, who suffers such things to be. So the Targum, Jarchi, and Aben Ezra, interpret it; stumble not at it, nor arraign the wisdom and justice of God; let not that temptation prevail in thee as it has done in some good men, who have been tempted from hence to think there was nothing in religion, nor no providence attending the affairs of this world; do not be frightened and astonished, and hurried into such a thought; nor be distressed at the calamities and oppressions of poor and innocent men;

for he that is higher than the highest regardeth: that is, God, who is the most high in all the earth; higher, than the kings of the earth, and all high and haughty oppressors; higher indeed than the heavens, and the angels there: he "regards" all his people, his eyes are on them, and he never withdraws them from them; he regards their cries, and hears and answers them; he regards their oppressors, and their oppressions; and will, in his own time, deliver them; or he "keeps" (u) his people as the apple of his eye, in the hollow of his hand, night and day, lest any hurt them; he keeps them by his power through faith unto salvation. It may be rendered, "the high One from on high observes" (w); God, who is the high and lofty One, looks down from the high heavens where he dwells, and takes notice of all the sons of men, and considers all their works; see Psalm 33:13;

and there be higher than they; either the holy angels, who are higher than tyrannical oppressors, higher in nature, and excel in strength and power; and these are on the side of the oppressed, have the charge of saints, and encamp about them; and, whenever they have an order, can destroy their enemies in a moment: or rather the three divine Persons are meant, by the plural expression used, Father, Son, and Spirit; Jehovah the Father is above men, the greatest of men, in the things in which they deal proudly; be is greater than all, and none can pluck his sheep out of his hands, and worry them: Christ, the Son of the Highest, is higher than the kings, of the earth; he is King of kings, and Lord of lords, and able to deliver and save his people; and the Holy Spirit is the power of the Highest, and is greater than he or they that are in the world, the avowed enemies of the saints. Aben Ezra interprets it of the secret of the name of God, which he says is inexplicable. So the Midrash understands it of the holy blessed God; and in another tract it is said, on mention of this passage, there are three superiors above them in the way of emanation, and of them it is said (x), "there be higher than they."

(t) "super voluntate", Montanus, Cocceius; "de divina volantate", Pagninus, Mercerus; "divinam voluntatem", Tigurine version; "de ista voluntate", Junius & Tremellius, Gejerus. (u) "custodiens", Montanus; "custodit", Pagninus; "custos", Tigurine version. (w) "Observat", Junius & Tremellius, Piscator, Mercerus, Gejerus; "observans, observator est", Rambachius. (x) Tikkune Zohar Correct. 69. fol. 114. 1.

If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, wonder not at the matter: for he that is {f} higher than the highest regardeth; and there are higher than they.

(f) Meaning, that God will address these things, and therefore we must depend on him.

8. If thou seest the oppression of the poor] From the follies of the religious life we pass to the disorders of the political. As in ch. Ecclesiastes 4:16, the thinker looks on those disorders of the world, “the poor man’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,” and teaches others how he has learnt to think of them. The words “wonder not” tells us with scarcely the shadow of a doubt who had been his teachers. In that counsel we have a distinct echo from one of the floating maxims of Greek proverbial wisdom, from the Μηδὲν θαυμάζειν (“wonder at nothing”) of Pythagoras, and Cebes (Tabula, p. 232), which has become more widely known through the Nil admirari of Horace (Epist. i. 6. 1). Why men were not to wonder at the prevalence of oppression is explained afterwards. The word for “province” may be noted as one distinctly belonging to later Hebrew, found chiefly in the books of the Persian period, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel; once only in those of earlier date, 1 Kings 20:14-17.

