Trinity Journal 8 NS (1987) 159-177

                        Copyright © 1987 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission.




                          OF POLITICAL POWER


                                                    DUANE A. GARRETT

                               CANADIAN SOUTHERN BAPTIST SEMINARY

                                                  COCHRANE, ALBERTA


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-

Ka-Re (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.

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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<hAv;, is notoriously difficult.

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.

GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                 161


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.

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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.

GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                         163


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.

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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.

GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                 165


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

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.

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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<n, as the adjective "subject" with j`l,m,

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<n, in the active voice. Also, the question of what this comment

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<n, hd,WAl; j`l,m,. Translated literally,

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.

GARRET: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                    167


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<n, hd,wAl; j`l,m, may indicate that. Only one of

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.

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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.

GARRET: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                    169


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.

170                                                                             TRINITY JOURNAL


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.

GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                 171


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<! in the city where they had done


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.

65Gordis, Koheleth 295-6.

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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.


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.

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.

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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."

GARRETT: QOHELETH ON POLITICAL POWER                                 175


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.

176                                                                             TRINITY JOURNAL


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.

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.



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