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Ecclesiastes 1:2

Context
Introduction: Utter Futility

1:2 “Futile! Futile!” laments 1  the Teacher, 2 

“Absolutely futile! 3  Everything 4  is futile!” 5 

Ecclesiastes 1:14

Context

1:14 I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man 6  on earth, 7 

and I concluded: Everything 8  he has accomplished 9  is futile 10  – like chasing the wind! 11 

Ecclesiastes 2:1

Context
Futility of Self-Indulgent Pleasure
I thought to myself, 12 

2:1 “Come now, 13  I will try 14  self-indulgent pleasure 15  to see 16  if it is worthwhile.” 17 

But I found 18  that it also is futile. 19 

Ecclesiastes 2:14-15

Context

2:14 The wise man can see where he is going, 20  but the fool walks in darkness.

Yet I also realized that the same fate 21  happens to them both. 22 

2:15 So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! 23 

Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively 24  wise?” 25 

So I lamented to myself, 26 

“The benefits of wisdom 27  are ultimately 28  meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 4:8

Context

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 

1 tn Heb “says.”

2 sn See the note on “Teacher” in v. 1.

3 tn Heb “futility of futilities.” The phrase “absolutely futile” (הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, havel havalim) is a superlative genitive construction (GKC 431 §133.i). When a plural genitive follows a singular construct noun of the same root, it indicates the most outstanding example of the person or thing described. Examples: קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים (qodesh haqqodashim, “holy of holies”), i.e., “the most holy place” (Exod 26:33); שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים (shir hashirim, “song of songs”), i.e., “the most excellent song” (Song 1:1); אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הַאֱדֹנִים (’elohe haelohim vaadone haedonim, “the God of gods and Lord of lords”), i.e., “the highest God and the supreme Lord” (Deut 10:17). See also R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 17-18, §80; IBHS 154 §9.5.3j.

4 tn Although כֹּל (kol, “everything, all”) is often used in an absolute or comprehensive sense (BDB 481 s.v. כֹּל 1), it is frequently used as a synecdoche of the general for the specific, that is, its sense is limited contextually to the topic at hand (BDB 482 s.v. 2). This is particularly true of הַכֹּל (hakkol, BDB 482 s.v. 2.b) in which the article particularizes or limits the referent to the contextual or previously mentioned topic (e.g., Gen 16:12; 24:1; Exod 29:24; Lev 1:9, 13; 8:27; Deut 2:36; Josh 11:19 [see 2 Sam 19:31; 1 Kgs 14:26 = 2 Chr 12:9]; 21:43; 1 Sam 30:19; 2 Sam 17:3; 23:5; 24:23; 1 Kgs 6:18; 2 Kgs 24:16; Isa 29:11; 65:8; Jer 13:7, 10; Ezek 7:14; Pss 14:3; 49:18; 1 Chr 7:5; 28:19; 29:19; 2 Chr 28:6; 29:28; 31:5; 35:7; 36:17-18; Ezra 1:11; 2:42; 8:34-35; 10:17; Eccl 5:8). Thus, “all” does not always mean “all” in an absolute sense or universally in comprehension. In several cases the context limits its reference to two classes of objects or issues being discussed, so הַכֹּל means “both” (e.g., 2:14; 3:19: 9:1, 2). Thus, הַכֹּל refers only to what Qoheleth characterizes as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel) in the context. Qoheleth does not mean that everything in an absolute, all-encompassing sense is futile. For example, the sovereign work of God is not “futile” (3:14:3); fearing God is not “futile” (2:26; 3:14-15; 11:912:1, 9, 13-14); and enjoying life as a righteous person under the blessing of God is not “futile” (2:24-26; 11:9-10). Only those objects or issues that are contextually placed under כֹּל are designated as “futile” (הֶבֶל). The context of 1:3-15 suggests that 1:2 refers to the futility of secular human endeavor. The content and referent of 1:3-15 determines the referent of הַכֹּל in 1:2.

