Ecclesiastes 10

One dead fly
Heb “flies of death.” The plural form of “flies” (זְבוּבֵי, zevuve) may be taken as a plural of number (“dead flies”) or a distributive plural referring to one little fly (“one dead fly”). The singular form of the following verb and the parallelism support the latter: “one little fly…so a little folly.”
makes the perfumer’s ointment give off a rancid stench,
The verb בָּאַשׁ (baash) means “to cause to stink; to turn rancid; to emit a stinking odor” (e.g., Exod 16:24; Ps 38:6; Eccl 10:1); see HALOT 107 s.v. באשׁ 1; BDB 93 s.v. בָּאַשׁ. It is related to the noun בְּאשׁ (beosh, “stench”; Isa 34:3; Joel 2:20; Amos 4:10); cf. HALOT 107 s.v. באשׁ; BDB 93 s.v. בְּאשׁ. The verbal root נבע means “to ferment” or “to emit; to pour out; to bubble; to belch forth; to cause to gush forth” (HALOT 665 s.v. נבע; BDB 615 s.v. נָבַע). The two terms יַבְאִישׁ יַבִּיעַ (yavish yabbia’, “to stink” and “to ferment”) create a hendiadys: a figurative expression in which two terms are used to connote one idea: “makes a rancid stench.” Several versions treat this as a hendiadys (Old Greek, Symmachus, Targum, Vulgate); however, the Syriac treats them as separate verbs. Most translations treat these as a hendiadys: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor” (KJV); “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink” (NASB); “dead flies give perfume a bad smell” (NIV); “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off an evil odor” (RSV); Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor” (NRSV); “Dead flies cause a perfumer’s perfume to send forth a stink” (YLT); “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor” (NRSV). Others render both separately: “Dead flies make the perfumer’s sweet ointment rancid and ferment” (NEB); “Dead flies turn the perfumer’s ointment fetid and putrid” (NJPS).

so a little folly can outweigh
Heb “carries more weight than”; or “is more precious than.” The adjective יָקָר (yaqar) denotes “precious; valuable; costly” (HALOT 432 s.v. יָקָר 2) or “weighty; influential” (BDB 430 s.v. יָקָר 4). The related verb denotes “to carry weight,” that is, to be influential (HALOT 432 s.v. יָקָר 2). The idea is not that a little folly is more valuable than much wisdom; but that a little folly can have more influence than great wisdom. It only takes one little mistake to ruin a life of great wisdom. The English versions understand it this way: “so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor” (NASB); “so a little folly outweighs massive wisdom” (NJPS); “so a little folly outweighs an abundance of wisdom” (MLB); “so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (RSV, NRSV, NIV); “so can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth” (NEB); “so a little folly annuls great wisdom” (ASV); “a single slip can ruin much that is good” (NAB); “so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor” (KJV). The LXX rendered the line rather freely: τιμιον ὀλιγον σοφιἀ ὑπερ δοξαν ἀφροσυνης μεγαλην (“a little wisdom is more precious than great glory of folly”). This does not accurately represent the Hebrew syntax.
Qoheleth creates a wordplay by using two Hebrew words for social honor or influence: “weighty” = honorable (יָקָר, yaqar) and “heavy” = honor (כָּבוֹד, cavod).
much wisdom.
The MT reads מֵחָכְמָה מִכָּבוֹד (mekhokhmah mikkavod, “more than wisdom, more than honor”), but several medieval Hebrew mss read וּמִכָּבוֹד מֵחָכְמָה (mekhokhmah umikkavod, “more than wisdom and honor”). However the textual problem is resolved, the two nouns form a hendiadys: two terms joined by vav that describe one concept. The first noun retains its full nominal sense, while the second functions adjectivally: “heavy wisdom” or better, “great wisdom.”

