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Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

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 

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.”

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