Qoheleth on the use and abuse


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Trinity Journal 8 NS (1987) 159-177

Copyright © 1987 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission.





Qoheleth's insights into political power and its use and abuse have

escaped the notice of most interpreters even though he had a great deal to

say in this area. Scholars either ignore his political insights altogether or

suggest that: his attitude towards the subject borders on indifference.1

Political oppression and the corruption that exists in high places,

however, are the only vices that Qoheleth analyzes in any detail in his

book. He hardly concerns himself with other forms of questionable

behavior, such as a life of sensuality and pleasure seeking; he only says

that in the final analysis these pursuits fail to satisfy (2:4-11).

Qoheleth s concern for political matters and in particular for matters

related to oppression is not surprising. In ancient Israel, as elsewhere in

the ancient near east, the divinely imposed duty of rulers to protect the

poor and easily oppressed is part of the heritage ofwisdom.2 Moreover,

biblical wisdom is often highly political in nature and can frequently be

defined as the ability to work successfully in a political situation.3 While

wisdom's many roots include the marketplace and ordinary world of folk

wisdom, a primary Sitz im Leben of wisdom was the royal court. In

Egypt, professional sages instructed young princes and future bureau-

crats, and Sumerian and Babylonian scribes similarly had important

governmental roles.4 While not exclusively devoted to this subject, much

of Ecclesiastes addresses the political arena.

Qoheleth examines the use of political power in eight separate

passages. These passages, when analyzed and compared, form a coherent

statement on political authority and life under it. This statement is

carefully woven into the fabric of the whole book of Ecclesiastes and

makes up a significant part of Qoheleth's world view.

1E.g., James L. Crenshaw (Old Testament Wisdom [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981]

143) comments that Qoheleth recognized the existence of injustice but says that he, unlike

the prophets, felt no need to do battle with it.

2See F. Charles Fensham, "Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in the Ancient Near Eastern

Legal and Wisdom Literature," JNES 21 (1962) 129-39. Cf. The Protests of the Eloquent

Peasant, ANET 407-10, and the following passage from The Instructions for King Meri-

(ANET, 415): "Do justice whilst thou endurest upon earth. Quiet the weeper; do not

oppress the widow; supplant no man in the property of his father. . . ."

3Cf. R. B. Y. Scott, "Solomon and the Beginnings of Wisdom," VTSup 3 (1955) 270.

4Crenshaw, Wisdom 28. Cf. The Instructions of Vizier Ptah-Hotep, A NET 412-14.


I. 3:15c-17

The first important passage is 3: 15c-17. This passage seems out of place

as it appears in most translations. In the preceding passage, 3:9-15b,

Qoheleth contrasts the transitory nature of human accomplishments with

the eternality of God's works. He then suddenly moves into a brief

discourse on corruption and injustice (3: 16-17). The apparent abruptness of

this change of topic is greatly reduced if one understands 3:15c to be transitional.

The meaning of 15c, JDAr;ne-tx, wp.ibay; Myhilox

Most translations render it something like, "God looks for what has

passed by."5 The central problem is the meaning of the niphal of Jdr here.

In the qal of biblical Hebrew it always means "pursue" or "chase," and

thus by extension from the idea of pursuit with hostile intent, "to

persecute."6 It is found in the niphal only here and in Lam 5:5, where it

means "to be pursued.”7 Most scholars assume that the natural transla-

tion, "God looks for the persecuted," would be out of place in the context,

of Eccl 3:9-15, and so render ~"3 as "that which has passed by" or

something similar. This and other such translations, however, neither

accurately render the Hebrew nor make theological sense.8 The line is

best understood as meaning "God seeks the persecuted. "The use of the

piel wq.B supports this rendition. S. Wagner says that this verb is

generally used in three ways. Sometimes it simply means to seek objects,

as in I Sam 9:3 and I Kgs 2:40. Sometimes it is used with an auxiliary verb

in a figurative sense, as in "to seek to kill" (I Sam 19: 10). But wq.B is also;


6E.g. Amos 1:11; Ezek 35:6.

7Literally "We are pursued upon our necks," the line may mean something like, "Our

pursuers are on our heels," or it could mean, "We are driven hard," i.e. we are oppressed.

8See George Aaron Barton, Ecclesiastes (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912) 107;

Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes (Downer's Grove, III.: Inter-Varsity, 1983) 83; Franz

Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.) 264; and Robert Gordis, Koheleth

-The Man and His World (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 156,234. "

Barton argues that in Josh 8: 16 and Jer 29; 18 Jdr means to drive and that therefore the

passive can mean "that which has been driven off, "i.e. things in the past. However, in those passages

the subjects of the verbs are personal, and interpreting the word as "things in the past" is strained.

