Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.1. A good name is better than precious ointment] The sequence of thought is interrupted, and the writer, instead of carrying on the induction which is to prove that all is vanity, moralizes on the other results of his experience. He has learnt to take a relative estimate of what men count good or evil, truer than that which commonly prevails among them. It lies almost in the nature of the case, that these moralizings should take a somewhat discontinuous form, like that, e.g. of the Pensées of Pascal or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the entries, let us say, which the thinker entered, day by day, in his tablets or on his codex. They are marked, however, by a sufficient unity of tone. The same pensive cast of thought is found in all, and it raises the thinker out of a mere self-seeking, self-indulgent Epicureanism into a wider and nobler sympathy. He rises as on the “stepping-stones” of his “dead self” to higher things. Nor are the maxims indeed without a certain unity of form, and the three words “it is better” in Ecclesiastes 7:1; Ecclesiastes 7:5; Ecclesiastes 7:8 serve as a connecting link. The words and the maxims that follow in Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 have naturally been a stumblingblock to those who saw in Koheleth nothing but the advocate of a sensual voluptuousness, and with the desperate courage of men maintaining a theory, they argue (I take Grätz as the representative of a school) that these are not the thoughts of the Debater himself, but of some imaginary opponent of the ascetic Essene type, against whom he afterwards enters his protest. The view is, it is believed, just as untenable as that of the interpreters of the opposite school, who see in the oft-repeated precepts counselling moderate enjoyment nothing but the utterances of an ideal Epicurean, set up for the purpose of being knocked down.
In the maxim which opens the series there is an alliterative emphasis, which is fairly represented by the German translation (Knobel) “Besser gut Gerücht als güte Gerüche. The good name (shem) is better than good ointment (shemen), echoing in this respect the words of Song Song of Solomon 1:3, “A good name is better than good nard,” is perhaps the nearest English approximation in this respect. The maxim itself indicates a craving for something higher than the perfumed oil, which was the crowning luxury of Eastern life (Psalm 45:8; Amos 6:6; Luke 7:37; Matthew 26:7), even the praise and admiration of our fellow-men. To live in their memories, our name as a sweet odour that fills the house, is better than the most refined enjoyment. The student of the Gospel history will recall the contrast between the rich man who fared sumptuously every day (Luke 16:19), whose very name is forgotten, and who is remembered only as a type of evil, and the woman whose lavish gift of the ointment of spikenard is told through the whole world as a memorial of her (Mark 14:9), and who is identified by John, John 12:3, with Mary of Bethany.
and the day of death than the day of one’s birth] The two parts of the thought hang closely together. If the “good name” has been earned in life, death removes the chance of failure and of shame. In the language of Solon (Herod. i. 32) only he who crowns a prosperous life by a peaceful death can be called truly happy. The thought presents, however, a strange contrast to the craving for life which was so strong an element, as in Hezekiah’s elegy (Isaiah 38:9-20), of Hebrew feeling, and is, like similar thoughts in ch. Ecclesiastes 6:3-4, essentially ethnic in its character. So Herodotus (Ecclesiastes 7:4) relates that the Trausi, a Thracian tribe, met on the birth of a child and bewailed the woes and sorrows which were its inevitable portion, while they buried their dead with joy and gladness, as believing that they were set free from evils and had entered on happiness, or at least on the unbroken rest of the eternal sleep. So Euripides, apparently with reference to this practice, of which he may well have heard at the court of Archelaus, writes in his Cresphontes,
ἐδεῖ γὰρ ἡμᾶς σύλλογον ποιουμένους
τὸν φύντα θρηνεῖν, εἰς ὅσʼ ἔρχεται κακά•
τὸν δʼ αὖ θανόντα καὶ πόνων πεπαυμένον
χαίροντας εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.
“It were well done, comparing things aright,
To wail the new-born child for all the ills
On which he enters; and for him who dies
And so has rest from labour, to rejoice
And with glad words to bear him from his home.”
Strabo, who quotes the lines (xi. c. 12, p. 144), attributes the practice to Asiatic nations, possibly to those who had come under the influence of that Buddhist teaching as to the vanity and misery of life of which even the partial pessimism of Koheleth may be as a far-off echo.
