Handbook on Ecclesiastes – by ArchBishop ROSARY


UBS Handbook Series

United Bible Societies

1865 Broadway

New York, NY 10023


United Bible Societies

European Production Fund

PO Box 81 03 40

D-70520 Stuttgart


L. C. Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ogden, Graham S., 1936–

A handbook on Ecclesiastes / Graham S. Ogden and Lynell Zogbo.

p. cm.—(UBS handbook series) (Helps for translators)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-8267-0121-3

1. Bible. O.T. Ecclesiastes—Translating. 2. Bible. O.T. Ecclesiastes—Commentaries. I. Zogbo, Lynell, 1948–.

II. Title. III. Series. IV. Series: Helps for translators.

BS1475.5.033 1998





Introductory Information


This Handbook, like others in the series, concentrates on exegetical, linguistic, and cultural problems related to the translation of Ecclesiastes. Though the authors only address issues directly related to translation, many church leaders and interested Bible readers have found these Handbooks useful and informative, and we hope this volume will be no exception.

The format of A Handbook on Ecclesiastes follows the general pattern of earlier volumes in the series. The Revised Standard Version (rsv) and Today’s English Version (tev) texts are presented in parallel columns, first in larger segments that will make possible an overview of each section of discourse, and then in bold print, normally verse by verse, followed by detailed comments and discussion. Where either text displays lines of poetry as the individual verses are discussed, the text is displayed across the page rather than in columns, so that the reader can easily distinguish primary and secondary indentations of poetic lines. rsv serves as the base upon which the discussion takes place, and quotations from the verse under discussion are printed in boldface. Quotations from other verses of rsv and from other versions are printed between quotation marks and in normal typeface. tev serves as a primary model of how a translation may take shape; however, many other versions are cited as well, especially where they offer models that may be more satisfactory than those of tev.

Although the New Revised Standard Version (nrsv) is regarded as an update of rsv, the rsv remains the base for discussion. The reader should keep in mind that the Handbook attempts to explain the ancient Hebrew text to translators who have not learned that language. Since nrsv has succeeded in rendering the message of the ancient text in a form easily understood by today’s reader, it reveals less correspondence with the form and shape of the ancient text than does rsv. The authors have therefore found it easier to discuss the ancient text by using rsv as the base.

A limited Bibliography is included for the benefit of those interested in further study. The Glossary explains technical terms according to their usage in this volume. The translator may find it useful to read through the Glossary in order to become aware of the specialized way in which certain terms are used. An Index gives the location by page number of some of the important words and subjects discussed in the Handbook, especially where the Handbook provides the translator with help in rendering these concepts into the receptor language.

The editor of the UBS Handbook Series continues to seek comments from translators and others who use these books, so that future volumes may benefit and may better serve the needs of the readers.

Abbreviations Used in This Volume

General Abbreviations, Bible Texts, Versions, and Other Works Cited

(For details see Bibliography)

BJ    La Bible de Jérusalem

CEV    Contemporary English Version

FRCL    French common language version

HOTTP    Hebrew Old Testament Text Project

JB    Jerusalem Bible

JB/NJB    Agreement, JB and NJB

LB    Living Bible

MFT    Moffatt

NAB    New American Bible

NEB    New English Bible

NEB/REB    Agreement, NEB and REB

NIV    New International Version

NJB    New Jerusalem Bible

NJV    New Jewish version

NRSV    New Revised Standard Version

REB    Revised English Bible

RSV    Revised Standard Version

RSV/NRSV    Agreement, rsv and NRSV

TEV    Today’s English Version

TOB    Traduction œcuménique de la Bible

Books of the Bible

Gen    Genesis

Exo    Exodus

Num    Numbers

Deut    Deuteronomy

Josh    Joshua

1, 2 Sam    1, 2 Samuel

1, 2 Kgs    1, 2 Kings

1, 2 Chr    1, 2 Chronicles

Neh    Nehemiah

Est    Esther

Psa    Psalms

Pro    Proverbs

Isa    Isaiah

Jer    Jeremiah

Lam    Lamentations

Ezek    Ezekiel

Dan    Daniel

Hos    Hosea

Zech    Zechariah

Mal    Malachi

Hebrew Transliteration

The following simplified system of transliteration has been followed so that those unacquainted with Hebrew will be able to understand the discussion.

א    ‘

בּ    b

ב    v

ג    g

ד    d

ה    h

ו    w

ז    z

ח    ch

ט    t

י    y

כ, ך    k

ל    l

מ, ם    m

נ, ן    n

ס    s

ע    ‘

פּ    p

פ, ף    f

צ, ץ    ts

ק    q

ר    r

שׂ    s

שׁ    sh

תּ    t

ת    th

The English vowels, a, e, i, o, and u represent the nearest equivalent sounds of the corresponding Hebrew vowels. Gemination of consonants caused by dagesh forte is normally represented by doubling of the printed consonant, but may also for simple purposes be represented by a single consonant, according to the author’s purpose. The presence of dagesh lene will not be reflected in the representation of gimel, daleth, and kaf, since the resulting difference in English pronunciation is negligible or nonexistent. If it is necessary to be more specific in the representation of a given Hebrew expression, further refinement for that item will be made. Those trained in Hebrew will, of course, refer to that text whenever they find that precise information is needed.

Translating Ecclesiastes

There is perhaps no book in the Old Testament that has caused so many problems for interpreters as the book of Ecclesiastes (or, as it is known in Hebrew and in many versions, Qoheleth). The kind of challenge it presents is often summarized by pointing to two well-known German scholars of the nine teenth century, Heine and Delitzsch. Heine took the view that the author was a person with very little faith and a negative view of life, while Delitzsch thought that he was a pious, God-fearing Israelite. In fact, from the earliest days of Jewish scholarship, the book has been the subject of much controversy. Scholars could not agree as to whether it was worthy of inclusion in Scripture. But finally, because it contained religious teaching at its beginning and end, and also because it was traditionally associated with the name of Solomon, the book was included in the canon. Scholars still give widely differing interpretations of its content today—some see in its pages a totally negative view of life (everything we do is useless!), while others see a positive affirmation of our life here on earth.

Because the book seems to contain so many contradictions, there are many theories that try to account for them. Barton, Jastrow, McNiele, Podechard, and Siegfried explained the apparent contradictions as the result of additions that were made by scribes and which later became part of the text. They claimed these additions presented views different from the original ones, so that the book we have today contains ideas not present in the original and in conflict with them. However, other scholars such as Galling, Herder, Kroeber, Plumptre, Ranston, and Weiser explained the apparent contradictions as coming from Qoheleth’s own troubled mind. Certain sayings reflect times when Qoheleth accepted the faith, and others come from a time when he doubted God’s presence and care.

Both of these explanations assume that there are, in fact, significant contradictions in the book. But such an approach shows a basic misunderstanding of the nature of wisdom literature in general. An important feature of wisdom material is that it can never summarize all human experience within one brief statement. Wisdom sayings have to be general enough to make good sense, but they may not be true in every situation. Wisdom writings speak to a given context, and without knowing the proper context we may easily misunderstand them. An example from Pro 24:4–5 will make the point obvious:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

These two proverbs remind us that there are times when we should respond to what a fool says, and times when he should be ignored. Circumstances will help us to decide when an action is appropriate and which action to take. It would be a mistake to conclude that, because these two pieces of advice seem contradictory, the author of the proverb did not know which action was best! In understanding Qoheleth, then, we cannot overlook this fundamental aspect of wisdom writing. When what Qoheleth says seems to be contradictory, he may be reminding the reader that human life is not that simple—there are inconsistencies and unanswered questions in this world.

The message of Ecclesiastes

What then is the real message of Ecclesiastes? To decide this issue we must look to the text itself. Despite the lack of a tightly organized structure or progression of ideas, there is an amazing number of repeated expressions and refrains that characterize this book. Among the most important are:

—    the word “vanity” (hevel) and the longer “vanity” refrain “vanity of vanities” (hevel hevalim); this key word occurs 38 times.

—    the “calls to enjoyment” (2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–10): “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat, drink, and find enjoyment in his toil.”

—    the thematic question (1:3; 3:9; 5:16): “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” along with other occurrences of the word “gain” (yithron) in 2:11, 13, 15; 3:19; 6:8, 11.

By examining these expressions, their use and occurrence in detail, we can hope to find a unified message.

Before beginning any study, however, we must note that one of the difficulties of this book is that its author uses a number of words that do not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, the word rendered in the Revised Standard Version (rsv) as gain (yithron) does not occur in the rest of the Old Testament. More difficult still, some words seem to be used by Qoheleth with a meaning different than they have in other books. Such seems to be the case with the key term vanity (hevel).

Language is a living thing. Words may assume new meaning and new associations with each generation, and often in each new location. Words have meaning in particular contexts and may vary according to the intention of the writer. That is why, in the search for the message of the book of Ecclesiastes, we must study the use and the meaning of its key words, not only in biblical contexts outside this book, but more importantly, as they are used in the context of the book itself.

The “vanity” (hevel) sayings

There is no doubt that the understanding we have of this word will determine our evaluation of the book and of its message. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” Does this mean that everything is useless, empty or meaningless? If so, then we may view Qoheleth as a dejected and pessimistic thinker, questioning God’s goodness—to the point of rejecting life itself!

But before we rush to that conclusion, we should study the meaning and context of the word hevel in other biblical literature, and within Ecclesiastes itself.

In other Old Testament books the Hebrew noun hevel seems to have a primary meaning of “vapor,” “breath,” or “breeze.” In Isa 57:14 it occurs parallel to the word ruach “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.” It can apply to something that quickly passes away (“The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor” Pro 21:6; “So he made their days vanish like a breath,” Psa 78:33). The word is often associated with the powerlessness of idols. Jer 8:19 speaks of “… worthless … idols” (10:8, the New International Version [niv]). Jer 51:17–18 groups ruach and hevel: “There is no breath [ruach] in them. They are worthless [hevel] …,” though here we could also translate as “they are without life.” In a few instances hevel comes close to meaning “deceit” or “dishonesty,” as in Pro 13:11, where it is said that money obtained by hevel is soon lost.

However, we need to study the actual situations that Qoheleth describes as hevel. These include:

—    A lonely “workaholic” who works slavishly without asking what he is working for (4:7–8).

—    A person to whom God has given many material blessings, but who is not able to enjoy them (6:1–2).

—    Occasions when good things happen to bad people or when bad things befall the good (8:14).

—    Times when there seems to be no reward for being wise. All people die, whether wise or foolish (2:15–17).

—    Times when justice and righteousness do not triumph over evil. There seems to be no difference between human beings and animals; both die (3:16–19).

All these things happen in this world, and they raise serious theological problems for Qoheleth (and for us today!). God’s justice seems to come too late or is not seen to be at work. Qoheleth’s reaction to such situations is to ask himself “Why live a good life? Why work? Why be wise?” He wonders why God doesn’t step in and make things the way they should be. Qoheleth calls these disturbing situations hevel. Does this mean life is a “vapor,” “worthless,” or “without meaning”? Is Qoheleth’s message that it is useless to work? In light of the contexts that Qoheleth labels as hevel, we can see that he is expressing frustration. He is acknowledging the fact that he is faced with questions he cannot answer. Life is puzzling. There are many things that human beings are unable to understand. Qoheleth, like all wise and thinking people, recognizes the way things are in human experience, that they are not ideal or perfect. Such situations he says are hevel.

In presenting these situations Qoheleth often adds certain phrases to further describe his feelings. When a person cannot enjoy the good things he has worked for (6:2), Qoheleth describes this situation as “a sore affliction” (Today’s English Version [tev] “a serious injustice”). When a person strives for wealth but fails to question its purpose (4:7–8), he calls this an “unhappy business.” When Qoheleth realizes that both foolish and wise people face the same fate (death), he says he “hates life”: “it was grievous to me; all is a striving after wind.” Note that, as was the case in certain other Old Testament passages, in this last expression hevel occurs with “wind” (ruach).

What is the meaning of this expression “striving after the wind”? The word rendered as “strive” in rsv actually comes from the verb root describing the work of a shepherd. We could translate the phrase as “shepherding the wind.” It is impossible for people to bring the wind under control or to make it blow in a given direction, to “shepherd” the wind. While some see in this expression a negative idea (human beings live and work for nothing), we maintain that it is a very picturesque way to speak of attempting the impossible.

These expressions show how deeply Qoheleth feels about our difficult human situation. It is painful, but equally important is the fact that Qoheleth does not give up and reject life. Each time he confronts these human problems, he recognizes that he cannot explain them, and so he eventually concludes that the best thing to do is to enjoy life. Interestingly, when he gives this advice he is not advocating pleasure for pleasure’s sake. He emphasizes that we should enjoy the life that God has given us.

For these reasons we do not agree that hevel means “vain,” “meaningless,” or “worthless.” In the context of the book, and given the situations it describes, hevel seems most often to mean “incomprehensible,” “enigmatic,” “mysterious,” “impossible to understand.” These terms are our suggested renderings for translation. Translators are advised to use one term throughout so as to reflect the Hebrew emphasis. However, translators will note a variety of terms used in the translation examples provided. A fundamental part of the message of this book, then, is that life is full of unanswered questions. The wise know this and do not give up.

The calls to enjoyment

As suggested above, the key to the meaning of the book of Ecclesiastes is not limited to the so-called “vanity” sayings. We must go beyond to his conclusion, “enjoy life.” The advice is repeated over and over, from beginning to end, in what we can term the “calls to enjoyment.” All these calls center around the key word “good” (Hebrew tov) and related idiomatic expressions—”see good” and “do good,” which mean “enjoy”:

•    “I know that there is nothing better [tov] for them than to be happy and to do good [tov]” (3:12; see also 8:15)

•    “It is good [tov] and proper to eat, to drink, and to see good [tov] (5:17)

•    “when times are good [tov], be in goodness [tov, enjoy]” (7:14)

•    “go … eat … drink with a heart of joy [tov]” (9:7)

•    “let your heart cheer [tov] you in the days of your youth” (11:9)

Note that the word “good” is a key word throughout the book, occurring in thematic questions, “For who knows what is good [tov] for man …?” (6:12), and in innumerable pieces of advice (see, for example, 6:3; 7:1; 11:6). Some interpret the calls to enjoyment in a negative way. They suggest Qoheleth is resigned to his fate; we all die, so we might as well live while we can. But given the centrality of the key term tov, we believe Qoheleth’s approach is much more positive. When he says “there is nothing better for man than to …,” he is really saying that to enjoy the life God gives us is our best course of action.

What does a man gain?—the meaning of yithron

To better understand the message of Qoheleth, we must also understand the goal of his search. As early as the third verse, Qoheleth asks a key question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). The key term in that question is the noun “gain” (yithron); it is the goal of his search.

What is yithron? As mentioned earlier this noun does not occur in the rest of the Old Testament. But its root ythr does occur, referring to the profit or gain a person may expect in any business enterprise. It often means “excess,” “in addition,” or “what remains over.” But in Ecclesiastes the form yithron functions as a key term, and its precise meaning can be determined by studying its use in the context of this book.

The noun yithron occurs ten times in Ecclesiastes (1:3; 2:11, 13 (twice); 3:9; 5:9, 16; 7:12; 10:10, 11), while variant forms of the root ythr also occur: mothar (3:19), the participial form yother (6:8, 11; 7:11), and the adverbial form (2:15; 7:16; 12:9, 12). In 2:11 Qoheleth declares without reserve that “there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” He has just listed all his personal and professional achievements (2:1–10). Fame, fortune, pleasure were all his, and he calls them his “reward” (2:10); but they are not yithron. So we begin with a negative definition of yithron: it is not material gains Nor is it available “under the sun,” so it is not in any way “earthly.”

We find another use of the key question following the time poem (3:1–8): “What gain has the worker for his toil?” (3:9). To decide the meaning of yithron we must reflect on the context that comes before and after (3:10–11):

I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.

This time the thematic question concerning yithron occurs between two reflections on time: one concerning the earthly domain, where actions have their appropriate time, and one that seems to point to another dimension, namely, the eternal (̀olam). Scholars have debated the precise meaning of this latter term (̀olam “eternity”), but the context here at least suggests a meaning like the “eternal,” something beyond this present world.

The connection between yithron and something beyond this present life is reinforced by other passages as well. In 3:18–19 Qoheleth meditates on the fact that humans and animals suffer the same fate: they both die. So he concludes that “man has no advantage [yithron] over the beasts.” In 5:15–16 Qoheleth notes that a person is born with nothing and will die with nothing, so “what gain [yithron]” has the person who only “toiled for the wind?” All our earthly toil and what we derive from it is like the wind, something that we cannot control or hold onto. In chapter 6 Qoheleth declares that even a wise man has no yithron over a fool, because they both die (6:8).

These passages help us to see that yithron is something that is not material, not obtainable on this earth. We think it can be defined and perhaps best translated as “lasting benefit.”

But how does this interpretation affect our understanding of the book as a whole? It is important to recognize the traditional Old Testament view that when a person died, whether they were good or bad, wise or foolish, all passed to Sheol, or the Underworld. Further, parts of the law (Deut 7:12–15, for example) taught that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in this life. But confronted with the realities of life (wicked people seemingly blessed; good people not being able to enjoy their blessings; wise and foolish people, humans and animals all meeting the same fate, death), Qoheleth becomes frustrated with this view—it seemed to him too simple and contrary to fact. His goal, if not his obsession, is to find out what the yithron or the lasting benefit of life is.

Recognizing this goal helps us to understand a final part of the message of Qoheleth. He knows life is full of unanswered questions. Nevertheless he still believes in God. He still believes in justice, righteousness, and wisdom. Life under God must be taken as it is and enjoyed in all its mystery despite our inability to explain everything satisfactorily. It is important to note, however, that Qoheleth’s quest for the “lasting benefit” and his conclusion that it cannot be found on this earth opens the way for the slight hope that somewhere, perhaps in another world or in another dimension of time, there may be a lasting benefit. Because of this we see in Qoheleth’s message something quite different from other Old Testament books. Qoheleth seems to sense that there is something beyond death, at least for the wise. As such this book may mark one of the earliest steps—however tentative—to a belief in life beyond the grave, a belief that Jesus and many Jews expressed clearly a few centuries later.

Who was Qoheleth? And who was his audience?

No one knows who Qoheleth really was, nor his exact role in the Israelite community. “Qoheleth” is not the name of a person but is thought to be a title for someone who leads a group of people. In Num 10:7 the Hebrew root qhl is used to describe a group of Israelites coming together for worship.

From the issues he raises and the expressions he uses, we can see that Qoheleth is steeped in the Wisdom tradition of Israel. Like other wisdom writings (Proverbs and Job, for example), Qoheleth’s writings emphasize God (Elohim) as the creator and controller of the universe. The world is made up of opposites: “wisdom” and “folly,” “good” and “evil,” “light” and “darkness,” “love” and “hate,” “life” and “death.” There is a preoccupation with justice and the lack of it, and at the same time a very practical, down-to-earth approach to life. Like other wisdom writers Qoheleth uses illustrations from the animal kingdom and from other parts of nature to express eternal truths (see especially chapters 10 and 11). He also uses another common literary feature of wisdom writers: citing numbers in ascending or descending orders (4:9–12; 11:2) or in exaggerated terms (a person having a hundred children, 6:3, or committing a hundred crimes, 8:12, or living two thousand years, 6:6). As a wise man Qoheleth gives advice to younger readers (11:9), and uses brief proverbial sayings to make his point.

To what community did Qoheleth address his comments? It is difficult to give precise answers, but almost certainly he is teaching young students. It is easier, however, to speculate on the date Qoheleth wrote this material. The presence of certain Persian terms (“parks” in 2:5, and “sentence” in 8:11) and possible use of Aramaic indicates that, compared to other Old Testament writings, the book is rather recent. It is interesting to note that we hear echoes from other Old Testament texts: brief references to the creation story (the garden of Eden, 2:5, and dust returning to the earth, 12:7) and to the lives of Joseph (4:14), David (4:13), (Job 5:15), and of course Solomon (1:1, 12, 16; 2:4–9). Most scholars conclude this book was written at a later time than most of the Old Testament literature, some time in the second or third century before Christ.

This late dating may explain Qoheleth’s fascination with what happens after we die. Traditionally Jews believed that after death people go to the world of the dead, Sheol, where there is no activity or mental reflection (9:5, 10). In such a world view there is no reward or punishment in the afterlife, hence the importance of people being rewarded or punished in this world. But by his pointed rhetorical questions and cries of frustration, Qoheleth shows he is beginning to doubt some of these views. As in the book of Job and some Psalms (for example 73), we sense the emergence of new ideas—the slightest hope or hint that there really might be new life, or reward and punishment, after this life.

Unity of the book

We have noted that many scholars think the book of Ecclesiastes has been modified by “glosses,” additions made by scribes, which came to be incorporated into the text. However, most modern scholars agree that, with the exception of the title (1:1) and the double ending (12:9–10; 12:11–14), which were probably added by one or more editors, the book was written by a single author. We sense the unity of the book through the recurring themes and expressions that begin with the first word and end with the last. We have already seen the important role of the hevel or so-called “vanity” statements, the calls to enjoyment centered around the word “good” (tov), and the question about “lasting benefit” (yithron). Beyond these important items, we can point to many key terms and themes that further tie the book together:

•    “time” (̀eth): God has appointed fixed times for everything: 3:1–8, 7:17; 8:5–6; 9:11, 12; 10:17. (Note the word ̀olam “eternity” or “for a long time” also occurs frequently in this book.)

•    “under the sun” and “under heaven”: descriptive phrases for this earth where we live

•    “toil” or “work”: Qoheleth emphasizes both God’s work and the work he gives people to do. Related to all this “toil” is the word “business” (̀inyan), a word found only in Ecclesiastes (1:13, 3:10, 8:16). It refers to all human activity, the object of Qoheleth’s observations.

•    “evil” (ràah), which in Ecclesiastes refers most often to the painfulness of a situation rather than to a moral wrong.

•    “portion,” or “share”: material blessing that we can have in this life (2:10; 3:22; 4:9; 5:18; 9:6

Along with these there are recurrent expressions referring to God’s role in the universe (9:1) and our relationship to him. Human beings are to “fear God” (5:1–2, 4, 7; 8:13; 12:13) and to enjoy the gifts he gives (3:13; 4:9; 9:7). These are just some of the many literary features which demonstrate convincingly that Ecclesiastes is the work of one person, and that it has a unity of purpose and message. Yet for all the features that depict its unity, the overall structure of the book itself is very difficult to define.

Structure of the book

Since it was written there has never been any agreement about the structure of the book of Qoheleth. Some claim there is no structure at all, that the book is just a loose collection of wisdom sayings (Galling, Herzberg, Zimmerli, Fohrer, and Ellermeier, to mention only a few). Perhaps the most unusual solution to the problem of defining Qoheleth’s structure is that of Bickell (1881). This scholar believed that the pages of the original work became disarranged, and when they were put back together, they were assembled in a different order. Bickell then went on to suggest how the pages should be rearranged to show its original structure!

Of course the opposite view has been argued as well. This states that the book has a well-defined and organized structure. Bea, Genung, Rainey, H. Ginsberg, and Vogel have argued for various structural patterns. French scholars Glasser and Rousseau have presented thematic arguments to show the book’s structure. Others such as Wright have tried to analyze the numerical values of certain terms, thus suggesting certain subdivisions. But again, among these many scholars there is very little agreement.

Our task might be easier if we consider the book to be more like a philosophical essay, where the author moves from one point to the other, and even returns later in the discussion to themes he has introduced before. There is not a logical progression of ideas from beginning to end, yet there is an organizing principle, as Qoheleth moves from his thematic questions about the “lasting advantage,” to his cries of frustration in the hevel or “vanity” statements, and from this point on to his advice to enjoy the life that God gives us on this earth. We will see below that time and time again Qoheleth’s discussions reach a climax in his “calls to enjoyment.”

Below we propose an outline of the book to help the translator see the basic themes that Qoheleth treats. We openly admit that it is a tentative outline at best. Note that chapter divisions (which were added many centuries later) do not always coincide with literary divisions. Virtually all scholars see an “envelope” surrounding the book as a whole. That is the hevel phrase in 1:2 and 12:8. We also note that editorial comments (1:1; 12:9–14) and poetic material surround the book as well (chapters 1 and 12). However, the bulk of the text moves from theme to theme without much internal organization. In our more detailed discussions we try, when possible, to justify dividing it into subunits based on various criteria such as a unified theme or common key terms. But this task is not always easy. Some passages have a pivotal function, seemingly closing one section and opening the following one at the same time (11:7–8 is a good example of this). These relationships are very difficult to display in outline form.

One Possible Outline of the Book

1:1–11 Prologue


Editor’s title


Opening thematic (hevel or “vanity”) statement


Thematic question about “lasting advantage”


Opening poem: Regularity in the created world

1:12–2:26 Qoheleth’s search for answers


Qoheleth considers what is done on this earth


Qoheleth’s quest


Reflection on the quest


Testing pleasure


1st experiment: enjoy yourself


2nd experiment: pleasure through work


Summary statement


Testing wisdom and folly


Is toil worthwhile?


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

3:1–22 God appoints a time for everything


Time poem


Thematic question


Reflections on time


Reflections on injustice


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

4:1–5:20 Some life issues


The powerless are oppressed


Attitudes toward work


Value of companions


Wisdom and politics


The wise person and worship


Oppression and justice


Money cannot satisfy


Money does not go with us in death


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

6:1–8:15 More life issues and more advice


A life without joy


Human limitations


What is good for people


Avoid extremes


Righteousness and unrighteousness


Pure wisdom cannot be found


Who can be wise?


Bad examples lead astray


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

8:16–9:10 Limits to human wisdom


God’s ways cannot be found


One fate for all


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

9:11–11:6 Wisdom and Folly


Death comes unexpectedly


Wisdom’s power


Wisdom is stronger than folly


Folly can destroy wisdom


The power of wisdom and folly


Fools in high places


Risks to the worker


Wise and foolish talk


Wise and foolish leaders


Limits to human knowledge

11:7–12:8 Rejoice and remember


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!


Rejoice while you are young


Closing poem: Remember your Creator before it is too late


Closing thematic statement

12:9–14 The editor’s concluding remarks


The first concluding note


The second concluding note

Literary Characteristics and Problems of Translation


Translating the book of Qoheleth is not a simple task, and it is further complicated by the fact that it is difficult to determine its genre, or literary type. Parts of it read like an autobiographical account: Qoheleth recounts in the first person his search for wisdom and value in this life (1:12–2:26). But the book is interspersed with other literary forms such as poems (1:4–11; 3:1–8), proverbs (throughout, but especially in chapters 7, 10, 11), parables or vignettes (4:13–16; 9:14–15), and even a short section that resembles prophetic material (10:16–17). A major problem for translators is how, in fact, to treat these various genres. While some versions neutralize these differences (the French common language version [frcl] uses prose throughout, while Traduction œcuménique de la Bible [tob] uses only poetic lines), most versions (rsv, tev, the New Jewish version [njv], niv, for instance) try to faithfully represent these differences in form. Thus poetic passages and proverbs may be typeset as indented lines and translated in such a way as to preserve some of the poetic flavor of the original. We encourage translators to follow this approach when possible, especially if proverbs, poems, and parables are frequently used in teaching situations in the culture where the translation will be read. This is no easy task and it means translators must understand the features of these genres both in the Hebrew text and their own language.

Features of Hebrew poetry

Translators can find some help in translating poetic or proverbial passages by reading the introductions to the Amos, Psalms, and Job Handbooks published by the United Bible Societies. Since the book of Ecclesiastes is not exclusively poetry, we will give below only a brief summary of the most important features of Hebrew poetry, namely, inclusios or “envelopes,” parallel structures, chiastic structures, assonance and alliteration, and rhythm and rhyme. The comments on individual verses will give more details about these features.

An inclusio, or “envelope,” is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and again at the end of a literary unit. The repetitive element may surround a poem, for example, as when the refrain “Praise the Lord, O my soul” surrounds Psalm 103. We have already seen that in Ecclesiastes the “vanity” or hevel refrain surrounds the entire book, at the beginning (1:2) and at the end (12:8).

Parallel lines refer to poetic lines that are alike in grammatical structure or meaning. Qoheleth’s poetry is filled with many examples of this structure. Grammatically parallel lines are an obvious feature of the time poem (3:4):

A time to weep and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn and a time to dance;

Lines that are parallel in meaning can be seen in 3:16:

in the place of justice, there [was] wickedness

and in the place of righteousness, there [was] wickedness

Chiastic structures (X-structures) are more complicated than simple parallel lines. While grammatical forms or meanings in the first line are matched in the second, the elements are reversed, forming an X pattern. The first line of the time poem exhibits this feature (3:1):


Alliteration and assonance refer to repetitive sounds. Most often in Hebrew it is the consonants that are repeated for effect (alliteration). Thus in the first poem of the book (1:4–11), when describing the wind, the poet uses a lot of “hissing” consonants: sh, s, h, f, v. In a proverb referring to a snake charmer, there are a lot of sh sounds.

Rhythm and rhyme are features that are well known in most languages. The time poem (3:1–8) is a perfect example of the point-counterpoint rhythm typical of Hebrew poetry, as are many of the proverbs made up of two balanced lines (7:14a; 10:2). Rhyme, the matching of sounds at the ends of line (or sometimes in the middle of lines) is less important in Hebrew than in English but is used on occasion. In the time poem, for example, we note internal rhyme:

To translate poetry or proverbs effectively, translators must not only understand and appreciate what the original poet has done, but also be familiar with poetic devices in their own language and be able to apply them to the material at hand.

As if this task were not difficult enough, the translator is confronted with yet another problem in translating this book, that is, deciding which parts of the text are poetic and which are not. We have already noted that some parts of the book are clearly prose, while other parts are clearly poems. However, there are other passages where this distinction is not clear. For example 6:4 and 5, and 9:11 have the marks of poetry, but they are so short we may wonder if they should be treated as poetry or prose. The same is true of 11:7–12:8. Some versions put all in prose, some all in poetry, and some half and half.

Translating proverbs

Translating proverbs presents its own set of challenges. First, translators must decide what translation principles to apply. Should we simply make the meaning of the proverb clear? Generally we do not recommend this approach, for if we only give its meaning we have disregarded one of its purposes. A proverb is a short saying meant to be enjoyed for its brevity as well as for its important advice. Thus it is important to try to retain its proverb-like form in our translation. We can attempt, for example, to create the same balance between lines and the same brief expression typical of the Hebrew proverb. We can also incorporate some of the features of proverbs in the language into which we translate. For example, some languages regularly use second person singular pronouns “you” in proverbs, while others tend to use third person or even infinitives. Translators are free to adapt the form of the proverbs to a style that suits their language, always being sure the meaning is faithfully adhered to.

There will be times when proverbs in the translator’s language seem to correspond perfectly to those in this book. If this is the case, they can, of course, be substituted. But we need to be cautious. If the local proverb refers to elements that are completely foreign to the biblical culture, the presence of the proverb may be distracting, raising questions that draw attention away from the real thrust of the text. We think it will be a rare case when such a substitute will be effective.

As was the case with poetry, sometimes it is even difficult to identify where proverbs occur. At times it is hard to tell if Qoheleth is quoting a well-known proverb, or if he is making a generally wise statement himself. But an even more difficult problem is to determine the role proverbs play in Qoheleth’s argument. Proverbs given at the beginning of a discourse often serve as patterns for more important truths to follow. This seems to be the case in chapter 7, for example. A proverb about a “good name” being better than wonderful perfume sets the scene for a series of proverbs that give the real message: it is better to ponder death than to pass time merely having fun. There are other times when it is more difficult to know whether Qoheleth agrees with the ideas expressed in the proverb he is quoting. When Qoheleth quotes the proverb “A living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4), we sense an ironic note. But does he mean what he says? Or does he mean the opposite?

We will not be able to resolve every issue raised by the use of proverbs, but it may help the reader if we can identify those proverbs in the text by typesetting them in a special way—by setting them apart (indenting), putting them in quotes, or introducing them by a phrase like “People say” or “They say.” This will help the reader to follow Qoheleth’s arguments and appreciate his literary style.

The ambiguous particle ki

Hebrew frequently uses a linking particle ki, and this particle is used extensively in Ecclesiastes. It is a particle with many functions. At times ki introduces the reason or the explanation for an action, and so can be translated as “because” or “for.” In some passages it does not need to be translated, since the reason-result relationship will be clear from context. In other contexts, however, the ki particle does not mean “because,” but rather something like “indeed” or “truly.” It has an assertive function. In this case affirming words may be used, or other elements in the language may express emphasis. At times the sentence itself will seem emphatic enough, and ki will not need to be translated literally.

The problem facing the translator is to know when to translate ki as “because” and when to translate it as “indeed.” rsv almost always renders this word as “for.” Translators therefore must be on their guard when they meet this particle and not automatically translate rsv “for” as “because.” Translators must decide if the logical relationship between the phrases linked by this particle is one of reason or of affirmation and emphasis. Throughout this Handbook we try to be consistent in pointing out its various meanings, depending on the context.

Textual problems

The Hebrew text that we are working from in this Handbook and which is used as a base for most translations today is the Masoretic text, which dates from the eighth or ninth century after Christ. In the original text—which we no longer possess—there were no punctuation marks or markings for the vowel sounds. This text was handed down through the centuries, being copied over and over again by scribes. During this long process scribal errors inevitably crept in. Sometimes letters, segments of words, or entire expressions were omitted, misplaced or (a rarer case) added. Words that may have been meant to be separate could have been grouped together, or vice-versa. It was to this text that a group of scribes called the Masoretes added vowels and other markings at a later date to make reading easier.

Because of this complicated history there are a small number of places in the text where we cannot be absolutely certain what the original text said. Sometimes, when a text is very hard to understand, scholars may question the Masoretic text. They compare the text with other early versions such as the translation from Hebrew into Greek done before the time of Christ (the Septuagint), or the Dead Sea scrolls discovered at Qumran in 1949. After studying the possibilities they may make suggestions for changing the vowels, redividing the words, or even changing consonants, which may clarify the text and its meaning.

Many of these points of difficulty are discussed in a volume called the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (hottp), published by the United Bible Societies. Sometimes we indicate what these scholars recommend, but within this Handbook it is impossible to discuss all of these proposed changes. However, where it seems important to the understanding of a passage, we may mention the possibility of new interpretations.

Introduction for Readers

If the translation being done requires an Introduction to each book of the Bible, or if a study edition is being prepared, the following may serve as a model. It will draw attention to the special features of the book.

The book of Ecclesiastes was probably written at least two or three hundred years before Jesus Christ. It contains the thoughts of one of Israel’s wise men. He observes a wide range of human experiences, but he is troubled by what he sees. People oppress one another and there seems to be no justice. People work hard but often do not get to benefit from their work. Everyone dies, whether they are wise or foolish, good or bad. So the wise man asks many questions, realizing how little human beings can understand in this world. He is overwhelmed by the mysteries of human existence, but never abandons the view that wisdom is the only tool for coping with life.

This wise man writes for young readers, calling them to think about how they should live in this world. He points out that we shall never have the answers to all our questions. The only thing we can do is accept what God gives—our life and our work—and enjoy it. Although there seem to be many negative statements in this book, its final advice is positive: enjoy the life that God gives (see 2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 11:9).


In Hebrew this book is referred to as Qoheleth, sometimes also spelled “Koheleth,” or “Kohelet.” There are many Bibles that preserve this name rather than translating it (tob for example). The underlying root from which the name comes pictures a group of people gathering together. It is used of the Israelites when they are described as a group coming together for worship (see Num 10:7). Thus it is assumed that “Qoheleth” is the title given to a person who holds some responsible position in the religious life of the people of Israel. Because of this association the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, has translated qoheleth as “Ecclesiastes,” from the Greek root for “church.” Many Bibles in European languages retain this form, although some add a subtitle that gives “Preacher” as the translation.

In English the term “Preacher” identifies a person who holds a place of leadership in the congregation. However, “Preacher” has other associations that may give the wrong impression, and so it may not be such a good term to use. The content of the book is not a sermon or exposition; also, “Preacher” is a term closely linked to Christian worship; it does not reflect the Israelite or Old Testament context from which the book comes. Therefore a term is required that is more in keeping with the book’s content and which remains faithful to the Old Testament cultural context.

Other possibilities for rendering the name of the book, or the author’s name in 1:1, are “Teacher” (the New Revised Standard Version [nrsv], niv), “Speaker” (Moffatt [mft], the New English Bible/Revised English Bible [neb/reb]), “Spokesman” (Knox). Each of these has its difficulties. “Teacher” conveys the idea that the book is for giving instruction, and this is only partly true. “Speaker” is a neutral term and does not fit well with the fact that this is a written document. “Spokesman” or “Spokesperson” suggests that what is presented here is done on behalf of others, and such is probably not the case. tev uses “Philosopher” to translate the name in 1:1, but this does not seem the correct term for a book title. “Philosopher” has the advantage of showing that the book belongs to Israelite wisdom writing, but a comparable term in other languages may not be appropriate.

The title of a book serves two purposes: it identifies the book, and it provides a clue as to its contents or message. Perhaps combining the traditional title of this book with a more descriptive form in a subtitle will serve well here. Possibilities are “Qoheleth: Seeking the meaning of life” or “Qoheleth: A man searches for the meaning of life.”

If there already is a well-known and accepted form for the title of this book, it may not be advisable to change it. Any change could lead to confusion and result in readers being unwilling to accept the new translation. However, if there is as yet no traditional name for the book, a translator should choose a title that reflects the book’s contents.

Prologue 1:1–11

Editor’s Title 1:1

The book opens with an introductory title (verse 1) that provides a very brief note about the author. There follows a summary statement (verse 2) that links closely with a similar saying in 12:8. These together form an “inclusio” marking the beginning and end of the entire work. They also tell something about the basic thought. In verse 3 Qoheleth poses a question that identifies the basic issue to be explored in everything that follows. It is a question that will be repeated several times throughout. Finally in verses 4–11 we find a poem that illustrates the theme of ceaseless activity in the created world as well as its changelessness. The poem provides the background for the discussions that follow.

This brief introduction to the book consists of three parts:

1:1 Title

1:2 Opening thematic statement

1:3 Thematic or key question

This section is important because it introduces the author of the book and two of its major key terms: hevel (verse 2) rendered in rsv as vanity, and yithron rendered as gain. Before translating this section translators should refer to the detailed discussion of these terms in the introduction, “Translating Ecclesiastes,” pages 2 and 5 (“The message of Ecclesiastes”).

Section Heading: the tev heading “Life is Useless” gives the impression that the book takes a very negative view of life. Although many translations adopt this view, it does not adequately represent what the book as a whole has to say. Life is not useless, although it is certainly full of unanswered questions and problems for the person of faith. If the purpose of the section heading is to guide the reader to a better understanding of the passage to follow, then it is important not to give the reader such a negative impression even before reading the book.

“What does life offer?” is a possible section heading that will avoid the problem created by tev. It has the added advantage that, as a question, it prepares the reader to join Qoheleth in the search for life’s meaning. Alternatively we may keep the form of the tev section heading but replace “useless” with the term we decide to use to render hevel throughout. “Life is full of questions” is yet another way to introduce the book as a whole.

The section heading should more correctly follow the Introductory Title (verse 1) rather than come before it.


This note at the beginning of the book was probably added by an editor shortly after the book was finished. It is similar to the kind of note that comes at the start of many of the books in the Old Testament, for example, most prophetic books and many individual psalms.

The words of the Preacher: this phrase identifies the discussion that follows as coming from a person known to us only by his “pen name,” Preacher. Translating the name “Qoheleth” has been discussed in comments above, page 17. The Jerusalem Bible (jb), the New American Bible (nab), mft, niv, neb, and others use a different term to translate “Qoheleth” in this verse than they do when translating the book title. tev also follows this practice, but a translator is free to use “Qoheleth” or its translation in both text and title. (“Joshua” is both a book title and also the name of the key figure in the book.) The tev term “the Philosopher” may not be able to convey the fact that in Israel the wise man was a deeply religious person. Hence “sage” or “wise man” may be a better choice because it is more neutral. In any event a footnote with some brief explanation of the name or term will assist the reader.

In translating the words of it is important to bear in mind the nature of the material in the book. Much of what this book contains are the “thoughts” of Qoheleth, his views about certain life questions, the human issues he pondered. The Hebrew original can also be translated as “matters.” So a translation that combines these ideas may be able to introduce the reader to the content of the book in a straightforward manner. Although in Hebrew the term words is plural, it also may have a collective sense, and some languages will prefer to express it as such. Language style may also require that we provide an introductory phrase like “Here are …” or “These are.…”

Some possible renderings may be “The questions that concerned Qoheleth,” “This is what Qoheleth thought about,” “Here is what Qoheleth pondered.”

The son of David: Hebrew has no way of indicating whether this compound form is definite or indefinite, whether it is “a son of David” or “the son of David.” Additionally son can have several meanings. Besides its literal meaning it can refer to any (normally male) descendant (Gen 10:21), a young friend (1 Sam 3:6), or even a student (Pro 2:1). In this case son of David is almost certainly intended to refer to Solomon, because he also speaks of himself as “king in Jerusalem” in 1:12. We know, however, that Qoheleth is not written by Solomon (see “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 6), and so this very figurative way of referring to the author has another purpose. Solomon was Israel’s most famous wise king (1 Kgs 3; 4:29). The following phrase “king in Jerusalem” links Qoheleth with that tradition; he is a truly wise man like Solomon. It is therefore best if the translator can preserve the indirect reference to Qoheleth and use an expression like “a descendant of David.” Many languages can use a phrase similar to the Hebrew “son of David” with this same broad meaning. The mention of “Solomon” by name in the Living Bible (lb) should not be followed by translators because the Hebrew text does not say this. It was common to attribute authorship of books to great men. For example, all Psalms were linked with David even though the book itself identifies many psalms as written by others such as Ethan (Psalm 89) and Moses (Psalm 90). Hebrew readers were well aware that this was the case here also.

King in Jerusalem: the structure of the Hebrew sentence means that this phrase can describe either David or Qoheleth. However, in view of verse 12 we may assume that it intends to point to Qoheleth as a royal person. The Hebrew lacks the definite article, so he is literally “A king in Jerusalem.” Some societies have a different pattern of organization, in which case they may not have a word for “king.” In a case like this a functional substitute may be used, such as “[paramount] ruler,” “chief,” or even the phrase “he was the leader of the people.”

There is no verb in this first verse; it is made up of three noun phrases, a form that may be retained in translation in some languages (as in rsv, jb, niv, nab). Most languages will need to insert one or more verbal phrases to ensure naturalness. tev offers one form, but other expansions can serve as a model:

•    These are the matters of which Qoheleth spoke. He was a descendant of David, king in Jerusalem.

•    Here are the words of Qoheleth. He was a son [descendant] of David who ruled in Jerusalem.

If the translator’s language prefers to put familiar information first, then a different word order may result. For example, we can also say:

•    Qoheleth who is a descendant of David, king in Jerusalem, these are his words.

•    Qoheleth, a descendent of David, king in Jerusalem, it is he who is talking like this.

Opening Thematic (Hevel or “Vanity”) Statement 1:2


This verse is important to the writer and thus to the translator also. There are two reasons for this:

First, it serves as the opening inclusio for the entire book; the closing one is in 12:8. All the material in between these is intended to demonstrate what this summary verse says.

Second, this verse contains five occurrences of the Hebrew word hevel, the meaning of which is discussed in “Translating Ecclesiastes.” How we translate it will determine the reader’s immediate impression of the book’s message.

The section heading should be placed at the beginning of this verse.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher: in view of the discussion in “Translating Ecclesiastes” of the meaning of the word hevel, page 2, it is recommended that the translator find a term which will convey clearly that life is full of unresolved questions, that it is puzzling and full of irony. In Hebrew grammar vanity of vanities is a superlative form meaning “the most vain thing” (as “king of kings” in Jer 3:19 means “the greatest king”). The mood of the saying is that of a strong exclamation. Some languages will have a construction that parallels the Hebrew expression, but where this is not present, an alternative will have to be found. We can say “It is far beyond our understanding” or “It is the most incomprehensible thing in the world.” Another suggestion is “It is puzzling beyond all else.”

Some translation possibilities that combine these features are “What a profound puzzle!” “What a vast mystery!” or “It is far beyond our understanding!”

The so-called “vanity” saying is repeated in the second half of the verse. This is for the purpose of adding emphasis. That emphasis is made even stronger by the addition of the final phrase, All is vanity. Part of the dramatic effect of this saying is achieved by using the same word hevel five times. Translators should aim for a similar effect in translation, even if it is not possible to copy the form and repeat the key word so often. The addition of a particle or adverb may have the same effect: “It is completely incomprehensible.” While Hebrew enjoys repetition of the same term, other languages need to vary the expression; so we may say “What a vast mystery! Everything defies our understanding!”

Says the Preacher: for a clearer style, this phrase can be moved either to the front or to the end of the quotation. For example, “Qoheleth says, ‘What a great mystery …!’ ” Alternatively, if the repetition of “Qoheleth” so soon after verse 1 seems awkward, then we can simply say “He said.”

All is vanity: what exactly is included in the term all in this phrase? Does Qoheleth literally mean that every single thing is vain? Or is the term used in a general way to refer to lots of things, or to those many things he personally thought and wrote about? nab uses “All things are vanity!” This can give the idea that material things are without value. We discover as we read further that Qoheleth is concerned mainly about human social and theological problems, the impact of death, and so on. Our problem is that this “vanity” phrase comes at the beginning of the book, when we have not yet been introduced to the matters that concerned Qoheleth. It is important to avoid giving the impression that every conceivable object, person, or deed is useless. This is an important point, because we shall discover in places such as 2:10 and 3:11 that, even in a life full of profound questions, it is always possible to gain something. God does give some reward, some enjoyment in life and in work, and this is both good and of real value. With this in mind we may best continue the mood of the opening saying with a translation like “There is so much that is beyond our understanding!” or “It seems as though so much is beyond our grasp!”

To produce the dramatic effect of this verse, it can be typeset in the following manner, perhaps with a blank line separating it from the text before and after it:

•    What a vast mystery! says Qoheleth.

What a vast mystery!

It seems as though everything defies our understanding!


The question asked here is much more than a simple question. It identifies the fundamental problem that Qoheleth set out to research, and which the reader should bear in mind while reading on. All the material in the book that follows relates to this question, so we call it the “thematic question” of the book.

This question is important for another reason: it appears several times later 2:22; 3:9; 5:16; 6:8, 11) in places that help us to identify the structure or pattern that Qoheleth uses to express his ideas.

What does man gain? the term translated here as gain (yithron) is one we have discussed in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 5. Here we meet it for the first time in the text. rsv presents it as a verb, although it is a noun in Hebrew. It originally described all that a person gained from working, in the sense of a businessman making profits from the sale of goods. So in 5:9 and 7:12 the word “advantage” or “profit” is used. The difficulty in translating the term is that Qoheleth is not using it in its original commercial sense. Rather he has given it a very particular meaning. The translator will need to find a word or phrase that conveys that special meaning. In view of the discussion of the term in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 5, something like “lasting benefit” comes close.

Man in this verse refers to “humankind” or “all people.” It is a general term as in Gen 1:27 and elsewhere. It may be possible to use an inclusive “we” or, following a French or German idiom, “One spends one’s life.…” tev uses an impersonal “you” meaning “everyone.” It can be rendered as “What lasting benefit do we [or, does one] get from …?”

By all the toil at which he toils: any possible gain or advantage will come from human toil or work. By translates a preposition that indicates the means or method used; in English “from” conveys what is meant here. Toil is used in this verse as both a verb and a noun, and both describe the act of working, together with what that work produces. It refers to heavy labor, work that is physically tiring but nevertheless rewarding.

Several translations keep close to the Hebrew form here, using what is called a “cognate-object construction” (rsv, mft, jb, niv, neb). It is so called because both the verb and the object come from the same root: “all the toil that he toils” or “all the work that he works.” This kind of repetition may be redundant in many languages. What may catch the meaning well are “from all the work we do,” “from all our work,” or “from all his work” (if we preserve the general term “mankind”).

Under the sun: this phrase is one of several found only in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the many literary features that makes this book different from others. The phrase is an important one for this book because it sets the limits within which Qoheleth is investigating the problem of “lasting benefit.” Later on he will conclude that there is no lasting benefit here on earth, by which he may be suggesting that there is one beyond this life. Qoheleth uses this phrase, or ones like it, often (1:9; 3:16; 4:3, 7, 15; 5:13). Under the sun simply refers to the entire surface of the earth, so to translate it as “on earth,” “on this earth,” or “in this world” is correct, provided that this does not mean only the small local area in which people live. “Under the sky” is how some languages express it. However, the real meaning of the phrase can also be conveyed by the phrase “in this life.” We should also be careful of rendering the Hebrew phrase literally, because in some languages “to toil under the sun” is an idiomatic expression for working as a slave. This is not the meaning intended here. At verse 9 tev translates under the sun as “in the whole world,” but it omits the phrase here.

Reversing the word order may enable some languages to express the sense more naturally. This means putting the question last; for example, “When a person toils here on the earth, what does he get from it?” or “All the work that one does on this earth, what benefit will it give?”

The question What does a man gain …? is rhetorical. In some languages this idea may be better expressed as a statement: “All the work a man does in this life, it seems to give no lasting benefit.”

Opening Poem: Regularity in the Created World 1:4–11

1:4 tev rsv

Verses 4–11 give us a poem whose theme helps provide the background to the question Qoheleth has just asked. The author invites us to consider what the poem says. Whether it is a poem he has written himself or one he is quoting is difficult to answer, but its purpose is easier to decide. Qoheleth points to the circular motion and flow in nature, and he wonders about people and their place in such a world.

The structure and style of this poem are quite striking in Hebrew, and the translator may want to try to preserve something of this. The beauty of the poem comes from its parallel structure in each line as well as from the use of repetition.

Most of the verb forms in this poem are participial (note how tev renders them as “-ing” forms), to match the theme of the continuous flow in nature. The rhythm of the clauses in verses 4–9 further expresses this cyclical movement. The rhythm resumes in verses 10b and 11.

In many stanzas of the poem, subjects are repeated and each clause is balanced by a complementary one. In this way the verses resemble one another, piling one example on top of another. It shows the cycle in nature, in human generations, in the movement of the sun, wind, and streams, and in human activity of all kinds.

We set out the poem below to show these features. The symbol // shows where the lines break into two balanced parts. Notice also that the last line seems to break into three parts, with the first and last clauses balancing each other.

A generation comes // a generation goes

But the earth remains forever.

The sun rises // the sun sets

And to its place it hurries to rise again.

Blowing to the south // turning to the north

The wind turns and turns going

and on its courses the wind returns.

All streams flow to the sea // but the sea is never full

To the place where the streams are coming, there they return.

What was // will be

What was done // will be done

And there is nothing new under the sun.

There is nothing for which one can say: Look this is new

What was already long ago // was there before us.

There is no remembrance of former generations

And those coming // will not be remembered // by those following.

Repetition in nature is reflected in the repetition of vocabulary. The Hebrew verb rendered as “walking” or “going” occurs in verse 4 (generations “coming”), verse 6 (wind “blowing” and “going”) and verse 7 (streams “running” and “flowing”). Similarly the verb “turn” occurs three times in verse 6, and the verb “return” is found once in verse 6 and in verse 7. Added to all this are the actual sounds in Hebrew. In verse 7, where there are many h, s, sh, and v sounds, we can almost hear the wind blowing. Verse 8, which speaks about the ocean, is rich in l and m sounds.

All these features combine to produce a beautiful poem. While not every translator is a poet, the challenge is to render this poem in as poetic a manner as possible. Translators will need to consider the features of poetry in their own language and match them as far as possible. For example, many languages do not consider repetition of words very pleasing. Instead synonyms or ideophones can be used. However, in most languages it should be possible to reproduce the rhythm of the poem with its point-counterpoint beat.

Since it is a poem verses 4–11 should be set off from verse 3 and verse 12, with a blank line both before and after it, if this is appropriate in the overall layout of the publication.


A generation goes, and a generation comes: as we look at the two halves of verse 4, we note immediately that it contains a contrast. It is this contrast that Qoheleth wants his readers to notice, for it will be seen again throughout the poem. Comes and goes in the first half contrast with remains in the second half; flow and change contrast with permanence. Both of these are features of the world in which we live and seek out some “benefit” or “gain.”

There are different opinions about the meaning of the term a generation. Most versions (tev, rsv, jb) agree that it refers to generations of people on earth, with one generation replacing another as life and time move along. If generation does not exist as a concept, we can restructure to say “some die and others are born,” or “old people die; babies are born.” Translators need to be careful to avoid giving the impression that there is belief in reincarnation here. In some translations generation has been rendered by the word “world”: “one world comes and one world goes.” However, this may cause serious misunderstandings because of the various meanings of the word “world.” What is in focus is what happens on earth. No reference to another world (or heaven) is intended here.

There are some translations (tob, Knox) that understand generation to mean “an age” rather than the people who live during that time. This idea comes from the fact that the second half of the verse talks about the earth being here for ever. The original dictionary meaning of the Hebrew word dor refers to circular motion. Because of the lack of a particular context for this passage, it is more than likely that the word here is deliberately general; it does not refer to any one item, but simply reminds us that in the physical world there are some things that go through cycles. We may translate along the following lines: “One cycle follows another, but …,” or “Some things come as others go, but …,” or “One age follows another.”

Goes … comes translates the Hebrew literally, so translators can see that, to have a natural English expression, the verbs have been reversed in tev. In translation we may find a natural pair of verbs expressing this idea. Alternatively cyclical movement can be expressed by a single verb such as in “one age follows another.”

But the earth remains for ever: permanence is the theme of the second half of the verse. Earth, or the world, “stands” (remains) and endures for ever. The adverbial phrase for ever, which is literally “for an age,” is the regular way in which the Old Testament expresses a very long time. It does not mean “eternity” in the present technical sense of the word, but is the longest period of time the ancient Israelites could imagine, often only the lifetime of an individual, as in Deut 15:17. It can refer both to the past (“all the days of old,” Isa 63:9, 11) as well as the future (Isa 45:17). tev “the world stays just the same” indicates permanence without using the expression for ever.


We now have the first illustration of the circular movement that is part of the cycle of nature. The sun rises, then sets, and rises next morning to repeat its race across the heavens.

The sun rises and the sun goes down: morning and evening are mentioned, but the focus for the verse is the sun itself. This is the importance of the repetition of the word “sun.” The poet speaks of it in almost human terms, as it comes out in the morning, dashes across the sky, and “goes,” or disappears, in the evening.

Not every language will find it natural to repeat “sun” in both clauses. Thus in the second clause we may use the pronoun “it” as tev does. We can also use ellipsis in which “sun” in the first clause serves as the subject of the second clause also: “the sun rises and sets.” The appropriate idiom needs to be found to describe the sun’s movement, such as “coming out,” “going back,” “falling,” or “going to bed.”

And hastens to the place where it rises: in ancient time people thought of the earth as standing still and of the sun as circling around it. This is perfectly logical, even if we today know that the earth moves around the sun. They saw the sun set in the evening, and assumed it hurried around under the earth back to the east, in order to be in time to rise from the eastern sky next morning. rsv hastens catches the spirit of the word used here, which is a verb often translated as “panting,” as at the end of a race, or “longing after.” It is used in both senses in the Old Testament (see Psa 56:2; Isa 42:14). It speaks of movement with great energy. Whether the poet thinks that the sun actually grows weary from all this activity, or whether it is “panting” with eagerness, becomes a matter for interpretation. Note that tev has “going wearily back to where …,” and so it has decided that the theme of tiredness is present in the verb. However, to suggest that the sun’s movement is tiresome or monotonous goes further than the poem allows us. If we keep our eyes on the theme, then perhaps we can avoid that problem: the theme is constant movement, without any comment about how tiresome it may or may not be. It states a fact of nature and does not pass judgment on it. All the text tells us is that the sun works all day and all night as well.

If the translator’s language is not able to personify the sun as suggested by the use of verbs like “hasten,” “pant,” and so on, then adverbs or ideophones may help. For example, “The sun goes quickly back to where it came from.”


This verse is interesting because it does not follow the standard practice in Hebrew of putting the subject after the verb. Instead of this it puts the subject wind at the end of the verse. This is done purely for literary effect.

The wind blows to the south: the word blows in Hebrew is the same as the participle “going” in verse 4. The Hebrew does this to link the two verses together as examples of constant motion in nature. We can preserve this same feature in translation if it will help remind the reader of the theme being followed. Otherwise we use the word most natural to describe the movement of wind.

The wind blows toward the south, so it comes out of the north. The two compass directions complement those of the previous verse. This choice is made deliberately to preserve the balance between the two examples given.

And goes round to the north: just as the sun had to dash back during the night to be ready to rise next morning, so the wind circles back to the north so that it can continue to blow. Round and round makes even stronger the illustration of constant circular movement. Four times in this verse the same verb “going round in circles” is used, and so this thought should be emphasized. Many languages will have terms that graphically describe the swirling wind. Others will need to use an adverb or adverbial phrase to get this effect. “It turns here and there” or “it turns again and again” are two possibilities.

There are many languages where there are no terms for “north” or “south.” East and west can be related to the sun, but the other compass points have to be related to something else. Of course Hebrew itself often uses “right” to point south, and “left” to mean “north”: the speaker faced the direction from which the sun rose, and gave directions from there. Translators can use any natural equivalent.

And on its circuits the wind returns: the term circuit speaks of a circular movement, continuing the theme of the poem. A “circuit” is a track or course that finishes at the same point where it begins, and with the verb returns, it here describes the ceaseless movement around the course. neb uses a verbal phrase here: the wind “goes full circle.” We can also render it “it circles round and round.”

This verse consists of one rather long sentence in Hebrew, and it is packed with verbs. The translator may prefer to use shorter sentences such as “The wind blows south. It blows north. It blows round and round and comes back to where it started.”


All streams run to the sea: this is a third example of constant motion in the natural world. It is linked to the previous two examples by the use of the participle “going,” translated here as run and flow. Streams refers to rivers that flow all year round, not to those that have water only after heavy rains.

This is a general saying, not intended as a statement of fact about all rivers, for even in Israel there were rivers that flowed inland into the desert and were lost in the desert sands. Of course it is generally true that a river runs toward the sea. It may be more natural in translation to omit the modifier “all” and simply say “Streams run [or, flow].…”

In this verse sea has two possible meanings: one is “ocean” in the sense of a large open sea like the Mediterranean Sea; the second is an enclosed body of water or lake. In the Old Testament both are spoken of as “seas,” as in the “Sea of Galilee” and the “Dead Sea” (or “Sea of Salt”). In languages where a distinction is required, it is better to use the more general term. If necessary we can also say “[All] streams flow to go to the sea.” This meets the needs of those languages that require a purpose clause at this point.

The sea is not full: to the ancient Israelites there was something mysterious about the fact that water, often in vast amounts, flowed into the sea, but that the sea was never “filled up.” This was certainly true of the Sea of Galilee, because water flowed in at one end and out the other. In the case of the Dead Sea, water flowed in and evaporated because of the intense heat, so that the water level changed very little, even in flood time. The emphasis is not so much on the fact that the river cannot fill up the sea, as it is on the fact that water never ceases flowing into it. This is the significance of the phrase “turn back and go” later in the verse.

To the place where refers to the place from which the river began its journey to the sea. This fact is not clear in some translations (jb, rsv, nab, mft). It is clear that the poem means to draw attention to this from the way the same phrase is used in verse 5.

There they flow again means that they never cease to flow. The tev and nrsv models draw out this meaning clearly.

In the ancient Israelite view, the waters under the earth provided a constant supply of water as springs bubbled up from below to replenish the rivers and streams. Qoheleth sees this constant flow from springs to rivers to sea and back again via the springs as another illustration of the constant motion in the created world.


This verse presents the translator with some difficulties, because the meaning of the first line and its logical connection with what follows may not be apparent at first. However, the verse has a clear structure: a general statement in the first line followed by three parallel illustrations. Understanding this structure will help us translate the thought, especially when we remember that verses 5–8 illustrate verse 4a, with its theme of the recurring or repeated cycles in nature.

All things are full of weariness; this is the introduction and general statement. We have several difficulties here. One is to determine whether to translate things as “words” or “matters.” Both are possible. If the three examples from verses 5–7 are the basis for the summary here, and if the following three phrases in this verse are to illustrate it further, then “things” is quite adequate. Qoheleth is drawing a principle from the many examples given. The phrase full of weariness translates a simple participle or adjective that describes these “things.” What the participle stresses is the effort required to do something (see 12:12). In this sense it fits in with the idea of the sun hurrying back through the night so as to be in time to begin the next morning’s work. The Hebrew term can mean “weary,” but this meaning is not certain, nor is it the only meaning the term can have. It describes toil or hard work and all that we can gain from such work. It certainly makes us think of something strenuous, but the interpretation that it causes “weariness” to the rivers and wind is not really appropriate. Here it refers to the endless, ceaseless repetition in nature. It is unfortunate that the word is given such a negative flavor in most translations, for the word itself is neutral. A more appropriate rendering is “Everything goes on endlessly [or, ceaselessly].”

