A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.
in the varying circumstances of daily life. It would be waste of ingenuity to try to show any logical connection between the proverbs that are thus crowded together in a small space. And we must content ourselves with a few elucidatory remarks upon them in the order in which they come.
I. A DOUBLE PROVERB ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WISDOM AND FOLLY. (Vers. 2, 3.) "The wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's at his left;" better, "inclines towards his right, towards his left." The heart of the wise man leads him in the proper direction, that of the fool leads him astray. It would be absurd to speak of their hearts as differently situated. The ל is that of direction; and that which is at the right hand means the duty and work which belong to us, that at the left what concerns us less. The wise man recognizes the path of duty, the fool wanders aimlessly away from it. Others give a slightly different turn to the thought. "The one with his heart, i.e. his mind, ready, at his right side, as he walks along the track that images human life, ready to sustain and guide him; the other, the fool with his wits at the left side, not available when needed to lean upon" (Bradley). The fool proclaims his folly to all (ver. 3); every step he takes reveals his deficiency, but, so far from being ashamed of himself, he displays his absurdity as though it were something to be proud of
II. WISDOM A PROTECTION IN TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES. (Vers. 4-7.) The first picture (ver. 4) is that of the court of a despotic king, where an orificial has either deservedly or undeservedly incurred the anger of the sovereign ("spirit" equivalent to "anger," as in Judges 8:3; Proverbs 29:11). The natural feeling of indignation or resentment would prompt such a one to throw up the office entrusted to him, and by so doing probably draw down on himself a still greater storm of anger. The wise courtier will yield to the blast and not answer wrath with wrath, and either pacify the anger he has deservedly incurred, or, if he be innocent, by his patience under injury, avoid giving real cause for offence. We must remember that it is of an Eastern court our author is speaking, in which the Divine right of kings, and the duty of passive obedience on the part of subjects, are doctrines which it would be thought impious to deny. Similar advice is given in Proverbs 15:1. It is not to be supposed, however, that the Preacher regarded all existing governments as commanding respect, and taught only servile maxims. In vers. 5-7 he speaks of grievous inequalities in the state; faults of rulers, the frequent exaltation of the base and the depression of the worthy. His words are studiously cautious, but yet they describe the evil in sufficiently clear terms. It may often be prudent to bow to the wrath of rulers, but rulers are not always in the right. One class of evils he had seen arising from "something like an error" (so cautious is he of speaking evil of dignities), which proceedeth from the ruler - the selection of unworthy men for high positions in the state. "Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. By the rich he means the nobles - those endowed with ample inheritances received from a line of ancestors who have had the leisure, and opportunities and means for training themselves for serving the state, and from whom a wise king would naturally choose counselors and magistrates. But in Oriental courts, where "the eunuch and the barber held the reins of power," men of no reputation or character had a chance of promotion. And even in Western courts and more modern times the same kind of evils has been only too common, as the history of the reigns of Edward II. and, James I. of England, and of Louis XI. and Henry III. of France, abundantly proves. The reason for making favorites of low-born and unprincipled adventurers is not far to seek; they have ever been ready tools for accomplishing the designs of unscrupulous princes, for doing services from which men who valued their station and reputation in society would shrink. "Regibus multi," says Grotius, "suspecti qui excellunt sire sapientia sire nobilitate aut opibus." Even the Preacher's self-control is insufficient to suppress the indignation and contempt which any generous mind must feel at such a state of matters, and he concentrates his scorn in the stinging sentence, "I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth" (ver. 7). Among the Persians only those of noble birth were permitted to ride on horseback. Thus one of the circumstances of the special honor bestowed on Mordecai was his riding on horseback through the streets of the city (Esther 5:8, 9). But this distinction the Preacher had seen set aside; his eyes had been offended by the spectacle of princes walking on foot like common people, and slaves mounted on horses and clothed with authority (Proverbs 19:10).
