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Just as you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in a womb with child,
even so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. Bible

“the way the spirit comes to the bones in a womb with child.” The lesson here in Ecclesiastes 11:5 is that humans do not really understand much about the inner workings of life or of God, and so trying to figure out what is going to come in the future is not profitable. People should take reasonable chances in life. The overly cautious will not move forward even if the opportunity is there (Ecc. 11:4), and so God encourages us to “sow our seed” (Ecc. 11:6) and move ahead with life.

Although many English versions translate the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes 11:5 as if it were three phrases, there is really no need or justification for that. For example, the NET has: (1) “Just as you do not know the path of the wind,” (2) “or how the bones form in the womb of a pregnant woman,” (3) so you do not know the work of God….” But the second phrase does not start with a conjunction such as “or,” “nor,” or “and” in the Hebrew text, and also the second phrase does not have a verb in the Hebrew text despite the fact that many English versions supply one (“form” in the NET; “grow” in many other versions). The Hebrew text is difficult, but it is much better understood as one phrase, and woodenly translated it is something like, “Just as you are not knowing what is the way of the spirit as [or “in” in some Heb. Mss] bones in the full womb….”

In line with that basic idea, Michael Fox (JPS Bible Commentary) has the translation, “Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman….” Craig Bartholomew (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes) has: “Just as you do not know the way of the spirit in the limbs in the mother’s womb….” Choon-Leong Seow (The Yale Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes) has: “Just as you do not know how the life-breath gets into the fetus in the belly of the pregnant woman….” The ESV has: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child….” Many other English versions contain the same basic idea (cp. CEB; GWN; NAB; NRSV; Rotherham; RSV).

One of the great mysteries of human existence is how life comes together in the fetus as it forms, and God uses that to make the point that things work out even when we do not understand them, so we should not let a lack of knowledge paralyze us into inactivity.

“womb with child.” Literally, “a full womb.”


Commentary for: Ecclesiastes 11:5