Introductory caption. As in some other biblical wisdom texts (e.g., Prov. 30.1
), this introduction identifies the sage responsible for the reflections and sayings that follow. Koheleth is a sobriquet
for this sage, who is described here as if he were Solomon. Koheleth, of feminine grammatical gender, may be used of males
(cf. similar words that are so used, e.g., in Ezra 2.55, 57 ∥ Nehemiah 7.57, 59
). Koheleth is derived from the root “k‐h‐l,” “to assemble”; thus the Gk translation “Ecclesiastes,” “the one of the assembly.”
But whether Koheleth may be understood as “the one who has assembled wisdom” (e.g., Rashi), or “assembled conflicting opinions
and decided on the correct ones” (Metzudat Zion), or “assembled the people around to speak or preach wisdom to them” (cf. 12.9
, as well as the Septuagint, Eccl. Rab., and much modern scholarship)—no one of these or other opinions about the name has
established itself decisively.
The theme. Futility here translates Heb “hevel,” the most frequent technical term in Koheleth (38 occurrences). From its literal meaning, “air,
breath,” the word has acquired the sense of something fleeting, without substance (cf. its occurrence as the name “Abel,”
Gen. ch 4
), or even unreliable. In Koheleth, the literal meaning “air/breath” has not fully disappeared, since “hevel” is often paired
with the phrase “pursuit of wind” (e.g., 2.26
). The acquired sense, however, is what dominates, and it concerns actions and work that do not last, or appear to lead to
no lasting goal, or cannot be explained in any rational, i.e., human, way. Within Jewish commentary, one emphasis applies
futility to actions of humans for themselves alone, since actions can last and be worthwhile only if they are involved with Torah
and labor for God.
Round and around. This section provides the first illustration of what Koheleth means by “futility.” Vv. 4–8
give several examples of the ceaselessly circular, or oscillating movement that for him governs all activity in the world:
the passage of generations, the cycle of the sun, the flow of the water. There is, in short, no linear, goal‐oriented activity,
and the result is that the world never changes. Vv. 3 and 9–11
draw out the implications of these examples to affirm that nothing new occurs, and so there is nothing one can show for his
toil, nothing to learn (to “remember,” v. 11
) and to build on.
Put another way, as the sun cycles, so there is nothing new beneath the sun. Some classical Jewish commentators argue, following on v. 2
, that the problem under discussion here is a wrong‐headed focus on daily human or natural activities at the expense of the
spiritual. Rashi, in particular, elaborates on this in a midrashic play on the phrase nothing new beneath the sun—a phrase that is unique to Koheleth in the Bible, although with antecedents and parallels both in the ancient Near East (e.g.,
Mari and Phoenicia) and in the Greek world. In Rashi’s interpretation, the phrase contrasts futile daily activity done “in
place of the Sun (= Light = Torah),” i.e., in contrast to the spiritual activity of Torah study and living.
Koheleth sets his task. Koheleth introduces himself here in the first person, drawing upon a style used in ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions.
Through the persona of Solomon, he aims to establish his preeminent ability to investigate wisdom, over against folly and
madness. Yet, anticipating the fuller discussion that comes later, Koheleth admits that the investigation yields no satisfying
outcome, only pain and vexation from the futility of explaining and correcting the crooked. Various traditional commentaries
(e.g., Rashi) sought to reconcile this image of Koheleth with the successful Solomon of 1 Kings by positing that Koheleth/Solomon
is here looking back from the end of his life, after the excesses of his material and religious policies (cf. 1 Kings ch 11
) had gone far to undermine his achievements. Alternatively, the Targum saw this pessimism as a prophecy of Solomon forecasting
the collapse of his kingdom by division after his death.
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