1. Introductory Reflections (1:13–18)
13 I devoted myself to search and to explore wisely 82 all that is done under heaven. It is an evil task that God has given to the human race to keep them occupied.
15 What is bent cannot be straightened;
what is missing cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, “I have surpassed in wisdom everyone who ruled Jerusalem before me. I have observed all forms of wisdom and knowledge.”
17 I devoted myself. 85 to understand wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly. I understood that this is also a chasing of the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes
much frustration; 86
he who adds to knowledge adds to pain.
After introducing himself in v. 12, Qohelet describes his search and anticipates his depressing conclusion. This section may be subdivided into two parts: vv. 13–15 and vv. 16–18. In vv. 13–15 Qohelet describes his wisdom task, concluding with the expression “trying to catch the wind” followed by a proverbial saying. The same pattern holds true for vv. 16–18. Roland Murphy 87 provides the following helpful outline:
I. First Reflection
A. Statement of the vanity of pursuing wisdom
B. A proverb quoted in support
II. Second Reflection
A. Statement of the vanity of pursuing wisdom
B. A proverb quoted in support
13 Qohelet informs the reader of his task as well as his negative feelings toward it. The scope of his enterprise is incredibly extensive—everything done on earth. In this way, he implies that his conclusions admit no exceptions or possibility of reversal once further facts come to light. He will carry through this program in the first few chapters, in particular, as he examines different meanings for existence. He anticipates his negative conclusions by calling his work an evil task that God has imposed not only on him but also on the entire human race. The task is evil because no solution is found after much hard work. The search leads to frustration rather than resolution.
The idiom I devoted myself occurs in 1:17; 8:9, 16. It is formed from the verb nātan with lēb “heart” as the direct object. 88 Nātan is a frequently occurring verb with the basic meaning of “to give,” but in the present idiom it means “to set” or “to determine.” As is well known, lēb refers not to the emotions, as in English, but to the mind and will, or even the core of one’s personality (e.g., Ps. 131:1). 89 Qohelet thus uses the idiom to indicate his focused, deeply personal, disciplined pursuit of the object of his study.
Qohelet uses two infinite constructs, to search and to explore, to describe the method of his study. The first (lidrôš) is by far the more common. It has a well-known cultic connection in other contexts where God is the object of searching (“to seek the Lord”). 90 Here, however, the object of his study is all that is done under heaven.
The second verb, to explore (tûr), is less common and has a narrower semantic range than the first. Its most distinctive usage occurs in the story of the spies sent into the promised land in the early stage of the wilderness wanderings (Num. 13:2, 16, 17, 21, 25, 32; 14:6, 7, 34, 36, 38). These chapters color most commentators’ understanding of the use of the verb in Ecclesiastes (note its use also in Eccles. 2:3; 7:25), including the present one. For instance, Ernst Hengstenberg believes that in some passages (i.e., Num. 10:33; Deut. 1:33; Ezek. 20:6) the verb has a broader meaning than “to search out” or “to explore” and suggests a meaning “to try thoroughly” or “to test.” 91 These three passages, however, have God as their subject, and so Hengstenberg may have felt it inappropriate to conceive of God as a spy searching out an area as if he did not know it already. The best understanding of these passages, though, is that they are anthropomorphisms (i.e., they speak of God as if he were an ordinary human). God is at the head of the tribes preparing the way for them, discovering campsites and preceding them into the promised land.
These two verbs, to search and to explore, are thus near synonyms, and to differentiate the two, while possible, is somewhat tenuous. Nevertheless, some commentators attempt to do so. George Barton, for instance, claims that “ ‘search’ means to investigate the roots of a matter, and ‘explore’ to investigate a subject on all sides.” 92 Robert Gordis 93 says that the first verb means “to penetrate to the root of the matter,” and the second, “to investigate it from all sides.” Also, Hengstenberg differentiates the two verbs on the basis of the deepness (drš) and wideness (tûr) of the search. 94 Again, I regard such fine distinctions as tenuous and lacking semantic defense.
Since wisely is actually a prepositional phrase (bᵊ plus the noun ḥokmâ), it could alternatively be rendered “by” or “through wisdom.” Wisdom is an important theme in the book (see “Theological Message” in the introduction). The frame narrator later refers to Qohelet as a wise man (ḥākām) in the epilogue (12:9). Here Qohelet says that his study was characterized and guided by wisdom. In this way, he shows his continuity with the wisdom tradition of Israel as it is exemplified particularly in a book like Proverbs. He immediately demonstrates radical discontinuity with the wisdom teachers of Proverbs, however, when he calls his task evil in this verse and later when he questions the traditional claim that wisdom brings life (cf. Prov. 8:35). He apparently rejects that view, believing rather that in the light of death wisdom is meaningless (2:13–16).
