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כִּ֣י גָבֹ֜הַּ מֵעַ֤ל גָּבֹ֙הַּ֙ שֹׁמֵ֔ר וּגְבֹהִ֖ים עֲלֵיהֶֽם

For a high (arrogant) one is over a high one watches but a higher ones [watches] over them.

The ki introduces the rationale for the preceding statement.

Barrick notes that this is precisely what Samuel warned the Israelites would happen when they got a king (1 Samuel 8:10-18) (Barrick, 96).

            Barton:

The appropriateness of this remark to Qoheleth’s lien of thought lies in the fact that these officials were watching, not, as a rule, that justice might be done to the poor, but to squeeze revenue out of the petty officials under them. As each officer was an oppressor, no wonder that the poor peasant – the lowest stratum of the heap – should be squeezed (127)

גָבֹ֜הַּ

Seow translates gahoah – high one as “arrogant one”, noting that it does not necessarily refer to a bureaucrat (Seow 203-204).

Gahoah appears 41 times in the OT.  It routinely means something that is high like the waters of the flood (Genesis 7:19), the walls of a city (Deuteronomy 3:5), or a hill (Jeremiah 3:6).

The word is used metaphorically (as it is in Ecclesiastes) to refer to arrogance or pride:

Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 1 Samuel 2:3 (ESV)

Isaiah 5:15:

Man is humbled, and each one is brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are brought low.

Isaiah 10:33 (ESV)

Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low.

Ezekiel 21:31 (ESV)

And I will pour out my indignation upon you; I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath, and I will deliver you into the hands of brutish men, skillful to destroy.

Psalm 101:5 (ESV)

Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.

Psalm 138:6 (ESV)

For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.

Proverbs 16:5 (ESV)

Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.

The word unquestionably has a negative connotation in other usage. Here, it is tied to oppression of the poor: thus, the negative connotation (at the least) cannot be absent. However, it is difficult to know precisely how negative a position the translation should take. Arrogant may refer to someone who merely considers themselves better as a subjective matter. The persons spoken of in Ecclesiastes 5 plainly hold some status, as evidence by the preposition “over”. The LXX uses hupselos, (ὑψηλὸς ) a high one.

שֹׁמֵ֔ר

This is a qal participle, watching – as a guard watches.

This admonition has no relationship to the previous lines. Qoheleth sees no cause for wonder at injustice, because of the hierarchy of officials, one over another. In itself, this reason is ambiguous. The hierarchy of powers could provide reassurance that one need not be concerned. After all, there is some supervision. The verb, תמה, can be understood in two senses: either “wonder” or “fear.” On the other hand, Qoheleth is more probably making an ironic observation about dishonest bureaucracy—that one should not expect anything better from such operators. They look out (שׁמר, “keep watch”) for each other.

Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 51.

Longman writes:

The key to the differences [of how to understand this passage] has to do with the nuance of somer, here tentatively translated watches out. In what sense should this ver be taken? Do official guard one another’s interest? Perhaps they are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of one another Or is there one official in charge of the activities of another ad infinitium, so that nothing gets accomplished? While we may not be able to resolve this issue precisely, there is no doubt that the situation results in oppression and the deprivation of justice and righteousness. The preoccupation with other things means that no one is watching out for justice. Justice and righteousness were at the center of government’s responsibility, not just in the OT but in the ancient Near East as well …. (158).

Gordis:

The older view that [to watch/watching] rmv refers to God has been abandoned by most moderns, who properly refer it to office-holders. For a similar use of the term, cf. Can. 3.3, where it refers to city watchmen, who correspond to our police officers (250).

וּגְבֹהִ֖ים עֲלֵיהֶֽם

The particle Waw is typically translated “and”. However, context will ultimately determine in the meaning. If there is simply a chain of high and high of the same type the “watching” is merely some type of observing – or perhaps protecting the process. But when we get to this final clause there is the word “high one” in the plural. If it is negative as the rest, then perhaps this is merely who is at the top of the racket called the highest one.

As noted below, the commentators are split, mainly along theological lines, as to whether the highest one (ones) is a king, other officials or God. As noted below, older commentators opted for God, newer commentators for government officials.

I think the balance of the argument runs in favor of God: First, the language can bear the meaning (it is ambiguous as to either side). Second, although “high one” has a negative connotation in its other uses, it is not inappropriate to make the appellation to God. The fault of man is to think he is God or at least a god. Thus, the Highest One is the only one who can be a true watcher/ruler. The pun on the pejorative appellation of the lower government officials would make an interestingly rhetorical movement in a speech.

Third, Qoheleth has been making the argument for the surpassing sovereignty of God: Chapter 3 extols a God who is absolutely sovereign – and oversees work and joy, life and death. Chapter 4 runs through a list of human relations – ending with the proposition that even a king is a very limited thing.

Chapter 5 extols a fearful reverence before God: God is in heaven (hard to get higher than that!).  Therefore, you must “fear God”. The command to fear God fits especially well to this argument.

