Qoheleth on the use and abuse


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protecting each other's interests.23 Qoheleth's reasoning is not nearly so

cleverly concealed; he is only saying that there are many officials, and as

such there are many potentially corrupt officials and many potential

occasions for corruption. Qoheleth betrays a certain (justifiable) cynicism:

the more people are involved, the greater the probability for wrongdoing.

V 8 is far more difficult; Gordis calls it "an insuperable crux."24 The

NEB translates it to mean that the best thing for a country to have is "a

king whose lands are well tilled." Apart from any grammatical considera-

20The phrase yniweha dl,y,.ha can only mean "the second youth" and not "the youth, the second

(person)" as some (e.g. Eaton, Ecclesiastes 96) assert. Gordis's argument that yniweha here

means"successor"(Koheleth245) is not convincing(seeScott, "Solomon,"224). Therefore,

the second y' tuth is the same as the one mentioned in v 13, whereas the youth of v14, who

has become the old king of v 13, is the implied first youth.

21"Before them" (Mh,ynep;li) means "prior to" here, not "standing before them" (Scott,

"Solomon," 225). As Gordis (Koheleth 245) notes, the king is generally described as

standing befllre his people, not the people before the king.

22R. Hentschke, "gabhoah." TDOT 2 (1975) 360.

23Eaton, Ecclesiastes 101.

24Gordis, Koheleth 250.


tions, it is hard to see how "a king whose lands are well tilled" offers a

nation a particular advantage. Delitzsch translates the verse, "But the

advantage of a country consists always in a king given to the arable

land. "25 That is, a king should devote himself to agriculture instead of

war. This interpretation, which interprets 7 as "given to" in the sense of

"devoted to," reads too much into the text and does not relate to the

problem of corruption. Barton's translation, "But an advantage to a

country on the whole is a king --(i.e.) an agriculturalland,"26 makes no

sense and therefore is, as Gordis says, "obviously unsatisfactory."27

Gordis's own translation ("The advantage of land is paramount; even a

king is subject to the soil"28), however, is equally doubtful. This

translation, based on Tg. Ibn Ezra, does not relate to the context (What

does the "advantage of the land. .." have to do with bureaucratic

oppression?) and is grammatically most unlikely. It requires that one

render lKoBa as "paramount" and dbAf

as its antecedent, all of which are unlikely. Norman Gottwald translates

the verse, "But the gain of a country in such circumstances would be a

king who serves fields."29 He comments: "It would be best, he opines, if

the king's absolute power were used to upbuild agriculture to the benefit

of the impoverished cultivators of the soil."30 Gottwald's insertion of the

subjunctive mood is questionable, however, as is his rendition of the

niphal dbAf

on agriculture has to do with an oppressive bureaucracy still remains.

The interpreter of this verse encounters two problems. The first of

these is the word lKoBa, "in all." While Eaton may be correct to render it as

"for everyone,"3. It is probably best to translate it with Barton as "on the

whole."32 The second is the phrase, dbaf

this phrase means "a king for a tilled field. " The niphal of dbf here, as in

all other cases,33 means "tilled." Only "field, " and not "king, " may act as

its subject. "Tilled field," by metonomy, represents the whole concept of

agriculture. The verse may be legitimately, if periphrastically, translated:

"Here is something which, on the whole, benefits the land: a king, for the

sake of agriculture. "

The above translation clarifies the relationship of the verse to its

context. Qoheleth has told the reader not to be surprised at the

corruption that exists in all bureaucracies--the sheer numbers of people

involved makes some degree of abuse of power inevitable. Nevertheless,

Qoheleth does not espouse anarchy. Governments may be evil, but they

25Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes 294-5.

26Barton, Ecclesiastes 126.

27Gordis, Koheleth 250.


29Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia:

Fortress Press, 1985) 581.

30Ibid. 582.

31Eaton, Ecclesiastes 101.

32Barton, Ecclesiastes 126.

33Ezek 36:9, 34; Deut 21:4.


are a necessary evil. Citing an economic example34 to prove his point,

Qoheleth asserts that the order and structure imposed on society by the

monarch be 1efit agricultural production. Without government, mainten-

ance of fixed, boundaries, aqueducts, and other conditions necessary for

crop production would be impossible. Naivete would expect all civil

servants to be good and upright, and, disappointed in this, could turn

from an unqualified acceptance of government to an unqualified disdain

for all government. But Qoheleth rejects such an attitude as immature and

remind: the reader that political power exists out of economic and social necessity.

