Matthew Poole's Commentary
Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.Kings to be greatly respected, Ecclesiastes 8:1-5. Our times uncertain; death not to be resisted, Ecclesiastes 8:6-8. An evil magistrate buried and forgot, Ecclesiastes 8:9,10. Men hardened in sin, because not presently punished; but they shall not escape, but it shall go ill with them, Ecclesiastes 8:11-13; as it doth also sometimes with the righteous, whilst the wicked prosper, Ecclesiastes 8:14. Mirth therefore, and a contented enjoyment of God’s gifts, preferable to immoderate care and search, Ecclesiastes 8:15. God’s work herein past finding out, Ecclesiastes 8:16,17.
Who is as the wise man? who is to be compared with a wise man? He is incomparably the most excellent man in the world. Or rather, who is truly wise? the particle as being here not a note of similitude, but of reality, as it is John 1:14, and in many other places, as hath been noted. There are very few or no truly wise men in this world. This seems best to agree with the next clause, which is not, who is as he that knoweth, but who knoweth, &c.
Who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? how few are there who understand the reasons of things, and can rightly expound the word and works of God, and instruct and satisfy himself and others in all the doubtful and difficult cases of human actions!
A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine; maketh a man illustrious and venerable, cheerful, and mild, and amiable in his carriage to others. The face is put for the mind or inward frame, because the mind discovers itself in the countenance.
The boldness of his face; the roughness or fierceness, the pride or impudence of his disposition, as this phrase is used, Deu 28:50 Proverbs 7:13 21:29 Daniel 8:23; shall be changed into gentleness and humility.
I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.I counsel thee; which verb is necessarily understood to make the sense full and complete. See the like defects of speech, Psalm 120:7 Isaiah 5:9, &c.
To keep the king’s commandment; observe and obey all his commands; which is not to be understood universally, as if the king should have commanded them to deny or blaspheme God, or to worship idols, in which case every Christian man who reads and believes the Bible must needs confess that the Israelites especially were obliged to obey God rather than man, but only of such commands as are not contrary to the will of God.
In regard of the oath of God; either,
1. Because of that oath which thou hast taken to keep all God’s laws, whereof this of obedience to superiors is one; or,
2. Because of that covenant or oath of fealty and allegiance whereby thou hast engaged thyself to him, of which see 1 Chronicles 11:3 29:24 Ezekiel 17:16,18. Though this may also be understood, and is by some learned interpreters taken, as a limitation of their obedience to kings, the words being thus rendered, as the Hebrew will very well bear, but according to the word of the oath of God; obey the king’s commands, with this caution, that they be agreeable and not contrary to the laws of God, which thou art obliged by thy own and by thy parents’ oaths oft renewed to observe in the first place.
Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him.To go out of his sight, Heb. to go from his face or presence, to wit, in dislike, or in discontent, withdrawing thyself from thy king’s service or obedience, as malcontents use to do; for this will both provoke him, and lead thee by degrees into sedition or rebellion.
Stand not in an evil thing; if thou hast offended him, persist not in it, but humbly acknowledge thine offence, and beg his pardon and favour.
He doeth whatsoever pleaseth him; his power is uncontrollable in his dominions, and therefore thou canst neither resist nor avoid his fury.
Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?There is power; whatsoever he commandeth he wants not power nor instruments to execute it, and therefore can easily punish thee as he pleaseth.
Who may say? Heb. who shall say? Who will presume or dare to say so? He doth not affirm that it is unlawful to say so, for Samuel said so to Saul, 1 Samuel 15, and Nathan to David, 2 Samuel 12, and several other prophets to the kings of Judah and Israel, but only that it is difficult and dangerous.
Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment.The commandment; either,
1. Of the king, of which he hath hitherto spoken. Or,
2. Of God; for the word, or commandments, or law are oft used emphatically for the word, law, or command of God, as hath been formerly and frequently observed, and the commandment is put for the commandments, as is very usual. And so Solomon passeth from his former to a new subject.
Shall feel no evil thing; shall be delivered from those mischiefs which befall the disobedient.
Both time and judgment; both when, and how far, and in what manner he may or must keep the commands of the king or God. For the word here rendered judgment doth signify right, as Deu 21:17, as also a cause or controversy, as Numbers 27:5, and the manner or rule of actions, as Judges 13:12. The sense is, A wise man knows both what he ought to do, and what are the fittest seasons for doing it, which he seeketh and embraceth.
Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.There is time and judgment; there is a fit way and season for the happy accomplishment of every business which a man designeth or undertaketh to do, which is known to God, but for the most part hidden from man, as is implied and may be gathered from the following words. See Poole "Ecclesiastes 3:1".
