THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES

The Hebrew name of this book and of its author, Qoheleth, is actually a title, and it perhaps means “assembler” (of students, listeners) or “collector” (of wisdom sayings). The book’s more common name, Ecclesiastes, is an approximate translation into Greek of this Hebrew word. The book comprises an extended reflective essay employing autobiographical narrative, proverbs, parables, and allegories. An almost unrelenting skepticism characterizes the tone or outlook. The issues with which the author deals and the questions he raises are aimed at those who would claim any absolute values in this life, including possessions, fame, success, or pleasure. Wisdom itself is challenged, but folly is condemned.

The refrain which begins and ends the book, “Vanity of vanities” (1:1; 12:8), recurs at key points throughout. The Hebrew word, hebel (“vanity”), has the sense of “emptiness, futility, absurdity”: “I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind” (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; etc.). Everything in human life is subject to change, to qualification, to loss: “What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?” (1:3). The answer is in the negative: No absolute profit or gain is possible. Even if some temporary profit or gain is achieved, it will ultimately be cancelled out by death, the great leveller (2:1415; 3:1920). Wisdom has some advantage over foolishness, but even wisdom’s advantage is only a temporary and qualified one.

Many would locate Ecclesiastes in the third century B.C., when Judea was under the oppressive domination of Hellenistic kings from Egypt. These kings were highly efficient in their ruthless exploitation of the land and people (4:1; 5:7). The average Jew would have felt a sense of powerlessness and inability to change things for the better. For Qoheleth, God seems remote and uncommunicative, and we cannot hope to understand, much less influence, God’s activity in the world (3:11; 8:1617).

The book’s honest and blunt appraisal of the human condition provides a healthy corrective to the occasionally excessive self-assurance of other wisdom writers. Its radical skepticism is somewhat tempered by the resigned conclusions to rejoice in whatever gifts God may give (2:24; 3:1213, 22; 5:1718; 8:15; 9:79; 11:9).

The Book of Ecclesiastes is divided as follows:

  1. Qoheleth’s Investigation of Life (1:126:9)
  2. Qoheleth’s Conclusions (6:1012:14)
    1. No One Can Find Out the Best Way of Acting (7:18:17)
    2. No One Knows the Future (9:112:14)

CHAPTER 1

1The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem:* a

2Vanity of vanities,* says Qoheleth,

vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!b

Vanity of Human Toil

3What profit have we from all the toil

which we toil at under the sun?* c

4One generation departs and another generation comes,

but the world forever stays.

5The sun rises and the sun sets;

then it presses on to the place where it rises.

6Shifting south, then north,

back and forth shifts the wind, constantly shifting its course.

7All rivers flow to the sea,

yet never does the sea become full.

To the place where they flow,

the rivers continue to flow.

8All things are wearisome,*

too wearisome for words.

The eye is not satisfied by seeing

nor has the ear enough of hearing.d

9What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!e 10Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us.f 11There is no remembrance of past generations;g nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.*

I. QOHELETH’S INVESTIGATION OF LIFE

Twofold Introduction. 12I, Qoheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13and I applied my mind to search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun.h

A bad business God has given

to human beings to be busied with.

14I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind.* i

15What is crooked cannot be made straight,

and you cannot count what is not there.*

16j Though I said to myself, “See, I have greatly increased my wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my mind has broad experience of wisdom and knowledge,” 17yet when I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.k

18For in much wisdom there is much sorrow;

whoever increases knowledge increases grief.*

* [1:1] David’s son…king in Jerusalem: the intent of the author is to identify himself with Solomon. This is a literary device, by which the author hopes to commend his work to the public under the name of Israel’s most famous sage (see 1 Kgs 5:914).

* [1:2] Vanity of vanities: a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness.

* [1:3] Under the sun: used throughout this book to signify “on the earth.”

* [1:8] All things are wearisome: or, “All speech is wearisome.”

* [1:11] Movement in nature and human activity appears to result in change and progress. The author argues that this change and progress are an illusion: “Nothing is new under the sun.”

* [1:14] A chase after wind: an image of futile activity, like an attempt to corral the winds; cf. Hos 12:2. The ancient versions understood “affliction, dissipation of the spirit.” This phrase concludes sections of the text as far as 6:9.

* [1:15] You cannot count what is not there: perhaps originally a commercial metaphor alluding to loss or deficit in the accounts ledger.

* [1:18] Sorrow…grief: these terms refer not just to a store of knowledge or to psychological or emotional pain. Corporal punishment, sometimes quite harsh, was also employed frequently by parents and teachers.

a. [1:1] Eccl 1:12; 12:910.

b. [1:2] Eccl 12:8.

c. [1:3] Eccl 2:11, 22; 3:9; 5:15.

d. [1:8] Eccl 4:8; 5:911.

e. [1:9] Eccl 3:15; 6:10.

f. [1:10] Eccl 3:15.

g. [1:11] Eccl 2:16.

h. [1:13] Eccl 8:9.

i. [1:14] Eccl 2:11, 17.

j. [1:16] Eccl 2:9.

k. [1:17] Eccl 1:3; 8:16.

