Concordia Theological Monthly 35 (1964) 148-57.

Cited with permission.


A Study of Ecclesiastes

Anson F. Rainey


[EDITORIAL NOTE: Dr. Anson F. Rainey (Brandeis University,

Waltham, Mass.) is pursuing post-doctoral studies at Hebrew

University, Jerusalem. At present he is also teaching Egyptian

and Accadian language courses at the extension school of the

Hebrew University at Tel Aviv.]

Among the books of the Bible Qoheleth1 has the distinction of

being the most distrusted by the pious but best liked by the skeptic.

It is disturbing to acknowledge that a sacred book has pleased the

agnostic or the pessimist more than it has edified the saint. The

range of opinion regarding origin and purpose of the book is vast.

Indeed, to recount and evaluate even the major theories would

require a separate study.2 The following is an attempt to present

only one interpretation of Qoheleth and his world.




Qoheleth employs cenain grammatical and lexical features which do

not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament. The use of the absolute

infinitive followed by a personal pronoun to express a past action

is shared in the Bible only with Esther, but it is a common feature

in Ugaritic and Phoenician.3 The phrase “shadow of silver”


1 The writer’s title, Qoheleth, has been used throughout because

it more closely approximates a personal cognomen. References

to the book, however, use the tide familiar to English readers, Ecclesiastes.

2 Cf. the introduction by O. S. Rankin, The Interpreter’s Bible

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), V, 3-14.

3 Always with a past meaning. Eccl.4:2 (d. Esther 3:13; 9:1).

Phoenician examples: Kilamuwa I, 7 f.; Azitiwadi I, 13, 17, 18, 20;



A Study of Ecclesiastes                               148b


occurs in Ugaritic also, thus obviating the supposed Aramaism.4

The person who collects religious revenues is called “angel,”

or simply “messenger.” Dahood has observed that in Phoenician

this term is a correlative of “priest.”5

These and many other cogent parallels to Phoenician and

Ugaritic passages have been collected by Dahood.6 Those based on

precise correspondences (without emendation of the text) carry the

conviction that Qoheleth’s dialect is closer to the “Canaanite” than

most of the other Biblical books.

The major textual variants are ascribed by Dahood to errors

in copying from a Vorlage which lacked all matres lectionis.  Since

he assumed that the book was written in the “fourth-third century

B. C.,” he believed that the original must have followed the Phoenician

pattern of orthography, which was the only Canaanite system


II, 18, et al. Ugaritic: Text 49:1, 25; II, 13; text 52:68-71. ct. J.

Friedrich, Phiinizisch-Punische Grammatik (Rome: Pontifical Biblical

Institute, 1951), p.133, n.1; C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (Rome:

Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1955), p.64.

4 Ecd. 7 :12; Ugaritic text 51 :11, 27. Cf. H. L. Ginsberg,

Studies in Koheleth (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of

America, 1950), p.22; C. H. Gordon, “North Israelite Influence

on Post-exilic Hebrew,” Israel Exploration Journal, V, 85.

5 Phoenician Ma’asub insc., 2, 3. G. A. Cook, A Textbook of

North Semitic Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903), p. 48. Cf.

also Mal. 2: 7 , where kohen is parallel to mal’akh. M. J. Dahood,

“Canaanite-Phoenician Influence in Qoheleth,” Biblica, XXXIII (1952), 207.

6 Ibid., pp. 201-21.


Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           149a


of that period lacking vowelletters.7  However! most of his examples

involve plural subjects with singular verbs, a matter of final vowels.