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.2. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting] The customs of Jewish mourning must be borne in mind to appreciate the full force of the maxim. The lamentation lasting for seven (Sir 22:10) or even for thirty, days, as in the case of Aaron (Numbers 20:29), and Moses (Deuteronomy 24:8), the loud wailing of the hired mourners (Jeremiah 22:18; Matthew 9:23; Mark 5:38), the visits of consolation (John 11:31), the sad meals of the bread and wine of affliction (Jeremiah 16:7; Hosea 9:4; Job 4:17),—the sight of these things checked the pride of life and called out sympathy, and reminded the visitor of the nearness of his own end,
“Sunt lachrymæ rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.”
“We needs must weep the chance and change of life,
And mortal sorrows touch a mortal’s heart.”
Virg. Æn. i. 462.
The words manifestly record a personal experience, and lead us to think of the writer as having learnt to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27), and having found that there was some “profit” at least in this.
Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.3. Sorrow is better than laughter] The thought is essentially the same as that of the preceding verse, but is somewhat more generalized. We are reminded of the Greek axiom, παθεῖν, μαθεῖν (“Pain is gain”), of the teaching of Æschylus.
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
“Yea, Zeus, who leadeth men in wisdom’s way
And fixeth fast the law
That pain is gain.”
There is a moral improvement rising out of sorrow which is not gained from enjoyment however blameless. The “Penseroso” is after all a character of nobler stamp than the “Allegro.”
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.4. The heart of the wise] This follows as the natural sequel. Like goes to like. The impulse of the fool takes him to that which promises enjoyment; that of the wise leads him to that which has the promise of a higher wisdom and therefore of a more lasting gain.
It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.5. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise] The word for “rebuke” is characteristic of the sapiential books of the Old Testament (Proverbs 13:1; Proverbs 17:10). Here also the teacher finds the moral that “pain is gain.” The “rebuke” is not pleasant, but it acts with a power to heal. The “song of fools” points to the type of lyric poetry of which we have examples in Anacreon, perhaps to the more wanton and impure poems which entered so largely into Greek life, and are preserved in such abundance in the Anthologia Græca. The comic drinking songs of a people represent at all times the lowest form of its animal life, and with these also, either in his own country or in Greek-speaking lands, the writer of the book had become acquainted. Amos 6:5 indicates the existence of a like form of revelry in the older life of Israel. Such songs left a taint behind them and the man was permanently the worse for it. In Ephesians 5:4 we may probably trace a reference to the same form of literature.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.6. As the crackling of thorns under a pot] As in Ecclesiastes 7:1 the epigrammatic proverb is pointed by a play of alliterative assonance (sirim = thorns, sir = pot). “As crackling nettles under kettles,” “As crackling stubble makes the pot bubble” are the nearest English equivalents. The image is drawn from the Eastern use of hay, stubble, and thorns for fuel (Matthew 6:30; Psalm 118:12). A fire of such material, burnt up more quickly than the charcoal embers (Jeremiah 26:22; John 18:18), which were also in common use, but then it also died out quickly and left nothing but cold dead ashes. So it would be with the mirth which was merely frivolous or foul. That also would take its place in the catalogue of vanities.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.7. Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad] Literally, For oppression … The sequence of thought is obscure and the English rendering is an attempt to evade the difficulty by making what follows the beginning of a new section. One commentator (Delitzsch) cuts the knot by supposing the first half of the verse to have been lost, and supplies it conjecturally from Prov. 37:16 or Proverbs 16:8, “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right,” after which the conjunction “for” comes in natural order. Taking the text as it stands we may yet trace a latent connexion. The ‘song’ and ‘laughter’ of fools, i.e. of evil-doers, like those of Proverbs 1:10-18; Wis 2:1-20, leads to selfish luxury, and therefore to all forms of unjust gain. The mirth of fools, i.e. of the godless, is vanity, for it issues in oppression and in bribery. It is a question whether the “wise man” who is thus maddened by oppression is the oppressor or the oppressed. The balance seems to turn in favour of the former. The oppressive exercise of power is so demoralising that even the wise man, skilled in state-craft, loses his wisdom. There comes upon him, as the history of crime so often shews, something like a mania of tyrannous cruelty. And the same effect follows on the practice of corruption. It is true of the giver as well as the receiver of a bribe, that he loses his “heart,” i.e. his power of moral discernment.