CHAPTER 2

Study of Pleasure-seeking. 1I said in my heart,* “Come, now, let me try you with pleasure and the enjoyment of good things.” See, this too was vanity. 2Of laughter I said: “Mad!” and of mirth: “What good does this do?” 3Guided by wisdom,* I probed with my mind how to beguile my senses with wine and take up folly, until I should understand what is good for human beings to do under the heavens during the limited days of their lives.

4I undertook great works; I built myself houses and planted vineyards; 5I made gardens and parks, and in them set out fruit trees of all sorts. 6And I constructed for myself reservoirs to water a flourishing woodland. 7I acquired male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I also owned vast herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, more than all who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I amassed for myself silver and gold, and the treasures of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and delights of men, many women.* 9I accumulated much more than all others before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom, too, stayed with me. 10Nothing that my eyes desired did I deny them, nor did I deprive myself of any joy; rather, my heart rejoiced in the fruit of all my toil. This was my share for all my toil. 11a But when I turned to all the works that my hands had wrought, and to the fruit of the toil for which I had toiled so much, see! all was vanity and a chase after wind. There is no profit under the sun. 12What about one who succeeds a king? He can do only what has already been done.*

Study of Wisdom and Folly. I went on to the consideration of wisdom, madness and folly. 13And I saw that wisdom has as much profit over folly as light has over darkness.

14Wise people have eyes in their heads,

but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I knew that the same lot befalls both.* b 15So I said in my heart, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also, why should I be wise? Where is the profit? And in my heart I decided that this too is vanity. 16c The wise person will have no more abiding remembrance than the fool; for in days to come both will have been forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies* like the fool! 17Therefore I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.

Study of the Fruits of Toil

To Others the Profits. 18And I detested all the fruits of my toil under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who is to come after me. 19And who knows whether that one will be wise or a fool? Yet that one will take control of all the fruits of my toil and wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So my heart turned to despair over all the fruits of my toil under the sun. 21For here is one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and that one’s legacy must be left to another who has not toiled for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22d For what profit comes to mortals from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which they toil under the sun? 23Every day sorrow and grief are their occupation; even at night their hearts are not at rest. This also is vanity.

24* e There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God. 25For who can eat or drink apart from God? 26* f For to the one who pleases God, he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the one who displeases, God gives the task of gathering possessions for the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chase after wind.

* [2:111] The author here assumes the role of Solomon who, as king, would have had the wealth and resources at his disposal to acquire wisdom and engage in pleasurable pursuits. Verses 48 in particular, with their description of abundant wealth and physical gratifications, parallel the descriptions in 1 Kgs 411 of the extravagances of Solomon’s reign.

* [2:3] Guided by wisdom: using all the means money can buy, the author sets out on a deliberate search to discover if pleasure constitutes true happiness.

* [2:8] Many women: the final phrase of this verse is difficult to translate. One word, shiddah, which appears here in both singular and plural, is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. A suggested meaning is “woman” or “concubine,” as it is interpreted here: “many women.” The rest of the section (2:112) seems to be a description of Solomon’s kingdom, and the “many women” would represent his huge harem (1 Kgs 11:13). In rabbinic Hebrew the word comes to mean “chest” or “coffer.”

* [2:12] What…been done: the verse is difficult and elliptical. The words “He can do only” have been added for clarity. The two halves of the verse have been reversed. The author argues that it is useless to repeat the royal experiment described in vv. 111. The results would only be the same.

* [2:14] Yet I knew…befalls both: the author quotes a traditional saying upholding the advantages of wisdom, but then qualifies it. Nothing, not even wisdom itself, can give someone absolute control over their destiny and therefore guarantee any advantage.

* [2:16] The wise person dies: death, until now only alluded to (vv. 1415), takes center stage and will constantly appear in the author’s reflections through the remainder of the book.

* [2:2426] The author is not advocating unrestrained indulgence. Rather he counsels acceptance of the good things God chooses to give. This is the first of seven similar conclusions that Qoheleth provides; see 3:1213, 22; 5:1718; 8:15; 9:79; 11:9.

* [2:26] According to 7:15 and 9:13, God does not make an objective, evidential, moral distinction between saint and sinner. God “gives” as God pleases.

a. [2:11] Eccl 1:3, 17; Sir 44:9.

b. [2:14] Eccl 9:23.

c. [2:16] Eccl 1:11; Wis 2:4.

d. [2:22] Eccl 1:3.

e. [2:24] Eccl 3:1213, 22; 5:1719; 8:15.

f. [2:26] Eccl 7:26; Prv 13:22.

