Cambridge Bible Plumptre
3. This is an evil among all things] The pessimism of the thinker returns once more upon him, and he falls into the strain which we have heard before in chs. Ecc_2:14-16, Ecc_3:19, Ecc_5:15, Ecc_6:12. The great leveller comes and sweeps away all distinctions, and there is no assured hope of immortality. Life is “evil” even while it lasts, and death is the same for all, when the curtain drops on the great drama.
madness is in their heart while they live] The “madness” is that of chs. Ecc_1:17, Ecc_2:12. All man’s life, in its vain strivings, its fond hopes, its wild desires, seems to the pessimist but as the “delirantium somnia.” The English version seems to imply that the writer laid stress on the fact that the evildoers did not continue in existence to bear the penalty they deserved, but rested in the grave like others;
“After life’s fitful fever they sleep well,”
but it is rather the Epicurean thought of death as the common lot, and the sigh with which it is uttered is, as it were, the unconscious protest of the philosophising Hebrew against the outcome of his philosophy. In what he heard of as a “short life and merry” he finds an insanity that ends in nothingness.
This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun. The “evil” is explained in the following words, which speak of the common fate. The Vulgate (followed by Ginsburg and others) lakes the first words as equivalent to a superlative: Hoc est pessimum inter omnia, “This is the greatest evil of all that is done under the sun.” But the article would have been used in this case; nor would this accurately express Koheleth’s sentiments. He looks upon death only as one of the evils appertaining to men’s career on earth—one of the phases of that identity of treatment so certain and so inexplicable, which leads to disastrous results (Ecc_8:11). That there is one event unto all. The “one event,” as the end of the verse shows, is death. We have here the old strain repeated which is found in Ecc_2:14-16; Ecc_3:19; Ecc_5:15; Ecc_6:12; “Omnes eodem cogimur” (Horace, ‘Carm.,’ Ecc_2:3. 25). Yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil. In consequence of this indiscriminating destiny men sin recklessly, are encouraged in their wickedness. Madness is in their heart while they live. The “madness” is conduct opposed to the dictates of wisdom and reason, as Ecc_1:17; Ecc_2:2, Ecc_2:12. All their life long men follow their own lusts and passions, and care little for God’s will and law, or their own best interests. This is well called “want of reason. And after that they go to the dead. The verb is omitted in the Hebrew, being implied by the preposition כִּי, “to;” the omission is very forcible. Delitzsch, Wright, and others render, “after him,” i.e. after man’s life is ended, which seems rather to say, “after they die, they die.” The idea, however, appears to be, both good and evil go to the same place, pass away into nothingness, are known no more in this world. Here at present Koheleth leaves the question of the future life, having already intimated his belief in Ecc_3:1-22. and Ecc_8:11, etc.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
4. For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope] A different and preferable punctuation gives the rendering: For who is specially chosen, i.e. who is excepted from the common lot of death. To all the living there is hope. The passage has, however, received many conflicting interpretations, of which this seems, on the whole, the best. It was quite after the tone of Greek thought to find in the inextinguishable hope which survives in most men even to the end, even though the hope does not stretch beyond the horizon of the grave, their one consolation, that which made life at least liveable, even if not worth living. So Hope was found at the bottom of Pandora’s treasure-chest of evils. So Sophocles:
ἂ γὰρ δὴ πολύπλαγκτος ἐλπὶς πολλοῖς μέν ὄνασις ἀνδρῶν.
“For unto men comes many-wandering hope,
Bringing vain joy.”
a living dog is better than a dead lion] The point of the proverb lies, of course, in the Eastern estimate of the dog as the vilest of all animals (1Sa_17:43; Psa_69:6; 2Ki_8:13; Mat_7:6; Mat_15:26; Rev_22:15, et al.), while the lion, with both Jew and Greek, was, as the king of beasts (Pro_30:30), the natural symbol of human sovereignty. A like proverb is found in Arabic.
The pessimist view of life, co-existing with the shrinking from death, finds a parallel in Euripides (Hippol. 190–197):
πᾶς δʼ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων,
κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις
ἀλλʼ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο
σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις•
δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθʼ ὄντες
τοῦ δʼ• ὅτι τοῦτο στίλβοι κατὰ γᾶν.
διʼ ἀπειροσύναν ἄλλου βιότου,
κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας.
“Yea, every life of man is full of grief,
Nor is there any respite from his toils:
But whatsoe’er is dearer than our life,
Darkness comes o’er it, covering all with clouds;
And yet of this we seem all madly fond,
For this at least is bright upon the earth,
Through utter nescience of a life elsewhere,
And the ‘no-proof’ of all beneath the earth.”
