New American Bible Revised Edition

* [1:1] David’s son…king in Jerusalem: the intent of the author is to identify himself with Solomon. This is a literary device, by which the author hopes to commend his work to the public under the name of Israel’s most famous sage (see 1 Kgs 5:9–14).

* [1:2] Vanity of vanities: a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness.

* [1:3] Under the sun: used throughout this book to signify “on the earth.”

* [1:8] All things are wearisome: or, “All speech is wearisome.”

* [1:11] Movement in nature and human activity appears to result in change and progress. The author argues that this change and progress are an illusion: “Nothing is new under the sun.”

* [1:14] A chase after wind: an image of futile activity, like an attempt to corral the winds; cf. Hos 12:2. The ancient versions understood “affliction, dissipation of the spirit.” This phrase concludes sections of the text as far as 6:9.

* [1:15] You cannot count what is not there: perhaps originally a commercial metaphor alluding to loss or deficit in the accounts ledger.

* [1:18] Sorrow…grief: these terms refer not just to a store of knowledge or to psychological or emotional pain. Corporal punishment, sometimes quite harsh, was also employed frequently by parents and teachers.

* [2:1–11] The author here assumes the role of Solomon who, as king, would have had the wealth and resources at his disposal to acquire wisdom and engage in pleasurable pursuits. Verses 4–8 in particular, with their description of abundant wealth and physical gratifications, parallel the descriptions in 1 Kgs 4–11 of the extravagances of Solomon’s reign.

* [2:3] Guided by wisdom: using all the means money can buy, the author sets out on a deliberate search to discover if pleasure constitutes true happiness.

* [2:8] Many women: the final phrase of this verse is difficult to translate. One word, shiddah, which appears here in both singular and plural, is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. A suggested meaning is “woman” or “concubine,” as it is interpreted here: “many women.” The rest of the section (2:1–12) seems to be a description of Solomon’s kingdom, and the “many women” would represent his huge harem (1 Kgs 11:1–3). In rabbinic Hebrew the word comes to mean “chest” or “coffer.”

* [2:12] What…been done: the verse is difficult and elliptical. The words “He can do only” have been added for clarity. The two halves of the verse have been reversed. The author argues that it is useless to repeat the royal experiment described in vv. 1–11. The results would only be the same.

* [2:14] Yet I knew…befalls both: the author quotes a traditional saying upholding the advantages of wisdom, but then qualifies it. Nothing, not even wisdom itself, can give someone absolute control over their destiny and therefore guarantee any advantage.

* [2:16] The wise person dies: death, until now only alluded to (vv. 14–15), takes center stage and will constantly appear in the author’s reflections through the remainder of the book.

* [2:24–26] The author is not advocating unrestrained indulgence. Rather he counsels acceptance of the good things God chooses to give. This is the first of seven similar conclusions that Qoheleth provides; see 3:12–13, 22; 5:17–18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9.

* [2:26] According to 7:15 and 9:1–3, God does not make an objective, evidential, moral distinction between saint and sinner. God “gives” as God pleases.

* [3:1–8] The fourteen pairs of opposites describe various human activities. The poem affirms that God has determined the appropriate moment or “time” for each. Human beings cannot know that moment; further, the wider course of events and purposes fixed by God are beyond them as well.

* [3:11] The timeless: others translate “eternity,” “the world,” or “darkness.” The author credits God with keeping human beings ignorant about God’s “work”—present and future.

* [3:15] The verse is difficult. Literally it reads “and God seeks out what was pursued.” It appears to be a variation of the theme in 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

* [3:17] A time is set…work: another possible reading would see this verse referring to a judgment in or after death: “a time for every affair and for every work there” (that is, in death or in Sheol).

* [3:21] Who knows: the author presumes a negative answer: “No one knows.” In place of speculation on impossible questions, the author counsels enjoyment of what is possible (cf. v. 22; but see also 2:10–11).

* [4:1] Oppressions…victims…none to comfort: the author obviously feels deeply about the plight of the oppressed, but he seems to feel powerless to do anything. The repetition of “none to comfort” is purposeful, and emphatic.

* [4:5] Consume their own flesh: an enigmatic statement. In the context of vv. 4 and 6 it seems to warn that those who refuse to work for the necessities of life will suffer hunger and impair their bodily health. But the verse could also be intended for the industrious: Even the lazy may manage to have “their own flesh,” that is, have sufficient food to eat.

* [4:12] A three-ply cord: an ancient proverb known centuries before biblical times. The progression (“two together…three-ply”) seems to imply, “If two are good, three are even better.”

* [4:13–16] This passage deals with kingship and succession, but is obscure.

* [4:15] The king is no sooner dead than the people transfer their allegiance to his successor.

