Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(l) Dead flies.—Literally, flies of death, which, according to a common Hebrew idiom, “weapons of death” (Psalm 7:14); “snares of death” (Psalm 18:5) ought to mean death-giving or poisonous flies; but the existing translation yields so satisfactory a sense that we are unwilling to disturb it. (Comp. 1Corinthians 5:6.) There is a close connection with the last words of the preceding chapter, which might better have been brought to a close at the end of Ecclesiastes 10:12.)
Him that is in reputation for.—Substitute “is weightier than.” The sense remains the same, viz., that a little folly undoes the effect of much wisdom.
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.
A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.(2) At his right hand.—Perhaps better, towards his right hand, i.e., leads him to go to the right hand. The thought is the same as Ecclesiastes 2:13, namely, that though the actual results of wisdom are often disappointing, the superiority of wisdom over folly is undeniable.
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.(3) That he is a fool.—In Hebrew, as in English, the antecedent of “he” may be taken differently, and so the Vulg. and other authorities understand the verse as meaning that the fool in his self-conceit attributes folly to everyone else. But it is better, as well as more obvious, to take the verse of the self-betrayal of the fool (Proverbs 13:16; Proverbs 17:28; Proverbs 18:2).
If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.(4) We return now to the thought of Ecclesiastes 8:3. For “spirit” in the sense of “anger,” see Judges 8:3.
Yielding.—Literally, healing. (See Proverbs 15:4.)
Pacifieth great offences.—Rather, probably, quieteth great offences, that is to say, not so much “puts an end to the offence felt by the ruler,” as to the offences likely to be committed if he do not restrain himself.
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler:(5) Error.—The word is the same as at Ecclesiastes 10:6.
I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.(7) Considering that the importation of horses was a new thing in the reign of Solomon, we look on it as a mark of later age that a noble should think himself dishonoured by having to go on foot while his inferiors rode on horseback.
He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.(8) Commentators cannot be said to have been very successful in their attempts to trace a connection between the proverbs of this chapter. Perhaps nothing better can be said than that the common theme of these proverbs is the advantage of wisdom, and here in particular of caution in great enterprises. It is forcing the connection to imagine that the enterprise from which the writer seeks to dissuade, is that of rebellion against the ruler whose error is condemned (Ecclesiastes 10:5).
An hedge.—Rather, a stone wall, in the crevices of which serpents often have their habitation. (Comp. Proverbs 24:31; Lamentations 3:9; Amos 5:19.) This verse admits of a curious verbal comparison with Isaiah 58:12, “builder of the breach,” in one, answering to “breacher of the building” in the other.
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.(9) Removeth.—The nearest parallel is 1Kings 5:17, where the word is used with regard to the quarryings, not the removing of stones. For the latter sense, however, there is countenance in 2Kings 4:4, where the word is translated “set aside.”
Cleaveth wood.—Or, cutteth down trees, an operation not free from danger (Deuteronomy 19:5).
If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.(10) The wording of this verse in the original is very obscure; and we can only say of the rendering in the text that it seems to be preferred to any which it has been proposed to substitute for it. The mention of cutting wood in the preceding verse suggests the illustration from the axe, exemplifying how wisdom will serve instead of strength.
Whet.—Ezekiel 21:21, where it is translated “make bright.”
Edge.—Literally, face. We have often in Hebrew “mouth of the sword,” for edge of the sword, but the only parallel for the expression “face” in that sense is in the highly poetical passage in Ezekiel 21:16, just referred to.
Must he put to more strength.—“Make his strength mighty,” the words being nearly the same as in the phrase “mighty men of strength” (1Chronicles 7:5).
Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.(11) This also is a difficult verse. Literally translated it is, If the serpent bite for lack of enchantment, there is no advantage to the master of the tongue. It seems best to follow the LXX. and other interpreters, and take the “master of the tongue” to mean the snake charmer, who possesses the “voice of the charmer” (Psalm 58:5). The whisperings of the snake charmer, so often described by Eastern travellers, are referred to also in Jeremiah 8:17, and in a passage, probably founded on the present text (Ecclesiasticus 12:13), “Who will pity a charmer that is bitten with a serpent?” The mention of the serpent in Ecclesiastes 10:8 seems to have suggested another illustration of the advantage of wisdom in the different effects of snake-charming, as used by the expert or the unskilful. The phrase, “master of the tongue,” seems to have been chosen in order to lead on to the following verses, which speak of the different use of the tongue by the wise man and the fool.
No better.—No advantage to. (See Note on Ecclesiastes 1:3.)
A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?(14) A man cannot tell.—This thought occurs repeatedly in this book. (See reff.) The connection here would be better seen if the clause were introduced with “and yet.” The fool’s courageous loquacity is contrasted with the cautious silence which experience of his ignorance has taught the wise man.
The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.(15) To go to the city.—Evidently a proverbial expression; “is not able to find his way on a plain road.” (Comp. Isaiah 35:8.)
Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!(16) Woe.—See Note on Ecclesiastes 4:10.
A child.—The Hebrew word has a wide range, being constantly translated lad or young man, and applied, for instance, to Solomon (1Chronicles 29:1), to Rehoboam (2Chronicles 13:7), and according to a usage common to many languages (e.g., the Latin puer), it often means a servant (2Samuel 16:1, &c). Some take it in that sense here, contrasting it with the nobly-born king of the next verse. But comp. Isaiah 3:12.
By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.(18) Droppeth—i.e., lets the rain drop through.
A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.(19) I look on these verses as isolated proverbs, and believe that the obvious meaning suggested by the English of this verse is the right one. Those who strive to trace a continuity of thought take Ecclesiastes 10:18 as a figurative description of the ruin of an ill-governed land; Ecclesiastes 10:19 as describing the riot of those rulers who make feasts for merriment, and have money freely at their disposal; and (Ecclesiastes 10:20) as a warning to the subjects to beware how, notwithstanding all this mis-government, they venture to rebel.
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.(20) Thought.—A word of later Hebrew, found only in Daniel and Chronicles.