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Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

Context
Futility Illustrated from Nature

1:3 What benefit 1  do people 2  get from all the effort

which 3  they expend 4  on earth? 5 

1:4 A generation comes 6  and a generation goes, 7 

but the earth remains 8  the same 9  through the ages. 10 

1:5 The sun rises 11  and the sun sets; 12 

it hurries away 13  to a place from which it rises 14  again. 15 

1:6 The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north;

round and round 16  the wind goes and on its rounds it returns. 17 

1:7 All the streams flow 18  into the sea, but the sea is not full,

and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again. 19 

1:8 All this 20  monotony 21  is tiresome; no one can bear 22  to describe it: 23 

The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content 24  with hearing.

1:9 What exists now 25  is what will be, 26 

and what has been done is what will be done;

there is nothing truly new on earth. 27 

1:10 Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? 28 

It was already 29  done long ago, 30  before our time. 31 

1:11 No one remembers the former events, 32 

nor will anyone remember 33  the events that are yet to happen; 34 

they will not be remembered by the future generations. 35 

1 tn The term “profit” (יֹתְרוֹן, yotÿron) is used in Ecclesiastes to evaluate the ultimate benefit/effects of human activities, as is טוֹב (tov, “good, worthwhile”) as well (e.g., 2:1, 3). While some relative advantage/profit is recognized (e.g., light over darkness, and wisdom over folly), Qoheleth denies the ultimate advantage of all human endeavors (e.g., 2:11, 15).

2 tn Heb “the man.” The Hebrew term could be used here in a generic sense, referring to the typical man (hence, “a man”). However, it is more likely that the form is collective and that humankind in general is in view (note NIV “man”). Note the reference to “a generation” coming and going in the next verse, as well as v. 13, where the phrase “the sons of man” (= humankind) appears. In this case the singular pronominal suffix and singular verb later in v. 3 reflect grammatical agreement, not individuality.

3 tn The use of the relative pronoun שֶׁ (she, “which”) – rather than the more common אֲשֶׁר (’asher, “which”) – is a linguistic feature that is often used to try to date the Book of Ecclesiastes. Noting that שֶׁ is the dominant relative pronoun in Mishnaic Hebrew and that אֲשֶׁר does not appear as frequently (Jastrow 130 s.v. אֲשֶׁר), many scholars conclude that אֲשֶׁר is early and שֶׁ is late. They conclude that the use of שֶׁ in Ecclesiastes points to a late date for the book. However, as Samuel-Kings suggest, the שֶׁ versus אֲשֶׁר phenomena may simply be a dialectical issue: אֲשֶׁר is commonly used in the south, and שֶׁ in the north. The use of שֶׁ in Ecclesiastes may indicate that the book was written in a northern rather than a southern province, not that it is a late book. This is supported from related Akkadian terms which occur in texts from the same periods: אֲשֶׁר is related to asru (“place”) and שֶׁ is related to sa (“what”).

4 sn The Hebrew root עָמָל, (’amal, “toil”) is repeated here for emphasis: “What gain does anyone have in his toil with which he toils.” For all his efforts, man’s endeavors and secular achievements will not produce anything of ultimate value that will radically revolutionize anything in the world. The term “toil” is used in a pejorative sense to emphasize that the only thing that man obtains ultimately from all his efforts is weariness and exhaustion. Due to sin, mankind has been cursed with the futility of his labor that renders work a “toilsome” task (Gen 3:17-19). Although it was not yet revealed to Qoheleth, God will one day deliver the redeemed from this plight in the future kingdom when man’s labor will no longer be toilsome, but profitable, fulfilling, and enjoyable (Isa 65:17-23).

5 tn Heb “under the sun.”

sn This rhetorical question expects a negative answer: “Man has no gain in all his toil.” Ecclesiastes often uses rhetorical questions in this manner (e.g., 2:2; 3:9; 6:8, 11, 12; see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 949).

