Ecclesiastes 8:1-17

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Highlighting the positive aspect of wisdom, Koheleth raised the questions, “Who [is] like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a matter?” The implied answer to the first question is that, with the exception of another sage, there is no one like him. Among those not distinguished for wisdom, he is without compare. According to the reading of the Septuagint, the initial question is, “Who knows [or understands] the wise?” Only those who are truly wise can be said to know or understand the wise, as they are able to identify with them and with their reasoning. (8:1)

In the Septuagint, the second question is basically the same as in the Hebrew text. “And who knows the interpretation [lýsis] of a saying [rhéma]?” The Greek word lýsis means “loosing” or “untying,” and it is the term used for “divorce.” In this context, it can mean either “interpretation” or “solution.” Although the basic sense of rhéma is “saying,” this Greek word, like the Hebrew davár can also mean “matter,” “thing,” or “affair.” Only a wise man “knows the interpretation of a matter.” Because a sage truly “knows” or understands a matter or what might be expressed, he can explain things or present a sound solution for a problem. (8:1)

In this verse, translators of the Hebrew text have rendered davár as “thing” (NRSV), “things” (NAB, NIV, NJB), and “anything” (REB). Translators of the Septuagint commonly have not chosen this meaning but render the Greek rhéma as “word” (Septuaginta Deutsch), “what is said” (NETS), and “saying” (Brenton). An exception is The Orthodox Study Bible, which reads “thing.” (8:1)

In its rendering of the Hebrew text, the Tanakh conveys the sense of saying but specifically identifies the saying as an adage that is then quoted. “Who is like the wise man, and who knows the meaning of the adage: ‘A man’s wisdom lights up his face, so that his deep discontent is dissembled’?” (8:1)

The reference to “lighting up” the face or making it “shine” could refer to the good effect that the possession of wisdom has on a person’s countenance. Wisdom causes the face to reflect courage, contentment, and calmness. It gives no indication of insecurity, bewilderment, confusion, or undue apprehension. Unlike the downcast, gloomy countenance of one in a frightened, disoriented, or troubled state, the appearance of the wise man’s face is bright, indicative of inner joy, security, and clarity of vision and direction. (8:1)

Koheleth’s next observation has been variously understood. The Hebrew text can be literally rendered, “And the hardness [‘oz, ‘strength’ or ‘might’] of his face is changed.” In connection with wisdom, these words have been paraphrased to indicate a positive change or transformation of the face. “Wisdom makes you cheerful and gives you a smile.” (CEV) “Wisdom lights up the face, enlivening a grim expression.” (NJB) “Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance.” (NIV) “A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.” (NASB) “Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its hardness.” (NLT) “Wisdom brings happiness; it makes sad faces happy.” (NCV) According to these renderings, wisdom changes the “face” or countenance that looks serious, stern, or even forbidding, transforming it into an appealing countenance or causing the “hardness” of the face to disappear. (8:1)

The Hebrew term ‘oz, translated “hardness,” usually denotes “strength,” and is rendered anaidés in the Septuagint, meaning “shameless,” “hard,” “impudent,” or “bad.” Anciently, written Hebrew gave no indication for vowel sounds, and the twenty-first letter of the alphabet was not distinguished by the use of a diacritical mark to show whether the pronunciation should be “s” or “sh.” The Hebrew term for “change” is shanáh, and the Aramaic word for “change” (shaná’) is written in the same way as the Hebrew term sané’, denoting “hate.” The Septuagint renders the Hebrew word as “hate,” and certain modern translations that have adopted this meaning also convey the same meaning as the Septuagint, which reads, “And an impudent [man] — his face will be hated.” “An impudent look is resented.” (NAB) “An impudent countenance will be hated.” (Ein freches Angesicht wird gehasst. [Luther, 1984 edition]) “He who is impudent shall be hated.” (Lamsa, translated from the Syriac) (8:1)

The Hebrew consonants for “change” or “hate” are followed by three letters. These three letters mean “I” (’ani), but there is no verb. (8:2) Translators who preserve the meaning “I” understand it to refer to Koheleth and, either at the beginning of verse 2 or later in the verse, variously read, “I say” (ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLB), “I said” (Rotherham), “I pray thee” (Young), or “I do!” (Tanakh)

