We’re on 2:12, but I’m going to go back a verse, not just because it has been so long we’ve forgotten where we were, but because I had originally, as many commentators do, put 2:12 with 2:13-14, but I’m inclined right now to pair it with 2:11:
Ecclesiastes 2:11-12: Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.
Do those two verses look parallel? Here’s a thing: the initial turn of v.12 is not shuvah but fanah, which is the same verb at the beginning of v. 11. Both sentences start u’fanitee anee with the KJV translating it first as Then I looked and then as And I turned. Most of the English translations I have looked at seem to include that spurious difference between the two verses; I blame the Vulgate. The Septuagint appears to start the verses identically. And anyway I don’t like turn here at all. It isn’t s’vov (spin) or shuv (return) as in 1:6, and using turn for panah sets up a resonance with those words that isn’t in the Hebrew.
And then there’s the whole cometh after the king business, which I find very unsatisfactory. Some of my translations hearken back to 1:9-11 (nothing new under the sun) and take this as something like the next King will do what the last King did or even (this is the JPS) what will the man be like who will succeed the one who is ruling over what was built up long ago. These appear to be opposite notions, but say much the same thing: the narrator has built up wealth and power, but the new King will be [the same|different] as the last King, and so all that wealth and power make no difference. So the translation as opposites is kind of a problem, but in some sense, that’s part of what the verse and the book (so far) are about. You could even take into account both of these, and read it as the next guy to come along may be the same or may be different; it makes no difference.
Some (Victor Reichert and Robert Gordis, particularly) of my translations, however, take this as what can a (simple) man do that a King has not already done? That is: I, Solomon the King, amassed wealth and power and it was all wind-chasing and ghost-wooing. And if that’s true for a King, how much more true for anyone who comes after the King. Heirarchical after, rather than temporal after. This seems persuasive to me, as it carries on from what was before, only in that case I don’t really understand why the sentence is structured with that bit second and the first bit first. It doesn’t work, really, even if you correctly translate to have verse twelve start with the same words as verse eleven.
Or does it? If the parallelism is [I looked at][works/labor][all is vanity] and then [I looked at][wisdom/madness/folly][man cometh after the king]. Hm. In that case, we have an opposition, yes? between all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do in v.11 and wisdom, and madness, and folly in v.12. The contrast between some physical stuff and some mental stuff. And then the contrast between all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun in v.11 and what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done. It seems to me, then, that what the man can do is not vanity. What the man ha-adam can do after the king ha-melech is what c’var asahu, already done. Now I’ll bring forward from 2:11 our somewhat Marxist notion of asah as unalienated labor, and also bring forward from our discussion of 1:10 the notion of c’var being metaphorically upstream, and instead of what hath already been done (or what was built up long ago) we have what lasts is not amal but asah.
So. A new thing, not exactly a translation or a commentary but a reflection, perhaps, of the verses:
I focused on the work that is done for this world, and on the work that is done for the self, and everything is ghost-wooing and wind-chasing; nothing lasts. And I focused on the things of the mind—the man who follows after the divine is heading upstream.
The King here, of course, is the Divine King, and the man is Adam, mankind. I interpret this as continuing the focus on humane humility and the implications of Divine Power—that is, whenever kohelet talks about how man cannot do or say or understand a thing, I hear an inference that there is a Divine that can. And that it is the Man who is after the King, not the man who is after wealth and power or even the man who is after his own vision, that has the truly unalienated work that lies upstream.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,