V. 7:6-9

Qoheleth next refers to political power in a mashal passage. V 7 clearly

deals with political oppression, but since this verse is one among many

proverbs, the reader would not necessarily expect it to relate to its

context. But the verse opens with the word yKi, often rendered "because,"

which gives the impression that what follows may be in some way

explanatory of what precedes it. Eaton's explanation that YKi is not here

"because" but the emphatic "surely,"35 while possible, overlooks the fact

that every other usage of yKi in this passage is explanatory (vv 3,6,9, 10,

12, and 13). The verse, as rendered in most versions, however, does not in

any way appear to qualify v 6.36 Some have tried to resolve the problem

by translating aqw,fo other than by the normal rendition, "oppression."37

This solution is most unlikely; qw,fo, from the verb qwf, "to oppress,

extort,"38 elsewhere always means "oppression" or the like.39 The

problem is not the meaning of qw,fo, but lleOhy;, the poel of llh. This stem

is used in two other places in the OT. One is Isa 44:25, which says that the

Lord makes fools of diviners (i.e. by making their predictions fail), and

the other is Job 12: 17, where Job says that God makes fools of judges (in

that he shows how much higher is his wisdom than theirs). In both cases

the meaning of the poel of llh is not, as many render it, "to drive mad,"

but to make a fool of someone by showing that what they have been

saying is wrong.40 The word has the same sense here. Oppression makes

fools of the wise in that it shows that their advice (i.e. that the righteous

will triumph , that people should not take bribes, that those in authority

34The anarthrous state of the phrase dbAf

several examples of the benefits of government is here listed. Proverbs, m giving examples

of various types of phenomena, regularly employs anarthrous noun phrases. Cf. the various

lists in Prov30 16,19,22,30-31. See also Prov 15:13-15, where various states of mind are

listed as anarthrous noun phrases (e.g., "a good heart).

35Eaton, Eccesiastes 110.

36Delitzsch (j ecclesiastes 317) solves this problem by assuming that a line similar to Prov

16:8 has drop}: ed from the text. This solution is, as Gordis (Koheleth 271) says, both

"unsupported" and "much too conventional for Koheleth."

37E.g. Gordis (Koheleth 270) translates it as "bribe." The NEB, following G. R. Driver

(VT 4 [1954] 229) renders it as "slander."


39E.g. Jer 6:8 22:17; Ezek 22:7, 12;Isa 54:14; Ps 62:11.

40See also H. Cazelles, "hll." TDOT 3 (1978) 412.


should serve in an upright manner) is worthless.41 Why should anyone

suffer for his integrity or not take advantage of a way to easy money?

Everybody is doing it! Hearing the advice of the hoary sage, the young;

fool who knows (or thinks he knows) how the world really works, can

only cackle and smirk (v 6). The real world not only seems. To falsify the

ideals of wisdom and uprightness, but make them look naive.

What follows in 7b, "Bribes destroy the heart," completes the thought

[in synthetic parallelism. Just as the realities of politics make the wise

teacher look foolish, so the pervasiveness of corruption destroys (dbf)42

1what Integrity people have. Each time a man accepts a bribe, he loses

something of his ethics and integrity; in other words, he loses his heart.

Qoheleth concludes with a warning not to be misled by appearances.

The reader should not assume that the triumph of the corrupt bureaucrat

proves that the path of corruption is the path to success (v 8). On the other

hand, those disposed to feel grief and anger over the squeezing of the

innocent by the powerful should not allow themselves to be consumed by

their own indignation (v 9). These emotions do nothing to help the

victims, and only harm the one who holds on to them. Both the one who is

induced to join the oppressors and the one who rages within because of

Oppression are deceived by the appearance that God does not judge,

VI. 8.1-8

In the next passage which deals with political power, 8:1-8, Qoheleth

addresses the proper way to deal with those who hold power. V 1 is

actually transitional. It concludes the preceding passage, 17: 19-29, which

describes the value and scarcity of wisdom, and proleptically looks to the

next discussion. The two topics tie together well since it is the "wise man"

who best knows how to deal with political realities.

Context makes it clear that the "wise man" described in V 1 is more than

a sage skilled in solving riddles and wordplays. The line, rbADA rw,Pe fadeOy

should be rendered, "who knows how to interpret a situation," not, "who

knows how to interpret a word."43 Qoheleth's wise man can deal with the

difficult problems of life that confront him. Another problem is the

meaning of the line xn.,wuy vynAPA zfov;, (lit., "the strength of his face is

transformed"). As several commentators have noted, the word zfo here

means "rudeness, " "shamelessness," or "coarseness."44 The verse indicates

that wisdom teaches a person how to behave in society, particularly

before superiors. The wise man knows how to express, and even to hide,

his true feelings. Therefore, the verse is an apt prologue to 8:2-8.45

41"The word was admirably suited to Ecclesiastes for describing the utter ineffectiveness

of political wisdom" (Ibid. 413).