CHAPTER 3

No One Can Determine the Right Time To Act

1* There is an appointed time for everything,

and a time for every affair under the heavens.

2A time to give birth, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

3A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to tear down, and a time to build.

4A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

5A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;

a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

6A time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

7A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

8A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

9a What profit have workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. 11b God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless* into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. 12c I recognized that there is nothing better than to rejoice and to do well during life. 13Moreover, that all can eat and drink and enjoy the good of all their toil—this is a gift of God. 14I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it, or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. 15* d What now is has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by.

The Problem of Retribution. 16e And still under the sun in the judgment place I saw wickedness, and wickedness also in the seat of justice. 17f I said in my heart, both the just and the wicked God will judge, since a time is set for every affair and for every work.* 18I said in my heart: As for human beings, it is God’s way of testing them and of showing that they are in themselves like beasts. 19For the lot of mortals and the lot of beasts is the same lot: The one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life breath. Human beings have no advantage over beasts, but all is vanity. 20g Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return. 21Who knows* if the life breath of mortals goes upward and the life breath of beasts goes earthward? 22h And I saw that there is nothing better for mortals than to rejoice in their work; for this is their lot. Who will let them see what is to come after them?i

* [3:18] The fourteen pairs of opposites describe various human activities. The poem affirms that God has determined the appropriate moment or “time” for each. Human beings cannot know that moment; further, the wider course of events and purposes fixed by God are beyond them as well.

* [3:11] The timeless: others translate “eternity,” “the world,” or “darkness.” The author credits God with keeping human beings ignorant about God’s “work”—present and future.

* [3:15] The verse is difficult. Literally it reads “and God seeks out what was pursued.” It appears to be a variation of the theme in 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

* [3:17] A time is set…work: another possible reading would see this verse referring to a judgment in or after death: “a time for every affair and for every work there” (that is, in death or in Sheol).

* [3:21] Who knows: the author presumes a negative answer: “No one knows.” In place of speculation on impossible questions, the author counsels enjoyment of what is possible (cf. v. 22; but see also 2:1011).

a. [3:9] Eccl 1:3.

b. [3:11] Eccl 8:17; 11:5.

c. [3:12] Eccl 2:24.

d. [3:15] Eccl 1:9.

e. [3:16] Eccl 4:1.

f. [3:17] Eccl 8:6a; 11:9; 12:14.

g. [3:20] Eccl 12:7; Gn 3:19; Sir 17:2.

h. [3:22] Eccl 3:1213; 5:1718.

i. [3:22] Eccl 8:7; 10:14.

CHAPTER 4

Vanity of Toil. 1Again I saw all the oppressions that take place under the sun: the tears of the victims with none to comfort* them! From the hand of their oppressors comes violence, and there is none to comfort them!a 2And those now dead, I declared more fortunate in death than are the living to be still alive.b 3And better off than both is the yet unborn, who has not seen the wicked work that is done under the sun. 4Then I saw that all toil and skillful work is the rivalry of one person with another. This also is vanity and a chase after wind.

5“Fools fold their arms

and consume their own flesh”—*

6Better is one handful with tranquility

than two with toil and a chase after wind!

Companions and Successors. 7Again I saw this vanity under the sun: 8those all alone with no companion, with neither child nor sibling—with no end to all their toil, and no satisfaction from riches. For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good things? This also is vanity and a bad business. 9Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. 10If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. 11So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm? 12Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord* is not easily broken.

13* Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows caution; 14for from a prison house he came forth to reign; despite his kingship he was born poor. 15I saw all the living, those who move about under the sun, with the second youth who will succeed him.* 16There is no end to all this people, to all who were before them; yet the later generations will not have joy in him. This also is vanity and a chase after wind.

Vanity of Many Words. 17c Guard your step when you go to the house of God.* Draw near for obedience, rather than for the fools’ offering of sacrifice; for they know not how to keep from doing evil.

* [4:1] Oppressions…victims…none to comfort: the author obviously feels deeply about the plight of the oppressed, but he seems to feel powerless to do anything. The repetition of “none to comfort” is purposeful, and emphatic.

* [4:5] Consume their own flesh: an enigmatic statement. In the context of vv. 4 and 6 it seems to warn that those who refuse to work for the necessities of life will suffer hunger and impair their bodily health. But the verse could also be intended for the industrious: Even the lazy may manage to have “their own flesh,” that is, have sufficient food to eat.

* [4:12] A three-ply cord: an ancient proverb known centuries before biblical times. The progression (“two together…three-ply”) seems to imply, “If two are good, three are even better.”

* [4:1316] This passage deals with kingship and succession, but is obscure.

* [4:15] The king is no sooner dead than the people transfer their allegiance to his successor.