for he that is higher than the highest] The first impression made by the verse is that the Debater tells men not to wonder or be dismayed at the prevalence of wrong, on the ground that God is higher than the highest of the tyrants of the earth and will in the end punish their wrong-doing. So understood, the first and the last “higher” both refer to “God,” or, as some take it, the last only, the first referring to the king as distinct from satraps or other officers, and the train of thought is supposed to be “Wonder not with the wonder of despair, at the seeming triumph of evil. The Supreme Judge (ch. Ecclesiastes 3:17) will one day set all things right.” The last “higher” is however plural in the Hebrew, and if it be understood of God, it must be by a somewhat unusual construction connecting it with the plural form (Elohim) of the name of God. We have, it may be noted, another example of a like construction in the use of the plural form for Creator in ch. Ecclesiastes 12:1, and for “the Holy” in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 30:3. Over and above the grammatical difficulties, however (which, as has been shewn, are not insuperable), it may be said that this thought is hardly in keeping with the tone of the Debater’s mind at this stage of his progress. Belief in the righteous government of God can hardly remove, though it may perhaps silence, the wonder which men feel at the prevalence of evil. It seems better accordingly to fall back upon another interpretation. The observer looks upon the state of the Persian or Syrian or Egyptian Monarchy and sees a system of Satraps and Governors which works like that of the Pachas in modern Asiatic Turkey. There is one higher than the high one, the king who is despotic over the satraps: there are others (the court favourites, king’s friends, eunuchs, chamberlains) who are higher or, at least, of more power, than both together, each jealously watching the others, and bent on self-aggrandisement. Who can wonder that the result should be injustice and oppression? The system of government was rotten from the highest to the lowest, suspicion and distrust pervading its whole administration. Comp. Aristotle’s description of Asiatic monarchies as suppressing all public spirit and mutual confidence (Pol. Ecclesiastes 5:11). It may be suggested, lastly, that the enigmatic form of the maxim may have been deliberately chosen, so that men might read either the higher or the lower interpretation into it, according to their capacities. It was a “word to the wise” after the measure of their wisdom. The grave irony of such an ambiguous utterance was quite after the Teacher’s method. See notes on ch. Ecclesiastes 11:1-2.

Verses 8-17. - Section 7. Perils to which one is exposed in a despotic state, and the unprofitableness of riches. Verses 8, 9. - In political life there is little that is satisfactory; yet one must not surrender one's belief in a superintending Providence. Verse 8. - If thou seest the oppression of the poor. From errors in the service of God, it is natural to turn to faults in the administration of the king (Proverbs 24:21). Koheleth has already alluded to these anomalies in Ecclesiastes 3:16 and Ecclesiastes 4:1. Violent perverting; literally, robbery; so that judgment is never rightly given, and justice is withheld from applicants. In a province (me dinah, Ecclesiastes 2:8); the district in which the person addressed dwells. It may, perhaps, to implied that {his is remote from the central authority, and therefore more liable to be injuriously dealt with by unscrupulous rulers. Marvel not at the matter (chephets, Ecclesiastes 3:1). Be not surprised or dismayed (Job 26:11) at such evil doings,, as though they were unheard of, or inexperienced, or disregarded. There is here nothing of the Greek maxim, reproduced by Horace in his "Nil admirari" ('Epist.,' 1:6. 1). It is like St. John's "Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you" (1 John 3:13); or St. Peter's "Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among' you" (1 Peter 4:12). The stupid and unintelligent observation of such disorders might lead to arraignment of Providence and distrust in the moral government of God. Against such mistakes the writer guards. For he that is higher than the highest regardeth. Both the words are in the singular number. Septuagint, Ὑψηλὸς ἐπάνω ὑψηλοῦ φυλάξαι. One thinks of the Persian satraps, who acted much as the Turkish pashas in later times, the petty rulers oppressing the people, and being themselves treated in the same fashion by their superiors. The whole is a system of wrong-doing, where the weaker always suffers, and the only comfort is that the oppressor himself is subject to higher supervision. The verb (shamar) translated "regardeth" means to observe in a hostile sense, to watch for occasions of reprisal, as 1 Samuel 19:11; and the idea intended is that in the province there were endless plottings and counterplottings, mutual denunciations and recriminations; that such things were only to be expected, and were no sufficient cause for infidelity or despair. "The higher one" is the monarch, the despotic king who holds the supreme power over all these malad-ministrators and perverters of justice. And there be higher than they. "Higher" is here plural (gebohgm), the plural of majesty, as it is called (comp. Ecclesiastes 12:1), like Elohim, the word for "God," the assonance being probably here suggestive. Over the highest of earthly rulers there are other powers, angels, principalities, up to God himself, who governs the course of this world, and to whom we may leave the final adjustment. Who are meant seems purposely to be left undetermined; but the thought of the righteous Judge of all is intimated in accordance with the view of Ecclesiastes 3:17. This is a far more satisfactory explanation of the passage than that which regards as the highest of all "the court favorites, king's friends, eunuchs, chamberlains," etc. In this view Koheleth is merely asserting the general system of injustice and oppression, and neither accounting for it nor offering any comfort under the circumstances. But his object throughout is to show man's inability to secure his own happiness, and the need of submission to Divine providence. To demonstrate the anomalies in the events of the world, the circumstances of men's lives would be only one part of his task, which would not be completed without turning attention to the remedy against hasty and unfair conclusions. This remedy is the thought of the supreme Disposer of events, who holds all the strings in his hand, and will in the end bring good out of evil. Ecclesiastes 5:8"If thou seest the oppression of the poor and the robbery of right and of justice in the state, marvel not at the matter: for one higher watches over him who is high; and others are high above both." Like rash, mishpat vatsěděq are also the gen. of the obj.; "robbery of the right and of justice" is an expression not found elsewhere, but not on that account, as Grtz supposes, impossible: mishpat is right, rectitude, and conformity to law; and ]], judicial administration, or also social deportment according to these norms; גּזל, a wicked, shameless depriving of a just claim, and withholding of the showing of right which is due. If one gets a sight of such things as these in a medinah, i.e., in a territorial district under a common government, he ought not to wonder at the matter.