* [4:17] The house of God: the Temple in Jerusalem. Obedience…sacrifice: the Temple was the place not only for sacrifice but also for instruction in the Law. Sacrifice without obedience was unacceptable; cf. 1 Sm 15:22; Hos 6:6.

* [5:1–6] Further counsels on prudence and circumspection in fulfilling one’s religious obligations. It is not the multitude of words but one’s sincerity that counts in the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty (v. 1), especially through obedience (4:17) and reverence (v. 6).

* [5:8] A king concerned about cultivation: the Hebrew text is ambiguous and obscure. The author does not criticize the oppression he describes in v. 7. Now perhaps he expresses the hope that the king would use his power to upbuild agriculture in order to alleviate the hunger and suffering of the poor and oppressed.

* [5:19] The joys of life, though temporary and never assured, keep one from dwelling on the ills which afflict humanity.

* [6:3] Even a large family and exceptionally long life cannot compensate for the absence of good things and the joy which they bring.

* [6:6] Same place: the grave; cf. 3:20; 12:7.

* [6:7] The mouth: symbolic of human desires.

* [6:9] Compare the English proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” However, it could also mean, “The seeing of the eyes is better than the wandering of the desire,” with the emphasis on the actions of seeing and desiring. Seeing is a way of possessing whereas desire, by definition, can remain frustrated and unfulfilled.

* [6:10–11] One who is stronger is, of course, God. The more vanity: contending with God is futile.

* [7:1] Ointment: a good name can be affirmed only with death, when one is normally anointed. The author dialogues in this section (vv. 1–14) with traditional wisdom, alternately affirming or countering its assertions. The real value of traditional wisdom lies in its ability to provoke one to thought and reflection, and not to absolve one from such activity.

* [7:12] St. Jerome’s translation of v. 12b gives an edge to wisdom over money: “But learning and wisdom excel in this, that they bestow life on the one who possesses them.”

* [7:15–24] The author continues both to affirm and to counter traditional wisdom. He affirms a certain validity to wisdom, but challenges complacency and mindless optimism. His sense of life’s uncertainty and insecurity finds expression, for example, in the irony evident when v. 16 is read in the light of vv. 20–24: How can one be “excessively” just or wise, when justice and wisdom may be out of reach to begin with? The only sure thing is to “fear God” (v. 18).

* [7:24] Far-reaching…deep: the spatial metaphor here emphasizes wisdom’s inaccessibility, a frequent theme in wisdom literature; cf. Jb 28; Prv 30:1–4; Sir 24:28–29; Bar 3:14–23.

* [7:25–29] The emphasis is on the devious designs of human beings in general, reflecting the viewpoint of Genesis.

* [7:26] More bitter than death…the woman: warnings against the scheming, adulterous woman are common in ancient wisdom (e.g., Prv 2:16–19, etc.).

* [8:1–4] The author continues to quote traditional wisdom but then to counter and qualify it. He concedes wisdom’s advantages (v. 1), but then describes the subservience and sometimes demeaning demands required of the sage in the court of the king (vv. 2–4).

* [8:5–9] The wise exhibit keen insight about human nature and the course of events (vv. 5–6a). Yet their knowledge and wisdom confront certain limits, such as the mystery of evil and the time and inevitability of death (vv. 6b–9).

* [8:10] This difficult verse seems to contrast the wicked, who die enjoying a good reputation as pious individuals, and the just, who are quietly forgotten.

* [8:12–17] The author admits that traditional wisdom affirms the long life and success of the just and the short unhappy life of the wicked (vv. 12b–13). But he points out clear exceptions: the wicked who live long, and the just who suffer for no apparent reason (v. 14). His puzzlement and frustration prompt a twofold response: acceptance of whatever joy God chooses to give each day, and honest acknowledgment that no one can discover “the work of God” (cf. 3:11; 7:13; 11:5).

* [9:1–3] Love from hatred…everything is the same: God seems to bestow divine favor or disfavor (love or hatred) indiscriminately on the just and wicked alike. More ominously, the arbitrariness and inevitability of death and adversity confront every human being, whether good or bad.

* [9:4–6] A live dog…no further recompense: human reason and experience persuaded Qoheleth that death with its finality and annihilating power cruelly negates the supreme value—life, and with it, all possibilities (cf. v. 10). Faith in eternal life has its foundation only in hope and trust in God’s promise and in God’s love.

* [9:7–10] Go, eat your bread…enjoy life: the author confesses his inability to imprison God in a fixed and predictable way of acting. Thus he ponders a practical and pragmatic solution: Seize whatever opportunity one has to find joy, if God grants it.