III. WISDOM SHOWN IN PROVIDING AGAINST POSSIBLE DANGERS. (Vers. 8, 9.) We need spend no time in the fruitless endeavor to connect vers. 8,-11 with those that have gone before. The writer seems to consider wisdom in another of its aspects. He has just spoken of it as prompting one who is under its influence to be patient and resigned in the presence of eradicable evils; he now speaks of it as giving foresight and caution in the accomplishment of difficult and perhaps even dangerous tasks. He mentions four undertakings in which there may be danger to life or limb. He that digs a pit may accidentally fall into it; he that removes a crumbling wall may be bitten by a serpent that has sheltered itself in one of its crannies; the quarryman may be crushed. by one of the stones he has dislodged; and the woodcutter may maim himself with his own axe. Whether underneath this imagery he refers to the risks attending all attempts to disturb the existing order of things and to overthrow the powers that be, one cannot say. "The sum of these four classes is certainly not merely that he who undertakes a dangerous matter exposes himself to danger; the author means to say in this series of proverbs which treat of the distinction between wisdom and folly, that the wise man is everywhere conscious of his danger, and guards against it Wisdom has just this value in providing against the manifold dangers and difficulties which every undertaking brings with it" (Delitzsch).
IV. THE WISDOM OF ADAPTING MEANS TO ENDS. (Ver. 10.) Such, we think, is the general meaning of the words, which are perhaps more difficult to interpret than any others in the whole Book of Ecclesiastes. "If the iron be blunt," if it will not readily tend itself to the work of felling a tree, more strength must be put forth, the stroke must be heavier to penetrate the wood. If there be little sagacity and preparation before entering on an enterprise, greater force will be needed to carry it out. The foresight which leads to sharpening the axe will make the labor in which it is used muck easier. "But wisdom is profitable to direct" (ver. 10b); it suggests means serviceable for the end in view. It will save a useless expenditure of time and strength.
V. THE FOLLY OF TAKING PRECAUTIONS AFTER THE EVIL HAS BEEN DONE. (Ver. 11,) "If the serpent bite before it be charmed, then is there no advantage in the charmer" (Revised Version). The picture is that of a serpent biting before the charmer has had time to make use of his skill in charming; and the point of the aphorism is that no skill or wisdom is of any avail if made use of too late. "It is too late to lock the stable door when the steed is stolen" (Wright).
VI. WISDOM AND FOLLY IN HUMAN SPEECH. The winning character of the wise man's words, the mischievous and tedious prating of fools (vers. 12-15). The tongue has just been spoken of (ver. 11) as the instrument used by the charmer for taming serpents, and there follows in these verses a reference to wisdom and folly displayed in the words of the wise man and of the fool. "The words of the wise man are gracious" (cf. Luke 4:22), they win favor for him; both the subject-matter and the manner of his speech gain for him the good will of those that hear him. The words of the fool are self-destructive; they ruin any chance he had of influencing those who were prepared to be persuaded by him, whom he meets for the first time, and who were therefore not biased against him by previous knowledge of his fatuity. He goes from bad to worse (ver. 13). "The words point with a profound insight into human nature to the progress from bad to worse in one who has the gift of speech without discretion. He begins with what is simply folly, unwise but harmless, but vires acquirit eundo, he is borne along on the swelling floods of his own declamatory fluency, and ends in what is 'mischievous madness'"(Plumptre). Especially is this the case when his talk is on subjects as to which even the wisest are forced to confess their ignorance (ver. 14) He speaks voluminously, as though he knew all things past and to come, as though all the mysteries of life and death were an open book to him. And he wearies out every one who hears him or has to do with him- His crass ignorance in all matters of common life forbids any trust being placed in his speculations and vaticinafions as to things that are more recondite. The well-known beaten road that leads to the city (ver. 15) he does not know. What kind of a guide would he be in less-frequented paths? In these various ways, therefore, the contrast is drawn between wisdom which leads men in the right way, which directs, their course through the difficulties and dangers that often beset them, and enables them to make the best use of their resources, and that folly which, if it is the ruling element in a character, no art or skill can conceal, which so often renders those in whom it appears both mischievous and offensive to all who have anything to do with them. - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.