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Observations on wisdom and folly. On riot, slothfulness, and money. Men's thoughts of kings ought to be reverent.
Ecclesiastes 10:1. Dead flies cause, &c.— The smell arising from the perfume of the perfumer is infected by dead flies; so is the value of wisdom and reputation by a little folly. See Desvoeux, and Bishop Lowth's third Prelection.
Ecclesiastes 10:3. Yea, also when he that is a fool, &c.— Nay, by the way wherein a fool walketh, his heart faileth him, and saith to every one, This is a fool.
Ecclesiastes 10:4. If the spirit of the ruler rise up— If the anger of the ruler should be kindled against thee, do not resign thy place; for power kept in thy hands will make pacification for great offences. From the 17th verse of the preceding chapter to the present, we have the second instance. The excellency of wisdom is so well known, that, however fond the silly lovers of novelties maybe of hearing a war proclaimed, they will be still fonder of hearing the speeches of a wise man, when their pardons are cool. Wisdom is certainly preferable to the greatest exploits of the most famous warrior; yet no allowance is made for human frailties to excuse one who has so much got the better of them as to deserve the title of a wise man. A single fault of his is sufficient to spoil, in the opinion of mankind, all the good that he has done. They rank him among the fools, notwithstanding it is acknowledged on all hands, nay, declared in several proverbial sentences, that there is an essential difference between the wise and the fool: a difference which the fool betrays at every step he takes, and by his very gait; and which, therefore, ought not to be laid aside and disregarded upon a single instance of a man's deviating from his right principles, Ecclesiastes 10:2-3. Here is annexed a caution (Ecclesiastes 10:4.) given to any wise man, if he should fall under the displeasure of his prince on account of those small errors which were just before likened to a dead fly falling into a box of precious perfumes. He must not, upon the first intimation of his master's anger, give up his employments. Then he would become an inconsiderable man; whereas, whilst he is in possession of them, it may be for the prince's own interest to make up matters with him, even though he was guilty of much greater faults than what he has really committed.
Ecclesiastes 10:7. I have seen servants upon horses, &c.— From the fifth to this verse we have the third instance. Princes, whose character depends upon the behaviour of those whom they employ, as much as upon their own, are apt to commit great mistakes in the choice of their ministers, when they are not determined in that choice by the known, or at least rationally presumed abilities of those whom they raise to dignities and power. This was not an uncommon case in the eastern absolute monarchies, where the bare caprice of the monarch was sufficient to raise from the dust, and to set over provinces, a man of neither words nor experience, and to lay those aside, who, from their birth, education, and circumstances, had opportunities to acquire such wisdom as is requisite to discharge properly so important a trust. See Zechariah 9:9.
Ecclesiastes 10:8. And whoso breaketh an hedge— And whoso forceth his way through a hedge. See the Observations, p. 217. To shew that such a choice as that mentioned in the 7th verse is not only an evil, but likewise a great folly, our author observes, first, that the inconveniences arising from it do not affect the people only, which might be a consideration of little weight with a selfish despotic monarch; but that they reach the prince himself. This he proves by four proverbial sentences, in this and the following verse; the general meaning of which is, that the first author of any mischief or improper measure is likely to be the first sufferer by it.
Ecclesiastes 10:10. If the iron be blunt— If an iron instrument be blunt, though the edge be not quite off, and he who wanteth to make use of it increaseth his strength, skill is more profitable to succeed: or it may be rendered, If an axe be blunt, though the edge is not quite off, then the workman shall exert his utmost strength, and skill remaineth to make him succeed. Thus skill or experience is represented as a mean which is left to procure success when all others fail. Nothing can be more agreeable to Solomon's design than such a notion, especially as it carries an intimation of the necessity of a superior genius and application in a prince who employs unskilful ministers, that he may be able to supply their want of experience. See Desvoeux.
