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Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

Exceptions to the Law of Retribution

7:15 During the days of my fleeting life 1  I have seen both 2  of these things:

Sometimes 3  a righteous person dies prematurely 4  in spite of 5  his righteousness,

and sometimes 6  a wicked person lives long 7  in spite of his evil deeds.

7:16 So do not be excessively righteous or excessively 8  wise; 9 

otherwise 10  you might 11  be disappointed. 12 

7:17 Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool;

otherwise 13  you might die before your time.

7:18 It is best to take hold of one warning 14  without letting go of the other warning; 15 

for the one who fears God will follow 16  both warnings. 17 

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

2 tn As is the case throughout Ecclesiastes, the term הַכֹּל (hakkol) should be nuanced “both” rather than “all.”

3 tn Heb “There is.” The term יֵשׁ (yesh, “there is”) is often used in aphorisms to assert the existence of a particular situation that occurs sometimes. It may indicate that the situation is not the rule but that it does occur on occasion, and may be nuanced “sometimes” (Prov 11:24; 13:7, 23; 14:12; 16:25; 18:24; 20:15; Eccl 2:21; 4:8; 5:12; 6:1; 7:15 [2x]; 8:14 [3x]).

4 tn Heb “perishes.”

5 tn Or “in his righteousness.” The preposition בְּ (bet) on the terms בְּצִרְקוֹ (bÿtsirqo, “his righteousness”) and בְּרָעָתוֹ (bÿraato, “his evil-doing”) in the following line are traditionally taken in a locative sense: “in his righteousness” and “in his wickedness” (KJV, NASB, NIV). However, it is better to take the בְּ (bet) in the adversative sense “in spite of” (e.g., Lev 26:27; Num 14:11; Deut 1:32; Isa 5:25; 9:11, 16, 20; 10:4; 16:14; 47:9; Pss 27:3; 78:32; Ezra 3:3); cf. HALOT 104 s.v. בְּ 7; BDB 90 s.v. בְּ 3.7. NJPS renders it well: “Sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness.” In a similar vein, D. R. Glenn (“Ecclesiastes,” BKCOT, 993–94) writes: “The word ‘in’ in the phrases ‘in his righteousness’ and ‘in his wickedness’ can here mean ‘in spite of.’ These phrases…argue against the common view that in 7:16 Solomon was warning against legalistic or Pharisaic self-righteousness. Such would have been a sin and would have been so acknowledged by Solomon who was concerned about true exceptions to the doctrine of retribution, not supposed ones (cf. 8:10–14 where this doctrine is discussed again).”

6 tn Heb “There is.” The term יֵשׁ (yesh,“there is”) is often used in aphorisms to assert the existence of a particular situation that occurs sometimes. It may indicate that the situation is not the rule but that it does occur on occasion, and may be nuanced “sometimes” (Prov 11:24; 13:7, 23; 14:12; 16:25; 18:24; 20:15; Eccl 2:21; 4:8; 5:12; 6:1; 7:15 [2x]; 8:14 [3x]).

7 tn Heb “a wicked man endures.”

8 tn The adjective יוֹתֵר (yoter) means “too much; excessive,” e.g., 2:15 “excessively wise” (HALOT 404 s.v. יוֹתֵר 2; BDB 452 s.v. יוֹתֵר). It is derived from the root יֶתֶר (yeter, “what is left over”; cf. HALOT 452 s.v. I יֶתֶר) and related to the verb יָתַר (yatar, Niphal “to be left over” and Hiphil “to have left over”; cf. HALOT 451-52). In 2:15 the adjective יוֹתֵר is used with the noun יִתְרוֹן (yitron, “advantage; profit”) in a wordplay or pun: 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 – 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 strove to obtain wisdom, yet it held no ultimate advantage. Likewise, in 7:16, Qoheleth warns that wisdom and righteous behavior do not guarantee an advantage over wickedness and folly, because the law of retribution is sometimes violated.

9 tn Heb “So do not be overly righteous and do not be overly wise.” The Hitpael verb תִּתְחַכַּם (titkhakkam, from חָכַם, khakham, “to be wise”) means “to make or show yourself wise” (HALOT 314 s.v. חכם; BDB 314 s.v. חָכַם). The Hitpael may be understood as: (1) benefactive reflexive use which refers to an action done for one’s own behalf (e.g., Gen 20:7; Josh 9:12; 1 Kgs 8:33; Job 13:27): because the law of retribution is sometimes violated, it is not wise for a person to be overly dependent upon wisdom or righteousness for his own benefit; (2) estimative-declarative reflexive which denotes esteeming or presenting oneself in a certain state, without regard to the question of truthfulness (e.g., 2 Sam 13:5; Prov 13:6; Esth 8:17): it is useless to overly esteem oneself as wise or to falsely present oneself as wiser than he really is because the law of retribution sometimes fails to reward the wise. The enigma of this line – “overly righteous and overly wise” – may be resolved by proper classification of the Hitpael stem of this verb.