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.8. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof] As in ch. Ecclesiastes 6:11, the noun translated “thing” may mean “word” and this gives a preferable meaning. It cannot be said of everything, good and bad alike, that its “end is better than its beginning” (comp. Proverbs 5:3-4; Proverbs 16:25; Proverbs 23:32), and those who so interpret the maxim are obliged to limit its meaning to good things, or to assume that the end must be a good one. Some (as Ginsburg) give to the “word” the sense of “reproof,” but this limitation is scarcely needed. It may be said of well-nigh every form of speech, for silence is better than speech, and “in the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.” It is obvious that this furnishes a closer parallel to the second clause. The “patient in spirit” is the man who knows how to check and control his speech, and to listen to reproof. The “proud” (literally, the lofty or exalted) is one who has not learnt to curb his tongue, and to wait for the end that is better than the beginning. So interpreted the whole maxim finds a parallel in James 3:1-18, in the precepts of a thousand sages of all times and countries.
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.9. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry] From sins of speech in general, the teacher passes on to that which is the source from which they most often flow. Anger, alike from the Stoic and Epicurean stand-point (and the writer, as we have seen, had points of contact with each of them), was the note of unwisdom. If it be right at all, it is when it is calm and deliberate, an indignation against moral evil. The hasty anger of wounded self-love is, as in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22), destructive of the tranquillity of true wisdom, and, transient and impulsive as it seems at first, may harden “in the bosom of the fool” into a settled antipathy or malignant scorn.
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.10. What is the cause that the former days were better than these] It would be a mistake to treat this as describing merely the temper of one who is a “laudator temporis acti, se puero.” That is, as the poet noted (Hor. Epist. ad Pis. 173), but the infirmity of age. What is condemned as unwise, as we should call it in modern phrase, unphilosophical, is the temper so common in the decay and decadence of national life (and pointing therefore to the age in which the Debater lived) which looks back upon the past as an age of heroes or an age of faith, idealizing the distant time with a barren admiration, apathetic and discontented with the present, desponding as to the future. Such complaints are in fact (and this is the link which connects this maxim with the preceding) but another form of the spirit which is hasty to be angry, as with individual men that thwart its wishes, so with the drift and tendency of the times in which it lives. The wise man will rather accept that tendency and make the best of it. Below the surface there lies perhaps the suggestion of a previous question, Were the times really better? Had not each age had its own special evils, its own special gains? Illustrations crowd upon one’s memory. Greeks looking back to the age of those who fought at Marathon; Romans under the Empire recalling the vanished greatness of the Republic; Frenchmen mourning over the ancien régime, or Englishmen over the good old days of the Tudors, are all examples of the same unwisdom.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.11. Wisdom is good with an inheritance] The words fall on our ears with something like a ring of cynicism, as though the teacher said with a sneer, “wisdom is all very well if you have property to fall back upon.” If that sense were however admissible at all, it could only be by emphasizing the word “inheritance,” as contrasted with the treasure which a man heaps up for himself. The inherited estate, be it great or small, does not interfere with wisdom as money-making does. The ἀρχαιόπλουτοι (“rich with ancestral wealth”) are, as Aristotle taught, of a nobler stamp than those who make their fortunes (Rhet. ii. 9. 9). Comp. Aesch. Agam. 1043. Even so taken, however, the tone is entirely out of harmony with the immediate context, and a far more satisfactory meaning is obtained by taking the preposition as a particle of comparison (it is often so used, as in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:17; Psalm 73:5; Psalm 120:4 (probably); Job 9:20); and so we get “Wisdom is good as an inheritance.”
and by it there is profit to them that see the sun] Better, And it is profitable for them that see the sun. It stands instead of both inherited and acquired wealth. In the use of the term “those that see the sun” as an equivalent we note again an echo of Greek poetic feeling. The very phrase ὁρᾶν φάος ἡελίοιο (“to see the light of the sun”) is essentially Homeric. Here, as in chap. Ecclesiastes 12:7, it seems chosen as half conveying the thought that there is after all a bright side of life.
