This essay examines Qoheleth’s Catalogue of the Times poem in Eccl 3:2–8. I argue that the two most common scholarly interpretations of the poem’s overall meaning fail to sufficiently account for its literary context and that an underdeveloped alternative reading is to be preferred. When we read the poem in light of two other closely related passages, 1:4–11 and 3:9–15, it becomes clear that a poem ostensibly about “time” is much less concerned with “timing” than is typically thought, but instead signifies Qoheleth’s frustration with the inevitable equilibrating tendency embedded into every human task.
This essay examines Qoheleth’s Catalogue of the Times poem in Eccl 3:2–8. I argue that the two most common scholarly interpretations of the poem’s overall meaning fail to sufficiently account for its literary context and that an underdeveloped alternative reading is to be preferred. When we read the poem in light of two other closely related passages, 1:4–11 and 3:9–15, it becomes clear that a poem ostensibly about “time” is much less concerned with “timing” than is typically thought, but instead signifies Qoheleth’s frustration with the inevitable equilibrating tendency embedded into every human task. Before providing further context for my interpretation, I will provide a translation of the poem:
1.1 The “Proper Times” Reading of Eccl 3:2–8
Scholars have long debated the meaning of Qoheleth’s famous poem. One common interpretation has been to read the poem as referring to the proper, appropriate, or opportune time at which to act.2 There is a rightness to an action when done at a particular time, and the wise person will be cognizant of that timing and so choose to act appropriately when the time comes. Thus the emphasis falls upon human agency (in both recognizing and choosing to act) and upon the fact that some times are better than others with respect to a given activity. According to this view, Qoheleth’s subsequent comments on the poem in 3:9–15 convey his frustration over humanity’s inability to know the times and thus to find success in this way.3
This interpretation certainly has its strengths. First, it is quite reasonable to expect that a poem which contains twenty-eight occurrences of the word
On the other hand, there are evident problems facing this reading. The first problem I will mention involves part of the poem’s content, but the others relate to the poem’s awkward fit (given this reading) with Qoheleth’s commentary in 3:9–15. First, the opening line of v. 2 discloses that there is “a time to be born, and a time to die.” As many have noted, if the point of the poem were to emphasize human agency and ethical duty, it would be strange to begin with a pair of activities ostensibly beyond human control. Michael Fox acknowledges that this initial pair cannot be chosen but posits that the remainder of the poem’s activities can be.5 Yet this only restates the problem, as it seems unlikely that Qoheleth would begin the poem with a pair of exceptions to the poem’s general message. It is more sensible to presume the author would commence the poem with a pair of actions that sum up (or at least accurately reflect) the intent of the poem as a whole, especially in light of the poem’s highly parallel structure.
Second, if the poem’s aim is indeed to exhort its readers to choose to act at the “proper time,” this implies that the poem is in some way a celebration of human agency. Yet slightly after the poem in 3:14, it is precisely the role of human agency within God’s scheme that Qoheleth denies: “Whatever God does endures forever; there is no adding to it, nor is there any subtracting from it. God has acted […].” Third, if the focus of the poem concerns humanity’s ability to choose the correct time for action, Qoheleth’s pessimistic question immediately following the poem in 3:9 strikes the reader as counterintuitive. Why should the call to act at an opportune time lead to the conclusion that there is no lasting gain? To make sense of 3:9, the “proper times” view must import the unstated premise that people lack knowledge of the poem’s times or opportunities and for that reason fail to take advantage of them, resulting in the exasperated question of v. 9, “What gain?” But the verse does not itself state this. A reading in which v. 9 constitutes a more direct, fitting response to the poem in 3:2–8 is to be preferred. Fourth, Qoheleth in 3:17 links back to the diction of 3:1–8, yet the one activity “there is a time for” in this verse is only an act of God—his judgment—not one possible for humans to choose.
