13 Aug 2011

Dust in the Wind: Life in Qohelet’s Postmodern World

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Christian hope, Ecclesiastes, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible

Qohelet’s Sonnet: Life in the Postmodern World

Ecc. 3.1-15

Ecclesiastes 3 is probably one of the more famous passages in the Hebrew Bible. Many folks remember either the hippy era (or Forrest Gump) and can sing along with The Byrds, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is A Season . . .)’ The beauty of Qohelet’s poetry, however, often obscures for us the irony and sadness he is lamenting.

Unfortunately as moving as the Byrds version is that is not the message of the poem. The poem cannot be divorced from its textual unit which ends at v. 15 not v.8. In my previous study (“A Note on Ecc. 1.13”) I pointed out how Qohelet understands that God has given humanity the ‘task’ (or ‘burden’ the Hebrew term has a distinctly negative connotation) to explore ‘everything.’ These two passages are clearly linked because Qohelet again uses ‘inyan’ in the middle of this unit (3.10).

What Qohelet has now done is turn to the ‘burden’ or ‘task’ of the ‘proper’ or ‘fixed’ time. This is actually a fairly common concern in ancient wisdom literature (Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek). What follows is an outline of the section, my translation of the text (I finished translating Ecc two days ago and has been a wonderful exercise) and a few notes.

I. The Sonnet (vv. 1-8)

This section, in exquisite poetry, expresses the theme that a ‘set’ or a ‘fixed’ time exists for everything under ‘heaven’ (not the usual ‘sun’ which occurs 29x [1]). Qohelet is certainly a master poet. He ensnares the reader in the lilting rhythm with the constant use of the infinitive construct and the repetition of ‘et’ (time) [2]. The lines of poetry pit one ‘fixed’ thing against its opposite. The message of the poem is bleak for in v.9 Qohelet rather rudely snaps us out of the trance he has placed us in by suddenly bringing us back to 1.3, ‘What PROFIT is there . . .?’

II. The Reflection (vv. 9-15)

Verse 9 is, as I said, a rude awakening. Yes there is a ‘fixed’ time to everything – but for what? What does it ‘profit’ us that there IS a ‘fixed’ time when it is beyond human ability to manipulate or control. In the final analysis, argues the Preacher, everything is ‘frustrating’ and out of the control of humans. Everything in poem must be read in light of the entire context of the unit. In light of his observations the speaker again advocates the simple pleasures of life. But even these not all can enjoy.

III. A Proposed Translation (I am open to suggestions)

For everything there is a moment,

and a time for every affair under the heavens.

A time to be born and a time to die;

a time to plant and a time to uproot what has been


A time to kill and a time to heal;

a time to tear down and a time to build.

A time to cry and a time to laugh;

a time of mourning and a time of dancing.

A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones;

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.

A time to seek and a time to give up as lost;

a time to keep and a time to throw away.

A time to tear down and a time to sew;

a time to be silent and a time to speak.

A time to love and a time to hate;

a time of war and a time of peace.

What PROFIT do people have from their toils?

I observed the task that God has given to the human race to keep them occupied. He makes everything appropriate in its time. He also places eternity in their hearts. But still, no one can discover what God is doing from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves during their lives. Also everyone who eats, drinks, and enjoys their toil — that is a gift of God. I know that everything God does lasts forever. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God has acted, so that they might fear him. Whatsoever is, already has been. What will be has already been. God makes the same things happen over and over again.’

Exegetical Comments:

Qohelet intends on covering everything — no exceptions. The second colon makes the first line more specific by stating ‘every affair/activity.’ There are two ‘time’ words in v. 1: zeman and het. The second term is repeated throughout the poem.

What follows in the poem is a list of activities that are descriptive rather than prescriptive of what happens under heaven. After all, it would be hard to say that there is a ‘good’ time to be born, to die, or to lose something.

Verses 2-8 contain fourteen pairs of contrasting opposites. The citing of opposites in this way is known as merism, a fairly common pattern in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 9 is critical. The poem has now ended and the Preacher reflects on these set times. The point of the poem is that God has established periods of time for a wide array of emotions and activities. Is the world then not wonderfully ordered and a varied place of joy??