For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.12. For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence] Better, as a shadow, or, as a shelter, in both clauses. The Hebrew, as the italics shew, has no “and.” “Shadow” as in Psalm 17:8; Psalm 91:1, stands for shelter and protection. This, the writer says, not without a touch of his wonted irony in coupling the two things together, to those who looked to wealth as their only means of safety (Proverbs 13:8), is found not less effectually in wisdom.
but the excellency of knowledge] Better, the profit, thus keeping up what we may call the catch-word of the book. Wisdom, the Debater says, does more than give shelter, as money, in its way, does. It quickens those who have it to a new and higher life. The use of the word ζωοποιήσει (“shall quicken”), by the LXX. connects the maxim with the higher teaching of John 5:21; John 6:63; 2 Corinthians 3:6. The Spirit which alone gives the wisdom that “cometh from above” does the work which is here ascribed to wisdom as an abstract quality. It is clearly out of harmony with the whole train of thought to see in the “life” which wisdom gives only that of the body which is preserved by the prudence that avoids dangers. It is as much beside the point to interpret it of the “life” of the resurrection.
Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?13. who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked] The sequence of thought is as follows. To “consider the work of God” intelligently is one application of the wisdom which has been praised in Ecclesiastes 7:11-12. In so considering, the mind of the Debater goes back to Ecclesiastes 7:10, and he bids men accept the outward facts of life as they come. If they are “crooked,” i.e. crossing and thwarting our inclinations, we cannot alter them. It is idle, to take up a Christian phrase that expresses the same thought, to seek to “change our cross.” We cannot alter the events of life, and our wisdom is not merely to accept them as inevitable, but to adapt ourselves to them. It is a striking example of Rabbinic literalism that the Chaldee Targum refers the words to the impossibility of removing bodily deformities, such as those of the blind, the hunchback, and the lame. The word and the thought are clearly the same as in ch. Ecclesiastes 1:15.
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.14. In the day of prosperity be joyful] Literally, In the day of good, be in good, i.e. use it as it should be used. True wisdom, the teacher urges, is found in a man’s enjoying whatever good actually comes to him. The warning is against the temper which “taking thought for the morrow,” is
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils.”
And on the other hand he adds In the day of evil, look well, i.e. consider why it comes, and what may be gained from it.
God also hath set the one over against the other] The words assert what we should call the doctrine of averages in the distribution of outward good and evil. God has made one like (or parallel with) the other, balances this against that and this in order that man may find nothing at all after him. The last words may mean either (1) that man may have nothing more to learn or discover in his own hereafter; or (2) that man may fail to forecast what shall come to pass on earth after he has left it, as in ch. Ecclesiastes 6:12, and may look to the future calmly, free from the idle dreams of pessimism or optimism. The last meaning seems most in harmony with the dominant tone of the book, and has parallels in the teaching of moralists who have given counsel based on like data.
In the noble hymn of Cleanthes to Zeus (18) we have the Stoic view in language presenting a striking parallel to that of Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.
ἀλλὰ σὺ καὶ τὰ περισσὰ ἐπίστασαι ἄρτια θεῖναι,
καὶ κοσμεῖν τὰ ἄκοσμα, καὶ οὐ φίλα, σοὶ φίλα ἐστιν•
ὧδε γὰρ εἰς ἒν ἅπαντα συνήρμοσας ἐσθλὰ κακοῖσιν,
ὥσθʼ ἕνα γίγνεσθαι πάντων λόγον αἰὲν ἐόντα.
“Thou alone knowest how to change the odd
To even, and to make the crooked straight,
And things discordant find accord in Thee.
Thus in one whole Thou blendest ill with good,
So that one law works on for evermore.”
The Epicurean poet writes:
“Prudens futuri temporis exitum
Caliginosa nocte premit Deus,
Ridetque, si mortalis ultra
Fas trepidat. Quod adest, memento
Componere aequus; cetera fluminis
Ritu feruntur, nunc medio alveo
Cum pace delabentis Etruscum
In mare, nunc lapides adesos,
Stirpesque raptas et pecus et domos
“God in His wisdom hides from sight,
Veiled in impenetrable night,
The future chance and change,
And smiles when mortals’ anxious fears,
Forecasting ills of coming years,
Beyond their limit range.
