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Ecclesiastes, Part 7: The Rhetoric of the Skeptic
As we have already seen in our earlier presentations of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher frequently employs skepticism as a method of teaching, and he also uses much repetition by which he can introduce new aspects for each of the subjects upon which he lectures. So here once again, in chapter 9 of the work, we have more skepticism and further repetition as he returns to topics which he had already discussed in the earlier chapters of the work.
But now his skepticism is magnified beyond pessimism, where he expresses an attitude of nihilism, and it is apparent that this too is a rhetorical prevarication, since it stands in contradiction to the Preacher’s earlier declarations concerning the works of men and the judgment of God. For example, in chapter 3 the Preacher had said: “17 I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work”, or for every deed.
Now he shall once again urge men to consider God and judgment and the necessity of obedience to God for reason of judgment in Ecclesiastes chapter 12. But he only hints at these things here in this chapter, for instance in verse 8 where he exhorts his readers to “Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.” The reasons for such an exhortation are not given explicitly until we come to his final conclusions in chapter 12. In the meantime, the Preacher is using skepticism and nihilism as rhetorical devices, and his true purpose is to illustrate the vanity of man and the futility of life without God. We must also remember that the Preacher had already proclaimed that it was God Himself who purposely subjected man to vanity, in order to be exercised in travail, in chapters 1 (1:13) and 3 (3:10) of this work, and therefore there must be a greater purpose for the exercise.
That is our obligation reading Ecclesiastes, to recognize that while the Preacher laments the vanity of life and the travail of man, at the same time there must be a reason as to why he continually refers to the judgment of God and concludes that there is a necessity for man to keep His commandments. Doing this, the Preacher illustrates the fact that there is indeed a greater purpose to life without actually describing it in words. So all of his lamentation concerning vanity is a rhetorical prevarication, because all is not truly vain if there is a greater purpose to life. With this, we shall commence with our presentation:
Ecclesiastes 9:1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.
In Brenton’s Septuagint, the clause at the first part of this verse is found at the end of the last verse in chapter 8, as a conclusion, where it says “for I applied all this to my heart, and my heart has seen all this.”. The text of Rahlf’s Greek Septuagint also properly places the words here at the beginning of chapter 9, interpreting them as if they are meant to introduce what follows.
As for the last clause of this verse, where the King James Version has “no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them”, we would translate it to say “also of love and hate, man knows nothing of all before them”, or “… of all which is before them”. The word which the King James Version translated as a negative particle no is an adverb meaning nothing or nought. While some translations have “before him”, it seems to us that the preposition and plural noun which are translated as “before them” refer to love and hate and not to man, which is singular in the text. Among other examples, the same word translated as “before them” appears in 1 Samuel 18:16 in a similar context where it says “But all Israel and Judah loved David, because he went out and came in before them.” There the plural construct refers to Israel and Judah, and not to David. Likewise here it refers to love and hate, and not to man. Therefore the Preacher seems to be informing his readers that even the righteous and wise man is ignorant as to whether his works will be loved or hated by God, as they are in His hand. So now he laments the plight of the righteous and says:
2 All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.
He that feareth an oath is simply the man who is afraid to swear. Christians are told not to swear, but to make every word true, in James chapter 5. Once again the Preacher employs skepticism in his discourse, lamenting the plight of the righteous because, from an immediate and worldly perspective, they seem to die no differently than the wicked, the impious and the sinner. Furthermore, speaking even of the righteous, since all men do sin and fall short of the glory of God, he adds:
3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
This must be the original inspiration for the profane modern adage, that “life sucks, and then you die.”
The Preacher had used this same word for madness (Strong’s # 1847, howlehlah), coupled with folly, in contrast to wisdom in chapter 1 where he said “ 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Then in chapter 2 he used the same word again to describe how he himself had “turned… to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly”. That madness and folly to which he had turned was a life of licentiousness and mirth and the giving of himself over to wine. Now here in this passage he associates that sort of madness with evil, and suggests that it is found in the hearts of all men.
