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the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 8

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



Kings are greatly to be respected. The divine providence is to be observed. It is better with the godly in adversity, than with the wicked in prosperity. The work of God is unsearchable.

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 8:1. Who is as the wise man? &c.— Who is like the wise man, and who knoweth how to solve difficulties? A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine; whereas a sullen look [Heb. The roughness of his face] would make him an object of hatred. The latter clause of this verse, setting aside the figures, might be thus expressed; A man's wisdom will bring him favour; but arrogance will make him hated.

Verses 2-4

Ecclesiastes 8:2-4. I counsel thee to keep, &c.— I tell thee, observe thou the king's face; nay, mind it in regard to the oath: be not hasty: Ecclesiastes 8:3. Go out of his presence; stay not whilst he gives wrong orders; for whatsoever pleaseth him, he will do; Ecclesiastes 8:4. Because the word of a king is an absolute command, and who shall say, &c.? The word rendered God, in the second verse, אלהים elohiim, sometimes signifies men in authority, princes or magistrates; and I know not, says Mr. Desvoeux, but it should be thus understood in the present passage; at least it has that signification in a place (Exodus 22:28.) where Moses treats the same subject which is here treated by Solomon, namely, the outward regard which must be shewn to persons in authority. The consideration of the oath whereby the nobles and great men of the court are bound to support the king's dignity and authority, is a very proper one to induce a courtier to behave discreetly and respectfully, whenever he sees his sovereign inclined to give orders with which he would not choose to comply; for whoever does not behave with the utmost care in such circumstances unavoidably draws upon himself the resentment, not of the king only, but likewise of all those elohiim, or great men. This seems to me to be the most probable interpretation of the place; yet as the words, in regard of the oath of elohiim, are not the principal, but only an additional motive to the discreet behaviour here recommended; and as that advice is contained in a kind of parenthesis, which has little or no connexion with the rest of the argument, we cannot easily determine any thing with certainty from the nature of the motives proposed in what follows. Duty and prudence generally go together; and Solomon may very properly have reminded his hearers in the words now under consideration of what duty required; though in the remainder of the argument he insists on nothing but what is suggested by prudence. Thus the words may be understood of the solemn oath of allegiance, wherein God has been called upon, and in consequence whereof, all subjects are bound, at least, not to fly in the king's face by sedition or open rebellion.