“Use then the present well, and deem
All else drifts onward, like a stream
Whose waters seaward flow,
Now gliding in its tranquil course,
Now rushing on with headlong force
O’er rocks that lie below.”
Od. iii. 29. 29–38.
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.15. there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness] The writer looks back on what he calls “the days of his vanity,” his fleeting and profitless life, and notes, as before in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:14; Ecclesiastes 2:16, the disorders and anomalies of the world. The righteous are “of all men most miserable;” (1 Corinthians 15:19) the ungodly “prosper in the world” and “come in no peril of death, but are lusty and strong,” Psalm 73:4 (P. B. version). Here indeed those disorders present themselves in their most aggravated form. It is not only, as in ch. Ecclesiastes 3:19, that there is one event to the righteous and the wicked, but that there is an apparent inversion of the right apportionment of good and evil. The thought is the same as that of Psalms 73, and the Debater has not as yet entered, as the Psalmist did, into the sanctuary of God, and so learnt to “understand the end of these men” (Psalm 73:17). The same problem in the moral order of the Universe furnishes a theme for the discussions of the Book of Job.
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?16. Be not righteous over much] Here again we have a distinct reproduction of one of the current maxims of Greek thought, Μηδὲν ἀγὰν (Ne quid nimis—Nothing in excess) of Theognis 402, and of Chilon (Diog. Laert. i. 1, § 41). Even in that which is in itself good, virtue lies, as Aristotle had taught (Eth. Nicom. ii. 6. 7), in a mean between opposite extremes. Popular language has embodied the thought in the proverb, Summum jus, summa injuria. Even in the other sense of “righteousness,” as meaning personal integrity, personal religion, there might be, as in the ideal of the Pharisees and Essenes and Stoics, the “vaulting ambition” that o’erleaps itself.” And “what was true of righteousness was true also of speculative philosophy. The wisdom that will not be content to rest in ignorance of the unknowable is indeed unwisdom, and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
why shouldest thou destroy thyself?] The primary meaning of the verb in the form used here is that of “being amazed, stunned, astonished,” and may have been chosen to express the besotted and bedazed spiritual pride which St Paul paints by the participle “puffed up” (τυφωθεὶς) in 1 Timothy 3:5, and which was but too commonly the accompaniment of fancied excellence in knowledge or in conduct.
Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?17. Be not over much wicked] There seems something like a paradox in the counsel. Surely, we think, the teacher is carrying his doctrine of the mean too far when he gives a precept, which, by forbidding excess, seems to sanction a moderate amount of wickedness. Various attempts have been made to tone down the precept by taking “wicked” as = not subject to rule, or = engaged in worldly affairs (the “mammon of unrighteousness”) that so often lead to wickedness. The difficulty vanishes, however, if we will but admit that the writer might have learnt the art of a playful irony from his Greek teachers. He has uttered the precept, “Be not righteous over-much.” That most men would receive as a true application of the doctrine of “Nothing in excess,” or, in the phrase we owe to Talleyrand, “Surtout, point de zêle.” He mentally sees, as it were, the complacent smile of those who were in no danger of that fault and who think that the precept gives them just the license they want, and he meets the feeling it expresses by another maxim. “Yes, my friends,” he seems to say, “but there is another ‘over-much,’ against which you need a warning, and its results are even more fatal than those of the other.” In avoiding one extreme men might fall easily into the other.
why shouldest thou die before thy time?] Literally, Not in thy time. The form of the warning is singularly appropriate. The vices thought of and the end to which they lead are clearly those of the sensual license described in Proverbs 7. Death is the issue here, as the loss of spiritual discernment was of the Pharisaic or the over-philosophizing temper described in the preceding verse. In both precepts we may trace Koheleth’s personal experience. Ch. 2 traces the history of one who in his life experiments had been both “over much wise,” and, it must be feared, “over much wicked.”
