Qoheleth on the use and abuse


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65Gordis, Koheleth 295-6.


so much wrong. This too is meaningless." The "circumstances" under

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


Nevertheless, Qoheleth's despair does not drive him to doubt whether

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

called "insane.

66The word Mgtp means "sentence" in the sense of a decreed penalty for wrongdoing. See

Esth. 1:20.

67Contrary to J. L. Crenshaw, "Popular Questioning of the Justice of God in Ancient

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

meaningful existence."

68Qoheleth's statement that "the dead know nothing" (9:5) is not speculation about the

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.


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.

70The hiphil of wxb is here used in the metaphorical sense of "to make odious, repulsive,

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.

but the king, who gives him a high government post, as described in

vv 4-7.

In a passage that recalls 8:3, he next tells the reader not to be too hasty

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.

75Gordis(Koheleth 318-9) notes that xprm has three meanings: (1) "healing, cure"(2 Chr. 21:18; 36:16; Prov 4:22; 6:15; 29:1); (2) "well-being" (Prov 13:17; Jer 14:19); and (3) "relaxation of

spirit, calmness" (Prov 12:18; 15:4). In this passage it means "calmness, composure."

76Note the two distinct uses of the hiphil of Hvn in the verse. In v 4a it means to "leave" in the

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.

77Delitzsch (Ecclesiastes 375) interprets this passage incorrectly. He says that the sin

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.

78lbid. 376. Scott (Ecclesiastes 251) also believes that "ruler" here refers to God, but this

position is well refuted by Eaton (Ecclesiastes 135).

79Gordis, Koheleth 319, and Eaton, Ecclesiastes 135.

80Barton (Ecclesiastes 170) translates (hllw) as "unintentional error" and says by using

the word Qoheleth himself is being respectful to the mighty. This reads too much into the

word; it should simply be translated "mistake."


Qoheleth follows this with a series of proverbs arranged in dialectic

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.


passage (10:18-20). The transitional nature of this passage is evident in

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 fool).

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.

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:

Trinity Journal

2065 Half Day Rd.

Deerfield, IL 60015


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu

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