Wisdom Can Be Nullified By the Caprice of Rulers

A wise person’s good sense protects him,
Heb “a wise man’s heart is at his right hand.” The phrase “right hand” is a Hebrew idiom for the place of protection (e.g., Pss 16:8; 110:5; 121:5). In ancient warfare, the shield of the warrior on one’s right-hand side protected one’s right hand. Qoheleth’s point is that wisdom provides protection (e.g., Eccl 7:12).

but a fool’s lack of sense leaves him vulnerable.
Heb “and the heart of a fool is at his left hand.” The fool lacks the protection of wisdom which is at the right-hand side of the wise man (see note on “right hand” in the previous line). The wise man’s heart (i.e., good sense) protects him, but the fool is always getting into trouble.

Even when a fool walks along the road he lacks sense,
Heb “he lacks his heart.”

and shows
Heb “he tells everyone.”
everyone what a fool he is.
A fool’s lack of wisdom is obvious to everyone, even when he is engaged in the simple, ordinary actions of life.

If the anger
Heb “spirit.”
of the ruler flares up
Heb “rises up.”
against you, do not resign
Heb “Do not leave.”
from your position,
Heb “your place.” The term מָקוֹם (maqom, “place”) denotes a position, post or office (1 Kgs 20:24; Eccl 8:3; 10:4; BDB 879 s.v. מָקוֹם 1.c).

for a calm
The noun II מַרְפֵּא (marpe’, “calmness”) is used in reference to keeping one’s composure with a peaceful heart (Prov 14:30) and responding to criticism with a gentle tongue (Prov 15:4); cf. HALOT 637 s.v. II מַרְפֵּא. It is used in reference to keeping one’s composure in an emotionally charged situation (BDB 951 s.v. מַרְפֵּא 2). The term “calmness” is used here as a metonymy of association, meaning “calm response.”
The term “response” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarification (see preceding note on the word “calm”).
can undo
The verbal root נוח means “to leave behind; to leave untouched” (HALOT 680 s.v. I נוח 2) in general, and in this passage, “to undo” or “to allay” offenses (HALOT 680 s.v. I נוח 3; BDB 629 s.v. נוּחַ 5) or “to avoid” offenses (BDB 629 נוּחַ 5). The point is either that (1) a composed response can calm or appease the anger of the ruler, or (2) a calm heart will help one avoid great sins that would offend the king. The root נוח (“to rest”) is repeated, creating a wordplay: “Do not leave” (אַל־תַּנַּח, ’al-tannakh) and “to avoid; to allay” (יַנִּיחַ, yanniakh). Rather than resigning (i.e., leaving), composure can appease a king (i.e., cause the anger of the king to leave).
great offenses.
I have seen another
The term “another” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation to indicate that this is not the first “misfortune” described by the Teacher. See 5:13, 16; 6:1–2.
Heb “an evil.”
on the earth:
Heb “under the sun.”

It is an error a ruler makes.
Heb “like an error that comes forth from the presence of a ruler.”

Heb “folly.”
are placed in many positions of authority,
Heb “high places.”

while wealthy men sit in lowly positions.
I have seen slaves
Or “servants,” so KJV, ASV, NCV, NLT (also in the following line).
on horseback
and princes walking on foot
Heb “upon the earth.”
like slaves.

Wisdom is Needed to Avert Dangers in Everyday Life

One who digs a pit may
The four imperfect verbs in vv. 8–9 may be nuanced as indicatives (“will…”) or in a modal sense denoting possibility (“may…”). The LXX rendered them with indicatives, as do many English translations (KJV, RSV, NRSV, ASV, MLB, YLT, NJPS). However, it is better to take them in a modal sense (NEB, NAB, NASB, NIV, NCV, CEV, NLT). One who digs a pit does not necessarily fall into it, but he may under the right conditions.
fall into it,
and one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Heb “a serpent will bite him.” The clause “he who breaks through a wall” (וּפֹרֵץ גָּדֵר, uforets gader) is a nominative absolute – the casus pendens is picked up by the resumptive pronoun in the following clause “a serpent will bite him” (יִשְּׁכֶנּוּ נָחָשׁ, yishekhennu nakhash). This construction is used for rhetorical emphasis (see IBHS 76–77 #4.7c).