Next, his skepticism leads to nihilism as he declares that there is nothing for the dead, and suggests that hope is only for the living:
4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
The antithesis to this skepticism of the Preacher is found in the words of Paul, who wrote in chapter 15 of his first epistle to the Corinthians that “ 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
The Preacher had asserted in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, in an earlier display of such pessimism, that men were no different than beasts. Then with skepticism he asserted: “20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” then he asked: “21 Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” Now as he raised the subject again he continues his comparison of men to beasts in an allegory which explains that from a worldly perspective, the lowest of beasts while it lives is better than the most noble of beasts which have died. So, adding to his pessimism both fatalism and further nihilism, he says:
5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
The inevitability of death has also been a persistent theme through Ecclesiastes, underscoring the perceived transientness, or vanity, of man. The Preacher had already elaborated upon this in chapter 2, where he said in part: “16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.” Now speaking of the carnal feelings of man he adds that:
6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
As we interpret the Preacher to express in verse 1, after his death man does not know whether he will face love or hatred for his works. The love and hate of God transcend this life. However the love and hatred and also the envy of man are all vanity: they are not necessarily the love and hatred of God, and they must perish along with the man himself. After the man is departed from this world, his love and hatred no longer have efficacy in the world. While in the Revelation of Yahshua Christ the souls of the dead are depicted as praying for their avenging in the world, those prayers are evidently made in harmony with the love and hatred of God. So the Preacher continues and says:
7 Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
The Preacher already suggested in the opening verse of this chapter that man does not know before he dies whether or not his works will be loved or hated by God. So he is not necessarily contradicting himself here. Rather, there is no thy, there is no second person pronoun, in the final clause of this passage in Hebrew. We must read the last clause of the passage to say “...for already God is pleased with this work”, which we would interpret to refer to the man’s enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.
However this reading is not supported by the Septuagint. Brenton’s Septuagint has verse 1 of this chapter to read: “I saw that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: yea, there is no man that knows either love or hatred, though all are before their face.” We would interpret that to mean that man stands before the love and hatred of God, but does not know them, or whether his works will attract one or the other. Then Brenton has this verse to say: “Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart; for now God has favourably accepted thy works.” Both of those translations by Brenton are relatively faithful to the Septuagint Greek.
If we were to accept the interpretations of the Septuagint, we must imagine that here the Preacher also offers a prevarication. If there is nothing for the dead, then man has nothing better to do than to eat and to drink, and to imagine that God has accepted his works. On the other hand, if Solomon is only concerned for the righteous, then the next line is quite relevant, as only the righteous can have garments which are always white:
8 Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
In Revelation chapter 3 we see a few of the saints in Sardis who “… have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.” The admonition to “let the head lack no ointment” may be an exhortation for the Israelite to bear in mind the anointing which he, or she, has received from Yahweh – for instance where it says in 1 John chapter 2 that “the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you,” and in 1 Samuel 2:10 where the term anointed refers to Israel and it says “… the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.” Similar uses of the term in reference to the children of Israel are found throughout the Psalms. From the 28th Psalm: “8 The LORD is their strength, and he is the saving strength of his anointed. 9 Save thy people, and bless thine inheritance: feed them also, and lift them up for ever.”
So the white garments and ointment being representative of the children of God in their obedience, the Preacher seems to be informing his readers that they must imagine that God accepts their works, because they have no other choice. This is fatalistic in a sense, as it informs them that their actions are predetermined and therefore their destinies are inevitable. Then because their fates are inevitable, they may as well eat their bread and drink their wine with joy. So he continues in this line of advice:
9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
The Preacher had lamented his labor in chapter 2 of this work, that he could not take it with him when he died, and must therefore leave it to another. So in that place he concluded: “24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” As we had discussed where similar statements were made earlier, it is evident in the blessings of obedience in Deuteronomy chapter 28 that when a man is able to enjoy the fruits of his own labor, it is indeed a blessing from God.
Earlier in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher also lamented his mirth and his licentiousness, that ultimately it was also vanity, and therefore it was foolish. He lauded the man who “kept his eyes in his head” over the man who fulfilled the desire of his eyes. We have contended that this Preacher is Solomon himself, writing after his own sinful experiences, where in his later years he had taken a thousand women in addition to his original wife, the wife of his youth. So here he also advises morality, exhorting his readers to “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest… which he hath given thee under the sun...”
