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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible

Ecclesiastes 10

Verses 1-20

United Proverbs

Ecclesiastes 10:0

In this graphic chapter we have a number of extraordinary sayings, which some commentators have fruitlessly attempted to shape into unity. Bishop Ellicott says: "Commentators cannot be said to have been very successful in their attempts to trace a connection between the proverbs of this chapter. Perhaps nothing better can be said than that the common theme of these proverbs is the advantage of wisdom. It is forcing the connection to imagine that the enterprise from which the writer seeks to dissuade in Ecc 10:8 is that of rebellion against the ruler whose error is condemned in Ecclesiastes 10:5 ." I propose, therefore, to treat the sentences simply as sentences, without trying to weld them into a unity that seems to me to be unnatural.

"Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour" ( Ecc 10:1 ).

By dead flies we are to understand "flies of death," called in Psalms 7:13 "instruments of death," and in Psalms 18:5 "snares of death." The meaning is that the flies were death-giving, or poisonous. It is enough, however, to take the expression as it stands in the English version, and in that case the dead flies are set in apposition to the man who is a fool, and his influence upon one who is in reputation for wisdom and honour: the sense would seem to be that a little folly undoes the effect of much wisdom. A Puritan commentator has well said: "A great many flies may fall into a tar-box, and no hurt done. A small spot is soon seen in a swan: not so in a swine. Fine lawn is sooner and deeper stained than coarse canvas." It is impossible, according to the finding of Coheleth, for a man to be all wisdom and all honour. The strongest man has his weak points. In the closest armour there is a crevice or a rent. No man is stronger than his weakest point; and strange though it appear, the man's weakness will often show itself more than his strength; the little evil will seem to be larger than the great good, as one dead fly will cause a whole vessel of ointment to smell vilely. The fly is small, and the vessel is large; yet the evil is more telling in its effect than the good. The ship in which you propose to cross the Atlantic is four hundred feet long, and her timbers are simply magnificent in quality and strength: her captain has crossed the sea scores of times; but it is only right that you should know that fifteen feet below her waterline there is one rotten plank. Now go! Will you? Look at the difference in the proportion between the good and the bad in the ship. How can you hesitate? It is not as if there were four hundred feet of bad timber and one sound plank in the vessel; you are told distinctly that the vessel is good and sound throughout, with the exception of one solitary plank. Now go on board and face the Atlantic if you dare! So it is with a man: he is learned, he is gifted, he is quite noted for his political and commercial capacity; he has a clear eye, a large mind, and a power of dealing with complicated questions which has probably never been excelled; he is prompt, punctual, direct; there is no mistaking any word or tone that he utters: I have only to add, however, that he is gifted with the power of telling lies. Now go and do business with him; trust your concerns to him; put all your affairs into his keeping: listen to him, and be pleased with his eloquence if you can! Why do you hesitate? The ointment is plentiful, and the dead fly is but one, why not go over to the man and assure him of implicit confidence and of zeal in every cause which he espouses?

"A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart is at his left" ( Ecc 10:2 ).

Says one, "He doeth his business discreetly and dexterously; he is handy and happy at it." We are not, of course, to regard this description as physiological, but as moral. The meaning is the wise man's heart is right, the fool's heart is wrong. The fool cannot find his heart: it is not here, but there; not there, but beyond; not beyond, but somewhere else. The wise man knows his strength, has his heart within call of his conscience, keeps himself well under control, and when he is wanted for any worthy object of attack or defence there he is, and may be relied upon with absolute confidence. With the fool it is not so; he is diffused; his strength is attenuated, it lies about him scattered and useless; he is going some day to get himself together, but he does not know exactly where to begin; he means to do you a good turn, but unfortunately you are dead and buried long before he is half ready to begin. We see this kind of helplessness everywhere in church, in business, in household life. There are men perfectly innocent as to moral motive who are mooning all their days, never seeing things in their right magnitude, distance, and colour, but living a life of continuous misapprehension and mistake; they take hold of everything by the wrong end; they deliver messages upside down; they bolt and bar every door conscientiously, and leave the staircase window wide open; their motives are excellent, their innocence makes the whitest lamb ashamed of its depravity; yet they walk backwards, talk backwards, and go out of the world backwards. I know of no cure for them. "That which is lacking cannot be numbered." Yet they go along with society like a shadow. The child's riddle inquires, "What is that which goes with a carriage everywhere, and yet is of no use to it?" and the child's answer is, "Noise!" So these people go along with the daily progress of civilisation. We cannot tell why they live. Truly they cumber the ground. Yet God seems to spare them for some inscrutable reason of mercy. Speaking of the fool Junius says, "His heart is at his left hand," that is, he puts away reason and wisdom from himself, as for the most part those things which men dislike are put away with the left hand.

"Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a fool" ( Ecc 10:3 ).

We may read this verse in one of two ways Every one who is a fool has his name written on his forehead and on his back; to everybody he says, Look at me, I am a fool. This is mournfully true. The fool cannot be concealed; we see what he is in his slouching walk, in his vacant stare, in his uncertain speech; there is a loose smile upon his face that shows how life to him is but a grin; his finger-joints are loose, and the muscles of his neck have lost their tension. Or we may read the verse otherwise, and rightly, I think The fool saith to every man he meets, You are a fool. It is often said that the lunatic thinks that all other people are out of their minds. This would seem to be the true reading of this verse. As the fool goes down the street he thinks he sees nothing but fools. In visiting an asylum I have been struck with this. I can never forget an occasion on which a poor woman, looking at a number of visitors, plainly intimated that she regarded them all with wonder and pity; she seemed to say to us "Poor things! how dare you be left alone? It is sad to see so many persons bereaved of reason. Sad, sad sight!" So God lets us down easily. He gives to the soul some compensation, and he so rules the fancy that we often hug our atom of glass, as if it were a diamond of the first water.

Coheleth now calls our attention to two remarkable pictures:

"Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth" ( Ecc 10:6-7 ).

Now both these things would seem to be in direct violation of the law of cause and effect. This is the second time Coheleth has come across instances which show that there is confusion somewhere. These things should make men think of moral causes. There can be nothing so improbable as that folly should be set in great dignity. Given that possibility as a mere theory, to be judged altogether apart from facts, and there could be no difficulty as to determining against it But look on the throne, and see folly crowned; look on the bench, and see folly in the judgment seat; look at the high places of the earth, and see how folly is honoured. Facts are against our fine theories of human nature. How do we account for this elevation of folly? It cannot be accounted for as a mere matter of detail; here again we are indebted to the Bible for its penetration; the Bible insists upon going to roots, causes, and origins, and everywhere it proceeds upon the awful but solemn and true assumption that the foundations of things are out of course. Coheleth says he has seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth. The importation of horses was a new thing in the reign of Solomon. The horse occupies a different place in Biblical history to that which it does in classical narratives; hence the surprise of Coheleth when he saw a servant upon horseback, and princes simply walking on the earth. We, ourselves, are accustomed to see servants on horseback. One would think it impossible that any good man can be poor, or that any intelligent man should have a difficulty in making a livelihood. Yet things are all upside down, as it were. Unquestionably it is most odd how money is distributed and how preferment is allotted. Over the wall there, in that sweet garden, where a poet might lodge, or a musician might dream new harmonies, there is a coarse and bloated man who lives only for himself, to whom God never speaks in dream or vision, and to whom a new idea would be a most unwelcome guest; to him the thrush comes without any welcome, and flies away without any regret. It has been quaintly said, "When a fool is set in dignity it is as when a handful of hay is set up to give light, which with smoke and smell offendeth all that are near: when the worthy sit in low place it is as when a goodly candle is put under a bushel." Cato said he had rather men should question why he had no statue or monument erected in honour of him than why he had. "A rich stone is of no less worth when locked up in a wicker casket, than when it is set in a royal diadem." We are told that in Persia at this day the difference between the gentleman and the slave is that the slave never rides, the gentleman never goes on foot; gentlemen buy, sell, confer, fight, do all on horseback. We must never forget, however, that a man is not necessarily a prince because he rides upon a horse, neither is a man servile because his poverty obliges him always to walk. More and more we must get rid of all the sophisms which attend our judgment of mere circumstances. Christianity teaches us where to find the man: Christ says, "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth;" what a man is in character, motive, spirit, charitableness, that he is in reality, whether he live in the king's palace or in the peasant's hut.