But these may be due simply to a syntactical peculiarity.8

It is interesting to note that the relative pronoun most used in

Phoenician at this time almost always had a prothetic alef,

which is absent in Qoheleth.9  If he lived and wrote in Phoenicia,

it is strange that such a commonplace detail of Phoenician

morphology would escape him. Qoheleth’s form also occurs

in Joshua, Judges,

Canticles, and in a few other passages, all of which might be

ascribed to North Israelite origins. Dialectically, Qoheleth has a strik-

ing tie-in with Esther; to wit, the absolute infinitive plus personal

pronoun to express the past tense.10 At any rate, the parallels

to U garitic and Phoenician show quite decisively that Qoheleth’s

book is not a translation from Aramaic.11

Gordon has suggested, on the basis of these linguistic

similarities among several post-exilic books, that they represent the

dialect of the northern Israelite tribes, carried by them to

Mesopotamia and Persia only to appear in the Old Testament canon

at a later date. The books of this period which reflect strong Canaanite

affinities are Chronicles, Esther, and Qoheleth.12 The chronicler no

doubt lived in Judea; the


7 Ibid., p. 43.

8 Cf. E. Kautzsch, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, trans. and rev.

A. E. Cowley, 2d Eng. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p.11 (2h).

9 Phoenician ‘s, Old Hebrew sa (Genesis, Judges), otherwise se

(also Moabite) = Akkad. sa. Used like Hebrew ‘aser, Friedrich, p.51.

10 Esther 3:13; 9:1; Gordon, lEI, V, 86.

11 Cf. Ginsberg, pp.16-39.

12 Gordon, IEJ, V, 87, 88.


Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           149b


unknown author of Esther reveals an intimate knowledge of the

Persian court and customs. Since neither of these linguistically similar

writings came from Phoenicia, it is unnecessary to assume that

Qoheleth did either. The Canaanitisms may be northern Hebraisms

and permit an alternative suggestion if other evidence should

warrant it.




The commercial atmosphere which pervades Qoheleth’s work

is amply demonstrated by Dahood. He lists 29 of the most prominent

business terms used in the book.  To these should be added two

interesting nouns from 12:12. Dahood has observed that spr and hg

occur in parallelism in Ugaritic.13  Therefore, he is doubtless cor-

rect in rejecting the existence of a noun lhg in this context.14 Taking

a cue from him, one may render the verse: “Of making many accounts

there is no end, and much reckoning (checking ledgers?) is weariness

to the flesh.”  The Septuagint rendering accords well with this interpretation.15

Margoliouth had observed long ago that certain

Neo-Hebraisms, including the term for “business,” do not occur in

Qoheleth.16  Therefore he felt the book must have been written before

250 B. C.

Some of the mercantile expressions in


13 Kret, 90, 91: “hpt troops which are without counting; tnn

troops which are without reckoning.

14 Dahood, p. 219.

15 sefarim = biblia, which means “accounts” in Hellenistic

papyri. Cf. J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the

Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1930),

p. 110.  lahag = melete, “practice, consideration.”

16 D. S. Margoliouth, “Ecclesiastes, Book of,” Jewish

Encyclopaedia, V, 32.


A Study of Ecclesiastes                               150a


Qoheleth have striking Akkadian prototypes. For example, Gordon

has noted that ‘amal, a key word in the sage’s discourse, has the same

usage as Akkadian nemelu, viz., “profit, property, substance,” rather

than “labor” as in the English versions.17  This is clear in 2:18, where

amal is something that can be left to someone else.  It must signify

tangible stuff.  The idiom “Money answers everything”18 appears

strange in a Hebrew context but corresponds perfectly with

Mesopotamian usage. The Akkadian word meaning “to answer”

also signifies the act of paying for something, that is, satisfying a

financial obligation.19  The possible Hebrew cognate for the

Akkadian indefinite pronoun, meaning “something,” is used to signify

(with the negative) a man’s loss of all his property20 in an expression

which carried an Akkadian flavor.21 Another term for “prop-

erty,” used twice by Qoheleth22 (and only twice more in the Hebrew

Old Testament),23 must be Mesopotamian in origin because it is

apparently a Sumerian loan word.24 The word is also known in Bib-


17 Gordon, IEJ, V, 87.

18 Eccl.l0:19.

19 Cf. Codex Hammurapi, apalu, “to answer,” col. XXI, line

98; XXIII, 71, et al.