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope. As long as a man lives (is one of living beings) he has some hope, whatever it be. This feeling is inextinguishable even unto the end.
Ἄελπτον οὐδέν πάντα δ ελπίζειν χρεών
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”
Thus Bailey sings, in ‘Festus’—
“All Have hopes, however wretched they may be,
Or blessed. It is hope which lifts the lark so high,
Hope of a lighter air and bluer sky;
And the poor hack which drops down on the flints,
Upon whose eye the dust is settling, he
Hopes, but to die. No being exists, of hope,
Of love, void.”
This clause gives a reason for the folly of men, mentioned in Ecc_9:3. Whatever be their lot, or their way of life, they see no reason to make any change by reformation or active exertion. They go on hoping, and do nothing. Something may turn up; amid the inexplicable confusion of the ordering of events some happy contingency may arrive. The above is the reading according to the Keri. Thus the Septuagint: Ὅτι τίς ὅς κοινωνεῖ; “For who is he that has fellowship with all the living?” Symmachus has, “For who is he that will always continue to live?” while the Vulgate gives, Nemo est qui semper vivat. The Khetib points differently, offering the reading, “For who is excepted?” i.e. from the common lot, the interrogation being closely connected with the preceding verse, or “Who can choose?” i.e. whether he will die or not. The sentence then proceeds, “To all the living there is hope.” But the rendering of the Authorized Version has good authority, and affords the better sense. For a living dog is better than a dead lion. The dog in Palestine was not made a pet and companion, as it is among us, but was regarded as a loathsome and despicable object comp. 1Sa_17:43; 2Sa_3:8); while the lion was considered as the noblest of beasts, the type of power and greatness (comp. Pro_30:30; Isa_31:4). So the proverbial saying in the text means that the vilest and meanest creature possessed of life is better than the highest and mightiest which has succumbed to death. There is an apparent contradiction between this sentence and such passages as claim a preference for death over life, e.g. Ecc_4:2; Ecc_7:1; but in the latter the writer is viewing life with all its sorrows and bitter experiences, here he regards it as affording the possibility of enjoyment. In the one case he holds death as desirable, because it delivers from further sorrow and puts an end to misery; in the other, he deprecates death as cutting off from pleasure and hope. He may also have in mind that now is the time to do the work which we have to perform: “The night cometh when no man can work;” Ecclesiasticus 17:28, “Thanksgiving perisheth from the dead, as from one that is not; the living and sound shall praise the Lord” (comp. Isa_38:18, Isa_38:19.)
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
5. For the living know that they shall die] The writer in one of the strange paradoxes of the mood of pessimism finds that though life is vanity, it is yet better than the death which he looks upon as its only outcome. There is a greatness in the very consciousness of the coming doom. Man, knowing he must perish and lamenting over his fate, is nobler than those that are already numbered with the dead. There is a pride even in the cry with which those who enter on the arena as doomed to death greet the sovereign Power that dooms them:
“Ave, Cæsar; morituri te salutamus.”
“Hail to thee Cæsar, hail! on our way to our death-doom we greet thee.”
They were nobler then than when their bleeding and mangled car-cases on the arena were all that was left of them.
neither have they any more a reward] The words exclude the thought (in the then phase of the Debater’s feeling) of reward in a life after death, but the primary meaning of the word is that of “hire” and “wages” (Gen_30:28; Exo_2:9), and the idea conveyed is that the dead no longer find, as on earth, that which rewards their labour. There is no longer even death to look forward to as the wages of his life.
So we have in Shakespeare:
“Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.”
Cymbeline, Act iv., Sc. 2.
for the memory of them is forgotten] The Hebrew gives an assonance between “reward” (sheker) and “memory” (zeker), which it is hard to reproduce in English. “Reward” and “record” suggest themselves as the nearest approximation. For the thought see note on ch. Ecc_1:11. Even the immortality of living in the memory of others, which modern thinkers have substituted for the Christian hope, is denied to the vast majority of mankind.
For the living know that they shall die. This is added in confirmation of the statement in Ecc_9:4. The living have at least the consciousness that they will soon have to die, and this leads them to work while it is day, to employ their faculties worthily, to make use of opportunities, to enjoy and profit by the present. They have a certain fixed event to which they must look forward; and they have not to stand idle, lamenting their fate, but their duty and their happiness is to accept the inevitable and make the best of it. But the dead know not anything. They are cut off from the active, bustling world; their work is done; they have nothing to expect, nothing to labor for. What passes upon earth affects them not; the knowledge of it reaches them no longer. Aristotle’s idea was that the dead did know something, in a hazy and indistinct way, of what went on in the upper world, and were in some slight degree influenced thereby, but not to such a degree as to change happiness into misery, or vice versa (‘Eth. Nicom.,’ Ecc_1:10 and Ecc_1:11). Neither have they any more a reward; i.e. no fruit for labor done. There is no question here about future retribution in another world. The gloomy view of the writer at this moment precludes all idea of such an adjustment of anomalies after death. For the memory of them is forgotten. They have not even the poor reward of being remembered by loving posterity, which in the mind of an Oriental was an eminent blessing, to be much desired. There is a paronomasia in zeker, “memory,” and sakar, “reward,” which, as Plumptre suggests, may be approximately represented in English by the words “record” and “reward.”
