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Ecclesiastes 4

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Evil Oppression on Earth

4:1 So 1  I again considered 2  all the oppression 3  that continually occurs 4  on earth. 5 

This is what I saw: 6 

The oppressed 7  were in tears, 8  but no one was comforting them;

no one delivers 9  them from the power of their oppressors. 10 

4:2 So I considered 11  those who are dead and gone 12 

more fortunate than those who are still alive. 13 

4:3 But better than both is the one who has not been born 14 

and has not seen the evil things that are done on earth. 15 

Labor Motivated by Envy

4:4 Then I considered 16  all the skillful work 17  that is done:

Surely it is nothing more than 18  competition 19  between one person and another. 20 

This also is profitless – like 21  chasing the wind.

4:5 The fool folds his hands and does no work, 22 

so he has nothing to eat but his own flesh. 23 

4:6 Better is one handful with some rest

than two hands full of toil 24  and chasing the wind.

Labor Motivated by Greed

4:7 So 25  I again considered 26  another 27  futile thing on earth: 28 

4:8 A man who is all alone with no companion, 29 

he has no children nor siblings; 30 

yet there is no end to all his toil,

and he 31  is never satisfied with riches.

He laments, 32  “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself 33  of pleasure?” 34 

This also is futile and a burdensome task! 35 

Labor is Beneficial When Its Rewards Are Shared

4:9 Two people are better than one,

because they can reap 36  more benefit 37  from their labor.

4:10 For if they fall, one will help his companion up,

but pity 38  the person who falls down and has no one to help him up.

4:11 Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm,

but how can one person keep warm by himself?

4:12 Although an assailant may overpower 39  one person,

two can withstand him.

Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken.

Labor Motivated by Prestige-Seeking

4:13 A poor but wise youth is better than an old and foolish king

who no longer knows how to receive advice.

4:14 For he came out of prison 40  to become king,

even though he had been born poor in what would become his 41  kingdom.

4:15 I considered all the living who walk on earth, 42 

as well as the successor 43  who would arise 44  in his place.

4:16 There is no end to all the people 45  nor to the past generations, 46 

yet future generations 47  will not rejoice in him.

This also is profitless and like 48  chasing the wind.

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1 tn The prefixed vav on וְשַׁבְתִּי (vÿshavti, vav + perfect 1st person common singular from שׁוּב, shuv, “to turn”) might be: (1) introductory (and left untranslated): “I observed again”; (2) consequence of preceding statement: “So I observed again”; or (3) continuation of preceding statement: “And I observed again.”

sn This section is closely related to the preceding: Qoheleth’s observation of oppression (4:1-3) links back to his previous observation of oppression and injustice (3:16). It stands in stark contrast with his admonition for man to enjoy life on earth as the reward for one’s work (3:22). Now, Qoheleth turns his attention to consider the sorry fate of those who are not able to enjoy life on earth and their work because of oppression (4:1-3), over-obsessive competitiveness (4:4-6), and loneliness (4:7-12).

2 tn Heb “I turned and I saw.” The phrase וָאֶרְאֶהוְשַׁבְתִּי (vÿshavtivaereh, “I turned and I saw”) is a verbal hendiadys (the two verbs represent one common idea). Normally in a verbal hendiadys, the first verb functions adverbially, modifying the second verb which retains its full verbal force. The verb וְשַׁבְתִּי (vav + perfect 1st person common singular from שׁוּב “to turn”) is used idiomatically to denote repetition: “to return and do” = “to do again” (e.g., Gen 26:18; 30:31; 43:2) or “to do repeatedly” (e.g., Lam 3:3); see HALOT 1430 s.v. שׁוב 5; BDB 998 s.v. שׁוּב 8; GKC 386 §120.e: “I observed again” or “I repeatedly observed.” On the other hand, the shift from the perfect וְשַׁבְתִּי to the preterite וָאֶרְאֶה (vav + Qal preterite 1st person common singular from רָאָה, raah, “to see”) might indicate a purpose clause: “I turned [my mind] to consider.” The preterite וָאֶרְאֶה follows the perfect וְשַׁבְתִּי. When a wayyiqtol form (vav + preterite) follows a perfect in reference to a past-time situation, the preterite also represents a past-time situation. Its aspect is based on the preceding perfect. In this context, the perfect and preterite may denote definite past or indefinite past action (“I turned and considered” as hendiadys for “I observed again” or “I repeatedly observed”) or past telic action (“I turned [my mind] to consider”). See IBHS 554-55 §33.3.1a.