Similarly, in Proverbs chapter 5 we read, in part: “18 Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. 19 Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” In today’s civil climate, in our modern world, this is not always possible, but it certainly is the model we should uphold and seek to live up to.
He offers one final exhortation and reference to death:
10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
The word translated as might may also be ability, as it was translated in the King James Version at Ezra 2:69 and Daniel 1:4. The living have an advantage over the dead, in that they can do good works, and they can seek knowledge and wisdom. But once they are dead, they can no longer do these things. However they are judged for the works which they do in life, so they had better take advantage of the opportunity.
So even though the Preacher is projecting attitudes of skepticism and fatalism and nihilism, he nevertheless recognizes that there is a God who judges the works of men, and that man has a need to sustain a degree of morality. This concession leads to the inevitable conclusion that man needs to keep the commandments of God, because in the end there really must be something more than vanity. If there is not, then it does not matter, and keeping faithful to one’s wife does not matter, and keeping one’s garments white does not matter, so here we see that to the Preacher, all is not really vanity, and these things do indeed matter.
Now the Preacher turns to another subject, the seemingly random manner in which men come to stumble and fail when they should have the advantage, or to succeed when they have no advantage, or even to die, which happens in circumstances beyond their control and often to the surprise of the living.
11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
These are, arguably, the most famous of Solomon’s words. Faster men may lose races, stronger men may lose fights, men of skill do not always succeed in profiting from their works, and wise men very often remain in poverty. Then in addition to these challenges and travails, men never know when it is that they may die:
12 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net [a net evil to the fish, but not to the fisherman who hungers], and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time [a time evil to the man, but not necessarily to God or to the man’s enemies], when it falleth suddenly upon them.
Death may come at any moment, and no man knows when it will happen. This is the fifth time in Ecclesiastes that the Preacher advised men to enjoy their food and their drink, and that there were no enjoyments more worthwhile, because all is vanity.
In chapter 2 we read: “22 For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? 23 For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.”
Then in chapter 3: “12 I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. 13 And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.”
And again in chapter 5: “18 Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.”
And once again in chapter 8: “15 Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”
Every time the Preacher advised that men should seek their enjoyment from simple things such as food and wine and the fruits of their own labor, he stressed the fact that the ability to do so was a gift from God. It is no different here, but the Preacher once again adds to the idea the enjoyment of one’s wife, as well as the necessity to do so while keeping one’s garments white and one’s head anointed, which we would interpret as an exhortation to morality.
Interestingly, in Proverbs chapter 31, Solomon advised wine for the poor, but not for those in positions of responsibility. There we read: “1 The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him. 2 What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows? 3 Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings. 4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: 5 Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. 6 Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. 7 Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” [This is also a large part of the theme in chapter 10 of Ecclesiastes.] Many commentators call the Lemuel of Proverbs 31 an “unknown king”, an assertion which we believe is folly. Rather, Lemuel is Solomon, using an epithet for himself which means for God.
In that passage from Proverbs we see another parallel in the life of Solomon, that in his younger days he knew enough not to give his strength unto women, and that strong drink causes men to forget the law and become corrupted. Yet here in Ecclesiastes we see the Preacher admit having given himself over to wine, and having had great experience with many women (see Ecclesiastes 7:28). As we have explained in earlier portions of this commentary, Proverbs demonstrates that Solomon knew better than to go off into the sin which is described of him in 1 Kings, and Ecclesiastes seems to be his confession and apology – or perhaps, his justification – for that sin.
Now Solomon turns the topic once again, elaborating upon yet another subject which he had mentioned earlier, to speak of the plight of a poor man who is wise but who is not appreciated:
13 This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me: 14 There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. 16 Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.
As we had explained earlier in these presentations, when the Preacher mentions wisdom he is speaking of the wisdom of God, and not merely the cunning of men. In Ecclesiastes chapter 7 he wrote: “18 It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all. 19 Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.” The statements in these verses are not disassociated by the verse numbers or the punctuation. Wisdom strengthens the wise, and he that fears God has wisdom, and will come forth of them all. He that does not fear God is a fool, so the Preacher now proclaims:
17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.
