Trinity Journal 8 NS (1987) 159-177
Copyright © 1987 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission.
QOHELETH ON THE USE AND ABUSE
OF POLITICAL POWER
DUANE A. GARRETT
CANADIAN SOUTHERN BAPTIST SEMINARY
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
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
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.
James L. Crenshaw (Old Testament Wisdom
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.
160 TRINITY JOURNAL
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 (-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 . Sometimes it is used with an auxiliary verb
in a figurative sense, as in "to seek to kill" (I Sam ). 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
-The Man and His World (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 156,234. "
Barton argues that in Josh 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 -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
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 -20.11 Observe also how anticipates the final
conclusion of the work (-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 ,20.
11See discussion below.
162 TRINITY JOURNAL
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 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
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
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
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.
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 ; 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 ) and to deliver his people (Exod
; 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.
N. Oswalt, "koah,"
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
Moody, 1980) 1:436-7.
164 TRINITY JOURNAL
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 -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
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 , Ps , 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.
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
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.
166 TRINITY JOURNAL
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.
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.
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."
Gordis (Koheleth 270) translates it as "bribe." The
(VT 4  229) renders it as "slander."
39E.g. Jer 6:8 ; Ezek 22:7, 12;Isa 54:14; Ps 62:11.
40See also H. Cazelles, "hll." TDOT 3 (1978) 412.
168 TRINITY JOURNAL
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,
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, -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; ; 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 ; ; Dan .
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., ;,1:4;5:2, 11;7:16-17; .
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.
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
Syntax: An Outline (2nd ed.;
62The LXX, Vg. OL,
63Eaton, Ecclesiastes 121. See Esth 4:16.
64E.g. Barton, Ecclesiastes 153. Delitzsch (Ecclesiastes 346) considers it to refer to either
65Gordis, Koheleth 295-6.
172 TRINITY JOURNAL
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
66The word Mgtp means "sentence" in the sense of a decreed penalty for wrongdoing. See
67Contrary to J. L. Crenshaw, "Popular Questioning of the Justice of God in Ancient
theodicy is "despair, criticism of God for not caring, the denial of divine justice, hence of
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 (-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.
174 TRINITY JOURNAL
but the king, who gives him a high government post, as described in
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 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 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 ; 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,
Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament
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 ().
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 (-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 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.
Please report any errors to Ted