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The relation of wisdom and folly is now discussed, and illustrated in the light of many instances.
1. Ointment of the apothecary Better, of the perfumer; that is, perfumed ointment. This is in the form of a proverb, and there is one in the Arabic to the same effect. In sultry climates this result might easily be produced. This verse, strictly translated would read, As for dead flies, one will make perfumed ointment to ferment with a stink. It forcibly illustrates what was said of one fool at the end of the previous chapter. The latter part of the verse is strangely given in the authorized version. By the Hebrew it is simply said, A little folly is heavier than wisdom and honour: applying at once the proverb here given.
2. The fact that wisdom exempts no man from his destiny, and is sometimes outweighed by folly, does not reduce it to the absolute level of folly. A wise man’s heart, etc. The intellect of the wise is in its place, and prompt to serve him, while that of the fool is awkward and unavailable. This verse is an assumption after something has been conceded, and might begin, For all that.
3. The fool is the subject. His wisdom faileth, should be, He lacketh wisdom. He, in the last clause, refers to every one, and the sense would be plainer if that were not inserted: He saith to every one, He is a fool! He thinks all others fools.
4. Leave not thy place There is something painful in Koheleth’s repeated counsel of behaviour under oppressive rulers. He must have lived in troublous and tyrannical times. In the absence of an arm of vengeance raised upon the tyrant, meekness and deference will tend to pacify him, and prevent extreme outrages. Stay patiently in thy place, and not rush into fury and revolt.
5. An evil Koheleth speaks of this as occurring in his day and before his own eyes, (which could hardly have happened in the just reign of Solomon.) As an error, etc. That is, such an outrage as only a despot could perpetrate; such as many a caliph, sultan, and emperor has committed.
6. Folly That is, the foolish man.
Great dignity Hebrew, Many high stations. The Roman emperors and the kings of France, as well as eastern rulers, have promoted worthless favourites to the most important offices, leaving the wise and good in obscurity.
7. Servants upon horses More of the same matter. The horse indicates pomp and triumph, as when Mordecai was honoured by Ahasuerus. Riding on horseback through the city, he was announced by the luckless Haman. The tyrant loves to invert the social order, and set servants over their former masters, which was truly vexation of spirit to them.
8. Diggeth a pit This is counsel to the aggrieved subject, warning him of the need of great caution, even in reasonable and justifiable resistance to the oppressor. One must be careful in ordinary undertakings; much more, then, in resisting rulers. Hunters still dig pits, and, disguising them artfully, entice with bait the wild beast upon them, when the slight covering gives way, and the animal falls into the pit. This method was more in use before the invention of gunpowder. Even lately a bear-hunter has been killed in his own trap.
A serpent… bite Venomous serpents often make their haunts in the walls of houses, and the breaking of the wall provokes their anger. The word hedge should be wall; that is, stone wall.
9. Whoso removeth stones This removing of stones is probably to be referred to the tearing down of buildings, etc., which is always attended with some danger.
Cleaveth wood Referring not to the simple preparation of wood for fuel, but to the taking down the timbers of a dwelling. The thought running through these connected illustrations is, that as to take down a building is a perilous process, much more to take down and reconstruct a government, in order to be rid of a tyrant, is a dangerous undertaking.
10. If the iron Better, the axe. This difficult verse may best be translated, If the axe be blunt, and he (the rebel) do not sharpen it well beforehand, he (the tyrant) will but gain the more strength, (by the rising against him.) Many a page of political history proves this warning true. The failure of a rebellion leaves the tyrant stronger, and also exasperated. The unhappy subject who has much to bear from his injustice still needs to count well the cost of revolt. Still, even after a failure, wisdom is profitable to direct: more literally, to make repair and reconciliation.
11. The serpent will bite Hebrews, If the serpent bite for lack of enchantment, the charmer has no advantage from his art. Our version strangely neglects the If. A babbler is the title (see margin) given to professors of the art of rendering serpents harmless by magic words, usually accompanied, indeed, by various manipulations. The idea is, that his art is of no use to him unless he employ it. So with the wisdom of the wise, unless used in repairing the mischief wrought by rash, rebellious movements.