1.2 The Common Determinist Reading of Eccl 3:2–8
Many scholars have argued for an entirely different reading of the poem, what may be called the determinist reading. They contend that Qoheleth’s reference to the times is not signifying the right time for a human to act, with the correlating implication that the person might well miss the opportunity. The poem is not prescribing the proper times at which the wise person should choose to act, but is instead describing the fact that God has ordained all of the times at which the activities reflected in the poem will occur.6 Scholars do not always convey this determinism in the same terms, but on the stronger articulations of this reading, “time” (
There are several attractive features to the determinist reading of 3:2–8 over against the “proper times” reading. First, the determinist reading makes much better sense of the commentary section immediately following the passage, that of 3:9–15, where Qoheleth provides us with the lens through which he is reading the poem. In particular, Qoheleth’s lamenting question in 3:9 could follow naturally from the idea that all human behavior is preprogrammed, much more naturally than it follows an admonition for readers to act at the proper time.8 Further, 3:14 represents, at minimum, a strong proclamation of God’s sovereignty and the inability for humans to change his plans, thus aligning nicely with the determinist reading. Finally, as already mentioned, Qoheleth in 3:17 links God’s judgment to the phrase from 3:1, “(there is) a time for every matter”—perhaps implying that the phrase has been more closely tied to divine rather than human action all along.
The determinist view also confronts its own obstacles, however. The primary problem is that this view sometimes assumes a brand of determinism that is far more particular than Qoheleth’s words necessitate. It is not only that God is intervening in human affairs in real-time; it is also the case, as mentioned above, that all human actions are foreordained by God in advance, such that humans will necessarily act in accordance with the predetermined divine will at the moment established for them to do so. This is, at least, what several scholars claim. For instance, Morris Jastrow writes:
The happenings of this world are preordained by God and take place in the order and at the time determined by the great Power who governs all things […]. The time when a man is to be born is fixed as is the time of his death (3:2)—fixed as definitely as the time for sewing seeds and for pulling up the ripened plant. If everything is preordained, it is idle to make the effort to change things.9
Otto Kaiser likewise comments, “These times are strictly determined […] there are preordained, pre-qualified times for everything we may undertake.”10 Others express Qoheleth’s views in the same manner.11
However, it appears that these scholars have imputed to Qoheleth a version of determinism derived not from the text of Qoheleth itself but from other, mostly later ancient Jewish texts, as well as theological and philosophical traditions. Despite the linkage between the two claimed by Gerhard von Rad,12 there is nothing in Qoheleth of the sort of determinism one finds in much of the Jewish apocalyptic literature or the sectarian literature of Qumran. This strict form of determinism found in these latter corpuses is indeed marked by explicit statements that God exercises complete control over the thoughts and deeds of individuals and has even planned these since before the creation of the world.13 Thus, while the determinism of the Qumran community may well match these scholars’ descriptions, it is much less clear in the case of Qoheleth.
A second problem for many determinist interpretations of 3:2–8 (and 3:1–15) is that they fail to account for the important contribution of 3:15, the culminating verse of the section yet one that is often swept to the side in discussions about determinism in Qoheleth. Typically, talk of God’s pre-determination or pre-ordination of events assumes a linear timeline, with the deity’s causations standing at the front end of a domino-like series of events (A, B, C, etc.). Yet the thought of time’s cyclicality which Qoheleth broaches in 3:15—itself alluding back to 1:9—jars against the linear-time metaphysic which determinist readings frequently presume. This will be taken up in greater detail later on, but the point for now is that scholars have not sufficiently reckoned with the tension between (a) the determinist readings of the book in which distinct events are thought to be plotted out in advance along a progressive historical time-line, and (b) the book’s prominent theme of cyclicality, which places all human activity under a shroud of repetition and denies any sense of linear movement or historical progress. These are two very different notions, and I will argue that only the latter is of Qoheleth. Nonetheless, a sense of “determinism” in the book can be maintained if it is reoriented to comport with the book’s theme of cyclicality.
1.3 An Alternative Reading of Eccl 3:2–8: Cyclical, Anthropological Determinism
To these two predominant views of the times poem, then, I wish to propose a third alternative, what I will (somewhat cumbersomely) call cyclical, anthropological determinism.14 This phrase is meant to highlight three closely interrelated aspects of Qoheleth’s worldview communicated by use of the poem, in conjunction with other passages. These we may summarize in reverse order:
(a) God has determined, or, caused to bring about, the essential nature of the world and human existence. Yet, in distinction from the common determinist view, the sense of “determine” here refers not to the preordination and real-time intervention of unique, individual events plotted along historical time, but instead refers to the establishment of a broad framework or structure within which human existence occurs.15
(b) This broad framework is anthropological. It concerns what humans can and cannot do, both their capacities and limitations, not with respect to their “free will” in some specific instance but with respect to the very structure of their existence as a whole and the “task” assigned to them by the deity. Qoheleth uses the controlling metaphor of a “business,” with its employer and employed, in order to explicate this aspect of the divine-human relationship.