Koheleth admonished, “Take heed of the king’s mouth.” This would signify that one should act on the words that proceed from the ruler’s mouth, obeying his commands. Possibly pointing to the reason for doing so, Koheleth continued, “and because of the word of the oath of God.” (8:2) A number of translations make this meaning explicit. “Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God.” (NIV) “I say, ‘Obey the words of the king because of the promise you made to God.’” (NLB) “Obey the king because you have vowed before God to do this.” (NLT)

The reference may be to the oath expressed before God by representative members of the nation to remain loyal to the monarch. This was done at the start of the king’s reign. (2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Chronicles 11:3; 29:24) The oath itself would have been regarded as obligating every member of the nation to be faithful to the sovereign. Another possibility is that the “oath of God” refers to God’s oath-bound promise to David that kingship would remain in his line of descent. (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 89:20-36 [21-37]) This would indicate that any plots to overthrow the Davidic dynasty would have been contrary to God’s purpose. (8:2)

Continuing to focus on the subject’s relationship to the ruler, Koheleth said, “Do not be hasty [bahál] to leave his presence.” This could denote that a person should avoid being quick to change loyalties, joining a rebel cause. Koheleth added, “Do not take a stand in an evil thing.” The “evil” or “bad” thing could be a plot against the monarch, or anything the king regarded as bad. (8:3) A number of translations make this significance explicit and link it to the oath mentioned in the previous verse. “In view of your oath to God, be not hasty to withdraw from the king; do not join in with a base plot.” (NAB) “If you promised God that you would be loyal to the king, I advise you to keep that promise. Don’t quickly oppose the king.” (CEV)

Besides meaning “to haste,” the Hebrew term bahál may be defined “to be terrified” or “to be confounded.” Adopting the meaning “terrified” gives Koheleth’s words a very different significance. “Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant.” (NRSV) According to this rendering, the advice would be not to fear making a judicious retreat from the king’s presence in the face of an “evil thing,” an “unpleasant” or a “dangerous” matter or situation. Since, however, the Septuagint and the Vulgate convey the sense of haste, there is a basis for not viewing this as the preferable understanding of the verse. (8:3)

Another possible meaning of Koheleth’s admonition is based on linking “haste” with the oath of God. A literal reading of the Hebrew would be, “And because of the word of the oath of God, do not be hasty. Leave his presence. Do not stand in a bad thing.” (8:3) George Lamsa’s translation (verses 2 and 3) of the Syriac conveys this meaning. “Keep the king’s command, and in regard of the oath of God be not hasty. Go from his presence; and do not stand firm in an evil matter.” The renderings of a number of other translations are similar. “I do! ‘Obey the king’s orders — and don’t rush into uttering an oath by God.’ Leave his presence; do not tarry in a dangerous situation.” (Tanakh) “Do as the king commands you, and if you have to swear by God, do not rush into it.” (REB)

Taking Koheleth’s counsel about the “oath” as a directive to avoid haste in uttering such, however, seems to interrupt the flow of the development and also requires understanding the noun “word” (davár) to express an action (“uttering” an oath or “swearing” an oath). The Hebrew text can be understood without having to introduce the taking of an oath in a way that does not appear to relate to Koheleth’s subject, and this would appear to be preferable. The admonition could simply mean that one should avoid haste in the matter of the oath — one already taken. This would signify that a person should not be rash or hasty in violating the solemn promise to be faithful to the monarch or in giving the ruler cause to suspect disloyalty. (8:3)

The concluding words of verse 3 are, “For all he pleases he does.” This stresses the inadvisability of opposing or displeasing the king. By virtue of his great authority, the monarch could do whatever he pleased in acting against a subordinate who incurred his displeasure. So, instead of “standing” or persisting in a thing that the ruler viewed as bad, the individual would leave the king’s presence, not foolishly trying to convince him about the rightness of the position being taken. “Don’t quickly oppose the king or argue when he has already made up his mind.” (CEV) The person doing so would only bring trouble upon himself. If, however, the hastiness is associated with not leaving the king’s presence, it would be a matter of avoiding what he regards as bad, not giving up a position or changing loyalties in the face of unfavorable developments. “Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases.” (NIV) “Do not be obstinate in a bad cause, since the king will do what he likes in any case.” (NJB [This translation, however, refers to not being in a hurry to depart from the “divine promise” or God’s oath.]) Since the king could do as he pleased, it would have been wiser to accept even an unwarranted correction or punishment instead of resisting defiantly or rebelling. (8:3)

