Ecclesiastes 7:3–6 (BHS/WHM 4.2)
3ט֥וֹב כַּ֖עַס מִשְּׂחֹ֑ק כִּֽי־בְרֹ֥עַ פָּנִ֖ים יִ֥יטַב לֵֽב׃4לֵ֤ב חֲכָמִים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית אֵ֔בֶל וְלֵ֥ב כְּסִילִ֖ים בְּבֵ֥ית שִׂמְחָֽה׃5ט֕וֹב לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ גַּעֲרַ֣ת חָכָ֑ם מֵאִ֕ישׁ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ שִׁ֥יר כְּסִילִֽים׃6כִּ֣י כְק֤וֹל הַסִּירִים֙ תַּ֣חַת הַסִּ֔יר כֵּ֖ן שְׂחֹ֣ק הַכְּסִ֑יל וְגַם־זֶ֖ה הָֽבֶל׃
ט֥וֹב כַּ֖עַס מִשְּׂחֹ֑ק
Better (good) is sorrow than laughter.
Interesting word: Deuteronomy 32:19 Moses uses it to refer to the effects/nature of the Israelites sin in the wilderness, “because of the provocations of his son and his daughters”. Likewise in 1 Kings 15:30, 2 Kings 23:26, Ezekiel 20:28 & Psalm 85:5 it refers to the response of God to sin.
1 Samuel 1:16 uses it to refer to Hannah’s description of her grief (ESV “vexation”). Psalms 6:8, 10:14, 31:10, and Provebs 12:16, 17:25, 21:19 & 27:3, it refers to the response of one injured by another due to their foolishness or sin. Where God is the actor, the human the one responding (Ps. 85:5), the cause for God’s “provocation” (if you will) is human sin.
The word is used in Ecclesiastes 1:18, 2:23, 7:3, 7:9, & 11:10.
We could understand the word to mean a personal response to the sin of others. This does transform the understanding of this verse – particularly in light of the discussion of fools laughing 7:6.
Grief, pain, sorrow is the right response to sin and foolishness. The troubles listed in the passage, death and mourning, directly result from the trouble of sin – only a fool would laugh at such things.
23 Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding. Proverbs 10:23 (ESV)
18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death 19 is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” Proverbs 26:18–19 (ESV)
Laughter is not uniformly bad in the Bible, however, it is right only in the right context.
13 Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. Proverbs 14:13 (ESV)
We cannot know for certain another’s heart. Contrast God:
Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD; how much more the hearts of the children of man! Proverbs 15:11 (ESV)
כִּֽי־בְרֹ֥עַ פָּנִ֖ים יִ֥יטַב לֵֽב
For in bad/sorrow of face(s) it makes good the heart.
Fredricks (rightly) links this statement to 7:2b, “the living will lay it to heart”, that is, we all die. Certainly sorrow comes from the provocation of death – indeed, there is no greater insult than death. The living take this matter to heart.
This particular section will end with 7:14 (it begins in 6:10) making the point that God has boxed man in before and after. No one can undo God’s work (7:13 & 1:15). Verse 14 explains that God has done so that human beings will fear him – the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7 & 9:10).
If that is so, then such sorrow will indeed make the heart good.
3.a. MT has, literally, “in evil of face, the heart is (may be) good.” Translations, and hence interpretations (see the Comment), vary. רע with פנים means sadness or discomfort in Gen 40:7 and see Neh 2:2–3. ייטבלב connotes joy and contentment in Ruth 3:7; Judg 19:6, 9; 1 Kgs 21:7.
Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 61.
In itself, indeed, sorrow is an evil. It is one of the fruits of sin; and no sane mind would seek it for its own sake. But, like the bitter medicine of the physician, it is needful and salutary. Though “it seemeth not for the present joyous but grievous, nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruits of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). “Before I was afflicted,” says the Psalmist, recording his own experience of its efficacy, “I went astray; but now have I kept Thy word.” And, accordingly, his unhesitating testimony upon the subject is this—“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:67, 71). Sorrow sobers and subdues the mind—it rebukes ambition—it humbles pride—it exposes the vanity of this world—it robs wealth and pleasure of their dazzling and deceitful glare—it suggests solemn thoughts as to the shortness and insecurity of time, and flashes often, into even the most careless mind, vivid and impressive views of those dread realities that belong to the world to come. Well, therefore, might Solomon say, that “sorrow is better than laughter.” He had himself tried, as he tells us in an earlier chapter of this book, what laughter could do. He had said in his heart, “Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure.” And what was the result? A brief experience constrained him to say “of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” (2:1, 2.) Here, again, let it be distinctly understood, that no condemnation is intended, in the words before us, of that occasional and innocent hilarity which seems almost indispensable to a healthful state of the mind. What Solomon means to affirm is simply this, that the moral tendency and influence of sorrow upon the human heart and mind are such as to make it better for us than the most exuberant mirth. It may be true that “he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast” (Prov. 15:15); but it is not less true that such a feast will do little for the wellbeing of the soul.