Wisdom from God is better than weapons of war just as the Preacher had said previously that “Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.” Then where he says “one sinner destroys much good”, we must notice that he says that in contradistinction to his remarks on the words of wise men. So by that comparison we can again see the Preacher’s perception of what wisdom is, whereby we know that wisdom is the fear of and obedience to God. The wise man is the opposite of the sinner, so the fool is the sinner, or the sinner is the fool.
Now once again, as we commence with chapter 10 of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher revisits another of his earlier subjects, as he turns to compare folly with wisdom and honor. However, this is all in relation to governance, as the Preacher does not now depart from that subject, as we shall see.
Ecclesiastes 10:1 Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.
This is very much like the saying “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump”. Throughout this work, we have seen the Preacher consider folly to be mirth and licentiousness. A man may be perceived as being wise, and worthy of honor. But if he lives a sinful lifestyle his entire reputation is tainted. Now another allegory is set forth having the same meaning:
2 A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.
It cannot escape mention, that the left has always been associated with evil, with so-called progressivism, which is a departure from law and custom in favor of experiments in permissiveness and even licentiousness. It is not a coincidence, that in Isaiah the vile are said to have been called liberal, and we see the liberal position as being the left in politics. Neither can it be a coincidence, that at the return of the Christ the goat nations are found on the left. The Latin word sinister, which originally meant left, also referred to something evil, the meaning which it now has in English. It also referred to things unfavorable, improper, or perverse, according to the definition supplied on page 389 of The New College Latin & English Dictionary by John C. Traupman, Ph.D, published in 1966 by Bantam Books. Today we continue to find liberals, progressives and perverts almost exclusively on the left, which proves that they are also fools and devoid of the wisdom of God.
3 Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a fool.
The fool need not speak the words. The fool need not make a verbal admission. His actions speak for themselves, proclaiming on his behalf that he is a fool.
From Proverbs chapter 10: “6 Blessings are upon the head of the just: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked. 7 The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot. 8 The wise in heart will receive commandments: but a prating fool shall fall. 9 He that walketh uprightly walketh surely: but he that perverteth his ways shall be known. 10 He that winketh with the eye causeth sorrow: but a prating fool shall fall. 11 The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life [As Christ had described His Own words as “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”]: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked. 12 Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins. 13 In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding. 14 Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.”
Once again, the meaning of the next passage is debatable:
4 If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.
Brenton’s Septuagint has the end of the clause to read “… for soothing will put an end to great offences.” We may read the Greek to say “… because healing shall put to rest great offenses.” The early Alexandrian Christian writer Origen cited this verse, and as his citation is translated in the popular edition of The Ante-Nicene Fathers by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson it reads to state: “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for soundness will restrain many transgressions.” This seems better to agree with what the Preacher said about the wise man in the previous chapter, contrasting the wise man with the voice of he who rules over fools.
What follows is a footnote to the first of two citations from Ecclesiastes 10:4 made by Origen which are found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers edition of Origen’s De Principiis, Book 3 Chapter 2, where they begin by citing the King James Version, rather than the better version offered by Origen: “For yielding pacifieth great offences.” The words in the text are, “Quniam sanitas compescet multa peccata.” [Which means “Because health restrains many offenses” - WRF.] The Vulgate has, “Curatio faciet cessare peccata maxima.” [Which means “Treatment will stop great offenses” - WRF.] The Septuagint reads, ἴαμα καταπαύσει ἁμαρτίας μεγάλας: while the Masoretic text has מרבא [marpe’, which they then equate in parentheses to:] (curatio).
The word which is translated as yielding in the King James Version is marpe’ (Strong’s # 4832), which corresponds to the Latin curatio, from which is derived our word cure, and the newer editions of Strong’s Hebrew lexicon define marpe’ as health, a healing, or a cure. That corresponds with the Greek of the Septuagint where it has ἴαμα, a word bearing very much the same meaning. With this we see that Origen’s original version of the passage, as it is translated by Roberts and Donaldson, is probably the most agreeable, where Origen wrote that: “In the book of Ecclesiastes, too, Solomon says, ‘If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for soundness will restrain many transgressions.’”
