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Ecclesiastes 7:16-25

Context

7:16 So do not be excessively righteous or excessively 1  wise; 2 

otherwise 3  you might 4  be disappointed. 5 

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

otherwise 6  you might die before your time.

7:18 It is best to take hold of one warning 7  without letting go of the other warning; 8 

for the one who fears God will follow 9  both warnings. 10 

Wisdom Needed Because No One is Truly Righteous

7:19 Wisdom gives a wise person more protection 11 

than ten rulers in a city.

7:20 For 12  there is not one truly 13  righteous person on the earth

who continually does good and never sins.

7:21 Also, do not pay attention to everything that people 14  say;

otherwise, 15  you might even hear 16  your servant cursing you.

7:22 For you know in your own heart 17 

that you also have cursed others many times.

Human Wisdom is Limited

7:23 I have examined all this by wisdom;

I said, “I am determined 18  to comprehend this” 19  – but it was beyond my grasp. 20 

7:24 Whatever has happened is beyond human 21  understanding; 22 

it is far deeper than anyone can fathom. 23 

True Righteousness and Wisdom are Virtually Nonexistent

7:25 I tried 24  to understand, examine, and comprehend 25 

the role of 26  wisdom in the scheme of things, 27 

and to understand the stupidity of wickedness 28  and the insanity of folly. 29 

1 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.

2 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.

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

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

5 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.

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

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

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

11 tn Heb “gives strength.”

12 tn The introductory particle כִּי (ki) is rendered variously: “for” (KJV); “indeed” (NASB); not translated (NIV); “for” (NJPS). The particle functions in an explanatory sense, explaining the need for wisdom in v. 19. Righteousness alone cannot always protect a person from calamity (7:15-16); therefore, something additional, such as wisdom, is needed. The need for wisdom as protection from calamity is particularly evident in the light of the fact that no one is truly righteous (7:19-20).

13 tn The term “truly” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity. Qoheleth does not deny the existence of some people who are relatively righteous.

14 tn Heb “they”; the referent (people) has been specified in the translation for clarity.

15 tn Heb “so that you do not hear…”; or “lest you hear….”

16 tn The imperfect tense verb תִשְׁמַע (tishma’; from שָׁמַע [shama’, “to hear”]) functions in a modal sense, denoting possibility: “you might hear” (see IBHS 508 §31.4e).

17 tn Heb “your heart knows.”

18 tn The cohortative אֶחְכָּמָה (’ekhkamah, from חָכַם, khakham,“to be wise”) emphasizes the resolve (determination) of Qoheleth to become wise enough to understand the perplexities of life.

19 tn Or “I am determined to become wise”

20 tn Or “but it eluded me”; Heb “but it was far from me.”

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

22 tn Heb “is far away.”

23 tn Heb “It is deep, deep – who can find it?” The repetition of the word “deep” emphasizes the degree of incomprehensibility. See IBHS 233-34 §12.5a.

24 tn Heb “I turned, I, even my heart.”

25 tn Heb “to seek.”

26 tn The phrase “the role of” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity and smoothness.

27 tn The phrase חָכְמָה וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן (khokhmah vÿkheshbon, “wisdom and the scheme of things”) is a hendiadys (a figure of speech in which two nouns connote one idea): “wisdom in the scheme of things.” This is similar to the hendiadys עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ (’itsÿvonekh vÿheronekh, “pain and childbearing”) which connotes “pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16).

28 tn Or “the evil of folly” The genitive construct phrase רֶשַׁע כֶּסֶל (reshakesel) may be taken as a genitive of attribution (“the wickedness of folly”) or as a genitive of attribute (“the folly of wickedness”). The English versions treat it in various ways: “wickedness of folly” (KJV); “wrong of folly” (YLT); “evil of folly” (NASB); “stupidity of wickedness” (NIV); “wickedness, stupidity” (NJPS); “wickedness is folly [or foolish]” (ASV, NAB, NRSV, MLB, Moffatt), and “it is folly to be wicked” (NEB).

29 tn Or “the folly of madness” The genitive construct phrase וְהַסִּכְלוּת הוֹלֵלוֹת (vÿhassikhlut holelot) may be taken as a genitive of attribution (“the stupidity of wickedness”) or a genitive of attribute (“the evil of folly”). The phrase is rendered variously: “foolishness and madness” (KJV); “foolishness of madness” (NASB); “madness of folly” (NIV); “madness and folly” (NJPS); “the foolishness which is madness” (NEB); and “foolishness [or folly] is madness” (ASV, NAB, NRSV, MLB, Moffatt).



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