The authority of the royal office was such that what the king said had to be obeyed. His word was law. For this reason, the monarch could do whatever he pleased. As Koheleth continued, “For his word is dominant, and who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (8:4)

“Dominant” is a rendering of the Hebrew shiltóhn and denotes “that which has power” or is authoritative. Since the king’s word was authoritative, no one could successfully challenge him, questioning his actions. For one to have defied the monarch’s word would have led to severe punishment. (8:4)

Koheleth observed regarding a loyal subject, “Whoever heeds the command will not know an evil thing.” The “evil” or “bad” thing would be the penalty imposed for disobeying the royal directive. An obedient citizen would not come to “know” or “experience” the monarch’s displeasure and the accompanying punishment. (8:5)

Apparently with reference to dealing with an unjust king, Koheleth noted, “A wise heart knows both time and judgment.” “Wise” signifies having “sound judgment.” The “heart” (either the mind or the individual’s deep inner self) “knows” or recognizes when and how to act in a given situation. The Hebrew term for time (‘eth) denotes a proper, fit, or appropriate time. A wise person is quick to recognize the opportune time and then takes appropriate action. Since that time may be brief, any needless delay in doing something positive could result in missing the right opportunity. Besides recognizing the right time, the “wise heart” knows judgment. The Hebrew term for “judgment” (mishpát) often signifies “justice” or a “legal decision.” In this case, however, it appears to denote a way, method, or procedure for doing something. Accordingly, the person having a “wise heart” also “knows” or has the needed insight about what should be done under the existing circumstances. He thus avoids bringing needless trouble upon himself and others on account of speaking or acting at the inappropriate time and in the wrong manner. (8:5)

The need for being able to discern the suitable time and the correct method is further emphasized by Koheleth’s words, “For every affair there is a time and judgment.” In the earthly realm, with its innumerable cyclical events, all things have their time (though it may be very short) and some kind of decision may have to be rendered respecting them. So, there is an appropriate time for the affair itself and an opportune time for taking some action with reference to it. Additionally, there is a right or suitable way of dealing with the “affair,” “matter,” “business,” or “enterprise.” (8:6)

Possibly to caution against failing to recognize that every affair has its “time and judgment,” Koheleth added, “for the evil [knowledge, LXX] of man [is] great upon him.” The “bad” or “evil” could refer to the distressing or troublesome things that man experiences throughout his life or, more specifically, oppression from an unjust ruler. Since all members of the human family ― all earthlings or mortals ― already have their share of problems and difficulties, they would be unwise to add to their daily burden by acting rashly, disregarding that an appropriate time and a right way of dealing exist for every affair. “A man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.” (NIV) “Life is hard.” (CEV) The thought may be similar to that expressed by Jesus Christ when counseling against worrying, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” (Matthew 6:34, NAB). The Septuagint rendering could be understood to mean that what a man comes to know or experience is a heavy burden for him. (8:6)

Since “evil of man” could denote man’s own badness or wickedness, this has given rise to the conclusion that the reference is to an oppressive king. The words “great upon him” have been taken to indicate that his day of reckoning is at hand for cumulative “great” badness. It is more likely, however, that “evil of man” signifies either the bad resulting to those subjected to oppressive rulership or the troubles common to mortals. (8:6)

Some translations link “evil” with Koheleth’s next words about man’s inability to know what will happen in the future — “what will be.” “But misfortune lies heavy upon anyone who does not know what the outcome will be, no one is going to say how things will turn out.” (NJB) “Yet it is a great affliction for man that he is ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to him how it will be?” (NAB) While it is true that man does not know just what might take place in the future, this in itself is not an evil. A wise man’s not knowing the future would not preclude his recognizing an opportune time and taking suitable action, and so it appears preferable not to limit the significance of “evil” to man’s ignorance about what may lie ahead of him. (8:6, 7)

Instead of being something “bad,” man’s not knowing “what will be” can actually serve as a safeguard against being rash or hasty. Koheleth earlier spoke about the monarch’s absolute authority and the inadvisability of being disobedient. Because of not knowing what lies ahead, the individual needs to evaluate whether the time is right for appropriate action and not rush into a course without any thought about possible or probable adverse consequences. Besides not knowing “what will be,” the individual cannot rely on someone else to tell him “when” or “how it shall be.” Koheleth’s question about who can tell him “when” or “how it shall be” and its implied answer ― no other mortal ― may serve to show the inadvisability of allowing others to persuade one to act at the wrong time and in the wrong manner. (8:7)

