Cambridge Bible Plumptre
11. Wisdom is good with an inheritance] The words fall on our ears with something like a ring of cynicism, as though the teacher said with a sneer, “wisdom is all very well if you have property to fall back upon.” If that sense were however admissible at all, it could only be by emphasizing the word “inheritance,” as contrasted with the treasure which a man heaps up for himself. The inherited estate, be it great or small, does not interfere with wisdom as money-making does. The ἀρχαιόπλουτοι (“rich with ancestral wealth”) are, as Aristotle taught, of a nobler stamp than those who make their fortunes (Rhet. ii. 9. 9). Comp. Aesch. Agam. 1043. Even so taken, however, the tone is entirely out of harmony with the immediate context, and a far more satisfactory meaning is obtained by taking the preposition as a particle of comparison (it is often so used, as in ch. Ecc_2:17; Psa_73:5; Psa_120:4 (probably); Job_9:20); and so we get “Wisdom is good as an inheritance.”
and by it there is profit to them that see the sun] Better, And it is profitable for them that see the sun. It stands instead of both inherited and acquired wealth. In the use of the term “those that see the sun” as an equivalent we note again an echo of Greek poetic feeling. The very phrase ὁρᾶν φάος ἡελίοιο (“to see the light of the sun”) is essentially Homeric. Here, as in chap. Ecc_12:7, it seems chosen as half conveying the thought that there is after all a bright side of life.
Such hasty judgment is incompatible with true wisdom and sagacity. Wisdom is good with an inheritance; Septuagint, Ἀγαθὴ σοφία μετὰ κληρονομίας. Vulgate, Utilior eat sapientia cam divitiis. The sentence thus rendered seems to mean that wealth lends a prestige to wisdom, that the man is happy who possesses both. The inheritance spoken of is an hereditary one; the man who is “rich with ancestral wealth” is enabled to employ his wisdom to good purpose, his position adding weight to his words and actions, and relieving him from the low pursuit of money-making. To this effect Wright quotes Menander—
Μακάριος ὅστις οὐσίαν καὶ νοῦν ἕχει
Χρῆται γὰρ οὗτος εἰς ἂ δεῖ ταύτῃ καλῶς.
“Blest is the man who wealth and wisdom hath,
For he can use his riches as he ought.”
(Comp. Pro_14:24.) Many commentators, thinking such a sentiment alien front the context, render the particle עִם not “with,” but “as” Wisdom is [as] good as an inheritance” (see on Ecc_2:16). This is putting wisdom on rather a low platform, and one would have expected to read some such aphorism as “Wisdom is better than rubies” (Pro_8:11), if Koheleth had intended to make any such comparison. It appears then most expedient to take im in the sense of “moreover,” “as well as,” “and” of a fair countenance”). “Wisdom is good, and an inheritance is good; ‘both are good, but the advantages of the former, as 1Sa_17:12 intimates, far outweigh those of the latter. And by it there is profit to them that see the sun; rather, and an advantage for those that see the, sun. However useful wealth may be, wisdom is that which is really beneficial to all who live and rejoice in the light of day. In Homer the phrase, ὁρᾶν φάος ἠελίοιο, “to see the light of the sun” (‘Iliad,’ 18.61), signifies merely “to live;” Plumptre considers it to be used here and in Ecclesiastes 19:7 in order to convey the thought that, after all, life has its bright side. Cox would take it to mean to live much in the sun, i.e. to lead an active life—which is an imported modern notion.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
12. For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence] Better, as a shadow, or, as a shelter, in both clauses. The Hebrew, as the italics shew, has no “and.” “Shadow” as in Psa_17:8; Psa_91:1, stands for shelter and protection. This, the writer says, not without a touch of his wonted irony in coupling the two things together, to those who looked to wealth as their only means of safety (Pro_13:8), is found not less effectually in wisdom.
but the excellency of knowledge] Better, the profit, thus keeping up what we may call the catch-word of the book. Wisdom, the Debater says, does more than give shelter, as money, in its way, does. It quickens those who have it to a new and higher life. The use of the word ζωοποιήσει (“shall quicken”), by the LXX. connects the maxim with the higher teaching of Joh_5:21; Joh_6:63; 2Co_3:6. The Spirit which alone gives the wisdom that “cometh from above” does the work which is here ascribed to wisdom as an abstract quality. It is clearly out of harmony with the whole train of thought to see in the “life” which wisdom gives only that of the body which is preserved by the prudence that avoids dangers. It is as much beside the point to interpret it of the “life” of the resurrection.
For wisdom is a defense, and money is a defense; literally, in the shade is wisdom, in the shade is money; Septuagint, Ὅτι ἐν σκιᾷ αὐτῆς ἡ σοφία ὡς σκιὰ ἀργυρίου, “For in its shadow wisdom is as the shadow of money.” Symmachus has, Σκέπει σοφία ὡς σκέπει τὸ ἀργύριον, “Wisdom shelters as money shelters.” The Vulgate explains the obscure text by paraphrasing, Sieur enirn protegit sapientia, sic protegit petunia. Shadow, in Oriental phrase, is equivalent to protection (see Num_14:9; Psa_17:5; Lam_4:20). Wisdom as well as money is a shield and defense to men. As it is said in one passage (Pro_13:8) that riches are the ransom of a man’s life, so in another (Ecc_9:15) we are told how wisdom delivered a city from destruction. The literal translation given above implies that he who has wisdom and he who has money rest under a safe protection, are secure from material evil. In this respect they are alike, and have analogous claims to man’s regard. But the excellency—profit, or advantage—of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. “Knowledge” (daath) and “wisdom” (chokmah) are practically here identical, the terms being varied for the sake of poetic parallelism. The Revised Version, following Delitzsch and others, renders, Wisdom preserveth the life of him that hath it; i.e. secures him from passions and excesses which tend to shorten life. This seems to be scarcely an adequate ground for the noteworthy advantage which wisdom is said to possess. The Septuagint gives, Καὶ περίσσεια γνώσεως τῆς σοφίας ζωοποιήσει τόν παρ αὐτῆς “And the excellence of the knowledge of wisdom will quicken him that hath it.” Something more than the mere animal life is signified, a climax to the “defense” mentioned in the preceding clause—the higher, spiritual life which man has from God. Wisdom in the highest sense, that is, practical piety and religion, is “a tree of life to them that lay hold of her, and happy is every one that retaineth her” (Pro_3:18), where it is implied that wisdom restores to man the gift which he lost at the Fall (camp. also Pro_8:35). The Septuagint expression ζωοποιήσει recalls the words of Christ, “As the Father raiseth the dead and quickeneth (ζωοποιεῖ) them, even so the Son also quickeneth whom he will;” “It is the Spirit that quickeneth (τὸ ζωοποιοῦν)” (Joh_5:21; Joh_6:63). Koheleth attributes that power to wisdom which the more definite teaching of Christianity assigns to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Some would explain, “fortifies or vivifies the heart,” i.e. imparts new life and strength to meet every fortune. The Vulgate rendering is far astray from the text, and does not accurately convey the sense of the passage, running thus: Hoe autem plus habet eruditio et sapientia: quod vitam tribuunt possessori sue, “But this more have learning and wisdom, that they give life to the possessor of them.”
