Political Power (in Ecclesiastes)

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Qohelet’s discussion of power issues may be considered in two parts. The first describes the polarity of those in power and those without such power (3:16; 4:1–3; 5:8; 10:16–17). Qohelet acknowledges the human contribution to injustice, a recognition also found elsewhere (cf. Job 24; Prov 13:23; 14:31; 18:23; 28:15). The second part provides the response of wisdom. There is a kind of power in wisdom, great enough that a small city can overthrow a large army (Eccl 2:13; 7:19; 9:13–15). Wisdom also has power enough to go to the root of problems, including those of oppression (4:1–12). But wisdom is vulnerable. Those who have access to it may neglect it (4:13–16; 9:16), it provides no security for its possessor (2:14–16), and a little folly can overcome it (9:17–18; 10:1).

It is from this perspective that Qohelet addresses those on the bottom side of the traditional power ladder, counseling prudence when dealing with royalty. One must be careful, Qohelet cautions, for their power can be devastating (8:1–5). Such advice aligns with that of the Instructions of Ankhsheshonq (Egyptian, no later than the first century BCE; Lichtheim vol. 3). The wise person uses tools such as calmness in the face of anger (10:4) and speech that is prudent and ambiguous (10:16–20).

As for those at the higher end of society, Qohelet’s testament does not counsel the prince how to gain and then hold on to power. By contrast, numerous ANE wisdom texts advise rulers on the proper use of their position (e.g., Advice to a Prince from the libraries of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, dated to the early first millennium BCE, and the Egyptian Instruction Addressed to King Merikare, dated to the late third millennium). There is barely a hint of such direction in Ecclesiastes (7:21). Yet neither is Qohelet’s instruction subversive of traditional societal structures, at least not in the usual sense. He appears disturbed by the prospect of the poor and ruling classes switching roles (10:5–7, 16), a common lament in the wisdom literature. It is alluded to in Proverbs (19:10) and receives extensive treatment in several Egyptian wisdom texts (Van Leeuwen). Qohelet laments for those who had wealth but lost it (5:13–17; 6:1–6). His story of the poor, wise youth who achieved power does not constitute a symbol of hope (4:13–16). Any confidence that Qohelet does have for the resolution of oppression lies within the middle classes who are his audience (see “The Audience of Ecclesiastes” in the commentary Introduction). It is a matter of speculation why this is true. Perhaps it is because their cooperation is crucial to any full-scale societal shift toward greater justice (see the interesting suggestion to read Ecclesiastes as “subcultural ethics,” in Smith-Christopher: 163–73). At any rate, Qohelet does have a vision for change. He believes people can live in wholesome ways that challenge the destructive patterns of power that pervade his world.

The middle classes do not know that their “salvation” is interconnected with the redemption of both oppressed and oppressor (4:1–3, 13–16). Therefore, Qohelet tries to convince them of the irony and paradox of the values they hold. It may not be too much to assume that, like the oppressed, they are both fearful and jealous of those in power. Yet again, like the oppressor, they are likely both fearful and disdainful of the oppressed. The suffering royal servant figure in 4:13–16 becomes representative of those who will take up Qohelet’s way of living, to pursue justice and contentment at the risk of failure and rejection.

Qohelet’s strategy addresses oppression by taking on the futility of the oppressor as well as the futility of those middle groupers who imitate oppressor values (4:1–3; 5:8; 8:11). The wise will embrace community and simplicity (4:4–12) even though there is no guarantee of success against oppression. They will practice generosity (11:1–2) and an appropriate attitude toward wisdom, righteousness, and the fear of God (7:15–18). Theirs is a way that knows no power in the conventional sense. Yet they alone will have found the proper motivation for their toil, the true source of pleasure and satisfaction in their lives, and the true path of wisdom (see the essay “Injustice” in Ecclesiastes; adapted from Miller 1999: 169–70, 172–73).

Bibliography

  • Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973-80.
  • Miller, Douglas B. “Power in Wisdom: The Suffering Servant of Ecclesiastes 4.” In Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible, fs. Millard Lind, edited by Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, 145-73. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 1999.
  • Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. A Biblical Theology of Exile. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.
  • Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. “Proverbs 30:21-23 and the Biblical World Upside Down.” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 599-610.

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Douglas B. Miller