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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 7

 

 

Verses 1-4

As We Live Life It Is Good To Remember Its Brevity (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4).

There now follow a number of wise sayings which are a reminder of the solemnity of life.

Ecclesiastes 7:1

‘A reputation (‘name’ - shem) is better than precious ointment, (shemen),

And the day of death than the day of one’s birth.’

For ‘name’ as meaning reputation see Proverbs 22:1; Zephaniah 3:19. He is probably being very sombre here. The context is of dying, and what he probably means is that it is better for a man to die covered with a good reputation (shem) rather than covered with ointment (shemen). Note the play on words. (In each of the following verses two verses both parallels follow the same theme. Thus a general comment on reputation is out of place here).

In view of the uselessness and meaninglessness of life death is to be preferred. The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4

‘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.

Sorrow is better than laughter,

For by sadness of face the heart is made good.’

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,

But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.’

The stress on death continues. Attending funerals is good for a man, for it reminds him of his frailty. There is, of course, feasting at a funeral, but the contrast is with partying at other celebrations (both would in fact last seven days - Genesis 50:10; Genesis 29:27; Judges 14:12). Partying may have its place but it is at a wake that important lessons are remembered. For all need to be reminded that they will die, and thus they will hopefully live life wisely in the light of it.

In the same way sorrow (because of someone’s death) is better than laughter, for it results in man’s heart becoming better. It has a salutary effect on people. It makes him consider his life more carefully. So the wise remember that a man must die, that is where their heart is, while the foolish give themselves to non-stop enjoyment. And that is where their heart is.

He is not suggesting that we should spend all our time attending funerals, or that we should never enjoy ourselves. He is pointing out what in fact will be most beneficial to us in the long run, a recognition of the seriousness of life..


Verses 1-29

Chapter 7 It Is Good To Be Aware of Death, To Listen To Rebuke, To Behave Wisely, Even Though Life Is Unfair. But The World Is Full of Wickedness.

The emphasis of the book from now on includes the thought of living wisely and of man considering his ways and being wise. It is as though having convinced himself of the purposelessness and transience of things (which he will still on the whole maintains) he wants to make men behave with wisdom. The thought of the vanity of life is not to be allowed to result in folly. His position as a wisdom teacher comes to the fore.

The chapter commences with a return to full pessimism. Life is so meaningless that death is to be welcomed. Meanwhile man should be wise and recognise that he can learn more from mourning than from jollity. It is the fool who makes merry all the time, for life is sombre, and needs to be considered seriously, keeping in mind the brevity of life.

This seems to contrast Ecclesiastes 5:19-20 where the godly find joy in their labour because God responds to them by giving them joy. But it is not a contradiction. He is not suggesting that men should be mourning all the time. He just wants them to remember that they should live their lives keeping in mind its brevity. Then indeed they will be better placed to joy in God.

He then continues to deal with the things that can make a man foolish and advises him to follow practical wisdom. Man should hold on to wisdom so that he is not led astray, and indeed so that he might not die prematurely. And above all he must not think that he can fathom God or alter His ways. He must accept what comes from the hand of God.


Verses 5-10

It Is Important To Be Thoughtful. If A Man Is Not Careful There Are Things That Can Make Him Behave Foolishly (Ecclesiastes 7:5-10).

Further wise sayings about our approach to life. The sensible man is ever ready to listen to admonishment from the wise, rather than to listen to fools (Ecclesiastes 7:5). There are always those who will seek to influence him, either through oppression or bribery (Ecclesiastes 7:7). And impatience and pride (Ecclesiastes 7:8), anger (Ecclesiastes 7:9), and dissatisfaction (Ecclesiastes 7:10) might also lure him from the submissive attitude that is part of the way of wisdom. Thus the sensible man treads carefully.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

‘It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise,

Than for a man to hear the song of fools.

For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,

So is the laughter of the fool.

This also is vanity.’

A quiet listening to the wise, and learning from their rebuke (Proverbs 13:1), is better than continually joining in with mindless and raucous singing, and hearing just frivolity (Amos 6:4-6). For the laughter of the foolish is like the sound of cooking a pot on thorns. It makes a lot of noise but does not achieve any purpose. It is meaningless to cook on thorns, for thorns crackle but do not make good firewood.

‘This also is vanity.’ He is referring to the behaviour of the foolish and those who cling to them. Spending life only in seeking enjoyment is to live a meaningless and empty life.

Ecclesiastes 7:7-10

‘Surely oppression makes a wise man praise,

And a gift destroys the understanding.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,

The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Do not be hasty in your spirit to be vexed,

For vexation rests in the bosom of fools.

Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?

For you do not enquire wisely about this.

