Ecclesiastes 8:1 (ESV)
1 Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed.
1מִ֚י כְּהֶ֣חָכָ֔ם וּמִ֥י יוֹדֵ֖עַ פֵּ֣שֶׁר דָּבָ֑ר חָכְמַ֤ת אָדָם֙ תָּאִ֣יר פָּנָ֔יו וְעֹ֥ז פָּנָ֖יו יְשֻׁנֶּֽא׃
This verse presents two substantial challenges: First, what is it doing in the overall flow of the work? Second, what is meant by one’s face shining?
There is also a dispute on how to divide the text into words. Since Hebrew originally consisted of consonants written without intervening spaces, there are times where the places of division may be difficult to discern. This is further complicated with the potential for less common spellings (which is apparently the case here). Fortunately, the difference in word division has little effect on the meaning of the text.
מִ֚י כְּהֶ֣חָכָ֔ם וּמִ֥י יוֹדֵ֖עַ
Who is like/so [see below] the wise? And, who knows ….
Mi: who? There are a couple of patterns here: First, there is the repetition of mi (who). Who is like the wise and who knows ….
Waltke and O’Connor note that the animate pronoun (mi) “may be repeated, perhaps for an emphatic purpose” (18.2b, ex. 7, p. 319). The text cited (Exodus 10:8) is not a precise parallel, because the usage in Exodus 10:9 is “Who and who” which they translate “Just who will ….”
The general rhetorical effect is often one of emphasis: a matter of pathos not logos. Diazuegma: “The figure by which a single subject governs several verbs or verbal constructions (usually arranged in parallel fashion and expressing a similar idea)”.
Here the same subject is distributed (by repetition) over two clauses. It may also be epexegesis, “A figure of repetition for the purpose of explaining more fully. ….The figure epexegesis may be divided inot three parts: (1) where what is added is a working out and developing what has been previously said (Exergasia); (2) where what has been said is dwelt upon to deepen the impression (Epimone); and (3) where what is added is by way of interpretation (Hermeneia). ” (Bullinger, 398)
The three potential uses of such repetition listed by Bullinger raise the question of why the repetition? Does he really want to list out the nature of the person at issue: that the person is both wise and able to interpret? I don’t think so, because wisdom is elsewhere used as an inclusive term which would also entail interpretation (Proverbs 1:2-6).
I think better is to understand the effect of one of admiration: Who is this person? In that case it seems to point backward to the observation of 7:23-24, that wisdom can only be had by extraordinary efforts. In such case, the explanatory text would come from Proverbs 2:
1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. 6 For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; Proverbs 2:1–6 (ESV)
Thus, the one described in the second half of the verse is the one who has sought diligently for wisdom:
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matthew 13:44–46 (ESV)
Hengstenberg draws a similar connection, “Wisdom is the pear of great price with which no possession on earth can be compared” (191).
Longman denies that anyone matches the category referenced in the verse, “There is no wise, and no one knows the interpretation …of a matter” (208). However, as noted above, if the text is read canonically, one need not reduce this to an impossibility in actuality – even if it is impossible as a mere human:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:44 (ESV)
Adam’s comments, “But it is theological wisdom – wisdom about the ways of God and His world and with us men – that really does this for people” (81).
Waltke and O’Connor give the example of ki being used for emphasis as opposed to comparison (11.2.9c, #13, p. 204). That seems appropriate here: It does not seem that Qoheleth actually is discussing someone who is merely similar to a wiseman. Rather, the “like” does not designate an actual category of similarity – the similar to wise – but rather to the one who is actually wise: First, the construction is overall emphatic, as noted above. Second, the second half of the verse refers to one who actually possesses wisdom.
כְּהֶחָכָם like the wise man; the art. is emphatic (§ 109, 2), and here remains, as often, after כְּ, i.e., כְּהֶ is written instead of כֶּ (§ 35, 2, Rem. 2), conf. Ezek. 40:25; so after לְ, Ezek. 47:22; 2 Chron. 10:7; Neh. 12:38; after בְּ, Neh. 9:19. Though this punctuation is found in the later books, it is not confined to them, see, e.g., כְּהַיּוֹם Gen. 39:11.