Having discussed the authoritativeness of the king’s word and the inadvisability of defying it, Koheleth proceeded to focus on the opposite, on what cannot be controlled by any human. “Man is not in control [shallít] over the spirit to restrain the spirit.” The Hebrew term shallít here signifies “to have control or authority over.” Mere earthlings have no control “over the spirit.” The Hebrew word translated “spirit” (rúach) can refer either to the “wind (NJB, NRSV) or to the “life principle” (“breath of life” [NAB, REB]; “lifebreath” [Tanakh]). In view of what follows about the day of death, it appears preferable to regard the reference to be to the “spirit” or the “life principle.” No earthling can “restrain” or prevent the “breath of life” from leaving the body. What happens to the life principle is not within the sphere of human authority or control. (8:8)

Koheleth next observed that man has no authority in the day of death. When it comes to the end of life, humans cannot do anything. There simply is no way for death to be held at bay. (8:8)

If linked with death, the words “no discharge from war” relate to the continual war that death wages against the living. No clever scheming or manipulation can save anyone from becoming a casualty in that war, as Koheleth added, “nor will wickedness deliver its owners.” The “owners” or possessors of wickedness are persons whose lives are characterized by doing what is unjust and hurtful. In effect, the practice of wickedness is their occupation. They are experts in cleverly maneuvering to evade punishment and to gain their unworthy ends. Even they, however, are unable to devise a scheme that would allow them to escape becoming a victim in the war that death wages. Their wickedness will not deliver them from the day of death. (8:8)

Some prefer to emend the Hebrew text, favoring the reading “riches” or “wealth” instead of “wickedness.” The rendering of The Revised English Bible is, “No wealth will save its possessor.” The reading “wealth” is based on an assumption that a scribal error is involved. In Hebrew, the word “wickedness” consists of three consonants — resh (r), shin (sh) and ayin (‘). When the ayin and the resh are transposed, the consonants are those for the term “riches.” Understanding the reference to be to “riches” would fit the context and also would harmonize with the thought expressed elsewhere in the Scriptures. (Psalm 49:6-9) There is, however, no basis in the Septuagint, the Syriac, or the Vulgate for departing from the rendering “wickedness.” Since Koheleth’s words are understandable without an emendation, there is insufficient reason for adopting the reading “riches.” (8:8)

Koheleth’s words in verse 8 have also been viewed as different illustrations of what man is unable to control. (1) He has no authority over the wind, directing it to blow only where wanted or causing it to intensify, lessen in force, or stop completely. (2) No mortal can avoid the day of death. (3) A man cannot get a discharge from war when, for example, the battle is in progress. According to this understanding of the verse, the three illustrations are linked with the thought expressed previously. Just as man does not know what will take place in the future, he is likewise powerless with reference to the “wind,” the “day of death,” and the “war.” While the language would allow for this explanation, it does not fit in well with the concluding words about the deliverance that cannot be effected by wickedness. Accordingly, it appears better to take everything that is said in verse 8 as relating to death.

When Koheleth said, “all this I have seen,” he apparently included his observations about the absolute power of a king in the realm of human affairs, the inadvisability of disobeying the monarch’s word, and the recognition of the right time and the proper method. What Koheleth saw was not something that merely caught his momentary attention. His observation involved careful and deliberate examination, for he continued, “I gave my heart to every work that is done under the sun.” This may be understood to mean that he really put his mind to investigating all human activities taking place in the earthly realm beneath the sun or that his total being, his inner self, was involved in this careful examination of what mortals do. (8:9)

Koheleth referred to the “time (in) which man controls man to his evil.” This appears to signify that Koheleth made his observation during the time in which one earthling or mortal dominated another mortal, with resulting evil or hurt to the one subjected to tyranny. The words “to his evil” could refer to the tyrant, and this is the meaning conveyed by The New Jerusalem Bible (“while one person tyrannises over another to the former’s detriment”). Although the oppressive ruler may reap hurtful consequences for his unjust actions, this is not always the case. The ones who are dominated, on the other hand, do suffer. So, it appears preferable to regard the “evil” as applying to the earthling who is oppressed. A number of modern translations make this explicit (“while men still had authority over men to treat them unjustly” [Tanakh]; “while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt” [NRSV]; “at a time when one person had power over another and could make him suffer” [REB]). (8:9)

Possibly to indicate that the end comes for those whose rule results in suffering for others, Koheleth said that he “saw” or observed that the “wicked” (those whose conduct is characterized by an utter disregard for what is just and right) were buried. Despite their notorious deeds, they were accorded the dignity of interment. (8:10)

It may be with reference to the time such wicked ones were living that Koheleth continued, “and they came into and went out from the holy place.” The “holy place” likely designates the temple in the city of Jerusalem, where the wicked carried out their formalistic worship. (8:10) God’s displeasure with such worship is expressed in Isaiah 1:11-13 (NJB). “‘What are your endless sacrifices to me?’ says Yahweh. ‘I am sick of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of calves. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come and present yourselves before me, who has asked you to trample through my courts? Bring no more futile cereal offerings, the smoke from them fills me with disgust. New Moons, Sabbaths, assemblies ― I cannot endure solemnity combined with guilt.’”

Perhaps regarding oppressive rulers, Koheleth noted that they “were forgotten in the city where they had thus done.” Once buried, such wicked ones would not remain long in the memory of the living. Because they would be forgotten as if they had never existed, their brief life would prove to have been vain, empty, meaningless, or purposeless. This may be the point of Koheleth’s concluding words, “this also [is] vanity.” (8:10) A number of translations have made such meaning explicit in their renderings. “Then I saw the sinful buried, who used to go in and out of the holy place. They are soon forgotten in the city where they did this. This also is for nothing.” (NLB) “So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility.” (NASB) Another possible significance is that people soon forgot how the wicked had conducted themselves. “And again, I have observed the wicked carried to their graves, and people leaving the holy place and, once out in the city, forgetting how the wicked used to behave; how futile this is too!” (NJB)

Other translations convey very different meanings. This is because the Hebrew text is somewhat obscure and the readings of Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions differ. Some translators have chosen to emend the text or to follow the readings of ancient versions that also have the support of a few Hebrew manuscripts.

The Hebrew term ken, usually meaning “so” or “thus,” may also denote “rightly,” “justly,” or “aptly.” This has given rise to renderings that contrast what happens to those who do what is right with what is experienced by the wicked in being given an honorable burial. “I saw the wicked buried with honor, but God’s people had to leave the holy city and were forgotten.” (CEV) “And then I saw scoundrels coming from the Holy Site and being brought to burial, while such as had acted righteously were forgotten in the city.” (Tanakh) A departure from the meaning “thus” or “so” for ken is not confirmed by the Septuagint reading, hoútos (“thus”). (8:10)

While supporting the rendering “acted righteously,” the Vulgate applies the expression to the wicked (“as though they had acted righteously”). Since there is no clear indication in the Hebrew text and in the ancient versions that the reference is to two groups (the wicked and the righteous), it appears preferable to view the entire verse as applying to the wicked. Also, the available evidence does not seem to warrant departing from the usual meaning of ken (“thus”). (8:10)

Both the Septuagint and the Vulgate are in agreement in reading “praised” (as also do some Hebrew manuscripts) instead of “forgotten.” In their renderings, numerous modern translations use “receive praise” or “were praised.” “Then too, I saw the wicked buried — those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this.” (NIV) “Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things.” (NRSV) “I also saw sinful people being buried. They used to come and go from the place of worship. And others praised them in the city where they worshiped. That doesn’t have any meaning either.” (NIRV) While corrupt persons may be praised or honored, this would not customarily be the case, and so the Vulgate rendering seems to convey a more appropriate meaning (“praised … as though they had acted righteously”). This wording is not corroborated by the Septuagint and would require emending the Hebrew text. Especially since the Hebrew can be understood without resorting to an emendation, it appears preferable not to follow the reading of the Vulgate. (8:10)

Commenting on the bad result from a failure immediately to bring wrongdoers to justice, Koheleth said, “Because sentence is not executed swiftly against an evil deed, therefore the heart of the sons of man is filled in them to do evil.” In the case of lawbreakers, justice may be slow in coming, if at all. As a result, humans or earthlings (“sons of man”) may begin to reason that it is easy to escape punishment for wrongdoing. The heart, either the mind or the inmost self, becomes filled with the desire to do what is bad, the objective being to profit from corrupt actions without incurring any penalties. (8:11)

Whereas Koheleth observed that wrongdoers may repeatedly evade punishment for their crimes, he stressed the superiority of leading an upright life, saying, “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and [life] continues long for him, yet I know that it will be good for those who fear God, because they fear before his face.” The sinner is one who habitually misses the mark with reference to upright conduct. In attitude, words, and actions, he has no regard for what is right and just. He conducts his affairs of life in a way that ignores any accountability to God. Koheleth’s reference to the sinner’s doing evil “a hundred times” is to be understood as meaning “often” or “many times.” Despite his repeated offenses, he remains free from deserved punishment, enjoying a long life. (8:12)

While the sinner may have appeared to be prospering, Koheleth “knew” or “recognized” that it would turn out well for “those who fear God.” Their fear would be a wholesome, reverential awe for the Almighty, motivating them to do what is pleasing him. Because of manifesting such a wholesome fear, the reverential person would experience what is good. Unlike the sinner who risks punishment for his wrongdoing and therefore lives with a measure of apprehension, fearers of God are not troubled by such disquietude. From the standpoint of an inner sense of security by reason of possessing a clear conscience, the end result for godly individuals would be good. (8:12)

Contrasting the situation of those fearing God with that of the wicked, Koheleth continued, “And it will not be good for the wicked [person], and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God’s face.” Even though the wicked one may appear to get by with his evil deeds, he is always in danger of being brought to justice. Therefore, he can never feel secure. With an ever-present sense of uneasiness, the wicked one does not enjoy the good that is the possession of persons having an untroubled conscience. His wrongdoing is not a means for extending his “days” or lengthening his life. (8:13)

The expression “like a shadow” may be understood in three different ways. (1) The wicked one will not increase the number of the days of his life, days which are like a shadow, brief and fleeting. (2) He cannot extend his days like a shadow that gets longer toward evening. (3) Like a shadow which soon disappears, the wicked one will not live long. The basic thought, however, is the same — a sinful course does not result in attaining a longer life. This is because, as Koheleth added, because the wicked one does not “fear before God’s face.” The corrupt individual has no reverence for the Most High but acts as though God does not exist, disregarding the innate sense of right and whatever knowledge he may have of divine requirements as to conduct. Without any fear of God, the individual pursues a corrupt way of life that jeopardizes his welfare. (8:13)

Outward appearances do not always reveal whether a person is corrupt or upright. Koheleth called attention to this aspect as a “vanity that takes place on earth.” There are upright individuals who experience life as if they had conducted themselves like the wicked, and wicked persons who fare well as if they had lived like the upright. Being a vanity that occurs on earth, it is an injustice for which flawed humans are responsible. Governmental and judicial corruption can lead to undeserved punishment being inflicted on the righteous, whereas wicked ones may continue to succeed in their schemes by means of bribery and flattery. Such wicked ones may even attain positions of prominence, while upright persons may be treated disrespectfully because, unlike the wicked, they do not use dishonorable means to advance themselves. The wicked thus are given the honor that is the just due of the righteous. (8:14)

Koheleth identified this inequitable situation as an example of vanity (“I said that this also [is] vanity”). This development made no sense, served no beneficial purpose, resulted in nothing that lasted and, therefore, was empty, meaningless, purposeless, or futile. (8:14)

As Koheleth noted, the manner in which a person is treated does not always depend on whether the individual’s conduct is upright or corrupt. This could cause one to brood about injustices and become frustrated and bitter. Koheleth, though, recommended that one should derive wholesome enjoyment from life, saying, “And I commended rejoicing, for man has no good under the sun except to eat and drink and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his labor through the days of life that God has given him under the sun.” (8:15)

To Koheleth, “rejoicing,” enjoyment, gladness, or cheer was something deserving of commendation or praise. It was right for humans, earthlings, or mortals to experience gladness. In the realm of earthly affairs beneath the sun, humans experience or witness many uncertainties and injustices during their brief life. Hence, there is nothing better for them than to find pleasure in eating and drinking and to rejoice or to enjoy themselves to the extent possible. As Koheleth observed, eating, drinking, and rejoicing accompany the labor or wearying and exhausting toil that fills the days of one’s life. Since life comes from God, Koheleth could speak of the “days of life” on earth beneath the sun as having been given by God. (8:15)