Ecclesiastes 10:11. Surely, the serpent will bite without enchantment— If the serpent biteth because he is not enchanted, then nothing remaineth to the master of enchantments. The two proverbial similes made use of in this and the preceding verse, to shew the inconveniencies arising from an ill-judged choice of those who are intrusted with the administration of public affairs, are very fit for the purpose: but the manner in which Solomon passes from the last to the main subject, for the sake of which they had been alleged, looks very abrupt in all the versions. I think it is quite otherwise in the original, and have endeavoured so to express it; by which means we have a perfect connection between the two members of the sentence. If the serpent biteth because [either through the neglect, or through the unskilfulness, of him whose business it is to prevent it] he is not enchanted, then there is no occasion for a master of enchantments; or there remaineth nothing for him to do. The simile by this construction becomes applicable, with the greatest imaginable propriety, to the subject which Solomon had in hand; and I cannot help conjecturing from this propriety, that it was a proverbial sentence, commonly used in political matters, to signify that it was needless to appoint ministers to negociate with a subtle enemy, represented by the serpent, except they were such as to be able to gain their point with him. I must add, that the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic interpreters, who had a more exact knowledge of the customs of those times than we can pretend to, seem to have understood this place as we do, and several modern interpreters of note are of the same opinion. Now I conceive that the transition from this simile to the abilities of a wise or experienced man in the next verse, lies in the affinity of signification between the words which he had made use of to signify the charmer's office, and those which he employs to describe the eloquence of the wise. The word לחשׁ lachash, enchantment, has a double signification; and takes in both the charms of magic, and the charms of eloquence: see Isaiah 3:3. So that, instead of saying, The words of a wise man's mouth are חן chein, grace, he might as well have said that they are לחשׁ lachash, without any alteration in the sense. The expression, master of the tongue, as it is read in the margin of our Bibles, is likewise applicable to a man who knows how to manage his words as occasion requires, and thereby to make himself acceptable to every body. Thus, from a master of the tongue by office, who was not really master of what belonged to his employment, (viz. לחשׁ lachash,) to one who really had that accomplishment, or rather an accomplishment of the same denomination, the transition was easy and natural. I do not know but that the allusion to the enchanter, in opposition to the wise man, is still carried on in what Solomon says of the fool, a man without experience, in opposition to the same, Ecclesiastes 10:12. The lips of a fool will swallow up himself; at least the fool here spoken of is very like the charmer mentioned by the son of Sirach, Sir 12:13 whom nobody pities when he is bit by the very serpent that he should have enchanted. Desvoeux.
Ecclesiastes 10:14. A man cannot tell what shall be— A man knoweth not what hath been.
Ecclesiastes 10:15. The labour of the foolish, &c.— He will weary himself with foolish labour, not knowing how to go to the city. From the 10th to this verse, Solomon proceeds to shew that such a choice as that mentioned on Ecc 10:7 answers no purpose; as he who employs unfit ministers makes the government heavier to himself, instead of getting any ease, which is the natural design of appointing ministers, or subordinate instruments of government. This is again made out from proverbial sentences, the meaning and application of which to the subject in hand deserves a more particular explanation. The defect of a blunt axe may be in some measure supplied by the strength, and more by the skill of the workman; but it will certainly require greater efforts than would be necessary if that tool had a sharp edge, Ecclesiastes 10:10. Likewise the business of the government must be much more difficult for the prince himself, let him be ever so capable, when he makes use of ignorant ministers. Again; it is not enough for a man in place to do no harm; he must do good. Why should the state be at the charge of maintaining a charmer, if that officer, through either neglect or incapacity, does not prevent serpents from being hurtful? Ecclesiastes 10:11. Men who have been bred to public affairs are used to speak in such a manner as to ingratiate themselves with the hearers; but he whose education was never intended to fit him for public business will rather make himself unacceptable by his speeches, and involve in his own ruin the affairs with which he is charged, Ecclesiastes 10:12. In a council he may talk a great deal at random; but as he has no knowledge in history, nor experience of his own, no one can make him sensible of the bad consequences which are likely to be the result of his measures. If his intentions be right, he will take a great deal of trouble to do good; but all to no purpose, Ecclesiastes 10:13-14. He will weary himself, like a man who wants to go to a town, the road to which he is not acquainted with. Wherefore he foolishly walks on, without knowing whether he advances toward his journey's end, or goes astray from it, Ecclesiastes 10:15.
Ecclesiastes 10:16. Woe to thee, O land, &c.— Woe to thee, O land, whose king was born to be a servant, and whose princes eat early in the morning! The propriety of this version is best seen by its opposition to the subsequent verses.
Ecclesiastes 10:18-19. By much slothfulness, &c.— Through slothfulness the building will decay, and through idleness of hands the house will drop; Ecc 10:19 while they make feasts to divert themselves, and spend their life in making themselves merry with wine and oil; money supplying with them the want of every thing else. Lastly, Solomon concludes this proof, from Ecclesiastes 10:16. (see on ch. Ecclesiastes 9:15.) with a moving explanation upon the unhappy state of a nation, whose fate it is to be governed by men of such a stamp as he had before described; and, to make it more conspicuous, he opposes it to the happiness of another nation, whose king, being descended from noble ancestors, may be presumed to have had a proper education, will imitate those virtues through which his forefathers acquired their nobility, and will make use of ministers or princes like himself; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17. The several mischiefs and disorders before complained of, are more likely to happen under the reign of an upstart king, than of an hereditary one; as he does not only want experience and education, but is also often necessitated to support an ill-gotten authority by the worst means. Those whom he employs under him must probably be such as have helped him to the throne, or been his friends in his former life; men of no worth, who will mind nothing but eating and drinking from morning till night. While such men as these imagine that their new-gotten wealth may supply the want of all qualifications soever, the constitution must suffer from their neglect and incapacity, as much as a house, the roof of which is not repaired, through the slothfulness of the owner, Ecclesiastes 10:18-19.
Ecclesiastes 10:20. Curse not the king— Speak not evil of the king, though thou shouldest know reason for it; nay, speak not evil of the rich, not even in the recesses of thy bed-chamber; for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and a winged bird shall tell the matter. To the last instance, whereof the last proof consists, a very seasonable caution is here subjoined. Though, from the very considerations just touched upon, thinking people may often have reason to be dissatisfied with the government that they live under, yet they must not traduce either the king or other persons in high station; for that can never be done so secretly, but they may be soon apprized of it, by means which the speakers least think of. Here an end might have been put to this discourse, as the sacred orator has gone through the three propositions wherewith he intended to support the main conclusion which he had in view; and nothing seemed to remain, but to draw that conclusion. But before he came to it, he thought proper to add four precepts, three of which have a particular retrospect to the forementioned propositions, and the last seems to be nothing else but a commendation of this useful work. See the next chapter.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, The purest white the soonest receives a soil; therefore,
1. They who have the reputation of wisdom, and make the higher professions of religion, should be the most exact and careful in their conduct, seeing that the eyes of men are upon them, ready to discern, and willing to expose, their smallest infirmities. As dead flies give the sweetest ointment into which they fall an ill favour, so doth a little folly, an inadvertent step, an unguarded word, or a sinful compliance, expose him to reproach that is in reputation for uniform and honour: the world will make no allowances for human infirmity, or the force of temptation; but, looking with envy on superior excellence, are happy to seize every shadow of abuse to degrade to their own level those who excel them, and to triumph that they are no better than themselves. May it make us, therefore, more circumspect in our words and works, when so many wait for our halting!
2. The wise are dexterous in the management of their affairs, their heart is at their right hand; in difficulties they have presence of mind to extricate themselves, and, in all their transactions, execute with vigour what they plan with prudence: but a fool's heart is at his left, he is awkward in his business, absurd in his contrivances, and, if put a step out of his way, confused and at a loss: nay, he has not sense enough to conceal his folly; it appears in his very gait, in his conversation, in all his transactions; and, whoever makes the most cursory remarks upon his conduct, must be convinced that he is a fool.
2nd, They who would learn to rule, or to obey, must hear these lessons of instruction.
1. Let subjects learn to submit. If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, whether through any real provocation given, or misrepresentation made by others, leave not thy place; quit not his service in passion, nor throw up thy employments as being ill used, much less renounce allegiance and loyalty; but wait a while, and the storm will blow over, or an opportunity be afforded to vindicate thy injured innocence; for yielding pacifieth great offences, and gives time for wrath to subside, which anger and opposition would but exasperate, and render more implacable.