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), 104-05.
Seow: Who is so wise? He divides the letters my kh hkm not my hkhkm. He explains, “The article is always syncopated after the preposition in Ecclesiastes” (Seow, 277). He notes that Aquila (an ancient Greek translation) has tis houtos Sophos: Who thus [is] wise: Who is so wise? If the text is redivided as proposed by Seow, the meaning differs little – especially if one understands the text to be emphatic.
Longman takes the text as stated and notes, “The article is no elided before the prefixed preposition, which is rare but not unattested” (208):
The definite article in כהחכם has not been elided; this is unusual but by no means unheard of; cf. Joüon §35e. However, the Greek traditions read כה apart from חכם: “who is so wise?” οἶδεν of LXX is probably (Podechard) a corruption of ὧδε, found in Aq., while Sym has οὖ̔́τως. Syr., Vg, Tg., and Jerome support the MT.
Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 80.
And who knows
Waltke and O’Connor note that an active adjectival participle “can be used as the equivalent of relative clauses” (37.5a, 621). Here, “And who is the one who knows …”
Peser: Seow notes that this is only occurrence of the precise form in Biblical Hebrew. Based upon the cognates, he proposes “solution” as the translation (277).
Wisdom leads us into the nature, the essence of things, and thus furnishes a basis for right practical conduct. J. D. Michaelis says—“By the solution of things, we are to understand nothing but the explanation of all that which is done in the world and of the design thereof: the evils of the world appear to us like letters without meaning, unintelligible; but as soon as we consider their good results, their interpretation will be plain, we shall see why God permits them.” The cross, whose dark depths are illuminated by wisdom, is no doubt, according to what follows, a special aspect of the general question which is here principally brought under consideration;
E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon (Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 191.
Adams, “To understand the meaning of life is a very important matter. Most people don’t. That is because they are devoid of the Spirit, care nothing for the Bible, and try to figure out life experiences on their own. Only god can make sense out of life” (82).
תָּאִ֣יר פָּנָ֔יו וְעֹ֥ז פָּנָ֖יו יְשֻׁנֶּֽא׃
It causes to be enlightened [hiphil to become light, to dawn] his face [literally “faces”] might/strength [tobe] his face to be altered/changed [pual].
One’s face to shine: Seow, “In the Bible it is always God who causes the face to shine …. Numbers 6:25, Ps. 31:17, 67:2, 80:4, 8, 20; 119:135; Dan 9:17). The idiom ‘to cause the face to shine’ means ‘to be gracious’ or ‘to be pleasant’” (Seow, 277). If one understands the woman mentioned in 7:26 to be folly – who captures and ensnares – then wisdom makes one precisely the opposite. This accords with a comment I recall from Waltke (I have not citation, it was in a lecture), that ‘righteousness’ in Proverbs refers to disadvantaging oneself for the good of another.
By the illumination of the face several commentators understand “the instruction and good guidance which wisdom confers on its possessor.” That, however, is against usage, according to which the illumination of the countenance can only signify “to cheer, to enliven.” The cognate phrase, “enlighten the eyes,” means usually “to make brisk and cheerful:” misery and pain cause the eyes to be dull, gloomy, languid. Compare Psalm 19:9, where “enlightening the eyes” is set in parallelism with “rejoicing the heart.” To the cheering of the countenance has reference the phrase האירפניו, used of God: God’s face beams, is radiant, in relation to those towards whom he is gracious. This expression is not elsewhere employed of men; yet in Proverbs 16:15, it is said, “in the light of the king’s countenance is life.” The reason of the joy afforded by wisdom may be found in the insight it gives into the nature of things, specially, into the providence of God; and in the assurance and decision with which, as a consequence, we can regard the practical questions of life. And the strength of his countenance is changed. According to usage, “the strength of the countenance,” can only mean, “hard and rigid features,” as the expression of boldness and impudence. In Deuteronomy 28:50, גויעזפנים is “a bold and impudent people.” In Daniel 8:23, a king עזפנים is a bold, impudent king. העזפנים or בפנים, “to make the face strong,” is used of “boldness, impudence,” in Proverbs 7:13; 21:29. Consequently, the rendering, “rage, chagrin at the repugnant circumstances of life,” must be rejected as erroneous. Jerome has given substantially the correct view—“Omnis hæreticus et falsum dogma defendens impudenti vultu est.” So also the Berleburger Bible which says—“In order that the rigidness of his countenance, that is, his savage unfriendly crabbed stubborn nature, his wrinkled forehead and impudent face, may be changed; that man may be no longer so harsh, so difficult of approach, nor be, as hitherto, refractory to human and divine commands. When, through the transforming power of wisdom, a heart of flesh has taken the place of the heart of stone, the inward pliancy and docility, the soul’s fear of God and his commands, which then follow, become discernible in the countenance.”
