65Gordis, Koheleth 295-6.
172 TRINITY JOURNAL
which Qoheleth saw this happen were when he was meditating on the
problem of oppression (v 9).
V 11 develops this idea: not only are the wicked praised at their
funerals, but even if they are caught in wrongdoing the penalties66
imposed on them are not carried out (further evidence of corruption in
high places!). The average person, aware of all this, can only be inspired
to imitate the evil-doer.
A dialogue of faith follows. First, Qoheleth asserts his continued belief
in the maxim of wisdom that God watches over the righteous for good
but that punishment will pursue the wicked (vv 12-13). This looks back to
the proleptic introduction to the passage, "Evil will not deliver those who
practice it. In V 14, however, he frankly confesses that what he sees often
contradicts what he believes: the wicked get what the righteous deserve,
and the righteous get what the wicked deserve (v 14). Faced with this
"meaninglessness" (lb,h,), he retreats to his oft stated belief that the best
thing a person can do in this life is enjoy its simple pleasures while he can
(v 15). He all but abandons the search for an answer in vv 16-17 and in
effect says that only a fool or a liar would claim to be able to solve this
God really judges the wicked.67 Rather, he is dismayed at appearances. In
the observed world, God does not appear to judge the wicked and even
the wisest of sages is unable to answer all the moral problems posed by
evil, suffering, and injustice. Wisdom and righteousness do not insure
against personal disaster. Also, he sees that the appearance that there is
no divine justice fills the hearts of people with "insanity" (9:3)--the
insanity of embarking on an endless search for love, power and victory
over personal enemies (9:5). Death itself proves that such behavior is
insane. Death not only permanently halts the quest for glory and power,
but it renders the whole process meaningless; it is not only the person that
dies, but all the glory he worked for as well. Whatever fame a person may
have gained in life scarcely survives him, and the power he once possessed
does not benefit him after death.68 "A living dog is better than a dead
lion" (9:4). Qoheleth concludes that humanity is vexed not because God
does not judge, but because he does not appear to judge. Still, he asserts
that the passions that drive men to commit acts of oppression can only be
66The word Mgtp means "sentence" in the sense of a decreed penalty for wrongdoing. See
Israel," ZAW 82 (1970) 390. Crenshaw says that Qoheleth's response to the problem of
theodicy is "despair, criticism of God for not caring, the denial of divine justice, hence of
afterlife (or the denial of it) but is the strongest possible assertion that all the power,
admiration, and wealth acquired in life become immediately worthless at the moment of
death. "Know"(fdy) carries the sense, "experience," and relates to how the dead have been
totally cut off from experiencing the things they once thought important.
GARRET": QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER 173
In this section, Qoheleth advises the reader how to deal with the
caprices of absolute power. He begins by observing that rulers are often
more impressed by wealth and prestige than by real ability. He tells the
story of how a poor but wise resident of a small city delivered his city
when it was, under siege by a mighty king. He does not tell us whether the
poor man delivered the city by military strategy or by diplomacy, for that
is not the issue here.69 For all his ability, the poor man was deemed
worthy of no memorial trophy or similar high honor because he did not
possess political power. Rewards are given only to those who are in a
position to demand them.
Sometimes not only the poor man is ignored, but his good advice is
ignored as well (9:16-18). Qoheleth affirms that the abilities of a wise man
provide a city with greater security than a large arsenal and accomplish
far more in times of crisis than the desperate shouts of a king to his useless
sycophants, but sadly notes that the best advice, if its source is of low
social position, is often ignored. "One sinner destroys much good;" in
other words, one oily-tongued courtesan looking out for his own interests
and prestige in time of crisis can bring down the entire city. Qoheleth
reinforces his point with a proverb: "As dead flies make perfumer's oil
irksome,70 so a little folly outweighs wisdom and dignity"(10:1). Gordis
has captured the sense of the proverb: "Dying flies have little power to
accomplish anything, yet they can destroy the oil; so fools, impotent to
achieve an I good, can yet destroy what has been created by dint of
wisdom."71 Also, as Eaton comments, "folly" here is "a moral rather than
an intellectual complaint."72 A system that prefers position and prestige
to true ability is both wrong and unwise, but Qoheleth, in contrast to
those who blissfully extol wisdom as the all-conquering summum bonum
of life, recognizes that this is how the world often works.
In 10:2-3, Qoheleth points out that the obviously poor character of the
fool should tell against his ever being placed in a position of authority or
having his advice heeded. The fool's heart is on the left and not the right.
