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Ecclesiastes 4:7–8 (BHS/WHM 4.2)

7 וְשַׁ֧בְתִּי אֲנִ֛י וָאֶרְאֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃ 8 יֵ֣שׁ אֶחָד֩ וְאֵ֨ין שֵׁנִ֜י גַּ֣ם בֵּ֧ן וָאָ֣ח אֵֽין־ל֗וֹ וְאֵ֥ין קֵץ֙ לְכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ גַּם־ עֵי֯נ֖יוֹ לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֣ע עֹ֑שֶׁר וּלְמִ֣י׀ אֲנִ֣י עָמֵ֗ל וּמְחַסֵּ֤ר אֶת־נַפְשִׁי֙ מִטּוֹבָ֔ה גַּם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֛בֶל וְעִנְיַ֥ן רָ֖ע הֽוּא׃

 

וְשַׁ֧בְתִּי אֲנִ֛י

And I turned.

The ’ani (pronoun I) is unnecessary because the verb already marks the first person singular as the subject. Waltke gives three sets of explanations for such a usage. The first reason given, “A hole in the syntactic system arises because the verb need not be fully marked for the subject” (Waltke & O’Conner, 16.3.2c, 294). That does not occur here: I can only be “I”. There are no other potential speakers in this document. There are no intervening grammatical elements to confuse the matter.

The second group is used to mark “an explicit antithesis with another rperson or group of persons” (Waltke, 16.3.2d, 295); such as Exodus 20:19, “You speak and we will hear ….” That is perhaps possible here: Qoheleth contrasts himself with those observed.

“The third group of cases relevant here involves psychological focus;  most of these involved first – and second person pronouns. IN connection with this group ‘Takamitsu Muraoka alludes to ‘strong emotional heightening’ and ‘focused attention or deep self-consciousness.’ Most involve the first person, in a state of rapturous elevation (#19) or profound meditation (#20), or in flashes of self-assertion” (Waltke & O’Conner, 16.3.2e, 296). Waltke gives two examples from Ecclesiastes as the examples of “profound meditation”.

“The opening words in v 7 seem to signal a new turn ….”( Seow, 188).

וָאֶרְאֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ

And I saw hebel under the sun.

8 יֵ֣שׁ אֶחָד֩ וְאֵ֨ין שֵׁנִ֜י

There is one and there is no second.

The yesh indicates the existence of something; the ’eiyn the non-existence of something. The pairing makes a well-balanced, easily spoken line.  Longman translates the line, “There was a person who was all alone” (Longman, 139).

גַּ֣ם בֵּ֧ן וָאָ֣ח אֵֽין־ל֗וֹ

Also, a son or brother there was not to him.

An appositive phrase which further emphasizes the loneliness of this person.[1]  “People devote their lives to acquiring wealth but have no one to share it with. Money is their only kin” (Duane A. Garrett, vol. 14, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 307).

This is one of those instances that grammaticians use to learn and explain rules. The Waw is notoriously complex in its usage in Hebrew: depending upon the context, it can mean with and or but or any number of other particles. Here is an instance where the structure plainly means not this or that: Solomon plainly does not mean that there is merely the absence of an Oedipal son-brother, but that there is no one.

וְאֵ֥ין קֵץ֙ לְכָל־עֲמָל֔וֹ

And there was no end to all his toil.

The phrase “there is no end” is used also in Ecclesiastes 12:12 of a sort of toil, “Of making many books there is no end”.

There is a hint irony here: Qohelth has been beating the drum of temporality throughout the book. Now, here is something that doesn’t run out.

גַּם־ עֵי֯נ֖יוֹ לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֣ע עֹ֑שֶׁר

Also, his eyes are not satisfied/filled with riches/wealth.

This phrase closely parallels Ecclesiasts 1:8: לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת

The eye is not satisfied with seeing.  The particular clause, “he is not satisfied” will also be used in Ecclesiastes 6:3 to refer to the man who has everything and yet is not satisfied.

וּלְמִ֣י׀ אֲנִ֣י עָמֵ֗ל וּמְחַסֵּ֤ר אֶת־נַפְשִׁי֙ מִטּוֹבָ֔ה
And/but  to/for whom am I toiling and depriving my appetite from good.

The precise translation of this clause presents some complication:

The words so that he never asks are not in the Hebrew text of this verse but are added by translators to give the setting of the following question. Readers will immediately note that the text changes from third person speech to first person, and so the first person question may require some form of introduction to make plain its connection with the earlier part of the verse. TEV “for whom he is working so hard” avoids the use of an introductory formula, but in doing so it changes the first person forms to third person. However, in making these changes the connection between the question and the remainder of the verse is not made clear.