6 tn The participle הֹלֵךְ (holekh, “to walk, to go”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). The root הָלַךְ (halakh) is repeated in this section (1:4a, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 7c) to emphasize the continual action and constant motion of everything in nature. Despite the continual action of everything in nature, there is no completion, attainment or rest for anything. The first use of הָלַךְ is in reference to man; all subsequent usages are in reference to nature – illustrations of the futility of human endeavor. Note: All the key terms used in 1:4 to describe the futility of human endeavor are repeated in 1:5-11 as illustrations from nature. The literary monotony in 1:4-11 mirrors the actual monotony of human action that repeats itself with no real change.

7 tn The participle בָּא (ba’, “to go”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). The term is repeated in 1:4-5 to compare the futility of secular human accomplishments with the futile actions in nature: everything is in motion, but there is nothing new accomplished.

8 tn The participle עֹמָדֶת (’omadet, “to stand”) emphasizes a continual, durative, uninterrupted state (present universal condition). Man, despite all his secular accomplishments in all generations, makes no ultimate impact on the earth.

9 tn The term “the same” does not appear in Hebrew, but is supplied in the translation for clarity and smoothness.

10 tn The term עוֹלָם (’olam) has a wide range of meanings: (1) indefinite time: “long time, duration,” often “eternal” or “eternity”; (2) future time: “things to come”; and (3) past time: “a long time back,” that is, the dark age of prehistory (HALOT 798–99 s.v. עוֹלָם; BDB 761–63 s.v. III עלם). It may also denote an indefinite period of “continuous existence” (BDB 762 s.v. III עלם 2.b). It is used in this sense in reference to things that remain the same for long periods: the earth (Eccl 1:4), the heavens (Ps 148:6), ruined cities (Isa 25:2; 32:14), ruined lands (Jer 18:16), nations (Isa 47:7), families (Ps 49:12; Isa 14:20), the dynasty of Saul (1 Sam 13:13), the house of Eli (2 Sam 2:30), continual enmity between nations (Ezek 25:15; 35:5), the exclusion of certain nations from the assembly (Deut 23:4; Neh 13:1), a perpetual reproach (Ps 78:66).

11 tn The Hebrew text has a perfect verbal form, but it should probably be emended to the participial form, which occurs in the last line of the verse. Note as well the use of participles in vv. 4-7 to describe what typically takes place in the natural world. The participle זוֹרֵחַ (zoreakh, “to rise”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle): the sun is continually rising (and continually setting) day after day.

12 tn Heb “the sun goes.” The participle בָּא (ba’, “to go”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle): the sun is continually rising and continually setting day after day. The repetition of בָּא in 1:4-5 creates a comparison between the relative futility of all human endeavor (“a generation comes and a generation goes [בָּא]”) with the relative futility of the action of the sun (“the sun rises and the sun goes” [i.e., “sets,” בָּא]).

13 tn Heb “hastens” or “pants.” The verb שָׁאַף (shaaf) has a three-fold range of meanings: (1) “to gasp; to pant,” (2) “to pant after; to long for,” and (3) “to hasten; to hurry” (HALOT 1375 s.v. שׁאף; BDB 983 s.v. I שָׁאַף). The related Aramaic root שׁוף means “to be thirsty; to be parched.” The Hebrew verb is used of “gasping” for breath, like a woman in the travail of childbirth (Isa 42:14); “panting” with eagerness or desire (Job 5:5; 7:2; 36:20; Ps 119:131; Jer 2:24) or “panting” with fatigue (Jer 14:6; Eccl 1:5). Here שָׁאַף personifies the sun, panting with fatigue, as it hastens to its destination (BDB 983 s.v. I שָׁאַף 1). The participle form depicts continual, uninterrupted, durative action (present universal use). Like the sun, man – for all his efforts – never really changes anything; all he accomplishes in his toil is to wear himself out.

14 tn The verb זוֹרֵחַ (zoreakh, “to rise”) is repeated in this verse to emphasize that the sun is locked into a never changing, ever repeating monotonous cycle: rising, setting, rising, setting.

15 tn The word “again” does not appear in Hebrew, but is supplied in the translation for clarity and smoothness.

