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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ecclesiastes 9

 

 

Verses 1-6

17

The Chief Good not to be found in Wisdom:

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; Ecclesiastes 9:1-6

1. The Preacher commences this section by carefully defining his position and equipment as he starts on his final course. As yet he carries no lamp of revelation in his hand, although he will not venture beyond a certain point without it. For the present he will trust to reason and experience, and mark the conclusions to which these conduct when unaided by any direct light from Heaven. His first conclusion is that wisdom, which of all temporal goods still stands foremost with him, is incapable of yielding a true content. Much as it can do for man, it cannot solve the moral problems which task and afflict his heart, the problems which he must solve before he can be at peace. He may be so bent on solving these by wisdom as to see "no sleep in his eyes by day or night"; he may rely on wisdom with a confidence so genuine as to suppose at times that by its help he has "found out all the work of God"-really solved all the mysteries of the Divine Providence; but nevertheless "he has not found it out"; the illusion will soon pass, and the unsolved mysteries reappear dark and sombre as of old. [Ecclesiastes 8:16-17] And the proof that he has failed is, first, that he is as incompetent to foresee the future as those who are not so wise as he. With all his sagacity, he cannot tell whether he shall meet "the love or the hatred" of his fellows. His lot is as closely hidden in "the hand of God" as theirs, although he may be as much better as he is wiser than they Ecclesiastes 9:1. A second proof is that "the same fate" overtakes both the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the wicked, and he is as unable to escape it as any of his neighbours. All die; and to men ignorant of the heavenly hope of the gospel the indiscrimination of death seems the most cruel and hopeless of wrongs. The Preacher, indeed, is not ignorant of that bright hope; but as yet he has not taken the lamp of revelation into his hand: he is simply speaking the thought of those who have no higher guide than reason, no brighter light than reflection. And to these, their wisdom having taught them that to do right is infinitely better than to do wrong, no fact was so monstrous and inscrutable as that their lives should run to the same disastrous close with the lives of evil and violent men, that all alike should fall into the hands of "that churl, Death." As they revolved this fact, their hearts grew hot with a fierce resentment as natural as it was impotent, a resentment all the hotter because they knew how impotent it was. Therefore the Preacher dwells on this fact, lingers over his description of it adding touch to touch. "One fate comes to all," he says, "to the righteous and to the wicked, to the pure and to the impure, to the religious and to the irreligious, to the profane and to the reverent." If death be a good, the maddest fool and the vilest reprobate share it with the sage and the saint." If death be an evil, it is inflicted on the good as well as on the bad. None is exempt. Of all wrongs this is the greatest; of all problems this is the most insoluble. Nor is there any doubt as to the nature of death. To him for whom there shines no light of hope behind the darkness of the grave, death is the supreme evil. For to the living, however deject and wretched, there is still some hope that times may mend: even though in outward condition despicable as that unclean outcast, a dog-the homeless and masterless scavenger of Eastern cities-he had some advantage over the royal lion who, once couched on a throne, now lies in the dust rotting to dust. The living know at least that they must die; but the dead know not anything. The living can recall the past, and their memory harps fondly on notes which were once most sweet; but the very memory of the dead has perished, no music of the happy past can revive on their dulled sense, nor will any recall their names. The heavens are fair; the earth is beautiful and generous; the works of men are many and diverse and great; but they have "no more any portion forever in aught that is done under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 9:2-6).