Robert Buchanan, The Book of Ecclesiastes: Its Meaning and Its Lessons (London; Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie & Son, 1859), 229-30.
A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed. Proverbs 15:13 (ESV)
לֵ֤ב חֲכָמִים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית אֵ֔בֶל
The heart of the wise (construct relationship) is in the house of mourning.
The word mourning specifically refers to funeral ceremonies.
וְלֵ֥ב כְּסִילִ֖ים בְּבֵ֥ית שִׂמְחָֽה׃
But the heart of fools in the house of gladness (ESV’s “mirth” is a good contrast with mourning).
129. אֵבֶל used specially of mourning for the dead, conf. Gen. 27:41; 50:10, מִשְׁתֶּה, lit., a drinking, or banquet (συμπόσιον), rt. שָׁתָה, but in a wider sense denoting feasting, as in Is. 25:6.
J. Lloyd, An Analysis of the Book of Ecclesiastes: With Reference to the Hebrew Grammar of Gesenius, and With Notes Critical and Explanatory (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1874), 87.
5ט֕וֹב לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ גַּעֲרַ֣ת חָכָ֑ם
Better to hear the rebuke of the wise
Rem. 1. The original meaning of the לְ is most plainly seen in those infinitives with לְ which expressly state a purpose (hence as the equivalent of a final clause), e.g. Gn 11:5 and the Lord came down, לִרְאֹתאֶת־הָעִיר to see the city; also with a change of subject, e.g. 2 S 12:10 and thou hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite לִֽהְיוֹתלְךָלְאִשָּׁה to be (i.e. that she may be) thy wife; cf. Gn 28:4, Jer 38:26 (לָמוּת).—If there is a special emphasis on the infinitive with לְ, it is placed, with its complement, before the governing verb, e.g. Gn 42:9, 47:4, Nu 22:20, Jos 2:3, 1 S 16:2 with בּוֹא; Ju 15:10, 1 S 17:25 with עָלָה.
Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch and Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley, 2d English ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 348.
Construct state: the word can mean threat or rebuke. Rebuke makes better sense with “wise”.
7 Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. 8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Proverbs 9:7–8 (ESV)
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. Proverbs 12:1 (ESV)
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. Proverbs 29:1 (ESV)
The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. Proverbs 10:8 (ESV)
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. Proverbs 15:32 (ESV)
It is more agreeable, no doubt, to the self-complacency of human nature, “to hear the song of fools”—to go where there will be nothing to wound our pride or to suggest unpleasant thoughts. The song of fools may evidently here be taken for the amusements and blandishments of the world; and what Solomon would have us to believe and be assured of is, that the rebuke of the wise is better than these. Pre-eminently better than these is the rebuke of the only-wise God, and yet how often is even His rebuke wholly disregarded! He is rebuking sinners every day by his Word, and very often by his providence too. By his Word he is continually condemning their folly and their sin, because they are careful and troubled about many things, and are wilfully and obstinately neglecting the one thing needful—because they are far more concerned at the thought of losing the world than of losing their souls.
Robert Buchanan, The Book of Ecclesiastes: Its Meaning and Its Lessons (London; Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie & Son, 1859), 232.
It is an evidence of a wise and teachable disposition, to receive with meekness the words of reproof, as David did, not only from Nathan, a prophet, 2 Sam. 12:7–13. but from Abigail, a woman, 1 Sam. 25:32, 33; Heb. 13:22; Prov. 9:9. and 17:10. By “the song of fools” are to be understood any flattering speeches, or jocular and pleasant discourses; it being a synecdoche, significant of all kinds of jests and bewitching pleasures, Isai. 24:8, 9; Gen. 31:27.