Qohelet responds in the negative: ‘What profit do men have from their toils?’ By means of this rhetorical question (the identical question is in 1.3 showing its negative content) the Teacher states that there is no purpose to doing anything in this fallen, absurd, world. His reasoning for that evaluation follows in vv. 10-15.

Verse 10 develops the thought of v.9. God has given mankind tasks to keep him busy (and Qoheleth will share even more ‘depressing’ observations on that in v.11). Verse 10 repeats and sharpens 1.13-14. The ‘task’ or ‘burden’ that God has laid on Qohelet is ‘evil.’

Verse 11 must be understood in the context of Ecclesiastes or we are sure to import meanings that are not in the book. Taken apart from its context this is one of the most inspiring sentences in the Bible (Don Richardson has built an entire book on this one verse!!). Flowing from the poem in vv. 1-8 this verse says that God has made everything appropriate in its time. Indeed, if this statement had occurred IMMEDIATELY after the poem, it would give us a positive perspective on the first eight verses.

The following line notes that God has place ‘eternity’ in the human heart. Since eternity is a divine attribute and since its counterpart, mortality, is dreaded, one would think Qohelet would be pleased with this truth.

However the context clearly shows otherwise. Qohelet is not happy as a result of his observations about God’s workings in the world and in the human heart — the verse is yet another cry of frustration on Qohelet’s part. He goes on in the last part of the verse to complain that God has kept his human creatures from knowing (or understanding) what is going on in his creation. It is almost as if God is baiting with his creatures, giving them a desire for something that is beyond their reach/ability.

More reflections on ‘eternity.’

In the second sentence of v.11 God has placed eternity in our hearts according to the Teacher. I have done some more research on this part of the text and found their are four main interpretations of ‘olam’ that are summarized by James Crenshaw [3]:

1) eternity

2) world

3) course of the world

4) knowledge or ignorance

Each of these possibilities has both ancient and modern proponents. The most likely ones are 1 and 4. Rendering ‘olam’ as ‘ignorance’ has received some scholarly blood transfusions through the discovery of the Ugaritic texts at Ras Shamra where the Hebrew root and the Ugaritic root are related. But still the preponderance of evidence suggests that ‘eternity’ is the best translation — we just need not import post-NT understandings of that into Qohelet.

Thus I understand v. 11 to be saying that God has placed within man a deep seated desire to — a compulsion — to know the meaning of the world (the ‘burden’), its purpose and destiny. But Qohelet’s ‘drive to know’ leads him to frustration, not satisfaction or rest. So if I can paraphrase it is as if he is saying:

There may indeed be appropriate times for everything, and God does know these times, but, speaking of humans, NO ONE CAN DISCOVER WHAT GOD IS DOING.’ There is nothing ‘from beginning to end’ that humans can truly fathom.

Verses 12 -15 form the conclusion. Qohelet affirms that we need to get on with life. Enjoy what we have — as best we can.

Concluding remarks

In vv. 1-15 Qohelet acknowledges the order he sees in God’s universe. There are proper times and seasons — set by God. Nonetheless, since humans cannot know these times, the result is frustration. In the light of humanity’s inability to discover the larger picture or significance of God’s creation, Qohelet advocates settling for the lesser pleasures of life.

However, not everyone can avail themselves of these diversions — only those whom God so blesses. The implication is that other people, including Qohelet himself, must struggle with depressing reality.

Again I call attention to the thought parallel with Paul in Romans 8. 18-21 and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.


[1] the phrase ‘under the sun’ is unique to Qohelet in the Hebrew Bible appearing nowhere else. It does occur in extrabiblical Hebrew (of a much later date than Solomon interestingly enough — another clue). The places the phrase occurs in Ecc. are 1.3, 9; 2.11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3.16; 4.1, 3, 7, 15; 5.13, 18 [English text 5.14, 19]; 6.1, 12; 7.11; 8.9, 15[2x], 17; 9.3, 6, 9[2x], 11, 13; 10.5.

[2] This repetition is known as ‘Anaphora.’

[3] James Crenshaw, ‘The Eternal Gospel (Ecc. 3:11),’ in Essays in Old Testament Ethics (New York, 1974), pp. 40ff.

One Response to “Dust in the Wind: Life in Qohelet’s Postmodern World”

  1. Randall Says:

    I am really enjoying this series Bobby. It has been some time since I was involved in a study of Ecclesiastes and I find the literature most interesting.

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