5 tn The term הֶבֶל (hevel, “futile”) is repeated five times within the eight words of this verse for emphasis. The noun הֶבֶל is the key word in Ecclesiastes. The root is used in two ways in the OT, literally and figuratively. The literal, concrete sense is used in reference to the wind, man’s transitory breath, evanescent vapor (Isa 57:13; Pss 62:10; 144:4; Prov 21:6; Job 7:16). In this sense, it is often a synonym for “breath” or “wind” (Eccl 1:14; Isa 57:13; Jer 10:14). The literal sense lent itself to metaphorical senses: (1) breath/vapor/wind is nonphysical, evanescent, and lacks concrete substance thus, the connotation “unsubstantial” (Jer 10:15; 16:19; 51:18), “profitless” or “fruitless” (Ps 78:33; Prov 13:11), “worthless” (2 Kgs 17:15; Jer 2:5; 10:3), “pointless” (Prov 21:6), “futile” (Lam 4:17; Eccl 1:2, 14; 2:1, 14-15), (2) breath/vapor/wind is transitory and fleeting – thus, the connotation “fleeting” or “transitory” (Prov 31:30; Eccl 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; 11:10; Job 7:16) and (3) breath/vapor/wind cannot be seen thus, the idea of “obscure,” “dark,” “difficult to understand,” “enigmatic” (Eccl 11:10). See HALOT 236-37 s.v. I הֶבֶל; BDB 210-11 s.v. I הֶבֶל. The metaphorical sense is used with the following synonyms: תֹּהוּ (tohu, “empty, vanity”; Isa 49:4), רִיק (riq, “profitless, useless”; Isa 30:7; Eccl 6:11), and לֹא הוֹעִיל (lohoil, “worthless, profitless”; Is 30:6; 57:12; Jer 16:19). It is parallel to “few days” and “[days] which he passes like a shadow” (Eccl 6:12). It is used in reference to youth and vigor (11:10) and life (6:12; 7:15; 9:9), which are “transitory” or “fleeting.” The most common parallels to הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes are the phrases “chasing after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, rÿut ruakh) in 2:11, 17, 26; 7:14 and “what profit?” (מַה־יִּתְרוֹן, mah-yyitron) or “no profit” (אֵין יִתְרוֹן, ’en yitron) in 2:11; 3:19; 6:9. It is used in reference to enigmas in life (6:2; 8:10, 14) and to the future which is obscure (11:8). It is often used in antithesis to terms connoting value: טוֹב (tov, “good, benefit, advantage”) and יֹתְרוֹן (yotÿron, “profit, advantage, gain”). Because the concrete picture of the “wind” lends itself to the figurative connotation “futile,” the motto “This is futile” (זֶה הֶבֶל, zeh hevel) is often used with the metaphor, “like striving after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, rÿut ruakh) – a graphic picture of an expenditure of effort in vain because no one can catch the wind by chasing it (e.g., 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). Although it is the key word in Ecclesiastes, it should not be translated the same way in every place.

sn The motto Everything is futile! is the theme of the book. Its occurs at the beginning (1:2) and end of the book (12:8), forming an envelope structure (inclusio). Everything described in 1:2–12:8 is the supporting proof of the thesis of 1:2. With few exceptions (e.g., 2:24-26; 3:14-15; 11:9-12:1, 9), everything described in 1:212:8 is characterized as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel).

6 tn The phrase “by man” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

7 tn Heb “under the sun.”

8 tn As mentioned in the note on “everything” in 1:2, the term הַכֹּל (hakkol, “everything”) is often limited in reference to the specific topic at hand in the context (e.g., BDB 482 s.v. כֹּל 2). The argument of 1:12-15, like 1:3-11, focuses on secular human achievement. This is clear from the repetition of the root עָשַׂה (’asah, “do, work, accomplish, achieve”) in 1:12-13.