Edward Reynolds, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, ed. Daniel Washbourn (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1811), 210.
מֵאִ֕ישׁ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ שִׁ֥יר כְּסִילִֽים׃
Than one hearing a song of fools.
This colon emphasizes the wrongness of the fool’s response to a circumstance. The fool leads one away from the truth of a matter – in contrast to the wiseman.
The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near. Proverbs 10:14 (ESV)
כִּ֣י כְק֤וֹל הַסִּירִים֙ תַּ֣חַת הַסִּ֔יר
For as the voice (song) of thorns under a pot.
The entire verse is a wonderful repetition of s’s & k’s. The pun cannot be reproduced in English the words for thorns and pot sound identical (and spelled in a similar manner).
כֵּ֖ן שְׂחֹ֣ק הַכְּסִ֑יל
So/thus is (the) laughter of the fools.
6 A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding. 7 Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. 8 The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. 9 Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance. Proverbs 14:6–9 (ESV)
The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools. Proverbs 15:7 (ESV)
Also, this is vanity (hebel).
David says, (Ps. 141:5,) “Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.” Yet many resent a rebuke, as though it necessarily came from an enemy. And few have the wisdom to rebuke or admonish with a right spirit. It requires caution, meekness, and love. But “open rebuke is better than secret love.”
“The song of fools” may refer to a song in commendation of a person; and if so, it is in contrast with “the rebuke of the wise.” It was better for David to be made “the song of the drunkards”—their song in disrespect—than to have their song of commendation.
Loyal Young, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1865), 154-55.
LUTHER:—The joy of fools seems as if it would last forever, and does indeed blaze up, but it is nothing. They have their consolation for a moment, then comes misfortune, that casts them down: then all their joy lies in the ashes….. Pleasure, and vain consolation of the flesh, do not last long, and all such pleasures turn into sorrow, and have an evil end.—STARKE:—(Ver. 7), Even a wise and God-fearing man is in danger of being turned from the good way (1 Cor. 10:12); therefore watchfulness and prayer are necessary that we may not be carried back again to our evil nature (1 Pet. 5:8).
John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, Otto Zöckler et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ecclesiastes (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 111.
NONE question this most wholesome truth; but few there are who take it home. “Let others be reproved; but, as for me, I cannot bear it.” Thus speaks the human heart. My soul, many are thine infirmities, and none more humbling than thy dislike to take reproof. Did I believe myself so vile as I profess to be, could I take fire at hearing of my faults? “The least of saints! The chief of sinners!” Such do I call myself? A vain confession, if I’m not prepared to welcome kind reproof! Oh, for more knowledge of myself; more of that chastened mind; more of that genuine humility, that says, “Amen!” when self is justly censured.—Oh, what a hypocrite thou art, my soul! Ready to feed upon the praise of others, and shine in fancied excellence—how mean, how passing mean, art thou in thy reality! If those, who think of thee most highly, saw how thou bear’st reproof, what would they think of thee?—Oh, there’s a majesty of soul; a greatness more than human, in welcoming reproof. Music is sweet. Its cadences fall gently on the ear, and tune the heart to favour those who make it, and thank them for their melody. Thus shouldst thou feel, when kindness prompts a friend to tell thee of thy faults. What can a friend do more? What could a friend require more of thee? How grateful shouldst thou be to him, who wounds himself, in healing thee; willing to bear thy wrath, rather than suffer sin upon thee.—“The rebuke of the wise!” Who is “the wise” here spoken of? He that is wise enough to be faithful. Don’t say, “He’s not entitled to reprove me. His youth, his station, or his character, unfit him for the office.” Hadst thou a thorn hurting some tender part, would any be too young, too low in rank, to draw it forth? Or wert thou locked in prison, would any be too vile to turn the key, and give thee liberty? The only question to be asked is this, “Has he, then, told the truth? Is the failing really mine? Has he hit the nail upon the head?” If so, thy thanks are due to him. E’en though he be mistaken, and charge thee wrongfully, yet should’st thou thank him for his good intentions.—Reader, is this saying hard to thee? Well, so it is to me. Of myself, I cannot hear it, and I say, “Alas! who is sufficient for these things?” Say, wouldst thou have this grace? I fain would have it too. Then, what remains for thee and me? To learn of Jesus—of Him, who did no wrong, yet meekly suffered (1 Pet. 1:21–23)—to study Jesus—to hide ourselves in Jesus—that we, in some poor measure, may follow Jesus too.