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
13. who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked] The sequence of thought is as follows. To “consider the work of God” intelligently is one application of the wisdom which has been praised in Ecc_7:11-12. In so considering, the mind of the Debater goes back to Ecc_7:10, and he bids men accept the outward facts of life as they come. If they are “crooked,” i.e. crossing and thwarting our inclinations, we cannot alter them. It is idle, to take up a Christian phrase that expresses the same thought, to seek to “change our cross.” We cannot alter the events of life, and our wisdom is not merely to accept them as inevitable, but to adapt ourselves to them. It is a striking example of Rabbinic literalism that the Chaldee Targum refers the words to the impossibility of removing bodily deformities, such as those of the blind, the hunchback, and the lame. The word and the thought are clearly the same as in ch. Ecc_1:15.
Consider the work of God. Here is another reason against murmuring and hasty judgment. True wisdom is shown by submission to the inevitable. In all that happens one ought to recognize God’s work and God’s ordering, and man’s impotence. For who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked? The things which God hath made crooked are the anomalies, the crosses, the difficulties, which meet us in life. Some would include bodily deformities, which seems to be a piece of unnecessary literalism. Thus the Septuagint, Τίς δυνήσεται κοσμῆσαι ὃν ἂν ὁ Θε ὸς διαστρέψῃ αὐτόν; “Who will be able to straighten him whom God has distorted?” and the Vulgate, Nemo possit corrigere quem ille despexerit, “No one can amend him whom he hath despised.” The thought goes back to what was said in Ecc_1:15, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight;” and in Ecc_6:10, man “cannot contend with him that is mightier than he.” “As for the wondrous works of the Lord,” says Ben-Sira,” there may be nothing taken from them, neither may anything be put unto them, neither can the ground of them be found out” (Ecclesiasticus 18:6). We cannot arrange events according to our wishes or expectations; therefore not only is placid acquiescence a necessary duty, but the wise man will endeavor to accommodate himself to existing circumstances
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
14. In the day of prosperity be joyful] Literally, In the day of good, be in good, i.e. use it as it should be used. True wisdom, the teacher urges, is found in a man’s enjoying whatever good actually comes to him. The warning is against the temper which “taking thought for the morrow,” is
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils.”
And on the other hand he adds In the day of evil, look well, i.e. consider why it comes, and what may be gained from it.
God also hath set the one over against the other] The words assert what we should call the doctrine of averages in the distribution of outward good and evil. God has made one like (or parallel with) the other, balances this against that and this in order that man may find nothing at all after him. The last words may mean either (1) that man may have nothing more to learn or discover in his own hereafter; or (2) that man may fail to forecast what shall come to pass on earth after he has left it, as in ch. Ecc_6:12, and may look to the future calmly, free from the idle dreams of pessimism or optimism. The last meaning seems most in harmony with the dominant tone of the book, and has parallels in the teaching of moralists who have given counsel based on like data.
In the noble hymn of Cleanthes to Zeus (18) we have the Stoic view in language presenting a striking parallel to that of Ecc_7:13-14.
ἀλλὰ σὺ καὶ τὰ περισσὰ ἐπίστασαι ἄρτια θεῖναι,
καὶ κοσμεῖν τὰ ἄκοσμα, καὶ οὐ φίλα, σοὶ φίλα ἐστιν•
ὧδε γὰρ εἰς ἒν ἅπαντα συνήρμοσας ἐσθλὰ κακοῖσιν,
ὥσθʼ ἕνα γίγνεσθαι πάντων λόγον αἰὲν ἐόντα.
“Thou alone knowest how to change the odd
To even, and to make the crooked straight,
And things discordant find accord in Thee.
Thus in one whole Thou blendest ill with good,
So that one law works on for evermore.”
The Epicurean poet writes:
“Prudens futuri temporis exitum
Caliginosa nocte premit Deus,
Ridetque, si mortalis ultra
Fas trepidat. Quod adest, memento
Componere aequus; cetera fluminis
Ritu feruntur, nunc medio alveo
Cum pace delabentis Etruscum
In mare, nunc lapides adesos,
Stirpesque raptas et pecus et domos
“God in His wisdom hides from sight,
Veiled in impenetrable night,
The future chance and change,
And smiles when mortals’ anxious fears,
Forecasting ills of coming years,
Beyond their limit range.
“Use then the present well, and deem
All else drifts onward, like a stream
Whose waters seaward flow,
Now gliding in its tranquil course,
Now rushing on with headlong force
O’er rocks that lie below.”
Od. iii. 29. 29–38.
