Ecclesiastes 7:1-29

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A good “name” or reputation is better than good “oil [shémen]. Olive oil was commonly used, and the Septuagint rendering for shémen is élaion, meaning “olive oil.” Frequently mixed with a fragrant substance, olive oil was applied to the body. This oil served to protect the exposed skin from the sun’s rays, preventing excessive drying and cracking. Koheleth appears to have used a deliberate play on words — name (shem) and oil (shémen). As a descriptive expression for the oil, “good” may refer to its fragrant property. Koheleth’s words then could be understood to mean that a good name or fine reputation would be more delightful and satisfying than the pleasing aroma and soothing property of perfumed oil. (7:1)

Anciently, fragrant substances were also very costly. If the emphasis of the qualifier “good” has particular reference to this aspect, Koheleth’s proverbial statement may signify that a good reputation is of greater value than precious perfumed oil. The use of oil, however, was not limited to practical purposes. Whenever the fragrance proved to be the main objective for using the oil, ostentation could well have been involved. So it could be that Koheleth intended to call attention to the superiority of what has substance — a good reputation. This would be far better than something used merely for the empty display of self — good oil. (7:1)

Koheleth also spoke of the “day of death” as being better than the “day of birth.” At the time of birth, the individual has no name, no reputation. Each day of life provides one with the opportunity to make a good name. A single grave indiscretion can quickly ruin the fine reputation that may have been acquired over the course of many years. Not until the day of one’s death is the identifying name or reputation fixed. Thus, from the standpoint of possessing a good name that is sealed or finalized as such, the “day of death” is indeed better than the “day of birth.” (7:1)

Continuing in the same vein, Koheleth noted that it was better to go to the “house of mourning” than to the “house of feasting.” The “house of mourning” is one where the household has been bereaved of a family member. According to Ecclesiasticus 22:12 (REB), “mourning for the dead lasts seven days.” A person’s going to the “house of mourning” would be to express sympathy and comfort to the bereaved. (7:2)

One’s presence in such a house would serve as a telling reminder that death is an inevitability with which all the living must reckon. The visible evidence of the death forcefully reveals that life is indeed short and that all of one’s plans and work can quickly come to an abrupt termination. Death, which transforms a home into a house of mourning, is the “end” for every man, for every earthling or mortal. This should be taken to “heart,” prompting sober reflection about how the days of one’s life are being spent. (7:2)

Such serious thinking is not encouraged by the atmosphere prevailing in a “house of feasting.” Such a house is a place of reckless abandon, where the main objective is to gratify the senses with food and drink. Especially when the senses are dulled from drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages, no thought is given to the sorrows of others nor to the need for making better use of one’s short life. Regarded from the standpoint of the resulting benefit, one’s going to the “house of mourning” is far better than one’s going to the “house of feasting.” (7:2)

Further stressing the superior value of a serious view of life, Koheleth observed, “Sorrow [is] better than laughter, for by the sadness of the faces the heart is made good.” The word ká‘as, commonly translated “sorrow” in this passage, means “anger,” “vexation,” or “irritation,” and this is also conveyed by the corresponding Greek term (thymós, “anger,” “fury,” “wrath,” or “rage”) appearing in the Septuagint. Accordingly, the reference may be to the intense disturbing feeling aroused by a heightened awareness of the brevity and uncertainty of life. This internal upheaval is better than the frivolous laughter associated with a “house of feasting.” Such laughter, which is often the product of alcohol’s dulling effect, does not reflect genuine happiness and produces nothing beneficial. (7:3)

The deep, intense emotions associated with the “house of mourning” cause the countenances of all present to take on a serious, “sad” (ra‘, “bad,” “disagreeable,” or “cross”) appearance. This contrasts sharply with the “house of feasting,” where laughter or hilarity prevails. The strong emotion that is visible in the serious face can make the heart, the deep inner self, better. This is so because the painful awareness of life’s uncertainties and brevity can motivate the individual to make wiser use of available time and assets. (7:3)

Since a person’s being in the “house of mourning” can prove to be very beneficial, Koheleth added, “The heart of the wise [is] in the house of mourning, and the heart of fools [is] in the house of joy.” The wise are those who use sound judgment when dealing with the problems and common affairs of life. They have the good sense to avoid actions that appear pleasurable but, in the end, would jeopardize their welfare. Fools are persons having a serious moral defect, recklessly disregarding what is proper in speech and conduct. They choose immediate sensual gratification without giving any thought to the possible and probable injurious effects of their acts on themselves and others. (7:4)

Because of their sober view of life, the “heart of the wise” (their deep inner self) is always in tune with the spirit prevailing in the “house of mourning.” Fools, however, live shallow, empty lives that mirror the reckless abandon of a place of merriment. Their heart (their deep inner self) is right at home in the wild atmosphere of a “house of joy,” mirth, or hilarity. (7:4)