20 Eccl. 5:13, 14; me’uma= mimmu.

21 Cf. Br. Mus. text 84-2-11, 165: mimma ina qatiya la mussura,

“Nothing at all has been left in my hand,” cited by M. Muss-Arnolt,

A Concise Dictionary of the Assyrian Language (Berlin: Reuther and

Reichard, 1905), p. 564b.  Codex Hammurapi, col. VII, 1, 2; XII,

32, 43; et aI. Cf. also Deut. 24: 10.

22 nekhasim; Eccl. 5: 18; 6:2.

23 Joshua 22:8; 2 Chron. l:11f.

24 nik(k)as(s)u, from Sumerian NIG.SIT, “account,” i. e.

NIG, “property,” plus SIT, “to count,” according to G. R. Driver and J. C.

Miles, The Babylonian Laws, II, 196.

A Study of Ecclesiastes                               150b


lical Aramaic25 and other related dialects.26  One Phoenician occurrence

in the feminine gender is cited by Harris.27 In Eccl. 2: 8

Qoheleth uses a common Semitic term for royal “wealth” which,

though used internationally, occurs in the Old Testament

only with reference to Israel as God’s “possession,” with the exception

of this passage and one other post-exilic reference.28

Special note must be taken of yithron, which appears in

Qoheleth alone of the Hebrew Old Testament books.29 Its root

is Common Semitic, meaning “to remain, be left over,” and the

Akkadian (also the Aramaic) adjective signifies something “ex-

traordinary.”30  It was pointed out long ago by Genung that this word

expresses a pivotal idea of the whole book.31  The customary English

rendering, “profit,” fails to reflect Qoheleth’s conception.  In 1: 3


25 Ezra 6:8; 7:26.

26 W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, ed.

L. Koehler (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1951), p. 1100.

27 Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticatum, 3783, “And any man

who steals a gift that is the property of Tanit the face of Baal,” cited

by Z. S. Harris, A Grammar of the Phoenician Language (New

Haven: American Oriental Society, 1936), p. 124.

28 segulla, 1 Chron. 29:3; Koehler, s. v. Note Deut. 14:2, et al.,

where Israel is God’s “property” (KJV, “peculiar people”). In a Meso-

potamian context sugullu is usually a herd of cattle or horses.

29 Eccl. 1:3; 2:11,13; 3:9; 5:8,15; 7:12; 10:10, 11.

30 Aramaic yattir, Dan.2:31; Akkad. (w)a-tru, Friedrich Delitzsch, Assyrisches Handworterbuch (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich’sche Buchhand-lung, 1896), s. v.

31 J. F. Genung, Words of Koheleth (Boston: Houghton,

Mifflin and Co., 1904), pp. 20, 214f.

Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           151a


it is contrasted with ‘amal (usually translated “toil”), which has

already been shown to mean “profit,” His question is: “What

is the real profit in profit?  Is there a reward in life which exceeds the

mere accumulation of material substance?  Perhaps “benefit” would be

a better rendering.  His meaning is clearly seen in 10:11, where there

is no “benefit” to be derived from snake charming if the viper has

already struck.  One obscure passage for which an explanation may be

ventured is 5:9.  In spite of many injustices in government, “There is a

benefit in all of this, a king is served for the field.”  People served the

king, and in turn the king maintained law and order.  The central

authority regulated the water supply and other aspects of agriculture

which made it possible for the peasant to till his land unmolested.  

This is typical of Mesopotamian society,32 and this pithy maxim was

probably often uttered by the farmers.

Other details of the social order have Mesopotamian affinities.

Qoheleth alone of all the Biblical writers used the term “villein,”33

Dahood noted its occurrence as a proper name in Phoenician, but it is

far more prominent as the designation of a distinct social class in

Akkadian society.34  Besides bureaucracy,35 which would aptly


32 Cf. Henry Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western

 Asia (London: n. p., 1891), V, 56:10, in which the inhabitants

of a free state established (ukin) a king: ana atri hamat sa sakin

matNamar, “for extraordinary assistance of the governor of Namar,”

cited by Delitzsch, pp. 249, 281.