He then moves to the matter of oppression – which he raised in chapter 4:1-3. If God does not answer sovereignly to this human oppression, then God seems strangely impotent after such claims of power and control.

The chapter then moves onto the matters of the insubstantiality of human work and money – all of it again tempered by God’s sovereign intervention.

If the highest one is not God, then God apparently has relinquished sovereignty over this one aspect of life – which seems strange. It would oddly leave a strand of the argument dangling [again, he is not arguing using an Aristotelian essay but rather a Semitic King making a speech; the flow is different, but it is not absent].

There is a dispute among the commentators as to whether this “highest” over all is God or merely another official.  The matter cannot be determined on strictly linguistic grounds. Lloyd comments, “God’s all-superintending Providence is here referred to in Scriptures as affording consolation in times of oppression.”  

Hengstenberg:

The antitode to surprise is that the one who is high watches over the high, one too who is able to cope with all the high, seeing that he is the highest of all. … Luther says: This book consequently teaches the to let thine heart have rest and peace, and not to trouble and worry thyself overmuch when things go wrong way, but to accustomed myself to be able to say, when the devil brings malice, injustice, violence, and burdens on the poor, “such is the way of the world, but God will judge and avenge it.” And again, when thou seest things going well, learn to say, “God be praised, who, after all, so rules, that we do not merely suffered evil and injustice, but receive also much good.” Moreover, let every man, according to his rank, and God’s command, do his work with the best industry: other things let him commended God; let them be patient and wait for him who is able to find out and judge the ungodly and the unjust. He who cannot lift a great stone, let him leave it lying and lift what he can. Wherefore, when thou seest kings and princes and lords misuse their power, the judges and advocates take bribes and allow causes to sink or swim as they can, being wise and sensible thou wilt think within thyself — God will sometime bring about a better state.”

Ver. 8.—If thou seest the oppression of the poor. From errors in the service of God, it is natural to turn to faults in the administration of the king (Prov. 24:21). Koheleth has already alluded to these anomalies in Ch. 3:16 and 4:1. Violent perverting; literally, robbery; so that judgment is never rightly given, and justice is withheld from applicants. In a province (medinah, Ch. 2:8); the district in which the person addressed dwells. It may, perhaps, be implied that this is remote from the central authority, and therefore more liable to be injuriously dealt with by unscrupulous rulers. Marvel not at the matter (chephets, Ch. 3:1). Be not surprised or dismayed (Job 26:11) at such evil doings, as though they were unheard of, or inexperienced, or disregarded. There is here nothing of the Greek maxim, reproduced by Horace in his “Nil admirari” (‘Epist.,’ i. 6. 1). It is like St. John’s “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” (1 John 3:13); or St. Peter’s “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you” (1 Pet. 4:12). The stupid and unintelligent observation of such disorders might lead to arraignment of Providence and distrust in the moral government of God. Against such mistakes the writer guards. For he that is higher than the highest regardeth. Both the words are in the singular number. Septuagint, Ὑψηλὸσἐπάνω ὑψηλοῦ φυλάξαι. One thinks of the Persian satraps, who acted much as the Turkish pashas in later times, the petty rulers oppressing the people, and being themselves treated in the same fashion by their superiors. The whole is a system of wrong-doing, where the weaker always suffers, and the only comfort is that the oppressor himself is subject to higher supervision. The verb (shamar) translated “regardeth” means to observe in a hostile sense, to watch for occasions of reprisal, as 1 Sam. 19:11; and the idea intended is that in the province there were endless plottings and counterplottings, mutual denunciations and recriminations; that such things were only to be expected, and were no sufficient cause for infidelity or despair. “The higher one” is the monarch, the despotic king who holds the supreme power over all these malad-ministrators and perverters of justice. And there be higher than they. “Higher” is here plural (gebohim), the plural of majesty, as it is called (comp. Ch. 12:1), like Elohim, the word for “God,” the assonance being probably here suggestive. Over the highest of earthly rulers there are other powers, angels, principalities, up to God himself, who governs the course of this world, and to whom we may leave the final adjustment. Who are meant seems purposely to be left undetermined; but the thought of the righteous Judge of all is intimated in accordance with the view of Ch. 3:17. This is a far more satisfactory explanation of the passage than that which regards as the highest of all “the court favourites, king’s friends, eunuchs, chamberlains,” etc. In this view Koheleth is merely asserting the general system of injustice and oppression, and neither accounting for it nor offering any comfort under the circumstances. But his object throughout is to show man’s inability to secure his own happiness, and the need of submission to Divine providence. To demonstrate the anomalies in the events of the world, the circumstances of men’s lives would be only one part of his task, which would not be completed without turning attention to the remedy against hasty and unfair conclusions. This remedy is the thought of the supreme Disposer of events, who holds all the strings in his hand, and will in the end bring good out of evil.

 

Ecclesiastes, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 113-14.

