Jamieson, Fausset,& Brown
Ecc_3:1-22. Earthly pursuits are no doubt lawful in their proper time and order (Ecc_3:1-8), but unprofitable when out of time and place; as for instance, when pursued as the solid and chief good (Ecc_3:9, Ecc_3:10); whereas God makes everything beautiful in its season, which man obscurely comprehends (Ecc_3:11). God allows man to enjoy moderately and virtuously His earthly gifts (Ecc_3:12, Ecc_3:13). What consoles us amidst the instability of earthly blessings is, God’s counsels are immutable (Ecc_3:14).
Man has his appointed cycle of seasons and vicissitudes, as the sun, wind, and water (Ecc_1:5-7).
purpose — as there is a fixed “season” in God’s “purposes” (for example, He has fixed the “time” when man is “to be born,” and “to die,” Ecc_3:2), so there is a lawful “time” for man to carry out his “purposes” and inclinations. God does not condemn, but approves of, the use of earthly blessings (Ecc_3:12); it is the abuse that He condemns, the making them the chief end (1Co_7:31). The earth, without human desires, love, taste, joy, sorrow, would be a dreary waste, without water; but, on the other hand, the misplacing and excess of them, as of a flood, need control. Reason and revelation are given to control them.
To every thing there is u season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . “Season” and “time” are rendered by the LXX. καιρός and χρόνος. The word for “season” (zeman), denotes a fixed, definite portion of time; while eth, “time,” signifies rather the beginning of a period, or is used as a general appellation. The two ideas are sometimes concurrent in the New Testament; e.g. Act_1:7; 1Th_5:1. So in Wis. 8:8, “wisdom to foreseeth signs and wonders, and the events of seasons and times (ἐκβάσεις καιρῶν καὶ χρόνων).” Every thing refers especially to men’s movements and actions, and to what concerns them. Purpose; chephets, originally meaning “delight,” “pleasure,” in the later Hebrew came to signify “business,” “thing,” “matter.” The proposition is—In human affairs Providence arranges the moment when everything shall happen, the duration of its operation, and the time appropriate thereto. The view of the writer takes in the whole circumstances of men’s life from its commencement to its close. But the thought is not, as some have opined, that there is naught but uncertainty, fluctuation, and imperfection in human affairs, nor, as Plumptre conceives, “It is wisdom to do the right thing at the right time, that inopportuneness is the bane of life,” for many of the circumstances mentioned, e.g. birth and death, are entirely beyond men’s will and control, and the maxim, Καιρὸν γνῶθι, cannot apply to man in such eases. Koheleth is confirming his assertion, made in the last chapter, that wisdom, wealth, success, happiness, etc; are not in man’s hands, that his own efforts can secure none of them—they are distributed at the will of God. He establishes this dictum by entering into details, and showing the ordering of Providence and the supremacy of God in all men’s concerns, the most trivial as well as the most important. The Vulgate gives a paraphrase, and not a very exact one, Omnia tempus habeat, et suis spatiis transenat universa sub caelo. Koheleth intimates, without attempting to reconcile, the great crux of man’s free-will and God’s decree.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
10. I have seen the travail, which God hath given] Better perhaps, I have seen the labour, or the business. As before, in the preceding verse, the thinker, once back in the old groove of thought, repeats himself, and we have the very words of ch. Ecc_1:13, but, as before, here also developed by a wider experience. In this feeling after the right “season” for each act, this craving for a harmony between man’s will and the divine order, he recognises a divinely implanted instinct which yet finds no full satisfaction.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his (its) time. “Everything:” (eth hacol) does not refer so much to the original creation which God made very good (Gen_1:31), as to the travail and business mentioned in Ecc_3:10. All parts of this have, in God’s design, a beauty and a harmony, their own season for appearance and development, their work to do in carrying on the majestic march of Providence. Also he hath set the world in their heart. “The world;” eth-haolam, placed (as hacol above) before the verb, with eth, to emphasize the relation. There is some uncertainty in the translation of this word. The LXX. has, Σύμπαντα τὸν αἰῶνα; Vulgate, Mundum tradidit disputationi eorum. The original meaning is “the hidden,” and it is used generally in the Old Testament of the remote past, and sometimes of the future, as Da 3:33, so that the idea conveyed is of unknown duration, whether the glance looks backward or forward, which is equivalent to our word “eternity.” It is only in later Hebrew that the word obtained the signification of “age” (αἰών), or “world” in its relation to time. Commentators who have adopted the latter sense here explain the expression as if it meant that man in himself is a microcosm, a little world, or that the love of the world, the love of life, is naturally implanted in him. But taking the term in the signification found throughout the Bible, we are justified in translating it “eternity.” The pronoun in “their heart” refers to “the sons of men” in the previous verse. God has put into men’s minds a notion of infinity of duration; the beginning and the end of things are alike beyond his grasp; the time to be born and the Lime to die are equally unknown and uncontrollable. Koheleth is not thinking of that hope of immortality which his words unfold to us with our better knowledge; he is speculating on the innate faculty of looking backward and forward which man possesses, but which is insufficient to solve the problems which present themselves every day. This conception of eternity may be the foundation of great hopes and expectations, but as an explanation of the ways of Providence it fails. So that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end; or, without man being able to penetrate; yet so that he cannot, etc. Man sees only minute parts of the great whole; he cannot comprehend all at one view, cannot understand the law that regulates the time and season of every circumstance in the history of man and the world. He feels that, as there has been an infinite past, there will be an infinite future, which may solve anomalies and demonstrate the harmonious unity of God’s design, and he must be content to wait and hope. Comparison of the past with the present may help to adumbrate the future, but is inadequate to unravel the complicated thread of the world’s history (comp. Ecc_8:16, Ecc_8:17, and Ecc_9:1, where a similar thought is expressed).