Three parallel phrases follow to illustrate the introductory statement. If they are set out in parallel fashion, then we see their relationship better.

A man cannot utter it: literally “a man cannot speak.” The verb utter has no object, so help is needed in fixing its meaning. This is possible as we look at the following illustrations, which refer to the eye and ear. The eye is not satisfied means that there is no way that we can actually “fill up” our eyes. It does not mean that what the eye sees will never give it pleasure and satisfaction. It means, rather, that the eye can always see things as long as we keep it open to look at them. In the same way the ear can always hear things. It does not get “filled up” so that it cannot hear anything more. The eye and ear are not like containers that can only hold a limited amount. In this sense they are just like the sea—always able to take in more. Now, looking back at the example about human speech, Qoheleth reminds his readers that speech is also without limits. We can always keep speaking.

The structure of a passage is an important aid in our interpretation and therefore in our translation. In this case, if we set out the structure of the verse to match the translation, the message can be grasped more quickly. Models for reference can be:

•    Everything goes on endlessly;

a person can never say all that can be said;

an eye can never be filled by what it sees;

an ear can never be filled by what it hears.

•    Things continue on without end.

There is no end to what a person can say.

There is no end to what the eye can see.

There is no end to what the ear can hear.


In verse 4 the fact that there was constant flow and movement in the created world was matched by another fact, namely, that the world was permanent. This second theme of a permanent and stable universe is expanded here in verses 9–10. In this way Qoheleth reminds his readers of these two basic facts about the world that are the background to what he has to say. It is important to bear them both in mind for later interpretation and translation (for example, in 1:15; 3:15; 6:10).

Verse 9 divides into three parts. The first two parts are parallel: they both contain a verbal phrase that looks back to the past, and one that looks to the future. The third part of the verse is a conclusion based on the previous two.

What has been: the verse opens with a pronoun, “whatever,” which means “everything.” The verb “be” expresses existence, so we can render this as “whatever has existed.” Hebrew verbs do not stress the time of an action. Rather they indicate what kind of action takes place—a completed one, or an incomplete one. In this case “has been” indicates present existence, something that came to be during the past and now remains. Translators will know what emphases the verbs in their own languages give, and they should consider this when translating “be” in this clause. Will be indicates what will continue to exist or what always will be. For translation: “Whatever has existed will continue to exist,” or “Everything that has existed will continue to exist.”

Some languages may require the addition of an adverb of time for clarity, even though there is no such adverb in the Hebrew. We may need to translate as “What existed before [or, yesterday] will always exist [or, will exist tomorrow].”

The verb “do” in the phrase what has been done is almost certainly connected with the work of creation (see Gen 1:7, 16, 25). This reminds the reader that the world God made is orderly, because it is he who made it. The focus for the verse is upon what God has done and will do, not on what people do, although the phrase is used in that latter sense elsewhere 1:14; 2:11). If we must identify who does the action, we can name God: “Whatever God has done, he will continue to do.” But if not, we are better off leaving the text as it stands.

There is nothing new under the sun expresses the conclusion Qoheleth draws from the facts given above. What God has done is complete, and the fact that he sustains what he has made means that there can be nothing new. New has the sense of something “novel,” “not known before.” Under the sun speaks of the world on which the sun shines, the place where human beings live (see comments on verse 3). So Qoheleth is saying that, in this world in which we live, the world that God made, there is nothing new. Of course this is not intended as a scientific theory, nor should we give the impression that this means nothing can ever be invented or discovered. This is a poem in which the created world that God has made forms the background for the theme of constant circular motion. We should not ask the poem to say more than the poet intends. Here, then, the focus is clear—in this natural world there is nothing new, only repetition and circular motion.

Two possible models for translation are:

•    What existed in the past will exist in the future. What was done in the past is what will be done in the future. There is nothing new here on earth.

•    Everything that used to be will continue to be.

What God has done, he will continue to do.

There is nothing new in this world.

Qoheleth quotes this poem so that readers will know that what he investigated and experienced, and the conclusions he reached, are reliable. They are reliable because no new things can suddenly appear that can prove him wrong or undermine this work.


This verse restates in another way the ideas already given in verse 9. For this reason it can be interpreted as adding force to the argument that there is nothing new in this world.

Is there a thing of which it is said? many versions do as rsv does and ask the question “Is there …?” but in fact the Hebrew uses a statement here. It begins “There is something …,” thus contrasting with verse 9 “there is nothing.…” In terms of style, a translation that preserves the contrast between these two opening phrases may express Qoheleth’s point more clearly than the question form.

The Hebrew word davar, “thing,” was plural and translated as “words” in the Introductory Title (verse 1). Here it is best thought of as “thing” or “matter” rather than “word.”

Of which it is said: this passive voice or impersonal form may be a problem in some languages, and indeed the original Hebrew does not use either of these. No subject is mentioned for the verb “say,” so we must supply one. The clause can be understood as a supposition, that is, a statement of what might possibly be the case, so a subject like “people” or “someone” is suitable. This gives a possible translation, “There are things of which people may [do] say.…” Here the verb “say” may also mean “think,” as it is not important for a person to actually put this idea into words. In this case we can give a translation “There are some things that people think.”

Translation can be as follows: “Suppose there is something that a person thinks …” or “People may say [about a thing].…”

The imperative form See, this is new calls our attention. The object of the imperative “Look” is simply this. Hence a possible translation is “Look at this!” The next clause is literally “it is new.” Dividing the call into two sentences makes the translation more animated and will help the reader to see that verse 10 presents a challenging illustration of verse 9c. It recognizes that people often think they have found something new, but for Qoheleth “newness” is a meaningless idea. It cannot apply to what God has already made. People may think they have found something new, but it is only new to them.

If we wish to use a single sentence for a more precise and probably more powerful expression, we can simply say here “People may say, ‘Here is something new,’ ” or “Suppose there is something that a person thinks is new.”

It has been already in the ages before us: what some people may think of as new has been in existence for a long time. The Hebrew term ̀olam (in the ages) is translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as “eternity.” This term does not usually refer to an unending period of time, however, but rather to a very long one or “an age.” In this verse the word appears as a plural, probably to emphasize that what exists now has existed from the earliest times. A possible translation is “it has always been in existence.”

Before us describes the word ages. njv makes this clear by saying “in ages that went by before us.” However, tev and the Contemporary English Version (cev) take before us to mean “long before we were born.” Though not an exact translation of the Hebrew, it expresses Qoheleth’s idea well. If desired, this phrase can occur at the beginning rather than at the end of the clause: “Long before we were born, it was already here.”


The introductory poem comes to an end with this verse. It affirms what the entire poem has illustrated, namely, that everything on earth goes in cycles. But here Qoheleth adds the thought that people do not often recognize this fact, especially in the human domain. They forget that they are just one generation following another, that they are merely repeating something the past generations did. In some sense the final verse of the poem repeats the idea of the first line (verse 4): “one age [generation] follows another.”

This final verse is linked particularly to verses 9 and 10 by the alternating “there is no …” (verse 9), “there is …” (verse 10), and again “there is no …” (verse 11). The verb “be,” which figures prominently in verses 9, 10, and 11, further provides a link between these verses.

There is no remembrance is an impersonal expression preserving the form of the original. The translator must first solve the problem of who it is who does the remembering. In 2:16 “remembrance” or “memorial” refers to a person who has died being remembered by those still living. Since the form and structure in this verse are the same as in 2:16, the meaning “there is no memorial for” is probably the same in both places. Thus tev “no one remembers …” seems correct.

The second problem of interpretation has to do with the word that rsv renders as former things coming from the Hebrew rishonim. Both rsv and tev interpret the word as referring to events or times in the past, but this does not seem to be the most logical solution. Normally it is the feminine form rishonoth that speaks of events, objects, or times in the past. But in the masculine plural used here, it is more personal, describing people. Therefore “former generations of people” is more the sense rather than “former things”; that is, those who have died are no longer remembered. Note reb “those who have lived in the past,” niv “men of old,” and nrsv “people of long ago.” Again we should not forget that Qoheleth is making generalizations, so we should not interpret them as rigid statements of changeless truth. Obviously many people are remembered, but Qoheleth is simply noting that people usually are not remembered, and their life has little if any impact on future generations. Only on rare occasions do some people have an impact on the future course of society, and so are remembered. It does not happen to everyone.

Taking these facts into consideration, a good translation may say “There is no memorial for past generations” or “Nobody remembers those who lived before.”

Nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen: here again rsv and tev seem to understand this verse in terms of events, though the Hebrew more likely refers to people rather than “things.” Literally this part of the verse reads something like “and even those who are to come after, there will not be a memorial [for them], by those who come after [them].”

Models for translation for verse 11 may be:

•    There is no memorial for past generations. Even future generations will not be remembered by the generations who follow them.

•    People now do not remember those who lived before them. And people who are yet to be born will not be remembered by those who come after them!

Where the preference is for active verb forms rather than passive ones, we can say:

•    There is no memorial for people who lived before us. Those coming after us will not remember the ones who preceded them either.

Note that this last line breaks into three parts, marking the end of the poem.

Those coming after // will not be remembered // by those coming after them.

This brings us to the end of the opening poem. Its purpose is clear—it gives us the context in which Qoheleth wishes to discuss the question of mankind’s “lasting benefit” here on this earth (verse 3). The particular context, then, is the created world with its cyclic flow and its permanence. In this kind of world people must work out what their place is. Each generation must ask the question about the “lasting benefit” a person can gain. This cannot be the same as the “memorial” people expect to leave behind, says Qoheleth, because a person is very quickly forgotten (2:16). In the past it was thought that a person’s memorial was enough (2 Sam 18:18; Job 18:17; Pro 9:7). Qoheleth thinks differently.

Qoheleth’s Search for Answers 1:12–2:26

This section introduces Qoheleth’s search for an answer to the question about “lasting benefit” (1:3). He tells us about his research and especially about the kinds of problems he studied. He describes how successful he was in becoming wealthy, how important it is to be wise, and how difficult he found coping with the fact that, like everyone else, he too would die.

Dividing the section into four subsections should help us follow his argument:

1:12–18 outlines what Qoheleth set out to do as he considered what happens in the world.

2:1–11 describes the way in which he “tested pleasure.” He wanted to find out what happiness was, and how to achieve it.

2:12–17 continues the theme of testing life. This time he tests wisdom and folly to see what difference there is between them.

2:18–23 asks whether this kind of labor is worthwhile. At the end of this section he offers his first real advice on how to live with so many unanswered questions.

In this section Qoheleth gives us his first response to the question he asked in 1:3. There he asked “What lasting benefit is there for us in this life?” It may surprise us to read in 2:22 that he thinks no “lasting benefit” is possible. He reaches that conclusion because of everything he saw and experienced. (Look again at the discussion of yithron in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 5.)

However, it is important to recognize that our author does not remain negative and pessimistic. Rather he goes on in 2:24 to advise people how they can best live in such a problem-filled world. His advice is to “enjoy the life God gives you.” This advice is the high point of Qoheleth’s thought, and we shall find him returning to this advice several times again in 3:12; 5:18; 8:15; and 9:7–10. As we understand the structure of the book, this advice forms the climax to the book’s various subdivisions. The translator should make every effort to show that these climactic verses are highlighted, either by stylistic means or by the way the text is arranged in print. This will avoid giving the impression that Qoheleth has only negative things to say.

Starting from 1:16, and throughout chapter 2, Qoheleth recounts a series of experiments he carried out. He describes for us his reasoning, what motivated him to carry out certain experiments, and what conclusions he reached. He engages in a kind of dialog with himself, deciding on a course of action, observing what happened, and drawing conclusions about it. He asks himself a series of questions and attempts to answer them. To express these thought processes he uses a number of important expressions such as “I said in my heart” 1:16; 2:1, 15), “I said” (2:2), and several key verbs: “see” (2:1, 3, 13, 24), “know” (2:14), “turn [my face to]” (2:11, 12), “hate” or “despair” (2:17, 18), and another verb, “turn around” (2:20). Qoheleth argues with himself, posing a series of rhetorical questions (2:2b, 12, 15, 19, 22, 25). Before translating, the translator will need to reflect on what verbs or other expressions can be used to discuss these thought processes.

In some languages such dialogs are natural, in which case they can be rendered rather literally. In other languages it will be necessary to adapt to more natural means of talking about thought processes. Indirect speech or clauses with verbs of thinking may be appropriate: “I said to myself that I would …,” “I decided to …,” or “I thought to myself.” It is especially important to show that Qoheleth is on a conscious search.

Translators must also consider if rhetorical questions are used in their language to represent this kind of interior dialog or thinking out loud. They may be appropriate in many languages, but in others these questions will have to be expressed as negative conclusions, such as “… nobody knows whether he will be wise or foolish” 2:19).

Section Heading: as noted above, 1:12–2:26 is a large section covering Qoheleth’s plans for understanding the world, his systematic testing of pleasures, and his conclusions about his search. A general section heading may be appropriate here. We can say “Qoheleth searches for answers,” “Qoheleth looks for the answers to life,” or “Qoheleth sets out to understand life.”

Qoheleth Considers What is Done on This Earth 1:12–18

1:12 tev rsv

From his introductory question (verse 3) and scene-setting poem (verses 4–11), Qoheleth has now reached the point where he can speak of his own search for an answer to the question of “lasting benefit.” What is it? And can it be found here on earth?

In verses 12–18 Qoheleth presents a summary of his research. This section is divided into two very similar parts (verses 12–15 and 16–18). In each part Qoheleth first reminds the reader what his status is, “king over Israel in Jerusalem” 12), “surpassing all who were over Jerusalem” (16). He then describes his search and his conclusion (“all is vanity and a striving after wind,” verses 14 and 17) and then closes each section with a wise saying (verses 15 and 18). In verse 13 we meet for the first time several key words that will reappear throughout the book: “God,” “wisdom,” “business” (or “work”), and “evil” (rsv’s “unhappy”).

Section Heading: the tev section heading “The Philosopher’s Experience” may be retained if in verse 1 “Qoheleth” is translated as “Philosopher.” (See comments on the book title and on verse 1 for a discussion of this problem.) If we examine the content of this section, we notice that it is something like a summary of what Qoheleth learned. Therefore our section heading can bring this out, and we can say “What Qoheleth discovered” or “Qoheleth considers everything.”

Qoholeth’s Quest 1:12–15


For the first time Qoheleth uses the personal pronoun I. This is a signal to us that we have finally reached Qoheleth’s own reflections based on his investigations. The information in this verse is the same as in verse 1, but it is in a different form.

Here I and the Preacher refer to the same person. Both are the subject of the verb have been or “was.” It looks as though Qoheleth was once king in Jerusalem but is so no longer. The phrase King over Israel in Jerusalem is difficult. Though it seems precise, it does not really identify who is being talked about. It states clearly that Qoheleth was a king over Israel, and that he resided in Jerusa lem. Only two kings ruled over all Israel from this city, David and Solomon. After Solomon died the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Jerusalem continued as the capital, but only of Judah. What is unclear about Qoheleth’s statement is which king he is alleging to be. We presume Solomon is intended, because he was a sage, that is, a person who was known for his wisdom. Later details in the book also point to a link between Qoheleth and Solomon: excessive wealth, extensive building projects, magnificent properties, and a great number of wives. Like Solomon, then, Qoheleth was also a great sage who was able to thoroughly test every possible aspect of human life and experience (see 2:9). However, as in the case of verse 1, specific reference to Solomon should not be made, since Qoheleth never speaks of him by name.

We can give the sense of this sentence as “I, Qoheleth, was Israel’s king …,” or we can use a verbal form and say “I, Qoheleth, ruled Israel from Jerusalem.”


Following the introduction (verse 12) Qoheleth mentions the task he set out to accomplish (verse 13), and then gives a very general summary of what he learned (verse 14). Verse 15 is a quotation supporting the conclusion in verse 14.

And I applied my mind is literally “I set [or, gave] my heart” (as in 1:17; 7:25; 8:9, 16). This idiom reflects the Old Testament idea that the heart was where a person’s thinking was done, where the intelligence resided. The heart was also linked with the will. The expression indicates that Qoheleth deliberately set out to enquire about something. Many cultural groups will have an idiom such as “put heart [bile, liver],” which expresses this determination and will to know something. tev “I determined that I would …” also catches the meaning well. Other possibilities are “I decided to …,” “I concentrated on …,” or “I put my whole heart into.…”

To seek and to search out is a double expression, something that Hebrew enjoys using. To seek means getting to the root of a matter or problem, and search out speaks of investigating something from several points of view. The whole phrase emphasizes the thoroughness and seriousness of Qoheleth’s search. This element of the meaning should be clear in the translation, whether we do or do not use a double expression like Hebrew. jb “I have been at pains to study” indicates well Qoheleth’s laborious search for meaning, but not that his search was thorough. “I dedicated myself to investigate thoroughly” is the idea to be rendered.

By wisdom is an important phrase, for it tells the reader that every test Qoheleth conducted was done in a special way. It was done using the methods and insights accepted and used by Israel’s wise men. Even when he was testing folly and other aspects of human life that some might have thought inappropriate, Qoheleth was carrying out a scientific experiment. Only in this way could he discover the truth and be able to advise others how to cope with life. Wisdom in this setting has a very broad meaning. It includes the methods used as well as the actual insights of the wise men. For translation we can say “using wisdom methods,” “using the methods the wise men use,” or “like all wise men do.”

This first appearance of the word wisdom is a good place to think further about its meaning and thus its translation. It is a term whose meaning includes the teachings of previous generations, and popular or folk wisdom, as well as the more intellectual or philosophical writings of any cultural group. Old Testament wisdom is linked particularly with the ministry of the Israelite sage, but it is also part of an international tradition in which sages from one place exchanged ideas with those from another. In Israel true wisdom was founded in worship of God (Pro 1:7 he fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”). “Wisdom” can therefore mean the international wisdom movement itself, the body of knowledge and understanding that it taught, or the particular school of thought of the Hebrew sages themselves. It may describe the method of observation and reflection on everything that happens in life, as well as what the sages discovered and taught. The context will help the translator decide which meaning or emphasis is intended each time the word “wisdom” is used. Translators need to think seriously about including a definition of this concept in the Glossary or the Introduction.

All that is done under heaven: this is a very general expression and can include what God has done as well as what people do. However, the rest of the verse helps us to see that here it is most probably a reference to what people do on earth; this is different from what the expression meant in verse 9, where the agent appears to be God rather than any human. If the passive form of rsv and others needs to be turned into an active voice in the translator’s language, then a subject will have to be provided for the verb “do.” “Everything that people do” is a possible translation.

Under heaven is a variation of the phrase “under the sun” in verse 3; the meaning of the two phrases is identical. Some languages may have only one expression for this idea, in which case it is acceptable to use the same expression for both. Some ways we may translate it are “on earth,” “in this world,” “in this life,” or “throughout the world.” See other examples in comments on verse 3.

Word order may need to be changed to produce a natural expression of the first part of the verse. jb has “with the help of wisdom, I had been at pains to study.…”

tev begins a new paragraph at this point. However, since there is no change in topic, it is best not to follow its example here.

It is an unhappy business: the noun business comes from a root that in the Old Testament is used only in Qoheleth. It describes the act of working at something, hence its noun form is “work” or “task” (see, for example, 2:23, 26; 3:10; 4:8; 5:2, 13; 8:16). What does Qoheleth have in mind here? Because he seems to be thinking of something specialized in this case, business probably does not mean the regular work routine but the sage’s struggle to understand what life is about. tev “fate” in its biblical setting indicates that this is a task that God gives. In English the word “fate” can be misunderstood as a person’s predetermined lot. Some religions speak of our fate as that which has already been determined by the stars, a previous life, or some other external factor, and over which we have no control. For this reason we should avoid this word. “Task” or “job” would be more appropriate.

To describe this business as unhappy, Qoheleth uses an adjective () that can have various meanings depending on the context. If it is used in a moral context, it means “evil” (as in 3:16). In other settings it can mean something painful or frustrating (so tev “miserable fate”; niv “heavy burden”; jb “weary task”). The translator should look for a word that vividly conveys the idea that the task of understanding this world is not always easy—it is sometimes painful and often causes considerable heart ache (see verse 18).

That God has given to the sons of men: here we can see into Qoheleth’s view of God. He regards life (with all its problems) as a divine gift (see 2:24; 3:10, 13; 5:19; 6:2). In this verse we meet the first use of the word God. Translators should keep this general term for “God” rather than use the special divine name Yahweh or its equivalent. This is because Old Testament wisdom literature prefers to use the general term Elohim.

Sons of men is literally “sons of mankind [or, of Adam],” and the clear meaning is “all people,” not just males. Our translation should reflect this wide meaning: “every human being” or “every person.” Some African languages have a similar expression meaning “human being” but also conveying the sense of human mortality or weakness. In such languages, therefore, the translator may be able to preserve both the form and the meaning of the Hebrew. tev “us” is an inclusive form and is more personal. However, Qoheleth is actually speaking in a more detached way of the whole human family.

To be busy with is another example of a construction in which the verb and its object come from the same root (literally “an unhappy business … to be busy with”); see note on “cognate-object construction,” page 24. Languages that prefer not to use this kind of repetition may use a general term, in which case the phrase “to be busy with” may be omitted.

Two models for translation are:

•    It is a painful task that God has given people [to deal with].

•    What a difficult job God gives people [to do].


This verse consists of two parts, a statement claiming that Qoheleth examined all the various kinds of things that people do, and the conclusion he reached based on that observation.

The introductory phrase I have seen is one that Qoheleth uses often (as in 1:17; 2:13; 3:10, 16; 4:1). It is an important signal to the reader, because it shows that what follows is Qoheleth’s conclusion based on his observations. In this case what he saw is expressed in a way parallel to verse 13a. Almost certainly Qoheleth has deliberately chosen this parallel form of expression to emphasize not only that he tried to examine everything, but that he actually did so.

Everything should be translated in the same way as “all” in verse 13a, to indicate the link between the two verses.

The clause that is done is not passive in Hebrew. It says literally “all the deeds they do.” The subject here is “people” in the general sense. We can say “all that people do.”

Under the sun is the same phrase as in verse 3 and is parallel to “under the heaven” of verse 13.

Models for translation of the first half of the verse: “I have observed all the kinds of things people do on earth” or “I have seen all the things done in this world.”

And behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind: the introductory and behold reproduces the Hebrew hinneh, “Look!” This is an important word in Hebrew because it often draws special attention to what follows. Here we meet it for the first time in Qoheleth, and it signals something important he wants to say. Translators will know what “attention-getting” word is appropriate in their language. Some languages may use a particle to mark the verb or the sentence itself as being particularly emphatic.

What then did Qoheleth see? He saw (and concluded) that all is vanity and a striving after wind. We have already met the “All is vanity” theme in verse 2. The associated phrase, a striving after wind, uses interesting picture language. To strive after or to chase an object like the wind suggests attempting something that can never be achieved no matter how hard we try. It describes something that is impossible, something that is beyond human power. Almost universally this is how the phrase has been translated. Because the phrase is used so often (for instance, 2:11, 17, 22, 26; 4:6, 16; 6:9), it is vital that we understand it and its role in illustrating the meaning of the “vanity” theme. “Chasing after the wind” is not the only possible translation of the phrase, and this is why there is a footnote in rsv/nrsv. The footnote shows that “feeding on wind” is another possible translation. The need for the footnote arises because the verbal root has several possible meanings. Thus a choice has to be made. It seems most likely that the verb in question is the one that describes the work of the shepherd (ràah). So Qoheleth is saying here that, having seen what people are doing in the world, he concluded that all such activity is like trying to “shepherd the wind.” The idiom describes something impossible to achieve.

The next question then is, What does this phrase describe? Does it describe what people are doing? Does it mean that people are trying to do things that they cannot achieve? Or does it describe Qoheleth’s own feelings about the situation? From what we have seen in verse 2 and our understanding of its function, it seems likely that Qoheleth uses this idiom about the wind to tell us what his personal response was to the situation he observed. So he concludes that the task of understanding human experience is like trying to shepherd the wind, telling it where to blow. Human beings can never expect to control the wind and what it does, and in the same way we can never expect to understand all that happens in this world. This interpretation of the idiom fits with the meaning of “vanity” which we have discussed above. Both phrases in verse 14 speak of the puzzle or mystery of human life and action, which our limited human minds can never expect to understand fully.

A model for translation of the second half of the verse may be “Look, [I’m telling you!] everything is difficult to understand. It’s as hard as telling the wind where to blow.”

The interpretation of the text and therefore the translation suggested here is a little different from the one found in many translations. Rather than giving a negative view of life, we believe the sage is arguing that life is so complex that it is beyond our ability to fully understand it. Qoheleth will provide much more evidence for this in the rest of the book to follow. Verse 15 will help us see what he means even more clearly.


Almost certainly this verse is a proverb that Qoheleth quotes. We cannot at present discover its source. It is structured as two parallel statements, and the translator should strive to retain this form as far as possible. It can be indented or enclosed in quotes to show that it is a peculiar literary form.

What is crooked describes the state of an object: it twists and turns. Such an object cannot be made straight, says the quotation. Of course there are many things that are crooked and bent which can be straightened or smoothed out without any difficulty. But there are also many other things that cannot be straightened. It is only these latter that Qoheleth is thinking about, so translators should note that this saying is not meant to describe every possible situation; it is only a generalization. Also we should avoid giving the impression that something “crooked” is actually “faulty,” or “wrong.” (This is the difficulty with the lb paraphrase “What is wrong cannot be righted”). A crooked tree is simply a crooked tree, and it may be all the more attractive because it is crooked. In many languages “crooked” does refer figuratively to corrupt, immoral, or evil people and practices. This associated meaning may require us to choose a different adjective, or a phrase such as “twists and turns” or “has many curves in it.”

What is lacking (or tev, “things that are not there”) describes a vacuum, or nonexistence. Naturally if something is not there it cannot be numbered. This states another very obvious fact: you cannot count something that does not exist.

What both halves of the saying demonstrate is that, in the natural world as well as in human life, certain facts cannot be altered; they simply have to be accepted. The problem to be avoided in translation is giving the impression that this situation is necessarily bad or negative. The quotation itself is neutral. It simply points to the conclusion that Qoheleth has come to about life, that sometimes we must accept certain things as they are. If the translator’s language has a proverbial saying expressing similar ideas, then that can be used. It may also be necessary to supply the subject of the clause. We may say “A person cannot straighten out something that twists and turns,” “You [singular or plural] cannot straighten something with many curves in it,” or “We cannot make straight what is crooked.” For the second clause we can say something similar: “A person [you, one] cannot count something when there is nothing there [to be counted].”

The point being made does not depend on the order of these two clauses, so if it proves more natural to express the second clause first, the clauses may be reversed.

Reflection on the Quest 1:16–18


Verses 16–18 form another short section. Qoheleth adds further statements about how wise and knowledgeable he became (verses 16–17a), and then concludes (verse 17b) that his research was fruitless; it was like trying to tell the wind where to blow (as in verse 14b). To support this conclusion he cites another proverb (verse 18), following the pattern in verses 13–15 above.

Verse 16 falls into two parts, both expressing Qoheleth’s vast store of wisdom.

I said to myself: when Qoheleth tells about his reflections on any matter, he often uses this phrase (see 2:1; 3:17, 18). The Hebrew says literally “I said in my heart.” The Hebrew idiom has a parallel in many languages; “I said in my liver,” for example. Others will prefer a verb of thinking or knowing, like “I thought to myself.”

The quote that follows opens with the hinneh particle (see comments in verse 14 above). tev, rsv, jb are typical of those translations that omit it in this case, but njv renders it “Here I.…” In English it is possible to say “Look” or “Well now,” as when people reason with themselves.

Qoheleth recognized that he had been very successful, but we must wait until 2:4–11 before he gives us information about the ways he was successful. In verse 16 we simply have a summary of his life’s work. He describes his achievement by saying I have acquired great wisdom. In Hebrew two verbs are linked together here, “I became great” and “I increased [in wisdom].” Where a language permits serial constructions (two verbs within the same clause), the two verbs may be retained. Other languages will prefer one verb with adverbial or adjectival modifiers: “I increased greatly in wisdom,” “I became much wiser,” or “I acquired great wisdom.” We may even find it more natural to say “My wisdom increased greatly,” bringing the noun to the head of the clause. tev “I became a great man, far wiser than …” offers an alternative form with the same meaning.

Surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me: Qoheleth claims that his wisdom was superior to that of all past kings of Jerusalem. All is used here in the collective and personal sense of “every person.” It is the addition of the phrase “over Jerusalem” that gives us the clue that these people were kings, and tev makes this clear. The full expression can be rendered then as “all previous kings in Jerusalem.”

And my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge: Qoheleth uses the word “heart” where in English the word mind would be used to describe that part of the body where thinking takes place. Translators should use the appropriate body part (mind, insides, bile, liver) for a natural rendering. “My heart saw” is Qoheleth’s way of saying that he gained some insight. There is an emphasis in this part of the verse on Qoheleth’s intellectual achievement, so the verb “saw” means that he had a deep insight into things.

Qoheleth has used the word wisdom already (1:13), but here he joins it to the word knowledge. “Wisdom” is different from “knowledge” because “wisdom” can come only with maturity, broad experience, and thoughtful reflection. It also has the specialized meanings mentioned in the notes on verse 13 above. “Knowledge” can be gained by reading, listening, and so on, but it is only the starting point for becoming mature. Also “knowledge” can be of evil things, whereas “wisdom” can only describe some positive value. If the distinction between these two terms cannot be made using two nouns, a verbal clause may substitute; for example, “I came to know what it is to be wise, and I learned many things [about the world].” Idiomatic forms may also be available: “I got to the bottom of wisdom” or “I understood the inside of wisdom.”

Another possibility is that a language may prefer to reverse the order of the sentences here, such as “I thought to myself, ‘I have found out what wisdom and knowledge really are. I have become very wise, more than all those who ruled as kings in Jerusalem before me.’ ”


I applied my mind is the same phrase we saw in verse 13.

To know wisdom places the emphasis on experience, because the verb know, used three times in this verse (“know wisdom,” “know madness,” “perceive”), is often used in the sense of experiencing something (as in Gen 4:1). Qoheleth experiments to find out what wisdom truly is, and what difference it makes to a person’s life.

But Qoheleth also wanted to know madness and folly, that is, to know more about the foolish and evil things that people do, and what their negative and positive (if any) value was. Qoheleth describes two opposites or extremes, wisdom and folly, indicating that his experiment was thorough and comprehensive (see also 2:9–10).

Madness is not mental illness but is a word similar to foolishness. The special Hebrew term here is a word found only in Qoheleth. Translators should seek a word that does not refer to illness, so a word like “stupidity” would suit. The translator can use two equivalent words of similar meaning or use a single term to express the idea.

I perceived (literally “knew”), indicates that Qoheleth “learned,” “found out,” or “discovered” by this testing process that he was attempting something beyond his power to fully comprehend. This also refers back to the experiment to test both wisdom and folly. Because the demonstrative pronoun this leaves the meaning unclear, it can be clarified by adding a phrase like “in trying to do this.” This produces a possible translation, “I discovered, in trying to know these things, that I was …,” or “I came to the conclusion that trying to understand these things is like.…”

For comments on a striving after wind, see verse 14. Qoheleth once again tells us he discovered that it is not possible to learn all about life; it is like trying to “shepherd the wind.”


As in verse 15, where Qoheleth quoted a proverb to support his conclusion, so here in verse 18 we find him using the same method. The quotation is to lend weight to the conclusion reached in verse 17. rsv indicates clearly how each half of the saying is made up of repeated terms, much and increases. It illustrates well how Hebrew poetry and proverbs are made up of parallel phrases. The structure is an important part of the presentation, as it allows Qoheleth to link together two things that may appear not to belong together. Here he links wisdom and vexation, knowledge and sorrow. Generally, wise men in Israel taught people that the wiser they became, the better off they would be. A wise person could expect more happiness and blessing (see Pro 15:6; 16:16, 22). What Qoheleth wants to stress is that this is not always true. Gaining more wisdom and knowledge can sometimes become a great burden. Because Qoheleth has not yet given us examples or illustrations of what he means, the reasons why he came to this conclusion are not clear. We shall find them only as we read on in the book.

If Qoheleth’s real conclusion was that life was meaningless and futile, as many translations have decided, then it would seem right to conclude that he was at a “dead end.” There would be no point to continuing his search for “lasting benefit.” However, what we find is that the problems Qoheleth encountered as he searched only made him more diligent in looking for the true benefits that wisdom could bring.

In translating the phrase in much wisdom, the preposition “in” can also mean “by” or “with” in the sense of “by means of.” rsv vexation describes the anger a person feels when something undeserved happens to them. Here it can also mean “grief,” the aching pain someone feels when things go wrong. Becoming more wise, knowing more about the human condition, will make a person more understanding. If a person has any real feelings for the tragedies and the pain that some people have to endure, then “vexation” is natural. tev puts it very well: “the more you know, the more it hurts.” This is even more true for a religious person like Qoheleth. When we look at these problems from the point of view of faith in God, our inability to understand why certain things happen is much more painful. Job had a similar problem. His pain was much more than physical—it was mostly caused by the fact that he could not understand why he was suffering as he did.

If possible, translators should use proverbial forms common to their language. In some languages this may make the verse shorter:

•    More wisdom, more grief.

More knowledge, more sorrow.

In others it may be necessary to use verbs with their subjects. Subjects can conform to those used in proverbs in the language: “one,” “you,” “we.” cev gives a good model:

•    The more you know,

the more you hurt;

the more you understand,

the more you suffer.

In some languages it may be more natural to combine the two similar clauses, that is the first clause of each line, and the second clause of each line, as frcl does. We can say:

•    The more one becomes wise and knowledgeable, the more one knows grief and sorrow.

Indenting this verse will draw attention to the fact that it is a quoted proverb, serving a special function as a conclusion (see also verse 15).

We have not yet read enough of Qoheleth to know why he draws these various conclusions in chapter 1, but he will gradually reveal what experiences led him to think this way. Chapter 1 is therefore a moving autobiographical introduction to the author’s search for answers to life’s perplexing questions. Details will follow.

Testing Pleasure 2:1–11

What Qoheleth spoke about generally in 1:16–17 is now explained in more detail. Like a scientist conducting experiments Qoheleth tested every aspect of life he could. The first thing to examine was “pleasure.” Verses 1–11 outline how he became very wealthy and powerful. Although he achieved so much, he could not find the “lasting benefit” he was searching for.

This section can be further subdivided into smaller units. In verses 1–3 Qoheleth tests simple pleasures in life (laughter and wine). In verses 2–8 he tells about a more concrete experiment, as he finds pleasure in great projects. Verses 9–11 provide a summary statement of these wide experiments.

Section Heading: some Bible translations begin chapter 2 with a section heading, while others, like tev, omit it. If the translator feels a section heading will be helpful to highlight the content of the passage, one can be added. Using a question like “Does wealth bring happiness?” or “What does pleasure accomplish?” can prepare the reader to join Qoheleth in his search.

1st Experiment: Enjoy Yourself 2:1–3


The important verb in this verse is the verb test. As soon as we see it, we know that Qoheleth is not just seeking pleasure for the sake of a good time. He was very scientific and wanted to know honestly whether pleasure could help him find “lasting benefit.” He also gives his conclusion immediately: he did not find what he was looking for.

I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure”: as noted above, some languages will require an expression closer to the Hebrew idiom, namely, “I said in my heart,” while others may prefer a simple phrase like “I decided to” or “I thought I would.” If direct speech is acceptable, then the imperative Come now can be used to express the way Qoheleth addresses himself. Or the translator can use another expression that is used in internal reasoning: “All right,” “Let’s see now,” or “Very well, then.” However, in some languages this phrase is unnatural and can be omitted. Where indirect speech is preferred the sentence can read “I thought I would test.” Unfortunately tev has lost the verb test and so may give the impression that Qoheleth set out to do nothing more than to have a good time. Pleasure does of course include the idea of having a good time, but in this chapter we need to consider whether Qoheleth uses the word in that sense. Clearly he includes all the achievements he lists in verses 3–8, so our translation of pleasure needs to be wide enough to cover that.

The Hebrew text here can be translated “I will test with pleasure.” niv, jb and several French versions give “I will test myself with pleasure,” raising the question, What exactly is being tested? However, throughout this book we find that Qoheleth is testing various things such as wisdom, madness and folly (1:17), and examining all aspects of life. It is best therefore to conclude that pleasure itself is being tested. We treat pleasure as the object of the verb test. Testing pleasure means to test those things that may provide pleasure or happiness. Phrases like “what will make a person happy” or “what can give joy” may better fit the summary in verse 9.

Enjoy yourself loosely translates the phrase that is literally “look into what is good.” It contains two words, “see” and “good,” both of which are important keywords in this book. In Qoheleth the verb “see” means far more than “have a look at,” for we notice that it is used in conjunction with the verb “test.” It has the sense of examining something scientifically. The word “good” may be a noun meaning “good things” or an adjective. In this verse the idea can be conveyed by “see what good there is in it” or “see what pleasure has to offer.”

But behold, this also was vanity: before telling us about his experiment, Qoheleth gives us the results of his test. As we have seen in 1:14, the Hebrew word hinneh “behold” is a multi-purpose word. Here it introduces the results of Qoheleth’s experiment. It can thus be rendered by a cognitive verb of thinking or knowing, “I found out,” “I discovered,” or “I concluded.” Alternatively it can indicate emphasis, surprise, or even despair. Another translation can be “But, you see, that too …” or “But, alas, that too.…” While some translations omit this word altogether, it is better to express it if possible.

We can ask what kinds of things are included in the pronoun this. Perhaps it is best to understand that it includes both the testing of pleasure and also what it provided. It is all this that Qoheleth concludes is hevel “unsatisfying.” That is to say, the “lasting benefit” he was searching for still eluded him. We can also suggest that the testing process raised more questions than it answered.

For translation:

•    I said to myself, “All right, I will test pleasure to see what good there is in it.” But even this did not provide any answers.


Understanding the structure of the verse will help our translation. It speaks about two attitudes to life, each represented by a prepositional phrase, “concerning laughter,” and “concerning pleasure.” These stand at the head of each half of the verse. The one verb I said serves both halves. Such a structure reminds us that both halves of the verse say basically the same thing.

I said of laughter is literally “Concerning laughter, I said.” The expression I said here points to a conclusion Qoheleth is making: “I saw that,” “I found out that,” “I discovered.” By drawing the object to the front of each clause, the author draws special attention to it. Laughter is a term Qoheleth uses several times, usually with a negative sense (see 7:3). As laughter is generally our response to an amusing situation, we can recognize that Qoheleth is not testing laughter itself, but rather a light-hearted attitude to life. We must not lose sight of the question Qoheleth is asking as he examines these experiences. He wants to know what will provide the “lasting benefit.” He concludes that these two things, failure to take life seriously and seeking material success, cannot give lasting benefit, even though both are perfectly good and proper in themselves.

It is mad: note the discussion in 1:17 about the translation of “madness.” We need a word that suggests it is unable to give “lasting benefit.”

For translation: “Failure to take life seriously is dangerous” or “If we are too light-hearted we are being stupid.”

Of pleasure: again the noun is brought forward in the prepositional phrase heading the sentence. See the discussion in verse 1 for the meaning of “pleasure.”

Qoheleth varies his expression in the second half of the verse, using a rhetorical question to express the conclusion he reached. He asked himself What use is it? or “What did it accomplish?” We may wish to preserve the question form, or if a negative statement is more natural, we can say “It accomplished nothing either.” Again we remind ourselves that the background for the saying is the search for “lasting benefit,” so the meaning is that pleasure could not give such benefit.

For translation:

•    I saw that it is foolish to be too light-hearted. What does pleasure accomplish anyway?


The idea that we can test for what will make us happy is one we have seen in verse 1. Verse 3 explains more fully what is meant by that.

I searched with my mind: these opening words remind the reader that Qoheleth was making an intellectual investigation. The initial verb tells of spying out or exploring something. We find it used in Ezek 20:6 to describe the way God spied out and selected the Land of Canaan for Israel to live in. So Qoheleth is using his mind (or in Hebrew, his “heart”) for this study. He is anxious to avoid giving the impression that he drank wine only for the pleasure of drinking.

How to cheer my body with wine: the opening infinitive is given as “to cheer” in rsv and “to cheer myself up with” in tev. Actually the root meaning is “attract” or “draw,” though most scholars seem to agree with an earlier view that it probably means “to stimulate” or “refresh.” This is the view the Jewish Talmud adopts.

Wine: this refers to the fermented wine made from grapes. Though this drink was common and played an important part in Jewish culture, drunkenness was condemned (see, for example, Pro 20:1; 23:20, 21, 29–35).

To assure the reader again that drinking wine was a legitimate and scientific experiment, Qoheleth adds my mind still guiding me with wisdom. True to his reputation as a wise man, he is led by wisdom. Here wisdom refers to the principles and teachings of the wisdom tradition rather than to “wisdom” in general (see further the note on “wisdom” in 1:13). Sages of all ages and nationalities followed basically the same methods. They observed life, then considered deeply the things they saw, and from this developed advice or a set of instructions to help people live for everyone’s best interest. This is how he conducted this test, Qoheleth says. The use of the participle guiding indicates that he used wisdom’s principles throughout the test. When we translate we can add the word “throughout” to make that more obvious: “throughout I followed the principles of wisdom.”

And how to lay hold on folly demonstrates how far Qoheleth went in his testing for the pleasure wine could bring. He got drunk. The conjunction and does not add new action but shows how far Qoheleth went in doing what he did. In translating this we can say “even to the point of.…” “Grasping hold of folly” may seem a peculiar way to express what Qoheleth did, but it indicates that he fully experienced what folly was. tev suggests “have a good time,” but this is much too vague and does not tell us whether he thought this was a good or bad thing. If it is felt that “I got very drunk” or “I got as drunk as a fool” is too idiomatic, then we can add a footnote to indicate the literal text, or we can keep a literal translation in the text and explain its meaning in a footnote.

Till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do: again we have the verb see used with the sense of testing or experimenting, showing that Qoheleth truly wanted to know what was best for people. tev “I thought that this might be the best way …” gives the impression that he thinks he already knows what is best, and so it weakens the sense of the verb. In Hebrew this clause is presented as direct speech, “can this be good for …?” Good is here a noun form meaning “good things.” Sons of men is a collective expression that includes every human being. Thus Qoheleth is wondering “whether this was a good thing for people,” or “whether it would benefit anyone.” “It” in such a translation refers to experimenting with wine as a solution to a person’s problems. That may need to be made clear.

Under heaven during the few days of their life: the expression under heaven was explained in comments at 1:13. During the few days of their life is literally “the number of the days of their life,” so we need to ask whether Qoheleth means by this that life is short. There are occasions when the term “number” indicates an amount that can be counted. If it can be counted then it cannot be such a vast amount, and therefore it has a limit, hence “limited number.” On the other hand “number” can also express the notion of a determined or fixed number, without any restriction as to how few or many it may be. This latter meaning is similar to the sense of Exo 23:26 and the fixed number of days Israel was to remain in Egypt. This second sense would give a different translation; for example, “throughout their lives” or “throughout their allotted life span.” There is no clear evidence that Qoheleth believed that human life was short, so our translation should not leave that impression. A simple solution is to render this phrase as “throughout their lives.”

Two models for translation are:

•    I tried drinking wine to the point of foolishness, all the while keeping the principles of wisdom in view. I wanted to see if this is a good thing for people to do during their time on this earth.

•    I gave myself over to wine-drinking, going to the limit, yet at the same time trying to remain wise. I was trying to figure out if this activity is worthwhile for people during their lives.

2nd Experiment: Pleasure Through Work 2:4–8


Verse 4 takes us into the next experiment Qoheleth undertook, which he discusses in verses 4–9; it should not be confused with the experiment in verses 1–3. Here Qoheleth begins by listing what he achieved, and ends in verse 9 with a summary statement similar to the one in 1:16. It is advisable to consider these verses as a unit.

Throughout this paragraph Qoheleth makes use of the Hebrew expression “for me,” translated as “myself.” Verse 4 says “I built myself houses; I planted myself vineyards.” Note that “myself” is not the direct object of the verb; it means for myself as in rsv. The expression occurs twice in each of verses 4, 7 and 8 and once in verse 6. In some languages such a repetition may not be acceptable, but if possible the emphasis should be maintained. The point seems to come clear in verse 10, where Qoheleth states emphatically that he carried out every desire in his heart. The expression can be rendered in a variety of ways. In some languages a reflexive construction is used, “I built myself.” In other languages a prepositional phrase, “for myself” or “for my own enjoyment,” can be used.

In most languages, phrases like “I built myself houses” pose no problem for translation. But in some, such expressions may mean that Qoheleth himself literally did the building. If this is a possible misunderstanding, an alternative construction can be used: “I had houses built” or “I had people build houses for me.”

I made great works tells us that Qoheleth had a reputation as a “doer of great things.” This general introduction may be rendered as “I accomplished great things,” “I did many great things,” or even “I became widely known for my achievements.” The word works sets the tone for this subsection, because we note its root form appearing as the initial verb in many of the following verses (see verses 5, 6, 8c).

I built houses and planted vineyards for myself: as a builder Qoheleth was famous. This claim of course follows closely the reputation of Solomon as a great builder (1 Kgs 7:9–10). He also planted vineyards. Translation of vineyard is always a problem where the grape is unknown. Some language groups use a borrowed term for “grape.” Instead of I planted vineyards we can simply state “I grew grapes.” Where neither grapes nor vineyards are known, an alternative expression may be used, because here the planting of vineyards conveys the sense of Qoheleth’s general prosperity. A general word such as “fields” or “crops,” or a more descriptive equivalent such as “fruit-bearing vines,” may be substituted. The translator should try to avoid naming a crop that did not exist in the Biblical setting, such as rice or corn.

Two models for translation are:

•    I became known for my great achievements. I built myself houses and planted vineyards.

•    I became famous for all I did. I built houses and planted vineyards.


I made myself gardens and parks: the verb made, which begins the verse, links us back immediately with “my deeds” of verse 4. In some languages a general word like “make” would be inappropriate in this context. In this case a word used for making gardens should be used, like “planted.” When Qoheleth talks about the gardens he established, he is thinking clearly of an orchard. In many languages the word “garden” requires some modifying word to indicate what type of garden it was, so the word “orchard” or “garden of fruit trees” overcomes that problem.

The parks that he established are less easy to describe, because the term used is one borrowed into Hebrew from Persian. Literally the word suggests “paradise” and recalls the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. It appears to mean an area in which trees and other plants were grown. As both “garden” and “park” describe similar objects, translators may find it necessary to use one general term to refer to both.

All kinds of fruit trees in Hebrew is a singular noun with a plural meaning. In communities where a generic term for fruit trees does not exist, a descriptive phrase like “trees that give food,” “food-bearing plants,” or “trees giving different kinds of fruit” may be used. The translator should avoid referring to trees by name, as they may not have grown in that region.

For translation:

•    I made gardens and parks for my own enjoyment, planting all kinds of fruit trees in them.


Like the previous verse, this one also begins with the verb made; it is part of the description of great works he accomplished. tev “dug” suggests, probably correctly, that the water was stored in cisterns or large holes in the ground. This fits the general pattern for water storage in Israel, as archeological discoveries have confirmed. In fact the term used here and translated pools is the same as the term describing the pool of Gibeon in 2 Sam 2:13. This is a deep cistern with a circular stairway leading down to the water stored in the bottom. Translators will need to use a term in their language which describes a place that has been dug in the ground to store water. We should also note here that Qoheleth did not make or dig these holes himself; our translation should indicate that others did this for him. On myself see also the comments on 2:4.

To water the forest of growing trees: the purpose of the pools was to irrigate the trees he had planted. In Gen 2:10 the verb “water” describes the river watering the Garden of Eden. Here Qoheleth uses that same verb, perhaps suggesting that what he planted was similar to that Garden. When he says that the trees formed a forest, he is using a term not usually associated with fruit trees, because it indicates a dense cluster of trees. Clearly Qoheleth wants to say that there were many trees growing there. However, the participle growing is singular, so the question is, What does this word modify? Does it describe the forest, which is also a singular, collective noun? Or does it describe trees as rsv suggests? This is a very minor point, given the context, and we can avoid the problem by translating it “to irrigate the many trees,” or as tev does, “to irrigate them.” The pronoun “them” is adequate in this context.

For translation: “I made myself reservoirs to irrigate them,” “I had ponds dug to irrigate them,” or “I built wells to water the many trees.”


Qoheleth’s great wealth was also shown in the way he purchased slaves. Although most societies today do not permit buying another individual for slavery, the custom was accepted in Old Testament times. However, the legal rights of Hebrew slaves were guaranteed; they had the choice of complete freedom after seven years’ service. Translators may find it difficult to locate a term that matches the Hebrew concept of “slave,” since cultural patterns are different. “Servant” may be less problematic. Children born to the slaves are literally “children of the house.” They legally belonged to Qoheleth and were furthermore a sign of divine blessing. Owning slaves was a sign of his high social position. For translation: “I acquired [male and female] servants; others were born in my home”; or “I bought men and women slaves, and acquired the children born to them.”

I had also great possessions of herds and flocks: as was the case with slaves, cattle was a sign of wealth. Great possessions is a rather awkward construction and may be expressed more naturally by modifiers such as “a lot of,” “many,” or “numerous.” The Hebrew word for herd indicates domesticated animals and is a generic term. It is then described by two additional terms, “oxen” and “sheep.” These appear to be particular types of animals, though the term “oxen” may also be used generally for different kinds of cattle. tev overcomes this problem of generic terms and names for individual types of animals by the collective form “livestock.” Many language groups will have their own way of naming these types of livestock, and the most natural expressions should be used. If particular types of livestock are mentioned by name, the generic term may be dropped. We note that there is a play on words here between the word “cattle” in this clause and “buy” in the previous clause, since both words come from the same root in Hebrew. This word play is almost impossible to render in translation, however.

More than any who had been before me in Jerusalem: the idea that Qoheleth was greater in every way than all previous residents of Jerusalem is one he mentions several times in the opening autobiography (see 1:16; 2:9). He does not actually say here that he was a king. This description of his wealth and achievements is important. Qoheleth needs to impress on his readers that, whatever conclusions he draws or whatever advice he offers, it is all based on his full experience of the very best life has to offer. It means readers can accept his conclusions as valid. In translation this may be expressed as “I possessed more than any other previous resident of Jerusalem,” or “I had more than anyone who lived before me in Jerusalem.”

A model for translation of the whole verse:

•    I bought male and female slaves and acquired the children born to them. I had great herds of livestock. I owned more than anyone who lived before me in Jerusalem.


I also gathered for myself silver and gold: the verb gathered suggests amassing large amounts of these precious metals of silver and gold. In this case the two precious metals are meant, and if possible they should be translated as such. However, in those cultural groups that do not have a term for one or the other, the two terms can be combined into one term, “wealth.” This can give a translation such as “I became extremely wealthy” or “I amassed silver and gold.” In this context some languages may find it unnecessary to translate for myself.

Foreign monarchs and empires paid tribute to Qoheleth. This is the meaning of the phrase the treasure of kings and provinces. It suggests that Qoheleth ruled a vast and powerful empire—perhaps another reference to the “Solomon” model. Provinces is a loan word to Hebrew, an Aramaic word found in some of the later Old Testament books, especially Esther and Daniel. It describes political districts within the Babylonian and Persian empires, obviously much later than the time of Solomon. Qoheleth claims that he received wealth from foreign nations who recognized his rule. So from inside his empire and from outsiders, Qoheleth amassed a vast fortune. We can translate his meaning as “kings and foreign powers handed over their treasures” or “foreign kings and states paid tribute to me.”

I got singers, both men and women: in 2 Sam 19:35 the word singers describes those who provided entertainment for the wealthy classes. Qoheleth says that he “made” singers, meaning that he acquired or organized them for this purpose. He uses the verb “made” since it is one of the keywords for this section, as was pointed out in comments on verse 4. We may translate it as “organized.” Translators should note lb’s addition, “In the cultural arts …,” and be warned to avoid this kind of expansion of the text.

The concluding phrase and many concubines, man’s delight raises many problems. The Hebrew text is literally “exquisite delights of the sons of man,” followed by a phrase that is difficult to understand (siddah we siddoth). rsv places the last phrase first, rendering it many concubines (niv “harem”). As the root sdh does not occur anywhere else, it is difficult to fix its meaning absolutely, but the context almost demands that sexual pleasure is its sense here. This is quite appropriate when we recognize that Solomon is the model for much of this book (see 1 Kgs 11:3). The Hebrew phrase consists of a singular plus a plural form of the noun siddah; such a construction probably indicates a large number, hence the rendering many. If “concubine” is a term that is not known or used in the translator’s language, then “women” can be used.

Man’s delight: though the Hebrew phrase is unusual, its general sense is clear, namely, “what delights any man.”

Two possible models for translation are:

•    I amassed silver and gold; kings and foreign powers gave me their treasures. I organized groups of male and female singers, and as for women,* I enjoyed as many of them as any man could want.

•    I became extremely wealthy. I was entertained by men and women singers, and enjoyed many concubines,* the delight of any man.

Possible footnote:

Summary Statement 2:9–11


2:9–11 is a brief passage in which Qoheleth sets out a summary of his achievements and what they meant for him. An additional reason for highlighting this passage is that with verse 11 we arrive at not only the conclusion of this first subsection of chapter 2, but also at a significant point in the structure of the book.

In verse 11 we read Qoheleth’s first response to the key question put in 1:3. There he asked about “lasting benefit,” and in 2:11 he will finally answer that question with the words “there is no lasting benefit.” Having arrived at that conclusion Qoheleth will offer some further examples before giving his advice in verse 24, which is based on his conclusion in verse 11.

Verse 9 opens this summary with the conjunction translated So in rsv and “Yes” in tev. Both are attempts to show the close connection between this section and what has gone before: verses 9–11 rest on verses 1–8. Translators should use an appropriate marker to help readers make this connection.

With the words I became great, Qoheleth takes us back to what he said in verse 4. There are also connections back to the other summary in 1:16, where both verbs “be great” and “surpass” were found. The double expression I became great and surpassed adds weight to his claim that he was the most significant person who ever lived in Jerusalem.

All who were before me in Jerusalem is an expression used already in 1:16 and 2:7. In translation we can say “So in this way I became greater than any other person in Jerusalem had ever been.” The mention of Jerusalem may mean the city itself, in which case he presumably refers to himself as the greatest king ever to live in Jerusalem. Alternatively he may be using the term to refer to the entire nation of Israel. If the latter, then we can say “I became the most powerful person ever known in Israel.”

Also my wisdom remained with me: Qoheleth reminds his readers again that all he did was for the purpose of testing life. He says literally “my wisdom stood by me.” This is the same assurance he gave in verse 3. Thus Qoheleth followed strictly the rules and principles that governed the way sages approached every question or problem. It follows that his success was also due to following these principles. Thus he claims “Furthermore I relied on wisdom entirely,” or “Everything I did was based on wise methods.” When lb says he remained “clear-eyed,” it is not obvious that Qoheleth means he followed the established methods of the wise men. It is best not to follow the lb example.


This verse uses a typical Hebrew figurative expression, substituting a part of an object for its whole. Thus Qoheleth speaks of his eyes desiring and his heart finding pleasure. In some languages these figures of speech may be maintained, but in other languages it may be more natural to speak of the whole person, namely, “I.”

Qoheleth has used the verb “see” in connection with his experiment or test of life (see 1:14; 2:3). When he refers in this verse to whatever my eyes desired, we know that he is still talking about the full process of examining life. This link between “see,” “test,” and “eyes” is important in helping us determine the meaning of the verse. There is no doubt that whatever my eyes desired means he thoroughly examined everything he wanted. The Hebrew is literally “everything my eyes asked for,” and rsv stays close to that form. In some languages it may be awkward to say that eyes desire something. In that case we may need to use a less literal translation such as “whatever I wanted to test.”

I did not keep from them shows that nothing was overlooked, and no pleasure was beyond his experience. We can say “I overlooked nothing,” or “Whatever I desired to test, I tested; I overlooked nothing at all,” or even “Whatever I desired, I tested to find out everything about it.”

The expression in the next clause is parallel but not as broad as that in the first clause; it speaks of the thorough testing of pleasure. (Note the comments about “pleasure” in verse 1). The fuller content of the word is seen also in the way it is used in conjunction with “toil” in the next part of the verse. Qoheleth’s enjoyment of “pleasure” was largely intellectual; he wasn’t simply looking for a good time. Thus I kept my heart from no pleasure indicates that he seriously tested every pleasure without reserve and then pondered the meaning of what he had seen and experienced. We can give its meaning as “I determined to examine everything that offered enjoyment.” This form is more positive than the Hebrew, “I did not hold back on testing every form of pleasure,” but communicates the same meaning.

For my heart … is not a motive clause as rsv suggests, but one indicating the result of his examination. In fact the verse should be punctuated to indicate that a new thought begins here, perhaps by beginning a new sentence. The opening particle for is the emphatic marker ki, “indeed” or “truly.” When Qoheleth says my heart found pleasure in all my toil, he brings together the two ideas of “pleasure” and “work,” showing how they are related. Again note that heart (that is to say, his “mind” or “himself”) is the means for finding pleasure; it is an intellectual exercise. For the meaning of the word toil, refer to the discussion in 1:3. Here we can stress that toil is not a negative or tiresome task, because it relates closely with pleasure. Toil can be understood as a technical term for the serious task he was pursuing, namely, the testing of pleasure. Here a good translation for “toil” is “all I did.” We can say “So I was pleased with all I did.”

And this was my reward for all my toil: the demonstrative this refers back to the pleasure Qoheleth derived from his toil. With this point clear, we know now that he was able to find some value in all he did and achieved. He uses the word reward or “portion” to describe that benefit. This is an important term in Qoheleth’s vocabulary, and we find it used alongside the word “toil” in 2:21; 3:22; 5:18; 9:6, 9; and 11:2. This context shows what he means by this word “portion” or “reward”: it describes the joy of achieving, as well as his pleasure in the things themselves. However, it is clear that “portion” is not the complete answer to what he was seeking; it is only a part of what might be available. It is distinct from the “lasting benefit” he was searching for. “Portion” is available under the sun; it can also be lost, as 5:12–13 demonstrates, or be left to an heir. In contrast “lasting benefit” (yithron) refers to something less material that cannot be gained in this world. The last part of the verse can be rendered “Indeed, in all I did I found real joy, and that joy was my reward.”

A model for the translation of the whole verse is:

•    Everything I wanted to do, I did. I denied myself no pleasure. Yes, I was pleased with all I was able to do, and the pleasure it gave me was its [own] reward.


With the climax at the end of this verse, we come to the first powerful response to the question put in 1:3. Everything between 1:4 and 2:10 serves the purpose of justifying this conclusion.

Qoheleth has reached a conclusion: there is no “lasting benefit” available here on earth. He drew this conclusion from reflecting on his achievements mentioned above in 2:1–10.

The verb considered is literally “I turned my face toward,” with the sense “I gave my full attention to.” The phrase the toil I had spent in doing it is co-ordinated with the phrase all that my hands had done. It simply means that Qoheleth thought about what he had achieved and how he had managed to achieve it. As in the previous verse, where “eyes” and “heart” are words representing the whole person, so here “hands” also stands for the person. In some languages reference to the work of the hands is natural, but in others the pronoun “I” should be substituted. We can catch the idea of the verse with a rendering such as “I gave a lot of thought to what I had gained and how hard I worked to obtain it.”

As for his conclusion, he repeats the saying behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind. For the interpretation and translation of this phrase, see the discussion in 1:14. In notes on 1:14 and 2:1, attention was drawn to the function of the Hebrew particle hinneh. Here it marks the frustration Qoheleth feels as he comes to his important conclusion. We can translate it by a concluding marker, or say “In conclusion I found …,” or “My conclusion was …,” or an expression conveying frustration, such as “Let’s face it.”

There was nothing to be gained under the sun indicates that, despite there being some “reward” or “portion,” Qoheleth could find no lasting benefit here on earth in all those great achievements. We can render the statement as “No, a person cannot find lasting benefit here on earth.” It is important to use here the same word as was used to translate yithron in 1:3, so that the connection is made as clear as possible.

Possible models for translation are:

•    I gave a lot of thought to what I had gained and how hard I worked to achieve it. I could not understand it; it was as impossible as shepherding the wind. A person cannot find a lasting benefit on this earth.

•    I considered all the things I had done and all the work I had put into it, and this is what I found: all is a mystery. It’s like trying to shepherd the wind [or, direct the way the wind blows]. Let’s face it; there is no lasting benefit here on earth.

Testing Wisdom and Folly 2:12–17


Verse 12 begins with the same Hebrew expression found in verse 11, “I considered.” As these are the only two Old Testament usages of the expression, we shall assume that they have a similar function, namely, that they both introduce reflections on Qoheleth’s experience of life. Verse 11 dealt with the value of successful achievements; verses 12–17 deal with the difference between folly and wisdom. Qoheleth became aware of a serious problem: both wise and foolish people face the same reality, death. Can life offer any lasting benefit to the wise person under those circumstances? Is there any good reason to seek wisdom if it makes no difference for the ultimate future?