Eaton says that in late Hebrew Jdr can mean "hurry along" and thus argues that 3:15c

means that God watches over the flurry of human activity. This too stretches the meaning of

the words; even if a meaning "hurry along" is conceded, the translation "God seeks that ;

which (or, 'he who') hurries along" makes little sense.

Delitzsch says that the line means, "God seeks that which is crowded out," on the basis of

the Arabic words mudarif and mutaradifat, but he admits that the ancient cognates are

wanting, and that the LXX, Symmachus, the Targum, and the Syriac all render the line,

"God seeks the persecuted." And Delitzsch's translation really does not make sense.

Gordis similarly interprets the line as, "God always seeks to repeat the past," on the basis

of Arabic and Medieval Hebrew cognates. This rendition, while appearing to be perfect

harmony with its context, actually confuses the issue. Qoheleth's point in 3:14-15b is that

man is trapped in that nothing he does is lasting or original ("new under the sun"), whereas

God is free since he alone is able to be truly creative, and only his work is eternal. Gordis's

translation makes it appear that God is an arch-conservative who rigorously stamps out any

human innovation in order to maintain a safe level of repetition and monotony. This is

surely not Qoheleth's message; he nowhere blames God for the limitations of human life.

used in a legal sense.9 For example, in 2 Sam 4:11, "I will seek his blood

from you," means, "I will require justice for the shedding of his blood

from you."10 Similarly, when Judah took Benjamin down to Egypt, he

said to Jacob, "Seek him from my hand" (Gen 43:9), in other words,

"Consider me to be accountable for his life. "When Ecc13:15c says that

God seeks the: persecuted, it means that he holds their persecutors


As mentioned above, however, the translation, "God seeks the

persecuted," appears strange in its context, a discussion of the temporality

of humanity and the timelessness of God. This problem could be solved

immediately if 15c were treated as belonging to the next section, a brief

discussion of ,corruption and oppression (vv 16-17), but this solution

appears impossible since the opening words of v 16 ("And I saw

something else. ..") clearly begin a new paragraph. While dealing with

the same subject matter as vv 16-17, 15c is outside of and immediately

before that text.

Qoheleth, however, often uses both prolepticism and transitional

passages. Sometimes he gives a short, proleptic summary of a topic he is

about to discuss or of a conclusion he will reach before he actually begins

a detailed discourse. Sometimes, as here, when he is about to move on to

a new paragraph with a new topic, Qoheleth proleptically introduces the

new topic at the end of the paragraph before the new one. The proleptic

line therefore serves as a transition between the two paragraphs that deal

with unrelated topics. Other examples of prolepticism are 1:2 (which

proleptically gives the theme of the whole book), 2:1b-2a (which states in

advance his conclusions, found in v 11, regarding the life of sensuality),

8: 1 (a proleptic introduction to the matter of political prudence,

discussed in 8:2-8c), and 8:8d, which prepares the reader for a discourse

on the problem of theodicy (8:9-17). A major transitional passage

appears in 10:18-20.11 Observe also how 3:17 anticipates the final

conclusion of the work (12: 13-14).

All of this implies that while the paragraph division of the present text

is at the end of v 15, one must regard 15c as part of the following

paragraph, 3:16-17, with respect to the topic of the discourse. The first

passage to deal with the issue of political oppression, therefore, is


As mentioned above, 15c is best translated, "God seeks the persecuted."

Humans, Qoheleth asserts, are creatures of time: all of their activities are

governed by time (3:1-8), are transitory and give no lasting benefit (v 9),

and are never able to move beyond the banal and ordinary (v 15b). Only

God's work is eternal, and the best people can do is try to find a measure

of happiness and contentment in this life (vv 11-14). At this point, the

discussion turns on the line, "and God seeks the oppressed." Why does he

here introduce the concept of political injustice? The reason is surely that

oppression and injustice, more than anything else, fill a man's heart with

bitterness and sorrow and make it impossible for anyone to live

9Siegfried Wagner, "Biqqesh," TDOT 2 (1975) 233-5.

10See also Ezek 3:18,20.

11See discussion below.


according to the philosophy, recommended in vv 11-14, of accepting

one's lot in life with contentment. Wherever the legalized plundering of

people exists, no one can pass through the cycles of life (3:1-8) with

serenity. At times weeping and mourning are appropriate, Qoheleth says,

but joy and dancing also have their seasons. In understanding and

accepting the limitations imposed by time, one gains the possibility of

living with a heart at peace. But all this is rendered meaningless when

people live under the weight of oppression.