E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon (Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 191-92.
“A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine.” This probably is an allusion to the brightness of Moses’ face, Exod. 34:29, 30, 34; similar to which we read of Stephen, Acts 6:15. Hence it is observable, first, that wisdom beautifies a man with tranquillity of mind and cheerfulness of countenance, spem fronte serenat, Ps. 4:6, 7: Prov. 15:13. and 17:24; Ps. 34:5. Secondly, that it causes the light of his holiness to shine before others, Mat. 5:16; John 5:35; Phil. 2:15. Thirdly, that it renders him reverend, venerable, and amiable in the view of spectators, as well as conciliates the favour of those that converse with him, Job 29:7–16. Fourthly, that it enlightens his eyes, that he may more clearly understand, both what he should do, and what he should not do; the light of the Lord shines upon his ways, Ps. 25:9; Job 22:28; Ps. 32:8; 1 John 2:20.—“And the boldness,” or “strength, of his face shall be changed,” or “doubled.” By the strength of the face we may understand, first, fierceness, impudence, sourness, austerity, as Dan. 8:23; Deut. 28:50; Prov. 7:13. and 21:29; Isai. 3:9; Ps. 10:4; Jer. 5:3; all which wisdom changes into mildness, meekness, and serenity of countenance: thus, as Moses was the wisest and most holy, so he was the meekest man, Numb. 12:3; Prov. 11:2. Or, secondly, confidence and courage; for the righteous is bold as a lion, Prov. 28:1 Guilt and shame cast down the countenance, Gen. 4:5, 6; righteousness and wisdom embolden it, 1 Sam. 1:18; Job 11:15; Luke 21:28: and, according to this sense, some read the sentence thus (which the original will justly admit): The strength of his countenance, his confidence and courage, shall be doubled, ch. 7:19; Isai. 40:31; Prov. 4:18.
Edward Reynolds, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, ed. Daniel Washbourn (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1811), 250-52. Bridges:
One display of this Divine transformation may be seen in the change of the boldness of our face. Once it was hard and stern loftiness. Now, without losing one atom of its firmness, it melts down into humility. Moses, when occasion warranted, could shew the boldness of his face. Yet his habitual course was the change of this boldness, as one, who “was very meek above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Ex. 32:26–28, with Num. 12:3.) How fine and perfect the contrast in our Divine Master, when the boldness of face awed the buyer and seller in the temple; and yet he could change it for the exercise of a Teacher “meek and lowly in heart.” (John, 2:15, with Matt. 11:29.) It is however only when the face shines under heavenly influence, that the sturdiness of Christian confidence will be fully set out. The combination is perfect—‘heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.’
