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Koheleth next discusses the scope and advantage of prudence and discretion what the Greeks call sophrosyne, but for which the English has no single term, unless it be the ungraceful one, rightmindedness. The taste and usage of the East, as well as his own professional habit as a hakim, or public teacher, lead Koheleth to use the proverbial or sententious sometimes called gnomic style of expression. “He sought out and set in order many proverbs.”
1. Ointment Better, perfume. Sweet perfumes are always mentioned in Scripture in accordance with the value set on them in the East. The latter part of the verse has a logical connexion with the former.
The day of death Rather, And then the day, etc. That is, to him who achieves a good name, the day of his death is a day of victory. Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, said that he counted no man happy until his death. In this view we reckon that
“The dead alone are great,
For when they die, a morning shower
Comes down, and makes their memories flower
With perfume sweet, though late”
2. Go to the… mourning To gain a good name one must cultivate a noble character. First of all is needed a large sympathy with one’s fellow-men. To share their joy in the house of feasting is good, but to share their grief in the house of mourning is better, as a test of friendship, as promotive of deeper feeling and as more instructive concerning our share in the common lot. Jewish mourners sat barefoot and dejected for seven days after their return from the burial, (which took place on the day of decease,) receiving the visits of condolent friends.
3. Sorrow, simply, does not present the Hebrew as well as sober reflection, that is, the laying to heart, as just mentioned. So, laughter means reckless mirth. Also, sadness of the countenance means a thoughtful aspect, indicative of serious consideration.
4. This verse is of the nature of an inference from the preceding. The wise do not shun the homes and scenes of sorrow, but take sincere part with them, while the fool loves only jest and mirth.
5. Better… for a man The transition is easy from the monitions of death to the counsels of the living. As the term man belongs to both clauses, it might more properly stand in the former. It is better for a man, etc. “Let the righteous smite me,” says the psalmist, “it shall be a kindness” better than a fool’s music.
6. Crackling of thorns The reason why. The usual fuel mentioned in the Old Testament is charcoal, compared with which dry thorn bushes though quicker to kindle, are brief and ineffectual. The Hebrew words for pot and thorns sound queerly together, like the English “noisy nettles under kettles” imitating a shallow laughter.
7. Oppression maketh… mad The matter of reproof is continued. It is shown how one may be overtaken in a fault and need a wise friend’s monition. Under the irritation of bad government to which Koheleth often alludes a good man might be rasped into rash doings, or might himself consent to take a bribe to misuse power which might be put into his own hands. The worst evil of misgovernment, as Socrates said, is that it makes good men bad.
8. End of a thing Hebrew, word; here meaning the reproof above named. To hear a reproof is trying to flesh and blood, and the voice of the reprover is like that of the first bringer of unwelcome news. Many times has a man lost a friend by reproving him but sometimes the result of the delicate and difficult task has been the peaceable fruits of reform. Happy is the patient in spirit, who can take a reproof in all candour without irritation and peevishness.
9. Be not hasty… angry This exhortation comes as an inference from the foregoing remarks. Even an enemy may tell us some things good for us to know, much more, then, should we welcome the “faithful wounds” the honest rebukes of a friend. Only a fool would be angry at wholesome reproof. But how natural it is to be in this more or less foolish!
10. Former days were better Common sense teaches us to make the most of the present, and act in the living now. This is one of the weaknesses of aged men, that they depreciate the present time. They forget how much the flavour of life depends on him who drinks it; and in their flush and hopeful youth they relished it better. It is also a happiness of nature, that our glad things live in brass, our sad things we write in water, and looking back we see far more joys than sorrows. Our present troubles we feel keenly, and thus are led to unwisely repine.
11. Wisdom is good with an inheritance Meaning, (margin,) equally good with it. The “inheritance” is what former days have done to us. To men in the employments of life, that is, that see the sun, their own wit and sagacity is as good and better than inherited capital. Certainly, capital without brains is useless.
12. Wisdom… and money… defence This is a forcible way of saying, “Wisdom is a defence of one kind and money a defence of quite another.” Both united make a strong and safe shelter, but, of the two, wisdom is superior by its giving life to its possessors. An Athenian wished his son educated, so as not to sit upon the stone seat of the public assembly, as being himself but another stone. Life means energy, activity, and intelligence. In wisdom is shelter, and in money is shelter, would be a better rendering.
13. Consider the work of God The thought is of comparing the past and present, as in Ecclesiastes 7:10. If there is any special hardship on these times, remember who hath appointed the rod. No man, no secondary power, has changed or can change what He has ordained.
14. Be joyful… consider Common sense rebukes grumbling over the present and foreboding over the hereafter. There should be no pause after “consider,” as the remainder of the verse tells us what to consider. That is, make the most of the present prosperity and manage wisely the present adversity, remembering that God has in his wisdom so diversified human affairs that none can tell what the next coming phase may be. Many a sage and poet has warned us not to be anxious respecting the unseen future; and the Great Teacher said, “Take no thought for the morrow.”
15. All Should be rendered both, that is, the two cases hereinafter stated. Koheleth had previously called his former life “days of vanity.” This verse is the basis of the two following verses. It gives the experience from which the precepts stated derive their weight. The classes of events here named are never unusual or hard to find.
