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Go to Bible: Ecclesiastes 10
“Dead flies.” The Hebrew is literally “flies of death,” using the noun construct as an adjective.(top)
“right hand.” In the biblical culture, the right hand was always more highly esteemed than the left hand. In fact, in some contexts, the left hand was considered the hand of cursing. The reason the left hand came to be associated with evil or cursing was due to the fact that in the biblical culture people always washed themselves with their left hand after they went to the bathroom, which also meant that they only ate with their right hand. In some contexts, however, such as Proverbs 3:16, the “left hand” does not convey a sense of cursing, but rather it is simply less esteemed than the right hand. Also, because people used their right hand more than their left, the right hand and arm were usually stronger or more capable, so the “right hand” became associated with success and accomplishment while the left hand became associated with weakness and ineffectiveness.
It is also essential to know that although in our Western culture, the “heart” is associated with emotions and feelings, in the biblical culture it was associated with the mind and included thinking and planning. Ecclesiastes 10:2 is saying that the “heart” (i.e., the thinking, plans, attitudes, and actions) of the wise person leads him into blessings, while the heart of the fool leads him into trouble, into curses. Stripping the idioms away from the Hebrew text and giving the meaning of the verse yields something like the way the NET loosely translates the verse: “A wise person’s good sense protects him, but a fool’s lack of sense leaves him vulnerable.”(top)
“understanding fails him.” Literally, “his heart is missing (or “lacking”). [For more on “heart” and its use of “understanding” or “good sense,” see commentary on Prov. 15:21].
“fool.” The Hebrew word for “fool” is sakal (#05530 סָכָל), which is a quite rare word for “fool” and occurs only in Ecclesiastes and Jeremiah (Ecc. 7:17; 10:3, 6, 14; Jer. 4:22; 5:21), and not at all in Psalms or Proverbs.
“and he says.” The fool shows by his words and actions that he is a fool. His actions are “speaking.” The Bible has quite a bit to say about how fools behave (cp. Prov. 12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:3, 16; 15:2; 18:6, 7; 29:11), but Proverbs does not use this particular word for “fool.”(top)
“spirit of the ruler.” In this context, “spirit” refers to his attitude or mindset. In this case, the ruler becomes angry or upset with you. [For more on the use of “spirit,” see Appendix 6, “Usages of ‘Spirit’”].
“leave your place.” That is, abandon your place or position. Leaving “your place” refers to physically leaving the scene, but it extends to not giving up the position you have taken on a subject, but be calm, because that can open the door for the ruler to change his attitude and even his ideas. The author is playing with the verb, because “leave” and “rest” are the same word, “leave” is second person (referring to “you”) and rest is third person (the subject is “calmness”), and both verbs are hithel imperfect. The idea is do not abandon your position, let the calmness do the work.
“for calmness lays great offenses to rest.” This is quite similar to Proverbs 15:1, that a “soft” answer turns away wrath. The Hebrew is “lays great sins to rest,” where “sins” is the cause, which is put by metonymy of the cause for the effect. The cause was sin, but the effect that is laid to rest is an “offense.”(top)
“from the one who has power.” The Hebrew is more literally, “from the presence of the one who has power” or “from before the one who has power,” but this is an idiomatic way of saying “from the ruler.”(top)
“Folly.” The abstract concept is put for the people who are fools.
“in many high positions.” That is, in many exalted positions or places of honor. For example, at a feast, to be closer to the guest of honor or host was to be “higher” than others (cp. Luke 14:10). Ecclesiastes 10:7 gives the example of servants on horses while officials walk.
“the rich.” This refers to people who are “rich” physically and mentally, for example, in wealth and/or wisdom.(top)
“servants on horses.” Riding a horse in this kind of circumstance is a sign of dignity and power (cp. Esther 6:8-11). The Hebrew word “servant” can also mean “slave,” and that explains why the English versions are divided, with some having “servant” and some having “slave.” The native Hebrew reader would see both meanings and in fact the situation is the same for both servants and slaves. The ultimate example of this is Jesus Christ, who, although he was “Lord of all,” walked on the earth like a servant; but when he returns as king he will ride on a white horse (Rev. 19:11).(top)
“pit.” An Aramaic loanword and the only occurrence of the word in the Old Testament. This is very similar to Proverbs 26:27, but Proverbs has more of the connotation of purposely digging a pit to hurt someone. Ecclesiastes leaves open the possibility that the person may be digging the pit, or breaking through a wall or hedge, in order to do evil, or they may be doing it simply as an ordinary task in life. In any case, Ecclesiastes 10:8-11 sets forth the uncertainty of life, that if you do something inherently dangerous you may be hurt.
“wall.” This could be a “hedge,” or a wall like those around a vineyard that is just made of stacked stones. This does not necessarily mean a wall like a house would have that was mortared together.(top)
“quarries stones.” Like the quarrying of stones for Solomon’s Temple (cp. 1 Kings 5:31).
“wood.” The Hebrew word for “wood” is general and therefore ambiguous. It can refer to cutting trees, splitting logs, or just splitting wood even as a task in carpentry, and in fact all those activities involve some danger. The focus of the verse is not on the exact task, but on the uncertainty of life.(top)
“the iron.” A tool of iron. This could be an ax, wedge, chisel, etc.
