Ecclesiastes (2)


Alter, Robert.  The Wisdom Books: Job Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.  A translation with commentary.  (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010).

Berlin, Adele and Marc  Zvi Brettler (editors).  The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation).  (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004).  Pages 1603-1620 includes an introduction.

Brown, William P.  Ecclesiastes.  Part of the Interpretation Bible Commentary Series edited by James L. Mays.  (John Knox Press, Louisville, 2000).

Lohfink, Norbert.  Qoheleth, translated by Sean McEvenue.  Part of the Continental Commentary series.  (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003).

Ogden, Graham S. and Lynell Zogbo.  A Handbook on Ecclesiastes.  Part of the  UBS Handbook Series.  (United Bible Societies, New York, 1997).

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (editor).  Tanach: The Torah / Prophets / Writings.  The Stone Edition.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1996).

Towner, W. Sibley.  The Book of Ecclesiastes in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Part of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary and translation series edited by Leander E Keck and others.  (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1997)

Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir.  Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1994)


Week One Tuesday Feb. 8: Chapters 1 – 6            (Week Two Tuesday Feb. 15: Chapters 7 – 12)



7:1 to 8:17 – Miscellaneous thoughts

7:1 to 7:14

These sayings are very similar to those found in Proverbs but they seem to offer less certainty in result or outcome than those of Proverbs.  Lohfink p. 93: “(in much of Q) Everything is both right and false at the same time.”   Conventional wisdom confronted by a radical focus on life experience.   He argues that Qoheleth wishes us to be happy, but always facing death on the horizon.   He takes existing sayings from Proverbs and the tradition – but modifies the ending to shock, to stop readers in their tracks.  “A good name is better than fine perfume” (so far so good), “the day of death better than the day of birth”  Wait a minute ….

Ogden p. 222: “Being sad is better than being happy, because a sad experience can teach us something valuable.”  Today we may need to get over our modern and western bias that the point of life is to be happy.  Wisdom and our faith teach us that while happiness is important there are other important things as well.

Consider a moment if we were to read the beatitudes in the light of this material – blessed are those  who are poor, who mourn, blessed are those who are meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, who are merciful …

Towner p. 326: “Given all that one comes to know in life, sadness is more appropriate than laughter.”

7:15 to 8:1

Ogden: p 250:  Qoheleth deals with not just the death of good people but the early death of such persons (against traditional wisdom.  He deals also with the reality that fools and bad people  may live a long life – again against much of the wisdom tradition.  He does not argue, however, for a middle road.  Do not be overly confident in your self-righteousness or wisdom, thinking that it will protect you from this fate  – but be as righteous as you can be.

Ogden p. 268: woman used in this section refers to a personified “folly”, not to women in general.  In the book of Proverbs (at the beginning) wisdom and folly are both personified as women.

Ogden p. 272: recommends translating the end of this unit this way, seeing Q quoting a proverb:

“With my whole being I kept on searching,

but I didn’t find the explanation to things.

They say “I found one man in a thousand,

but among all these, I didn’t find one woman.”

But the one thing I did find is this (that God made humans upright but we seek out much folly).

8:2 – 8:9

With regard to kings (probably not Jewish ones during this time) the best advice is to “go along, get along”.   No matter what else – there is a great power differential.  Rabbis say  – approach king like a fire: too close get burned, too far away get cold.

Brown p. 87: “Obedience before the one who is “stronger” is a mark of prudence.”

8:10 to 8:17

Towner p. 336,337: there is no retributive justice in this world.  “In short, the wicked do not get what is coming to them; they get much more!  This Qohelet finds to be absurd.”  and  “The wages of sin are not necessarily death, nor are the wages of righteousness life; things happen when they must happen.”


9: 1 – 12  Time and Chance affect us all

Towner p. 340: “Long ago God declared it to be morally correct that human beings should enjoy bread, wine, and life itself.  It is not that God foreordains or approves of everything that one might do, but that God created human life good from the beginning and wills that human beings take legitimate pleasure in being alive.”

Ogden p. 324: the one joined with the living has hope –  this is strong irony for him.  What do we have to hope for? Death.    ‘living dog…” is another wisdom type saying that he is quoting ironically

So, what to do?  Enjoy life while you have it, keep death on the horizon lest you take it for granted.

Lohfink p. 112: “To know that we will die is the achievement that, above all, the book of Qoheleth desires for its readers.  That is the way that leads to the highest grade of insight possible to humans, which places us before mystery, and holds us in mystery.  The value of such human knowledge is to be fully grasped only when profiled against what death brings: the annihilation of consciousness.”

9:13 to 11:6  More miscellaneous thoughts

9:13 to 10:7

One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.

Here the text sort of holds 2 positions that are in tension with one another in the general wisdom tradition at the same time: wisdom is better than power but wisdom is despised.   It is a realistic assessment that cautions us about fully committing one way or the other.

Zlotowitz p. 173: workers kept their most needed tools at their right hand, lesser needed things on the left side, hence a wise person’s mind tends to the right, a fool’s mind to the left.   “a left-handed person should not feel slighted because the allegory here refers to the majority of people.”

10:8 to 11:6

The thought is that one digs a pit to trap others, and may therefore fall into his own trap. (breaks down a wall maliciously, strews rocks about to trip another, falls trees hoping to have them land on an enemy).   the self-inflicted penalty of sinfulness.  Not always true, but often enough – the scammer is scammed, the get rich quick scheme leaves one poorer than before, etc.

Beginning of chapter 11 refers to diversifying one’s investments!  Still good advice today.  Has also been read as advice to give generously to those in need, since we never know when we ourselves may need charity from others.

Berlin p. 1619: seven / eight is a conventional expression found in biblical and Canaanite texts to mean ‘a significant quantity’.

Towner p. 348: actions guided by prudence will enjoy more success than those not, actions guided by folly will surely lead to disaster.

11:7 to 12:8  Instructions for young people

Towner p. 353: “With the exception of the concluding verse, the entire section is a lengthy exploration of Qohelet’s most positive them: To be happy in the present moment is the goal of the human endeavor, and to be so is the will of God for human beings.”

Lohfink p. 137: “Syntactically the command to joy is maintained until the end.  But death pushes in and grows so strong and overpowering that it covers everything and progressively crowds out the word of joy.  A unique situation of poetic uncertainty results.  The reader no longer really knows what the theme was: a call to enjoy life during youth or a reflection on death.  Into this indecision of understanding there falls as the last word, with full voice, the word “God”.”

Berlin p. 1620/1621: “That Koheleth’s book ends, therefore, on the dark note of old age is no accident; rather, it reaffirms the transitory nature of life, with no certainty of continuity or afterward, that has been stated throughout.”

almond tree blossoms are white, refers to white hair of old age

12:9-14  Epilogue

Towner p. 359: “The epilogists who added the last six verses to the book of Ecclesiastes achieved their apparent end of making the book more conventional and palatable.  The traditionally pious confidence of vv. 13-14 that God will bring all deeds into judgment and will reward those who fear god feels more comfortable to many people even today than does anything else in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It is ironic that much of the preaching and thinking about this fascinating book is based on the words of someone other than its real author.”







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