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now (long ago) perished. All the feelings which are exhibited and developed in the life of the upper world are annihilated (comp. Ecc_9:10). Three are selected as the most potent passions, such as by their strength and activity might ideally be supposed to survive even the stroke of death. But all are now at an end. Neither have they any more a portion forever in any thing that is done under the sun. Between the dead and the living an impassable gulf exists. The view of death here given, intensely gloomy and hopeless as it appears to be, is in conformity with other passages of the Old Testament (see Job_14:10-14; Psa_6:5; Psa_30:9; Isa_38:10-19; Ecclesiasticus 17:27, 28; Bar. 3:16-19), and that imperfect dispensation. Koheleth and his contemporaries were of those “who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb_2:15); it was Christ who brightened the dark valley, showing the blessedness of those who die in the Lord, bringing life and immortality to light through the gospel (2Ti_1:10). Some expositors have felt the pessimistic utterances of this passage so deeply that they have endeavored to account for them by introducing an atheistic objector, or an intended opposition between flesh and spirit. But there is not a trace of any two such voices, and the suggestion is quite unnecessary. The writer, while believing in the continued existence of the soul, knows little and has little that is cheering to say about it’s condition; and what he does say is not inconsistent with a judgment to come, though he has not yet arrived at the enunciation of this great solution. The Vulgate renders the last clause, Nec habent partem in hoc saeculo et in opere quod sub sole geritur. But “forever” is the correct rendering of לְעוֹלָם, and Ginsburg concludes that Jerome’s translation can be traced to the Hagadistic interpretation of the verse which restricts its scope to the wicked The author of the Book of Wisdom, writing later, takes a much more hopeful view of death and the departed (see Ecc_1:15; Ecc_2:22-24; Ecc_3:1; Ecc_6:1-12 :18; Ecc_8:17; 15:3, etc.).
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
7. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy] The Debater falls back, as before, on the Epicurean rule of tranquil regulated enjoyment, as in chs. Ecc_2:24, Ecc_3:12; Ecc_3:22, Ecc_5:18. Life was after all liveable, if a man would but set himself to look at its brighter side. The specific mention of “wine” for the first time in this connexion does not imply anything more than the moderate use of it commended in Pro_31:6; Psa_104:15. What is asserted, is that asceticism is not the right remedy for pessimism. Experience indeed seems to shew that too often it does but intensify it. Whatever else might be doubtful, if such a life were accepted as God’s gift (chs. Ecc_2:24, Ecc_8:15), He approved of the deeds of the man who so lived. The “other, and more cheerful, voice” utters a protest against the mere gloom of despair. We have oscillations of thought, but not, as some have supposed, the maxims of a sensualist introduced only to be condemned.
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy. This is not an injunction to lead a selfish life of Epicurean pleasure; but taking the limited view to which he here confines himself, the Preacher inculcates the practical wisdom of looking at the bright side of things; he says in effect (though he takes care afterwards to correct a wrong impression which might be given),” Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die” (1Co_15:32). We have had the same counsel in Ecc_2:24; Ecc_3:12, Ecc_3:13, Ecc_3:22; Ecc_5:18; Ecc_8:15. Drink thy wine with a merry heart. Wine was not an accompaniment of meals usually; it -was reserved for feasts and solemn occasions. Bread and wine are here regarded as the necessary means of support and comfort (comp. Ecc_10:19; Gen_14:18; 1Sa_16:20, etc.). The moderate use of wine is nowhere forbidden; there is no law in the Old Testament against the use of intoxicating drinks; the employment of such fluids as cordials, exhilarating, strengthening and comforting, is often referred to (comp. Jdg_9:13; Psa_104:15; Pro_31:6, Pro_31:7; Ecclesiasticus 31:27, 28). Thus Koheleth’s advice, taken even literally, is not contrary to the spirit of his religion. For God now (long ago) accepteth thy works. The “works” are not moral or religious doings, in reward of which God gives temporal blessings, which is plainly opposed to Koheleth’s chief contention in all this passage. The works are the eating and drinking just mentioned. By the constitution of man’s nature, and by the ordering of Providence, such capacity of enjoyment is allowable, and there need be no scruple in using it. Such things are God’s good gifts, and to be received with reverence and thanksgiving; and he who thus employs them is well-pleasing unto the Lord (Ecc_2:24; Ecc_8:15).