(c) This anthropological structure which God has set in place is cyclical. Human activities oscillate ceaselessly (reflecting nature itself) and thus the events of the present and future are nothing but reiterations of what has already happened in the past.16
This three-fold reality is one which Qoheleth finds deeply troubling. Beyond describing it, Qoheleth also makes clear its negative value for human beings. The remainder of my essay will defend this tripartite notion in Qoheleth by examining Eccl 1:4–11 and 3:9–15, along with their significance for interpreting the poem in 3:2–8.
2 Cyclicality in Eccl 1:4–11
The first step toward this third reading of 3:2–8 begins with a point that various commentators have acknowledged but insufficiently developed—namely, the strong similarities between the poem of 3:2–8 and that of 1:4–11.17 We need to discuss 1:4–11 in order to explore the theme of cyclicality as it appears there. Once the presence of cyclicality becomes clear in 1:4–11, we will have more reason to take notice of it in 3:1–8 and 3:9–15:
A particular conception of cyclicality consistently emerges from 1:4–11. Beginning with 1:4, here Qoheleth does not say that “a generation comes and a generation goes,” but the inverse: “a generation goes (
Next, in 1:5 Qoheleth describes that from the phenomenological perspective, the sun rises in the east, then traverses to the opposite side of the sky, but eventually circles back to the place where it began—“panting” (
In 1:7 Qoheleth describes that the streams, too, start at their source and then traverse over to the sea, before finally turning back to the original source. The repetition of this process, if not quite explicitly stated in this case, is certainly implied. Hence the surprising fact that despite the constant movement of the streams into the sea, “the sea is never filled.” What is going into it is always coming out; its gains are always counterbalanced by losses.
In each of the four verses in 1:4–7, then, we have a set of opposite binaries establishing an A-B structure:
With each pair of binaries, the point is essentially two-fold: (a) that the activity or movement in each case repeatedly “travels” between the two binary poles, oscillating back and forth; and, (b) as a result, the movement never arrives anywhere “new” (cf. 1:9–10). It merely continues traversing along already-trodden ground (cf. v. 6, “circuits”), never arriving at something outside this familiar schema, something which might constitute “gain” or “surplus” (
All of this can stand on its own from 1:4–7, but a cyclical conception is all the more confirmed once we read 1:9–11. Verse 9 is as clear and concise a statement of cyclical time as one is likely to find in the ancient world. The future is identified with the past, foregoing any structure which might cultivate the possibility for newness. Yet, unlike many of Qoheleth’s contemporaries, Qoheleth’s version of cyclical time is not a metaphysical theory per se, supposing that every precise state of the universe will eventually repeat itself, and do so again and again eternally. Rather, Qoheleth’s notion of cyclicality is abstracted up a level from the world’s physical (or metaphysical) constituents, into the realm of classifications, types, and archetypes. It is the same types of events and activities that will recur ad infinitum.26 (Given that it is still a theory about the way reality is structured, however, we may call Qoheleth’s idea a “quasi-metaphysical” theory.)
The statement in 1:10 is an immediate practical application of the principle of cyclicality declared in 1:9. If someone thinks they can ever legitimately exclaim, “Look! This is new!”—they are mistaken. Since whatever happens now is categorically equivalent to what has happened before, there technically can be no “new” thing—nothing which is unclassifiable into the already familiar categories. The fundamental aspects of human existence, just as the movements of the sun, wind, and waters, have already been well established. And henceforth, “it is known what a human being is.” (6:10)
Qoheleth concludes the poem in 1:11 by denying proficiency to human memory (
Seeing the theme of cyclical time in Qoheleth, and particularly in 1:4–11, is certainly no novel proposal. Readers of the book have been discerning this theme from the very earliest interpretations on record,27 and the great majority of commentators on this passage have taken it as describing cyclical realities to one degree or another.28 The fact that Qoheleth commences his book with a lengthy poem about cyclicality implies that this is indeed an important, even central, aspect of his philosophy. The entire poem, 1:4–11, serves as the answer to Qoheleth’s opening question in 1:3, “What gain is there?” With its depiction of well-worn cycles that fail to effect change, the poem clearly provides a negative answer.29 This is all the more confirmed by the way Qoheleth picks up the discussion two verses later in 1:13, referring to the “bad business” God has given humans, and that all that is done is hebel and striving after wind. With this understanding of 1:4–11 in view, we may now turn to 3:1–15.