The King James translation, having the word yielding, can easily cause confusion. The Preacher was not advising wise men to be pusillanimous. He was not telling them to yield to an unruly king. Rather he was exhorting wise men to stand up to such rulers, “leave not thy place”, or do not yield, and admonish them according to that wisdom which is from God. This we know from Proverbs chapter 12, where the same Hebrew word, marpe’, is translated as health in both the King James Version, and in the New American Standard Bible where we read: “18 There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
So verse 4 here should state that “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for soundness will restrain many transgressions”, and with this we see that if the King James Version is not dishonest, it can at least be confused. But the way it is worded, if read carefully, the King James Version has turned the phrase “for soundness will restrain many transgressions” into a warning, “For yielding pacifieth great offences.” However that warning seems easily misread. So Solomon, who was also a king, advises wise men here to hold their ground and to correct rulers by that wisdom which is found in the Word of God, and that part of the original meaning is missing entirely in the King James Version.
The Preacher continues to speak of evil rulers:
5 There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler: 6 Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.
The Preacher laments the fact that fools are set into high offices, while the “rich” are set low. Most commentators esteem the Preacher to be referring to th wealthy, to the material rich here, however that is not necessarily the case. From the same writer, we read in Proverbs chapter 14: “6 Righteousness keepeth him that is upright in the way: but wickedness overthroweth the sinner. 7 There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches.” The man who makes himself rich is the righteous man who seeks the wisdom of God, but of material possessions he has nothing. The rich that make themselves poor are wealthy men who are devoid of wisdom, so in reality they are poor and foolish. These are the men typically appointed to high office by kings, and now also by presidents.
The Preacher continues with another enigma:
7 I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
Solomon is making another reference to the character of men, and not necessarily to their status. However here it appears that the character of both types being described is good. Men upon horses are wealthy, but they can act as servants if they are obedient to God. Servants upon the earth may indeed be princes, and not even be aware of how their God views them. This is what the Preacher seemed to be proclaiming where he said at the beginning of chapter 9, in our emended version, “that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: also of love and hate, man knows nothing of all which is before them.” As Yahshua Christ Himself proclaimed, in Matthew chapter 23: “1 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”
The Preacher goes on to lament life’s seeming incongruities and the often unintended consequences of the actions of men:
8 He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him. 9 Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.
From the beginning of the chapter, the Preacher began to compare the wise and the fools. Perhaps the Preacher was comparing the character of the wise in verse 7, and now he has turned to contrast the actions of fools, that they shall reap what they sow. Therefore it is plausible that “he that diggeth a pit” dug it to entrap men, and fell into it himself. Likewise, he that breaks the hedge does it to steal something from his neighbor, and the stones spoken of may indeed refer to boundary stones moved dishonestly. The reference to “he that cleaveth wood” by itself is quite obscure, however the meaning is elucidated in the next verse:
10 If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet [sharpen]the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.
Perhaps there should not have been a sentence break between verses 9 and 10: “… and he that cleaves wood shall be endangered thereby if the iron be blunt and he does not sharpen the edge, and he must put to more strength…” A man with wisdom would know enough to use a sharp tool, and therefore he would not have to resort to brute force to fell the tree.
11 Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
Here we see our interpretation is correct, that the Preacher is indeed still contrasting the fool to the wise:
12 The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. 13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.
We find similar admonitions in Proverbs chapter 10: “14 Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction… 16 The labour of the righteous tendeth to life: the fruit of the wicked to sin. 17 He is in the way of life that keepeth instruction: but he that refuseth reproof erreth. 18 He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool. 19 In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise. 20 The tongue of the just is as choice silver: the heart of the wicked is little worth. 21 The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom. 22 The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it. 23 It is as sport to a fool to do mischief: but a man of understanding hath wisdom. 24 The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him: but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.” Here we also see, in the mention of the lips of the righteous that feed many and the blessings of Yahweh that “maketh rich”, that the “rich” spoken of here in verse 5 of this chapter is not necessarily a reference to material wealth. The Preacher continues to talk of the foolish:
14 A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?
The assertion is repeated from Ecclesiastes chapters 6 and 8. In chapter 6 it appears in the context of the many foolish and lustful pursuits of life which increase vanity, and for which man is not better off in the end. In chapter 8 it is used in relation to the wise man who already “knoweth not that which shall be”, and that nobody can tell him what would come thereafter. Here it appears to be used in relation to the fool who seeks not the wisdom of God, yet is nevertheless full of many words. Not knowing what the future holds and conducting his life without the wisdom of God, he is no better than a babbler and a biting serpent. So the wise should keep him away.