16 tn The Hebrew root סָבַב (savav, “to circle around”) is repeated four times in this verse to depict the wind’s continual motion: “The wind circles around (סוֹבֵב, sovev)…round and round (סוֹבֵב סֹבֵב)…its circuits (סְבִיבֹתָיו, sÿvivotayv).” This repetition is designed for a rhetorical purpose – to emphasize that the wind is locked into a never ending cycle. This vicious circle of monotonous action does not change anything. The participle form is used three times to emphasize continual, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). Despite the fact that the wind is always changing direction, nothing really new ever happens. The constant shifting of the wind cannot hide the fact that this is nothing but a repeated cycle; nothing new happens here (e.g., 1:9-10).

17 tn The use of שָׁב (shav, Qal active participle masculine singular from שׁוּב, shuv, “to return”) creates a wordplay (paronomasia) with the repetition of סָבַב (savav, “to circle around”). The participle emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use).

18 tn Heb “are going” or “are walking.” The term הֹלְכִים (holÿkhim, Qal active participle masculine plural from הָלַךְ, halakh,“to walk”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). This may be an example of personification; this verb is normally used in reference to the human activity of walking. Qoheleth compares the flowing of river waters to the action of walking to draw out the comparison between the actions of man (1:4) and the actions of nature (1:5-11).

19 tn Heb “there they are returning to go.” The term שָׁבִים (shavim, Qal active participle masculine plural from שׁוּב, shuv, “to return”) emphasizes the continual, durative action of the waters. The root שׁוּב is repeated in 1:6-7 to emphasize that everything in nature (e.g., wind and water) continually repeats its actions. For all of the repetition of the cycles of nature, nothing changes; all the constant motion produces nothing new.

sn This verse does not refer to the cycle of evaporation or the return of water by underground streams, as sometimes suggested. Rather, it describes the constant flow of river waters to the sea. For all the action of the water – endless repetition and water constantly in motion – there is nothing new accomplished.

20 tn The word “this” is not in Hebrew, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

21 tn Heb “the things.” The Hebrew term דְּבָרִים (dÿvarim, masculine plural noun from דָּבָר, davar) is often used to denote “words,” but it can also refer to actions and events (HALOT 211 s.v. דָּבָר 3.a; BDB 183 s.v. דָּבָר IV.4). Here, it means “things,” as is clear from the context: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (1:9). Here דְּבָרִים can be nuanced “occurrences” or even “[natural] phenomena.”

22 tn Heb “is able.”

23 tn The Hebrew text has no stated object. The translation supplies “it” for stylistic reasons and clarification.

sn The statement no one can bear to describe it probably means that Qoheleth could have multiplied examples (beyond the sun, the wind, and the streams) of the endless cycle of futile events in nature. However, no tongue could ever tell, no eye could ever see, no ear could ever hear all the examples of this continual and futile activity.

24 tn The term מָלֵא (male’, “to be filled, to be satisfied”) is repeated in 1:7-8 to draw a comparison between the futility in the cycle of nature and human secular accomplishments: lots of action, but no lasting effects. In 1:7 אֵינֶנּוּ מָלֵא (’enennu male’, “it is never filled”) describes the futility of the water cycle: “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is never filled.” In 1:8 וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵא (vÿlo-timmale’, “it is never satisfied”) describes the futility of human labor: “the ear is never satisfied with hearing.”

25 tn Heb “what is.” The Hebrew verbal form is a perfect. Another option is to translate, “What has been.” See the next line, which speaks of the past and the future.

26 tn The Hebrew verbal form is an imperfect.

27 tn Heb “under the sun.”

28 tn Alternately, “[Even when] there is something of which someone might claim…” The terms יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר (yesh davar sheyyomar) may be an interrogative clause without an introductory interrogative particle (GKC 473 §150.a). In questions, יֵשׁ often implies doubt about the existence of something (BDB 441 s.v. יֵשׁ 2.b). The LXX rendered it as a question, as do most English versions: “Is there anything of which it can be said…?” (KJV, ASV, RSV, MLB, NEB, NASB, NIV, NRSV). On the other hand, יֵשׁ is used elsewhere in the Book of Ecclesiastes as a predication of existence (“There is…”) to assert the existence of something (2:13, 21; 4:8, 9; 5:13[12]; 6:1, 11; 7:15; 8:6, 14; 9:4; 10:5). HALOT 443 s.v. יֵשׁ 2 renders יֵשׁ דָּבָר as “There is something….” This view is taken by several translations: “Even the thing of which we say…” (NAB), “Men may say of something …” (Moffatt), and “Sometimes there is a phenomena of which they say…” (NJPS).