3 Reading Eccl 3:2–8 in Relation to 1:4–11
A strong case can be made for reading the Catalogue of the Times poem of 3:2–8 in light of the bipolar cycles theme of 1:4–11.30 First, 3:2–8 is clearly structured in terms of binary pairs, which in every case present mutually exclusive opposites. Since a similar A-B structure also marks 1:4–7, this fact alone provides some clue that the two passages may share a conceptual link and should perhaps be read similarly.31 Second, the poem of 3:2–8 is directly followed by the same rhetorical question which introduced the poem of 1:4–11: “What lasting gain is there for a person (‘worker’ in 3:9) in (all) his toil?”
Third, the subsequent verse (3:10) virtually repeats a sentence which had followed closely after the conclusion of the poem in 1:4–11, concerning the “business” God has given humans.
This means that some of Qoheleth’s most immediate interpretive comments on the book’s opening poem likewise comprise his commentary of the second poem. If the immediately adjacent comments on each passage are nearly identical, this would seem a strong indicator that the content and overall meaning of the two poems is regarded similarly by Qoheleth. Thus, if the subject matter of the first poem is that of the cycles and repetition in earthly existence, we might well expect this same essential message in the second poem. Fourth and finally, the fact that 1:4–11 and 3:2–8 represent two of the book’s three poems (the third being 12:1–7) and that 1:3–11 opens and 3:1–15 concludes the book’s opening core unit (1:3–3:15) are further indicators that the two poems ought to be mutually interpreted.32
If we are correct to read 3:2–8 in light of 1:4–11, then the following features emerge as significant. When Qoheleth says that “there is a time for [A] and a time for [B],” the emphasis lies not on the precise timing at which A or B occurs—whether chosen by the astute individual or ordained by God—but on the fact that the opposite realities of both A and B will inevitably occur, not just one or the other.33 That two opposing realities will always (sooner or later) manifest themselves implies that embedded into the created order itself is a kind of equilibrating tendency, a drive toward “zero.” This homogenizing proclivity naturally prompts the question of 3:9, “What gain?” Further, just as in 1:4–11, what is implied in 3:2–8 is not only that A happens and then B (its opposite) happens [A → B], but additionally, the constant oscillation between A and B [A → B → A].34 There is a cyclicality intrinsic to everything done under the sun such that human activity in any given sphere continually oscillates between two poles. To expand on two of Qoheleth’s own examples: People plant in the spring but inevitably uproot in the fall. Spring will come again soon enough, though, and round it goes. People laugh with joy at the baby’s birth but weep with mourning at the elder’s funeral days later. Yet laughing will reprise in due course. This is the way the world turns. This is the nature of time as humans experience it.35
We should note, too, that in 1:4–11 Qoheleth’s concern is neither ethical (in the sense of the “proper times” reading of 3:2–8) nor determinist (as though the main point were to convey God’s temporal preordination of the movements in the natural world). Rather, the emphasis in 1:4–11 is merely descriptive—this cyclical manner is the way the world works—and the sage’s negative evaluation of this description is inferred by Qoheleth’s comments immediately leading into (“What gain is there for a person […]?” [1:3]) and following the poem (“It is a bad business […]” [1:13]). Thus the same is arguably true for the poem in 3:2–8. In this latter case, Qoheleth’s negative evaluation of the poem’s content becomes clear in 3:9–15.
4 Support from Eccl 3:9–15
It is virtually unanimous among commentators that 3:9–15 represents Qoheleth’s commentary on the poem of 3:2–8, a “philosophische Zusammenfassung.”39 Thus if our reading of the poem’s meaning is on track, we should expect support from 3:9–15 as well. We will now walk through 3:9–15, noting several ways in which these verses do in fact support the present argument.