Qoheleth obviously does not concern himself with correct anatomy; just
as, for most people, the left side is the clumsy side, so the fool always
thinks in a 1vrong way.73 Here again, he is not describing the common oaf
or buffoon the fool is someone who consistently lives without integrity
or prudence. Nevertheless, Qoheleth insists that anyone with discernment
can spot a fool even by the way he walks, so obvious is his folly (v 4). The
astonishing thing is that the fool's unworthiness is obvious to everyone
69Similarly, attempts to locate historically this incident (e.g., Barton, Ecclesiastes 164-5)
are pointless and futile.
irksome," not in the literal sense, "to cause to stink," as in most translations. I t is a sensitive
nose indeed tlat can smell a dead fly in perfume!
71Gordis, Koheleth 314-5.
72Eaton, Ecclesiastes 133. ,
73See Gordis (Koheleth 317-8), who notes that in many languages and cultures the left
side stands for clumsiness and evil.
174 TRINITY JOURNAL
but the king, who gives him a high government post, as described in
to resign his post on account of an autocratic, arrogant or unwise
superior. The word HaUr here does not mean "spirit" or "wind," but
anger."74 The wise subordinate, rather than abandon his position, will
learn composure75 in order to handle his master's bad temper and poor
judgment and so prevent the king (and the land) from falling into
disaster. Composure and tact, Qoheleth asserts, can prevent76 royal
mistakes that may be disastrous, evil, or both.77
Qoheleth then says that he has seen the errors that a ruler can make.
Delitzsch comments that the ruler referred to is God and that the kaph of
hgAgAw;Ki is here used to soften the apparent blasphemy.78 The kaph,
however, is asseverative ("indeed, truly and does not mean "like" or
“as" here.79 Moreover, understanding the word "ruler" in this (political)
context to refer to God needlessly confounds the passage. Qoheleth
merely means that he has seen rulers make many foolish mistakes.80 In vv
6-7 Qoheleth gives an example of error made by a king. Often, for
whatever reason, a ruler will make the worst possible choice in
appointing a person to fill a high office. While his language indicates that
Qoheleth's viewpoint is aristocratic, the reader should not be misled into
assuming that Qoheleth's only concern is in preserving the ancient regime.
H is reflective pain at seeing the oppression of the poor by the rich and the
sentiment expressed in 9:16 are proof enough to show that he holds no
illusions about the virtue of the upper class. His point is that kings often
appoint people to high offices who are unworthy or incapable. In short,
the king's favor is often bestowed upon the obvious fool of v 3. In this
context, the terms "slave" and "prince" may refer more to Qoheleth's
estimation of the character of the individuals involved than to their social status.
He has seen princes who should be slaves and slaves who should be princes.
74Cf. 7:9; Isa 25:4; Prov 29: II; Prov 16:32 and Judg 8:3. See also Gordis, Koheleth 318,
land Eaton, Ecclesiastes 134, n 3.
spirit, calmness" (Prov 12:18; 15:4). In this passage it means "calmness, composure."
sense of to "quit one's post;" in v 4b it means to "prevent" or "undo." See William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) 231.
which is prevented is not the king's but the subject's: by patience he is prevented from
entering a treasonous conspiracy against the king. In this verse, however, as elsewhere in the
book, notions of revolution and treason simply do not appear.
position is well refuted by Eaton (Ecclesiastes 135).
the word Qoheleth himself is being respectful to the mighty. This reads too much into the
word; it should simply be translated "mistake."
GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER 175
fashion. Here again, the context of the discussion is political, and the
proverbs must be interpreted in that light. The first, V 8, is a familiar
axiom81 which asserts that evil befalls those who plot evil plans. He who
(digs a pit n ay fall into it. This is conventional wisdom speaking: you need
not worry about the climbers and ambitious sycophants, because sooner
or later their sin will find them out. V 9 responds to this. Even someone
doing such Innocent and constructive work as quarrying stones and
splitting wood is equally as likely to suffer a painful or even fatal accident.
Who can say that the thief digging through a wall will always be bitten by
a snake, any more than the woodcutter will always be injured by a flying
splinter? The proverbs in vv 10-11 resolve this dilemma. There is no
guarantee of success in life, but chances for success are increased by
prudence and forethought. By sharpening the ax before starting to chop,
work is mc de easier, and by having a charmer nearby, the risk of being
(bitten by a snake is reduced (presumably this last bit of advice is not given
for the benefit of would-be housebreakers!). Wisdom (here understood as
preparation for contingencies) indeed surpasses folly (2:13).
In vv 12.15 Qoheleth reaffirms that in most situations the king will
indeed favor the wise subject over the fool. A counselor's most important
asset is his speech, and although the wise man's words are agreeable and
satisfying ( NHe), the fool only entraps and destroys himself with his words
(v 12). The more he talks, the more absurd and ridiculous he looks (v 13).