Oppression makes a wise man praise. This may be because he is turned in his extremity to God, or because he knows that through it he will learn valuable lessons, or alternatively because he deems it wise to treat the oppressors carefully, giving them the flattery that they desire. He is sensible. He gives them the praise they seek so as to prevent trouble and so as to avoid worse oppression. But he bides his time (compare Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; Ecclesiastes 5:8-9). His praise is not to be taken at face value.

The ‘gift that destroys the understanding’ refers to a bribe. Once someone receives a bribe the way he looks at things and deals with things is very much affected.

So both oppression and bribes make people behave differently from their norm, but in neither case are the people involved to be trusted once the pressure is off. Oppression and bribes do not produce reliable allies. They are a part of the meaninglessness of life (some would attach ‘this also is vanity’ to this verse, but the phrase usually comes at the end of a section (compare Ecclesiastes 2:1; Ecclesiastes 2:15; Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 8:14).

‘Better is the end of a thing (or ‘a word’) than its beginning. The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.’ The thought here is that patience is better than pride when dealing with things, and produces better results in the end. Thus at the beginning of something there may be conflicting emotions, and careless words, as pride rules, but it is better when patience has prevailed in the end, so that, through patience, the right end has been achieved. Indeed patience is always to be recommended. It is the attitude of the wise. For someone quickly vexed can behave like a fool, especially if he allows the vexation to simmer on.

And finally it is not wise to look back and think that things were better in the old days. It is unwise, for it is rarely true and produces wrong attitudes of heart. It is a negative way of thinking, and produces negative results.


Verses 11-22

The Importance of Practical Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11-22).

Wisdom As A Defence (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12).

Having wisdom is a good foundation for life, for it provides a form of defence in times of trouble, and may even result in preserving a man’s life.

Ecclesiastes 7:11-12

‘Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, yes, more excellent is it for those who see the sun. For wisdom is a defence, even as money is a defence. But the excellency of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.’

Those who ‘see the sun’ are those who survive childbirth (compare Ecclesiastes 6:5). For those, while an inheritance is good, and welcome, they should recognise that it is not as valuable as wisdom. Both wealth and wisdom may be helpful in defending one’s position and status, but wisdom also aids survival when things are difficult, whereas an antagonist may be willing to kill a man for his money.

‘For wisdom is a defence, even as money is a defence.’ The Hebrew is terse. ‘In the shadow of wisdom. In the shadow of money.’


Verse 13-14

But Wisdom Includes A Recognition That We Cannot Interfere With God’s Doings. Thus We Must Accept From God What He Is Pleased To Give (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14).

Ecclesiastes 7:13

‘Consider the work of God. For who can make that straight which he has made crooked?’

In Ecclesiastes 3:13 the work of God was that which has been done from the beginning even to the end, which man cannot fathom. Compare Ecclesiastes 8:17 where we were assured that no man can find out the work of God, whether wise or not. And in Ecclesiastes 1:15 we were informed that the crooked cannot be made straight, which faced us with the fact that we cannot change what God has created and make it different, nor can we make the imperfect perfect.. Thus the aim here in considering the work of God is not in order to understand it, or in order to change it, but in order to recognise that God controls all, and that what He is doing cannot be altered or fathomed by man. None can change what God has been pleased to do.

‘For who can make that straight which he has made crooked?’ This basically indicates that if God has made the world in a certain way, no one can thus change it apart from Him (compare Ecclesiastes 1:15). It is not actually saying that the world was made crooked. It is simply taking two opposites as an example, and saying that whatever choice God makes cannot be affected by man, that to alter whatever God chose as the basis of the world is impossible. So if for example He had chosen to make all crooked, then it would be impossible to straighten it. We cannot alter anything that God has chosen to do.

Some suggest that the idea is that it is no good our trying to set the world to rights, for it has been made crooked and we cannot make the crookedness straight, or that the problem of sin is such that man cannot of himself put it right. But this is probably to read in more than the writer intended, for in fact God did not make the world ‘crooked’ in that way. It was man who introduced sin into the world.

Ecclesiastes 7:14

‘In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider. God has even made the one, side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything that will be after him.’

Here he tells us that we must take from God what comes. When prosperity comes we should enjoy it, when adversity comes it should make us consider our ways (‘when God’s judgments are in the earth the people learn righteousness’). For God has caused both to this end. Indeed His final aim was to make things so changeable that it ensured that man could not fathom the future, and would not know which was coming.

So in the end we are to leave everything in the hands of God. It is not for us to fathom out His ways, but to live rightly before Him within the covenant, accepting what comes from His hand.

‘What will be after him.’ In Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 6:12 this indicates the future, signifying after he has died.


Verses 15-18

The Preacher Now Gives Further Wisdom Teaching About Life (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18).