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 231. Stuart sets out the remarkable variety of understandings which exist for the clause:
Maketh his face to shine, i.e. exhilarates him, makes his face to glow with pleasure and satisfaction; comp. like modes of expression, in Num. 6:25, Ps. 4:7, Job 29:24.—עֹזפָּנִיו has been long debated. The Hebrews used עַזפָּנִים to denote a man of impudent face or of stern visage; also הֵעֵזפָּנִים to signify: he made up an impudent face, (as we express it). עֹז is from the same root (עָזַז), and might have the same meaning also, if this word and the next after it constitute a common case of const, and Gen. after it. But this we cannot well admit, for פָּנָיו here makes a relative meaning by virtue of the suffix, quite different from that which פָּנים alone would have. The conclusion then must be, that עֹז is Nom. and subject, and that פָּנָיו is Acc. governed by the verb which follows. Then we take the two last clauses as constructed alike, and we have a facile sense: The wisdom of a man enlightens his face, and haughtiness or impudence disfigures his face.—יְשֻׁנֶּא, as pointed, is in Pual Imperf., the א being used for ה; for so in 2 K. 25:29, we have שִנָּא for שִׁנָּה, and in Jer. 52:33 (the same expression). See § 74. vi. n. 22. The Seventy translate μιθήσεται, shall be hated, and so must have read יִשָׂנֵּא (in Niph. and with Sin instead of Shin). The true pointing seems plainly to be יְשַׁנֶּא (Piel of שָׁנָה), with א for ה as above stated. The comparison or rather the antithesis, shows that, as in the first case the action of the verb falls on פָּנָיו, so in the second case the same is to be said, as to the second פָּנָיו. The one brightens, the other disfigures. The antithesis is not indeed closely pressed, for then we should have, as the opposite of תָּאִיר, the verb תַּהֲשִׁיךְ darkens. Nor is the meaning, as found above, to be confined to a physical change of the countenance, although the trope is borrowed from this. By the light which wisdom sheds, we may well understand the light of life; comp. Job 33:20, Ps. 56:14; comp. also Ecc. 7:12. On the other hand עֹז (haughty disregard) destroys, see v. 8 below. So in Job 14:20, מְשַׁנֶּהפָּנָיו refers to the change of countenance which takes place after death; and this is a striking illustration of our text, from a writer contemporary, or nearly so, with Coheleth. Sentiment: ‘Wisdom preserves life, or imparts the light of life, while haughtiness brings on the disfigurement of death.’ This gives to the whole apothegm a spirited tone and significance far above the merely physical sense. But it needs, as the author intimates, some understanding in order to make out a פֵּשֶׁר. It has indeed a kind of esoteric meaning, while the literal sense is merely exoteric, and would present no mystery. The whole conception seems to have sprung from Job 16:15, 16, q. v.
Knob. renders: the gloom (?) of his countenance is changed. Ewald: the splendour of his countenance is doubled, making the verb from שָׁנָה to repeat, (but splendour is a manufactured sense for עֹז); Herzf.: his stern visage is changed; all of them mistaking the relation of עֹז and פָּנִים. Hitzig adopts the meaning given above, and to him I owe the best arguments in its favour. He has not, however, sufficiently indicated the bearing of the sentiment on what precedes, or its relation to it. If the reader will look back to 7:11 seq., 19, 25 seq., he will readily perceive how often and earnestly wisdom is discussed. In the verse before us, at the close of these discussions, he will see that for wisdom is still claimed a high place, like to that asserted in 7:12, but it is here more vividly described. As the opposite of this is the עֹז (haughty perseverance) which refuses to receive and obey instruction. We might perhaps expect סֶכֶל instead of עֹז, since it is the direct antithesis of הָכְמָה. But עֹז better characterizes the temper of mind, which leads men “to seek out many evil devices.”
Moses Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 230-31.
“The hardness,” or strength, “of a wise man’s face is changed.” “The coarse ferocity of ignorance” is in him “transformed by culture” (Plumptre). What Ovid says of human learning—it
“Makes manners gentle, rescues men from strife”—
is true of heavenly wisdom, which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated,” etc. (Jas. 3:17). “Wisdom gives to a man bright eyes, a gentle countenance, a noble expression; it refines and dignifies his external appearance and his demeanour; the hitherto rude external, and the rude regardless, selfish, and bold deportment, are changed into their contraries” (Delitzsch). The change may be: 1. Gradual, as all moral transformations are slow, “from stage to stage,” “first the blade and then the ear, and after that the full corn in the ear;” but it must be: 2. Actual, otherwise there is no reason to suppose the individual has become possessed of wisdom; and it will eventually be: 3. Visible to all, so that all beholding him shall recognize in him the gentleness of one who has studied in wisdom’s school. Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3), was the highest impersonation the world ever witnessed of true gentleness and refinement.
