Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
In the sections immediately following, the continuity of the history of the Preacher’s mental struggles is broken by the introduction of a number of proverbs, some of which have so little apparent relation to the context, that Renan even takes them to be intended as specimens of the “many words which increase vanity.” But of any work, whether actually representing or intended to represent the teaching of Solomon, proverbs might be expected to form a necessary part. And though the ingenuity may not be successful which has been employed in trying to find a strict logical sequence in this part of the work, yet the thoughts are not unconnected with each other, nor out of harmony with the whole. The question with which the preceding chapter concludes, “Who knoweth what is good for a man?” is taken up in this, Ecclesiastes 7:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:5; Ecclesiastes 7:8; Ecclesiastes 7:11, all beginning with the word “good.” This characteristic would have been better kept up in translation if the first word of all these verses had been made “better.” “Better is sorrow than laughter,” &c.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.(1) There is a play on words in the original (found also in Song of Solomon 1:3), which Plumptre represents by “a good name is better than good nard.” It was probably an older proverb, which the Preacher completes by the startling addition, “and so is the day of death better than that of birth.” For the use of perfumes, see Ruth 3:3; 2Samuel 12:20; Proverbs 7:17; Daniel 10:3.
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) Comparing this verse with Ecclesiastes 2:24, it is plain that the Preacher does not in the latter place recommend reckless enjoyment, but enjoyment tempered by the fear of God, and looking to the end.
Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.(3) Sadness of the countenance.—Genesis 40:7; Nehemiah 3:3. “Anger” (margin). This is the usual meaning of the word, and so in Ecclesiastes 7:9. It is accordingly adopted here by the older translators, but the rendering of our version is required by the context.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.(6) There is again a play on words, which German translators represent by “the crackling of nettle under the kettle,” and Plumptre “the crackling of stubble which makes the pot bubble.” The reference plainly is to the quick blazing up and quick going out of the flame.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.(7) Surely.—Rather, For. This change is required not only by literalness, but by the fact that the verse comes in a series of paragraphs, each commencing with the word “better,” as does the next verse. This verse therefore cannot introduce a new subject, but must be connected with what has gone before. But it is so hard to do this satisfactorily, that Delitzsch conjectures that a line may have dropped out, and that this verse may have begun with “Better: e.g., “Better is a little with righteousness, &c,” as in Proverbs 16:8. If this be thought too strong a remedy, we may explain the connection, that by listening to faithful rebuke rather than to the flattery of fools, a ruler may be checked in a course of oppression or corruption which threatens to undermine his understanding. As we understand the passage, he becomes mad who commits, not who suffers, the oppression.
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.(8) Thing.—Here, as in Ecclesiastes 6:11 and elsewhere, we may also translate “word.” Possibly the thought still is the advantage of bearing patiently “the rebuke of the wise.”
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.(9) Resteth.—Proverbs 14:33.
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.(10) Concerning.—This preposition is used after “enquire” only in later Hebrew (Nehemiah 1:2).
Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun.(11) With.—This is the ordinary meaning of the word, and accordingly is the rendering of the older translators, but the marginal “as good as,” or “equally with,” agrees so much better with the context, that the only question is whether the word will bear that meaning. And though in some places where it is translated “like,” the rendering “with” may be substituted, yet the passages in Ecclesiastes 2:16, “no resemblance to the wise equally with the foolish,” Job 9:26, “my days have passed like the swift ships,” seem to be decisive that it will.
Profit.—In defence of the marginal “yea, better,” may be pleaded that the word is translated as an adverb (Esther 6:6; and in this book (Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 6:8; Ecclesiastes 6:11; Ecclesiastes 7:16; Ecclesiastes 12:9; Ecclesiastes 12:12).
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) A defence.—Literally, a shadow (Psalm 91:1; Psalm 121:5, &c). This verse harmonises with the interpretation of the preceding verse, which we prefer. “Wisdom and riches alike confer protection, but the pre-eminence of wisdom is,” &c.
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) Ecclus. 14:14, 33. The first clause may be more closely rendered, “In the good day be of good cheer.” As a consolation in time of adversity the thought Job 2:10 is offered. The last clause connects itself with the first, the idea being that of Ecclesiastes 3:22; “take the present enjoyment which God gives, seeing that man cannot tell what shall be after him.”
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) Days of my vanity.—Ecclesiastes 6:12.
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?(16) Righteous over – much.—The caution is against morbid scrupulosity and over-rigorism. We may illustrate by the case of the Jews, who refused to defend themselves against their enemies on the Sabbath day. The next verse is a necessary corrective to this: “Yet be cautious how thou disregardest the restraints of Law.”
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) In the uncertainty or the issues of life, it is good for a man to make trial of opposite rules of conduct. provided he always restrain himself by the fear of God. (Comp. Ecclesiastes 11:6.)
Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.(19) Mighty men.—The word is translated “governor” Genesis 42:6, and so see Ecclesiastes 10:5; see also Ecclesiastes 8:8. The preacher returns to the topic of Ecclesiastes 7:12. Of the “For” in the next verse, only forced explanations have been given; the sentiment is Solomon’s (1Kings 8:46).
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.(22) Thine own heart knoweth.—Ecclesiastes 8:5; 1Kings 2:44; Proverbs 14:10.
All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.(23) The confession of failure to attain speculative knowledge gives energy to the preacher’s next following enunciation of the practical lesson which he has learned from his experience.
That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?(24) Rather translate, “That which is, is far off.” The phrase, “that which is,” or “hath been,” to denote the existing constitution of the universe, occurs in Ecclesiastes 1:9, Ecclesiastes 3:15. (See Ecclesiastes 8:17.)
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) The reason of things.—The corresponding verb “to count” is common. This noun is almost peculiar to this book, where it occurs again in Ecclesiastes 7:27; Ecclesiastes 7:29; Ecclesiastes 9:10; save that in 2Chronicles 26:15 we have the plural in the sense of military engines.
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.-26Ecclesiasticus 9:3; Ecclesiasticus 26:23.
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.—See Job 9:3; Job 33:23. The disparaging estimate of the female sex here expressed is common in countries where polygamy is practised. (See Ecclesiasticus 25:24; Ecclesiasticus 42:13.) It is credible enough that Solomon, with his thousand wives, did not find a good one among them; but see Proverbs 18:22; Proverbs 19:14; Proverbs 31:10.