"He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him" ( Ecc 10:8 ).

Instead of the word "hedge" read "a stone-wall." In the crevices of stone walls serpents have often their habitation. This matter of digging pits is frequently referred to in the Bible "He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made" ( Psa 7:15 ). "Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him" ( Pro 26:27 ). "Whoso causeth the righteous to go astray in an evil way, he shall fall himself into his own pit" ( Pro 28:10 ). Pits were dug for the entrapping of wild animals in the Eastern lands, and were covered over, so that no suspicion of their existence might occur. It has been pointed out, indeed, that the pits might be so concealed that the very makers of them might be caught unawares. So with many of our own deep schemes, made for the injury or ruin of men. As to the serpent biting those who break through the stone wall or the hedge, experience and history have left no doubt. We might look for illustrations, for example, in the matter of health. It has been too often supposed that health is a condition which came and went by some arbitrary law, or that man could do what he liked with himself with impunity. All this has been destroyed by better knowledge. Let any man attempt to break through the hedge which is set around the preservation of health, and say whether a serpent will not bite him. One commentator puts the matter thus, as giving in his view the right sense of the passage: "He that seeks to overthrow the fundamental laws, and establish government of a commonwealth, and to break down the fences and mounds of sovereignty and subjection, shall no less (but much more) imperil himself, than he that pulls up an old hedge wherein serpents, snakes, and adders do usually lurk and lie in wait to do mischief." Even the serpent is thus used as an instrument of Providence. A marvellous use is made of all things in nature, whereby God testifies to his own presence and government in life. We often wonder why such and such creatures should be permitted to live: they are loathsome to our sight, they are ruinous to our property, they terrify us by night and by day, and our immediate instinct is to rid the world of such pests. Why did God ever create such lives? Yet every one of them is of use in his government, though we cannot in our present circumstances explain this by obvious examples. Read the Old Testament through, and it will become wonderful to see what use God has made of beasts and insects in the punishment of evil. Perhaps we do wisely in regarding them all as symbolical of the higher instruments, by which God will punish evildoing. A man may understand a hornet, when he cannot understand a moral appeal. Many a coward fears the lash who cannot enter into the mystery of legal interpretation. All nature is parabolical; what we want is the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the understanding heart. All God's institutions are well watched; the executioner is immediately behind every one of them, and violence is followed by penalty. That is so in health, in speech, in credit, in social standing, in all the ways and relations of our complicated life.

All the confusions which we have read of in this book of the Preacher spring from a moral cause, and must be met by a moral remedy. No man will ever get his right social place until the conscience of the world is purified. Even the small honours and promotions which we have it in our power to give to one another will be misdirected and perverted, unless we be under the influence of right convictions and motives. And how do men reach the right condition of mind and heart? It is here that the gospel comes with its great answers.


"The most striking feature in the Biblical notices of the horse is the exclusive application of it to warlike operations; in no instance is that useful animal employed for the purposes of ordinary locomotion or agriculture, if we except Isaiah 28:28 , where we learn that horses (A. V. 'horsemen') were employed in threshing, not however in that case put in the gears, but simply driven about wildly over the strewed grain. This remark will be found to be borne out by the historical passages hereafter quoted; but it is equally striking in the poetical parts of Scripture. The animated description of the horse in Job 39:19-25 applies solely to the war-horse; the mane streaming in the breeze (A. V. 'thunder') which 'clothes his neck;' his lofty bounds 'as a grasshopper;' his hoofs 'digging in the valley' with excitement; his terrible snorting are brought before us, and his ardour for the strife

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". The People's Bible. 1885-95.