3 tn Heb “all the oppressions” or “all the oppression”; alternately, “all the various kinds of oppression.” The term עֹשֶׁק (’osheq) denotes “oppression,” e.g., Jer 6:6; 22:17; Ezek 18:18; 22:7, 12, 29; Pss 73:8; 119:134 (see HALOT 897 s.v. עֹשֶׁק 1; BDB 799 s.v. עֹשֶׁק 1). It occurs several times in the book, always in reference to personal rather than national oppression (4:1; 5:8 ET [5:7 HT]; 7:7). The noun הָעֲשֻׁקִים (haashuqim) is plural and articular (Heb “the oppressions”). The article indicates a generic class (“oppression”). The plural may be classified in one of two ways: (1) a plural of number, which refers to specific kinds of oppression that occur on earth: “the various kinds of oppression”; (2) an abstract plural, which is used to refer to abstract concepts: “the oppression”; or (3) a plural of intensity, which describes the oppression at hand as particularly grievous: “awful oppression” or “severe oppression.” The LXX renders it as a plural of number: συκοφαντίας (sukofantias, “oppressions”), as does the Vulgate. Most English versions treat it as a plural of number: “the oppressions” (KJV, ASV, NAB, RSV, NRSV, MLB, YLT); however, a few treat it as an abstract plural: “the oppression” (NJPS, NIV, Moffatt).

4 tn Heb “is done.” The term נַעֲשִׂים (naasim, Niphal participle mpl from עָשַׂה, ’asah, “to do”) is a probably a verbal use of the participle rather than a substantival use (NEB: “all the acts of oppression”). This verbal use of the participle depicts durative or universal gnomic action. It emphasizes the lamentable continuity of oppression throughout human history. The English versions translate it variously: “[all the oppressions that] are done” (KJV, ASV, Douay, YLT), “[all the oppression] that goes on” (NJPS, Moffatt), “[all the oppressions] that are practiced” (RSV, NRSV), “[all the oppressions] that occur” (MLB), “[all the acts of oppression] which were being done” (NASB), “[all the oppressions] that take place” (NAB), “[all the oppression] that was taking place” (NIV).

5 tn Heb “under the sun.”

6 tn Heb “and behold.” The deictic particle וְהִנֵּה (vÿhinneh, “and behold!”) often occurs after verbs of perceiving, such as רָאָה, raah, “to see” (e.g., Gen 19:28; 22:13; Exod 3:2; Lev 13:8). It introduces the content of what the character or speaker saw (HALOT 252 s.v. הִנֵּה 8). It is used for rhetorical emphasis, to draw attention to the following statement (e.g., Gen 1:29; 17:20; Num 22:32; Job 1:19; cf. HALOT 252 s.v. 5). It often introduces something surprising or unexpected (e.g., Gen 29:6; Num 25:6; cf. HALOT 252 s.v. 6).

7 tn The term הָעֲשֻׁקִים (haashuqim, Qal passive participle mpl from עָשַׁק, ’ashaq, “to oppress”) is a passive form, emphasizing that they are the objects of oppression at the hands of their oppressors. The participle functions as a noun, emphasizing the durative aspect of their condition and that this was the singular most characteristic attribute of this group of people: Their lives were marked by oppression.

8 tn Heb “the tear of the oppressed.” Alternately, “the oppressed [were in] tears.” The singular noun דִּמְעָה (dimah, “tear”) is used as a collective for “tears” (2 Kgs 20:5; Isa 16:9; 25:8; 38:5; Jer 8:23; 19:7; 13:17; 14:17; 31:16; Ezek 24:16; Mal 2:13; Pss 6:7; 39:13; 42:4; 56:9; 80:6; 116:8; 126:5; Lam 1:2; 2:18; Eccl 4:1); see HALOT 227 s.v. דִּמְעָה; BDB 199 s.v. דִּמְעָה. It is often used in reference to lamentation over calamity, distress, or oppression (e.g., Ps 6:7; Lam 1:2; 2:11; Jer 9:17; 13:17; 14:17). The LXX translated it as singular δάκρουν (dakroun, “the tear”); however, the Vulgate treated it as a collective (“the tears”). Apart from the woodenly literal YLT (“the tear”), the major English versions render this as a collective: “the tears” or “tears” (KJV, ASV, NEB, NAB, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NJPS, MLB, NIV). The term דִּמְעָה functions as a metonymy of association for “weeping” (e.g., Isa 16:9; 8:23): “the oppressed [were weeping with] tears.” The genitive construct דִּמְעָת הָעֲשֻׁקִים (dimat haashuqim, literally, “tear of the oppressed”) is a subjective genitive construction, that is, the oppressed are weeping. The singular דִּמְעָת (dimat, “tear”) is used as a collective for “tears.” This entire phrase, however, is still given a woodenly literal translation by most English versions: “the tears of the oppressed” (NEB, NAB, ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, MLB, NIV, NJPS). Some paraphrases attempt to fill out the meaning, e.g., “the oppressed were in tears” (Moffatt).