“wisdom brings success.” In this case, the wisdom is to sharpen the tool, but wisdom brings success in many areas.(top)
“no advantage to having a charmer.” If the snake bites before the charmer arrives, then then there is no profit in calling in a snake charmer. But some versions interpret the verse as saying that if the snake bites before the charmer arrives, then there is no “profit,” no money, given to the charmer. This verse about snake charmers is likely in Ecclesiastes because snake charmers were thought to have a special wisdom that allowed them to charm the snake, and wisdom is a major subject in Ecclesiastes.
“charmer.” The Hebrew uses what seems to be an idiomatic phrase to describe a snake charmer: “the master of the tongue.” In Akkadian, the “master of the tongue” was a person who spoke many languages.
The King James Version sees a different meaning in the verse (although they did not have access to Akkadian at the time) and takes “the master of the tongue” as a babbler, and like the snake, he will hurt you if you do not “charm” (pacify) him. Choon-Leong Seow (The Anchor Yale Bible: Ecclesiastes) notes that the Sage uses the phrase “master of the tongue” to refer to the snake charmer but notes that he likely uses that unique phrase in order to make the bridge to Ecclesiastes 10:12-14, in which the mouth and lips of the wise and fools are focused on.(top)
“the lips of a fool swallow him up.” The word picture that the “lips” of a fool “swallow him up” grabs our attention, but the meaning is clear. The words that come from a fool eat him up; they are self-destructive. The words of a fool cause him trouble in this life and the next. Thus, the Sage returns here to the benefits of wisdom, which has been a subject earlier in Ecclesiastes.(top)
“The beginning...the end.” This is a polarmerismos (giving the two extremes to include the whole). The “beginning” and the “end” are the two extremes, and by juxtaposing them with each other Ecclesiastes 10:13 is saying that everything that the fool says is hurtful foolishness (which is a hyperbole, but makes the point).
[For more on polarmerismos, see commentary on Joshua 14:11.]
“hurtful.” The Hebrew is “evil,” but the way the Hebrew uses “evil” it often does not have a moral quality, but means more like “hurtful” and refers to disaster or harm. That is the case here.
“end of his mouth.” Here, “mouth” is put by metonymy for that which comes from the mouth, which is words. We have this kind of saying in English, for example, when we say, “Watch your mouth,” meaning watch what you say.(top)
“yet the fool also multiplies words.” The foolish person has very little self-awareness, and how what they do affects other people.
This phrase is likely the end of Ecclesiastes 10:13, and 10:14 is the two phrases: “A person does not know what will be; and what will be after him, who can tell him?”(top)
“The labor of fools wearies them.” The verse actually reads, “The labor of fools wearies him,” but the lack of agreement between “fools” (plural) and “him” (singular) occurs occasionally in the Old Testament. Also it sometimes occurs that God uses the singular to emphasize the fact that people stand or fall on their own. We don’t live before God as a group; people are approved or disapproved by God based on their own actions alone.
“he does not know how to go to a city.” Likely a proverb expressing stupidity concerning that which is commonly known. We might say, “That person does not know to come in out of the cold.” The fool goes on and on about things he supposedly knows, but in reality what he “knows” is just foolishness.
It is also remotely possible to translate the verse as one long statement: that “The labor of fools wearies him who does not know how to go to a city,” in other words, what fools do confuses the ignorant or stupid. But that would be a very unusual use of “labor.”(top)
“youth.” Although this could be literal, it is more likely figurative, that in other words, the king is acting in immature ways.
“your officials feast in the morning.” The typical biblical “feast” involved a lot of drinking, and this shows up in the next verse, Ecclesiastes 10:17. Woe to the land whose leaders are drunkards.(top)
“the son of nobles.” This is an idiom and means “of noble character,” the sons having the character of the father. It does not mean that the king would literally be a son of a nobleman, although he might be. Similarly, a “son of light” is a godly person while a “son of darkness” is an ungodly person, and a “son of Satan” has the characteristics of Satan.
“in due season.” That is, at the proper time (cp. Ecc. 3:1).(top)
“laziness.” The Hebrew text has the dual ending on lazy, as if it is saying, by “double laziness” (or perhaps implying the laziness of both hands), the roof sinks in.
“rafters sag.” The rafters support the roof, which is usually packed dirt on top of the rafters then roof material. If the rafters sag, then the roof has a dip in it that collects water and the roof will leak, guaranteed.(top)
“People make food for laughter.” Many verses in Ecclesiastes encourage people to rejoice and have fun in life (cp. Ecc. 2:24-25; 3:4, 12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 10:19; 11:7-8. See commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:24). People prepare meals, invite friends over, and have a good time. This has been the case for ages past. Meals should not be just a time to sustain the body, but a time for fellowship and fun with others.
“wine gladdens one’s life.” God made life to enjoy. It is not God’s will for people to be ascetics, drinking water at every meal.(top)
“Do not curse.” This can be an actual curse, or simply making light of the person, speaking in an unsupportive way.
“not in your thoughts.” What people think often comes out in unguarded moments. There is a possibility that the Hebrew text could read something such as “not with your friends” (cp. JPS Bible Commentary by Michael Fox, who translates the verse, “Don’t revile a king even among your intimates”).
“do not curse the rich.” The tie in between Ecclesiastes 10:19 and 10:20 could be that money helps with everything, and in the ancient world, money was often tied to who you knew and your connection with them. If the king of the rich people felt you did not support them they might cut off your source of money.
“the air.” The Hebrew uses the standard phraseology for air: “bird of the heavens.”(top)