33 misken, Ecd.4:13; 9:15f.

34 muskenu, a person of less than full citizenship whose legal

status is specifically defined, e. g., Codex Hammurapi, references in

Driver, II, 391b.

35 Eccl. 5:8, 9.

Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           151b


describe some aspects of life under the Persians, another type of

political structure existed as well, viz., feudalism. The Great King was

served by local kings, who in turn were surrounded by warrior nobles

and paid for their services in grants of arable land. This institution of

 ilku, known under the Hellenistic monarchs as the cleruchy, existed

for over two millenia in the ancient Near East. Those who held a land

grant in exchange for ilku were required “to go” (alaku) on the missions

and expeditions of their liege lord.36  An intensive participle of the

cognate Hebrew verb, “to go,” occurs only twice in the Old

Testament. The first passage defines it by parallelism as “an armed

man.”37  The second, in Qoheleth, is admittedly obscure.38

Nevertheless, on the basis of the foregoing, it might not be idle to

hazard the following interpretation of the passage and its context:

Better is a wise peasant youth than an old and foolish king

who can no longer be advised; because he (the youth) had come


36 Note Enuma Elish, IV, 69, where ilani resulu = aliku idisu,

the gods, his helpers, going at his side”; and Sennacherib (Chicago

Prism), VI, 26, alikut idisu, “those who go at his side,” viz., the junior

allies. Cf. W. von Soden, Akkadisches Handworterbuch (Wies-

baden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1959), p. 32.

37 is magen, Prov.6:11. Cf. Ugaritic hlk in Kret, 92, where it is

parallel to tlt, hpt, tnn, and hdd, all of which apparently describe

various types of soldiers. The service rendered by the ilku holder was

apparently corvee or financial rather than military (The Assyrian Dictionary

[Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1956-J, VII, 80).

Note Aramaic halakh, Ezra 4:13,20; 7:24; Driver ltr. 8:5, frag. 8: 1, which

is vocalized as though it were an Akkadian infinitive. (G. R. Driver,

Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C. [Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1957], p.70).

38 Eccl. 4:15; note context vv. 13-16.


A Study of Ecclesiastes                               152a


out of prison to rule, since he had been born poor in his own

kingdom. I saw all the living, the vassals, under the sun with that

youth, the successor who would stand in his (the king’s) place,

over all of whom he was in leadership.39 Yet succeeding; generations

will not rejoice in him.

Could this be a parody of Darius’ usurpation?  He was of less than  

royal rank, may have been in jeopardy under the Magian due to his

loyalty to Cambyses, and could not have gained the throne without

the: aid of the feudal lords. Gaumata was more: popular than the

Behistun inscription would have one believe, and Darius was later

tagged “the huckster” for his oppressive fiscal policies.40

Thus Qoheleth would appear to be rooted in the commercial

tradition of Mesopotamian society. Large numbers of Israelites were

settled there by the Assyrians, and the captives from Judah followed

over a century later. Jeremiah told them to settle down and contribute

to the prosperity of their new home.41 Many Jewish names are known

in the Murashu tablets from Nippur.42 The clients of the sons of

Murashu comprised a diverse mixture of ethnic elements. Though

it is not certain


39 Cf. Sennacherib (Chicago Prism), IV, 2, anaku . . .panussun

asbat, “I took the lead (in front of them).”

40 For a complete discussion of the problem with references,

cf. A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 1948), pp.107-10.

41 Jer.29.

42 H. V. Hilprecht and A. T. Clay, Business Documents of Murasu

Sons of Nippur (vol. IX, . The Babylonian Expedition of the University of

Pennsylvania; Philadelphia: University of Penn-

sylvania, 1898), pp. 27,28. Cf. also Clay’s introduction in vol. X, same

series, and his Light on the Old Testament from Babel (Philadelphia:

The Sunday School Times Co., 1907), pp. 404 ff.