In the day of prosperity be joyful; literally, in the day of good be in good i.e. when things go well with you, be cheerful (Ecc_9:7; Est_8:17); accept the situation and enjoy it. The advice is the same as that which runs through the book, viz. to make the best of the present. So Ben-Sira says, “Defraud not thyself of the good day, and let not a share in a good desire pass thee by” (Ecclesiasticus 14:14). Septuagint Ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἀγαθωσύνης ζῆθι ἐν αγαθῷ, “In a day of good live in (an atmosphere of) good;” Vulgate, in die bona fruere bonis, “In a good day enjoy your good things.” But in the day of adversity consider; in the evil day look well. The writer could not conclude this clause so as to make it parallel with the other, or he would have had to say, “In the ill day take it ill,” which would be far from his meaning; so he introduces a thought which may help to make one resigned to adversity. The reflection follows. Septuagint, Καὶ ἴδε ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κακίας ἴδε κ.τ.λ..; Vulgate, Et malam diem praecave, “Beware of the evil day.” But, doubtless, the object of the verb is the following clause. God also hath set the one over against the other; or, God hath made the one corresponding to the other; i.e. he hath made the day of evil as well as the day of good. The light and shade in man’s life are equally under God’s ordering and permission. “What?” cries Job (Job_2:10), “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” Corn. Lapide quotes a saying of Plutarch to this effect: the harp gives forth sounds acute and grave, and both combine to form the melody; so in man’s life the mingling of prosperity and adversity yields a well-adjusted harmony. God strikes all the strings of our life’s harp, and we ought, not only patiently, but cheerfully, to listen to the chords produced by this Divine Performer. To the end that man should find nothing after him. This clause gives Koheleth’s view of God’s object in the admixture of good and evil; but the reason has been variously interpreted, the explanation depending on the sense assigned to the term “after him” (אַתַרָיו). The Septuagint gives ὀπίσω αὐτοῦ, which is vague; the Vulgate, contra eum, meaning that man may have no occasion to complain against God. Cheyne (‘Job and Solomon’) considers that Koheleth here implies that death closes the scene, and that there is then nothing more to fear, rendering the clause, “On the ground that man is to experience nothing at all hereafter.” They who believe that the writer held the doctrine of a future life cannot acquiesce in this view. The interpretation of Delitzsch is this—God lets man pass through the whole discipline of good and evil, that when lie dies there may be nothing which he has not experienced. Hitzig and Nowack explain the text to mean that, as God designs that man after his death shall have done with all things, he sends upon him evil as well as good, that he may not have to punish him hereafter—a doctrine opposed to the teaching of a future judgment. Wright deems the idea to be that man may be kept in ignorance of what shall happen to him beyond the grave, that the present life may afford no clue to the future. One does not see why this should be a comfort, nor how it is compatible with God’s known counsel of making the condition of the future life dependent upon the conduct of this. Other explanations being more or less unsatisfactory, many modem commentators see in the passage an assertion that God intermingle8 good and evil in men’s lives according to laws with which they are unacquainted, in order that they may not disquiet themselves by forecasting the future, whether in this life or after their death, but may be wholly dependent upon God, casting all their care upon him, knowing that he careth for them (1Pe_5:7). We may safely adopt this explanation (comp. Ecc_3:22; Ecc_6:12).
14.Be joyful… consider — Common sense rebukes grumbling over the present and foreboding over the hereafter. There should be no pause after “consider,” as the remainder of the verse tells us what to consider. That is, make the most of the present prosperity and manage wisely the present adversity, remembering that God has in his wisdom so diversified human affairs that none can tell what the next coming phase may be. Many a sage and poet has warned us not to be anxious respecting the unseen future; and the Great Teacher said, “Take no thought for the morrow.”
Good and prosperous days are in God’s design special times of comfort and rejoicing: the days of affliction and trouble, are in God’s design the proper seasons of recollection and serious consideration. The Providence of God hath so contrived it, that our good and evil days should be intermingled each with the other. This mixture of good and evil days is by the Divine Providence so proportioned, that it sufficiently justifies the dealings of God toward the sons of men, and obviates all their discontent and complaints against Him.
Set the one over against the other – Rather, made this as well as that, i. e., the day of adversity, as well as the day of prosperity. The seeming imitation of this passage in Ecclesiasticus (Ecclesiasticus 36:13-15) affords a strong presumption that this book was written before the days of the son of Sirach.
To the end … – God hath constituted the vicissitude of prosperity and adversity in such a way that no man can forecast the events that shall follow when he is removed from his present state. Compare the Ecc_6:12 note.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
15. there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness] The writer looks back on what he calls “the days of his vanity,” his fleeting and profitless life, and notes, as before in ch. Ecc_2:14; Ecc_2:16, the disorders and anomalies of the world. The righteous are “of all men most miserable;” (1Co_15:19) the ungodly “prosper in the world” and “come in no peril of death, but are lusty and strong,” Psa_73:4 (P. B. version). Here indeed those disorders present themselves in their most aggravated form. It is not only, as in ch. Ecc_3:19, that there is one event to the righteous and the wicked, but that there is an apparent inversion of the right apportionment of good and evil. The thought is the same as that of Psalms 73, and the Debater has not as yet entered, as the Psalmist did, into the sanctuary of God, and so learnt to “understand the end of these men” (Psa_73:17). The same problem in the moral order of the Universe furnishes a theme for the discussions of the Book of Job.
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity. Koheleth gives his own experience of an anomalous condition which often obtains in human affairs. “All,” being here defined by the article, must refer to the cases which he has mentioned or proceeds to mention. “The days of vanity” mean merely “fleeting, vain days” (comp. Ecc_6:12). The expression denotes the writer’s view of the emptiness and transitoriness of life (Ecc_1:2), and it may also have special reference to his own vain efforts to solve the problems of existence. There is a just (righteous) man that perisheth in his righteousness. Here is a difficulty about the dispensation of good and evil, which has always perplexed the thoughtful. It finds expression in Psa_73:1-28; though the singer propounds a solution (Psa_73:17) which Koheleth misses. The meaning of the preposition (בְּ) before “righteousness” is disputed. Delitzsch, Wright, and others take it as equivalent to “in spite of,” as in Deu_1:32, where “in this thing” means “notwithstanding,” “for all this thing.” Righteousness has the promise of long life and prosperity; it is an anomaly that it should meet with disaster and early death. We cannot argue from this that the author did not believe in temporal rewards and punishments; he states merely certain of his own experiences, which may be abnormal and capable of explanation. For his special purpose this was sufficient. Others take the preposition to mean “through,” “in consequence of.” Good men have always been persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mat_5:10, Mat_5:11; Joh_17:14; 2Ti_3:12), and so far the interpretation is quite admissible, and is perhaps supported by Deu_1:16, which makes a certain sort of righteousness the cause of disaster. But looking to the second clause of the present verse, where we can hardly suppose that the wicked man is said to attain to long life in consequence of his wickedness, we are safe in adopting the rendering, “in spite of.” There is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in (in spite of) his wickedness. The verb arak, “to make long,” “to prolong,” is used both with and without the accusative “days” (see Ecc_8:12, Ecc_8:13; Deu_5:33; Pro_28:2). Septuagint, Ἐστὶν ἀσεβῆς μένων ἐν κακίᾳ αὐτοῦ, There is an ungodly man remaining in his wickedness,” which does not convey the sense of the original. According to the moral government of God experienced by the Hebrews in their history, the sinner was to suffer calamity and to be cut off prematurely. This is the contention of Job’s friends, against which he argues so warmly. The writer of the Book of Wisdom has learned to look for the correction of such anomalies in another life. He sees that length of days is not always a blessing, and that retribution awaits the evil beyond the grave (Wis. 1:9; 3:4, 10; 4:8, 19, etc.). Abel perished in early youth; Cain had his days prolonged. This apparent inversion of moral order leads to another reflection concerning the danger of exaggerations.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
16. Be not righteous over much] Here again we have a distinct reproduction of one of the current maxims of Greek thought, Μηδὲν ἀγὰν (Ne quid nimis—Nothing in excess) of Theognis 402, and of Chilon (Diog. Laert. i. 1, § 41). Even in that which is in itself good, virtue lies, as Aristotle had taught (Eth. Nicom. ii. 6. 7), in a mean between opposite extremes. Popular language has embodied the thought in the proverb, Summum jus, summa injuria. Even in the other sense of “righteousness,” as meaning personal integrity, personal religion, there might be, as in the ideal of the Pharisees and Essenes and Stoics, the “vaulting ambition” that o’erleaps itself.” And “what was true of righteousness was true also of speculative philosophy. The wisdom that will not be content to rest in ignorance of the unknowable is indeed unwisdom, and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
why shouldest thou destroy thyself?] The primary meaning of the verb in the form used here is that of “being amazed, stunned, astonished,” and may have been chosen to express the besotted and bedazed spiritual pride which St Paul paints by the participle “puffed up” (τυφωθεὶς) in 1Ti_3:5, and which was but too commonly the accompaniment of fancied excellence in knowledge or in conduct.
