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Section 11. A little folly mars the effect of wisdom, and is sure to make itself conspicuous.
Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor. This is a metaphorical confirmation of the truth enunciated at the end of the last chapter, "One sinner destroyeth much good." It is like the apostle's warning to his converts, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6). The Hebrew expression is literally, "flies of death," which may mean either "dead flies," as in our version and the Vulgate (muses morientes), or "deadly, poisonous flies," as in the Septuagint (μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι). The latter rendering seems preferable, if we regard the use of similar compound phrases, e.g. "instruments of death" (Psalms 7:14 : ); "snares of death" (Psalms 18:5); and in New Testament Greek, ἡ πληγὴ τοῦ θανάτου, "the death-stroke" (Revelation 13:3, Revelation 13:12). The flies meant are such as are poisonous in their bite, or carry infection with them. Such insects corrupt anything which they touch—food, ointment, whether they perish where they alight or not. They, as the Hebrew says, make to stink, make to ferment, the oil of the perfumer. The singular verb is here used with the plural subject to express the unity of the individuals, "flies" forming one complete idea. The Septuagint rendering omits one of the verbs: Σαμπιοῦσι σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος, "Corrupt a preparation of sweet ointment." The point, of course, is the comparative insignificance of the cause which spoils a costly substance compounded with care and skill. Thus little faults mar great characters and reputations. "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Ecclesiastes 7:1), but a good name is ruined by follies, and then it stinks in men's nostrils. The term, "ointment of the apothecary," is used by Moses (Exodus 30:25, etc.) in describing the holy chrism which was reserved for special occasions. So doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor. The meaning of the Authorized Version is tolerably correct, but the actual rendering will hardly stand, and one wants some verb to govern "him that," etc. The other versions vary. Septuagint, "A little wisdom is more precious (τίμιον) than great glory of folly;" Vulgate, "More precious are wisdom and glory than small and short-lived folly;" Jerome, "Precious above wisdom and glory is a little folly." This last interpretation proceeds upon the idea that such "folly" is at any rate free from pride, and has few glaring faults. "Dulce est desipere in loco," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4.12. 28). But the original is best translated thus: "More weighty than wisdom, than honor, is a little folly." It is a painful fact that a little folly, one foolish act, one silly peculiarity of manner or disposition, will suffice to impair the real value of a matt's wisdom and the estimation in which he was held. The little clement of foolishness, like the little insect in the ointment, obscures the real excellence of the man, and deprives him of the honor that is really his due. And in religion we know that one fault unchecked, one Secret sin cherished, poisons the whole character, makes a man lose the grace of God. (For the same effect from another cause, see Ezekiel 3:20; Ezekiel 33:13.) Jerome sees in the "dead flies" wicked thoughts put into the Christian's mind by Beelzebub, "the lord of flies."
Ecclesiastes 10:2, Ecclesiastes 10:3
A tetrastich contrasting wisdom and folly.
A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left. There is here no reference to the classical use of right and left, as ominous of success and disaster, which is never found in the Old Testament. The right hand is the place of honor, the left of inferiority, as a matter of fact, not of superstition and luck. The symbolism is intimated in Christ's account of the judgment (Matthew 25:31, etc.). But in the present passage we should best paraphrase—The wise man's heart, his understanding and sentiments, lead him to what is right and proper and straightforward; the fool's heart leads him astray, in the wrong direction. The former is active and skilful, the latter is slow and awkward. One, we may say, has no left hand, the other has no right. To be at the right hand is to be ready to help and guard. "The Lord is at thy right band," to protect thee, says the psalmist (Psalms 110:5). The wise man's mind shows him how to escape dangers and direct his course safely; the fool's mind helps him not to any good purpose, causes him to err and miss his best object.
Yea, also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way. As soon as ever he sets his foot outside the house, and mixes with other men, he exhibits his folly. If he remained at home he might keep his real ineptitude concealed; but such persons as he are unconscious of their inanity, and take no pains to hide it; they go where, they act as, their foolish heart prompts them. There is no metaphor here, nor any reference to the fool being put in the right path and perversely turning away. It is simply, as the Septuagint renders, Καί γε ἐν ὁδῷ ὅταν ἄφρων πορεύηται His wisdom (Hebrew, heart) faileth him. Ginsburg and others render, "He lacketh his mind," want of heart being continually taken in the Book of Proverbs as equivalent to deficiency of understanding (Proverbs 6:32; Proverbs 7:7, etc.). But Delitzsch and Wright consider the order of the words and the suffix to be against this view, and they translate as the Authorized Version, i.e. his understanding is at fault. And he saith to every one that he is a fool. The sentence is ambiguous, and capable of two interpretations. The Vulgate has, Cumipse insipiens sit, omnes stultos aestimat. Jerome quotes Symmachus as rendering, "He suspects all men that they are fools." According to this view, the fool in his conceit thinks that every one he meets is a fool, says this in his mind, like the sluggard in Proverbs 26:16, "Who is wiser in his own conceit than ten men that can render a reason." Another explanation, more closely in accordance with the foregoing clauses, takes the pronoun in "he is a fool" to refer to the man himself, se esse stultum (comp. Ps 9:21 , "Let the nations know themselves to be but men"). As soon as he goes abroad, his words and actions display his real character; he betrays himself; he says virtually to all with whom he has to do, "I am a fool" (comp. Proverbs 13:16; Proverbs 18:2). It is hard to say to which interpretation the Septuagint inclines, giving, Καὶ ἂ λογιεῖται πάντα ἀφροσύνη ἐστίν, "And all that he will think is folly."
Section 12. Illustration of the conduct of wisdom under capricious rulers, or when fools are exalted to high stations.
If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee. "Spirit" (ruach) is here equivalent to "anger," as Judges 8:3; Proverbs 29:11. The idea seems to be that a statesman or councilor gives wise advice to a monarch, which the latter takes in bad part, and shows strong resentment against the person who offered it. Now, when a man knows himself to be in the right, and yet finds his counsel rejected, perhaps with scorn and reproach added, he is naturally prone to feel sore, and to show by some overt act his sense of the ill treatment which he has received. But what says wisdom? Leave not thy place (makom); i.e. position, pest, office. Do not hastily resign the situation at court to which you have been appointed. Some, not so suitably, take the expression, "leave thy place," figuratively, as equivalent to "give way to anger, renounce the temper which becomes you, lose your self-possession." But Wright, from the analogous use of matstsale and maamad in Isaiah 22:19, confirms the interpretation which we have adopted. Compare the advice in Ecclesiastes 8:3, where, however, the idea is rather of open rebellion than of a resentment which shows itself by withdrawal. Origen ('De Princip.,' 3.2) explained "the spirit of the ruler" to be the evil spirit; and Gregory, commenting on this passage, writes ('Moral.,' 3:43), "As though he had said in plain words, 'If thou perceivest the spirit of the tempter to prevail against thee in aught, quit not the lowliness of penitence;' and that it was the abasement of penitence that he called 'our place,' he shows by the words that follow, 'for healing [Vulgate] pacifieth great offences.' For what else is the humility of mourning, save the remedy of sin?" (Oxford transl.). For yielding pacifieth great offenses. Marpe, "yielding," is rendered "healing" by the versions. Thus ἴαμα; euratio (Vulgate). But this translation is not so suitable as that of Symmachus, σωφροσύνη, "moderation." The word is used in the sense of" gentleness," "meekness," in Proverbs 14:30; Proverbs 15:4; and the gnome expresses the truth that a calm, conciliating spirit, not prone to take offence, but patient under trying circumstances, obviates great sins. The sins are those of the subject. This quiet resignation saves him from conspiracy, rebellion, treason, etc; into which his untempered resentment might hurry him. We may compare Proverbs 15:1 and Proverbs 25:15; and Horace, 'Cam.,' 3. 3, "Justum et tenacem propositi virum," etc.
"The man whose soul is firm and strong,
Bows not to any tyrant's frown,
And on the rabble's clamorous throng
In proud disdain looks coldly down."
They who regard the "offenses" as those of the ruler explain them to mean oppression and injustice; but it seems plain from the run of the sentence that the minister, not the monarch, is primarily in the mind of the writer, though, of course, it is quite true that the submission of the former might save the ruler from the commission of some wrong.
Koheleth gives his personal experience of apparent confusion in the ordering of state affairs. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun. Power gets into the hands of an unwise man, and then errors are committed and injustice reigns. As an error which proceedeth from the ruler. The כְּ here is caph veritatis, which denotes not comparison, but resemblance, the idealization of the individual, the harmony of the particular with the general idea. The evil which he noticed appeared to be (he does not affirm that it is) a mistake caused by the ruler; it so presented itself to his mind. The caution observed in the statement may be owing partly to the tacit feeling that such blots occasioned difficulties in the view taken of the moral government of the world. He does not intend to refer to God under the appellation "Ruler." The Septuagint renders, Ὡς ἀκούσιον ἐξῆλθεν, "As if it came involuntarily;" Vulgate, to much the same effect, Quasi per errorem egrediens. The idea here is either gnat the evil is one not produced by any intentional action of the ruler, but resulting from human imperfection, or that what appears to be a mistake is not so really. But these interpretations are unsuitable. Those who adhere to the Solomonic authorship of our book see here a prophetic intimation of the evil of Jeroboam's rule, which evil proceeded from the sins of Solomon himself and his son Rehoboam. (So Wordsworth, Motais, etc.)
Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. This is an instance of the error intimated in the preceding verse. A tyrannical ruler exalts incompetent persons, unworthy favorites, to "great heights", as it is literally—puts them into eminent positions. "Folly" is abstract for concrete, "fools." And the rich sit in low place. "The rich" (ashirim) are not simply those who have wealth, however obtained, but men of noble birth; ἀρχαιόπλουτοι, as Plumptre appositely notes, persons of ancestral wealth, who from natural position might be looked upon as rulers of men. Such men would seek eminent stations, not from base motives of gain, but from an honorable ambition, and yet they are often slighted by unworthy princes and kept in low estate. The experience mentioned in this and the following verses could scarcely have been Solomon's, though it has been always common enough in the East, where the most startling changes have been made, the lowest persons have been suddenly raised to eminence, mistresses and favorites loaded with dignities, and oppression of the rich has been systematically pursued.
I have seen servants upon horses. A further description of the effect of the tyrant's perversion of equity. Such an allusion could not have been made in Solomon's reign, when the importation of horses was quite a new thing (1 Kings 10:28). Later, to ride upon horses was a distinction of the nobility (Jeremiah 17:25). Thus Amaziah's corpse was brought on horses to be buried in the city of David (2 Chronicles 25:28): Mordecai was honored by being taken round the city on the king's own steed (Esther 6:8, etc.). Princes walking as servants upon the earth. "Princes" (sarim); i.e. masters, lords. Some take the expressions here as figurative, equivalent to "those who are worthy to be princes," and "those who are fit only to be slaves;" but the literal is the true interpretation. Commentators quote what Justin (41.3) says of the Parthians, "Hoc denique discrimen inter serves liberos-que, quod servi pedibus, Liberi non nisi equis iuccdunt." Ginsburg notes that early travelers in the East record the fact that Europeans were not allowed by the Turks to ride upon horses, but were compelled either to use asses or walk on foot. In some places the privilege of riding upon horseback was permitted to the consuls of the great powers—an honor denied to all strangers of lower degree. Among the Greeks and Romans the possession of a horse with its war-trappings implied a certain amount of wealth and distinction. St. Gregory, treating of this passage ('Moral.,' 31.43), says, "By the name horse is understood temporal dignity, as Solomon witnesses …. For every one who sins is the servant of sin, and servants are upon horses, when sinner's are elated with the dignities of the present life. But princes walk as servants, when no honor exalts many who are full of the dignity of virtues, but when the greatest misfortune here presses them down, as though unworthy."
Section 13. Various proverbs expressing the benefit of prudence and caution, and the danger of folly. The connection with what has preceded is not closely marked, but is probably to be found in the bearing of the maxims on the conduct of the wise man who has incurred the resentment of a ruler, and might be inclined to disaffection and revolt. They are intentionally obscure and capable of a double sense—a necessary precaution if the writer lived under Persian despots.
