posted on Feb, 12 2021 @ 05:02 PM
The book of Ecclesiastes tends to be neglected.
I must admit that I’ve been neglecting it myself.
So I come to this book with no preconceptions, except that a book found in the Old Testament must be intended to have a spiritual meaning. The people
who compiled the canon were not in the business of collecting an anthology of “Hebrew literature.
The main theme of the early chapters has been that natural life and human life in the natural world do not go beyond a series of cycles of alternating
events. Any apparent changes are discovered to be stages within these cycles, while the overall system itself does not change.
It is “vanity” for humans to look for anything beyond these things in the natural world, trying to transcend the system on their own. It is
better, and the gift of God, for them to find their enjoyment in the world as it is, maintaining themselves in the way which God has provided.
Nevertheless, God has “put eternity into man’s mind”, in such a way that eternity cannot be known completely. Thus man is made aware of
something greater than himself. “God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him.”
It seems that this nearly completes the central message of the book. Much of what follows looks like an assortment of “footnotes” under the
general heading “other flaws noticeable in human life when God is disregarded”.
From ch9 v13 to ch10 v7
The most recent theme, occupying the last couple of chapters, has been the puzzle of the injustice of the way life treats the wicked and the
righteous, with rewards going to the wrong people. Before then, I noticed that “wisdom is a good thing” statements were being inserted at
intervals, apparently serving as “paragraph breaks” between themes. Another one is now coming up.
V13 “I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun.”
This introduces a story. A small city was besieged by a great king, but a poor wise man lived there “and by his wisdom delivered the city.”
In those days, he won’t have saved the city by inventing a new weapon. It has to be something to do with his righteousness. Did he speak to the rest
of the city and persuade them to repent, as Jonah persuaded Nineveh? (Jonah ch3) No, because we are told that the people did not listen to him.
Did he save the city by his prayers, as Abraham might have saved Sodom? Possibly. Or was it enough, to win God’s aid, that he was present there as a
righteous man, as ten righteous men might have saved Sodom? (Genesis ch18 v32). Or as Noah, Daniel and Job might have saved Jerusalem by their
righteousness, if God’s patience had not been exhausted (Ezekiel ch14 v14).
“Yet no-one remembered that poor man… his wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.”
This may have been the original point of the anecdote. For this context, a fresh conclusion is added; “But I say that wisdom is better than
The next couple of chapters look more like a chapter in Proverbs. That is, we are offered a series of more-or-less self-contained proverbial
statements. The one thread running through the series is that nearly all of them are about folly, describing it or comparing it with wisdom. I take
seven of them now.
V17 “The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.”
A chief among fools shows his nature by his noise. We may compare “A prudent man conceals his knowledge, but fools proclaim their folly” (Proverbs
V18 “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”
In classic Proverbs style, this contrast implicitly identifies wisdom with righteousness and sin with folly.
Wisdom/righteousness is the better defence against the evils of the world, including human enemies. Yet it only takes one sinner in the community to
undermine much of this valuable power.
Paul says “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians ch5 v6). Or as we say, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”
Ch10 v1 “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off an evil odour.”
I once embarrassed the young lady who was trying to convert me by asking her to explain that statement. In fact this verse is making the same point as
the previous verse, this time about the different qualities within one person;
“So a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.”
V2 “A wise man’s heart inclines him toward the right, but a fool’s heart toward the left.”
English translation allows a wordplay between “right- the opposite of left” and “right- the opposite of wrong”, but that wordplay isn’t
available in Hebrew. The two meanings are also distinct in Latin- the connection seems to have been set up in the Germanic language tradition.
So the identity of “left” and “wrong”, though it’s implied in this contrast, doesn’t come from the language being used. It must come
straight from the psychology of the fact that the left is the “wrong” side of the body for most of us humans. Only alien readers will need to be
Incidentally, the “heart” in the Bible is not the place where we feel emotional attachments. It is the place where we make decisions about our
behaviour. When Paul says we must believe in our heart, he’s telling us to make a faith-commitment. The heart that inclines toward the left is
thinking about doing the wrong thing.
V3 “Even when the fool walks on the road he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.”
This would be easy to illustrate on modern roads. If he’s an American fool, he keeps wandering onto the pavement. If he’s a British fool, he keeps
wandering OFF the pavement (this is another linguistic conundrum).
The roads in ancient Israel would be more roughly-made, so the fool might show himself by tripping over things or getting lost.
V4 “If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for deference will make amends for great offences.”
What is happening here? Is the king getting drunk as he feasts and throwing things at his guests, as Alexander used to do? Are we being advised not to
leave our place at the table, but to sit it out patiently?
Alternatively, “your place” means “your post in the king’s service”. The king is justifiably angry at
our mismanagement of his affairs. The second half of the sentence makes this the better interpretation. We should accept the rebuke in humbleness and
resolve to do better. Only the fool would sulk and resign.
We may apply this advice to the just rebukes of God. The fool is the one who does not listen.
Vv5-7 Finally there is the observation that high places and low places are given to the wrong people. Folly and slaves in high place, on horseback.
Rich men and princes in low place, on foot. (Surely the second group are “wise” only in a more secular sense than we normally find in
This arrangement is “as it were an error proceeding from the ruler”. He may mean “from the king”, if the proverb was originally just a social
comment. But this tentative way of putting it suggests that he (now) means “from God”. In that case, this observation returns to the theme of the
“Ruler” in v4 and “ruler” in v5 are different Hebrew words, but the meaning seems to be the same.