Ecclesiastes 7:15-17

‘All this have I seen in my meaningless and transient life (‘the days of my vanity’). There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his evil doing. Do not be righteous overmuch, nor make yourself over wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be wicked overmuch, nor be foolish. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this. Yes, also, do not withdraw your hand from that. For he who fears God will come forth of them all.’

The Preacher is still conscious of the meaninglessness and emptiness of his life. But it makes him call to mind what he has seen during that life. He has seen men who were righteous perishing in their righteousness. He has seen wicked men living on and not dying in spite of their evildoing. This was contrary to the idea that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked perish. It puzzled him, facing him with a dilemma (contrast Ecclesiastes 3:17; and see Psalms 73).

But he had a partial solution. Often such righteous people perish because they are ostentatious and cultivate hostility. And such wicked people protect themselves well by use of their ill-gotten gains.

He also warns against being over-wise, of condescendingly revealing superior knowledge, of always seeking to put others right regardless of their feelings and customs, of dispensing wisdom with the air of always being right. Such people draw attention to themselves and are the first target when there is an attack on the godly. For they have earned dislike by making people feel inferior, and paradoxically have given the impression that they are the most worthy, the most religious of men, and therefore the most important targets.

But he equally warns against being over-wicked, of being foolish. (Note that he does not say over-foolish. Foolishness is to be totally avoided). This had mainly in mind offences that incurred the death penalty of which there were many. If men become too wicked, even the wicked will desert them. Such men will die before their time.

He is not actually saying that ‘we should not be too good or too bad, but a bit of both’. That we should be in the middle. He is warning against extremes which he sees as both bad. His practical observations are not always necessarily to be seen as approval but as fact.

‘It is good that you should take hold of this. Yes, also, do not withdraw your hand from that. For he who fears God will come forth of them all.’ Here he is stressing that men should take hold of and grasp these principles, and that men should always take notice of both sides of a problem. The one who truly fears God will not be caught up in such problems, for he will avoid all extremes, and all sin. Thus he does not see the ‘righteous overmuch’ as true God-fearers.

‘Come forth’ would later certainly gain the meaning of ‘fulfil an obligation’ (compare ‘come up to scratch’). It may be that that usage was already prevalent in the writer’s time. In that case he may be noting that the one who is truly godly will fulfil his obligations to all.


Verses 19-22

The Importance Of Wisdom In All Things (Ecclesiastes 7:19-22).

Ecclesiastes 7:19

‘Wisdom is a strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.’

Ten is regularly used to mean ‘a number of’. It does not have a particular type of governance in mind, simply a collective leadership which is looked up to by the people. Thus the thought here may be that to a wise man his wisdom is better than the advice of a number of city rulers (who were supposed to represent joint wisdom), who would all, from the writer’s experience, probably disagree anyway. The point is that wisdom is not necessarily with the majority, while a truly wise man’s wisdom is solid, and reveals to him all sides of a question, enabling him to make wise decisions.

Or it may be instancing the fact that while it is good to have the backing of the city elders, it is even better to have wisdom, because true wisdom may well serve a man better than any number of supposedly wise city elders.

Ecclesiastes 7:20

‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin.’

But even a righteous man does not always advise rightly. For although the wise man may seek to be righteous, sadly he often fails (whether accidentally or purposely), as do all men. For there is no one who always does what is good. All are swayed by sin in one way or another. Thus all need more wisdom. (It was only later that One would come Who was the great exception and fully without sin - 1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15. But He was the exception that demonstrated the rule).

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22

‘Also do not take to heart (‘give your heart to’) all things that are spoken, in case you hear your servant curse you, for often also your own heart knows that you have in similar fashion cursed others.’

Another example of the need for wisdom is in respect of the hearing of rumours or listening to tell-tales. One thing the wise man will avoid doing is to take to heart careless words uttered by someone in an unguarded moment. This follows on the thought of Ecclesiastes 7:20. No one is totally righteous and therefore allowances must be made. When judging others we must ever remember our own faults, for we all make such mistakes. And there is a need for compassion. A man might hear his servant curse him, but if he takes this lesson to heart he will not lose a good servant as a result of a moment of folly. He will show mercy. Men even curse their best friends or their wives, thus we must expect from even a good servant an occasional curse behind our backs. It is again a question of not being over-righteous.


Verses 23-29

His Search For Understanding Resulting from His Wisdom Has Made Him Aware Of Man’s Sinfulness And Folly (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29).

Ecclesiastes 7:23-24

‘All this I have tested out in wisdom. I said, “I will be wise”, but it was far from me. That which is far off and extremely deep, who can find it out?’

But there are limits to wisdom. For he has tried to test out all that he has been talking about using wisdom, but has to admit that he has not fully found the truth. Final wisdom, the wisdom which is of God, the wisdom which might bring meaning to things, is beyond him, as it is beyond all men (compare Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 8:17). It is as though it was beyond the far horizon (far off), as though it was in the deepest depths of the sea, or some underground mining works (extremely deep). It is not discoverable.