With the focus on the benefit or the value, Koheleth added, “It is better [for a man] to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools.” A “rebuke,” censure, or strong expression of disapproval from a wise person (the possessor of sound judgment) is designed to turn one away from the wrong course. While it is not pleasant to be reprimanded, the one who “hears,” pays attention to, or heeds the rebuke, making the needed changes, escapes the hurtful consequences to which failure to turn away from bad would lead. (7:5)

The “song of fools” (those with a serious moral defect) does not promote the pursuit of what is right. Their song often makes light of serious matters, ridiculing what is good and proper. It may even romanticize the sensual and degrading. Instead of providing valuable correction as does the rebuke of the wise, the “song of fools” flatters the listeners, hides their faults from view, and confirms them in their wayward course. (7:5)

Concerning the emptiness of a fool’s laughter, Koheleth said, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so [is] the laughter of the fool. This also [is] vanity.” There is evidently a play on words, as the Hebrew term for “thorn” and “pot” is the same (sir). The Tanakh endeavors to preserve this play on words by rendering the Hebrew text, “the crackling of nettles under a kettle.” (7:6)

Dry thorns can be quickly set ablaze. They crackle or snap noisily as they burn but are soon consumed, and so the bright flames disappear. The fire does not last long enough to have any noticeable effect on the contents of the pot. Similarly, the laughter of the fool may be noisy and draw attention, but it accomplishes nothing. While problems may be pushed aside for a moment, they are not removed by an outburst of meaningless hilarity. Especially at an inappropriate time, the fool’s laughter is annoying. Possibly the aspect of a disagreeable sound is also included in the reference to the “crackling of thorns.” Because nothing of value results from the laughter of fools, it is indeed “vanity,” emptiness, purposelessness, or meaninglessness. (7:6)

Koheleth next directed attention to the damaging effects of “oppression” and a “gift,” saying, “For oppression makes a wise man crazy, and a gift destroys the heart.” Since the Hebrew term ki (often rendered “for”) does not link the words that follow with those preceding, it is probably to be regarded as an intensifying expression, denoting “surely,” “indeed,” or “certainly.” (7:7)

The reference to “oppression” may be either to its impact on the wise man or to the effect on him for making himself guilty of such. Both the Hebrew term ‘ósheq and the corresponding Greek word in the Septuagint (sykophantía) can also mean “extortion” or “blackmail.” Since extortion is a form of oppression, the significance is basically the same. If the meaning is “extortion,” the wise man would be the victim and not the perpetrator. This identification of the wise man as the victim may also be the meaning in the event “oppression” is the preferable rendering. Viewing the wise man as the one subjected to oppression would parallel Koheleth’s next words better. It is the “heart” of the one accepting the “gift” that is ruined. The “heart” of the “giver” is already corrupt. (7:7)

“To make crazy” is one meaning of the Hebrew word halál. The term frequently denotes “to praise” or “to be boastful.” While the meanings appear very dissimilar, there is a connection. Boasting is regarded as foolish. This linkage is illustrated in the following words of the apostle Paul, “Let no one take me for a fool, but if you do, then treat me as a fool, so that I, too, can do a little boasting.” (2 Corinthians 11:16, NJB). The Septuagint renders halál as periphéro, usually meaning “to carry around” or to “carry about” but here having the sense of being “carried away,” “brought to a state of unreasoning emotion,” or “made crazy.” (7:7)

Even a wise man (the possessor of sound judgment), when continually oppressed, may come to a breaking point and speak or act in a rash manner. He may resort to lawless means in an effort to get relief from his difficult situation. Unable to keep intensifying emotions in check, he may lash out against others for minor failings, taking out his frustrations on persons who are not to blame for his distress. (7:7)

Regardless of how wise a man may be, he behaves as one without sense upon becoming an oppressor. It is a grave injustice to subject fellow humans to oppression, violating the innate sense of what is decent, considerate, and fair. The oppressor disregards the feelings of others and ignores their suffering. He views himself as a benefactor and as being fully justified in crushing anyone who dares to question his acts or procedures. (7:7)

The “gift” is evidently a “bribe,” and this is the rendering of many translations (NAB, NIV, NRSV, REB). By accepting a bribe, the individual puts himself under obligation to deal unjustly. Thus the bribe destroys or corrupts the “heart.” Because the Hebrew expression for “heart” (lev) may also signify the “mind,” a number of translations read “understanding” (ASV) or “mind” (HCSB, REB). While it is true that there is a deliberate blunting of the faculty of reason, the corruption is really of the whole person. So, it appears preferable to regard the “heart” as signifying the deep inner self. For the sake of material gain, the perverter of justice dismisses all fellow feeling for the one who is injured. The power or authority that should be used to uphold what is right is directed to the wrong purpose, the bribe having been accepted and allowed to wreak havoc on the inmost self. The Septuagint does not include any reference to a “gift,” and manuscripts vary in identifying which aspect of the “heart” (or the person in his inmost self) is destroyed or ruined by oppression, either its “steadfastness” or “courage” (eutonía) or its “nobility” (eugéneia). (7:7)

Koheleth’s mention of oppression and bribery may have a bearing on the particular sense in which the proverbial sayings that follow are to be understood. While these sayings convey basic truths, they provide helpful guidance when dealing with difficult circumstances.

