« Not confirming but unconfirmed | Main | Rally round the flag, boys and girls »

Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

I’m going to try to tackle these next two verses together, because verse 22 and 23 seem to belong together, and also because I harbor a faint hope that I will someday finish chapter two:

For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days [are] sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.

Let’s see… the labor here is amal, unsurprisingly, in both instances. I really don’t like what hath man, which to me connotes possession; the Hebrew kee me-hoveh l’adam seems to me more like what happens to a man or what is there for a man. I’m not sure if I’m entirely clear on the distinction—Kohelet was talking about inheritances, within the persona of the King (or a King, anyway), and so the KJV is naturally here talking about what a man has, in the sense of owns, or what he keeps. I don’t think that connotation is there in the original. I think it more connotes potential, asking what is out there for a man to potentially possess or experience. Possibly there’s an issue with Hebrew tenses, which are utterly beyond me, but perhaps I sense this not as referring to the past (what a man already hath) but to the future (what could a man have)? At any rate, my habit, if you have been following along, is to treat these sorts of rhetorical questions as having answers that the reader is supposed to provide. So, what hath man of all his amal?

Perhaps I’ll come up with something, but I just got distracted by the fact that vexation here is ra’yown instead of r’ut; he’s nounified the word in the masculine rather than the feminine form. Why? I earlier interpreted the phrase vexation of spirit as ghost-wooing, just for the image of it, despite the inaccuracy. This is ra’yown leebo, vexation of the heart. Is it here referring to romantic yearning? I’m not altogether convinced, but then I’m really not convinced by vexation of the heart, either.

In the second verse, the KJV has screwed the parallelism of the Hebrew, which goes more like for all days are sorrows, travail and provocation; all nights without rest for the heart; all this is futility. That’s not really right—the first all is koll which really is all, but the second and third are gam which is all but Kohelet uses it a lot as an intensifier, so perhaps it’s for all days are sorrows, travail and provocation; even the nights have no rest for the heart; even this is futility. But the translator has put the night after the no-rest-heart bit instead of before, where it belongs.

I’m going to go through some more words, too, because there’s some very distracting stuff here. The KJV’s sorrows are makovim, which is probably better connoted by mental pains—that is, the word means pain but seems to be mostly used to describe mental or emotional pain. The word travail is one of those used only by Kohelet in this book and not found elsewhere in Scripture, and it seems to mean something like work, or, you know, labor. But it’s not amal! And where amal has a negative connotation of backbreaking, the root of in’yan is even worse, along the lines of affliction. But work-related affliction, right? And I’ve already swapped out grief for provocation; ca’as is more anger than sadness. Oddly, any of those three could be translated vexation if you wanted to without losing much accuracy.

But it’s shakhav, which the KJV translates as rest, that caught my attention. It’s not rest; it’s lie down. And while it does mean have a nice lie-down in some contexts, in Scripture it’s much more likely to be Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife. I mean, it clearly refers to lying down, but not necessarily rest. I don’t think, well, I don’t think I think that Kohelet is referring to sex here. I’m just saying I don’t see how the connotation can be avoided, when that’s the word commonly used for sex. Also, the phrase lo shakhav leebo, which the KJV translates as his heart taketh not rest, is in parallel to the phrase I was talking about up there in verse 22, ra’yown leebo. So let’s at least say that Kohelet is using a metaphor of sexual/romantic pursuit and (lack of) consummation to contrast with the labors of the day.

So, where are we? What is for us, that our days are spent grubbing and griping, and at night our pursuits of the heart are (Kohelet says) unfulfilled? Where are we, under the sun?

I continue to think that Kohelet is provoking us to respond that there is something that isn’t under the sun, that isn’t amal (or yet in’yan) and isn’t sex, either. That there is something for us humans that is up in the heavens, and not futile at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Lots of rich insights here! Nothing to add, but just a note to mention that I am reading all of the posts on Ecclesiastes, and pondering them, and appreciating them.

Thank you, Chris! I do feel a bit as if I am throwing these posts down a well, so it's a good motivator for me to know that you are pondering them.


Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.