Ecclesiastes, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 206-07.
WE have already seen how Ecclesiastes speaks in praise of “wisdom,” and how much importance he attaches to its possession. He ranks it above money. “Wisdom is a defence, even as money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is that wisdom giveth life to him that hath it.” He also ranks it above material force. “Wisdom is a strength to the wise man more than ten rulers which are in a city.” And here, at the opening of this chapter, he once more draws attention to the value and influence of wisdom. “Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the hardness of his face is changed.” Wisdom transforms even a man’s countenance. It brightens his aspect. It puts a new light into his eyes. Ignorance is often associated with a certain fierceness or coarseness of the face; but this passes away and is “changed” into an expression of refinement and gentleness when the mind within comes under the influence of a true wisdom. This wisdom imparts a certain dignity and serenity to the soul. And it enables a man to be calm and patient even in times of political oppression and injustice.
T. Campbell Finlayson, The Meditations and Maxims of Koheleth: A Practical Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), 187.
We see Ecclesiastes, for the first time, smile. He is a philosopher who is not disturbed by “cheerfulness breaking in.” We know the ironic smile—
The Spirit of the world,
Beholding the absurdity of men—
Their vaunts, their feats—let a sardonic smile,
For one short moment, wander o’er his lips.
That smile was Heine!
And we know the “unfathomable smile” of “La Gioconda” where Leonardo da Vinci expressed the concentrated cynicism of all the ages.1 How different was the smile of Ecclesiastes! It was a moral triumph. He has learnt sympathy and patience, and it has softened a naturally hard expression. When some one repeated to Carlyle a favourite utterance of Margaret Fuller, “I accept the Universe,” his sardonic comment is said to have been “Gad! she’d better!” But there is all the difference between a stoic resignation to the inevitable and a cheerful acceptance of our place in a faulty world. We may be crushed into submission or we may acquiesce with all our faculties wide awake. We may accept our universe because “we’d better,” or we may recognise that it is the wisest thing to do under the circumstances. It was in this wise way that Ecclesiastes accepted a difficult situation. Painfully conscious of life’s anomalies and intellectually baffled, he never thought that “the absurdities of men” were observed by an ironical Providence.
Through Thy vast creative plan
Looking, from the worm to man,
There is pity in Thine eyes,
But no hatred nor surprise.
The light that made his face to shine was the wisdom of faith in a just though hidden God. His faith was a far-away echo of the old paradox, “Verily, thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour!”
Minos Devine, Ecclesiastes or The Confessions of an Adventurous Soul (London: Macmillan and Co., 1916), 133-34.
How this verse meets the overall structure of the book:
This verse creates difficulties as to meaning (see the Notes) and context (Does it belong with 7:29 or 8:2? See the remarks on Form/Structure/Setting above for 7:25–29). Even the relationship between the two lines is obscure. NJV and Kroeber would understand v 1b as the referent of “word” (דבר) in v 1a (“who knows the meaning of the [following] saying:”). This seems less likely in view of the absence of the definite article. The rhetorical questions in v 1a are exclamatory, and they suggest the exalted task of the sage at the same time as the impossibility of that task (cf. 7:23–25). Thus they may be deliberately ambiguous. One answer to them is: only the wise person. But it will be seen from the analysis of vv 2–4 that Qoheleth is once more relativizing the value of wisdom.
Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 82.
Barton seems to consider this verse a mere intrusion, “This verse which consists of two gnomic sayings, has been rightly regarded …as from the hand of the Hokma glossator” (149). Yet, if one considers the entire works as it stands, there must be an understanding of the flow of thought. Fredricks contends that “devices” in 7:29 should be understood as “explanations”:
But, consistent with the term’s use in Ecclesiastes and throughout, Qoheleth acknowledges that God created humanity upright and now commends humanity for constantly seeking out ‘explanations.’ … This praise for seeking explanations is followed immediately in 8:1 by an encouragement to purse the wisdom that guides to such explanations. (186).