Holden makes Ecc_7:16 the scoffing inference of the objector, and Ecc_7:17 the answer of Solomon, now repentant. So (1Co_15:32) the skeptic’s objection; (1Co_15:33) the answer. However, “Be not righteous over much,” may be taken as Solomon’s words, forbidding a self-made righteousness of outward performances, which would wrest salvation from God, instead of receiving it as the gift of His grace. It is a fanatical, pharisaical righteousness, separated from God; for the “fear of God” is in antithesis to it (Ecc_7:18; Ecc_5:3, Ecc_5:7; Mat_6:1-7; Mat_9:14; Mat_23:23, Mat_23:24; Rom_10:3; 1Ti_4:3).
over wise — (Job_11:12; Rom_12:3, Rom_12:16), presumptuously self-sufficient, as if acquainted with the whole of divine truth.
destroy thyself — expose thyself to needless persecution, austerities and the wrath of God; hence to an untimely death. “Destroy thyself” answers to “perisheth” (Ecc_7:15); “righteous over much,” to “a just man.” Therefore in Ecc_7:15 it is self-justiciary, not a truly righteous man, that is meant.
Be not righteous over much. The exhortation has been variously interpreted to warn against too scrupulous observance of ritual and ceremonial religion, or the mistaken piety which neglects all mundane affairs, or the Pharisaical spirit which is bitter in condemning others who fall short of one’s own standard. Cox will have it that the advice signifies that a prudent man will not be very righteous, since he will gain nothing by it, nor very wicked, as he will certainly shorten his life by such conduct. But really Koheleth is condemning the tendency to immoderate asceticism which had begun to show itself in his day—a rigorous, prejudiced, indiscreet manner of life and conduct which made piety offensive, and afforded no real aid to the cause of religion. This arrogant system virtually dictated the laws by which Providence should be governed, and found fault with divinely ordered circumstances if they did not coincide with its professors’ preconceived opinions. Such religionism might well be called being “righteous over much.” Neither make thyself over wise; Septuagint, Μηδὲ σοφίζου περισσά; Vulgate, Neque plus sapias quam necesse est; better, show not thyself too wise; i.e. do not indulge in speculations about God’s dealings, estimating them according to your own predilections, questioning the wisdom of his moral government. Against such perverse speculation St. Paul argues (Rom_9:19, etc.). “Thou wilt say unto me, Why doth he still find fault? For who withstandeth his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus?” A good principle carried to excess may bring evil results. Summum jus, summa injuria. The maxim, Μηδὲν ἀγάν, Ne quid nimis, “Moderation in all things,” is taught here; and Aristotle’s theory of virtue being the mean between the two extremes of excess and defect is adumbrated (‘Ethic. Nicom.,’ 2.6. 15, 16): though we do not see that the writer is “reproducing current Greek thought” (Plumptre), or that independent reflection and observation could not have landed him at the implied conclusion without plagiarism. Why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Septuagint, Μή ποτὲ ἐκπλαγ ῇς, “Lest perchance thou be confounded;” Vulgate, Ne obstupescas, “Lest thou be stupefied.” This is the primary meaning of the special form of the verb here used (hithp. of שׁמם), and Plumptre supposes that the author intends thereby to express the spiritual pride which accompanies fancied excellence in knowledge and conduct, and by which the possessor is puffed up (1Ti_3:6). But plainly it is not a mental, internal effect that is contemplated, but something that affects comfort, position, or life, like the corresponding clause in the following verse. Hitzig and Ginsburg explain the word, “Make thyself forsaken,” “Isolate thyself,” which can scarcely be the meaning. The Authorized Version is correct. A man who professes to be wiser than others, and. indeed, wiser than Providence, incurs the envy and animosity of his fellow-men, and will certainly be punished by God for his arrogance and presumption.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
17. Be not over much wicked] There seems something like a paradox in the counsel. Surely, we think, the teacher is carrying his doctrine of the mean too far when he gives a precept, which, by forbidding excess, seems to sanction a moderate amount of wickedness. Various attempts have been made to tone down the precept by taking “wicked” as = not subject to rule, or = engaged in worldly affairs (the “mammon of unrighteousness”) that so often lead to wickedness. The difficulty vanishes, however, if we will but admit that the writer might have learnt the art of a playful irony from his Greek teachers. He has uttered the precept, “Be not righteous over-much.” That most men would receive as a true application of the doctrine of “Nothing in excess,” or, in the phrase we owe to Talleyrand, “Surtout, point de zêle.” He mentally sees, as it were, the complacent smile of those who were in no danger of that fault and who think that the precept gives them just the license they want, and he meets the feeling it expresses by another maxim. “Yes, my friends,” he seems to say, “but there is another ‘over-much,’ against which you need a warning, and its results are even more fatal than those of the other.” In avoiding one extreme men might fall easily into the other.
why shouldest thou die before thy time?] Literally, Not in thy time. The form of the warning is singularly appropriate. The vices thought of and the end to which they lead are clearly those of the sensual license described in Proverbs 7. Death is the issue here, as the loss of spiritual discernment was of the Pharisaic or the over-philosophizing temper described in the preceding verse. In both precepts we may trace Koheleth’s personal experience. Ch. 2 traces the history of one who in his life experiments had been both “over much wise,” and, it must be feared, “over much wicked.”
