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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

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Commentary on Ecclesiastes

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Commentary spanning earlier chapters

4.1–16 : Relative good.

In light of the author's insistence that there is nothing better for humanity than to enjoy ( 3.22 ), these verses make plain that everything thought by mortals to be goods are only relatively so.

1–3 :

The living still have to witness the injustices of life, whereas the dead no longer have to do so, and those who have never been born never have to do so.

4–6 :

On the one hand, human toil and strivings are driven by envy. On the other hand, the idleness of fools is self‐destructive. The better, if only relatively good, alternative is to have little (material goods, enjoyments, or both), but to have it with peace.

6 :

Sayings of the form “better … than” are common in Proverbs (Prov 12.9; 15.16–17; 16.8 ).

9–12 :

There is relative advantage in numbers, but no guarantee. A three‐ply cord may still snap, although not as easily as a cord with only two strands or one.

13–16 :

Every generation will have its new underdog‐turned‐hero, who will seem to have limitless support from the populace, until the next hero comes along.

16 :

Vanity, 1.2n. Chasing after wind, 1.14n.

1.1 : Superscription.

The author is identified by his pen‐name, Teacher (Heb “Qohelet”), probably, “Gatherer”—one who is supposed to have accumulated plenty of everything, including wisdom, wealth, and pleasure. The description of the author as the son of David, king in Jerusalem evokes images of Solomon, the consummate gatherer of wealth, wisdom, and pleasure (see also 1.2–2.11; 1 Kings 3–4; 10 ). Teacher understands the word to mean one who speaks in the public assembly (Heb “qahal”).

1.2–11 : Preface.

Despite constant activity, the world always remains the same.

2 :

Vanity (Heb “hebel”) translates the Heb word that literally means “breath” or “vapor” (Isa 57.13; Ps 62.9 ). In Ecclesiastes, it is used repeatedly as a metaphor for things that cannot be grasped either physically or intellectually, things that are ephemeral, insubstantial, enigmatic, or absurd. Elsewhere in the Bible, the human life‐span and human beings themselves are said to be “hebel” (see Ps 39.4–11; 62.9; 78.33; Job 7.16 ). Vanity of vanities is a way of expressing the superlative in Hebrew, hence, the phrase means “utter vanity.” Virtually identical words are found in 12.8 , the last of the book before the epilogue ( 12.9–14 ).

3 :

The term gain does not mean just “benefit,” but “excess,” “advantage,” or “surplus.” The Heb phrase translated as from all their toil may also be translated as “in exchange for all their toil.” Here, as elsewhere in the book, toil refers not only to the process of work, but to the fruit of one's work (see 2.10 ). The phrase under the sun occurs in the Bible only in Ecclesiastes, but it is attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East. It is a near synonym of “under the heavens” ( 1.13; 2.3; 3.1 ). Whereas “under the heavens” is a spatial designation (referring to what is happening “everywhere in the world”), under the sun refers to the realm of the living as opposed to the realm of the dead (cf. 4.15; 9.6,9 ).

4 :

The Heb phrase rendered as “the earth remains forever” may be translated as “the world always stays the same.” Despite human toiling and the coming and going of human generations, the world remains as it was.

5–7 :

The elements of nature—light, air, and water—are also engaged in daily activities, with no new results. The sun … hurries (lit. “stomps” or “pants”) to its destination, only to have to recommence its routine.

8–11 :

As with nature, so with knowledge; human speculations and endless instructions produce nothing new.

11 :

Cf. 2.16; 9.5 .

1.12–2.11 : The author's experiences and accomplishments.

The style of this passage is similar to that in many royal inscriptions in the ancient Near East. The author, in his assumed role as king, has experienced all and done all, but even he has to admit that nothing is ultimately reliable.

1.12 :

The author takes on the persona of Solomon ( 1.1n.; 2.9 ).

13 :

Unhappy business or “terrible preoccupation” may refer to human anxiety over all that is happening in the world.

14 :

Chasing after wind, that is, pursuit of futility (Hos 12.2; Prov 15.14; Sir 34.1–2 ).

15 :

A proverb about humanly impossible tasks (see also 7.13 ).

2.4–11 :

A summary of accomplishments like those found in royal inscriptions. Despite his worldly successes, the author concludes that everything is but vanity.

2.12–26 :

The leveling effect of death. Whatever advantage anyone might have in life is negated by death.

12–17 :

Wisdom is obviously better than folly (as light excels darkness, v. 13 ), yet the wise and fools face the same fate of death (v. 14; cf. 3.19–20; 9.2–3 ), and they are all forgotten after their death.

18–23 :

Toil does not give one any advantage in the face of death. People cannot take the fruit of their toil with them when they die. Even the possibility of passing one's inheritance to one's heirs does not give one assurance, for one's heirs may not be deserving of the inheritance.

24–26 :

People do not have control over their future; the only good is to partake of life fully in the present, for enjoyment is from the hand of God (v. 24 ). The sovereign God arbitrarily gives the possibility of enjoyment to those who are some‐how favored, but not to the sinner, a term that may simply mean “the one who misses out” (cf. 7.26; 9.2,18; Prov 8.36; 13.22; 14.21; 19.2; 20.2 ).

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