29 tn The perfect tense verb הָיָה (hayah) refers to a past perfect situation: It describes an action that is viewed as a remote past event from the perspective of the past. This past perfect situation is brought out by the temporal adverb כְּבָר (kÿvar, “already”; HALOT 459 s.v. I כְּבָר; BDB 460 s.v. I כְּבָר; cf. 1:10; 2:12, 16; 3:15; 4:2; 6:10; 9:6-7). The expression כְּבָר + הָיָה connotes a past perfect nuance: “it has already been” (Eccl 1:10; see BDB 460 s.v.).

30 sn This does not deny man’s creativity or inventiveness, only the ultimate newness of his accomplishments. For example, there is no essential difference between the first voyage to the moon and the discovery of America (different point of arrival, different vehicles of travel, but the same essential action and results).

31 tn Heb “in the ages long ago before us.”

32 tn Heb “There is no remembrance of former things.” The term רִאשֹׁנִים (rishonim, “former things”) is the masculine plural form of the adjective רִאשׁוֹן (rishon,“former, first, chief”; BDB 911 s.v. רִאשׁוֹן). When used in a temporal sense, the singular denotes “former” in time (BDB 911 s.v. 1.a) or “first” in time (BDB 911 s.v. 2.a). The plural form is only used to denote “former” in time: “former persons,” i.e., ancestors, men of old (e.g., Lev 26:45; Deut 19:14; Job 18:20; Isa 61:4; Ps 79:8; Sirach 4:16) or “former things,” i.e., past events (e.g., Isa 41:22; 42:9; 43:9, 18; 46:9; 48:3). See BDB 911 s.v. 1.a, which suggests that this usage refers to “former persons.” This approach is adopted by several translations: “men of old” (NEB, NAB, NIV, Moffatt), “people of long ago” (NRSV), “earlier ones” (NJPS), and “former generations” (ASV). On the other hand, this Hebrew phrase may be nuanced “former things” or “earlier things” (HALOT 1168 s.v. ן(וֹ)רִאשֹׁ). This is adopted by some translations: “former things” (KJV, RSV) and “earlier things” (NASB). Although future generations are mentioned in 1:11, what they will not remember is the past events. The context of 1:3-11 focuses on human achievement, that is, former things.

33 tn The term “remember” is not in the Hebrew text, but has been supplied in the translation for clarity.

34 tn Heb “and also of the last things which will be.” The term אַחֲרֹנִים (’akharonim, “the future things”) is the masculine plural form of the adjective אַחֲרוֹן (’akharon) which means “coming after” (BDB 30 s.v. אַחֲרוֹן) or “at the back” (HALOT 36 s.v. אַחֲרוֹן). When used in a temporal sense, it may mean (1) “later one; (2) “in the future”; (3) “last”; or (4) “at the last” or “in the end” (HALOT 36 s.v. 2). The plural form may be used in reference to (1) future generations, e.g., Deut 29:21; Pss 48:14; 78:4, 6; 102:19; Job 18:20; Eccl 4:16, or (2) future events, e.g., Neh 8:18 (BDB 30 s.v.). BDB 30 s.v. b suggests that this usage refers to “future generations,” while HALOT 36 s.v. 2.c suggests future events. As mentioned in the previous note, it probably refers to future events rather than future generations.

sn The Hebrew terms translated former events and future events create a merism (two polar extremes encompass everything in between). This encompasses all secular achievements in human history past to future things yet to be done.

35 tn Heb “There will not be any remembrance of them among those who come after.”

sn According to Qoheleth, nothing new really happens under the sun (1:9). Apparent observations of what appears to be revolutionary are due to a lack of remembrance by subsequent generations of what happened long before their time in past generations (1:10-11a). And what will happen in future generations will not be remembered by the subsequent generations to arise after them (1:11b).



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