Ecclesiastes 8
Pulpit 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.
Verses 1-9. - Section 5. There is no use in repining or rebelling; true wisdom counsels obedience to the powers that be, and submission to the dispensations of Providence. However oppressive a tyrant may prove sure retribution awaits him. Verse 1. - Who is as the wise man? i.e. Who is like, equal to, the wise man? The somewhat sudden question occurs naturally after the results of the search for wisdom mentioned at the end of the last chapter. The thought is not, as in Hosea 14:9 and Jeremiah 9:12, "Who is wise?" but - No one Call be compared with a wise man; he has no compeer. And who [like him] knoweth the interpretation of a thing? Who, so well as the wise man, understands the proper relation of circumstances, sees into human affairs and God's dispensations in the case of nations and individuals? Such a one takes the right view of life. The word pesher, "interpretation," occurs (peshar) continually in Daniel, and nowhere else and is Chaldaic. The Vulgate, which connects these two clauses with Ecclesiastes 7, renders, Quis cognovit solutionem verbi? So the Septuagint. The "word" or "saying" may be the question proposed above Concerning the happy life, or the proverb that immediately follows. But dabar is better rendered "thing," as Ecclesiastes 1:8; Ecclesiastes 7:8. A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine; Septuagint, φωτιεῖ, "will enlighten, illuminate." The serene light within makes itself visible in the outward expression; the man is contented arid cheerful, and shows this in his look and bearing. This is an additional praise of wisdom. Thus Ecclus. 13:25, 26, "The heart of man changeth his countenance, whether it be for good or evil. A cheerful countenance is a token of a heart that is in prosperity." Cicero, 'De Orat.,' 3:57, "Omnes enim motus animi suum quemdam a natura habet vultum et sonum et gestum; corpusque totum homiuis et ejus omnis vultus omnesque voces, ut nervi in fidibus, ita sonant, ut motu animi quoque sunt pulsae." And the boldness of his face shall be changed. The word translated "boldness" is עֹז, which means properly "strength," and is best taken of the coarseness and impudence engendered by ignorance and want of culture. Wisdom, when it fills the heart, changes the countenance to an open genial look, which wins confidence and love. Delitzsch refers to the well-worn lines of Ovid, 'Epist.,' 2:9. 47 -

"Adde, quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes
Emollit mores, nec sinit esse feros."
The Septuagint, "And a man shameless in countenance will be hated," shows an alteration in the text, and does not agree with the context. Vulgate, Et potentissimus faciem illius commutabit, "And the Almighty will change his face," where again the text is not accurately followed.
I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.
Verse 2. - I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment. The pronoun I stands in the Hebrew without a verb (the Vulgate, Ego os regis observo, is not warranted by the grammar of the clause), and some take it as the answer to the question in ver. 1, "Who is like the wise man?" I, who am now teaching you. But it is better to regard the pronoun as emphasizing the following rule, supplying some verb (which may possibly have dropped out of the text), as, "Say, advise - I, for my part, whatever others may do or advise, I counsel thee;" the injunction being given in the imperative mood. The Septuagint and Syriac omit the pronoun altogether. The warning implies that the writer was living under kingly, and indeed despotic, government, and it was the part of a wise man to exhibit cheerful obedience. Ben-Sira observes that wise men teach us how to serve great men (Ecclus. 8:8). Such conduct is not only prudent, but really a religious- duty, even as the prophets counsel submission to Assyrian and Chaldean rulers (see Jeremiah 27:12; Jeremiah 29:7; Ezekiel 17:15). The liege lord, being God's vicegerent, must be reverenced and obeyed. St. Paul, though he does not quote Ecclesiastes, may have had this passage in mind when he wrote (Romans 13:1), "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God," etc.; and (ver. 5), "Ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake." The "king" in the text is understood by some to mean God, but the following clause renders this improbable, and it is wisdom in its political aspect that is here regarded. And that in regard of the oath of God. The ray is explicative; "in regard of," or "because of," as Ecclesiastes 3:18. "The oath of God" is the oath of allegiance to the king, taken in the name of God, under his invocation (comp. Exodus 22:11; 1 Kings 2:43). So we read (2 Kings 11:17) of a covenant between king and people, and people and king, in the time of Jehoiada; Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah swear by God to be his vassal (2 Chronicles 36:13); and Josephus ('Ant.,' 12:1; 11:8. 3) relates that Ptolemy Soter, son of Lagus (following herein the example of Darius), exacted an oath from the Jews in Egypt to be true to him and his successors. We know that both Babylonian and Persian monarchs exacted an oath of fealty from conquered nations, making them swear by the gods whom they worshipped, the selection of deities being left to them,
Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him.