One who quarries stones may be injured by them;
one who splits logs may be endangered by them.
10  If an iron axhead
The term “ax head” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity. The preceding noun “iron” functions as a metonymy of material (i.e., iron) for the object with which it is associated (i.e., ax head).
is blunt and a workman
Heb “he”; the referent (the workman) is implied, and has been specified in the translation for clarity
does not sharpen
The verb קלל in the Pilpel means “to sharpen; to make a blade sharp” (HALOT 1104 s.v. קלל 1).This denominative verb is derived from the rare noun II קָלַל “smooth; shiny” (referring to bronze; Ezek 1:7; Dan 10:6; HALOT 1105 s.v.). Sharpening the blade or head of a bronze ax will make it smooth and shiny. It is not derived from I קָלַל (qalal) “to treat light” or the noun I קְלָלָה (qelalah) “curse.” Nor is it related to I קָלַל “to shake” (Ezek 21:26); cf. HALOT 1104. BDB 886 s.v. קָלַל 2 erroneously relates it to I קָלַל, suggesting “to whet” or “to move quickly to and fro.”
its edge,
Heb “face.”

he must exert a great deal of effort;
Heb “strength.” The term וַחֲיָלִים (vakhayalim, conjunction + plural noun from חַיִל, khayil, “strength; efficiency”) is an example of a plural of intensification (GKC 397–98 #124.e). The point is that it is a waste of a great deal of strength and energy. If a person is not smart, he will have to use a lot of energy and waste his efficiency.

so wisdom has the advantage of giving success.
11  If the snake should bite before it is charmed,
Heb “without charming.”

the snake charmer
Heb “the master of the tongue.”
is in trouble.
Heb “has no profit”; ASV, NAB, NRSV “there is no advantage.”

Words and Works of Wise Men and Fools

12  The words of a wise person
Heb “of a wise man’s mouth.”
win him
The phrase “win him” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
Or “are gracious.” The antithetical parallelism suggests that חֵן (khen) does not denote “gracious character” but “[gain] favor” (e.g., Gen 39:21; Exod 3:21; 11:3; 12:36; Prov 3:4, 34; 13:15; 22:1; 28:23; Eccl 9:11); cf. HALOT 332 s.v. חֵן 2; BDB 336 s.v. חֵן 2. The LXX, on the other hand, rendered חֶן with χάρις (caris, “gracious”). The English versions are divided: “are gracious” (KJV, YLT, ASV, NASB, NIV) and “win him favor” (NEB, RSV, NRSV, NAB, MLB, NJPS, Moffatt).

but the words
Heb “lips.”
of a fool are self-destructive.
Heb “consume him”; or “engulf him.” The verb I בלע (“to swallow”) creates a striking wordplay on the homonymic root II בלע (“to speak eloquently”; HALOT 134-35 s.v בלע). Rather than speaking eloquently (II בלע, “to speak eloquently”), the fool utters words that are self-destructive (I בלע, “to swallow, engulf”).

13  At the beginning his words
Heb “the words of his mouth.”
are foolish
and at the end
The terms “beginning” and “end” form a merism, a figure of speech in which two opposites are contrasted to indicate totality (e.g., Deut 6:7; Ps 139:8; Eccl 3:2–8). The words of a fool are madness from “start to finish.”
his talk
Heb “his mouth.”
is wicked madness,
Heb “madness of evil.”

14  yet a fool keeps on babbling.
Heb “and the fool multiplies words.” This line is best taken as the third line of a tricola encompassing 10:13–14a (NASB, NRSV, NJPS, Moffatt) rather than the first line of a tricola encompassing 10:14 (KJV, NEB, RSV, NAB, ASV, NIV). Several versions capture the sense of this line well: “a fool prates on and on” (Moffatt) and “Yet the fool talks and talks!” (NJPS).