He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it. This proverb occurs in Proverbs 26:27, and, as expressive of the retribution that awaits evil-doers, finds parallels in Psalms 7:15, Psalms 7:16; Psalms 9:15; Psalms 10:2; Ecclesiasticus 27:25, 26. The" pit" (gummats, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον) is such a one as was made to capture wild animals, and the maker of it is supposed to approach it incautiously, and to fall into it. But the scope of our passage is rather to speak of what may possibly occur than to insist on the Nemesis that inevitably overtakes transgressors. Its object is to inspire caution in the prosecution of dangerous undertakings, whether the enterprise be the overthrow of a tyrant, or any other action of importance, or whether, as some suppose, the arraignment of the providential ordering of events is intended, in which ease there would be the danger of blasphemy and impatience. And whoso breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him. The futures throughout verses 8 and 9 ,are not intended to express certainty, as if the results mentioned were inevitable, but rather possibility, and might be rendered, with Delitzsch, "may fall," "may bite," etc. The "hedge" is rather a wall (Proverbs 24:31), in the crevices of which poisonous snakes have made their abode, which are disturbed by its demolition (comp. Ames 5:19). Nachash, here used, is the generic name of any serpent. The majority of the snakes found in Palestine are harmless; but there are some which are very deadly, especially the cobra and those which belong to the viper family. There is no allusion here to the illegal removal of landmarks, a proceeding which might be supposed to provoke retribution; the hedge or wail is one which the demolisher is justified in removing, only in doing so he must look out for certain contingencies, and guard against them. Metaphorically, the pulling down a wall may refer to the removal of evil institutions in a state, which involves the reformer in many difficulties and perils.
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith. It is natural to consider this clause as suggested by the breaking of a wall in the preceding verse; but as this would occasion a jejune repetition, it is better to take it of the work of the quarryman, as in 1 Kings 5:17, where the same verb is used. The dangers to which such laborers are exposed are well known. Here, again, but unsuccessfully, some have seen a reference to the removal of landmarks, comparing 2 Kings 4:4, where the word is translated "set aside." As before said, the paragraph does not speak of retribution, but advises caution, enforcing the lesson by certain homely, allusions to the accidents that may occur m customary occupations. He that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby. Cutting up logs of wood, a man may hurt himself with axe or saw, or be injured by splinters, etc. If we take the idea to be the felling of trees, there is the danger of being crushed in their fall, or, according to the tenor of Deuteronomy 19:5, of being killed inadvertently by a neighbor's axe. Vulgate, Qui scindit ligna vulnerabitur ab eis, which is more definite than the general term "endangered;" but the Septuagint has, Κινδυνεύσει ἐν αὐτοῖς, as in the Authorized Version. Plumptre sees here, again, an intimation of the danger of attacking time-honored institutions, even when decaying and corrupt.
If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge. The illustration at the end of the last verse is continued. The "iron" is the axe used in cutting wood; if this be blunted by the work to which it is put, and he, the laborer, has not sharpened the edge (Hebrew, the face, as in Ezekiel 21:1), what is the consequence? How is he to carry on his work? Then must he put to more strength. He must put more force in his blows, he must make up for the want of edge by added power and weight. This is the simplest explanation of the passage, which contains many linguistic difficulties. These may be seen discussed at length in the commentaries of Delitzsch, Wright, Nowack, etc. The translation of Ginsburg is not commendable, "If the axe be blunt, and he (the tyrant's opponent)do not sharpen it beforehand (phanim, taken as an adverb of time), he (the tyrant) shall only increase the army." The Septuagint is obscure, Ἐὰν ἐκπέσῃ τὸ σιδήριον καὶ αὐτὸς πρόσωπον ἐτάραξε καὶ δυνάμεις δυναμώσει, "If the axe should fall, then he troubles his face, and he shall strengthen his forces (? double his strength);" Vulgate, Si retusum fuerit ferrurn, et hoc non ut prius, sed hebetatum fuerit, multo labore exacuetur, "If the iron shall be blunted, and it be not as before, but have become dull, it shall be sharpened with much labor." But wisdom is profitable to direct; rather, the advantage of setting right is (on the side of) wisdom. Wisdom teaches how to conduct matters to a successful termination; for instance, it prompts the worker to sharpen his tool instead of trying to accomplish his task by an exertion of mere brute strength. The gnome applies to all the instances which have been mentioned above. Wisdom alone enables a man to meet and overcome the dangers and difficulties which beset his social, common, and political life. If we apply the whole sentence to the case of disaffection with the government or open rebellion, the caution given would signify—See that your means are adequate to the end, that your resources are sufficient to conduct your enterprise to success. Septuagint Vatican, Καὶ περίσσεια τῷ ἀνδρὶ οὐ σοφία, "And the advantage to man is not wisdom." But manuscripts A and C read, Καὶ περισσεια τοῦ αηνδρίου σοφία: Vulgate, Post industriam sequetur sapientia, "After industry shall follow wisdom."
The last proverb of this little series shows the necessity of seizing the right opportunity. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment. The Authorized Version is not quite correct. The particle אם, with which the verse begins, is here conditional, and the rendering should be, If the serpent bite, etc.; the apodosis comes in the next clause. The idea is taken up from Ecclesiastes 10:8. If one handles a serpent without due precaution or without knowing the secret of charming it, one will suffer for it. The taming and charming of poisonous snakes is still, as heretofore, practiced in Egypt and the East. What the secret of this power is has not been accurately determined; whether it belongs especially to persons of a certain idiosyncrasy, whether it is connected with certain words or intonations of the voice or musical sounds, we do not know. Of the existence of the power from remote antiquity there can be no question. Allusions to it in Scripture are common enough (see Exodus 7:11; Psalms 58:5; Jeremiah 8:17; Ecclesiasticus 12:13). If a serpent before it is charmed is dangerous, what then? The Authorized Version affords no sensible apodosis: And a babbler is no better. The words rendered "babbler" (baal hallashon) are literally "master of the tongue," and by them is meant the ἐπαοιδός, "the serpent-charmer." The clause should run, Then there is no use in the charmer. If the man is bitten before he has time to use his charm, it is no profit to him that he has the secret, it is too late to employ it when the mischief is done. This is to shut the stable door after the steed is stolen. The maxim enforces the warning against being too late; the greatest skill is useless unless applied at the right moment. The Septuagint translates virtually as above, "If a serpent bites when not charmed (ἐν οὐ ψιθυρισμῷ), then there is no advantage to the charmer (τῷ ἐπᾴδοντι)." The Vulgate departs from the context, rendering, Si mordeat serpens in silentio (i.e. probably "uncharmed"), nihil eo minus habet qui occulte detrahit, "He is nothing better who slanders secretly," which St. Jerome thus explains: the serpent and the slanderer are alike, for as the serpent stealthily infuses its poison, so the secret slanderer pours his venom into another's breast.
Section 14. The mention of "the master of the tongue" in Ecclesiastes 10:11 leads the author to introduce some maxims concerned with the contrast between the words and acts of the wise, and the worthless prating and useless labors of the fool.
The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; literally, are grace; i.e. they net only are pleasing in form and manner, but they conciliate favor, produce approbation and good will, convince and, what is more, persuade. So of our blessed Lord it was said, "All bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words (τοῖς λόγοις τῆς χάριτος) which proceeded out of his mouth" (Luke 4:22; cutup. Psalms 45:2). In distinction from the unready man, who, like the snake-charmer in the preceding verse, suffers-by reason of his untimely silence, the wise man uses his speech opportunely and to good purpose. (A different result is given in Ecclesiastes 9:11.) But the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. This is a stronger ex-prosaic, than "ruin" or "destroy." Speaking without due forethought, he compromises himself] says what he has shamefully to withdraw, and brings punishment on his own head (cutup. Proverbs 10:8, Proverbs 10:21; Proverbs 18:7).
Ῥῆμα παρὰ καιρὸν ῥιφθὲν ἀνατρέπει βίον.
"Untimely speech has ruined many a life."
The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness. A confirmation of the last clause of the preceding verse. The fool speaks according to his nature. "As saith the proverb of the ancients, Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness" (1 Samuel 24:13; cutup. Proverbs 15:2; Isaiah 32:6). As soon as he opens his month he utters folly, unwisdom, silliness. But he does not stop there. The end of his talk is mischievous madness. By the time he has finished, he has committed himself to statements that are worse than silly, that are presumptuous, frenzied, indicative of mental and moral depravity. Intemperate language about the secrets of God's providence and the moral government of the world may be intended. Some think that the writer is still alluding to dangerous talk concerning a tyrannical ruler, seditious proposals, secret conspiracies, etc. The text itself does not confirm such notion with any certainty.
A fool also is full of words. The word for "fool" here is oaks/, which implies a dense, confused thinker. Alive the word was kesil, which denotes rather the self-confidence of the dull and stupid man. Moreover the fool multiplieth words. He not only speaks foolishly, but he says too much (comp. Ecclesiastes 5:2). It is not mere loquacity that is here predicated of the fool, though that is one of his characteristics, but, as-the rest of the verse shows, the prating of things about which he knows nothing. He talks as though he knew everything and there were no limitation to human cognition. A man cannot tell what shall be. And yet, or although, no man can really predict the future. The fool speaks confidently of such things, and thereby proves his imbecility. Instead of "what shall be," the Septuagint has, Τί τὸ γενόμενον καὶ τί τὸ ἐσόμενον, "What has been and what shall be;" the Vulgate, Quid ante se fuerit, "What has been before him." This reading was introduced probably to obviate a seeming tautology in the following clause, And what shall be after him, who can tell? But this clause has a different signification from the former, and presents a closer definition. The future intended may be the result of the fool's inconsiderate language, which may have fatal and lasting consequences; or it may refer to the visitation of his sins upon his children, in accordance with the denunciation of Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 29:20-22; or it may include the life beyond the grave. The uncertainty of the future is a constant theme; see Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 6:11, Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 8:17; and compare Christ's parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-20), and St. James's warning in his Epistle (James 4:13-16).
The labor of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city. The transition from plural to singular is here made, The work of fools wearieth him that knoweth not, etc. "Fools' work" signifies, perhaps, the vain speculations about Providence which Koheleth constantly condemns; or at any rate, all vain and objectless toil and trouble. Not to know the way to the city is probably a proverbial saying expressive of gross ignorance concerning the most obvious matters. How should one, who fails in the knowledge open to all experience, be able to investigate and give an opinion about abstruse questions (comp. Isaiah 35:8)? For the last clause other interpretations have been proposed, such as, the fool knows not how to transact public business (which is introducing a modern idea); the oppressed peasant knows not the way to the town where he might obtain redress; he is so foolish that he does not understand where he may find patrons whom he may bribe to plead his cause; he is an Essene, who avoids cities; he cannot make his way to the new Jerusalem, the city of God. But these artificial explanations are to be rejected, while the simple interpretation given above is plainly consistent with the context. The lesson is not to meddle with things too high, especially when you are ignorant of the commonest matters. A little wisdom would prevent endless and useless trouble.
Section 15. Koheleth returns to the theme mentioned in Ecclesiastes 10:4-7. and speaks of folly in one who holds the position of king, and the need of wisdom and prudence in the subjects of an unworthy ruler.
Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child! "Child" is naar, which term included any age up to manhood. Some interpret the word here, as παῖς in Greek, in the sense of "slave," contrasting it with "the son of nobles" in the following verse. But it can hardly signify more than servitor, attendant; and in Ecclesiastes 10:7 the antithesis to "prince" is ebed, not naar. The child in the present case is a youthful, inexperienced ruler, who does not realize his responsibilities, and is the tool of evil advisers. What particular instance, if any, Koheleth had in view it is impossible to say. Of course, many expositors see a reference to Rehoboam. whom, at forty years of age, his own son Abijah calls naar (2 Chronicles 13:7), and who was certainly childish in his conduct (1 Kings 12:1-14). Hitzig connects the passage with the reign of Ptolemy Epiphanes, who was but five years old at the death of his father, B.C. 205, the reins of government being assumed by Agathocles and his sister Agathoclea, who occasioned serious disasters to the laud. To support this opinion, the date of our book has to be considerably reduced (see Introduction). It is best to take the gnome as a general expression, like that in Isaiah 3:12, "As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them." Thy princes eat in the morning. Eating here implies feasting and banqueting, beginning the day with sensual enjoyment instead of such honest work as attending to state matters, administering justice, etc; as becomes good rulers. None but profligates would thus spend the early morning. "These are not drunken, as ye suppose; seeing it is but the third hour of the day," says St. Peter, repudiating the charge of intoxication (Acts 2:15). "Woe unto them," cries Isaiah (Isaiah 5:11), "that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink!" Even the heathen censured such debauchery. Cicero thus abuses Antonius: "At quam multos dies in ea villa turpissime es per-bacchatus. Ab hora tertia bibebatur, ludebatur, vomebatur" ('Philipp.,' 2.41). Curtius (5. 7. 2) reprehends "de die convivia inire." The Greeks had a proverb to denote abnormal sensuality, Ἀφ ἡμέρας πίνειν
Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles! cujus rex nobilis est (Vulgate), υἱὸς ἐλευθέρων, "son of free men". Some would regard "son of nobles" as a periphrasis expressive of character, equivalent to the Latin generosus, as "son of strength," equivalent to "strong man;" "son of wickedness," equivalent to "wicked man;" but the phrase may well be taken literally. Koheleth (Ecclesiastes 10:7) has expressed his disgust at the exaltation of unworthy slaves to high positions; he here intimates his adherence to the idea that those who descend from noble ancestors, and have been educated in the higher ranks of society, are more likely to prove a blessing to their land than upstarts who have been placed by caprice or favoritism in situations of trust and eminence. Of course, it is not universally true that men of high birth make good rulers; but proverbs of general tenor must not be pressed in particulars, and the author must be understood to affirm that the fact of having distinguished ancestors is an incentive to right action, stirs a worthy emulation in a man, gives him a motive which is wanting in the lowborn parvenu. The feeling, noblesse oblige, has preserved many from baseness (comp. John 8:39). Thy princes eat in due season; not like those mentioned in Ecclesiastes 10:16, but in tempore, πρὸς καιρόν, at the right time, the "season" which appertains to all mundane things (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). For strength, and net for drunkenness. The preposition here is taken as expressing the object—they eat to gain strength, not to indulge sensuality; but it is more in accordance with usage to translate "in, or with, manly strength," i.e. as man's strength demands, and not degenerating into a carouse. If it is thought incongruous, as Ginsburg deems, to say, "princes eat for drunkenness," we may take drunkenness as denoting excess of any kind The word in the form here used occurs nowhere else. The Septuagint, regarding rather the consequences of intoxication than the actual word in the text, renders, Καὶ οὐκ αἰσχυνθήσονται, "And they shall not be ashamed." Thus, too, St. Jerome, Et non in confusione. St. Augustine ('De Civit.,' 17:20) deduces from this passage that there are two kingdoms—that of Christ and that of the devil, and he explains the allegory at some length, going into details which are of homiletic utility. Another interpretation is given by St. Jerome, quoted at length by Corn. a Lapide, in his copious commentary.
By much slothfulness the building decayeth. The subject is still the state. Under the image of a house which falls into ruin for lack of needful repairs, is signified the decay that surely overtakes a kingdom whose rulers are given up to indolence and debauchery, and neglect to attend to the affairs which require prompt care (comp. Amos 9:11). Such were they whom Amos (Amos 6:6) denounced, "That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph." "Much slothfulness" is expressed in the original by a dual form, which gives an intensive signification. Ewald and Ginsburg take it as referring to the "two idle hands;" but the intensifications of the dual is not unprecedented (see Delitzsch, in loc.). The rest of this clause is more accurately rendered, the rafters sink, i.e. the timber framework, whether of roof or wall, gives way. This may possibly not be noticed at once, but it makes itself known unmistakably ere long. And through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through; rather, the house leaketh, the roof lets in the rain. Septuagint, Ἐν ἀρχία χειρῶν στάξει ἡ οἰκία, "Through laziness of hands the house will drip." The very imperfect construction of the fiat roofs of Eastern houses demanded continual attention. Such common and annoying occurrences as a leaky roof are mentioned in the Book of Proverbs (see Proverbs 19:13; Proverbs 27:15). Plautus, ' Mostell.,' 1.2.28—
"Ventat imber, lavit parietes; perpluunt
Tigna; putrefacit aer operam fabri."
"The rain comes down, and washes all the walls,
The roof is leaky, and the weather rough
Loosens the architect's most skilful work."
A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry. Here is a cause of the decay spoken of above. The rulers spend in revelry and debauchery the time and energy which they ought to give to affairs of state. More literally, for merriment they make bread, and wine [that] cheereth life; i.e. they use God's good gifts of bread and wine as means of intemperance and thoughtless pleasure. So a psalmist speaks of wine as making glad the heart of man (Psalms 104:15); and Ben-Sira says, "Wine is as good as life to a man, if it be drunk moderately: what life is there to a man that is without wine? for it was created to make men glad. Wine measurably drunk and in season bringeth gladness of the .heart, and cheer fullness of the mind". But money answereth all things; i.e. grants all that such persons want. It requires money to provide rich food and costly wines; this they possess, and they are thus able to indulge their appetites to the utmost. It concerns them not how such resources are obtained—won by extortion from a starving people, exacted in exorbitant taxation, pillaged by unscrupulous instruments; they want gold to expend on their lusts, and they get it same-how, and with it all that in their view makes life worth living. Commentators alto Horace, ' Ep.,' 1.6.36, "Scilicet uxorem," etc.
"For why—a portioned wife, fair fame, and friends,
Beauty and birth on sovereign Wealth attends.
Blest is her votary throned his bags among?
Persuasion's self sits perched upon his tongue;
Love beams in every feature of his face,
And every gesture beams celestial grace."
Corn. a Lapide appositely quotes—
"…quidquid nummis praesentibus opta,
Et veniet; clausum possidet arca Jovem."
"If thou hast gold, then wish for anything,
And it will surely come; the money-box
Hath in it a most potent deity."
Pineda, followed by Metals, suggests that this verse may be taken in a good sense. He would make verse 18 correspond to verse 16, characterizing the government of debauchees, and verse 19 correspond to verse 17, representing the rule of temperate princes where all is peace and prosperity. But there is nothing grammatical to indicate this arrangement; and the explanation given above is doubtless correct. The Septuagint Version is not faithful in our present text, though it is followed virtually by the Syriac: Εἰς γέλωτα ποιοῦσιν ἄρτον καὶ οἶνον καὶ ἔλαιον τοῦ εὐφρανθῆναι ζῶντας καὶ τοῦ ἀργυρίου ταπεινώσει ἐπακούσεται τὰ πάντα "For gladness they make bread and wine and oil, that the living may rejoice, and to money all things will humble themselves, will obey" (doubly translating the word).
Curse not the king, no not in thy thought. Under the above-mentioned circumstances, a man might be tempted to abuse and curse these ill-conditioned rulers. Koheleth warns against this error; it is dangerous to give way to it (comp. Exodus 22:28). In Ecclesiastes 8:2 the motive for submission to the king is placed on religious grounds; in the present passage the ground is prudence, regard for personal safety, which might be compromised by plain speaking, especially when one has to do with such depraved and unscrupulous persons. We may compare David's generous conduct to his cruel persecutor Saul, whom he spared because he was the Lord's anointed (1 Samuel 24:6, l0; 1 Samuel 26:9, etc.; 2 Samuel 1:14). Madda, "thought," "consciousness," is rare, and is supposed to belong to late Hebrew (see 2 Chronicles 1:10, 2Ch 1:11, 2 Chronicles 1:12; Daniel 1:4, Daniel 1:17). The Septuagint translates it συνείδησις: Vulgate, cogitatio. To encourage such thoughts in the mind is to run the risk of openly expressing them at some unguarded moment; for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Curse not the rich in thy bedchamber. In ability to injure, the rich stand in the same category as the king. You are not safe ἐν τανιείοις κοιτώνων σου, "in your very bedchamber," where, if anywhere, you would fancy yourself free from espionage. But "walls have ears," says the proverb (comp. Habakkuk 2:11; Luke 19:40); and the King of Syria is warned, "Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the King of Israel the words thou speakest in thy bedchamber" (2 Kings 6:12). "That which ye have spoken in the ear in closets (ἐν τοῖς ταμιείοις) shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:3). For a bird of the air shall carry the voice. A proverbial saying, common to all languages, and not to be referred especially to the story of the cranes of Ibycus (see Erasmus,' Adag.,' s.v. "Ultio malefacti") or to the employment of carrier pigeons. We say of secret information, "a little bird told me." Plumptre quotes Aristophanes, 'Aves,' 575—
Οὐδείς οἶδεν τὸν θησαυρὸν τὸν ἐμὸν πλὴν εἴ τις ἄρ ὄρνις
"No one knows of my treasure, save, it may be, a bird."
On which the Scholiast notes, "There is a proverb extant, ' No one observes me but the passing bird'" (comp. Erasmus, ' Adag.,' s.v. "Occulta"). In Koheleth's day informers evidently plied their trade industriously, and here meet, not only with notice, but ironically with reprobation. On the general sentiment of the verse, we may quote Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 9.102, "O Corydon, Corydon," thus versified in Ginsburg's commentary—
"And dost thou seriously believe, fond swain,
The actions of the great unknown remain?
Poor Corydon! even beasts would silence break,
And stocks and stones, if servants did not, speak.
Bolt every door, stop every cranny tight,
Close every window, put out every light;
Let not a whisper reach the listening ear,
No noise, no motion; let no soul be near;
Yet all that passed at the cock's second crow,
The neighboring vintner shall, ere day-break, know."
That which hath wings (compare Latin ales); the possessor (baal) of a pair of wings, a periphrasis for "a bird," as in Proverbs 1:17. We had "master of the tongue," Proverbs 1:11; so in Daniel 8:6, Daniel 8:20, "having horns," is "master (baal) of horns."
Verses 1-7, 12-15
The dispraise of folly.
I. FOLLY MARS THE FINEST REPUTATION.
As one sinner destroyeth much good (Ecclesiastes 9:18), and flies of death, or poisonous flies, cause the ointment of the perfumer to send forth a stinking savor, so doth a little folly outweigh wisdom and honor.
1. It mars their beauty. As the poisonous flies so affect the perfumer's ointment that it begins to ferment and lose its fragrance, a little folly mixed up with a great deal of wisdom and honor impairs these in such a fashion and to such an extent, that they cease to attract the good opinion of beholders, and the person possessed of them is rather known as a fool than esteemed as a wise man.
2. It destroys their value. As the dealer in ointments cannot sell his corrupted pigment, so neither can the man whose wisdom and honor are tainted with folly any longer wield that power for good he might otherwise have done. The influence exerted by his wisdom and honor is directly counteracted and frequently overbalanced by the influence of his folly.
II. FOLLY CONSTITUTES AN UNSAFE GUIDE. "The wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left." This has been thought to mean:
1. The fool's heart is in the wrong place, in contrast to the wise man's, which is always in the right place (Hengstenberg). This sentiment is true. The fool's heart is not directed towards those objects upon which its affections ought to be set, while the wise man's is. This enough to make folly an unsafe conductor.
2. The fool's heart never acts at the right time, while the wise man's does (Ginsburg), because the wise man's heart is always at his right hand, his acting hand, his working hand; while the fool's is always at the left hand, the wrong hand, the hand with which a person usually finds it difficult to act. This a second reason why no man should accept folly as a leader. It can never seize the opportunity, never strike while the iron is hot, never do anything at the proper moment or in an efficient manner.
3. The fool's heart is always unlucky in its auguries, whereas the wise man's heart is always lucky (Plumptre). If this were the correct interpretation—which we think it is not—it would state what would not be surprising, were it true, that the fool's forecasts were usually falsified, and would present another argument for not committing one's self to the directorship of folly.
4. The fool's heart always leads in the wrong direction, as distinguished from the right direction in which the wise man's heart ever goes. This, undoubtedly, is true. The fool is a person wholly destitute of that wisdom which is profitable to direct (verse 10), and without which no man can walk safely (Proverbs 3:23). A final consideration against enrolling beneath the banner of folly.
III. POLLY INVARIABLY BETRAYS ITS OWN STUPIDITY. "Yea also, when the fool walketh by the way, his understanding faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a fool." As it is certain that no man can conceal his true character for ever, or even for long, so likewise is it certain that a zany, a buffoon, a fool, will discover his sooner than most people. He will proclaim himself to be a fool:
1. By his irrational behavior. His understanding will fail him at critical times and on important subjects. He will reveal his ignorance, want of sense, lack of principle, emptiness of grace.
2. In the most public manner. As he walks by the way. As not being in the least degree ashamed of his folly, perhaps hardly conscious he is making such an exhibition of himself.
3. To the most unlimited extent. He will make himself known, not to his friends in private, but to his neighbors in the street, and not to one or two merely of these, but to every one he meets.
IV. FOLLY FREQUENTLY ASCRIBES ITS OWN CHARACTER TO OTHERS. The fool saith of every one he meets, "He is a fool," i.e. the individual whom he meets is (Vulgate, Luther, Plumptre). Though this translation is doubtful, it supplies a true thought; that as insane people often count all but themselves insane, so fools—intellectual, moral, and religious—not infrequently regard themselves as the only truly wise persons, and look upon the rest of mankind as fools.
V. FOLLY IS OFTEN GUILTY OF GREAT RASHNESS. "If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding allayeth great offences" (verse 4). The folly here alluded to consists in three things.
