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Ecclesiastes 4:4 (BHS/WIVU)

4וְרָאִ֨יתִֽי אֲנִ֜י אֶת־כָּל־עָמָ֗ל וְאֵת֙ כָּל־כִּשְׁר֣וֹן הַֽמַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה כִּ֛י הִ֥יא קִנְאַת־אִ֖ישׁ מֵרֵעֵ֑הוּ גַּם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ׃

Good bit of advice given to me by a well-respected NT scholar: When working with a passage, begin by comparing multiple translations. The comparison will alter you to any questions with the underlying text & will give you the considered position of many men and women who have worked on the translation and on the approval committees:

‎ESV

‎NASB95

‎NIV84

‎NET

‎KJV 1900

‎HCSB

‎‎Ec 4:4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

‎‎Ec 4:4 I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

‎‎Ec 4:4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

‎‎Ec 4:4 Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another. This also is profitless—like chasing the wind.

‎‎Ec 4:4 Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.

‎‎Ec 4:4 I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to a man’s jealousy of his friend. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

 

Immediate questions: 

First, there are some minor variations in the introductory clause:

Then I saw

I have seen

And I saw

Then I considered

Again, I considered

I saw

Gordis writes, “The opening clause is an instance of ‘anticipation’, ‘Thus I saw ….” 

The difference comes from first the introductory waw (or vav depending upon pronunciation).  The particle correlates clauses and sentences. However, the meaning of that correlating depends upon the context.

The question is thus what is the connection between v. 4 and the preceding discussion of oppression. Has Qoheleth changed topics or is he giving some insight into the nature of oppression? Is the observation on envy a parallel to oppression?

The second difference comes from the translation of the verb r‘h, which has a basic meaning of “to see”. However, like the English “to see” the verb can carry the connotation of intellectual engagement.

The third difference is the manner in which one translates the tense. Hebrew tenses simply do not work in the same manner as the English verbs. The form of the tense means generally a past event, but whether one translates it as “I saw” or “I have seen” cannot be directly determined by the Hebrew form alone.

I think it best to tie verse 4 to what follows than to what precedes it: First, the evil in verses 1-3 consists of evil of the powerful toward the weak. Envy in verse 4 works in the opposite direction. It is important to note that the Law forbade favoritism in either direction.

Without question the Law was pointed and constant in forbidding the powerful to oppress the weak. For example:

12 And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. 13 You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. 14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin. Deuteronomy 24:12–15 (ESV)

Indeed, this same command is repeated in the NT:

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1–6 (ESV)

But, envy or revenge against the rich was equally forbidden:

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. Leviticus 19:15 (ESV)

The judge was beholden to God to give proper judgment. Indeed, Solomon made this plain:

5 He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, 6 and said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the LORD. He is with you in giving judgment. 7 Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the LORD our God, or partiality or taking bribes.” 2 Chronicles 19:5–7 (ESV)

Now, only the rich could offer a bribe; thus, favoritism toward those who could help the judge was forbidden.

Moreover, the matter of envy is most likely to consume the one who lacks property (which is often through laziness, which is immediately condemned in this passage). Therefore, verse 4 begins a new, though related thought concerning evil in human interaction:

This subsection discusses the theme of “toil.” It begins with an observation about motives for “toil” (verse 4). To this Qoheleth adds a quotation about laziness (verse 5), then summarizes his conclusions about this situation with a numerical “better” saying (verse 6). In a manner typical of Qoheleth, two seemingly opposing points of view are set alongside one another. In verse 5 he points out that a person shouldn’t be lazy, but he follows this in verse 6 with the observation that overworking is also undesirable.

Graham S. Ogden and Lynell Zogbo, A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 128.

As for the translation choice between “saw” and “considered” both work equally well, and both fail: Certainly the matter begins with an observation of human behavior. But it does entail more than just an observation, it also entails understanding of what takes place: the conclusion that “envy” drives behavior cannot be seen on the face of human behavior. Indeed, humans would most likely deny envy as their motivation. Thus, either verb may be used, but both should be understood.