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Previous article in this series: March 1, 2016, p. 247.

Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this. Ecclesiastes 7:7-10

“Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad…” (Eccl. 7:7), in its opening statement, seems at first glance to be a new subject. Solomon, however, is continuing to consider the end of life, our pathway to it and the need to lay it to heart, which he began at the opening of the chapter. The word “surely” in the original is the word “for” and parallels verse 6: “For as the crackling of thorns….” The translators rightly discerned, however, that there is a shift in the thought here, from one form of folly to another, which they indicated by the use of that word “surely.”

Solomon turns from the empty laughter of a fool and the house of feasting, to consider oppression and affliction. The one is vanity; the other is a sober aspect of life under the sun in a fallen world. In verse 3, the word translated “sorrow” has the root idea of vexation or anger, whether of God or men, which leads to sorrow and grief, and, in God’s judgment on sin, to death. Death is God’s ultimate rebuke to the folly of sin. It is this sorrow or vexation under the sun that he further considers.

“Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart” (Eccl. 7:7). The text is enigmatic, as it can be understood as referring to the oppressor or to the effect of oppression, to the recipient of gifts and bribes or to the effect of injustice. As the subject is oppression and the gift, it should perhaps be understood as referring to both. Oppression is the way of folly as much as the laughter of the fool. For by it one who is deemed wise, when he turns to oppression, is made a fool, literally made to howl, as when David feigned madness (I Sam. 21). He is brought to grief. The fruit of oppression is grief and vexation of spirit. Similarly, a gift or bribe destroys not simply justice but the heart and understanding of the one who receives it. It works spiritual self-destruction, leaving misery and vexation in its wake. The result is that the way of man bears the fruit of misery under the sun. Man, the sinner, is so often the source of his own misery or that of others, both because of sin and because of God’s judgment on it.

“Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccl. 7:8). The word “better” in English brings out the comparison intended, though the word itself is one that means “good” or “fitting.” The real outcome of a thing or the pathway of a man and his activity, including its internal principles, is shown by its end—the results and consequences. When man sows the folly of sin, he reaps its consequences. It is at the end that the fruit of a faithful pathway, a course of action, and its impulse is revealed. The beginning of a thing for man is such that the end is unseen as far as man is concerned, since he knows not the future. What afflictions, trials, missteps shall come, are hidden at the beginning of a thing. It is when the end of the path is reached that the way is seen and understood.

The result is that “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” The text uses two figurative words, “long” and “high,” or “lifted up.” To be patient in spirit is to be long, in the figurative sense of slow, steadfast, and enduring. Patient endurance in one’s spirit, which keeps the end in view, is the better part. The end is ultimately that which God, and not man, determines: “A man’s heart deviseth his way; but the Lord directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Being patient in spirit is a work of grace, for it is characterized by humility and a walk by faith that confesses, “…If the Lord will, we shall live and do this, or that” (James 4:15). It also has an eye to the true end before God, “For God will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil” (Eccl. 12:14). That he speaks of the spirit in man and not simply patience, points to our internal life and to the spiritual principles of our internal activity. Patient in spirit is not simply steadfastness in obtaining an earthly goal. It is a spiritual virtue arising out of our relation to God, waiting upon His will and submitting ourselves to Him.

“Proud in spirit” is the spiritual opposite, rooted in man’s flesh. It is that internal activity by which a man lifts himself up, exalting himself in his determination to do something. In pride he is haughty, as if he were in control and as if it were in his own hand to accomplish his purpose. This is the way of the natural man and of the old man of sin by nature. Proverbs says of him, “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished” (Prov. 16:5). In like manner, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Such pride is self-willed, self-serving, and covetous. It leads to turning to oppression and bribes, to taking shortcuts to obtain a goal, and it leaves misery in its wake. It leads also to anger, frustration, and vexation of spirit when a man’s way is hindered. Its end is destruction.

So Solomon warns, “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (Eccl. 7:9). The anger or vexation spoken of is not so much that of someone with a short temper, though that is not excluded, but of one who is hindered in his way, quick to be frustrated, vexed and angry when his will is halted by God’s providence. It arises out of self-will and is the fruit also of oppression. When trials and difficulties stand in the way a man desires to go, he is soon angry. While his neighbor is often the immediate object of his anger, it is the hindrance in his way that occasions his vexation. His anger, then, is really directed against God’s hand in his life. He would be in control of his life, and God blocks his way by affliction or trouble. Such anger rests in the bosom of one who is a fool in heart. It is the spiritual disposition of his soul in rebellion against God and striving with him, so that he truly seeks to exalt himself above God.

The result of such vexation is the anger of one who says in his heart, “Why is God doing this to me?” It accuses the Lord of providence and strives with His will, seeking rather to have one’s own way. The warning of the text therefore continues, “Say not thou, What is the cause that former days were better than these?” (Eccl. 7:10). The questioner is really calling God’s government and justice into question and setting himself up as judge of God’s dealings. Such is the outworking of pride in the heart of the man who does not humble himself before God. When things go his way according to his desires, his pride is lifted up and he ascribes his success to himself. But let circumstances turn against him, let afflictions or trials come, and he is quick in anger and vexation to question God’s knowledge, justice, and righteousness. God is at fault, not himself. Such pride is rooted in self-will that considers not his own sin, nor that he is but a creature of the dust.

As we are tempted in the infirmity of the flesh to ask just such questions when we are led in ways of trial, the text not only gives a warning (“Say not thou….), but also a first answer to the questioner: “For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this” (Eccl. 7:10). This rebuke arises in some measure because of injustice and oppression in a wicked world, so that it is difficult to see how the end can be good. Now in the verses that follow a more complete answer is given. But to receive it spiritually there is need first of all to bring to a halt our natural rebellious questioning, which is that of a fool and not wisdom. Questioning God’s government is not the way of wisdom; it is not asking “wisely.” The question presumes to know the end before it is reached, to discern from outward circumstances the hidden purposes of God and to examine them. It is the way of pride and a spirit hasty to be angry or vexed. It has in it the idea also that I deserve the former days that I esteem better than the present.

Rather, the way of wisdom is that of being “patient in spirit,” resting in the will of God from day to day. For His ways are higher than our ways and His wisdom deeper than our finite understanding. The assurance given us in what follows in the passage is “for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all” (Eccl. 7:18). But that fear of God means, presently, that with a patient and humble spirit we walk through the trials that are sent, when the end is not yet plain and when troubles seem to multiply. It is exactly then that patience is needed, and endurance of faith in hope. It is in such trials that our calling is to walk by faith and not by sight.

Nor is it any different for the end of life’s pathway. For the end of earthly life itself, which is in the house of mourning and its sober reality, calls indeed for patience in hope of things not seen as yet. Our calling, therefore, is to walk in the same manner now, in the present trials and troubles of life. This takes a wisdom that spiritually appropriates the fear of God, the reverence of faith in God. Wisdom that is rooted in the fear of God “giveth life to them that have it” (Eccl. 7:12).