Barrick sets out the contrary position as to the meaning of verse 29:
God is not to blame for the absence of wisdom – mankind is. From the Fall the present, people have turned away from God and away form wisdom. They have all walked in the path of folly….Thus, the chapter concludes with the observation that people pervert the right way of God – they bend that which He has created straight. The irony of this leaps off the page, since no human being can ‘straighten what He has bent’ (v. 13). The wording augments the enigma of mankind’s existence and his pursuit of wisdom (136).
Thus, Barrick connects this verse with what follows under the heading, “Wisdom in Situations beyond a Person’s Control” (139). William Pemble also sees this section as “Wise ordering of one’s affairs”. He comments:
The fifth part or branch of true wisdom, direction and perfection of right judgment in the wise ordering of himself and affairs. This virtue is
Summarily expressed and commended. First, in the nature of it, Who is as a wise man? None to be compared to a wise man: And who is he? The next words expound wherein this wisdom is, who )viz., the wise man( knows the interpretation of a thing? Who can discern and truly judge of all affairs and their nature and circumstances, what must be done, what avoided. This to know oneself, and interpret unto others, is a point of that wisdom which makes us happy.
Secondly, in the effect of it, which are two:
(1) Credit and esteem, a man’s wisdom makes his face shine, this is a metaphor which means: brings his person in admiration, makes him lovely, beautiful, and amiable or venerable, awful, and reverend as Moses, Steven, or, cheerful, without frowning sullenness.
(2) True confidence and security, the boldness of his countenance shall be changed, from impudent and presumptuous overdaring and fool-hardiness to true confidence and resolution, or shall be doubled, made very firm and assured. He that walks wisely hath a truely secure heart and bold face; he discovers no fears, because he foresees and prepares for evils; not yet shame, he commits no fault whereat he should blush, & c., verse 1.
Bridges finds this verse to fit the order set out in 7:25:
Two things Solomon had desired to seek out—wisdom and folly (chap. 7:25). The latter he had known to his cost, and most faithfully has he described it. He now adverts to the former—Who is as the wise man? There is no one to be set by him, however splendidly endowed, rich, noble, or learned. “Wisdom is the principal thing” (Prov. 4:7)—worth all the pains of prayer and diligence to gain and to hold fast. If it is anything, it is everything. A matchless gift! The Preacher cannot restrain his burst of admiration—Who is as the wise man?
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 229. Bridges’ observation along with the general observation of the commentators (e.g., Barrick & Pemble) makes sense out of the structure from 7:25 forward.
Stuart gives another understanding of the flow. He looks back to 7:29 and asks:
If men are not made sinners by their Creator, then how came men to sin? This question naturally arises at once, in the mind of the reader. There seem to be three reasons given in the sequel, why they fall into sin; (1) Men often sin through fear of rulers, by obeying their unjust commands, when they know them to be so, vs. 1–5. (2) They sin because judgment and punishment are delayed, v. 11, seq. (3) They sin because oftentimes the wicked fare as well as the just, v. 14 seq. In regard to this last matter, there is undoubtedly a mystery of Providence, which is beyond the limits of our inquiries or knowledge, vs. 16, 17.