A Study of Ecclesiastes                               152b


that the illustrious proprietors of that business house were Jewish,

their transacting business on Jewish holidays does not preclude that

possibility. Consider the Jerusalemites who were willing to trade with

Phoenician merchants on the Sabbath.43  One can make a good case

for ascribing the Babylonian banking house of Egibi to Jewish


References to sacrifice and temple worship45 are often

construed as evidence of a Palestinian provenance for Qoheleth.

However, the exiles of Ezekiel’s day were equally concerned with

things ritual, and during the restoration wealthy. Jews of Babylonia

sent a delegation to Jerusalem with money donated to the temple

cause.46  The Jewish colony at Elephantine, the extreme opposite end

of the Persian Empire, even had their own priesthood and temple long

before the invasion of Cambyses.47

The Code of Hammurapi provides a convenient, though not

exclusive source for Mesopotamian illumination of Qoheleth.

Its special relevance to the Persian period consists in the fact that it

had been carried off to Susa as a prize of war, and it was widely

known in Mesopotamia through other copies in circulation. Studies of

ancient Persian sources indicate that the code received a new lease on

life from Darius.


43 Neh.13:15-22; d. T. Fish, “The Murashu Tablets,” Documents

from Old Testament Times, ed. D. W. Thomas (London: Thomas Nelson

and Sons, 1958), p.96.

44 Egibi = Jacob (?); Olmstead, p. 192.

45 Ecd.5:1-7.

46 Zech.6:9-15.

47 A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B. C. (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1923), No. 30, line 13.


Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           153a


When he codified the laws for his empire, Hammurapi’s spirit pervaded

his edicts.48




The Persian loanword for” decree”49 and the absence of any Greek

influence in the vocabulary both serve to support the supposition of an

eastern origin.50  Even the expression “under the

sun,” though often ascribed to Greek or Phoenician influence,51 has

been found to be typical of Elamite also.52 There is much in favor and

nothing against the assumption that Qoheleth wrote his book in

Achaemenian Mesopotamia before Alexander the Great. Beyond his

familiarity with the business climate of that area and his enigmatic title,

Qoheleth, nothing can be said about his identity.53  But it is his

attitude to that world that is the permanent value of his work.




Qoheleth is rightly classed among the Wisdom writers of the

Ancient East.  Affinities with the Egyptian branch of that literature

are manifold.54 His disgust with a topsy-turvy society is anticipated by

Ipu-wer (ca. 2100 B. C.).55 That God is


48 Olmstead, pp. 120-28.

49 pithgam, Eccl. 8:11; Esther 1:20.

50 Gordon, IEJ, V, 87.

51 Greek u[f ] h[liou; Phoen. Tabnit, 7 f.; Esmunezer, 12.

52 J. Friedrich, “Altpersisches und Elamisches,” Orientalia,

XVIII, 28, 29.

53 Qoheleth, qal fem. pt., from the root qhl, “to assemble:’

54 Cf. Rankin, pp. 15 f.

55 Eccl. 9:11; 10:7; “The Admonitions of Ipu-wer,” trans. J. A.

Wilson, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. J. B. Pritchard (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1950), pp.441ff.

Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           153b


the author of a man’s financial state is affirmed by Ptah-hotep (ca.

2400 B. C.).56  If the passage in Eccl.12:3-7 be construed as an

allegory on old age, then a more concrete description of the same

thing from Ptah-hotep should also be compared.57  Man’s

confrontation with the life-death mystery, so frequently pondered by

Qoheleth,58 seems to echo the sad refrains of the Harpist’s lament.59

The inscription on the tomb of Petosiris (ca. 300 B. C.)60

reflects sentiments like those in Eccl.9:7-9. Here is a formula for

facing life.  A man must accept the present, the future is in the hands

of God. The most impressive literary parallel to this same passage

is the advice of the barmaid to Gilgamesh.61 Mesopotamian affinities

are also seen in the admonitions towards reverence of a king,62 which

bear a notable similarity to a passage in the sayings of Ahiqar.63

This latter text is all the more interesting because Ahiqar, though

appearing in Aramaic in the earliest preserved manuscript, gives many

indications that it was originally written in Akkadian.64


56 “The Instruction of the Vizier Ptah-hotep,” trans. J. A.