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
8. Let thy garments be always white] In the symbolism of colours, so universal that we may almost call it natural, white garments, cool and refreshing in the heat of an Eastern climate, have always been associated with the idea of purity and joy (2Ch_5:12; Est_8:15). In the religious symbolism of Rev_3:4-5; Rev_3:18; Rev_6:11, the idea of purity is, perhaps, predominant over that of joy. So in Roman life the term “albatus” (clothed in white garments) was used of one who took part in a festive banquet (Hor. Sat. ii. 2. 61; Cic. in Vatin. c. 13). A singular instance of literalism is recorded in the life of Sisinnius, the Novatian bishop of Constantinople, who, as in obedience to this precept, never wore any but white garments (Socr. H. E. vi. 21). Chrysostom censures his ostentation.
let thy head lack no ointment] Here, again, illustrations from Hebrew, Greek and Roman life crowd on us. We think of the “oil of gladness” of Psa_45:7; the “oil of joy” of Isa_61:3; of “the sweet smell” of Isa_3:24; of “the costly wine and ointments” of Wis_2:7; of the “perfusus liquidis odoribus” of Hor. Od. i. 5; of the “Assyriaque nardo potamus uncti” (“let us drink anointed with Assyrian nard”) of Hor. Od. ii. 11.
Let thy garments be always white. The Preacher brings into prominence certain particulars of enjoyment, more noticeable than mere eating and drinking. White garments in the East (as among ourselves) were symbols of joy and purity. Thus the singers in Solomon’s temple were arrayed in white linen (2Ch_5:12). Mordecai was thus honored by King Ahasuerus (Est_8:15), the angels are seen similarly decked (Mar_16:5), and the glorified saints are clothed in white (Rev_3:4, Rev_3:5, Rev_3:18). So in the pseudepi-graphal books the same imagery is retained. Those that “have fulfilled the Law of the Lord have received glorious garments, and are clothed in white” (2 Esdr. 2:39, 40). Among the Romans the same symbolism obtained. Horace (‘Sat.,’ 2.2. 60)—
“Ille repotia, natales aliosve dierum
Festes albatus celebret.”
“Though he in whitened toga celebrate
His wedding, birthday, or high festival.”
Let thy head lack no ointment. Oil and perfumes were used on festive occasions not only among Eastern nations, but by Greeks and Romans (see on Ecc_7:1). Thus Telemachus is anointed with fragrant oil by the fair Polykaste (Homer, ‘Od,’ 3.466). Sappho complains to Phaen (Ovid,’ Heroid.’ 15.76)—
“Non Arabs noster rore capillus olet.”
“No myrrh of Araby bedews my hair.”
Such allusions in Horace are frequent and commonly cited (see ‘Carm.,’ 1.5. 2; 2.7. 7, 8; 2.11. 15, etc.). Thus the double injunction in this verse counsels one to be always happy and cheerful. Gregory Thaumaturgus (cited by Plumptre) represents the passage as the error of “men of vanity;” and other commentators have deemed that it conveyed not the Preacher’s own sentiments, but those of an atheist whom he cites. There is, as we have already seen, no need to resort to such an explanation. Doubtless the advice may readily be perverted to evil, and made to sanction sensuality and licentiousness, as-we see to have been done in Wis. 2:6-9; but Koheleth only urges the moderate use of earthly goods as consecrated by God’s gift.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
9. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest] The absence of the article from the Hebrew noun for “woman” has been wrongly pressed by interpreters who see in the Debater the advocate of sensuality, as indicating indifference to the marriage union (“live joyfully with a woman whom thou lovest, whether wife or not”), and is simply the indefinite form natural to a general maxim. So we should say naturally “live with a wife whom you love.” The conclusion in which the writer for the present rests is that while sensual indulgence in excess leads to misery and shame, and brings men into contact with the most hateful form of womanhood (chs. Ecc_2:11, Ecc_7:26), there is a calm peacefulness in the life of a happy home, which, though it cannot remove the sense of the “vanity” and transitoriness of life, at least makes it endurable. If there is, as some have thought, an undertone of irony, it is one which springs from a sympathy with the joy as well as the sorrow of life, and not that of a morose cynicism, saying, “enjoy … if you can.”
all the days of thy vanity] The iteration emphasizes the wisdom of making the most of the few days of life. The thought is essentially the same as that expressed in the Carpe diem of Hor. Od. i. 11.