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.18. It is good] The sentence is somewhat enigmatic, and its meaning depends on the reference given to the two pronouns. Commonly, the first “this” is referred to the “righteousness and wisdom” of Ecclesiastes 7:16, the second “this” to the “wickedness and folly” of Ecclesiastes 7:17, and the Teacher is supposed to recommend a wide experience of life, the tasting of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which, as in ch. Ecclesiastes 1:17, shall embrace both, and bring with it a corresponding largeness of heart. This gives, of course, a perfectly intelligible meaning, though it is not that of a high-toned morality, and belongs to the earlier rather than the later stage of the Debater’s progress. The close parallelism of ch. Ecclesiastes 11:6 suggests however another and preferable interpretation. The first and the second “this” and “that” of that verse are both indefinite, used alike of such work and opportunities as God gives. So taken, the precept now before us runs much in the same line of thought, “Lay hold on this—do not let that slip—do what thy hand findeth to do. Only be sure that it is done in the right spirit, for “he that feareth God,” he, and he alone, “comes forth of all things well,” i.e. does his duty and leaves the result to God. This temper, in exact harmony with the practical good sense of moderation, is contrasted with the falsehood of extremes condemned in the two previous verses.
Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.19. Wisdom strengtheneth the wise] The fact that the Debater had not forgotten that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:21) serves as the connecting link between this and the preceding verse. The “ten mighty men” stand as a vague number, certus pro incerto (comp. Genesis 31:7; Numbers 14:22), and it is a fantastic line of interpretation to connect them with any definite political organization, Assyrian viceroys, Persian vice-satraps, Roman decurions, or the like. It is, however, an interesting coincidence, pointed out by Mr Tyler, that a city was defined by the Mishna (Megila i. 3) to be a town in which there were ten Batlanim, or men of leisure, to constitute a synagogue. A striking parallel is found in Sir 37:14, “A man’s mind is wont to tell him more than seven men that sit upon a tower.” What is meant is generally that the wisdom that fears God is better than mere force, that moral strength is in the long run mightier than material. Wise statesmen may do more than generals.
For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.20. For there is not a just man upon earth] The sequence of thought is again obscure. We fail at first to see how the fact of man’s sinfulness is the ground of the maxim that wisdom is a better defence than material strength. The following train of associations may perhaps supply the missing link. There had been a time when the presence of ten righteous men would have preserved a guilty city from destruction (Genesis 18:32). But no such men were found, and the city therefore perished. And experience shews that no such men—altogether faultless—will be found anywhere. No one therefore can on that ground claim exemption from chastisement. What remains for the wise man but to fall back on the wisdom which consists in the “fear of God” (Ecclesiastes 7:13), the reverential awe which will at least keep him from presumptuous sins. Substantially the thought is that of a later teaching, that “in many things we offend all” (James 3:2), and therefore that a man is justified by faith (the New Testament equivalent for “the fear of the Lord” as the foundation of a righteous life), and not by works, though not without them. Here again we may compare the Stoic teaching, “Wise men are rare. Here and there legends tell of one good man, or it may be two, as of strange præter-natural being rarer than the Phœnix.… All are evil and on a level with each other, so that this differs not from that, but all are alike insane” (Alex. Aphrod. de Fato 28).
Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:21. Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken] The train of thought leads on to another rule of conduct. The fact that all men sin is shewn by the words with which men talk of the faults and weaknesses of their neighbours. To such words, the idle gossip of rumour, the comments on words or acts, no wise man will give heed. For him, in St Paul’s language, it will be “a very small thing to be judged of man’s judgment” (1 Corinthians 4:3). An idle curiosity to know what other people say of us will for the most part bring with it the mortification of finding that they blame rather than praise. No man is a hero to his valet, and if he is anxious to know his servant’s estimate of him, he may discover, however wise and good he strives to be, that it may find utterance in a curse and not a blessing. So, in political life, men have been known (e.g. Pompeius in the case of Sertorius) to burn the papers of their fallen foes. So in literary life some of the wise of heart have laid it down as a rule not to read reviews of their own writings. The same feeling finds an epigrammatic expression in the proud motto of a Scotch family:
“They say: What say they? Let them say!”