* [4:17] The house of God: the Temple in Jerusalem. Obedience…sacrifice: the Temple was the place not only for sacrifice but also for instruction in the Law. Sacrifice without obedience was unacceptable; cf. 1 Sm 15:22; Hos 6:6.

a. [4:1] Eccl 3:16; 5:7; 9:45.

b. [4:2] Eccl 6:35.

c. [4:17] 1 Sm 15:22; Ps 40:79; Prv 15:8; 21:3; Hos 6:6.

CHAPTER 5

1* Be not hasty in your utterance and let not your heart be quick to utter a promise in God’s presence. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few.a

2As dreams come along with many cares,

so a fool’s voice along with a multitude of words.

3b When you make a vow to God, delay not its fulfillment. For God has no pleasure in fools; fulfill what you have vowed. 4It is better not to make a vow than make it and not fulfill it. 5Let not your utterances make you guilty, and say not before his representative, “It was a mistake.” Why should God be angered by your words and destroy the works of your hands? 6c Despite many dreams, futilities, and a multitude of words, fear God!

Gain and Loss of Goods. 7d If you see oppression of the poor, and violation of rights and justice in the realm, do not be astonished by the fact, for the high official has another higher than he watching him and above these are others higher still—. 8But profitable for a land in such circumstances is a king concerned about cultivation.*

9e The covetous are never satisfied with money, nor lovers of wealth with their gain; so this too is vanity. 10Where there are great riches, there are also many to devour them. Of what use are they to the owner except as a feast for the eyes alone? 11Sleep is sweet to the laborer, whether there is little or much to eat; but the abundance of the rich allows them no sleep.

12This is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches hoarded by their owners to their own hurt. 13Should the riches be lost through some misfortune, they may have offspring when they have no means. 14f As they came forth from their mother’s womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing from their toil to bring with them. 15This too is a grievous evil, that they go just as they came. What then does it profit them to toil for the wind? 16All their days they eat in gloom with great vexation, sickness and resentment.

17g Here is what I see as good: It is appropriate to eat and drink and prosper from all the toil one toils at under the sun during the limited days of life God gives us; for this is our lot. 18Those to whom God gives riches and property, and grants power to partake of them, so that they receive their lot and find joy in the fruits of their toil: This is a gift from God. 19For they will hardly dwell on the shortness of life, because God lets them busy themselves with the joy of their heart.*

* [5:16] Further counsels on prudence and circumspection in fulfilling one’s religious obligations. It is not the multitude of words but one’s sincerity that counts in the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty (v. 1), especially through obedience (4:17) and reverence (v. 6).

* [5:8] A king concerned about cultivation: the Hebrew text is ambiguous and obscure. The author does not criticize the oppression he describes in v. 7. Now perhaps he expresses the hope that the king would use his power to upbuild agriculture in order to alleviate the hunger and suffering of the poor and oppressed.

* [5:19] The joys of life, though temporary and never assured, keep one from dwelling on the ills which afflict humanity.

a. [5:1] Ps 115:3, 16; Mt 6:7; Jas 1:19.

b. [5:3] Nm 30:3; Dt 23:2224; Prv 20:25; Sir 18:2223.

c. [5:6] Eccl 3:14.

d. [5:7] Eccl 3:16; 4:1.

e. [5:9] Eccl 4:8; Prv 28:22.

f. [5:14] Jb 1:21; 1 Tm 6:7.

g. [5:17] Eccl 2:24.

CHAPTER 6

Limited Worth of Enjoyment. 1There is another evil I have seen under the sun, and it weighs heavily upon humankind: 2a There is one to whom God gives riches and property and honor, and who lacks nothing the heart could desire; yet God does not grant the power to partake of them, but a stranger devours them. This is vanity and a dire plague. 3Should one have a hundred children and live many years, no matter to what great age, still if one has not the full benefit of those goods, I proclaim that the child born dead, even if left unburied, is more fortunate.* 4b Though it came in vain and goes into darkness and its name is enveloped in darkness, 5though it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet the dead child has more peace. 6Should such a one live twice a thousand years and not enjoy those goods, do not both go to the same place?*

7All human toil is for the mouth,* yet the appetite is never satisfied. 8What profit have the wise compared to fools, or what profit have the lowly in knowing how to conduct themselves in life? 9“What the eyes see is better than what the desires wander after.”* This also is vanity and a chase after wind.

II. QOHELETH’S CONCLUSIONS

10Whatever is, was long ago given its name, and human nature is known; mortals cannot contend in judgment with One who is stronger.* 11For the more words, the more vanity; what profit is there for anyone? 12c For who knows what is good for mortals in life, the limited days of their vain life, spent like a shadow? Because who can tell them what will come afterward under the sun?d

* [6:3] Even a large family and exceptionally long life cannot compensate for the absence of good things and the joy which they bring.

* [6:6] Same place: the grave; cf. 3:20; 12:7.

* [6:7] The mouth: symbolic of human desires.

* [6:9] Compare the English proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” However, it could also mean, “The seeing of the eyes is better than the wandering of the desire,” with the emphasis on the actions of seeing and desiring. Seeing is a way of possessing whereas desire, by definition, can remain frustrated and unfulfilled.