 

Administration of justice: 

Fredricks posits that this passage may be the answer to the oppression of the poor noted in Ecclesiastes 4, since a properly working administrative system should catch and correct the wrong being done. This is the point of Romans 13:1-7. Longman responds:

Graham Ogden suggests a positive interpretation of this verse, and does so by following the Targum. They agree that Qohelet describes human oppression, but they believe that somer indicates that there are checks and balances over the officials, with the one at the very top (either the king or God himself) as the ultimate source of justice. This view reads too much into the passage (Longman, 158).

וְיִתְר֥וֹן אֶ֖רֶץ בַּכֹּ֣ל ה֑יּ֯א

This is a benefit/profit for land in every way.

This verse – including the next clause – present striking difficulties:

There are overwhelming problems in this verse, and one of the most difficult of them is determining the relationship between this verse and the previous one

Graham S. Ogden and Lynell Zogbo, A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 167. Seow writes, “The whole verse as it stands is problematic because of the awkwardness of its syntax, its apparently lack of internal coherence, and the difficulty of relating it to the preceding sand following units of thought” (Seow, 204).

This should be translated, “But in all, an advantage for a land is this: a king, for the sake of agriculture.”125 Although the Teacher recognizes the corruption and abuse inherent in any political system (v. 8), he is not an anarchist. The king, who by metonymy represents the entire government, is on balance126 an advantage rather than a liability to the nation. The example that makes this point is agriculture. In an anarchic society no boundaries or property rights can be maintained, access to wells and other common resources cannot be fairly regulated, aqueducts and dikes will not be kept in good repair, and no organized resistance to ravaging armies can be offered. In short, the agricultural economy will collapse. Government may be evil, but it is a necessary evil.

Duane A. Garrett, vol. 14, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 312.

וְיִתְר֥וֹן

This is the word translated “advantage” or “profit”  throughout Ecclesiastes (as in Ecclesiastes 1:3). It does not appear outside of Ecclesiastes.

Lloyd, “Here w = ‘moreover,’ and denotes that what follows is adduced as proof of the absolute supremacy of the Divine Being just referred to” (70). 

William Pemble provides the following comment on the type of profit to be had:

Solomon notes that there are two types of riches: The first type of riches are such things as immediately concern the maintenance of man’s life, as all provision for back and belly, arising from the earth, tillage, plantation, breeding of cattle. The second type of riches are such as are but the instruments and means for the procuring of the forenamed necessaries,  money, jewels, et cetera. 

            Solomon treats [considers] of both sorts: In verses 9-10, Solomon compares these two kinds together, showing the excellency of the fruits and increase of the earth, in corn, cattle, above all pecuniary possessions, albeit men commonly choose to have abundance of the latter rather than the former.  They are far the better he proves:

            First, by their common and general use, as that which is best is most common, the profit of the earth is for all, supplies all necessaries for our lives and for that of all people that upon it, which the earth as a kind of mother, feeds and nourishes.  Tillage is the life and blood of the commonwealth; that overthrown, all dies with it.  This is amplified by the instance in that kind of men who, if any, might seem by reason of their great prerogatives and privileges to be exempted from dependance upon the husbandman, viz., kings, they also are served and maintained by the field and fruits thereof.  Many nations have not the use of money, nor is it absolutely needful in any, but so are the revenues of the earth among all, verse 9.

            Second, by their singular goodness and efficacy in relieving our wants and necessities, they have that goodness and virtue in them, as of themselves they maintain our lives, and satisfy all desires of nature.  Illustrated by the contrary disability of money, which per se cannot supply any of our wants, but only by exchange, he that loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver, he cannot fill his belly, nor clothe his back with it, though he love it never so much; no nor he that loves abundance of money and treasure cannot be satisfied with the increase of his wealth, he may die for hunger, and starve for cold upon a heap of money; and therefore this love of money is a vain and unprofitable thing, verse 10.

 

 

מֶ֥לֶךְ לְשָׂדֶ֖ה נֶעֱבָֽד

A king with tended/cultivated/served fields

The major problem is whether נעבד should be construed with שׂדה or with מלך, and opinions vary. LXX, Syr., Theod., and Jerome construe it with שׂדה, “a tilled field” (cf. the use of the nipal of עבד in Ezek 36:9, 34). If it is construed with מלך, one can translate “a king served by (or subject to) the field.” This is perhaps reflected in Tg. and Vg, which are quite free. It seems better to go with the first option: a king for a land that is tilled. In BT 27 (1976) 240–41, Alfredo Varela associates vv 7–8 in such a way that the complicity of officials (v 7) is commented on sarcastically in v 8: All of this means progress for the country … the king is the servant of the land!

Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiates, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 46.

Gordis: An insuperable text, yet LXX attests to MT completely, rendering the second clause as ‘the king of a tilled field.’ ….Perhaps the best rendering is: ‘Agriculture has an advantage over everything else, for even a king is subject to the land’ (Tar., Ibn. E).