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.22. For oftentimes also thine own heart] The rule of the previous verse is backed by an appeal to a man’s own conscience, “mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.” “Thou too art not free from the habit of censorious censure, of hard and bitter speeches; even, it may be, of ‘cursing,’ where blessing would have been better.”
All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.23. I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me] The words express at once the high aim of the seeker and his sense of incompleteness. Wisdom in its fulness was for him, as for Job (chap. 28) far above out of his reach. He had to give up the attempt to solve the problems of the Universe, and to confine himself to rules of conduct, content if he could find guidance there.
That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?24. That which is far off and exceeding deep] The English of the latter clause scarcely expresses the Hebrew more emphatic iteration and deep deep. By some interpreters a like iteration is supplied in the first clause, far off is that which is far, but there does not seem adequate ground for thus altering the text. Rather are the first words to be taken of substantial being, far off from us is that which is (the τὰ ὄντα of Greek thought, the sum total of things past and present). So in another and later Jewish book impregnated, like this, with Greek thought, wisdom is described as a τῶν ὄντων γνῶσις ἀψευδής (“a true knowledge of the things that are” Wis 7:17). Comp. Job 11:7-8; Romans 11:33, for like language as to the Divine Counsels.
I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness:25. I applied mine heart to know] The present text and punctuation give, as in the marginal reading of the A. V., I and my heart. The expression has no exact parallel in O. T. language, but harmonizes with the common mode of speech, familiar enough in the poetry of all times and countries, furnishing a title (“My Soul and I”) to a poem of Whittier’s, in which a man addresses his heart or soul (comp. Luke 12:19), as something distinguishable from himself. So in ch. Ecclesiastes 1:13 we have “I gave my heart.” Here the thought implied seems to be that of an intense retrospective consciousness of the experience, or experiment, of life which the seeker is about to narrate. The words indicate another return to the results of that experience and the lessons it had taught him. He turned to ask the “reason,” better perhaps, the plan or rationale, of the prevalence of madness and folly. We note, as before in ch. Ecclesiastes 2:12, the Stoic manner of dealing with the follies of men as a kind of mental aberration.
And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.26. And I find more bitter than death] The result is a strange one in its contrast to the dominant tendency of Hebrew thought; especially we may add to that thought as represented by the Son of David with whom the Debater identifies himself. We think of the praises of the Shulamite in the Song of Solomon; of the language of Proverbs 5:13; and (though that is probably of later date) of the acrostic panegyric on the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31; and we find here nothing like an echo of them, but rather a tone of scorn, culminating in Ecclesiastes 7:28 in that which reminds us of the misogyny of the later maxim-makers of Greece, or of the Eastern king who never heard of any great calamity or crime without asking, Who is she? Such a change might, it is true, be explained as the result of the satiety into which the historical Solomon might have fallen as the penalty of his sensuality; and has its parallel in the cynical scorn of Catullus for the Lesbia whom he had once loved so tenderly (see Introduction, ch. iii.) and in that of a thousand others. Doubtless the words speak of such a personal experience on the part of the Debater. He had found no wickedness like that of the “strange woman,” such as she is painted in Proverbs 2:16-19; Proverbs 7:1-27. But we can scarcely fail to trace the influence of the Greek thought with which, as we have seen, the writer had come into contact. Of this the following may serve as samples out of a somewhat large collection.
Μεστὸν κακῶν πέφυκε φορτίον γυνή.
“A woman is a burden full of ills.”
Ὅπου γυναῖκες εἰσι, πάντʼ ἐκεῖ κακά.
“Where women are, all evils there are found.”
Θηρῶν ἁπάντων ἀγριωτέρα γυνή.
“Woman is fiercer than all beasts of prey.”
Poet. Graec. Gnomici, Ed. Tauchnitz, p. 182.
It might, perhaps, be pleaded in reference to this verse that the writer speaks of one class of women only, probably that represented in the pictures of Proverbs 2 or 7 and that the “corruptio optimi est pessima,” but the next verse makes the condemnation yet more sweeping. The suggestion that the writer allegorizes, and means by “the woman” here the abstract ideal of sensuality is quite untenable.