Beginning with 3:9, we have already noted the close parallel between 1:3 and 3:9. The only notable difference between them is the identification of the toiler here as “the worker” (
Furthermore, the common determinist reading of 3:2–8 claims that the lack of gain Qoheleth identifies in 3:9 is owing purely to God’s predetermination of all human actions. Yet, since 3:9 is a clear echo of 1:3 it is reasonable to assume that the lack of gain in 3:9 relates closely to the same lack in 1:3. There the statement introduces the poem of 1:4–11, and 1:4–11 says nothing concerning God’s determination of events, emphasizing instead the cyclical nature of existence. Thus the complaint concerning lack of gain in 3:9 is more sensibly read as a response to the world’s cyclical, repetitive nature (as expressed in 3:2–8) than as a consequence of hard determinism. What the discussion in 3:9–15 adds to 1:3–11 is the clarification that behind the cycles of existence stands a “prime mover”—or better, “prime recycler”40—who has pushed the cycles into motion. But it is foremost the cycles that elicit the response of
The implications of this understanding are already significant for showing how my proposed reading differs from the common determinist reading of 3:2–8. Qoheleth encourages us to think of humanity as employees of the divine employer, the cosmic “CEO.” What does the CEO of a company “determine,” with respect to the CEO’s employees? To take a familiar modern example, the workers on Henry Ford’s factory assembly line presumably did not feel some external, physical compulsion to move their hands in a particular direction at a specific time, according to the behest of the man in charge. He was not a puppet-master in that strictest sense. What Henry Ford did control was the workers’ “job description”: he assigned their general (repetitive) task, and it was theirs to carry out. I suggest that the case is similar with Qoheleth’s humanity and their deity: God has determined the fates of humans only insofar as he has assigned them the “task” (1:13; 3:10) of carrying out mutually counterproductive, gainless activities (3:2–8).
While the Ford example is meant only as a heuristic, further considerations support the suggestion that Qoheleth viewed humanity’s relation to God through an employer-worker model. First, some scholars have proposed that Qoheleth is presented as a “businessman,” since a striking number of his favorite terms are commercial or economic terms:
Proceeding to 3:14, this verse elicits two main questions: (a) What is the referent for “all that God does” (
As for the second question, Qoheleth says that “all that God does—it will be forever” (
Finally, then, we come to 3:15. I have translated the first two clauses as, “Whatever has been—it already was. And whatever will be—it already has been.” The allusion to 1:9 is clear, and the alignments below represent the division of time shared between 1:9–10 and 3:15.
Qoheleth had concluded the poem in 1:4–11 by asserting through abstract temporal use of
Moving to the latter part of the verse (3:15b), on an initial reading the final clause,
5 Ecclesiastes 3:2–8 as Gainless Activity
Returning to Eccl 3:2–8, I suggest that in the context of the book of Qoheleth the underlying claim of the “times” poem concerns neither an admonition to act at the proper time nor a pronouncement about God’s determination of every human action. Rather, the poem primarily demonstrates humanity’s inability to achieve
It is sometimes posited that one side of each of the poem’s antithetical pairs [A] represents what is “good” or “desirable” and the opposite side [B] represents what is “bad” or “undesirable.”53 While in some cases the two sides of a given pair might intuitively divide into positive and negative values (e.g., “being born” vs. “dying”, “mourning” vs. “dancing”), in many cases it is far from obvious which of the two actions would represent a more positive or negative value in relation to the other (e.g., “planting” vs. “uprooting,” “throwing stones” vs. “gathering stones,” “keeping silent” vs. “speaking”). Rather than assume that the division between positive and negative value runs through each pair, I propose that what Qoheleth finds problematic and what elicits the question “What gain?” in 3:9 is not the activity of one side or the other in itself, but simply the fact that the two activities bear opposite intentions or directions and therefore cancel one another out.54
In the parallel passage of 1:4–7, it is not that one side of the pole is undesirable in relation to the other—there is nothing troublesome, for instance, about the sun’s rising or setting in itself, nor the wind’s southward or northward blowing. What Qoheleth deems problematic about these circumstances is that the oscillatory movement incessantly undermines itself, thereby canceling out any
Reality, Qoheleth believes, is regulated by its oscillatory nature; this mitigates deep loss, but also withholds “lasting gain” (
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“‘ Wright, Addison G. For Everything There is a Season’: The Structure and Meaning of the Fourteen Opposites (Ecclesiastes 3,2–8).” Pages 321– 328in De la Tôrah au Messie: Études d’exégèse et d’herméneutique bibliques offertes à Henri Cazelles pour ses 25 années d’enseignement à l’Institut Catholique de Paris (Octobre 1979). Edited by . , Maurice Carrez , and Joseph Doré Pierre Grelot Paris: Desclée, . 1981
Wright, Charles H.H. The Book of Koheleth, Commonly Called Ecclesiastes. The Donnellan Lectures. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1883.