9 tn The phrase “he has accomplished” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

10 tn This usage of הֶבֶל (hevel) denotes “futile, profitless, fruitless” (e.g., 2 Kgs 17:15; Ps 78:33; Prov 13:11; 21:6; Eccl 1:2, 14; 2:1, 14-15; 4:8; Jer 2:5; 10:3; Lam 4:17; see HALOT 236–37 s.v. I הֶבֶל; BDB 210–11 s.v. I הֶבֶל). The term is used with the simile “like striving after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, rÿut ruakh) – a graphic picture of an expenditure of effort in vain because no one can catch the wind by chasing it (e.g., 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9; 7:14). When used in this sense, the term is often used with the following synonyms: לְתֹהוּ (lÿtohu, “for nothing, in vain, for no reason”; Isa 49:4); רִיק (riq, “profitless; useless”; Isa 30:7; Eccl 6:11); לֹא הוֹעִיל (“worthless, profitless”; Is 30:6; 57:12; Jer 16:19); “what profit?” (מַה־יִּתְרוֹןֹ, mah-yyitron); and “no profit” (אֵין יִּתְרוֹן, en yyitron; e.g., 2:11; 3:19; 6:9). It is also used in antithesis to terms connoting value: טוֹב (tov, “good, benefit, advantage”) and יֹתְרוֹן (yotÿron, “profit, advantage, gain”). Despite everything that man has accomplished in history, it is ultimately futile because nothing on earth really changes.

11 tn Heb “striving of wind.” The word “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text; it has been added in the translation to make the comparative notion clear.

12 tn Heb “I said, I, in my heart” (אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי, ’amartiani bÿlibbi). The term “heart” (לֵב, lev) is a synecdoche of part (“heart”) for the whole (the whole person), and thus means “I said to myself” (see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 648).

13 tn The Hebrew verb לְכָה (lÿkhah, “Come!”) is a weakened imperative, used merely as an introductory word, e.g., Gen 19:32; 31:44; Judg 19:11; 1 Sam 9:9-10; 11:14; 2 Kgs 3:7; Ps 66:5; Song 7:12; Isa 1:18; 2:3; Mic 4:2 (HALOT 246 s.v. הָלַךְ 2; BDB 234 s.v. הָלַךְ I.5.f.2). Whenever לְכָה introduces an exhortation, it functions as an invitation to the audience to adopt a course of action that will be beneficial to the addressee or mutually beneficial to both the speaker and the addressee. Here, Qoheleth personifies his “heart” (לִבִּי, libbi) and addresses himself. The examination of self-indulgent pleasure is designed to be beneficial to Qoheleth.

14 tn Or “test.” The cohortative אֲנַסְּכָה (’anassÿkhah) emphasizes the resolve of the speaker. The term נָסַה (nasah, “to test”) means “to conduct a test,” that is, to conduct an experiment (Judg 6:39; Eccl 2:1; 7:23; Dan 1:12, 14; see HALOT 702 s.v. נסה 3; BDB 650 s.v. נָסָה 1). The verb נָסַה is often used as a synonym with בָּחַן (bakhan, “to examine”; BDB 103 s.v. בָּחַן and 650 s.v. נָסָה 1) and לָדַעַת (ladaat, “to ascertain”; Deut 8:2).

15 tn Heb “I will test you with pleasure.” The term שִׂמְחַה (simkhah, “pleasure”) has a two-fold range of meanings: (1) it can refer to the legitimate enjoyment of life that Qoheleth affirms is good (5:17; 8:15; 9:7; 11:8, 9) and that God gives to those who please him (2:26; 5:19); or (2) it can refer to foolish pleasure, self-indulgent, frivolous merrymaking (2:1, 2; 7:4). The parallelism in 2:2 between שִׂמְחַה and שְׂחוֹק (sÿkhoq, “laughter, frivolous merrymaking”), which always appears in the context of banqueting, drinking, and merrymaking, suggests that the pejorative sense is in view in this context.

sn The statement I will try self-indulgent pleasure is a figurative expression known as metonymy of association. As 2:1-3 makes clear, it is not so much Qoheleth who is put to the test with pleasure, but rather that pleasure is put to the test by Qoheleth.