9 tn Heb “comforts.” The verb נָחַם (nakham, “to comfort”) is used as a metonymy of effect (i.e., comfort) for cause (i.e., deliverance), e.g., it is used in parallelism with גָאַל (gaal, “to deliver”) in Isa 52:9 (see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 560-67).

10 tn Heb “from the hand of their oppressors is power.”

11 tn The verb שָׁבַח (shavakh) has a two-fold range of meaning: (1) “to praise; to laud”; and (2) “to congratulate” (HALOT 1387 s.v. I שׁבח; BDB 986 s.v. II שָׁבַח). The LXX translated it as ἐπῄνεσα (ephnesa, “I praised”). The English versions reflect the range of possible meanings: “praised” (KJV, ASV, Douay); “congratulated” (MLB, NASB); “declared/judged/accounted/thought…fortunate/happy” (NJPS, NEB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, NAB).

12 tn Heb “the dead who had already died.”

13 tn Heb “the living who are alive.”

14 tn The word “born” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

15 tn Heb “under the sun.”

16 tn Heb “saw.”

17 tn Heb “all the toil and all the skill.” This Hebrew clause (אֶת־כָּל־עָמָל וְאֵת כָּל־כִּשְׁרוֹן, ’et-kol-amal vÿet kol-kishron) is a nominal hendiadys (a figurative expression in which two independent phrases are used to connote the same thing). The second functions adverbially, modifying the first, which retains its full nominal function: “all the skillful work.”

18 tn The phrase “nothing more than” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

19 tn The noun קִנְאַה (qinah, “competition”) has a wide range of meanings: “zeal; jealousy; envy; rivalry; competition; suffering; animosity; anger; wrath” (HALOT 1110 s.v.; BDB 888 s.v.). Here, as in 9:6, it denotes “rivalry” (BDB 888 s.v. 1) or “competitive spirit” (HALOT 1110 s.v. 1.b). The LXX rendered it ζῆλος (zhlos, “envy; jealousy”). The English versions reflect this broad range: “rivalry” (NEB, NAB, NASB), “envy” (KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, MLB, NIV, NJPS), and “jealousy” (Moffatt).

20 tn Heb “a man and his neighbor.”

21 tn The word “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

22 tn Heb “the fool folds his hands.” The Hebrew idiom means that he does not work (e.g., Prov 6:10; 24:33). In the translation the words “and does no work” (which do not appear in the Hebrew text) have been supplied following the idiom to clarify what is meant.

23 tn Heb “and eats his own flesh.” Most English versions render the idiom literally: “and eats/consumes his flesh” (KJV, AS, NASB, NAB, RSV, NRSV, NJPS). However, a few versions attempt to explain the idiom: “and lets life go to ruin” (Moffatt), “and wastes away” (NEB), “and ruins himself” (NIV).

24 sn Qoheleth lists three approaches to labor: (1) the competitive workaholic in 4:4, (2) the impoverished sluggard in 4:5, and (3) the contented laborer in 4:6. The balanced approach rebukes the two extremes.

25 tn The prefixed vav on וְשַׁבְתִּי (vÿshavti, vav + perfect 1st person common singular from שׁוּב, shuv, “to turn”) might be: (1) introductory (and left untranslated): “I observed again…”; (2) consequence of preceding statement: “So I observed again…”; or (3) continuation of preceding statement: “And I observed again….”

26 tn Heb “I turned and I saw…”; or “I again considered.” The Hebrew phrase וָאֶרְאֶהוְשַׁבְתִּי (vÿshavtivaereh, “I turned and I saw”) is a verbal hendiadys (the two verbs represent one common idea). Normally in a verbal hendiadys, the first verb functions adverbially, modifying the second verb which retains its full verbal force. The verb שׁוּב (shuv, “to turn”) is used idiomatically to denote repetition: “to return and do” = “to do again” (e.g., Gen 26:18; 30:31; 43:2) or “to do repeatedly” (e.g., Lam 3:3); see HALOT 1430 s.v. שׁוב 5; BDB 998 s.v. שׁוּב 8; GKC 386 §120.e: “I observed again” or “I repeatedly observed.” On the other hand, the shift from the perfect וְשַׁבְתִּי (vav + perfect 1st person common singular from שׁוּב, “to turn”) to the preterite וָאֶרְאֶה (vav + Qal preterite 1st person common singular from רָאָה, raah, “to see”) might indicate a purpose clause: “I turned [my mind] to consider….” The preterite וָאֶרְאֶה follows the perfect וְשַׁבְתִּי. When a wayyiqtol form (vav + preterite) follows a perfect in reference to a past-time situation, the preterite also represents a past-time situation. Its aspect is based on the preceding perfect. In this context, the perfect and preterite may denote definite past or indefinite past action (“I turned and considered …” as hendiadys for “I observed again” or “I repeatedly observed”) or past telic action (“I turned [my mind] to consider…”). See IBHS 554-55 §33.3.1a.