that is thy portion in this life] This, the calm regulated enjoyment of the wiser Epicureans.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest; literally, see life with a wife whom thou lovest. The article is omitted, as the maxim is to be taken generally. In correction of the outspoken condemnation of women in Ecc_7:26, Koheleth here recognizes the happiness of a home where is found a helpmate beloved and worthy of love (comp. Pro_5:18, Pro_5:19; Pro_17:22, on which our passage seems to be founded; and Ecclesiasticus 26:13-18). (For the expression, ” see life,” vide note on Ecc_2:1.) St. Jerome’s comment is misleading, “Quacumque tibi placuerit feminarum ejus gaude complexu.” Some critics translate ishshah here “woman.” Thus Cox: “Enjoy thyself with any woman whom thou lovest;” but the best commentators agree that the married state is meant in the text, not mere sensual enjoyment. All the days of the life of thy vanity; i.e. throughout the time of thy quickly passing life. This is repeated after the next clause, in order to emphasize the transitoriness of the present and the consequent wisdom of enjoying it while it lasts. So Horace bids man “carpe diem” (‘Carm.,’ 1.11.8), “enjoy each atom of the day;’” and Martial sings (‘Epigr,’ 7.47. 11)—
“Vive velut rapto fugitivaque gaudia carpe.”
“Live thou thy life as stolen, and enjoy
Thy quickly fading pleasures.”
Which he (God) hath given thee under the sun. The relative may refer to either the “wife” or” the days of life.” The Septuagint and Vulgate take it as belonging to the latter, and this seems most suitable (comp. Ecc_5:17). That is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor, etc. Such moderate enjoyment is the recompense allowed by God for the toil which accompanies a properly spent life.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
10. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do] Here again men have interpreted the maxim according to their characters; some seeing in “whatsoever thy hand findeth” simply opportunities for enjoyment; others taking the precept as meaning practically, “do whatever thou hast strength to do, let might be right with thee;” others, as it seems, more truly, finding in it a call to work as well as enjoyment; to work as the condition of enjoyment (chs. Ecc_1:14, Ecc_5:12). It may be questioned whether the word for “work” is ever used of mere activity in sensual pleasure. For the phrase “whatsoever thy hand findeth” see the marginal reading of 1Sa_10:7; Jdg_9:33.
for there is no work, nor device] The words find a parallel, though in a far higher region, and with a far nobler meaning, in those which were spoken by the Son of Man, “I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work” (Joh_9:4). From the standpoint of the Debater the region behind the veil, if there be a region there, is seen as a shadow-world in which all the energies that belong to a man as a “being of large discourse looking before and after” are hushed in the deep sleep of death. The common saying, often in men’s mouths as if it came from the Bible, “There is no repentance in the grave,” is probably an echo of this passage. It is obvious, however, that the state of the dead which is in the writer’s thoughts approximates to a theory of annihilation rather than to that of a state of torment in which repentance is impossible or unavailing. The “grave” stands as elsewhere (Job_7:9; Psa_6:5, et al.) for the Hebrew Sheôl, the Hades of the Greek, the unseen world of the dead. It is noticeable that this is the only passage in the book in which the word occurs.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might. In accordance with what has been already said, and to combat the idea that, as man cannot control his fate, he should take no pains to work his work, but fold his hands in resigned inaction, Koheleth urges him not to despair, but to do his part manfully as long as life is given, and with all the energies of his soul carry out the purpose of his being. The Septuagint gives, “All things whatsoever thy hand shall find to do, do it as thy power is (ὡς ἡ δυ ́ναμίς σου);” Vulgate, Quodcumque facere potest manus tua, instanter operate. The expression at the commencement may be illustrated by Le Ecc_12:8; 25:28; Jdg_9:33, where it implies ability to carry out some intention, and in some passages is thus rendered, “is able,” etc. (comp. Pro_3:27). It is therefore erroneous to render it in this place, “Whatever by chance cometh to hand;” or “Let might be right.” Rather it is a call to work as the prelude and accompaniment of enjoyment, anticipating St. Paul’s maxim (2Th_3:10), “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Ginsburg’s interpretation is dishonoring to the Preacher and foreign to his real sentiments, “Have recourse to every source of voluptuous gratification, while thou art in thy strength.” The true meaning of the verse is confirmed by such references as Joh_9:4, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work;” 2Co_6:2, “Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation;” Gal_6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men.” For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave. The departed have no more work which they can do, no plans or calculations to make; their knowledge is strictly limited, their wisdom is ended. It needs body and soul to carry on the labors and activities of this world; when these are severed, and can no longer act together, there is a complete alteration in the man’s relations and capacities. “The grave,” sheol (which is found nowhere else in Ecclesiastes), is the place to which go the souls of the dead—a shadowy region. Whither thou goest; to which all are bound. It is plain that the writer believes in the continued existence of the soul, as he differentiates its life in sheol from its life on earth, the energies and operations which are carried on in the one case being curtailed or eclipsed in the other. Of any repentance, or purification, or progress, in the unseen world, Koheleth knows and says nothing. He would seem to regard existence there as a sleep or a state of insensibility; at any rate, such is the natural view of the present passage.
