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Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

Labor Motivated by Greed

4:7 So 1  I again considered 2  another 3  futile thing on earth: 4 

4:8 A man who is all alone with no companion, 5 

he has no children nor siblings; 6 

yet there is no end to all his toil,

and he 7  is never satisfied with riches.

He laments, 8  “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself 9  of pleasure?” 10 

This also is futile and a burdensome task! 11 

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….”

2 tn Heb “I turned and I saw…”; or “I again considered.” The Hebrew 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 שׁוּב (shuv, “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 (vav + perfect 1st person common singular from שׁוּב, “to turn”) 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 The word “another” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

4 tn Heb “under the sun.”

5 tn Heb “There is one and there is not a second.”

6 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).

7 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.

8 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).

9 tn Heb “my soul.”

10 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).

11 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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