17. Transition (6:7–9)

7All man’s efforts are for his mouth,

yet his appetite is never satisfied.

8What advantage has a wise man

over a fool?

What does a poor man gain

by knowing how to conduct himself before others?

9Better what the eye sees

than the roving of the appetite.

This too is meaningless,

a chasing after the wind.

6:7–9 This text moves the reader from a discussion of wealth (5:10–6:6) to a discussion of wisdom (6:7–7:5). It is a series of three proverbs bound together by two catchwords.

The first proverb (v. 7) states that although the appetite is the real motive behind human efforts, no one is ever fully satisfied. Wisdom, moreover, is no particular advantage here (v. 8). The point is not only that the wise do not necessarily get wealthy but that they no less than others are bound to the drives of the appetite.

The reader might assume that the Teacher is still talking strictly about the insatiable appetite of the greedy; but there is an implicit, unexpected reversal: the aphorism of v. 7 is as true of the desire of the intellectual for knowledge as it is of the greedy for wealth (cf. 1:16–18). Verse 8 anticipates that the reader, by now convinced that the pursuit of wealth is folly, might conclude that a life devoted to the quest for knowledge is the better way. The Teacher argues that in fact the learned really have no significant advantage over the unlettered, and that sound judgment and social skills do not do a poor man all that much good. The third proverb (v. 9) asserts that it is better to be satisfied with what one has (be it money or knowledge) than to be continually driven to obtain more.

18. On Wisdom and Death (6:10–7:4)

10Whatever exists has already been named,

and what man is has been known;

no man can contend

with one who is stronger than he.

11The more the words,

the less the meaning,

and how does that profit anyone?

12For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?

1A good name is better than fine perfume,

and the day of death better than the day of birth.

2It is better to go to a house of mourning

than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of every man;

the living should take this to heart.

3Sorrow is better than laughter,

because a sad face is good for the heart.

4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,

but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

This section is in two parts: (1) a reflection on the fall of humanity (6:10–12) and (2) aphorisms on the importance of confronting one’s own mortality (7:1–4). The whole text invites the reader to learn wisdom by confronting the reality of death.

6:10–12 This text is held together by the fourfold use of the catchword ’ādām (“man”), here used not merely as a generic for human beings but as a term that points back to Gen 2–3. Ecclesiastes 6:10 (“Whatever exists has already been named”) does not refer to the divine naming of all things at creation; it is a literary allusion to Adam’s naming of all living things in Gen 2:19. Verse 10b, c should be rendered, “And it is known that he is ’ādām [human] and that he is not able to contend against one stronger than he.” The noun ’ādām looks back to the substance from which humanity came, the ’ādāmâ (“soil”), and so draws attention to human mortality. The participle “known” alludes to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the place at which Adam discovered that he could not contend with God and win.

Adam contended with one “stronger” than he in an attempt to become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Adam was in effect the first “Teacher.” He sought an encyclopedic mastery of knowledge (cf. Eccl 1:13) and even experimented with firsthand experience in good and evil (cf. Eccl 1:17). What he discovered was his own mortality and weakness before God. That is, he discovered the real meaning of his own name.

No sage, however brilliant or daring, has substantially added to Adam’s discovery. Indeed, more exhaustive attempts at explaining the human situation only confound the facts and are of no benefit to humanity (v. 11). Adam has already shown us what we are. The following question (“For who knows what is good for ’ādām?” [v. 12]) plays on the situation of Adam prior to the fall. The trees had “good” fruit, and the land had “good” gold (Gen 2:9, 12). It also plays on the name of the tree of his demise, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s days, though they numbered 930 years (Gen 5:5), passed like a shadow, and no one could tell him what was to follow him. What is true of him is equally true of all who bear his name, ’ādām/humanity. We are but weak mortals before an omnipotent God.

7:1–4 In another series of proverbs, the Teacher now urges the reader to face death and take its lessons to heart. He begins with an apparently harmless and perhaps popular proverb, “A good name is better than fine perfume” but adds to that a startling complement, “And the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Links between the two halves of the verse are tenuous but suggestive: (1) A good name is not securely established until the day of death; someone who still lives may still ruin his reputation. (2) Fine perfume speaks of wealth and luxury (Isa 3:20), but it may also allude to funeral preparations (cf. John 19:39). (3) The “day of birth” may contrast the birthday party with the sobriety of a funeral.

Verses 2–4 are straightforward and make a simple point: there is much to be gained by sober reflection on death. Those who do so realize that the same end awaits them, and their hearts are turned from folly. Herein the carpe diem of the Teacher differs from that of the libertine, for whom death is either a subject to be avoided or an incentive to party all the more furiously.

19. Transition (7:5–6)

5It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke

than to listen to the song of fools.

6Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,

so is the laughter of fools.

This too is meaningless.

7:5–6 These two proverbs relate equally to both the preceding and following texts. On the one hand, the rebuke of a wise man over against the mirth of a fool corresponds to the superiority of a house of mourning to a feast. On the other hand, the smirking laughter of fools is their response to the advice of the wise as described in v. 7: they laugh because in their eyes the wise man’s rebuke is empty—they think he has no idea what he is talking about. The simile portrays the fool as both worthless (like thorns) and about to be destroyed (burning under a pot).

20. On Wisdom and Politics (7:7–9)

7Extortion turns a wise man into a fool,

and a bribe corrupts the heart.

8The end of a matter is better than its beginning,

and patience is better than pride.

9Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,

for anger resides in the lap of fools.

Once again we have a discussion of politics (extortion and bribery are political matters), but it is not simply a reflection on political matters in and of themselves but a reflection on how the wise man confronts political reality.

7:7 Extortion makes a wise man into a fool precisely in that it shows that his advice is wrong. Behind this text stand the admonitions not only of biblical texts but of all ancient Near Eastern wisdom (particularly Egyptian) that those who hold political power should shun all corrupt practices. Still, when people see how pervasive abuse of political power is, that it is indeed so common that it is impossible to function in politics without being tainted, they conclude that the words of the wise are hopelessly idealistic. Thus it is that they smirk and laugh at wisdom (v. 6). Bribery also undoes the work of wisdom in that it corrupts the heart.

7:8–9 Nevertheless, the final verdict is not in, and people prematurely conclude that warnings to avoid corruption are naive. If one is patient, one will finally see that moral integrity is indeed the better way (v. 8). At the same time, to allow oneself to be vexed and grief stricken over corruption in the world is also foolish (v. 9). The wise man is neither naive nor cynical and embittered.

—New American Commentary