Verse 3. - Further advice concerning political behavior. Be not hasty to go out of his (the king's) sight. Do not, from some hasty impulse, or induced by harsh treatment, cast off your allegiance to your liege lord. We have the phrase, "go away," in the sense of quitting of service or desertion of a duty, in Genesis 4:16; Hosea 11:2. So St. Peter urges servants to be subject unto their masters, "not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward" (1 Peter 2:18). Solomon might have given this advice to the Israelites who were ready to follow Jeroboam's lead; though they could have remained loyal to Rehoboam only from high religious motives. But it is better to bear even a heavy yoke than to rebel. The Septuagint has, "Be not hasty; thou shalt go from his presence" - which seems to mean, "Be not impatient, and all will be well." But the authorized rendering is correct (comp. Ecclesiastes 10:4). We may quote Mendelssohn's comment cited by Chance on Job 34:16, "This is a great rule in politics, that the people must have no power to pronounce judgment upon the conduct of a king, whether it be good or bad; for the king judges the people, and not the reverse; and if it were not for this rule, the country would never be quiet, and without rebels against the king and his law." Stand not in an evil thing; Vulgate, Neque permaneas in opere malo, "Persist not in an evil affair." But the verb here implies rather the engaging in a matter than continuing an undertaking already begun. The "affair" is conspiracy, insurrection; and Koheleth warns against entering upon and taking part in any such attempt. This seems to be the correct explanation of the clause; but it is, perhaps intentionally, ambiguous, and is capable of other interpretations. Thus Ginsburg, "Do not stand up (in a passion) because of an evil word." Others, "Obey not a sinful command," or "Hesitate not at an evil thing," i.e. if the king orders it. Wordsworth, referring to Psalm 1:1. renders, "Stand not in the way of sinners," which seems to be unsuitable to the context. The Septuagint gives, "Stand not in an evil word" (λόγῳ, perhaps "matter"). The reason for the injunction follows. For he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. The irresponsible power of a despotic monarch is here signified, though the terms are applicable (as some, indeed, take them as alone appertaining) to God himself (but see Proverbs 20:2). The Septuagint combines with this clause the commencement of the following verse, "For he will do whatsover he pleases, even as a king using authority (ἐξουσιάζων)." Some manuscripts add λαλεῖ, "he speaks."
Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?
Verse 4. - Where the word of a king is, there is power. A further confirmation of the last thought. More accurately, "Inasmuch as the word of a king is powerful" (shilton, ver. 8). This last word is used in Daniel (Daniel 3:2) for "a lord," or "ruler." The king does as he thinks fit because his mandate is all-powerful, and must be obeyed, And who may say unto him, What doest thou? The same expression is found applied to God (Job 9:12; Isaiah 45:9; Wisd. 12:12). The absolute authority of a despot is spoken of in the same terms as the irresistible power of Almighty God. Αἰκὼν δὲ βασιλεύς ἐστιν ἔμψυχος Θεοῦ. "God's living image is an earthly king."
Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment.