Section Heading: These verses discuss the impact of death upon wise and foolish people alike. As they introduce a new theme, adding a section heading will help readers to identify the theme quickly. Suggestions include “Is death unjust?” or “Death comes to everyone.”


So I turned reflects the next step in Qoheleth’s thinking and so can be rendered by a verb of thinking: “I began to think about” or “I began to reflect on,” or by a more literary expression, “I turned my thoughts to” or “My reflection turned to.”

Wisdom and madness and folly: as rsv shows, these three nouns are linked in Hebrew by the conjunction “and.” It is clear, however, that wisdom on the one hand is being opposed to madness and folly on the other. Madness and folly are linked together in this verse, suggesting that they have a similar meaning (see comments on 1:17 for the meaning of “madness”). Some languages will prefer to use one expression rather than two. tev uses “reckless” at this point to translate madness and so catches the mood of thoughtless behavior by which persons can harm themselves and others. Qoheleth intends to investigate every aspect of life, so he must look carefully at both wisdom and folly.

For what can the man do who comes after the king? tev moves this phrase to the beginning of verse 12. The question Qoheleth puts here is a rhetorical one. Its purpose apparently is to strengthen his argument that he should consider both wisdom and folly. The initial Hebrew particle ki may be the motive marker for, giving the reason for Qoheleth’s testing of wisdom and folly. Or it could be translated as the emphatic “indeed” or “really” equally well (see comments on this particle, page 13,). If the latter, then it expresses forcefully the thought that he can do nothing other than what the king has done. Our translation will be determined by the way we interpret the function of the particle.

An additional problem relates to the meaning of the verb comes after. Two meanings are possible: either to become the next king, or to follow in the way of the king, doing as he would do. There seems no way to settle this problem. However, if we refer to verse 18, where a similar thought occurs, it suggests that becoming the next king is what is in mind here. This gives a translation “What can the next king do?” or “What can the heir to the throne do?”

Only what he has already done: the person who takes over the throne can only do what the previous king did. The sense is that this is an ideal that the new king should follow. This interpretation depends upon understanding he as the previous king and not the man referred to in the question. If that is what is intended, then we can translate as “what the king has already done.” The assumption we make here is that, because the king had examined everything with such care, Qoheleth could do nothing less than that. However, we should be aware that we are making assumptions here, for it nowhere states what the king may have done. If our assumptions from the general context are correct, then Qoheleth bases his investigation on the fact that this was the only responsible policy to pursue. It wasn’t that he was unable to think of some alternative.

Avoiding the use of the rhetorical question may assist our translation. Possibilities are “The person who inherits the throne should follow the example of the previous king” or “Any person becoming king should follow the pattern set by the previous ruler in this matter.” tev treatment of this section may also be accepted.

It should, however, be noted here that the solution offered above is not without its problems, and that we have only chosen the most likely meaning. Despite this, it seems obvious that Qoheleth uses the question and comment to justify all he did.


The difference between wisdom and folly is like that between light and darkness. Wisdom and folly are absolutely different. The comparison also means that wisdom is the superior or positive value, and folly all negative. The verb saw can be rendered as “realized” or “discovered.”

Wisdom excels folly is a comparative expression that places wisdom above folly. The phrase is literally “there is a lasting benefit [yithron] to wisdom more than to folly.” The nature of the Hebrew comparative form makes it clear that only wisdom has this benefit; folly is of no value at all. Some languages will find it more natural to say that “wisdom is good and folly is not” or some similar contrasting expression. As yithron is a key word in this book, it will be well to make this idea clear in the translation. The use of abstract nouns wisdom and folly may be unnatural in some languages, in which case verbal expressions could be used: “Being wise has lasting benefit; being foolish has none.”

As light excels darkness draws on the metaphor of light and dark, which frequently appears in the Scriptures and marks an absolute contrast. Like the opening phrase, this one also is literally “as the lasting benefit of light over darkness.” This then becomes a powerful statement to the effect that only wisdom can produce any lasting benefit. This concept may be difficult to render in several languages where the terms of comparison are different. We may be able to speak of the “lasting benefit” of wisdom over folly, but not of the “lasting benefit” of light over dark. Our translation can make the point easily with a phrase like “Then I realized that lasting benefit comes only through being wise, never through folly. That is because wisdom and folly are as different as day and night” or “Then I knew that wisdom could bring lasting benefit; folly never will. Wisdom and folly are as different as light is to darkness.”

In some languages it may be more effective for the comparison to come before the statement: “As light excels darkness, so wisdom excels folly” or “As light is opposite to darkness, so wisdom [or, being wise] is opposite to folly [or, being foolish].”


Verse 14 divides into two parts: there is a two-line saying about the wise person and the fool, contrasting their actions, and then an observation that indicates how the wise and the fool are alike. The first part may be a quotation or traditional saying; the second represents Qoheleth’s own statement of another truth. The problem is that, if the first part of the verse describes the truth about human life, then how do we account for the fact that death is common to both wise and foolish people?

As the first part of the verse seems to be a traditional saying, the translator may express the statement in a proverb-like form. Many languages will prefer a present imperfect verb form. The translator will also have to decide whether it is more natural to render the Hebrew singular for wise man by the general plural “wise people.”

The wise man has his eyes in his head is clearly an idiomatic expression, as no one has eyes elsewhere. What does the idiom mean? In the context it obviously refers to the actions of the wise person, his life-style. So the wise person having eyes in his head is a way of saying that such persons know or see clearly where they are going, and they act with care and caution. A literal translation may not be understood, so the translator can adapt this statement to something like “An intelligent person sees where he is going.”

In contrast the fool walks in darkness; he does not know where he is going and is a threat to his own and others’ safety. We note the same kind of comment throughout the book of Proverbs (for example, 13:9; 15:21; 16:17; 21:16). Many languages will have a metaphor like “walking in darkness,” but if not, another expression can be used: “The foolish person cannot see where he is going.” In some languages the comparison will have to be expressed with more detail: “The foolish person is like a person stumbling in the dark. He doesn’t know where he is going.”

Having established that there is an absolute contrast between the fool and the wise, and that this is proved by their actions, Qoheleth adds one of his own observations. And yet I perceived that begins with the conjunction that has a contrastive function. rsv and yet or tev “But I also” both draw out this feature. We can express the point quite strongly with a form such as “Even though that is true, I also know that …” or “This is true, but I also know that.…”

What is the problem Qoheleth observed? It is that one fate comes to all of them. If in all other respects there is such an obvious difference between the wise and the fool, why is there no differ ence between their fates? The term fate means “chance” or “whatever happens.” The translator may want to avoid using the word fate, because it may have other religious overtones, so we can simply say “The same thing happens to both of them.” In this instance and throughout Qoheleth, the word refers to only one event: death. Whether or not we spell out its meaning here will depend on the language we are translating into. In Hebrew the author assumes the readers know what he is talking about. The word “die” is not used until it dramatically appears in verse 16. Some languages will be able to follow the Hebrew pattern, but in others we will need to state its meaning clearly and refer to “death” rather than “fate.”

In translation we may say “All of them, the wise and the foolish, will die” or “The same thing happens to both of them: they die.” Another possibility is to use a word like “end,” which combines the meaning of “fate” and “death”: “The wise and the foolish end in the same way—they die.” If the word “fate” is retained, the translator must give thought to which verb should be used. The Hebrew speaks of “meeting” fate; rsv uses comes. In some languages a word like “await” will be appropriate.

The phrase all of them points to the two kinds of people mentioned in the first part of the verse, namely, the wise and the foolish; so in place of the pronoun them, we can simply list the two types of people being spoken about. Alternatively we can use a term like “both.”

Two models for translation are:

•    A wise man sees clearly where he is going; a fool gropes in the dark. But both end up the same way—they die.

•    A wise man knows where he is going, while a foolish man wanders about in the dark. And yet both meet the same end [or, the same thing happens to both of them].


The many problems Qoheleth struggles to deal with and to understand are complicated even more by the fact of death. It is that issue which provides a major focus for all his concerns. What is Qoheleth’s response to this situation? He confesses that he is unable to understand why he should die just as the fool does. Why cannot wisdom make a difference at death?

Then I said to myself is the same expression we met with in 2:1 (see comments there). It is the marker for Qoheleth’s inner response to what he saw.

What befalls the fool will befall me also: this is death seen from a very personal perspective, as Qoheleth notes that there is no way he can avoid dying. The same is true of the fool. So being wise or foolish can do nothing to prevent a person dying. The verb befalls comes from the same Hebrew root as the noun “fate” in the previous verse. Translators can preserve the idea of “fate” or “end” if necessary, with a rendering “The fate [or, end] of the fool will be my fate [or, end] also,” or follow tev “I will suffer the same fate as the fool.” Alternatively the more specific reference to death can be used, in which case something like “the fool will die, and so will I” is appropriate.

Why then have I been so very wise? Given this fact of life, naturally Qoheleth must ask about the value of being wise. tev expresses his concern well: “So what have I gained by being so wise?” In this question the same root as appears in the special term yithron, “lasting benefit,” is used as an adverb. It describes the degree to which Qoheleth was wise, so we translate it as “very wise.” The full question can be given as “What is the value of becoming so wise?” or “Where is the benefit in great wisdom?” or “Where is the benefit of my wisdom now?” The translator may want to make clear the thought behind the question in the following way: “What good is it to be so wise if it makes no difference in the end?”

To understand the pain behind this question, it is important to recall that traditionally wisdom teaching claimed that wisdom would give life to anyone who sought it. See, for example, Pro 10:27: “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” Traditional wisdom taught that long life is the reward that wisdom can give, but Qoheleth has already noted that the facts seem to be otherwise.

Qoheleth replies to his own question: I said to myself that this also is vanity. The words this also can refer only to the entire situation he has described. Such a situation is beyond his power to understand. In his heart he is convinced of the true value of being wise: it is as light is to darkness. However, when death makes no distinction between wise people and fools, it is as though there is no value in wisdom. Qoheleth cannot resolve this problem; so he describes it as hevel, which is to say, an enigma or puzzle. tev and most other translations suggest that this phrase means Qoheleth gained nothing from being wise. But such a translation denies what Qoheleth tries to hold on to so strongly, namely, that there is always value in being wise. So we can improve our translation by saying something like “I told myself, here is another of those unanswerable questions” or “I realized that this was another puzzle.”


For of the wise man as of the fool: if the initial particle ki is translated For, then verse 16 provides the reason for the previous argument. But such a connection between verses 15 and 16 does not seem logical. It is probably best to understand verse 16 as providing the reader with yet another example of how the wise and fool are alike. This approach would better account for the repetition of the phrase “as of the wise man as of the fool.” For this reason we suggest the initial particle be translated as “Indeed,” or not translated at all, as in tev.

Remembrance or “memorial” can be applied to any material object or to any thought or notion that helps us recall what happened in the past. It may be directed toward God or people. Whether it is a physical memorial to what the sage achieved or some mental reflection on his achievements is difficult to determine. However, the point is clearly made: nobody remembers either the fool or the wise after they die. This is another aspect of the finality of death. Rather than use a noun remembrance or “memorial,” translators can use a verbal form, “not remembered,” or even “are forgotten.” The whole clause may say something like this: “Indeed, whether wise or foolish, people are forgotten for ever” or “Whether you are wise or foolish, nobody remembers you for long.”

Seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten: this is a peculiar expression in Hebrew. The initial phrase seeing that is literally “in which already.” It is either a time phrase pointing back to something already done or an explanatory “because already.” However, it is followed by the “coming days,” referring to something future. In light of the Hebrew imperfect verb “will be forgotten,” we can assume that Qoheleth is speaking of the future. We may translate as “because we already know that in the future everything will be forgotten.” All in this clause is a general term, and we probably do not need to define it too closely. Almost certainly it refers to “both wise and fool.” Translators have the choice of using the more general “all” or “everything,” or naming the persons as “wise people and fools.”

How the wise man dies just like the fool! exclaims Qoheleth. This cry is similar to the idea found in verse 15, but for the first time the word “fate” is clearly identified as “death.” What does Qoheleth mean when he says that the wise dies … like the fool? We need to ensure that readers do not think that the manner of death is the same. His point is simply that, whether a person is wise or foolish, there is no escape from death. A second meaning may also be present in the cry, in the sense that neither wise nor fool have any lasting memorial. The introductory How is a painful cry from Qoheleth as he meditates on this fact. It is a word we find often in the laments in Psalms (see Psa 73:11, 19; Lam 1:1; 2:1; 4:1, 2). neb, mft, jb all use the word “Alas!” whereas nab “How is it that …?” may sound more like a question than a painful cry of distress. Some languages will prefer an interjection of some kind to express this emotion. Our translation can make a clear reference to the pain of this situation by rendering it as “What a tragedy that the wise man’s death is no different from the fool’s!” “How awful that death makes no distinction between wise and foolish people!”


In this concluding statement we discover Qoheleth’s deep sense of frustration with the situation he has observed. Although such a wide gap exists between wise people and fools during life (verses 13–14), when death comes there seems to be no distinction at all. Even after they die, neither one leaves behind any memorial. They die without a trace.

So I hated life is an idiomatic saying expressing the deep pain and frustration a person felt when confronted by a situation that could not be changed for the better. Similar thoughts are found in Jer 20:14–18. Qoheleth hated life, that is to say, he hated everything evil or painful that happened here on earth. He certainly did not wish to die, though he felt frustrated by life’s many problems. Life means every aspect of human life.

Because what is done under the sun was grievous to me: Qoheleth tells us precisely what caused him pain; it was the human tragedies he witnessed about him. Grievous is how rsv renders the adjective at other times translated “evil.” Here it has no moral tone, so “grievous” or “distressing” is its meaning. tev has “it brought me trouble,” and this is a good model to follow.

The phrase what is done is also a very general one. Its subject can be either God or people, or both. For this reason a general translation is called for: “everything that happens” shows its meaning clearly.

In translation we may say “Everything that I saw happening on earth caused me so much pain that I almost came to hate life itself.” By using a phrase like “came almost to hate,” we are showing that Qoheleth did not actually despair of living, but that he was using an idiomatic expression. It also allows us to keep reasonably close to the original.

For all is vanity and a striving after wind: Qoheleth uses this concluding formula once again. See comments on 1:14 for translation.

We might think at this point that Qoheleth is about to give up completely on life. If he were truly a pessimist, as so many in the past have argued, we would expect him to now put down his pen and retire from life. However, he does not do that. In fact he has still further depths to reach before he recovers. He demonstrates that he has not despaired of finding meaning in life when he records positive words of encouragement in verses 24–26.

Translators can consider the following models:

•    Everything that happens to us on this earth is distressing. I have come almost to hate life because it is impossible to understand; it’s like trying to direct the wind.

•    Everything I saw happening in the world I found painful. I despaired of human life. It is a problem with no solution, impossible to understand.

Is Toil Worthwhile? 2:18–23


This subsection continues Qoheleth’s review of the things he saw and experienced during his test of wisdom and folly. Verse 18 repeats the phrase “I hated,” which ended the last section, but introduces a new theme, “toil.” This keyword is used ten times, either as noun or verb, and frequently in the compound expression “the toil at which I toiled [or, labored].” see verses 18, 19, 20, 22.

Section Heading: another section heading can be added at this point to highlight the new theme or issue that Qoheleth ponders. Possible headings include “Who will inherit my goods?” “What is the result of all my hard work?” or “What good is it to work so hard?”


Focusing more narrowly than in the previous section, Qoheleth now struggles over the question about what will happen to all his wealth when he dies. He has moved on from the simple fact of death to ask what happens after that. He cannot take his “portion” or “reward” with him, so someone else will inherit it. In the previous verse it was noted that the phrase “I hated life” was an idiom for the intense pain caused by certain apparently unjust situations. We apply that same insight to the use here. When Qoheleth says I hated all my toil, he means that his years of labor and all he acquired as a result of that now cause him great pain. We can render its meaning as “I almost came to hate my work and accomplishments” or “I no longer took any pleasure in all the work I did.” The expression my toil in which I had toiled may emphasize the difficulty of the task or the effort with which Qoheleth worked. Some languages can express this in the following way: “I grew to hate all the things I had worked so hard at.”

The phrase under the sun or “on earth” does not need to be translated literally every time it occurs, though it is a prominent aspect of Qoheleth’s style.

Seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me: the introductory relative clause marker rendered as seeing in rsv, or “because” in tev, indicates the reason why Qoheleth reacted so strongly to the situation mentioned in the first half of the verse. He does not feel badly about his work and his accomplishments; it would be a mistake to draw that conclusion. Rather the problem is that all his earnings will be inherited by someone who may well be a fool. It is expressed in Hebrew by the addition of a pronominal suffix on the verb translated leave. It refers to the fruits of his labor, so it can be expressed as “my wealth” or “my goods.” Translators will have to reflect on how ideas such as “leaving an inheritance” are expressed in their language. In some languages emphasis is put on the person who inherits or “eats” an inheritance, rather than on the one who “leaves” it.

The clause the man who will come after me is simply the person who will inherit his goods, that is, his heir, or what tev calls “my successor,” or “one who takes my place.”

Some ways we can translate verse 18 are as follows:

•    I almost came to hate having toiled and accomplished so much, because I must leave all I have [or, all my wealth] to an heir.

•    I became disillusioned about all the work I did, since I have to leave everything I worked so hard for to my successor.

Some languages may prefer to put the reason clause before the result:

•    I realized that everything I worked so hard for will go to the one who follows me. This makes me almost want to give up!


And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Qoheleth knew from early on that material goods were always inherited by someone, so that in itself was not the problem. The issue was that he could not guarantee that his heir would be wise or foolish. The rhetorical question Who knows? actually affirms that nobody knows. It may be translated either as in rsv or as in tev. Some alternatives are “Can anyone guarantee that my heir will be wise and not foolish?” or “Nobody knows whether my heir will act wisely or foolishly.”

Qoheleth continues to lament over the problem with the words Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. The reason for this anguish is that he is helpless to determine what the heir will be like. A conjunction like rsv Yet, or “But it’s he who will …” may help to convey this emotion. The Hebrew verb translated be master of is a word found mostly in the books written in the later Hebrew period (Esther, Nehemiah, and Ecclesiastes). Some languages may express this as “have control over” or “take charge of.” In others there may be a special idiom such as “he will eat all.…” The phrase all for which I toiled can be given as “the fruit of all my labor” or as in tev, “everything I have worked for.”

The phrase and used my wisdom is an adverbial expression telling us that Qoheleth worked according to wisdom principles, as he mentioned in 2:3, 9. We may use the adverb “wisely” to modify the verb “toil” for a smoother translation, “which I labored wisely to achieve,” or “which my wisdom helped me achieve.”

This also is vanity: the demonstrative pronoun This refers to the issue just described, namely, that a fool may be his heir. This is the core of the problem. It is not hevel (“useless”) to leave your goods behind at death; that happens to everyone. It is hevel that your goods may be inherited by a fool. Qoheleth cries in frustration because this is a situation beyond his control. “How frustrating!” or “What a waste!” is the sense.

For verse 19, then, we can propose:

•    No one knows whether this man will be wise or foolish. And yet, it’s he who will take charge of everything I worked so hard and wisely for! This, too, is a mystery!

•    Who knows whether my heir will be a wise person or a fool? Yet, he’ll be in control of everything I worked so wisely to achieve. What a frustrating situation!


So I turned about means that Qoheleth underwent a change of heart similar to what he has described in verse 17. This seems an odd thing to say when he has already told of his despair. If we understand verses 20–21 to be something in the way of a repetition of the ideas in verses 17–18, the point will become clearer. The initial So is the Hebrew conjunction “and.” It can be omitted from translation, as these verses do not add new or explanatory material, or we use an introductory “Yes” in some languages to show he is repeating an earlier idea.

Gave my heart up to despair is a strong expression. The heart was the equivalent of “mind,” and this reminds us that Qoheleth’s response here is an intellectual one. We might say he is “depressed.” Note also that the heart can represent the person, so my heart can be translated “I.”

The two opening phrases may well be brought together into one and be rendered as “I became utterly despairing about …,” “Upon reflection, I became depressed about …,” or perhaps better, “I could not bear to think about.…” When tev says “I came to regret,” it can give the impression that Qoheleth resented all his efforts and labor. However, Qoheleth does not regret working hard. He actually recommends that everyone work just as hard as he does. The real problem is rather that his portion and reward from working may be taken over by some heir or successor who does not appreciate those things nor the labor they represent.

The object of his despair was all the toil of my labors under the sun. The terms toil and labors have been discussed before at 1:3. In translating these terms we can readily combine them as “all I accomplished.”

For comments on under the sun, see further in 1:3. It is Qoheleth’s phrase for life in this world.

The interpretation suggested here is that Qoheleth is deeply disturbed by the possibility that his hard-earned goods may be inherited by someone unworthy of them, some fool. This leads to the following translation model:

•    I couldn’t bear to think about my life’s work and achievements.


Because leads us directly into the reason for Qoheleth’s anguish. We note that his reason is very impersonal; it is a general example. tev omits this connecting word, no doubt because the link is clear.

A man who is in Hebrew “There is a man [or, person, people] who …” and can be given as “Here is someone who …” as in nab, or “There are people who.…” tev uses the impersonal “you” in its rendering “You work for something.”

The person in question is described as working with wisdom and knowledge and skill. Any wise person approaches problems with these basic tools, though the repetition adds force. It is difficult to establish that Qoheleth is making a distinction between wisdom and knowledge here, as the terms frequently occur together in proverbial material. Wisdom normally refers to Israel’s accumulated wisdom and its methods of reflection and drawing conclusions, while knowledge has more of a practical sense (see the discussion at 1:16). Skill is the ability of the wise person to deal with or to solve problems. This is the first appearance in Qoheleth of the term “skill.” It will be used again in 4:4 and 5:11, where it is rendered “gain” in rsv. Some languages may not have three distinct words for these ideas, in which case a combination of two terms can be used. What is meant is that a person uses all the wisdom and knowledge available.

This part of the verse may be rendered “There are some people who work wisely, with knowledge and skill in what they are doing” or “There are those who demonstrate wisdom, knowledge, and skill in everything they do.”

Must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it: the Hebrew provides a contrast between the person who works to gain things and the one who inherits them. It does this by using “a man [or, a person]” at the beginning of each clause. Thus this part of the verse says literally “but to a man [person, people] who does not toil for it, he will give him his portion.” “His portion” refers to what the person who died had worked for and saved; the indirect object “him” refers to the successor, the person who inherits those goods.

For it are the closing words of this sentence in most English translations, but we may question the correctness of that view. Such a translation depends upon interpreting it as the goods (all in the previous clause) left by the person who died. We note that, in the previous clauses of the verse, there was a heavy emphasis on the preposition “by” or “with”—”with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skill.” It is most likely, therefore, that in this clause that same preposition now translated for has a similar function. Therefore for it may mean “with it” in the sense of “with the same wisdom, knowledge, and skill [of the person who died].” Our interpretation will be reflected in our translation. Some suggestions are “A person’s wealth will be left to someone who does not work in the same way,” or more fully, “but that person’s goods will then be left to someone else who does not work with the same wisdom, knowledge, and skill.”

This also is vanity and a great evil: Qoheleth’s meaning is that here we have yet another of those puzzling situations. He sets before the reader another example of what can and does happen in life. Then he adds his regular phrase “this is hevel” to express his frustration, even anger, that such a situation can arise. The phrase cannot be viewed as expressing his pessimism with life as a whole. This, as we noted in verse 19, refers to the situation just described, in which a fool may inherit all Qoheleth has worked to acquire.

A great evil is another of Qoheleth’s phrases that he uses to emphasize the phrase “this is hevel.” When he uses the noun evil in these circumstances, it does not describe something immoral but rather something that is painful or distressing. A word like “calamity,” “something regrettable,” or even “an injustice” conveys his sense. Thus in translation we may suggest “A situation like this is beyond understanding; it is a calamity,” or “When something like that happens, there is little we can say; it is a great injustice.”


The regular saying “this is hevel” in verse 21 is an indication that there is a break between that verse and this one. The fact that verse 22 repeats the “key question” from 1:3 also suggests a break in the flow of thought at this point. Translators may wish to indicate this by starting a new paragraph here.

What has a man …? The Hebrew text of this verse begins with the particle ki, usually rendered “for” as in verse 21. We have already come to appreciate that this marker can be used in a variety of circumstances. As it does not advance Qoheleth’s argument by providing a motive for his actions, the particle probably should be regarded as the emphatic “indeed.” In this way he draws attention to the question he is about to repeat. rsv and most versions omit it from translation. This is understandable, though something like “So then …” can express its meaning here.

What has a man: the interrogative pronoun “what, whatever” is followed by the rare use of the participle of the verb “exist, become.” Although this version of the key question does not use the term yithron, it is obvious that in its structure and in terms of its intention there is no difference between this form and the one in 1:3. So, having asked the question once in 1:3 and responded to it in the negative (in 2:11), Qoheleth repeats the question as a lead-in to the most positive piece of advice he is able to give. The question sets the stage for Qoheleth to give the advice that is the climax of his work: enjoy life in this problem-filled world.

From all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun: see comments on “toil” in 1:3. The strain is literally “in the striving of his heart [or, mind],” so rsv strain may not adequately convey that the anguish such a situation causes is also mental and not only physical. See nab “anxiety of heart” and niv “anxious striving,” or tev, which uses verbs, “work and worry,” rather than nouns. These each draw attention to the mental stress that a wise person feels when confronting a problem of this nature. Some languages have only one term to refer to both physical and mental stress, in which case that term can be used.

The question is a rhetorical one, and so translators have the choice of preserving the question form or of rendering the sense as a negative statement. Suggestions:

•    What does a person gain from a life of mental stress and physical striving?

•    A person gains nothing from a life full of mental and physical toil.


For all his days are full of pain: the introductory particle offers a reason for the question in verse 22. It describes a situation Qoheleth has either witnessed or experienced. The introductory particle can be given as “For,” “When,” or even “Considering the fact that.”

All his days becomes “As long as you live” in tev, with the more general and impersonal use of the pronoun “you.” We have several alternatives here. We can use an impersonal pronoun if there is one, or a noun form, “a person.” However, before we translate the phrase we should consider other aspects of Qoheleth’s meaning. All his days according to tev indicates the duration of a person’s life. In fact the Hebrew expression can also mean “all day long” or “every day,” in which case the focus is on the daily experience rather than on the entire duration of life. Although this distinction may seem to be somewhat minor, it is actually significant here because it provides a contrast with the phrase “all night long,” which is to follow. Therefore we may render all his days better as “all day long.”

Are full of pain: the text says literally “every day [all day] painful things.” It indicates that every day there are painful things happening; so for translation we can consider “every day has its pain,” or “all day a person endures pain,” or “painful things happen every day.”

His work is a vexation is another noun clause, “vexation [is] his business.” Vexation was commented on in 1:18. See the notes there. For comments on the term work, see the reference to “business” in comments on 1:13. Since the term “business” has too heavy a commercial flavor, “work” or “his job” is better. In translation we may say “his work brings him further anguish,” “his work only makes him angry,” or “his job upsets him.”

Even in the night his mind does not rest: day and night a person has to contend with matters that are painful and upsetting and that prevent sleep. Even can be translated as “also,” but the main point Qoheleth is making is to claim that both day and night we are faced by these troubles. In the night or “by night” complements the earlier phrase “each day.”

His mind does not rest comes from the Hebrew “his heart does not lay down.” Many languages will have a special idiom to express this thought. What he worries about is not indicated, because Qoheleth as usual is making a very general statement. “He worries about what could happen” or “he keeps thinking about problems and cannot sleep” are possible models for translation.

This also is vanity: tev gives “useless” as the translation for hevel (rsv vanity), but that is hardly its meaning. What Qoheleth notes is that such a situation is extremely frustrating, and we can mirror that in our translation with “What a frustrating situation!” Or, “What a nightmare!”

Two models for translation of the verse are:

•    Every day he suffers and worries about his work. At night, he has no peace of mind. This too is a nightmare.

•    Day and night he worries and loses sleep over his work. What a frightful situation to be in!

As Qoheleth ponders the key question again he encounters more and more situations that cause deep frustration, and so he asks, In this kind of life where can a person expect to find “lasting benefit”? His response follows in the next section.

Qoheleth’s Advice: Enjoy Life! 2:24–26

This subsection is of great significance, as it brings us to the climax of the first part of Qoheleth’s discussion. Readers will recall that in this Handbook we are working with the idea that Qoheleth’s basic or “key” question in 1:3 about “lasting benefit” received a “No” reply (2:11). That answer, that there is no lasting benefit here on earth, was based on his experiences and observations.

Finally we come to Qoheleth’s advice about how to react to such a situation. In verse 24 we are told that the best thing to do is to enjoy the blessings of this life (eating, drinking, and working). Verses 25 and 26 emphasize that it is God who determines who will be allowed to enjoy these blessings. This thought leads Qoheleth to a hevel statement, concluding this major section.

The major theme of enjoyment will be repeated time and time again throughout the book (3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–10). We may want to highlight this theme each time it appears. In some languages the best way to do this is to insert a section heading. In other languages letting the discourse flow to its final conclusion may be more effective. If a particle exists to show that a main point is being made, it is appropriate to use it here. Whatever means is chosen to highlight this material, it is well to adopt the same procedure whenever similar advice is given.

Section Heading: if appropriate, a section heading may read “Eat, drink, and enjoy,” “Enjoyment of life,” or “Qoheleth’s advice to enjoy life.”


There is nothing better introduces a form that Qoheleth uses in 3:12, 22 and 8:15. In 5:18 and 9:7–10 the content is the same but the form varies. In view of the importance of the form in conveying the advice Qoheleth gives at this point of climax, translators may consider the possibility of using a fixed phrase or form on each occasion it occurs. The clause is cast in the negative, and this can be rendered in the translation, “There is no better way to live than.…” However, in many languages the point comes across more forcefully if a positive statement is used. The adjective better is actually a noun meaning “good things.” From the point of view of sentence structure, the Hebrew uses a comparative form, but the sense is an exclusive one. That is to say, Qoheleth believes that this is the best or only thing to do. Such a translation is found in tev, “the best thing a man can do.”

For a man can be omitted from translation because it will be understood by readers: “There is no better way to live than …” or “The best thing to do is.…” If an agent must be retained, then it should be more general than the rsv a man. We can use “people” or “a person.” In some languages an impersonal pronoun may be more appropriate, such as “one,” “you,” “they,” or even “anyone.”

He should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil: in the several calls to enjoyment listed earlier, there is a common group of ideas. They are “eat,” “drink,” and “enjoy.” On this first use of the form, we note that it uses the verbs eat and drink, but the enjoyment theme is expressed in the verb “see” and its object “good things.” The question we can ask is whether Qoheleth has used these ideas in a literal sense or a metaphorical one. In the Old Testament “eating” and “drinking” may at times have a larger meaning, referring not just to these actions but to the physical or material side of life in general. What is clear is that “eating” and “drinking” are not used negatively here but rather in a positive way. Eating and drinking are necessary activities for staying alive. Qoheleth is thus advocating an attitude that affirms life, and he encourages readers to accept all that God provides. Translating these terms literally is possible, except that in some languages we may have to provide objects, “eat food” and “drink drinks.”

Find enjoyment in his toil: as in verse 21 here also we find that enjoyment and toil are associated with one another. Qoheleth believes that hard work or labor is a positive good in itself and because of what it provides. Toil does not refer only to paid labor but to any work a person does. In translation this may be expressed as “enjoy [his] work,” “find pleasure in [his] achievements,” “get satisfaction out of [his] work.”

Translation of Qoheleth’s startling advice can follow tev or one of the following suggestions:

•    To eat, drink, and enjoy your work is the best approach to life.

•    There is only one way to live life: eat, drink, and enjoy what you labor to achieve.

This also, I saw, is from the hand of God: the above advice is valid only when based on the statement of faith in this sentence. Qoheleth justifies his call to enjoy life on the grounds that this is what God has in mind for us. Food, drink, and work are God’s provisions, and our responsibility as wise people is to take them and use them thankfully.

The demonstrative this refers to what comes before, namely, the fact of “eating, drinking, and enjoying.” The translator can make this clear if need be: “These things” or “These pleasures.” As elsewhere (for example, 2:13), I saw means “I discovered” or “I realized.”

The hand of God is another metaphor using a part to represent the whole. The metaphor indicates that “this is from God.” Alternatively the image of God’s hand can be rendered by a verb: God “gives” or “provides.”

Translators may consider the following possibilities for this verse:

•    The best thing to do is to eat, drink, and enjoy life. This is what God intends for us.

•    The best approach to life is to eat, drink, and be satisfied with your work. I discovered this: these things come from God.


For apart from him opens with a particle “for,” which sets forward Qoheleth’s theological basis for the view that God wants people to enjoy his gifts. The particle can be either “because” or “indeed” as a firm statement of faith. Apart from him is an unusual expression in Hebrew for two reasons. First, “apart from” is actually a noun “outside,” and only here in 2:25 does it seem to have the sense of “apart from.” The second is that the preposition “from” has the pronoun “me” attached to it, when the context requires “him.” Many versions acknowledge this textual problem in a footnote. Some take this phrase and the following rhetorical question as a direct quote from God, “Apart from me, who can eat.…” In some versions the words “God said” have been inserted. Translators can follow rsv and retain “him,” with a footnote if desired; or it may be better for some to follow reb, “For without God.…” It may be necessary to say what God’s role is: “without God’s help.” In some languages, the sense of “without” or “unless” must be expressed by a conditional clause: “If God does not allow it, who can …?” or “If God does not give these pleasures, nobody.…”

Who can eat or who can have enjoyment? is a rhetorical question. Its purpose is to assert that, without God’s provision, eating and enjoyment are impossible, or that God alone is the giver of these things. We note the text now speaks only of “eating” and “enjoying.” There are some scholars who have suggested that the verb “enjoy” is actually the verb “drink”—the two Hebrew verbs are quite similar—but there is no textual evidence to support this change. Qoheleth’s question strongly emphasizes his belief in our dependence on God.

Translators may choose to retain the question form or to render it as a statement. As is often the case with rhetorical questions, the question expects a negative response: “No one can eat or enjoy life apart from God.” In certain languages the expression “apart from God” will be more natural after the rhetorical question: “Who can eat or be satisfied unless God provides it?”

Some examples for translation are:

•    God is the one who gives us food to eat and work to enjoy.

•    For it is only by God’s help that we can eat and find enjoyment in life.

•    No one can eat and get satisfaction out of life unless God enables him to do so.

In question form:

•    Who can eat or enjoy life unless God provides what we need?



This verse describes two contrasting individuals, the one “good” and the other “evil.” This black-white contrast is typical of the way wisdom writers thought and spoke. In this case it presents us with another perspective on the wise person and the fool, and the value their lives have. The statement is one from conventional wisdom and is almost certainly a quotation inserted by Qoheleth.

For to the man who pleases him: the Hebrew describes a person “who is good before him.” As Qoheleth uses a similar expression later in this verse, we can show that “before him” obviously means “before God.” This can be made clear as in rsv and many other versions. However, the Hebrew still requires some explanation. In this book “good” and “sinner” do not refer to moral and immoral people in the sense that those words have when used by the prophets, for example. In wisdom writing these terms describe the wise person and the fool (see 9:18 for evidence). We may wish to make that clear in translation. Thus “the person who is good before him” speaks of the person who in God’s view is wise. This can mean the one God considers wise, or simply the person who acts wisely in God’s presence. A good translation is something like “to the wise [or, good] person, God.…”

God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy: the Hebrew sentence lacks the subject “God,” but as there can be no doubt from the context that this is what Qoheleth means, we are correct to state this in our translation. On the terms wisdom and knowledge, see the comments in 1:16 and 2:21. For joy see 2:1. Not only are these three gifts from God, they are clearly available for us. So the wise person is the one who accepts these gifts from God; the fool refuses them. In this way the wise receives even more blessings, and the fool misses out on them. This is what the verse is trying to convey, and we can render it as “To the wise person God gives even more wisdom, knowledge and joy.”

But to the sinner deliberately sets that person over against the wise or good person. In this wisdom context the sinner actually means “the fool.”

He gives the work of gathering and heaping reflects Qoheleth’s view that everything comes from God. In this case what God gives the fool is work or an assignment that brings no personal reward, no sense of accomplishment. On work see comments on “business” in 1:13. What the fool is gathering and heaping is not indicated here, as is common in so many of the general illustrations Qoheleth presents. Recalling what Qoheleth has said about work, we are quite safe in assuming that here he means all the results of a person’s work, that is, the “wealth” or “things” a person accumulates. This explains why tev renders this as “earning and saving.” nab combines both actions into one, “gathering possessions.”

Only to give to one who pleases God: here is the fool’s dilemma. Everything he strives for actually is given to the person who is wise, the person who does God’s will. An obvious question to ask is, Who gives these things to the wise person? Does God give them? Does the fool himself give them? We know that God gives the task, but does he take from the fool to give to the wise? The general nature of Qoheleth’s statement suggests nothing more than that somehow the fool cannot hold on to what he earns, and that in the end the wise person gets it all. This allows us to avoid saying who gives away what the fool earns. This is closer to the original as well.

In translation we may say “But the fool has the task of amassing wealth to give to the wise,” or “God assigns the fool the task of amassing wealth, but the wise [or, good] person gets it all in the end.”

This also is vanity and a striving after wind: refer to comments on 1:13 for translation. Qoheleth adds this concluding phrase as another reminder of the unpredictable nature of things, and of the fact that we can never fully understand the complexities of life in this world. Despite this fact of life, he never abandons his conviction that God’s intention is that people enjoy the world in which he has put them.

With this subsection Qoheleth brings to an end a major division of the book.

God Appoints a Time for Everything 3:1–22

In this Handbook we are working with a particular understanding of the structure that Qoheleth uses. The basic structure is defined by the thematic or key question about yithron “lasting benefit” and its answer, followed by the advice to enjoy life. We have now seen how the material between 1:3 and 2:26 all related to that structure. As we come to chapter 3 we move into the second major subdivision of the book. Its links with the two chapters before it are obvious. Besides having the same underlying question and answer pattern, there are many other similar features: a poem, proverbial sayings, and a series of observations and conclusions based on Qoheleth’s personal reflections. Many of the same ideas and expressions are woven into the discussion: “under the sun,” “mystery” (tev “useless”), along with recurring themes (“Whatever is, has been; what will be, has been before”).

Along with these marks of continuity, in chapter 3 we see a further development of Qoheleth’s thought, for he provides us with answers to the questions he has been asking. “Time” is the dominating concern of verses 1–15, while from verse 16 on there is a discussion of injustice. Although these two themes can be said to be new, we still find Qoheleth using the approach of question and advice. In this case the key question comes in verse 9, that is, after the poem rather than before it, as was the case in chapter 1. The advice based on that question is repeated in verses 12–13 where Qoheleth issues his first “call to enjoy life,” and again in the concluding verse (22).

We get a slightly different perspective on the chapter if we look at the pattern of the discourse. We may analyze the chapter and set out the discourse structure as follows:


Time” poem


Key or thematic question number 2


Reflections on time


What God does (10–11)


What man can do—enjoy (12–13)


What God does (14–15)


Reflections on injustice


Qoheleth observes (16)


Qoheleth reflects (17)


Qoheleth reflects again (18–21)


Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE!

Notice how the call to enjoyment figures prominently in this chapter. It occurs once midway in the discussion (verses 12–13), surrounded by two observations on what God does. As we have seen in the introduction, “Translating Ecclesiastes,” framing material is common to Hebrew discourse and serves to focus in on an important point. Then the advice to enjoy life is further emphasized as it occurs at the very end of the discussion (verse 22).

Section Heading: it may be hard to find a general title to cover the combined topics of time and injustice. However, we note that the theme of “a time for everything” continues within the discussion of injustice, so we can consider a general heading: “God appoints a time for everything.” If we want to be more specific, we can say “Qoheleth thinks about time and injustice, and death.”

Time Poem 3:1–8

3:1 tev rsv

This section contains a poem that is probably one of the best-known parts of the book. As we have seen from chapter 1, many poetic devices are used in Hebrew. It seems as though every word is weighed and carefully put in place. This is true of the poem found in this chapter. It is finely structured, as the following discussion will attempt to make clear. We shall find a great deal of grammatical parallelism; that is to say, the same grammatical pattern is repeated over and over. Chiastic or X structures are found in individual verses, notably the beginning and concluding ones. Furthermore, there is a complex balancing of positive and negative verbs, all of which produces a very complicated internal pattern. Through all of this we feel the balanced rhythm that is typical of Hebrew poetry. No language will be able to imitate all the poetic effects found in this poem. Nevertheless, before dealing with the passage in detail, we shall look closely at its general poetic structure. The translator needs to appreciate how complex it is, so as to be able to determine how best to transfer as much of the poetic and literary detail of the poem as is possible.

Often we find that Hebrew poetry is characterized by opening and closing statements that have a great deal in common, either in terms of content or form. Psalm 8 is one example. There the same line appears in both opening and closing lines. Although this is not found in quite the same way in Qoheleth’s “time” poem, we do note that both the first and last verses of the poem exhibit the same kind of chiastic structure. Though the vocabulary of each line differs, the ideas are similar. If we match up the words meaning much the same thing, an “X” is formed. Thus in verse 1 “for everything” matches “for every matter,” and “a season” matches “a time.” In verse 8, “love” matches “peace” (in the sense that both are positive) and “hate” matches “war” (both are negative). We may demonstrate this graphically:


These chiastic structures in turn match each other; they form a kind of envelope around the rest of the poem, signaling its beginning and end.

In verses 2–7 we have a set of clauses made up of the word “time” followed by an infinitive verb structure, illustrating that time and event are coordinated. Each clause consists of a pair of actions in which one is the opposite of the other; for example, “plant” and “uproot,” “tear” and “mend,” “be silent” and “speak.” This pairing of ideas produces a balanced rhythm. If we put a value on the actions listed, some are positive (“love,” “heal”) and some can be called negative (“hate,” “kill”). An outline of this balance in verses 2–7 follows (adapted from Loader):




verse 2

a time to be born

a time to die


a time to plant

a time to uproot




verse 3

a time to kill

a time to heal


a time to tear down

a time to build

verse 4

a time to weep

a time to laugh


a time to mourn

a time to dance




verse 5

a time to scatter

a time to gather


a time to embrace

a time to refrain

verse 6

a time to seardh

a time to abandon search


a time to keep

a time to throw away




verse 7

a time to tear

a time to mend


a time to be silent

a time to speak

Verse 8 differs from verses 2–7 because the last line contains nouns, “war” and “peace,” rather than verb forms as in the other examples. This change, together with its internal chiastic structure, serves as an indication that the poem is at an end. Thus we can see that the poem is symmetrical; not only is there a verbal balance in each line, but each section balances another. This can be set out as follows:


verse 1

chiastic structure


verse 2

2 sets of positive and negative ideas


verses 3–4

4 sets of negative and positive ideas


verses 5–6

4 sets of positive and negative ideas


verse 7

2 sets of negative and positive ideas


verse 8

chiastic structure

Notice that this overall pattern is in chiastic form as well. Such an extremely complex way of arranging the thought of a poem is not unusual in the Hebrew Bible, but it may be extremely difficult to reproduce in other languages. The translator has to decide how much of this structure and pattern as well as of the other poetic effects can be meaningfully transferred in translation

Two kinds of balance should be maintained in translations of this poem. They are the balance in meaning and the balance in rhythm. If the poem is translated with each phrase following the present Hebrew order, then balance in meaning can be maintained automatically. It is the second balance, that of rhythm, which may prove more of a challenge to translators, because the forms of their languages may not always follow those of the Hebrew. For example, the verb “kill” may be able to stand on its own, but its paired opposite, “heal,” may require an object, such as “heal people.”

Another problem is that each language may differ in the way in which it arranges pairs of words. For example, some languages may prefer the order “a time to speak,” then “a time to be silent,” while in others the natural order is the other way around. Then again, most languages have their own fixed pairs of antonyms (words of opposite meaning). In such cases to vary the items in a fixed pair may sound peculiar. Though these are complicating factors, a good translation will retain the sense yet present it in natural language.

In attempting to retain the rhythm of the poem, it may help if translators use a similar form of the verb throughout. For example, the njv uses the continuous form “-ing” to give a repetitive ring:

A time for weeping and a time for laughing

A time for wailing and a time for dancing.

In the Hebrew each second line begins with the conjunction “and,” something that is not common to many other languages. In rendering these clauses we can omit the interconnecting “and” if required and say:

A time for weeping; a time for laughing

A time for wailing; a time for dancing.

Poetic features differ with each language, but if the Hebrew pattern of two contrasting ideas to each line is followed (unlike the jb/njb [the New Jerusalem Bible]), then the contrast may be seen more readily by the reader.

In addition to the balancing of pairs of words throughout the poem, there are other kinds of sound effects. Alliteration or repetition of consonants also enhances the poetic style. The Hebrew word for “time” occurs twenty-nine times, and the infinitive verb forms all have the same arrangement of vowels. This combination means that each half-line has much the same basic sound. These particular sound effects in Hebrew will be almost impossible to match in translation, as the features of other languages will certainly differ. However, the point for translators to note is that rhyme and rhythm are central features of this poem in Hebrew. They can be important features of the translated poem, if the translator gives a certain amount of thought and time to the task.

Before engaging in a verse-by-verse discussion of the meaning of the poem, one final matter needs to be raised. The poem talks about appropriate times for a variety of actions, but it does not at any point indicate who has set these times or who the subject of each action is. tev has taken the liberty of stating in verse 1 that it is God who is responsible for setting these times, and repeats this with “he sets …” in verses 2, 4, 6, and 8. Although the wisdom movement emphasized God as the Creator, we consider that tev’s attempt at greater clarity by referring to God by name goes beyond the text. Many of the actions indicated are human actions, and that seems to be where the focus of the poem lies, so we prefer not to compromise the general nature of the poem. Admittedly, in the later part of the chapter, God is mentioned as subject (verses 10, 13, 17), but in the poem itself it seems incorrect to refer so specifically to the role of God in all the activities listed.

Section Heading: the tev section heading “A Time for Everything” may be followed. The purpose of the poem is to demonstrate that all things happen at appropriate times, or that there are appropriate times to do certain things. For that reason we may also consider a section heading like “Appropriate times to act” or “A right time for everything.” A general heading like this will cover material to the end of verse 15, as “time” is the key word throughout.


Many commentators see this verse as a later addition to the poetic lines of verse 2–8. However, as we have suggested, verse 1 by its very structure shows that it belongs to the total pattern of the poem. The translator therefore must determine whether verse 1 should be represented as an introduction to the poem (rsv, nrsv, jb) or as part of the poem itself (njv). Ending the verse with a colon helps the reader to see that it is a general introduction to all that follows.

For everything introduces this very general statement about time. In Hebrew we have a simple noun clause “to [or, for] everything [all], a season.” “All” refers to events or actions within human life on earth. If terms like “all” and “everything” are considered too general, a longer clause can be used: “all events,” “all activity,” “everything that happens [in the world].”

The Hebrew term for season is from a root meaning “devise, plan” and it comes to mean “appointed time” as in Dan 2:16. The question we may want to ask is, Who determines the times? As noted above, tev answers that when it says that they are the times that “God chooses.” While that may be true, yet there are many actions in the list in which people are the major actors. tev may have gone too far in adding this interpretation to its translation. Translation should reflect this broader meaning, so “All things happen at fixed times,” or “Every event has its appointed time,” or “There are appropriate times for everything.”

A time for every matter under heaven introduces a second term for time, matching the one in the first half of the verse and its sense of moments or points of time. With the phrase every matter we meet the word “matter” from the root meaning “pleasure.” It can mean “will” or “purpose.” Its meaning can be given as “everything we do” or “everything we plan.” For under heaven see comments on 1:13. It is used throughout this book to describe events on earth, in human history, but can obviously refer to things both people and God purpose to do.

Difficulties will arise when our translation involves cultural groups with a very different approach to what is here called time. In some cultures the idea of particular moments of time may be absurd. It will be difficult to render the meaning of this poem without mentioning the word “time,” but alternatives may need to be found. So, for example, we may have to consider the situation or event that tells people that it is time to do something: “[When nine months are past] a child is born; [when a person grows old] he will die” to convey the sense of verse 2a, and “[when the rains come] we plant [crops]”; “[when the south-east wind blows] we can dig up [crops]” for verse 2b.

As indicated above, this verse has a chiastic structure, or X-structure. It involves the use of two terms, time and season, but if there is only one term in the translator’s language, then the chiastic pattern may not be easily retained. If the translator wishes to preserve the chiastic form, then the one term available can be repeated in both parts of the verse; for example, “Everything has its appointed time, and every time has its appropriate action.” Translators will also note that some translations such as tev and frcl combine the parallel structure into one clause, “Everything in this world has an appointed time.” In some languages where chiastic structures are not acceptable, we may be able to repeat the sentence: “Everything in its time; everything in its time on this earth.” This form of “ascending parallelism” can be very effective.

Two models for translation are:

•    Every event has its appointed time; everything we do has a right time.

•    Everything has its appropriate time and there is an appointed time for everything.


In the list of actions presented here, the same formula is used throughout. The key word time is followed by an infinitive describing an action. In translation we may need to supply a phrase like “there is,” or to change the structure of the sentence to make it more natural; for example, “There is a time to plant,” or “planting has its [right] time.” It may also be necessary to give a subject for each action, but owing to the nature of the poem that subject should be kept very general, using, for example, the inclusive “we,” the general “you,” or the indefinite “one.” We can say “At a fixed [certain] time we [you, or one] give birth; at a fixed time we [you, or one] die.”

The other change that may be required is to bring the main action to the front of the clause and place the time phrase at the end: “We give birth at a certain time; we die at a certain time.” All these changes may be required for the translation to sound natural, or even for it to be understood. However, the translator should do all that is possible to preserve the poetic nature of this section together with its rhythm.

It is also important to note that the actions described in the poem simply describe how people (and God) work. It does not give permission nor say that these things must be done. For example, it describes people going to war, hating, going about their work, and so on. It is important that we use only descriptive verbs in our translation, to avoid giving the impression that some of the actions described are acceptable, desirable, or in any way commended.

A time to be born: the rsv expression to be born is passive, and although this is sometimes the sense of this verb, more often than not it is the active sense “to give birth” that is intended. Probably rsv and others that use the passive form have made their choice under the influence of the following verb “to die.” This way they can make a neat pair with a common subject. This attempt at neatness is not necessary, and in fact we can avoid this problem by using a general expression “birth.” Thus we may say “a time for birth,” although “a time for giving birth” is probably more correct.

A time to die is the other extremity of life. It is pointless to ask how the person died. All Qoheleth is saying is that a person dies at an appointed time; he says nothing about who determines the time.

This first pair of activities may be translated as “We give birth at a fixed time, and we die at a fixed time.”

Here and in what follows Qoheleth uses pairs of opposites. By giving the extremes he actually is saying that everything between birth and death happens at certain times.

A time to plant: moving from the moments of birth and death, Qoheleth now gives some examples from life between those extremes. It is possible that Qoheleth is referring to the fact that the farmer knows when it is the best time to plant. If the farmer expects a good harvest, he does not plant crops at any time, but only at the proper time to ensure growth.

Often translators will find that a particular language requires that certain verbs must be accompanied by an object in order for them to have meaning. It is probable that the verb plant will require mention of what is to be planted. In all such cases we should choose a very general term as object. Here “a time to plant crops” or “a time to plant something” may be appropriate. Unless absolutely necessary, we should avoid naming a certain crop or plant, because that may not be consistent with Israel’s geography and culture. If the translator has no choice but to mention a particular crop, then it should be one that can be dug or pulled up, so as to match the verb that follows.

A time to pluck up what is planted: although this action may not include every crop that people grow (for example, this verb does not apply to fruit or other crops), the sense is of the appropriate time for harvesting a crop. That may be determined by the market or by the weather, or by the state of the crop itself when ripe. But harvesting is done according to appropriate times.

Certain language families prefer to avoid passive expressions like “what is planted.” Again an appropriate subject pronoun can be added, such as “A time for you to dig up what you have planted.” If the repetitions of these clauses is unnatural, then the translator can substitute a pronoun for the repeated object: for example, “There is a set time for planting things, and a time for harvesting them.”

Two models for translation are:

•    There is a good time to plant [crops] and a good time to dig them up.

•    We plant food at certain times and we harvest it at a certain time.

A time to kill may refer to God’s actions in the world, but more than likely it refers to wars between peoples. Qoheleth indicates that we don’t always go about killing, whether it be people or animals; there are times when we may have to kill, but on the whole we only kill when it is appropriate to do so.

A time to heal is the opposite of the previous saying. It indicates that bringing healing to individuals or to situations also occurs at appropriate times.

Thus we may translate “there are times when we may kill, and there are times when we can bring healing.” Again the emphasis is on actions appropriate to their time. In those cultures where the objects of verbs such as “kill” or “heal” should be expressed or defined, then the object should be in its most general form, such as “people.”

A time to break down: the verb break down is generally used in the context of destroying some structure, and it may be necessary to supply some object to make that clear. We have the choice of “houses” or “cities.”

A time to build up is like the previous verb in that it also does not have an object. However, almost certainly it refers to houses or cities, and so if the language requires it we may use that kind of object to illustrate the action. To build up does not always mean “rebuild,” so we can ignore the lb suggestion at this point.

Additional suggestions for translation are:

•    There are times when we have to tear down something, and there are times when we must build.

•    We tear down [houses] at certain times and we build [houses] at certain times.

A time to weep almost certainly means a time to weep in lamentation, hence tev “a time for sorrow.” Note, however, that this verb is set over against the verb “laugh.”

A time to laugh: although Qoheleth sometimes uses “laugh” with a negative meaning (as in 7:3), here it appears to be joyous laughter (tev “a time for joy”).

Suggestions for translation are:

•    Sometimes it is right to weep [in mourning], sometimes it is right to laugh [for joy].

•    We weep at certain times, and we laugh at certain times.

A time to mourn reminds us that we don’t always mourn, and that even for periods of mourning there are fixed limits.

A time to dance illustrates the opposite reaction to mourning. Dancing is usually associated with moments of great joy and thanksgiving, and may be for religious or other purposes. Whichever it is, the point Qoheleth stresses is that we do these things only when it is appropriate. So “there is a right time to mourn and a right time to dance.” Dancing may have different meanings and purposes in cultures other than the Israelite one, so it is possible that some clarification is called for. In many parts of Africa, for example, dancing is an inherent part of mourning. So the translator may find it necessary to use a term like “celebration” to show what the dancing expresses.

Two possible examples for translation are:

•    There is a time to sit and mourn and a time to rise up and dance.

•    There is a time to mourn in sorrow, and a time to dance for joy.

Translators should avoid the tev example “He sets the time for …,” which suggests that God is the one who determines the time. As explained above, this makes the translation go beyond the ideas expressed in the poem.

A time to cast away stones: the expression here is unusual, for it is the only one in the list that adds a noun object to the verbal form. Whether there is any significance in this fact is difficult to determine.

The major concern, however, is to know what the phrase means. Is this a literal reference to gathering and throwing away stones? Is a field being cleared of stones in preparation for cultivation? It is difficult to say, since the particular context is unclear. mft avoids the problem by omitting the reference to stones, and so gives a translation “scattering and gathering.” This solution may not be satisfactory either, especially in those languages that require the mention of an object.

There is another possibility, however, that cannot be overlooked. That is that we have here a Hebrew euphemism or idiom for sexual union. Jewish tradition in the Midrash gives this as its meaning, and so we can understand why tev has given us “a time for making love.” This line may also be parallel with the following one, “a time to embrace.” Whether translators follow the Jewish or tev interpretations, or adopt the literal one, it will be helpful to readers to have a footnote explaining the idiom. This is especially important in cases where an older and literal translation is familiar or may be used alongside the new version. If the tev sense is accepted, the translator will need to give careful thought to the expression “making love,” for each culture will have its own acceptable way of talking publicly about such subjects. A euphemism will almost certainly be required.

A time to gather stones together is the opposite of the first part of the clause, and its translation will depend on how we render that part of the verse; either we give its literal meaning or its figurative sense. If we retain the literal meaning, then it can refer to the gathering of stones for building, such as walls around a field. If we understand it to be a figurative expression, then the same comments apply as to the previous phrase, namely, finding an acceptable manner of speaking about “refraining from making love.”

For translation: “A time for making love, and a time not to make love” as in tev, or “a time for clearing away stones, and a time for gathering them.”

A time to embrace: the verb “embrace” regularly is used to describe two people greeting one another. It can also be used as a euphemism for sexual union as in Songs 2:6 and Pro 5:20. In a generalized saying such as we have here, we must allow for both possible meanings in our translation if at all possible. If the translator’s language requires an object for these verbs, then we should remember to use a very general one such as “people.” This avoids the problem of being too precise and losing the thrust of the poetic generalization.

A time to refrain from embracing renders what Hebrew expresses as “a time to be far from embracing.” Some have suggested making a change in the Hebrew to “keep the embracer far away,” but there are no valid reasons for this change. It appears to mean here that there is a time to avoid embracing. Again it is futile to speculate why this is so. The point is rather that, given certain circumstances or times, it is wise and good to avoid “embracing.”

As was the case in verse 3, here also we may need to think of an alternative to repeating the phrase “from embracing.” We can use a substitute expression like “There is a time for embracing and a time for not doing so.”

A time to seek and a time to lose is a further general example of certain kinds of conduct. The verb seek often has the sense of “seeking to attain some goal or object” and so can be translated as “a time to aim for some goal.” A time to lose has little meaning unless we appreciate that the verb “lose” can also denote giving up something as lost, or abandoning the search for something. Here the translator needs to find a verb pair which expresses such opposites. Remember that, if the verb in our language requires an object, then we should use the most general word available.

Some models for translation are:

•    There is an appropriate time to seek something, and an appropriate time to give up on something.

•    There is a time to try to attain some goal and a time to give up [trying].

•    There is a time to search and a time to stop searching.

A time to keep and a time to cast away: the first verb, keep or “preserve,” also means “obey [laws],” though this latter sense may not be adequate here. The lack of an object makes it difficult to know precisely what Qoheleth intends. Even though these examples only illustrate the principle of appropriate times, we may have difficulty rendering them meaningfully in languages where the verb requires an object, unless we can say “keep things” and “throw away things.”

A time to cast away uses the same verb and form as in verse 5a. Qoheleth is here speaking generally of good times for saving things and good times for throwing things away. This is reflected in tev. However, the tev creates a difficulty for us when it states that God is the one who determines the times for these activities. For reasons already given above, we should use a general expression and not specify God as the subject. If one is absolutely required by the verb, then it must be the general “you,” or “we,” or “one.”

A time to rend almost certainly refers to the tearing of clothes. Though Qoheleth does not tell us what was torn, in Israel there were fixed occasions on which clothes were torn deliberately. Mourning (as in Gen 37:29) was one occasion; repentance and sorrow was another. In translating here we can at least add the term “clothes” if the verb requires an object. Additionally some reason for tearing clothes may need to be added for the proper sense to become clear. Some groups will understand tearing clothes as a sign that the person is demented or crazy, and so the original meaning would be lost.

A time to sew can refer to the making of new clothes or the repair of old and torn clothes.

For this pair of actions translators may consider:

•    At certain times it is appropriate to tear our clothes, at other times we sew them [or, make clothes].

•    There is a time to tear our clothes in grief, and a time to make new ones.

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak: What social context might this sentence address? This is another of those questions that cannot be answered readily, because the poem itself remains deliberately general. Some scholars have suggested that the thought is parallel to the above two lines, pointing out that mourning includes tearing of clothes as well as periods of silence. The end of mourning can be marked by speaking again. Israelite wisdom teachers stressed the need to know the times when it was appropriate to do certain things. The other side of that advice was to be equally aware when not to do things. The fool was known by everyone as a person who talked far too much and always at the wrong times. This is a more likely background to the thought of this verse.

A time to love does not necessarily have sexual nuances and can be broader in meaning, speaking also of the love between a father and son, or between God and people. It denotes a caring attitude toward another person. Also in Scripture the word speaks more of loving action than of simple emotion: “A time to act lovingly [or, caringly].”

A time to hate should not be thought of as encouraging a person to hate someone else. When tev says “He sets the time for … hate,” it seems inappropriate, for Qoheleth never suggests that God agrees with that kind of activity. It is also not clear whether love and hate are to be used with human objects in mind. Quite possibly Qoheleth is thinking of the right time for these activities in a figurative sense. For example, we should “love good” and “hate evil.” Once again the translator should guard against making the translation more precise than the original.

Two models for translation are:

•    There are times when people are loving, and there are times when they are hateful.

•    There are right times for loving and right times for hating.

A time for war indicates that people go to war only at certain times and in response to certain situations. For example, battles in the ancient world were not usually fought when there were crops to be harvested (see 2 Sam 11:1).

A time for peace balances the saying and indicates that there are times when wholeness, security, and well-being are best attained. The Hebrew term rendered as peace (shalom) refers not just to the absence of war, but describes a situation of total well-being. However, in the present context a word like “peace” or “not fighting” can be used.

As noted earlier the last line of the poem differs from the rest of the poem in that it uses noun forms, “war” and “peace,” in place of verb forms. This is a stylistic way of marking the end of the poem. Indeed the question that follows in verse 9 clearly indicates a change in direction and thought and thus marks a new paragraph. If the translator’s language has a special way of noting the close of a poem, then that is what should be considered for use here.

What Qoheleth sets forth in these twenty-eight contrasting actions is a selection of general activities, all of which are undertaken at given moments in time. For those involved in these activities there are moments when one action is appropriate and others when it is not. Time and action are coordinated, says Qoheleth.

Thematic Question 3:9

In chapter 1 we saw that the key question served as an introduction to the poem about the eternal cycles of nature. Here that key question about “lasting advantage” follows the poem on time. Verses 1–8 set the background against which the question will be examined again. Qoheleth now asks whether a “lasting benefit” is possible in a world in which most events take place at some appointed time.

Since the poem concludes with a distinctive chiastic form, there is a clear break between it and the key question. In view of this, verse 9 should be considered as a paragraph on its own, separated from verses 10–15. This can eliminate the need for a section heading for just one verse.


What gain? is the same question as was put in 1:3; 2:22: “What lasting benefit …?” It is advisable to use the same form as was used for the question in those cases.

The worker replaces the more general term “humankind” (or, “man”) that was used in 1:3. It means literally “the person who does things [or, who works].”

His toil: see comments on 1:3.

Reflections on Time 3:10–15

This subsection has to do with “God and time” and so is related to the general theme of the section, as well as to the question of “lasting benefit” in an orderly world. As noted in the outline provided at the beginning of the chapter, Qoheleth begins with an observation of what God has done in the world (verses 10–11). He then draws two conclusions, one given in verses 12–13 and the other in verses 14–15. Each of these two conclusions is prefaced by the same phrase, “I know that.…”

As far as paragraph divisions are concerned, some languages may prefer to include all these verses in the one paragraph, while others may want to break them into smaller units. If the latter is the case, then the passage can be broken into two, verses 10–13 and then verses 14–15, or even into three shorter paragraphs, verses 10–11, verses 12–13, and verses 14–15.

Section Heading: for a general heading we can say “Qoheleth thinks about time,” or we may want to be more specific, “God determines [or, is in control of] time.”


I have seen carries Qoheleth’s usual sense of observation for the purpose of examination. It means “I have looked into the matter carefully.…”

The business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with: the basic ideas found in this verse have been commented on in 1:13. However, there “business” was something considered “unhappy.” The context here does not require that same evaluation. Here its meaning is closer to “the task of living responsibly in an orderly world.” The Hebrew expression business … to be busy with is an idiomatic one. Hebrew frequently uses this compound form of noun plus its verbal root. We can render the sense as “the task that God has given.” The verb has given can indicate God assigning tasks to people or allowing them to do them.

The sons of men is, of course, a general term for human beings. “All people” or “all of us” catches its meaning. Some languages, especially in Africa, use the expression “sons of men” or “sons of Adam” when referring to human weakness or mortality. In these languages a literal translation can be quite effective, since the sense will be the same as in the Hebrew context. Alternatively we can say “us mortals” and retain the flavor of the expression. See comments on 1:13.

Some models for translation are:

•    I have carefully examined the task God has given to us mortals.

•    I have observed what matters God allows people to spend their lives doing.

•    I have noted what kinds of things God assigns people to do.


Verse 11 expands on the theme of the task that God has assigned. By calling everything “beautiful,” it is clear Qoheleth does not view the task we have as a heavy or painful one, despite the fact that there are still many things we cannot comprehend.

He has made everything beautiful in its time: the subject he can only be God, so it is good to make that clear. By drawing the object of the verb “made” to the front of the sentence, Qoheleth is able to place heavy emphasis on everything. It is possible to do the same and say “Everything God has done …” or “All things God made.…” The main consideration is to see what our own language pattern requires to emphasize “everything.”

Beautiful in its time is an unusual combination in English and reflects a literal translation of the Hebrew idiom. The term beautiful is used in other settings to describe a woman’s physical beauty (Songs 4:10 or 7:7) and so does not seem a proper description of time. Many translations use the word “appropriate” (for example nab, lb, jb, neb). tev uses “right” to describe the relationship of time and events; reb suggests “… to suit its time,” while nrsv uses “suitable.” Just as in the poem at the beginning of the chapter, so here the theme of matching events and times is important. We can see again how the poem and the ideas of this section are related, indicating that the purpose of the poem was to set the stage for this discussion. So we can translate as “God makes everything happen at its proper time” or “Everything God does he does when the time is right.”

Also he has put eternity into man’s mind: this clause has been discussed by scholars at great length because of disagreement about the meaning of the word eternity. For some scholars it means “the sum total of all time,” while others give it a meaning in terms of space rather than of time. Some think it means “obscurity.” This is based on the comments in the rest of the verse, which say that people cannot discover what God does, as well as on a related Ugaritic word meaning “hidden.” Then there are those who want to propose a change in the text to make it say “toil” or “darkness.” In Hebrew spoken at the time when Ecclesiastes was written, the term could also mean “the world,” and so Gordis suggests a translation “love of the world.” It is very clear, then, that there is no consensus about what the word means in its present context.

The view taken in this Handbook is that the general theme of “times,” which is the focus of this chapter, must be recognized. Furthermore, by retaining the more traditional sense of eternity, the text is quite meaningful. Whenever Qoheleth uses the word translated here as eternity in other settings (such as 1:4, 10; 2:16; 3:14; 9:6), it is with “eternal time” in view. We cannot be far from Qoheleth’s meaning if we assume that this is how he uses it here also, given the “time” framework. For this reason we assume that Qoheleth is arguing that God has placed an “awareness of things eternal” into the human mind. tev says “he has given us a desire to know the future” but we feel there is a difficulty with this, for although it is a general statement, it can be thought of as confined to this life only. Our position is that Qoheleth is even daring to think beyond this life as well.

There may be problems with translating the concept eternity in many cultural groups with different approaches to the notion of “time.” For many peoples time is thought of as cyclical, not linear. Thus the notion of time stretching into the future is meaningless, for they think of it as moving through the seasons and back again to begin anew. Additionally the view that “eternal” means “without any end” may not be entirely appropriate in this context. As far as we can tell, the Old Testament used the word ̀olam in the sense of time extending for a long period rather than time that never ends.

In “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 5, there is a discussion of the meaning of yithron, where it is suggested that Qoheleth is asking about what happens to people after death. He probably does not think in terms of life going on without end, for he is not concerned about how long life is. Rather he seems to wonder whether there can be something real after death, and it is that, whatever it is, he calls “eternity.” Also we recall that Qoheleth is speaking in general terms about humanity as a whole, and not about the individual.

If using the term “eternity” is going to cause translators problems, then some other possibilities are “God makes us wonder how far time goes” or “God gives us a new idea of time.” The point is to make it clear that this present life is not the only dimension of time. The term does not have the sense of a life that is unending; such an idea appears much later and is not to be found in the Old Testament.

This idea has been put into man’s mind. On the use of the noun mind in this book, see comments on 1:13. Translators will need to find a word which refers to that part of the human body associated with thinking.

Yet so that he cannot find out what God has done: the opening phrase translated yet so that can actually give the sense of cause or purpose. rsv so that suggests that God intended that people should never find out what he does. The meaning seems to be that, although we have the awareness of eternity, we are unable to find out anything about it. nab “without man’s ever discerning …” takes this view also. There is one reference in 7:14 to the fact that God prevents us from finding out what he does, but that does not seem to be the case in our present text. In fact we must be very cautious about arguing that God actually prevents us from knowing something, because so much of what Qoheleth presents depends on knowing at least something about what God does; he has just said here that God has given people this notion of “eternity.” If there are things people cannot know or discover, it is our human limitations that prevent us from seeing and understanding. Thus conjunctions such as “yet,” and “but,” are to be preferred over “so that.” Alternatively the previous clause “God has put eternity …” can be expressed as a concessive clause, which is to say, “although God has …” or “even though God has.…” This results in the following example for translation: “Though God has put a new understanding of time into the human mind, we can never.…” We suggest using the pronoun “we” or “one” in this latter case, because it refers to the whole of humanity and not just to male persons.

Find out is a verb that will play an important role in other parts of this book, for example 8:16–9:12. It is a key verb in conveying Qoheleth’s theme about the limits to human understanding. Verbs like “comprehend” or “understand fully” may express this idea. The whole clause may be translated “a person will never discover all God does,” or as tev “a person will never fully understand all that God has done.”

From the beginning to the end is an adverbial phrase describing the full extent of what God has done. It does not only refer to time. A phrase like Chinese “from head to tail” is close to the Hebrew idiom. We can give its meaning as “what God has done throughout” or “the full extent of what God does.” Another possibility is to say “… to find out what God does, how he begins it and how he finishes it.”

Though the creation of the world is certainly included in the full scope of this verse, it is not referred to in particular. Therefore translators should not use an expression that is limited to the idea of creation but one that can include all that God does.

Two models for translation of the verse are:

•    Everything God does, he does at the right time. He has planted the idea of eternity in people’s minds; yet they cannot take in [or, grasp] the full scope of God’s work.

•    God does everything at an appropriate time. He gives human beings an idea of eternity; yet despite this we can never fully understand the extent of what God does.


Verses 12–13 form a unit. Together they attempt to answer the problems raised in verses 9 to 11: first the question of “profit” from work (verse 9), and then the impossibility of understanding all that God does (verses 10 and 11). The initial verb phrase of verse 12 “I know that” carries over into verse 13: “[I know] also that.…” Qoheleth is not making two separate statements here; rather verse 13 repeats in more detail what he says in verse 12. Thus before translation is begun the two verses should be studied together. Note that the Hebrew word for “good” occurs three times and can be treated as a play on words: “[verse 12] there is nothing good for man but … to do good [enjoy] and [verse 13] to find [see] good” in his activities. These occurrences underline the unity of the passage.

Despite the negative phrase opening verse 12, the thrust of the two verses is essentially positive. They mark an important point in the discourse development, as it is here we meet the second call to enjoyment. How we place the verses will be determined by the language into which we are translating. In some languages they follow well as the concluding sentences of the paragraph beginning in verse 9 (see tev and njv). In other languages it may be better to separate them off in their own paragraph, as jb does. The translator’s language may have a particle that is used to show when the speaker is making an important logical conclusion. Such a particle will be appropriate here. Some languages may prefer to break at this point and show by a section heading that an important conclusion is being made. If this is the case the same heading as that in 2:24 should be used.

Verse 12 is the first of the two occasions in this section on which Qoheleth uses the phrase I know. When he uses this phrase he is saying that he has reached a conclusion on the basis of testing and experience. tev and nab use “I realized,” and lb suggests “I concluded.” Both are good models.

There is nothing better for them follows the basic pattern of the “There is nothing better … than” sayings (see note under 2:24), the only change being the pronoun them used in place of the noun “mankind.” In this case, the reference of the pronoun is given in the following verse: “every person [or, man]” or “everybody.” In most translations the text will be smoother if this expression appears first in verse 12, with a pronoun in verse 13: “So there is nothing better for people to do than.…” Note that tev uses the inclusive “we” in this passage to refer to humankind. Such a solution can be adopted if it is more natural in the translator’s language. As noted above, despite the negative form nothing better, the thrust of the verse is positive; “The best thing a person can do” or “The only thing a person can do” may be appropriate.

Than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live: the Hebrew begins with the phrase “except that,” which excludes all other possibilities. So tev “all we can do is” is acceptable. On the verb be happy see comments in 2:1–2, where the noun form “pleasure” is found. “Seek pleasure” is an alternative translation bearing in mind the restricted meaning of the word “pleasure” as it is used by Qoheleth.

Enjoy themselves as long as they live is literally “to do good in one’s life.” Some scholars have understood the Hebrew to be a call to lead an ethical life, and this is probably what tev “do the best you can” means. But if we follow the pattern of meaning in the “Nothing is better” forms, we can conclude that Qoheleth uses “do” with the same sense as “see” in the other examples of the form (see verse 13 and 2:24). Thus it is more likely that the emphasis is not on doing what is ethical but on enjoying life. It will be helpful if the translator can bring out this idea.

Be happy and enjoy themselves are very close in meaning. If the translator’s language has two expressions like these and such repetition is appreciated, then two verbal expressions can be used. Otherwise translators can combine the Hebrew repetitions into one expression. If this is done then perhaps an emphatic term such as “really” can be added to draw out the full force of the double phrases in Hebrew.

As long as they live is literally “in his life.” Its sense is “throughout the days of his life” (see 2:3, 17). tev “while we are still alive” calls us to enjoy life while we can, though the verse probably refers to actions that last over a period of time, “throughout their life.”

Some models for translation are:

•    I am convinced there is no better way to live than to be happy and enjoy life.

•    The best thing for people to do is to be happy and enjoy themselves throughout their lives.

•    I believe there is no better thing we can do but to be really happy [or, to really enjoy ourselves] all through life.


The Hebrew of this verse is literally “Also every man who eats and drinks and sees good in all his labor, a gift of God [is] this.”

Despite the introductory also this verse does not contain additional advice. It merely explains more fully what verse 12 says. In this way it continues on from what comes before. And so also may be rendered as “that is to say” or “in other words,” so the two verses (12 and 13) can be run together. The resulting translation may better reflect the structure of these two verses in the Hebrew: “I know there is no better way to live …, that is to say, that God’s gift to a person is for them to eat, drink, and take pleasure.…” Thus in some languages the translator can use one complex sentence. But the same effect can be had by dividing the sentence into two independent parts that resemble each other in structure; for example, “[Verse 12] I know that there is no better way to live than to be happy and enjoy life. [Verse 13] I know that God’s gift to man is for him to eat, drink.…”

Man and every one in this context are clearly general terms for all human beings, so we should reflect that sense in our translation by saying “all people,” “everyone,” or “us.” Every one in the Hebrew appears as the subject of the verbs that follow, thus “everyone who eats and drinks.…”

For a discussion on the verbs eat, drink, and “enjoy [or, see good in] one’s work,” see comments on 2:24. Actually the meaning of the verse is difficult to determine if we do not compare it with the other forms of the call to enjoyment. In 2:24 we find the same “man who eats” expression. As these sayings are all advice to people to act in a certain way, an appropriate translation is “a person should eat” or “everyone should eat.”

In some languages these three kinds of activities will need to be referred to together by a plural, “these” or “these things are God’s gift.” In other languages, if the singular is to be used, “this” may be more natural than “that [is God’s gift].”

It must be noted that rsv has reversed the order of the Hebrew. It is God’s gift occurs at the end of the verse in the original. If the phrase is moved to its original position, a more natural translation of verses 12 and 13 may be possible: “I know there is no better way to live than to be happy and enjoy yourself throughout your life. That is to say, if a person can eat, drink, and be satisfied with all his work, this is a gift from God.” This is essentially what tev has done, as well as jb and njv.

If translators wish to adopt words similar to those of rsv, it is God’s gift … that …, then an alternative may be “God’s gift is that everyone should.…”

It may be necessary in certain languages to say whom God’s gift is for (“This is God’s gift to people” or “This is what God offers us”), even though this should be clear from context.

Models for translation:

•    That is to say, people should eat and drink and enjoy their work. That is God’s gift.

•    In other words, we should eat, drink, and enjoy our work. These things are God’s gift [to us].


The next section contains two parts. In verse 14 Qoheleth tells of his second conclusion, beginning like verse 12 with the words “I know that.” Verse 15 expands on verse 14 with a poetic statement. Several versions start a new paragraph at verse 14, but the translator is not obliged to do so. This passage links back to verse 11 with the theme that God’s acts are eternal. Earthly events are limited and marked by fixed moments, but God stands outside these limits. We can know a little about what God does, but his actions are actually of a different order: eternal, complete, and unchanging. It is likely that verses 10–11, 12–13, and 14–15 form smaller units within a larger paragraph. At verse 16 we will encounter a stronger break in the discourse, where a new paragraph will need to be marked.

In verse 14 Qoheleth reports a second discovery he made. see verse 12 for the first discovery. It opens with the formula I know that or “I conclude that.”

Whatever God does: “everything” may be used here as in tev. “The work of God” is a Hebrew expression constantly occurring in this book as Qoheleth struggles to understand the relationship between what God does and what people do. It is a term that includes a possible reference to God’s work in creation. Because of the very broad nature of the expression, it is impossible to limit its reference. In translation we may say something like “all God’s works,” “every action of God,” or “everything God does.”

Endures for ever: endures is literally “is” or “exists,” indicating that what God does will remain for ever. Although Qoheleth has already indicated that there is a definite limit to what the human mind can know, here he states clearly that at least we can know that what God does remains for ever.

For ever is the same basic term we noted in verse 11, describing the consciousness that God implants in our minds. Here it is used as an adverbial phrase. When Qoheleth claims that what God does endures for ever, we are tempted to ask what kinds of things he has in mind. Many of the historical episodes of Israel’s life, such as the Exodus, do not remain for ever, except in the sense that they are remembered and celebrated regularly. Perhaps in the context of this chapter Qoheleth has in mind the order within creation, the times over which God has control. Thus the sense of the phrase here is that the order which God has established will remain constant. It is because of this fact that Qoheleth can offer his advice.

In some languages a word like “forever” may not exist. In this case verbal expressions combined with a word like “always” can be used: “Whatever God does always remains.” Or a negative expression may have to be used: “What God does never ends” or “Nothing that God does can be changed.” We should not confuse the Old Testament’s word “eternal [eternity]” with the more modern concept of an unending existence. In reality, the ancient world used the word to indicate the longest period of time they could imagine.

Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it: the idea of adding and subtracting is taken from the thought that the Law which God gave Israel was complete (see Deut 4:2; 12:32), that it set the boundaries for what was acceptable conduct. When God says of the law that people should not add to it nor subtract from it, he is saying two things: he is saying that the law is complete, and he is calling people to obey it. The phrase should not be taken as a prohibition or command not to do something, for throughout Israel’s life new instructions and laws were developed to meet the ever-changing circumstances of society. Here then Qoheleth uses the image of the Law to suggest that whatever God does is both eternal and complete.

rsv can in this clause may be misunderstood as denying permission to add and subtract. That is not what Qoheleth means. The phrase is literally “there is nothing to add … and there is nothing to subtract.” In our translation we can say “it needs no additions or subtractions,” or for a more concise form, “it is complete in every way.” Translators may find it necessary to identify it as “what God does”: “What God does needs no additions or subtractions.” Otherwise it may be easier to add a general agent, “No one can add to what God does, and no one can subtract from it.” In this sentence we again meet the point-counterpoint rhythm typical of poetic statements. With some work it may be possible to this in the translation:

•    No one can add to, no one can subtract from what God does.

(It is complete in every way).

•    No one can add to it.

No one can subtract from it.

It is perfect in every way.

God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him: this part of the verse has many problems for the interpreter, though this is not so evident in the various translations. The text reads “and [or, but] God has done [or, made] which they fear [or, see] before him.” When rsv says God has made it so, it is referring back to the eternal nature of the deeds mentioned above. However, the meaning of “do” (made) is unclear, as has been pointed out, though we shall assume that it refers to God’s ordering of time and event. In Hebrew some forms of the verb “fear” (root yr’) are identical to forms of the verb “see” (root r’h), so this adds to the confusion. But most versions take the verb to be “fear” in this context.

In order that is the way in which many translations render the relative marker, which in Hebrew is prefixed to the verb “fear.” This rendering suggests that God had a purpose in mind in all he did. However, this view depends on understanding the relative marker in Hebrew as indicating purpose, and such a usage is rare in the Old Testament. reb suggests “in such a way that,” expressing result rather than purpose. We believe this to be the more likely function here, since Qoheleth does not seek to blame God for the fact that there is so much in life that is difficult to comprehend.

The subject of the verb fear is generally supplied from the first conclusion in this subsection in verses 12–13. That means that the subject of “fear” is believed to be “men,” or “people.” Fear before refers to reverencing, respecting, or being in awe of God (as nrsv). Translators should avoid a literal rendering of the verb “fear,” unless it also has this wide meaning in their language.

We can now understand that the traditional translations of this verse are based on a text that has several possible renderings, and translators should be aware of this fact. Suggestions for translators to consider are:

•    God has done all this, and people are in awe of him.

•    God has done this in order that people may honor him.


This verse expresses ideas that can be found in 1:9. It links the past with the present and future.

The rhythm in the first part of this verse recalls the poetry in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 3. The balance-counterbalance can be felt from this verse (or even from verse 14) through verse 18. The text can be laid out literally as follows:

Whatever that was already it is

and what will be already it was

Some versions try to show the poetic nature of this and other surrounding verses by indenting all or parts of them (niv, njv, and La Bible de Jérusalem [bj]). The translator should decide if indenting will be helpful and will possibly maintain the rhythm of the original passages.

The verse opens with “Whatever” (rsv That), referring to “everything.” It is followed by the clause “that was,” which points to some completed action (reflected as a present condition in rsv’s which is). Thus “whatever presently exists,” “whatever has existed,” or “whatever happens” catches the meaning.

Already has been renders the clause “already it is.” The line should strictly speaking be translated as “Whatever [or, Everything that] has been, already is.” The use here of the word already appears odd in this context, for it usually refers to something that came about in the past rather than to a present state. We can assume that here it means something like “continues to be [or, exist].”

That which is to be renders a clause in which the word “whatever” (rsv that which) from the previous clause must be assumed. It uses the infinitive of “be” to indicate what will come into existence. These things that will appear in the future already have been, meaning that they have been in existence in the past. tev “whatever happens or can happen has already happened before” loses the poetic balance of the Hebrew but gives the meaning clearly.

In this part of the verse translators may find it helpful to add the time references “in the past,” “in the future,” or “now.”

Two models for translation of this part of the verse are:

•    Everything that has existed, continues to be;

everything that will be, has been in the past.

•    Whatever happened in the past, is happening now.

Whatever will happen in the future, has already happened in the past.

And God seeks what has been driven away: in its present rsv translation this seems meaningless. In attempting to make sense of it, translators have found the following meanings:

tev “God makes the same thing happen again and again”

nab “God restores what would otherwise be displaced”

niv “God will call the past to account”

jb “Yet God always cares for the persecuted”

neb and reb, “God summons each event back in its turn”

nrsv “God seeks out what has gone by” It is obvious that no one agrees on the meaning.

It is obvious that no one agrees on the meaning.

What are the problems with this text? God seeks gives the literal meaning of the Hebrew. If that is indeed what the opening verb means, then our problems begin with identifying the object of God’s search. What has been driven away does not help us identify anything particular in the context. The verb driven away translates a Hebrew form with two possible meanings, “what has been pursued” or “what we pursue.” It is difficult to find a suitable translation, though it can mean “that which is sought after.” If we return to the verb seeks for the moment, we note that in literature from the time of Qoheleth it may also mean “request” or “ask.” Using this information, we can suggest a meaning “God requests that we pursue [it].” This then raises the question of what we should pursue. The possibilities are that we pursue the task God has assigned, namely, to seek appropriate times for actions, or the gift of enjoyment and pleasure, or even that we should search for an understanding of what God does. We prefer a translation that sees this statement as a conclusion to the entire subsection.

For translation we suggest “God requests that we pursue what is hidden.”

Recognizing that this translation is uncertain, a footnote will be required to indicate that the text is unclear.

Reflections on Injustice 3:16–21

This brings us to a new subsection in chapter 3, where Qoheleth addresses a new topic. It is clear that this constitutes a new section because of the use of the adverb Moreover or “In addition,” and the expression under the sun, which reappears after a long break (since 2:22). Despite the change in subject, however, the links with the previous section are also clear. As in verse 10, Qoheleth begins his observations with I saw (verse 16). In verse 17 there is a reference back to the poem (verses 1–8) with the expression “a time for every activity.” More importantly this section ends on exactly the same note as the discussion in verses 9–13. Thus a major theme in the book is repeated: people are called to enjoy life on this earth.

The passage has a clear structure. It begins with a description of injustice in the courts (verse 16). Then we read two responses to or reflections on that situation (verse 17 and verses 18–21). Each reflection begins with the words I said in my heart, indicating that they are parallel responses to the same situation. Each is an attempt to find an answer to the problem posed. The subsection is then rounded off with the third call to enjoyment (verse 22).

The structure here reminds us of how Qoheleth goes about his work. He first observes, then reflects, and finally draws conclusions.

In verses 16 and 17 three Hebrew words are prominent: mishpat “justice,” also occurring in the verb and noun forms “judge” and “judgment”; forms of tsdq, the root for “righteousness” and “righteous person”; and rashà “evil.” Mishpat and tsedeq are keywords in the Old Testament, but especially in the messages of the prophets. They express what God desires in his community: justice between its members, fairness, and right living. In verses 18–22 the keywords are “humankind” (sons of men, men) and “beast,” which are contrasted but held together by their common “fate” and “breath.”

Section Heading: as the beginning of a new subsection, this is an appropriate place for a heading. We suggest “The problem of injustice” or something similar.


We take note first of the form of the verse. It consists of an introduction followed by two parallel sayings. Again we recognize the balanced rhythm so frequent in Ecclesiastes. When the lines are set out as poetry, this rhythm becomes clear:

Moreover I saw under the sun

[in] the place of justice there evil

[in] the place of righteousness there evil

This pattern is lost in tev, but the meaning is preserved.

Moreover I saw under the sun represents the second matter Qoheleth wishes to discuss in this chapter. It follows the observation in verse 10. This can be made plain by a discourse marker like tev’s “In addition” or by a phrase such as “I made another observation about life here on earth.” In some languages a time expression may be used, if such an expression is also used to signal logical development: “Then I made another observation,” or “After that I discovered one other thing.…”

In the place of justice, even there was wickedness: in the next two lines we find an image where a state of affairs is described in terms of place. Literally “the place of judgment” could refer to any location where judgment is passed, so in ancient Israel the expression could refer to the city gate where judges and others dispensed justice. It can also refer to priestly or royal persons, as they also were responsible for seeing that justice was done. Here place may refer not only to the location where justice is handed out, but to the entire process of bringing justice, as well as to those who were responsible for enacting it. Thus place of justice may be the courts, elders, or judges. For translation we can consider “where we expect to be dealt with justly” or “where true and honest judgments should be made.”

Even there was wickedness: rsv even draws out the forcefulness of the short Hebrew clause. There was is not the phrase that normally points to something. It emphasizes “in that place [itself].” We can render it as “in that very place [all was evil],” or “right there [evil prevailed].” If a less abstract reference is necessary, wickedness can be thought of as “evil actions or deeds.”

In the place of righteousness introduces us to the term righteousness, which here is parallel to “justice.” The context indicates that this place is the place where we should expect everything to be done in a spirit of righteousness. Righteousness describes a state of affairs brought about when the law is followed. So we can translate as “where we expect to find righteousness” or “where people should act rightly.”

As noted above, this verse has two parallel lines. Translators must decide if such a structure is effective. If so, a model for translation can be:

•    Where we expect to find justice done,

we find only evil.

Where we expect to see righteousness at work,

we find only evil.

Alternatively we can vary the order of the words of the last line for poetic effect:

•    Where we expect to find justice prevailing

we find only evil.

Where we expect to see righteousness

only evil is there.

However, if such forms are too repetitive, the idea can be reduced to fewer lines while still emphasizing the distressing situation:

•    Where we expect justice and righteousness to be carried out,

in that very place we find evil instead!


Having outlined briefly the situation where he observes a problem, Qoheleth now gives the first of two possible responses.

I said in my heart is a clause we have met already in 2:1, 15. See comments there. Here it serves as the marker for the first of the two responses.

God will judge the righteous and the wicked: in this verse we meet the three key terms again, literally “The righteous and the wicked God will judge.” When confronted by evil in society, what will God do? He will act to bring down the unjust. This is the message that we associate especially with the prophets. Qoheleth agrees. Here the Hebrew puts the objects at the beginning of the verse for emphasis. This emphasis may be achieved in some languages in the same way or by inserting a word like “both.” Both groups will have to face divine judgment, so “those who do wrong” and “those who do right” will have their deeds and life evaluated. Notice how “judgment” is not a negative word, as both good and bad will have to face it. In the case of the good they will be vindicated; only the evil will face punishment after they have been judged. This reminds us that in translation we need to avoid a word for judge which suggests that judgment is “punishment” and therefore only for those who are evil. We can even say something like “fair evaluation” or “an impartial look at the case.” A translation like “God will judge both the righteous and the wicked fairly” may be appropriate.

The terms righteous and wicked are adjectives used as nouns, so they describe “people who obey the Law” and “people who disobey it.” As we noted earlier, wisdom writers generally divided the world into two kinds of people.

God will judge states a fact common throughout the Old Testament that, although there are human agents for bringing justice (priests, prophets, and judges), ultimately it is God who upholds justice, especially when his human agents fail. Compare Job’s confidence in God’s justice in Job 27:13–23. Here judge means to “decide the fate of good and evil people.”

For he has appointed a time for every matter indicates how this section is related to the context. It reminds us that the poem in verses 1–8 serves as the background against which the various issues of this chapter should be interpreted. For is an important marker, pointing us directly to the basis of Qoheleth’s claim about God’s justice. A time for every matter is taken from verse 1, so see notes there. Because God has appointed a time for every matter, we can be certain that he will restore justice.

He [God] has appointed is a strong phrase because it claims more than the poem itself does. In discussing the poem in verses 1–8, we noted that it used only very general expressions; we could not be certain who was acting in the various functions described there. That form of expression, of course, was deliberate, for the poem stated only general principles. Now in what follows, things are stated more clearly, and Qoheleth applies the principle from the poem to what God does. Appointed is a translation that depends on a change being made in the Hebrew text. The final word in Hebrew is the word “there” (sham). However, rsv and most scholars think it really should be sam, “put, place,” in the sense of “appoint.” Although there is no textual support for this change, it seems very logical. It may be helpful to include a footnote at this point to suggest that this word has two possible interpretations.

And for every work: while every matter is very general, every work does at least require an agent, and to that extent there is a slight difference of meaning. However, in the present setting the agent(s) need not be identified. They may be divine or human. With these two terms Qoheleth includes every form of activity on earth. The two terms may be combined as in tev, “every thing, every action.”

One possible model for translation is:

•    I realized that God will judge those who do right and those who do wrong. Because there is an appointed time for every activity and action.*


The opening phrase I said in my heart marks this verse as the second possible reaction to the situation described in verse 16. It should hardly surprise us that there may be two different responses to a given situation, and wisdom writers often made plain that depending on circumstances their advice could change. What is right and proper in one setting may not be right in another. If we can classify verse 17 as the standard, or orthodox, response to the problem of injustice, then this verse may be called “Qoheleth’s alternative response.” Both responses are legitimate.

Though it reflects the Hebrew, rsv’s translation presents an awkward structure in English. The translator can move with regard to the sons of men to initial position, if it will make the translation more natural: “Considering [the fate of] human beings, I decided.…” For sons of men see 3:10.

Before going on, some important matters of structure and meaning will concern us here. The phrase with regard to (or, “concerning”) is followed by two infinitives, each expressing purpose. The first (rsv testing) speaks of sorting through various items to find what you want. Although it is an infinitive, it carries finite verb meaning, with God as its subject. The second infinitive (to show) also contains the idea of examining (we have explored this use of its root, “see,” in this book already). The problem with this second infinitive is that it is an indicative form, in which case “God” also appears to be its subject. This would be an apparent contradiction, however, because the following verses indicate that God intends that people should see for themselves how much like the animals they are. So it is not God who sees, but people. This suggests that we should interpret “see” as being in its causative form, “cause to see”; hence we shall take the second infinitive as “to show them,” just as rsv and other translations have done.

A meaningful translation of this verse is not a simple task. How can the situation described in verse 16 constitute a test for human beings? How does injustice in the legal process indicate that people will die as other creatures do? How do we translate testing? It is clear from what Qoheleth says that humanity has failed to live by God’s standards of justice and righteousness. In reflecting on this failure we are shown, or it is demonstrated for us, that we are not really any better than other creatures. Qoheleth thinks that people can act with justice toward each other, and when they do, human beings are actually seen to be higher beings than the animals. Lack of justice, on the other hand, shows we are no higher than they are. So “see” and “test” are close in meaning in this case. A suggested translation is “God leads us to see that …” or “God thereby demonstrates to us that.…”

That they are but beasts means that human beings are no better or higher than beasts. So in translation we can say “they are no different than animals,” or as tev puts it inclusively, “we are not better than animals.” The Hebrew actually uses a preposition that can mean “like”: “they are [just] like animals.” We must wait until verse 19 to see what is the basis of this comparison. There we learn that both human beings and animals are mortal. It is probably wise, though, to leave the explanation of the comparison to the next verse. jb “… and expose them for the brute beasts they are to each other” seems to go far beyond the meaning of the text.

Two models for translation:

•    I thought to myself: as for us human beings, God tests us to show us we are no different than animals.

•    As far as human beings are concerned, I decided that God is testing them to demonstrate that they are no better than animals.


This verse introduces us to the reason and basis for Qoheleth’s claim that people and animals do not differ. For marks the reason which now follows.

The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same: in 2:16 a similar idea is expressed. On fate see comments in 2:14. Every individual’s fate is the same as that of the beasts, namely, death. Note that in Hebrew the sense of same is rendered by the number “one”: “the fate of human beings and the fate of animals is one fate.” This same expression will be picked up later in the verse, “their life-spirit is one,” and in the following verse as well, “going to one place.” This repetition of words and the balanced rhythm here point to the seriousness of these remarks. The emphasis on fate may be preserved by repeating the term. Alternatively we can combine the references to fate as “The fate of people and animals is the same” or “One fate awaits both human beings and animals.”

As one dies, so dies the other: the words are different from the previous clause about fate, but the thought is the same. It is possible that rsv can be misunderstood to mean that people and animals always die in the same manner. Qoheleth is not discussing how they die, only the fact that they all do die. We can avoid rsv’s potential problem by saying “both must die” or simply “both die.” Some languages will express the sense of “both” with demonstratives, “this one dies and that one dies.” “Human beings and animals all come to the same end; all must die” is an acceptable translation. If possible, however, the translator can try to maintain the rhythm expressed in this clause, as rsv has succeeded in doing.

They all have the same breath: the term breath may also be rendered “spirit.” The thought in this verse almost certainly has its background in the creation stories of Genesis. In Gen 1:30 all creatures are said to have the “breath of life.” This is not intended to be a technical or medical explanation but is Israel’s understanding that both human beings and animals are living beings. Breathing is one aspect of being alive, but the word “breath” has a more profound sense, namely, “spirit.” This is the clear intention of the word when used in verse 21. It is important to use a term that means the life-essence or life-force and, if possible, to use the same term both here and in verse 21. Some languages may have a very graphic word for this, such as “nose,” while in others the term may be more abstract, “life.” For translation we recommend “we all share the same life-spirit” or “human beings and animals all have a common spirit”

And man has no advantage over the beasts: of course this is a statement that needs to be interpreted within this context. At the level of our shared “spirit” there can be no distinction between people and animals, and if this is something we share, then it follows that the human life-force or spirit is not a higher or better one than found in the animals. Thus Qoheleth is correct when he says that at this particular level there is no advantage in being human. Here we find Qoheleth using a new word (mothar) for “advantage.” Although it is derived from the same Hebrew root (ythr) as our basic term yithron “lasting benefit,” here the fact that we have a new form of the root suggests that it means something slightly different. From the context we conclude that it has the narrower meaning of the possible advantage of human beings over animals.

To link the two previous clauses, a conjunction or transition clause may be inserted: “We all share the same life-spirit, so in this sense, human beings are not superior to animals,” or “All human beings and animals possess a similar spirit; therefore, human beings don’t have any advantage over animals.”

Another means of showing the link between the two clauses is to use a phrase like “so as to …” or “therefore.…” This latter form is actually closer to Hebrew structure than the models mentioned above:

They both share the same spirit of life.

So as to the advantage of human beings over animals,

there is none.

For all is vanity is treated in rsv and most other translations as a clause that explains what has just been said. This is because of their understanding of the initial particle ki. Logically speaking, however, it is incorrect to say that human beings have no advantage “because” all is vanity. Rather the reverse is true. All is hevel precisely because there is no such distinction. Obviously the statement that “all is hevel” is a concluding comment, and in view of our understanding of the meaning and function of the term, the recommended approach is to take the initial particle ki as the emphatic “indeed” or “truly,” rather than as “for” or “because.” This then gives a possible translation “Indeed, this is quite a mystery,” “Truly all this is an enigma,” or “Really, all this is very hard to understand.”


The creation traditions in Gen 2:7, 19 and 3:19 have influenced the expressions in this verse. Qoheleth continues with the theme of our shared fate and nature. At a literary level this verse links with the previous one by the repetition of the term “one.” In Hebrew each of the three lines of the verse begins with the same term “all,” heightening the impact of the ideas it contains. The translator should give some thought to rendering the passage in a similarly dramatic way.

All are going to one place;

All come from the dust,

And all return to the dust.

All go to one place uses a participial form indicating that people are on the way to that destination. One place and the words that follow are a euphemism, that is, a clear but indirect reference to the grave or death. Most versions translate this line literally, however, since the next few lines make the meaning of the phrase one place clear.

All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again also uses a participial form (turn) to indicate that creatures are on the way to death. All turn to dust can be understood in two ways. It can mean that, when the physical body is buried, it returns to the earth from which it was formed. In this case it refers to burial. A second possible meaning is that the body decomposes after burial, turning to dust again. Although the Hebrew allows either view, returning to dust in the sense of our physical body decomposing is probably closer to the point. Many other languages also have euphemistic or indirect ways of describing these events, and it is a good translation principle to try to translate idiom for idiom. The translator should be careful, however, to use expressions that are equivalent in style and level of language to the Hebrew text.

The idea that there is a return to the dust for created beings reminds us of the theme introduced in the poem in 1:4–11. In fact many of the terms in this verse can be found in 1:7 (such as “going” and “returning”). A circular movement from the place of beginning to the end and back to the beginning again is present in all creation.

Two possible models for translation are:

•    Everyone is heading for the same place; everyone has come from the dust and will turn to dust again.

•    We are all heading for death; we have come from dust and will turn to dust again.


Because human beings have authority over the animal world and creation generally (see Genesis 1 and 2), it is assumed that there is some fundamental distinction between human beings and animals. Qoheleth has raised doubts that there is any meaningful distinction, since death is common to all. However, that still allows him to ask whether there is some distinction possible after death.

The rhetorical question Who knows? suggests that no one knows, that none can answer the question. Qoheleth is commenting (rather than asking) that we can never know what happens after we die. However, the fact that he asks the question in this way is consistent with our assessment of his purpose, namely, to probe beyond the present, even if he is not able to answer definitely whether “lasting benefit” does indeed lie beyond the present.

For spirit see comments on verse 19. In some cultures human beings are thought of as having a spirit element that leaves the body at death, but animals may not be thought of in this same way. That is, the same word for “spirit” cannot be used for both human beings and animals. In this case the translator may be forced to express these ideas a little differently, perhaps as a verbal phrase, “when human beings die they go … and when an animal dies it.…”

Goes upward … goes down to the earth is language that rests on the idea that God is in heaven and that heaven is “up.” The dead pass to Sheol, which is “down” in the ground and below it. Using direction words “up” and “down” may not be meaningful in some cultures; if this is the case we may simply say “where God dwells,” and “to Sheol.”

When tev says “How can anyone be sure …?” it seems to suggest that people and animals go to different places after death, and that the only difficulty is proving it. Qoheleth’s position is slightly different, asserting that no one knows whether there is such a distinction.

Translators can preserve the question form or use a negative statement such as:

•    Nobody knows [or, can know] whether the human spirit rises upwards [to Heaven] and the spirit of the beasts descends to Sheol [or, into the earth].

Other examples of ways to translate are:

•    No one knows for sure that when a person dies, he [or, that person] goes to heaven, and when an animal dies, it goes down into the earth.

•    Some say the souls of humans go up to heaven and the souls of animals go down in the earth, but who really knows what happens after we die?

Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE! 3:22

With this saying the second major portion of the book extending from 3:1 comes to an end. We noted how it commenced with a poem that set the theme, namely, the appropriateness of times and events. Then the key question was again introduced, and discussion of two problems related to time followed. To conclude this discussion Qoheleth repeats the call to enjoyment (verse 22a), followed by a short comment (verse 22b) that reinforces his conclusion.

Section Heading: if a section heading is used for this verse, it should probably repeat the heading used at 2:24–26, to emphasize the return to this theme.


Left without any way to test what happens to the human spirit after death, Qoheleth now offers advice that he thinks appropriate under the circumstances. We meet for the third time the call to enjoyment (see also 2:24; 3:12).

As this verse ends a major section, it may be possible to mark this important conclusion by special discourse markers. rsv goes in this direction with the conjunction So. frcl uses a conclusive “Then.” If it seems natural in the translator’s language, this verse can be treated as a separate paragraph. In many languages, however, its position as the last verse in the chapter may serve to show that it is an important concluding remark.

So I saw that frequently introduces Qoheleth’s conclusions based on what he has observed. Since there is no way he can answer questions about what happens after death, Qoheleth gives the most positive advice possible.

There is nothing better than that a man should enjoy means that there is nothing more rewarding than enjoying what God gives. Whereas in other examples of the theme of enjoyment there is reference to “eating,” “drinking,” and “working,” here there is only the one word work, of finding pleasure in everything a person does. Because of the very broad meaning of the word “do,” it is probable that here it includes all the other activities normally listed in the calls to enjoyment rather than merely describing a person’s job of work or “labor.”

The singular a man should be rendered by a term that applies to either male or female, such as “a person,” “a human,” or the plural “people” or “human beings.”

For that is his lot presents the basic conclusion that this is what God has proposed for us. The singular pronoun that following the plural “works” suggests that the pronoun refers not to “works” but to the task of enjoying what we do (as in 2:24–25). This fact can be made clear in translation. What rsv translates as lot requires comment, as the actual text has the word “portion.” A “lot” means an assigned task, whereas “portion” indicates that enjoyment is actually our reward when we do what God asks of us. This understanding links this saying with the other “better” sayings, in which God provides enjoyment. For this reason tev “There is nothing else we can do” and its footnoted possibilities are not appropriate models.

In some languages, especially in Africa, the literal idea of “portion” (of food) is often extended to mean other nonphysical benefits. Thus a more literal translation here may be very effective.

One possible translation is:

•    So I concluded that the best thing people can do is to enjoy their work. Enjoyment is our reward.

Who can bring him to see what will be after him? This clause, like the one before it, begins with the particle ki. It probably is intended as a second justification for the advice about enjoyment. Again we note that the rhetorical question is really a negative statement that nobody can tell what happens after death. The phrase what will be after him has two possible meanings: one is what happens to the individual after passing from this world; the other is what happens here on earth after a person departs from it. In this context it is probably the first meaning that is intended. We may translate it “for nobody can demonstrate what happens to us after we die” or “because no one is able to show people what happens after death.” The tev model is also acceptable.

Some Life Issues 4:1–5:20

It appears that at this point Qoheleth merely moves to another field of human experience to ponder its significance for the question of “lasting benefit.” However, we shall find certain unusual literary features in chapter 4 that mark it as having a rather special character.

We have been working with the understanding that Qoheleth structures his work around a key question about “lasting benefits” leading to his advice to enjoy life. We have already seen this at work in 1:3–2:24 and 3:1–22. As we turn to chapter 4 we note first that it does not contain either the key question or any advice about enjoyment. But this is because chapter 4 belongs together with chapter 5. In these two chapters the material for discussion is presented first, with the thematic question (5:16b) and the advice to enjoy life (5:18–20) coming at the end.

Commentators have made various proposals as to how chapter 4 is structured. Some see verses 1–12 as a unit, with verses 13–16 only loosely connected to the rest of the text. We do note a shift in style and theme at this point, even though these verses share certain literary features with the first twelve. We also know that certain literary formulas such as statements about hevel may give us clues as to how the Hebrew text is divided. Within chapter 4 we note two identical expressions that seem to mark significant breaks in the text. The lengthy phrase “Then I turned I [emphatic] and I saw” is found first at verse 1 and again at verse 7. This gives us a tentative division of the chapter into verses 1–6 and verses 7–16. In the subunit verses 1–6 we see that there is an intricate discourse plan. Observations, always indicated by the verb “see” (verses 1 and 4), are followed by conclusions in the form of “better” statements (verses 3 and 6).

In the second part of chapter 4, we note a different pattern. First we have the introductory statement “I saw” (verse 7), followed by an illustration (verse 8a–c), with a statement about hevel in conclusion (verse 8d). Next a “better” statement (verse 9) appears, this time functioning as an introduction to a unit. Qoheleth gives several illustrations to support this “better” statement (verses 9b–12a) and concludes the subsection with a proverb (verse 12c). At verse 13 a new subunit begins, again with a “better” statement, ending in verse 16 with a statement about hevel. This analysis gives us the following outline for chapter 4:

Theme 1: The powerless are oppressed (verses 1–3)


4:1 Observation

“Again I saw …”

4:2 Preliminary conclusion



“Better” statement

Theme 2: Attitudes toward work (verses 4–6)


4:4 Observation

“Then I saw … “

4:5 Second observation


4:6 Conclusion

“Better” statement

Theme 3: The value of companions (verses 7–12)


4:7–8 The case of the solitary man


4:7–8c Observation

“Again I saw …”

4:8d Conclusion

hevel statement

4:9–12 Two are better than one


4:9 Introduction

“Better” statement

4:10–12a Examples:



4:10 if one falls …


4:11 if two lie together …

4:12a if one is overcome/overcomes …

4:12b Concluding proverb

Theme 4: Wisdom and politics (verses 13–16


4:13–14 The case of the young king


4:13 Introductory “Better” statement



4:14 Qualifications on observation

4:15–16 The case of the second young man


4:15–16a Observation: “I saw … “


4:16b Conclusion: hevel statement


Chapter 5 deals with a variety of subjects, but its most outstanding feature is the fact that the opening verses (verses 1–7) touch on matters of religion and worship. Wisdom material generally has very little to say about these matters, so this part of Qoheleth’s writing is of great significance. In verses 1–7 Qoheleth suggests the correct attitude with which a wise person should approach the question of religious devotion. In verses 8–9 he returns to discuss oppression (see also 4:1–3), while in verses 10–12 the topic is the fact that material goods fail to satisfy a person’s basic need for a meaningful life. This is followed by the example of a rich person losing all his wealth due to unforeseen circumstances. This crisis prompts further thought in verses 13–17 about how wealth and material goods are of little benefit to us when we die.

From the point of view of Qoheleth’s structure, all the issues dealt with in 4:1–5:16a prepare the reader to confront the key question asked again in 5:16b. The section concludes by repeating the theme of enjoyment (5:18–20). The same features that occurred in 2:24; 3:12, 22, are present here also; but this time his advice is expressed positively (“what I have seen to be good and fitting is to … find enjoyment …”) rather than negatively (“nothing better than”).

In this section we see some elements of style that were typical of the earlier chapters. Qoheleth is again examining his world and drawing certain conclusions. The section begins with “I saw,” a phrase met already in 3:10, 16, and 22. The length of the introductory phrase, “I turned, I [emphatic], and I saw …,” shows that there is a major break between chapters 3 and 4. Other “I saw” phrases occur at significant points in chapter 4 (verses 4, 7, and 15), generally marking a new set of observations or a new problem to be discussed. We meet again the familiar expression “under the sun” (4:1, 3, 7, 15), as well as the statements about hevel so typical of Qoheleth (4:4, 8, and 16).

Apart from these recurring elements, however, the section has some literary features that we meet for the first time. First we note the occurrence of six “better” sayings in 4:3, 6, 9, 13; 5:1, 5. Most of these take the form of wise sayings; for example, in verse 6, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil.…” Perhaps even more interesting is the appearance of the theme of numbers or numerical sayings. The numbers “one” and “two” link several verses. It is this feature more than any other that characterizes chapter 4, and it shows the close ties Qoheleth has to the wisdom movement. Wisdom writers in Israel often used numbers as a device for structuring their sayings, as in Pro 6:16–19 and 30:15–31. Note the special form of these sayings: “two … three”; “three … four.”

The text of chapters 4 and 5 is treated differently in different versions. Many commentators recognize that at least part of this section is poetic. This will become clear in our discussion of 4:1. Some versions print all or part of the text in poetic lines (niv, tob), while others indent only proverbs (jb, njv), and they do this rather inconsistently. rsv and tev treat the text as prose. Our advice is to read the entire section before beginning translation and decide what literary types would be appropriate in the translation and how they will be formatted.

Section Heading: Qoheleth discusses many different subjects in this large unit, so we need to find a general heading to cover them all. We can say “Qoheleth examines some important issues of life.” If a more specific title is needed, we can say “Qoheleth talks about work, worship, politics, and money.”

The powerless are oppressed 4:1–3

tev rsv

Powerful members of the community use their privileged position to oppress the powerless, while the oppressed seem to have nowhere to turn for support and comfort (compare 3:16).

This subsection first presents the problem (verse 1), then responds with a temporary conclusion (verse 2), and finally offers a considered opinion (verse 3).

Section Heading: As noted above, it is possible to divide this chapter in different ways. Languages will also differ as to how many section headings are needed to guide the reader through the text. In some languages a section heading will be appropriate to mark each of the new themes. If it is felt that verses 1–12 form a tighter unit than 13–16, it is possible to include two headings, one at verse 1 and another at verse 13. “Oppression and toil” or “Oppression, toil, and the value of companions” can head verses 1–12. Verses 13–16 can then be introduced by a title like “The value of wisdom.”


Like societies in all ages, the society in which Qoheleth lived was plagued by social injustice (3:16–21). Dominated by powerful people, the less privileged members of the community found themselves at the mercy of these people.

Again I saw introduces another of Qoheleth’s observations. The verb saw, as we have noted before, means that Qoheleth gave special attention to a problem, then drew from it certain conclusions. As noted earlier a verb like “consider” or “observe” can be used in place of the verb “see.” The Hebrew here is literally “Then-I-turned, me, and-I-saw,” a more emphatic form of the same expression found in 3:10, 16, 22. A discourse marker that shows a new section is beginning may be appropriate. rsv signals this new beginning by the word Again.

All the oppressions that are practiced under the sun: the oppressive activities of some powerful members of society catch Qoheleth’s attention because they cause much suffering to others. Oppressions describes the abuse of power and privilege by which one person takes advantage of others who have no access to justice. According to the Old Testament prophets, it was usually the widows and orphans who were oppressed and cheated by the powerful and wealthy (see Amos 5:12; 8:4–6). tev “injustice” is perhaps too broad a term, as Qoheleth mentions only one kind of injustice, namely, oppressive treatment of the underprivileged. rsv practiced refers to actions carried out regularly, and not to “practicing” some activity so as to develop skill at it.

The noun phrase all the oppressions may need to be made clearer, probably by using a verbal expression: “I saw how people oppressed one another.” In some languages an impersonal pronoun can be used; for example, “I saw how they [indefinite] oppress people in this world.” The word all is of course an exaggeration to emphasize how thorough the examination Qoheleth undertook. Qoheleth did not see absolutely every instance of oppression. In some languages this use of exaggeration, or hyperbole, is quite acceptable. In others it may be necessary to express this idea in another manner: “I observed the many ways people oppress each other,” or simply “I saw how people oppress one another throughout [this] society.”

Under the sun: see comments on 1:3. It means “in the world.”

For translation:

•    Then I observed all the ways people oppress one another on this earth.

•    Then I considered the many ways in which the powerful take advantage of others in this world.

And behold, the tears of the oppressed: and behold is an attention-getting device. Here it signals a cry of dismay: “Just look at how those being oppressed weep!” Languages may have an emotive word that expresses this dismay. In some languages a statement with a progressive aspect will be effective: “The oppressed are weeping and there is no one to help them!” A full verbal clause may also be appropriate in some cultures. For example, “What I saw was.…” jb’s “take for instance” misses the emotional impact of the verse. We may also introduce the sentence by saying “And oh the …!”

The tears of the oppressed is a noun phrase in Hebrew. It describes the anguish and pain of oppressed people weeping because of the treatment given them. There is a sense of misery and helplessness to be conveyed. A verbal phrase “they wept” can also replace the noun phrase for a more expressive form. The oppressed are those who were powerless, suffering injustice at the hands of the powerful and wealthy. It can be translated as a noun, or put into a noun phrase form such as “those who suffered” or “those who were cheated.” The entire clause can be presented in a vivid manner along the following lines: “I saw how those who suffered in this way wept,” “I saw those poor people in tears,” “Look, the oppressed are weeping,” or perhaps “And, oh how those who had been cheated cried!”

And they had no one to comfort them: this clause appears twice in this verse. The repetition indicates that Qoheleth’s basic concern is with those he sees suffering. Unlike the prophets Qoheleth does not here preach against oppression. He merely observes this unpleasant fact about human life, and the even sadder fact that people often do not help one another when there is such great need.

Comfort means to actively assist a person in need; it is a practical expression of commitment to someone. Note how in Isa 40:1 the prophet comforts the people of Israel with God’s promise that he will lead them back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Them, the object of the verb comfort, refers to the people who were being oppressed. This fact can be made clear by a translation such as “there was nobody willing to comfort those who had been cheated” or “nobody gave the oppressed any comfort [or, help].”

On the side of their oppressors there was power: this statement explains why there was oppression, as well as why people did not give comfort to those who were oppressed. On the side of is literally “from the hand of,” suggesting that the oppressors used their power against anyone who tried to help the victims of oppression. Those in power abused their privilege; others were afraid of the powerful people or did not care about the ones suffering. Power refers to “authority,” or to the power and control over others that wealth, social position, and status can give. In translation we can say “The oppressors were those in authority,” “the oppressors held so much power,” or “those cheating others had the power to do whatever they wanted.”

And there was no one to comfort them repeats the phrase found earlier in the verse. It can be translated in the same manner for impact. Here it is important to make the final pronoun them clear, otherwise it may be misunderstood as a reference to the oppressor; thus “nobody comforted the oppressed,” or in view of the previous clause, “no one dared to give the oppressed comfort.”

These last lines of verse 1 are the most poignant and poetic of the whole chapter. This feeling is supported by the rhythm of the text and the repetition of elements (“oppress” in the first and third lines, and “no one to comfort them” in the second and fourth lines).

See the tears of those being oppressed!

But there is no one to comfort them.

Power is in the hands of those oppressing them.

But there is no one to comfort them.

Translators should consider the possibility of rendering this part of the verse in poetic form. It may be indented as above. In many cases the repetition of the second and fourth line will help achieve the desired effect. Languages may differ, though, as to how much repetition is allowed or appreciated. Some languages do not appreciate repetition, in which case the repeated lines can be combined:

•    Oh, how the oppressed weep!

Those oppressing them are those in authority.

So no one offers them comfort.

In other languages repetition may be appreciated but not in the original form. Grouping the second and fourth lines together at the end may be effective:

•    Oh, how the oppressed are crying!

Powerful ones oppress them.

But there is no one to comfort them,

No one to comfort them.


rsv literally represents the Hebrew expression, but it is rather unnatural and redundant in English. It serves as a good reminder of how not to translate! But the problems of rsv can easily be avoided.

And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate is the phrase that brings us Qoheleth’s reflection on the significance of what he witnessed. The initial conjunction And is probably better rendered as “So” or “Then.”

I thought … more fortunate: in Hebrew the verb is “commend” or “congratulate” used as an infinitive but with finite verb significance. To consider someone fortunate is not quite the same thing as congratulating them. tev “I envy” is an understandable response but does not correctly translate the Hebrew verb. The basic meaning “congratulate” should be preserved, because there is great irony in what Qoheleth says here. Normally life is better than death, even for Qoheleth, but when he is confronted by the many injustices and evils of human society, death seems preferable. Qoheleth offers his congratulations and best wishes to those who have died. They have been able to escape from oppression and injustice. A translation like “So I congratulated those who were dead” conveys that ironic mood. If such irony is not easily understood in the translator’s language, an expression closer to rsv, but farther from the Hebrew, will have to be substituted: “So it seems that dead people are better off [than the living].”

Than the living who are still alive: the comparison places the dead in a more favorable position than the living. However, it is not a simple case of comparing the living and the dead; rather the dead and the living are here used as terms to describe those people who were oppressed or are presently being oppressed. The dead are those who have died and as a result have been “rescued” from oppression; the living are those who are still undergoing the pain of oppression. Within this context it is perfectly clear that the dead are now better off than those still suffering. When Qoheleth congratulates people for dying, he reveals his piercing irony. Some languages may need to avoid the redundant phrases of the Hebrew, “the living who are alive” and “the dead who have died.” One possibility is to state the link between living and oppression, and between dying and being freed from this terrible situation.

Translation may be along one of the following lines:

•    I consider those who have died to be more fortunate than those still living under oppression!

•    So I congratulate those who died under oppression; they are now better off than those still living under it.

•    And I declare the dead to be better off than those still alive.


Verse 1 presented Qoheleth’s observation, and verse 2 issued a temporary conclusion; but in verse 3 we now are given Qoheleth’s own and final conclusion with respect to the problem in verse 1.

Although death may be the only escape from oppression and to that extent may be preferable to life under those circumstances, Qoheleth now takes the matter further. His suggestion is that not to be born is an even better alternative to death. To express this idea he uses a “better” saying, the first of many in this book.

But better than both …: the “better” sayings are a special literary feature of this book, which contains almost half of all Old Testament examples of this form. In many cases it serves to conclude a section, summarizing Qoheleth’s thought on the subject treated in that section. Although it is a comparative expression in form, its meaning is usually best regarded as superlative; that is to say, it suggests what is best, not what is simply relatively good.

In verse 2 Qoheleth compared people who had died with those who were still living under oppression. He now adds a third possibility, and so the translation can use a form similar to tev, “even better off,” or “even more fortunate than.…” rsv better than can be misunderstood as making some kind of moral judgment. Comparison of people facing an oppressive world suggests that “fortunate,” “happier,” or even “luckier,” are good terms to replace rsv’s very general term better.

In dealing with these comparative and superlative forms, translators will need to use forms appropriate to their own languages. Some may need to use expressions like “the dead are fortunate, but the truly fortunate ones are.…”

Both (literally “the two of them”) refers to the two kinds of persons mentioned in verse 2. If necessary this fact can be expressed clearly, citing “the dead and those living under oppression.”

He who has not yet been refers to persons who have not yet come into existence, so we can use the verb “born” to clarify its sense. The rsv singular form follows the Hebrew, while tev uses the plural. Both are attempts to express something very general, so the pronoun “anyone” or “everyone” is acceptable. To express the idea of “not yet been,” an expression like “those not yet living,” or even “those who have not yet come into this world,” can be used. Qoheleth suggests in this conclusion that the unborn are more fortunate than the dead or the living, and his reasons for thinking this way follow.

And has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun: this is a clause justifying Qoheleth’s evaluation. The unborn have not experienced human oppression themselves, nor have they had to witness it (see reb). Both these meanings are present in the verb “seen.” Qoheleth represents the wise person; his is perhaps a privileged position, but nevertheless it is a painful one. Every wise person had the responsibility to reflect on human existence, and then to advise people how they might best live in light of life’s many problems. This role of the wise is almost as painful as that of the person who is being oppressed.

Evil deeds that are done can be expressed by “evil that takes place” or “evil events that occur.” However, here again is a passive verb whose agent or subject may need to be identified: “who has not seen the evil things that people do [to each other] on this earth.” Though a more general term is used here, the context of this discussion indicates that evil refers primarily to oppression.

Under the sun: see comments on 1:3.

In some languages turning the verse around will give a smoother sentence:

•    But the person who has not yet been born, who has not seen what evil things people do to each other in this world, is even better off than these two.

Other possible translations include:

•    More fortunate than either the dead or those still living under oppression are the unborn. They have not witnessed the evil done on earth.

•    But those who have not yet been born are even luckier than these two. They have not seen the evil people do to one another in this world.

Attitudes Toward Work 4:4–6

4 tev rsv

This subsection discusses the theme of “toil.” It begins with an observation about motives for “toil” (verse 4). To this Qoheleth adds a quotation about laziness (verse 5), then summarizes his conclusions about this situation with a numerical “better” saying (verse 6). In a manner typical of Qoheleth, two seemingly opposing points of view are set alongside one another. In verse 5 he points out that a person shouldn’t be lazy, but he follows this in verse 6 with the observation that overworking is also undesirable.

Section Heading: for this section we can say “Qoheleth gives advice about work” or “What our attitude should be toward work.”


Then I saw: see comments on this introductory form in 3:10 and 4:1.