1. In flaming up into indignation at an unmerited accusation. Charges of such sort were to be expected by one who served an Oriental despot, and are not uncommon in ordinary life in the experience of subordinates who serve choleric masters. "The spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes" are no doubt hard to bear; but it is not a sign of wisdom to fume against them, and fret one's self into anger.
2. In hastily retiring from the post of duty. As a statesman might resign his seals of office on being reprimanded by his sovereign, or a workman lay down his tools on being challenged by his master, or a domestic servant throw up her situation on being found fault with by her mistress.
3. In failing to see the better way of meekness and submission. The advantages of gently and patiently bearing false accusations or unjust ebullitions of temper against one are obvious. Such yielding
(1) usually has the effect of softening the anger and checking the railing of the accuser (Proverbs 15:1);
(2) puts an end to further offences on the part of the irate superior, whether ruler or master, who, were his rage to be increased by resistance, might proceed to greater manifestations of his temper; and
(3) prevents the offended himself from rushing into more serious transgressions, as he might do were he to give way in turn to his angry passions.
VI. FOLLY SOMETIMES ATTAINS TO UNDESERVED HONOR. "There is an evil which I have seen under the sun … folly set in great dignity, and the rich in low place … servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth" (verses 5-7).
1. The commonness of this phenomenon. "The eunuch Bagoas long all-powerful at the Persian court" (Delitzsch), Louis XI. exalting the base-born to places of honor, and Edward II; James I. of England or Henry III. of France, lavishing dignities on their minions, may be cited as examples. Nothing more frequent in everyday life than to see persons of small capacity and little worth promoted over the heads of their superiors in talent and goodness.
2. The cause of this phenomenon. In one sense the wisdom of God, the chief Ruler of men and things (Hengstenberg), but in another sense, and that the one here intended, the arbitrary power of men "dressed in a little brief authority."
3. The evil of this phenomenon. It discourages merit, and inflates folly with pride; rewards incapacity, and despises real ability; places influence in wrong hands, and weakens the power of good men to benefit their age.
VII. FOLLY SELDOM KNOWS WHEN TO HOLD ITS TONGUE. "The lips of a fool will swallow up himself," etc. (verses 12-14).
1. The wise man's words are few, the fool's endless. The former is "swift to hear, but slow to speak" (James 1:19); the latter hears nothing, learns less, and chatters incessantly. The former is known by his silence (Proverbs 17:28; Proverbs 29:11); the latter, by the multitude of his words (verse 3).
2. The wise man's words are gracious, the fool's ruinous. The lips of the wise are a tree of life (Proverbs 11:30; Proverbs 15:4), and disperse knowledge amongst their fellows (Proverbs 15:7), whilst they preserve themselves (Proverbs 14:3); but a fool's mouth is his own destruction (Proverbs 17:7), and the complete beggarment of all that listen to him (Proverbs 14:23; Proverbs 17:7).
3. The wise man's words improve as they proceed, the fool's deteriorate as they flow. The former carry with them the ripe fruits of thought and experience, growing richer and weightier as they move slowly on; the latter progress from bad to worse, beginning with foolishness and ending with mischievous madness.
VIII. FOLLY IS FREQUENTLY UNABLE TO DO THE SIMPLEST THINGS. "The labor of fools wearieth every one of them, for he knoweth not how to go to the city" (verse 15).
1. The fool's ignorance is dense. So simple a matter as finding his way along a country road to the city is beyond his comprehension. Plumptre cites in illustration the proverbs, "None but a fool is lost on a straight road," and "The 'why' is plain as way to parish church."
2. The fool's presumption is immense. He who cannot do so small a matter as find his way to the city proposes to "enlighten the world and make it happy" through his words or his works. So people who know nothing about a subject often imagine themselves qualified to teach it to others, and persons of no capacity put themselves forward to attempt undertakings of greatest difficulty.
3. The fool's labor is vast. Having neither knowledge nor ability, he labors with "great travail" to expound what he does not understand, and perform what he has neither brains nor hands to execute.
1. Forsake the foolish and live (Proverbs 9:6).
2. Get wisdom; get understanding (Proverbs 4:5).
Gnomic wisdom; or, a string of double-edged proverbs.
I. DIGGING PITS AND FALLING INTO THEM. "He that diggeth a pit shall [or, 'may'] fall into it" (verse 8). An old proverb, borrowed from Solomon (Proverbs 26:27), who in turn may have learnt it from David (Psalms 7:15; Psalms 9:15; Psalms 57:6), it may point to one or other of two thoughts.
1. The necessity of exercising caution in all works of danger. One who hollows out a trench or pit for the purpose of snaring wild animals—a perfectly legitimate design—may, either by standing too near the edge and causing the treacherous earth to give way, or by stumbling on it in the dark at an unexpected moment, fall in, in which case he will suffer not for having done wrong, but merely for having failed to act with circumspection and prudence (Proverbs 14:15; Proverbs 22:3; Proverbs 27:12).
2. The possibility of evildoers overreaching themselves. In this case the pit is supposed to be dug for a wicked purpose, as e.g. to ensnare another to his ruin. In this sense the proverb has found expression in almost all literatures. Shakespeare speaks of the engineer being "hoist with his own petard." Haman was hanged upon the gallows he had built for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). "Plots and conspiracies are often as fatal to the conspirators as to the intended victims' (Plumptre).
II. BROKEN HEDGES AND BITING SERPENTS. "Whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him" (verse 8). The hedge, or rather fence, or stone wall, was a customary haunt of serpents; so that one engaged in breaking down such a structure had need to beware of being bitten by the reptiles infesting it. Hence a variety of lessons according as the words are viewed.
1. An admonition to workers. To go cautiously about their employments, if these are dangerous, as a person would who had to pull down or break through an old wall in which serpents were lodged. Many accidents occur, inflicting damage on the workers, for want of a little foresight.
2. A warning to transgressors. That Nemesis may overtake them in the very act of their evil doing. If they break through a neighbor's fence to steal his fruit, or pull down his wall so as to injure his property, they need not be surprised if they are caught in the act. Wickedness has a habit of avenging itself, sometimes with great rapidity and with terrible severity, on those who perpetrate it. This is true of all breaking down of those fences or laws with which God has girt man. Every violation of law—physical, intellectual, moral, social, religious—is visited with its own particular biting serpent of penalty.
3. A caution to reformers. If they will set themselves to pull down the old walls of decayed and worthless institutions, or to break through the fences of time-honored customs, they must prepare themselves for being bitten by the serpents in the crannies—for encountering the opposition, criticism, hate, and often persecution of those who have vested interests in the abuses proposed to be rectified or swept away. Reformers should count the cost before beginning their work of reformation.
III. HEWING OR REMOVING STONES AND HURTING ONE'8 SELF. "Whoso heweth out [or, 'moveth'] stones shall he hurt therewith" (verse 9). Again of double import, teaching:
1. The duty of guarding one's self against the perils that may attend a perfectly legitimate occupation. Viewed in this light, the stone-moving may simply mean the pulling down of a wall, which, if it be carelessly performed, may fall and inflict a hurt upon the worker; and the stone-hewing may refer to the work of quarrying, which may be attended with great risk from the flying about of chips.
2. The inevitable recompense of all wrongdoing. If the stone-moving alludes to the removing of a neighbor's landmark, then the proverb stands as a reminder of the curse pronounced against that ancient sin (Deuteronomy 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:17). The use of landmarks, at least as then employed, has ceased; but the distinction between "mine" and "thine "remains; and every invasion of another's rights is a wickedness which in course of providence will receive its just recompense of reward (Exodus 20:15).
IV. CLEAVING LOGS AND CUTTING FINGERS. "He that cleaveth wood is endangered thereby" (verse 9). The three thoughts already mentioned are again repeated.
1. The need of caution. Wood-splitting being a dangerous occupation.
2. The certainty of retribution. The cutting down of trees, especially fruit trees, being regarded as an act of wrongful oppression, and as such forbidden by the Law, even m a siege (Deuteronomy 20:19, Deuteronomy 20:20), the hurt that might come to one in wood-cutting (Deuteronomy 19:5) may be viewed as suggestive of the penalty of disobedience.
3. The peril of reform. The cutting down of trees is, in this instance, taken as symbolic of the hewing down of decayed institutions.
V. BLUNT TOOLS AND HEAVY BLOWS. "If the iron be blunt, and one do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct" (verse 10). The lessons are two.
1. Every work has its own appropriate tools. Wood-cutting requires axes, and not merely blunt pieces of iron; pit-digging demands spades; stone-hewing chisels. Each occupation has its own implement. This the dictate of common sense.
2. Every tool should be kept in a fit condition for its work. This the teaching of wisdom. A woodman with a blunt axe must strike oftener and heavier than he would need to do were his axe sharp. So the man who enters on any task without the requisite sharpness of intelligence and sagacity will find his work proportionately hindered.
VI. BITING SERPENTS AND TARDY CHARMERS. "If the serpent bite before it is charmed, then is there no advantage in the charmer;" or, "Surely the serpent will bite without, or where there is no, enchantment" (verse 11); which again offers two thoughts.
1. That the serpent of temptation will do its deadly work unless timorously repressed. This may be done by resisting its first approaches, if they cannot be eluded altogether (James 4:7), by crushing down the rising inclination within one to yield, by diligently considering the sinfulness of that to which one is solicited (Genesis 39:9), by calling in the help of God against the adversary (Ephesians 6:10-18).
2. That if once the serpent of temptation has done its deadly work there is no use whatever of resorting to such means of repression. Such means are then too late. To employ them then is much the same thing as to shut the stable door when the steed has been stolen.
Good thoughts for bad times; or, words from the wise.
I. THE NECESSITY OF CAUTION. Especially in difficult and dangerous works. He who digs a pit must be on his guard against falling into it; he who pulls down a stone wall must look out for serpents; he who hews stones or removes them must be careful not to hurt himself in the process; he who cleaves or splits timber must see that he is not endangered thereby. "The prudent man looketh well to his going."
II. THE RECOMPENSE OF WRONGDOING.
1. Springing out of the wrong act. As when one, having dug a pit to ensnare another, falls into it himself.
2. Suddenly smiting the transgressor. As when a serpent bites him who pulls down a wall.
3. Swiftly following on the heels of crime. As when one who, hewing stones, injures-himself with the chips, or, removing a neighbor's landmark, is punished for his offence.
4. Certainly overtaking the evildoer, As when one cutting wood strikes himself with the axe.
III. THE PERIL OF REFORM. The propriety of counting the cost before entering on the arduous career of a reformer. Illustrated by the two proverbs about breaking through fences and cutting down trees. Men are not to be deterred from attempting reforms because of difficulties and dangers; only they should not be surprised when these are experienced.
IV. THE SELECTION OF INSTRUMENTS. Many enterprises fail because the proper instruments have not been selected; or, if selected, have not been managed with wisdom. The man who intends to cut down a tree must first have an axe and then keep it sharp.
V. THE CHOICE OF TIMES. Many good undertakings fail because not begun at the right time. Many dangers might be avoided were precautions against them not adopted too late. To every work there is a time. Strike while the iron is hot. Beware of being too late.
The picture of a happy land.
I. A NOBLE KING.
1. Of royal blood. "Happy art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles"—like Horace's "Macenas atavis edite regibus," descended from a long line of crowned heads. If countries are to have kings, then decidedly the scion of kingly (more especially if also honorable and good) ancestors is better than the upstart who was yesterday a gentleman of the pavement, but is to-day the occupant of a throne (Ecclesiastes 4:14).
2. Of mature manhood, "Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child." The experiment of boy-kings has seldom proved successful. Witness the case of Joash (2 Chronicles 24:1), who made a tolerable sovereign only so long as Jehoiada lived. When the king is a minor there is too much scope for ambition on the part of the regent and of the nobles, who would like to be regents or even kings.
3. Of princely intellect. The man who is to rule others should be every inch a king, not in bodily appearance only, but in mental capacity as well. No greater calamity can befall a country than to have its throne filled by a fool or an intellectual baby. In this sense, to be ruled by a "child" is surely the last indignity that can be offered to reasoning and reasonable men.
4. Of large experience. Unlike a child, or a boy, or a youth, whose knowledge of men and things must at the best be limited, the ideal sovereign should be one whose accumulated stores of wisdom, gathered in many ways and from many lands, may be used for promoting the welfare of his people.
II. A TEMPERATE ARISTOCRACY.
1. Dissipation, shameful in all, is specially so in princes. Noblesse oblige. The higher one's rank, the more incumbent on one is virtue. Hence for princes to eat in the morning, or to be addicted to gluttony and other bodily gratifications, to be so intent upon them as not merely to sit up late indulging them, but to rise up early for the purpose of renewing them, is to degrade their dignity, and trail their honor in the mire, besides shaming virtue and outraging decency.