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
over much wicked — so worded, to answer to “righteous over much.” For if not taken thus, it would seem to imply that we may be wicked a little. “Wicked” refers to “wicked man” (Ecc_7:15); “die before thy time,” to “prolongeth his life,” antithetically. There may be a wicked man spared to “live long,” owing to his avoiding gross excesses (Ecc_7:15). Solomon says, therefore, Be not so foolish (answering antithetically to “over wise,” Ecc_7:16), as to run to such excess of riot, that God will be provoked to cut off prematurely thy day of grace (Rom_2:5). The precept is addressed to a sinner. Beware of aggravating thy sin, so as to make thy case desperate. It refers to the days of Solomon’s “vanity” (apostasy, Ecc_7:15), when only such a precept would be applicable. By litotes it includes, “Be not wicked at all.”
Be not over much wicked neither be thou foolish. These two injunctions are parallel and correlative to those in Ecc_7:16 concerning over-righteousness and over-wisdom. But the present verse cannot be meant, as at first sight it seems to do, to sanction a certain amount of wickedness provided it does not exceed due measure. To surmount this difficulty some have undefined to modify the term “wicked” (rasha), taking it to mean “engaged in worldly matters,” or “not subject to rule,” “lax,” or again “restless,” as some translate the word in Job_3:17. But the word seems not to be used in any such senses, and bears uniformly the uncompromising signification assigned to it, “to be wicked, unrighteous, guilty.” The difficulty is not overcome by Plumptre’s suggestion of the introduction of a little “playful irony learned from Greek teachers,” as if Koheleth meant, “I have warned you, my friends, against over-righteousness, but do not jump at the conclusion that license is allowable. That was very far from my meaning.” The connection of thought is this: in the previous verse Koheleth had denounced the Pharisaical spirit which virtually condemned the Divine ordering of circumstances, because vice was not at once and visibly punished, and virtue at once rewarded; and now he proceeds to warn against the deliberate and abominable wickedness which infers from God’s long-suffering his absolute neglect and non-interference in mortal matters, and on this view plunges audaciously into vice and immorality, saying to itself, “God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it” (Psa_10:11). Such conduct may well be called “foolish;” it is that of “the food who says in his heart, There is no God” (Psa_14:1). The actual wording of the injunction sounds to us somewhat strange; but its form is determined by the requirements of parallelism, and the aphorism must not be pressed beyond its general intention, “Be not righteous nor wise to excess; be not wicked nor foolish to excess.” Septuagint, “Be not very wicked, and be not stubborn (σκληρός).” Why shouldest thou die before thy time? literally, not in thy time; prematurely, tempting God to punish thee by retributive judgment, or shortening thy days by vicious excesses. The Syriac contains a clause not given in any other version, “that thou mayest not be hated.” As is often the case, both in this book and in Proverbs, a general statement in one place is reduced by a contrariant or modified opinion in another. Thus the prolongation of the life of the wicked, noticed in verse 15, is here shown to be abnormal, impiety in the usual course of events having a tendency to shorten life. In this way hasty generalization is corrected, and the Divine arrangement is vindicated.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
18. It is good] The sentence is somewhat enigmatic, and its meaning depends on the reference given to the two pronouns. Commonly, the first “this” is referred to the “righteousness and wisdom” of Ecc_7:16, the second “this” to the “wickedness and folly” of Ecc_7:17, and the Teacher is supposed to recommend a wide experience of life, the tasting of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which, as in ch. Ecc_1:17, shall embrace both, and bring with it a corresponding largeness of heart. This gives, of course, a perfectly intelligible meaning, though it is not that of a high-toned morality, and belongs to the earlier rather than the later stage of the Debater’s progress. The close parallelism of ch. Ecc_11:6 suggests however another and preferable interpretation. The first and the second “this” and “that” of that verse are both indefinite, used alike of such work and opportunities as God gives. So taken, the precept now before us runs much in the same line of thought, “Lay hold on this—do not let that slip—do what thy hand findeth to do. Only be sure that it is done in the right spirit, for “he that feareth God,” he, and he alone, “comes forth of all things well,” i.e. does his duty and leaves the result to God. This temper, in exact harmony with the practical good sense of moderation, is contrasted with the falsehood of extremes condemned in the two previous verses.
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand. The pronouns refer to the two warnings in Ecc_7:16 and Ecc_7:17 against over-righteousness and over-wickedness. Koheleth does not advise a man to make trial of opposite lines of conduct, to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that from a wide experience lie may, like a man of the world, pursue a safe course; this would be poor morality, and unmeet for the stage at which his argument has arrived. Rather he advises him to lay to heart fire cautions above given, and learn from them to avoid all extremes. As Horace says (‘Epist.,’ 1.18. 9)—
“Virtus est medium vitiorum et utrinque reductum.”
“Folly, as usual, in extremes is seen,
While virtue nicely hits the happy mean.”
The Vulgate has interpolated a word, and taken the pronoun as masculine, to the sacrifice of the sense and connection: Bonum est te sustentare justum, sed el ab illo ne subtrahas manum tuam, “It is good that thou shouldst support the just man, nay, from him withdraw not thy hand.” For he that feareth God shall come forth of them all; shall escape both extremes together with their evil re-suits. The fear of God will keep a man from all excesses. The intransitive verb yatsa, “to go forth,” is here used with an accusative (comp. Gen_44:4, which, however, is not quite analogous), as in Latin ingrediurbem (Livy, 1:29). Vulgate, Qui timet Deum nihil negligit. So Hitzig and Ginsburg, “Goes, makes his way with both,” knows how to avail himself of piety and wickedness, which, as we have seen, is not the meaning. St. Gregory, indeed, who uses the Latin Version, notes that to fear God is never to pass over any good thing that ought to be aerie (‘Moral.,’ 1.3); but he is not professing to comment on the whole passage. Wright, after Delitzsch, takes the term “come out of” as equivalent to “fulfill,” so that the meaning would be, “He who fears God performs all the duties mentioned above, and avoids extremes,” as Mat_23:23, “These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” But this is confessedly a Talmudic use of the verb; and the Authorized Version may be safely adopted. The Septuagint gives, “For to them that fear God all things shall come forth well.”
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
10. And so I saw the wicked buried] The English version is scarcely intelligible, and as far as it is so, goes altogether astray. We must therefore begin with a new translation, And so I have seen the wicked buried and they went their way (i. e. died a natural death and were carried to the grave); but from the holy place they departed (i. e. were treated with shame and contumely, in some way counted unholy and put under a ban), and were forgotten in the city, even such as acted rightly.