How something appears at the start may prove to be quite different in the end. Koheleth said, “Better [is] the end of a matter than its beginning. Better [is being] patient of spirit than haughty of spirit.” The Hebrew expression davár (“thing,” “affair,” “matter”) also means “word,” and “word” is the basic sense of the Septuagint rendering lógos, which, in certain contexts, can also mean “thing” or “matter.” In the Vulgate, the corresponding term is orationis (“speech”). One modern translation conveying the same thought is The New American Bible, which reads, “Better is the end of speech than its beginning.” (7:8)

In view of the apparent connection with the superiority of a “patient spirit,” however, it appears preferable to understand davár to mean “matter,” “thing,” or “affair.” The reference then could be to any matter that would call for the display of a patient spirit. While patience would also be needed in letting the person who is speaking have his full say or in one’s avoiding being hasty with words, rendering davár as “speech” or “word” seems to be too limiting when linked with the statement that a patient spirit is better than a haughty spirit. (7:8)

The beginning of a particular situation may be very gloomy or distressing, giving little hope of any improvement. A notable historical example is what developed in the life of Joseph. He was sold to traveling merchants by his jealous half brothers and came to be a slave in Egypt. Later, the wife of his Egyptian master falsely accused him of having made immoral advances toward her, resulting in his being unjustly imprisoned. The distressing situation proved to be the very circumstance that led to Joseph’s attaining the second highest position in Egypt.

This illustrates that one simply cannot know just how certain events may unfold. A person’s failure to submit patiently to a difficult situation, resorting to improper means to liberate himself, may lead to serious loss. Even if the attempt to get relief is successful, the result may be worse than if the individual had patiently waited until proper means for bettering his situation had been used.

The Hebrew expression for “patient of spirit” literally means “long of spirit” (’érek rúach). It is the kind of “spirit,” attitude, disposition, or activating principle that is characterized by a willingness to refrain from hasty words or actions when submitted to trying situations. This being “long of spirit” is the opposite of having a “short temper.” (7:8)

Being “haughty” in “spirit” denotes an attitude, disposition, or activating principle distinguished by an elevated or exalted view of self. In Hebrew, “proud” (gaváh) does, in fact, signify “high.” The haughty person has no tolerance for dealing with distressing circumstances. Lacking self-restraint, he is easily provoked and, therefore, unwilling to wait for the appropriate time and the proper means to take corrective measures. His rash words and actions often make difficult situations worse for him and others. (7:8)

Further encouraging self-restraint, Koheleth said, “Do not be hasty in your spirit to be irritated, for irritation rests in the bosom of fools.” The “spirit,” the motivating or activating principle, should not be one that quickly and without restraint impels to irritation, provocation, or anger. Recognizing the value and need for self-control, the wise person does not allow himself to be easily disturbed. The fool, the person with a serious moral defect, however, nurses ill will. “Provocation,” irritation, or anger occupies a place in his bosom or at his breast. There it is nurtured and, as it intensifies, gives rise to hurtful words and reckless, destructive acts. (7:9)

Especially when facing hard times, one may be inclined to think of the past as having been much better. Regarding this, Koheleth observed, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’” Asking such a question would not have its basis in wisdom. For one to look nostalgically to the past as having been much better than the present does not change anything nor help in dealing with problems. Persons who dwell on “former days” may also make the present more difficult for themselves. While some things may have been better in earlier times, this cannot be said about every aspect of life. The passage of time causes the harsh realities of the past to be muted, making the more pleasant features seem to be better than they actually were. Life in a sinful world has never been ideal but has always been accompanied by problems and troubles. It is, therefore, unrealistic for one to look back longingly to “former days” while brooding about the difficulties of the present. Wisdom, or sound judgment, is not the source of such reflection that contributes to one’s being upset and impatient. An irritable, discontented disposition is not the distinguishing attribute of a wise person. (7:10)

Wisdom (sound judgment in the practical matters of life) greatly enhances the value of an inheritance. Koheleth noted, “Wisdom [is] good with an inheritance, and an advantage for those who see the sun.” Without the good sense to manage property and other assets wisely, a person may soon squander an inheritance. When, however, the heir is also the possessor of wisdom, the inherited resources usually increase in value through good management. Thus, wisdom is a real benefit or advantage “for those who see the sun.” It is the living who see the sun, benefiting from its light and warmth. (7:11)