He reverts to the sentiment of Ecc_9:1, that we cannot calculate on the issues of life. Work as we may and must and ought, the results are uncertain and beyond our control. This he shows by his own personal experience. I returned, and saw under the sun. The expression here does not indicate a new departure, but merely a repetition and confirmation of a previous thought—the dependence and conditionality of man. It implies, too, a correction of a possible misunderstanding of the injunction to labor, as if one’s own efforts were sure to secure success. The race is not to the swift. One is reminded of the fable of the hare and tortoise; but Koheleth’s meaning is different. In the instances given he intimates that, though a man is well equipped for his work and uses all possible exertions, he may incur failure. So one may be a fleet runner, and yet, owing to some untoward accident or disturbing circumstance, not come in first. Thus Ahimaaz brought to David tidings of Absalom’s defeat before Cushi, who had had the start of him (2Sa_18:27, 2Sa_18:31). There is no occasion to invent an allusion to the foot-race in the formal Greek games. The battle to the strong. Victory does not always accrue to mighty men, heroes. As David, himself an instance of the truth of the maxim, says (1Sa_17:47), “The Lord saveth not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s”. Neither yet bread to the wise. Wisdom will not ensure competency. To do this requires other endowments. Many a man of cultivated intellect and of high mental power is left to starve. Riches to men of understanding. Aristophanes accounts for the unequal distribution of wealth thus (‘Plutus,’ 88), the god himself speaking-
“I threatened, when a boy,
On none but just and wise and orderly
My favors to bestow; so Zeus in jealousy
Hath made me blind, that I may none of these Distinguish.”
Nor yet favor to men of skill. “Skill” hero does not mean dexterity in handicrafts or arts, but knowledge generally; and the gnome says that reputation and influence do not necessarily accompany the possession of knowledge and learning; knowledge is not a certain or indispensable means to favor. Says the Greek gnomist—
Τύχης τὰ θνητῶν πράγματ οὐκ εὐβουλίας.
“Not prudence rules, but fortune, men’s affairs.”
That time and chance happeneth to them all. We have had the word eth, “time,” all through Ecc_3:1-22. and elsewhere; but פֶגַע, rendered “chance,” is uncommon, being found only in 1Ki_5:4 (18, Hebrew). Everything has its proper season appointed by God, and man is powerless to control these arrangements. Our English word “chance” conveys an erroneous impression. What is meant is rather “incident,” such as a calamity, disappointment, unforeseen occurrence. All human purposes are liable to be changed or controlled by circumstances beyond man’s power, and incapable of explanation. A hand higher than man’s disposes events, and success is conditioned by superior laws which work unexpected results.
Man also knoweth not his time; Vulgate, Neseit homo finem suum, understanding “his time” to mean his death-hour; but it may include any misfortune or accident. The particle gam, “also,” or “even,” belongs to “his time.” Not only are results out of man’s control (Ecc_9:11), but his life is in higher hands, and he is never sure of a day. As the fishes that are taken in an evil net, etc. The suddenness and unforeseen nature of calamities that befall men are here expressed by two forcible similes (comp. Pro_7:23; Eze_12:13; Eze_32:3). Thus Homer (‘Iliad,’ 5.487)—
“Beware lest ye, as in the meshes caught
Of some wide-sweeping net, become the prey
And booty of your foes.”
So are the sons of men snared in an evil time. Men are suddenly overtaken by calamity, which they are totally unable to foresee or provide against. Our Lord says (Luk_21:35) that the last day shall come as a snare on all that dwell in the earth (comp. Eze_7:7, Eze_7:12).
There was a little city, and few men within it – Here is another proof of the vanity of sublunary things; the ingratitude of men, and the little compensation that genuine merit receives. The little history mentioned here may have either been a fact, or intended as an instructive fable. A little city, with few to defend it, being besieged by a great king and a powerful army, was delivered by the cunning and address on a poor wise man; and afterwards his townsmen forgot their obligation to him.
Those who spiritualize this passage, making the little city the Church, the few men the Apostles, the great king the Devil, and the poor wise man Jesus Christ, abuse the text.