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 8:5. Whoso keepeth the commandment He that observeth despotic commands, will not discern a wrong order; but the wise man's heart will discern both time and reason: (Ecclesiastes 8:6.) For there is both time and reason to every determination of his will; because man's evils are multiplied upon him (Ecclesiastes 8:7.) by his not knowing futurity; for who will shew him what turn things shall take? Desvoeux. By means of his translation, the opposition is exactly kept up, and every thing is plain. The reason given for advising to withdraw from your observation of the king's countenance, as soon as you perceive that he is about to give an evil word, or wrong order, is proper; he will do whatsoever he pleaseth; and you cannot expect that he should allow you the liberty of controlling his absolute commands, especially when he is in a passion. The opposition is, between him who prostitutes his discernment to passive obedience, and him who, through a proper use of his reason, deserves the name of a wise man.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 8:8. There is no man that hath power over the spirit No man is absolute commander over the wind to retain the wind; and there is no commander against the day of death; and there is no embassy to be admitted during the battle. Desvoeux; who remarks, that if ancient interpreters had plainly and literally translated the first clause, No man hath power over the wind to confine the wind, no one would now imagine that any thing else beside the wind and storms were here mentioned by Solomon; as was very well understood by the Latin interpreters of the Syriac and Arabic versions: but, the Greek interpreters having made use of the ambiguous word πνευμα, their successors determined that word to mean either the soul at large, or some particular affection of the soul. Among things which it is not in any one's power to matter, or, if we keep closer to the original, among things which have no commander among men who can dispose of them at his will, none had a better right to be mentioned than wind and death. The two sentences which follow look very like similes contracted into proverbs; and each of them has, besides the literal signification, a farther meaning; which may be easily discovered from their connexion with the subject in hand; namely, the difficulty of extricating ourselves out of the many dangers to which we are daily exposed. Why should not this be likewise a simile to the same purpose? The image of irresistible storms is so much the more proper in this place, as it may, besides the principal subject, imply a beautiful allusion to the violence of parties and factions, which so often rage at court. However, the application of these three proverbial similes to the argument may be thus supplied; It is as impossible to extricate yourself out of the difficulties into which your opposing wrong measures, without discerning both time and reason, will involve you; as to command the wind or death, or to have ambassadors admitted during the heat of the battle. I shall not dwell any longer upon this passage; but I hope it may be looked upon as an advantage, in the interpretation which I propose, that, instead of one single thought (viz. the unavoidability of death), in three different dresses, which most modern interpreters find here, it discovers three distinct ideas, and every one of them well connected with the subject treated by Solomon. The interpreter who makes a judicious writer a tautologist is not the most likely to have hit his true meaning. As far as to the end of the seventh chapter has been declared what discoveries Solomon had made in the latter part of his inquiry concerning the wickedness of ignorance, and the foolishness of that which is in the greatest esteem. It remains that we should have an account of his success in the former part of the same, concerning wisdom. To this effect, he enlarges upon the excellency of wisdom, which principally appears from its being the only sure guide by whose assistance a man can extricate himself out of the difficulties and dangers of this world. "No man," says he, "is to be compared with the wise: No man, besides him, knoweth how to behave in the most difficult occurrences of life: Ecclesiastes 8:1. I tell you, I, who have applied to wisdom more than any man,—Observe both the countenance and discourses of the king; and that for your own sake, for those who approach his person are sworn to support him. Be not so rash as to contradict him. Do not stay to hear what you cannot approve, for it would be in vain for you to oppose it. Some make it a duty blindly to comply with every whim of their superiors, without ever allowing themselves the liberty to examine whether they are right or wrong; but the wise man always makes use of his discernment, and knoweth when and how he should either obey or forbear obeying: Ecclesiastes 8:2-5. For, though other men may act at random; yet to him every determination of the will has its proper time and proper reasons to support it; because he knows that, as he is equally unable to dive into futurity, and to command events, the utmost caution is necessary, to avoid the many dangers to which a man is daily exposed, especially at court. It would be too late to think of mitigating the king's wrath when once it is kindled against you. The safest way is to prevent it, by declining rather than opposing such orders as you cannot comply with. The blind compliance, which is that of the wicked, is not safe or honest; and, though it may for the present ingratiate the courtier with his master, yet the bad consequences of his obsequiousness must sooner or later appear; and then he shall answer for them." Ecclesiastes 8:6-8.

Verses 9-10

Ecclesiastes 8:9-10. All this have I seen All this have I observed, when I bestowed all the application that I was capable of on all works which are done under the sun; while man exerciseth an absolute authority over man to hurt him: Ecclesiastes 8:10. Nay, then I saw wicked men buried. Though they came even from the place of prostitution, they shall go and be praised in the city where they have done so. The word קדושׁ kadosh, which I have rendered the place of prostitution, signifies, properly speaking, nothing but the place of him who is set apart; and, from the public prostitutes of both sexes among the heathen, it was applied to the place dedicated to that infamous separation, or consecration of their bodies. It is probable, that our author alluded to some known history in his time. See Desvoeux, p. 561, and the paraphrase on Ecclesiastes 8:14.

Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 8:12. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times Because the sinner dieth committing evil, even from the delays granted to him; thus I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, who will continue to fear before his face.

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 8:14. There is a vanity After a long but useful digression (See on Ecclesiastes 8:8.) the author resumes the thread of his reasoning: but the second proof that he brings in to support this third proposition is so artfully connected with the latter part of the digression, that no chasm is to be perceived in the discourse. This second proof is taken from those wrong judgments which are owing to an over-hasty observation of things, and consists of two instances. The first instance is that of the practical inferences drawn by the sinners from what is daily observed under a bad government, viz. that the wicked, nay, the most abandoned men, are not punished according to their deserts, but enjoy even the honours of a funeral pomp, the last of earthly rewards: From thence the generality of men conclude, that evil may be committed with impunity: Ecclesiastes 8:9-10. Now, that this is a wrong judgment can appear from no other consideration than this, viz. that there is no sufficient ground, from that observation, to think that a man's being laid in his grave puts him out of the reach of punishment. It may, nay it must, be said to the contrary; and our author says he knows it, or concludes it from the very observation which the wicked wrest to their own purpose, that rewards and punishments shall certainly attend holiness and virtue on the one hand, and wickedness and impiety on the other; whence it follows that the prolongation of a life which must be attended with the continual dread of impending vengeance is a very slight advantage. Yet, on the other hand, it must be owned, that the seeming misapplication of rewards and punishments in this world, which, when duly considered, affords such strong presumptions of the existence of a future state, is for a hasty observer a vain principle, or the source of vain and dangerous conclusions. Ecclesiastes 8:11-14.