Expanding on the excelling value of wisdom, Koheleth continued, “Wisdom [is] a shadow [tsel]; silver is a shadow, and the advantage of knowledge [is]: Wisdom preserves the life of its possessors.” The Hebrew word tsel, commonly rendered “shelter,” literally means “shadow,” as does the Greek word skiá found in the Septuagint. A shadow provides welcome shelter or protection from the sun’s rays during the hot days of summer. Likewise, both wisdom and money serve as a protective “shadow” or shelter. Wisdom (the ability to deal successfully with life’s problems and to handle daily affairs with sound judgment) protects one from engaging in reckless and thoughtless actions that could endanger one’s welfare. Money or “silver,” the common medium of exchange in Koheleth’s time, enables one to obtain life’s necessities. It shields one from experiencing the pain of hunger and the discomfort resulting from a lack of proper clothing and adequate shelter. (7:12)

Although serving as a protection, “silver” or money can be lost or stolen. Wealth can lead to a person’s becoming the victim of robbery, extortion, or violence. The protective value of “silver” or money is relative. “Knowledge” (essential factual information), coupled with the good sense to use it aright, has superior protective value. Because wisdom (sound judgment) gives the proper direction for the application of knowledge, it preserves the life of its possessors. Wise persons do not take foolhardy risks but give careful forethought to the consequences of their words and actions. Wisdom, therefore, shields them from the possibility of a premature death on account of reckless behavior and thus serves to preserve life. (7:12)

Koheleth earlier pointed to the superiority of a patient spirit. This may have prompted him again to mention the thought that much in the realm of human affairs cannot be changed (1:15), implying that it is foolish to become irritated and angry about such things. Koheleth said, “Consider the work of God. For who can straighten what he has made crooked?” The Hebrew word for “consider” (ra’áh) basically means “see” and, in this case, appears to have the sense of “look at” or “reflect upon.” God’s work, the object to be considered, is anything outside the realm of human control that the Almighty may do or permit. Regardless of how crooked, defective, or imperfect it may be, it remains such by divine permission. Any attempt to straighten what God allows to be crooked will not succeed. The course of wisdom is for one to submit humbly and patiently to whatever may take place that is beyond human ability to change through proper means. (7:13)

Since there is no way for one to know in advance exactly what will happen on a particular day, Koheleth recommended, “On a good day be in good[ness] and on a bad day see: This along with that God has made so that man cannot find out anything after him.” A good day is one when things go well. On such a day, one should be “in good.” This may mean that the individual should accept the day appreciatively, reflecting in his own actions and words what is good, kind, generous, or noble. The Septuagint reads, “live in goodness,” which may be understood similarly. There is, however, the possibility that “to be in good” or “to live in goodness” signifies to enjoy the good or goodness, and this is the thought expressed in the renderings of many modern translations. (7:14)

A “bad” or “evil” day is one of adversity. On a day of adversity, one does well to “see” or “recognize” that God has “made” or allowed both the “good” and the “bad.” This kind of “seeing” is reflected in Job’s words: “The good we have been receiving from God, and shall we not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10) Because the Hebrew word for “see” (ra’áh) may also mean “consider,” this is the term used in numerous translations. It appears, however, that the thought expressed by Koheleth is one to be recognized or acknowledged on a bad day rather than one that is to be considered. (7:14)

Because a day can bring either joys or troubles into one’s life, no man can tell what “will be after him.” The future simply cannot be predicted with accuracy. In view of life’s uncertainties, no one can be sure whether prosperity or adversity lie ahead. (7:14)

A person’s living uprightly does not guarantee that his days will be free from troubles. Nor does it necessarily follow that the wrongdoer’s sins will immediately catch up with him. Koheleth observed, “All [things] I have seen in the days of my vanity: A righteous man is perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man is lengthening [his days] in his wickedness.” (7:15)

Because the situations are from the opposite sides of the spectrum, Koheleth could speak of having seen it “all” in the days of his “vanity.” The days of life pass quickly, are filled with many uncertainties, and do not allow for the doing of anything that will endure. Accordingly, Koheleth refers to them as days of “vanity,” emptiness, meaninglessness, or futility. (7:15)

The Hebrew adjective tsaddíq (righteous) and the noun tsédeq (righteousness) are descriptive of rectitude or uprightness in conduct. A righteous person does what is right, just, or fair. Because such a one is not immune to disease, adversity, or violence, he may perish in his righteousness. Instead of living a long, happy life, his days may be filled with hardship and end prematurely because of serious illness, accident, war, or assault. (7:15)

In Hebrew, the adjective rashá‘ (wicked) and the noun ra‘ (wickedness) express the opposite of what is good, just, right, or upright. Wicked persons disregard the rights of others and conduct themselves in ways contrary to accepted standards of what is proper, fair, and decent. Yet, there are times, as Koheleth noted, when wicked ones, despite persisting with their evil practices, prosper and live a long time. (7:15) Job made a similar observation, “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries. They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around. They sing to the tambourine and lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.” (Job 21:7-13, NRSV)

Since life is filled with uncertainties and there is no way for anyone to avoid all problems, it would be truly unwise to make one’s days more difficult. Koheleth cautioned against being given to extremes. Concerning righteousness and wisdom, he said, “Do not be overly righteous, and do not be excessively wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” (7:16)