But the Targum is not less whimsical: “The little city is the human body; few men in it, few good affections to work righteousness; the great king, evil concupiscence, which, like a strong and powerful king, enters into the body to oppress it, and besieges the heart so as to cause it to err; built great bulwarks against it – evil concupiscence builds his throne in it wheresoever he wills, and causes it to decline from the ways that are right before God; that it may be taken in the greatest nets of hell, that he may burn it seven times, because of its sins. But there is found in it a poor wise man – a good, wise, and holy affection, which prevails over the evil principle, and snatches the body from the judgment of hell, by the strength of its wisdom. Yet, after this deliverance, the man did not remember what the good principle had done for him; but said in his heart, I am innocent,” etc.
What a wonderful text has this been in the hands of many a modern Targumist; and with what force have the Keachonians preached Christ crucified from it!
Such a passage as this receives a fine illustration from the case of Archimedes saving the city of Syracuse from all the Roman forces besieging it by sea ana land. He destroyed their ships by his burning-glasses, lifted up their galleys out of the water by his machines, dashing some to pieces, and sinking others. One man’s wisdom here prevailed for a long time against the most powerful exertions of a mighty nation. In this case, wisdom far exceeded strength. But was not Syracuse taken, notwithstanding the exertions of this poor wise man? No. But it was betrayed by the baseness of Mericus, a Spaniard, one of the Syracusan generals. He delivered the whole district he commanded into the hands of Marcellus, the Roman consul, Archimedes having defeated every attempt made by the Romans, either by sea or land: yet he commanded no company of men, made no sorties, but confounded and destroyed them by his machines. This happened about 208 years before Christ, and nearly about the time in which those who do not consider Solomon as the author suppose this book to have been written. This wise man was not remembered; he was slain by a Roman soldier while deeply engaged in demonstrating a new problem, in order to his farther operations against the enemies of his country. See Plutarch, and the historians of this Syracusan war.
When Alexander the Great was about to destroy the city Lampsacus, his old master Anaximenes came out to meet him. Alexander, suspecting his design, that he would intercede for the city, being determined to destroy it, swore that he would not grant him any thing he should ask. Then said Anaximenes, “I desire that you will destroy this city.” Alexander respected his oath, and the city was spared. Thus, says Valerius Mancimus, the narrator, (lib. 7: c. iii., No. 4. Extern)., by this sudden turn of sagacity, this ancient and noble city was preserved from the destruction by which it was threatened. “Haec velocitas sagacitatis oppidum vetusta nobilitate inclytum exitio, cui destinatum erat, subtraxit.”
A stratagem of Jaddua, the high priest, was the means of preserving Jerusalem from being destroyed by Alexander, who, incensed because they had assisted the inhabitants of Gaza when he besieged it, as soon as he had reduced it, marched against Jerusalem, with the determination to raze it to the ground; but Jaddua and his priests in their sacerdotal robes, meeting him on the way, he was so struck with their appearance that he not only prostrated himself before the high priest, and spared the city, but also granted it some remarkable privileges. But the case of Archimedes and Syracuse is the most striking and appropriate in all its parts. That of Anaximenes and Lampsacus is also highly illustrative of the maxim of the wise man: “Wisdom is better than strength.”
There was a little city. The substantive verb is, as commonly, omitted. Commentators have amused themselves with endeavoring to identify the city here mentioned. Thus some see herein Athens, saved by the counsel of Themistocles, who was afterwards driven from Athens and died in misery (Justin; 2.12); or Dora, near Mount Carmel, besieged unsuccessfully by Antiochus the Great, B.C. 218, though we know nothing of the circumstances (Polyb; 5.66); but see note on Ecc_9:13. The Septuagint takes the whole paragraph hypothetically, “Suppose there was a little city,” etc. Wright well compares the historical allusions to events fresh in the minds of his hearers made by our Lord in his parable of the pounds (Luk_19:12, Luk_19:14, Luk_19:15, Luk_19:27). So we may regard the present section as a parable founded on some historical fact well known at the time when the book was written. A great king. The term points to some Persian or Assyrian potentate; or it may mean merely a powerful general (see 1Ki_11:24; Job_29:25). Built great bulwarks against it. The Septuagint has χάρακας μεγάλους, “great palisades;” the Vulgate, Extruxitque munitiones per gyrum. What are meant are embankments or mounds raised high enough to overtop the walls of the town, and to command the positions of the besieged. For the same purpose wooden towers were also used (see Deu_20:20; 2Sa_20:15; 2Ki_19:32; Jeremiah lit. 4). The Vulgate rounds off the account in the text by adding, et perfects est obsidio, ” and the beleaguering was completed.”
