Qoheleth Chapter Five

Translation from the Anchor Bible commentary by R.B.Y. Scott:

1 Be circumspect when you go to the house of God. Approach in order to learn, rather than to offer a sacrifice like that of fools who know nothing except how to do wrong. 2 Do not speak impetuously, nor think of uttering a hurried word before God. Since God is in heaven and you are on earth, let your words be few. 3 “A dream follows on much busyness, and a fool’s speech on too much talk.” 4 When you make a vow to God, do not be slow in paying it, for God has no liking for fools. Pay what you vow to pay. 5 It is better that you make no vow, than that you make a vow and fail to keep it. 6 Do not allow your tongue to put you in the wrong; and do not say to the messenger [who comes to collect it], “It was just a mistake.” Why should God be angered by your speech, and destroy what you have accomplished? 7 “Like so many empty dreams are so many empty words.” Simply show respect to God!
8 If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and right in a province, do not be shocked at the sight: for each official is being watched by his superior, and over them all is the king. 9 [The real wealth of a country is in its cultivated land.] 10 He who loves money never has enough money, and whoever cares most about making money thinks his profits are too small. This is futility. 11 The more the provisions, the more there are who consume them; what benefit accrues to the owner, except that he can look on? 12 Sweet is the sleep of the laborer, whether he eat little or much; but the full stomach of the rich man will not let him sleep. 13 A painful misfortune which I have observed beneath the sun was this– wealth was hoarded by its owner at great cost to himself, 14 and then that wealth was lost through a bad investment; he had sired a son and [now] he had nothing [to leave him]. 15 As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, he must return as he came, with nothing salvaged from his toil which he could take with him. 16 This surely is a grievous calamity; since he went exactly as he came, what did he gain by toiling for wind, 17 while all his days he ate his food in darkness, in constant vexation, misery and anger?
18 So I reached the conclusion that what is satisfying and suitable is to eat and drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s struggle under the sun, during the few years which God grants a man; that is what one gets out of it. 19 Furthermore, every man to whom God grants riches and possessions, and enables him to benefit from them, and to possess his share and be happy in his work– he has a bonus from God. 20 Such a man will not brood over the shortness of his life, when God keeps his mind occupied with happy thoughts.

These first seven verses shift suddenly into second person. Up until this point, all of Qoheleth has been either in the first person, or third person. It is ether about things “I have observed under the sun” or about the general human condition (third person). This marks a shift that will continue throughout the rest of the book. More and more second person statements intertwine with the first and third person statements. This may be because Qoheleth’s initial premises and observations are now set, and the book turns toward its conclusions and results.
At any rate, the first command Qoheleth gives after four chapters of observations is “to be circumspect.” The Hebrew can also mean: to keep one’s self about, to watch, to guard, to be careful about, protect, (etc.) one’s feet. The NRSV translates it as “guard your steps.” Put together with the meaning of the rest of verse one, you could paraphrase this command by saying: “don’t check your brain at the door!” Approach the house of God in order to learn! (The Hebrew word above translated as “learn” is literally to listen, or to hear). Granted, if you checked your brain at the door, you probably would not have gotten this far in Qoheleth. It is such a demanding book to read! The argument is, we are called to be humble and to be learners. So it is that we should not give up hope in the face of vanity, but we should listen and learn, and show respect to God.
The argument that follows in verses eight and nine is almost impossible to make sense of. Harper Collins Study Bible says of verse nine in particular: “There is no satisfactory explanation of this verse given the complications of the Hebrew. . .” It is an odd argument, and unfortunately I cannot bring any clarity to it. I think Qoheleth covers the topic of dealing with oppression better in the previous chapter, and whatever the object is in briefly bringing it up again here is completely lost in the obscurity of verse nine.
Verses 10-20 are much more manageable. Here Qoheleth puts forward the positive example of someone who works hard and compares it to someone who hoards wealth. Qoheleth prefers the hard-worker to the wealth-hoarder. You can take no riches with you when you die, and they will not even bring fulfillment in this life. In fact they may cause more unrest and vanity than having no riches at all. Therefore the best thing for you to do is to work hard at the tasks that God has given to you, and find joy in your work. The wealth-hoarder does nothing but come up with more things to bring vexation, misery and anger in relation to their toil. In short, they worry over the fruits of their labor and more than the labor itself. But the hard-worker does not invent all these extra calamities for themselves. The hard-worker is not a worrier, but a doer. And this is what Qoheleth argues time and again: worrying and trying to control things are forbidden and vain. Trusting in God and one another, simply doing work, eating, drinking, and being merry are the only things that are satisfactory.
Luther’s gloss of Chapter Five is as follows: “when you hear that you should have a peaceful heart and that your efforts are vain, you should not say: ‘Then I will not do any work!’ or feel that one should not care about anything at all. On the other hand, you should not be too concerned and want to control everything by your reason. . . But if you want to avoid all offenses, turn yourself over to the Word and work of God, putting aside and casting away all your own thoughts and counsels. Let yourself be spoken to, prick up your ears, and come close to listen” (LW 15, 75). In other words, Qoheleth’s despair of the vanity of human striving, is not a call to stop striving. Nowhere does Qoheleth ever say “Just give up. You can all go home now.” Instead, it says to be circumspect, come close and listen, respect God and one another, and find joy in your work.

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