This is the Preacher’s description of the hapless estate of the dead. His words would go straight home to the hearts of the men for whom he wrote, with a force even beyond that which they would have for heathen races. In their captivity, they had renounced the worship of idols. They had renewed their covenant with Jehovah. Many of them were devoutly attached to the ordinances and commandments which they and their fathers had neglected in happier and more prosperous years. Yet their lives were made bitter to them with cruel bondage, and they had as little hope in their death as the Persians who embittered their lives, and probably even less. It was in this sore strait, and under the strong compulsions of the dreadful extremity, that the more studious and pious of their rabbis, like the Preacher himself, drew into an expressive context the passages scattered through their Sacred Books which hinted at a retributive life beyond the tomb, and settled into that firm persuasion of the immortality of the soul which, as a rule, they never henceforth altogether let go. But when the Preacher wrote, this settled and general conviction had not been reached. There were many among them who, as their thoughts circled round the mystery of death, could only cry, "Is this the end? is this the end?" To the great majority of them it seemed the end. And even the few, who sought an answer to the question by blending the Greek and Oriental with the Hebrew wisdom, attained no clear answer to it. To mere human wisdom, life remained a mystery, and death a mystery still more cruel and impenetrable. Only those who listened to the Preachers and Prophets taught of God beheld the dawn which already began to glimmer on the darkness in which men sat.


Verses 1-18

7

FOURTH SECTION

The Quest Achieved. The Chief Good Is To Be Found, Not In Wisdom, Nor In Pleasure, Nor In Devotion To Affairs And Its Rewards;

But In A Wise Use And A Wise Enjoyment Of The Present Life, Combined With A Steadfast Faith In The Life To Come

Ecclesiastes 8:16 - Ecclesiastes 12:7

AT last we approach the end of our Quest. The Preacher has found the Chief Good, and will show us where to find it. But are we even yet prepared to welcome it and to lay hold of it? Apparently he thinks we are not. For, though he has already warned us that it is not to be found in Wealth or Industry, in Pleasure or Wisdom, he repeats his warning in this last Section of his Book, as if he still suspected us of hankering after our old errors. Not till he has again assured us that we shall miss our mark if we seek the supreme Good in any of the directions in which it is commonly sought, does he direct us to the sole path in which we shall not seek in vain. Once more, therefore, we must gird up the loins of our mind to follow him along his several lines of thought, encouraged by the assurance that the end of our journey is not far off.


Verses 7-12

Nor in Pleasure:

Ecclesiastes 9:7-12

Imagine, then, a Jew brought to the bitter pass which Coheleth has described. He has acquainted himself with wisdom, native and foreign; and wisdom has led him to conclusions of virtue. Nor is he of those who love virtue as they love music-without practicing it. Believing that a righteous and religious carriage of himself will ensure happiness and equip him to encounter the problems of life, he has striven to be good and pure, to offer his sacrifices and pay his vows. But he has found that, despite his best endeavours, his life is not tranquil, that the very calamities which overtake the wicked overtake him, that that wise carriage of himself by which he thought to win love has provoked hatred, that death remains a frowning and inhospitable mystery. He hates death, and has no great love for the life which has brought him only labour and disappointment. Where is he likely to turn next? Wisdom having failed him, to what will he apply? At what conclusion will he arrive? Will not his conclusion be that standing conclusion of the baffled and the hapless, "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die"? Will he not say, "Why should I weary myself any more with studies which yield no certain science, and self-denials which meet with no reward? If a wise and pure conduct cannot secure me from the evils I dread, let me at least try to forget them and to grasp such poor delights as are still within my reach"? This, at all events, is the conclusion in which the Preacher lands him; and hence he takes occasion to review the pretensions of pleasure or mirth. To the baffled and hopeless devotee of wisdom he says, "Go, then, eat thy bread with gladness, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Cease to trouble yourself about God and His judgments. He, as you have seen, does not mete out rewards and punishments according to our merit or demerit; and as He does not punish the wicked after their deserts, you may be sure that He has long since accepted your wise virtuous endeavours, and will keep no score against you. Deck yourself in white festive garments; let no perfume be lacking to your head; add to your harem any woman who charms your eye: and, as the day of your life is brief at the best, let no hour of it slip by unenjoyed. As you have chosen mirth for your portion, be as merry as you may. Whatever you can get, get; whatever you can do, do. You are on the road to the dark dismal grave where there is no work nor device; there is, therefore, the more reason why your journey should be a merry one" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