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 8:15. For that shall abide with him of his labour And this shall borrow him from his labour. We have here an image which will not disgrace Solomon's pencil. Man in this world is the property of labour. God Almighty made him so. If ever that tyrannical owner parts with him, it is only by way of loan: he must be returned, as will appear chap. Ecclesiastes 11:8 Ecclesiastes 12:3.

Verses 16-17

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17. To see the business that is done upon the earth To observe the occupations of man upon the earth; and that even day and night he doth not see sleep with his eyes, Ecclesiastes 8:17. Then I understood that this is all God's own work; that man is not able to find out the end of this work which is done under the sun: Therefore, though a man should labour, &c. See Desvoeux, and chap. Ecclesiastes 3:11.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Wisdom is indeed of infinite importance. We have here,

1. Its great commendation. Who is as the wise man? comparable to him for excellence; or who knoweth the interpretation of a thing, or a word? none but those who are taught of God can understand his heavenly wisdom, or interpret his word to the edification of men, or improve the conjunctures of his providence aright. Such a one will be highly honoured and respected; for a man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, as Moses's did when he came down from the mount; and they who see it admire the lustre and excellence which appears in all his conversation: or enlightens his face, enables him to see distinctly the way in which he should walk; and the boldness of his face shall be changed; it teaches the rough and austere to smooth their rugged brows, and makes the fierce gentle as the lamb; for, when the heart by grace is changed, the very countenance bears the divine impression.

2. The proof of wisdom instanced in dutiful allegiance to the king. I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, obedient in all things to the government under which we live; and that, not merely for fear of punishment, but for conscience-sake, in regard of the oath of God, the oath of allegiance; or, but with a regard of the oath of God; when human injunctions are opposite to the Divine commands, then must we obey God rather than man. Be not hasty to go out of his sight, so as to withdraw from his presence disrespectfully, to quit his service, and retire in disgust: stand not in an evil thing; if we have done wrong, we must acknowledge it and beg pardon, not persist in our perverseness: for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him, and therefore to offend him who has power to punish is dangerous; for where the word of a king is, there is power: there are multitudes ready to fly at his orders, and execute his vengeance on those who dare contradict him: and who may say unto him, What doest thou? As dangerous as it is to rebel, so advantageous is it to obey. For whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing, but enjoy peace and quietness, protected by the powers that he obeys; and a wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment, waits the proper season to prefer the grievances which he may feel, and seeks to procure redress with prudence.

The whole of this passage may also be referred to our duty towards the King of kings, whose commandments are all most excellent. From his presence there is no hiding ourselves; to attempt concealment of an evil thing from his all-seeing eye, were folly; to continue impenitent, destruction; for his power is universal and absolute; and if he will punish, none can resist, or question his authority. Obedience to him will insure blessedness; they who have him for their king, and approve themselves loyal subjects, need fear no evil: and herein is wisdom to discern the moment of opportunity, and in time to provide for eternity, knowing the judgment approaching, when every man must receive according to his works.

2nd, It is the character of the wise, that he discerneth the time; and the want of this discernment is the cause of much human misery. For,
1. Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, the proper season and manner when it should be put in execution; the ignorance, improvidence, and neglect of men in this behalf, occasion most of their distresses. They trifle with the opportunity, and it slips irrecoverably by; therefore the misery of man is great upon him, and he has usually only his own negligence to blame for the sufferings that he undergoes; which prudent foresight, and careful diligence, might probably have prevented. For he knoweth not that which shall be, or whether ever again he shall have the opportunity that he has lost, and none know what to-morrow will bring forth: for who can tell him when it shall be, or how it shall be? future events are secrets concealed from human foresight; the present moment only is our own, and time is to be redeemed by us as it flies.