No one knows what will happen;
who can tell him what will happen in the future?
Heb “after him”; or “after he [dies].”

15  The toil of a stupid fool
The plural form of הַכְּסִילִים (hakkesilim, from כְּסִיל, kesil, “fool”) denotes (1) plural of number: referring to several fools or (2) plural of habitual character or plural of intensity (referring to a single person characterized by a habitual or intense quality of foolishness). The latter is favored because the two verbs in 10:15 are both singular in form: “wearies him” (תְּיַגְּעֶנּוּ, teyaggeennu) and “he does [not] know” (לֹא־יָדַע, lo-yada’); see GKC 440–41 #135.p. The article on הַכְּסִילִים is used in the generic sense.
wears him out,
This line may be interpreted in one of three ways: (1) “the labor of fools wearies him because he did not know enough to go to a town,” referring to the labor of the peasants who had not been able to find a place in town where life was easier; (2) “the labor of the fools so wearies everyone of them (singular pronoun taken in a distributive sense) so much that he even does not know how to go to town,” that is, he does not even know how to do the easiest thing in the world; (3) “let the labor of fools so weary him that he may not even know how to go to town,” taking the verb as a jussive, describing the foolish man described in 10:12–14. See D. Barthélemy, ed., Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, 3:592–93.

because he does not even know the way to the city.
Heb “he does not know to go to the city.”

The Problem with Foolish Rulers

16  Woe to you, O land, when your king is childish,
Or “a child”; or “a servant.” The term נַעַר (naar) has a wide range of meanings (HALOT 707 s.v. נַעַר; BDB 654–55 s.v. II נַעַר). Used in reference to age, it may refer to an infant (Exod 2:6; Judg 13:5; 1 Sam 1:22; 4:21; 2 Sam 12:16), a child just weaned (1 Sam 1:24), an adolescent in puberty (1 Sam 16:11), or a young man of marriageable age (Gen 34:19; 2 Sam 14:21; 18:5, 12). Its technical or titular use denotes “servant” (Num 22:22; Judg 7:10–11; 19:3; 1 Sam 3:9; 2 Sam 16:1; 2 Kgs 4:12, 25; 19:6), “retainer; attendant; follower” (Gen 14:24; 1 Sam 25:5; 2 Sam 2:14; 2 Kgs 19:6; Isa 37:6; Job 1:15–17; Neh 4:10, 17) and “soldier” (1 Kgs 20:15–16). The parallel Ugaritic term is used in reference to physical age (lad; son; youth) and in a technical sense (guild members; servitors; soldiers); see UT 19.445. The LXX rendered it with νεώτερος (neōteros, “youthful”). The English versions vary: “child,” (KJV, ASV, NASB, MLB, RSV, NRSV margin, NIV margin); “childish” (NIV margin); “servant” or “slave” (NEB, NAB, ASV margin, NRSV, NIV); and “lackey” (NJPS). When used in reference to rulers, it emphasizes incompetence, naivete, inexperience, and immaturity (Isa 3:4, 9; 1 Kgs 3:7). This use must be understood in the light of the parallel antonym: “son of freemen” (בֶּן־חוֹרִים, ben-khorim). This suggests “servant,” that is, one who was not well trained and prepared by noble birth to ascend to the throne.

and your princes feast in the morning!
17  Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobility,
Heb “son of nobles”; or “son of freemen.” The term חוֹרִים (khorim) is from חֹר (khor, “noble one; freeman”); cf. HALOT 348 s.v. I חֹר; BDB 359 s.v. I חֹר. It is related to the Aramaic noun חֲרַר (kharar, “freeman”); Sabean חר (“freeman; noble”); Old South Arabic חר and Arabic hurr (“freedom”); cf. HALOT 348 s.v. חֹר; BDB 359 s.v. חֹר.