2. Moderation, dutiful in all, is specially promotive of health. Those who live to eat and drink seldom live so long as they might, but by indulgence, setting up disease in their bodies, often shorten their days and die before their time. Those who eat and drink to live, and therefore eat in due season and in due measure, which is what is meant by temperance, take the best means of maintaining themselves in health and strength.
III. A VIRTUOUS PEOPLE.
1. Industrious. "By slothfulness the roof sinketh in; and through idleness of the hands the house leaketh" (verse 18). What is true of a material edifice is also true of the body politic. As the timbers or rafters of a private dwelling will decay unless watched over and from time to time repaired by its inmate, so the fabric of the state will go to ruin unless it be surveyed by vigilant eyes and upheld by untiring hands.
2. Joyous. Not only is there nothing sinful in feasting and wine-drinking when these are kept in virtuous moderation, but the absence of gladness from the face of any people is a bad omen. Gloom on the countenance and wretchedness in the heart mean that social disorder and perhaps revolution are at hand. Everything that contributes to the happiness and contentment of a people is a distinct contribution to the stability of a state.
3. Moneyed. A people without money or money's worth is a people on the verge of starvation; and no state can stand long whose population consists of paupers. Money there must be, or its equivalent in material goods, and this not concentrated in a few hands, but distributed as widely as possible. The main problem of statesmen should be to secure a population, not only industrious and happy, but well paid, and therefore well fed, well clothed, and well housed.
4. Loyal. A people given to treasonable practices cannot be either prosperous or happy. Hence the Preacher dissuades all good subjects from cursing the king even in their thoughts. The impossibility of escaping detection under the all-pervading espionage of an Oriental despotism rendered it unsafe in the times of the Preacher; but, even in times when the liberty of the subject is respected, it is not always prudent to be hatching conspiracies against the crown, however secret these may be; and certainly it is not conducive to the welfare of a people that such should be common in the land.
5. Law-abiding. As little given to curse the rich as to plot against the king. Not communistic, socialistic, or revolutionary in the bad sense of these expressions; since a people may be all of these in a good sense without losing its character for virtue.
HOMILIES BY D. THOMAS
Esther 10:1, Esther 10:3
To the writer of this book it seemed that the great antithesis of human life, of human society, was pointed out by the distinction between wisdom and folly. As by wisdom he meant not merely speculative knowledge or profound statecraft, but, much rather, reflective habits, deliberate judgment, and decisive action, in the practical affairs of life; so by folly he intended exactly the opposite of such character and mental habits. A certain contemptuous and weary abhorrence of the foolish breathes through his language. His remarks are full of sagacity and justice.
I. FOLLY MAY FOR A TIME BE CONCEALED. A grave countenance, a staid demeanor, a reticent habit, may convey the impression of wisdom which does not exist. Men are disposed to take a favorable view of those occupying high station, and even of those possessing great estates. The casual acquaintances of men who are slow and serious in speech, or are exalted in rank, often credit them with wisdom, when there has been no proof of its existence.
II. FOLLY WILL CERTAINLY, SOONER OR LATER, BE REVEALED BY CIRCUMSTANCES. A little folly is the ill savor that vitiates the perfume. The understanding of the fool faileth him while he walketh by the way. The test is sure to be applied which will prove whether the coin is genuine or counterfeit. The hollow reputation must collapse. A critical time comes when counsel has to be given, when action has to be taken, and at such a time the folly of the pompous and pretentious fool is made manifest to all. Sounding phraseology may impose upon men for a season; but there are occasions when something more than words is needed, and such occasions reveal the emptiness and vanity of the foolish. Pedantry is not learning, profession is not religion, pretence is not reality; neither can the show be, for any length of time, taken for the substance.
III. FOLLY, THUS EXPOSED, DESTROYS A MAN'S REPUTATION AND INFLUENCE, The revulsion is sudden and complete, and may even go to unreasonable lengths. It is presumed that, because the highest expectations have been disappointed, not even the slightest respect or confidence is justifiable. A little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
APPLICATION. The chief lesson of this passage is the value of sincerity, thoroughness, and genuineness of character. It is not every man who has the knowledge, the natural insight, the large experience of life, which go to make up wisdom. But no man need pretend to be what he is not; no man need proclaim himself a sage or a mentor; no man need claim for himself the deferential regard and homage of others. He who will order his way by such light as he can gain by reflection, by the study of the Scriptures, and by prayer, will not go far astray. Sincerity and modesty may not gain a temporary reputation for profundity of wisdom; but they will not expose their possessor to the humiliation and shame of him who, professing himself to be wise, becomes manifest to all men as a fool.—T.
A pacifying spirit. The circumstances which suggested this admonition were special; we seem to be introduced to the court of a powerful and arbitrary Oriental sovereign. The caprice and injustice of the monarch arouses the indignation of the courtier, who is ready to rise in resentment anti anger. But the counsel is given, "Leave not thy place." Presentment fans the flame of wrath; submission assuages it. "Yielding allayeth great offences." Now, the circumstances apply only to a few, but the principle which they suggest is of wide and general application. A submissive and pacificatory spirit promotes harmony.
I. MEN MUST EXPECT TO ENCOUNTER ANGER AND ARROGANCE FROM THEIR FELLOW-MEN. Those who occupy positions of authority expect deference from their inferiors. Birth, rank, station, are apt to foster an arbitrary habit in their possessors. And whilst there are many and beautiful exceptions to this rule, especially owing to the influence of Christ's example and spirit, it is not to be questioned that arrogance is the special fault of the officially great.
II. ANGER AND ARROGANCE NATURALLY AROUSE RESENTMENT. We are so constituted that, apart from the controlling and restraining influence of reason and religious principles, we return blow for blow. Anger enkindles anger, as flint and steel enkindle fire. Hence words are spoken which may never be forgotten, and may ever be regretted; estrangements take place which may lead to bitter feuds; blows may follow, or duels, or war.
III. THE WISDOM AND THE DUTY OF SELF-CONTROL. The common proverb is, "It takes two to make a quarrel." Because offence is given, offence need not be taken; because injury and insult are inflicted, it does not of necessity follow that they should be avenged. Several motives concur to restrain resentment.
1. Self-respect. The man who loses temper and self-command, upon subsequent reflection, feels himself so much less a man; he despises himself.
2. Prudence. This is the motive specially relied upon in this passage, h dealing with "the ruler," whose spirit rises up against him, the courtier is reminded of the ruler's power, and is admonished not to provoke him to the exercise of that power, for in that case all favor may lead to disgrace and denudation.
3. Religious principle. This is the motive which, in the case of the Christian, is most powerful. The example of the patient and meek Redeemer, who reviled not again, and who besought mercy for his murderers, is never absent from the mind of those who trust and love him. His love constrains, his precept controls, his example impels. And thus forbearance and forgiveness characterize Christ's disciples, in those circumstances in which otherwise resentment and revenge might animate the heart.
IV. THE PACIFYING POWER OF PATIENT SUBMISSION. "Yielding pacifieth [allayeth] great offences." It is not required that the injured party should approve the action of his injurer; or affirmed that no opportunity may occur of just and dignified rebuke. But silence, quietness of spirit, and control of natural impulse, will in many cases produce a good result. He who bears wrong patiently is the stronger and better for the discipline; and his demeanor may melt the wrongdoer to contrition, and will at all events lead him to reflection. Thus the threatened conflict may be avoided; a lesson may be administered to the hasty and arrogant, and the best interests of society may be promoted. Thus the Word of God is honored, and witness is given to the power which Christ possesses to subdue and govern the unruly nature of man.—T.
The evil which the writer of Ecclesiastes here condemns is one of which the history of every nation affords many examples. Princes' favorites have too often been chosen from amongst the worthless herd who seek their own elevation and advantage by ministering to the vices of the young, profligate, and powerful. How many a reign has been marred by this mischief! How many a king has been misled, to his own and his country's harm, by the folly of choosing companions and counselors not for wisdom, sincerity, and patriotism, but because those chosen are of congenial tastes and habits, or are flatterers and parasites!
I. THE ELEVATION OF FOOLISH FAVORITES TO POWER IS INJURIOUS TO THOSE SO PROMOTED, Men who might have been respectable and useful in a lowly station are corrupted and morally debased by their elevation to posts of undeserved dignity and emolument. Their heads are turned by the giddy height to which they are raised.
II. THE ELEVATION OF FOOLISH FAVORITES TO POWER IS INJURIOUS TO THE PRINCES WHOM THEY PROFESS TO SERVE. What kings and rulers need is to be told the truth. It is important that they should know the actual state and needs of the nation. And it is important that any weakness or wrong bias, natural or acquired, should be corrected. But the fools who are set in high places make it their one great rule of conduct never to utter unpalatable truth. They assume the faultlessness of their master; they paint the condition of his subjects in glowing colors, and give the ruler all the credit for national prosperity. Their insincerity and flattery are morally injurious to the prince, who by the companionship of the wise might have been morally benefited.
III. THE ELEVATION OF FOOLISH FAVORITES TO POWER IS INJURIOUS TO THE COMMUNITY. The example of injustice thus presented is discouraging to the upright and depressing to the reflecting. The throne becomes unpopular, and the people generally are demoralized. The evil is no doubt greater in despotic than in constitutional states, for these latter afford fewer opportunities for rapacity and oppression. Yet nothing more injuriously affects the community generally than the spectacle of a court which prefers folly to wisdom, fashion to experience, vice to virtue, frivolity to piety.—T.
Verses 8, 9
The rebound of evil.
Under these picturesque and impressive figures of speech, the Preacher appears to set forth the important moral lesson, that they who work harm and wrong to their fellow-men shall not themselves escape with impunity.
I. THE SIGNS AND THE SIN OF MALICE. The case is one of intentional, deliberate malevolence, working itself out in acts of mischief and wrong. Such a spirit so expressing itself may be characterized
(1) as a perversion of natural sentiment;
(2) as a wrong to our social nature, and a violation of the conditions of our social life; and
(3) as in flagrant contradiction to the commands of God, and the precepts of our gracious and compassionate Savior.
II. THE RETRIBUTION OF MALICE. The proverbial language of the text is paralleled by somewhat similar apophthegms in various languages, as, for example, in the Oriental proverb, "Curses, like chickens, come home to roost."
1. Such retribution is often wrought by the ordinary operation of natural laws. The story of the pirate-rover who was wrecked upon the crags of Aberbrothock, from which he himself had cut off the warning bell, is an instance familiar to our minds from childhood.
2. Retribution is sometimes effected by the action of the laws enforced in all civilized communities. The lex talionis, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," may be taken as an example of a principle the applications of which are discernible in all the various states of society existing among men.
3. Those who escape the penalties of nature and the indignation of their fellow-men cannot escape the righteous judgment of God; they shall not go unpunished.—T.
Force and wisdom.
The homely adage in the first part of this verse prepares for the broad general statement by which it is followed.
I. IN MECHANICAL UNDERTAKINGS THE SUPERIORITY OF SKILL TO BRUTE FORCE IS MOST APPARENT. This is obvious in the superiority of the workmanship of the civilized and cultured to that of the barbarian.
II. WISDOM HAS A VAST ADVANTAGE IN THE ORDINARY AFFAIRS OF HUMAN LIFE. The old fairy stories usually represented the muscular giant as a simpleton easily outwitted by the youth or the dwarf; the lesson being that mere strength avails but little for those ends which men most seek and prize. It is wisdom which is profitable to direct—a truth which applies not merely to mechanics, but to the various arts which men cultivate. What vocation is there in which thought, investigation, the adaptation of means to ends, a calm deliberate judgment, are not serviceable? It is the wise who reap the harvest of life, who sway the realm of humanity.
III. WISDOM IS PRE-EMINENTLY OF SERVICE IN ALL TRUE RELIGIOUS LIFE AND ENTERPRISE. It is true that human wisdom is depreciated in some passages of Holy Writ. But careful attention will show that it is only the lower type of wisdom which inspiration disparages. They who have only "the wisdom of this world," who are "wise in their own conceit," are indeed condemned. But, on the other hand, they are approved who receive the wisdom of God in Christ, and who are wise unto salvation. It is the enlightening influence of God's Holy Spirit that leads to an appreciation of the gospel itself, and that directs those whose endeavor and aim it is to bring their fellow-men into the enjoyment of those blessings which that gospel secures.—T.
The obtrusiveness and the condemnation of folly.
Although some of the language employed in this passage is unquestionably obscure, the general tenor of it is clear enough. The contrast which is drawn between wisdom and folly is what we meet with, under other forms, in other portions of the book, and the exposure and censure of the thoughts and the ways of the fool are fitted to warn the young against forsaking the rough but safe paths of true wisdom.