One who is overly righteous or righteous to an excess insists on the letter of the law, failing to take into consideration human limitations and the need for compassion and understanding. Such a person is quick to make a major issue about minor matters, insisting on strict adherence to certain procedures, rules, or practices even when doing so would prevent one from being helpful and kind to those in genuine need. (7:16)

The Pharisees of the first century CE are an example of persons who were righteous to an excess. When Jesus Christ restored sight to the blind, soundness of limb to the crippled, and health to ailing ones on the Sabbath, they became enraged, condemning him as a sinner deserving of death for violating the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:2-18; 9:6-34) They completely lost sight of the fact that the Sabbath was to serve as a day of rest and refreshment from six days of laboring. Therefore, they could not appreciate that the Sabbath was an appropriate day for bringing relief to the afflicted, freeing them from having to bear their heavy burden. The Pharisees’ view of what was righteous prevented them from wanting to see good come to those in need and finding joy in witnessing marvelous healings.

One’s being overly righteous may also manifest itself in practicing extreme self-denial. The individual who is righteous to an excess may view even wholesome pleasures as wrong and condemn those who do not follow an ascetic way of life. (7:16)

One who is overly wise has an exaggerated view of his abilities and knowledge. Regardless of the situation, he presents himself as knowing more than anybody else and possessing superior insight. Such being wise to an excess breeds arrogance, contempt for others, and an overly critical attitude. Considering himself as surpassing others in discernment, the individual is prone to offer unsolicited solutions to problems and may even try to run other people’s lives. (7:16)

According to Koheleth, those who are either overly righteous or wise to an excess put themselves in a dangerous position. They can “destroy” themselves. The overly righteous person could bring ruin to himself by engaging in rash or fanatical actions or speaking out when silence and patient restraint are essential for avoiding bitter and violent quarreling. One who is overly wise alienates others by his attitude, words, and actions. His interjecting himself into matters and situations that are really not his concern may get him into serious difficulties. He may come to be regarded and treated severely as a meddler and one responsible for causing trouble by giving wrong advice. (7:16)

The Hebrew word for “destroy oneself” or “ruin oneself” (shamém) may also mean “driven to astonishment,” “be astounded.” This is the significance of the Greek term ekplésso (“amaze,” “astound,” “overwhelm”) found in the Septuagint and the Latin expression obstupesco (“to become senseless,” “astounded,” “amazed”) appearing in the Vulgate. It is also the meaning of the Hebrew conveyed in the Tanakh, which reads, “you may be dumfounded.” The thought may then be that, contrary to expectations, one could be amazed, astounded, or dumfounded by the negative results from overdoing righteousness or acting too wise. (7:16)

Focusing on extremes that are the opposite of righteousness and wisdom, Koheleth continued, “Do not be overly wicked, nor be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Koheleth was not saying that a measure of wickedness is acceptable. He simply acknowledged the reality that all humans are from youth inclined to do what is bad, for they are born sinners. (Genesis 8:21) Therefore, Koheleth cautioned against being wicked or bad to an excess, failing to bridle wrong inclinations. The individual who allows his passions and sensual desires to control his actions overdoes wickedness. His is a life of sin, devoid of all restraint and principle. It is characterized by an abuse of freedom and a disregard for the rights of others. (7:17)

Lacking proper motivation, a fool does not use good judgment. His is a moral defect. He disregards law and correction, thoughtlessly and recklessly pursuing whatever appears pleasurable without considering the possible and probable damaging consequences. Because the fool takes needless risks, living at the very edge of danger, he puts his life in jeopardy. It is not uncommon for the fool to die prematurely. By living a promiscuous life, he may contract an incurable disease. He may dissipate his health and strength by indulging in destructive habits. Because of failing to exercise due caution, he may die in an accident. Involvement in a life of crime and violence could lead him to an early grave. (7:17)

Calling attention to what is needed to avoid the results from a life of extremes, Koheleth continued, “Good that you should grasp this and from that do not let your hand rest, for he who fears God shall come forth with all of them.” It appears that the reference is to taking hold of the precepts Koheleth had just enunciated. The good, right, and sensible course is to heed the admonition to avoid being overly righteous and excessively wise, “grasping” or “taking hold” of this guiding principle. At the same time, one should not release one’s hold on the precept about not being too wicked and acting like a fool. There should be no rest or relaxation of the hand, indicative of concerted effort to follow this guiding rule of conduct. (7:18)

While endeavoring not to be overly righteous and excessively wise, a person must be on guard against succumbing to the other extreme — a life of wickedness and folly. A proper fear, awe, or reverence of God will prevent one from becoming a victim of the hurtful consequences of a life characterized by excesses in either righteousness and wisdom or wickedness and folly. (7:18)