All toil and all skill in work: two concepts are examined by Qoheleth, toil or labor, and skill. These are related to each other by the fact that people need skill in order to accomplish their work (or, toil). On the meaning of toil see comments at 2:10. In this general setting it is not possible, nor is it desirable, to define the activities more closely. Qoheleth is speaking only of general principles. That is to say, he is thinking of any task and the skills we need to accomplish it. tev “why people work so hard to succeed” focuses only on effort rather than on the skill people develop and use. We should note that being skillful does not guarantee that a person will be successful. We shall give further consideration to the terms toil and skill below.

Come from a man’s envy of his neighbor: rsv come from is an interpretation of the Hebrew, which says literally only that toil and skill themselves are the envy of a person’s neighbor, not that toil and skill stem from envy. Some have taken these words to mean that the outcome of one person’s work and skill provokes envy on the part of others. But Qoheleth appears here to be talking either about motives for what people do, or the effects of competition. Toil and skill are powered by, or perhaps motivated by, the desire to perform better than someone else. Translators will need to find a natural way of expressing this idea in their language. Some possibilities are to say that skill at a task “comes from,” “grows out of,” “is motivated by,” “is spurred on by,” or “is the result of” a sense of competition.

Envy of his neighbor carries a somewhat negative tone in English, as envy, like the word “jealousy,” is a desire to have what someone else has, or to be able to do what they can do. It conveys the sense that we are lacking something and we are unhappy about that fact. Yet this same Hebrew root also means “zeal,” or “passion,” and in Exo 20:5 it is used to describe the Lord’s attitude to those who have made a covenant with him. He is jealous of the relationship and wants nothing to interrupt it. Here it can only have a positive sense. From the way it is used in the Jewish Talmud, we note that the word translated here as “envy” actually means “a sense of rivalry.” It may at times have negative results, but often it is very positive, a stimulus encouraging a person to greater effort when confronting a challenge. Our translation should not give the idea that this is an unhealthy or sinful activity; rather, it is a natural human response to a challenge. A term like “jealousy” in English, then, should be avoided; “an honest sense of competition” may come closer to the meaning. Neighbor is used in the general biblical sense of “the other person” and not with the narrower meaning of a person living in the same village or adjoining house.

The question we need to ask now is what relationship there is between toil, skill, and a sense of competition. Competition may push us to improve our skills, but how can it produce toil? Our conclusion here is that in this passage toil and skill are being used as terms that have almost the same meaning. The first term, toil, is the broad one, and this is then more narrowly defined as skill in working, which is talent, ability, or training to do a task well. This view of the relationship between the two terms will affect our translation. “Skill at a given task” may be a way to combine the two expressions.

Some models for translators to consider in this part of the verse are:

•    The skill people acquire in doing any task comes from competing against others.

•    A person’s skill in his work is sharpened by a sense of rivalry.

•    Skill at a given task and an honest sense of competition go hand in hand.

This also is vanity and a striving after wind: see comments for translation at 1:14. If the above statement about “envy” is correct, namely, that it can have a positive meaning, then in this context hevel cannot mean “vanity” or “meaninglessness.” Qoheleth adds the refrain that “this is hevel” here to indicate that he does not understand how this competitive drive works; he has to admit that it is an enigma.


Qoheleth quotes a standard proverb about laziness and its effects (see Pro 6:10–11; 19:15). tev’s introduction “They say that …” is one way to mark this as a quotation. However, in this instance tev is not a good model for showing the normal form of a proverb in the remainder of the verse. As there are many proverbs throughout our text, the translator may choose to show that this is a special literary type. Placing the verse inside quotes may be one way of marking it.

Wisdom literature always contrasts the fool with the person who is wise. It is a term that can be defined negatively, that is, “someone who does not follow the teachings of the wise.” Often in Proverbs it indicates a person who is immoral also. In this context a fool is a stupid or lazy person.

Folds his hands is another way of saying that he refuses to work and prefers idleness. The action is expressed as a participle and so points to a perpetual state or attitude to life. Both rsv and tev translate the saying literally. However, folding the hands is not the normal expression of idleness in English-speaking cultures. We would say “He folds his arms.” But folding the arms can signal a variety of other meanings also; it does not always indicate laziness. Therefore translators will need to use culturally appropriate expressions for a person who refuses to work or who is idle. If the expression makes use of the word “hands,” so much the better. In at least one language, for example, it is natural to say “if his hand is afraid of work.” In colloquial English we would say “the person who just sits around.”

And eats his own flesh: this rather graphic phrase means that the person destroys himself or herself. They waste away, either literally or metaphorically. An idiom with a similar meaning may exist in the translator’s language. In many languages the verb eats is often connected with destruction or waste, so the lazy person who “eats himself” may refer very naturally to a person who causes his own ruin. If such figurative expressions do not exist, other verbal expressions can be found, such as “destroys himself,” “causes his own ruin,” or “wastes away” (reb). tev suggests a meaning “lets himself starve to death.” Translators can also take this approach, which tries to make clear that laziness leads to poverty, which in turn leads to death.

The relationship between the two halves of this saying must be understood before we can translate it adequately. Although Hebrew links the two parts of the saying with the conjunction “and,” in fact the second part of the saying expresses the result of the action in the first half. To put it another way, self-destruction comes as a result of laziness.

Some possibilities for translation are:

•    The fool folds his arms and as a result destroys himself.

•    The fool is one who refuses to work, so he has no food and destroys himself.

•    The fool is lazy and so wastes away.

Another possibility is to express the statement in a proverb-like form with no conjunction:

•    The fool who refuses to work brings about his own ruin.

•    The fool who sits around [only] destroys himself.


This section is concluded by a “better” saying with a numerical theme. Having described two opposite situations (verse 4 speaking of rivalry leading to greater skill, and verse 5 illustrating the effects of laziness), Qoheleth now gives his concluding advice. Like many wisdom sayings, this proverb is ironic. It says something we would not expect, and overturns some traditional values. Context will determine which value is the higher one.

Better is a handful of quietness: for those who think that the more we have the better off we are, Qoheleth reminds us that it is not always so. He suggests that “one” is actually more valuable than “two” when “one” is superior in quality. Quietness or “rest” is not to be confused with laziness. Quietness is a positive value, for it can refresh a person and is necessary for mental health. That is not to say that quietness is always better, because work and toil are also necessary. reb suggests “one hand full, along with peace of mind.”

Than two hands full of toil: although toil in Qoheleth is generally a positive occupation, there are some circumstances under which work is less good than rest. This happens when toil and work become burdensome, or when we strive for something beyond our power. This latter meaning is the sense conveyed by the phrase and a striving after wind. (See comments on 1:14 for translation).

A handful is not the measure we normally use for quietness or toil, so we need to address the question of the precise relationship between “handful” and “toil” or “quietness.” Gordis maintains that “quietness” is actually an adverbial phrase describing how the hand becomes full. He would translate as “a handful gained by quietness,” meaning that a person fills one hand with what he needs without over-exertion. Similarly, “two hands full of toil” he would interpret as “two hands full gained by toil.” tev and nab both reflect this kind of interpretation. So before translating we need to determine the meaning; is Qoheleth’s main concern to describe how much is gained, or does he stress how we gain those amounts? If we examine other similar sayings in Proverbs (for example, Pro 17:1″ a dry morsel eaten in quietness” is compared to a “feast where there is strife”), the pattern suggests that “quietness” and “toil” in verse 6 describe the ways in which the hand gets to be filled. Therefore the following example is offered for translators to consider:

•    Better is one handful gained quietly [or, without stress], than two hands full gained by toiling. That is like trying to shepherd the wind.

Alternatively we can use a more general word than “handful” because it is primarily a measure word. “One measure” and “two measures” will serve well. Though it is preferable to retain the Hebrew’s numerical theme (“one” and “two”), in some languages it may be necessary to abandon the metaphor altogether:

•    It is better to gain a little without too much effort than to gain a lot by overworking. Overworking is as useless as trying to control the wind.

Value of Companions 4:7–12

4:7 tev rsv

This third subsection of chapter 4 brings before the reader a situation that Qoheleth immediately identifies as being full of irony. That is, he describes a situation that we would never expect to happen, one that does not seem to make sense. There is a thematic link with the previous subsection, in the sense that here too Qoheleth discusses toil and satisfaction. In verse 8 there is another reference to numbers, “one without a second,” again tying this section to what comes before it. However, the opening of verse 7 is identical to that in 4:1, literally “Then-I-turned, me, and-I-saw,” indicating clearly that a new subsection has just begun.

Verses 10–12 present three conditions, each one supporting the argument of the “better” saying in verse 9. They claim that there are advantages in having support from another person as we face life. The opening particle For binds these verses to those before them.

Section Heading: this short section deals with one subject, the value of companions. For a section heading we can say “It is good to have companions.” In some languages it may be possible to quote part of this section to attract the reader’s attention: “Two are better than one.”


These words that begin the section are identical with those of verse 1, literally “I turned and saw.” As in verse 1, translators should consider using a standard discourse marker to signal the beginning of a new subsection. Adverbs of time like “Then” or Again may be appropriate.

Vanity describes a situation that is far from “meaningless” or “useless” as suggested by tev; rather it is an ironic situation, one that is opposite to what we would expect. It presents a brief case study of a person who is very successful in material terms, but who does not seem to ask about the purpose or goal of such success. That situation is what baffles Qoheleth, hence his description of the situation as hevel, that is, “ironic,” or “beyond comprehension.” See further in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 2, for the discussion of hevel.

Under the sun: refer to comments on 1:3.

For translation: “Then I observed something else that puzzled me,” or “I saw something else on this earth that is difficult to explain.”

Verse 7 is clearly introductory to verse 8. Some versions end it with a colon to indicate this relationship.


A person who has no one, either son or brother: the scene is set precisely: a solitary and lonely individual toiling ceaselessly. The solitariness is described simply as “one without a second.” Added to this is an explanatory phrase: the worker has neither relatives nor children. Here the singular forms son and brother are general terms for “siblings” and “children,” and we can render them as such. “A person who has neither children nor relatives” is its meaning, or perhaps even “Here is someone who has no family at all.”

The Hebrew text introduces this example with a particle meaning “There is [or, was] [a person who …].” Qoheleth thus marks this as an example explaining what he described in verse 7. njv translates “And I have noted this further futility under the sun: the case of the man who is alone.…” tev starts the discussion with the expression “Here is someone.…” The translator should find a natural way to introduce such an example.

Yet there is no end to all his toil: this clause follows as a contrast from the previous one, so the conjunction should be translated as “but” or “however.” The word end here means the point at which something finishes rather than “end” in the sense of purpose or goal. Thus a second feature of this person’s situation is his unceasing toil. He never stops working, never takes a vacation. The sense is that the lack of rest is self-inflicted. It is not caused by his having so much to do that he never gets the chance to rest, but it results from his own choice. In the present example the person has no family to provide for, so it is hard to see why he works unceasingly. We may translate “he never ceases from his work,” or “he is working all the time,” or “he never stops working.”

These two facts about this worker, namely, his loneliness and ceaseless work, set the scene for a double conclusion. He himself is not satisfied with what he gets, nor is anyone else able to enjoy what he achieves. Hebrew inserts an “and” between the first two clauses. In some translations, putting the two sentences side by side (juxtaposition) may be sufficient: “[here is] a person who has no family or relatives; he [also] works unceasingly.” In other languages the word “and” can be translated literally: “Here is a person who has no family or relatives and who never stops working.” The translator should avoid giving the impression that the reason this person never stops working is because he has no family to spend his time with.

His eyes are never satisfied with riches: although he works so ceaselessly, and we presume successfully, his eyes are never satisfied. This same phrase occurs in 1:8. Eyes is a metaphor for the total person. These material rewards do not give him any satisfaction. If this interpretation is accepted, a simple pronoun “he” may be used in place of the figurative eyes. Another possibility is that eyes represents his desires and longings, so we may also use the phrase “his desires.”

The phrase never satisfied can mean (1) that the man was always wanting more than he had, (2) that the things he had did not give him any pleasure or happiness. The context suggests the second view. Thus he did not derive any pleasure from what he did or what he gained. The term riches includes money and what it can buy. It does not suggest that the person is greedy, so the nab addition (“and riches do not satisfy his greed”) should be ignored.

For translation we can say “he found no satisfaction in being wealthy” or “his money gave him no satisfaction.”

The words so that he never asks are not in the Hebrew text of this verse but are added by translators to give the setting of the following question. Readers will immediately note that the text changes from third person speech to first person, and so the first person question may require some form of introduction to make plain its connection with the earlier part of the verse. tev “for whom he is working so hard” avoids the use of an introductory formula, but in doing so it changes the first person forms to third person. However, in making these changes the connection between the question and the remainder of the verse is not made clear.

There is a problem in supplying an introductory formula here, because what we insert will depend entirely on our understanding of the situation of the worker. It is this interpretation that causes difficulties. rsv adds a result clause, so that he never asks. This rests on an interpretation in which the worker fails to show any concern for the purpose in his work. neb and reb take the opposite view and supply “he asks,” indicating that he did in fact question the purpose of his labors. Thus two contrary understandings are reflected in these translations. Since the person in the example cited has no relatives, hence no heir, it seems perfectly natural for him to ask “For whom am I working?” Therefore the recommendation given in this Handbook is that we may add an explanatory “he asks” or “he asks himself,” to introduce the question, rather than follow rsv and its negative view. However, translators will note that the interpretation is not certain but a matter of personal choice.

In some languages, especially in Africa, it is common for dialog or monologue to appear with no introduction. Where this is the case, the question can simply follow the description of the man, with no introductory statement:

•    Here’s a man who is all alone. He has no children or brothers. He works all the time, but he is never satisfied. “Who am I working so hard for?”

For whom am I toiling? This part of the question refers back to the previous clause, which also uses the term “toil.” Although this person works ceaselessly, he cannot know who, if anyone, will benefit from his labor. Having no children and no siblings means he has nobody to support and nobody to whom he can leave his goods. In English the verb “to work for” can also mean “who is employing me.” Our translation here should rather indicate that his question is about who will benefit from what he does, so we can say “For whose benefit am I toiling?”

Depriving myself of pleasure: the for whom phrase or “for whose benefit” from the previous clause applies here also. The question is simply about who will benefit from the fact that he is denying himself pleasure. The answer to this rhetorical question is already given in the opening part of the verse; he is doing it for nobody, for he has no relatives to provide for and he is without an heir in the world.

Depriving myself is literally “causing my life-spirit to lack.” Qoheleth’s point is that the person derives no enjoyment or pleasure from his many accumulated goods. Pleasure in this setting does not translate the same Hebrew word as “pleasure” in 2:1, 10. Here it renders the Hebrew adjective “good” used as a noun with the sense of “goods” or “good things” that money can buy. The problem in this clause is in the fact that the person who is working so hard does not lack material things but lacks the power to be able to enjoy what he has. This then gives a translation as follows: “but failing to derive any good from it,” “failing to obtain what my goods should provide,” “not enjoying what I should,” or “not getting any pleasure out of it.”

The person here is reasoning with himself, and so this dialog can be treated like a rhetorical question. Thus it may be better in some languages to make a statement than to ask a question: “I am not working for anybody! I am depriving myself of pleasure for nothing!” In other languages it may be more natural to combine a rhetorical question and a statement: “Why am I working so hard? There is no one to benefit from it, and I am not getting anything out of it.”

This also is vanity and an unhappy business: This refers back to the entire situation just described. For Qoheleth this situation is hevel, which is to say he has no explanation for it; it is another enigma or mystery. He further describes it as an unhappy business. On business see comments on 3:10. Unhappy is the rsv translation of the adjective that Qoheleth frequently uses to portray the bitter pain or sadness of a situation, not its moral value.

A suggestion for translation is:

•    Take the case of a man who is all alone. He has no children or relatives. He works all the time. Yet he gets no satisfaction from what he earns. He asks himself, “For whose good am I working, denying myself of pleasure?” This is another puzzling and bitter situation!


With this “better” saying Qoheleth concludes the third subdivision of this chapter. He again uses the numerals “one” and “two.” Two are better than one, says Qoheleth, meaning that if a person has even one friend, that person is better off than someone who has none. This contrasts sharply with the picture of the lonely person of verses 7–8.

Proverbial sayings usually do not have absolute meaning. That is to say, they are not true in every situation. We need to consider the circumstances before we can determine how appropriate certain pieces of advice are. Advice may suit one situation but not another. This feature of proverbial sayings means that there is no conflict between our verse here and the idea expressed in verse 6, that less may be better than more. Sometimes it is really better to have more, not less. What makes “more” better than “less” is the nature or value of the thing being compared. Here Qoheleth is thinking particularly of the benefit of having friends.

As noted earlier, the translator should try to express such sayings in a form that is recognizable as a proverb. Most languages will keep the third person reference, but in some languages it may be preferable to change to the second person. Likewise, expressing the verse as a conditional clause may be more natural: “If you are two instead of one, it is better. In your work, each one can help the other.”

Two are better than one: this statement of principle should perhaps be kept in a very general form, although some language communities may need to identify who the numerals refer to. If so, translators can make that meaning clear by adding the word “people” after the numeral “two”: “Two people are better than one.” We can also substitute other expressions, though this will mean losing the numerical references: “Being with another person is better than being alone.”

It may also be necessary to indicate the manner in which two are better than one. To do this may mean that we restructure the saying. tev “two are better off than one” does not solve that problem. Some alternatives for consideration are “Working with another person is better than working alone” or “Two people working together achieve more than one person working alone.” If we remember that wisdom sayings are not intended to be true for every possible situation, we should have no difficulty with the above examples.

Because they have a good reward for their toil is Qoheleth’s justification for this “better” saying. When he claims that two people have a good reward he means that a person who works alone does not gain the same benefit. Reward can describe monetary or material gain; it is used in Jonah 1:3 of the fare Jonah paid the sailors. nab renders it “wages,” while jb suggests “their work is really profitable.” reb thinks “their partnership yields this advantage.” However, on the basis of examples in verses 10–12, it is clear that Qoheleth is not thinking in material terms; rather he has in mind some social or psychological value. So the term “benefit” may be closer to Qoheleth’s sense. We can consider a translation like “Each can benefit the other” or “Each can benefit from the other’s efforts,” or even “They can help each other in the work they do.” tev puts it another way: “… together they can work more effectively.”

In some languages there may be proverbs that are similar to these biblical ones. When this is the case the translator is of course tempted to insert the local proverb for the biblical one. This procedure may at times be appropriate, but the translator should take care to ensure that the meanings are really equivalent. We must also consider whether the form of the proverb is acceptable in a biblical context; that is, is there any part of the local proverb that would be incompatible with the culture that existed at the time the biblical text was written? In one West African language there is a local proverb: “If you are two, it is better than being one, because the hare of two people does not get away.” This adaptation seems acceptable since it correctly conveys the meaning of the verse, conserves the proverb-like nature of the statement, and is not in conflict with the biblical culture and setting (hares existed in the biblical setting). However, this type of translation does run the risk of giving a false impression. People of this language group may conclude that the Bible has a proverb identical to their own. Therefore the translator must be very cautious before using local proverbs.

Some suggestions for translation are:

•    Two people are better than one. Each one can benefit from the other.

•    “Two are better than one.” When two people work side by side, both will profit.

•    Two people have an advantage that one person alone doesn’t have. If they work together they will have a good outcome.


As noted earlier this is the first of the arguments supporting verse 9.

If they fall presents a hypothetical possibility for us to consider. They must refer to the two persons mentioned in the previous verse. This may need to be stated, so “the two of them” or “both” are possible renderings. However, there is another possible way of understanding the verb fall and its third plural masculine suffix. It is conceivable that we are dealing with a so-called “partitive” sense of the verb, which means that they really means “either of them,” either of the two persons mentioned. Thus we can translate: “If one of them falls.”

The verb fall refers to a physical reality, but it can also be taken as a figure of speech. In many languages “fall” will be ambiguous. It can refer both to a real action and a metaphorical one (being in difficulty or trouble). It is probably best to retain the literal meaning, but if the translator chooses, the verse can also be expressed in a nonfigurative way, “If one of them gets into difficulty.…”

One will lift up his fellow expresses the practical help one person gives the other in a crisis. If both fell then probably neither one could help the other up, since both are in serious difficulties. The meaning then is that, if either one falls down, the other can help his friend up. We can use a more general form and say “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” If the more figurative use of “fall” is being highlighted, a nonfigurative translation may say “If one gets into difficulty, the other is there to help him.”

But woe to him who is alone when he falls presents the other side of the previous situation. Woe is not used here in the same way the prophets use the term, that is, to pronounce doom and judgment (see Isa 5:8, 11). Qoheleth is describing the unfortunate circumstance of the person who falls down when alone. The example assumes that when people fall, they are so badly injured that they cannot get up themselves: “How unfortunate …” or “How pitiful is the person who is alone.” In colloquial English we may say “Pity the poor person who falls down and is all alone!” tev “it’s just too bad” does not exactly convey the mood here.

And has not another to lift him up completes the picture. Not only is he alone when he falls, but, being alone, there is no one else available to give assistance.

The “woe to” phrase uses the numerals “one” and “two” as did the “better” saying. The Hebrew text says literally “… the one who falls, there is no second one to pick him up.” rsv renders those numerals as “one” and “the other.” It is preferable to preserve the numerals “one” and “two” in the translation, if possible. This allows our readers to see the literary links in this section.

The “woe to” phrase occurs at the beginning of the sentence in the Hebrew and is thus emphasized. However, in some languages it may be necessary to change the sentence order: “When someone is alone and falls down, there is no second person to pick him up.”

Two models for translation are:

•    How sad [or, difficult] it is for one person who falls down if there is not a second person present to give help.

•    How unfortunate for the person who is alone and falls down! There is no one with him to help him up.


The Hebrew particle rendered in rsv as Again shows that another example is being presented parallel to the one given in verse 10. Expressions like “In the same way” or “Also” may be used to show the progression of thought. Like verse 10 this is a saying in support of the idea in verse 9; it also employs the numerals “one” and “two.”

If two lie together they are warm assumes it is a cold night. For this reason tev adds “If it is cold.…” The numeral “two” may need further description in some language groups; if so, the word “people” may be added for clarity. The conditional nature of the saying is changed to a general principle in jb: “they keep warm, who sleep together.” Either a conditional or a general statement is acceptable here. In some languages such a general statement may be better expressed in the second person, “If you sleep two together, the two of you stay warm.”

The verb lie has a variety of uses in the Old Testament, including “lie down and die” (Isa 14:8), “to take a nap” (2 Sam 4:5), or as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (Gen 19:33). We do not know exactly in which way Qoheleth intends us to understand the word here, but the context seems to require a general meaning. If he is using it as a euphemism, translators will have to think about local euphemisms that express the same idea. “Sleep together” is a euphemism in English, and this is the jb choice. If this is a euphemism it will also affect the sense of the word warm. As we do not know whether Qoheleth has something particular in mind, a good approach is to preserve the very general nature of the saying. This also means that we reject the tev addition “If it is cold.…”

We may translate as follows:

•    If two people lie together, they keep each other warm.

But how can one be warm alone? Following the same pattern as we noted in verse 10, this verse also discusses the problem a single individual has to face. The Hebrew is literally “with regard to the one [person], how will he get warm?” Translators have the choice of preserving the question form or of using a negative statement such as “there is no way one person can keep warm by himself,” or even “it is difficult for a single individual to get [or, keep] warm.”

Two possible translation models are:

•    If two people lie together, they keep each other warm, but there is no way for one person to keep warm all alone!

•    If you sleep two together, you both will keep warm. But if you are alone, how will you keep warm?


A final example, like the two previous ones, is introduced by the Hebrew conditional particle “if” (rsv though). This clause shares the same literary features as the previous two conditional clauses, namely, the numerals “one” and “two.”

And though a man might prevail against one who is alone: the Hebrew says literally “if the one were to overcome him.” We presume that one person (rsv a man) is in combat with a second person, someone who is alone. Qoheleth’s example now suggests that a single fighter may overcome an enemy if that enemy has nobody else to fight with him. Of course there are many conditions that may prove this incorrect, but Qoheleth is concerned only to make his point. He argues that in one-on-one combat each has more or less an equal chance to defeat the other. For translation: “Although one person may be able to defeat another, …”

Two will withstand him raises the problem of who him refers to. If the person (rsv a man) spoken of in the first clause is the attacker, then he overcomes the other person, the one he attacks. But in this second clause, him can also refer to the person who is attacked, and two refer to those who attack him. Thus one person may attack and overcome another if that person is fighting alone, but that person plus another (= two) will be able to withstand the attacker. Alternatively, if two people attack one other person, they will probably defeat the one they attack. What rsv renders as will withstand is probably more accurately translated as “might withstand,” this being more appropriate to the hypothetical nature of the saying. Withstand carries the sense of successfully defending against an attack. For this reason jb “two will put up resistance” fails to show the full meaning.

The nouns which the pronouns in this verse refer to cannot be fixed with any certainty, so that it is not possible to determine who attacks who. For this reason a general translation is best followed, one that uses the word “opponent” to refer to those who are fighting.

Two translation models are:

•    If one person fights against another, he may win, but not if he fights against two.

•    One person can usually defeat a single opponent, but two opponents together will defeat him.

This second model has the advantage of preserving the theme “Two are better than one.”


Concluding not only this subdivision (verses 10–12) but also the entire subsection (verses 1–12) is this proverb that Qoheleth quotes. Its theme relates to the strength or advantage in numbers and combined effort.

A threefold cord describes a rope or cord formed of three strands twisted or plaited together. The Hebrew participle form used here (literally “of three parts”) is rare but is found in Gen 15:9, where it describes a three-year span of time. The choice of the numeral “three” may be influenced by the fact that “three” is the sum of the other two numerals in these sayings, or the next number in sequence after “one” and “two.” It is common in wisdom literature for ascending numbers to occur; see Proverbs 30, for example. The numeral “three” does not necessarily have a literal meaning but refers to a multiple or combination. If for some reason it is awkward to refer to three strands, “a plaited rope” can serve as a possible translation.

Is not quickly broken: the use of the passive not … broken or “not cut” may be preserved, or an active form as in tev “is hard to break” can be used. A potential form such as “cannot be broken” may serve even better in some languages. Quickly is the adverbial phrase that modifies the verb “break.” It reminds us that, although a plaited rope can be broken or cut through, it usually takes effort and time. Not quickly can also be rendered as “not easily” as in nab (compare tev “hard”).

•    This ancient Israelite proverb may well have a counterpart in many cultures, in which case the spirit of the saying may be conveyed by a local proverb. The saying can be indented as suggested above to show that a proverb is being quoted. It can be given as “A three-strand rope cannot be broken easily” or “A plaited rope will not easily break.”

Wisdom and Politics 4:13–16

tev rsv

This subsection is easily isolated from the earlier part of chapter 4 because of an obvious change in subject, theme, and form. The passage is loosely joined to the preceding passages, however, by the presence of a “better” saying (verse 13) and by a reference to the number one (verse 16) and the number two (verse 15).

Qoheleth first states a principle to be defended, namely, that wisdom is the most important feature of a person’s character. He states this principle in a “better” saying (verse 13). Two possible objections to this principle are noted in verse 14 but rejected. There follows an observation in which Qoheleth complains that the sage is never given the recognition that his wisdom deserves (verses 15–16).

In this short section several characters are mentioned: a poor but wise youth, an old foolish king, and a third person who is also young. From later Old Testament times to the present day, scholars have tried to link these people to actual historical persons. Despite many attempts there has been no agreement about who such persons might be. Many other scholars argue that there is no value in identifying anyone behind these sayings, because the sayings are deliberately generalized and fit no one individual. However, it appears that the examples cited in these verses are actually based on two significant figures from Israel’s history, namely, Joseph and David. As their names do not appear in the text, however, our translation will not be affected directly, though it may be useful background information.

Section Heading: translators may also wish to add a section heading here. “Thoughts on poverty and wisdom” is a possibility, or a more general title can be used such as “Thoughts on ruling” or “Thoughts on political power.”


Better is a poor and wise youth is the “priority” element in the “better” saying. Youth signifies a young male, possibly a teenager, though the term can be used of males up to the age of thirty years. The Hebrew root has a second noun form that is applied to people who serve as soldiers, often also being slaves. Thus youth may refer to a male of relatively low social class, though the emphasis here may be more on the fact that he is young. The conventional view in Israel was that old people are wise and young people are foolish. So Qoheleth may be using irony when he refers to a wise youth, to make the point that the young can also be wise.

Poor and wise can also be translated “poor but wise.” Bringing these two features together may not have been commonly accepted in Israelite society, but Qoheleth is trying to make an important point. Wisdom does not depend on a person’s social class and wealth. Poor translates a term used only three times in the Old Testament, all of them in Qoheleth (see also 9:15, 16). mft renders poor as “lowly born,” indicating his interpretation along the lines of social class and not only financial poverty. Wisdom writers often made the point that wise people might be poor (see Pro 19:1; 28:6 for some examples).

Better in this setting is not easily defined. In what way is the youth “better” than the king? tev suggests “he [the king] is not as well off,” but this phrase has various meanings in English. It can mean that the youth is actually wealthier than the king. This would make no sense, given the youth’s poverty. tev does not really help us clarify this question of the content of the word “better.” However, as we are dealing with a comparison of two kinds of people from different classes and backgrounds, better almost certainly means “more commendable” or “more important.” This is how the wise person viewed the matter; to follow wise teachings was the only commendable way to live. There is also the possibility that better applies to the larger context of the passage: “It is better to be ruled by a young man who is poor but wise than by an old king who is foolish.…”

Who will no longer take advice: the more general adjective “foolish” is now expanded by this phrase, which describes in what way the king is foolish. Normally kings and other rulers depended on priests, prophets, and wise counselors to advise them on matters affecting the state. A king who will not take advice is one who does not consult these learned and experienced ones. There is, however, another possible translation for this text. The king may be one who “does not know how to take care of himself any longer.” nab suggests “who no longer knows caution.” These are less likely meanings than the more traditional one, so we shall follow the first possibility: the king “no longer listens to the advice of others.”

Suggested translations of verse 13 are:

•    A poor but wise youth is more commendable than an old but foolish king [or, ruler] who no longer accepts advice.

•    A youth who is poor but wise is more commendable than a ruler who is old but foolish, no longer accepting advice.

•    It is better to have a poor but wise young ruler than an old one who is foolish, who no longer listens to counsel.

Even though translates the Hebrew connective particle ki. It introduces the first of two conditional clauses that emphasize the point Qoheleth is arguing. Rather than presenting these as subordinate clauses, the translator may choose to express them in an independent form: “It makes no difference whether he came from prison to assume the throne or whether he had been born poor.”

He had gone from prison to the throne: this represents the first condition. Our most basic question is to determine who he points to, but we shall put it aside for the moment. Prison is a term with slight textual problems in Hebrew, but almost certainly it is from the root meaning “to bind.” nab gives a metaphorical meaning, seeing it as a reference to his mother’s womb, but there is no valid basis for this view. From prison the person concerned went to the throne as the rsv puts it, or “to rule” (nab). The original text uses a form of the root that is related to the notion of kingship, but that is not its only meaning. In Neh 5:7 it describes the activity of a royal advisor or counselor. In 10:16, 17, 20 Qoheleth uses the root in a nonroyal sense. So the term may describe a tribal elder or head of a community. This means that the person described here may not necessarily have been transferred from prison and made king, but rather he became a royal counselor. In the Old Testament Joseph was known for his wisdom and his subsequent role as counselor to the Pharaoh (see Gen 45:8). He was released from prison to take this position. Thus it is possible that the person behind Qoheleth’s example here is Joseph. In this case our translation will be affected; we shall have to change to the throne to “to become a royal advisor,” or “he became the one who gave advice to the king [ruler].”

We return to the question of the identity of he. Does it refer to the youth or the king? If our above interpretation is correct, namely, that the Joseph story is behind the example given, then he can only refer to the youth. He is more commendable than an old king, even if he had once been in prison, and had then risen to high office, and even if he always remained subject to the king. We can make this reference clear by rendering he as “that youth.”

A translation to be considered is “… even though that youth may have been released from prison [or, may have once been in prison] to become [or, then became] that king’s advisor.”

Or in his own kingdom had been born poor: the key word here is poor. The Hebrew term is used only six times outside the wisdom material of Proverbs and Qoheleth, and in three of those settings it describes David. In 1 Sam 18:23 David protests to Saul that he is too poor to be eligible to marry the king’s daughter. Thus there is reason to think that the David tradition lies behind the example cited. Our translation will not be greatly affected by this insight as the meaning of the text is quite clear. No matter how poor a youth may be, if he has wisdom he is superior in every way to an old foolish king, as David was with respect to Saul. This understanding differs from the jb text “who was born a beggar.” Poverty does not always mean that a person must beg. In most languages there are several ways of expressing the notion “poor.” The translator should take care to use an expression that fits in with the tone of the passage; in English, for example, it is more appropriate to say “poor” or “from humble beginnings” than to say “broke.”

Born comes from the same root as “young man” in the previous verse. Here is another case of a passive that may have to be rendered differently in some languages; for example, “Even though the ones who gave birth to him were poor” or “even though his family doesn’t have money” are possibilities.

The Hebrew construction in his own kingdom raises a small problem for the interpreter. Some versions take the first word in to be a preposition indicating location, while others take it to be a preposition indicating purpose, namely, “[in order] to rule.” The first seems the more likely. In his own kingdom may create problems for translators if there is no concept of kingship and kingdom, or of a ruler who holds absolute authority over a given territory. In those circumstances it may be necessary to use the more general term “in his own land.” Since there is a time lapse between when the young man is born and the time when he will rule, this clause may need to be expanded: “even though he was born poor in the land where he would [eventually] rule.” reb has “… in his future kingdom.”

Verses 13 and 14 may need to be reordered, as they are in tev. In languages that prefer conditions to be presented before conclusions, verses 13 and 14 can be combined and restructured. Something like the following can be acceptable (see also tev):

•    Even if a young man goes from prison to be a ruler, or is born poor in the kingdom where he will eventually rule, it is better to have a young ruler who is poor but wise, than one who is old and foolish, and who no longer listens to advice.

In other languages it may even be necessary to give the “better” clause first, then state the conditions, and then repeat the “better” statement:

•    It is better to have a poor but wise young ruler than one who is old and foolish, who no longer listens to advice. Even if the young ruler comes from prison to become king, or even if he is born poor in the kingdom he will eventually rule, it is better for him to rule than an old, foolish king.


The phrase I saw regularly marks the beginning of subdivisions in this book, so here we have a subdivision within the larger unit, verses 13–16. We note that Qoheleth is about to offer another of his observations.

I saw can be rendered “I noted” or “I observed,” as in 3:10; 4:4. This way attention is drawn to Qoheleth’s purpose in looking at the things and events around him.

All the living is a description that can include any living creature, human and animal (see neb/reb “all life”). The sense probably should be limited to human activity here, hence tev “all the people.”

Who move about under the sun further modifies the term “the living.” As these are not coordinate terms, there is no need to follow the jb view and translate “all who live and move.” The participial form “those who move about” pictures people coming and going; it does not mean that Qoheleth did not consider those who could not walk! Move about is thus a metaphor for the people going about their daily routine here on earth. What it indicates is that Qoheleth’s view was very broad, taking in all people and their daily affairs.

Under the sun: see comments on 1:3.

A suggested translation is “I observed everyone going about their daily lives” or “I observed everyone and what they did each day.”

As well as that youth, who was to stand in his place: we now come to two contrasts. The first is between the youth and all the living; the second is between his “standing” and their “moving about.” There is also a common concept, “under the sun” and “under it.” These literary features will influence our translation.

That youth is literally “the second youth.” For the most part commentaries and translators have assumed that the youth spoken of here is the same youth mentioned in verses 13–14. There is a certain basic problem with this view, however. First of all, the introductory “I saw” marks a new observation; secondly, the contrast is between a single youth and all humanity, not just a king as in the previous illustration. Therefore the numerical “second” is best rendered as “another,” or “yet another” as in neb, and not as “the heir apparent,” which is the nab suggestion.

Who was to stand in his place: for the most part, in his place is seen as a reference to the youth taking the place of the king mentioned above. jb goes much further and claims that the youth actually took the throne, but this seems to read far too much into the text. However, if the youth in this verse is contrasted with the whole of humanity, then it seems logical to assume that Qoheleth is referring to yet another, a third youth. The Hebrew preposition can be translated as “under” rather than “in place of.” This would mean that in his place is best rendered “under it,” in which case “it” refers to the sun. So this third youth does not replace the king on the throne, but he, like the rest of humanity, also stands “under the sun.” We can catch the sense by translating as follows: “as well as [or, I also saw] another youth standing there [under the sun].”

A suggested translation for the whole verse is:

•    I observed everyone going about their daily lives and I also saw another youth standing there.


As he continues his description of the third youth and of what he observed, Qoheleth appears now to elaborate on the theme of the vast number of people mentioned in verse 15.

There was no end of all the people: the phrase all the people refers back to “all the living” spoken of in verse 15. Of them Qoheleth says there was no end, indicating that the number was beyond measure. See tev “no limit to the number of people.” Translators should find an appropriate idiom to express this idea. Some languages will prefer to introduce an agent: “You [or, One] could not count the number of people.” Idiomatic expressions may be quite effective: “The people were many. You can’t say!” “There were more people than the hairs on a dog.”

He was over all of them suggests that the youth was superior to, or in a position above, everyone else. However, the Hebrew text says literally “to all who were before them.” The saying here amplifies all the people used in the previous clause, so to render it as “he was over all of them” is highly questionable. If the subject “all” refers to “all the people,” then we obviously need to identify who is indicated by the phrase all of them. We believe that them in verse 16 points back to the crowds of people mentioned in verse 15a. With regard to the preposition over, we note that the Hebrew text has “before them,” and that this may refer either to place (note nab “over whom he takes precedence”) or to time. On the grounds that “end” in the previous verse indicated time, we determine that we should here translate rsv over as “before.” Thus Qoheleth seems to indicate a time before that youth appeared.

Yet those who come later: following through with this time perspective, this phrase points to later generations, as in rsv, nab, and others. This gives a possible translation: “… those who were before him and those who came after.”

Will not rejoice in him: the verb rejoice expresses pleasure at what another person does or accomplishes, and here its negative form suggests that public recognition was not given to that young man. nab uses the verb “not applaud” to indicate this lack of popular acceptance. The object of the verb, him, must be defined or made clear, and the context indicates that the “youth” of verse 15 is the one in mind. reb suggests “He … will give no joy to those who.…” However, it seems more appropriate to view the verb as indicating the lack of appreciation that people have for the young man, rather than whether or not he made them feel happy.

It is obvious that this is a very difficult verse for the interpreter and for the translator because the sentence structure in Hebrew is unclear. We have argued above for a particular interpretation, recognizing that it may differ from many of the traditional translations. We believe, however, that it accurately represents the Hebrew meaning, taking into account more of the evidence, and so commend it to translators.

The following possibilities are offered for translation:

•    There was an endless parade of people; those who were before him and those who came after; not one of them appreciated what that youth did.

•    [I saw] a vast crowd of people; former generations and generations yet to come, there was nobody who appreciated that youth.

Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind: in view of what Qoheleth has noticed about the failure of the community to acknowledge the significance of youth, this response is understandable. This is a situation beyond comprehension; it is hevel. For translation of this phrase see notes on 1:14.

The Wise Person and Worship 5:1–7 [4:16–5:6]

The verse numbering of rsv and many other translations differs from that of the Hebrew text throughout chapter 5. Chapter 4 in Hebrew contains 17 verses, so rsv 5:1 is Hebrew 4:1–7, and for the rest of chapter 5 the rsv verse numbers are greater by 1 than the Hebrew verse numbers. The Hebrew numbering system is printed in square brackets for the benefit of those who need this information. While the rsv numbering fits the natural structure of the text, some translators may need to include the Hebrew system if it is important to relate their translation to an existing version that is generally in use in their area.

As is often the case in Hebrew discourse, this section begins and ends on the same theme. Qoheleth begins with advice on “guarding your steps when coming into God’s presence” and ends with the call to “fear” or respect God. Four admonitions or negative imperatives are featured (5:1, 2, 4, 6), with verses 2 and 6–7 having two imperatives each. Each admonition is provided with an explanation in a clause that follows (5:1c, 2b, 4b, 7). The main point is expressed again in positive imperative form for emphasis in verses 2 and 4. There are also two “better” sayings in verses 1b and 5, and two proverb-like statements in verses 3 and 7a.

Many versions treat verses 1–7 as a single paragraph (tev, neb/reb, njv). Alternatively each imperative with its accompanying comments can constitute a separate paragraph (at verses 1, 2, 4, and 6).

Frequent mention of the fool and foolish conduct demonstrates that Qoheleth’s purpose is to have people avoid the kinds of mistakes that foolish people are likely to make. Vocabulary relating to speaking is also obvious, so we can sense that Qoheleth is particularly concerned with the way in which people’s words can get them into trouble. Throughout this subsection the background issue is worship, so speech here relates in particular to the kinds of things we say when we join in worship.

Section Heading: the subsection requires a section heading to mark its peculiar topic. tev “Don’t make rash promises,” is much wider or general than the context requires. The section heading should reflect the context of worship, so “Rash promises to God,” or imperative forms such as “Keep your promises to God” or “Fulfill your vows to God” are possible models.



Guard your steps, literally “Keep your foot,” is the first of four imperatives in this section. Guard has the basic meaning of preservation, of looking after something; it is the verb used in commands to “keep the Law” and “keep the sabbath day” (Deut 4:40; 5:12). From this basic concept comes the extended meaning “to be cautious or careful,” as in Pro 21:23: “He who keeps his mouth and his tongue.” It calls a person to think carefully before acting, as neb “Go carefully” expresses.

Your steps renders the Hebrew “your feet” or “your foot.” There is some textual evidence for a plural form here. The word is used with a figurative sense, so whether it is singular or plural, the meaning is not affected. Qoheleth uses the word “foot” to talk about the way a person behaves, so we can render it as “the way you act” or “what you do.” “Foot” is used in this same sense of personal conduct in Pro 1:15–16. If a similar idiom exists in the translator’s language, this is, of course, the best choice. But we should be wary of translating literally, as some have done. “Guard your feet” does not mean “walk softly” or “don’t make any noise when you walk.”

For translation of the first part of the verse, we recommend:

•    Be careful when you.…

Or better yet,

•    Think carefully about what you are doing when.…

When you go to the house of God: the Hebrew here employs a verb form with habitual meaning, that is, it refers to an action that is repeated regularly. This can be effectively expressed as “whenever you go” or “each time you go.” The house of God has often been interpreted as a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem (as in tev) or as a synagogue. Both are possible. Alternatively we can retain the generalized expression and see it as referring to any sacred location where people meet for worship. Qoheleth’s advice is not confined to those times when people attend worship services at a particular site, but applies whenever a worshiper approaches God. In translation we convey this by something like “whenever you come before God” (jb, tob), “whenever you come into God’s presence” (Knox), or “when you go to worship God.”

To draw near to listen introduces the first “better” saying. The clause consists of two infinitives. The first, draw near, describes the action of coming into the divine presence. It is a technical word and its meaning can be made clear by mentioning the object of the verb “draw near to God.” The second infinitive indicates the purpose for, or the result of, approaching God. rsv renders this as to listen. This translation is not adequate, as the verb includes the notion of obedience; it is much more than simply listening to what a person says. It requires a response to what is heard. tev “learn” is perhaps too intellectual, so the term “obey” is to be preferred. See nab, neb “obedience.” This gives a possible translation, “Draw near to God by responding to what he says,” or “Come to God ready to obey him.”

Is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools: the second part of the “better” saying describes what we should not do, the kind of behavior that must be avoided. To offer the sacrifice of fools raises some problems. Who is offering the sacrifice? And what does the phrase sacrifice of fools mean? Looking back in the context we see that “you” is the subject to be understood for the verbs “offer” and “give.” In other words “it is better for you to draw near, ready to obey, than for you to offer.…” If the phrase sacrifice of fools is taken to be the object of the verb “give,” then its meaning is most likely “the kind of sacrifice that fools give.” The context suggests that the kind of sacrifice fools offer is a sacrifice that does not demand obedience. Fools think all they need to do is offer something and all will be well. Another possibility is that they do not even think about the true meaning of sacrifice; they simply follow the ritual. Qoheleth certainly does not suggest that only fools offer sacrifice, and we have no grounds for arguing that he opposes the practice of offering sacrifices. Our translation must make clear that Qoheleth advises against those sacrifices that are foolishly offered, meaning that there is something wrong with them for some reason or another. Such defective offerings cannot have the desired effect, and perhaps are even offensive to God. A person who sacrifices in this way is a fool. Only the wise person comes before God with the proper attitude, namely, intending to obey.

To translate these ideas, the following examples may be considered:

•    When you approach God it should be to hear and respond [or, to obey him], not to offer the kind of sacrifice that fools give.

•    When you enter God’s presence, come ready to obey him. This way you will avoid making the kind of sacrifice fools offer.

•    Approach God in humble obedience. This is better than simply offering a sacrifice without thinking what it means, as fools do.

•    When you come before God, be ready to listen and obey. This is better than doing what fools do, not taking care to obey God.

For they do not know that they are doing evil: this rsv rendering reflects a widely-held view of this clause’s meaning (see Amos 3:10 for similar grammatical structure and translation). However, if we look at its literal meaning, we find that there are other possible senses. The text runs “for they do not know to do evil.” Two words hold the key to our understanding: the first is the infinitive “to do”; the second is the word translated “evil.”

The infinitive “to do,” as the object of the verb “know,” clarifies what it is that they do not know. rsv, tob, mft, and scholars like Barton translate it as “they know nothing other than how to do evil.” So also nab “they know not how to keep from doing evil.” Others, for example Delitzsch, suggest that they do not know what they are doing, so (as a result) “they do evil.” The neb offers another view. It suggests “they sin without a thought,” while Gordis thinks it means that as they lack intelligence, “they do not know how to do evil.” This view accords with Amos 3:10, but it is hardly consistent with Qoheleth’s views. Our understanding here is that doing evil is the object of the verbal phrase do not know, and that the appropriate translation is “they do not know that they are doing evil.”

The second element in our interpretation is the term , evil. The majority of uses of this adjective (as distinct from the form rashà) in Qoheleth carry the idea of something disastrous and painful, not of moral failure and evil. Therefore the fool here is not doing something morally outrageous but something stupid. For this reason we reject the tev rendering, which treats the fool as having failed morally.

The translation models we suggest are:

•    for they [or, fools] do not know that they are doing something stupid.

•    for the fool is not aware of how dangerous that is.

•    because fools are not aware of the evil they have done.

An overall model for this verse may be:

•    Think carefully about what you are doing when you come before God. Be ready to listen and obey him. This is better than offering the kind of sacrifice fools do. They do not even know they are doing something foolish.



h Ch 5:1 in Heb

The structure of this verse is quite intricate, resulting in a rhythmic, poetic text. It is made up of two sets of sayings. The first is a chiastic (or X-) structure followed by a complementary phrase:


The second set is shorter but is made up of two balanced statements followed by a comment:

For God in heaven


you on earth


therefore let your words be few.


Note that the first set ends with God, while the second set begins with the same word, providing a close link between the two sets. Translating passages like these with intricate poetic arrangements is a challenge. Some translations such as niv and tob show the poetic nature of these lines by retaining a rather literal translation and using poetic indentation. The chiastic structure of the first set may or may not be appreciated in other languages (see below for a more detailed discussion). However, the rhythm of the second section should be easy enough to maintain in the translation.

Be not rash with your mouth: the Hebrew idiom warns people against saying things they may not mean, or that they would not say if they took more time thinking about the matter. Qoheleth’s words come as a warning against doing the same as the fool. Rash translates the Hebrew verb “hasten,” reflecting a late Hebrew sense. Its intensive form in Hebrew gives it an even stronger force. With your mouth, or “concerning” your mouth, is part of the idiom, and like “tongue” in Psa 15:3 or “lips” in Pro 16:10, mouth symbolizes what is spoken. Although mouth can also be a figure of speech for what a person eats, the fuller context of this passage makes only one sense possible, namely, talking. For translation “Don’t speak rashly,” “Be careful about what you say,” and “Think before you speak” (tev) are some possibilities.

Nor let your heart be hasty parallels the opening imperative. As noted above, the Hebrew uses a chiastic form to express this thought. In Hebrew this structure is often used to emphasize an important point. But translators do not need to follow this form unless it can effectively stress the idea in the same manner as the original. Your heart describes a person’s mind, will, or intention. In the present setting it is used to portray the thought process leading to what a person says. Abstract terms like “will” or “intention” may not suit certain languages, so a concrete term like heart or “mind” may be adequate to indicate the thought process. Hasty is also an intensive verb form in Hebrew, indicating the speed at which a person decides to do something. Qoheleth cautions against being too quick to make certain decisions, and so he criticizes any plan not sufficiently thought out. Plans and commitments should not be rushed and ill-considered (see also Pro 20:25).

These first two lines of verse 2 exhibit a certain type of parallelism frequently found in Hebrew. The second line “spells out” or intensifies the first. In the first clause the subject is haste in speaking. In the second clause these ideas are expressed more fully: thinking in the heart leads up to speaking. Some languages appreciate this kind of repetitive build-up, while in others it may be preferable to combine the two: “Think carefully before you …” or “Weigh your words in your heart [or, mind] before you.…” Other translation possibilities are “Slow down and think carefully” or “Think carefully about what you will do.”

Both the previous imperatives are given a more precise meaning by the following phrase, to utter a word before God. The phrase “house of God” from the earlier part of the verse and before God in this phrase remind us that we have not left behind the context of worship with which this subsection is primarily concerned. So before God means “in God’s presence” or “in God’s hearing.” The term davar almost certainly carries the meaning word here, but we should not overlook its other possible application describing the “matter” that a worshiper may wish to bring before God. It is also possible to anticipate the narrower focus of the next verses and translate word as “vow,” or “promise.”

To utter is an infinitive construction and may often be retained in that form. Alternatively its meaning can also be given as “whenever you bring” a matter (or, word) before God.

For God is in heaven, and you upon earth: here Qoheleth offers the reason for his warning. Although Israel at times spoke of God as dwelling in the Temple or Tent of Meeting, for the most part the Old Testament sees God as resident in the heavenly places. And it is self-evident that human beings reside on earth. Qoheleth uses this form of expression to remind (rather than teach) his hearers that there is a fundamental difference between God and people, and that such difference must affect the way we relate to God. We should not try to treat God in the same manner we treat our fellow human beings. Many scholars suggest Qoheleth is stating that God is so far above us, he is untouched by human concerns (Barton), or even that he is a heavenly despot (Lauha), but this is reading far too much into the text. A rendering like “Remember, God is in heaven and you are on earth” is appropriate.

Translators can choose a less concrete expression like “God is divine and you are human,” or follow the rsv and tev models.

In some languages contrastive statements of this type may incorporate an emphatic pronoun: “God is in heaven, and you, you are on the earth, … therefore.…”

Therefore let your words be few: the particle therefore connects this new imperative to the previous statement; it is the conclusion drawn from that previous statement. The translator should look for an equivalent conjunction or discourse marker to signal this point: “so then” or “because of this.” As a positive command, it basically repeats what was expressed as a negative command at the beginning of the verse. So speaking few words here means much the same as not being rash in what you say. Let your words be few can mean what the obvious sense indicates, namely, a small number of utterances. It can also mean cautious speech, things said only after considerable reflection. In the wisdom setting it is highly likely that this latter is what Qoheleth means (see Pro 10:19). But there is the additional fact that in the present context Qoheleth is commenting about words spoken in God’s presence in prayer or promise.

Models for translation are:

•    So don’t promise more than you can fulfill.

•    Think carefully or you may promise too much.

•    So, then, measure [or, weigh] your words [in his presence].



This saying has all the features of a quotation, which Qoheleth uses to support the imperatives of verses 1–2. Verse 2 asserts that our words should be few. There is an element of contrast between the wise person and the fool who talks too much. A parallel structure is another feature of this verse: dream and fool’s voice balance each other, as do the adverbial phrases using much and many.

For a dream comes with much business: it is hard to see how this clause relates to the rest of the passage and its theme of worship (verses 1–7). If, however, Qoheleth is quoting a well-known proverb, it is probable that this line is part of that proverb. It’s function is to set the pattern for his own message in the second line. A similar example occurs in 10:1, where the first line introduces Qoheleth’s own thought in the second line.

A dream may come in the form of a vision while a person is asleep, or it may be a daytime activity as our thoughts wander. It can also signal our hopes or longings for the future. Which of these does Qoheleth have in mind? If the first line is a proverb providing the model for the second line, then dream has a negative sense. tev is then correct to say “bad dreams.”

Business: see comments at 3:9. It has the sense here of work with effort rather than a commercial sense. A word like “worry” seems an appropriate way to think of it. nrsv suggests “many cares.”

And a fool’s voice with many words: the phrase a fool’s voice has a broader sense than the mere sound of his voice. It includes all that he says. Many words will refer to the great amount of talking that a fool often does, as well as the sense that it is not worth listening to. By adding the adjective “empty” we can convey Qoheleth’s idea adequately: “what a fool says is all empty chatter.” neb is correctly neutral with its rendering “the fool talks and it is so much chatter.”

Translators should make sure that these two lines demonstrate this verse’s parallel thought and structure. “Much” and “many” are common to both lines. For example:

•    As dreams go hand-in-hand with many cares,

So does foolish talk with many words.

•    You worry too much, you dream bad dreams.

You speak too much, you speak foolishness.

•    With many cares, you have nightmares.

With many words, you speak foolishness.



This warning, which calls for care when making a vow, is less general than the first admonition about careful speech. The entire verse has as its background the teaching of Deut 23:21–23, which can be referred to for a better understanding of the issue Qoheleth is dealing with.

When you vow a vow to God: the introductory adverb When is better given as “Whenever,” as this is the force of the so-called relative pronoun with the imperfect verb. A vow is a promise made to God; but a vow is more serious than a promise, because a vow generally involved taking an oath. In the Old Testament vows were of various kinds. For example, a person could make a vow as part of a “bargain” with God, as Jephthah did in Judges 11:30–31; he promised to sacrifice whatever came out of his house to meet him when he returned home, if God would give him victory over Israel’s enemies. A person could make a vow to demonstrate faith and devotion (see Psa 22:25, where it is parallel to “praise”). The nazirite vow (Numbers 6) was in this category also. Usually the vow was accompanied by some outward sign, or a ceremony at which a sworn oath was taken. The importance of the oath will appear later in our discussion of verse 5.

Vow a vow is a literal translation of the Hebrew and this may simply be reduced to “make a vow.” “Make a [solemn] promise to God” may be acceptable as a translation in some languages, while in others there may be a standard idiomatic expression, such as “swear and say” or “put mouth.” However, there are many situations where a language has only one word, “speak,” which does duty for making promises and vows. In such cases perhaps we can say “When you tell God you will do something, then.…”

Do not delay paying it: the principle set out in Deuteronomy 23 and followed by Qoheleth is that any vow made must be fulfilled. Do not delay is a phrase that is somewhat ironic, because in the previous verse hastiness was linked with the fool’s behavior. This reminds us that speed is not always a negative thing. When one makes a vow caution is called for, but once it is made, fulfilling the vow becomes the more important thing. When Qoheleth here says do not delay, he is really saying “do not postpone fulfillment for any reason” or “do not look for excuses not to complete the vow once you have said what you will do.” The emphasis is primarily on fulfilling the vow, not on the speed at which it is completed. Unfortunately this latter sense is stressed in tev, “keep it as quickly as possible.” Paying it in Hebrew is the verb “complete” and does not refer to the payment of money or other material objects. The Hebrew verb “complete” demonstrates that making the vow is only the first part of the process; carrying through with what was promised completes the vow and gives it its worth.

Translators may consider the following models:

•    Whenever you make a vow to God, make sure you complete it.

•    When you make a vow before God, do not let anything prevent you from completing it.

•    When you tell God you will certainly do something, then make sure you do so.

For he has no pleasure in fools: Deuteronomy 23 takes the view that failure to complete a vow is sin. In that legal setting, sanctions or punishments are applied if a person fails to keep a vow. In Qoheleth there is an equally serious attitude to the vow, but the emphasis differs because Qoheleth is a wise man and not a priest charged with supervising vows. For shows us that what follows is Qoheleth’s reason for calling a person to fulfill a vow. Though there is no pronoun in the Hebrew, rsv inserts he, which refers to God. God, then, has no pleasure in fools. The keyword is pleasure, but we note immediately that it is not the same Hebrew term as that used earlier in discussions of pleasure-seeking in 2:1. Here the word used is “will” or “good pleasure,” so Qoheleth is making the claim that failure to fulfill vows is contrary to God’s will. Furthermore, only a fool would oppose that will. Fools here includes not only the foolish person but what that person does, or fails to do. So our translation should aim to convey the sense that failure to fulfill a vow is a foolish disregard of what God wants. Avoid something like jb “God has no love for fools,” because it can mislead readers into thinking that Qoheleth is saying that God’s love is reserved for the wise and good.

Translation can be as follows:

•    For God is not pleased if a fool fails to fulfill a vow.

•    For when a fool fails to fulfill a vow it is contrary to God’s will.

More generally we can say:

•    God is not pleased with foolish behavior.

Pay what you vow is a clear call to carry through what you have promised to do. As a positive call following the warning not to delay fulfillment, it parallels the same form as verse 2. We can render it as “Do as you have vowed to do” or “Fulfill the vow you made.” Many languages will prefer to put the object clause at the beginning as the Hebrew does: “What you have vowed [to God], do it.”



As with other “better” sayings, Qoheleth gives two alternatives: the first is what he commends and the second is what he advises against. The advice offered is the same as we find in Deut 23:23. It is not a sin if we do not make a vow; the problem arises when a vow made is not fulfilled. The unique feature here is that Qoheleth uses one of his “better” sayings to pass on this advice. The person addressed is the person who is studying to be wise. To such people Qoheleth says “In matters of worship you can avoid problems if you are faithful to your commitments. If there is any doubt about your ability to fulfill a vow, then be wise and do not make the vow.”

In Hebrew this statement is addressed to you, but in some languages a different pronoun may be required. Or an impersonal statement with simple infinitives may be preferred, such as “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.” It is also possible for the “better” saying to be placed in the middle of the sentence rather than at the beginning: “not to make a vow is better than making one and not completing it.” Even an imperative can be used: “Be like the wise person and do not make a vow, rather than like the fool who makes a vow and cannot fulfill it.”

Sometimes comparison statements with emphatic particles such as the English “at all” are a natural way to express this idea. These may be added since they only reinforce the meaning: “If you cannot fulfill the vow you make, then don’t make the vow at all. This is the wise thing to do.”



Here we meet the third imperative of this subsection. The theme is careless speech, which can lead to problems in our relationship with God. We keep in mind the background from Deuteronomy 23.

Let not your mouth lead you into sin: mouth has the same meaning as in verse 2, that is, it represents all the things we might say. The Hebrew is literally “Do not allow your mouth to cause your body to sin.” Sin is the general word found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but in this context it has the meaning of saying something false or promising something that we fail to honor. For this reason the imperative here is not very different from that of verse 2.

Certain languages may require a more literal translation: “Don’t let the words of your mouth get you into trouble”; others may require a more general one: “Do not let what you say [or, vow] lead you to offend God” or “Do not let your words get you into trouble.”

And do not say … that it was a mistake: this imperative is essentially parallel with the previous one. Although the structure of the sentence suggests otherwise, it would be more logical if this were a result clause indicating what would happen if a person’s words caused such trouble. This is the tev position. Do not say does not mean that we should never admit to making a mistake; it warns us to do everything possible to avoid having to confess “I was wrong!” In translation we can preserve this imperative form if we use the verb “avoid”; for example, “Avoid having to say … I made a mistake!” We can also say “Don’t end up having to say … I was wrong to make that vow.” Alternatively we can use a result clause like “and then you will not need to confess …” or tev “so that you have to tell.…”

Before the messenger is a problem text. Some versions read “before God,” but there is more evidence in favor of “messenger.” If that is correct, we have two possible translations, “messenger” and “angel.” Messenger is a term used in the Old Testament to describe a king’s envoys as well as God’s messengers, the angels. In a setting of worship it is generally the priest who administers the taking of vows, so the word “messenger” almost certainly refers to the priest, as tev states (“God’s priest”). The jb footnote agrees. In Mal 2:7 the priest is called a “messenger.” Thus if a person confesses to failing to keep a vow, such confession would have to be made to the priest. The tev model is a good one to follow.

Whether any translation should include footnotes or not will depend on the audience for whom the translation is intended. Since the Hebrew text causes many difficulties here, it is recommended that translators choose the more appropriate interpretation. In this case the messenger is the “priest.” Then a footnote is needed informing the reader that the text reads “messenger,” a term that some under stand to mean “angel,” or even “God himself.”

Mistake translates a term found frequently in the priestly material of Leviticus (4:22, 27) and Numbers (15:22). It refers to mistakes made unintentionally. These are the only ones the priest is authorized to forgive. At this point we see how familiar Qoheleth is with the work and function of a priest. A fool who makes vows that he cannot fulfill faces the embarrassing situation of having to tell the priest that he can no longer keep it. tev “you didn’t mean it” is vague and can mean that the person didn’t mean to make the vow originally. This is surely not correct. The mistake was in making the vow in the first instance and then not fulfilling it. Forgiveness is possible, but it is an embarrassment to have to ask for it.