Thus the Preacher describes the Man of Pleasure, and the maxims by which he rules his life. How true the description is I need not tarry to prove; ‘tis a point every man can judge for himself. Judge also whether the warning which the Preacher subjoins be not equally true to experience (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12). For, after having depicted, or personated, the man who trusts in wisdom, and the man who devotes himself to pleasure, he proceeds to show that even the man who blends mirth with study, whose wisdom preserves him from the disgusts of satiety and vulgar lust, is nevertheless-to say nothing of the Chief Good-very far from having reached a certain good. Then, at least, "the race was not (always) to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither was bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the learned." Those who had the fairest chances had not always the happiest success; nor did those who bent themselves most strongly to their ends always reach their ends. Those who were wanton as birds, or heedless as fish, were often taken in the snare of calamity or swept up by the net of misfortune. At any moment a killing frost might blight all the growths of Wisdom and destroy all the sweet fruits of pleasure; and if they had only these, what could they do but starve when these were gone? The good which was at the mercy of accident, which might vanish before the instant touch of disease or loss or pain, was not worthy to be, or to be compared with, the Chief Good, which is a good for all times, in all accidents and conditions, and renders him who has it equal to all events.


Verses 13-18

Nor in Devotion to Affairs and its Rewards.

Ecclesiastes 9:13-18; Ecclesiastes 10:1-20

So far, then, Coheleth has been occupied in retracing the argument of the first Section of the Book. Now he returns upon the second and third Sections: he deals with the man who plunges into public affairs, who turns his wisdom to practical account and seeks to attain a competence, if not a fortune. He lingers over this stage of his argument, probably because the Jews, then as always, even in exile and under the most cruel oppression, were a remarkably energetic, practical, money-getting race, with a singular faculty of dealing with political issues or handling the market; and, as he slowly pursues it, he drops many hints of the social and political conditions of the time. Two features of it he takes much to heart: first, that wisdom, even of the most practical and sagacious sort, did not win its fair recognition and reward-a very natural complaint in so wise a man; and, secondly, that his people were under tyrants so gross, self-indulgent, indolent, and unstatesman-like as the Persians of his day-also a natural complaint in a man of so wise and patriotic spirit.

He opens with an anecdote in proof of the slight regard in which the most valuable and remunerative sagacity was held. He tells us of a poor man-and I have sometimes thought that this poor man may have been the author himself; for the military leaders of the Jews, though among the most expert strategists of that era, were often very learned and studious men-who lived in a little city, with only a few inhabitants. A great king came up against the city, besieged it, threw up the lofty military causeway, as high as the walls, from which it was the fashion of the time to deliver the assault. By his Archimedian wit the poor man hit on a stratagem which saved the city; but though his service was so signal, and the city so little that the "few men in it" must have seen him every day, "yet no one remembered that same poor man," or lent a hand to lift him from his poverty. Wise as he was, his wisdom did not bring him bread, nor riches, nor favour (Ecclesiastes 9:13-15). Therefore, concludes the Preacher, wisdom, great gift though it is, and better, as in this instance, than "an army to a beleaguered city," [Ecclesiastes 7:19] is not of itself sufficient to secure success. A poor man’s wisdom-as many an inventor has found-is despised even by those who profit by it. Although his counsel, in the day of extremity, is infinitely more valuable than the loud bluster of fools, or of a ruler among fools, nevertheless the ruler, because he is foolish, may be affronted to find one of the poorest men in the place wiser than himself; he may easily cast his "merit in the eye of scorn," and so rob him both of the honour and the reward of his achievement (Ecclesiastes 9:16-17)-an ancient saw not without modern instances. For the fool is a great power in the world, especially the fool who is wise in his own conceit. Insignificant in himself, he may nevertheless do great harm and "destroy much good." Just as a tiny fly, when it is dead, may make the sweetest ointment offensive by infusing its own evil savour, so a man, when his wit is gone, may with his little folly cause many sensible men to distrust the wisdom they should honour: [Ecclesiastes 10:1]-who has not met such a hot-headed want-wit in, for example, the lobbies of the House of Commons? To a wise man, such as Coheleth, the fool, the presumptuous conceited fool, is "rank and smells to heaven," infecting sweeter natures than his own with a most pestilent corruption. He paints us a picture of him-paints it with a keen graphic scorn which, if the eyes of the fool were in his head, [Ecclesiastes 2:14] and "what he is pleased to call his mind" could for a moment shift from his left hand to his right (Ecclesiastes 10:2), might make him nearly as contemptible to himself as he is to others. As we read Ecclesiastes 10:3, the unhappy wretch stands before us. We see him coming out of his house; he goes dawdling down the street, forever wandering from the path, attracted by the merest trifle, staring at familiar objects with eyes that have no recognition in them. knowing neither himself nor others; and, with pointed finger, chuckles after every sober citizen he meets, "There goes a fool!"