One who fears God will “come forth with all of them.” “All” evidently is to be understood in relation to the two precepts, indicating that there would be success on both counts. The Hebrew word yatsá’ means “come out” or “come forth” and is rendered “will do his duty” in the Tanakh (evidently on the basis of post-Biblical Hebrew) and has also been translated according to its apparent significance, “will succeed” (REB). Another possibility is that “come out” could signify “escape,” which is the sense conveyed in Luther’s German translation (1984 edition) and the German revised Elberfelder Bibel (entgeht dem allen). This would mean that the one fearing God escapes the problems resulting from being overly righteous and excessively wise or too wicked and foolish. The God-fearing individual avoids all extremes. (7:18)

The fearer of God lives an upright life, uses sound judgment, avoids weakly giving in to wrong desires, and shuns the thoughtless and reckless actions of the fool. Because he is not overly exacting and does not have an inflated opinion of his knowledge and abilities, he is able to enjoy wholesome pleasures and recognizes when kindness and helpfulness take precedence over rules and procedures. Accordingly, the God-fearing person succeeds with reference to both precepts or does his duty regarding them. It can also be said that he escapes the hurtful consequences from ignoring these guiding principles. (7:18)

Continuing to stress the superiority of wisdom, Koheleth said, “Wisdom makes the wise one stronger than ten rulers who are in the city.” The possessor of wisdom, sound judgment, or the ability to use knowledge to solve life’s perplexing problems is not in the weak or helpless condition of persons who are unable to find a way out of difficult situations. Wisdom imparts strength to the wise. (7:19)

The term “ten” may simply be a round number. These “ten” men could be viewed as a complete number of rulers responsible for the security of the city. Because of what the possessor of wisdom or sound judgment can accomplish, his power or strength is greater than that of “ten” men having positions of authority in a city. (7:19)

Although the view has been expressed that the men are chiefs or leaders of military forces, the Hebrew adjective shallít does not have this meaning elsewhere in the book of Ecclesiastes (8:8; 10:5). So it appears preferable to understand shallít to signify governing authority. This sigificance has the support of the Septuagint, which uses the expression exousiázo (“to exercise authority”). (7:19)

Perhaps because of having earlier given admonition about not being righteous to an excess, Koheleth introduced the following basic truth, “For there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and does not sin.” The thought apparently is that no man is so upright as to do good consistently without sinning, without missing the mark of moral rectitude. Accordingly, it would be unreasonable to insist on the letter of the law, demanding flawless conformity to rules and regulations. (7:20)

Another possibility is that Koheleth’s words may be linked to the thought about the strength imparted by wisdom. Since not even one man exists who does not sin, all humans need dependable guidance in order to act wisely. This would imply that God is the ultimate source of wisdom — a point specifically made elsewhere in the Scriptures. (7:20) “With [God] are wisdom and might.” (Job 12:13) “YHWH gives wisdom.” (Prov. 2:6)

Because all humans are sinners, both their words and deeds are flawed. Not everything that is spoken should be taken seriously. Koheleth admonished, “Do not give your heart to all the words [people] speak, lest you hear your servant speaking slightingly of you.” (7:21)

The “heart” often denotes the deep inner self. When attention is given to what others say, this can affect the “heart” or the inmost self of the individual doing so. A person should avoid giving serious attention to everything that others might say. Undue concern or curiosity about their words could result in hearing unfavorable remarks from persons who might be regarded as least likely to make such. Even when comments are highly commendatory, the person giving extraordinary attention to such can be negatively affected. The individual may come to have an exaggerated view of self. (7:21)

In Israelite society, a servant or slave might have been a fellow countryman who sold himself or had been sold into temporary slavery to pay off debts or to make compensation for wrongs. There were also non-Israelite slaves, often captives of war, who had been purchased and, unlike Hebrew slaves, did not gain liberty in the seventh year of servitude. A servant or slave was expected to show respect for his owner or master. (Malachi 1:6) Therefore, a servant’s reviling his master would not have been a common occurrence. Nevertheless, because of unusually heavy demands put upon him, even a trusted servant might be brought to the point of cursing or speaking ill, slightingly, or contemptuously of his master. The owner might come to overhear such remarks or they could be reported to him. By referring to a situation that was out of the ordinary, Koheleth stressed his point about not taking every comment seriously and permitting it to have a disturbing effect. (7:21)

Calling attention to the need for being reasonable in one’s view of what others might say, Koheleth added, “For also your own heart knows that many times you, even you, have spoken slightingly of others.” Within the deep inner self, the individual “knows” or is fully aware of what he has said. In an upset state, he often may have uttered harsh, rash words, without malicious intent. Since he would not want such slighting words or reviling to be taken seriously, he should treat the expressions of others similarly, not giving them undue attention and becoming upset. (7:22)

The extant Septuagint text contains an expanded reading, indicating that a slave might often do injury to his owner and bring hurt to the owner’s heart, or make himself responsible for emotional pain. This is followed by the reminder that the owner also had cursed others. (7:22)