There is a problem in supplying an introductory formula here, because what we insert will depend entirely on our understanding of the situation of the worker. It is this interpretation that causes difficulties. RSV adds a result clause, so that he never asks. This rests on an interpretation in which the worker fails to show any concern for the purpose in his work. NEB and REB take the opposite view and supply “he asks,” indicating that he did in fact question the purpose of his labors. Thus two contrary understandings are reflected in these translations. Since the person in the example cited has no relatives, hence no heir, it seems perfectly natural for him to ask “For whom am I working?” Therefore the recommendation given in this Handbook is that we may add an explanatory “he asks” or “he asks himself,” to introduce the question, rather than follow RSV and its negative view. However, translators will note that the interpretation is not certain but a matter of personal choice.

In some languages, especially in Africa, it is common for dialog or monologue to appear with no introduction. Where this is the case, the question can simply follow the description of the man, with no introductory statement:

  •      Here’s a man who is all alone. He has no children or brothers. He works all the time, but he is never satisfied. “Who am I working so hard for?”

For whom am I toiling? This part of the question refers back to the previous clause, which also uses the term “toil.” Although this person works ceaselessly, he cannot know who, if anyone, will benefit from his labor. Having no children and no siblings means he has nobody to support and nobody to whom he can leave his goods. In English the verb “to work for” can also mean “who is employing me.” Our translation here should rather indicate that his question is about who will benefit from what he does, so we can say “For whose benefit am I toiling?”

Depriving myself of pleasure: the for whom phrase or “for whose benefit” from the previous clause applies here also. The question is simply about who will benefit from the fact that he is denying himself pleasure. The answer to this rhetorical question is already given in the opening part of the verse; he is doing it for nobody, for he has no relatives to provide for and he is without an heir in the world.

Depriving myself is literally “causing my life-spirit to lack.” Qoheleth’s point is that the person derives no enjoyment or pleasure from his many accumulated goods. Pleasure in this setting does not translate the same Hebrew word as “pleasure” in 2:1, 10. Here it renders the Hebrew adjective “good” used as a noun with the sense of “goods” or “good things” that money can buy. The problem in this clause is in the fact that the person who is working so hard does not lack material things but lacks the power to be able to enjoy what he has. This then gives a translation as follows: “but failing to derive any good from it,” “failing to obtain what my goods should provide,” “not enjoying what I should,” or “not getting any pleasure out of it.”

The person here is reasoning with himself, and so this dialog can be treated like a rhetorical question. Thus it may be better in some languages to make a statement than to ask a question: “I am not working for anybody! I am depriving myself of pleasure for nothing!” In other languages it may be more natural to combine a rhetorical question and a statement: “Why am I working so hard? There is no one to benefit from it, and I am not getting anything out of it.”

Graham S. Ogden and Lynell Zogbo, A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 135-36.

Waltke’s comment in his commentary on Proverbs (NICOT) provides a useful point concerning the translation of “soul” “nephes”:

But in the OT nepes refers to the passionate drives and appetites of all breathing creatrues, including their hunger for food and sex….Clifford prefers to gloss nepes by ‘throat.’ Nepes is often used with words denoting yearning …..The craving for God, however, distinguishes human nepes from animal nepes ….Since it refers to the basic nature of a human being as having and being ‘passionate vitality’ it is better glossed according to the context by ‘hunger’, ‘self’ …, and ‘life’ (Proverbs, 90).

גַּם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֛בֶל

This is also hebel.

וְעִנְיַ֥ן רָ֖ע הֽוּא

And a grievous evil.

The entire passage stands in interesting relief to Solomon’s questions in Ecclesiastes 2:

7–8 Qoheleth turns his attention to the situation of a person who is totally alone, without companion or progeny. With endless toil (cf. 4:4) he achieves riches, but these merely leave him wanting more (his “eyes” never satisfied; cf. 1:8). And then the inevitable question (cf. Sir 14:3–5), vividly expressed in a direct quotation: for whom all this toil? This stands in only slight contradiction to 2:18–22, where Qoheleth lamented the possibility of his inheritance being handed down to a fool (who might consume it). Now he scores the futility of the laborer who has no inheritor to share with him. There is little sense in toiling for merely personal gain. It should be noted that עמל, “toil,” figures in both passages.

Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 41.


[1] The Greek captures such a one nicely: The LSJ has

ἄστοργ-ος , ον,

A. without natural affection,ἄστοργος ψυχήνAeschin.2.146; “ὥστοργοςthe heartless one, Theoc.2.112, cf. Lyr.Alex. Adesp.6.9; “. γυνήTheoc.17.43; “. πρὸς τὰ ἔκγοναClytus I, cf. IG 12(5).14Ios); “. θάνατοςcruel, AP7.662 (Leon.), IG3.1374.

2. without attraction, Plu.2.926f:—also ἀστόργης (sic) An.Ox.1.50.