* [6:1011] One who is stronger is, of course, God. The more vanity: contending with God is futile.

a. [6:2] Eccl 2:1819.

b. [6:4] Eccl 4:23; Jb 3:11, 16.

c. [6:12] Jb 8:9; 14:2; Ps 102:12.

d. [6:12] Eccl 3:22; 8:7.

A. No One Can Find Out the Best Way of Acting

CHAPTER 7

Critique of Sages on the Day of Adversity

1A good name is better than good ointment,*

and the day of death than the day of birth.a

2It is better to go to the house of mourning

than to the house of feasting,

For that is the end of every mortal,

and the living should take it to heart.b

3Sorrow is better than laughter;

when the face is sad, the heart grows wise.

4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,

but the heart of fools is in the house of merriment.

5It is better to listen to the rebuke of the wise

than to listen to the song of fools;

6For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,

so is the fool’s laughter.

This also is vanity.

7Extortion can make a fool out of the wise,

and a bribe corrupts the heart.

8Better is the end of a thing than its beginning;

better is a patient spirit than a lofty one.

9Do not let anger upset your spirit,

for anger lodges in the bosom of a fool.

10Do not say: How is it that former times were better than these? For it is not out of wisdom that you ask about this.

11Wisdom is as good as an inheritance

and profitable to those who see the sun.

12* For the protection of wisdom is as the protection of money; and knowledge is profitable because wisdom gives life to those who possess it.

13Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked?c 14On a good day enjoy good things, and on an evil day consider: Both the one and the other God has made, so that no one may find the least fault with him.

Critique of Sages on Justice and Wickedness. 15* I have seen all manner of things in my vain days: the just perishing in their justice, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. 16“Be not just to excess, and be not overwise. Why work your own ruin? 17Be not wicked to excess, and be not foolish. Why should you die before your time?” 18It is good to hold to this rule, and not to let that one go; but the one who fears God will succeed with both.

19Wisdom is a better defense for the wise than ten princes in the city, 20d yet there is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin. 21Do not give your heart to every word that is spoken; you may hear your servant cursing you, 22for your heart knows that you have many times cursed others.

23All these things I probed in wisdom. I said, “I will acquire wisdom”; but it was far beyond me. 24What exists is far-reaching; it is deep, very deep:* Who can find it out? 25* e I turned my heart toward knowledge; I sought and pursued wisdom and its design, and I recognized that wickedness is foolishness and folly is madness.

Critique of Advice on Women. 26f More bitter than death I find the woman* who is a hunter’s trap, whose heart is a snare, whose hands are prison bonds. The one who pleases God will be delivered from her, but the one who displeases will be entrapped by her. 27See, this have I found, says Qoheleth, adding one to one to find the sum. 28What my soul still seeks and has yet to find is this: “One man out of a thousand have I found, but a woman among them all I have not found.” 29But this alone I have found: God made humankind honest, but they have pursued many designs.

* [7:1] Ointment: a good name can be affirmed only with death, when one is normally anointed. The author dialogues in this section (vv. 114) with traditional wisdom, alternately affirming or countering its assertions. The real value of traditional wisdom lies in its ability to provoke one to thought and reflection, and not to absolve one from such activity.

* [7:12] St. Jerome’s translation of v. 12b gives an edge to wisdom over money: “But learning and wisdom excel in this, that they bestow life on the one who possesses them.”

* [7:1524] The author continues both to affirm and to counter traditional wisdom. He affirms a certain validity to wisdom, but challenges complacency and mindless optimism. His sense of life’s uncertainty and insecurity finds expression, for example, in the irony evident when v. 16 is read in the light of vv. 2024: How can one be “excessively” just or wise, when justice and wisdom may be out of reach to begin with? The only sure thing is to “fear God” (v. 18).

* [7:24] Far-reaching…deep: the spatial metaphor here emphasizes wisdom’s inaccessibility, a frequent theme in wisdom literature; cf. Jb 28; Prv 30:14; Sir 24:2829; Bar 3:1423.

* [7:2529] The emphasis is on the devious designs of human beings in general, reflecting the viewpoint of Genesis.

* [7:26] More bitter than death…the woman: warnings against the scheming, adulterous woman are common in ancient wisdom (e.g., Prv 2:1619, etc.).

a. [7:1] Eccl 4:2; Prv 22:1.

b. [7:2] Eccl 12:1.

c. [7:13] Eccl 1:15.

d. [7:20] Jb 9:2; 1 Kgs 8:46; Rom 3:23.

e. [7:25] Eccl 1:17.

f. [7:26] Prv 5:4.

CHAPTER 8

Critique of Advice To Heed Authority

1* Who is like the wise person,

and who knows the explanation of things?

Wisdom illumines the face

and transforms a grim countenance.