Yet a fool quite as foolish and malignant as this, quite as indecent even in outward behaviour, may be lifted to high place, and has ere now sat on an imperial throne. The Preacher had seen many of them suddenly raised to power, while nobles were degraded, and high functionaries of State reduced to an abject servitude. Now if the poor wise man have to attend the durbar, or sit in the divan, of a foolish capricious despot, how should he bear himself? The Preacher counsels meekness and submission. He is to sit unruffled even though the ruler should rate him, lest by resentment he should provoke some graver outrage (Ecclesiastes 10:4-7 : compare Ecclesiastes 8:3). To strengthen him in his submission, the Preacher hints at cautions and consolations which, because free and open speech was very dangerous under the Persian despotism, he wraps up in obscure maxims capable of a double sense-nay, as the commentators have shown, capable of a good many more senses than two-to the true sense of which "a foolish ruler" was by no means likely to penetrate, even if they fell into his hands.

The first of these maxims is, "He who diggeth a pit shall fall into it" (Ecclesiastes 10:8). And the allusion is, of course, to an Eastern mode of trapping wild beasts and game. The huntsman dug a pit, covered it with twigs and sods, and strewed the surface with bait; but as he dug many such pits, and some of them were long without a tenant, he might at any inadvertent moment fall into one of them himself. The proverb is capable of at least two interpretations. It may mean that the foolish despot, plotting the ruin of his wise servant, might in his anger go too far; and, betraying his intention, provoke a retaliative anger before which he himself would fall. Or it may mean that, should the wise servant seek to undermine the throne of the despot, he might be taken in his treachery and bring on himself the whole weight of the tyrant’s wrath.

The second maxim is "Whoso breaketh down a wall, a serpent shall bite him" (Ecclesiastes 10:8); and here, of course, the allusion is to the fact that snakes infect the crannies of old walls. {compare Amos 5:19} To set about dethroning a tyrant was like pulling down such a wall; you would break up the nest of many a reptile, many a venomous hanger-on, and might only get bit or stung for your pains. Or, again, in pulling out the stones of an old wall, you might let one of them fall on your foot; and in hacking out its timbers, you might cut yourself: that is to say, even if your conspiracy did not involve you in absolute ruin, it would be only too likely to do you serious and lasting injury (Ecclesiastes 10:9).

The next adage runs (Ecclesiastes 10:10), "if the axe be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, he must put on more strength, but wisdom should teach him to sharpen it," and is, perhaps, the most difficult passage in the book. The Hebrew is read in a different way by almost every translator. As I read it, it means, in general, that it is not well to work with blunt tools when by a little labour and delay you may whet them to a keener edge. Read thus, the political rule implied in it is, "Do not attempt any great enterprise, any revolution or reform, till you have a well-considered scheme to go upon, and suitable instruments to carry it out with." But the special political import of it may be, "Your strength is nothing to that of the tyrant; do not therefore lift a blunt axe against the trunk of despotism: wait till you have put a sharp edge upon it." Or, the tyrant himself may be the blunt axe, and then the warning is, "Sharpen him up, repair him, use him and his caprices to serve your end; get your way by giving way to him, and by skilfully availing yourself of his varying moods." Which of these may be the true meaning of this obscure disputed passage, I do not undertake to say; but the latter of the two seems to be sustained by the adage which follows: "If the serpent bite because it is not charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer." For here, I think, there can be little doubt that the foolish angry ruler is the serpent, and the wise functionary the charmer who is to extract the venom of his anger. Let the foolish ruler be never so furious, the poor wise man. who is able "to cull the plots of best advantages," and to save a city, can surely devise a charm of soft submissive words which will turn away his wrath; just as the serpent charmer of the East, by song and incantation, is at least reputed to draw serpents from their lurk, that he may pluck the venom from their teeth (Ecclesiastes 10:11). For, as we are told in the very next verse, "the words of the wise man’s mouth win him grace, while the lips of the fool destroy him."

