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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

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Commentary on Ecclesiastes

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4.1–16 :

Futility and human relationships. This ch explores several kinds of human interactions and their consequences. There are five sections, vv. 1–3, 4–6, 7–8, 9–12, and 13–16 . The clause of self‐reference, “I have observed/ noted” ( 1, 4, 7, 15 ), and of comparisons in the form “better than” ( 3, 6, 8, 9, 13 ) bind these together. Of these five sections, four describe negative interactions, only one positive.

1–3 :

The first negative is oppressor overwhelming oppressed, a constant occurrence that makes death, or even not being born, better options (cf. 6.3 and Job ch 3 , but, for the opposite view, Eccl. 9.4–6 ).

4–6 :

The second negative is envy leading to futile labor.

7–8 :

A person alone, and the futility, thus, of having no one to whom to bequeath the fruits of his labor, constitutes the third negative.

9–12 :

The one positive interaction comes in contrast to the person alone, and it celebrates the advantages and rewards of companionship.

12 :

The strength of such a relationship is compared to that of a threefold (three‐ply) cord, an image that appears to go back to Sumerian literature of the late 3rd millennium BCE. Rabbinic commentary, however, took this cord to imply the advantages and greater strength of three persons functioning as companions, particularly in the matter of living and transmitting Torah, as against the two with which the section otherwise deals.

13–16 :

The fourth and final negative interaction: a poor, though wise youth who succeeds where an old, foolish king fails, but whose achievement does not last because it was never known by the many generations before him and will be forgotten by those coming after (cf. 2.16 ).

4.17–5.6 :

Responding properly to God. This unit contains a set of warnings against various kinds of behavior that might at first seem acceptable to God and humans, but when carried to extremes, without a balanced sense of context, become objectionable and even dangerous, as they could provoke God’s anger.

4.17 :

The unit begins here, since 4.16 serves as a conclusion to the preceding discussion (cf. 2.26 ). It mentions first false sacrifice, which, as rabbinic commentary recog‐ nized, tries to cover up for sin‐ ful acts (cf., e.g., Amos 5.21–24 ).

5.1–2 :

Uncontrolled speech is a common motif in biblical and other ancient Near Eastern wisdom, where it is often juxtaposed to the virtue of silence; Rashbam here understands it as excessively long prayer.

3–5 :

Making rash vows that cannot, or are not intended to, be paid (cf. Deut. 23.22–24; Prov. 20.25; Sir. 18.21 ).

2, 6 :

The reference to dreams may stand as a negative image for anything ephemeral and unstable (e.g., Job 20.8 and ancient Egyptian literature). Alternately, the reference may be to the widespread Near Eastern, including biblical, appeal to dreams as a form of divine communication, here warning against undue reliance on them because they could be vague and misleading (cf. dreams of false prophets in Deut. 13.2, 4, 6; Jer. 23.25, 27, 28, 32; 27.9; 29.8; Zech. 10.2 ).

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