Now there was found in it a poor wise man. The verb, regarded as impersonal, may be thus taken. Or we may continue the subject of the preceding verse and consider the king as spoken of: “He came across, met with unexpectedly, a poor man who was wise.” So the Septuagint. The word for “poor” in this passage is misken, for which see note on Ecc_4:13. He by his wisdom delivered the city. When the besieged city had neither soldiers nor arms to defend itself against its mighty enemies, the man of poor estate, hitherto unknown or little regarded, came forward, and by wise counsel relieved his countrymen from their perilous situation. How this was done we are left to conjecture. It may have been by some timely concessions or negotiations; or by the surrender of a chief offender as at Abel-Beth-maachah; or by the assassination of a general, as at Bethulia (Jud. 13:8); or by the clever application of mechanical arts, as at Syracuse, under the direction of Archimedes. Yet no man remembered that same poor man. As soon as the exigence which brought him forward was past, the poor man fell back into his insignificance, and was thought of no more; he gained no personal advantage, by his wisdom; his ungrateful countrymen forgot his very existence. Thus Joseph was treated by the chief butler (Gen_40:23). Classical readers will think of Coriolanus, Scipio Africanus, Themistocles, Miltiades, who for their services to the state were rewarded with calumny, false accusation, obloquy, and banishment. The author of the Book of Wisdom gives a different and ideal experience. “I,” he says, “for the sake of wisdom shall have estimation among the multitude, and honor with the elders, though I be young …. By the means of her I shall obtain immortality, and leave behind me an everlasting memorial” (Wis. 8:10-13).
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
16. Wisdom is better than strength] The maxim of ch. Ecc_7:19 is reproduced, but it is traversed by the fact that the wisdom must often be content to remain unrecognised. The power of the purse too often prevails against the wisdom of the poor. At the best, often, in words already quoted (Ecc_9:11),
“Probitas laudatur et alget.”
“Virtue is praised, and left out in the cold.”
Juvenal, Sat. i. 74.
The marginal reference in the A. V. to Mar_6:2-3 is not without significance as indicating the highest illustration of the maxim, in the question which asked “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is he not himself a carpenter?” The chief butler’s forgetfulness of Joseph (Gen_40:23) supplies another obvious parallel.
16.Wisdom is despised — In this instance, favour did not come to the man of skill. One can hardly avoid adding, though it is foreign to Koheleth’s present line of thought, that wisdom is largely its own conscious reward. even while it ministers, and is not ministered to.
The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. This verse would be better translated, Words of the wise in quiet are heard better than the shout of a chief among fools. The Vulgate takes the tranquility to appertain to the hearers, thus: Verba sapientium audiuntur in silentio; but, as Delitzsch points out, the contrast between “quiet” and “cry” shows that it is the man, and not his auditors, who is quiet. The sentence says that a wise man’s words, uttered calmly, deliberately, without pompous declamation or adventitious aids, are of more value than the blustering vociferation of an arch-fool, who seeks to force acceptance for his folly by loudness and swagger (comp. Isa_30:15; and see Isa_42:2 and Mat_12:19, passages which speak of the peacefulness, reticence, and unobtrusiveness of true wisdom, as seen in the Son of God). The verse introduces a kind of exception to the general rejection of wisdom mentioned above. Though the multitude turn a deaf ear to a wise man’s counsel, yet this tells in the long run, and there are always some teachable persons-who sit at his feet and learn from him. “He that ruleth among fools” is not one that governs a silly people, but one who is a prince of fools, who takes the highest place among such.
Ecc_9:17.The words of wise men — Though poor; are heard in quiet — Are uttered with a modest and low voice, and are, or should be, heard by wise men; more than the cry — The clamorous and senseless discourses; of him that ruleth among fools — Of a rich and potent, but foolish man, who has some influence on fools like himself, but is justly neglected, and his words disregarded by wise men. Or, as Aben Ezra interprets the verse, connecting it with the preceding, “The words of the wise are despised by the people when they are in prosperity, but when they are in distress, and silenced by fear and grief, then they listen eagerly and diligently.”
Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Such is the moral which Koheleth desires to draw from the little narrative given above (see Ecc_9:14-16; and Ecc_7:19). Wisdom can do what no material force can effect, and often produces results which all the implements of war could not command. But one sinner destroyeth much good. The happy consequences which the wise man’s counsel might accomplish, or has already accomplished, may be overthrown or rendered useless by the villany or perversity of a bad man. The Vulgate, reading differently, has, Qui in uno peccaverit, multa bona perdet. But this seems to be out of keeping with the context. Adam’s sin infected the whole race of man; Achau’s transgression caused Israel’s defeat (Jos_7:11, Jos_7:12); Rehoboam’s folly occasioned the great schism (1Ki_12:16). The wide° reaching effects of one little error are illustrated by the proverbial saying which every one knows, and which runs in Latin thus: “Clavus unus perdit equi soleam, soles equum, equus equitem, eques castra, castro rempublicam.”