Translators can consider the following examples:

•    Avoid having to confess to the priest that it was a mistake to make the vow [in the first place].

•    Avoid having to tell the priest that you can no longer keep the vow you made.

•    How foolish it would be to have to say to the priest, “I made a mistake in taking this vow.”

Why should God be angry at your voice? Once again voice carries the sense of what a person says, or it can even refer to the person speaking. Qoheleth uses a rhetorical question to emphasize his point. The question form challenges the reader to think about the consequences of such failure. Behind this question lies the thought that the person will suffer in some fashion because God is angered by the person’s failure to keep the vow made.

Why should God be angry? This can be understood literally, “God gets angry when people fail,” but this ignores the setting in which vows are made. A person generally took an oath asking to be punished by God if the vow could not be fulfilled. We have a good example of this in 1 Kgs 20:10, when Benhadad swears with the words “May the gods do so to me, and more also if.…” So Qoheleth is saying that, when a person makes a vow and fails to keep it, the punishment called down at the time the vow was taken will be fulfilled.

And destroy the work of your hands: the actual form of the punishment called for in this case is not known, but Qoheleth suggests that it will be the destruction of all the person does. The expression here is very general, and that should be preserved in translation. Thus the question of whether it refers to everything a person has already done, or will do in the future, cannot be answered. The phrase work of your hands reminds us of the frequent use of the verb “do, work” in places like 2:4, 11. It is a phrase describing everything a person does, with hands representing the whole person. So Qoheleth claims that failing to fulfill a vow will result in God frustrating everything the person does. Only fools would expose themselves to that risk. So here we have a warning to the wise: “Only vow what you know you can fulfill; otherwise you face the consequence of the oath you take, and you will suffer for it.”

A first suggestion for translation is:

•    Why give God cause to be angry because of what you promised [or, your oath]? Why put at risk all you have done?

As is usually the case, the rhetorical question Why … hands? can be translated in statement. A negative imperative form will preserve the question’s meaning:

•    Don’t let God become angry with you and destroy everything you do just because you didn’t keep the vow you made.

•    Don’t cause God to be angry with you for not keeping your vow. He could destroy everything you do.



This verse is extremely difficult for interpreters and translators alike. The first part of the verse consists of a number of nouns and noun phrases that show a clear link to verse 3, but whose relationship to each other and to the rest of the verse is unclear.

Before examining the different parts of the verse, we need to determine the role of this verse in this section. This is the final verse of a passage dealing with how to worship God. In 5:1–7 Qoheleth gives advice on how to enter God’s presence and how to make and carry out vows. He contrasts two sorts of behavior. The fool is quick to make promises that he cannot carry out. The wise person, on the other hand, thinks before he speaks and is quick to carry out his promises. This verse gives his final advice: [you] fear God!

For when dreams increase, empty words grow many: as noted above, this verse opens with a cluster of nouns and noun phrases that do not make much sense. The text says literally “in a multitude of dreams and hevel [plural] and many words.” rsv has rendered two of the noun phrases as verbal expressions: when dreams increase … words grow many. rsv has also taken hevel as an adjective describing words, giving empty words.

We note three words that reappear from verse 3: dreams, words, and many. At least two versions, neb and nab, have omitted this whole line, retaining only the second part, presumably because it is a repetition of verse 3. There is no textual basis for this omission, however. It is quite likely that Qoheleth is purposely repeating words from this section to emphasize his conclusion.

For as an introductory particle (ki) can point to a clause that expresses the motive for action, or it can serve as an emphatic “Indeed.” In view of the independence of the verse, we assume that we should render the particle as “Indeed.” Only if the verse provided a clear motive for the previous argument should we translate the opening particle as For.

When dreams increase, empty words grow many: rather than taking many as a verb, it is acceptable to translate “many dreams … many words.” As for hevel we have already seen that this word usually refers to a mystery, an ironic or frustrating situation, or something that is difficult to understand. Rather than translating it as empty, we prefer to speak of “ironies,” “enigmas,” or “questions.” For translation of the first part of the verse, then, we can say “Indeed, there are many dreams, ironies, and words.…”

Next we need to determine how these words relate to the rest of the verse. If we consider the context of this passage, we see that we are dealing with worship, especially the fool’s behavior as he makes vows to God. Is this string of words part of a proverb Qoheleth is quoting? Or is he merely referring back to expressions he used in verse 3 and elsewhere? Whichever is the case, the translator is free to supply the context for these nouns and noun phrases by saying something like “Indeed, for the fool, vows are nothing more than so many dreams, questions, and words.…”

But do you fear God: the initial ki introduces the contrast, pointing to what the wise person should do in opposition to the fool’s dreams and empty promises. That contrast is best shown by the conjunction but, not by something like jb “Therefore.” Do you fear God is an imperative calling the reader to demonstrate wisdom by giving honor to God. The rsv do you fear is no longer standard English; today we would normally say “you should …” or “you must …” (tev). Here, you can only refer to the person who is wise, so that can be made clear in translation. The relationship between honoring God and wisdom is clear from Pro 1:7, which describes honoring God as the first step toward being wise. Fear, when used of a person’s attitude to God, is a deep respect reflecting awe of what is sacred. It must always be expressed by appropriate conduct. Here the unspoken meaning is that vows should be fulfilled, or not made at all when they cannot be completed; otherwise God is not honored. We should avoid using a term for fear that has the sense of being afraid. Terms like “respect,” “honor,” or “worship” are acceptable.

Some texts replace God with the pronoun “you,” but no such change is called for.

With this final verse Qoheleth concludes his argument, again highlighting the wide gap between the fool and the wise person. The fool contents himself with dreams and many words. The wise person fears God.

Possibilities for translation are:

•    Indeed for the fool, vows are only like dreams, enigmas, and words; but you, the wise, must show honor toward God.

•    There are so many dreams, mysteries, and words, but [when you make a vow] you should respect God.

•    Though dreams, mysteries, and words are many, you on the other hand should respect God.

Oppression and Justice 5:8–9 [5:7–8]

These two verses present considerable difficulties to both interpreter and translator. It is very likely that we shall never be fully clear about their meaning, but we must still attempt to understand and convey their meaning as best we can.

One thing is clear: the subject matter relates to injustice, a theme that catches Qoheleth’s interest on several occasions. This switch in subject matter, leaving behind the religious setting, and stylistic features that do not match those of the previous section, demonstrate that this is a new subsection. We should mark it by a new section heading.

Section Heading: the tev section heading is “Life is Useless.” It includes all material from verse 8 to the end of chapter 6, but as a summary of the content of that material it is not very appropriate. Our suggestion is that a section heading be used to describe only verses 8–9. Possible headings then are “More injustice,” “Oppression and injustice,” “Power and corruption,” or “The abuse of power.”



If you see: the initial If indicates a potential condition. This condition is followed by a conclusion suggesting how a wise person should respond, in this case using the imperative do not be amazed. Thus we can identify two major elements of the verse. In addition there is a clause justifying the advice offered. It is identified by the particle for. On see and its significance in Qoheleth, refer to comments in 1:14; 3:10. Here, however, it is the reader who might see or notice this example.

In many languages there is a distinction made between real conditions and ones that could never happen. Here we are dealing with a real condition. We can render the sense in English with “Whenever you …” or “When you see.…”

In a province uses a rare term borrowed from Aramaic. This term is considered part of the evidence for a late dating of Qoheleth. Province is a noun from a root related to judgment, so it describes an area of jurisdiction, a legislative district. However, the term here probably has only the general meaning of a region or area. nab “in any realm” may be too high-level a term, so “in any district” or “in any region” is appropriate.

tev has chosen to use a more personal phrase, “the government.” This translation is acceptable, but in practice it may not be the government who is doing the oppressing; rather it is probably some local official. “Local officials” will be more acceptable as a translation than “government.”

The poor oppressed and justice and right violently taken away: the condition outlined is one in which the poor are oppressed. Who are these poor? This word, which also occurs in 4:14, is found throughout Wisdom literature, but only rarely in other Old Testament material. Almost certainly it describes a social class of people who are not only poor in financial and material things, but who have no power in that society. Therefore they are dependent upon others for their basic livelihood. We have already discussed “oppression” in 4:1. It refers to taking advantage of another person for your own profit. Here the root occurs as a participle describing the person who oppresses others; so the passive form of rsv can be turned to an active one following the Hebrew, if that is preferred in the translator’s language. This is what tev does: “… oppresses the poor.…” Another way of expressing the idea of oppression is to use a phrase like “make suffer”; we can also use an idiom like “eating the eyes of the poor.”

Justice and right violently taken away explains further the content of the word “oppression” as used here. The manner in which the oppressors take away what belongs to others is described as violently. It is derived from a root meaning “to rob, plunder,” and so is aptly translated violently. This root occurs also together with the term “oppression” in Psa 62:10, where the author complains about how his enemies have treated him. Justice refers to the even-handed and proper application of the law. Right points to the requirements of the law. In the situation to which Qoheleth is referring, these are either not applied, or are applied very unfairly, against those who have no power in society. The word pair justice and right appears often in the writings of the prophets when they criticize Israel (see Amos 5:7). The same terms can be used to render the pair in both places. The passive taken away may also be expressed as active, if oppressed has been handled this way.

Some translation suggestions are:

•    If you see the poor being oppressed, being denied justice and lawful treatment in your land.…

•    When you find poor people anywhere being oppressed and not being treated justly and fairly.…

Do not be amazed at the matter: the primary verb or the focus for this verse is “amaze.” To mark its importance tev brings it to the beginning of the verse: “Don’t be amazed whenever you see the poor.…” Translators may find this a preferable order. Qoheleth uses an imperative, but its sense is more like “It should not surprise you.” Translators can use a form like this or preserve the imperative. nab “Don’t be shocked” reflects the sense of the verb. It pictures a person being struck dumb, being made speechless and unable to respond to a situation. Matter in verse 4 is translated as “pleasure,” meaning “will” or “intention.” Something like “state of affairs” gets close to its meaning in this context. The Jewish writing known as the Mishnah uses the term in this manner. Some versions (tev and jb) do not bother to translate the phrase at the matter, considering it redundant. Others suggest “by the fact” (nab) or “at what goes on” (neb).

For the high official is watched by a higher: for begins the clause that gives the explanation for the advice, and it can be rendered as “because” or “since.” In some situations translators may find that the connection is obvious and that an introductory particle is not necessary. This is how tev handles it.

However, this clause marks where our major problems with this verse begin. Generally speaking, translators have understood this part of the verse to describe deep corruption among leaders of the community. One official preys on another, with the more senior being more greedy. Some examples will demonstrate the point:


“Every official is protected by the one over him”


“It is one official preying on another”


“the high official has another higher than he watching him;”


“every high official has a higher one set over him;”


“You will be told that officials are under the supervision of supervisors.”

From the point of view of the text, the keyword is high, but whether it means literally “high,” or “exalted” as in Job 36:7, or even “haughty” as in Pro 18:12, depends on which interpretation we prefer. The above translation examples indicate that in this context most think of it as identifying a high social position. However, high social position can also be conveyed in Hebrew by other adjectives such as “great” or “big.”

The structure of the opening phrase of this clause is difficult. It is literally “high than above high,” and the above examples show what possibilities this offers for translation. That phrase is followed by the participle “one who keeps.” What does this person keep? This chapter began with a warning about keeping or guarding yourself, with the sense of “being careful.” Here that same verb is translated watched. It may convey the idea of protection, and tev “protected” is obviously similar. But it can also mean simply “to guard” in the sense of “being responsible for.” Both versions understand the object of “keeping” to be those lower than themselves, either officials or general public. Another possibility is that “keeper” refers to someone who, unlike the oppressor, actually preserves justice and keeps the law. Such a person may then be seen as “more exalted.” In these alternatives we have not at all exhausted the possibilities for interpretation and translation. It is very difficult, therefore, to fix a meaning and suggest a translation.

And there are yet higher ones over them: the plural form (rsv yet higher ones) may be a way of expressing the superlative. Alternatively the words of the Hebrew text can be divided differently, giving “… high one [watching] over them,” which is parallel to the wording of the previous phrase. This can then mean that the exalted members of the community are those who will preserve justice rather than pervert it. In the words of tev they will “protect” the poorer members of the society.

A wide variety of interpretations and translations are available for this verse. It may describe widespread corruption. On the other hand it can be saying that above every corrupt official who oppresses others there are those who uphold the law, and for that reason the poor should not be shocked into blind acceptance of this terrible situation.

What can we do with such a problem text? One course of action is to retain the more traditional interpretation on the grounds that it has a longer church tradition to support it. However, we can argue that if something is inaccurate, we should be willing to change that accepted view. Another course is to accept that several meanings are possible, and to test which of them may be more consistent with Qoheleth’s overall views. In this case we can determine that elsewhere (3:16; 4:13–16 for instance), when Qoheleth talks about poor people, he usually contrasts them with unscrupulous or foolish leaders and people. He also frequently gives the impression that injustice is deeply rooted in society, and that people seem to accept that fact. For these reasons we accept that the overall interpretation of the verse should be the more negative one. Translators are therefore advised to follow the tev model or to take up one of the following suggestions:

•    … there are various people who have authority, and each one is under the protection of a higher one.

•    one big official protects another, and an even bigger one protects him.

In cases like this, where the original Hebrew text is such a problem, a footnote may be required. It should make clear that the translation given is based on a Hebrew text whose meaning is obscure (note the tev footnote to verse 9), and that the translation offered is only a guess based on the best available information. Alternative translations may also be set out in the footnote.



There are overwhelming problems in this verse, and one of the most difficult of them is determining the relationship between this verse and the previous one. The rsv rendering inevitably leads us to ask “What if the land does not have cultivated fields?”

In its footnote the rsv offers a more literal translation that is close to the Hebrew. We have to admit honestly that we do not know what this text means, so a footnote like that of tev or nab is necessary. The text is so unclear it is obvious that there are many possible translations. Some examples follow:

mft. “After all, a country prospers with a king who has control.”

Knox “The king of the whole earth rules it as his dominion.”

jb “You will hear talk of the service of the king.”

tev “Even a king depends on the harvest.”

neb “The best thing for a country is a king whose own lands are well tilled.”

nab “Yet an advantage for a country in every respect is a king for the arable land.”

But in all is an introductory phrase in rsv, though the Hebrew can be an adverbial phrase describing the location of the advantage; for example, “[it is] with all” or “[shared] by all.” If the latter is correct, then Qoheleth is presenting an ideal that is in marked contrast with the situation described at the beginning of verse 8.

An advantage to a land is the opening phrase in the Hebrew text. It appears to be a form in which yithron, “benefit,” is bound to “land”: “the benefit of a land.” Questions about the function and meaning of the term yithron arise. In every other example Qoheleth links yithron with people, expressing his view that lasting benefit is available only to wise individuals. For this reason we may assume yithron here describes those lasting benefits that a land gives its people. A land is a geographical or political unit rather than land in the agricultural sense, so we can use the term “country” as some of the examples above have done. rsv advantage to a land is probably incorrect.

A king: for translation see comments on 1:1.

To a land with cultivated fields: a rarely used participle gives a picture of a cultivated field. nab “arable” means only that it can be used for agriculture, not that it has been prepared for crops. Fields describes open areas of land, but since it is here described as cultivated, we can use the term “farmland.”

The verse consists of two noun phrases in Hebrew. If there is a logical, or even parallel, relationship between them, we can suggest that the first phrase points to the benefits of a country being shared by all its people. With this in mind, we can go on to examine the second phrase. The preposition “to,” “for” attached to the Hebrew “field” probably indicates purpose: “for the purpose or benefit of.” This means that the king is to rule for the benefit of cultivated fields. If then there is a parallel relationship between the two phrases, the cultivated fields is a further description of the land in the first phrase. Thus cultivated fields may refer both to the land and also to those who live within its borders.

Thus we may translate:

•    The benefits of a land are to be shared by all. A king exists for the benefit of the tilled land.

•    What is gained from the land is for everybody. A king’s purpose is to protect the farmland.

The intended meaning may then be that, although oppression abounds (verse 8a) and administrators are the ones doing the oppressing (verse 8b), yet in fact the benefits of the land should be shared by all members of society. The king’s responsibility is to preserve this (verse 9), but unfortunately this ideal is rarely seen.

As has been pointed out already, the expressions used in this verse are difficult to understand and therefore our translation can only be tentative. A footnote will be required indicating that the Hebrew text is unclear.

Money Cannot Satisfy 5:10–12 [5:9–11]

Several literary features indicate that these verses form a new subsection. Apart from some distinctive vocabulary, there is an increase in the use of participles, and an absence of the imperatives that marked the first subsection (verses 1–7). Qoheleth has moved on from a concern with oppression and injustice. The new theme states that satisfaction does not depend on having an abundance of material things.

Section Heading: a section heading may be supplied to identify this section’s theme. Many versions have the simple title “Money,” but this is a little vague. We can be more precise than this. “Things cannot satisfy,” “Money isn’t everything,” or “Lovers of money will be disappointed,” may be appropriate.



Two similar but not quite parallel sayings carry the theme of this verse. Each is marked by a participle of the verb “love,” indicating “one who loves.” Then the object of their passion is identified (money or wealth). The first clause concludes that such people will not be satisfied. Although this verb is lacking from the second clause, it can be understood and supplied from the context. Quite often in Hebrew poetry one verb serves both parts of the verse: see Psa 98:5, 7, for example. In Eccl 7:1 the phrase “is better than” in the first half of the verse serves the second half also.

This saying is almost certainly a proverb quoted by Qoheleth to introduce the topic of materialism. Translators can attempt to preserve the proverbial style of the saying by imitating the rhythm of the two parallel lines or by inserting stylistic features of proverbs in their own language. This may involve changing the sentence type or the form of the pronoun.

He who loves money: the participle of the verb “love” is an indefinite expression and can be rendered “Anyone who loves.” Alternatively we can use the conditional “If anyone loves,” as the example gives an imaginary situation for us to consider. The object of that love is “silver” or money. In some cultures translators may have to adapt the verb “love” if it has a restricted personal or sexual meaning. To “love money” can mean several things: the desire to get as much of it as possible; thinking about money all the time; making money the highest goal of life, and allowing it to dominate our affections. All these ideas can be summed up in a translation like “Anyone who strives only to become as wealthy as possible …,” or “Anyone whose goal in life is only to make more money.…”

Will not be satisfied with money: on the basis of experience, both their own and others’, the wise people of Israel all agreed that those who made money the focus of life would never find satisfaction in it. Qoheleth agrees, but he does not give his reasons why this is so until verse 11. Presumably the reason we are never satisfied is that we always want more. Satisfied means to have enough of something so that we feel our needs are met. When we think that we need more, what we have does not satisfy us.

We can suggest some renderings as follows:

•    If you love money, you will find it does not satisfy you.

•    One who is only interested in making money will never have enough.

Nor he who loves wealth: this second clause also features the participle “one who loves.” There is a minor problem in this text, as the preposition attached to wealth, the object of the participle loves, is unusual. The preposition should perhaps be omitted. Like “money” in the first clause, wealth represents possession of great amounts of whatever the culture regards as valuable property. The Hebrew of this clause begins with the pronoun who used in the sense of “whoever” or “anyone.” rsv nor is the connector that indicates that the second clause is parallel with the first. We can also use “in the same way …” or “likewise.…”

With gain is rsv’s attempt to render the negative particle “not” attached to the noun “grain, produce, income.” Gordis’ suggestion is that, because there is no verb in this clause and the negative particle is the form that should precede a verb, we should alter the noun to the verbal phrase “will not come to him.” (The noun used here for gain, “income,” is formed from the root “come.”) Even without altering the text, it is obvious that this is what the sense requires, and so this can be reflected in translation: “Likewise, anyone whose goal is to be wealthy will not attain it.” tev “if you long to be rich, you will never get all you want” expresses this same idea clearly.

If possible the parallel structure of the two lines can be respected, retaining the poetic rhythm present in the Hebrew:

•    For the one who loves money, never enough money.

For the one who loves wealth, never enough income.

Some languages may prefer to avoid the repetition of ideas, combining the two clauses into one. This is acceptable, though it may take away from the proverbial style of the text.

If we are correct in assuming that this saying is a quotation, we can enclose it in quotes, indent it, or add an introductory phrase like “It has been said, …”

This also is vanity: see comments in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 2, on the meaning of the so-called “vanity” term hevel. tev again uses “It is useless,” and once again we feel that this is an inadequate rendering. Qoheleth has summarized the universal experience that material things cannot satisfy. Every living being needs material things for survival, and these things can and should be enjoyed. They certainly are not useless. Qoheleth’s comment is actually much more profound. When he uses the term hevel, he is expressing his deep amazement at the fact that people keep longing for the security that wealth appears to offer. Yet they also know that they will never have all they would like to have. Only the fool does not understand that people who spend their lives seeking money are fooling themselves.

Our translation can be “This is something of a mystery” or “This, too, is so hard to understand.”



This verse and the following explain why money fails to satisfy. One reason is that our expenses quickly outstrip our gains.

When goods increase: the first part of this verse again appears to be a proverbial saying. In Hebrew it is quite brief: “In the increasing of goods, those who eat increase.” The key word is obviously increase (from the same root as “many”), loosely tying this passage back to the previous section (verses 3, 7). The preposition “in” gives a time sense: “When goods increase.…” Another key word, goods, is used here to indicate “good things.” Goods is a term for possessions or material things and can be so translated. Here we can assume that goods also refers to the money and wealth spoken of in verse 10. If this is the case, then we have evidence that Qoheleth does not take such a negative attitude to material things as some might suppose, for these things are good in and of themselves. That is an aspect of the meaning we may miss if we choose a more general term like “possessions” or “what you own.”

They increase who eat them repeats the verb “become many.” Its subject is who eat them, literally “the eating ones.” Eat has a more extended meaning than just enjoying some food. “Those who eat them” can be interpreted either as people or activities that devour our resources. In many African languages, the verb “eat” has exactly this meaning, so a more literal translation can render both the meaning and the form of the original. Many other languages will have similar idioms using verbs like “eat,” “eat away,” “devour,” “consume.” If not, a nonfigurative expression can be used, such as “those using up,” “those causing us to spend our money.”

In the broadest sense the first part of this verse means that the more we have, the more we spend; the demands on our assets increase. In many languages where the culture is based on the extended family, this proverb will be readily understood. The more a person has, the more people come round to take advantage of that person’s wealth. Therefore even a person who has a good income may find it constantly drained by demands from others. However, to describe those who make these extra demands as “parasites” as jb does overloads the interpretation. The text here is not so negative.

In the light of these possibilities, the translation can be:

•    The more we have, the more people we have to feed.

Or more literally:

•    When your possessions increase, those who eat them do as well.

•    When our goods increase, so do the demands we make on them.

•    The more we have, the more we spend.

And what gain has their owner? The rhetorical question can be retained, or we can use a strong statement that there is no overall gain. Gain is a term meaning “ability” or “skill” and can describe anything that is of advantage (see also comments on “skill” in 4:4). It is an expanded sense of the basic meaning “skill,” describing what we can acquire with our skills. It also points to the success a person enjoys in achieving certain goals. Qoheleth questions whether we can really describe as “success” the fact that we have made more money and accumulated more goods. Owner translates the word normally meaning “lord,” or “master.” This word does not appear frequently in Qoheleth, but we find it in verse 13 with this same meaning, namely, “one who is master of.…”

But to see them with his eyes? “Seeing with … eyes” is a redundant expression, since most people see that way. Of course the point here is that people only get to look at their increased wealth, not to really enjoy it. There is a sense in which increased wealth is an illusion, without any real substance, because it cannot make any meaningful difference to a person’s life. Expenses quickly overtake us and we are no better off for having more. In 4:8 Qoheleth has already made the point that a person’s “eyes” cannot be satisfied with riches.

The second half of the verse can be rendered as follows:

•    What has the owner gained except something he can look at?

•    The owner only gets to look at his increased wealth.

•    The owner of the goods gets nothing out of it—only the appearance of wealth.



This is a second example of the puzzling fact that wealth cannot satisfy. It is probably a proverbial saying, which Qoheleth quotes. It comes in two contrasting parts, as is typical of the proverb, comparing the laborer with the wealthy person, and concluding that the advantage lies with the laborer. It represents yet another situation that is difficult to understand, but which has to be faced, especially by those who are “lovers of wealth” (verse 10). This example also depends on the keyword much and shares a bond with verse 11 in this regard. It is also linked with verse 10 through the root “satisfy.”

Sweet is the sleep of a laborer: sweet describes a calm or peaceful sleep. The root “serve” lies behind the term laborer, so it is similar in meaning to “slave” or “servant.” Barton suggests that the term here probably refers to the “agricultural laborer” mentioned in Pro 12:11, but Qoheleth seems to have a more general usage in mind. “Servant” is a possible alternative, as the sense is that this person is a less privileged member of society, poorly paid for his hard work. However, the laborer sleeps soundly, presumably because the work is so hard that it leaves him exhausted.

Whether he eats little or much: regardless of how much food the laborer has to eat, and at times there will be very little, he can sleep well at night. He has little and so has little to worry about. However, Qoheleth quotes this example as an illustration of someone who is satisfied, and his point is already clear without adding the second part of the saying. Satisfaction, here represented as sound and peaceful sleep, does not depend on having lots of things. Eats should be rendered by a verb form indicating habitual action. In some languages the translation will have to say more: “whether he has lots of food to eat or just a little.” Languages may differ as to their preference of word order between “little or much” and “much or little.” This of course has no bearing on the meaning.

Some suggested translations are:

•    The laborer sleeps soundly at night, no matter whether he has a lot or a little to eat.

•    The laborer sleeps peacefully whether he eats a lot or a little.

•    Servants sleep well at night, no matter how much they have to eat.

But the surfeit of the rich: the second half of the saying provides the other side of the contrast. The contrast may seem to assume that the rich do not work hard in the same way as the laborer, but that conclusion is not necessarily correct. The point of the comparison here is that the rich person has an over-abundance of things while the laborer has only a little. Surfeit is a noun based on the same root as the verb “satisfy” in verse 10. It means having more than enough, or “over-abundance.” It may be an over-abundance of food, but that is not necessarily the case. All kinds of material goods are included in the word “surfeit.”

Will not let him sleep: having too many things is a source of worry and anxiety, keeping the wealthy person awake at night. Hebrew uses an unusual form of the verb “sleep” with an accusative of the personal pronoun, and this combination indicates permission for the person to sleep.

In translation we suggest the following examples:

•    But the rich man has so much that he cannot sleep.

•    Whereas the rich person has an overabundance, and it keeps him from sleeping [or, keeps him awake at night].

•    But the rich man has so much, his worries won’t allow him to sleep.

If desired, the two lines of the verse can be balanced out as follows:

•    The worker sleeps soundly, whether he eats a little or a lot.

But the rich man has so much, he can’t sleep at all!

Underlying this section is an important issue that concerned the wise men of Israel. Deuteronomy presents the view that material goods are a sign of success and of God’s blessing. The wise men were forced to question this view because it did not match people’s experience. Qoheleth would agree with them that the amount of material goods a person has is no measure of a person’s spiritual state. Here he suggests that material things are a burden. Having less may result in a less stressful life. So having less rather than more may sometimes signal God’s blessing!

Money Does Not Go With Us in Death 5:13–17 [5:12–16]

The discussion of wealth and its value continues from the previous subsection into this one. This is shown by the shared use of the terms “riches, wealth,” and “owner.” However, as verses 13–17 present another of Qoheleth’s piercing observations and are linked together by the phrase “a grievous evil” in verses 13 and 16, this subsection can be isolated from the previous one. In this case, however, we may not need a separate section heading, as the previous one at verse 10 continues to set the theme that money cannot satisfy. If a section heading is needed, we can say “We can’t take money to the grave” or “when we die, our money does not go with us.”

This section completes another group of issues that Qoheleth raises before repeating the key question about yithron “lasting benefit” again (verse 16b).



There is a grievous evil: we have seen already in 2:21 that evil describes a situation not as morally corrupt but as painful to observe. Note nrsv “grievous ill.” In verses 13–14 the adjective occurs three times and has the effect of setting the tone for the passage. Qoheleth suggests that the situation he observes is grievous, or “sickening.” jb uses “singular” to highlight the unusual or remarkable nature of the situation. Whether the situation described is truly unusual is debatable, but Qoheleth says it virtually made him sick to behold. tev “Here is a terrible thing that …” is acceptable.

Which I have seen under the sun: Qoheleth uses the verb “see” as previously, that is, in the sense of studied observation. See comments on 1:14. For under the sun see comments on 1:3.

Riches were kept by their owner to his hurt: this is the scene that so moved Qoheleth. Riches includes both money and what that money can buy, as in 4:8. Were kept carries the sense of guarding something carefully (see “Guard your steps” and notes on 5:1). The passive form riches were kept is impersonal, and many languages will prefer an active expression. tev provides a suitable model: “people save up their money.”

By their owner is the generally accepted understanding of this phrase. However, Gordis suggests that these things were kept for the owner. His argument fails, however, when we note that the same expression is used to designate “by” (see, for example, Gen 14:19 “blessed … by God”). The traditional view that these riches are guarded by their owner can stand.

To his hurt marks the result of guarding his riches, as rsv shows. Many translations reflect a view that the riches are a source of great anxiety and concern, translating like rsv “to his detriment.” So, like the previous example, the rich man loses sleep because he has so much materially. Hurt is the noun ràah. The same word rendered as evil appears at the beginning of this verse, where we noted that it describes a troublesome situation, not one that is necessarily morally corrupt.

One other possible interpretation can also be considered. The Hebrew preposition rendered as by (le) can also mean “because of” as in Josh 9:9, “… because of the name of the Lord.…” If this usage bears any relationship to our situation here, we can suggest that Qoheleth claims that the owner guarded his things “because of his hurt” that is to say “against his [possible] hurt.” This may be behind the very free rendering of tev, “for a time when they may need it.” Our view will be that the owner took every precaution not to lose his wealth; so we may translate as follows:

•    Here is a terrible thing I observed: a rich man protecting his wealth against its loss …

•    I saw something really painful that happens in this world. There was a man who was guarding his wealth against some misfortune.



The scenario Qoheleth describes in verse 13 continues here. Having tried to hold onto his wealth, a person may yet find that he loses it all. Thus we should translate the conjunction and as the contrastive “but.…” Those riches refers back to the riches mentioned in verse 13. Were lost pictures the total destruction of all the man had. The loss was brought about by what Qoheleth calls a bad venture. The phrase has been used before in 1:13 (see comments there) describing “an unhappy business.” It refers there to the demanding task that God assigns people. What kind of venture it was we cannot determine, since Qoheleth uses only this very broad category. However, how he lost his money is less important than the fact that the wealthy person now faces financial ruin. The translation should not convey the sense that it was necessarily his fault or that he foolishly squandered the money. tev “unlucky deal” is a possible meaning, though it may limit the meaning more than the Hebrew intends. “Misfortune” is probably a better term, for there is no certainty that the Hebrew term refers to a commercial venture. We can render its meaning as “misfortune overtook him and he lost all he had” or “but unfortunately he lost everything.”

In the Hebrew the link between this clause and the previous one is very close. Some languages will prefer to highlight the repetitive vocabulary: “There was a man who was guarding his riches against some misfortune, but he lost those riches through an unfortunate event.…”

In order to translate the second half of this verse adequately, we need to recognize its literary unity with verse 15. Two important phrases, “nothing” and “in his hand,” bind the unit together, as do the paired actions “go out … return” and “come … go” as metaphors for birth and death. There are no textual problems to concern us, and the translation seems to be without difficulty until we ask who the various occurrences of “he” refer to. Do they refer to the father, or to his son, or even to a third person? The majority of translations conclude that verse 15 describes the son born to the rich person mentioned in this verse. Another suggestion is that it is the father. tev side-steps the issue by using the general term “people” in verse 13 and the inclusive “we” in verse 15.

This confusion may be the result of Qoheleth’s writing style. We learn first that there is a man whose riches are lost in an unfortunate business venture. Then suddenly Qoheleth introduces a father and his son. The mention of the son’s birth breaks into the text, having nothing directly to do with the father’s loss of wealth. Verses 15–16 comment further on this child, while the father is not mentioned again.

These aspects of verses 14b–15 suggest that it forms what we shall call an “illustrative aside,” an independent example from life, which Qoheleth inserts to make a point. For this reason we determine that the story line jumps from verse 14a down to verse 16. This conclusion will clearly have an impact upon our translation. The “illustrative aside” refers to birth and death in the most general of ways, and so “he” in this section will be rendered as the general “a person,” or “a child.” In verse 16 we return to the situation of the impoverished father, so “he” in verse 16 can be translated “the father,” or “the owner.”

The above interpretation suggests that the thing that is puzzling is not the father’s loss of wealth, but the fact that at death all earthly labor seems to be of no value. This problem is the perfect way for Qoheleth to lead up to the key question about “lasting benefit.”

After these comments about the passage as a whole, we return to the text of verse 14b.

And he is the father of a son: this sudden mention of a son being born signals a temporary break in the story, as discussion of the father’s problems will not resume until verse 16. We suggest that the introductory conjunction and be rendered as “Now, …” to mark the fact that the story suddenly changes direction. The translator should look for an appropriate way to mark such a change. Most often this will be a particle or a conjunction. Literally the phrase is “he gave birth to a son [or, child],” this being the normal way in which Hebrew expresses the fathering of a child. The relationship in time between the material in the earlier part of the verse and the child’s birth is irrelevant once we admit that this is an aside, a piece of information not directly connected to the story. Son in Hebrew can mean a child of either sex, so we prefer “child,” as the reference is general.

But he has nothing in his hand is a literal rendering of the Hebrew. Its meaning is clear: a child when born has nothing in its hand, which is to say it does not bring material possessions with it. Languages may have a similar idiom like “coming into the world empty-handed.” The translation should not anticipate the next verse, where the child is described as “naked.” We should make he clear by rendering it as “a child.” Since the reference is to the child’s situation at the moment of birth, we can also make that clear in our translation.

Since the “illustrative aside” is a general example we can consider the following models:

•    Now, when a man fathers a child, the child brings nothing into the world.

•    Now, if a man has a child, that child comes into the world empty-handed.



Qoheleth is not suggesting that the child has nothing because his parents lost everything through unfortunate circumstances. Rather, he is emphasizing the point that this child is like every other child at birth, entering the world with no possessions whatsoever. The illustration here is probably modeled on (Job 1:21, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.” We can think of this verse as an “aside,” which means that it is a comment from Qoheleth that is not central to his discussion but which he uses to illustrate the main point he is making.

As he came from his mother’s womb: the expression mother’s womb may require a euphemism rather than a literal translation, depending on whether the term can be mentioned publicly in the community. The Hebrew “come out” balances with the verb “return, go back” in the next line. neb has “came from the womb of mother earth.” This is an intriguing translation, and although it accords well with the Biblical idea that human beings are formed from the dust of the earth, in this case it does seem to over-interpret the text. “As he comes into the world” or “As he was when he is born” are more general ways of saying the same thing. In many languages it will be necessary to state the basis of the comparison in this first clause: “As he comes into this world owning nothing.…”

He shall go again, naked as he came: the Hebrew says literally “naked shall he return to go as he came.” The term naked describes not only a person’s physical state at birth, but also has a metaphorical sense meaning lacking all material possessions. If it cannot be made clear that naked has a double sense, then translators can render the broader sense, “owning nothing.” We may also consider conserving the form “naked” and following it with a descriptive phrase: “naked, owning nothing.”

He shall go again (Hebrew, “return”) is a euphemism for dying and leaving this world. The aside thus points to the two extremes of life—birth and death. We enter the world with nothing, and regardless of how hard we work and how much we gain throughout life, we leave the world as we entered it, taking nothing with us. The translator can use the terms “shall die” and “was born” to translate shall go and came, but this will rob the passage of its poetic value. Translators should be aware of the euphemisms for these events in their language and substitute them if possible. For example, in English “enter this world” and “leave” or “depart this world” are appropriate euphemisms that convey the meaning and at the same time conserve the poetic impact here.

In this verse there are actually two references to being born and one to dying: “as he came … so shall he go … as he came.” In most languages one reference to birth will be sufficient.

Since the purpose of this illustration is to remind readers of those critical moments when possessions can make no difference to our situation, we shall treat this portion as a general comment. The noun form “a child” will give a more personal touch than preserving the Hebrew pronoun “he.” Translation can be as follows:

•    As a child enters the world without possessions, so will it depart this world at death.

•    A child is born owning nothing, and he will have nothing after he dies.

•    A child enters the world empty-handed; he will leave it in the same way.

•    A child comes into the world naked, owning nothing, and leaves in the same way.

And shall take nothing for his toil: when death comes we depart without any of our possessions. On toil see comments on 1:3. Here the preposition rendered for has the instrumental sense “by means of” or “generated by,” hence “derived from.” So we translate “from his labor [or, work].” Thus the saying is looking forward to the end of person’s life of toil; and so we assume it refers to the same subject “he,” or “the child,” of the first part of the verse.

Which he may carry away in his hand: material possessions gathered and earned during all the years we have toiled on earth cannot be taken with us when we depart this life. In his hand is redundant and can be omitted in translation. In many African languages, however, this idiom exists and may be quite appropriate.

Thus we can translate as follows:

•    He can take nothing that he worked hard to save.

•    So, a person will take nothing gained from his labor when he dies.

•    For [or, Despite] all their labor, people can take nothing with them!

Perhaps we can also express it as:

•    Everything we have worked for has to be left behind.


This verse and the one that follows close the section leading up to the important conclusion in verses 18–20. It is clear from the repetition of the expression “a sickening evil” that the entire unit, verses 13–15, is being referred to in this summary verse. This is a term that points back to the situation just discussed. This relationship can be made clear in our translation by referring back to verse 13 in the following manner: “So this is a second terrible thing that I observed,” “This too is a painful thing,” or “Here is another terrible thing:.…” Note that what follows this clause is a repetition of what has already been said in verse 15, with expansion on these ideas to be given in verse 17.

A grievous evil: see the notes on verse 13.

Just as he came so shall he go begins with an Aramaic idiom that Qoheleth borrows. The phrase means “in the exact same manner,” “exactly.” The verbs came and shall … go are repeated from verse 14, referring again to a person’s birth and subsequent death. In the context of the previous discussion, Qoheleth reminds us that a person arrives in and departs from this world in a “naked” state, free of all material possessions. These meanings and the reference to birth and death can be spelled out precisely in our translation if there is any likelihood of their being misunderstood.

This clause is the statement that identifies the focus of the entire unit 5:13–17. Thus we see that it is not the rich person’s sudden and unfortunate loss of wealth that is a “grievous evil.” Actually that is only one episode. The crucial fact in the entire section is that, no matter how much money we make or lose during our lives, we cannot take any of it with us. We depart this life with exactly the same amount we brought into it—nothing. It is this fact that raises the primary question about yithron and the meaning of a life spent in toil.

Because this clause contains the essence of the problem that Qoheleth is dealing with, it may be best to use general language, which means he can be rendered as “a person” or “we.”

Some possible models for translation are:

•    Just as a person is born without possessions, so too do we depart this life with nothing.

•    We enter this life empty-handed, and we depart it in the same way.

•    The same way a person comes [or, people come] into this world, the same way he leaves it [or, they leave it].

What gain has he that he toiled for the wind? All the illustrative material, that is to say, each problem identified from 4:1 to this point in chapter 5, forms the context for asking the question about “lasting benefit” for the third time. What gain is a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer, “None.” Refer to comments on “gain” in 1:3 and 3:9. It is apparent once again that yithron, “lasting benefit,” does not describe the material benefits available to people. Here especially Qoheleth is thinking in terms of some benefit that cannot be snatched away by either misfortune or death, something that has value from the moment we are born to the time of death and possibly beyond.

That he toiled for the wind: in Hebrew this clause is introduced by a relative pronoun, which refers back to the pronoun “him” (rsv he); that is to say, “[what gain is there for] him who toiled.…” The imperfect of the verb “toil” indicates continuous labor. For the wind uses “wind” metaphorically. The Hebrew term ruach has several meanings, “wind,” “breath,” “spirit,” and our problem is to decide which is in mind here. Is it related to the phrase “shepherding the wind” in 1:14, 17, etc.? If Qoheleth is here likening our toil to shepherding the wind, then “wind” is an appropriate translation. Or does for the wind mean he worked only for the air he breathed? If he is thinking of the breath of life that we receive at birth and surrender at death, then “breath” is a better translation. In this case we might consider a translation such as “What lasting benefit does a person have who has toiled only for his life and breath?”

It is unfortunate that translators have to make a choice between the three alternative meanings, when Qoheleth probably was happy to have it mean all three. We suggest using the term “wind” and putting “breath” in a footnote as the alternative.

The sentence order in Hebrew, also reflected in rsv, may be quite unnatural in some cases. Translators may prefer to put the relative clause at the beginning of the verse, followed by the question: “And a person who works without ceasing for a mere puff of wind, what lasting benefit does he get [out of life]?”

In certain languages this rhetorical question may have to be expressed in another way, as a negative statement. This will give something like “There is no lasting benefit for someone who has toiled for the wind.” However, this rhetorical question is not a conclusion; it is only a step on the way to the conclusion spelled out in verses 18–20. Therefore, if the question form cannot be retained, it may be preferable to add something like: “It would seem that there is no lasting benefit.…” This allows for Qoheleth’s argument to continue, building up to the conclusion in the last part of the chapter.

Translators may also feel the need to rearrange the sentences to give a more logical argument through the verse as a whole. The following may convey the meaning well:

•    What lasting benefit is there for a person who works for a mere puff of wind? He comes into this world empty-handed and he leaves the same way. This is a distressing fact.

•    It seems there’s no lasting benefit for the person who works to gain only wind. As he comes, so he goes. He can’t take his work with him. This really is a terrible thing.

•    It seems there is no lasting benefit for someone who works for a breath of air. A person enters this world with nothing and leaves the same way. This whole state of affairs is very painful.



Qoheleth’s description of a person’s labor continues into this verse, but his meaning here is not as obvious as we might wish it to be. It is possible that the Hebrew text as we have it is not the original wording.

And spent all his days in darkness and grief: in Hebrew this is literally “also all his days in darkness he eats.” Some versions translate this literally; for example, niv has “all his days he eats in darkness,” and nrsv “… all their days they eat in darkness.” Though there is no object marker on “all his days,” it is possible that this phrase is actually the object of “he eats”: “he eats [that is, consumes] all his days in darkness and grief.” This literal interpretation is favored by some French versions. Many other languages are quite familiar with such a figurative expression, which simply means “He spends all the days of his life.…” The verb “eat” in this context has a negative sense: “He eats away [or, wastes away] his life.…” Thus in some languages a literal translation will be well understood. If not, “spend his life” or “pass his days” may be appropriate.

See 2:23 for a discussion of all his days. Here the sense is similar to “throughout his life.”

In darkness and grief: a number of early scholars accepted the Septuagint text “in darkness and in mourning” in place of the Hebrew “in darkness he eats.” This is what rsv has chosen to do, and most English translations do the same. neb has “gnawing anxiety.” Darkness clearly has negative overtones, and we notice that in 6:4 and 11:8 it is a figure for death. If we accept the Septuagint text as reflecting the original text, then “death” and “mourning” make a good pair. We recommend this understanding of the text, in which case the preposition in which introduces the phrase can be rendered as “surrounded by” or “in the company of.”

This verse should not be translated in such a way as to give the impression that every day this person faced darkness and grief. The phrase is figurative, perhaps even an exaggeration, making the point that throughout life tragedies occur.

For translation we suggest the following models:

•    His whole life is spent surrounded by death and mourning.

•    All his life he is in the midst of people dying and grieving.

•    Throughout his life he had to deal with death and grief.

In much vexation and sickness and resentment lists three other features of life in the world. They may not necessarily be the person’s own individual feelings—”death” refers not to his own death but to that of others in his circle. Vexation is anger, though we cannot tell from this brief saying who is angry or what he is angry about. Here jb uses “worry” and niv “great frustration.” Sickness is literally “his sickness.” The pronoun suffix “his” creates some problems for interpreters, however, since the sickness may not be the person’s own sickness. Some explain it as an error in the copying of Hebrew manuscripts. A literal meaning may be appropriate, as also is a figurative sense similar to the use of the adjectival form to describe a “sickening” situation in verses 13 and 16. Our preference here will be to consider sickness as figurative to match the other figures in this context. Resentment accompanies anger and has the sense of indignation and displeasure.

Translators can consider the following model:

•    Throughout his life he is surrounded by death and mourning, by anger, sickness, and resentment.

The three nouns used in this phrase can also be rendered as verbs. As we have noted, some of these feelings may be the person’s own responses to what he saw, so we can also consider these other examples:

•    He spends his days surrounded by people dying, mourning, being angry, resentful, and sick.

•    He spends his life surrounded by darkness and mourning—angry, sick, and resentful.

Thus Qoheleth portrays an individual within a community, reacting strongly to the many hardships of human experience. In particular there is strong reaction against the fact that material gains from a life of toil seem to be of no ultimate value because they have to be left behind at death.

Qoheleth began his discussion of materialism’s failure to satisfy us in verse 10. Verses 13–16 speak to this theme also, though they have a different perspective, namely, that material things can be lost or taken away. Loss in some unfortunate circumstance, or by death itself, means that the “lasting benefit” Qoheleth is seeking cannot be found in material things. The “lasting benefit” he seeks must be beyond the limits of life and death.

This segment of the book, 4:1–5:17, puts before us many examples from human experience, pointing us to wise conduct as the ideal. In the key question repeated in verse 16b, we see again Qoheleth’s view that “lasting benefit” cannot be found entirely here on earth. So what does Qoheleth suggest should be our response to this situation? Once again he calls his readers to enjoyment, and we find this call in verses 18–20.

Qoheleth’s Advice: ENJOY LIFE! 5:18–20 [5:17–19]

We have already noted the importance of the theme of enjoyment for defining both the structure and the purpose or message of this book. For full discussion of this theme, refer to comments on “enjoyment,” page 4.

Although Qoheleth does not use the special form “There is nothing better than …” that he uses elsewhere, nevertheless we find that all the elements of the form are present. (Refer to comments on 2:24; 3:12–13, 22). We note the themes of eating, drinking, finding pleasure in toil, and God’s gift of work, are repeated.

Section Heading: the leap from a somewhat depressing survey of some human problems in 5:10–17 to the optimism of verses 18–20 can be marked with a new section heading. Translators can use the same wording here as was used at 2:24: “Enjoyment of life,” “Enjoy your work,” or “Eat, drink, and enjoy life.”



Behold is an important discourse marker as Qoheleth again takes up his advice to enjoy life. Therefore some word or phrase may be used such as “Despite that, …” or “However, …” In conjunction with the familiar “what I saw,” it can be rendered “But this is what I discovered: …” or “But here is my real discovery/conclusion:.…”

What I have seen to be good and to be fitting: contrasting with his observation about widespread human suffering, Qoheleth notes that life also has a more positive aspect. Seen refers to Qoheleth’s keen observation and here additionally includes the advice based on that observation. This can be expressed as “I conclude,” “I believe that …,” or “I realize that.…” The following phrase good and … fitting is troublesome owing to the use of the relative pronoun between the two expressions translated “good” and “beautiful.” It can mean literally “the good thing that is right to do.” But it seems more likely that these two expressions are coordinate, the second heightening or adding emphasis to the first. This gives a sense “what is good, what is even beautiful.” A somewhat freer translation may be “By far the best, in fact the only thing to do …,” “There is only one thing to do …,” or “Then I concluded that the right [or, best] thing to do is.…”

To eat and drink and find enjoyment: see comments on 2:24, 3:13. Enjoyment is expressly linked with work, so it is more an attitude of mind (like jb “to be content with”).

In all the toil with which one toils …: see comments on 1:3; 2:22.

The few days of his life: literally “the number of the days of his life.” tev has “during the short life God has given us.” This rendering is typical of most translations (for example, neb “brief span of life”), which believe that “number” in Hebrew has the sense of a few, or a relatively small number. Since Qoheleth has used this phrase before, refer to notes on 2:3 for more detail. Here we note that the Hebrew term rendered “number” does not necessarily mean “few in number,” so we can translate for its correct meaning, “throughout his life.”

Which God has given him is an important phrase because it puts us in touch again with Qoheleth’s basic beliefs about God and life. In 2:24–25 and 3:13–15, Qoheleth uses this same argument, so we can be sure that it represents one of his basic ideas. Each call to enjoyment is rooted in the understanding that life is God’s gift, and that we should therefore show our thankfulness by enjoying it with all its diversity, its pain and its joys. We note that nrsv has avoided male language here and translated with the first person plural instead of his and him: “the few days of the life God gives us” (tev is similar).

For this is his lot: a similar view is expressed in 3:22. See comments there. This points to enjoyment in general but should also be understood as referring to all the preceding activities: eating, drinking, and enjoying work. The translator should find the appropriate expression that refers to these things, whether singular or plural.

The lot is the “portion” or “limited reward” God gives us, reminding us that there is always some reward for diligence. There is both a sense of satisfaction and material reward from working. However, they cannot be the same thing as the “lasting benefit” (yithron) that Qoheleth is seeking. This fact is the more obvious when he has just finished demonstrating how limited the value of material things is, since death removes us from them. It is no different than losing those things ourselves through folly or misadventure. So Qoheleth’s advice points the way to wisdom, the only path to “lasting benefit.” tev “this is our fate” raises some difficulties, as “fate” may mean something different in other cultures and religions. He does not mean that God has already mapped out an unchanging and certain course for our life, and that this can be discovered by reading the palm of the hand or consulting the stars. It is better to use a word like “reward” or “gift.” His is impersonal so translation as a noun (“a person’s”) or an inclusive pronoun (“our”) will be appropriate.

We can express the meaning of this verse as:

•    [However,] I have observed that the best thing a person can do is to eat, drink, and enjoy all the work God gives us throughout life. Enjoyment of life is God’s gift to us.

•    Look, this is what I discovered: the best thing to do in this life is to eat, drink and to find satisfaction in the work God gives us on this earth, for this is the reward God gives.

•    Yet this is what I concluded: the only thing to do is to eat, drink, and get satisfaction from the all the work God gives us in our lifetime; this is our reward.



The rsv translation of this verse is an incomplete sentence and reflects the problems in the text. There is no main clause and so the reader waits in vain to know what Qoheleth is going to say. The first clause is a relative clause (“all the people to whom God gives wealth and possessions)”; the second begins with the conjunction “and” (“and he gives them power to eat, accept reward, and enjoy their work”), and the third seems to be an independent clause (“this is the gift of God”). We note that the whole verse begins with a multipurpose conjunction that can mean “also,” “as well as,” or “both.” It is possible to interpret the first two clauses as one single thought, with the last clause giving its conclusion. Somewhat literally the verse says “Also God gives people wealth and possessions, and in addition grants them the power to eat, accept their reward and enjoy the result of their work; this really is the [ultimate] gift of God,” or “Concerning the people to whom God gives wealth and possessions, he also gives them the power to enjoy these, to accept their reward, and to be satisfied with their work; this really is the gift of God.”

Every man also to whom God has given wealth and possessions: the fact that all citizens are not wealthy indicates that every man … to whom is used in a limited way, pointing only to those privileged few. “Those who have …” or “Those to whom God gives …” conveys this limited sense.

In order to make sense out of this verse, we may have to turn it into a complete sentence. The tev conditional sentence “If God gives …” is also acceptable, as is jb “Whenever God gives.…” A further example can be “Now God gives certain people.…”

Wealth: see comments on “riches” in verse 13.

Possessions is a term borrowed from Aramaic. It is translated “revenue” in Ezra 6:8 and “goods” in 7:26.

And power to enjoy them: in 6:2 Qoheleth distinguishes between having things and being able to enjoy what you have. This distinction is apparent from the structure of the verse also. The main verb is “give power to,” which can also be translated “enables.” The infinitive constructions involving “eat,” “accept,” and “enjoy” depend on this verb. It is therefore more important to have the power to enjoy things than merely to possess them. Power to enjoy them is an Aramaic expression, literally “and he empowers him to eat from it [them],” where the verb “eat” is idiomatic for enjoying something. Our translation can demonstrate that having and enjoying are separate gifts, by using the adverb “also”; for example, “he also enables them to enjoy these gifts.”

And to accept his lot: the notion of power to enjoy continues into this phrase. Not only is a person empowered by God to “eat,” but also to “take up” in the sense of accept his share or portion. On lot see comments on verse 18 and 3:22. It describes a reward, partial or limited in nature, which God gives. Translation can follow as “the reward God gives.”

At this point tev has “we should be grateful and enjoy.” If God is the subject of this action, the one who empowers people to enjoy, then tev is misleading. The focus is not on what people do, but on what God grants.

And find enjoyment in his toil expresses the same sentiments as 2:24; 3:13, 22.

The second main division of the verse can be translated as

•    God also gives them power to enjoy those gifts, to accept their reward, and to find pleasure in what they do.

We can also say that God “enables” or “permits” people to enjoy these gifts. Alternatives are:

•    God enables people to enjoy those gifts, accept their reward, and truly enjoy their work.

•    Without God’s help, no one can enjoy those gifts, accept their reward, or truly enjoy their work.

This is the gift of God: this final sentence has all the appearances of an independent concluding statement. The demonstrative this points back to the “power to enjoy” the three activities mentioned. The gift of God repeats 3:13 and demonstrates again how Qoheleth’s calls to enjoyment are based on firm beliefs about God and his relationship to human beings. It also reminds us that work and enjoyment are not to be separated. It is preferable to find two separate words to distinguish between lot and gift. The first has the idea of “portion” or “share,” while the second speaks of a true “gift” or “present.”

The emphasis provided by this concluding sentence can be displayed by “These people have truly received God’s gift.” Alternatively we can place this final statement at the beginning of the verse, and say “The real gift of God is not only riches … but also the power to.…” In some languages the phrase gift of God may have to appear in sentence form: “This is what God gives [to people, to human beings],” or even “This is the good thing God gives to people.”



Our first question regarding this verse has to do with its relationship to the preceding verse 19. This question arises because the two clauses each begin with ki, which often means either “for, because” or “surely, indeed.” Thus it may seem that verse 20 is formed of two reason clauses, and neither of them can be easily related to what goes before it. This confusion leads to a variety of interpretations and thus to different translations. For example:

tev “Since God has allowed us to be happy, we will not worry too much about how short life is.”

jb “He will not need to brood, at least, over the duration of his life so long as God keeps his heart occupied with joy.”

neb “He will not dwell overmuch on the passing years, for God fills his time with joy of heart.” These examples demonstrate that the initial clause is usually translated as a statement and so is disconnected from verse 19.

We note that verse 20a picks up the phrase “days of his life” from verse 18, and verse 20b repeats the Hebrew verb for “rejoice” from verse 19, “find enjoyment.” Gordis suggests that verse 20a provides the motive for verse 18, and verse 20b justifies verse 19. However, close examination makes this view unlikely, for there seems no logical connection between them. We shall probably not be able to do better than to treat these two clauses as an independent statement, in which case the Hebrew particle with which the verse opens is best regarded as an emphatic “Indeed.”

For he will not much remember the days of his life: the pronoun he definitely refers back to the person in the previous verse. A smoother transition may be “This person” or “The person just talked about.” The verb remember generally looks backward, recalling the past. However, in 11:8 Qoheleth uses it with a future reference, “be mindful of,” so it is also possible that here too Qoheleth uses it in that manner. Hebrew verbs are not primarily time-oriented, and so the imperfect in this case has the broad sense of “thinking about,” “meditating on.” Qoheleth points to the fact that people will have no time to think about what is happening to them or in life generally, because they will be busy with other things. Much is an adverb and modifies the verb remember. If we accept the suggestion that Qoheleth is talking about time to reflect on what happens during our working life, then he will not much remember can be rendered as “He will have little time to think about …” or “This person will not spend a lot of time reflecting on his life.”

On days of his life see comments on verse 18. It is better in our opinion to use a neutral phrase than to say that life is short. The phrase may not refer to time at all but to the quality of a person’s life.

Because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart: this clause provides the motive or reason for the previous statement. Keeps him occupied is a problem phrase because the verb in question has a variety of meanings: “answer,” “afflict,” “occupy.” In 1:13 and 3:10 we find this verb used also (“to be busy”). With these uses as guides to its possible meaning here, we advise following the rsv rendering. This means that God constantly provides the power or ability to enjoy life. The gift of enjoyment is ongoing. Qoheleth suggests that this is the reason a person has little time to reflect on his life; he is too busy enjoying it.

With joy in his heart is what God provides. Qoheleth is talking of a deep and enduring joy welling up within each person who has the gift of enjoying all that God has provided.

Keeps him occupied with joy is not an easy expression to translate. “God fills him with joy” is a good suggestion. “God keeps him busy enjoying life” may also be possible.

Some models for translation are:

•    Indeed, a person will have little time to reflect, because God will constantly fill his life with joy.

•    Indeed, God gives a person so much joy that there is no time to think about life.

•    Truly, God keeps us so busy enjoying what we have, that we have little time to think about life.

This concludes the third major division of the book, in which Qoheleth has asked the question about yithron, “lasting advantage.” For the third time he offers the advice that people should enjoy the life and work that God provides. As we move on we find, however, that the question of wealth and its enjoyment continues to occupy Qoheleth’s mind. The next chapter 6 opens with this same theme.

More Life Issues and More Advice 6:1–8:15

The previous section ends with a variation of the call to enjoy life. It makes the important point that the person to whom God has granted riches and the power to enjoy those riches is the most fortunate person of all. This next section continues the theme as Qoheleth raises more issues and gives more advice. Once again he comes to the same conclusion. Given the uncertainty of life and the difficulty of finding true wisdom, the best course of action is for human beings to enjoy the life God gives them 8:15). The section proposed here (6:1–8:15) does not have a tight internal structure, though we find many subunits tied together by various literary features.

Chapter 6 contains six rhetorical questions, two of which ask specifically what can be gained in this world (yithron). Verses 1–9 contain short examples of people who make money and cannot enjoy it—a situation Qoheleth describes as frustrating and incomprehensible (10–11).

At 6:12 Qoheleth asks an important question, one which leads into chapter 7: Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? The next subsection (7:1–14) answers that question, beginning with a long list of proverbs and statements that pick up the key word good (tov) from 6:12 and repeat it throughout.

At 7:15 there is a major shift as Qoheleth makes more personal observations (“All this I saw …”). In 7:15–18 he gives advice to avoid extremes. At the end of chapter 7, the theme of wisdom returns, dominating the next two subsections (7:19–24 and 7:25–29 or 7:25–8:1). People in power are presented in 8:2–9, while the fate of the righteous and the wicked is discussed in 8:10–14.

The entire section ends at 8:15 with the call to enjoyment.

Section Heading: as with the previous major unit (4:1–5:20), this section covers a wide variety of topics. The simplest heading may be “More life issues and more advice.” However, we also notice a general theme presented in 6:12 that appears throughout this unit. We may therefore say “What is good for people?”

A Life Without Joy 6:1–9

This section touches again on the question of material goods and the enjoyment of them. Qoheleth characterizes the problem in the same way as he did in 5:16: it makes him feel ill. This develops as follows:

Verses 1–2 set the theme. God grants a person all the wealth and riches he desires, but the person is unable to enjoy them.

Qoheleth then gives two exaggerated illustrations to make his point. In verses 3–5 he pictures a man with a hundred children. He concludes that even with this good fortune, if the man cannot enjoy his riches, it would be better for him to have been stillborn or aborted. In verse 6 he imagines a man who lives two thousand years. But what good is it, asks Qoheleth, when he too will one day die!

These illustrations lead to a discussion of the desire for gain, both material and nonmaterial. Verse 7 states that people are never satisfied with what they have—they always desire more. In verse 8 we find a key question in modified form (“What gain does a wise man have over a poor one?”), followed in verse 9 by a concluding “better” statement and “vanity” clause.

In terms of paragraphing, verses 7–9 clearly form a unit. Depending on the needs of the translator’s language, verses 1–6 can either form one paragraph or be divided into two, with verses 1–2 as one paragraph and verses 3–6 another.

Section Heading: because the beginning of chapter 6 treats the same subject matter as chapter 5, some versions let the text flow from one chapter to another without interruption (tev, jb, tob). However, the beginning of verse 1, “There is an evil that I saw,” signals at least a paragraph break at this point. If the translator wants to highlight the shift away from the fortunate person to the unfortunate one, a section heading may be introduced; “A life without joy,” “No enjoyment,” or “Not enjoying what you have” are possibilities.


The unity of these two verses is made apparent by the repetition of the Hebrew adjective , which opens the text in verse 1 and closes it in verse 2. It means literally “an evil,” or something painful. Most translations render this adjective by two different words (rsv evil and sore), so the repetition is not readily visible. If it is possible, translators should try to retain the same adjective in both places, to preserve some of the stylistic effect of these verses.