תּמהּ means to be startled, astonished, and, in the sense of "to wonder," is the word commonly used in modern Heb. But חפץ has here the colourless general signification of res, according to which the Syr. translates it (vid., under Ecclesiastes 3:1); every attempt in passages such as this to retain the unweakened primary meaning of the word runs out into groundless and fruitless subtlety. Cf. Berachoth 5a, חפץ לח ... אדם, "a man who buys a thing from another." On the other hand, there is doubt about the meaning of the clause assigning the reason. It seems to be intended, that over him who is high, who oppresses those under him, there stands one who is higher, who in turn oppresses him, and thereby becomes the executor of punishment upon him; and that these, the high and the higher, have over them a Most High, viz., God, who will bring them to an account (Knobel, Ew., Elst., Vaih., Hengst., Zckl.). None of the old translators and expositors rises, it is true, to the knowledge that גּבהים may be pl. majestatis,

(Note: That is surprising, since the Talm. interpretation, Menachoth 110a, even brings it about that לב, Ecclesiastes 5:10, is to be understood of God.)

but the first גּבהּ the Targ. renders by אל אדּיר. This was natural to the Jewish usus loq., for gbwh in the post-bibl. Heb. is a favourite name for God, e.g., Beza 20b, Jebamoth 87a, Kamma 13a: "from the table of God" (משלחן גבוה), i.e., the altar (cf. Hebrews 13:10; 1 Corinthians 10:21).

(Note: חלק גבוה is also a common Rabbin. name for the tithes and offerings (cf. e.g., Nachmani under Genesis 14:20). Along with חלק הגבוה, the sacrifices are also called (in Hurwitz' work on the Heb. rites, known by the abbreviated title ש''לה) לגבוה; vid., 85b of the ed. 1764, and 23b of the Amsterdam ed. 1707 of the abridgment.)

The interpretation of גב, however, as the pl. majest., has in the Book of Koheleth itself a support in בּוראיך, Ecclesiastes 12:1; and the thought in which Ecclesiastes 5:7 climactically terminates accords essentially with Ecclesiastes 3:17. This explanation, however, of Ecclesiastes 5:7 does not stand the test. For if an unrighteous administration of justice, if violence is in vogue instead of right, that is an actual proof that over him who is high no human higher one watches who may put a check upon him, and to whom he feels that he is responsible. And that above them both one who is Most High stands, who will punish injustice and avenge it, is a consolatory argument against vexation, but is no explanatory reason of the phenomenon, such as we expect after the noli mirari; for אל־תתמה does not signify "be not offended" (John 16:1), or, "think it not strange" (1 Peter 4:12), which would be otherwise expressed (cf. under Psalm 37:1), but μή θαυμάσης (lxx). Also the contrast, Ecclesiastes 5:8, warrants the conclusion that in Ecclesiastes 5:7 the author seeks to explain the want of legal order from the constitution of a despotic state as distinguished from patriarchal government. For this reason שׁמר will not be meant of over-watching, which has its aim in the execution of legal justice and official duty, but of egoistic watching, - not, however, as Hitzig understands it: "they mutually protect each other's advantage; one crow does not peck out the eyes of another," - but, on the contrary, in the sense of hostile watching, as at 1 Samuel 19:11; 2 Samuel 11:16, as B. Bardach understands it: "he watches for the time when he may gain the advantage over him who is high, who is yet lower than himself, and may strengthen and enrich himself with his flesh or his goods." Over the one who is high, who oppresses the poor and is a robber in respect of right and justice, there stands a higher, who on his part watches how he can plunder him to his own aggrandisement; and over both there are again other high ones, who in their own interest oppress these, as these do such as are under them. This was the state of matters in the Persian Empire in the time of the author. The satrap stood at the head of state officers. In many cases he fleeced the province to fatten himself. But over the satrap stood inspectors, who often enough built up their own fortunes by fatal denunciations; and over all stood the king, or rather the court, with its rivalry of intrigues among courtiers and royal women. The cruel death-punishments to which disagreeable officials were subjected were fearful. There was a gradation of bad government and arbitrary domination from high to low and from low to high, and no word is more fitting for this state of things in Persia than שׁמר; for watching, artfully lurking as spies for an opportunity to accomplish the downfall of each other, was prevalent in the Persian Empire, especially when falling into decay.

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