Therefore; because there are very few who have that wisdom which is necessary to discern this, as was now said, Ecclesiastes 9:5, and most men do by their ignorance and loss of opportunities deprive themselves of many advantages, and expose themselves to manifold miseries.
For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?Men are generally ignorant of all future events, and of the success of their endeavours, and therefore their minds are greatly disquieted, and their expectations frequently disappointed, and they fall into many mistakes and miscarriages, which they could and would prevent if they did foresee the issues of things.
Who can tell him? no wise man, no astrologer or other artist, can discover this.
There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.The spirit, i.e. the soul of man, which is oft called a spirit, as Job 7:7 10:12 Psalm 78:39 104:29, &c.
To retain the spirit; to keep it in the body beyond the time which God hath allotted to it. This is added as another evidence of man’s misery.
In the day; or, against the day, i.e. to avoid or delay that day.
There is no discharge, as there is in other wars, when soldiers either are dismissed from the service, or escape by flight or otherwise. In that war; in that fatal conflict between life and death, between nature and the disease, when a man is struggling with death, though to no purpose, for death shall always be conqueror.
Neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it; and although wicked men, who most fear death, use all possible means, whether good or bad, to free themselves from this deadly blow, yet they shall not escape it.
All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.All this; all these things before mentioned.
Applied my heart unto every work; I have been a diligent observer of all actions and events.
There is a time wherein one man ruleth over another; there are some kings who use their power tyrannically and wickedly, whereby they do not only oppress their people, but hurt themselves, by bringing the vengeance of God and men upon their own heads; which is here noted, partly for the terror of tyrants, and partly for the caution and comfort of subjects groaning under those heavy pressures which they are not able to remove, that they may forbear unlawful or rebellious courses, and quietly commit themselves and their cause to God, who judgeth righteously, and who both can and will call the greatest monarchs to a sad account for all their impious and unrighteous courses.
And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity.And so, in like manner, or such another vanity or disorder, I saw the wicked; wicked princes or rulers, as the next clause limits this.
Buried; die quietly in their beds, and afterward be buried with state and pomp, whereas in truth they deserved an untimely end, and no other than the burial of an ass.
Who had come and gone; who had administered public justice and government, which is frequently signified by the phrase of coming in and going out before the people, as Numbers 27:17 Deu 31:2. The seventy Jewish interpreters, whom some others follow, render the word, they were praised, applauded and adored, by the variation of one letter in the Hebrew word, which also is very like that letter which is in the text.
The place of the holy; by which he understands either,
1. The holy city Jerusalem, or the Holy Land, where Israel dwelt; which may be added to aggravate the wickedness of such persons, from the obligations, and counsels, and examples which they had to do better things. Or,
2. The seat of majesty and judgment, which may well be called the place or seat of the Holy, i.e. of God, who is called the Holy One, Habakkuk 3:3, and oft elsewhere, who is in a special manner present in and president over those places, whose work, and for whom, and in whose name and stead, magistrates act, who therefore are called gods; of all which see Exodus 22:28 Deu 1:17 1 Chronicles 29:23 Psalm 82:1, &c. And the throne or tribunal seems to be so called here, to aggravate their wickedness, who being sacred persons, and advanced by God into so high and sacred a place, betrayed so great a trust, and both practised and encouraged that wickedness which by their office they were obliged to suppress and punish. They were forgotten; whereas they designed to spread and perpetuate their names and memories to succeeding ages, Psalm 49:11. Where they had so done, i.e. come to and go from the place of the holy; where they lived in great splendour, and were buried with great magnificence; which might have kept up their remembrance at least in that place. This is also vanity; that men should so earnestly thirst after and please themselves with worldly greatness and glory, which is so soon extinct, and the very memory of it quickly worn out of the minds of men.
Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.Sentence against an evil work; or, the decree, &c. God’s determinate counsel or sentence for the punishment of tyrants and all evil-doers.
Therefore; because God’s forbearance makes them presumptuous and secure, and confident of impunity.
Is fully set, Heb. is filled, is carried on with full sail, as the LXX. understand it, like a ship with a strong and violent wind; or, is bold or presumptuous, as the same phrase is understood, Esther 7:5 Acts 5:3.
Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him:An hundred times; frequently and innumerably.
His days; the time of his life and prosperity.
It shall be well with them that fear God; whereby he implies, both that good men might for a time suffer grievous things from such wicked tyrants, and that it should be very ill with the wicked, which is manifest from the contrary course and condition of good and bad men, and which is expressed in the following words: compare Psalm 2:12. Before him; or, at his presence; who stand in awe of God, and forbear and fear to sin out of a sincere respect and reverence to God.