There is an evil which I have seen under the sun is a phrase almost identical to one in 5:13. See comments there. All that this verse lacks of that phrase is the adjective “grievous.” There is no reason to follow those commentators who wish to add that adjective here to make it conform with 5:13. Qoheleth is very flexible in his use of phrases.

And it lies heavy upon men: literally “and it is great [or, heavy] upon the man [or, mankind].” rsv lies heavy upon interprets the adjective as something burdensome. See also jb “it weighs men down.” However, it is probably best to retain the more basic sense “much,” or “great,” indicating extent. This gives a translation “widespread,” “common,” or “prevalent.” The appropriate preposition to follow this would be “in” or “among” rather than upon. Men uses the generic form, meaning “people” or “the community.”

Possible translations of verse 1 are as follows:

•    Here is another terrible thing I have observed, and it is very common [in the community].

•    There is another horrible thing I have discovered in this world, and it happens all the time.

•    There is another evil I have seen here on earth, and it affects a lot of people.

A man: Qoheleth now describes in detail the terrible situation he witnessed. In some languages the transition from verse 1 to verse 2 may be more natural by adding a phrase like “It is the case of a man.…” What was expressed as a general form (“the community,” “people”) is now narrowed to one representative person (Hebrew ̀ish). This change can be reflected in translation by “person,” or “someone.”

To whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor: just as in 5:19, where God was the one who donated “wealth and possession,” so too here. See comments on 5:19. Additionally this person is said to have received honor. The Hebrew term for honor may indicate a respected position in society, or a good reputation within the community. On the other hand it can also mean “abundance” or “riches.” It is a problem to determine how Qoheleth uses it, so we seem to have a choice when translating. These same three terms, wealth, possessions and honor, together describe what Solomon received from God in 2 Chr 1:11–12, but that example cannot help us make a decision about the meaning here. However, our present context is of some help. We note as the problem unfolds that the things which this person has are enjoyed by a stranger. Material goods can be inherited and enjoyed by others, but a person’s honor or reputation is hardly the kind of thing someone else can claim and enjoy. For this reason we are probably correct in assuming that here the real meaning of the Hebrew word for honor is “riches.” tev “wealth, honor, and property” does not seem adequate as a translation. Certain languages may not have three different terms for “wealth,” “possessions,” and “riches,” so this phrase can be reduced if necessary without taking away its meaning: “wealth and possessions” or even “great riches.”

So that he lacks nothing of all that he desires: this phrase explains just how much this person received in the way of wealth and possessions. They were so abundant that he could not possibly imagine having anything more. So he lacks nothing of all that he desires simply means “he has everything he wants.” This is similar to what tev has, and it is probably more natural than the Hebrew negative form lacks nothing, which rsv retains.

Translation possibilities are:

•    God gives someone wealth, possessions, and abundant riches. He has everything he wants.

•    God gives a person abundant material wealth, so much so that he could not ask for more.

•    It is the case of a person to whom God has given great wealth. He has everything he could want.

Yet God does not give him power to enjoy them: the use of the Hebrew conjunction to introduce something contrary to what is expected is well shown by the word yet in rsv. In English we can also use “but” or “however” to show that there is an important condition attached to the gift. The phrase does not give him power to enjoy them is repeated from 5:19 except that here it is in the negative. Refer to 5:19 for further comments. The Hebrew expression translated enjoy is the verb “eat” used idiomatically. As noted earlier, many languages have an identical idiom, so if this is the case, a literal translation gives both the form and meaning of the original.

But a stranger enjoys them: the initial ki introduces another statement contrary to expectation; “but,” “on the other hand,” or “instead” are good equivalents. The translator should find a conjunction that reflects the logic here. Some languages have an ironic expression “and then” which may be appropriate. A stranger is a rare term found only here and in Deut 17:15 (“foreigner”). While the person may be from another tribe or a different family, the sense seems to be even more general, that is, “someone else.” It really does not matter who the person actually is. The point of Qoheleth’s problem is that the person who works for something does not get to enjoy it; rather, some other person does.

Some possible translations are:

•    However, God does not enable that person to enjoy those gifts; on the contrary, someone else gets to enjoy them.

•    However, instead of that person being able to enjoy the gifts God gave, someone else does.

•    But God does not allow him to enjoy them; rather a stranger does instead.

This is vanity; it is a sore affliction: the initial demonstrative this points either to the entire situation described, or better, to the problem of another person enjoying someone’s wealth. On the phrase this is vanity, see comments on 2:23. A sore affliction is probably a variation on the phrase used to describe the “sickening” problem in 5:13. As noted above, sore is the same adjective translated “evil” in verse 1. We can see in this example how seriously Qoheleth questions the idea that material success was an obvious sign of divine blessing (as suggested in Pro 13:21, 25). Qoheleth indicates that there is no blessing in having things unless they can be enjoyed.

For translation of this part of the verse, consider the following:

•    This situation presents us with a terrible problem; in fact it is sickening.

•    What a predicament to be in! It is deeply troubling.

•    It is terribly hard to understand why this kind of thing happens. It almost makes you sick.

The whole of verse 2 may be translated as follows:

•    It is the case of a person to whom God gives wealth and riches. He has everything he desires. But God does not enable him to enjoy those riches; someone else enjoys them instead. It is very difficult to understand this kind of thing happening. It is enough to make you sick.


Qoheleth here gives a more concrete illustration of the ideas found in verse 2.

If a man begets a hundred children: the illustration begins with the conditional if. It asks the reader to imagine such a situation, one that is almost impossible in real life. It needs to be made clear in translation that this is hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration. Qoheleth then suggests a conclusion based on the unlikely possibility of fathering so many children. The conclusion is presented at the end of the verse in the words I say.… In giving the sense of this phrase, it is not required that we preserve the conditional form. For example, tev reads “We may have …,” and jb says “Or perhaps a man has.…” We may also show its illustrative purpose by something like “Consider the case of a man who …,” “Just imagine the [unlikely] case of a man who …,” or “What if a man were to.…”

Begets: see comments on this verb in 5:14, “is the father of.”

A hundred children: Hebrew merely says “a hundred,” so we need to supply the object children or “offspring” in our translation. jb is inaccurate when it translates “a hundred sons and as many daughters.”

And lives many years: in Israel a long life was considered one of the signs of divine blessing. As the commandment to honor parents reminds us (Exo 20:12), the whole community could expect to live long in the land if they lived obedient lives. Many years can be translated literally, or more idiomatically as in tev “live a long time.”

So that the days of his years are many: in many languages this phrase will be redundant because it simply repeats what was in the previous clause. Some translations therefore omit this phrase. The repetition in Hebrew does, however, add emphasis. The whole clause is widely understood to be a concessive clause, meaning that it suggests that some other conditions may apply to the situation described. So the sense is then “even though …” or “no matter how many.…” This can be seen in tev, “no matter how long we live,” and similarly in nab. The Hebrew structure, placing “much,” “many” at the beginning of the clause, indicates that the focus lies with the number of years the person lives. For translation we may suggest:

•    But no matter how long his life is.…

•    Even though his life is very long.…

The clause can also be reduced to a shorter expression:

•    But despite this, if.…

•    Even though this is the case, …

But he does not enjoy life’s good things is literally “his being [nefesh] is not satisfied with the good things.” We saw that in verse 2 the verb “eat” had an idiomatic use conveying the idea of enjoying something (see also 5:11, 12). It was linked with the theme of satisfaction, and this same feature is present here. Despite having many children and living a long life, the person is unable to find satisfaction in them (rsv does not enjoy).

The rsv translation life’s good things appears to bring the Hebrew term for “life” (nefesh) from the front of the clause to link it with the noun form good things. However, this seems unwar ranted. nefesh, coming literally from the word for “throat,” has a wide range of meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “life” or “appetite.” It is the same word that appears in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul [nefesh],” designating the total person. A better translation of “and his nefesh does not enjoy the good” is simply “If this person does not enjoy the good things [in life]” or “If he is not satisfied by these good things.” It is interesting to note that nefesh sounds very much like the word for “still born,” nefel, so it is likely this is a play on words. We also note that the word nefesh recurs twice in the verses that follow (verses 7 and 8), though with a slightly different sense.

Good things is the noun form of the adjective “good” used on numerous occasions and indicating material benefits. jb conveys this idea with the word “estate.” Of course Qoheleth has already indicated that material goods can never fully satisfy a person (5:10–12), so in a sense there is nothing surprising in his comment here. tev “if we do not get our share of happiness” does not identify the source of that happiness and is perhaps too general.

Some translation models are:

•    If he gets no satisfaction from anything he has.…

•    If he cannot enjoy the good things he has.…

•    If he cannot enjoy his good fortune.…

And also has no burial: the sudden mention of burial in this illustration may seem at first unusual. However, the contrast that Qoheleth will make between a person who outwardly was blessed with riches and long life on the one hand, and the stillborn child on the other hand, makes this feature more understandable. It is unthinkable that a person with such a huge family should be left unburied when he dies. Qoheleth could be using this as an illustration of some final deep humiliation. The text itself is simple: the man was not buried. Some translations interpret this to mean that he was not given a lavish or appropriate burial (see tev, niv). jb and tob suggest “not even a tomb to call his own,” which appears to mean that he was placed in someone else’s grave. When we bear in mind that this is only an illustration, and that there is an even more unusual note injected in verse 6 of a man who lived for two thousand years, we can appreciate that Qoheleth is here using hyperbole, that is, deliberate exaggeration to stress his point. So our translation can remain: “and if this man was not buried when he died.…”

Some languages will require that we identify an agent carrying out the burial. If this is the case then an indefinite subject can be used, “and if no one buries the man …” or “and if they [impersonal] do not bury him.”

I say that an untimely birth is better off than he: this sentence rounds off the conditional clause. To indicate this fact we can use a connective “then” or its equivalent to show this feature in a more obvious way. I say can be translated literally if a similar expression exists in the translator’s language. If not, it can be rendered more idiomatically as “in my opinion,” or “I think.” In this manner Qoheleth declares that if there should ever be a case such as he has just described, then an untimely birth is better. How it is better will be explained in the next verse. rsv’s rendering an untimely birth is a euphemism, or indirect way of referring to a fetus that dies before birth, either through miscarriage or abortion. Some languages have a general term that covers both situations. It is probably better to retain such a general term than to be too specific (“aborted fetus”) or too euphemistic like the rsv form here. tev “a baby born dead” may be appropriate, though it may suggest the baby has developed to the point of birth. The thought of the verse is similar to that of 4:3. Although Qoheleth uses the “better” saying, the evaluation does not simply give a comparison; it declares that the miscarried child is the only fortunate one. This saying can be rendered in one of the following ways:

•    then, in my opinion, it is best to be born dead.

•    Then I think the stillborn child is better off.

•    To my way of thinking, a stillborn child is more fortunate than he is.

•    I think it is better to be stillborn than to be that person!


Qoheleth now offers readers his reasons for thinking in this way. The introductory For, links the previous verse with this one. We note the verbs comes and goes as references to birth and death, the same feature found in 5:13–16.

It comes into vanity: the subject of this clause is it, which we can identify by referring back to the stillborn or miscarried child. Qoheleth is again using the verb comes, or “be born.” When tev says “it does that baby no good to be born,” it is missing the point Qoheleth is making. He has just argued that the stillborn is better off, so we must be more consistent with our translation. Qoheleth describes the child as born into vanity. The preposition attached can mean “in,” “with,” “by.” The structure of this and the following example suggests that “in” or “with” is the more appropriate preposition. Again we meet the keyword hevel, and again our basic definition of its sense as “enigma,” or “something inexplicable,” is our choice. The child is born and dies “in mystery” or “inexplicably,” meaning that it denies its parents the joy of parenthood. To be robbed of an anticipated child is a painful experience. There are no adequate answers to this enigma. So we can suggest as a translation “its birth is an unexplained mystery” or “a miscarriage is hard to understand.”

And goes into darkness: here darkness may be a reference to the long night of death, but the parallel with hevel suggests a meaning such as “something hidden from our understanding or view.” On this parallelism note that jb uses “darkness” to translate both the Hebrew terms hevel and choshek. We are already familiar with the verb goes as a euphemism for death.

For translation of this clause we recommend:

•    Its death also is painful and hard to understand.

And in darkness its name is covered: name is usually understood in its literal sense of what a person is called. In some cultures stillborn babies may receive a name before they are buried, but this is certainly not true of miscarried or aborted children. In Hebrew culture the name represented the person, his personality or identity. If this is the meaning of name here, then the verse means this child’s personality or identity was never known.

In darkness repeats the adverbial phrase above, so again the dimension of mystery surrounding the child remains. Is covered means that its nature was “hidden,” invisible to the world (note jb “wrapped in darkness”). tev “where it is forgotten” is a very free translation, but again it does not reflect the sad mystery surrounding the conception and departure of the stillborn or miscarried child.

Taking the expression as a whole, then, in darkness its name is covered means “his personality will never be revealed,” or “his identity is hidden from us,” or “because of his premature death, what this child could have been [or, his potential] will never be known.” In many cultures the meaning of name is close to the Hebrew usage, and a similar figure of speech may exist. In this case we may keep the word name in the translation, if its broader meaning is clear.

Some translation possibilities are:

•    The birth and death of a stillborn child is beyond our explanation; its identity is completely hidden from us.

•    Mystery surrounds the birth and death of a stillborn child; death hides its identity from us.

•    The way a miscarried child comes into the world and leaves it is hard to understand. What this person could have become is never realized.

The Hebrew text here is quite poetic. The rhythm suggests a deep sadness and finality:

… in mystery he comes

in darkness he goes

and in darkness his name is covered.

Instead of using the models cited above, the translator may decide on a more literal and poetic translation, if it is felt such a translation is effective and understandable. jb attempts to show the poetry of these lines by indentation. This also is a possibility for translators.


Moreover it has not seen the sun: moreover is a conjunction-like word that means “also,” “furthermore,” “in addition.” It can be translated as such here, but other possible translations exist. It can be rendered as an emphatic “He has not even seen the sun,” or as a concessive “Even though.…” In the present context the latter sense is certainly possible, “Even though he has not seen the sun, yet.…” The phrase to see the sun again is not intended to be understood literally, though a living being generally gets to see and feel the effects of the sun. The sun, as in the phrase “under the sun,” means what we experience as human beings living in this world. tev uses an idiomatic expression, “to see the light of day,” meaning in this case “birth.”

Or known anything: here the rsv translation does not seem correct. The grammatical structure suggests that sun is the object of this verb as well as of the previous one. In this case the stillborn child neither saw nor knew the sun. This view is made plain in nab, “it has not seen or known the sun.” Like rsv some other translations consider the object of “know” to be different from that of the verb “see,” as in neb, “has never … known anything.” The first interpretation is to be preferred, however. “Know” usually has the fuller sense of intimate knowledge and experience (it is used of Adam “knowing” Eve and conceiving a child, Gen 4:1). So here too we can convey its meaning well as “Moreover it neither sees nor experiences anything of human life.” In some languages two verbal phrases may be too repetitive, in which case a simple statement can cover the two: “it has no experience of what it is like to live in this world.”

Yet it finds rest rather than he: this very short sentence is clearly an independent one. It acknowledges that rest is available only to one of two persons. The Hebrew is literally “rest [is] to this from this.” The first demonstrative pronoun “this” points to the stillborn or miscarried child; the second “this” indicates the wealthy but dissatisfied person spoken of in verses 1–3. The rsv rendering can be improved with a translation identifying it as “the child” and he as “that wealthy person.”

Rest is used in 2:23 in the literal sense of being rested and refreshed. When applied to the stillborn child, it can only refer to the final rest of death. Rest then describes the release from toil, pain, and the enigmas of life in this world, especially if a person is unable to find satisfaction within it. After death that person enters “rest.” When jb suggests “never knowing rest, the one no more than the other,” it seems to misunderstand rest as the object of the verb know. The translator should examine vocabulary in the local language that is used in describing the state after death. If the notion of “rest” does not apply, speaking of “peace” or the “sleep” of the dead may be appropriate. In some languages the context of “rest” may need to be spelled out: “Yet in death, this child finds more peace than that wealthy man.”

In translation we may say, for example:

•    The stillborn is at rest, but not that rich person.

•    That miscarried child and not the wealthy person is the one at rest.

•    Only the stillborn knows what true rest is.

The whole verse can look something like:

•    He never experienced life. He never knew what it is to live. Yet his rest is sweeter than that wealthy man’s.


Qoheleth now offers a second illustration; the first was in verse 3. The condition is introduced by “Even if.…” We distinguish the illustration in this verse from the previous one, since here the person does not receive the riches given to the other one. The former person had everything except the gift or power to enjoy what he had.

In the second illustration the person has very little, enjoying no good. The only merit he had was an extremely long life. The mention of two thousand years is an obvious hyperbole, even more of an exaggeration than having one hundred children. Having a hundred children is unusual but possible; living two thousand years is not possible. We shall discuss the relationship between the two illustrations further when dealing with the problem of identifying the pronoun “he.”

Even though he should live a thousand years twice told: the introductory Hebrew particle does not need amending as some suggest. It can be rendered as “Let us suppose that …” or “If it should happen that.…” Est 7:4 is its only other Old Testament use. In both contexts this particle clearly indicates a hypothetical case that is contrary to fact or impossible to realize. Every language has a way of expressing this notion: “Even if he had lived a thousand.…”

He presents a problem for translators in terms of establishing the identity of the person; it refers either to the stillborn or miscarried child, or to the father who had a hundred children, or to another third person. What facts will help us reach a decision on this issue? Some translations (Pleiade French version and bj) believe it is the last person referred to, that is, the child. Others leave it unclear (rsv, tev). According to grammatical rule of Hebrew, the pronoun should refer back to the last-mentioned person. This would mean that he refers to the father. Additionally the focus for the previous illustration was the father, and only secondarily the child. This fact seems to suggest that he refers again to the person in focus rather than the secondary character. So we conclude that it is the father or another person rather than the child or fetus. From the use of keywords also, the evidence of the repetition of the verb “live” and of the noun “years” seems to point to the father as the one in mind.

Thus our conclusion is that this is a second illustration, and that it refers either to the original father or to another individual. It is not the stillborn child who is meant by the pronoun, as in bj for example. However, translators who work in areas where these French translations are known should take special note about how they translate the pronoun, recognizing that there is a different tradition established.

A thousand years twice told is a very literal translation. Meaning two life spans of a thousand years, or two thousand years, it is likely that Qoheleth has drawn on the wording of the traditional blessing from Deut 1:11 (“May the Lord … make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you”), doubled it, then applied it to the length of a person’s life. The translator can retain the literal “two times a thousand” or modify to “two thousand.” In some modern situations young speakers may have trouble interpreting large numbers in their mother tongue (they may be more familiar with numbers in trade or official languages). If this is the case it is possible to write the number 2000 in figures or to include it in parentheses following the wording. Alternatively an idiomatic expression designating an excessive or impossible number of years may be substituted. We may say, for example, “Imagine a person who lived ten times longer than normal.”

Yet enjoy no good: the beginning conjunction should be translated as “But” or “However” to show the contrast between living a long life and being poor throughout. The irony of the situation is that the person enjoys nothing good, or no material goods, though blessed without limit in terms of length of life. The blessing actually becomes a curse. Here Qoheleth imagines a situation in which a person “sees” no good things. The verb enjoy (literally “see”) is his frequent idiom for experiencing or obtaining things, not simply looking at them. See the comments on “see” in 2:1, 3.

Suggestions for translation:

•    Suppose there was a person who lived for two thousand years but had no worldly goods.

•    Take the case of a person who lived for two thousand years, but he obtained no material wealth at all.

Do not all go to the one place? This is a rhetorical question and appears to have an independent status. We can preserve the question form or render it as a statement. See comments in 3:20. All is a general term that may need to be clarified. We can say “every person,” or perhaps “everything living.” The fact that death comes to every living creature is a frequent topic in Qoheleth’s writing; see 2:14–16; 3:19. On the other hand all can also mean “both,” as tev and some other translations suggest. tev says “both of them are going to the same place,” but we cannot tell from that who “both” refers to. If verse 6 actually describes a different situation from verses 3–5, then either we translate as “every living thing” and make the question completely independent. Or we think of “both” as the wealthy person of verse 3 and the long-living person of verse 6. This may be difficult to show in translation; it is certainly simpler to use “every living thing.” Go is again used in the sense of dying (see verse 4 above). The one place or “the same place” is a euphemism for the grave or death, as in 3:20. Again translators may attempt to keep this imagery or to use more explicit expressions.

To translate this question, two possibilities are:

•    Don’t all living creatures die?

•    Aren’t we all heading for the same place, the grave?

In statement form we may say:

•    Death is common to all living beings.

•    Every living thing will eventually die.

•    Everyone ends up in the same place—the grave.

This verse makes it obvious that Qoheleth considers quality of life as the most important element a person can enjoy, not how long he lives. But no matter how long life is, all will die. By claiming that the stillborn or miscarried child is better off, Qoheleth is claiming that the sooner an unhappy person enters the rest provided by death, the better.


Qoheleth now presents a conclusion drawn from the examples he has given. Its message is clear and is consistent with the “no satisfaction” theme of 5:10–12. This conclusion is widely recognized as a quotation that Qoheleth uses because it conveniently summarizes what his views are.

All the toil of man: on the use of toil see comments on 1:3 and 2:10. The term describes both the work a person does and what that work provides by way of reward. Man is a general term and as usual is to be rendered as “people” or as a representative “person.” An impersonal pronoun (“one”) may also be appropriate in some languages.

For his mouth: for marks this phrase as indicating the goal or purpose of toil. His mouth has received various interpretations. The most obvious is the figurative understanding, in which mouth represents a person eating. This is the logical result of concluding that the purpose of work is “to put food into your mouth.” An extension of this view is that in which mouth indicates all the human appetites rather than just eating. The nab footnote mentions this possible rendering. There is, however, another figurative meaning that some have proposed. They suggest that the mouth is a metaphor for the mouth of Sheol, the abode of the dead. In view of the thought in verse 6 this suggestion is attractive. Notice how “mouth” in 5:6 was a metaphor for what is spoken, whereas here the context demands a different sense.

In translation we may say, for example, “All a person works for is to satisfy physical needs,” or “Everything people do is to provide food to eat.” jb says very simply “Man toils but to eat.”

Yet his appetite is not satisfied: our interpretation of the meaning of “mouth” will affect the way appetite is understood. If it is literally eating that Qoheleth has in mind, then appetite refers to “hunger for food.” If “mouth” has a more figurative sense, then the reference is to all physical desires, not only eating. The Hebrew term that rsv renders appetite, and which offers us all these possibilities, is the term nefesh. This term can also describe a living person. So in Gen 2:7 mankind is created, brought to life, and is described as a living “being” or nefesh. In Isa 5:14; Pro 16:19 nefesh is set in parallel with “mouth” and is generally taken to mean “stomach,” hence jb “belly.” By rendering his appetite as the pronoun “he,” we can indicate that a person eats but is never satisfied (see verse 3 for a similar solution.)

Is not satisfied is literally “not be filled.” The translator may use any equivalent idiomatic expression, such as “never gets enough” or “is never full.”

The translator has the choice of preserving the very down-to-earth nature of this proverb or of generalizing the meaning for better comprehension. In many cultures proverbs are common, and a literal translation may be appreciated:

•    All a person works for goes into his mouth,

yet his stomach is never full.

On the other hand our translation can preserve the very general nature of the proverb with something like:

•    Everything people do is to meet their many needs, but they are never fully satisfied.

•    A person works because he is hungry, but he can never be filled.


The initial For does not mark a motive clause; it is the emphatic “Indeed,” or “So then.” The verse presents the reader with two rhetorical questions, both relating to the material presented in verses 1–7. The questions are designed to force the reader to think about the subject; they do not ask for information. Death is universal. So whether it comes early as to the stillborn or miscarried child, or later as to the person who manages to live for two thousand years, Qoheleth asks whether the wise person has any advantages that the fool does not have.

What advantage …? Here Qoheleth uses the form yother, a participle. rsv renders it as advantage. It comes from the same root as the term yithron, “lasting benefit.” Our question then is whether these two forms have the same meaning. We notice that the form of the question is basically identical to that of the key question used elsewhere, so we can legitimately argue that there is little or no difference between the two forms from the same root. However, when we consider the context in which this question is now being asked, “lasting benefit” does not get sufficiently close to its meaning. The context is that of satisfaction, so we suggest “lasting satisfaction” as a translation.

Has the wise man over the fool is literally “to the wise man more than to the fool.” In 2:13–16 Qoheleth argues that wisdom is always an advantage, that it is as different from folly as light is from darkness. Despite this fact both the wise man and the fool die.

Rhetorical questions frequently expect a negative answer. The question here means that there is no “advantage” to the wise man that the fool cannot also claim. If we understand the context correctly, then the “advantage” Qoheleth is considering is in the area of the satisfaction from material things. Qoheleth’s point is that, whether a person is wise or foolish, satisfying natural appetites is impossible because they regularly need “feeding.” Our “mouths” or physical appetites are satisfied only for the moment, and before long we are again “hungry.” This is a fact of life that holds true for everyone, whether they are wise or foolish. The only difference between the wise and the foolish is how they deal with these basic appetites, but Qoheleth does not go into that matter here.

Translation suggestions for this question are:

•    What lasting satisfaction does the wise person have that the fool does not have?

Or in statement form:

•    Lasting advantage is not available either to the wise or to the fool.

And what …? Parallel to the previous question is one asking about possible advantage for the poor.

What does the poor man have: the interrogative what is an abbreviation for the previous “what advantage,” and so we can use that longer form if the parallelism is not obvious. The parallel carries further so that we can say that the wise man in the first question is likened to the poor man in this one. Qoheleth often links poverty and wisdom (see 4:13; 9:15).

Who knows how to conduct himself is in Hebrew “knowing [how] to walk.” In 2:14 the verb “walk” was used to describe a person’s lifestyle, so we can understand why rsv here uses conduct himself. tev “how to face life” (similar to neb) may be misunderstood to refer to an attitude to life rather than the actual life a person lives. We can improve on this translation by saying “how to live his life.” This phrase describes “the poor man” and as such is best introduced by a phrase like “even one who knows.…”

Before the living uses the preposition “alongside” or “opposite,” meaning “in the company of.” The problem with rsv the living is that the Hebrew term can mean “life” as well. Almost certainly we are dealing with an idiom in which conduct himself before the living means living in the community, or being an active member of society. Thus “knowing to walk” means being aware of and living in an appropriate and socially acceptable manner. To help a person live in this way was the goal of all wisdom instruction. Thus “living wisely” is the meaning intended. The living can only mean “everyone” or “all people.”

Some translation examples are:

•    And what lasting satisfaction is there for a poor person, even one who knows how to live in harmony with others?

•    What is the lasting satisfaction for a poor person who knows how to behave properly?

•    What kind of lasting advantage is there for someone who is poor but who lives as he should in this world?

If we use a statement rather than a question form, we can suggest:

•    Nor is there any lasting satisfaction available to the poor person, even one who knows how to live acceptably.


The first half of the verse represents a proverbial saying, and the second half is Qoheleth’s conclusion summarizing his response to the problem raised. This saying brings together four terms that are used elsewhere in 6:1–8: better (“good” in verses 3, 6), sight (“seen” and “enjoy” in 1, 5, 6), wandering (“go,” “goes,” and “conduct [himself]” in 4, 6, 8), and desire (Hebrew nefesh in 3). This demonstrates how closely the saying here is related with the problem Qoheleth has outlined in verses 1–8. This proverbial saying quoted by Qoheleth can be introduced with “It is said that …” or “There is a saying that.…”

Better is the sight of the eyes: as the first element of the “better” saying, the sight of the eyes is given priority. We have seen already that although better is a comparative form, yet the sense is that there is nothing more important or valuable than the item mentioned first in the saying, so that better can be translated “best.” The second element in the comparison, the wandering of desire, is given no value at all.

The sight of the eyes does not mean what a person looks like, nor does it mean a person’s ability to see. Here the proverb refers to the things beyond us, which we look at, and in particular the wealth and possessions we gather. These things provide pleasure to the viewer and are given a value that is higher than “desires.” We may render the phrase “what a person has obtained” or “what a person has laid hold of.”

Than the wandering of desire: this is the second element of the comparison, and it has a negative value. The phrase is literally “the walking of the being.” On nefesh, “being” or “desire,” see comments on verses 3 and 7. The use of the same vocabulary suggests that there is a logical connection between this verse and the earlier ones. This means that the sense of the verb for “go” or “walk” in verses 4 and 6 may have bearing on the way in which it is used in this verse. In those earlier verses it spoke of a person’s path or progress through life, and so here it probably carries the same general sense. It suggests the search for fulfillment of our desires and longings. In other words the saying notes that there is value in deriving pleasure and enjoyment from the material things around us. But endlessly pursuing what is only a dream is of no value.

This also is vanity and a striving after wind: on this saying see comments on 1:14. The initial this, we believe, points to the issues raised in these verses rather than the narrower reference to the proverb itself. Such a conclusion seems warranted because of the close connection between this verse and the previous section, verses 1–8. For this we can say “this lack of lasting satisfaction.…”

Qoheleth argues that being unable to find lasting satisfaction is hard to understand. On the one hand the proverb quoted suggests that to enjoy material things, “the sight of the eyes,” is better than the endless pursuit of some dream, because even if that dream should be realized, there is no lasting satisfaction; we always yearn for more. Qoheleth agrees that this is an enigma, a problem we cannot expect to solve. It is like trying to shepherd the wind.

In translation we can express this by:

•    Enjoying what we have is better than dreaming about what we don’t have. This is not easy to do. It’s like trying to shepherd the wind.

•    There is a saying that enjoying what we have is better than just dreaming. But it’s hard to understand why we are never satisfied. It is as hard as trying to control the wind.

Human Limitations 6:10–12

tev rsv

With verse 10 we have a new subsection (verses 10–12). The reoccurring expression “vanity and a striving after wind” closes the preceding unit. In verse 10 a new topic begins. This unit is closely tied together by the key word ‘adam “man” that occurs in each verse (once in verses 10 and 11, and twice in verse 12). Interrogative particles “what” and “who” are prominent in all three verses as well.

While this subunit comes at the end of chapter 6, it plays quite an important role in chapter 7. Two questions in verse 12 set the scene for what Qoheleth has to say in the next sections. First, “What is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life …?” and second, “Who can tell man what will be after him …?” The text of chapter 7 will address these issues.

Because of the close connection between 6:10–12 and chapter 7, some versions run the text of these two passages together (for example, njb).

Section Heading: though many versions omit a section heading, one may be appropriate here. We can focus on a key theme by asking a question, “What is good [or, best] for human beings?” or give a more general heading, “Human knowledge has limits.”


The structure of this verse needs to be appreciated for satisfactory translation. We can divide the verse into three parts. The first clause makes a general observation about all matter in existence, human and other. All is identified and characterized. The second clause narrows the focus to human beings within creation. The third clause gives an example of what is known about the human condition.

We also note that the verse has a typical Hebrew structure. The first two lines have a chiastic or X-structure:


Note that there are two matching impersonal passives (“has been called” and “it is known”), as well as two relative clauses. Though the chiastic structure may not be an important feature in some languages, in Hebrew it usually marks an important point. The translator may wish to render this verse in a poetic form if this will provide emphasis.

Whatever has come to be has already been named: the opening relative pronoun “That which” means, as rsv has rightly given it, Whatever, or “Anything.” In 3:15 the same expression was used. Has come to be renders the Hebrew verb for existence. See comments on “What has been” in 1:9. tev “everything that happens” is more limiting than the Hebrew, as happenings are events, whereas the Hebrew seems generally to mean everything that exists.

Has already been named: in Gen 2:19 all created things and beings were named as an expression of human control. This is the probable background to Qoheleth’s statement. The other possible meaning, and the one we shall adopt, is that naming identifies the unique features of a thing, its particular qualities and characteristics. This is similar to the meaning “name” carries in verse 4.

We may render this clause “Everything that exists has been identified” or “A name has been given to everything that exists in this world.”

And it is known what man is is literally “it is known that he is a man.” Qoheleth’s passive construction it is known can be expressed “we know,” or “everyone knows.” Man refers to human beings in general, so we can say “Everyone knows what people are like” or “It is a known fact that we are only human.” cev uses an inclusive “we”: “We humans know what we are like.” tev interprets this phrase a little differently, linking it directly to the next one: “we all know that you cannot argue.…” They put the rsv rendering in a footnote. However, it is better to follow the rsv text here.

And that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he: this clause identifies a second aspect of what is known. Lying behind the verb dispute is the Hebrew root “judge.” It has a definite legal setting and can also mean “to carry out judgment,” or even “to govern.” Of course it is entirely possible to argue or dispute with someone who is physically, intellectually, or socially more powerful than yourself, so obviously that is not what Qoheleth is claiming here. What he seems to mean is that you can dispute with someone more powerful—but you cannot expect to win the argument. This meaning should be evident in our translation. Qoheleth is not thinking of a person who is physically stronger, as he was when he used this term in 4:12. Here the term stronger describes a person who is more skilled in debate, or one who, because of social position, can simply deny what we say.

Some commentators see the reference to one stronger as an indirect reference to God. They further see in this verse and the following one an indirect reference to Job and his dialog with the Almighty. Though this is a possibility, it is preferable to leave the question open. It would not be correct to exclude other interpretations.

Our model translations will demonstrate the three-part structure of the verse as outlined above:

•    Everything in existence already has a name; we know what it is to be human; we also know that a person cannot win an argument against someone who has more power.

•    Everything created is known and named. We know what human beings are like. We also know that you can never win an argument against someone more skilled than you are.


What seems to be an independent clause is actually linked directly with verse 10 by the introductory particle ki, meaning “for,” “because.” Thus it provides the justification for the statement in verse 10. This relationship is an important one, for it demonstrates that the “dispute” in that verse is essentially a verbal one, as we have indicated. Here in verse 11 Qoheleth is referring to things people say.

The more words: the verse needs to be provided with an introduction such as “For,” or “The reason is that.…” The Hebrew noun phrase the more words is literally “there are many words.” This sense can be well rendered by a verb phrase such as “the more we talk” or “the more we have to say.” In the context of verse 10, this general saying takes on a narrower meaning, namely, “the more you argue with someone.” This is the basis for tev “The longer you argue.”

The more vanity repeats in verb form the root rab “much” or “many.” As the number of words increases so does the amount of vanity. Since we understand this word to mean something that cannot be explained, our translation will be something like “the more we talk [or, argue], the further we are from a solution” or “the more we debate an issue, the more complex it seems to get.” In this way Qoheleth makes the point that no matter how much we debate and discuss the question of “lasting benefit,” it is like trying to win an argument with someone far more skilled than we are. The result is that we still have no final answer.

Some languages find it difficult to express the construction “the more … the more.…” Therefore it may help to restructure the sentence using a time or a conditional construction: “When people use a lot of words, there is a lot of confusion” or “If you talk too much, you just get further from the solution.” Another possible restructuring is “You can talk and talk, but you will never solve the problem.”

And what is man the better? This is actually Qoheleth’s key question reappearing again. It is the briefest form in which the question occurs. See comments on 1:3; 2:22; 3:9; 6:8 for its meaning and significance. We can render it as “What benefit does a person derive from it?” or “Does that bring us any closer to ‘lasting benefit’?” or “What good does it do a person?” or “What does it gain you?” tev “you are no better off” adopts a statement form rather than using a question. The rhetorical question can be treated in this manner. In some cases it may be necessary to refer to the context: “What does all this discussion gain you?” or “What lasting benefit does a person derive from all this talk?” The noun man is collective, referring to all people.

If the transition between verses 10 and 11 is a problem, it may be necessary to state the rhetorical question at the beginning of verse 11 rather than at its close:

•    10) … you can never win an argument against someone who is more powerful than you are. (11) What good comes out of it? The more words, the more confusion.

The fact that we are dealing with the key question about “lasting benefit” places the debate or discussion in this section into a particular context. Qoheleth is debating whether yithron is available, and if so, where it may be found. Thus the content of the more words refers to the debate about “lasting benefit.” When Qoheleth admits that this is hevel, he is saying that there is no rational or practical way he can demonstrate that yithron “benefit” is available. We can never solve the question of yithron by debate and argument. It is this fact that allows us to understand what the two questions in verse 12 refer to.


The structure of this verse is obvious: it consists of two questions, each beginning with the interrogative who. Introducing the verse is the particle ki connecting it to verse 11. Verse 12 deals more fully with the topic in the question at the end of verse 11. For this reason we should translate the initial For as the emphatic “Indeed” or “So.”

Who knows what is good for man …? As we noted earlier, this rhetorical question plays an important role in the structure of the text. In chapter 7 Qoheleth will begin answering this question by suggesting that it is good for people to reflect on death, rather than just wanting a good time. Although rhetorical questions generally have a negative meaning, “no one knows what is good for man …,” here it may be better to retain the question form because of its important role in the discourse. Good may be taken as an adjective or a noun, meaning we can translate it as “what is best for” or “what good thing do people get.” On good see comments on 2:3.

While he lives is a prepositional phrase, literally “in life,” in which the preposition appears to have the sense of a period of time—”throughout” or “during” a person’s lifetime.

Translation possibilities for the first part of the verse are:

•    Who knows what is best for people throughout their lives?

•    Who can say what a person gets from life?

The few days of his vain life: comments on the meaning and translation of this phrase can be found under 2:3. For his vain life see comments on hevel in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 2. By assuming that “number” actually means few, and by translating hevel as vain, translators give this phrase a very negative sense. Readers will have noted that this understanding of Qoheleth’s position is often disputed in this Handbook. It is recommended that we avoid giving a strong negative slant to our translation. What Qoheleth is referring to at this point is a life that is full of unanswered questions.

Which he passes like a shadow: our translation of the keyword shadow will affect the evaluation of human life that we convey, so we need to be clear about its meaning and use. Shadow can refer to something brief and fleeting, without substance, as in Job 8:9; 14:2. At the same time shadow may mean a shelter or refuge, shade or protection as in Gen 19:8 (“shelter”); Psa 17:8. In Psa 102:11 it is a metaphor for life that is nearing its end. The passing of time is noted in the phrase which he passes. Almost certainly this clause pictures an individual’s life quickly passing to death. The image of the shadow is one of time passing quickly to its end. When facing a simile of this sort, the translator has three choices: (1) translate the figure literally, if it will be understood by the reader: “a life that passes like a shadow”; (2) make explicit what element in the comparison is being highlighted: “a life that passes quickly like a shadow”; (3) omit the figure if it obscures the meaning, and translate its meaning nonfiguratively: “a life that passes quickly.” Combining this with the word hevel discussed above, we have the following translation models: “a frustrating life that passes quickly” or “a life full of questions that passes as rapidly as a shadow.”

The second question in the verse can also be introduced by the emphatic “indeed,” as both questions in this verse have the same function; they both expand on what is meant by the question in verse 11. Although the Hebrew uses a different marker to begin this question, it is apparent that it is functionally equivalent to ki followed by the interrogative “who?”

Who can tell man …? is parallel to “who knows …?” Like the previous one, this question sets the scene for what follows. In the second part of chapter 7, Qoheleth will answer this question. Rather than rendering this question as a negative statement, “Nobody can tell what the future holds,” it may be better to keep the question form, since an answer will come in chapter 7.

What will be after him under the sun can mean what will happen here on earth after he departs from it. This is the tev (“… what will happen in the world after we die”) and jb understanding of the meaning. It can also mean what will happen to a person after that person’s time on earth has run its course. Qoheleth has earlier shown concern about death and beyond, and has noted that the earthbound person has no way of discovering what happens to a person after the body is buried. For that reason we are probably correct to assume that here he is thinking of what will happen to the individual after his body is buried (see also 3:22). However, there is no absolute evidence in the grammatical structure for either interpretation; our view is based on the fuller context. After him can be given as “after he dies.” On the phrase under the sun, see comments on 1:3.

Translation suggestions for the last part of verse 12 are:

•    Who can tell what will happen to us after we leave this life?

•    Who can tell a person what will happen after life on earth?

The overall translation of verse 12 can look something like:

•    Indeed, who knows what is good for a person during this enigmatic life that passes like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen to him after he leaves this world?

These sentences may appear too complex. If so, we can convey the same message in shorter sentences:

•    Indeed, who knows what is best for a person? Our lives are mysteries, passing quickly like a shadow. [Indeed,] Who can say what will happen to us after we die?

What Is Good for People 7:1–14

In understanding how this section relates to the previous section, it is important to recall that chapter 6 ended with two rhetorical questions in verse 12:

(1)    For who knows what is good for people living the few days of their vain life—a life that passes like a shadow?

(2)    For who can tell him what will be after him under the sun? Both questions have an answer in chapter 7.

The first part of the chapter (verses 1–14) attempts to answer the first question, “Who knows what is good for man during his life on this earth?” In Hebrew verse 1 begins with the word “good” (literally “it-is-good a name more than perfume”), as Qoheleth lists what is good or best for people. The word “good” is used repeatedly throughout this section—in 7:1 (2 times); 7:2; 7:3 (2 times); 7:5; 7:8 (2 times); 7:10; 7:11; 7:14. Most of the occurrences make up “better” sayings of the type found in earlier chapters. In fact verses 1–8 make up the largest group of “better” sayings in the Old Testament.

Many of these “better” sayings seem to go against our normal expectations. Like those in previous chapters (for example, 6:3: “It is better to be a stillborn than to be that man!”), their content shocks and challenges the reader to see the point Qoheleth is making. On a first reading it is not easy to see how the state mentioned in the first half-verse can be “better” than the other. Verse 1, for example, states that the day of death is better than the day of birth. Verse 3 tells us sorrow is better than laughter. Qoheleth, however, follows these unusual proverbs with comments that attempt to explain the point he is trying to make. Thus he tells us in verse 2, “it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,” because death awaits every person, and we all do well to reflect on this fact. This series of “better” sayings that characterizes the first half of the chapter provides us with Qoheleth’s answer to the question in 6:12.

This section also provides the answer to the final question of chapter 6, namely, “Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” In 7:14 Qoheleth gives one of his most important conclusions: a person cannot find out anything about what will happen “after him.” It is this latter phrase, “after him,” that connects the earlier question and the answer given here. Also in verse 14 the verb “found” occurs. This is a significant verb, for it connects this earlier half of the chapter to the final half, in which “[not] find” operates as the keyword.

Though the sayings in this collection appear to be unconnected, a loose organization is apparent. Qoheleth touches on the following themes:


It is better to reflect on death than to just have a good time.


It is better to listen to wise persons than to fools, even though wisdom has its limits.


We should avoid sudden anger and a foolish wishing for the “good old days.”


Wisdom is more advantageous even than money,


No one can change what God has done; we must accept the good and the bad.

Conclusion: No one can know anything about what is to come.

This unit has a very neat literary structure, again emphasizing that we are not just dealing with sayings grouped together without any special order. There is a regular pattern visible: each proverb is accompanied by an explanation, or by an exhortation plus explanation. This pattern provides a certain rhythm throughout. Repeated patterns show us where important divisions occur. They also tie the entire passage together. Double “better” sayings, a typical indication of subdivision, occur at verses 1 and 8. Two negative exhortations in verses 9–10 are balanced by two positive ones in verses 13–14. Inserted between these two sets are important remarks about the advantage of wisdom (verses 11–12). Though there are some problems in fixing the detailed meaning of some parts of this section (verse 7 presents particular difficulties), this unit is tightly organized:

7:1–4 “Reflecting on death is better than just having fun”

verse 1

Double “better” saying

verse 2

The House of Mourning is better than the House of Feasting Explanation introduced by “for”

verse 3

Sorrow is better than laughter Explanation introduced by “for”

verse 4



“The wise man and the fool”

verse 5

A wise man’s rebuke is better than a fool’s song [of praise]

verse 6

Explanation introduced by “for” Statement about hevel

verse 7

Bribes make fools of wise men


“Advice on how to be wise”

verse 8

Double “better” saying

verse 9

1st exhortation (negative): “Don’t be quick to anger.” Explanation introduced by “for”

verse 10

2nd exhortation (negative): “Don’t say ‘Why were the old days better than today?’ “Explanation introduced by “for”


“The advantages of wisdom” Explanation introduced by “for”


“Call to reflection”

verse 13

1st exhortation (positive): “Consider!” Proverb (rhetorical question)

verse 14a

2nd exhortation (positive): “Be happy … and consider!”

verse 14b


Section Heading: versions differ greatly in their treatment of the beginning of chapter 7. Perhaps because of the relationship between 6:12 and what follows, njb and frcl run the end of chapter 6 into the beginning of chapter 7. Translators may want to follow these versions.

If a subtitle is desired, we can highlight the link between 6:12 and chapter 7 by using the key word “good”: “What is good for people,” or “What is best in life.”


As noted above, this section (verses 1–4) begins with a “better” saying (verse 1a) that sets the scene for what follows. Through a series of three more “better” sayings and other explanations, Qoheleth makes the point that it is better to reflect on sorrow and death than to have a good time. Such reflection makes us wiser people. The key terms of the section are “good,” “house,” “death,” and “mourning,” as well as the themes of “feasting,” “laughter,” and “pleasure.” Qoheleth states that reflecting on death can have a positive effect on our lives.

In the opening verse, two “better” sayings balance each other. While the Hebrew does not actually repeat the adjective “good” in the second clause, it is understood. This is why tev adds “better” to the second clause (“A good reputation is better …; and the day you die is better …”). In many languages it may be necessary to do the same thing.

The first saying, A good name …, is almost certainly a quotation from a well-known proverb. See Pro 22:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than riches,” for a similar example. The second of the sayings is considered Qoheleth’s own because of its peculiar subject matter and because of the prominence it gives to death.

Literary features are outstanding here also. The first clause displays a chiastic or X-structure. The word good is used in the first part of the clause as a verb, “to be good,” and in the second part as an adjective. A further literary feature is assonance (words sharing similar sounds), as the words “name” (shem) and “oil” (shemen) sound very much alike.


Name is not simply a sound or sounds by which we can distinguish one person from another. In Hebrew the word also means the reputation a person has earned. In many cultures and languages around the world, the word “name” has this same sense. If this is not true a word closer to “reputation” will have to be used in place of “name.” tev adopts “reputation” as its translation. We can say “A good name” or “A good reputation.”

Is better than precious ointment: Hebrew here reads “good oil.” The oil may be ointment, perfume, or even medicine. To render the adjective “good” as precious has given a narrow meaning to the adjective, whereas it can also be rendered “fragrant” (as in reb), “effective,” or “high quality.” Since we do not know what kind of oil it is, it is probably wiser to avoid narrow translations such as rsv and tev (“expensive perfume”). A general translation could refer to any kind of oil and its superior quality. However, we need to be sure that it is not referring to petroleum! In Western cultures the phrase “good oil” does not necessarily mean something of value, but in many cultures in the world, oil has many of the same functions as in biblical times, and the thrust of the proverb will be readily appreciated.

The deliberate play on words based on the Hebrew terms shem “name” and shemen “oil” will be difficult to convey in most languages.

Better can be rendered as “is of more value” or “is more valuable than.” We have noted, however, that the same Hebrew word for “good” is used throughout this section, and that this is one of its significant literary features. It is preferable, then, if the translator can find one word for “better” and use it throughout the passage, if that is appropriate, in order to preserve the Hebrew literary flavor and unity.

The following are some models for translation:

•    A good name is more valuable than good oil.

•    Having a good reputation is of more value than good oil.

•    A good reputation is better than fragrant oil.

•    A good reputation is more fragrant than oil.

The purpose of this first “better” saying is to serve as a model for the next clause, which presents Qoheleth’s own special set of comparisons. In the same way that we recognize a good reputation as having great value, so too the next pair of values, according to Qoheleth, is equally valid.

The day of death can mean “the day you die,” as tev suggests, or the more universal “moment of death” of any individual. Since in verse 2 there is reference to the house of mourning, it seems that a more general sense is intended. We recommend that a more impersonal expression be used, such as “the day a person dies” or “a time of death.” Here day indicates the time at which something happens rather than a twenty-four hour period. Thus any expression that is natural in the translator’s language can be used: time, moment, day. Death brings us back to the theme touched on in 4:2 and 6:3. It is the major reality that confronts every living being. In cultures where it is difficult to speak openly about the subject of death, a euphemism like “pass away” or “disappear” may be required. The translator should bear in mind, however, that the verse is meant to shock the hearer or reader into reflection. Thus idioms that have a positive or hopeful association, such as “join our fathers [ancestors],” should be avoided in this context.

Than the day of birth: tev adds “is better than,” a phrase understood but not repeated in the Hebrew, to make clear the relationship between the two components of this clause. This is a good practice to follow. The phrase day of birth refers to the moment of birth, so again day can be rendered as “time” or “moment.” The Hebrew is repetitive, “day of death … day of birth,” and if possible, parallel structures should be used. Here Hebrew has “his birth,” using a structure that is a little unusual. We can render it as “a person’s birth” or simply “birth.”

If the first “better” saying in the verse is a quotation leading into a second saying, which is Qoheleth’s own, we can express that relationship in the following manner: “It is said that, ‘A good name … oil’; so also the day … birth,” or “They say ‘A good name …”; in the same way the day … birth.”

For translation translators may consider the following:

•    A good name is better than fine oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth.

•    A good reputation is better than good oil; so also the day of death is better than the day of birth.

•    It is said that “A good reputation is more valuable than fine oil.” In the same way, I say, a time of death is better than a time of birth.

The second of the two “better” sayings in this verse sets the tone for the next three verses. These explain what Qoheleth means by the saying in the second half of verse 1.


This verse consists of two parts: (a) a “better” saying, and (b) a clause justifying the ideas put forward in (a). The “better” saying may be Qoheleth’s own, as it contains the kinds of values he promotes elsewhere.

It is better to go to the house of mourning: this clause consists of the adjective “good” functioning as a verb phrase equivalent to “it is a good thing …,” followed by an infinitive “to go” together with the destination. The house of mourning has several possible meanings, but as Qoheleth is addressing the reader, who is still very much alive, then the house of mourning refers to the place where mourners have gathered to lament a person’s death. House can refer to the home itself or the family. This can be expressed as “the home where people are in mourning” as in tev, or “to the bereaved family.” When Qoheleth speaks about “going” to this home, he means that people should “visit” such a place to pay their respects (so neb).

Than to go to the house of feasting describes the opposite scene, a home where there is merriment and celebration; see tev “where there is a party.” The phrase is identical in meaning to “house of mirth” in verse 4. Feasting is from the root used to describe drinking parties in Isa 5:11–12 and (Job 1:5. Qoheleth is not opposed to drinking and celebrating. His many calls to enjoyment testify to that. But in this “better” saying he places more importance on visiting a house where people are mourning than on being where people are celebrating.

Such long comparative constructions may be very difficult to translate in some languages. It may be necessary to restructure the sentences to convey the meaning adequately. For example, it may be necessary to use a conditional phrase and say something like “If you are going to the house of mourning, this is better than going to the house of feasting.”

In the first line Qoheleth does not say why it is better to be present with those who mourn. It is not until the second part of the verse that we discover the reason: in the presence of death people have the chance to reflect and learn something valuable for their own lives. It is part of Qoheleth’s style to set out unexpected and thought-provoking statements first, and follow them up with explanations. If at all possible the translator should try to preserve this important feature of style. In some languages better will have to be rendered as “is more valuable” or even “is more instructive.” However, the translator should keep the style in mind and try to preserve, if possible, the unity and flavor of the passage through the repetition of the key word “good” or “better.”

The following models are suitable:

•    Visiting a family in mourning is better [more instructive] than being at a home where there is a celebration.

•    It is better for you to be where people are mourning than with people who are having a party.

Translators can also try to preserve the proverb-like nature of the saying:

•    Better to be with those who mourn than with those who celebrate.

For this is the end of all men is introduced by the so-called relative marker to signal an explanation; it justifies the above evaluation. This can be rendered by an expression like “this is because,” or by a simple conjunction like “because” or “for.” This (or more correctly “that” according to the Hebrew) needs to be identified. As it stands, the reader cannot be certain what the demonstrative this is pointing to. Does it refer to the act of “going,” or does it refer to one or both of the “houses”? The context suggests it means “going to the house of mourning.” As the house of mourning symbolizes death, we might translate this as “death” or “to die.”

End describes a person’s ultimate destination, death, and the end of earthly life. Note tev “death is waiting for us all.” Qoheleth’s advice is to visit a family in mourning so as to remind ourselves that we too will eventually die. If we preserve the literal figure of the “house of mourning,” we can use a verbal idiom to translate this final phrase: “That is where we will all end up!” Though niv translates “destiny,” the end or conclusion of life seems to be in focus here.

And the living will lay it to heart: the living is an adjective with a definite article prefixed, describing those who are still alive. Of course it goes without saying that a dead person cannot possibly reflect on the matter Qoheleth is discussing. He argues that any truly wise person, or the person who would be wise, will naturally think about the issue of death, our common end. The living can be defined as “any living person” because other forms of life are not considered here. In some languages the most natural expression may be simply “people.”

Will lay it to heart can describe what people naturally do. However, as only the wise are likely to see the logic of this advice, Qoheleth’s sense is probably more in the nature of a call to reflection. The Hebrew verb here should then be regarded as a command form rather than a narrative form. Though there is no object pronoun “it” in the original, most languages will require one to refer back to the previous clause, or more directly to the notion of death. This gives a translation such as “let them think about it” or “they should think about it.” tev “the living should always remind themselves …” and jb “let the living take this to heart” offer models reflecting this understanding.

Lay it to heart is a phrase found often in Qoheleth to describe the process of observation and reflection; see 1:13, 17, “I applied my mind.…” Expressions like “reflect on” or “consider it carefully” will be appropriate here.

Some translation possibilities are:

•    For all people are heading for death; every living person should reflect on that.

•    For every individual will eventually die; this is a fact requiring our deepest reflection.

•    This is because everyone’s life ends in death. People should [take the time to] think seriously about this.


Structurally this verse is similar to verse 2: a “better” saying is followed by an explanatory clause.

Sorrow is better than laughter: this saying can be given meaning only by keeping in mind the previous verse as its context. The word ka’as sorrow also means “vexation” or “trouble” (see verse 9), but in this context sorrow almost certainly refers to mourning the death of a neighbor. Laughter also takes its meaning from the context, namely, attending a party, as verse 2 notes. The term laughter is the one used for empty fun in Pro 14:13 and should not be confused with Qoheleth’s regular term for enjoyment or pleasure.

Again, we might ask, in what way is sorrow better? It is better because it has the potential to teach us something about life. The translator will have to decide whether to keep the first clause with its very brief proverb form, or whether to bring out the meaning more fully. If we decide to make the meaning clearer, we can express this by saying “Being in the presence of people who are in sorrow, we learn more than.…”

For by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad: the introductory particle introduces a clause providing the explanation of the proverb. Sadness of countenance translates the Hebrew literally. The term sadness is not an abstract noun but rather identifies that event or experience which causes the face or countenance to appear sad. Sadness itself cannot possibly make a person glad, though most translations give that as the literal sense of the saying (for example, “when the face is sad the heart grows wiser” nab). This does not convey the proper sense of the phrase. Nor does njv “For though the face is sad, the heart may be glad.” It is much better to say something like “for a sad experience can [or, may] …,” or “encountering some tragedy can.…”

The heart is made glad: we note that the Hebrew text uses a verb from the same root as “good.” Thus it describes an action in which the heart—that is, the mind of a person—is actually improved or made better. For comments on this meaning of “heart,” see “mind” in 1:13, 17. Qoheleth’s thought is that any crisis has the potential to benefit us if we are wise enough to learn from it. We should not take the verse to mean that the face and mind show two opposite emotions simultaneously, as njv “Though the face is sad, the heart may be glad.” Rather, one experience (sadness) leads to a change in an individual’s heart (maturing, becoming wise).

Though the main role of this clause is to explain the proverb before it, it has a proverb-like flavor itself. There is some rhythm to the clause, as one part of the body (the face) is seen to have an action on another (the heart): “by sadness of faces, is-improved the heart.” But as we have seen above, a literal translation runs the risk of meaning very little, so in this instance it is probably better to translate clearly than to try to retain the proverbial form. For translation we may consider “For a tragedy can actually improve one’s mind” or “A sad experience can teach us something valuable.”

The complete verse can be rendered:

•    Being sad is better than being happy, because a sad experience can teach us something valuable.

•    Sorrow is better than laughter, because sadness makes us more mature.


The two phrases house of mourning and house of mirth (or, feasting) are the major inclusions binding together verses 2–4. The saying here moves away from the “better” form to a contrastive form typical of sayings in the Book of Proverbs. Structurally there is a perfect balance between the two halves of the verse. The verse repeats the key word “heart” (also found in 2 and 3) twice. This word provides the transition from verse 3 to verse 4: “improves the heart … (4) the heart of the wise.…”

The heart of the wise: heart refers to the person’s mind or intellectual activity. The wise, of course, refers to wise people in general. In many languages it will be more natural to speak directly of a wise person than to speak of his heart or mind. Though the form is plural in Hebrew (literally “those who are wise”), in some languages a singular form, “wise person,” will be more natural.

The wise person’s mind is in the house of mourning. This latter is a noun phrase, so the verb must be supplied. rsv is does not tell us very much. The sense is that the person’s thoughts focus on the significance of what happens in the house of mourning; hence tev “a wise person thinks about.…” It is not impossible to maintain the “house of mourning” imagery; for example, neb “a wise man’s thoughts are at home in the house of mourning” or njv “wise men are drawn to a house of mourning” approach the sense well.

Two possibilities for translation are:

•    The wise person considers the significance of mourning [the dead].

•    A wise person ponders the meaning of death.

But the heart of fools refers likewise to the mind or thought processes of fools. This second half of the verse provides the contrasting element typical of most proverbs. Though the Hebrew conjunction used here may also mean “and,” in this context it clearly means “but.” A concessive type of conjunction such as “while” may also be appropriate.

Is in the house of mirth is identical in meaning to the “house of feasting” in verse 2, though the term mirth is usually more positive than “feasting.” The link between “house of mirth” and the fool makes it quite clear that this is not a helpful or uplifting situation. Thus tev “thinking about happiness” is misleading. Again house of mirth is an expression for what happens in a place where people think only of enjoying themselves; it is not simply the place or house itself. It points to a totally careless attitude toward life, the mere seeking of pleasure. Translators should take care, however, that their translation of house of mirth does not refer to a house of prostitution. There is nothing in the context that would indicate this meaning.

Translators can follow these examples:

•    while fools think only about having a good time.

•    but fools would rather join those seeking a good time.

For the complete verse a model is:

•    Wise people think about the meaning of death, but fools only think about enjoying themselves.

tev turns the order of the Hebrew sentences around and mentions foolish behavior first. In English this has the effect of putting emphasis on what a wise person should do and gives a concluding effect. If there are particular reasons for changing the order in other languages, the tev model is a possibility. However, we should make it obvious that the second example contrasts with the first by adding “but” or “however.” If not, it is probably wiser to leave the order of the original.


Verses 1–4 highlight the contrast between wise and foolish persons. Following this same pattern Qoheleth gives another piece of advice in verses 5–7: it is better to listen to the criticism of wise people than to the flattering words of fools. Paying attention to what fools say can turn even a wise person into a fool.

The saying here almost certainly is a quotation. Again we have a statement that goes against what we expect. Like that in verse 2 it begins with the verbal adjective “good” followed by an infinitive. Better here will have the sense of “more advantageous” or “more useful.” For a man is added by rsv, though it is hardly necessary.

To hear: the Hebrew verb refers to both hearing and responding to what is heard. So “heed” or “accept” will convey its meaning adequately. Constructive criticism from the wise is an element in the meaning of the term rebuke (tev “reprimand”). This is criticism intended to point out a person’s weaknesses or shortcomings in the hope that they will change for the better. In Pro 13:1 and 17:10, “rebuke” is parallel with “instruction.” “Helpful criticism” or “sound advice” are possible terms to use.

Some models for translation:

•    You are better off accepting the criticism of a wise person.

•    You will be better off accepting the constructive criticism of a sage.

•    Heeding the sound advice of a wise person will do you good.

Than to hear the song of fools: again we have a reversal of what we expect; a song is more pleasant than criticism. Qoheleth suggest that, although the song of fools may be very pleasant to listen to, it is of no educational or other value. Only the wise person’s critical remarks have any real value. Whether song of fools is actually the same as “stupid people sing[ing] your praises” as in tev is debatable, but it does provide an effective contrast with “reprimand.” Qoheleth uses assonance, a series of “s” sounds, to heighten the impact of the second half of the verse—it is a way of ridiculing the fool’s words. Additionally we note that the wise is singular and fools is plural. This singular-to-plural shift is common in Hebrew poetry, though here it may mean that one sage’s words are worth more than the song of several fools.

Though the verb hear in Hebrew is the same in both parts of the verse, it may be impossible to render the two as the same verb in other languages. The translator should find words for “hear” that fit the context. Thus “give heed” or “pay attention to” can be used in the context of the wise person’s criticism, while other verbs may be used in connection with the fools’ songs, such as “listen to” or “be flattered by.”

