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

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Commentary on Ecclesiastes

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‘All is Vanity’ ( 1:1–11 )

( 1:1 )

Qoheleth is described as a Davidic king, and this is picked up in 1:12 , which claims that he ruled Israel from Jerusalem: if the term ‘Israel’ here is meant to include the northern kingdom, then, since the only descendants of David to rule it were Solomon and the far-from-wise Rehoboam, a claim to Solomonic authorship is apparently intended, though never stated outright. However, sometimes Judah is referred to as ‘Israel’.

( 1:2 )

The motto, ‘vanity of vanities’, appears again in 12:8 , at the end of the teaching, while the key term ‘vanity’ (hebel) recurs frequently as a comment on situations described in the book.

( 1:3–11 )

The rhetorical question in v. 3 picks up the claim that all is hebel, and the poem that follows portrays a world which is impervious to human effort. While human generations each pass into oblivion, nature continues regardless, and itself reaches no fruition or consummation. Without change, there is no novelty, and without effect, no satisfaction. Qoheleth describes a world without progress or culmination, where everything has been done before, but, unremembered, will be done again. This is not an assertion that the world follows cycles or patterns: although the sun, rather comically, hurries panting back to its starting place, the other phenomena are not cyclical, merely ceaseless. v. 8 suggests the inadequacy of human speech and senses for any comprehension of this endlessness: ‘All words are exhausted: a person will never manage to speak [of it], an eye will never see enough, and an ear will never be filled as it listens’ (my tr.). Qoheleth rejects not only any actual human progress in innovation and understanding, but the very possibility of such progress.

Memoir ( 1:12–2:26 )

This fictional memoir describes Qoheleth's own, futile quest for understanding, which leads him to conclude that humans can do no more than enjoy what they have been given. The generalities of the introductory section now give way to a style more characteristic of the book as a whole, in which Qoheleth takes claims of personal experience as the context or basis for his assertions. He begins by associating himself with the famously wise and wealthy Solomon, which allows him to claim that he had the power and resources necessary for the subsequent experiments. We hear no more of this royal status after the device has served its purpose, but the equally implausible claim in 1:14 , that Qoheleth has seen ‘all the deeds that are done under the sun’, is echoed several times in the book.

( 1:12–18 )

The section begins with a pair of units, in each of which Qoheleth presents his credentials for undertaking a specific enquiry, then summarizes the result of that enquiry before finishing with a short aphorism. In the first he sets out to observe all that is done in the world, using his wisdom, and concludes that all is hebel and ût rûaḥ. The unit finishes with an aphorism which again denies any human ability to affect the world. In the Egyptian Instruction of Ani, which includes a debate about the efficacy of education, the principal character asserts that a crooked stick can be straightened: any direct reference to that text here is unlikely, but it does emphasize Qoheleth's distance from more optimistic ideas of human effectiveness. The second line of the aphorism seems so patently obvious that some scholars have suggested emendation, but it does sum up Qoheleth's enquiry: he searches out all deeds, but finds nothing to measure. The unit vv. 16–18 follows the same pattern as vv. 12–15 , but Qoheleth's enquiry is now into wisdom itself, which was the tool he used in the first enquiry, and into its opposites. His conclusion is again pessimistic: wisdom and knowledge merely enhance vexation and sorrow.

( 2:1–11 )

After this presentation of results, the section moves on to a more detailed memoir. Disappointed by wisdom, Qoheleth decides to sample pleasure, and tells himself to have a good time. Ever the intellectual, though, he finds laughter irrational and pleasure useless, and puzzles over how to become drunk while staying wise, and over how to become foolish. He does succeed, though, in building an establishment geared to beauty and sensual pleasure, becoming great and retaining his wisdom while indulging himself unstintingly. This brings him to a crucial observation: his efforts are rewarded by the irrational pleasure that he gains from them, even though, on consideration, they seem still to be hebel, and a chasing after wind.

( 2:12–21 )

As in 1:17 , Qoheleth now turns to wisdom, madness, and folly. His initial conclusion seems conventional, and is in line with ideas found elsewhere (e.g. Prov 4:18–19 ). It immediately becomes clear, though, that the saying in v. 14 has a double edge: the ability of the wise to see where they are going does not affect their route; they are going the same way as the fools, and are merely more aware of it. Both the wise and the foolish, Qoheleth realizes, are doomed to oblivion, and this realization causes him to hate life, exemplifying the conclusion in v. 18 . With the wisdom to look forward, Qoheleth also realizes that all he has worked for will be left in the hands of another, who may be wise or foolish, and who will have done no work for it. This leads him, retrospectively, to hate his own efforts.

( 2:22–6 )

As the section nears its conclusion, Qoheleth echoes the question originally asked in 1:3 , adding emphasis by the observation that humans suffer for their work. Now he offers an answer of sorts: all that he has found rewarding is pleasure in work, and he proposes that mortals can do no better than to eat, drink, and enjoy what they do. At this point, though, he attempts to explore a theological justification for his carpe diem conclusion: the ability to enjoy life, or perhaps the ability to know that one should enjoy life, is a divine dispensation granted only to those who please God; those who do not are condemned to toil on their behalf. That implies, though, a social analysis with which Qoheleth later shows himself to be uncomfortable: those who are suffering and working on behalf of others are the sinners, and those who enjoy themselves, while others work for them, are the righteous.

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