Ecclesiastes 7:25-26

‘I turned about and my heart was set to know, and to search out, and to seek wisdom and the reason of things, and to know that wickedness is folly, and that foolishness is madness. And I find a thing more bitter than death, even the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands like bonds. The one who pleases God will escape from her, but the sinner will be taken by her.’

His search was a thorough one. He set his heart to know. He searched things out. He sought. And what he sought was wisdom and the reason of things. And the one thing that he did discover was that wickedness was folly and that foolishness was madness, that is, in the long term.

He has already indicated in Ecclesiastes 7:23-24 that there were limits on what he had discovered, and could discover, for the reason of things was at present beyond him. But he points out that at least he did learn about wickedness and folly, about downright evil and careless, unthinking behaviour, and that such was folly and madness (both because of its positive consequences and because it prevented a man from enjoying the lot of the godly (Ecclesiastes 5:19)).

One example of this, which he came across and which horrified his very soul, (and no doubt the soul of all his concubines), was the example of the scheming woman, which included the prostitute. He has the worst examples in mind. Possibly he had in mind Delilah (Judges 16:4-22), and, depending on his era, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31; 1 Kings 18:13; 1 Kings 19:1-2; 1 Kings 21:6-16), or possibly vivid examples he had seen in his own experience. Such a woman is described as having a heart which ensnares and nets, and hands which are bonds (the latter would fit Delilah admirably). That is, she plans her strategy to capture the unthinking male, and then binds him to her with her wiles and attractions (Proverbs 5:3-6; Proverbs 7:5-27). While he would certainly have included prostitutes in this description, his vision was probably wider as we have suggested. He was thinking of all women who led men astray. He had no doubt seen in court what such women could do through their scheming. (We must remember in fairness that in those days any woman who wanted to achieve anything - although there were notable but rare exceptions - had to do it through a man and therefore had to scheme).

‘The one who pleases God will escape from her, but the sinner will be taken by her.’ The writer never ceases to express his admiration for the truly godly. For ‘the ‘one who pleases God’ compare Ecclesiastes 2:26. Indeed in the end he seems to give the indication that he finally became one of them. The one who pleases God is the one who has a living relationship with God, and is committed to the covenant. He will escape because his mind is set to do good and will not have any truck with such women’s scheming. His obedience to God’s commandments will prevent him from being led astray. But the sinner, who is more casual with God’s commandments, will fall into her web.

Ecclesiastes 7:27-28

“Behold, this have I found,” says the preacher, “putting one thing to another to find out the reason of things, which in myself I am still trying to understand, but have not found, I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all those.”

He concludes this section by admitting that he has still not found the reason behind things, something which he is still striving for. But one thing he has discovered in his striving is the rarity of a good man. Such a man is ‘one among a thousand’. But all the women he had come across, he adds, could not be included as such. This was in fact not really surprising. He met his harem, who were all scheming against each other, and striving to be his favourite. He met the wives of courtiers, who were all doing the same with their men, and scheming for their advancement. He saw the prostitutes on the streets. But when the godly woman went out she would avoid drawing attention to herself, and would usually be safely at home out of men’s gaze . The last thing that such women would want was contact with the court. So he was judging only on the basis of those women that he had come across, which had given him a bad opinion of women. It did not refer to all women.

Ecclesiastes 7:29

“Behold this only have I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

This is his final comment. We have already seen earlier his awareness of the creation narratives (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12; Ecclesiastes 2:5; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 3:19). Thus his observations and reading have brought him to the conclusion that man was made upright but that men have since gone in all directions morally (the passage is emphasising morality), inventing different ways to enhance themselves and to secure their own situations, which has resulted in their present sinfulness.

So we can see that his knowledge of God’s ways is growing apace. God made man upright. Blessing comes to the one who pleases God (Ecclesiastes 2:26). He has given men a sense of everlastingness (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He will bring to account those who do evil (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 5:8). He watches over the godly who look to Him, worshipping truly (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2), waiting on Him and absorbing His everlastingness (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Those who live sober lives before Him (Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 5:18) receive the wisdom and joy which He gives to His own in response to the fact that they are His (Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

These in their turn fear Him, living lives of trust, and obedience to the covenant that God has made with Israel, with each man acknowledging and loving God with all his heart (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). While not being mentioned the covenant is assumed, for each man’s allotment and portion, which the godly enjoy (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19), actually came from the covenant with God. The Preacher has spoken of the ‘one in a thousand’ (Ecclesiastes 7:27), and he has these people in mind. Thus he is very much aware of the everlasting God at work, both in creation, in judgment, in revealing His everlastingness, and in His own, (those within Israel who are the true Israel, and men everywhere who will truly seek the living God).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-7.html. 2013.

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