The object of his study is comprehensive—all that is done under heaven, that is, all activity on earth. We must remember, however, that he believes that there is nothing new on earth. The present and the future bring nothing new, so if the present is meaningless, the future will bring nothing to change that unhappy prospect.
The phrase under heaven is a rough synonym for “under the sun,” for it is similarly used in the book of Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:3). Some Hebrew manuscripts and a number of versions replace “under heaven” with the more common “under the sun,” but this is probably an overcorrection caused by the more common occurrence of the latter phrase in the book.
Lively discussion continues about the phrase evil task … to keep them occupied, which has great importance in determining Qohelet’s frame of mind as he reflects on his study. The first issue concerns the four possible roots from which we are to derive the noun ʿinyān. Most Hebrew dictionaries list four verbs with the root consonants ʿnh (the most obvious verbal root for the noun ʿinyān): (1) “to answer” (qal); (2) “to humble, subdue” (piel); (3) “to be busy, to be concerned about”; and (4) “to sing.” 95 Options (1) and (4) do not fit the context, but either (2) or (3) is possible both for the noun and for the verb that follows. The noun occurs in the OT only in Ecclesiastes (see also 3:10), but it occurs a number of times in later rabbinic materials in the sense of “task, situation, occupation, affair.” 96 Thus, it seems safest to go with this meaning, rather than something like “affliction.” 97
The adjective rāʿ casts a negative nuance over the task God has given humanity. The Hebrew word, however, can mean everything from “bad” to “evil.” As representing the former pole, the NIV translates the phrase “a heavy burden,” and the NRSV, “an unhappy business.” In my opinion, these translations ill fit the acerbic attitude of Qohelet (see “Theological Message” in the introduction). 98 evil is a translation more in keeping with Qohelet’s subtle criticism of God throughout the book (cf. commentary on 4:17–5:6 [English 5:1–7]).
14 Qohelet proceeds to inform the reader why the task God has given the human race, and in particular himself, is evil. In this verse he tells us that even after he has examined everything under the sun he could find no meaning.
By the use of I observed Qohelet signals to us that he bases his conclusions on personal experience in the world. 99 He does not appeal to revelation or any kind of special insight into God or the world, even though the task that he has undertaken is divinely mandated (1:13). See 1:13 for all that is done.
under the sun. The synonymous phrase was used in the previous verse. This is the first occasion that Qohelet himself (as opposed to the unnamed frame narrator) uses the phrase. For its meaning, see 1:3. The literary effect is to link the two writers, as if to underscore their common understanding of the arena in which Qohelet operates. For meaningless, see 1:2.
The precise translation of the frequent refrain chasing the wind (see also 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9) is elusive, but its interpretation is not. At issue is the meaning and underlying root of the key word rᵊʿût (raʿyôn in 1:17; 2:22; 4:16). Hebrew has four different roots with the consonants rʿh: (1) “to feed,” “to shepherd,” “to tend,” “to herd”; (2) “to associate with”; (3) “to strive”: and (4) “to desire.” 100 The last is connected to an Aramaic root (rᵊʿût) found in Ezra 5:17 and 7:18. It is also possible to derive rᵊʿût from the Hebrew root rʿʿ “to break,” and understand the abstract nominal form in the metaphorical sense as “vexation” and the rûaḥ as “spirit,” with the resulting translation “vexation of the spirit.” A survey of other commentaries shows a general consensus that these are the options, as well as an appropriate tentativeness in choosing one of the possibilities over the others. 101
Hosea 12:2 (English 12:1) may help solve the problem. The same idiom occurs in this passage and in parallel with “chases (rādap) the east wind.” This parallel has led some, including the present translation, to understand the verb rāʿâ as close in meaning to rādap. We cannot have the same level of certainty as past interpreters, however, because recent studies of parallelism have shown that there is always progression between the first and the second cola of a poetic line. 102 Thus, the NIV translates Hosea 12:2a (English 12:1a), “Ephraim feeds on the wind.”
Though I translate “chases,” the meaning of the line is clear whichever option is chosen. Whether it is “chasing,” “striving after,” “feeding,” or “herding” the wind (or for that matter “vexation of spirit”), the point is that life on earth is futile and frustrating. In this way, the phrase reinforces the conclusion that life is hebel, meaningless.
15 Two characteristics identify this verse as a proverbial saying. The first is its parallel structure, formally differentiating it from its literary context. The syntactical order of each parallel line is nearly identical, beginning with the subject, followed by the same negated verb (lōʾ yûkal), and ending with an infinitive construct with a prefixed preposition lamed. The second trait is its slightly enigmatic character. The saying is both pithy and thought provoking, features typical of proverbs.