2Observe the command of the king, in view of your oath to God. 3Be not hasty to withdraw from the king; do not persist in an unpleasant situation, for he does whatever he pleases. 4His word is sovereign, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”

5* a “Whoever observes a command knows no harm, and the wise heart knows times and judgments.” 6b Yes, there is a time and a judgment for everything. But it is a great evil for mortals 7c that they are ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to them how it will be? 8No one is master of the breath of life so as to retain it, and none has mastery of the day of death. There is no exemption in wartime, nor does wickedness deliver those who practice it. 9All these things I saw and I applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun, while one person tyrannizes over another for harm.

The Problem of Retribution. 10Meanwhile I saw the wicked buried. They would come and go from the holy place. But those were forgotten in the city who had acted justly. This also is vanity.* 11Because the sentence against an evil deed is not promptly executed, the human heart is filled with the desire to commit evil— 12* because the sinner does evil a hundred times and survives. Though indeed I know that it shall be well with those who fear God, for their reverence toward him; 13and that it shall not be well with the wicked, who shall not prolong their shadowy days, for their lack of reverence toward God.

14This is a vanity that occurs on earth: There are those who are just but are treated as though they had done evil, and those who are wicked but are treated as though they had done justly. This, too, I say is vanity. 15d Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.

16I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, though neither by day nor by night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17e and I saw all the work of God: No mortal can find out the work that is done under the sun. However much mortals may toil in searching, no one finds it out; and even if the wise claim to know, they are unable to find it out.

* [8:14] The author continues to quote traditional wisdom but then to counter and qualify it. He concedes wisdom’s advantages (v. 1), but then describes the subservience and sometimes demeaning demands required of the sage in the court of the king (vv. 24).

* [8:59] The wise exhibit keen insight about human nature and the course of events (vv. 56a). Yet their knowledge and wisdom confront certain limits, such as the mystery of evil and the time and inevitability of death (vv. 6b9).

* [8:10] This difficult verse seems to contrast the wicked, who die enjoying a good reputation as pious individuals, and the just, who are quietly forgotten.

* [8:1217] The author admits that traditional wisdom affirms the long life and success of the just and the short unhappy life of the wicked (vv. 12b13). But he points out clear exceptions: the wicked who live long, and the just who suffer for no apparent reason (v. 14). His puzzlement and frustration prompt a twofold response: acceptance of whatever joy God chooses to give each day, and honest acknowledgment that no one can discover “the work of God” (cf. 3:11; 7:13; 11:5).

a. [8:5] Prv 19:16.

b. [8:6] Eccl 3:17; 9:12.

c. [8:7] Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 10:14.

d. [8:15] Eccl 2:24; 3:22; 5:1718; 9:7.

e. [8:17] Eccl 3:11.

B. No One Knows the Future

CHAPTER 9

1All this I have kept in my heart and all this I examined: The just, the wise, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Love from hatred* mortals cannot tell; both are before them. 2a Everything is the same for everybody: the same lot for the just and the wicked, for the good, for the clean and the unclean, for the one who offers sacrifice and the one who does not. As it is for the good, so it is for the sinner; as it is for the one who takes an oath, so it is for the one who fears an oath. 3Among all the things that are done under the sun, this is the worst, that there is one lot for all. Hence the hearts of human beings are filled with evil, and madness is in their hearts during life; and afterward—to the dead!

4For whoever is chosen among all the living has hope: “A live dog* is better off than a dead lion.” 5b For the living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything. There is no further recompense for them, because all memory of them is lost. 6For them, love and hatred and rivalry have long since perished. Never again will they have part in anything that is done under the sun.

7c Go, eat your bread* with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. 8At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head. 9Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun. 10Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have; for there will be no work, no planning, no knowledge, no wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

The Time of Misfortune Is Not Known. 11Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike. 12Human beings no more know their own time than fish taken in the fatal net or birds trapped in the snare; like these, mortals are caught when an evil time suddenly falls upon them.

The Uncertain Future and the Sages. 13On the other hand I saw this wise deed under the sun, which I thought magnificent. 14Against a small city with few inhabitants advanced a mighty king, who surrounded it and threw up great siegeworks about it. 15But in the city lived a man who, though poor, was wise, and he delivered it through his wisdom. Yet no one remembered this poor man. 16d Though I had said, “Wisdom is better than force,” yet the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words go unheeded.

17The quiet words of the wise are better heeded

than the shout of a ruler of fools.

18Wisdom is better than weapons of war,

but one bungler destroys much good.

* [9:13] Love from hatred…everything is the same: God seems to bestow divine favor or disfavor (love or hatred) indiscriminately on the just and wicked alike. More ominously, the arbitrariness and inevitability of death and adversity confront every human being, whether good or bad.

* [9:46] A live dog…no further recompense: human reason and experience persuaded Qoheleth that death with its finality and annihilating power cruelly negates the supreme value—life, and with it, all possibilities (cf. v. 10). Faith in eternal life has its foundation only in hope and trust in God’s promise and in God’s love.