2. Let rulers take heed whom they prefer to places of trust; and honour; for it is a great evil, yet a common error, through favour, recommendation, or partiality, without considering the qualifications of the persons, to put those in office who are most unfit to govern. Folly is set in great dignity, men who are weak and unable to discharge the duties of their station, or wicked and disposed to abuse their power and influence: and the rich, men of character and fortune, who were in a great measure removed by their circumstances from the temptation of doing a mean thing, or men of grace and piety, sit in low place, neglected and slighted. I have seen servants upon horses, those of a mercenary spirit and low extraction, exalted, as the tools of an iniquitous administration; and princes walking as servants upon the earth, degraded and insulted by these upstart minions of power.
3. Let both prince and people beware of innovations, and keep within their due bounds; lest, turning prerogative into tyranny, or liberty into licentiousness, the fatal consequences should (too late) be felt and lamented. For as he that diggeth a pit, is in danger of falling into it; he who breaks a hedge, of being stung by the viper which is concealed in it; he that removeth stones from a wall, of being crushed by its fall; and he that cleaveth wood, of being hurt by the chips which fly from the stroke; so where princes turn oppressive and tyrannical, break in upon the liberties of the people, seek to demolish the constitution, render the government arbitrary, and employ force to put their designs into execution; they provoke the people to rise up against them. As, on the other hand, when factious discontented spirits contrive to bring about a change in the government, would sow discord among the people under pretence of zeal for liberty, would retrench the just rights of the crown, and alter the constitution, they often by their treasonable practices make a halter for themselves, and lawless liberty terminates in abject slavery: wisdom is therefore profitable to direct, how both should behave in their stations; and hereby we save ourselves much trouble and damage; as when a tool is sharpened, it works easily; but, when blunt, requires more violence, and the chips fly more dangerously around.
3rdly, We have,
1. The evil of a babbling tongue. It is venomous as the poison of a serpent, it stings mortally, without enchantment, or without a whisper, or hiss, and gives no warning.
2. The opposition between the words of the foolish and the wise. The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious, he gives the most favourable character of others; speaks well of those who are in authority over him; seeks some topic of conversation which may be useful, and minister grace to the hearers; none go from his company without an opportunity of being the wiser and better for it: but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself; giving a loose to his tongue, he speaks evil of dignities, involves himself in quarrels, and brings ruin upon himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness; he no sooner opens his lips, than his folly is manifest to all that hear him; and the end of his talk is mischievous madness: he talks himself into a passion, grows abusive and violent, and stops at no mischief. A fool also is full of words, never knows when to have done, and wearies the company with his nonsense; affects to understand every thing, and, though utterly ignorant, engrosses the discourse to himself; and with endless tautologies repeats his trite observations, or vain-gloriously boasts of what he will do, and what he expects hereafter, when even the wisest of men know not what a day may bring forth.
3. The works of the fool are as fruitless as his words. The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them; they take the wrong way, and therefore cannot but labour in vain, because he knoweth not how to go to the city; he mistakes the path, though never so obvious, and is bewildered: and this is spiritually true of the infatuated sinner and the self-righteous, who say that they are on the road to the heavenly city, but know not Christ the way; and, therefore, every step they take only removes them farther from the gate of heaven.
4thly, The happiness or misery of a kingdom greatly depends on the character of its governors. A prince of a weak and childish spirit, unable to guide the reins, or debauched and luxurious, who devotes his time to the service of his lusts and pleasures, neglects public affairs, and consigns them to the management of those who are as weak or wicked as himself, is a curse to the land over which he presides. But blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, ennobled by the virtues of his royal progenitors, whom he imitates, as well as by the blood derived from them; and thy princes eat in due season for strength, and not for drunkenness, where the subordinate magistrates are wisely chosen of the most virtuous, temperate, and sober; whose continual care is, how to discharge their office, and whom excess never disqualifies for business.
5thly, We have,
1. The great evil of sloth. By much slothfulness the building decayeth, no care being taken timely to repair the breaches; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through, mouldering fast to ruin, and falling to the ground. Thus the state suffers under slothful magistrates, and by sloth the soul of the sinner receives irreparable damage.
2. The secret designs of treason will be detected. Curse not the king, however ill his conduct may be, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich, the inferior magistrates, even though oppressive, in thy bed-chamber—never, however secretly in thy family, or in the most private club or association: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, their spies are ever within hearing, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter; swift the intelligence of these secret plots shall be conveyed, and the consequence be the destruction of the contrivers.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29