Wilson, op. cit., p.413; cf. Eccl. 3:13; 5:18,19.

57 Ibid., p.412.

58 Ecd.2:24; 3:12, 13; 5:17; 9:7-9; 11:7-9.

59 Trans. Wilson, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 467.

60 G. Lefebvre, Le tom-beau de Petosiris (Le Caire:

Imprimerie de l’InstitUte Francais d’ Archeologie Orientale, 1924), I, 161.

61 “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” trans. E. A. Speiser, Ancient

Near Eastern Texts, p.90.

62 Ecd.8:2-4.

63 “The Words of Ahiqar,” trans. H. L. Ginsberg, Ancient

Near Eastern Texts, pp.428, 429. 64 Cowley, pp. 205-7.

A Study of Ecclesiastes                               154a


It should not be thought freakish that a book with Qoheleth’s

apparent “secularism” should arise among the exiles of Mesopotamia,

At the Elephantine garrison the Jews never make a reference to the

Law of Moses, nor do they seem to have possessed copies of the

Sacred Scriptures.65  Yet they did have a copy of Ahiqar’s proverbs.

So it would seem that for many Jews of the Persian diaspora  international

wisdom books were the main religious literature.

The work must now be considered as a book. As to those

who would dissect it into several pieces and assign each fragment

to an author of a special temperament (pessimist, pietist, moralist,

etc.), Genung has challenged them to prove the soundness of their method

by entering the literary workshop and creating a great masterpiece

by this means.66 Naturally a literary masterpiece has many

antecedents. How else could it touch the chords of human existence

and thus survive the tests of time?  That would be especially true of

wisdom literature, which consisted of short, pithy proverbs that were

passed from mouth to mouth throughout the world, In the hands of

literate sages, these sayings were often collected and grouped

according to subject matter. Sometimes the proverbs on a theme

supplemented one another, They often gave contrasting aspects of the

same topic.

In Qoheleth’s work can be seen an attempt to weave together

into a connected whole the sage’s observations about life.  In much of

the book he is successful at writing prose discourse, but in some pas-

sages, especially the later chapters, he finds


65 Ibid., p. xxiii.

66 Genung, p. 164.

A Study of Ecclesiastes                               154b


it necessary to employ the wise man’s old, standby, the proverb.67 In

his concluding remarks he takes occasion to explain his own

method.68  He admits that he has painted with borrowed pigments. He

pondered, analyzed, and set in order69 many proverbs.  He sought to

bring some semblance of order out of the chaos. Independent proverbs

are like goads, they prick the mind or conscience at one particular

point; their poignancy serves to drive home one truth. On the other

and, when one wise man, or shepherd, collects these barbs

under logical and pertinent headings,70 they are transformed from

goads into nails. An isolated jab is soon forgotten; a row of nails firmly

driven in is meant to hold fast, to endure in force.

The principle Qoheleth used in carrying out his work was

induction.71 He pursued his quest for the real benefit (yithron)

of life by examining the phenomena of life itself. Genung has aptly

observed that the book does have, contrary to the consensus of

opinion, a real internal unity of structure. There is a refrain (often mis-

understood as an expression of Epicureanism) which recurs several

times, albeit with variations, throughout the book. This is the admonition

to eat and drink and to see good in one’s ‘amal.72 Using these


67 Ibid., pp. 175-6.

68 Eccl.12:9-12.

69 Note the typically Akkadian use of tiqqen = D stem of taqanu,

to set in order,” the antonym of dalahu, “to disturb.”

70 ba’aleasefoth, apparendy the sayings which serve as lead

line$ to introduce the topic or general trend of the section which

follows. (Genung, p.359)

71 Eccl. l:13.

72 Eccl.2:24-26; 3:22; 5:18-20; and 9:7-10 (possibly echoed in

7:16-18 and 11:9).

Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           155a


passages as landmarks, one can see that the material between them

usually gathers around a particular theme, an aspect of life. Genung

adopted the following “outline” to trace the course of Qoheleth’s

thought: 73 Proem, 1:2-11, the fact and the question; (1) an induction

of life, 1: 12-2: 26; (2) times and seasons, ch.3; (3) in a crooked world,

4 and 5; (4) fate and the intrinsic man, 6:1-7:18; (5) advantages of

wisdom, 7:19-9:10; (6) wisdom encountering time and chance, 9:

11 to 11: 6, though the division might better be made after v. 8; (7)

rejoice and remember, 11:7-12:7; epilogue, 12:8-14. From time to

time Qoheleth was obliged to rely upon a concatenation of proverbs to

tell his story. In such instances, for example, 7: 1-13, the total impact

of the series must be emphasized. Two extremes are contrasted in 7:

16, 17; it is their juxtaposition which comprises Qoheleth’s lesson.

When studied in this light, many supposed inconsistencies disappear.



The goal of Qoheleth was not merely to proclaim “All is vanity

(i. e., ephemeral),” though his investigations disclose much that is.  It

was needful first to discount everything in life that possessed no

lasting value in order to answer the real question, “What benefit

(yithron) does man have in all of his profit (‘amal) for which he labors

under the sun?”74  At the very beginning it is made clear that he does

not intend to permit “otherworldly” speculations to interfere with his

study.  Man can only know the temporal facts, those which are “under

the sun.” While


73 Genung, pp.186-9; 209-11.

74 Eccl. l:3.

Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           155b


admitting the existence of God, he refuses to be other than an agnostic

about immortality,75 at least until he has found the true essence of mortality. 

In his first survey, 1:12-2:26, he examines, under the guise

of a Solomon, all those things which men prize the most:  wisdom,

pleasure, wealth, self-indulgence.  All of these are found wanting in

permanent value, though wisdom is deemed superior to folly because

through wisdom the wise man has the power of cognition.76  Yet

wisdom and wealth are subject to the same limitation; they do not

solve the life-death enigma. He concludes by affirming that the true

good for mati is to “see good,” that is, find real enjoyment, in his

amal.  This is a gift of God vouchsafed only to those who please Him.77 

Next he confronts man with the essential temporality of all

existence.  There is a time and a season for everything. In the

midst of it all there is man; and in man there is a spark of life which,

though confined in temporality, seems to answer to something outside

of space and time. Man has “everlastingness” (‘olam) in his heart.78

Therefore, his problem may now be defined


75 E. g., Ecd. 3: 18-21.

76 Ecd.2:12.

77 Eccl. 2 :24-26.

78olam (‘olam), that which is both prior and subsequent to the

created existence; Psalm 90:2; 103:17; 106:48; Neh.9:5, et al.

exception must be taken to Dahood’s interpretation, p. 206, on the

following grounds: (1) there is already a noun derived from ‘1m, viz.,

ta’a1uma, meaning “hidden thing:’ When the verb means “be

concealed,” a passive form is required. ( 2) The Ugaritic form he cites

is not a verb but the common Ug. noun glm, “lad:’ Text 125:50

refers to the lad 11[;u and his sister Itmnt; Kret, 19 f. reads: glm ym,

lads of a day,” i. e., they died prematurely on the day of birth.

A Study of Ecclesiastes                               156a


in terms of an “eternal” man in a temporal world. The task of living in

this environment is aggravated because, although man is vaguely aware

of an intangible quality within himself which transcends

mortality, he finds himself trapped in the dimensional world, unable to

discover the work of God from either beginning or end. Because of

this inherent limitation, man is totally deprived of evidence about an

after-life.79  So Qoheleth reverts to his former conclusion, man must

seek enjoyment of his tamal in the here and now.