* [9:710] Go, eat your bread…enjoy life: the author confesses his inability to imprison God in a fixed and predictable way of acting. Thus he ponders a practical and pragmatic solution: Seize whatever opportunity one has to find joy, if God grants it.

a. [9:2] Eccl 2:14; 3:15.

b. [9:5] Eccl 1:11; 2:16.

c. [9:7] Eccl 2:24; 8:15; 11:9.

d. [9:16] Prv 24:5.

CHAPTER 10

1Dead flies corrupt and spoil the perfumer’s oil;

more weighty than wisdom or wealth is a little folly!*

2The wise heart turns to the right;

the foolish heart to the left.*

3Even when walking in the street the fool, lacking understanding, calls everyone a fool.*

4Should the anger of a ruler burst upon you, do not yield your place; for calmness* abates great offenses.

5I have seen under the sun another evil, like a mistake that proceeds from a tyrant: 6a fool put in high position, while the great and the rich sit in lowly places. 7I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes* went on foot like slaves.

8Whoever digs a pit may fall into it,a

and whoever breaks through a wall, a snake may bite.

9Whoever quarries stones may be hurt by them,

and whoever chops wood* is in danger from it.

10If the ax becomes dull, and the blade is not sharpened, then effort must be increased. But the advantage of wisdom is success.

11If the snake bites before it is charmed,

then there is no advantage in a charmer.*

12Words from the mouth of the wise win favor,

but the lips of fools consume them.

13b The beginning of their words is folly,

and the end of their talk is utter madness;

14yet fools multiply words.

No one knows what is to come,

for who can tell anyone what will be?c

15The toil of fools wearies them,

so they do not know even the way to town.

No One Knows What Evil Will Come

16Woe to you, O land, whose king is a youth,*

and whose princes feast in the morning!

17Happy are you, O land, whose king is of noble birth,

and whose princes dine at the right time—

for vigor* and not in drinking bouts.

18Because of laziness, the rafters sag;

when hands are slack, the house leaks.

19A feast is made for merriment

and wine gives joy to the living,

but money answers* for everything.

20Even in your thoughts do not curse the king,

nor in the privacy of your bedroom curse the rich;

For the birds of the air may carry your voice,

a winged creature* may tell what you say.

* [10:1] Dead flies…a little folly: wisdom is vulnerable to even the smallest amount of folly. The collection of proverbs and sayings in chaps. 10 and 11 demonstrates the author’s sharp insight and strengthens his credentials as a sage. It thus adds weight to his critique of the wisdom tradition’s tendencies to self-assurance and naive optimism.

* [10:2] Right…left: the right hand is identified with power, moral goodness, favor; the left hand with ineptness and bad luck.

* [10:3] Calls everyone a fool: or, “tells everyone that he (himself) is a fool.”

* [10:4] Calmness: a frequent motif of wisdom; silence and reserve characterize the wise, while boisterousness and impetuosity identify the fool.

* [10:57] A fool…the rich…slaves…princes: another wisdom motif: astonishment at the reversal of the usual order in the world and in human affairs.

* [10:89] A pit…a wall…stones…wood: popular sayings reflecting the need for caution and alertness against the unexpected. Snakes could find a home in the stone walls of ancient Palestine; cf. Am 5:19.

* [10:1011] Ax…success…snake…charmer: possession of the proper skill (a form of “wisdom”) can ensure success, as in the case of a sharpened ax; but one must use it before it is too late (v. 11). Cf. Sir 12:13.

* [10:16] A youth: thus too young and inexperienced to govern effectively. Feast in the morning: either concluding a whole night of revelry or beginning a new round of merrymaking.

* [10:17] For vigor: or, “with self-control, restraint.”

* [10:19] Money answers: a stark reminder that such a life requires money. It could also be an affirmation of the power of wealth: “Money conquers all.”

* [10:20] Birds of the air…winged creature: a common motif in ancient literature, and a vivid reminder of the need for caution in dealing with the rich and powerful.

a. [10:8] Prv 26:27; Ps 7:16; Sir 27:29.

b. [10:13] Eccl 5:2; 6:11.

c. [10:14] Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 10:14.

CHAPTER 11

1* Send forth your bread upon the face of the waters;

after a long time you may find it again.

2Make seven, or even eight portions;

you know not what misfortune may come upon the earth.

No One Knows What Good Will Come

3* When the clouds are full,

they pour out rain upon the earth.

Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,

wherever it falls, there shall it lie.

4One who pays heed to the wind will never sow,

and one who watches the clouds will never reap.

5Just as you do not know how the life breath

enters the human frame in the mother’s womb,

So you do not know the work of God,

who is working in everything.a

6In the morning sow your seed,

and at evening do not let your hand be idle:

For you do not know which of the two will be successful,

or whether both alike will turn out well.