Ecc. 3:11. Instead of heart, it should have been translated middle. God hath set the world in the middle of things. God has not set us at the beginning, nor at the end of things. We see but the middle of God’s works, not the beginning of them; we should have seen how wisely and beautifully they were contrived in the Divine counsels – how He made everything beautiful in its time. We see not the end and final issue of things. Then we should see the excellent and glorious issue; that all was order, most fitly and beautifully. The same word is used for middle or midst: Jon_2:3, “Midst of the sea.” So again the same word for the midst of the sea in Exo_15:8, and the same word is used in 2Sa_18:14, “In the midst of the oak.”
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
12. for a man to rejoice, and to do good] There is no instance in O. T. language of the phrase “do good” being used, like the Greek εὖ πράττειν, in the sense of “prospering,” or “enjoying one’s self,” and in ch. Ecc_7:20 it can only have its full ethical meaning, such as it has in Psa_34:14; Psa_37:3; Isa_38:3. On the whole, therefore, we are led to assign that meaning to it here. Over and above the life of honest labour and simple joys which had been recognised as good before, the seeker has learnt that “honesty is the best policy,” that “doing good” (the term is more comprehensive in its range than our “beneficence”) is in some sense the best way of getting good. It is not the highest ethical view of the end of life, but it was an advance on his previous conclusion.
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice; rather, I knew, perceived, that there was no good for them; i.e. for men. From the facts adduced, Koheleth learned this practical result—that man had nothing in his own power (see on Ecc_2:24) which would conduce to his happiness, but to make the best of life such as he finds it. Vulgate, Cognovi quod non esset melius nisi laetari. To do good in his life; Τοῦ ποιεῖν ἀγαθόν;; Facere bene (Vulgate). This has been taken by many in the sense of “doing one’s self good, prospering, enjoying one’s self.” like the Greek εὖ πράττειν, and therefore nearly equivalent to “rejoice” in the former part of the verse. But the expression is best taken here, as when it occurs elsewhere (e.g. Ecc_7:20), in a moral sense, and it thus teaches the great truth that virtue is essential to happiness, that to “trust in the Lord … to depart from evil, and to do good” (Psa_36:3, 27), will bring peace and content (see in the epilogue, Ecc_12:13, Ecc_12:14). There is no Epicureanism in this verse; the enjoyment spoken of is not licentiousness, but a happy appreciation of the innocent pleasures which the love of God offers to those who live in accordance with the laws of their higher nature.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
13. And also that every man] The addition of this clause confirms the interpretation just given of the “doing good” of the preceding verse. Had that meant simply enjoyment, this clause would have been an idle repetition. As it is, “doing good” takes its place, as it did with the nobler Epicureans, among the elements of happiness. So Epicurus himself taught that “it is not possible to live happily without also living wisely, and nobly, and justly” (Diog. Laert. x. 1, § 140).
And also that every man should eat and drink… it is the gift of God. This enforces and intensifies the statement in the preceding verse; not only the power to “do good,” but even to enjoy what comes in his way (see on Ecc_2:24), man must receive from God. When we pray for our daily bread, we also ask for ability to take, assimilate, and profit by the supports and comforts afforded to us. “It” is better omitted, as “is the gift of God” forms the predicate of the sentence. Ecc_11:1-10 :17, “The gift of the Lord remaineth with the godly, and his favor bringeth prosperity for ever.”
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
14. I know that, whatsoever God doeth] We ask once again whether we are brought face to face with the thought of an iron destiny immutably fixing even the seeming accidents of life, and excluding man’s volition from any share in them, or whether the writer speaks of an order which men may, in the exercise of their freedom, transgress. And the answer, as before, is that the Debater, while he recognises man’s freedom, has come to see a purpose and an order even in those accidents. So Epicurus himself taught that it was better to hold even the popular belief as to the Gods than to be in bondage to the dogma of a destiny (Diog. Laert. x. 1, § 134). The Eternal Law fulfils itself “whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.” They cannot add to it or take from it, but they retain the power of obeying or resisting it. It partakes so far of the character which was afterwards ascribed to a special revelation (Rev_22:18-19).
God doeth it, that men should fear before him] There is a profound psychological truth in the thought thus expressed. Men may dream that they can propitiate or change an arbitrary will, but no reverential awe, no fear of God, is so deep as that which rises from the contemplation of a Righteousness that does not change. So, in like manner, the unchangeableness of the Divine Will is made a ground of confidence and hope in the midst of perturbations (Mal_3:6).
I know that whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever – לעולם leolam, for eternity; in reference to that grand consummation of men and things intimated in Ecc_3:11. God has produced no being that he intends ultimately to destroy. He made every thing in reference to eternity; and, however matter may be changed and refined, animal and intellectual beings shall not be deprived of their existence. The brute creation shall be restored, and all human spirits shall live for ever; the pure in a state of supreme and endless blessedness, the impure in a state of indestructible misery.
Nothing can be put to it – No new order of beings, whether animate or inanimate, can be produced. God will not create more; man cannot add.