Moreover, there is a qualitative difference between wise counsel and that
of the fool The prudent counselor's advice takes into account various
contingencies, the wise man being always aware that things may not
develop as expected. The foolish counselor, however, assumes in his
arrogance that he understands exactly what will happen in the future, and
formulates his advice accordingly. He babbles on about the future with
an assurance the wise never possess (v 14). In v 15 Qoheleth strikes his
final blow: the foolish counselor's advice is so bad that he cannot even
give simple instructions on how to get to a town, and the one who listens
to his directions will soon find himself lost and weary .82 Woe to him who
listens to the fool's advice in weightier matters!
Ever the realist, however, Qoheleth must now qualify his assertion that
wisdom will generally prevail. There is one situation in which wisdom is
certain to t e ignored -if the king himself is a young fool who is more
intent on drinking and parties than on maintaining good government
(vv 16-17). In that case, the wise counselor has no chance of success.
Having advised his reader on the subject of success in politics,
Qoheleth gives his counsel on personal financial success (11:1-6). As is his
custom, however, he moves into this topic by mean of a transitional
81See Ps 7: I5; Prov 26:27.
82V 15 should be translated, "The effort of fools wearies him who does not know the way
to town." In other words, the long-winded explanation by a fool on how to get to a certain
town only worries a traveler and leaves him more confused than before. The suffix on the
verb Unf,g;yaT; is the antecedent to the relative rw,xE, which is itself the subject of the following
relative clause with the verb fdy (rw,xE should not be translated "that" or "because" here).
See Barton, Ecclesiastes 178.
176 TRINITY JOURNAL
that it relates both to the political text above and the financial text below.
The proverb of v 18 can obviously apply both to the national and to the
domestic situation. V 19, similarly, tells the reader that feasting and
enjoyment of the good things of life is impossible without at least some
money.83 Hence the government must provide for the national economy
and the individual must provide for his personal economy. In v 20
Qoheleth gives a parting bit of advice which completes the transition
from the political to the economic sphere: never assume that anything
you say will remain private and secret. If you speak against the king or a
rich man, your words will come back to haunt you.
Qoheleth has given us a portrait of a wise politician. He is foremost
instructed in moral wisdom. He does not oppress the weak or accept the
way of easy money by extortion or bribery. But he is far from naive and
will not be shocked at the existence of corruption in high places when he
sees it. Also, the wise politician does not seek power or position for the
sake of glory and fame--all this he knows to be lb,h,. Nevertheless, he
does not, in self-righteous arrogance, avoid the dirty world of politics. He
remains close to the seat of power, and, being tactful and prudent, will
know when to keep silent and yield to the king's wishes. He works for the
good of the nation without sacrificing himself or his position, and
patiently awaits the fall of his rival, the ambitious and arrogant counselor
The passages we have examined also carry certain implications
regarding the message of Ecclesiastes. First, Qoheleth considers the
oppression of the weak by the powerful to be among the worst evils of life
in this world. Oppression, he asserts, makes a world that is already
difficult unbearable. For all the sorrows that people face, and despite the
ultimate absurdity that all is made meaningless by death, one may still
find a measure of joy in life. Food, drink, companions, a good day's work
followed by a good night's sleep--these things all give real if passing
pleasure in their time. Oppression, however, deprives people of even
these pleasures and makes all of life bitter. Abuse of one's rights at the
hands of those who are untouchable in their power makes death seem;
preferable to life. Still, Qoheleth is convinced that oppression is an
offense to God and subject to divine judgment. He is dismayed that in the
real world the wicked appear to receive rewards rather than punishment
for their deeds, and he is painfully aware that this only makes the way of
righteousness and wisdom look foolish. Nevertheless, although he does
not know how or where, Qoheleth is sure that God will judge.
Second, although Qoheleth knows that oppression is common and
even inevitable, he does not reject the idea of government or working in
government. Government has a rightful role in maintaining order in
83See Gordis (Koheleth 328) on the meaning of hn,fEya here. The meaning of this verse is
that money provides food and wine and other such things.
GARRET: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER 177
society. Particularly addressing himself to those with access to the royal
court, he advises patience, tact, and forbearance in dealing with
Finally, the above passages make clear that large portions of Ecclesi-
astes are political. Qoheleth feels deeply for the suffering of the lower
classes, but he is not one of them, nor does he directly address them. He
speaks to those who have dealings with the king; the Sitz im Leben of
large portions of Ecclesiastes is the power struggle in the royal court.
Proverbs such as those found in 7:6-9, 10: I, 8ff must be interpreted in that
light. These, verses are not isolated gnomic sayings that deal with life in
general, but pieces of advice to those who have access to the circles of
political power. Qoheleth says a great deal to political leaders, and his
message is this: by wisdom work for a government that is fair and just.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
2065 Half Day Rd.
Deerfield, IL 60015