Verse 5. - Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing. This is an encouragement to obedience to royal authority (comp. Proverbs 24:21, 22; Romans 13:3). The context plainly shows that it is not God's commandment that is spoken of (though, of course, the maxim would be very true in this case), but the king's. Nor is it necessarily a servile and unreasoning obedience that is enjoined. Koheleth is dealing with generals. Such cases as that of Daniel and the three children, where obedience would have been sinful, are not here taken into consideration. "Shall feel," literally, "shall know," i.e. experience no physical evil. Quiet submission to the powers that be guarantees a peaceful and happy life. Ginsburg and others translate, "knoweth not an evil word," i.e. is saved from abuse and reproach, which seems somewhat meager, though the Septuagint gives, Οὐ γνώσεται ῤῆμα πονηρόν. The Vulgate is better, Non experietur quidquam malt. And a wise man's heart discerneth (knoweth) both time and judgment. The verb is the same in both clauses, and ought to have been so translated. The "heart" includes the moral as well as the intellectual faculties; and the maxim says that the wise man bears oppression and remains unexcited even in evil days, because he is convinced that there is a time of judgment coming when all will be righted (Ecclesiastes 12:14). The certainty of retributive justice is so strong in his mind that he does not resort to rebellion in order to rectify matters, but possesses his soul in patience, leaving the correction of abuses in God's hands. Septuagint, "The wise man's heart knoweth the time of judgment," making a hendiadys of the two terms. The Vulgate has tempus et responsionem, "time and answer."
Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.
Verse 6. - Because. This and the three following clauses all begin with ki, "since," "for," and the conjunction ought to have been similarly rendered in all the places. Thus here, for to every purpose there is time and judgment. Here commences a chain of argument to prove the wisdom of keeping quiet under oppression or evil rulers. Everything has its appointed time of duration, and in due course will be brought to judgment (see Ecclesiastes 3:1, 17; 41:14). Therefore (for) the misery of man is great upon him. This is a further reason, but its exact signification is disputed. Literally, the evil of the man is heavy upon him (comp. Ecclesiastes 6:1). This may mean, as in the Authorized Version, that the affliction which subjects suffer at the hand of a tyrant becomes insupportable, and calls for and receives God's interposition. Or "the evil" may be the wickedness of the despot, which presses heavily upon him, and under retributive justice will ere long bring him to the ground, and so the oppression will come to an end. This seems to be the most natural interpretation of the passage. The Septuagint, reading differently, has, "For the knowledge of a man is great upon him." Though what tiffs means it is difficult to say.
For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?
Verse 7. - For he knoweth not that which shall be. The subject may be man in general, or more probably the evil tyrant. The clause contains a third reason for patience. The despot cannot foresee the future, and goes on blindly filling up the measure of his iniquity, being unable to take any precautions against his inevitable fate (Proverbs 24:22). Quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat. For who can tell him when it shall be? rather, how it shall be. The fourth portion of the argument. The infatuated man knows not the time when the blow will fall, nor, as here, the manner in which the retribution will come, the form which it will take. Septuagint," For how it shall be, who will tell him?" The Vulgate paraphrases inaccurately, Quia ignorat prae-terita, et futura nullo scire potest nuntio, "Because he knoweth not the past, and the future he can ascertain by no messenger."
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.
Verse 8. - This verse gives the conclusion of the line of argument which confirms the last clause of ver. 5. There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit. If we take "spirit" in the sense of "the breath of life," explaining the clause to mean that the mightiest despot has no power to retain life when his call comes, we have the same thought repeated virtually in the next clause. It is therefore bettor to take ruach in the sense of "wind" (Genesis 8:1). No one can control the course of the wind or know its way (comp. Ecclesiastes 11:5, where the same ambiguity exists; Proverbs 30:4). Koheleth gives here four impossibilities which point to the conclusion already given. The first is man's inability to check the viewless wind or to know whence it comes or whither it goes (John 3:8). Equally impotent is the tyrant to influence the drift of events that is bearing him on to his end. God's judgments are often likened to a wind (see Isaiah 41:16; Wisd. 4:4 Wisd. 5:23). Neither hath he power in the day of death; rather, over the day of death. The second impossibility concerns the averting the hour of death. Whether it comes by sickness, or accident, or design, the despot must succumb; he can neither foresee nor ward it off (1 Samuel 26:10, "The Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall go down into battle, and perish;" Ecclus. 