The meaning of 3:16 is both clear and familiar. Qoheleth looks to the

law courts--the gates--and there sees injustice and oppression where

righteousness ought to triumph and the rights of the poor ought to be

protected. The frequent reference in the prophets to the abuse and

plundering of the defenseless demonstrates that such was all too common

in ancient Israel, as indeed throughout history. Although he does not cry

out his indignity in the streets, Qoheleth is no less moved by what he sees.

Like the prophets, he considers the hopelessness of the situation (for he

knows that no one, neither king nor preacher, can stop this universal

crime), and looks for their vindicator in God (v 17). Qoheleth is not a

prophet, however, and he issues no stem warnings of a terrible day of

wrath that will overwhelm the wicked and drive them away like dust. Nor

does he offer any clear vision of a day when the righteous will be gathered

to Zion to enjoy its peace and joy. He can only speak, in terms that are

more abstract and philosophical than prophetic, of a coming divine if


The precise meaning of v 17, especially 17b, is somewhat debated. The

MT can be rendered: "I said in my heart, 'God will judge both the

righteous and the wicked, for a time for everything and every deed is

there.”’ What does he mean by "there" (MwA)? Barton amends the pointing

to Mw and so reads, "He has set a time for every matter,"12 but as Gordis

notes, the position of the word at the end of the line and the unanimous

testimony of the versions oppose this solution.13 Delitzsch, citing

Gen 49:24, says that MwA here means "with God,"14 but that text hardly

proves that MwA here carries that sense. Eaton compares Isa 48:16 to Eccl

3: 17 and argues that it can mean, "with reference to those events,"15 but

here again the comparison is weak and Eaton's interpretation is unsubstantiated.

Since the present text is eschatological (its primary concern is with the

issue of God's judgment of oppressors), another eschatological use of MwA

could help clarify the present text. Such a usage is found in Ps 14:5a,

"There they [the wicked] are in great fear. "The psalm deals with the fool

who says there is no God and therefore feels free to commit acts of cruelty

and oppression against God's people. V 4 asks, "Do all the evildoers not

know?" and follows this query with the somewhat enigmatic line in 5a, f

cited above. In context, the line must refer to some day of judgment and

vindication of his people by Yahweh. "There" is either shorthand for the

12Barton, Ecclesiastes 111.

l3Gordis, Koheleth 235.

14Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes 266.

15Eaton, Ecclesiastes 85.


time and place of judgment or refers to Sheol, in which case the ideas of

the grave and judgment have been merged. A related usage is found in

Job3: 17-19, where "there" clearly refers to the grave. In this passage Job

presents the idea of judgment in the sense that death is the great leveler

and treats the mighty and the weak alike.

A patten l of the use of MwA thus emerges: "there" refers to the

expectation of an eschatological divine judgment on those who have

oppressed the poor and weak of God's people. The time and place of this

judgment is uncertain, but it is related to the idea of death and the grave.

Beyond that, this "eschatological hope" is remarkably undefined. It is

only "there,” with no clear indication of how or when this judgment will

take place. Qoheleth does not speculate about what type of punishment

the wicked will receive. Eccl 3:15c-17 acknowledges that political

oppression is a universal and unrestrainable phenomenon, but offers the

the hope, albeit an undefined one, of divine judgment and vindication.

II. 4:1-3

Qoheleth here grieves over the hopelessness of the poor. So far is he

from having a solution to political oppression that he confesses that in his

mind a person is better off dead--or more than that, never having been

born--that to be alive and have to face this heartbreaking reality. The

candor of this passage should not be taken as a recommendation of

suicide. Qoheleth is openly describing what he has felt. He is not here

offering the conclusions of his inquiries; still less is he acting as a prophet

giving a Word from Yahweh on the situation. His words therefore should

not be regarded as if they posed some theological problem or contradic-

tion to biblical ethics: Who, in looking on the misery of the poor and

oppressed, has not sometime felt what Qoheleth has felt?

There are several grammatical and interpretive problems in this text.

In v 2a, the word dyami (lit.: "from [the] hand") strikes the reader as a little

odd. Gordis is probably correct in explaining that it is better to take it in

the sense, "in the hands of," than to presume an understood verb. such as,

"goes forth. "16 The meaning of HaKo (2a) has also been debated. Delitzsch

said that only in this passage does the word, normally translated "power,"

mean "violence." This interpretation is unlikely. The word HaKo often

describes the ability to produce, be it sexually (Job 40:16; Gen 49:3) or

with respect to the earth's fertility (Gen 4:12; Job 31:39). It can refer to

sheer physical strength (Judg 16:5) or to the ability to cope with various

situations Deut 8:17-18; 1 Chr 29:14; Ezra 10:13). As applied to God, it

describes his ability to create (Jer 10: 12) and to deliver his people (Exod

9:16; Isa 63:1 ).17 God's power is his absolute freedom to act in history and

even to create history. The "power" in the hands of the oppressors in Eccl

4:1 is more than their acts of violence toward the poor; it is the

unrestrained freedom they have to do as they wish. The politics of power

l6Gordis, Koheleth 238. See also Eaton, Ecclesiastes 91.