G. W. Mylne, Ecclesiastes; or, Lessons for the Christian’s Daily Walk (London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1856), 60-61.
It is interesting in reading the older commentators that they are willing to say something is better than entertainment and immediate ease and comfort. We so believe a right to comfort that we seek to do anything rather than be crossed, even though it seems obvious to most previously that something was more important than instant ease:
‘How earnestly’—as an excellent commentator observes1—‘does Solomon persevere in drawing our hearts from the vain and perilous joys of the world!’ Still he continues his paradoxes—Sorrow is better than laughter. So valuable, so needful is it, that we doubt whether it be safe to be without sorrow, till we are without sin. Christiana was well reminded on the outset of her pilgrimage—‘The bitter is before the sweet, and that also’—she added—‘will make the sweet the sweeter.’ This is not therefore the sentiment of a sour misanthrope. It is that of one, who looks beyond the momentary ebullition of the sorrow to the after abounding and largely-compensating results. What if there be a “need be” for the present “heaviness?” How bright the end—“Found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ!”2 (1 Pet. 1:6, 7.) Meanwhile—waiting for this glorious end—the house of mourning is the wise man’s school. Here we are disciplined to lessons of inestimable value. We obtain the knowledge of that dark mystery—our own hearts. We learn the Christian alphabet, and spell out in the Lord’s dealings the letters of wisdom, forbearance, faithfulness, and love. We study the Christian dictionary, and often find such views of the character of God and his ways presented to us, as a whole life of ordinary study and contemplation could not have set forth. We find the Bible to be a book of realities. We cannot but bear our witness to it. We have felt its power. “I believed, and therefore have I spoken.” (Ps. 116:10; 2 Cor. 4:13.)
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 176-77.
Reason 1. From the benefit of a sad countenance. As it springeth from a heart seriously affected, so it stirreth up serious affections, meditations, and conferences in the hearts of others. A merry countenance is apt to stir up to loose and dissolute, vain and frothy meditations, affections, conferences.
Reason 2. From the condition of the house of mourning; it is a suitable object to the heart of a wise man: his heart is there. Sad objects to the heart are as ballast to the ship, making it to go steady; whereas the house of mirth is a suitable object to the heart of fools, ver. 4.
Reason 3. From the pre-eminence or betterment of hearing the rebuke of the wise, which causeth sorrow, than the song of fools, which causeth light mirth, ver. 5; which may appear, 1. From the great benefit of wise reproofs. They are as, first, Pricks to let out corruption, Acts 2:37; secondly, Goads to stir up to duty, Eccles. 12:11; thirdly, Nails to drive in and fasten good counsel, Eccles. 12:11; fourthly, Balm to heal sores, Ps. 141:5. 2. From the vanity of fools’ laughter and light mirth. It is as the crackling of thorns under a pot, ver. 6; not like the fire of thorns under a pot, which is soon kindled and fair blazed, but like the noise, which first is no good melody. Secondly, Spends much fuel, as fools’ mirth much time. Thirdly, Soon decayeth and dampeth, and leaveth both meat in the pot raw, and bystanders not thoroughly warmed, Ps. 118:12, and 58:9. So doth the mirth of fools, Prov. 15:13.
John Cotton, A Brief Exposition With Practical Observations Upon the Whole Book of Ecclesiastes, Nichol’s Series of Commentaries (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet & Co.; G. Herbert, 1868), 62.
Bless my trials, thus to sever
Me for ever
From the love of self and sin.
Let me through them see thee clearer,
Find thee nearer,
Grow more like to thee within.
Tersteegen, Lyra Germanica, 2nd Series.
This sorrow is no sudden flash—vanishing, and leaving no impression behind. It is a solemn tender spirit—meek humiliation of soul. Nothing but Almighty grace can produce it. ‘Philosophy’—as our great moralist1 lays it down—‘may infuse stubbornness. But religion only can give patience.’ The one may force the confession—“Thy will be done.” But it is the other only that puts stillness and submission into the words, and makes them real. The Divine Sovereignty—reverently acknowledged and applied—at once silences and satisfies.
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 178.