and your princes feast at the proper time
The noun עֵת (’et, “point in time”) has a basic two-fold range of meanings: (1) “time of an event” and (2) “time for an event” (BDB 773 s.v. עֵת). The latter has four sub-categories: (a) “usual time,” (b) “the proper, suitable or appropriate time,” (c) “the appointed time,” and (d) “uncertain time.” Here it connotes “a proper, suitable time for an event” (HALOT 900 s.v. עֵת 6; BDB 773 s.v. עֵת 2.b). Examples of this use include: “it was the time for rain” (Ezra 10:13); “a time of judgment for the nations” (Ezek 30:3); “there is an appropriate time for every occasion” (Eccl 3:1); “the rain in its season” (Deut 11:14; Jer 5:24); “the time for the harvest” (Hos 2:11; Ps 1:3); “food in its season” (Ps 104:27); “the right moment” (Eccl 8:5); cf. HALOT 900 s.v. עֵת 6.
– with self-control and not in drunkenness.
Heb “for strength and not for drunkenness”; or “as heroes and not as drunkards”; or “for nourishment and not for drunkenness.” According to HALOT 172 s.v. גְבוּרה 1.d the term גְבוּרָה (gevurah, “strength”) may here connote “self-control.” This tactic is adopted by a few English versions: “with self-control, and not as drunkards” (NEB) and “with restraint, not with guzzling” (NJPS). On the other hand, most English versions render בִּגְבוּרָה וְלֹא בַשְּׁתִי (bigvurah velo vasheti) in a woodenly literal sense, “for strength and not for drunkenness” (YLT, KJV, ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NIV). However, a few attempt to express the idiom clearly: “as stalwarts and not as drunkards” (MLB); “stalwart men, not sots” (Moffatt); “for vigor and not in drinking bouts” (NAB); “for refreshment, and not for riotousness” (Douay).

18  Because of laziness the roof
Or “the rafters sink.”
caves in,
and because of idle hands
Heb “lowering of hands.”
the house leaks.
19  Feasts
Heb “bread.” The term לֶחֶם (lekhem) is used literally of “bread” and figuratively (i.e., by metonymy) for a “feast” (BDB 536–37 s.v. לֶחֶם). BDB suggests that עֹשִׂיה לֶחֶם (’osih lekhem) in Eccl 10:19 means “make a feast” (BDB 537 s.v. לֶחֶם 1.a). This obscure line has occasioned numerous proposals: “a feast is made for laughter” (KJV, ASV, NIV); “feasts are made for laughter” (NRSV); “men feast for merrymaking” (Moffatt); “men prepare a meal for enjoyment” (NASB); “the table has its pleasures” (NEB); “they [i.e., rulers of v. 16] make a banquet for revelry” (NJPS); “people prepare a banquet for enjoyment” (MLB); “for laughter they make bread and wine, that the living may feast” (Douay); “bread is made for laughter” (RSV); “bread [and oil] call forth merriment” (NAB).
are made
The subject of the verb is not specified. When active verbs have an unspecified subject, they are often used in a passive sense: “Bread [feasts] are made….”
for laughter,
and wine makes life merry,
Heb “and wine gladdens life.”

but money is the answer
Or “and [they think that] money is the answer for everything.”
for everything.
20  Do not curse a king even in your thoughts,
and do not curse the rich
Perhaps the referent is people who are in authority because of their wealth.
while in your bedroom;
Heb “in chambers of your bedroom.”

for a bird
Heb “a bird of the air.”
might report what you are thinking,
Heb “might carry the voice.” The article is used here with the force of a possessive pronoun.

or some winged creature
The Hebrew phrase בַּעַל הַכְּנָפַיִם (baal hakkenafayim, “possessor of wings”) is an idiom for a winged creature, that is, a bird (e.g., Prov 1:17; see HALOT 143 s.v. בַּעַל A.6; BDB 127 s.v. בַּעַל 5.a). The term בַּעַל (“master; possessor”) is the construct governing the attributive genitive הַכְּנָפַיִם (“wings”); see IBHS 149–51 #9.5.3b.
might repeat your
The term “your” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for smoothness.
Heb “tell the matter.”

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