* [10:1] Dead flies…a little folly: wisdom is vulnerable to even the smallest amount of folly. The collection of proverbs and sayings in chaps. 10 and 11 demonstrates the author’s sharp insight and strengthens his credentials as a sage. It thus adds weight to his critique of the wisdom tradition’s tendencies to self-assurance and naive optimism.

* [10:2] Right…left: the right hand is identified with power, moral goodness, favor; the left hand with ineptness and bad luck.

* [10:3] Calls everyone a fool: or, “tells everyone that he (himself) is a fool.”

* [10:4] Calmness: a frequent motif of wisdom; silence and reserve characterize the wise, while boisterousness and impetuosity identify the fool.

* [10:6–7] A fool…the rich…slaves…princes: another wisdom motif: astonishment at the reversal of the usual order in the world and in human affairs.

* [10:8–9] A pit…a wall…stones…wood: popular sayings reflecting the need for caution and alertness against the unexpected. Snakes could find a home in the stone walls of ancient Palestine; cf. Am 5:19.

* [10:10–11] Ax…success…snake…charmer: possession of the proper skill (a form of “wisdom”) can ensure success, as in the case of a sharpened ax; but one must use it before it is too late (v. 11). Cf. Sir 12:13.

* [10:16] A youth: thus too young and inexperienced to govern effectively. Feast in the morning: either concluding a whole night of revelry or beginning a new round of merrymaking.

* [10:17] For vigor: or, “with self-control, restraint.”

* [10:19] Money answers: a stark reminder that such a life requires money. It could also be an affirmation of the power of wealth: “Money conquers all.”

* [10:20] Birds of the air…winged creature: a common motif in ancient literature, and a vivid reminder of the need for caution in dealing with the rich and powerful.

* [11:1–2] These two sayings can be understood against a commercial background. They acknowledge the uncertainty and risk such activity involves. At the same time they encourage action and a spirit of adventure. The first (v. 1) speaks of trade and overseas investment: Export your grain (“bread”) to foreign markets and you may be surprised at the substantial profits. The second (v. 2) encourages diversification of investment (seven, or even eight shipments of grain) to insure against heavy losses.

* [11:3–6] Verses 3, 4, and 6 expand on the theme of uncertainty and human inability to assess accurately every situation. Verse 4, however, comments on the disadvantages of too much caution: Only those willing to risk will enjoy success. But only the Creator knows the mystery of the “work of God” (v. 5).

* [11:7–10] The concluding part of the book opens with a final bittersweet homage to life and an enthusiastic encouragement to rejoice in its gifts while they are within grasp.

* [11:10] Fleeting: lit., “vanity.”

* [12:1–7] The homage to life of 11:7–10 is deliberately balanced by the sombre yet shimmering radiance of this poem on old age and death. The poem’s enigmatic imagery has often been interpreted allegorically, especially in vv. 3–5. Above all it seeks to evoke an atmosphere as well as an attitude toward death and old age.

* [12:3–5] An allegorical reading of these verses sees references to the human body—“guardians”: the arms; “strong men”: the legs; “women who grind”: the teeth; “those who look”: the eyes; “the doors”: the lips; “daughters of song”: the voice; “the almond tree blooms”: resembling the white hair of old age; “the locust…sluggish”: the stiffness in movement of the aged; “the caper berry”: a stimulant for appetite.

* [12:6] The golden bowl suspended by the silver cord is a symbol of life; the snapping of the cord and the breaking of the bowl, a symbol of death. The pitcher…the pulley: another pair of metaphors for life and its ending.

* [12:7] Death is portrayed in terms of the description of creation in Gn 2:7; the body corrupts in the grave, and the life breath (lit., “spirit”), or gift of life, returns to God who had breathed upon what he had formed.

* [12:9] A disciple briefly describes and praises the master’s skill and reputation as a sage.

* [12:11] One shepherd: perhaps referring to the book’s author, who gathers or “shepherds” together its contents. God could also be “the one shepherd,” the ultimate depository and source of true wisdom.

* [12:12] As to more than these: the words seem to refer to the writings of Ecclesiastes and other sages. They are adequate and sufficient; any more involves exhaustive labor.

* [12:13–14] These words reaffirm traditional wisdom doctrine such as fear of God and faithful obedience, perhaps lest some of the more extreme statements of the author be misunderstood. Although the epilogue has been interpreted as a criticism of the book’s author, it is really a summary that betrays the unruffled spirit of later sages, who were not shocked by Qoheleth’s statements. They honored him as a hakam or sage (v. 9), even as they preserved his statements about the futility of life (v. 8), and the mystery of divine judgment (8:17; 11:5).

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Scripture texts, prefaces, introductions, footnotes and cross references used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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