27 tn The word “another” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

28 tn Heb “under the sun.”

29 tn Heb “There is one and there is not a second.”

30 tn Heb “son nor brother.” The terms “son” and “brother” are examples of synecdoche of specific (species) for the general (genus). The term “son” is put for offspring, and “brother” for siblings (e.g., Prov 10:1).

31 tn Heb “his eye.” The term “eye” is a synecdoche of part (i.e., the eye) for the whole (i.e., the whole person); see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 647.

32 tn The phrase “he laments” is not in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity. The direct discourse (“For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?”) is not introduced with an introductory structure. As in the LXX, some translations suggest that these words are spoken by a lonely workaholic, e.g., “He says…” (NAB, NEB, ASV, NIV, NRSV). Others suggest that this is a question that he never asks himself, e.g., “Yet he never asks himself…” (KJV, RSV, MLB, YLT, Douay, NASB, Moffatt).

33 tn Heb “my soul.”

34 tn This rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, that is, it expects a negative answer: “No one!” (see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 949-51).

35 tn The adjective רָע (ra’, “evil”) here means “misfortune” (HALOT 1263 s.v. רָעָה 4) or “injustice, wrong” (HALOT 1262 s.v. רָעָה 2.b). The phrase עִנְיַן רָע (’inyan ra’, “unhappy business; rotten business; grievous task”) is used only in Ecclesiastes (1:13; 2:23, 26; 3:10; 4:8; 5:2, 13; 8:16). It is parallel with הֶבֶל (hevel, “futile”) in 4:8, and describes a “grave misfortune” in 5:13. The noun עִנְיַן (’inyan, “business”) refers to something that keeps a person occupied or busy: “business; affair; task; occupation” (HALOT 857 s.v. עִנְיָן; BDB 775 s.v. עִנְיָן). The related verb עָנָה (’anah) means “to be occupied; to be busy with (בְּ, bet),” e.g., Eccl 1:13; 3:10; 5:19 (HALOT 854 s.v. III עָנָה; BDB 775 s.v. II עָנָה). The noun is from the Aramaic loanword עִנְיָנָא (’inyana’, “concern; care.” The verb is related to the Aramaic verb “to try hard,” the Arabic verb “to be busily occupied; to worry; to be a matter of concern,” and the Old South Arabic root “to be troubled; to strive with” (HALOT 854 s.v. III ענה). HALOT 857 s.v. עִנְיָן renders the phrase as “unhappy business” here. The phrase עִנְיַן רָע, is treated creatively by English versions: KJV, ASV “sore travail”; YLT “sad travail”; Douay “grievous vexation”; RSV, NRSV, NJPS “unhappy business”; NEB, Moffatt “sorry business”; NIV “miserable business”; NAB “worthless task”; NASB “grievous task”; MLB “sorry situation”; NLT “depressing.”

36 tn Heb “they have.”

37 tn Heb “a good reward.”

38 tn Heb “woe to him.”

39 tn The verbal root תקף means “to overpower; to prevail over” e.g., Job 14:20; 15:24; Eccl 4:12; 6:10 (HALOT 1786 s.v. תקף).

40 tn Heb “came from the house of bonds.”

41 tn The phrase “what would become” is not in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity. However, it is not altogether clear whether the 3rd person masculine singular suffix (“his”) on בְּמַלְכוּתוֹ (bÿmalkhuto, “his kingdom”) refers to the old foolish king or to the poor but wise youth of 4:13.

42 tn Heb “under the sun.”

43 tn Heb “the second youth.” It is not clear whether “the second” (הַשֵּׁנִי, hasheni) refers to the young man who succeeds the old king or a second youthful successor.

44 tn The verb עָמַד (’amad, “to stand”) may denote “to arise; to appear; to come on the scene” (e.g., Ps 106:30; Dan 8:22, 23; 11:2-4; 12:1; Ezra 2:63; Neh 7:65); cf. BDB 764 s.v. עָמַד 6.a; HALOT 840 s.v. עמד 1.a.

45 tn Heb “the people.” The term עַם (’am, “people”) can refer to the subjects of the king (BDB 766 s.v. עַם 2).

46 tn Heb “those who were before them.”

47 tn Heb “those coming after.” The Hebrew term הָאַחֲרוֹנִים (haakharonim, “those coming after”) is derived from the preposition אַחַר (’akhar, “behind”). When used in reference to time, it refers to future generations (e.g., Deut 29:21; Pss 48:14; 78:4, 6; 102:19; Job 18:20; Eccl 1:11; 4:16); cf. HALOT 36 s.v. אַחַר B.3; BDB 30 s.v. אַחַר 2.b).

48 tn The word “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.



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