17John N. Oswalt, "koah," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago:

Moody, 1980) 1:436-7.


means that the poor do not have the freedom to experience what joy life

under the sun offers. The rich, meanwhile, do whatever they want.

Another grammatical difficulty is found in 4:3, where rw,xE txe has no

governing verb. The solution may be simply to supply a verb, such as

yhix;rAqA, "I called," but Gordis contends that rw,xE txe is a nominative, a

usage he says is frequent in Mishnaic Hebrew .18 In any case, it is clear that

Qoheleth considers those who have not yet been born and seen the cruelty

of this world to be more fortunate than. both the living and those who

have lived and died.

Qoheleth expresses the depth of his outrage at the cruelty of the social

structure in this passage. It makes him feel that death and even non-

existence are to be preferred to life. Here again, the idea of death

permeates his reflections on injustice and cruelty. In the former passage,

3:15c-17, death appears as the area of hope for the oppressed; it is "there"

that God will judge the oppressor. Here, death is simply the better

alternative to life. In a world such as this, how can life be said to be better

than death? It is not surprising that in 3:18-22, the passage that comes

between these two. texts, the focus is death itself. Death, the passage says,

reduced man to the level of the animals, and no one, in looking at the

dead bodies of people and animals, can see any evidence that man has

transcended death. God has shown us by death that we are but animals,

and that not only because we all die, but because we too live by the law of

the jungle.


In this text, Qoheleth asserts political ambitions and their fulfillment c'

to be meaningless. In v 13 he claims that a poor but wise youth is better

than an old but foolish king. In what sense is the youth "better”? the key

is in the infinitive rhez.Ahil; (v 13b). Normally translated, "to take advice,"

the word is better translated, "to take warning."19 The youth's position is

superior in that, unlike the king, he still knows how to protect his own

interests. The youth is aware of both danger and opportunity as he moves

up. The king, however, is in an entrenched position. He is like a warship

that has ceased maneuvering, dropped anchor, and assumed a defensive

posture. He is powerful but vulnerable.

Interpreters often assume that v 14 refers to the poor youth mentioned

above, but this is not correct. First, the nearer substantive, j`l,m,, is more

likely to be the subject of v 14 than j`l,y,. Second, the text has not yet

indicated that the youth of v 13 became king. So far; the only king

mentioned is the old and foolish one. Therefore, v 14 tells us that the old

king too had once been in poverty. More than that, he had actually been

in prison -perhaps for political reasons since he "came forth to reign."

Now, however, he is no longer astute or resourceful but rigid and cut off

from political reality.

18Gordis, Koheleth 239.

19See 12:12, Ps 19:12, Ezek 33:6.


In due time a second youth20 (the one mentioned in v 13) rises to power

and takes the old king's position. Like Absalom in David's old age, he has

used his youth and political cunning to gain the hearts of the people who

are weary of the now aloof and inflexible aged monarch. Nevertheless, as

far as Qoheleth is concerned, the new king's reign will be no more

significant than that of the old one. The two together are no more than

two points in the long line of history. Just as the masses of people who

went before them knew nothing of them, so those who come after them

will forget soon them.21

Qoheleth makes several points in this passage. First, he asserts that it is

better to be politically weak but aware and active than to be powerful but

inflexible and isolated from reality. Second, he points out that the

political world is highly unstable. Because it is ever changing, it is

dangerous, and part of wisdom is the ability to meet these changes. Third,

he asserts tile fulfillment of political ambitions to be lb,h, meaningless

and transitory. The motivation behind political ambition, fame and the

praise of the masses is utterly vapid. Politics gives no lasting glory.

IV. 5:7-8

The next passage, 5:7-8 (English translations: 8-9), advises the reader

not to be astonished when he first faces the realities of the politics of

oppression. The interpretation of both of these verses is much debated.

The first problem is why, in v 7, Qoheleth feels his reader should not be

shocked at the sight of injustice and corruption in government. His own

explanation is, in 7b, "because one bureaucrat [h.aboGA here "describes the

hierarchy of those who hinder justice"22] is over another, and still other

bureaucrat; are over them." But why should this fact render the reality of

corruption ordinary and not surprising? Some have said that Qoheleth's

point is that bureaucrats are rivals in competition with each other, while

other scholars have argued that the line means that officials are

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