In summary, the thrust of the verse is that there is something fundamentally wrong with life on earth, and, since the world as it is has come about as a result of God’s will (v. 13), there is absolutely nothing that humans can do about it.
Verse 14 informed us that the scope of Qohelet’s observations encompasses the whole world, so, in the context, what is bent and what is missing must refer to everything on earth. bent is the translation of a pual participle from ʿwt (“to make crooked”). The word can have a moral meaning: “crooked” in the sense of wicked or perverted. Indeed, Graham Ogden 103 points to Proverbs 12:8 and Job 33:27 to argue for such a meaning, but the context, which is describing what is done on the earth, and the verse’s closest parallel in 7:13, which explicitly makes God the agent of the “bending,” militates against such a view. 104 This is the reason why I avoid the translation “crooked,” which might easily be misunderstood to carry a moral connotation.
be straightened is a qal infinitive construct of tqn (“to become straight”). The verb occurs in the OT only in Ecclesiastes (1:15; 7:13; 12:9); the last two occurrences are in the piel. In Mishnaic Hebrew it occurs only in the piel and hiphil. The fact that our present verse demands a passive meaning has led many to emend it to a niphal infinitive construct (see BHS) or possibly a pual. 105 Hans Hertzberg rejects any emendation and stays with what he considers the most difficult reading. 106 After all, there are analogies of qal verbs that carry a passive sense. 107 In any case, the sense of the verse suggests that the verb has a passive sense.
what is missing is an abstract noun form, usually taken as a late form found elsewhere only in the Mishnah, but this is disputed by Daniel Fredericks, who shows that it comes from a common biblical root (ḥsr). 108
As James Crenshaw points out, 109 the second colon expresses a “truism,” since it is obvious that if something is missing it cannot be counted. The essentially flawed nature of the world is something self-evident and cannot be disputed.
16 This verse introduces the second introductory reflection. Here Qohelet presents his credentials. He sounds rather presumptuous in his claims of unsurpassed wisdom, but that is not the point. The point is, if he cannot find meaning in or through wisdom, then who can? It is here that we see the importance of the Solomonic fiction as well as its transparency. Solomon was the paradigmatic wise king in Israel. As such, he was wealthy and wise. If Solomon could not find happiness in his wisdom (and the historical books reckon his reign as ultimately unsuccessful, planting seeds of division in the kingdom), then no one else can. The transparency of the connection with Solomon may be seen in the elusive manner by which Qohelet associates himself with that king. He never comes out and states he is Solomon, always saying it vaguely enough to signal distance between himself and that king.
I said to myself is literally, “I spoke with my mind (heart)” (dibbartî ʾᵃnî ʿim-libbî). There is a similar expression of interior dialogue found in Ecclesiastes 2:1; 3:17, 18. The noun dābār (related to the verb dbr “spoke”) with the expression ʿim-libbî (“with/in my mind”) is found in Deuteronomy 15:9, Joshua 14:7, and Psalm 77:7 and refers to one’s thought life.
The first-person pronoun is pleonastic here, but its function is not clear. Most pleonastic occurrences of the pronoun are thought to be emphatic, and perhaps that is the force of its use in the present verse. 110
There are really two Hebrew verbs behind I have surpassed. They are near synonyms brought together as a hendiadys (the hiphils of gdl and ysp, literally, “I have made myself great and have enhanced”), thus illustrating Qohelet’s love of using two nearly synonymous terms, perhaps again, like the use of repetition in general, lending literary support to the message that life is essentially repetitive and boring.
everyone who ruled Jerusalem before me is literally “over everyone who was before me over Jerusalem.” This enigmatic expression has led to different interpretations. The first takes its key from the preposition before Jerusalem, translated over (ʿal). It indicates more than existence or citizenship in Jerusalem; it is the preposition used in formulas indicating rulership (see 1:12). The problem, however, is that the only Israelite king to rule over Jerusalem before Solomon was David, thus making his claim somewhat silly. Perhaps, however, this places too much weight on the preposition, and Qohelet thus only claims that his wisdom surpasses any previous inhabitant of Jerusalem. Second, the Septuagint suggests such an approach by translating “in Jerusalem.” Retroversion would suggest a different Hebrew preposition than the one represented in BHS, and indeed there are some Hebrew manuscripts that show beth (“in”) rather than ʿal. It is more likely, however, that the Greek translators and later copyists were simply struggling with the same issues that the preposition ʿal poses for us today. They were pressing the language too hard, not realizing that this is a loose association with Solomon, not a strict identification, and, therefore, we need not worry about his lack of many royal predecessors. 111
Ancient readers would have recognized the literary device. The author alludes here and elsewhere to Solomon to further his argument, but the fiction is presented in an intentionally obvious way.
