Concordia Theological Monthly 35 (1964) 148-57.
Cited with permission.
A Study of Ecclesiastes
Anson F. Rainey
NOTE: Dr. Anson F. Rainey (
and Accadian language courses at the extension school of the
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 ; 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.
Phiinizisch-Punische Grammatik (
1951), p.133, n.1; C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (
Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1955), p.64.
4 Ecd. ; Ugaritic text 51 :11, 27. Cf. H. L. Ginsberg,
in Koheleth (
on Post-exilic Hebrew,”
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
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
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
7 Ibid., p. 43.
8 Cf. E. Kautzsch, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, trans. and rev.
E. Cowley, 2d
9 Phoenician ‘s, Old Hebrew sa (Genesis, Judges), otherwise se
(also Moabite) =
10 Esther ; 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
Qoheleth did either. The Canaanitisms may be northern Hebraisms
and permit an alternative suggestion if other evidence should
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 . 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.”
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 , 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.
19 Cf. Codex Hammurapi, apalu, “to answer,” col. XXI, line
98; XXIII, 71, et al.
20 Eccl. , 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
Reichard, 1905), p. 564b. Codex Hammurapi, col. VII, 1, 2; XII,
32, 43; et aI. Cf. also Deut. 24: 10.
22 nekhasim; Eccl. ; 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
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; .
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.,
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;
31 J. F. Genung, Words of Koheleth
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 , 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
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 (
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
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. [
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
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,
A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian
of Chicago Press, 1948), pp.107-10.
42 H. V. Hilprecht and A. T. Clay, Business Documents of Murasu
series, and his Light
on the Old Testament from Babel (
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
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.
sent a delegation to
cause.46 The Jewish colony at
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
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 (
and Sons, 1958), p.96.
44 Egibi = Jacob (?); Olmstead, p. 192.
47 A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B. C. (
Clarendon Press, 1923), No. 30, line 13.
Rainey, Ecclesiastes 153a
When he codified the laws for his empire, Hammurapi’s spirit pervaded
DATE AND AUTHORSHIP
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. ; 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.
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.
57 Ibid., p.412.
58 Ecd.2:24; , 13; ; 9:7-9; 11:7-9.
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.
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
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
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.
69 Note the typically Akkadian use of tiqqen = D stem of taqanu,
“to set in order,” the antonym of dalahu, “to disturb.”
70 ba’ale ‘asefoth, 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; ; 5:18-20; and 9:7-10 (possibly echoed in
-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, , 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.
77 Eccl. 2 :24-26.
78 ‘olam (‘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 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
80 Eccl. 4 and 5.
84 Eccl. .
86 Eccl. ; .
87 hote’, Ecd. .
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 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. .
89 This interpretation was suggested by Mr. Subhi Abu-gosh
in a seminar discussion at
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
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
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.