14:12, "Remember that death will not be long in coming, and that the covenant of the grave is not showed unto thee"). And there is no discharge in that war. The word rendered "discharge" (mishlachath) is found elsewhere only in Psalm 78:49, where it is translated "sending," "mission," or "band." The Septuagint here has ἀποατολή; the Vulgate Nec sinitur quiescere ingruente bello. The Authorized Version is doubtless correct, though there is no need to insert the pronoun "that." The severity of the law of military service is considered analogously with the inexorable law of death. The Hebrew enactment (Deuteronomy 20:5-8) allowed exemption in certain cases; but the Persian rule was inflexibly rigid, permitting no furlough or evasion during an expedition. Thus we read that when (Eobazus, the father of three sons, petitioned Darius to leave him one at home, the tyrant replied that he would leave him all three, and had them put to death. Again, Pythius, a Lydian, asking Xerxes to exempt his eldest son from accompanying the army to Greece, was reviled by the monarch in unmeasured terms, and was punished for his presumption by seeing his son slain before his eyes, the body divided into two pieces, and placed on either side of the road by which the army passed, that all might be warned of the fate awaiting any attempt to evade military service (Herod., 4:84; 7:35). The passage in the text has a bearing on the authorship and date of our book, is as seems most probable, the reference is to the cruel discipline of Persia. This is the third impossibility; the fourth follows. Neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it; its lord and master. Septuagint, τὸν παρ αὐτῆς, "its votary." Ginsburg translates resha "cunning;" but this seems foreign to the sentiment, which is concerned with the despot's impiety, injustice, and general wickedness, not with the means by which he endeavors to escape the reward of his deeds. The fact is, no evil despot, however reckless and imperious, can go long unpunished. He may say in his heart, "There is no God," or, "God hideth his face, and sees him not," but certain retribution awaits him, and may not be avoided. Says the gnome -

Ἄγει τὸ θεῖον τοὺς κακοὺς πρὸς τὴν δίκνη.

"Heaven drives the evil always unto judgment"
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.
Verse 9. - All this have I seen (Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 7:23); i.e. all that has been mentioned in the preceding eight verses, especially the conviction of retributive justice. He gained this experience by giving his mind to the consideration of men's actions. There is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt. This version is certainly incorrect. A new sentence is not commenced here, but the clause is closely connected with what precedes; and "his own hurt" should he "his [equivocally] hurt." Thus Wright and Volck: "All this have I seen, even by applying my heart to all the work that is done under the sun, at a time when man ruleth over man to his hurt." Most modern commentators consider that the hurt is that of the oppressed subject; but it is possible that the sense is intentionally ambiguous, and the injury may be that which the despot inflicts, and that which he has to suffer. Both these have been signified above. There is no valid reason for making, as Cox does, this last clause commence ver. 10, and rendering, "But there is a time when a man ruleth over men to their hurt."
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.
Verses 10-15. - Section 6. Koheleth is troubled by apparent anomalies in God's moral government. He notes the prosperity of the godless and the misery of the righteous, God's abstention and the seeming impunity of sinners make men incredulous of Providence; but God is just in reward and punishment, as the end will prove. Meantime, returning to his old maxim, he advises men patiently to acquiesce in things as they are, and to make the best of life. Verse 10. - And so (וּבְכֵן); then, in like manner, under the same circumstances (Esther 4:16). The writer notes some apparent exceptions to the law of retribution of which he has just been speaking, the double particle at the beginning of the verse implying the connection with the preceding statement. I saw the wicked buried. "The wicked" are especially the despots (ver. 9). These are carried to their graves with every outward honor and respect, like the rich man in