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The word translated “envy”  in Ecclesiastes 4:4 is primarily used translated as “zeal”  (Isaiah 37:32, “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts ….”) or “jealousy” of God in the OT (e.g., Zech. 8:2, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, “I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy ….”).  It is used of idols in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8:5, “this image of jealousy”). It is used of a husband’s jealousy (potentially a jealousy which lacks basis) in Numbers 5.

Only in the wisdom literature is the noun used in a manner which could potentially help understand Ecclesiastes 4:4. In each instance (except perhaps not in Eccl. 9:6), it refers to an emotion which has grown wildly out of control and thus damages the one who exercises the emotion:

Job 5:2


כִּֽי־לֶֽ֭אֱוִיל יַהֲרָג־כָּ֑עַשׂ וּ֝פֹתֶ֗ה תָּמִ֥ית קִנְאָֽה׃


Surely vexation kills the fool, and jealousy slays the simple.


Prov 6:34


כִּֽי־קִנְאָ֥ה חֲמַת־גָּ֑בֶר וְלֹֽא־יַ֝חְמ֗וֹל בְּי֣וֹם נָקָֽם׃


For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge.


Prov 14:30


חַיֵּ֣י בְ֭שָׂרִים לֵ֣ב מַרְפֵּ֑א וּרְקַ֖ב עֲצָמ֣וֹת קִנְאָֽה׃


A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.


Prov 27:4


אַכְזְרִיּ֣וּת חֵ֭מָה וְשֶׁ֣טֶף אָ֑ף וּמִ֥י יַ֝עֲמֹד לִפְנֵ֥י קִנְאָֽה׃


Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?





Eccles 4:4


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


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.


Eccles 9:6


גַּ֣ם אַהֲבָתָ֧ם גַּם־שִׂנְאָתָ֛ם גַּם־קִנְאָתָ֖ם כְּבָ֣ר אָבָ֑דָה וְחֵ֨לֶק אֵין־לָהֶ֥ם עוֹד֙ לְעוֹלָ֔ם בְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶֽׁר־נַעֲשָׂ֖ה תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃


Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.


From these passages, one can conclude the following: First, the emotion itself is destructive of the one who has it: “envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). Experience certainly demonstrates the truth of this proverb.

Second, the emotion takes over the human being, leading to self-destruction and destruction of others.

Shakespeare has his arch-villain Iago famously and ironically warns Othello of jealousy:


O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss

Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;

But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er

Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!


O misery!


Othello (3.3.189-92). The irony comes in that Othello is first consumed with jealousy over a wrong which did not occur. Secondly, Othello overcome with his false jealousy proves the truth of Proverbs 6:34, “For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge.”


Ecclesiastes 4:4 interestingly posits the emotion which is found most commonly in matters involving sexuality and moves into the space of economics (this will be seen more in the instances of the verb discussed next).[1] 


Note that in matters of sexuality, that is the marriage relationship, or in the matters involving God, the thing desired rightfully belongs to the one who seeks it. Thus, while a husband may wrongly believe that his wife has departed from the marriage covenant (Numbers 5 provides protection for the wife in this instance. Dr. Duncan’s sermon on this text is wonderful, http://www.shepherdsconference.org/media/details/?mediaID=335), it is not wrong for a husband or a wife to expect and deserve fidelity out of the other. Indeed, a spouse who does not care whether the other is faithful has an exceedingly low regard for marriage.


While the emotion may drive the person to foolish extremes, the factual predicate for the provocation is not necessarily wrong.

However, with envy in particular, the thing desired is something which one does not have a legitimate right  or expectation (as opposed to a marriage, where the expectation is based upon a promise).  Hence the arguments which must be created to justify the envy: The other person must be wrongfully in possession of that property in order for me to be rightful in resentment and envy.

Envy is ultimately a belief in the present injustice of the world. In fact, the exceptionally strong emotion described by the Hebrew word (zeal, envy, jealousy – depending upon the object) all hinge upon a response to perceived injustice (zeal: a thing for God to right; jealousy: desire for exclusive attention from a spouse; envy: it’s not fair you have that).

Thus, envy is a perversion of a desire for justice. It ultimately is a critique of God, for God has not allotted the property and circumstances rightly. This makes sense of the flow of the passage in Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 3 begins with the observation of the sovereignty and order of God over all events, objective, subjective.  Qoheleth then moves to the matter of unrighteous human judgment and God’s actual judgment:  In verse 17, he notes that God will judge. Then Qoholeth moves to the fact that all people will die. This is not a digression but a further elaboration: Death is the summons which brings all men and women to the place of judgment.

Chapter 4 returns to the matter of human wickedness (which God will judge). First, the oppressors who judge the weak. Second, the weak who envy the oppressors.

[1] Placing envy as a (the?) motivation of human behavior is a matter which Nietzsche considered at length, see, e.g., http://www.nietzschecircle.com/essayArchive1.html  The rant against Jesus and the Jews in the Genealogy of Morals, particularly the first essay, sections 7-9, will give a taste for this point.