Again, in some languages comparisons may have to be cast in a slightly different fashion. Sometimes the first half of the “better” clause must be in the form of a conditional: “If you listen to a wise man rebuking you, this is better than listening to a fool praising you.” We can also express the meaning with two sentences: “Criticism from a wise person is better than the song fools sing to you. You should pay attention to the wise.”

For translation the following are possible:

•    Heeding the advice of a wise person does more good than listening to the songs fools sing.

•    The criticism offered by a wise person will benefit you more than fools’ singing.

Or conserving the “better” form,

•    Better to be rebuked by a wise person than to be flattered by the songs of fools.


Earlier in the chapter we saw that verse 3 consisted of two parts, a comparative or “better” saying together with a justification for that saying. Then verse 4 expanded on verse 3 by way of further explanation. In a similar manner verse 6 now gives the justification for the advice of verse 5. It provides a further comment on fools by comparing their merry-making to the sound of thorny twigs crackling as they burn. Such twigs make a loud noise when set alight, but their heat is short-lived and they do not burn long enough nor hot enough to make the pot boil. There may be an additional element in the simile as well. When twigs are burned up nothing is left behind. In the same way the laughter of fools is empty, accomplishing nothing.

As noted throughout, the conjunction For in Hebrew can indicate an explanation, or mark emphasis, meaning something like “indeed.” Though both meanings could fit, it is the causal connection that seems to be in focus here. It is better to listen to the rebuke of wise people than the songs of fools because the latter is merely noise and amounts to nothing.

As the crackling of thorns under a pot is literally “like the sound [or, noise] of thorns under the pot.” Thorns describes a bush or shrub whose branches have thorns on them. Here the term is an abbreviation for “thorny branches” or “branches of the thorn tree.” The crackling or “sound” of the thorns is the sound made as the twigs are burning. It may therefore be necessary to give a fuller translation than a literal rendering of the Hebrew, by saying “Just like the noise made by thorny [or, thorn tree] branches burning.…” The term sirim thorns introduces us to a Hebrew play on words, as it sounds very much like kesilim fools. Again it is the “s” sounds that are associated with the fool and possibly with the sound of crackling fire. It may be possible for the translator to find words that produce the same effect as the assonance in Hebrew. jb uses a repetition of “k-l” sounds: “crackling of thorns under the cauldron,” while njv has “crackling of nettles under the kettle.” The choice of the word thorns may be rhetorical rather than being necessary to the sense of the illustration. If thorns is inappropriate in a language, then “twig,” “wood,” or “branches” can be used. However, the focus seems to be on thin twigs, which burn noisily yet produce little heat.

Under a pot: the pot is a cooking pot made of clay.

So is the laughter of fools: note that there is a subtle switch here from fools’ songs (verse 5) to their laughter. Of course a fool laughs like anyone else, so it is not the laughing itself but the person who laughs that is the focus of the saying here. When a fool laughs it has no significance, it is of no value. The phrase here probably refers back to verse 4, the “house of mirth.” That sound or noise does not have any greater value; it does not accomplish or teach anything. We may translate “so is the sound of a fool laughing,” or “so is the noise of foolish laughter.”

This also is vanity: what does this refer to? If verses 5–6 belong together, then it is possible that this refers to Qoheleth’s advice that we should accept wise correction rather than flattery from fools. On the other hand, here it probably refers to the emptiness of the fool’s speech. If so, then this can be spelled out: “such laughter has no point to it.” tev “it doesn’t mean a thing” is acceptable.

The complete verse may be translated:

•    Like the sound of twigs burning under a pot, so is the laughter of fools. It makes noise, but it accomplishes nothing.

Or, linking up to verse 5,

•    … because the laughter of fools is like the crackling of thorny twigs burning under a cooking pot. It is empty sound; it means nothing at all.


This verse presents considerable difficulties to the interpreter and translator. Not only are there several words whose meaning is difficult to determine, but the relationship of the verse to what comes before and what follows also is not easy to establish. How does this verse fit with the rest of the chapter? Does it flow naturally from what comes before it, or, as some claim, does it have a kind of independent status?

Like verse 6, this verse begins with a Hebrew particle that rsv renders as Surely. njv and jb, however, translate the word as “For,” interpreting the clause as indicating a motive. The choice is important, because it determines whether this verse logically follows verse 6, or whether it has a more independent status. As we will see in the discussion that follows, arguments can be made on both views. Since statements that include the term hevel (of the type in verse 6c) are most often found at the end of subsections, it is unlikely that a “because” statement would find its place here. Furthermore, the word “oppression” seems out of context; its sudden appearance may suggest that a new thought is beginning. We will return to this discussion at a later point, since there are many other questions to be considered; however, we can indicate here that our decision will be to treat the connective as the emphatic “Surely [or, Indeed].”

The first question concerns the text itself. Oppression is a subject treated earlier in 4:1 and 5:8; refer to notes there for comments. Because this subject seems inappropriate in this setting, some scholars have suggested that there is a textual error, and that the word should be changed and brought parallel with the term bribe in the latter part of the verse. Most recent scholars reject this solution, but note neb “slander” (reb returns to “oppression”) and jb “laughter,” both of which represent changes to the Hebrew text. The latter seeks to establish a connection with the previous verse.

Makes the wise man foolish is a phrase that presents yet another difficulty owing to problems in determining what the root of the verb is. The verb appears to be from the root for “make foolish,” but it may have another meaning, namely, “boast” or “shout.” In view of the frequency in Qoheleth of the word for “folly” and its appropriateness in the present context, we are probably best to see the verb as meaning “make foolish.” (See comments on 1:17.)

The next question relates to the interpretation of the phrase, which appears to suggest that oppression has the effect of making the wise person into a fool. How does that come about? Lack of context makes any interpretation a matter of personal opinion. tev takes the view that “when a wise man cheats someone, he is acting like a fool,” meaning that the wise person may act in an oppressing manner. It is also possible that the saying means the wise person is the object of oppression rather than him being the one who carries out the action. A third possibility is that the very existence of oppression in society creates intellectual problems for the wise because it raises serious doubts about the justice of God. We have plenty of evidence that Qoheleth is deeply concerned about the existence of oppression in society. We have seen his comments in 4:1–3, and in 8:10–13 he will discuss the impact that unpunished evil has on the community at large. In view of these other comments from Qoheleth, it may be best to understand him to mean that the very existence of oppression in the world makes the wise person’s advice difficult for many to accept.

Because of these difficulties in fixing the meaning of the text, our translation cannot be too narrow. We can say “oppression takes away the value of what the wise says,” “oppression makes the sage appear foolish,” or “oppression makes foolish the sage’s advice.” It may be necessary to say who is oppressing who. We will want to be as general as possible, so two possibilities are “When people oppress each other, this makes the advice of the wise seem ridiculous” or “In times of oppression, the wise person’s advice looks foolish.”

And a bribe corrupts the mind: the Hebrew says literally “a gift destroys the mind.” Although bribe is feminine, it follows a masculine verb form; but this is a common occurrence with inanimate subjects in Hebrew. The Qumran fragment of this text has “twist” or “bend” in place of the verb corrupts. This is an attractive possibility, since it is close to the sense of the verb “make foolish.” Whichever is correct, the saying seems to be arguing that a “gift” or bribe can influence the receiver improperly. Having said that, however, we should also recognize that the giving of a bribe corrupts the giver as well. This thought may also be present in the text. It is perhaps more likely that Qoheleth is thinking in terms of receiving a gift and of the effect that has on a person’s ability to judge impartially. In many languages an expression like “A bribe spoils a person,” or even “A bribe spoils a person’s head,” will give the proper meaning.

Mind (literally “heart”) refers then to the place where a person makes moral judgments, to a person’s ability to judge fairly and justly. The translator will need to find a natural equivalent. The Hebrew term “heart” has no possessive suffix attached to it, so it is difficult to tell whose heart is being talked about. It seems likely that Qoheleth is making a general statement about every person rather than referring to the wise in particular. It is possible to regard mind as representing the whole person, and simply say here “a bribe corrupts” or “a bribe corrupts a person.”

Some models for translation are:

•    a bribe can divert a person from honest judgment

•    a bribe will hinder fair judgment

or more literally:

•    a bribe corrupts a person [or, person’s mind].

We now come back to the problem of the interpretation of the Hebrew connective that opens the verse. As we saw above, our view of its function will determine how we see the relationship of this verse to the rest of the text. We note that several solutions have been offered.

Some scholars think that this verse should follow verse 12. Others have suggested adding a verse such as Pro 16:8 to the present text to replace something that they think has been omitted. None of these suggestions has any textual support and all can be rejected. However, it is possible to see this verse as an example of the problems the wise person encounters: wise advice is generally ignored because people are too ready to listen to fools, and their minds are easily turned. Or alternatively we can see the verse as commenting on the limits of even wise people. This latter analysis of the text would mean that verse 7 follows on from verses 5 and 6 to end the subunit. The fact that verse 8 with its double “better” saying clearly starts a new subsection would be in favor of this analysis.

Whichever interpretation translators choose, and whatever relationship verse 7 has to its context, the verse does not appear to operate as a motive clause. Thus a word like Surely or “Really” may be appropriate. In some languages an affirming word or expression such as “Yes” or “You know” may be effective. Another possibility is to simply leave the particle untranslated, as in tev.

The complete verse can read:

•    Yes, in times of oppression a wise man’s advice looks foolish and a bribe corrupts anybody.

•    And you know, when oppression comes, even a wise person turns into a fool; and as for bribes, they cloud anyone’s judgment.


Verse 8 contains another double “better” saying. Like verse 1 this seems to introduce a new subsection, which we can call “Advice on how to be wise.” Though it is not immediately obvious, this group of verses follows a logical pattern. After the introduction (verse 8), two negative exhortations follow (verses 9 and 10), each accompanied by an explanation. After this pair of statements there are two remarks about wisdom (verses 11 and 12). The two negative exhortations are then rounded out by two positive ones (verses 13 and 14). The subsection then ends with an important concluding remark: people cannot determine anything about their future.

For an outline of the structure of 7:8–14, see the general comments at the beginning of this chapter. We note several things about this subsection:

(1)    There is continued use of explanatory clauses introduce by “for.”

(2)    The discussion goes from being very practical (verses 8–10) to quite reflective (verses 11–14).

(3)    Throughout verses 1–14 the word “good” plays a major role. Here we find it in verses 8 (2 times), 10, 11, 14 (2 times).

(4)    Most important, we find the answer to the question of 6:12, “Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” The response is “Nobody can!”

While verse 8 serves as an introduction for the whole section, it is also very closely linked to verses 9 and 10. Along with the features noted above, this subunit is tied together by certain other key words: “spirit” (verses 8b and 9); the root “head,” rendered in verse 8a as “beginning,” and in verse 10 as “former.” This forms a kind of chiastic pattern: head-spirit-spirit-head.

Though quite similar, the two double “better” sayings that make up this verse are not completely parallel from a grammatical point of view; the word “thing” or “matter” is not repeated in verse 8a, as is “spirit” in verse 8b. These proverbs appear to be saying two different things, but we can note a slight connection. To get to the “end” of a task you must be “patient.” And at the “beginning” of a project or task you are tempted to be over-confident (“proud”) about your ability and success.

Better is the end of a thing seems to suggest that finishing something has more value than beginning it. What rev translates as thing can also mean “word” or “matter.” Although some translations, like nab, think it means “words” here (nab “the end of a speech”), most use a more general translation (“matter,” “event”). reb suggests “anything.” The term end sometimes suggests a time, “future” or “latter,” but here it seems to signal the conclusion of a series of actions.

It is possible to think of many situations or activities in which the conclusion is certainly better than the beginning, for the end marks the completion of a task. However, we can think of some activities where we feel almost sad that an activity has ended; it may lack the joy and anticipation felt when beginning a task. Lack of context makes it difficult to interpret Qoheleth’s saying precisely, but like so many wisdom sayings it is not intended to cover every possibility. Our translation should reflect the broad truth that very often completing a task is more significant than merely beginning it. Thus we can say “finishing a task” or “completing a project” in place of the end of a thing.

Than its beginning: in Hebrew beginning is from the same root word as “head” and, like “end,” may refer to time as well as location. The noun phrase its beginning can also be expressed as a verbal phrase such as “[than] beginning it.”

It is possible to express the meaning of better more clearly in this saying. We can suggest how it is better by describing it as “more satisfying,” or “more rewarding.” These are our feelings when we complete something. Of course we could also feel relief if the task had been a difficult one, but the idea of satisfaction is able to include that as well. Again the translator will have to determine if it is better to be clearer by translating in a more natural way (“more satisfying”), or whether it is better to keep the unity of the passage by translating “better” everywhere in the same way.

Models for translation:

•    It is better to finish a task than to begin it.

•    Completing something is more satisfying than starting it.

The patient in spirit: patient is the Hebrew adjective “long” used in a metaphorical sense to describe a person’s “breath” or “spirit.” The term ruach “spirit” appears twice in this saying, as Qoheleth draws a contrast between two kinds of personalities. The term spirit in this setting describes the inner person, our nature or temper. In many cultures “spirit” refers only to that part of a person that leaves the body at death. In such a case the translator will need to use the term or phrase that refers to a person’s inner being, such as one’s “heart,” “liver” or “bile.” We can adopt the tev model and render spirit in the abstract as “patience,” but it is probably better to use a verbal expression, “one who is patient” or “one who has patience.”

This second saying contrasts the patient person with the proud in spirit; it considers the proud person to be inferior. The phrase, literally “tall [or, high] of spirit,” describes someone who is proud in Pro 16:18, and conveys only negative feelings about the person. This may be rendered as “pride,” “a haughty attitude,” or “a proud person.” nab “the lofty spirit” could be misunderstood as being a positive value.

Some translations attempt to render part of the Hebrew play on words (“a long spirit” … “a high spirit”) by conserving the word “spirit.” njv speaks of “a patient spirit” being better than a “haughty spirit.” This can be quite effective, but in many languages it will be necessary to abandon the form to conserve the meaning.

Again the nature of “better” can be expressed more precisely as “more virtuous,” in which case pride, or the proud individual, has no virtue at all. Thus “patience is more a virtue than pride,” or “to be patient is a virtue; to be proud is not.” But here again a more precise translation will have to be weighed against conserving the “better” pattern characterizing this verse and this literary section as a whole. jb, for example, and reb highlight the structure and wording of the two proverbs:

Better the end of a matter than its beginning.

Better patience than pride.

Many versions indent these lines in a special way, suggesting that Qoheleth is quoting well-known sayings (see jb or njv). We can also place them within quotation marks or introduce them with “It is said, …” as follows:

•    It is said, “Completing something is better than beginning it,”

and “Being patient is better than being proud.”


The key terms introduced by the two sayings of verse 8 are the basis for a discussion of foolish behavior in verse 9. In particular Qoheleth takes up the matter of anger and its relationship to a person’s ruach “spirit” or “temper.” The advice Qoheleth now offers is presented as two imperatives in verses 8 and 9, using the same form as in the brief negative commands of the Ten Commandments. The first warns “Do not be quick in your spirit to get angry.”

Be not quick to anger calls people not to rush into over-reacting to situations where they may have been offended or lost face. It is the same call for calmness found in 5:2 (“Do not be rash …”), and it will appear again in 8:3. In each of these verses there is a connection with foolish behavior. The wise person should avoid hasty reactions. In some languages referring to anger as “quick” may not be idiomatic, so some other means must be found to express this sense: “Don’t give in to anger” or “Don’t get angry lightly.”

Anger translates the root in verse 3 that was rendered as “sorrow,” its other meaning. This has probably influenced nab in its choice of the term “discontented,” but we should search for a term for “anger” or “bad temper.” Gordis suggests “uncontrolled bad temper.”

When the Hebrew text as shown above uses the term “in your spirit,” it is pointing to an inner state of mind. So a question we can ask is: Does Qoheleth think only of some internal response (this is what we find in the nab version, “Do not in spirit become quickly discontented”), or is the anger more active and outwardly expressed? Our view here is that Qoheleth is probably thinking more in terms of an internal state, so something like tev “Keep your temper under control” or “Don’t lose your temper easily!” convey the notion well. In some languages anger may be expressed in the “spirit,” but it can be in other parts of the body, often the heart, the eyes, the nose, the face, or the stomach.

For anger lodges in the bosom of fools is the explanatory clause Qoheleth provides to add strength to his warning. Anger is associated with fools; in fact, says Qoheleth, anger actually lives in or lodges deep inside the fool’s body. The bosom is where he locates the deep-seated and passionate feelings. If the fool has anger deep within his being, this suggests that this anger is readily expressed. Qoheleth thus warns his readers not to allow anger to move in and dwell within them, otherwise they will become like the fool. In some languages it may not be natural to speak of anger “lodging” in a person. In such cases we use idiomatic expressions such as “their hearts are full of anger” or “they store up anger in themselves.”

One reason Qoheleth has used the unusual verb nuach “lodge” is that it sounds like the word ruach “spirit” in the first half of the verse. In almost all cases, however, it will be impossible to render this kind of word play in other languages.

The following are possibilities for translation:

•    Don’t lose your temper [too quickly], because anger dwells only in a fool’s heart.

•    Keep your temper under control; only fools harbor grudges.

•    Be careful not to get angry, for the fool’s heart is full of anger.


The second command follows the same pattern as in verse 9. It too consists of a warning followed by an explanatory clause.

Say not is rendered in some translations (jb, neb) as “Do not ask.…” This is because what follows is a question, and also because the explanatory clause uses the verb “ask.” It is not necessary to use direct speech in translating this comment; indirect speech is also acceptable. Several possibilities exist for conveying this meaning; for example, “Do not think that the former days were better” or “Do not ask why the former days were better.” This advice is given in the second person. It is also possible to use an inclusive first person plural, “Let’s not ask ourselves …” (frcl), or an impersonal expression, “It is not wise to ask.…”

Why were the former days better than these? The question here is a rhetorical one, so it may be presented as a negative statement: “Do not say [or, think] that the old days were better than the present.”

Why is literally “What has happened …?” The speaker is asking what changes took place to make the present conditions seem worse than they were in the past.

The former days is from the same root as “beginning” in verse 8. Former days refers to an indefinite period of time in the past, so we can say “the past” or “the old days.” However, what is being compared in this saying is not past and present time. The saying means that the situation or conditions in those days were better than the situation or conditions now. Our translation may need to make clear what comparison is being made, by saying “In the old days things were better” or “It was always better in the past.”

Better is difficult to define more closely because we cannot determine in what ways the old days may have been better. Again the root word “good” ties this passage with all the verses before it.

These, or “these present times,” is the other side of the comparison. It may be necessary to use this longer phrase, or to omit it altogether as redundant, following the tev model.

Translators can consider the following:

•    Don’t ask: “Why were things better in the past [than they are now]?”

or in statement form,

•    Don’t think that in the old days things were better [than they are now].

•    … it was always better in the past than it is now.

For brings us to Qoheleth’s reason for denying that things were better in the past. Here it functions as a logical connector meaning “because.” Since this clause follows a rather common saying, it is likely that this is Qoheleth’s private opinion.

It is not from wisdom that you ask this: the final word this points back to the saying in the first half of the verse. To think that the past was better does not reflect the views of a wise person; only fools think this way. The expression from wisdom indicates the standpoint from which the question is asked. “From the vantage point of wisdom” is its meaning, where “wisdom” includes the collective experience of the wise men as well as their traditional methods of getting at the truth, namely, observation and reflection. This can be stated more simply in translation as “if you were a wise person you would not ask this” or “a wise person would know better than to suggest this.”

Although Qoheleth does not offer any reason or justification for his comment, it is possible from other parts of the book to guess what basis he may have for believing as he does. For example, in 1:9–10; 3:15; and 6:10 he has argued that whatever exists now was there in the past, so there is nothing really new in this world. Further, there are no fundamental changes occurring from one generation to another. Of course Qoheleth is not claiming that there is no technological or other cultural progress. He may have in mind the fact that people tend to overlook the problems of the past when faced with problems in the present. Whatever the reason, Qoheleth believes only fools think the past was in any way better than the present. If we wish to turn the question into direct speech, then ask this may need to be modified to “say things like that” or “think that way.”

Some translation possibilities are:

•    To ask this question shows you are not a wise person.

•    Thinking like that proves you are a fool.

tev’s “It’s not an intelligent question” is also a good model to follow.

Both warnings in verses 9–10 urge the reader to avoid foolish behavior. They are two concrete examples of folly. They are not the only problems Qoheleth thought about. Rather, all foolishness is to be avoided.


Verses 11–12 together form a small subunit. They relate to the previous section, however, by picking up the key word “wisdom,” which occurred in the last sentence of verse 10. They share the important key term yithron or “lasting benefit,” as well as vocabulary pointing to more material gains (“inheritance,” “money”). Each verse consists of two clauses, namely, an observation and a supporting clause. In an interesting interplay verse 12a explains verse 11a, and verse 12b comments further on verse 11b. Unlike previous verses the main focus here is on wisdom alone (there is no mention of folly).

The following arrangement of the text shows how verses 11 and 12 relate to each other:


Wisdom is good with/like an inheritance


For the protection of wisdom (is) like the protection of money


and an advantage for those seeing the sun


and the advantage of knowledge (is that) wisdom (is) keeps alive those that possess her

Wisdom is good with an inheritance: this Hebrew clause appears to be a “better” saying, except that “better than,” with the preposition min, is replaced by good with, using the preposition ̀im. The question to be answered is the significance of the preposition ̀im. neb and reb interpret the clause as though it had exactly the same function as min, giving a translation “wisdom is better than [possessions].” For the most part commentators and translators understand the preposition to carry its regular meaning “together with” or “in addition to.” Thus they offer translations which claim that wisdom is of advantage only if accompanied by possessions. However, this seems a very strange thing for a wise person like Qoheleth to claim. It requires us to look further for its possible meaning.

We have already noted that there is a close relationship between verse 11 and verse 12. In verse 12 wisdom and money are regarded as equally important. Furthermore, when Qoheleth uses ̀im in passages like 2:16 (translated “of” in “For of the wise man as of the fool”), it has the sense of “like” or “similar.” These two factors together thus point to its meaning here as one in which wisdom has the same value to a person as gaining an inheritance does. Wisdom is also like an inheritance in that it too is passed down from one generation to another. We are recommending, then, that we treat inheritance as being compared to wisdom, and not as rsv has it, an accompaniment to wisdom. The tev “everyone ought to be wise” is good advice, but it is not quite the same thing as what Qoheleth is saying.

On the translation of wisdom, refer to comments on 1:13.

Inheritance is the noun describing all the material goods that are passed down from one generation to another. See 2:18 for a similar idea. These include heirlooms, precious things of value to the family or society. Some may have great monetary value; others have sentimental value. These precious things that are handed on are like wisdom, says Qoheleth, which is also passed on. It is possible that in light of verse 12 the major concern is with the cash value of these goods. In many languages there may not be a single word for “inheritance.” In that case it will be necessary to find equivalent expressions such as “the things a father leaves for his children when he dies,” or “valuable things passed from one generation to another.”

Translation possibilities:

•    Wisdom is as good as an inheritance.

•    Wisdom is good; it is like inheriting something.

•    Wisdom is good; it is like something precious passed down from our ancestors.

And an advantage to those who see the sun: the initial and appears to be a coordinating conjunction, not an adversative one. This second clause links back with wisdom, which is the focus of the previous clause. Thus wisdom is an advantage.

The term advantage in Hebrew is a form of the key term yithron “lasting benefit.” Here it appears to have the same meaning as yithron itself. So wisdom is not only like an inheritance; it also gives “lasting benefit” to people. This second clause is a noun clause, and it has possessive sense indicated by the Hebrew preposition l attached to the subject those who see the sun. We can give its meaning as “and it provides lasting benefit to [or, for].…” This is fully consistent with Qoheleth’s views that without wisdom there can be no lasting benefit of any kind.

Those who see the sun is expressed in tev as “everyone who lives.” This is precisely its meaning, though the Hebrew expresses it in a more metaphorical manner. The phrase used here is a slightly modified version of the phrases “under the sun” and “under heaven” (1:3, 9, 13; 3:1, 16; 6:12). See comments on 1:3.

For the whole verse we may say:

•    Wisdom is good, like a treasure, passed on from our ancestors. It provides a lasting benefit for all people on this earth.

•    It is good to become wise. It is like receiving an inheritance. For every person in this world, becoming wise has lasting value. Verse 12

Qoheleth now explains how wisdom is like an inheritance; the explanation relates back to the idea of wisdom’s goodness in verse 11.

For is the connecting term, meaning “Because.”

The first half of this verse consists of two structurally identical noun clauses with no verb or other link between them. Literally this says “For, in the protection of wisdom, in the protection of money.” Our problem here is the Hebrew preposition b, which has a wide range of meanings: “in,” “at,” “when,” “with,” and others. The sense of the passage suggests that b should be read as k “like,” but there are no textual grounds for this change. The fact that the preposition is used twice also strongly suggests that it is an original form. Actually there are a limited number of examples in Hebrew where b does have another role, that of indicating what is similar or common between two items. So it is possible that this verse means “As the protection of wisdom, so is the protection of money” or “The protection that wisdom gives is like [or, is similar to] the protection that money can give.” The details are as follows:

The protection of wisdom in Hebrew is “the shade of wisdom,” meaning the shelter or protection it gives. The most frequent application of the word for protection is to describe a person being protected from the sun’s rays (for example, Jonah 4:5, 6; Psa 80:10), or being given God’s protection (Isa 4:6; Psa 17:8). It may also describe something short-lived and passing quickly as in Psa 109:23, but essentially it is the protective sense that seems in focus here. While some versions retain the “shade” image, most abandon it to concentrate on the idea of “protection.” When Qoheleth attaches this word to wisdom, what does he have in mind? How does wisdom protect? The second half of the verse will explain. On the translation of wisdom refer to comments in 1:13.

Is like the protection of money forms the second half of the noun clause balancing the first half. Money or “silver” can also indicate wealth in general. In this setting it is parallel in meaning to “inheritance” in verse 11. This suggests that in verse 11 it is primarily money or material things that are inherited. Wealth protects the person or group that has it. The repetition of the word protection indicates that Qoheleth is not comparing wisdom and wealth themselves, but comparing what each offers us. He does not discuss what kind of protection they give or what people need to be protected from. In some languages it will be necessary, however, to provide a context in the form of a personal object: “protects us” or “keeps a person from danger” may be possibilities. In other languages this may have to be expressed more positively; tev “security” offers a good model. So we can say “Wisdom provides [or offers, or gives] [us] security.” Not all languages will appreciate the repetition of the word protection, so it can be omitted in the second part of the sentence if necessary: “Wisdom gives security just as money does.” Certain languages will require that we put the comparative element first: “Like wealth, wisdom also provides us with a certain security.”

We can translate as follows:

•    For wisdom offers the same security that wealth does.

•    Wisdom will protect you just as money does.

And the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom …: this second half of verse 12 relates back to the second half of verse 11. First, the grammar and structure of the verse require attention. We need to determine whether the Hebrew conjunction, rendered by rsv and, marks a statement of the same kind or a contrast. Most versions render it in the same way that rsv does. But considering the Israelite wisdom tradition, wisdom was always believed to be more precious than silver, gold, or jewels (Pro 3:13–18). So it is more likely that this phrase indicates a contrast: “but the advantage.…” The fact that this second part of the verse goes on to talk about the lasting value of wisdom, and does not refer to money any more, further supports this interpretation. While Qoheleth sees the benefit that money can give, he nevertheless links wisdom with lasting benefit; money certainly can never give that kind of benefit. Advantage is the Hebrew term yithron, which we suggest translating through out as “lasting benefit.” See “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 5, for a discussion of this term.

We also need to determine the meaning of the long clause the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. Literally it is “and the advantage of knowledge, wisdom makes-alive [or, keeps-alive] its-owner [or, master].” In the Hebrew text there is a series of unmarked nouns: advantage, knowledge, and wisdom, and the exact relationship between these words is hard to determine. It is possible that the word knowledge links back to the word advantage, thus meaning the advantage of knowledge. This would be similar to the rsv rendering. However, it is also possible that the two nouns knowledge and wisdom are linked together in a compound expression meaning “the knowledge of wisdom.” Finally knowledge can be understood as a verb rather than a noun. This would give the meaning “knowing wisdom.”

If we consider the context, we note that the second part of verse 11 points out the advantage of wisdom. That verse states that wisdom is good, like receiving an inheritance; but more than that, it conveys a lasting benefit. Verse 12 can be interpreted in the same way. Wisdom is like money; it gives security. But what’s more, it gives life as well. It is likely, then, that knowledge should be regarded as a verb: “the advantage of knowing wisdom [or having wisdom, or being wise] is that it preserves the life of the one who has it.” reb expresses much the same thought: “wisdom profits by giving life to those who possess her.”

Preserves the life of him who has it is in Hebrew “it gives life to the one who masters it.” The causative form of the Hebrew verb for “live” describes giving life to something, bringing it to life; it is a dynamic action whereby life is given, restored, or “preserved.” Thus tev “keeps you safe” seems rather weak by comparison. The translation can be “gives life,” “makes alive,” or possibly (as frcl) “prolongs the life.” The person who is revived or given life is expressed as him who has it, literally “its masters” or “those who master it.” The Hebrew term denotes mastery or lordship and has been used in this manner in 5:11, 13 (“owner”). The same thought is present in Pro 16:22 “Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it.” The feminine pronoun suffix on the word “master” refers to wisdom as that which is possessed or mastered, that is, “to those who possess [or, are the masters of] wisdom.” Translators should be sure that, if a pronoun is used, what it refers to is understood from the context. Otherwise it may be necessary to refer directly to “wisdom” rather than “it.”

To possess mastery of wisdom is to have security, because wisdom gives life. This, then, is part of what Qoheleth means when he uses the term yithron, “lasting benefit.”

Translation possibilities are:

•    But the lasting advantage of being wise is this: wisdom confers life on the one who possesses it.

•    But the lasting benefit of knowing wisdom is that it preserves the life of those who master it.

This claim brings to an end the answer to the first question posed in 6:12, “What is good for people during their lives on earth?” Qoheleth notes that it is good for us to reflect on death, because this leads to greater wisdom. He also upholds the value of wisdom over against the uselessness of the fool and his empty words. Finally he commends wisdom as the only avenue to life and to lasting benefit. In the next verses Qoheleth goes on to answer the second question in 6:12, “What can people know about what will happen after death?”


Verses 13–14 form another subunit within the section 7:1–14. They answer the second part of the question in 6:12. Their structure is similar to that seen in earlier verses 9 and 10). This time a set of imperatives comes in a positive form. Both are calls to the hearer to “see” or “consider” God’s role as creator. Verse 13 begins with an imperative followed by a rhetorical question, providing a justification of Qoheleth’s advice. It tells us that we cannot change what God decides to do. Verse 14 expands on this, giving two balanced pieces of advice together with a conclusion. The reader is called on to make the best of both good and bad times. We human beings are unable to determine what the future holds.

We note that verses 13–14 reverse the pattern in verses 9 and 10 (see placement of rhetorical questions), with a contrast between negative and positive as well. The final exhortation (14) contains two parts:

verse 9 negative exhortation: “Be not.…”

explanation introduced by “for”

verse 10 negative exhortation: rhetorical question, “Why …?”

explanation introduced by “for”

verse 13 positive exhortation: “Consider …!”

explanation in the form of a rhetorical question, “Who …?”

verse 14 positive exhortation: “Be joyful … and consider!”

explanatory conclusion: “God has made.…”

Reflection on human life is an essential part of the wise person’s work; the other part is reflection on what God himself does. In this section we see that Qoheleth accepts the idea that God is active in human history and in the world he created. This forms one of the most important elements in his view of life (see also 3:11, 14; 8:17 for similar ideas).

Consider is an imperative form from the verb “see.” We have noted how Qoheleth, throughout this work, uses that verb to describe the way that he observed and reflected on the ordinary events and people he met (refer to 1:14; 2:10, 18; 3:16; 4:1 for example). Here he calls the reader to observe closely a particular issue and to think about what it may mean. “Reflect on” or “Stop and think about” may be ways of expressing this idea in English.

The matter Qoheleth wants people to think about is the work of God. In translation we can preserve this noun form, or we can do as tev has done and make it a verbal phrase, “what God has done.” neb refers to “God’s handiwork.” There is no further information from the context to tell us what kind of “work” Qoheleth has in mind, so our translation should reflect this very general expression. We can also render it “everything God does.”

Who can make straight what he has made crooked? This question is intended to challenge the reader. It is a rhetorical question expecting the answer “Nobody can.” This can be expressed in translation as “Nobody can ever make straight what God has made crooked.” This is acceptable because the function of the question is to state a truth in emphatic form rather than ask for information. There are, however, good reasons for keeping the question form here. The first is that it intends to challenge the reader, and the statement form does not do that so well, at least in English. The second reason is that the rhetorical question is an important literary feature of this section, and one used quite frequently. However, as always, it is the translator’s language that is the priority, so if rhetorical questions are inappropriate here, a statement form can be used.

In Hebrew the question is introduced by the conjunction ki. In this context it does not seem to introduce a motive or result clause, but an emphatic clause. It emphasizes the question itself, so we can reflect that by using “indeed” or “now” as the introductory particle. Most versions (rsv, niv, tev, jb) leave this particle untranslated here. Translators may do the same or insert some particle showing emphasis.

God’s work is characterized here as what he has made crooked. The created world and human society are all God’s doing, and it is “twisted” or “bent.” This view of the world has been seen already in 1:15 (see comments there). The problem we must first solve is to determine whether the intended meaning of this proverb is negative. If so, then our translation can reflect that negative sense. However, because this is such a general saying, and because there are many situations in the natural world where being “crooked” is not a defect, we recommended an interpretation that is more positive. We can indicate that “crooked” is simply the way things are; this is how God has fashioned the world. Human beings have no power to change that. A careful choice of words will help us to communicate this positive meaning, or at least to avoid too negative a slant. It is better to use a neutral verb like “straighten” than a loaded term like “fix” or “make right.” In the same way the rendering crooked is an unfortunate choice in English, because it has such negative connotations. “Bent” would be better.

In translation we can say something like:

•    Think about what God has done [or, made]; is there anyone who can make straight what he has bent?

•    Look closely at God’s handiwork; nobody can straighten out what he has curved.

•    Observe everything God does; can any human make straight what God intends should be bent? Of course not!

cev also provides an alternative model:

Think of what God has done!

If God makes something crooked,

can you make it straight?

When tev changes the form of the rhetorical question to “How can anyone …?” there is the possibility of misunderstanding Qoheleth’s meaning. This is an idiomatic use of “How can …?” which is not asking “how?” but saying that “there is nobody who can.” This possible difficulty can be avoided by using only a form of rhetorical question that gives the right sense in the translator’s language.


If people cannot alter the way things are in this world, what should they do? Qoheleth answers this with two further imperatives, be joyful and consider. Consider repeats the opening call in verse 13. This repetition suggests that the focus lies with this verb. The former, be joyful, uses the verb “be” and the adjective “good” rather than the usual “see” as in 2:1, 22. Perhaps the reason for the slight change in this case is that the verb “see” is used in the second imperative, “consider.”

In the day of prosperity: this is a metaphorical use of the term day, meaning “occasion” or “time” rather than a twenty-four hour period, and is identical to what we have seen in 7:1. Here it is a dependent form bound to the word “good.” The presence of the keyword “good,” both here and in the next phrase, continues the literary theme begun in the last verse of chapter 6 and continuing throughout this chapter. This term occurs here as a feminine noun in the singular, but it has a collective sense meaning “good things,” hence rsv prosperity. tev expresses the phrase as “When things are going well for you,” providing a clearer contrast with the second half of the verse; but rsv prosperity is actually closer to the sense of material goods contained in the original term. Before deciding which term to use to render prosperity, the translator needs to consider the advice in the following clause, because it addresses the opposite condition. We need to find a natural contrasting pair of terms for this verse, such as “good” … “bad,” “prosperity” … “adversity,” “abundance” … “lack.” A very natural expression in English is “When times are good.…”

Be joyful consists of the imperative of the verb “be,” with the adjective “good.” As was noted above, Qoheleth generally uses the verb “see” in connection with “good” to denote enjoyment. Here he has modified the phrase slightly, but the meaning is obviously the same. The call to enjoy the things God gives is an important part of Qoheleth’s overall instruction to his readers.

Some suggestions for translation are:

•    Be happy when you have the good things of life.

•    Enjoy life’s good things.

•    When you have something good, you should enjoy it.

•    When times are good, enjoy yourself!

And in the day of adversity: the introductory conjunction and may be better understood as providing the sharp contrast between this portion of the saying and the previous one. Translation as “but” may make that sense clearer.

Day is used in the same sense as in the previous phrase, that is as “moments” or “occasions.” Adversity is a good translation of the Hebrew noun for “evil,” since it does not have any moral sense here; it simply describes the many troubles that strike us during our life on earth (see 1:13; 5:13; 6:1 for similar ideas). Qoheleth’s idea then is “whenever disaster strikes,” or “whenever there are problems.”

Consider recalls the opening imperative of verse 13. The call is to meditate on the things God does and also on those things that happen to us in a more general sense. In this way Qoheleth hopes that we will learn from the tragedies we see as we live in this enigmatic world. The theme of this verse reminds us of the opening verses of the chapter (2–4), where we are told that death, sorrow, and mourning are good for us, since they can teach us wisdom. This repetition of theme is another clue that the section is moving toward its close. We can translate as “but whenever there are problems, stop and think about what they might signify” or “when disasters strike, ask yourself what is really happening [or, what you can learn from them].”

We observe here that Qoheleth, like all sages, divides human experience very simply into good and bad. This is a special and stylized way of speaking. Qoheleth is not saying that only when we have many goods can we enjoy life, or only when we meet difficulties should we ponder them. The simplistic division he uses could give us that impression, but it would be a false conclusion. Actually we are to enjoy every moment, since they are given to us by God; both life and toil with all its hardships are for us to rejoice in (see comments on 2:24; 3:12 for instance) and to ponder. Only a wise person could suggest that this is possible.

God has made the one as well as the other: this is a point at which Qoheleth’s understanding of God’s activity in this world becomes very clear. He shares an idea that the prophet Amos also expressed (for example Amos 4:6–11), namely, that all events are ultimately God’s doing. If God is truly all-powerful, then one conclusion these writers drew is that God is the origin of everything that happens, regardless of whether we consider it good or evil.

When Qoheleth says that God has made all these things, he uses a verb that is from the same root as the word “work” in verse 13. Since it is not certain that Qoheleth is thinking only about creation here, we may avoid that narrower understanding if we give its meaning here as “done” or “caused.” Even if we believe that God permits or allows things to happen, rather than that he actively causes them all, that view cannot appear in our translation, for it would distort what Qoheleth believed and said.

The object of the verb “done” or “made” is put first in the Hebrew clause in order to draw special attention to it; literally it is “this as well as this made God.” On several occasions we see Qoheleth using this device to point to two alternatives, as in 3:19 (“as one dies, so dies the other”); 6:5 (“it rather than he”); and 11:6 (“this or that”). Some languages actually use a pattern similar to Hebrew, “this one and this one,” to refer to two different and often opposite items. In other languages such an expression would never be understood. In many languages we would have to use contrasting demonstratives, “this one and that one.” To make clear what the one as well as the other is referring to, translators can use the same two terms used earlier in the verse to render “the good things” and “disasters”; for example, “God causes [or, sends] both joy and trouble.”

So that man may not find out appears to say that God deliberately makes it impossible for people to understand what he does. The Hebrew conjunction translated so that occurs only here in the Hebrew Old Testament, though it is used in Aramaic in Dan 2:30 and 4:17. Some commentators have suggested “because” with a result clause as an appropriate translation, but it is more accurate to use “in order that” or “so that” with a purpose clause.

Man may not find out: we can render man as the collective “people,” or representative “anyone,” or “a person,” as the noun used is the general term ‘adam “humanity.” Qoheleth argues that the purpose of God’s activity is to prevent people from finding out what he is doing. May not find out features one of the significant key words in this portion of Qoheleth’s presentation. It is used in the same way as the verb “know” in passages like 8:5, 7, but here it suggests that man is on a search, looking for something. Thus if a verb like “[not] find” is inappropriate in the translator’s language, expressions like “cannot discover,” “cannot figure out,” “never come to understand,” or even “may never [come to] know,” would be acceptable. Qoheleth shares the belief that human beings are limited in ability. Despite having the power to discover many things about themselves, about the world, and about God, human knowledge is nevertheless severely restricted. This is a statement of fact, certainly not a complaint or criticism.

Anything that will be after him directs our attention back to 6:11–12 and to the question about what a person can know about events “after him.” In 1:9–10 and 7:10 there was reference to Qoheleth’s view of events; he argued that there was nothing new in the world, because today’s events repeated past events. By analyzing what happened in the past, we can know a little about the future. Anything may be expanded in translation to read “anything that happens.” Him in this clause refers back to man and not to God.

The time phrase after him can refer to:

(1)    events in the future before our death;

(2)    things taking place in the world after we depart it; or

(3)    what happens to us after we die and depart this earth.

Our phrase here lacks the modifying phrase “under the sun” (seen in 6:12), so we should aim for a translation that is general enough to allow all three of the above possibilities. For example, “so that people will never discover what will happen in the future,” “so that we can never know what the future holds for us,” or “so that we can never discover what happens to us after we die.”

The suggestion of nab that find out means “to find fault with” what God does is an over-interpretation of the way that verb functions in Qoheleth, though tev and several other versions put this interpretation in a footnote. jb “so that he may know nothing of his destiny” is sufficiently general to provide a good model, but tev “you never know what is going to happen next” seems to have lost the broader or long-term emphasis.

The first part of the verse has a very balanced structure and almost a poetic ring. There is again a rhythm in the movement of thought, which the translator should try to preserve, if possible:

In the day of good, be joyful

In the day of evil, consider

this one and that one

God has made …

The entire verse can be rendered:

•    When times are good, enjoy yourself.

When times are bad, stop and reflect.

Yes, God has made both the good and the bad,

So that no one can ever know what the future holds.

•    In prosperity, rejoice.

In adversity, reflect.

For God has created both of these,

and we can never know what happens after we die.

Avoid Extremes 7:15–18

As noted earlier, it is not easy to define the internal organization of chapter 7. The two questions in 6:12 have just been answered, and so we move into another new section. Some scholars see verses 15–18 as a unit, followed by three independent sayings, verses 19, 20, 21–22. Many, bothered by the lack of continuity, have even suggested that some verses have been dropped out or been moved around, out of their original order. While it is true that verses in this section are only loosely connected, there are some ties that link them together.

Verses 15–18 can be readily identified as a unit. At verse 15 Qoheleth changes to first person and makes an important observation about the righteous and unrighteous. He notes two facts that cannot be explained or understood on the basis of traditional wisdom: a righteous person can die young, while an unrighteous one may enjoy a long life. Verses 16–17 are parallel in structure. They both include two negative imperatives followed by a rhetorical question. The subsection ends with a modified “better” saying followed by an explanatory clause (verse 18).

Apart from the structural elements of observation, warning, and conclusion that form the framework here, there are the keywords “righteousness” and “injustice,” and the concept of untimely death, that characterize all three verses. In addition we note an inclusion that further binds this subsection together. Verse 15 begins with the word “all,” while verse 18 ends with it, thus providing a bracket around these verses.

Section Heading: nrsv has a heading at this point, “The Riddles of Life,” which covers the remainder of the chapter, verses 15–29. For a heading to serve just this subsection (15–18), we suggest something like “Avoid extremes.”


In my vain life is Qoheleth’s way of referring to the life he has led. What does he mean by this phrase? Does he mean that his life has been of no value, that it is “useless” as tev claims, or “empty” as neb suggests? jb thinks that his life has been “fleeting.” njv also interprets “in my own brief span of life.” The Hebrew is “in the days of my hevel.” On the term hevel in this book, refer to comments in “Translating Ecclesiastes,” page 2.

The Hebrew noun for “days” refers to the duration of his life up to the present, while the term hevel describes the context in which he lived, rather than the nature of his existence. When Qoheleth uses the term hevel, he generally portrays a situation that is enigmatic, difficult to comprehend. So our conclusion is that this condensed phrase means that Qoheleth lived out his life in a world that was full of unanswered questions and problems. They are the kinds of things he listed in 5:17. This understanding suggests a translation like “Throughout my life in this problem-filled world,” or “While living in this strange [enigmatic] world.”

I have seen everything: the Hebrew begins the verse with this clause. Placing the clause at the head of the verse gives it emphasis. The word “all” (translated everything) is the first part of what is called an “inclusion” for the section; that is, it is a term found at both the beginning and end of a section of discourse, thus marking for us where the section ends and where it begins; the second “all” occurs at the end of verse 18. When Qoheleth says that he saw everything, the context here suggests that he really means he saw many things, and the two following cases are examples of them. We may also give its meaning as “so much” (so jb), or “so many things.” neb has “all manner of things.”

Have seen: on the verb “see” and its meaning in this book, refer to comments in 1:13–14.

Two translation examples:

•    I have observed so much during my life in this problem-filled world.

•    I have seen so many incomprehensible things in my life.

There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness: this is the first of two parallel clauses telling us what Qoheleth saw. There is translates a Hebrew word that points to a class or group of people. It can also be rendered by “there is the case of.…” Righteous in the Old Testament usually has a very clear bond with the Law. A righteous person is one who lived in accordance with the Law. tev “a good man” is a rather weak alternative. Because Qoheleth offers this as an example to be considered, we can convey his meaning by saying “For example, there are some people who faithfully keep God’s Law.”

Who perishes describes the fate of the righteous person and states simply that the person dies. In itself, the fact that a human being dies is not surprising, but what concerns Qoheleth here is the fact that a righteous person may have his life cut short or die before his time, while the nonrighteous person may have a long life. This is contrary to the traditional school of wisdom, which taught that evil people would not be prosperous or have long lives. Only wise and just people would be wealthy and live long (see Pro 3:1–3). It is the early death of a righteous person that leads Qoheleth to say that this world is difficult to understand (hevel). To communicate this idea effectively, translators may need to say “[righteous] people may die an early death,” “… die before their time,” or “… die prematurely.”

In his righteousness is a prepositional phrase with an adversative function. That is to say, it marks what happens to a person “in spite of” being righteous. Similar uses of the preposition can be found; for example, in Num 14:11 “in spite of all the signs which I have wrought among them.” Translators may feel that it is better to expand this prepositional phrase into a clause: “Despite the fact that they have followed the Law faithfully, they have not had long lives.”

The repetition of the word righteous in the Hebrew here emphasizes Qoheleth’s dismay at this unhappy situation. The translator should try if possible to express the emotion of the phrase. However, in some languages such repetition will not be natural and should be avoided.

Suggestions for translation:

•    There is the case of a righteous person who dies an early death despite being just.

•    For example, there are some who faithfully keep the Law, but die an early death despite that.

In some languages it may be quite natural to begin this part of the verse by repeating “I saw …”; thus:

•    I saw people who had followed the Law faithfully, but they did not live long lives.

And there is a wicked man: the evil person (rashà), or wicked man, contrasts with the righteous person of the first example. The wicked person ignores the Law and its requirements, mistreats others, and in particular offends God. According to Israelite tradition, this kind of individual would meet an early death, because God would punish him (see Pro 11:19–21; 24:19–20). tev does not translate this phrase literally; it prefers to show the contrast by using “while others …,” then later describes these people as “evil.”

There is: see comments earlier in this verse.

Who prolongs his life means that the wicked person actually seemed to live longer; the expected judgment from God against evil did not come. To “prolong life” in the Hebrew is not a transitive verb, as if the person actually did something enabling himself to live longer; it simply means “lives long.” neb “growing old …” is an excellent suggestion. We can avoid the problem in the rsv rendering by simply saying, “who lives a long life.” This is the sense of the Hebrew verb when used intransitively. tev and jb have “lives on,” suggesting that he outlived the righteous person. The sense of nab “surviving” is that the person manages to keep on living, but not at any significant level of success. We perhaps should avoid that latter model.

In his evil-doing follows the same pattern as in the first half of the verse, so the Hebrew preposition means “in spite of,” or tev “even though.” See comments above on the function of this preposition. His evil-doing is literally “his evil,” referring to the person’s evil ways and deeds. This makes the rsv model more appropriate than the tev, which simply uses the adjective to describe him (“he is evil”).

We can translate as:

•    … and there is the case of a corrupt person who lives a long life despite his evil deeds.

•    … and there are others who disobey God’s Law, but despite that still enjoy long life.

•    But I also saw evil people living long lives, even though they disobeyed God’s Law.

The last two clauses in this verse exhibit a strict grammatical parallelism:

There is a righteous person, dying in his righteousness;

and there is a wicked person, living in his evil ways.

It may be possible for the translator to translate these lines following this pattern, if the meaning can be faithfully preserved. For example,

•    One man dies, even though he is righteous [or, faithful to the Law];

And another lives, even though he is wicked [or, he disobeys the Law].

It is more important, however, that a translation be faithful in terms of meaning rather than structure. So if such grammatical parallelism is not appreciated, the translator may give a freer and more natural translation.


This verse and the next are parallel in form and expression. Each consists of:

(1)    two negative imperatives warning the wise (verse 16) and the fool (verse 17) against over-zealous action;

(2)    a question form asking why one would wish destruction or an early death.

Our layout of the text can demonstrate these features.

Qoheleth often uses parallel sayings to demonstrate that there are two possible responses to a given situation or problem. We can see this feature, for example, in 3:17, 18. Neither of the views expressed in this form are necessarily those of Qoheleth himself; rather, his own view usually follows in the “better” saying. We need to appreciate this feature of Qoheleth’s literary style, otherwise we shall miss his point. The two parallel sayings express popular opinion. This means that we can put them inside quotation marks and, if required, additionally mark them by adding “It is said, …” or “Some would say, …”

Be not righteous overmuch: the peculiar Hebrew of this command must be appreciated. It consists of the verb Be in the negative, together with the noun meaning “righteous person” and a word meaning “greatly, increasingly.” Here the word righteous refers to a person who considers himself just; he is a self-styled righteous person. The word for “greatly” does not mean “too much” in the sense of “excessive” or “overmuch”; nor does it contain a value judgment, for it modifies the verb “be,” not the noun “righteous person.” Overmuch refers to the tendency to self-righteousness. Qoheleth calls the reader to turn away from that kind of pretense. In translation we can say “Don’t be too sure of your righteousness” or “Don’t think of yourself as so righteous.”

And do not make yourself overwise: here the negative is attached to a form of the verb that can indicate a reflexive or reciprocal action; but neither applies here. It can also mark pretense, regarding yourself as something you are not. This latter sense fits the present context, giving a translation “do not pretend to be wise” or “don’t try to make yourself appear wise [when you aren’t].” An adverb modifying the verb warns against going too far in pretending to be wise.

A possible model for translation of the first part of the verse is:

•    Some would say, “Do not make such a show of your self-righteousness, and don’t overdo a claim to be wise.”

Why should you destroy yourself? This is a rhetorical question, a particularly powerful way of making a statement. We may preserve the question form, but in some languages Qoheleth’s point will probably be easier to grasp if we express it as an emphatic statement. In this way we can convey the certainty of the destruction that will come if we ignore Qoheleth’s warning.

Destroy yourself: this renders an unusual Hebrew verb form; of its two possible meanings, “be horrified” and “destroy oneself,” only the latter applies here. In the context of verse 15, with its concern about dying before reaching old age, destruction in this verse takes on a narrower sense; destroy yourself then refers to meeting an early death. This view is supported by the parallelism it shares with the following verse. However, in terms of Qoheleth’s actual presentation, the present verse offers a more general form, which is narrowed down in the next verse. In this context the translation should retain the idea of “destroying yourself” or “killing yourself,” and use “die” in the following verse. This is quite different from the sense that neb gives, “… don’t make yourself a laughing-stock.”

In translation we may use a question form like:

•    Why would you wish to kill yourself?

•    Do you want to destroy yourself?

or a statement form:

•    That way you would certainly destroy yourself.

•    If you act that way, you will die an early death!


A second possible but opposing response to the situation outlined in verse 15 is quoted. Some might argue that, in light of the fact that certain evil people live long lives, doing evil is the way to insure a long life. (See further discussion of this argument in 8:10–13).

Be not wicked overmuch follows the pattern of the previous verse with a negative imperative “do not do evil,” and again the expression meaning “greatly, increasingly.” The warning against excessive evil fits neatly with the entire Old Testament tradition—prophetic, legal, and liturgical—which also opposed it. The adverb overmuch does not mean that a certain amount of evil is acceptable, just as long as it is not too much. It is rather a warning against giving yourself wholly to doing evil. There is a great difference. “Don’t give yourself over to evil!” is the sense.

Neither be a fool: here the expression parallels the opening warning of verse 16, in that Qoheleth again uses the negative imperative of the verb “be” with the noun “fool.” Thus the warning against being a self-righteous individual is paralleled by a warning against being a fool.

Our translation of this part of the verse can be:

•    Do not abandon yourself to evil, nor be a fool.

Why should you die …? On translating the rhetorical question in these circumstances, see the comments above on verse 16. Whereas the first half of these two responses forms a contrasting pair, the irony is that the second half of both verses features basically the same question form. “Destroy yourself” in verse 16 is here expressed as die; it again has the meaning of an early death. We have a choice here also between retaining the question form and expressing its thought as a statement.

Before your time: or “when it is not your time.” In chapter 3 Qoheleth demonstrated that all times and events are under God’s control, death included (3:2). Time refers to that same feature of God’s order. Here it has the sense that although there is a fixed moment for our death, that timetable can be overthrown if God needs to act in judgment. Our evil will be judged, and death will be the punishment. This naturally reflects Israel’s traditional view of things, so a decision to follow evil will not guarantee long life. That fact points up the irony of the situation we face—neither great righteousness nor great evil can guarantee that we will live longer.

Two translation possibilities are:

•    Why would you want to die before the time God has appointed?

•    [If you do] you will certainly die sooner than you should.


This subsection, which opened with an observation in verse 15 followed by two warnings in verses 16–17, now concludes in Qoheleth’s usual manner with a “better” saying followed by an explanatory clause. The structure allows us to identify verse 18 as Qoheleth’s own personal conclusion.

His conclusion features complementary verbs, “take hold of” (positive), and “do not withhold” (negative). The objects of these verbs are expressed by using the same demonstrative pronoun, “this,” as in verse 14 and elsewhere. The first “this” points back to the view expressed in verse 16, and the second “this” (translated that) points to that of verse 17. In this manner Qoheleth shows that he agrees with the ideas presented in those two verses. His explanation at the end claims that the person who fears God, namely, the wise person, will cope with such a situation.

It is good that you should take hold of this: the adjective good introduces a modified “better” saying. We consider it a modification of the standard saying, because rather than comparing two things and suggesting one is better, Qoheleth here recommends both. Good here seems to carry a sense of strong obligation, in which case we can use “should,” “ought,” or “it is best.”

Take hold of or “grasp” was used in 2:3. There Qoheleth used it to describe what he was doing when he tested folly to gain a more personal understanding of it. Here the sense is of commitment to something, to embrace an idea or accept a belief.

This points back to what has just been mentioned. See comments on Qoheleth’s use of the pronoun “this” in verse 14. When this is used twice or as a pair in a concluding phrase, the first “this” refers back to the first of the actions referred to. The second “this” relates back to the second example given. Therefore in the present context this can be made clearer by referring specifically to wisdom. nab renders this as “this rule,” but it is uncertain which rule it has in mind. In verse 16 the negative form, “Don’t be a self-righteous individual pretending to be wise,” was used. Our translation will need to express clearly that it is this particular demand that readers are urged to grasp or accept.

And from that: the Hebrew repeats the same term “this,” rendered as that in rsv. It points to verse 17 and its warning against being evil, that being the second item discussed there.

Withhold not your hand is parallel to the preceding phrase, “take hold.” As in 11:6 the verbal phrase “withhold your hand” means to refrain from doing something. Withhold not is a call not to abandon a task; we can also put it in positive form and say “keep on doing something.” That “something” of course refers back to verse 17. In this case the negative verb “do not withdraw” alongside the negative command of verse 17, “do not be evil,” combines to produce a positive command. Its sense is “Do not stop resisting evil,” or in positive form, “Keep on resisting evil.” Qoheleth supports the need to reject self-righteous pride and to resist evil. Despite the fact that both wise and foolish life-styles can result in an early death, it is still Qoheleth’s opinion that commitment to a just and wise life-style is always honorable.

Combining the meaning of both sentences, we see that Qoheleth wants the reader to “hold onto” what he has just said in the previous verses. Thus we have not changed the meaning if we collapse these parallel phrases “grasp” and “don’t let go of” into one expression: “hold onto,” “don’t forget,” “keep in mind,” or something similar.

Translation possibilities for the first half of the verse are:

•    It is best to avoid self-righteousness and pretense to wisdom, and to ceaselessly resist evil.

•    It is good to not forget either of these warnings.

•    You had better keep carefully in mind both pieces of advice.

Here Qoheleth demands an active rejection of both self-righteousness and evil.

For he who fears God: the initial “for” or “because” marks this as Qoheleth’s justification or explanation for doing what he has just suggested. The subject of this sentence is he who fears God, an alternative expression for the wise person (Pro 1:7). “Fear” in its biblical setting is a deeply reverent, worshipful, or respectful attitude to God. So we can say “he who honors God.” Honoring God would be demonstrated by rejecting self-righteousness and evil. tev “if you are religious” does not correctly express the meaning here; fulfilling religious functions is not necessarily the same thing as having a respectful attitude to God himself.

Shall come forth from them all: this is the promised reward offered all those who give God his due honor. What this phrase means, however, is a problem. The phrase shall come forth may mean “escape” or “avoid” as some have suggested. In this case it is understood that the punishments mentioned in verses 16–17 will be avoided. Such an understanding lies behind the translations “will succeed” (nab) or “will win through” (neb). However, we have already seen how Qoheleth does not call people to simply avoid certain extremes; he calls for an active rejection of pretense and of evil. tev “you will be successful” reflects this traditional understanding of the phrase but is too vague.

A second possible meaning is based on the form of this expression in the Jewish Mishnah. There the verb come forth is an abbreviation for an idiom “to be released from the obligation by fulfilling it.” In other words, the verb means we should do our duty, what is expected of us. Applying this sense to the present context, it means the person who honors God will fulfill all God’s expectation for him.

Though this latter interpretation will be suggested as one model to follow, the translator may wish to add a footnote here to indicate that some interpreters propose an alternative meaning for the Hebrew verb “come out,” namely, “escape” or “win.”

Them all forms the closing element of the frame or inclusion for these three verses. Whereas in verse 15 “all” meant “so much” or “[almost] everything,” here its suffix makes its focus less general, “all-them”; that is, them refers back to the two warnings in verses 16–17. “Both” is then a possible translation for all. We could say, following Crenshaw, “come out well with respect to them both.” Alternatively, as the two imperatives are quite basic demands for the believer, it is also possible to give a general translation like “in every way,” referring to the extent to which people fulfill their obligation to God.

Suggestions for translation of the second half of the verse:

•    … because those who honor God will fulfill their duty in both.

•    … because those who worship God fulfill their duty in every way.*

Righteousness and Unrighteousness 7:19–24

The modified “better” saying in verse 18, which serves as a conclusion, and its peculiar rhetorical features, mark that verse as the end of the subsection. With verse 19 we enter a new subsection that carries the thought through to verse 24. Verse 25 then repeats an introductory expression Qoheleth regularly uses to begin a new discussion; and this confirms verse 24 as the end point of the present subsection.

It is, however, incorrect to think that these verses are fully independent of verses 15–18 and verses 25–29, since they share various features with both subsections. First, there are structural similarities. Verse 21 adopts the same negative imperative form used in verses 16 and 17. The subsection also imitates the two verses before it, by first making a comment (“Don’t listen to everything people say”) and then following it with an explanation (“We all have said things we regret”).

In terms of theme also, verses 19–24 can be seen to be linked to the previous subsection. Verses 15–18 raise the problem of the early death of the righteous and the long life of the wicked. In verse 16 readers are urged not to be self-righteous and not to pretend to be wise. Verses 19–20 pick up on these two key terms, first commending wisdom (verse 19) and then showing its limitations (verse 20): no matter how wise people may be, there is no one on earth who is completely righteous. Verses 21–22 give further advice to those who seek wisdom.

This rather loosely connected section concludes with a summary in verses 23–24. Qoheleth sought wisdom, but it was beyond his grasp. He ends the section with a sharp observation: “Wisdom is out of reach for everyone. Who can find it?” The keyword “wisdom” and the reference to the righteous person in verse 20 again show how closely this subsection relates to the previous section.

This subsection is easily divided into two parts:

(1)    Verses 19–22 consist of two independent quotations (verses 19 and 20) followed by a warning (verses 21–22).

(2)    Verses 23–24 are Qoheleth’s response to his attempt to be wise.

Section Heading: possibilities for a heading at this point are “Who can be wise?” or “Righteousness and unrighteousness.”