The verb I have observed (from rāʾâ “to see”) shows the empirical nature of Qohelet’s method of investigation (see 1:14). It would be foolhardy to try to press too fine a distinction between the nouns wisdom and knowledge. They are both used frequently in the wisdom tradition, as Proverbs attests. Qohelet again uses two nearly synonymous words together in order to make his point emphatically. It serves as a hendiadys, meaning “full knowledge.”
17 Qohelet now relates the first of his searches for meaning. He tells us that he studied both wisdom and folly without saying why he studied both. Perhaps he looked for meaning or pleasure in one or the other. Perhaps he studied both in order to differentiate wisdom from folly and follow the former. Or perhaps he is attempting to be truly objective, or to get the full picture since wisdom and folly are two sides of the same coin. In any case, his search, by his own admission, was a failure.
Translators of Ecclesiastes disagree on the proper rendition of the phrase here translated to understand wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly. The present translation follows the Septuagint and the Targum, which take the second daʿat as a noun (similar to REB, NAB, and NJB). The MT verse division understands it to be a second infinitive construct with the prefixed preposition on the first serving double duty (so NRSV, “And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly”).
Though the versions understand the division of words correctly, they nevertheless misunderstand the meaning of some of the words. The Septuagint, for instance, has “parables” for “madness.” As Gordis 112 explains, this is an inner-Septuagintal error on the part of a copyist, who probably heard the word wrongly, since the correct translation was paraphoras, which means “errors,” rather than parabolas.
The Greek translators also misunderstood the word “folly” because of its unique spelling. Here it is spelled with an initial s̀, rather than its usual s, as in 2:3, 13; 7:25; 10:1, 13. Thus, the translators incorrectly took it from the verbal root s̀kl “to be wise,” rather than seeing it as a by-form of siklût (folly).
18 The second reflection, like the first, concludes with a proverbial saying, easily identified by its pithy parallelism. With the exception of the introductory particle (kî, for), every word occurs either twice or with a close synonym.
This verse does not summarize Qohelet’s attitude before his search, the point from which he presses on, 113 but rather reflects negatively on the process and the conclusions of his search for meaning. Beginning with the next verse, Qohelet goes back and describes the search in more detail.
Proverbs emphasizes that wisdom brings joy and life. Qohelet begs to differ, complaining that it brings frustration and pain. R. N. Whybray 114 hypothesizes that the origin of this proverb may be discovered by comparison with Egyptian wisdom, which describes the physical pain a student endures at the hand of his teacher. It is, however, impossible to determine whether the proverb is created or quoted by Qohelet. It is most likely that the suffering Qohelet envisions as the result of an increase in knowledge is mental anguish, not corporal punishment.
84 So translating hinnēh, which often functions as an attention getter. This and other functions of hinnēh are described in A. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, England: Almond, 1983), pp. 91–95.
85 Here the same idiom recurs from 1:13 except that the verb is an imperfective with a prefixed wā, as opposed to the perfective form. Isaksson (Studies in the Language of Qoheleth, pp. 58–63) has a lengthy but extremely helpful discussion of the sequence of verbal aspect and determines that the imperfective form is used here due to the influence of the direct speech in the previous verse.
86 The Septuagint misreads as “knowledge” (gnōseōs), but it was corrected by the later Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion; see J. Jarick, Gregory Thaumaturgos’ Paraphrase, SBLSCS 29 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), p. 26.
87 R. E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, FOTL (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 134.
89 Cf. BDB, p. 525.
95 BDB, pp. 772–76; see Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, p. 72.
98 Though it does not decide the issue, it is interesting to note that the word has moral overtones more frequently than not in the Hebrew Bible. See G. H. Livingston, “raʿ,” in TWOT, vol. 2 (Chicago: Moody, 1980), pp. 855–56.
99 That this is a major emphasis in Qohelet’s thought may be seen by the fact that he uses the first-person qal perfect of rʿh in eighteen other texts (Eccles. 2:13, 24; 3:10, 16, 22; 4:1, 4, 15; 5:12, 17 [English 5:13, 18]; 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 10, 17; 9:13; 10:5, 7).
100 BDB, pp. 944–46.
101 See, for instance, Crenshaw (Ecclesiastes, p. 68), who translates “shepherding the wind” but notes other options as possible; and Murphy (Ecclesiastes, pp. 11–12), who chooses the rendition “chasing the wind,” with similar hesitation.
105 G. R. Driver, “Problems and Solutions,” VT 4 (1954): 225.
110 Indeed, Waltke and O’Connor (Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 296) cite T. Muraoka (Emphatic Words and Structures in Biblical Hebrew [Leiden: Brill; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985], p. 58), when they discuss pronouns that occur after verbs and involve “psychological focus” or impart a sense of “profound meditation.”
114 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, NCB, p. 51.