The verse will require, however, some explanation in details. In the burial of the wicked we have a parallel to the pregnant significance of the word in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where “the rich man died and was buried” (Luk_16:22). This, from the Jewish standpoint, was the fit close of a prosperous and honoured life (comp. 2Ch_16:14; 2Ch_26:23; 2Ch_28:27; Jer_22:18-19). It implied a public and stately ceremonial. The words “they are gone” are not, as some have thought, equivalent to “they have entered into rest” (Isa_57:2), but, as in ch. Ecc_1:4, are given as the way in which men speak respectfully of the dead as “gone” or “gathered to their fathers.” So the Latins said Abiit ad plures. So we speak, half-pityingly, of the dead, “Ah, he’s gone!”
The “holy place” may possibly mean the consecrated ground (I do not use the word in its modern technical sense) of sepulture, but there is no evidence that the term was ever so used among the Jews, and it is more natural to take it, as explained by the use of the same term in Mat_24:15, as referring to the Temple. The writer has in his mind those whose names had been cast out as evil, who had been, as it were, excommunicated, “put out of the synagogue” (as in Joh_9:22; Joh_12:42), compelled to leave the Temple they had loved and worshipped in, departing with slow and sorrowing tread (comp. Psa_38:6; Job_30:28). And soon their place knows them no more. A generation rises up that knows them not, and they are forgotten in the very city where they had once been honoured. The reflection was, perhaps, the result of a personal experience. The Debater himself may have been so treated. The hypocrites whom he condemned (ch. Ecc_5:1-7) may have passed their sentence upon him as heretical, as some did afterwards upon his writings (see Introduction, ch. iii). If he was suspected of being in any way a follower of Epicurus, that would seem to them a sufficient ground for their anathemas. Epicureanism was, as it were, to the later Rabbis the deadliest of all heresies, and when they wanted to brand the believers in Christ with the last stigma of opprobrium, they called them not Christians, or even Nazarenes, but Epicureans. Something of this feeling may be traced, as has been shewn in the Introduction, ch. v., even in the Wisdom of Solomon. The main thought, so far as it refers only to the perishableness of human fame, has been common to the observers of the mutability of human things in all ages, and the Debater had himself dwelt on it (chaps. Ecc_1:11, Ecc_6:4). It finds, perhaps, its most striking echo in a book which has much in common with one aspect of Ecclesiastes, the De Imitatione Christi of à Kempis (B. i. 3). In substituting “such as acted rightly” for “where they had so done,” I follow the use of the word which the A. V. translates as “so” (ken); in 2Ki_7:9 (“we do not well”); Num_27:7 (“speak right”); Exo_10:29 (“thou hast spoken well”); Jos_2:4; Pro_15:7; Isa_16:6; Jer_8:6; Jer_23:10, and other passages.
I have given what seems to me (following wholly, or in part, on the lines of Ginsburg, Delitzsch, Knobel, and Bullock), the true meaning of this somewhat difficult verse, and it does not seem expedient, in a work of this nature, to enter at length into a discussion of the ten or twelve conflicting and complicated interpretations which seem to me, on various grounds, untenable. The chief points at issue are (1) whether the “departing from the place of the holy” belongs to “the wicked” of the first clause, or to those who are referred to in the second; (2) whether it describes that which was looked on as honourable or dishonourable, a stately funeral procession from temple or synagogue, or a penal and disgraceful expulsion; and (3) whether the latter are those who “act so,” i.e. as the wicked, or, as above, those who act rightly; and out of the varying combinations of the answers to these questions and of the various meanings attached to the phrases themselves, we get an almost indefinite number of theories as to the writer’s meaning.
this is also vanity] The recurrence of the refrain of the book at this point is interesting. It is precisely the survey of the moral anomalies of the world that originates and sustains the feeling so expressed.
And so (וּבְכֵן); then, in like manner, under the same circumstances (Est_4:16). The writer notes some apparent exceptions to the law of retribution of which he has just been speaking, the double particle at the beginning of the verse implying the connection with the preceding statement. I saw the wicked buried. “The wicked” are especially the despots (Ecc_8:9). These are carried to their graves with every outward honor and respect, like the rich man in the parable, who “died, and was buried” (Luk_16:22). Such men, if they had received their due reward, far from having a pompous and magnificent funeral (which would befit only a good and honored life), would have been buried with the burial of an ass (comp. Isa_14:19; Jer_22:19). So far the Authorized Version is undeniably correct. What follows is as certainly inaccurate as it is unintelligible. Who had come and gone from the place of the holy; literally, and they came, and from the place of the holy they went. The first verb seems to mean, “they came to their rest,” they died a natural death. The words, in themselves ambiguous, are explained by the connection in which they stand (comp. Isa_57:2). Wright renders, “they came into being,” and explains it with the following clause, “they went away from the holy place,” as one generation coming and another going, in constant succession. But if, as we suppose, the paragraph applies to the despot, such an interpretation is unsuitable. Cox’s idea, that oppressive despots “come again” in the persons of their wicked children, is wholly unsupported by the text. The verse admits and has received a dozen explanations differing more or less from one another. A good deal depends upon the manner in which the succeeding clause is translated, And they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. As the particle rendered “so” (ken) may also mean “well,” “rightly,” we get the rendering, “even such as acted justly,” and thus introduce a contrast between the fate of the wicked man who is honored with a sumptuous funeral, and that of the righteous whose name is cast out as pollution and soon forgotten. So Cheyne (‘Job and Solomon’) gives, “And in accordance with this I have seen ungodly men honored, and that too in the holy place (the temple, Isa_18:7), but those who had acted rightly had to depart, and were forgotten in the city.” Against this interpretation, which has been adopted by many, it may reasonably be urged that in the same verse ken would hardly be used in two different senses, and that there is nothing in the text to indicate a change of subject. It seems to me that the whole verse applies to the wicked man. He dies in peace, he leaves the holy place; the evil that he has done is forgotten in the very city where he had so done, i.e. done wickedly. “The place of the holy” is Jerusalem (Isa_48:2; Mat_27:53) or the temple (Mat_24:15). He is removed by death from that spot, the very name of which ought to have cried shame on his crimes and impiety. The expression seems to picture a great procession of priests and Levites accompanying the corpse of the deceased tyrant to the place of burial, while the final clause implies that no long lamentation was made over him, no monument erected to his memory (see the opposite of this in the treatment of Josiah, 2Ch_35:24, 2Ch_35:25). They who consider “the righteous ” to be the subject of the last clauses see in the words, “from the holy place they departed,” an intimation that these were excommunicated from the synagogue or temple, or banished from the promised land, on account of their opinions. I would translate the passage thus: In like manner have I seen the wicked buried, and they came to their rest, and they went from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city where they had so (wickedly) acted. The versions have followed various readings. Thus the Septuagint: “And then I saw the impious brought unto graves, and from the holy place; and they departed and were praised in the city, because they had so done;” Vulgate, “I have seen the impious buried, who also, while they still lived, were in the holy place, and were praised in the city as if men of just doings.” Commenting oh this version, St. Gregory writes, “The very tranquility of the peace of the Church conceals many under the Christian name who are beset with the plague of their own wickedness. But if a light breath of persecution strikes them, it sweeps them away at once as chaff from the threshing-floor. But some persons wish to bear the mark of Christian calling, because, since the name of Christ has been exalted on high, nearly all persons now look to appear faithful, and from seeing others called thus, they are ashamed not to seem faithful themselves; but they neglect to be that which they beast of being called. For they assume the reality of inward excellence, to adorn their outward appearance; and they who stand before the heavenly Judge, naked from the unbelief of their heart, are clothed, in the sight of men, with a holy profession, at least in words” (‘Moral.,’ 25:26). This is also vanity. The old refrain recurs to the writer as he thinks on the prosperity of the wicked, and the conclusions which infidels draw therefrom. Here is another example of the vanity that prevails in all earthly circumstances.