the parable, who "died, and was buried" (Luke 16:22). Such men, if they had received their due reward, far from having a pompous and magnificent funeral (which would befit only a good and honored life), would have been buried with the burial of an ass (comp. Isaiah 14:19; Jeremiah 22:19). So far the Authorized Version is undeniably correct. What follows is as certainly inaccurate as it is unintelligible. Who had come and gone from the place of the holy; literally, and they came, and from the place of the holy they went. The first verb seems to mean, "they came to their rest," they died a natural death. The words, in themselves ambiguous, are explained by the connection in which they stand (comp. Isaiah 57:2). Wright renders, "they came into being," and explains it with the following clause, "they went away from the holy place," as one generation coming and another going, in constant succession. But if, as we suppose, the paragraph applies to the despot, such an interpretation is unsuitable. Cox's idea, that oppressive despots "come again" in the persons of their wicked children, is wholly unsupported by the text. The verse admits and has received a dozen explanations differing more or less from one another. A good deal depends upon the manner in which the succeeding clause is translated, And they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. As the particle rendered "so" (ken) may also mean "well," "rightly," we get the rendering, "even such as acted justly," and thus introduce a contrast between the fate of the wicked man who is honored with a sumptuous funeral, and that of the righteous whose name is cast out as pollution and soon forgotten. So Cheyne ('Job and Solomon') gives, "And in accordance with this I have seen ungodly men honored, and that too in the holy place (the temple, Isaiah 18:7), but those who had acted rightly had to depart, and were forgotten in the city." Against this interpretation, which has been adopted by many, it may reasonably be urged that in the same verse ken would hardly be used in two different senses, and that there is nothing in the text to indicate a change of subject. It seems to me that the whole verse applies to the wicked man. He dies in peace, he leaves the holy place; the evil that he has done is forgotten in the very city where he had so done, i.e. done wickedly. "The place of the holy" is Jerusalem (Isaiah 48:2; Matthew 27:53) or the temple (Matthew 24:15). He is removed by death from that spot, the very name of which ought to have cried shame on his crimes and impiety. The expression seems to picture a great procession of priests and Levites accompanying the corpse of the deceased tyrant to the place of burial, while the final clause implies that no long lamentation was made over him, no monument erected to his memory (see the opposite of this in the treatment of Josiah, 2 Chronicles 35:24, 25). They who consider "the righteous " to be the subject of the last clauses see in the words, "from the holy place they departed," an intimation that these were excommunicated from the synagogue or temple, or banished from the promised land, on account of their opinions. I would translate the passage thus: In like manner have I seen the wicked buried, and they came to their rest, and they went from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city where they had so (wickedly) acted. The versions have followed various readings. Thus the Septuagint: "And then I saw the impious brought unto graves, and from the holy place; and they departed and were praised in the city, because they had so done;" Vulgate, "I have seen the impious buried, who also, while they still lived, were in the holy place, and were praised in the city as if men of just doings." Commenting oh this version, St. Gregory writes, "The very tranquility of the peace of the Church conceals many under the Christian name who are beset with the plague of their own wickedness. But if a light breath of persecution strikes them, it sweeps them away at once as chaff from the threshing-floor. But some persons wish to bear the mark of Christian calling, because, since the name of Christ has been exalted on high, nearly all persons now look to appear faithful, and from seeing others called thus, they are ashamed not to seem faithful themselves; but they neglect to be that which they beast of being called. For they assume the reality of inward excellence, to adorn their outward appearance; and they who stand before the heavenly Judge, naked from the unbelief of their heart, are clothed, in the sight of men, with a holy profession, at least in words" ('Moral.,' 25:26). This is also vanity. The old refrain recurs to the writer as he thinks on the prosperity of the wicked, and the conclusions which infidels draw therefrom. Here is another example of the vanity that prevails in all earthly circumstances.
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.