The conclusions that Koheleth reached were the product of diligent investigation and sober reflection. He said, “All this I proved by wisdom.” The Hebrew word nasáh denotes “prove” or “test,” and translations vary in the use of either meaning. Apparently Koheleth was guided by wisdom or good judgment when “testing,” “proving,” or evaluating his careful observations. He made sure that the conclusions he drew were reliable. (7:23)

Koheleth sincerely endeavored to be wise or have real insight or sound judgment. He expressed this resolve with determination, “I will be wise.” In the ultimate sense, however, wisdom eluded him. He acknowledged, “and it was far from me.” (7:23)

Koheleth recognized that much he simply could not grasp or understand. Developing this aspect, he continued, “Far off [is] that which is, and deep, deep. Who can find it?” “That which is” or “whatever is” apparently designates what exists on account of God’s doing or allowance. Concerning the reason for “whatever is,” how it fits into an overall purpose, or what effect it might have in future developments, Koheleth recognized that it “is far off” — incomprehensible, out of reach. Stressing the inability to fathom “that which is,” Koheleth repeated the Hebrew term for “deep.” This intensifying by repetition indicates that the matter is exceedingly deep. The implied answer to Koheleth’s question is that no human “can find it out,” as “whatever is” or exists is too distant and too deep. (7:24)

Again focusing attention on human affairs, Koheleth said (according to a literal rendering of the Hebrew), “I turned — I and my heart — to know and to investigate and to seek wisdom and reckoning [cheshbóhn] and to know the wickedness of stupidity, and the foolishness of madness.” (7:25)

“Turning” apparently means “directing attention to.” In relation to the “turning,” the words “I and my heart” may be understood in basically two ways. (1) Both Koheleth and his “heart,” his inmost self (or his mind), did the “turning,” the “focusing upon,” or the “directing of attention to.” This would indicate that he gave the matters of his reflection more than surface attention; his inmost self was involved. (2) Koheleth did the “turning,” and his heart desired “to know and to investigate.” Whereas he did the focusing, his heart (his inmost self, or his mind) impelled him. (7:25)

Understanding the term “heart” to designate the “mind” in this case, many translators have chosen the rendering “mind.” Since, however, giving attention to a matter (which Koheleth had already mentioned) is a function of the mind, the preferable meaning for “heart” may be the “inmost self.” Besides using the word “mind,” a number of versions do not translate the conjunction “and” in the phrase, “I turned — I and my heart” but read, “I turned my mind” (NIV, NRSV). This has the support of Hebrew manuscripts that say, “with my heart,” which reading appears to reflect a scribal alteration. To link the expression “I turned” to the words “with my heart” would also require a structural change in the Hebrew text. (7:25)

Although realizing that many things were beyond his ability to fathom, Koheleth had not given up his ardent desire “to know” or to understand all that he possibly could. He also continued “to investigate,” “examine,” or “explore” activities and events in the realm of human affairs. Koheleth’s “seeking” was for “wisdom” and “reckoning.” The word “reckoning” translates the Hebrew term cheshbóhn, which has also been defined as “account,” “result,” and “understanding.” In the Vulgate, the word is rendered ratio, which can signify “reason,” “motive,” “ground,” “principle,” “reckoning,” “account,” “procedure,” “method,” “system,” or “computation.” The Greek term in the Septuagint, pséphos, means “pebble.” Since pebbles were used when counting, reckoning, or calculating, the apparent meaning is “reckoning.” Preserving the thought of “reckoning” or “calculating,” the New Revised Standard Version reads, “to seek wisdom and the sum of things.” It appears that Koheleth wanted to know how the things he observed “added up,” or what they signified. This required careful examination and evaluation on his part, with resulting insight or understanding. (7:25)

Translators vary in the way they render the Hebrew “and to know the wickedness of stupidity and the folly of madness.” (1) In the Tanakh, “wickedness, stupidity, madness, and folly” are simply listed as aspects of Koheleth’s study. (2) The words have also been translated “wickedness of folly” and “the foolishness of madness.” (Green) This would mean that “stupidity” or “folly” (moral senselessness) is “wicked” (contrary to God’s standard of uprightness) and that “madness” (irrationality, opposition to sound reason) is “folly” (a lack of sound judgment in the practical matters of life, coupled with a moral defect). Accordingly, the person with a moral defect (the “fool”) is wicked or corrupt, and the one who acts foolishly is mad or irrational, failing to use his reasoning faculties aright. (3) The Revised English Bible makes a distinction between the “to know” used with reference to wisdom and the “to know” linked to “wickedness” and “foolishness.” This translation reads,“I went on to reflect how I could know, inquire, and search for wisdom and for the reason in things, only to discover that it is folly to be wicked and madness to act like a fool.” (7:25)

It appears that the second rendering (“wickedness of stupidity” and “foolishness of madness”) is preferable, as no addition to or deletion (as in the case of the first rendering) of any Hebrew terms is required when translating, the “of” being understood in this Hebrew construction. The third rendering requires a measure of interpretation that is not readily discernible from the Hebrew text. (7:25)