10 tn Heb “Why?” The question is rhetorical.

11 tn The imperfect of שָׁמֵם (shamem) functions in a modal sense, denoting possibility: “you might be…” (see IBHS 508 §31.4e).

12 tn Or “Why should you ruin yourself?”; or “Why should you destroy yourself?” The verb שָׁמֵם (shamem) is traditionally taken as “to destroy; to ruin oneself.” For its use here HALOT 1566 s.v. שׁמם 2 has “to cause oneself ruin”; BDB 1031 s.v. שָׁמֵם 2 has “cause oneself desolation, ruin.” Most English versions take a similar approach: “Why destroy yourself?” (KJV, ASV, NEB, NRSV, MLB, NIV); “Why ruin yourself?” (NAB, NASB). However, in the Hitpolel stem the root שׁמם never means this elsewhere, but is always nuanced elsewhere as “to be appalled; to be astonished; to be dumbfounded; to be confounded; to be horrified” (e.g., Ps 143:4; Isa 59:16; 63:5; Dan 8:27); cf. BDB 1031 s.v. שָׁמֵם 1; HALOT 1566 s.v. שׁמם 1. It is taken this way in the English version of the Tanakh: “or you may be dumbfounded” (NJPS). Likewise, Cohen renders, “Why should you be overcome with amazement?” (A. Cohen, The Five Megilloth [SoBB], 154). If a person was trusting in his own righteousness or wisdom to guarantee prosperity, he might be scandalized by the exceptions to the doctrine of retribution that Qoheleth had observed in 7:15. D. R. Glenn (“Ecclesiastes,” BKCOT, 994) notes: “This fits in nicely with Solomon’s argument here. He urged his readers not to be over-righteous or over-wise ‘lest they be confounded or astonished.’ He meant that they should not depend on their righteousness or wisdom to guarantee God’s blessing because they might be confounded, dismayed, or disappointed like the righteous people whom Solomon had seen perishing in spite of their righteousness [in 7:15].” See GKC 149 §54.c.

13 tn Heb “Why?” The question is rhetorical.

14 tn The word “warning” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation two times in this line for clarity.

15 sn The other warning. Qoheleth is referring to the two words of advice in 7:16-17. He is not, as some suggest, urging his readers to grasp righteousness without letting go of wickedness. His point is not that people should live their lives with a balance of modest righteousness and modest wickedness. Because he urges the fear of God in 7:18b, he cannot be inconsistent in suggesting that his readers offend the fear of God by indulging in some degree of sin in order to counterbalance an overly righteous life. Rather, the proper fear of God will prevent a person from trusting in righteousness and wisdom alone for his security, and it will also prevent indulgence in wickedness and folly.

16 tn Or “will escape both”; or “will go forth in both.” The Hebrew phrase יֵצֵא אֶת־כֻּלָּם (yetse’ ’et-kullam, “he will follow both of them”) has been interpreted in several ways: (1) To adopt a balanced lifestyle that is moderately righteous while allowing for self-indulgence in moderate wickedness (“to follow both of them,” that is, to follow both righteousness and wickedness). However, this seems to unnecessarily encourage an antinomian rationalization of sin and moral compromise. (2) To avoid the two extremes of being over-righteous and over-wicked. This takes יֵצֵא in the sense of “to escape,” e.g., Gen 39:12, 15; 1 Sam 14:14; Jer 11:11; 48:9; cf. HALOT 426 s.v. יצא 6.c; BDB 423 s.v. יָצָא 1.d. (3) To follow both of the warnings given in 7:16-17. This approach finds parallels in postbiblical rabbinic literature denoting the action of discharging one’s duty of obedience and complying with instruction. In postbiblical rabbinic literature the phrase יַדֵי יֵצֵא (yetseyade, “to go out of the hands”) is an idiom meaning “to comply with the requirements of the law” (Jastrow 587 s.v. יָצָא Hif.5.a). This fits nicely with the context of 7:16-17 in which Qoheleth issued two warnings. In 7:18a Qoheleth exhorted his readers to follow both of his warnings: “It is best to grasp the first warning without letting go of the second warning.” The person who fears God will heed both warnings. He will not depend upon his own righteousness and wisdom, but upon God’s sovereign bestowal of blessings. Likewise, he will not exploit the exceptions to the doctrine of retribution to indulge in sin, rationalizing sin away just because the wicked sometimes do not get what they deserve.

17 tn Heb “both.” The term “warnings” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity. Alternately, “both [extremes]” or “both [fates].” The point of this expression is either (1) “ he achieves both things,” (2) “he escapes all these misfortunes,” (3) “he does his duty by both,” or (4) “he avoids both extremes.” See D. Barthélemy, ed., Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, 3:580–81.

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