The course of thought, more minutely investigated, runs thus: Truly wise must he be, who can explain difficult matters, viz. such as he had been stating. But there is a spurious wisdom. This bids unreserved submission to the commands of rulers, whether they be good or evil. Resistance, it suggests, is dangerous; prudence, therefore, dissuades from it, vs. 1–4. But it should be remembered, that there is a judgment-period hanging over all evil-doors, although no one can tell when it will take place. Death is inevitable to all, and wickedness cannot rescue the sinner from it, vs. 5–8. The wicked do indeed sometimes reign over and oppress the good. Yet still, they will die and be buried without the city, and will be soon forgotten. Oppression is grievous. But although judgment slumbers, and men grow bold in sin because of this, yet, let the wicked do wickedly ever so long, it shall be well with the righteous, at last, and to the wicked it shall be ill, vs. 9–13. To this an objection immediately presents itself: ‘The righteous share the doom of the wicked, and to the wicked falls the lot of the righteous. There is nothing left then for the latter, but to enjoy all they can of the good things of life, vs. 14, 15. But in procuring the means of this enjoyment, much and grievous toil is necessary, so that it is of little account, v. 16. This, the writer concedes, must be acknowledged; and he allows that we can offer no adequate solution of the mystery, because the ways of Providence are beyond our knowledge, v. 17
Moses Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 229. This illustrates one of the fascinating aspects of Ecclesiastes: one’s understanding of the flow of the argument hinges upon where one begins and ends the section. This does not mean that the structure is none existent & that the readers are merely imposing structure where none exists. Rather it demonstrates parallel lines of thought: both in terms of comparison and contrast:
Hitzig thinks, that the first clause is the language of exultation over the discovery he had made, as announced in the preceding verse. My convictions are of a different kind. It seems to me more natural to suppose, that the difficulties which he had just been stating, and had left unsolved, moved him to exclaim as he does. The questions seem to amount to this: ‘Who, like a wise man, can explain the difficulties, or solve the questions, that arise in respect to wisdom?’—כְּהֶהָכָם, usually written in such cases, as כֶּחָבָם, i.e. the article is usually dropped, and the כּ normally takes its vowel, § 35. n. 2. See like cases of this punctuation in the later books, (for in them only, almost without exception, is it found), e.g. Ezek. 40:25, 47:22, 2 Chron. 10:7, 25:10, 29:27, Neh. 9:19, 12:38. The article specifies a particular man, viz. the man wise enough to make explanation. But of what? Of a דָּבָרִ, word, maxim, apothegm, etc. But what one? I see no answer to this but one, viz. the דָּבָר exhibited in the sentence or apothegm (such I take it to be) that follows. What follows this apothegm does not point us to any explanation of preceding difficulties, namely, those in Chap. 7. Wisdom then will be shown, in case a proper explanation of the apothegm can be made out. In fact, it needs some wisdom to make it out; as the endless variety of opinions about the latter clause may serve to show
Moses Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 229-30. A principle point of Ecclesiastes is to cause one to think – not merely “know”.
Garrett sees this is a transitional move which may have a closer tie to the following verses than would immediately appear, as noted in his alternative translation:
8:1 An alternative translation is possible: “Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of a situation?181 A man’s wisdom causes [the king182] to show him favor183 so that the power of [the king’s] face is redirected.”184 The verse looks back to the previous quest for wisdom/ virtue, as the mention of an “explanation” looks back to 7:23–24.185 In 8:1, however, the tone is more optimistic: some attainment of wisdom is possible and has real advantages. In particular it enables one to influence those who exercise power, the topic of the following discussion. Verse 1b is thus another proleptic marker of a topic change, the shift here being to the question of how to deal with absolute authority. This in turn draws the Teacher into further discussion of injustice, maladministration, and the problem of theodicy.
Duane A. Garrett, vol. 14, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 325-26.
 But, see, Reynolds,
“And who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?” Two kinds of wise men are here described: First, he that is wise in himself. Secondly, he that is qualified to teach others; or who is able accurately to judge of all affairs, and to discern what ought in every case to be performed, or omitted,
Edward Reynolds, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, ed. Daniel Washbourn (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1811), 250.
They have sought out many inventions to fall away from God. Man’s discontent with the happiness which God hath provided for him—this was his first invention.3 Hence he fancied a higher perfection than that in which he had been confirmed. Hence he yielded to follow the new way, which Satan and his deceived heart had placed before him—despising his Creator’s law—suspecting his truth—nay, even aspiring to share his Sovereignty. This first invention was the parent of the many—all marked by the same falsehood, folly, and impiety—all flowing out of the bottomless depths of the heart alienated from God, full of windings and turnings—“turning every one to his own way.” (Isa. 53:6.) All sin is only a form of self-love, instead of the love of God. The many inventions take the throne in turn. Former vanities soon produce the weariness of disappointment, others step into their places, so that this usurped dominion is changed only, not subdued. Man is constantly meddling with endless questions instead of the path of duty—the way of safety—the one only way to God. Never can he charge God. Let him cast all the blame upon himself, and cast himself upon the second Adam for restoration.
Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 226-27.