Verse 11. - The verse states one of the results of God's forbearance in punishing the evil. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily. The verse begins with asher," because," as in Ecclesiastes 4:3; Ecclesiastes 6:12, which connects the sentence with the allegation of vanity just preceding, as well as with what follows. Pithgam, "sentence," "edict," is a foreign word of Persian origin, found in Esther 1:20 and in Chaldee portions of Ezra (Ezra 4:17) and Daniel (Daniel 4:14, etc.). God seems to us to delay in punishing the guilty because we behold only one little portion of the course of his providence; could we take a more comprehensive view, anomalies would disappear, and we should see the end of these men (Psalm 73:17). But a contracted, skeptical view leads to two evils - first, a weakening of faith in God's moral government; and second, a miserable fatalism which denies man's responsibility and saps his energy. Of the former of these results Koheleth here treats. Therefore the heart of the sons of men. The heart is named as the seat of thought and the prime mover of action (comp. Ecclesiastes 9:3; Esther 7:5; Matthew 15:18, 19). Is fully set in them to do evil; literally, is full in them; i.e. their heart becomes filled with thoughts which are directed to evil, or full of courage, hence "emboldened" (Revised Version margin) to do evil. Vulgate, absque timore ullo filii hominum perpetrant mala; Septuagint, "Because there is no contradiction (ἀντίῥῤησις) made on the part of (ἀπὸ) those who do evil speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully persuaded (ἐπληροφορήθη) in them to do evil." The long-suffering of God, instead of leading such men to repentance, hardens them in their infidelity (Psalm 73:11). Primarily, the reference is still to tyrannical despots, who, in their seeming impunity, are em-boldened to pursue their evil course. But the statement is true generally. As Cicero says, "Quis ignorat maximam illecebram esse peccandi impunitatis spem?" ('Pro Milone,' 16.).
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:
Verse 12. - Though a sinner do evil a hundred times. The sentence begins again, as ver. 11, with asher, followed by a participle; and the conjunction ought to be rendered "because," the statement made in the former verse being resumed and strengthened. The Vulgate has attamen, which our version follows. The Septuagint goes astray, translating, ο{ς ἥμαρτεν, "He that has sinned has done evil from that time." The sinner is here supposed to have transgressed continually without cheek or punishment. The expression, "a hundred times," is used indefinitely, as Proverbs 17:10; Isaiah 65:20. And his days be prolonged; better, prolongeth his days for it; i.e. in the practice of evil, with a kind of contentment and satisfaction, the pronoun being the ethic dative. Contrary to the usual course of temporal retribution, the sinner often lives to old age The Vulgate has, Et per patientiam sustentatur, which signifies that he is kept in life by God's long-suffering. Ginsburg gives, "and is perpetuated," i.e. in his progeny - which is a possible, but not a probable, rendering. Yet surely I know; rather, though I for my part know. He has seen sinners prosper; this experience has been forced upon him; yet he holds an inward conviction that God's moral government will vindicate itself at some time and in some signal manner. It shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him. This is not really tautological; it is compared to St. Paul's expression (1 Timothy 5:3), "widows that are widows indeed" (ὄντως), implying that they are, in fact and life, what they profess to be. Delitzsch and Plumptre suggest that in Koheleth's time "God-fearers" had become the name of a religious class, as the Chasidim, or "Assideaus," in I Macc. 2:42; 7:13, etc. Certainly a trace of this so-named party is seen in Psalm 118:4; Malachi 3:16. When this adjustment of anomalies shall take place, whether in this life or in another, the writer says not here. In spite of all contrary appearances, he holds firm to his faith that it will be welt with the righteous in the long run. The comfort and peace of a conscience at rest, and the inward feeling that his life was ordered after God's will, would compensate a good man for much outward trouble; and if to this was added the assured hope of another life, it might indeed be said that it was well with him. The Septuagint has, "that they may fear before him," which implies that the mercy and loving-kindness of God, manifested in his care of the righteous, lead to piety and true religion. Cheyne ('Job and Solomon'), combining this verse with the next, produces a sense which is certainly not in the present Hebrew text, "For I know that it ever happens that a sinner does evil for a long time, and yet lives long, whilst he who fears before God is short-lived as a shadow."
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.