However, there is a point here which cannot be overlooked – our sorrow does not ever make deserving of Christ’s kindness. Our sorrows merely make us to know the absolute dependence we in fact have. At our best, we can merely be in need. The fool’s problem is that he does not even know he is in need of mercy.
Dallas Willard makes this helpful point in The Divine Conspiracy where he comments on “poor in spirit” in the Beatitudes:
If all we need to be blessed in the kingdom of heaven is to be humble-minded through recognizing our spiritual poverty, then let’s just do that and we’ve got bliss cornered. We escape the humiliation of spiritual incompetence because, strange to say, we have managed to turn it into spiritual attainment just by acknowledging it. And we escape the embarrassment of receiving pure mercy, for our humble recognition makes blessedness somehow appropriate (103)
It is our limitedness, our need, our poverty of spirit, or sheer incompetence which Qoheleth demonstrates in this passage. Sorrow is the only conceivable response.
Ecclesiastes 7:7 (BHS/WHM 4.2)
7כִּ֥י הָעֹ֖שֶׁק יְהוֹלֵ֣ל חָכָ֑ם וִֽיאַבֵּ֥ד אֶת־לֵ֖ב מַתָּנָֽה׃
For oppression/brutality/extortion makes foolish a wise man,
And it destroys his heart, a gift/bribe.
This is an interesting but confusing proverb – how does abusing a wiseman make him foolish? Fredricks writes:
I surmise that the wise is not the victim here but instead is the one guilty of extortion. Even the wise can sin (7:20) and stoop to intimidating another person physically, emotionally, legally or even ecclesiastically. This could include requesting or implying that a bribe be made by another to receive a favorable action, as well as offering a bribe oneself to derail someone else from justice. But the result is the shattered heart of the wise person whose conscience is still not calloused enough to remain unaffected by the abuse of any leverage.
Fredricks, Ecclesiastes, 169. The mere act of sin has a destructive effect upon the one who engages in it – this makes much more sense both theologically and psychologically. Similarly:
The reason is here assigned why the happiness of fools is so short. They work their own ruin. Sin deprives them of their understanding, and when that has vanished destruction cannot be far off. First the mens sana is lost, and then follows ruin. First the soul dies out, and afterwards the body is cast on the flaying ground. Parallel is Proverbs 15:27, “he that is greedy of gain destroyeth his own house, and he that hateth gifts shall live.” For oppression maketh the wise man mad. עשק, “oppression,” as exercised by the Persian tyrants (Psalm 62:10). Oppression befools, makes mad: every tyranny has a demoralizing influence on him who wields it; it deadens all higher intelligence, and takes away consequently the preservative against destruction. “The wise man” here is not one who is still such, but who ought to be, and might be, and has in part been such. “The wise man”—so might the Persian still be designated at the time of Cyrus. And a gift destroyeth the heart. Under oriental tyrannies everything was to be had for presents. According to the parallel, “befools, makes mad,” the heart is brought under consideration as the seat of the understanding: compare Jeremiah 4:9, “and it shall come to pass at that day that the heart of the king shall perish and the heart of the princes,” that is, they shall lose their prudence, their power of reflection.
E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon (Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 164-65.
Favors and gifts blind the eyes of the wise; like a muzzle on the mouth they stop reproofs. Sirach 20:29 (NRSV)
Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live. Prov 15:27
A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers. Prov 17:8
The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice. Prov 17:23
A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath. Prov 21:14
15 He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, 16 he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure. Isaiah 33:15–16 (ESV)
And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Exodus 23:8 (ESV)
But the evil falls back upon the oppressor himself. One selfish principle naturally begets another. The act of oppression is often traced to the gift tendered as the price of the oppression—destroying his heart—blotting out every principle of moral integrity, rendering him callous to suffering, and deaf to the claims of justice. (Prov. 17:23.) Good reason was there for the Mosaic veto, restraining the influence of gifts. (Exod. 23:8; Deut. 16:19.) There is indeed peril on both sides. Tyranny forces to irrational conduct; bribery to lack of feeling. The standard of the Bible is the only security. “He that ruleth over men must be just—ruling in the fear of God.” (2 Sam. 23:3.) When the Bible is reverenced as the Book of God—the sole rule of faith and practice, “a man’s wisdom will make his face to shine” (Chap. 8:1); and godliness will enrich the land with the precious fruit of “whatsoever things are honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.” (Philip. 4:8.)
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 182.