16. Be not righteous overmuch The Hebrew is very deficient in the little words that guide thoughts and make transitions easy, such as, “also,” “therefore,” “moreover,” etc. This verse is rested on the preceding, and should be introduced by then Be not, then, etc. Remember, this is the language of prudence. Common sense makes no martyrs. They come from a loftier sentiment. It sees little good in self-denial, though much in moderation. It averages things and holds a “golden mean.” Had Koheleth foreseen how this verse was to perplex and scandalize many good men, he would hardly have had courage to write it. But he has spoken faithfully from his standpoint of simple discretion. There is some truth in this precept for all time. In this generation no men have been so popular as Mr. Lincoln, who was broad but moderate in politics, and Mr. Beecher, who is broad but moderate in religion. One need not call them the highest of the day, as statesmen or divines, but they carried the largest masses, and, to a certain degree, for their good.
17. Over much wicked A course of desperate wickedness, and especially of bodily vices, consumes prematurely the vigour which would suffice for a long and active life. This verse has never alarmed expounders: yet it is the expect counterpart of its predecessor, and both are reasonable and judicious, according to the present style and stage of the investigation.
18. The first this refers to the moderate righteousness of Ecclesiastes 7:16; the second, to the moderate wickedness of Ecclesiastes 7:17. A middle course is recommended, that a man may neither be left desolate nor die before his time.
Shall come forth of them all Plainer English, and a better translation, would be, shall get on well with both. Common sense suggests, that God will keep a good man from excesses. Let us be patient. At another point (when he shall legitimately reach it) Koheleth will affirm that to keep God’s commandments is all there is of a man, and will say no more of mean and average.
19. This and the following verses refer to the imperfectness of the examples of great men.
Wisdom strengtheneth Living, acting discretion is a better source of strength than the example of many great men who have given honour to the State: for the conditions which surrounded them are not exactly the same as those around us, and we shall also be in danger of reproducing their errors. The next verse tells us why we should not blindly follow even the best examples.
20. Not a just man Be it remembered that the discussion here is of practical “wisdom,” not of abstract morality. The question of sin and holiness as before God, and in the domain of the sweet and salutary doctrines of the New Testament, is not here touched at all. We are simply told that prudence indicates that we are not to rely implicitly on, nor follow servilely, even the heroes of our land, for the most accurate man now or ever upon earth makes mistakes, and does sometimes wrong. The case of wilful transgression of the moral law is not at all before the mind of the writer, and our dear hopes and sweet experiences of walking before God and man “when sin is all destroyed,” need suffer no eclipse from this stated infirmity of judgment.
21. Also Should be therefore.
Take no heed unto all words Seeing that great men are not always wise, do not be very inquisitive to know what is said even about yourself. Some ignorance of this may be some bliss. “No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre,” and servants see the reverse side of their masters and may possibly tell it.
22. Cursed This rendering is rather harsh. Spoken evil is more in harmony with the sentiment. Koheleth’s personal appeal finds us all vulnerable. We have talked freely, and even with relish, of the faults of others. In this there is always something to take as well as something to give.
23. This have I proved Simple common sense went thus far in this direction, but here reached its barrier. Koheleth hoped it would lead him further, so as to grasp the mysteries of providence, so often mentioned by him as inscrutable.
I will be wise It should be, “I will be” wiser. But in vain. The keenest sagacity cannot by searching find out the ways of the Almighty.
24. That which is far off Better, That which was far, was still far. He is conscious of striking the dark border of the unknowable, in whose deep darkness lay that which, of all things, he most wished to know.
25. I applied mine heart to know is my heart turned to know? The writer resumes his practical inquiry in a new direction. He searches to know the actual cause of the intense and appaling wickedness of men. And the reason, etc. Hebrew, to know the reason of wickedness and vice and folly, which is madness. So awful a fact must have some adequate cause, if it can only be found.
26. The woman That is, the sex, better without the “the.” I find woman more bitter than death her heart, etc. The views of woman here given are such as began with Adam, were enjoined by the Jewish rabbies, and prevail in the East to this day. Woman’s emancipation coincides in its date and extent with Christianity, and the Virgin-Mother is the bright morning-star leading an ever-increasing host of faithful women who find joy and freedom in the train of a greater than Solomon. From the days of the gospel the character of woman has opened like a flower, and her past in Christianity has been brave and beautiful and true.
“Not she with traitorous kiss her Master stung,
Not she denied him with unfaithful tongue;
She, when apostles fled, could danger brave,
Last at the cross and earliest at his grave.”
The position of woman is the most false and cruel thing in heathen and Moslem lands, and Moses was, “from the hardness of their hearts,” obliged to leave it but partially mitigated among the Jews. Koheleth here speaks after the best common sense of his time: and we can see that there was need enough of a better dispensation. That he should think of woman as a demon hunting for victims!
27. This have I found He shows that his view is the result of sober examination of both sexes, looking for the result by weighing individual instances.
28. Which yet my soul seeketh, etc. That is, The investigation is not yet concluded, so that the result may yet be altered.
One… a thousand A very beggarly proportion, to say the least, of pure, true, and good men!
It is not strange that where men are so bad, and the best of them thought so ill of women, they were no better. What was to make them better? If, as some have thought, the thousand women reviewed were the three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines of the Solomonic harem, no wonder if the poor things were no better! Mohammed said, that only four good women had ever lived: the wife of Pharaoh, the mother of Jesus, and his own wife and daughter. Koheleth would get better figures today, both absolutely and proportionally.
29. Man… many inventions The one abiding and ever-true result of Koheleth’s search is this that the “inventions,” devices of man’s own heart, are enough to account for all the appalling wickedness of the race. No necessity to sin is framed into our original constitution, or laid upon us by the order of providence.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany