Ecclesiastes 9:1-18

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Linking what he said previously with the word ki (“for”), Koheleth said, “For all this I gave to my heart, and to explain [bur] all this, that the righteous and the wise and their works [are] in God’s hand.” The words “for all this” probably relate to what Koheleth noted about man’s inability to comprehend the work of God. His giving this to his “heart” could mean that he really thought about it, making the matter the subject of his mind’s serious reflection. Or the giving to his heart could signify his truly having absorbed in his “heart,” or his inner self, the point about God’s work. In either case, that to which Koheleth had given or applied his “heart” (his mind or himself in his inmost self) became his own. (9:1)

There is a measure of uncertainty about the significance of the Hebrew word bur. The phrase that contains bur reads differently in the Septuagint (“and my heart saw [recognized or understood] all this”). The rendering of the Vulgate is, “All these things I considered in my heart, that I might carefully understand [them].” Modern translations vary in their renderings (“and I understood” [REB]; “and concluded” [NIV]; “examining it all” [NRSV]; “I ascertained all this” [Tanakh]; “and recognized” [NAB]; “and experienced all this” [NJB]). Lexicographers have defined bur as meaning either “explain” or “examine.” If bur means “explain,” this could indicate that, even though God’s work proved to be incomprehensible, Koheleth could explain the truth that he had come to recognize, “The righteous and the wise and their works are in God’s hand.” From the standpoint of “examining,” the words could be understood to mean that Koheleth carefully investigated everything on which he focused his attention and then reached the conclusion about everything being under the control of God. (9:1)

The righteous are those whose conduct is upright. Their desire is to conform to the divine standard of what is good. Hence, they strive to preserve a clean conscience before God and fellow humans. Righteousness is not merely a refraining from doing what is wrong. It is also manifested by doing positive good, coming to the aid of those having genuine needs. (9:1; Psalm 15:2-5; Proverbs 24:11, 12; Ezekiel 18:15-17)

Wise persons are known for their sound judgment in the practical matters of life. They do not take needless risks. Unlike those who are foolhardy, the wise have a serious view of life, avoid rash words and actions, and think carefully about what they do and say so as not to injure others or bring trouble upon themselves. (9:1)

As to their persons and their activities, the righteous and the wise are in God’s hand, subject to his control or his allowance and toleration. What he may permit to befall them may not always be favorable. Neither their righteousness nor their wisdom can guarantee good results to themselves or from their works. Whatever they experience is dependent on God’s will or permission. So, their being in God’s hand along with their works indicates that they are fully dependent on him for everything. (9:1)

Koheleth’s next words are difficult to restrict to one specific meaning, as the context is not sufficiently precise. According to a literal reading of the Hebrew, he continued, “Even love, even hate, man does not know all [that is] before them [literally, ‘their faces’].” (9:1)

The Hebrew term for “before” may signify either what is past or what is yet ahead. Since death brings an end to all feelings and emotions that were previously expressed, earthlings do not know all the love and the hate that were manifest before they were born. “Be it love, be it hate, man understands nothing thereof. All of both lies before their time.” (Sei es Liebe, sei es Hass, nichts davon erkennt der Mensch. Alles beides liegt vor ihrer Zeit. [German, Elberfelder Bibel]) Likewise, whether they will experience love or hatred in the future is unknown to them. “Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him. (NASB) “People don’t know whether [to expect] love or hate. Everything lies ahead of them.” (HCSB) “No one knows if they will experience love or hate.” (NCV) Because Koheleth’s focus has been on man’s inability to fathom God’s work as it relates to the future, it appears preferable to view “before” as meaning yet ahead. (9:1)

As used in the Scriptures, the term “hate” does not always denote malice or intense hostility toward or a loathing of a person. At times, the word “hate” simply means to be loved to a lesser degree. (Genesis 29:31, 33; Deuteronomy 21:15, 16) Humans have no prior knowledge of the extent to which they may or may not be loved. (9:1)

In themselves, outward appearances do not reveal whether the individual is the object of God’s love or displeasure. A number of translations interpretively identify God as expressing either love or hate. “No one knows whether or not God will show them favor in this life.” (NLT) “But a man doesn’t know whether God will show favor to him.” (NIRV) It may be noted, however, that God’s law given through Moses revealed what attitudes, words, and actions either merited divine hatred or were divinely approved. Likely, then, the reference is not to God’s love or hate for the individual. What is unknown is whether the person will be the object of the love or hate of fellow humans. (9:1)

Among imperfect humans, love or hatred may be expressed without sound reasons or justification. These opposite emotions may be displayed in an arbitrary manner. Love may be shown for those who are most undeserving of it, whereas hatred may be expressed toward those who should be treated with compassion. Koheleth’s words, therefore, could mean that earthlings do not “know,” “understand,” or “comprehend” love or hate, the motivations and reasons for these emotions being incomprehensible. Just as the work of God cannot be fathomed, love and hate defy understanding. The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “We do not understand either love or hate.” (9:1)

There is a possibility that the words “love and hate” are not to be connected with the term “before,” eliminating any question as to whether the reference is to past or future time. In Hebrew, the consonants kaph (K) and beth (B) are very similar and have, at times, been confused by copyists. Hence, the opening expression of verse 2, “the all” (HKL) could be read as “vanity” (HBL), and this is the word found in the Septuagint. The Hebrew could be understood as follows: “Even love, even hate, man knows not. All before their faces [them] — vanity.” This is the meaning conveyed in many modern translations. “Whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity.” (NRSV) “But whether they will earn love or hatred they have no way of knowing. Everything that confronts them, everything is futile.” (9:1, REB)

Still other translations interpret the words as applying to those who express love or hate and not to those who are the objects of love or hate. “Yes, man does not even understand why he loves or hates. Everything has already been determined beforehand.” (Ja, der Mensch versteht nicht einmal, warum er liebt oder hasst. Alles ist schon vorher festgelegt. [German, Hoffnung für alle]) “I have thought everything over and have come to the understanding that also the wise and the upright are dependent on God in everything they do. They do not even know why they love or hate.” (Ich habe über alles nachgedacht und bin zu der Einsicht gekommen, dass auch die Klugen und Rechtschaffenen in allem, was sie tun, von Gott abhängig sind. Nicht einmal, warum sie lieben oder hassen, wissen sie. [German, Gute Nachricht Bibel]) (9:1)

The precise significance of Koheleth’s next words depends upon whether the first expression is to be understood as pertaining to “all” or to “vanity.” When the vowel pointing of the traditional Hebrew text is followed, the words may be read, “the all that to all.” This could mean that all things come to everyone alike. The connection to the words that follow would then be that, regardless of their moral condition, humans basically face the same things during the course of their lives. If, however, the focus is on “vanity” (as in the Septuagint [“Vanity [is] in everything”]), the point could be that, by reason of its temporary or fleeting nature, everything before or confronting humans is vanity, emptiness, futility or meaninglessness. (9:2)

Expanding on the thought that the moral condition of humans does not affect their eventual destiny or fate, Koheleth continued, “One fate to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; and to him who sacrifices and to him who does not sacrifice; as [it is to] the good one, so [it is to] the sinner; [to] him who swears as [to him] who fears an oath.” (9:2)

“Fate” is a rendering of the Hebrew miqréh and usually denotes a happening that is neither chosen nor controlled by the one affected. It is not a predetermined occurrence. In this context, the eventuality is the inevitable destiny of all humans — death. (9:2)

The righteous are those whose words and actions conform to the dictates of a clean conscience and whatever knowledge they have of divine law. Wicked persons, on the other hand, act corruptly and disregard the rights of others. They conduct themselves as though they had no conscience and no knowledge of any laws or principles. (9:2)

Although the opposite of “good” (“bad” or “evil”) does not appear in the Hebrew text, it is found in the Syriac, Septuagint, and Vulgate. Many modern translations, therefore, read, “the good and the evil” (NRSV) or “the good and the bad” (NAB). “The good” may also be called “righteous,” “just,” or “upright.” What distinguishes them, however, is a willingness to go beyond what justice requires. Genuinely concerned about the welfare of others, the good are helpful and self-sacrificing givers. (9:2)

The clean could designate those who are either morally or ceremonially pure or undefiled. If the Hebrew reading “to the good and to the clean” is to be understood as a collective designation, the focus would seem to be on moral purity. This is because a person could be free from ceremonial defilement but not be good and, hence, not morally clean. On the other hand, the mention of sacrificing immediately thereafter could suggest that features of the Mosaic law are being highlighted and, therefore, the reference could be to ceremonial cleanness or uncleanness. (9:2)

According to the Mosaic law, there were both voluntary and obligatory sacrifices. (Leviticus 1:1-7:37) The one sacrificing would be the person who complied with the law when presenting both required and voluntary offerings. Unlike such a reverential worshiper, the one not sacrificing presented no offerings. (9:2)

In being the opposite of the good man, the sinner is one who habitually does what is bad. Such a person lives a life of sin, deviating from what is morally right and good. (9:2)

Up to this point, the commendable aspect has been named first. If this is also true regarding the “swearing,” the reference could be to a person who, in a judicial matter, takes an oath in God’s name. (Exodus 22:10, 11; Deuteronomy 6:13) The person fearing an oath could be one who did not want to give truthful testimony. Such a one would fear taking an oath that would obligate him to tell the truth. Since, however, many corrupt persons would not hesitate to lie under oath, it appears that the reference is to improper swearing. Likely, the one swearing would be doing so to a falsehood or in a rash or frivolous manner. The person who is afraid of an oath would then be one who shuns this kind of swearing. (9:2)

Again directing attention to the fate or eventuality common to all, Koheleth continued, “This [is] an evil among all that is done under the sun, that one fate [befalls] all.” The expression “an evil among all” may signify an “evil” or “bad” greater than any other, a calamity of the superlative degree. “Among all the things that happen under the sun, this is the worst.” (NAB) It is possible, however, that the reference simply is to an evil among other evils. “This is another evil among those occurring under the sun.” (NJB) Still another meaning may be that the evil makes its appearance among all earthly occurrences or that it is in them, affecting everything in the sphere of human activity. Identifying this “evil,” Koheleth said that there is one fate or one eventuality “to all.” Without exception, all humans face the one unplanned and uncontrolled eventuality — death. (9:3)

As death comes to all regardless of their actions, this tends to have a corrupting effect on the conduct of people generally. Koheleth continued, “And also the heart of the sons of the man is full of bad, and madness [is] in their heart throughout their lives.” The “heart” or deep inner self of humans is inclined toward bad. Because of the inevitability of death for all (regardless of their moral condition), there seems to be no tangible incentive for controlling corrupt desires and passions. As a consequence, the “heart” or deep inner self is “full of bad,” giving rise to corrupt thoughts, words, and actions. “Madness” exists in the “heart” or the deep inner self of humans “throughout their lives.” The outward manifestation of this is their wayward conduct. It is irrational — not guided by sound judgment and contrary to what is right, decent, and fair. Finally, the life of reckless abandon comes to an abrupt end. As Koheleth expressed it, “and after that — to the dead.” (9:3)

In view of this gloomy outcome, Koheleth emphasized the value of life, saying, “But he who is joined to all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Being “joined to all the living” would mean being alive, being counted as belonging to the collective whole of all those who are living. (9:4)

Only the person who is alive has hope. One facing unfavorable or distressing circumstances hopes for a change or an end to such. The laborer toils in the hope of being able to enjoy fruit from his activity. Hope is definitely a prominent element belonging to the realm of conscious existence and activity. At death, however, the capacity for hope ceases to exist. Therefore, as illustrated by a living dog and a dead lion, to be alive is better than to be dead. (9:4)

In Koheleth’s time, snarling, vicious, wild scavenger dogs were greatly despised. The term “dog” was used as an epithet for a contemptible person, or one of very low station. (1 Samuel 17:43; 2 Samuel 3:8; 16:9; 2 Kings 8:13) On the other hand, the lion was regarded as a symbol of regal authority and splendor. Yet, as Koheleth noted, a live dog was better off than a dead lion. Life alone makes activity and hope possible. (9:4)

Furthermore, conscious thought is the exclusive domain of the living. Koheleth continued, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything, nor do they any longer have a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” Among the living alone, there is a painful awareness that life eventually will come to an end. They “know” or recognize that death is an inevitability. Their knowing that they will die is a sobering awareness and should prompt them to make good use of their days, deriving wholesome pleasure or enjoyment from life. (9:5)

At death, all capacity for thought ends. The dead know absolutely nothing. There is no reward or wage for them, as they can do nothing to gain such. Eventually, as new generations come into the world, even the memory of their once having existed as persons fades away. In most cases, no one even remembers the name of the deceased. From the standpoint of having vanished from the remembrance of the living, the dead also have no more reward or wages. (9:5)

Continuing the description of the condition of the dead, Koheleth observed, “Also their love, also their hate, also their envy have already perished, and they have no part forever in all that is done under the sun.” Strong emotions have ceased in the case of the dead. All expressions of warmth, compassion, and deep affection belong to the past. Any feelings of malice, hostility, or loathing have come to their end. All envy or jealousy (the resentment of what others have that is desired for self) has perished. “Forever” (‘ohlám), or for time that has no limit, the dead have no “part” or “share” in any activity taking place in the earthly realm beneath the sun. (9:6)

In view of the inevitability of death, Koheleth advised that one should derive wholesome enjoyment from life, saying, “Go, eat your bread with rejoicing and drink your wine with a good heart.” As the basic staple, bread is synonymous with food. Partaking of food was to be pleasurable or accompanied by “rejoicing,” “gladness,” or “cheer.” The expression “good heart” signifies that the deep inner self should reflect a “good” or “joyful” spirit. Evidently this implies that the use of wine should be moderate, as excess would dull the senses and prevent proper enjoyment. (9:7)

Adding the reason for such wholesome enjoyment of food and drink, Koheleth continued, “For already God is pleased with your works.” The fact that the Most High has made it possible for humans to enjoy food and drink (the fruit from their labor) indicates that their doing so in a proper way has his approval. God is pleased with the individual’s works, as the products therefrom (food and drink) are being used in harmony with his will. (9:7)

Continuing the thought of maintaining a joyful spirit, Koheleth observed, “At all times let your garments be white and oil not be lacking on your head.” Garments should not customarily be dingy or dirty, but bright and clean, “freshly washed” (Tanakh). Since eating and drinking (mentioned earlier) are a daily occurrence, it seems less likely that the reference is to wearing white garments just on festive occasions. Dirty garments were representative of mourning (2 Samuel 19:24), whereas clean clothes signified joy or that the period of mourning had ended. (2 Samuel 12:20) The oil doubtless would be olive oil, mixed with a fragrant substance. In a hot climate, the application of oil was refreshing. It protected the exposed areas of the skin from excessive drying and cracking on account of the sun’s intense rays. Refraining from applying oil to the body was a sign of grief, and the use of oil a symbol of joy. (9:8; Matthew 6:17, 18)

Calling attention to another source of delight, Koheleth said, “See life with the woman [’ishshah] whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity.” The Hebrew term ’ishshah also designates a “wife,” and this is the apparent meaning here. It is highly unlikely that the reference would be to any woman whom a man might come to love. The Mosaic law contained specific commands that imposed penalties for any irresponsible, promiscuous life style (Exodus 22:16, 17; Deuteronomy 22:28, 29), and prescribed capital punishment for adultery. (Deuteronomy 22:22-27) It is inconceivable that Koheleth would have given admonition that contradicted the Mosaic law. (9:9)

The expression “see life” evidently means to experience life as a married man and to find pleasure in it. At a time when polygamy existed among the Isarelites, the admonition suggests an appreciation for monogamy. The recommendation is to enjoy life with one wife, the one who is loved exclusively. (9:9)

Because the days of life are few and pass quickly, Koheleth spoke of them as “days of the life of your vanity.” As it is so very short and nothing can be accomplished that has permanent value, life seems futile, empty, meaningless, or purposeless. (9:9)

Since God has made life possible, Koheleth said respecting the “days of life,” “which he gave you under the sun.” It is beneath the sun, in the earthly realm, that these days are spent. (9:9)

Again emphasizing the appropriateness of wholesome enjoyment of the fruit of labor, Koheleth continued, “for that is your part in life and from your labor which you labor under the sun.” The Hebrew term for “labor” (‘amál) conveys the thought of painful, wearisome, burdensome, or exhausting toil. There appears to be an emphasis on the repetitious nature of the toil — “labor which you labor.” It is a ceaseless toiling day after day, and year after year. During one’s futile life of toiling, the lot or share that offers something better is getting enjoyment from food and drink, sharing companionship with a wife who is loved, and experiencing a sense of well-being and refreshment (as made possible by wearing clean garments and applying oil on one’s body). Koheleth’s words “under the sun” focus on the earthly realm where humans live and toil. (9:9)

In view of the inevitability that the short life of humans ends in death, Koheleth recommended, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do [it] with your might, for [there is] no work, or thought, or knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol, [the place] to which you are going.” Although previously he had advised that one should get enjoyment from life and the fruit of labor, this was not to be a life filled with idle pleasure. Koheleth’s counsel is to keep the “hand” busy in work, not letting essentials lie unattended. Whenever something needs to be done, the “hand” or the faculties needed to accomplish it, should be employed. This was to be no halfhearted effort in doing work. As Koheleth noted, it was to be accomplished with one’s “might,” or with all the strength that one could reasonably muster. (9:10)

The reason for being diligent and energetic in work is that the time comes when absolutely nothing can be done. In Sheol, the realm of the dead, all physical and mental activity is nonexistent. No “work” or “doing” of any kind occurs in the final resting place to which all the living are heading. Accomplishment requires planning, but all capacity for thought ceases at death and is not to be found in Sheol. Knowledge, a fund of factual information without which one cannot do a single thing, is not in evidence there. Wisdom, skill, or the ability to use knowledge to a successful end in the practical matters of life, does not exist in the abode of the dead. (9:10)

While observing what takes places “under the sun,” in the earthly realm of human affairs, Koheleth noticed that there were many uncertainties. Before giving examples, he says, “I returned and saw under the sun.” His “returning” may mean that after the matter first drew his attention, he was moved to give it more careful consideration. On the other hand, the expression “I returned” may simply introduce the new subject and, therefore, denote that Koheleth focused on something else. Commenting on what he “saw,” “observed,” or came to recognize, he continued, “not to the swift — the race, and not to the mighty — the battle, and not even to the wise — bread, and not even to the understanding — riches, and not even to the knowledgeable ones — the favor.” (9:11)

The fastest runner may stumble, losing the race. A strong, well-equipped army may suffer defeat at the hands of inferior forces, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the terrain or adverse weather conditions. The wise, those with insight in practical matters of life, may not be valued for their abilities. They may become objects of hostility and be deprived of their means of making a living, thus finding themselves without “bread” or food. The understanding ones, the intelligent, or those having perception in sound management may be prevented from using their abilities and come to be numbered among the poor. Persons having a fund of valuable knowledge may be regarded with suspicion by superiors and incur their hatred. Despite the great value of what they know, they come to be in disfavor. (9:11)

Explaining why talents and abilities provide no guarantees respecting a favorable outcome, Koheleth said, “for time and chance befall them all.” The Hebrew term for “time” (‘eth), in this case, denotes a time during which things happen that are beyond the control of the one affected. Likewise, the Hebrew word for “chance” or “occurrence” (péga‘) is descriptive of a circumstance, happening, or encounter that is unexpected or unforeseen. (9:11)

Illustrating his point, Koheleth continued “For man also does not know his time; like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so [are] the sons of man snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” Humans simply do not know what lies ahead of them. The time (‘eth) could denote any time of calamity or, in view of what follows, the time of death. Suddenly and without warning, misfortune or death can befall humans. The experience of people is comparable to what happens to fish that are caught in a net or birds that are trapped. Koheleth called the net an “evil” one because it results in bad or injury (death) to the fish that are caught. All humans are bound to encounter an “evil time,” one that signifies calamity or misfortune to the person affected. Like other “evils,” the inescapable one, death, befalls humans suddenly. Thus, in a time that spells calamity for them, they find themselves quickly and unexpectedly snared or caught. (9:12)

In the realm of human affairs, matters may turn out very differently than might be expected. Koheleth called attention to the effect one notable case of this had on him, saying, “Also this I saw [as] wisdom under the sun, and great it [was] to me.” His observation involved an example of wisdom, one that occurred beneath the sun, or in the realm of human affairs on earth. In referring to this case of wisdom as something “great,” Koheleth may have meant that it made a deep impression on him or that he found it to be especially noteworthy. (9:13)

Proceeding with the particulars, Koheleth said, “A small city — and few men in it. And against it a great king came and encircled it and built great siegeworks against it.” Being a small or insignificant place, the city had few men who could defend it and prevent its capture. The “great” king was evidently a powerful monarch who became famous and gained extensive dominion by waging successful warfare. Encircled by the king’s forces, the inhabitants of the city had little hope of escape. The “great” or “huge” siegeworks could have included ramps. On these ramps or inclined planes, battering rams and other siege equipment could have been used for breaking down the city gate and the walls. (9:14)

Whereas the city appeared to be doomed, the presence of a wise man saved the place. Koheleth continued, “And there was found in it a poor wise man and, by his wisdom, he saved the city, and no man remembered that poor man.” (9:15)

The nature of the poor man’s plan for saving the city or how he introduced it is not discussed. Possibly it involved action against one who had offended the conquering king (2 Samuel 20:15–22), use of what was available to stop the monarch (Judges 9:51-55), or another means for the city’s inhabitants to escape conquest. (9:15)

Once the danger had passed, however, the poor man was not honored. Lacking prestige or prominence, he was not remembered for the important service he had performed. No one felt indebted to him. (9:15)

Evidently because Koheleth afterward said that the words of the poor “are not heard,” the Tanakh presents a different view of the situation. “Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man.” When regarded as a general principle, however, the observation that the words of the poor “are not heard” would not contradict the example given by Koheleth. (9:15, 16)

Drawing a conclusion from the example he had set forth, Koheleth continued, “And I said, Wisdom [is] better than might, and the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.” In the case to which Koheleth referred, the poor man’s wisdom proved to be superior to the military might and siegeworks of the great king, resulting in the deliverance of the insignificant city. Nevertheless, without a position of influence or authority, a person, though wise, will usually be ignored. People tend to look down on the poor, never considering that they may possess real insight. The poor man’s wisdom is despised, regarded as having no value. Perhaps, in an emergency, when all else fails, the poor man’s wisdom may be acted upon. That, however, would be an exception. Usually, the poor man’s wisdom would not be “heard,” listened to, or heeded. (9:16)

Commenting on the manner in which the words of the wise are conveyed, Koheleth noted, “The words of the wise are heard in rest more than the cry of one who rules among fools.” The wise are persons who possess sound judgment and, therefore, their words provide sensible guidelines and solutions to perplexing problems. Because what they say stands on its own merit, the wise do not resort to bluster. Their words are “heard” in “rest” or “calmness,” being spoken in a calm and quiet manner. (9:17)

The calm or quiet expressions of the wise contrast sharply with the “cry,” “shout,” or “scream” of one dominating among fools, among persons whose way of life is morally corrupt and who manifest a crowd mentality in the pursuit of unworthy ends. Being “among” such persons, the one ruling is likewise morally flawed. He shouts, uses rabble-rousing means, or barks commands to achieve his aims. (9:17)

“Among fools” may also signify “in the manner of fools,” and this agrees with the Septuagint rendering, “in senseless things” or “in follies.” Whether a fool exercising authority among fools, or a ruler screaming in the manner of fools, the contrast with the quiet or calm words of the wise is the same. (9:17)

In relation to “heard,” the expression “than” (min) may be understood in a number of ways. (1) The preference should be given to “hearing,” “listening to,” or “heeding” the words of the wise. (2) It is more likely that the quiet words of the wise will find listening ears than that the screaming of one trying to direct fools will be heeded. (3) The calm words of the wise will be heard above the cry of one dominating fools. These basic meanings are reflected in the renderings of various translations. “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” (NRSV) “Words spoken softly by wise men are heeded sooner than those shouted by a lord in folly.” (Tanakh) “The calm words of the wise make themselves heard above the shouts of someone commanding an army of fools.” (NJB) “The words of the wise in rest are heard above the shout of those wielding authority in senseless things.” (9:17, LXX)

Having earlier illustrated the power of wisdom, Koheleth concluded, “Wisdom [is] better than weapons of war, and one sinner ruins much good.” The poor man’s wisdom proved to be superior to the weapons of the powerful king and his well-equipped army, resulting in the city’s being saved. While weapons are designed to bring ruin, wisdom or sage advice, when heeded, can result in good. Both the power and the results from wisdom are better than weaponry. (9:18)

One sinner, a person who consistently and deliberately misses the mark of uprightness in attitude, words, and actions, can undo much good. By appealing to the corrupt leanings of the masses and ridiculing what is right and just, the sinner may sway the majority. As a result, good plans may be frustrated, resources may be squandered, and energies may be wasted. If the sinner succeeds in gaining a position of authority, corrupt, oppressive rulership and warfare can plunge an entire nation into ruin. (9:18)

In a footnote, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia presents “sin” (chet’), not “sinner” as the intended word. A number of modern translations follow this meaning in their renderings (“one mistake” [REB]; “a single sin” [NJB]; “a single error” [Tanakh]). Just one sin can wreck much good. Whether regarded from the standpoint of the sin itself or the person of the sinner, the injurious effect on good is still the same. (9:18)