42Benedikt Otzen, "abhadh," TDOT 1(1974) 22, comments, "In the wisdom literature,

often this word designates destruction done by fools, by the wicked, or by human vice

(always in the piel: Prov 1:32; 29:3; EccI7:7; 9:18; cf. Ps 119:95; Eccl 3:6[?] and IQS 7:6)."

43See, e.g., Barton, Ecclesiastes 151, and Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes 336. Both point out that

rbADA here means "thing" or "matter," and not "word."

44E.g. Barton, Ecclesiastes 151. See Deut 28:50; Prov 7:13; 21:29; Dan 8:23.

45So also Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes 338.


V 2, the proper beginning to the section, begins unusually with ynixE ("I")

without a complement verb. While some scholars follow the LXX, Tg.,

and Syr. in emending the word to txe,46 it is best to retain ynixE as a dramatic

ellipsis meaning, "Now I assert that. ..."47 Qoheleth evidently refers to an

oath of fealty when he encourages obedience to the king's commands

"even because of the oath of God." Barton considers this line to be a pious

interpolation,48 but in fact the line is exactly in keeping with Qoheleth's

outlook on life. Throughout his book, Qoheleth advises the reader at all

times to avoid self destructive or needlessly painful behavior.49 Disobedi-

ence toward the king invites trouble not only from the king but also from

God, in whose name the oath of fealty was taken.

V 3 is more difficult. Qoheleth's advice is in the form of two coordinate

negative imperative clauses and an explanatory" yKi clause. The first clause,

"Do not hasten from his presence,"50 indicates that no one should too

easily abandon his position before the king. One might be inclined to

withdraw from the political world for a number of reasons. One might

fail or angel the king and therefore feel that position and influence have

been hopelessly compromised. Or disgust with the decisions and policies

of the king may tempt the counselor to resign in protest. Qoheleth's

advice is not to abandon quickly proximity to authority and power.

Often one does better to endure the political famine and await vindication.

The next negative clause, "Do not stand in an evil matter (frA rbADA)," has

caused a good deal of speculation. Scott's interpretation, "(Do not)

hesitate to go when the errand is distasteful, "51 is unlikely.52 Delitzsch,

similarly, reads too much into the line by seeing here a warning not to join

a conspiracy against the throne.53 The passage deals with proper behavior

in court, not with matters of conspiracy and revolution. The text actually

gives no more than a simple warning: Do not persistently champion an

idea which the king opposes.54 Sometimes one must accept political

reality and refrain from risking political suicide. The reason for all this is

that "the king does whatever he wishes." Kicking against the goads, while

sometimes a statement of character and moral courage, is often

politically self defeating. V 4 reinforces this idea, and Qoheleth's message

is plain: accept political reality and work with it.

In w 5-6a Qoheleth expands his advice regarding proper decorum

before authority. He says, "The one who obeys commands will not

46Scott, Ecclesiastes (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1965) 240, and Barton, Ecclesiastes 152.

47Gordis, Koheleth 288, cites a similar usage of XXXXX in rabbinic literature.

48Barton, Ecclesiastes 149.

49E.g., 2:22;,1:4;5:2, 11;7:16-17; 12:12.

50The Hebrew XXXXX combines two finite verbs instead of a finite verb and

complimentary infinitive. See Gordis, Koheleth 182, and Barton, Ecclesiastes 152.

51Scott, Ecclesiastes 240. Cf. RSV.

52The necessity of prompt obedience is taken up in v 5 below.

53Delitzsch, 7 Ecclesiastes 340. Cf. NASB.

54Gordis (Koheleth 289) cites a Mishnaic example where (dmf) has the meaning, "persist in.”

See also 2 Kgs 23:3, which indicates that Josiah did more than simply "stand up;" he “took a

stand" on behalf of Yahweh. Also Isa 50:8, where dmf means to stand against a legal opponent.


experience problems." Here again, the passage is not contrasting

obedience with outright rebellion and revolution, but simply warns the

reader not to be slack in carrying out royal commands. The phrase, "will

not experience problems" (fra rbADA fdaye xlo), is a throwback to (fra fbADA) in

v 2. Here too it means "problems" or "trouble" in the sense of incurring

the king's displeasure. In 5b and 6a the words (FPAw;miU tfe) mean "proper

time and procedure."55 If the courtier patiently awaits the proper time, and pleads

his case in the proper way, he will be able to get what he wants. When dealing with authority, one needs patience and tact, not a hot head and an easily bruised ego.

In 6b-8 Qoheleth places his advice on proper behavior before authority

against the backdrop of the broad realities of life. One must know how to

coexist with political power "because a man's troubles are heavy upon

him." In this clause (6b), yKi is neither concessive nor temporal but is

explanatory, and tfarA refers not to moral evil but to trouble and

difficulty .56 Qoheleth expounds on this idea in v 7 and in so doing returns

to a familiar theme: the future is uncertain, and therefore any decision

may lead to success or disaster. One should not add to an uncertain future

the problem of being unpopular with those in power.