Nor any thing taken from it – Nothing can be annihilated; no power but that which can create can destroy. And whatever he has done, he intended to be a means of impressing a just sense of his being, providence, mercy, and judgments, upon the souls of men. A proper consideration of God’s works has a tendency to make man a religious creature; that is, to impress his mind with a sense of the existence of the Supreme Being, and the reverence that is due to him. In this sense the fear of God is frequently taken in Scripture. The Hebrew of this clause is strongly emphatic: והאלהים עשה שייראו מלפניו vehaelohim asah sheiyireu millephanaiv;
“And the gods he hath done, that they might fear from before his faces.” Even the doctrine of the eternal Trinity in Unity may be collected from numberless appearances in nature. A consideration of the herb trefoil is said to have been the means of fully convincing the learned Erasmus of the truth of the assertion, These Three are One: and yet three distinct. He saw the same root, the same fibres, the same pulpy substance, the same membraneous covering, the same color, the same taste, the same smell, in every part; and yet the three leaves distinct: but each and all a continuation of the stem, and proceeding from the same root. Such a fact as this may at least illustrate the doctrine. An intelligent shepherd, whom he met upon the mountains, is said to have exhibited the herb, and the illustration while discoursing on certain difficulties in the Christian faith. When a child, I heard a learned man relate this fact.
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever. A second thing (see Ecc_3:12) that Koheleth knew, learned from the truths adduced in Ecc_3:1-9, is that behind man’s free action and volition stands the will of God, which orders events with a view to eternity, and that man can alter nothing of this providential arrangement (comp. Isa_46:10; Psa_33:11). Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it. We cannot hasten or retard God’s designs; we cannot add to or curtail his plans. Septuagint, “It is impossible to add (οὐκ ἔστι προσθεῖναι) to it, and it is impossible to Lake away from it.” Thus Ecclesiasticus 18:6, “As for the wondrous works of the Lord, it is impossible to lessen or to add to them (οὐκ ἔστιν ἐλαττῶσαι οὐδὲ προσθεῖναι), neither can the ground of them be found out.” God doeth it, that men should fear before him. There is a moral purpose in this disposal of events. Men feel this uniformity and unchangeableness in the working of Providence, and thence learn to cherish a reverential awe for the righteous government of which they are the subjects. It was this feeling which led ancient etymologists to derive Θεός and Deus from δέος, “fear” (comp. Rev_15:3, Rev_15:4). This is also a ground of hope and confidence. Amid the jarring and fluctuating circumstances of men God holds the threads, and alters not his purpose. “I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Ma 3:6). The Vulgate is not very successful: Non possumus eis quid-quam addere, nec auferre, quae fecit Deus ut timeatur, “We cannot add anything unto, or take anything away from, those things which God hath made that he may be feared.”
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
9. Two are better than one] The strain of moralising which follows indicates at least the revived capacity for a better feeling. As the Debater had turned from the restless strivings of the seeker after wealth to the simple enjoyment of the labouring man or even the sensuous pleasure of the indolent, so now he turns from the isolation of the avaricious to the blessings of companionship. Here at least, in that which carries a man out of himself, there is a real good, a point scored as “gain.” Here also, over and above his own experience the Seeker may have been helped by the current thought of his Greek teachers, the κοινά τὰ φίλων of the proverb, or the lines of Homer,
Σύν τε δύʼ ἐρχομένω, καὶ τε πρὸ ὃ τοῦ ἐνόησεν
Ὅππως κέρδος ἔῃ• μοῦνος δʼ εἴπερ τε νοήσῃ,
Ἀλλά τε οἱ βράσσων τε νόυς λεπτὴ δέ τε μῆτις.
“When two together go, each for the other
Is first to think what best will help his brother;
But one who walks alone, though wise in mind,
Of purpose slow and counsel weak we find.”
Iliad, x. 224–6.
So the Greek proverb ran as to friends
χεὶρ χεῖρα νίπτει, δακτυλός τε δάκτυλον.
“Hand cleanseth hand, and finger finger helps.”
The “good reward” is more than the mere money result of partnership, and implies the joy of
“United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
The literature of well-nigh all ages and races abound in expressions of the same thought. Aristotle dedicates two whole books (viii. ix.) of his Ethics to the subject of Friendship, and Cicero made it the theme of one of his most finished essays. Commonly, however, men rested it, as the writer does here, mainly on the basis of utility. “The wise man,” says Seneca (Epist. ix. 8) from his higher Stoic standpoint, “needs a friend, not as Epicurus taught, that he may have one to sit by his bed when he is ill, or to help him when he is poor or in prison, but that he may have one by whose bed he may sit, whom he may rescue when he is attacked by foes.” We may point also to Pro_17:17; Pro_27:17, and the Jewish proverb “a man without friends is like a left hand without the right” (Pirke Aboth, f. 30. 2) as utterances of a like nature. It is, however to be noted, in connexion with the line of thought that has been hitherto followed in these notes as to the date and authorship of the book, that the preciousness of friendship as one of the joys of life was specially characteristic of the school of Epicurus (Zeller, Stoics and Epicureans, c. xx.). It was with them the highest of human goods, and the wise would value it as the chief element of security (Diog. Laert. x. 1. 148). The principle thus asserted finds, it may be added, its highest sanction in the wisdom of Him who sent out His disciples “two and two together” (Luk_10:1).
if they fall] The special illustration appears to be drawn from the experience of two travellers. If one slip or stumble on a steep or rocky path the other is at hand to raise him, while, if left to himself, he might have perished.
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
Two — opposed to “one” (Ecc_4:8). Ties of union, marriage, friendship, religious communion, are better than the selfish solitariness of the miser (Gen_2:18).
reward — Advantage accrues from their efforts being conjoined. The Talmud says, “A man without a companion is like a left hand without the right.
10.For if they fall — Better, “For if one fall.” The illustration is drawn from travelling, but it may be applied to any of the numerous mishaps of life. “God never made an independent man.” Each depends on another.
The first example of the advantage of companionship spoke of the aid and support that are thus given; the present verse tells of the comfort thus brought. If two lie together, then they have heat. The winter nights in Palestine are comparatively cold, and when, as in the case of the poorer inhabitants, the outer garment worn by day was used as the only blanket during sleep (Exo_22:26, Exo_22:27), it was a comfort to have the additional warmth of a friend lying under the same coverlet. Solomon could have had no such experience.