The verse states one of the results of God’s forbearance in punishing the evil. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily. The verse begins with asher, “because,” as in Ecc_4:3; Ecc_6:12, which connects the sentence with the allegation of vanity just preceding, as well as with what follows. Pithgam, “sentence,” “edict,” is a foreign word of Persian origin, found in Est_1:20 and in Chaldee portions of Ezra (Ezr_4:17) and Daniel (Dan_4:14, etc.). God seems to us to delay in punishing the guilty because we behold only one little portion of the course of his providence; could we take a more comprehensive view, anomalies would disappear, and we should see the end of these men (Psa_73:17). But a contracted, skeptical view leads to two evils—first, a weakening of faith in God’s moral government; and second, a miserable fatalism which denies man’s responsibility and saps his energy. Of the former of these results Koheleth here treats. Therefore the heart of the sons of men. The heart is named as the seat of thought and the prime mover of action (comp. Ecc_9:3; Est_7:5; Mat_15:18, Mat_15:19). Is fully set in them to do evil; literally, is full in them; i.e. their heart becomes filled with thoughts which are directed to evil, or full of courage, hence “emboldened” to do evil. Vulgate, absque timore ullo filii hominum perpetrant mala; Septuagint, “Because there is no contradiction (ἀντίῤῥησις) made on the part of (ἀπὸ) those who do evil speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully persuaded (ἐπληροφορήθη) in them to do evil.” The long-suffering of God, instead of leading such men to repentance, hardens them in their infidelity (Psa_73:11). Primarily, the reference is still to tyrannical despots, who, in their seeming impunity, are em-boldened to pursue their evil course. But the statement is true generally. As Cicero says, “Quis ignorat maximam illecebram esse peccandi impunitatis spem?” (‘Pro Milone,’ 16.).
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
12. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times] The definite number is used, of course, as in Pro_17:10; or the “hundred years” of Isa_65:20; or the “seventy times seven” of Mat_18:22, for the indefinite. There is no adequate reason for inserting “years” instead of “times.” By some grammarians it is maintained that the conjunctions should be read “Because a sinner …” and “although I know,” but the Authorised Version is supported by high authority.
yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God] The adverb “surely” has nothing answering to it in the Hebrew, and seems an attempt to represent the emphasis of the Hebrew pronoun. Better, perhaps, I for my part. We may compare the manner in which Æschylus utters a like truth on the moral government of the world:
δίχα δʼ ἄλλων μονόφρων εἰμί. τὸ γὰρ δυσσεβὲς ἔργον
μετὰ μὲν πλείονα τίκτει, σφετέρᾳ δʼ εἰκότα γέννᾳ.
“But I, apart from all,
Hold this my creed alone:
For impious act it is that offspring breeds,
Like to their parent stock.”
Agam. 757, 8.
There is an obviously intentional contrast between what the thinker has seen (Ecc_8:9), and what he now says he knows as by an intuitive conviction. His faith is gaining strength, and he believes, though, it may be, with no sharply defined notion as to time and manner, that the righteousness of God, which seems to be thwarted by the anomalies of the world, will in the long run assert itself. There is at least an inward peace with those who fear God, which no tyrant or oppressor can interfere with. The seeming tautology of the last clause is best explained by supposing that the term “God-fearers” had become (as in Mal_3:16) the distinctive name of a religious class, such as the Chasidim (the “Assideans” of 1Ma_2:42; 1Ma_7:13; 2Ma_14:6), or “devout ones” were in the time of the Maccabees. The Debater, with the keen scent for the weaknesses of a hypocritical formalism, which we have seen in ch. Ecc_5:1-7, says with emphatic iteration, as it were, “when I say ‘God-fearing’ I mean those that do fear God in reality as well as name.” So in French men talk of la vérité vraie, or we might speak of “a liberal indeed liberal,” “religious people who are religious,” and so on.