12. Gracious Hebrew, Conciliating. They win upon the offended ruler, and incline him to clemency, while the talk of the fool would aggravate his case into utter hopelessness.
13. Words… foolishness The infatuated man would go from folly to frenzy, unless some wise friend should take up his cause, and, leaving the rash rebel in silence, plead for him with the monarch.
14. Full of words The readiness of “the fool” to talk, even on the most difficult and incomprehensible subjects, is a sure index of his character. The clause, A man cannot tell, etc., should be introduced by though. There are many things which one would like to know upon which profound reflection and self-examination can aid knowledge. But many would rather talk than think or study. The immediate and the remoter future are presented as being alike beyond knowledge.
What shall be Soon, and what shall be hereafter.
15. Labour of the foolish wearieth Not merely the talk, but the acts of the fool. These all work to his injury. Even the ordinary affairs of life are more than he can do well, much more politic and discreet behaviour under a despotic ruler. A road to town is sure to be plain and well beaten, and so are common duties clear and well defined, but some people will blunder in both.
In dismissing now the character of the fool, of which this book has said so much, it may be said that the amount of space allowed to it in this brief essay is justified by the sad frequency of the character itself. “There be,” says Carlyle, “twenty-seven millions of people in these islands, [Great Britain and Ireland,] most of them Fools.” The fool with Koheleth is not so much lacking in intellect as full of moral perversity. For this the cure revealed is the grace of the Great Physician. This grace, affecting the heart, renovates by degrees the whole nature, and the fool becomes a new man in Christ.
16. Woe to thee, O land Having shown the true policy of the subject under an unwise ruler, Koheleth rebukes the bad rulers for their folly, artfully couching his reproof in an address to the “land.” Eat in the morning, is here expressive of dissipation and intemperance. Thus, Peter intimates that it was absurd to think that the disciples were so dissolute as to be drunk at the third hour of the day, that is, at nine o’clock in the “morning.”
17. A son of nobles is a strong phrase for a noble man. So uniform is the connexion between the wise control of appetite by those who have ample means for its indulgence and a proper regard for public welfare, that such abstinence fairly presumes the possession of a wise regard for the welfare of those over whom they rule.
18. The condition of the state in the hands of such rulers as are mentioned Ecclesiastes 10:16 is compared to that of a neglected building.
By much slothfulness Hebrew, By slothful hands; through neglect the beams decay and the roof leaks.
19. Made for laughter This verse should read, The bread and the wine, which cheer the life, are made into laughter, or revelry; that is, by the luxurious rulers still spoken of.
Money answereth all things Better, And the money furnishes both. Whose “money?” It is artfully suggested, rather than told, that it is the “money” wrung from the subjects that is thus squandered in feasting.
20. Curse not the king Having said in rebuke of the tyrant all that is prudent, admonition of prudence is again given to the subject. It has been remarked that the lack in Hebrew of the little words called particles causes even connected discourse to appear isolated, as if made of separate and distinct propositions. A translation into English or any modern tongue requires the insertion of these. Thus this verse needs to be introduced with Yet, Still, or However. Rich, should be the prince. Reference is here made to the system of espionage which largely prevailed under eastern governments. It was so close and manifold that the figures employed in this verse are not too forcible to express its adroitness and circumstantiality.
As the general subject of discreet behaviour in the trying times produced by bad rulers occupies so large a proportion of this brief book, we may, on dismissing it, again say that its moral weight as against the Solomonic authorship is very serious. The books of Scripture, though written for all time, got their special form and matter from and for some particular time. So much of exhortation to patient endurance under misgovernment could not possibly have been inspired by any thing known to have existed in the golden age of Solomon. But there was hardly a year in the interval between 450 B.C. and 330 B.C. when such wisdom of the serpent and harmlessness of the dove was not wanted in almost every province of the Persian empire.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30