Verse 13. - But it shall not be well with the wicked. If experience seemed often to militate against this assertion, Koheleth's faith prevailed against apparent contradictions. Neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow. Above we read of a wicked man enjoying a long, untroubled life; here the contrary is stated. Such contradictions are seen every day. There are inscrutable reasons for the delay of judgment; but on the whole moral government is vindicated, and even the long life of a sinner is no blessing. The author of the Book of Wisdom writes (4:8), "Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years;" and Isaiah (Isaiah 65:20), "The sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed." Man's life is compared to a shadow because it passes away with the setting sun (see on Ecclesiastes 6:12). The Vulgate, in order to obviate the apparent discrepancy between this and the preceding verses, renders the verb in a precatory form: Non sit bonum impio, etc., "Let it not be well with the wicked, and let his days not be prolonged; but let them pass away as a shadow who fear not the Lord." This is quite unnecessary; and the words, "as a shadow," according to the accents, belong to what precedes, as in the Authorized Version. Hitzig and others have adopted the Vulgate division, and render, "Like a shadow is he who fears not God." But there is no sufficient reason for disregarding the existing accentuation. Septuagint, "He shall not prolong his days in a shadow (ἐν σκιᾷ)." Because he feareth not before God. This is the reason, looking to temporal retribution, why the wicked shall not live out half their days (Ecclesiastes 7:17; Proverbs 10:27; Psalm 55:23). Koheleth cleaves to the doctrine received from old time, although facts seem often to contradict it.
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.
Verse 14. - There is a vanity which is done upon the earth. The vanity is named in what follows, viz. the seeming injustice it, the distribution of good and evil. There be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked (comp. ver. 10; Ecclesiastes 3:16). The melancholy fact is noted that the righteous often experience that fate with which the wicked are threatened, which their conduct might be expected to bring upon them. The verb translated "happeneth" (nags), with el, "to come to," "strike against," is thus used only in later Hebrew, e.g., Esther 9:26. According to the work of the righteous. The wicked meet with that outward prosperity and success which were thought to be the special reward of those who served God. The Vulgate is explanatory, "There are just men whom evils befall as if they did the works of the wicked; and there are wicked men who are as free from care as if they had the deeds of the just." Commenting on Job 34:10, 11, St. Gregory writes, "It is by no means always the case in this life that God renders to each man according to his work and according to his own ways. For both many who commit unlawful and wicked deeds he prevents of his free grace, and converts to works of holiness; and some who are devoted to good deeds he reproves by means of the scourge, and so afflicts those who please him, as though they were displeasing to him.... God doubtless so ordains it of his inestimable mercy, that both scourges should torture the just, lest their doings should elate them, and that the unjust should pass this life at least without punishment, because by their evil doings they are hastening onwards to those torments which are without end. For that the just are sometimes scourged in no way according to their deserts is shown by this history of Job. Elihu, therefore, would speak more truly if he had said that there is not unmercifulness and iniquity in God, even when he seems not to render to men according to their ways. For even that which we do not understand is brought forth from the righteous balance of secret judgment" ('Moral.,' 24:44). Koheleth ends by repeating his melancholy refrain, I said that this also (indeed) is vanity. This conclusion, however, does not lead to despair or infidelity.
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.
Verse 15. - Then (and) I commended mirth. In face of the anomalies which meet us in our view of life, Koheleth recommends the calm enjoyment of such blessings and comforts as we possess, in exact accordance with what has already been said (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12, 22; Ecclesiastes 5:18), though the road by which he arrives at the conclusion is not identical in both cases. In the earlier chapters the injunction is based on man's inability to be the master of his own fate; in the present passage the inscrutable nature of the law that directs God's moral government leads to the advice to make the best of circumstances. In neither instance need we trace veiled Epicureanism. The result obtained is reached by acute observation supplemented by faith in God. Under the sun. The phrase occurs twice in this verse and again in ver. 17, and implies that the view taken was limited to man's earthly existence. To eat, and to drink, etc. This is not a commendation of a greedy, voluptuous life, but an injunction thankfully to enjoy the good provided by God without disquieting one's self with the mysteries of Providence. So it was said of Israel in its palmy days (1 Kings 4:20), "Judah and Israel were many, as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry." For that shall abide with him of his labor; rather, and that this should accompany him in his labor. The Greek Version regards the verb as indicative, not subjunctive, nor, as others, as jussive: "This shall attend (συμπροσέσται) him in his work." But it seems better to consider Koheleth as saying that the happiest thing for a man is to make the best of what he has, and to take with him in all his work a cheerful and contented heart.