I. FOLLY IS SHOWN IN THE UNNECESSARY MULTIPLICATION OF WORDS. Fools speak when there is no occasion, when they have nothing to say, or when they have already said all that was needful.
II. FOLLY REVEALS ITSELF, THOUGH WITHOUT PROVOCATION. It cannot be concealed; it is obtrusive and glaring. The fool is his own enemy: "his lips will swallow up himself."
III. FOLLY IS DISPLAYED IN DOGMATIC UTTERANCES UPON MATTERS WHICH ARE BEYOND HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. There are many subjects upon which modesty and reticence are required by wisdom. Especially is this the case with regard to the future. But it is presumed in this passage that the fool will not restrain himself from pronouncing upon what is beyond human knowledge or human prescience.
IV. FOLLY IS WEARISOME TO THOSE WHO WITNESS THE WORKS AND WHO LISTEN TO THE WORDS BY WHICH IT REVEALS ITSELF.
V. FOLLY IS MANIFESTED IN INCOMPETENCY FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, The fool "knoweth not how to go to the city," i.e. how to transact public business, and to give advice regarding civic action.
VI. FOLLY IS SURE TO ISSUE IN MISCHIEF AND DISASTER. It is sometimes represented that fools can do no harm; that real mischief is wrought by malice, by criminal designs and actions. But a careful inquiry into the facts would show that very much of the evil that afflicts society is brought to pass by mere folly. The Hebrews and the Greeks were agreed in representing wisdom as a cardinal virtue. It is men's duty to cultivate wisdom. If they neglect to do so, it matters not that they have no criminal intentions; the absence of wisdom must needs lead to conduct which will involve themselves and others in much suffering, and even in terrible calamities.—T.
Verses 16, 17
It is sometimes assumed that moral qualities are unimportant in relation to political affairs. If a king be brave in his warlike expeditions, splendid in his court, and affable in his demeanor; if a statesman be sagacious in counsel and determined in action, it is too generally assumed that nothing further is wanting to secure national greatness and prosperity. The writer of Ecclesiastes looked far deeper, and saw the necessity of a self-denying and laborious character in order to true kingly and statesmanlike service.
I. INCOMPETENCE AND SELF-INDULGENCE IN THOSE WHO OCCUPY HIGH PLACES ARE A CURSE TO A NATION. Men who are flung into power by the wave of royal favoritism, or by popular caprice and applause, are apt to use their exalted station as a means to personal enjoyment and to the gratification of vanity. Statesmen who pass their time in luxury and social ostentation will certainly neglect the public interests. They account their power and rank as their possession, and not as a sacred trust. Their example tends to debase the national morals, and to lower the standard of public life. They surround themselves with flatterers, and they neglect their proper duty, until they awake to find their country plunged into calamity or threatened with enslavement.
II. SELF-DENIAL, EXPERIENCE, AND DILIGENCE ARE QUALITIES WHICH ENSURE TRUE STATESMANSHIP. In despotic governments it is obvious that the national prosperity depends very largely upon the patriotism and justice, the assiduity and unwearied devotion to duty, of those in high station. The conditions of national life under a constitutional government are different. Yet there is no political community in which unselfishness, temperance, and diligent application to the public service are not valuable qualities on the part of these who deliberate and decide upon great public questions, and of those who administer a nation's affairs.
APPLICATION. In modern states, where the representative principle so largely obtains, great power is placed in the hands of the citizens and subjects. With them accordingly rests much of the responsibility for the righteous government and the true prosperity of the nation. It behooves Christian men to beware of being misled by party spirit, and so of overlooking the grave moral faults of those who solicit their confidence. It is in the power of the people to raise to positions of eminence and authority men whose aim is not personal aggrandizement and enjoyment, but the public good. If this power be wisely and firmly exercised, vice and crime will be repressed, order and liberty will be maintained, and the nation will maintain a high position and exercise a noble influence among the nations of the earth. Then the spectator will be inspired to utter the exclamation, "Happy art thou, O land!"—T.
The curse of sloth.
Religious teachers are sometimes unwilling to touch upon common faults, such as are noticeable by every observer as prevailing too generally in the everyday life of their fellow-men. The Scriptures give no countenance to such negligence, but, on the contrary, deal faithfully with those errors and evil habits which are alien from the Christian character, and which are injurious to: human society. Slothfulness was peculiarly hateful to the writer of this book, who inculcated diligence as a religious duty, and exhibited in homely but effective ways the results of its prevalence.
I. TEMPTATIONS TO SLOTH ARE MANY. Work must be done, some will admit; but it may be left to others, or it may be put off to a more convenient season. Work need not be done, others will declare; much may be left undone which some people think of importance, but which is not really so. Upon the plea of ill health, or mental inability, or preoccupation, multitudes, in this world where there is so much to be done, sink into slothful, indolent habits and a useless life,
II. THE FOLLY OF SLOTH IS EASILY MADE EVIDENT.
1. The slothful man is his own enemy. Had he exerted himself and exercised his powers, he would have grown an abler and a better man. Who does not know persons with undeniable gifts who have "wrapped their talent in a napkin," and who have morally deteriorated, until they have become worthless members of society?
2. The slothful man wrongs society. Every man is born into this world to do a work for the general good. To live in idleness and comfort upon the produce of others' toil is to inflict a positive injury. Others have to labor in order that the idle may be fed. Work is left undone for which the indolent possess, it may be, some peculiar gift. For the life of the slothful the world is none the better.
III. THE SIN OF SLOTH IS CONDEMNED BY THE WORD OF GOD. The Book of Proverbs contains some very striking reflections and statements upon this point. And for the Christian it is enough to consider the example of the Lord Jesus, who with all his consecrated energy devoted himself to his Father's will and work. How alien from the Master's spirit is the habit of the indolent! We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in the last judgment, the "wicked and slothful servant" must hear words of condemnation.
IV. PRESERVATIVES FROM SLOTH MAY BE FOUND IN THE PROVISIONS OF GOD'S GRACE.
1. Prayer prompts to watchfulness and toil.
2. Attention to the counsels and admonitions of God's Word cannot fail to be serviceable in delivering us from temptations to slothfulness.
3. Meditation upon the example of our Savior and Lord will stimulate to diligence and zeal. They who by the indwelling of his Spirit are one with him will share his devotion to the Father's will, his consecration to the welfare of mankind.—T.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The dead fly in the ointment.
"So doth a little folly outweigh wisdom and honor" (Revised Version). It is a fact well worth a wise man's thought, that the presence of even a very little evil is found to be enough to counterbalance or undo much that is good. We find this in circumstance, in action, in character. Our everyday life supplies many illustrations.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF A MAN. Not without reason does the moralist speak of the "one crumpled leaf" spoiling the worth of the "bed of roses." Ahab still makes himself miserable because he cannot have Naboth's vineyard in addition to all his property. It is not only true that "some murmur when their sky is clear" if one "small speck of dark appear" in their heavens; it is true that very many do. If we are depending on our surroundings for our satisfaction, we shall give one more illustration of "the dead fly in the ointment."
II. HUMAN ADVOCACY. A man may present an important case to his audience; he may have made diligent and ample preparation; he may deliver his address with much logical force, with much felicity of style, with much animation of spirit; and yet he may fail to convince, and he may lose his cause through one mistake. He may make use of one offensive expression, or he may produce one palpably weak argument, on which his opponents fasten; then all the good gained by his persuasiveness is lost by the harm done by his simple indiscretion. Much wisdom is outweighed by a little folly.
III. HUMAN CHARACTER, AND THE INFLUENCE IT EXERTS. We are always acting upon our kindred and our neighbors by our character, and by the conduct of which it is the source. And, as a rule, the good and wise man is thus helping to make others good and wise; bat there may be the "dead fly in the ointment" here. Truthfulness, righteousness, purity, kindness,—these qualities are calculated to tell powerfully upon those who daily witness them; but if there be in the midst of these an admixture of severity, or of exaggeration, or of parsimoniousness, or of sarcasm, much if not most of the good influence may be lost; the virtues and the graces are forgotten, while the one blemish is remembered. The same thing, in much the same way, applies to—
IV. HUMAN REPUTATION. A man may be building up a most honorable reputation through many years of toilful and virtuous life; he may succeed in winning the regard of his fellow-citizens, and then by one serious indiscretion—pecuniary, social, domestic, political, ecclesiastical—he may have to step down from his high position. It may not be a crime or a sin, but a serious mistake, an act in which he was very ill advised, a proceeding in which his judgment was sadly at fault—but it is enough; it upsets the fabric which had been laboriously constructed, and bat little honor will be accorded to him.
1. In our judgment of others we should distinguish between the superficial and the essential, between the exceptional and the common.
2. We should refuse to allow the one insignificant evil to disturb the harmony of our spirit, to spoil the brightness and excellency of our life.
3. We are bound to be devoutly careful lest we permit our influence over others to be materially weakened by a blemish in our character or an indiscretion in our conduct.—C.
Verse 8 (former part)
"He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul" (Proverbs 8:36); he that seeks to do injury to others brings trouble upon himself; with the measure and after the manner with which he deals will he himself be dealt with. Evil intents, as also good ones, recoil upon their author—in the one case in penalty, and in the other in blessing. As we observe, we see that—
I. EVIL BEGETS EVIL AFTER ITS OWN KIND.
1. Violence begets violence. "They that take the sword perish with the sword;" not, of course, with absolute and unfailing regularity, but generally; so commonly that the professional warrior and, still more, the uncontrollably passionate man may expect to come to a violent end. But, apart from fatal consequences, it is a constantly recurring fact that men give back blow for blow, litigation for litigation, hard measure for hard measure.
2. Cunning begets cunning. The crafty man is the likeliest of all to be caught with guile. Men have a peculiar pleasure and take especial pride in outwitting the neighbor who is trying to take advantage of them. So that he who is always laying traps for his fellows is in greatest danger of being himself entrapped.
3. Contempt begets aversion. There are those who from the pedestal of (often imaginary) superiority look down upon their companions with supercilious disregard; their attitude is one of haughtiness, their language and conduct that of condescension. These proud ones suffer as they deserve; they pay an appropriate penalty; their neighbors resent their assumption; they pass them by with aversion; they speak of them with condemnation; they leave them to loneliness and friendlessness.
4. Slander begets reproach. Men that are unscrupulously complaining of others, hastily or ill-naturedly ascribing to them mistakes or misdeeds, are the men whose own shortcoming is quickly detected and unsparingly condemned (see Matthew 7:1, Matthew 7:2). Thus sin (or folly) smites itself; it thinks to injure others, but it finds in the end that the stone which it threw up into the air comes down upon its own head. On the other hand, we see—
II. GOOD BEGETS GOOD AFTER ITS KIND.
1. The man of peace is permitted to dwell in peace.
2. Frankness, sincerity, are met with reciprocated open-mindedness and honesty.
3. Honor rendered to worth and to our common manhood creates respect, and calls forth the best that is in men.
4. Generosity in judgment receives in return a kind and brotherly estimate of its own actions and character. While he that digs a pit for others fails into it himself, he that raises a ladder for others elevation himself rises upon its rungs.—C.
Verse 8 (latter part)
The broken hedge.
There are many fences which we have constructed, or which the Lord of our life has erected, and we discover that if we break them we shall find ourselves attacked and bitten by the serpent which is within or upon the other side.
I. THE HEDGE OF SOCIAL REQUIREMENTS, There are certain understood enactments of society which must be regarded by us. They may have no claim to be moral laws; they may not have any place in the statutes of the land; still they are obligatory upon us. If we are so self-willed or self-sufficient, if we are so ignorant or so careless, as to violate these, we must pay the appropriate penalty of general disregard. Even though we be free from all vice and all crime, we shall be numbered among transgressors of the unwritten law of society, and our position will be lowered, our influence will be lessened, our reputation will be reduced, our usefulness will be impaired.
II. THE HEDGE OF HUMAN LAW. Human law requires of us that we shall pay the debts we owe, that we shall make our contribution to the protection of the society of which we are members, that we shall respect the rights of our neighbors. Breaking this hedge, we pay the penalty which the law inflicts; this "serpent" may be only a small fine, or it may be loss of liberty or even life.
III. THE HEDGE OF DIVINE LIMITATION. God has set a limit to our faculties, and thus to our enjoyment, our activity, our achievement; and if we heedlessly or ambitiously pass this limit, we are bitten and we suffer. If we break the hedge of:
1. Physical appropriation, or exercise, we suffer in bodily sickness, in nervous prostration, in premature decline.
2. Mental activity. If we think, study, strive, labor on at our desk, beyond the limit of our powers, we pay the penalty in irritability, in softening of the brain, in insanity.