2. Death is hastening towards us; and when he comes, there is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit from God's arrests; his summons is absolute, and must be obeyed; no intreaties can prevail, no bribe suspend, no method prevent the execution of the sentence gone forth. Neither hath he power in the day of death; then the strong men bow themselves, and friends and physicians help in vain: and this must be, sooner or later, the lot of all, for there is no discharge in that war; we must conflict with this terrible foe; nor gold, nor tears, nor struggling avail; death will not quit his hold. And as the most holy are not exempt from the common lot of mortality, and must pass in common with others through the gate of the grave (though the property of death is changed): neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it; all their craft, their cunning, their authority, their wealth, the fruits of their wickedness, profit not in this day of wrath, but will rather hasten their ruin.

3rdly, To support the sufferers under tyrannical rulers, Solomon,
1. Remarks, among the observations that he had made under the sun, their way and end. There is a time when one man ruleth over another to his own hurt, or to his hurt; either the hurt of the persons oppressed by tyrants, whose liberty and property are invaded, and their peace disturbed; or to the hurt of the oppressors themselves, who, filling up the measure of their iniquities, bring down upon their heads the divine judgments. For the day of the wicked is coming: so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, had lived in office, and kept their posts of honour to the last, and were interred with great pomp and splendour, attended in the most solemn manner by the Priests and Levites; as the words may be rendered, they came and walked from the holy place; but how poor is all this! when death stamps vanity upon them, they lie down in the dust as the beggar, where no pomp can follow them, and their detested names are forgotten, and buried in oblivion, notwithstanding all the pains they had taken to perpetuate them.

2. He observes the impenitence of men presuming on the patience of God; but reprieves are no pardons, as the sinner will find to his cost. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, but God, though determined to punish sin, in mercy delays, if perhaps men may repent of their iniquities,—so far is his goodness from leading them, as it ought, to repentance, that they are often (such is man's desperate wickedness!) but the more hardened: therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil; presuming on impunity, they persist in their iniquity. But though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, living many a year in prosperous iniquity, yet ought not the people of God to be uneasy, nor the wicked secure; for mark but the end, and then it will be seen beyond contradiction, (1.) That it shall be well with them that fear God; it shall be surely so, notwithstanding any appearances to the contrary: I know it, and speak from the fullest conviction and observation; it shall be well with them who fear God above man, and make it their sole concern to please him; well with them in time, for they shall enjoy his favour and regard, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions; well with them in eternity, when the reward of glory shall be bestowed upon them. But (2.) it shall not be well with the wicked, his days shall be passed in vanity, his death be terrible, and after death a miserable eternity receive him: neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow, so swiftly passing, short of what he expected, at least short of the life of glory, because he feareth not before God, which is the great cause of all his wickedness, and the root of his impenitence.

4thly, It has been of old a matter of stumbling and difficulty, to behold the righteous afflicted, and the wicked in affluence. But,
1. We must not be surprised at the sight. It is a part of this world's vanity to see the just suffering, as if they had been wicked; and the ungodly prospering, as if they had been righteous. But God has wise ends to answer in these, as they seem to us, mysterious dispensations of his providence. He will have his children know that this is not their rest: we must look forward to eternity; there the mystery will be explained, and God's wisdom, justice, grace, and love therein acknowledged.
2. Since all below is so poor and empty, it is wise to make the best of it that we can. Then I commended mirth, holy cheerfulness and serenity; joy in what we possess, and contentment under what we want: to use with sobriety and thankfulness the creatures of God, is all the comfort that we can expect from every thing below. And as this is all we can get by our labour under the sun, herein ought we to abide all our days: they are few and evil, and shortly must end. Let us, therefore, correspond with the Divine Providence, and accommodate ourselves to the will of God.

3. We should be satisfied to be ignorant, where God has set bounds to our researches. Solomon had applied his heart to know wisdom, to investigate the nature and causes of things, and to see the business that is done upon the earth, all the labours of men, or the works of divine providence; and day and night, with restless toil, he pursued his inquiries; but, after all, he confesses how little he knew. His way is in the sea, unfathomably deep, and his footsteps in the great waters, unsearchable; and if he, who was the wisest of all the sons of men, make such an acknowledgment, they who come after him may well despair: be he never so curious, inquisitive, indefatigable, day and night in the inquiry, yet he shall not find it: yea, though he be wise, and may think to know it, by taking some new and untried method of investigating the secrets of nature and providence, yet shall he not be able to find it; an impenetrable veil is stretched over many things: he who set bounds to the sea has set bounds to the human understanding, and has said, Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther: to attempt to exceed these bounds, would only prove the arrogance of folly, and end in disappointment.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 8". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/ecclesiastes-8.html. 1801-1803.
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