And on this hint, on this casual mention of his name, the Preacher-who all this while, remember, is personating the sagacious man of the world, bent on rising to wealth, power, distinction-once more "comes down" on the fool. He speaks of him with a burning heat and contempt, as men versed in public affairs are wont to do, since they best know how much harm a voluble, impudent, self-conceited fool may do, how much good he may prevent. Here, then, is the fool of public life. He is a man always prating and predicting, although his words, only foolish at the first, swell and fret into a malignant madness before he has done, and although he of all men is least able to give good counsel, to seize occasions as they rise, or to foresee what is about to come to pass. Puffed up by the conceit of wisdom or of his own importance, he is forever intermeddling with great affairs, though he has no notion how to handle them, and is incapable of even finding his way along the beaten road which leads to the capital city, of taking and keeping the plain and obvious path which the exigencies of the time require; while (Ecclesiastes 10:3) he is forward to cry, "There goes a fool," of every man who is wiser than himself (Ecclesiastes 10:12-15). If he would only hold his tongue, he might pass muster; beguiled by his gravity and silence, men might give him credit for sagacity, and fit his foolish deeds with profound motives; but he will speak, and his words betray and "swallow him up." Of course we have no such fools, "full of words," to rise in their high place and wag their tongues to their own hurt-they are peculiar to antiquity or to the East.

But then there were so many of them, and their influence in the state was so disastrous that, as the Preacher thinks of them, he breaks into an almost dithyrambic fervour, and cries, "Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes feast in the morning! Happy art thou, O land, when thy king is noble, and thy princes eat at due hours, for strength and not for revelry!" Through the sloth and riot of these foolish rulers, the whole fabric of the state was fast fading into decay-the roof rotting and the rain leaking in. To support their inopportune and profligate revelry, they imposed crushing taxes on the people, which inspired in some a revolutionary discontent, and in some the apathy of despair. The wise exile foresaw that the end of a despotism so unjust and luxurious could not be far off; that when the storm rose and the wind blew, the ancient house, unrepaired in its decay, would topple on the heads of those who sat in its halls, revelling in a wicked mirth (Ecclesiastes 10:16-19). Meantime, the sagacious servant of the state, perchance too of foreign extraction, unable to arrest the progress of decay, or not caring how soon it was consummated, would make his "market of the time"; he would carry himself warily: and, because the whole land was infested with the spies bred by despotism, he would give them no hold on him, nor so much as speak the simple truth of his foolish debauched rulers in the privacy of his own bed chamber, or mutter his thoughts on the roof, lest some "bird of the air should carry the report" (Ecclesiastes 10:20).

But if this were the condition of the time, if to rise in public life involved so many mean crafts and submissions, so many deadly imminent risks from spies and from fools clad in a little brief authority, how could any man hope to find the Chief Good in it? Wisdom did not always win promotion; virtue was inimical to success. The anger of an incapable idiot, or the whisper of an envious rival, or the caprice of a merciless despot, might at any moment undo the work of years, and expose the most upright and sagacious of men to the worst extremities of misfortune. There was no tranquillity, no freedom, no security, no dignity in such a life as this. Till this were resigned and some nobler, loftier aim found, there was no chance of reaching that great satisfying Good which lifts man above all accidents, and fixes him in a happy security from which no blow of circumstance can dislodge him.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ecclesiastes-9.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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