3. Spiritual faculty. If we attempt to enter regions that are beyond our God-given powers, we end either in a skepticism which robs us of our highest heritage, or in a mysticism which fascinates and misleads us.
IV. THE HEDGE OF CONSCIENCE. Conscience commands us, with imperative voice, to keep well within the line of purity, of sobriety, of truthfulness, of reverence. If we go beyond that line, we suffer. We suffer:
1. The condemnation of God.
2. The disapproval of the wise and good.
3. The reproach of our own soul.
4. The loss of self-respect and the consequent enfeeblement of our character; and of all losses this is, perhaps, the worst, for it is one of a series of downward steps at the foot of which is death.
1. Be right at heart with God; you will then have within you a force of spiritual rectitude which wilt keep you in the path of wisdom and virtue.
2. Be vigilant; ever watching character and conduct, so that you are not betrayed unawares into error and transgression.
3. Be docile; always ready to receive the counsel and heed the warning of true and faithful friends.
4. Seek daily the guidance and guardianship of God.—C.
Verses 9 (latter part), 10
Good workmanship-ourselves and our tools.
This much-debated passage may suggest to us some lessons which may not have been in the mind of the Preacher, but which are appropriate to our time and our circumstances. The question of how much work a man can do is one that depends on two things—on his own strength and skill, and on the quality of the tools he is using. A weak and untried man with poor tools will not do half as much as a strong experienced man with good ones in his hand.
I. THE FIELD OF WORK. This is very broad; it includes not only:
1. All manual labor, to which the passage more immediately applies; but:
2. All business transactions, all household activities, all matters of government in which men are often "the tools" with which work is done. And it includes that to which our attention may be especially directed:
3. All Christian work. This is a great field of its own, with a vast amount of work demanding to be done. Here is work
(1) of vast magnitude;
(2) of great delicacy;
(3) of extreme difficulty,
for it means nothing less than that change of condition which results from a change of heart and life. In view of this particular field we regard—
II. THE CONDITIONS OF GOOD WORKMANSHIP. And these are:
1. Good tools. Of these tools are:
(1) Divine truth; and to be really good for the great purpose we have at heart we need to hold and to utter this truth in
(a) its integrity, not presenting or exaggerating one or two aspects only, but offering it in its fullness and symmetry;
(b) its purity, uncorrupted by the imaginations and accretions of our own mind;
(c) its adaptation to the special spiritual needs of those to whom we minister.
(2) An elastic organization; not such as will not admit of suiting the necessities of men as they arise, but one that is flexible, and that will lend itself to the ever-varying conditions, spiritual and temporal, in which men are found, and in which they have to be helped and healed.
2. Good workmen. Those that have:
(1) Wisdom "profitable to direct," that have tools, skill, discretion, a sound judgment, a comprehensive view.
(2) Strength; those who can use bad tools if good ones are not at hand, who can work on with sustained energy, who can "bear the burden and heat of the day," who can stand criticism and censoriousness, who will not be daunted by apparent failure or by occasional desertion, who can wait "with long patience" for the day of harvest.
1. Seek to be supplied with the most perfect tools in Christian work; for not only will good tools do much more work than poor ones, but bad tools will result in mischief to the workman. "He that cleaveth … is endangered." Half-truths, or truth unbalanced by its complement, or a badly constructed organization, may do real and serious harm to those who preach the one or work through the other.
2. Put your whole strength—physical, mental, spiritual—into the work of the Lord. With the very best tools we can wield, we shall wish we had done more than we shall have accomplished, when our last blow has been struck for the Master and for mankind.—C.
Verses 17, 18
Ruin-its forms and its sources.
A material "ruin" may be a very picturesque and even pleasant sight, when that which has answered its end loses its form and does well to disappear. But otherwise a ruin is a pitiable spectacle.
I. THREE FORMS OF RUIN.
1. Health. When a man should be in his prime, with all his physical and mental forces at their best; when he should be able to work effectively and continuously, and should be the stay of his home and a strength to his Church and to his friends; and when, instead of this, he is worn, feeble, incapable, obviously declining, and clearly drawing towards the end,—we have a melancholy ruin.
2. Circumstance. The once wealthy merchant, or the once powerful family, or the once strong and influential state, is brought down to poverty, helplessness, and general disregard; this also is a pitiful sight. But the worst of all is that which relates to:
3. Character. When a man once upright, pure, godly, respecting himself and living in the enjoyment of general esteem, is brought down to moral ruin and becomes a human wreck, then we see the saddest sight beneath the sun. What was once the fairest and noblest thing in the world—a sound, strong, beautiful human character—has lost all its excellency and become foul and ugly. How does this happen? Here are—
II. TWO SOURCES OF RUIN.
1. Self-indulgence. To "eat for strength and not for revelry" (drunkenness) is the right and the becoming thing; "to eat (feast) in the, morning," when the precious hours should be given to duty,—this is a shameful and a fatal thing. Self-indulgence, which constantly tends to become greater and grosser, leads down fast to feebleness, to poverty, to demoralization, to shame, to death.
2. Idleness, or carelessness.
(1) The man who does not think it worth his while to study the laws of health, and to take pains to keep them, need not wonder if he becomes weak and sickly, if his life is threatened.
(2) The man who pursues his pleasure when he should be doing his work will certainly find his business "decaying," his credit falling, his prospects of success "dropping through." So also the housewife, the student, the minister, the secretary, the statesman.
(3) The man who treats his own spirit as something of secondary importance, who does not read that he may be enlightened, who does not worship that he may be edified, who does not pray that he may be guarded and sustained, who does not seek the companionship of the good and fellowship with Christ, who leaves his spiritual nature at the mercy of all the adverse forces that are circling round him and acting on him, may expect that his soul will be impaired, that his character will decay, that the most precious "house" which man can build will fall, and great and sad will be the fall of it (Matthew 7:27).—C.
HOMILIES BY J. WILLCOCK
Among the Jews oil rendered fragrant by being mixed with precious drugs was used for many different purposes. With it priests and kings were anointed when they entered upon their offices; guests at the tables of the rich were treated to it as a luxury. It was used medicinally for outward application to the bodies of the sick, and with it corpses and the clothes in which they were wrapped were besprinkled before burial. Very great care was needed in the preparation of the material used for such special purposes. Elaborately confected as the ointment was, it was easily spoiled and rendered worthless. It was, accordingly, necessary not only to take great pains in making it, but also in preserving it from contamination when made. If the vase or bottle in which it was put were accidentally or carelessly left open, its contents might soon be destroyed. A dead fly would soon corrupt the ointment, and turn it into a pestilent odor. So, says the Preacher, a noble and attractive character may be corrupted and destroyed by a little folly—an insignificant-looking fault or weakness may outweigh great gifts and attainments. It is not a case of the unthinking multitude taking advantage of a foible, or inconsistency, or little slip, to depreciate the character of one raised far above them in wisdom and honor, in order to bring it down to their level; of envy leading to an unjust and ungrateful sentence being pronounced upon an almost faultless character. But the warning is that deterioration may really set in, the precious ointment be actually changed into a disgusting odor, the wisdom and honor be outweighed by the little folly ("outweigh," Revised Version). The same teaching is given in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians St. Paul warns his readers that their toleration of a heinous sin in one of their members was poisoning the whole spiritual life of the Church (Ecclesiastes 5:1-20.). The fervor of their religious emotions, the hatred of sin and love of holiness which had led them to separate themselves from heathen society, the aspirations and endeavors after purity and righteousness which naturally follow upon an intelligent and earnest acceptance of Christian truth, were all being undermined by their omission of the duty that lay upon them, that of isolating the gross offender, and of expelling him from their community if he gave no signs of penitence and amendment. They might themselves be orthodox in belief and unblamable in conduct, but this sin would soon, if unchecked, lower the whole tone of the community, and nullify all the good that had been attained to. "Know ye not," he said, "that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" It was impossible to allow the fault to remain and to keep the evil influence it exerted within bounds; it would spread like infection, and be persistent until it had corrupted the whole community. And what is true of a society is true of an individual. The fault which shows itself in a character is not like a stain or flaw in a marble statue, which is confined to one spot, and is no worse after the lapse of years, but like a sore in a living body, which weakens and may destroy the whole organism. One cause why the evil influence spreads is that we are not on our guard against it, and it may grow to almost ungovernable strength before we are really convinced that there is any danger. We can recognize at once great errors and heinous vices, and the alarm and disgust they excite, prepare us to resist them; but little follies and weaknesses often fill us with an amused contempt for them, which blinds us to their great power for evil. The dead body of the fly in the vase of ointment is so insignificant a source of corruption, that it surprises us to discover that the fermentation it has produced has tainted the whole mass. Weight for weight, there is an enormous disproportion between the precious fluid and the wretched little object which has corrupted it; yet there is no ignoring of the fact that the mischief has been done. In like manner does a little folly outweigh wisdom and honor; an uncorrected fault spreads its influence throughout a whole character and life. How often has the lesson been brought home to us, both in our reading of histories and biographies and in our own experience, of the widespread mischief done by a small foible or weakness!—
"The little rift within the lute
That by-and-by will make the music mute."
So numerous are the sources from which danger arises, that a long list might be made of the little sins by which the characters of many good men and women are often marred—indolence, selfishness, love of ease, procrastination, indecision, rudeness, irritability, over-sensitiveness to praise or blame, vanity, boastfulness, talkativeness, love of gossip, undue laxity, undue severity, want of sell-control over appetites and passions, obstinacy, parsimony. Such are some of the follies which outweigh wisdom and honor—which stamp the character of a man as unworthy of that respect which his gifts and graces would otherwise have secured for him. Numerous though these follies are, they may be reduced to two great classes—faults of weakness and faults of strength.
I. FAULTS OF WEAKNESS. This class is that of those which are largely negative, and consist principally in omission to give a definite and worthy direction to the nature; e.g. want of self-control, love of ease, indolence, procrastination, indecision, selfishness, heartlessness. That these are faults which create widespread mischief, and excite a general contempt for the characters of those in whom they appear, will scarcely be denied by any, and illustrations of them are only too abundant. Want of self-control over appetites and passions led David into the foulest crimes, which, though sincerely and passionately repented of, were most terribly avenged, and have for ever left a stain upon his name. Love of ease is the only fault which is implied in the description of the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:19), a desire to be comfortable and avoid all that was disagreeable, but it led him to such callous indifference to the miseries of his fellows as disqualified him for happiness in the world to come. A similar fault stained the character of that young ruler who came running to Christ and asked, "Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" From his youth up he had obeyed the commandments, and his ingenuous, sweet character and disposition attracted the love of the Savior. But his love of the world made him unwilling to practice the self-denial needed to make him perfect. He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mark 10:17-22). His cowardice that led him to make "the great refusal" was the dead fly that corrupted the precious ointment. A very striking illustration of the deterioration of a character through the sin of weakness and indecision is to be found in the life of Eli. He was a man possessed of many beautiful qualities of mind and spirit—gentle, unselfish, devoid of envy or jealousy, devout and humble; but was "a wavering, feeble, powerless man, with excellent intentions but an utter want of will." His parental indulgence led him to exercise no restraint over his children, and the consequence was that when they grew up their conduct was grossly scandalous and depraved. His authority and power as a ruler were not used to check the evils Which in his heart he loathed, and so his folly outweighed all the wisdom and honor he possessed. His good qualities have not preserved his memory from contempt. For contempt is the feeling instinctively excited in those who witness moral weakness and indecision. This is the sting of the rebuke addressed to the Church of Laodicea, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15, Revelation 3:16). In Dante's description of the lower world special infamy is attached to this class of offenders—that of those who have never really lived, who have never awakened to take any part either in good or evil, to care for anything but themselves. They are unfit for heaven, and hell scorns to receive them. "This miserable mode the dreary souls of those sustain who lived without blame and without praise. They were mixed with that caitiff choir of angels, who were not rebellious nor were faithful to God, but were for themselves. Heaven chased them forth to keep his beauty from impair; and the deep hell receives them not, for the wicked would have some glory over them. They are unknown to fame. Mercy and judgment disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but look and pass."