11.How can one be warm — The ordinary people of Palestine to this time, as did all the ancients, lie down at night in the usual clothing of the day. The country has hot days and cold nights, and a traveller is annoyed at the complaints of his men arising from insufficient protection. The frost consumes them by night, and they crowd together for warmth. The houses formerly had open lattice instead of glass windows, so that the cold night air was felt within, and the sleepers on mats and carpets suffered from the chill. There is no allusion here to husband and wife. Night-dresses, distinct from the clothing worn by day, were first introduced by the French, and in quite modern times.
The third instance shows the value of the protection afforded by a companion’s presence when danger threatens. If one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; better, if a man overpower the solitary one, the two (Ecc_4:9) will withstand him. The idea of the traveler is continued. If he were attacked by robbers, he would be easily overpowered when alone; but two comrades might successfully resist the assault. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. This is probably a proverbial saying, like our “Union is strength.” Hereby the advantage of association is more strongly enforced. If the companionship of two is profitable, much more is this the case when more combine. The cord of three strands was the strongest made. The number three is used as the symbol of completeness and perfection. Funiculus triplex diffcile rumpitur, the Vulgate rendering, has become a trite saying; and the gnome has been constantly applied in a mystical or spiritual sense, with which, originally and humanly speaking, it has no concern. Herein is seen an adumbration of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Three in One; of the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which go to make the Christian life; of the Christian’s body, soul, and spirit, which are consecrated as a temple of the Most High.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
1. Keep thy foot] In the Heb., LXX. and Vulg. this verse forms the conclusion to chap. 4. The English version is obviously right, however, in its division of the chapter. The moralist reviews a new region of experience. “Vanity” has been found in all that belongs to the outward secular life of men. Is their higher life, that which we call their religion, free from it? Must not the Debater, from his standpoint, rebuke the follies and sins even of the godly? Here, as might be expected, we have an intermingling of two elements of thought, the traditional teaching which the thinker has learnt from psalmist and prophet, and the maxims which have come to him from his Greek, probably from his Epicurean, teachers. Both, it will be seen, find echoes in the precepts that follow. The precepts are suggestive as shewing the kind of religion which the Debater had seen in Palestine, the germs of the formalism and casuistry which afterwards developed into Pharisaism. To “keep the foot” was to walk in the right way, the way of reverence and obedience (Psa_119:32; Psa_119:101). The outward act of putting the shoes off the feet on entering the Temple (Exo_3:5; Jos_5:15), from the earliest times to the present, the custom of the East, was the outward symbol of such a reverential awe. We note, as characteristic, the substitution of the “house of God” for the more familiar “house of the Lord” (2Sa_12:20; Isa_33:1, and elsewhere). Possibly the term may be used, as in Psa_74:8; Psa_83:12, to include synagogues as well as the Temple. The precept implies that he who gives it had seen the need of it. Men went to the place where they worshipped with little thought that it was indeed a Beth-el, or “house of God.”
and be more ready to hear] The words have been differently interpreted: (1) “And to draw near to hear is better than to offer the sacrifice …;” and (2) “To hear (= obey) is nearer (i.e. is the truer way for thy foot to take) than to offer the sacrifice …” The general spirit of the maxim or precept is identical with that of 1Sa_15:22; Psa_40:6-8; Psa_50:8-14; Psa_51:16-17. The “sacrifice of fools” as in Pro_21:27 is that offered by the ungodly, and therefore an abomination.
for they consider not that they do evil] The A.V. is perhaps sufficiently expressive of the meaning, but the following various renderings have been suggested: (1) “they know not, so that they do evil,” i.e. their ignorance leads them to sin; (2) “they (those who obey, hear) know not to do evil,” i.e. their obedience keeps them from it. Of these (1) seems preferable.
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
From vanity connected with kings, he passes to vanities (Ecc_5:7) which may be fallen into in serving the King of kings, even by those who, convinced of the vanity of the creature, wish to worship the Creator.
Keep thy foot — In going to worship, go with considerate, circumspect, reverent feeling. The allusion is to the taking off the shoes, or sandals, in entering a temple (Exo_3:5; Jos_5:15, which passages perhaps gave rise to the custom). Weiss needlessly reads, “Keep thy feast days” (Exo_23:14, Exo_23:17; the three great feasts).
hear — rather, “To be ready (to draw nigh with the desire) to hear (obey) is a better sacrifice than the offering of fools” [Holden]. (Vulgate; Syriac). (Psa_51:16, Psa_51:17; Pro_21:3; Jer_6:20; Jer_7:21-23; Jer_14:12; Amo_5:21-24). The warning is against mere ceremonial self-righteousness, as in Ecc_7:12. Obedience is the spirit of the law’s requirements (Deu_10:12). Solomon sorrowfully looks back on his own neglect of this (compare 1Ki_8:63 with Ecc_11:4, Ecc_11:6). Positive precepts of God must be kept, but will not stand instead of obedience to His moral precepts. The last provided no sacrifice for willful sin (Num_15:30, Num_15:31; Heb_10:26-29).
This verse, in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bibles, forms the conclusion of Ecc_4:1-16; and is taken independently; but the division in our version is more natural, and the connection of this with the following verses is obvious. Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, Some read “feet” instead of “foot,” but the singular and plural numbers are both found in this signification (comp. Psa_119:59, Psa_119:105; Pro_1:15; Pro_4:26, Pro_4:27). To “keep the foot” is to be careful of the conduct, to remember what you are about, whither you are going. There is no allusion to the sacerdotal rite of washing the feet before entering the holy place (Exo_30:18, Exo_30:19), nor to the custom of removing the shoes on entering a consecrated building, which was a symbol of reverential awe and obedient service. The expression is simply a term connected with man’s ordinary life transferred to his moral and religious life. The house of God is the temple. The tabernacle is called “the house of Jehovah” (1Sa_1:7; 2Sa_12:20), and this name is commonly applied to the temple; e.g. 1Ki_3:1; 2Ch_8:16; Ezr_3:11. But “house of God” is applied also to the temple (2Ch_5:14; Ezr_5:8, Ezr_5:15, etc.), so that we need not, with Bullock, suppose that Koheleth avoids the name of the Lord of the covenant as “a natural sign of the writer’s humiliation after his fall into idolatry, and an acknowledgment of his unworthiness of the privileges of a son of the covenant.” It is probable that the expression here is meant to include synagogues as well as the great temple at Jerusalem, since the following clause seems to imply that exhortation would be heard there, which formed no part of the temple service. The verse has furnished a text on the subject of the reverence due to God’s house and service from Chrysostom downwards. And be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools. Various are the renderings of this clause. Wright, “For to draw near to hear is (better) than the fools offering sacrifices.” (So virtually Knobel, Ewald, etc.) Ginsburg, “For it is nearer to obey than to offer the sacrifice of the disobedient;” i.e. it is the straighter, truer way to take when you obey God than when you merely perform outward service. The Vulgate takes the infinitive verb as equivalent to the imperative, as the Authorized Version, Appropinqua ut audias; but it is best to regard it as pure infinitive, and to translate, “To approach in order to hear is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” The sentiment is the same as that in 1Sa_15:22, ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” The same thought occurs in Pro_21:3; Psa_50:7-15; and continually in the prophets; e.g. Isa_1:11; Jer_7:21-23; Hos_6:6, etc. It is the reaction against the mere ceremonialism which marked the popular religion. Koheleth had seen and deplored this at Jerusalem and elsewhere, and he enunciates the great troth that it is more acceptable to God that one should go to his house to hear the Law read and taught and expounded, than to offer a formal sacrifice, which, as being the offering of a godless man is called in proverbial language “the sacrifice of fools” (Pro_21:27). The verb used here, “give” (nathan), is not the usual expression for offering sacrifice, and may possibly refer to the feast which accompanied such sacrifices, and which often degenerated into excess (Delitzsch). That the verb rendered “to hear” does not mean merely “to obey” is plain from its reference to conduct in the house of God. The reading of the Law, and probably of the prophets, formed a feature of the temple service in Koheleth’s day; the expounding of the same in public was confined to the synagogues, which seem to have originated in the time of the exile, though there were doubtless before that time some regular occasions of assembling together (see 2Ki_4:23). For they consider not that they do evil; Ὅι οὐκ εἰσὶν εἰδότες τοῦ ποιῆσαι κακόν; Qui nesciunt quid faciunt mali (Vulgate); “They are without knowledge, so that they do evil” (Delitzsch, Knobel, etc.); “As they (who obey) know not to do evil” (Ginsburg). The words can scarcely mean, “They know not that they do evil;” nor, as Hitzig has, “They know not how to be sorrowful.” There is much difficulty in understanding the passage according to the received reading, and Nowack, with others, deems the text corrupt. If we accept what we now find, it is best to translate, “They know not, so that they do evil;” i.e. their ignorance predisposes them to err in this matter. The persons meant are the “fools” who offer unacceptable sacrifices. These know not how to worship God heartily and properly, and, thinking to please him with their formal acts of devotion, fall into a grievous sin.
1.Keep thy foot — Behaviour is in the Bible frequently presented under the figure of walking and running. Keeping the feet implies caution in deportment, as opposed to a bold recklessness.
Ready to hear — The remainder of this verse is difficult of translation. The rendering severely demanded by the Hebrew is, To obey is nearer — as a way to God’s favour — than to offer the sacrifice of the perverse, for they [who obey] have no consciousness of doing evil. In this construction some of the best scholars agree; and while it is the most careful translation, it is clear in its significance. Samuel said to Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken, than the fat of rams.”
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2. Be not rash with thy mouth] The rule follows the worshipper from the threshold into the Temple-court and tells him how he is to act there. We are reminded of our Lord’s warning against “vain repetitions,” after the manner of the heathen (Mat_6:7). The second clause, though parallel to the first, carries the thought further. The “heart” or mind of the worshipper also is to be calm and deliberate. We are not to turn every hasty wish into a prayer, but to ask ourselves whether it is one of the things for which we ought to pray. Here also the precept has its analogies in the counsels of the wise of heart outside the covenant of Israel. See especially Juven. Sat. x.
therefore let thy words be few] The Son of Sirach gives the same rule for our speech when in the presence of the “great men” of earth (Sir_32:9), and à fortiori the reverence due to God should shew itself in the same form as our reverence for them. In a Talmudic precept we find the rule in nearly the same words, “the words of a man should always be few in the presence of God” (Berachoth, 61 a, quoted by Ginsburg). Comp. also Hooker E. P. 1. 2. § 3.
Koheleth warns against thoughtless words or hasty professions in prayer, which formed another feature of popular religion. Be not rash with thy mouth. The warning is against hasty and thoughtless words in prayer, words that go from the lips with glib facility, but come not from the heart. Thus our Lord bids those who pray not to use vain repetitions (μὴ βαττολογήσατε), as the heathen, who think to be heard for their much speaking (Mat_6:7). Jesus himself used the same words in his prayer in the garden, and he continually urges the lesson of much and constant prayer—a lessen enforced by apostolic admonitions (see Luk_11:5, etc.; Php_4:6; 1Th_5:17); but it is quite possible to use the same words, and yet throw the whole heart into them each time that they are repeated. Whether the repetition is vain or not depends upon the spirit of the person who prays. Let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God. We should weigh well our wishes, arrange them discreetly, ponder whether they are such as we can rightly make subjects of petition, ere we lay them in words before the Lord. “Before God” may mean in the temple, the house of God, where he is specially present, as Solomon himself testified (1Ki_8:27, 1Ki_8:30, 1Ki_8:43). God is in heaven. The infinite distance between God and man, illustrated by the contrast of earth and the illimitable heaven, is the ground of the admonition to reverence and thoughtfulness (comp. Psa_115:3, Psa_115:16; Isa_4:1-6 :8, 9; Isa_66:1). Therefore let thy words be few, as becomes one who speaks in the awful presence of God. Ben-Sira seems to have had this passage in mind when he writes (Ecclesiasticus 7:14), “Prate not in a multitude of elders, and repeat not (μὴ δευτερώσης) the word in prayer.” We may remember the conduct of the priests of Baal (1Ki_18:26). Ginsburg and Wright quote the Talmudic precept (‘Beraehoth,’ 68. a), “Let the words of a man always be few in the presence of God, according as it is written,” and then follows the passage in our text.
The first clause illustrates the second, the mark of comparison being simply the copula, mere juxtaposition being deemed sufficient to denote the similitude, as in Ecc_7:1; Pro_17:3; Pro_27:21. For a dream cometh through (in consequence of) the multitude of business. The verse is meant to confirm the injunction against vain babbling in prayer. Cares and anxieties in business or other matters occasion disturbed sleep, murder the dreamless repose of the healthy laborer, and produce all kinds of sick fancies and imaginations. Septuagint, “A dream cometh in abundance of trial (πειρασμοῦ);” Vulgate, Multas curas sequuntur somnia. And a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words. The verb should be supplied from the first clause, and not a new one introduced, as in the Authorized Version, “And the voice of a fool (cometh) in consequence of many words.” As surely as excess of business produces fevered dreams, so excess of words, especially in addresses to God, produces a fool’s voice, i.e. foolish speech. St. Gregory points out the many ways in which the mind is affected by images from dreams. “Sometimes,” he says, “dreams are engendered of fullness or emptiness of the belly, sometimes of illusion, sometimes of illusion and thought combined, sometimes of revelation, while sometimes they are engendered of imagination, thought, and revelation together” (‘Moral.,’ 8.42).
3.A dream cometh — When the mind is crowded with many things the devotions come to have the incoherency of a dream, the thoughts being rambling and disconnected; the whole exercise is thus rendered unprofitable. The is known would be better omitted, as the words are not in the Hebrew. The word “cometh” is naturally supplied. Thus, a fool’s voice — that is, unmeaning talk — cometh by multitude of words. Vain repetitions will ensue, and the worshipper may think himself heard for his much speaking. The preceding verse enforced seriousness and brevity of speech before God, from the consideration of his high majesty: this verse enjoins it because the lack of it confuses and dissipates the mind of the worshipper.
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4. When thou vowest a vow unto God] The words are almost a reproduction of Deu_23:22-24. They point to a time when vows, such as are here referred to, entered largely into men’s personal religion. Memorable instances of such vows are found in the lives of Jacob (Gen_28:20), Jephthah (Jdg_11:30), Saul (1Sa_14:24). In later Judaism they came into a fresh prominence, as seen especially in the Corban of Mar_7:11, the revival of the Nazarite vow (Act_18:18; Act_20:23; Joseph. Wars ii. 15, p. 1), and the oath or anathema of Act_23:21; and one of the treatises of the Mishna (Nedarim) was devoted to an exhaustive casuistic treatment of the whole subject. In Mat_5:23 we find the recognised rule of the Pharisees, “Thou shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths,” as the conclusion of the whole matter. This the Debater also affirmed, but he, in his deeper wisdom, went further, and bade men to consider well what kind of vows they made.
for he hath no pleasure in fools] The construction of the sentence in the Hebrew is ambiguous, and may give either (1) that suggested by the interpolated words in the A. V., or (2) “there is no pleasure in fools,” i.e. they please neither God nor man, or (3) “there is no fixed purpose in fools,” i.e. they are unstable in their vows as in everything else. Of these interpretations (2) has most to commend it. In Pro_20:25, “It is a snare … after vows to make inquiry,” we have a striking parallel.
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
When thou vowest a vow unto God — Hasty words in prayer (Ecc_5:2, Ecc_5:3) suggest the subject of hasty vows. A vow should not be hastily made (Jdg_11:35; 1Sa_14:24). When made, it must be kept (Psa_76:11), even as God keeps His word to us (Exo_12:41, Exo_12:51; Jos_21:45).