Much of what happens in the realm of human affairs by God’s allowance is perplexing or incomprehensible and even troubling. Focusing on this point, Koheleth said, “When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the task that is performed on earth — for even by day and by night [a man] does not see sleep in his eyes.” (8:16)

In speaking of the “heart,” Koheleth may have meant his mind or his deep inner self. He gave the objective of coming to “know” wisdom (sound judgment or insight), or having it as a personal possession, his full attention. His whole being was involved. It was not a superficial effort. He likewise applied or directed his “heart” in seeing or observing the “task,” business, or occupation that is peformed on earth” (in the realm of human affairs). This reveals that Koheleth was very diligent, sparing no effort in his careful investigation of what occupies the time and attention of mortals. (8:16)

The statement about “sleep” could mean that humans are so completely occupied by laboring that there is no time for real rest. “I tried to understand all that happens on earth. I saw how busy people are, working day and night and hardly ever sleeping.” (NCV) “I applied my mind to acquire wisdom and to observe the tasks undertaken on earth, when mortal eyes are never closed in sleep day or night.” (REB) In view of the context, a more likely meaning is that the point about not sleeping relates to the man who seeks to find out or comprehend the “work of God.” Such a man’s endeavor appears to be depicted as all-consuming, occupying him day and night and not permitting him any repose. He would not “see” or experience sleep in the eyes — the organs that are covered by the eyelids during the customary periods of rest. (8:16)

A number of translations are explict in linking the thought about not sleeping to the effort to find out the “work of God.” “When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to observe what is done on earth, I recognized that man is unable to find out all God’s work that is done under the sun, even though neither by day nor by night do his eyes find rest in sleep.” (NAB) “But even if a man does not allow himself sleep, he will never be able to comprehend what God does on this earth.” (Aber selbst wenn sich der Mensch Tag und Nacht keinen Schlaf gönnt, wird er nie alles nachvollziehen können, was Gott auf dieser Erde tut. [German, Neues Leben]) “What God does and lets happen in the world no man can fully grasp even if day and night he does not allow himself sleep.” (Was Gott tut und auf der Welt geschehen lässt, kann der Mensch nicht vollständig begreifen, selbst wenn er sich Tag und Nacht keinen Schlaf gönnt. (German, Hoffnung für alle) “Then I recognized that, even if he does not allow sleep to his eyes by day and night, man cannot again discover the activity of God in all its fullness.” (da sah ich ein, dass der Mensch, selbst wenn er seinen Augen bei Tag und Nacht keinen Schlaf gönnt, das Tun Gottes in seiner Ganzheit nicht wieder finden kann. [German, Einheitsübersetzung]) Other translations convey a similar thought, but alter the text to represent Koheleth as the one who did not permit himself to sleep. “Day and night I went without sleep, trying to understand what goes on in this world.” (CEV)

Respecting the work of God, Koheleth commented, “And I saw all the work of God, that man is unable to find out the work that is done under the sun.” The “work of God” relates to what takes place in the earthly realm where humans conduct their affairs of life. This is evident from the reference to “the work that is done under the sun” — on the earth which is dependent upon the sun for light and warmth. “All” does not embrace every aspect of God’s activity, but is limited to everything that Koheleth was able to see or observe among humans. Since the Almighty can exercise absolute control over every matter, anything that takes place by his allowance or toleration is included in his work. (8:17)

After his consideration of the “work of God” (all that takes place in the earthly sphere among humans by reason of God’s will, permission, or toleration), Koheleth concluded that no man, no earthling or mortal, is able to fathom or understand it. No human could devise or discover some system, formula, or set plan or procedure that might explain just what is to be expected in every situation. There simply is no way for one to predict accurately in every case what would take place and what bearing this would have on other developments. (8:17)

Regardless of the effort expended, the thoroughness of the investigation, and the astuteness of the researcher, the work of God will remain an unsolvable secret. Koheleth concluded, “However much man labors in searching, he will not find [out the work of God]. And even though the wise man says he knows, he cannot find [it out].” Extensive, exhausting searching will be to no avail. Even if one known for wisdom or extraordinary insight in solving perplexing problems of life were to say that he “knew” the work of God, apparently in the sense of coming close to a solution respecting it, he would not be able to comprehend it. Understanding God’s work, explaining it in terms of a specific formula or system, is beyond all humans, even the wisest. (8:17)