Zimmerli, Walther. “Das Buch des Predigers Salomo.” Pages 123–253 in Sprüche, Prediger, Das Hohe Lied, Klagelieder, Das Buch Esther. Translated and explained by Helmer Ringgren, Walther Zimmerli, and Otto Kaiser. ATD 16. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967.
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. “ Zimmerli, Walther Das Buch des Predigers Salomo.” Pages 123– 253in Sprüche, Prediger, Das Hohe Lied, Klagelieder, Das Buch Esther. Translated and explained by . , Helmer Ringgren , and Walther Zimmerli Otto Kaiser . ATD16 Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, . 1967
A minority of commentators, such as Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3:1–15,” 56–57; Seow, Ecclesiastes, 160; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 28–29; Kamano, Cosmology and Character, 83, have argued that
Scholars who advocate this interpretation include Plumptre, Ecclesiastes, 50–51, 126–131; Galling, “Das Rätsel”; idem, “Der Prediger,” 93–95; Zimmerli, “Das Buch,” 167–175; Loretz, Qohelet, 252; Fox, Rereading, 191–214 (which is a reprint of Fox, “Time”); Whybray, Ecclesiastes (OTG), 36–37; Perdue, Wisdom & Creation, 216–217; Schultz, “Sense of Timing”; Bundvad, Time, 90–109; Köhlmoos, Kohelet, 116.
See Fox, Rereading, 206; Whybray, Ecclesiastes (NCBC), 73; Galling, “Der Prediger,” 95.
It is for this reason that several scholars suggest that the original poem, as a free-floating entity, did carry the traditional “proper times” sense, but that it was picked up by Qoheleth who then utilized it for different purposes, e.g., Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 31; Köhlmoos, Kohelet, 116; Whybray, Ecclesiastes (NCBC), 67, 70; Wright, “For Everything,” 327; Fischer, Skepsis, 224. It is not crucial, for our purposes, to stake a claim on the question as to whether Qoheleth originally penned the poem or whether he is simply citing an inherited piece (and the question becomes even more hermeneutically complex for scholars who think that “Qoheleth” is a fictional character constructed by the author of Ecclesiastes). I am more inclined toward the view that Qoheleth penned it, but my argument will not depend on it, since if he did not originally write the poem, the important question is how he is interpreting it and conveying it to his audience—what he considers its message to be in its contribution to his work as a whole.
See Fox, Rereading, 201–209.
Commentators defending one variant or another of a determinist reading for the passage include Rudman, Determinism, 40–44, 83–98; idem, “Determinism and Anti-Determinism,” 97–106; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 39; Schoors, Ecclesiastes, 227–282; Enns, Ecclesiastes, 51–56; Seow, Ecclesiastes, 158–174; Fox, Contradictions, 190–196 (previous to Fox’s change of mind; see n. 11); Gordis, Koheleth, 228–234; von Rad, Wisdom, 228–230; 263–265; Hengel, Judaism, 1:121; Zimmerli, “Wisdom”; Scott, Ecclesiastes, 220–221; Jastrow, Gentle Cynic, 141; Wildeboer, “Der Prediger,” 131–134; Wright, Koheleth, 338–345; Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 254–264; Ginsburg, Coheleth, 303–314. Crenshaw, “Eternal Gospel,” regards the original poem as a piece of wisdom instruction concerning the right time, but which “in its present setting cannot be an affirmation” of this. Rather, taken up by Qoheleth it “laments the pre-determined monotony of all human affairs” (34–35). Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3:1–15,” offers an interesting variation in that he takes 3:1–8 to be Qoheleth’s quotation of an earlier “Stoicized Jew” to which Qoheleth then responds critically. Machinist, “Fate,” also emphasizes determinism (and “fate”) in Qoheleth, but without specific reference to 3:2–8.
Rudman, Determinism, 200. Additional scholars representing this view will be provided below.
E.g., Wright, Koheleth, 188, draws such a connection: “Times of war and peace, though apparently brought about by the exercise of man’s free action (which is not denied), are still under the control of the Most High. Man, however, has no profit in all his labour, for he has no certain power to regulate his own destiny.”