Koheleth passes on to give a warning concerning the making of vows, which formed a great feature in Hebrew religion, and was the occasion of much irreverence and profanity. When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it. There is here plainly a reminiscence of Deu_23:21-23. Vows are not regarded as absolute duties which every one was obliged to undertake. They are of a voluntary nature, but when made are to be strictly performed. They might consist of a promise to dedicate certain things or persons to God (see Gen_38:20; Jdg_11:30), or to abstain from doing certain things, as in the case of the Nazarites. The rabbinical injunction quoted by our Lord in the sermon on the mount (Mat_5:33), “Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths,” was probably levelled against profane swearing, or invoking God’s Name lightly, but it may include the duty of performing vows made to or in the Name of God. Our Lord does not condemn the practice of corban, while noticing with rebuke a perversion of the custom (Mar_7:11). For he hath no pleasure in fools. The non-fulfillment of a vow would prove a man to be impious, in proverbial language “a fool,” and as such God must regard him with displeasure. The clause in the Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous, being literally, There is no pleasure (chephets) in fools; i.e. no one, neither God nor man, would take pleasure in fools who make promises and never perform them. Or it may be, There is no fixed will in fools; i.e. they waver and are undecided in purpose. But this rendering of chephets appears to be very doubtful. Septuagint Ὅτι οὐκ ἔστι θέλημα ἐν ἄφροσι which reproduces the vagueness of the Hebrew; Vulgate, Displicet enim ei (Deo) infidelis et stulta promissio. The meaning is well represented in the Authorized Version, and we must complete the sense by supplying in thought “on the part of God.” Pay that which thou but vowed. Ben-Sira re-echoes the injunction (Ecclesiasticus 18:22, 23), “Let nothing hinder thee to pay thy vow (εὐχὴν) in due time, and defer not until death to be justified [i.e. to fulfill the vow]. Before making a vow (εὔξασθαι) prepare thyself; and be not as one that tempteth the Lord.” The verse is cited in the Talmud; and Dukes gives a parallel, “Before thou vowest anything, consider the object of thy vow”. So in Pro_20:25 we have, according to some translations, “It is a snare to a man rashly to say, It is holy, and after vows to make inquiry.” Septuagint,” Pay thou therefore whatsoever thou shalt have vowed (ὅσα ἐάν εὔξη),
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5. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow] The point which the Teacher seeks to press is obviously the optional character of vows. They form no part of the essentials of religion, they are to be deprecated rather than otherwise; but to make them, and then delay or evade their fulfilment, is to tamper with veracity and play fast and loose with conscience, and so is fatally injurious. The casuistry condemned by our Lord (Mat_5:33; Mat_23:16-22) shews how fertile was the ingenuity of Scribes in devising expedients of this nature.
Better is it that thou shouldest not vow. There is no harm in not vowing (Deu_23:22); but a vow once made becomes of the nature of an oath, and its non-performance is a sin and sacrilege, and incurs the punishment of false swearing. We gather from the Talmud that frivolous excuses for the evasion of vows were very common, and called for stern repression, One sees this in our Lord’s references (Mat_5:33-37; Mat_23:16-22). St. Paul severely reprehends those women who break their vow of widowhood, “having condemnation, because they have rejected their first faith” (1Ti_5:12).
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
6. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin] The “mouth” may refer either to the thoughtless utterance of the rash vow, such as that of Jephthah (Jdg_11:30) or Saul (1Sa_14:24), or to the appetite which leads the man who has made a vow, say of the Nazarite type, to indulge in the drink or food which he had bound himself to renounce. The former meaning seems more in harmony with the context. The latter clause is translated by many Commentators to bring punishment (the expiation for sin) upon thy flesh, but the A.V. is probably correct. The “flesh” stands as in Gen_6:3; Psa_78:39, and in New Testament language (Rom_7:18; Rom_7:25), for the corrupt sensuous element in man’s nature. The context forbids the extension of the precept to sins of speech in general, as in the wider teaching of Jas_3:1-12.
neither say thou before the angel] The words have been taken by most Jewish and some Christian interpreters as referring to the “angel” in the strict sense of the term, who was believed in Rabbinic traditions to preside over the Temple or the altar, and who, it is assumed, would punish the evasion of the vow on the frivolous excuse that it had been spoken inconsiderately. 1Co_11:13 and 1Ti_5:21 are referred to as illustrations of the same thought. This interpretation, however, seems scarcely in harmony with the generally Hellenised tone of the book, and in Hag_1:13 and Mal_2:7 we have distinct evidence that the term had come to be applied to prophets and priests, as in 2Co_8:23 and Rev_1:20 it is used of ministers in the Christian Church, and this, it is obvious, gives a tenable, and, on the whole, a preferable meaning. The man comes to the priest with an offering less in value than he had vowed, or postpones the fulfilment of his vow indefinitely, and using the technical language of Num_15:25, explains that the vow had been made in ignorance, and therefore that he was not bound to fulfil it to the letter. Other commentators again (Grätz) look on the word as describing a subordinate officer of the Temple.
wherefore should God be angry at thy voice] The question is in form like those of Ezr_4:22; Ezr_7:23, and is rhetorically more emphatic than a direct assertion. The words are a more distinct assertion of a Divine Government seen in earthly rewards and punishments than the book has as yet presented. The vow made, as was common, to secure safety or prosperity, could have no other result than loss and, it might be, ruin, if it were vitiated from the first by a rashness which took refuge in dishonesty.
Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin. “Thy flesh” is equivalent to “thyself,” the whole personality, the idea of the flesh, as a distinct part of the man, sinning, being alien from Old Testament ontology. The injunction means—Do not, by uttering rash or inconsiderate vows, which you afterwards evade or cannot fulfill, bring sin upon yourself, or, as others render, bring punishment upon yourself. Septuagint, “Suffer not thy mouth to Cause thy flesh to sin (τοῦ ὠξαμαρτῆσαι τὴν σάρκα σου);” Vulgate, Ut peccare facias carnem tuam. Another interpretation, but not so suitable, is this—Do not let thy mouth (i.e. thy appetite) lead thee to break the vow of abstinence, and indulge in meat or drink from which (as, e.g; a Nazarite) thou wast bound to abstain. Neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error. If we take “angel” (malak) in the usual sense (and there seems no very forcible reason why we should not), it must mean the angel of God in whose special charge you are placed, or the angel who was supposed to preside over the altar of worship, or that messenger of God whose duty it is to watch man’s doings and to act as the minister of punishment (2Sa_24:16). The workings of God’s providence are often attributed to angels; and sometimes the names of God and angel are interchanged (see Gen_16:9, Gen_16:13; Gen_18:2, Gen_18:3, etc.; Exo_3:2, Exo_3:4; Exo_23:20, etc.). Thus the Septuagint here renders, “Say not before the face of God (πρὸ = προσώπου τοῦ Θεοῦ).” If this interpretation be allowed, we have an argument for the literal explanation of the much-disputed passage in 1Co_11:10, διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους. Thus, too, in ‘The Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs,’ we have, “The Lord is witness, and his angels are witnesses, concerning the word of your mouth” (‘Levi,’ 19). But most commentators consider that the word here means “messenger” of Jehovah, in the sense of priest, the announcer of the Divine Law, as in the unique passage Mal_2:7. Traces of a similar use of ἄγγελος may be found in the New Testament (Rev_1:20; Rev_2:1, etc.). According to the first interpretation, the man comes before God with his excuse; according to the second, he comes to the priest, and confesses that he was thoughtless and overhasty in making his vow, and desires to be released from it, or, at any rate, by some means to evade its fulfillment. His excuse may possibly look to the eases mentioned in Num_15:22, etc; and he may wish to urge that the vow was made in ignorance, and that therefore he was not responsible for its incomplete execution. We do not know that a priest or any officer of the temple had authority to release from the obligation of a vow, so that the excuse made “before” him would seem to be objectless, while the evasion of a solemn promise made in the Name of God might well be said to be done in the presence of the observing and recording angel. The Vulgate rendering, Non eat providentia, makes the man account for his neglect by assuming that God takes no heed of such things; he deems the long-suffering of God to be indifference and disregard (comp. Ecc_8:11; Ecc_9:3). The original does not bear this interpretation. Wherefore should God be angry at thy voice—the words in which thy evasion and dishonesty are expressed—and destroy the work of thine hands? i.e. punish thee by calamity, want of success, sickness, etc; God’s moral government being vindicated by earthly visitations.
6.Suffer not… to sin — Allusion is made to keeping negative vows. A promise to abstain from any kind of meat or drink, if broken, brings sin upon the body; as when the eye is evil the whole body is full of darkness. One is here reminded of the sin of our first parents.
Neither say thou before the angel — The Jews believed in the existence of vast numbers of angels. Of these, seven were archangels: Michael, the guardian of the Jewish people; Raphael, the angel of health; Gabriel, the messenger; Uriel, Phanuel, Raguel, and Sarakiel. They reckoned twenty-four elders or angels of the privy council, seventy angels of the council, and innumerable inferior ones. Wherever God was, angels attended him. So in his temple an angel watched the altar, and to this one the reference is here made. One is not to take a vow and afterward go back to the altar and claim that it was made by mistake and so not binding.
Thy voice — Equivalent to thy idle talk. The displeasure of God was on several occasions mentioned in the Old Testament, manifested by destroying the work of the transgressor.
Suffer not thy mouth … – i. e., Do not make rash vows which may hereafter be the cause of evasion and prevarication, and remain unfulfilled.
Before the angel – The Septuagint and some other versions render “before the face of God,” meaning a spiritual being representing the presence of God, a minister of divine justice Exo_23:21, such a one as inflicted judgment upon David 2Sa_24:17. Others, with less probability, understand the angel to be a priest, and refer to Mal_2:7.
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7. For in the multitude of dreams] The order of the words in the A. V. is not that of the Hebrew, which gives For in the multitude of dreams and vanities and many words, but is adopted by many commentators as representing a more correct text. The introduction of the word “vanities” (the “divers” of the A. V. has, as the italics shew, nothing answering to it in the Hebrew,) indicates the purpose of the writer in thus noting the weak points of popular religionism. They also, the dreams which seemed to them as messages from heaven, the “many words” of long and resounding prayers, took their place in the induction which was to prove that “all is vanity.” So Theophrastus (Charact. xvi.) describes the superstitious man (δεισιδαίμων) as agitated when he sees a vision and straightway going off to consult a soothsayer. In contrast with the garrulous rashness and the inconsiderate vows and the unwise reliance on dreams which Judaism was learning from heathenism (Mat_6:7) Koheleth falls back on the “fear of God,” the temper of reverential and silent awe, which was “the beginning of wisdom” (Pro_1:7; Job_28:28). It is significant that here again the teaching of Koheleth has a parallel in that of the Epicurean poet who traces the “religions” of mankind (in his sense of the word) in no small measure to the influence of dreams.
For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities. The Hebrew is literally, For in multitude of dreams, and vanities, and many words; i.e; as Wright puts it, “In the multitude of dreams are also vanities, and (in) many words (as well).” Koheleth sums up the sense of the preceding paragraph, Ecc_5:1-6. The popular religion, which made much of dreams and verbosity and vows, is vanity, and has in it nothing substantial or comforting. The superstitious man who puts his faith in dreams is unpractical and unreal; the garrulous man who is rash in his vows, and in prayer thinks to be heard for his much speaking, displeases God and never secures his object. Ginsburg and Bullock render, “For it is (it happens) through the multitude of idle thoughts and vanities and much talking,” the reference being either to the foolish speaking of Ecc_5:2 or to the wrath of God in Ecc_5:6. The Septuagint rendering is elliptical, Ὅτι ἐ πλήθει ἐνυπνίων καὶ ματαιοτήτων καὶ λόγων πολλῶν ὅτι σὺ τὸν Θεὸν φοβοῦ. To complete this, some supply, “Many vows are made or excused;” others, “There is evil.” Vulgate, Ubi multa aunt somnia, plurimae aunt vanitates, et sermones innumeri.’ The Authorized Version gives the sense of the passage. But fear thou God. In contrast with these spurious forms of religion, which the Jews were inclined to adopt, the writer recalls men to the fear of the one true God, to whom all vows should be performed, and who should be worshipped from the heart.