Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.V.
(1) In the Hebrew division this is the last verse of the preceding chapter; but clearly here a new section begins, containing proverbs in the second person singular, which has not hitherto been used. There is no obvious connection with what has gone before; possibly the precepts here introduced were traditionally known to have been part of Solomon’s teaching.
They consider not.—The most natural translation of this clause would be, “They know not how to do evil,” i.e., are incapable of doing evil. This would force us to understand the subject of the clause to be, not the fools, but those who are ready to hear. The Authorised Version exhibits one of the expedients resorted to in order to get a better meaning. Another is, “They are without knowledge, so that they do evil.”
Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.(2) Few.—Ecclesiasticus 7:14; Ecclesiasticus 18:22.
When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.(4) There is here a clear recognition of the passage in Deuteronomy. (See ref.; comp. Ecclesiasticus 18:23.)
No pleasure in fools.—Comp. Isaiah 62:4.
Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?(6) The angel.—It has been proposed to translate this word the “messenger,” or ambassador of God, and understand “the priest” (see Malachi 2:7); and it has been regarded as one of the notes of later date in this book that the word should be used in such a sense. But even in the passage of Malachi there is no trace that the word “angel” had then become an ordinary name for the priest, such as would be intelligible if used in that sense without explanation from the context. Neither, again, is there reason for supposing that the priest had power to dispense with vows alleged to have been rashly undertaken. The power given him (Leviticus 27) is of a different nature. I therefore adhere to the obvious sense, which suggests that the real vow is observed and recorded by a heavenly angel. It falls in with this view that the phrase is “before the angel.” If an excuse pleaded to a priest was intended, we should have, “Say not thou to the priest.”
Error.—The word is that which describes sins of ignorance (Numbers 15). The tacit assumption in this verse, that God interposes to punish when His name is taken in vain, clearly expresses the writer’s real conviction, and shows that such a verse as Ecclesiastes 9:2 is only the statement of a speculative difficulty.
For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God.(7) This verse presents some difficulties of translation springing from corruption of text, but not affecting the general sense; according to which the many words which belong to the dreams and vanities of heathendom are contrasted with the fear of the only God.
If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.(8) The interpretation of this verse depends on the sense we give to “marvel.” There are some who take it of simple surprise. “You need not think it strange; the instances of oppression which you observe are only parts of a gigantic scheme of mutual wrong-doing, the oppressors of one being themselves oppressed in turn by their superiors.” But instead of “Do not wonder,” the meaning “be not dismayed” is preferable. (Comp. Psalm 48:5; Job 26:11; Isaiah 13:8; Jeremiah 4:9.) The verse then supplies the answer to the gloomy view of Ecclesiastes 4:4. In the view that the last clause speaks of the Divine rectification of earthly injustice, I am confirmed by observing that the author of this book delights in verbal assonances, and constantly links together words similar in sound. An English version might admit the meaning: “Over the high oppressor stands a higher, and over both, those who are higher still; “though even here there is the difficulty that the highest of all are spoken of in the plural number, of which it is a very awkward explanation that the “higher” is the king, and that the women and favourites who govern him are the “higher still.” But I cannot but think that the language of the Hebrew, that over the “gebōh” there be “gebōhim,” is intended to suggest Elohim to the reader’s mind.
Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.(9) Is served by.—Or, is servant to. Many eminent interpreters connect this verse with what precedes, and translate, “and on the whole the profit of the land is a king devoted to agriculture,” an observation which it is hard to clear of the charge of irrelevance. I prefer, as in our version, to connect with the following verses, and the best explanation I can give of the connection of the paragraph is that it contains a consideration intended to mitigate the difficulty felt at the sight of riches acquired by oppression, namely, that riches add little to the real happiness of the possessors.
There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.(13) Sore evil.—Ecclesiastes 6:2; Jeremiah 14:17; Nahum 3:19.
But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand.(14) Evil travail.—Unsuccessful business.
Nothing in his hand.—The same words occur in a literal sense in Judges 14:6.
As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.(15) There is a clear use of Job 1:21. (See also Psalm 139:15.) And this passage itself is used in Ecclesiasticus 40:1.
All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness.(17) We pass without notice some variations of translation in this verse, which do not materially affect the sense.
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.(18) The Preacher is led back to the conclusion at which he had arrived (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22).
For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.(20) “In the enjoyment of God’s gifts he does not think much of the sorrows or brevity of life.” This is the usual explanation; and though not satisfied with it, we cannot suggest a better.