No doubt you know the chorus:
”To everything – turn, turn turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven”
And at least the first verse:
”A time to be born, a time to die,
A time to plant, a time to reap,
A time to kill, a time to heal,
A time to laugh, a time to weep.”
Pete Seeger wrote the song, which became a hit when it was recorded by the Byrds in 1965 while the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War. He borrowed the lyrics from the KJV of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, except that he added the famous ”turn, turn, turn” and at the end of the last verse of the song he added ”a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” suggesting a plea for peace even though he kept the line from Ecclesiastes earlier saying ”a time for war, a time for peace.” He also rearranged the order of some of the couplets.
First of all, Qoheleth himself was not writing a song to plea for world peace. Secondly, Qoheleth is not at all comforted by the turning of the seasons. The frame narrator summarizing Qoheleth’s teaching had used the examples of the sun rising and setting, the wind going around and around, and the streams running into the sea but the sea never being full. Normally when we appeal to such cycles in nature it is a positive reference. But not for Qoheleth. The human activities of Ecc 3:2-8 mirror the activities of nature in Ecc 1:5-8. Qoheleth is saying that the turning of the cycles makes everything meaningless or absurd – not that it gives meaning.
Indeed, the harmonies of Pete Seeger’s song are beautiful but as Pete Enns says, ”this passage is anything but harmonious.” The music, even without the words, does not match the message of Qoheleth. Although we might say, ironically, Qoheleth is being sarcastic by writing beautiful poetry. In any case, if we are to understand Qoheleth we have to find a way to silence the song stuck in our heads.
לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
”For every season…” The problem with the word ”season” in English is that it is too positive and temporary.
”And a time for every purpose…” The word here ”purpose” is normally translated ”pleasure” or ”delight.” Qoheleth may be using the term sarcastically.
”…under heaven” – among all the living. Enns says that the fact that he says ”under heaven” means that we should expect to find ”a comprehensive statement of some sort.” And Enns adds, ”we should expect that statement to have a rather pessimistic slant, perhaps even a further airing out of his grievances toward the one who is ultimately responsible for setting ‘times’ and ‘seasons.”’
Verses 2-8 follow the pattern: a time for…and a time for… where the part elided are extreme opposites. Then the pairs begin: born/die, plant/pluck up, kill/heal, break down/build up, weep/laugh, mourn/dance, cast away stones/gather stones together, embrace/refrain from embracing; seek/lose, keep/cast away, tear/sew, keep silence/speak, love/hate, war/peace.
Even if you do not know Hebrew you can probably look at the text below for Ecc 3:2 and see this pattern:
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת
עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃
Personally I think that it is helpful to think of the pairs as merisms – two parts (two extremes) representing the whole. Qoheleth is speaking to all of your life – not just to your birth and death. Qoheleth is aiming to be comprehensive (as we expected). Moreover, this pattern of birth and death is Qoheleth’s most important complaint in the whole book. Remember these verses: ”A generation goes, a generation comes, the earth remains forever” (Ecc 1:4). He is complaining about this cycle and how nothing changes. ”The wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecc 2:16). Death is the great relativizer – taking away whatever temporary payoff one might receive from being wise. The point being that Qoheleth does not see ”a time to be born, and a time to die” as a comforting thought. And because Qoheleth is angry at God, God is to blame that there is ”a time to be born, and a time to die.”
Enns emphasizes how Qoheleth is not saying that we have any choice in the matter – it is not as if we choose to be born or choose to die. Everything happens to us. Thus the second example has to do with plants, which do not have a ”will” – ”a time to plant and a time to uproot.” The pair regarding plants could refer to the practice of farming – you do not have a choice as to when you plant and when you harvest – those are times or seasons chosen by God. Qoheleth is not telling us that we just need to choose peace. He is complaining about everything.
The rest of this unit (Ecc 3:9-15) gives us Qoheleth’s conclusions about all this: ”What payoff ( מַה־יִּתְרוֹן֙ ) has the worker from his toil?” (Ecc 3:9, this should sound familiar and we already know the answer.) ”I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Ecc 3:10). This is very similar to Ecc 1:13b (”It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”) Enns rightly insists that it would be better to call this a ”preoccupation” rather than a ”business.” God has given everyone a task in order to keep them preoccupied.
The ESV Bible innocently entitles the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3: ”A Time for Everything,” and then Ecc 3:8-15 as ”The God-Given Task.” I hope that you can see by now that those titles are hugely misleading if we are not reading these verses in context. Qoheleth argues that the cycle of life is pointless and absurd – and it is God’s fault.
Enns tells us that Ecc 3:11 should not read ”beautiful.” Yes that is a common way to translate that word, but we have seen that in the context of Qoheleth words often have a different connotation than elsewhere in Scripture. Here it would be better to say ”appropriate” or ”well-ordered,” Enns suggests. Thus the idea is, to quote Enns again, ”God ordains the times and seasons, and humanity pretty much goes along for the ride.”
But Qoheleth then says that it is worse yet. God puts ”eternity” in our hearts. This is not some hopeful note about an afterlife. ”Eternity” and ”under the sun” are complimentary concepts – all the time and everywhere. Qoheleth’s quest has been to search out these things. Eternity then most likely simply means the expanse of time into the past and into the future. Thus there is nothing new under the sun – looking backwards and forwards to ”eternity.” The term does not mean eternal in the way that God is eternal, but rather to a very long period of time. The big problem with this is that such a search looking back and looking forward is futile: ”so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
This moves Qoheleth to utter yet another statement of resignation to reality like we saw in Ecclesiastes 2. ”I perceived that there is nothing better than for them to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” To do ”good” as we have learned to expect does not carry any moral connotations. And to say that this is a ”gift” from God is to put it sarcastically.
Moreover Qoheleth brings this unit to a close this way: ”I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecc 3:14-15). The everything in view here includes the earlier lines of Ecc 3:2-8. The section comes to a close then on a note of futility.
One of the phrases that sticks out in the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes 3:13 is כָּל־הָאָדָם֙ ”all the man.” The same exact phrase appears at the end of Eccesiastes 12:13. The NIV and ESV there render it ”the whole duty of man.” It also appears in Ecclesiastes 5:19 (v.18 in Hebrew), and Ecclesiastes 7:2. Both Ecc 3:13 and 5:19 are resignation to reality passages. To show the connections Enns suggests translating it, ”Moreover, the whole [duty] of man is that he should eat,…” (his emphasis). Therefore the book as a whole is encouraging us to reflect on what is ”all the man” – to do what Qoheleth suggests when he says what he says out of resignation or to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecc 12:13). Qoheleth is resigned to the frustration of the cycles of life – the circle of life offers him no hope or joy. It leads to no payoff but is only absurd. And for Qoheleth this is what has been and will be – so we have no better option. Thus unlike “Turn, turn, turn” Qoheleth is not hopeful for peace – or hopeful about life at all. So the frame narrator is inviting us to correct Qoheleth on this point – rather than just eating and drinking, etc. out of resignation to reality we are to fear God and keep His commandments.
(Enns discusses this in his commentary, and I remember learning it from him in class. I would love to hear your thoughts on Qoheleth — do you dismiss everything he says as heretical or do you think the frame narrator is saying that we can learn from him even if we have to correct him on what is “all the man”?)