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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Content.

Qoheleth's ideas are notoriously confusing and contradictory, but some continuity is visible across the book. Qoheleth views the world as changeless, with humans unable to comprehend its workings or to make any lasting impact upon it; within their society, moreover, injustice is rampant and the future unpredictable. All this is attributed to God's deliberate design, but leads Qoheleth to ask just what humans should do to get the best from life in such a world. His answer, after reflection on his own experiences, is that humans should simply enjoy what they have: they are in no position to seek more, and greater comprehension is a source only of unhappiness.

Set against all this, though, is an attempt to justify God, and to affirm the reality of divine judgement. This sits uncomfortably beside the book's other assertions, leading many scholars to suspect either that the book has undergone secondary editing by a more orthodox writer, or that the views of others are being quoted. Either is possible, but it is no less likely that this disharmony is original, and it is explicable in two ways. First, several ancient works show a strong interest in inconsistency as a phenomenon: the demotic instruction on Papyrus Insinger, most famously, juxtaposes contradictory ‘truths’ to argue, like Qoheleth, that divine power is supreme and unknowable. Secondly, Qoheleth's monologue is presented as the conclusions of a wise man reflecting on his experience, but the book seems suspicious of such claims to wisdom: self-contradiction is, therefore, embedded at its deepest level, and the work's aims may include a critical, ironic look at the limitations and contradictions of wisdom represented by Qoheleth and his speech.

In his commentary upon the world and his own observations, Qoheleth resorts frequently to a single word, hebel. Conventionally translated ‘vanity’, the literal sense of this term is probably ‘a breath of wind’, but it is more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness, or deceptiveness. No single implication seems to suit all its occurrences in this book, where it is closely associated with another expression: ût rûaḥ ( 1:14, 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9 ; cf. the similar rayôn rûaḥ in 1:17; 4:16 ). A comparable phrase in Hos 12:1 suggests that this latter means ‘pursuing the wind’, and it is probably used here to evoke the sense of frustration inherent in attempts to achieve the impossible (cf. Fox 1989 ).

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