Though a sinner do evil a hundred times. The sentence begins again, as Ecc_8:11, with asher, followed by a participle; and the conjunction ought to be rendered “because,” the statement made in the former verse being resumed and strengthened. The Vulgate has attamen, which our version follows. The Septuagint goes astray, translating, ὃς ἥμαρτεν, “He that has sinned has done evil from that time.” The sinner is here supposed to have transgressed continually without cheek or punishment. The expression, “a hundred times,” is used indefinitely, as Pro_17:10; Isa_65:20. And his days be prolonged; better, prolongeth his days for it; i.e. in the practice of evil, with a kind of contentment and satisfaction, the pronoun being the ethic dative. Contrary to the usual course of temporal retribution, the sinner often lives to old age The Vulgate has, Et per patientiam sustentatur, which signifies that he is kept in life by God’s long-suffering. Ginsburg gives, “and is perpetuated,” i.e. in his progeny—which is a possible, but not a probable, rendering. Yet surely I know; rather, though I for my part know. He has seen sinners prosper; this experience has been forced upon him; yet he holds an inward conviction that God’s moral government will vindicate itself at some time and in some signal manner. It shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him. This is not really tautological; it is compared to St. Paul’s expression (1Ti_5:3), “widows that are widows indeed” (ὄντως), implying that they are, in fact and life, what they profess to be. Delitzsch and Plumptre suggest that in Koheleth’s time “God-fearers” had become the name of a religious class, as the Chasidim, or “Assideaus,” in 1 Macc. 2:42; 7:13, etc. Certainly a trace of this so-named party is seen in Psa_118:4; Ma 3:16. When this adjustment of anomalies shall take place, whether in this life or in another, the writer says not here. In spite of all contrary appearances, he holds firm to his faith that it will be welt with the righteous in the long run. The comfort and peace of a conscience at rest, and the inward feeling that his life was ordered after God’s will, would compensate a good man for much outward trouble; and if to this was added the assured hope of another life, it might indeed be said that it was well with him. The Septuagint has, “that they may fear before him,” which implies that the mercy and loving-kindness of God, manifested in his care of the righteous, lead to piety and true religion. Cheyne (‘Job and Solomon’), combining this verse with the next, produces a sense which is certainly not in the present Hebrew text, “For I know that it ever happens that a sinner does evil for a long time, and yet lives long, whilst he who fears before God is short-lived as a shadow.”
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
Reply to Ecc_8:14, Ecc_8:15. When I applied myself to observe man’s toils after happiness (some of them so incessant as not to allow sufficient time for “sleep”), then (Ecc_8:17, the apodosis) I saw that man cannot find out (the reason of) God’s inscrutable dealings with the “just” and with the “wicked” here (Ecc_8:14; Ecc_3:11; Job_5:9; Rom_11:33); his duty is to acquiesce in them as good, because they are God’s, though he sees not all the reasons for them (Psa_73:16). It is enough to know “the righteous are in God’s hand” (Ecc_9:1). “Over wise” (Ecc_7:16); that is, Speculations above what is written are vain.
When I applied mine heart (Ecc_1:13). The answering member of the sentence is in Est_8:17, the last clause of the present verse being parenthetical. To know wisdom. This was his first study (see on Ecc_1:16). He endeavored to acquire wisdom which might enable him to investigate God’s doings. His second study was to see the business that is done upon the earth; i.e. not only to learn what men do in their several stations and callings, but likewise to understand what all this means, what it tends to, its object and result. (For “business,” inyan, see on Ecc_1:13.) The Vulgate here renders it distentionem, “distraction,” which is like the Septuagint περισπασμόν. For also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes. This is a parenthetical clause expressing either the restless, unrelieved labor that goes on in the world, or the sleepless meditation of one who tries to solve the problem of the order and disorder in men’s lives. In the latter case, Koheleth may be giving his own experience. To “see sleep” is to enjoy sleep. The phrase is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but commentators quote parallels from classical sources. Thus Terence, ‘Heautontim.,’ 3.1.82—
“Somnum hercle ego hac nocte cculis non vidi reels.”
“No sleep mine eyes have seen this livelong night.”
Cicero, ‘Ad Famil.,’ 8.30, “Fuit mittflea vigilantia, qui tote sue consulatuson, hum non vidit.” Of course, the expression is hyperbolical. The same idea is found without metaphor in such passages as Psa_132:4; Pro_6:4.
Cambridge Bible Plumptre
17. then I beheld all the work of God] The confession is like that which we have had before in chap. Ecc_7:23-24 : perhaps, also, we may add, like that of a very different writer dealing with a very different question, “How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out” (Rom_11:33). The English reader may be reminded of Bishop Butler’s Sermon (xv.) on the “Ignorance of Man,” of which these verses supply the text. What is noticeable here is that the ignorance (we may use a modern term and say the Agnosticism) is not atheistic. That which the seeker contemplates he recognises as the work of God. Before that work, the wise man bows in reverence with the confession that it lies beyond him. The Finite cannot grasp the Infinite. We may compare Hooker’s noble words “Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of His name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know Him not as indeed He is, neither can know Him, and our safest eloquence concerning Him is our silence, when we confess without confession that His glory is inexplicable, His greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few” (Eccl. Pol. i. 2, § 3).
Then I beheld all the work of God. This is the apodosis to the first clause of Ecc_8:16. “God’s work” is the same as the work that is done under the sun, and means men’s actions and the providential ordering thereof. This a man, with his finite understanding, cannot find out, cannot thoroughly comprehend or explain (comp. Ecc_3:11; Ecc_7:23, Ecc_7:24). Because though a man labor to seek it out. The Septuagint has, Ὅσα ἂν μοχθήσῃ, “Whatsoever things a man shall labor to seek;” Vulgate, Quanto plus laboraverit ad quaerendum, tanto minus inveniat. The interpreters waver between “how much so ever,” and “wherefore a man labors.” The latter seems to be best. Though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it. It is the part of wisdom to determine to know all that can be known; but the resolution is baffled here (comp. Ecc_7:23). The two verses, with their repetitions and tautologous expressions, seem to denote perturbation of mind in the author and his sense of the gravity of his assertions. He is overwhelmed with the thought of the inscrutability of God’s judgments, while he is forced to face the facts. An exquisite commentary on this passage is found in Hooker, ‘Eccl. Pol.,’ 1.2. § 2, quoted by Plumptre; and in Bishop Butler’s sermon ‘On the Ignorance of Man,’ where we read, “From it [the knowledge of our ignorance] we may learn with what temper of mind a man ought to inquire into the subject of religion, namely, with what expectation of finding difficulties, and with a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever which is real. A man should beforehand expect things mysterious, and such as he will not be able thoroughly to comprehend or go to the bottom of …. Our ignorance is the proper answer to many things which are called objections against religion, particularly to those which arise from the appearance of evil and irregularity in the constitution of nature and the government of the world Since the constitution of nature and the methods and designs of Providence in the government of the world are above our comprehension, we should acquiesce in and rest satisfied with our ignorance, turn our thoughts from that which is above and beyond us, and apply ourselves to that which is level to our capacities, and which is our real business and concern …. Lastly, let us adore that infinite wisdom and power and goodness which is above our comprehension (Ecclesiasticus 1:6).
The conclusion is that in all lowliness of mind we set lightly by ourselves; that we form our temper to an implicit submission to the Divine Majesty, beget within ourselves an absolute resignation to all the methods of his providence in his dealings with the children of men; that in the deepest humility of our souls we prostrate ourselves before him, and join in that celestial song, ‘Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy Name?’ (Rev_15:3, Rev_15:4) (comp. Rom_11:33).