15 The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.
This may mean that the fool cannot accomplish even the beginning of urbane tasks. When the Preacher began this part of his dissertation, he was comparing the wise man to the fools who are appointed posts in government, and the comparison is still the subject here, as we shall see in the verses which follow. In the ancient world, and this is especially evident in the Latin use of certain terms, the urbane were the sophisticated and courteous, so we have the term urban, from the Latin word urbanus. The rural folk were the backwards and uneducated, so we have the word pagan, from the Greek word πάγος, or hill. From that came the Latin words paganus and pagus, which describe the country-dweller or villager, someone who is rustic and therefore is perceived as being simple or unlearned. The Greek word πάγος is a hill, so pagans were the original hillbillies.
Now we shall see that the fools which Solomon is describing are indeed those who are found in positions of power:
16 Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!
Customarily, only bread was eaten in the morning, generally even among Roman and Greeks as well as Hebrews. The wealthier Greeks and Romans sometimes added fruit or wine to their breakfast. We see the Hebrew custom is expressed in Scripture in Exodus chapter 16 where we read: “8 And Moses said, This shall be, when the LORD shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full; for that the LORD heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD.” Then again a little later in the chapter: “11 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 12 I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God.”
So it is likely that where the Preacher refers to princes who eat in the morning, he is speaking of princes who eat festively in the morning, who wine and dine on flesh and other luxuries early in the day, that they are fools who rather than working for the benefit of the kingdom have taken to feasting and mirth. So in contrast he says:
17 Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness!
A king who is a child may simply be a man who is uneducated and immature, who is not adept in the functions of governance. In contrast, a king who is the son of nobles is ostensibly properly trained and educated to assume his position. Princes who eat in due season and who are sober are fit to responsibly administer a kingdom.
So now we shall return to discuss verse 5, to our original interpretation of these two parties we had started with, the fools who are elevated into office and the rich who are held at low estate. By now it should be evident, that the fools elevated into high office may even be wealthy fools, and princes. But the rich who are held low are not wealthy, rather they are men rich in wisdom. Solomon is lamenting the fact that fools come to govern the people while men rich in wisdom to not have the opportunity.
The Preacher continues:
18 By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.
When fools govern a kingdom, and squander their time and resources in luxury, it is likely to fall into a state of decay. The building and the house are allegories for the kingdom itself in the hands of slothful rulers.
19 A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.
And this is a continuation of the same admonishment of the king who is a child and the princes who spend their time feasting while the kingdom decays. But this verse is often removed from its context by interpreters who would justify abusing the power of money to fulfill one’s desires. This is indeed speaking of the power of money being used to fulfill one’s desires. But in the correct context it should be understood along with verse 18, concerning slothfulness and the idleness of hands. The entire passage is comparing foolish rulers with wise ones and describing how men will follow either sort because either sort has money.
So rather than working diligently to preserve the house, which is the kingdom, the foolish king and the princes who enjoy luxuries would spend money, and more money – often money which is raised from the poor of their kingdom – in order to maintain themselves in mirth and drunkenness. This is exactly the pattern which the governments of the West follow today, and if it does not describe the American government, I cannot imagine anything that does.
The Preacher concludes:
20 Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
For most of our history, cursing one’s rulers was bound to cost one his head. Cursing wise and godly rulers one is acting unrighteously. Cursing foolish and slothful rulers will nevertheless cause one trouble if he is found out. That is the substance of the warning here.
However the law prevents one from cursing either sort of ruler, as we would read Exodus 22:28 to say, “28 Thou shalt not revile the judges, nor curse the ruler of thy people.” As we had explained in our last presentation of this series, in Part 6, people get the government they deserve, because government is a punishment from Yahweh.