II. FAULTS OF STRENGTH. This class includes those faults which are of a positive character, and consist largely in an abuse of qualities which might have been virtues, For these are not open vices by which characters otherwise good are depraved, but insignificant, unsuspected sources of danger. The very strength of character by which men and women are distinguished may lead, by over-emphasis, into very offensive deterioration. Thus firmness may degenerate into obstinacy, frugality into parsimony, liberality into extravagance, lightheartedness into frivolity, candor into rudeness, and so on. And these are faults which disgust and repel, and cause us to overlook even very great merits in a character; and not only so, but, if unchecked, gradually nullify those merits. We may find in the character of Christ all the virtues which go to make up holiness so admirably balanced that no one is over-prominent, and, Therefore, no one pushed to that excess which so often mars human excellence. Over against the sterner and more masculine qualities of mind and spirit we find those that are gracious and tender, and both within such limits as render his a faultless and perfect example of goodness. His tender compassion for the sinful did not lead him to condone their faults or to lower the standard of holiness for their sake. His righteous indignation against sin did not show itself in impatience, censoriousness, or irritability, as he met it from day to day. "His tender tone was the keen edge of his reproofs, and his unquestionable love infused solemnity into every warning." Two practical lessons may be drawn from our text. The first is that all human excellence is exposed to risk. It is not sufficient to have attained to a certain measure of righteousness; there needs also to be care against declining from it. The ointment carefully distilled must be guarded against corruption. And the second is that the danger often springs from insignificant and unsuspected quarters. The dead fly, carried by some stray breeze into the unguarded vial, is the center of a fermentation which in a very short time will destroy the value of all its contents.—J.W.
Est 10:2 -15
From the second verse of this chapter to the fifteenth we have a series of proverbs loosely strung together, but all bearing upon
The wholesome influence of wisdom and the baneful effects of folly
in the varying circumstances of daily life. It would be waste of ingenuity to try to show any logical connection between the proverbs that are thus crowded together in a small space. And we must content ourselves with a few elucidatory remarks upon them in the order in which they come.
I. A DOUBLE PROVERB ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WISDOM AND FOLLY. (Esther 10:2, Esther 10:3.) "The wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's at his left;" better, "inclines towards his right, towards his left." The heart of the wise man leads him in the proper direction, that of the fool leads him astray. It would be absurd to speak of their hearts as differently situated. The לis that of direction; and that which is at the right hand means the duty and work which belong to us, that at the left what concerns us less. The wise man recognizes the path of duty, the fool wanders aimlessly away from it. Others give a slightly different turn to the thought. "The one with his heart, i.e. his mind, ready, at his right side, as he walks along the track that images human life, ready to sustain and guide him; the other, the fool with his wits at the left side, not available when needed to lean upon" (Bradley). The fool proclaims his folly to all (Esther 10:3); every step he takes reveals his deficiency, but, so far from being ashamed of himself, he displays his absurdity as though it were something to be proud of
II. WISDOM A PROTECTION IN TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES. (Verses 4-7.) The first picture (verse 4) is that of the court of a despotic king, where an orificial has either deservedly or undeservedly incurred the anger of the sovereign ("spirit" equivalent to "anger," as in Judges 8:3; Proverbs 29:11). The natural feeling of indignation or resentment would prompt such a one to throw up the office entrusted to him, and by so doing probably draw down on himself a still greater storm of anger. The wise courtier will yield to the blast and not answer wrath with wrath, and either pacify the anger he has deservedly incurred, or, if he be innocent, by his patience under injury, avoid giving real cause for offence. We must remember that it is of an Eastern court our author is speaking, in which the Divine right of kings, and the duty of passive obedience on the part of subjects, are doctrines which it would be thought impious to deny. Similar advice is given in Proverbs 15:1. It is not to be supposed, however, that the Preacher regarded all existing governments as commanding respect, and taught only servile maxims. In Proverbs 15:5-7 he speaks of grievous inequalities in the state; faults of rulers, the frequent exaltation of the base and the depression of the worthy. His words are studiously cautious, but yet they describe the evil in sufficiently clear terms. It may often be prudent to bow to the wrath of rulers, but rulers are not always in the right. One class of evils he had seen arising from "something like an error" (so cautious is he of speaking evil of dignities), which proceedeth from the ruler—the selection of unworthy men for high positions in the state. "Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. By the rich he means the nobles—those endowed with ample inheritances received from a line of ancestors who have had the leisure, and opportunities and means for training themselves for serving the state, and from whom a wise king would naturally choose counselors and magistrates. But in Oriental courts, where "the eunuch and the barber held the reins of power," men of no reputation or character had a chance of promotion. And even in Western courts and more modern times the same kind of evils has been only too common, as the history of the reigns of Edward II. and, James I. of England, and of Louis XI. and Henry III. of France, abundantly proves. The reason for making favorites of low-born and unprincipled adventurers is not far to seek; they have ever been ready tools for accomplishing the designs of unscrupulous princes, for doing services from which men who valued their station and reputation in society would shrink. "Regibus multi," says Grotius, "suspecti qui excellunt sire sapientia sire nobilitate aut opibus." Even the Preacher's self-control is insufficient to suppress the indignation and contempt which any generous mind must feel at such a state of matters, and he concentrates his scorn in the stinging sentence, "I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth" (verse 7). Among the Persians only those of noble birth were permitted to ride on horseback. Thus one of the circumstances of the special honor bestowed on Mordecai was his riding on horseback through the streets of the city (Esther 5:8, Esther 5:9). But this distinction the Preacher had seen set aside; his eyes had been offended by the spectacle of princes walking on foot like common people, and slaves mounted on horses and clothed with authority (Proverbs 19:10).
III. WISDOM SHOWN IN PROVIDING AGAINST POSSIBLE DANGERS. (Verses 8, 9.) We need spend no time in the fruitless endeavor to connect verses 8,-11 with those that have gone before. The writer seems to consider wisdom in another of its aspects. He has just spoken of it as prompting one who is under its influence to be patient and resigned in the presence of eradicable evils; he now speaks of it as giving foresight and caution in the accomplishment of difficult and perhaps even dangerous tasks. He mentions four undertakings in which there may be danger to life or limb. He that digs a pit may accidentally fall into it; he that removes a crumbling wall may be bitten by a serpent that has sheltered itself in one of its crannies; the quarryman may be crushed. by one of the stones he has dislodged; and the woodcutter may maim himself with his own axe. Whether underneath this imagery he refers to the risks attending all attempts to disturb the existing order of things and to overthrow the powers that be, one cannot say. "The sum of these four classes is certainly not merely that he who undertakes a dangerous matter exposes himself to danger; the author means to say in this series of proverbs which treat of the distinction between wisdom and folly, that the wise man is everywhere conscious of his danger, and guards against it Wisdom has just this value in providing against the manifold dangers and difficulties which every undertaking brings with it" (Delitzsch).
IV. THE WISDOM OF ADAPTING MEANS TO ENDS. (Verse 10.) Such, we think, is the general meaning of the words, which are perhaps more difficult to interpret than any others in the whole Book of Ecclesiastes. "If the iron be blunt," if it will not readily tend itself to the work of felling a tree, more strength must be put forth, the stroke must be heavier to penetrate the wood. If there be little sagacity and preparation before entering on an enterprise, greater force will be needed to carry it out. The foresight which leads to sharpening the axe will make the labor in which it is used muck easier. "But wisdom is profitable to direct" (verse 10b); it suggests means serviceable for the end in view. It will save a useless expenditure of time and strength.
V. THE FOLLY OF TAKING PRECAUTIONS AFTER THE EVIL HAS BEEN DONE. (Verse 11,) "If the serpent bite before it be charmed, then is there no advantage in the charmer" (Revised Version). The picture is that of a serpent biting before the charmer has had time to make use of his skill in charming; and the point of the aphorism is that no skill or wisdom is of any avail if made use of too late. "It is too late to lock the stable door when the steed is stolen" (Wright).
VI. WISDOM AND FOLLY IN HUMAN SPEECH. The winning character of the wise man's words, the mischievous and tedious prating of fools (verses 12-15). The tongue has just been spoken of (verse 11) as the instrument used by the charmer for taming serpents, and there follows in these verses a reference to wisdom and folly displayed in the words of the wise man and of the fool. "The words of the wise man are gracious" (cf. Luke 4:22), they win favor for him; both the subject-matter and the manner of his speech gain for him the good will of those that hear him. The words of the fool are self-destructive; they ruin any chance he had of influencing those who were prepared to be persuaded by him, whom he meets for the first time, and who were therefore not biased against him by previous knowledge of his fatuity. He goes from bad to worse (verse 13). "The words point with a profound insight into human nature to the progress from bad to worse in one who has the gift of speech without discretion. He begins with what is simply folly, unwise but harmless, but vires acquirit eundo, he is borne along on the swelling floods of his own declamatory fluency, and ends in what is 'mischievous madness'"(Plumptre). Especially is this the case when his talk is on subjects as to which even the wisest are forced to confess their ignorance (verse 14) He speaks voluminously, as though he knew all things past and to come, as though all the mysteries of life and death were an open book to him. And he wearies out every one who hears him or has to do with him- His crass ignorance in all matters of common life forbids any trust being placed in his speculations and vaticinafions as to things that are more recondite. The well-known beaten road that leads to the city (verse 15) he does not know. What kind of a guide would he be in less-frequented paths? In these various ways, therefore, the contrast is drawn between wisdom which leads men in the right way, which directs, their course through the difficulties and dangers that often beset them, and enables them to make the best use of their resources, and that folly which, if it is the ruling element in a character, no art or skill can conceal, which so often renders those in whom it appears both mischievous and offensive to all who have anything to do with them.—J.W.
Duties of rulers and subjects.
Some of the evils of life arise from errors and follies which may be corrected by diligence and prudence, and among them are the caprices of unworthy princes, the vices of courtiers, and the disloyalty of subjects. Both kings and those over whom they rule have duties towards each other, the violation of which bring many mischiefs; both need to have before their minds the ideal of righteousness belonging to their respective stations.
I. THE EVILS OF MISGOVERNMENT. The land is miserable whose king is a child in years or in heedlessness, whose princes begin the days with revels instead of attending to the management of affairs of state and the administration of justice. The incapacity of the prince leads to the appointment of unworthy ministers, and prevents a proper check being put upon their profligacy and neglect. The result is soon seen in the disorders of the state. "Through the slothfulness of rulers," he goes on to hint, "the fabric of thy state decays; the neglected roof lets the water through. And meantime there is high revelry within the palace walls; and gold and silver supply all their needs" (verses 18, 19). Illustrations of such an unhappy state of matters recur only too readily to the student of history. We may see it exemplified in the condition, shall we say, of some native state within our Indian frontier? or some Eastern empire tottering to its fall nearer home? or a European monarchy at the close of the last century, with luxury and state in the palace, and a hungry people outside its door, and the shadow of the guillotine, and head-crowned pikes and September massacres in the background?" (Bradley).
II. THE BLESSINGS OF A. WELL-ORDERED GOVERNMENT. That land is happy, governed by a king of undisputed title (verse 17), who sets an example of integrity, and not by some upstart adventurer. He derives his title from his noble descent, but he may establish his power on a firmer foundation if the excellences of his ancestors are reproduced in him; he will secure a large measure of prosperity for his people if he choose for his officers men of simple tastes, who think more of discharging their duties than of self-indulgence.
III. THE DUTY OF LOYALTY ON THE PART OF SUBJECTS. (Verse 20.) Even if the sovereign is personally unworthy of respect, the office he holds should be honored; he is still the servant of God, even if he is grossly neglectful of his duties. There is a worse evil than misgovernment, and that is anarchy. "Curse not the king"—he may not deserve it; there may be reasons of state to explain what seems to be capricious or unjust in his conduct; yield him reverence for conscience sake, because it is right to do so. And even if he be in the wrong, it is prudent to abstain from words of blame, since he has the power to punish those that speak against him, and may hear in unexpected ways what has been said about him in secrecy. Such counsels are of a kindred character with those which the apostles have given (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). At first it might seem as if they commended the cultivation of a slavish spirit on the part of subjects towards their rulers, and it is well known that many have deduced from them the preposterous doctrine of "passive obedience." But it must be kept in mind that while these portions of Scripture prescribe the duties of subjects, they prescribe also the duties of kings; and that it is no slavish doctrine to hold that those who rule in equity have an absolute right to the devotion and loyalty of their subjects. When they depart from equity their claim to implicit obedience is proportionately diminished. The prudential maxim of verse 20 warns men to count the cost before they assail the power of even a bad king—to beware of provoking his wrath by heedless conduct—but does not command passive obedience to him. Misgovernment may reach such a pitch as to make it a duty for subjects to brave the wrath of kings, and to attempt to put a check upon their folly. We have not here a mean-spirited and time-serving piece of advice, suitable only for those who languish under the tyranny of Eastern despots, bat a warning against rashness which is not inapplicable to the most public-spirited citizen of the freest state. The examples of Isaiah under Ahaz, of Jeremiah under Zedekiah, and of St, Paul under Nero, show that it is possible to have a love of righteousness and hatred of iniquity, and yet not be wanting in respect to a bad king.—J.W.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25