In the imagery of “snares” and “nets” and “bands” some critics (Tyler) have traced a reminiscence of the history of Samson and Delilah (Judges 16). Such a reference to Hebrew history is however not at all after the writer’s manner, and it is far more natural to see in it the result of his own personal experience (see Introduction, ch. iii.). The Son of Sirach follows, it may be noted, in the same track of thought, though with a somewhat less sweeping condemnation (Sir 25:15-26; Sir 26:6-12).
whoso pleaseth God] The marginal reading, whoso is good before God should be noted as closer to the Hebrew.
Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account:27. saith the Preacher] The passage is remarkable as being the solitary instance in the book in which the name Koheleth, feminine in form, yet elsewhere treated as masculine, is joined with the feminine form of the verb. It is possible, however, that this may be only an error of transcription, the transfer of a single letter from the end of one word to the beginning of another, restoring the verse to the more common construction, as found, e. g. in chap. Ecclesiastes 12:8, where, as here, adopting this reading, the article is prefixed to the word Koheleth, elsewhere treated as a proper name.
counting one by one] The words remind us, on the one hand, of Diogenes the Cynic, with his lantern, looking for an honest man at Athens, and answering, when asked where such men might be found, that good men were to be found nowhere, and good boys only in Sparta (Diog. Laert. vi. 2. 27); and on the other, of Jeremiah’s search to see “if there were any in Jerusalem that sought after God” (Jeremiah 5:1-5). The words, as it were, drag their slow length along, as if expressing the toil and weariness of the search. And after all he had failed to find.
Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.28. one man among a thousand have I found] We have, in the absence of an adjective, to supply the thought “a man such as he ought to be, truthful and righteous.” The form in which the rare exceptional discovery is given is as an echo from Job 9:3; Job 33:23. It represents we cannot doubt the capacity of the writer for a warm and earnest friendship. It shews that he had found one such friend. But what the seeker found among men, he sought in vain among women. Corruption there was, from his point of view, absolutely without exception. The interesting parallelism of Heine’s language has been noticed in the Introduction, ch. iii. The words may be received as recording the writer’s personal experience of the corrupt social state under the government of Persian or Egyptian kings. One commentator (Hitzig) has even ventured to identify the “woman more bitter than death” with a historical character, Agathoclea, the mistress of Ptolemy Philopator. Justin (xxx. 1) describes the King’s life “Meretricis illecebris capitur … noctes in stupris, dies in conviviis consumit.”
Here also we have an echo of the darker side of Greek thought. The Debater catches the tone of the woman-hater Euripides.
ἀλλʼ ὡς τὸ μῶρον ἀνδράσιν μὲν οὐκ ἔνι,
γυναιξὶ δʼ ἐμπέφυκεν.
“But folly does not find its home with men,
But roots in women’s hearts.”
Eurip. Hippol. 920.
So a later Rabbinic proverb gives a like judgment: “woe to the age whose leader is a woman” (Dukes, Rabbin. Blumenl. No. 32).
Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.29. They have sought out many inventions] The Hebrew word implies an ingenuity exercised mainly for evil but takes within its range, as in 2 Chronicles 26:15, the varied acts of life which are in themselves neither good nor evil. This inventive faculty, non-moral at the best, often absolutely immoral, was what struck the thinker as characterising mankind at large.
In this thought again we have an unmistakable echo of the language of Greek thinkers. Of this the most memorable example is, perhaps, the well-known chorus in the Antigone 332–5
πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινοτέρον πέλει.
σοφόν τι τὸ μηχανόεν τέχνας ὑπὲρ ἐλπίδʼ ἔχων,
ποτὲ μὲν κακόν, ἀλλοτʼ ἐπʼ ἐσθλὸν ἕρπει.
“Many the things that strange and wondrous are,
None stranger and more wonderful than man.
And lo, with all this skill,
Wise and inventive still
Beyond hope’s dream,
He now to good inclines
And now to ill.”
Looking to the relation in which the poem of Lucretius stands to the system of Epicurus it is probable that the history of human inventions in the De Rerum Natura, v. 1281–1435 had its fore-runner in some of the Greek writings with which the author of Ecclesiastes appears to have been acquainted. The student will find another parallel in the narrative of the progress of mankind in the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus (450–514). Both these passages are somewhat too long to quote.