16 tn Heb “See what is good!” The volitive sequence of the cohortative (אֲנַסְּכָה, ’anassÿkhah, “I will test you”) followed by vav + imperative (וּרְאֵה, urÿeh, “and see!”) denotes purpose/result: “I will test you…in order to see….” The verb רָאָה (raah, “to see”) has a broad range of meanings (e.g., in the Qal stem 16 categories are listed in HALOT 1157–1160 s.v.). In this context it means “to discover; to perceive; to discern; to understand” (HALOT 1159 s.v. ראה 13; BDB 907 s.v. רָאָה 5).

17 sn The phrase “to see what is good” (רָאָה, raah, “to see” + טוֹב, tov, “good”) is repeated twice in 2:1-3. This is the key phrase in this section of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth sought to discover (רָאָה) whether merry-making offered any value (טוֹב) to mankind.

18 tn The particle וְהִנֵּה (vÿhinneh, literally “Behold!”) occurs after verbs of perception to introduce what was seen, understood or discovered (HALOT 252 s.v. הִנֵּה 8). It is used to make the narrative graphic and vivid, enabling the reader to enter into the surprise of the speaker (BDB 244 s.v. הִנֵּה c). This is an example of the heterosis of the deictic particle (“Behold!”) for a verb of perception (“I found”). See E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 510-34.

19 tn This use of הֶבֶל (hevel) denotes “futile, worthless, fruitless, pointless” (HALOT 237 s.v. I הֶבֶל 2; BDB 210–11 s.v. I הֶבֶל 2). It is a synonym to מְהוֹלָל (mÿholal, “folly”) in 2:2a and an antonym to טוֹב (tov, “worthwhile, beneficial”) in 2:1b and 2:3c.

20 tn Heb “has his eyes in his head.” The term עַיִן (’ayin, “eye”) is used figuratively in reference to mental and spiritual faculties (BDB 744 s.v. עַיִן 3.a). The term “eye” is a metonymy of cause (eye) for effect (sight and perception).

21 sn The common fate to which Qoheleth refers is death.

22 tn The term כֻּלָּם (kullam, “all of them”) denotes “both of them.” This is an example of synecdoche of general (“all of them”) for the specific (“both of them,” that is, both the wise man and the fool).

23 tn The emphatic use of the 1st person common singular personal pronoun אֲנִי (’ani, “me”) with the emphatic particle of association גַּם (gam, “even, as well as”; HALOT 195–96 s.v. גַּם) appears to emphasize the 1st person common singular suffix on יִקְרֵנִי (yiqreni) “it will befall [or “happen to”] me” (Qal imperfect 3rd person masculine singular + 1st person common singular suffix from קָרָה, qarah, “to befall; to happen to”); see GKC 438 §135.e. Qoheleth laments not that the fate of the wise man is the same as that of the fool, but that even he himself – the wisest man of all – would fare no better in the end than the most foolish.

24 tn The adjective יוֹתֵר (yoter) means “too much; excessive,” e.g., 7:16 “excessively righteous” (HALOT 404 s.v. יוֹתֵר 2; BDB 452 s.v. יוֹתֵר). It is derived from the root יֶתֶר (yeter, “what is left over”); see HALOT 452 s.v. I יֶתֶר. It is related to the verbal root יתר (Niphal “to be left over”; Hiphil “to have left over”); see HALOT 451–52 s.v. I יתר. The adjective is related to יִתְרוֹן (yitron, “advantage; profit”) which is a key-term in this section, creating a word-play: The wise man has a relative “advantage” (יִתְרוֹן) over the fool (2:13-14a); however, there is no ultimate advantage because both share the same fate, i.e., death (2:14b-15a). Thus, Qoheleth’s acquisition of tremendous wisdom (1:16; 2:9) was “excessive” because it exceeded its relative advantage over folly: it could not deliver him from the same fate as the fool. He had striven to obtain wisdom, yet it held no ultimate advantage.

25 tn Heb “And why was I wise (to) excess?” The rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, expecting a negative answer: “I gained nothing!” (E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 949).

26 tn Heb “So I said in my heart.”

27 tn Heb “and also this,” referring to the relative advantage of wisdom over folly.

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

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.”



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