According to Rahlfs’ edition of the Septuagint, the concluding words are, “to know the senselessness of the impious one and hardness [sklerían] and madness.” Fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, however, do not read sklerían, but ochlerían, meaning “tumult,” “agitation,” or “rioting.” In its departure from the extant Hebrew text, the Septuagint focuses on the corrupt behavior of the ungodly man — his senselessness, his hardness or mercilessness (or, according to fourth-century manuscripts, the trouble he causes), and his madness or stubborn disregard for what is right. (7:25)

After a careful and thorough examination of human affairs, Koheleth was moved to single out an immoral woman as the gravest danger for a man. He noted, “And I found more bitter than death the woman who is snares and her heart dragnets, her hands fetters.” These words are not a reference to womankind but to the particular kind of woman described, an immoral woman or prostitute. (7:26)

It is a “bitter” or painful experience to be reduced to lifelessness and to have all of one’s labor come to nothing. Death is indeed something bitter. While death does not destroy a good name, involvement with a prostitute does. Besides contracting a loathsome disease, a married man may infect his wife. His relationship with a prostitute can also lead to the financial ruin of his family. Since the consequences from involvement with her are more serious than those from death, such a woman is “more bitter than death.” (7:26)

Since a prostitute endeavors to allure, entice, or catch men in various ways, she is likened to “snares” (matsóhdh, designating a net or snare used by a hunter). The “heart,” the deep inner self of the prostitute, is compared to “dragnets” (chérem). A prostitute’s words, thoughts, and bearing are the expressions of her “heart” or her deep inner self and are designed to entangle as do “nets” or “dragnets.” Her hands, used in caressing and embracing, are like “fetters” (’esúr), “bonds” or “chains” (desmós, LXX) with which captives are bound. (7:26)

Regarding one who escapes and one who is ensnared, Koheleth continued, “One good before the face of God shall escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.” The man who is good or pleasing to God by reason of his upright conduct does not allow himself to be enticed by an immoral woman. A sinner (one whose life consistently misses the mark of moral rectitude) does not bridle his passion and, therefore, is captured by the prostitute. He yields to her allurements. (7:26)

Koheleth was very diligent and thorough when observing and studying human affairs. Commenting on this aspect, he said, “See, this I have found, says Koheleth, one by one to find the sum.” The words “this I have found” appear to refer to the conclusion to which Koheleth came after having completed his investigation. When, however, saying “one by one,” he evidently meant that he carefully examined one thing after another, looking at each individually and endeavoring to determine what bearing it had in relation to the other and, finally, on the collective whole. Based on this careful, detailed investigation, Koheleth purposed to arrive at the “sum” — a conclusion regarding what he had studiously considered. In view of his previous comments about a seductive woman, he was possibly referring to all the unfavorable aspects that he had examined in detail — “one by one.” (7:27)

Perhaps concerning his unsuccessful seeking for the ideal in womankind, Koheleth said, “that my soul still seeks, and I have not found — one man among a thousand I have found, and a woman among all of these I have not found.” In referring to “my soul,” Koheleth apparently meant his entire being. His search was a continuous one, not one of short duration and limited interest and attention. He put his all (his whole being or soul) into his continual seeking or searching. (7:28)

During the course of his seeking and searching, Koheleth found that the ideal man was rare — one in a thousand. Based on his experience with many wives, concubines, and other women, however, he did not find even one woman, one who was deserving of the name. (7:28)

Koheleth’s observation appears to indicate that many women had sunk to a very low standard as respects attitude, speech, and conduct. Foreign influence, luxurious living, and the adoption of idolatrous worship, which included ceremonial prostitution, may have contributed to the ruin of women at that time. (1 Kings 11:3-8) Exemplary women had become so rare that not even one could be found among a thousand. The following description from later periods in the writings of Isaiah and Amos may give some indication of what Koheleth observed about the women in his day. “The daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet.” (Isaiah 3:16, NRSV) “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’” (Amos 4:1, NRSV)

Although corruption abounded among men and women, Koheleth recognized that God was not to blame for this. He noted, “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, and they: they have sought out many devices.” Apparently regarding the conclusion that he had drawn, Koheleth said, “I have found.” These words appear to refer to the same conclusion as those of verse 27 (“I have found”), which introduced the section about a corrupt woman. (7:29)

The first man was created without any moral defect but deliberately chose to disregard God’s command. Since then, humans in general have disregarded the voice of conscience (the God-given sense of right and wrong) and whatever has been available to them of the revealed word of God. Instead of seeking to adhere to the divine standards of conduct, they have sought out their own “devices.” The Hebrew word for “device” (chishshavóhn) also denotes “plan” or “invention.” In the Septuagint, the corresponding Greek term is logismós, meaning “calculation,” “reasoning,” “thought,” or “reflection.” Being the product of sinful humans, the devices, plans, or thoughts have led to ever-increasing deviation from the divine standard. (7:29)