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Having found, from a wide examination, that there is a controlling Power whom no arts of men can withstand, and that the good of this life is transitory and its evil cannot be averted, the writer counsels how we should behave ourselves towards the Inevitable and Omnipotent.
1. Keep thy foot Behaviour is in the Bible frequently presented under the figure of walking and running. Keeping the feet implies caution in deportment, as opposed to a bold recklessness.
Ready to hear The remainder of this verse is difficult of translation. The rendering severely demanded by the Hebrew is, To obey is nearer as a way to God’s favour than to offer the sacrifice of the perverse, for they [who obey] have no consciousness of doing evil. In this construction some of the best scholars agree; and while it is the most careful translation, it is clear in its significance. Samuel said to Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken, than the fat of rams.”
2. The Hebrew expositors preferred that chapter v should begin with this verse, regarding the previous verse as an admonition better fitted to close chap. 4. Really, the natural division is the one given in our English version.
Be not rash with thy mouth This serious and beautiful admonition relates to prayer, as that of the first verse relates to sacrifice. Gravity and sobriety, both of language and thought, are most fitting in our address to God.
“While Thee I seek, protecting Power,
Be my vain wishes stilled.”
3. A dream cometh When the mind is crowded with many things the devotions come to have the incoherency of a dream, the thoughts being rambling and disconnected; the whole exercise is thus rendered unprofitable. The is known would be better omitted, as the words are not in the Hebrew. The word “cometh” is naturally supplied. Thus, a fool’s voice that is, unmeaning talk cometh by multitude of words. Vain repetitions will ensue, and the worshipper may think himself heard for his much speaking. The preceding verse enforced seriousness and brevity of speech before God, from the consideration of his high majesty: this verse enjoins it because the lack of it confuses and dissipates the mind of the worshipper.
4. When thou vowest Vows are promises voluntarily made, not specifically required. They are positive when one promises to do or give something for a religious purpose; they are negative when one promises to abstain from any indulgence or gratification. The vow of the first kind is here spoken of. Under the warming influence of worship at the house of God one might make a vow from which, on cool and private reflection, he would recoil.
For he hath no pleasure in fools Better, There is no solid purpose in fools; and the man who wavers in the payment of a vow classifies himself with them.
5. Better… not vow, than… vow and not pay Vows once made are as binding as oaths. Many Jews, among other vows, consecrated their hair, leaving it unshorn while some vow was accomplished. From this they were called Nazarites. See Acts 18:18; Acts 21:24. How fearful a thing it is to vow and not to pay, is shown in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts 5:0.
6. Suffer not… to sin Allusion is made to keeping negative vows. A promise to abstain from any kind of meat or drink, if broken, brings sin upon the body; as when the eye is evil the whole body is full of darkness. One is here reminded of the sin of our first parents.
Neither say thou before the angel The Jews believed in the existence of vast numbers of angels. Of these, seven were archangels: Michael, the guardian of the Jewish people; Raphael, the angel of health; Gabriel, the messenger; Uriel, Phanuel, Raguel, and Sarakiel. They reckoned twenty-four elders or angels of the privy council, seventy angels of the council, and innumerable inferior ones. Wherever God was, angels attended him. So in his temple an angel watched the altar, and to this one the reference is here made. One is not to take a vow and afterward go back to the altar and claim that it was made by mistake and so not binding.
Thy voice Equivalent to thy idle talk. The displeasure of God was on several occasions mentioned in the Old Testament, manifested by destroying the work of the transgressor.
7. Dreams… many words… vanities The first part of this verse, as given in our version, that there are “vanities” in dreams, etc., has no meaning. The verse is better understood as telling why worship ever becomes unprofitable, so as to make necessary the preceding admonitions. Putting the words into their simplest construction, by Hebrew usage we have, This comes by many reveries and talkings and vanities. By these, worship is made worthless, and vows come to be rashly uttered. There is beauty and freshness in this turning of Koheleth to the house of God after his weary and disheartening observations on so much of human life as he has now examined. “This was too painful for me, until I went into the sanctuary of God.” There he finds help and consolation, and is strengthened to resume and extend his inquiries. Yet, even here, he maintains his professional character. “Koheleth was a hakim,” a public teacher, and amid the comforts of the sanctuary he still utters admonitions and suggestions concerning true and fitting worship, “seeking out and setting in order” pithy and wholesome sayings. He now enters again upon a series of investigations.
8. From thoughts of the majesty of God the transition is easy to the authority and government alas! so often mis-government! established among men. Solomon well knew that human history has been and would be full of oppression. The tribes of Israel, during the days of the Judges especially, both suffered and inflicted it; and so in the days of his father David. His own royalty was very expensive; his exactions of tribute upon the foreign population in Palestine were severe, (1 Kings 9:20-21,) and even the tribes of Israel after his death declared that his “yoke” was “grievous.” (1 Kings 12:4.)