Poem on Youth and Old Age. 7* Light is sweet! and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. 8However many years mortals may live, let them, as they enjoy them all, remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that is to come is vanity.

9Rejoice, O youth, while you are young

and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.

Follow the ways of your heart,

the vision of your eyes;

Yet understand regarding all this

that God will bring you to judgment.

10Banish misery from your heart

and remove pain from your body,

for youth and black hair are fleeting.*

* [11:12] These two sayings can be understood against a commercial background. They acknowledge the uncertainty and risk such activity involves. At the same time they encourage action and a spirit of adventure. The first (v. 1) speaks of trade and overseas investment: Export your grain (“bread”) to foreign markets and you may be surprised at the substantial profits. The second (v. 2) encourages diversification of investment (seven, or even eight shipments of grain) to insure against heavy losses.

* [11:36] Verses 3, 4, and 6 expand on the theme of uncertainty and human inability to assess accurately every situation. Verse 4, however, comments on the disadvantages of too much caution: Only those willing to risk will enjoy success. But only the Creator knows the mystery of the “work of God” (v. 5).

* [11:710] The concluding part of the book opens with a final bittersweet homage to life and an enthusiastic encouragement to rejoice in its gifts while they are within grasp.

* [11:10] Fleeting: lit., “vanity.”

a. [11:5] Eccl 3:11; 7:13; 8:17.

CHAPTER 12

1* Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,

before the evil days come

And the years approach of which you will say,

“I have no pleasure in them”;

2Before the sun is darkened

and the light and the moon and the stars

and the clouds return after the rain;

3* When the guardians of the house tremble,

and the strong men are bent;

When the women who grind are idle because they are few,

and those who look through the windows grow blind;

4When the doors to the street are shut,

and the sound of the mill is low;

When one rises at the call of a bird,

and all the daughters of song are quiet;

5When one is afraid of heights,

and perils in the street;

When the almond tree blooms,

and the locust grows sluggish

and the caper berry is without effect,

Because mortals go to their lasting home,

and mourners go about the streets;

6* Before the silver cord is snapped

and the golden bowl is broken,

And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,

and the pulley is broken at the well,

7And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,

and the life breath returns to God who gave it.* a

8Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,

all things are vanity!b

Epilogue. 9* Besides being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge, and weighed, scrutinized and arranged many proverbs. 10Qoheleth sought to find appropriate sayings, and to write down true sayings with precision. 11The sayings of the wise are like goads; like fixed spikes are the collected sayings given by one shepherd.* 12c As to more than these,* my son, beware. Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.

13* d The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this concerns all humankind; 14e because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.

* [12:17] The homage to life of 11:710 is deliberately balanced by the sombre yet shimmering radiance of this poem on old age and death. The poem’s enigmatic imagery has often been interpreted allegorically, especially in vv. 35. Above all it seeks to evoke an atmosphere as well as an attitude toward death and old age.

* [12:35] An allegorical reading of these verses sees references to the human body—“guardians”: the arms; “strong men”: the legs; “women who grind”: the teeth; “those who look”: the eyes; “the doors”: the lips; “daughters of song”: the voice; “the almond tree blooms”: resembling the white hair of old age; “the locust…sluggish”: the stiffness in movement of the aged; “the caper berry”: a stimulant for appetite.

* [12:6] The golden bowl suspended by the silver cord is a symbol of life; the snapping of the cord and the breaking of the bowl, a symbol of death. The pitcher…the pulley: another pair of metaphors for life and its ending.

* [12:7] Death is portrayed in terms of the description of creation in Gn 2:7; the body corrupts in the grave, and the life breath (lit., “spirit”), or gift of life, returns to God who had breathed upon what he had formed.

* [12:9] A disciple briefly describes and praises the master’s skill and reputation as a sage.

* [12:11] One shepherd: perhaps referring to the book’s author, who gathers or “shepherds” together its contents. God could also be “the one shepherd,” the ultimate depository and source of true wisdom.

* [12:12] As to more than these: the words seem to refer to the writings of Ecclesiastes and other sages. They are adequate and sufficient; any more involves exhaustive labor.

* [12:1314] These words reaffirm traditional wisdom doctrine such as fear of God and faithful obedience, perhaps lest some of the more extreme statements of the author be misunderstood. Although the epilogue has been interpreted as a criticism of the book’s author, it is really a summary that betrays the unruffled spirit of later sages, who were not shocked by Qoheleth’s statements. They honored him as a hakam or sage (v. 9), even as they preserved his statements about the futility of life (v. 8), and the mystery of divine judgment (8:17; 11:5).

a. [12:7] Eccl 3:2021; Jb 34:1415.

b. [12:8] Eccl 1:2.

c. [12:12] Eccl 1:18.

d. [12:13] Eccl 5:6.

e. [12:14] Eccl 11:9.