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:)
Verse 16 - Ecclesiastes 9:10. - Section 7 (the division in the theme caused by the introduction of a new chapter is misleading). Man's wisdom is incapable of explaining the course of God's providential government; death awaits all without any exception, whatever be their condition or actions. These two considerations conduce to the old conclusion, that man had best enjoy life, only being careful to use it energetically and well. Verses 16, 17. - No mortal wisdom, combined with the closest observation and thought, can fathom the mysteries of God's moral government. Verse 16. - When I applied mine heart (Ecclesiastes 1:13). The answering member of the sentence is in ver. 17, the last clause of the present verse being parenthetical. To know wisdom. This was his first study (see on Ecclesiastes 1:16). He endeavored to acquire wisdom which might enable him to investigate God's doings. His second study was to see the business that is done upon the earth; i.e. not only to learn what men do in their several stations and callings, but likewise to understand what all this means, what it tends to, its object and result. (For "business," inyan, see on Ecclesiastes 1:13.) The Vulgate here renders it distentionem, "distraction," which is like the Septuagint περισπασμόν. For also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes. This is a parenthetical clause expressing either the restless, unrelieved labor that goes on in the world, or the sleepless meditation of one who tries to solve the problem of the order and disorder in men's lives. In the latter case, Koheleth may be giving his own experience. To "see sleep" is to enjoy sleep. The phrase is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but commentators quote parallels from classical sources. Thus Terence, 'Heautontim.,' 3:1.82 -

"Somnum hercle ego hac nocte cculis non vidi reels."

"No sleep mine eyes have seen this livelong night." Cicero, 'Ad Famil.,' 8:30, "Fuit mittflea vigilantia, qui tote sue consulatuson, hum non vidit." Of course, the expression is hyperbolical. The same idea is found without metaphor in such passages as Psalm 132:4; Proverbs 6:4.
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.
Verse 17. - Then I beheld all the work of God. This is the apodosis to the first clause of ver. 16. "God's work" is the same as the work that is done under the sun, and means men's actions and the providential ordering thereof. This a man, with his finite understanding, cannot find out, cannot thoroughly comprehend or explain (comp. Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 7:23, 24). Because though a man labor to seek it out. The Septuagint has, Ὅσα α}ν μοχθήσῃ, "Whatsoever things a man shall labor to seek;" Vulgate, Quanto plus laboraverit ad quaerendum, tanto minus inveniat. The interpreters waver between "how much so ever," and "wherefore a man labors." The latter seems to be best. Though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it. It is the part of wisdom to determine to know all that can be known; but the resolution is baffled here (comp. Ecclesiastes 7:23). The two verses, with their repetitions and tautologous expressions, seem to denote perturbation of mind in the author and his sense of the gravity of his assertions. He is overwhelmed with the thought of the inscrutability of God's judgments, while he is forced to face the facts. An exquisite commentary on this passage is found in Hooker, 'Eccl. Pol.,' 1:2. § 2, quoted by Plumptre; and in Bishop Butler's sermon 'On the Ignorance of Man,' where we read, "From it [the knowledge of our ignorance] we may learn with what temper of mind a man ought to inquire into the subject of religion, namely, with what expectation of finding difficulties, and with a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever which is real. A man should beforehand expect things mysterious, and such as he will not be able thoroughly to comprehend or go to the bottom of.... Our ignorance is the proper answer to many things which are called objections against religion, particularly to those which arise from the appearance of evil and irregularity in the constitution of nature and the government of the world Since the constitution of nature and the methods and designs of Providence in the government of the world are above our comprehension, we should acquiesce in and rest satisfied with our ignorance, turn our thoughts from that which is above and beyond us, and apply ourselves to that which is level to our capacities, and which is our real business and concern .... Lastly, let us adore that infinite wisdom and power and goodness which is above our comprehension (Ecclus. 1:6). The conclusion is that in all lowliness of mind we set lightly by ourselves; that we form our temper to an implicit submission to the Divine Majesty, beget within ourselves an absolute resignation to all the methods of his providence in his dealings with the children of men; that in the deepest humility of our souls we prostrate ourselves before him, and join in that celestial song, 'Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy Name?' (Revelation 15:3, 4) (comp. Romans 11:33).

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