Many things we might wonder about in the first reading; here are three.
“If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.”
In the teacher’s world, oppression is not a bug, but a feature. How ought the wise/righteous respond? At first glance the teacher is the outlier in the wisdom tradition. Recall:
“I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made them drop their prey from their teeth.” (Job 29:14-17)
“If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength being small;
if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death,
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’–
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Prov. 24:10-12)
But Proverbs also observes:
“When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
but when the wicked prevail, people go into hiding.” (28:12)
The teacher sees no point in fighting apparently unwinnable battles. This collection of the teacher’s words challenges us readers: do we agree?
A second thing to wonder about: “This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?” There’s that word ‘gain’ (yitrôn) again. We might wonder: is the teacher (or the editor) pulling our leg a little? Is it all for nothing if you can’t take it with you?
A third thing to wonder about: how to translate the ending of v.20. The problem is that there are a number of homonyms for the Hebrew verb ˁānâ, so translators have to decide which is in play. Here are two representative translations:
“For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.” (NRSV)
“Indeed, people shouldn’t brood too much over the days of their lives because God gives an answer in their hearts’ joy.” (Common English Bible)
If the NRSV is correct, joy is an exercise in bread and circuses, a distraction from our grim reality. If CEB is correct, joy is a privileged clue to God’s benevolent intentions in the midst of our grim reality. And which we lean towards depends on how we read the book as a whole.