In the third “survey” Qoheleth faces squarely up to life.80

Oppression, inequality, laziness, overambitiousness, all are paraded

before the mind and found to be vanity. There are some positive

values noted, for example, a relaxed spirit,81 comradeship,82

wisdom,83 and hard work.84  Finally, the God-given ability to enjoy

one’s tamal is seen as the only means of triumph over a crooked


Chapters 6 and 7:1-18 reveal a gradual transition from those

aspects of life which must be rejected as unprofitable for the intrinsic

man, to those which are beneficial to the upbuilding of his inner

being.  After 7:19 there are a series of observations regarding

wisdom’s superiority in certain life situations. Though all men are

sinners,86 the “sinner” may still come to a happy end by fearing God87 but the


79 Eccl.3:18-21.

80 Eccl. 4 and 5.

81 Eccl.4:6.

82 Eccl.4:9-12.

83 Eccl.4:13.

84 Eccl. 5 :12.

85 Eccl.5:18-20.

86 Eccl. 7:20; 8:11.

87 hote, Ecd. 8:12.

A Study of Ecclesiastes                               156b


man who is wicked through and through,88 who knows no fear of

God, will meet a disastrous end.89  The section ends with that most

widely paralleled passage in the book,90 which is also the fullest

statement of Qoheleth’s “refrain.” The chief good in life is to live.

Zest, courage, energy, these are the ingredients sanctioned by


From 9:11 to 11:8 he returns to the problem of time and chance.

No scheme is propounded to explain the events of life.  Instead, the

uncertainty is accepted; indeed it is itself confronted. The tyranny of

fate is challenged by a champion, wisdom.  He notes that, regardless

of its reward whether good or ill, wisdom is better than might.91

Wisdom is a positive benefit to any type of skill; it enabled the

woodcutter to recognize that his axe needed sharpening.92 But

in view of the time and chance factor, wisdom cannot avail if it is not

exercised soon enough. The ability to charm a serpent will not cure

snakebite.93  Since one cannot control the fates, he must take

some risks.  Ship your merchandise upon the waters, that in many

days you may attain its value.  Invest a portion with seven, and even

with eight, because you do not know what disaster will happen on



88 rasa, Eccl. 8:13.

89 This interpretation was suggested by Mr. Subhi Abu-gosh

in a seminar discussion at Brandeis University.

90 Eccl. 9:7-10; cf. sup., nn. 60, 61.

91 Eccl. 9:16, 17.

92 Eccl. 10: 10.

93 Eccl. l0:11.

94 Eccl. 11: 1, 2. For this rendering of masa, cf. masu, “to

attain” (Codex Hammu,api, col. XIV, 75; XV, 34). For nathan,

cf. naaanu, “to entrust, consign” (Codex Hammuapi, II,


Rainey, Ecclesiastes                           157a-b


One must also risk the elements, which are beyond his ken.95

The last section, 11:9-12:8, exhorts one to rejoice in life now,

but to remember one’s responsibility for his acts.

The epilogue consists of an explanation and defense of the

author’s method. His final admonition to fear God and obey

His directions for life is placed in opposition to the toilsome life of slavery

to ledgers and “figures.” To declare this passage a later addition, out

of harmony with the main theme of the book, is to misunder-

stand completely the course of Qoheleth’s thought. He has declared

that man’s foremost challenge is in this life, not in vain speculation

about “pie in the sky.” He has tested all that men count worthy of

esteem and found it wanting. Only wisdom and the fear of God

provide a true benefit for the essential nature of man; for they enable

him to understand and enjoy his temporal existence, irrespective of his

material status.

Qoheleth has been called skeptic, cynic, and pessimist. He is

skeptical of all that is vain, but he is neither cynical nor pessimistic.

He simply rejected stones in search of a loaf. He has been accused of

impiety; but let him who has never shared the sage’s doubts cast the

first stone.



56ff.). Note especially paragraphs 236-40 of Codex Hammurapi,

which regulate liability for accidents causing loss of merchandise

being shipped by riverboat.

95 Eccl. 11:3-6.



Jerusalem, Israel.