Marvel not As if evil had no check.
Highest regardeth Divine retribution rules over all. Verified in his own case; for from oppression his own kingdom was finally divided.
9. Profit of the earth is for all It would seem as if Koheleth had adopted the maxim subsequently expressed by Solon, that “A damage to the meanest citizen is a damage to the whole State.” This difficult verse at least the first part is difficult should be, The advantage of a country is, that it concerns all. That is, the country is the common concern of all its inhabitants. The king and the tiller of the field are bound together by real interests, and this gives stability and advantage to the institutions of the land. As long as the sense of this unity of interests can be maintained in a land, it is safe and prosperous, and it is the basis of popular government, “for the people and by the people.” When any class is restricted from the enjoyment of the good allowed to other classes, “The land becomes to hastening ills a prey.”
10. Loveth silver In several languages “silver” is the general term for money. The first money spoken of in Scripture coined silver is called “lambs,” each piece being the value of a lamb. Numa, who first coined money at Rome, made pieces of “silver” equal in value to a sheep, and bearing the figure of a sheep, pecus, whence our word “pecuniary.”
Not be satisfied The insatiable nature of avarice is the frequent theme of the moralist in all ages. This “dropsy of the soul” grows ever more thirsty.
“The pale and servile drudge “twixt man and man,” has in itself little value, but it can represent many values, and for that, is desirable. The perpetration of any crime can be procured with money, as some one can always be found who can be hired, and so “the love of money” becomes the root of any evil. The perpetual annoyance of the wealthy man is in the fact that so many, caring little for him, are greedy for his money. Little can he know who, if any, are his true and disinterested friends. Thus, a great estate, if it is to be kept such, demands care and labour that only its owner can perform, while, for himself, he can take but such good of food, clothing, and pleasure as one little body and soul can appropriate. The rest, beyond the gratification of seeing it, is all for others. The inward consciousness of this often makes the rich the more jealous, proud, and peevish.
12. Sleep of a labouring man That is, of the husbandman, or farmer.
Is sweet Freedom from carking care has often, and even beyond what is true, been imputed to the plain tillers of the soil. Certainly sleep, “chief nourisher at life’s feast,” is induced by their activities in the open air. The amount which they have at risk at any one time is small, and so their anxieties are not intense. Men pressed with heavy cares of trade, finance, and office, look to the quiet of rural life with longing, and make to themselves fictitious conceptions of it, as if the human heart were tamed in fields and cottages. Wealth, with its risks and its opportunities, creates much anxious reckoning, and he must be very weary, or of well-poised temper, who can sleep sweetly when he is aware of great hazards impending over his estate.
13. Riches kept for the owners, etc. Better, Wealth kept for its owner to his hurt. Not by its owner, and there is no plural here. The allusion is to riches hoarded by a parent for his heir, the present owner. Much may be said of the doubtful benefit of inherited wealth, but the sore evil here intended is the one mentioned in the immediately following verses.
14. Those riches perish It is to be remembered that the heir for whom the keeping is done is now spoken of, and the case is viewed from the standpoint of his fortunes. By the time when he himself becomes a father the wealth hoarded for him is gone, and he the heir and now the father has nothing in his hand. By evil travail is meant some ruinous enterprise.
15. Nothing of his labour He never recovers his money thus lost, but dies as destitute as infancy, leaving nothing from the wealth of his father for the possession of his children. In a greedy effort to get more he has lost all.
16. Laboured for the wind Clearly if he had not, but had been content to lead a quiet life, without the hazards of speculation, even then he would have been obliged to leave all behind at death. Now the case seems harder, coming to that after a restless and unprosperous life.
17. This latter, too, has had no good of his life. He eateth in darkness That is, in a miserly way he shuns the cost of society and hospitality.
And he hath, etc. Better, And he is disturbed, and sorrow and vexation are his. Money unrighteously gained is little joy to men when old. “The rust of them ‘ eateth’ as doth a canker.”
18. Good… to eat… drink Reference is here made to the proposition of Ecclesiastes 2:24. Having examined the various phases of business, ending with this last case of a man struggling vainly to recover a lost inheritance, Koheleth restates what he had proposed to prove. A better translation is, Behold, what I have seen is good: (logically sound:) it is comely, etc.
19. Every man also In this verse the “also” should be the first word, as this confirms the latter part of Ecclesiastes 2:24, and has a logical connexion with the preceding. This second part, now restated, is, that man’s blessings proceed from God, who intends them to be cheerfully and thankfully enjoyed.
20. In this verse much agrees with the days of his life. A better placing would be, For he must remember the days of his life are not many in which God gives him power to work for the joy of his heart. The grammar clears up the sense.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 5". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19