But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God.It shall not be well, i.e. it shall go very ill with him; great miseries are prepared for him; which is a figure oft used in Scripture, as hath been formerly and frequently observed.
Neither shall he prolong his days, to wit, very long, or for ever, as he desireth.
As a shadow; his life, though it may be or seem to be long, yet in truth is but a mere shadow, which will quickly vanish and disappear, and be as if it never had been; and many times, like a shadow, when it is longest, it is nearest to abolition.
Because he feareth not before God; this is the punishment of his wickedness, and his casting off the fear and service of God. For although the lives of good men upon earth are short, as well as the lives of the wicked, yet their days are not like a shadow, because they are prolonged far beyond this mortal state, even to all eternity, and death itself doth but open the way for them to an endless life.
There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.Which is done; either by wicked potentates, who do commonly advance unworthy men, and oppress persons of greatest virtue and merit; or by God’s providence, who sees it fit for many weighty reasons so to manage the affairs of the present world.
Unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked, i.e. the merit of their work; the work being oft put for the recompence given or belonging to it, as Leviticus 19:13 Job 7:2 Psalm 109:20. The sense is, who meets with such hard usage as the worst of men deserve.
To whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous; who, instead of those just and dreadful punishments which they deserve by the laws of God and men, receive those encouragements and rewards which are due to virtuous and worthy men.
This also is vanity; this is a very unreasonable and foolish thing, if it be considered without respect unto another life, as it is here, where Solomon is discoursing of the vanity of the present life, and of the impossibility of finding satisfaction and happiness in it.
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.This he speaks, either,
1. In the person of a sensual man. Things being so, as was related, Ecclesiastes 8:14, it is best to give a man’s self up to eating and drinking, and all manner of carnal delights. Or,
2. In his own name and person. Upon these considerations I concluded that it was most advisable for a man not to perplex and torment himself with the thoughts of the seeming inequality of Divine Providence, and of the great disorders which are in the world, or with cares and fears about future events, or with infinite and insatiable desires of worldly things; but quietly, and cheerfully, and thankfully to enjoy the comforts which God gives him. See Poole "Ecclesiastes 2:24 3:12,13.
That shall abide with him of his labour; this is the best advantage which he can make of this world’s goods as to the present life.
When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)I applied mine heart to know wisdom: this he seems to add as the reason of that judgment which he had now passed, Ecclesiastes 8:15, because he had diligently studied wherein man’s wisdom did consist, and had observed the restlessness of men’s minds and bodies in other courses.
To see the business; either,
1. To find out the work of God, as the next verse may seem to explain it, and all the mysteries of God’s providence in the government of this present and lower world. Or,
2. To observe men’s various designs and employments, and their toilsome and unwearied businesses or labours about worldly things; which sense seems best to agree, both with the use of this Hebrew word, which is constantly used in this sense in all the places of Scripture where it is, which are Ecclesiastes 1:13 2:23,26 3:10 4:8 5:3,14 8:16, and never concerning the works of God; and with the foregoing and following words, as we shall see. There is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes: the sense of the words thus translated and pointed seems to be this, There is a certain man, whom it is needless to name, (which is a modest designation of himself, like that of St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:2, I knew a man in Christ, &c.,) who studied those matters day and night, and therefore is very capable of passing a judgment about them. But, with submission, there seems to be no need of a parenthesis to cut off these words from the former, with whom they have a fit connexion. For having now mentioned the business which is done, or which man doeth, upon earth, he further adds, as an evidence of man’s eagerness in pursuing his business, for even by day and by night he (to wit, the busy man, which is easily understood from the foregoing clause) seeth not sleep with his eyes, i.e. he grudgeth himself even necessary refreshments, and disquiets himself with endless cares and labours, the fruit whereof he doth but little enjoy; and therefore it is better to eat and drink, &c., as I now said, Ecclesiastes 8:15. As for the phrase of seeing sleep, it is a figurative expression used in other authors, and is like that of seeing death, Psalm 89:48.
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.Then, Heb. and, or moreover, I beheld all the work of God; I considered the counsels and ways of God, and the various methods of his providence towards good and bad men, and the reasons of them.
A man cannot find out; no man, though never so wise, and inquisitive, and studious, as it follows, is able fully and perfectly to understand these things; and therefore it is best for man not to perplex himself with endless and fruitless inquiries about these matters, but quietly to submit to God’s will and providence, and to live in the fear of God, and the comfortable enjoyment of his blessings.