V 8 closes off this section and again in proleptic fashion looks forward

to the next. V 8a is ambiguous in that HaUr could mean either "wind" or

"spirit." If the latter is meant, then 8a parallels 8b, both meaning that no

one can escape the day of death. This interpretation, however, needlessly

limits the scope of the passage. Also, there is no clear evidence that "to

restrain the spirit" can serve as a metaphor for preserving life.57 Indeed, *

such an understanding of the language is harsh and unnatural. The line is

more naturally taken to mean that no one can hold back the wind, i.e., the

inevitable. This aptly reflects 8: 1-7: Do not break yourself against powers

greater than you. Qoheleth then fills out his thought by invoking what is

to him the greatest inevitability people face: death (8b). The two images

combine in 8c, where he states that there is no discharge from war .58 The

obligation men have to serve in war is itself a merging of two inevitables:

service to the government, the power of which is as irresistible as the

wind, and the inescapable nature of death. Here, as elsewhere, Qoheleth

exhorts the reader to learn to deal with the realities he faces.

A completely different idea enters at 8d. This line, "Wickedness will

not let go of those who practice it,"59 besides not dealing with the same

idea as 8abc, is grammatically distinct. The first three lines all begin with

(Nyxe) followed by a noun, whereas 8d begins with (xlo) followed by a verb.

In 8d, Qoheleth moves in a new direction. As indicated above, he here

55See Gordis, Koheleth 289.

56On, tfarA cf. Gen 19:19; Prov27:5; Eccl 5:13. Gordis (Koheleth 289-90) understands the

word to mean "evil," and comments," A wise courier will find an opportunity to execute his

designs, because human weakness is widespread, and an opening is sure to appear." This is

too cynical even for Qoheleth.

57Contrary to Gordis, Koheleth 290.

58Deut 20: I ff. is not significant for this passage.

59The verb Fl.emay; could be legitimately translated "deliver," but here a meaning "let go of”

is more natural. Cf. NIV.

proleptically introduces 8:9ff, a passage that wrestles with sin, retribu-

tion, and the theodicy.

VII. 8:9-9:6

Here Qoheleth faces a problem that is larger than, but includes, the

problem of in justice and oppression: What evidence is there that God

judges the wicked? This issue may apply to any form of evil, but nowhere

is the problem of theodicy more urgent than in respect to oppression by

the political powerful, for in no other case are the victims so helpless.

Qoheleth begins in v 9 by telling the reader that he has been considering

the problems posed by "one man dominating another to harm him," i.e.

oppression. Some would translate the final Ol fral; as a reflexive, "to his

own harm," and so understand Qoheleth to mean that oppression hurts

the oppressor as much as the oppressed.60 This translation is most

unlikely. The antecedent of the pronoun is most reasonably the nearer

noun, the subject. Also, while the preposition? can be reflexive, it is

generally used in that way only with a verb of motion.61 Finally, a

reflexive translation contradicts this passage. If oppression harms the

oppressor, then the problem of theodicy disappears! But Qoheleth is

deeply vexed as he considers: Do the wicked really suffer for what they


The Hebrew of v 10 is most difficult. The versions62 and a few Hebrew

manuscripts indicate that instead of UHK;Taw;yiv; ("and they were forgotten "),

the urtext read UHb;Tw;yiv; ("and they were praised"), and should be

followed over the MT. Also, three interpretive problems confront the

reader. The first is the meaning of the word Nkeb;U. Eaton has resolved this

problem and has shown that the word should be translated, "in such

circumstance."63 The second problem is the meaning of the words,

wOdqA MOQm; ("holy place"). At first glance it appears to refer to the temple,

and has been taken as such by some interpreters.64 Gordis, however, has

shown convincingly that the words are a euphemism either for the burial

site or for a synagogue as a place of a memorial service.65 The words are

therefore best translated periphrastically as "funeral. "The third problem

is that Qoheleth does not always make clear who are the subjects of the

five finite verbs in this verse. Nevertheless, context indicates that there are

three subject operating here: Qoheleth, who has observed many

funerals; the wicked, who have been buried; and the unnamed people

who buried the wicked. A reasonable translation is as follows: "And in

such circumstances I saw the wicked buried. And the people came and left

the funeral, at .d the wicked were praise
60Cf. NIV.

61See Ronald.Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline (2nd ed.; Toronto: Univ. of

Toronto, 1976) 4~ .

62The LXX, Vg. OL, Aquila, Theodotian, Coptic, and Syriac-Hexaplar.

63Eaton, Ecclesiastes 121. See Esth 4:16.

64E.g. Barton, Ecclesiastes 153. Delitzsch (Ecclesiastes 346) considers it to refer to either

Jerusalem or the temple.

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