Jastrow, Gentle Cynic, 141.
Kaiser, “Fate,” 7.
To those already provided we could add Lauha, Kohelet, 63–64, 68; Scott, Ecclesiastes, 198, 226, 233; Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 254–255. Rudman, Determinism, 59 also argues for a hard determinism in the book, referring to “the list of predetermined actions and emotions in 3.1–8” and consistently positing that for Qoheleth “all human business is predetermined by God” (54, cf. 89, 126, 128, 131, 138, 149, etc.). Fox, Rereading, 197, writes: “If by ‘et Qohelet means a unique moment on the time-line, he is assuming a strong determinism: every act and event is assigned in advance a moment at which it will occur.” Fox acknowledges that that was his view in his Contradictions monograph. In Rereading, however, Fox now sees “a less rigid sort of determinism” (197) in line with the proper times view described earlier, since “the timing of most of the actions in the Catalogue is to some degree in man’s control” (201).
See von Rad, Wisdom, 263–283.
E.g., “From the God of Knowledge comes all that is and all that happens. Before ever they existed he established their whole design and when, as ordained for them, they come into being, it is in accord with his glorious design that they accomplish their task, and there is no changing” (1QS 3.15–16); “Surely apart from you the way cannot be perfected, nor can anything be done unless it please you. You teach all knowledge and all that shall be, by your will shall it come to pass” (1QS 11.16–18); cf. 1QHa 18:7–11; 4Q417 I, 1.10–12; 4Q180 I 2–3. See the discussion in Merrill, Qumran and Predestination; Stauber, “Determinism”; Popovic, “Apocalyptic Determinism.” Such clear-eyed determinism is also manifest even in some non-apocalyptic Jewish works, such as Judith: “All that happened then, and all that happened before and after, was your work. What is now and what is yet to be, you have planned; and what you have planned has come to pass. The things you have foreordained present themselves and say, ‘We are here.’ All your ways are prepared beforehand.” (Jdt 9:5–6).
Clearly, the latter of these implies I am not in complete disagreement with the “determinist” view just represented. But I think any reference to determinism in Qoheleth demands much qualification; we need to take a fresh look at what kind of determinism the book does or does not espouse.
On this point I find much kinship with Clines, “Predestination,” 533–534: “Predestination for Ecclesiastes does not mean that the particular acts of individuals are fixed in advance by God, but rather that the possibilities open to humans and the value of human activities are settled in advance by the framework of God’s created order, which terminates everything with human death”—although I will want to add more to the framework than that it terminates in death.
Since the word “cyclical” has been used in various ways, it is important to be clear that by using the term I do not intend to refer to a certain order in which a series of different events should occur. I agree with Fox, Rereading, 200, when he writes: “Qohelet does not here speak of time as a cycle in which crying follows laughing, which follows crying, and so on ad infinitum. Several ‘crying times’ may follow in succession before it is right to laugh. Rather, he describes a binary pairing of opposed event-types as a structural property of reality, not as a temporal sequence” (emphasis added). If the various spheres of reality are structured in binary pairs then both sides will eventually take place, and if we are dealing with only two constituents, then this is still alternation in a broader sense. In other words, a movement such as A-A-A-B-B-A-B-B-B is reducible to A-B-A-B, and is cyclical in that sense. “Cyclical,” then, is still a helpful word to use for the phenomenon in question, because it conveys a notion of repetition in which reiterations take place through an oscillatory back-and-forth movement, as in, for instance, the oscillating cycles of power within a two-party political system.
See, e.g., Dell, “Cycle,” 187; Loader, Polar Structures, 90. Others are listed in n. 30 below.
There is a lack of consensus concerning the translation and sense of (
A common understanding of 1:4 posits a contrast between the transient “generations” (
An interesting parallel is found in a Babylonian text, which highlights the ancients’ readily acknowledged ignorance as to how the sun returns to
Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 6, says “this translation is certain.” For a review of this verse in the history of Jewish exegesis, see Japhet, “Goes to the South.”
See, e.g., Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism, 49.
Whether or not the north-south axis represented the most common wind-pattern experienced by Qoheleth, it was probably chosen as a compliment to the more obvious east-west dichotomy already taken by the sun (see Seow, Ecclesiastes, 108).
I concur with Fox, Rereading, 168: “The assertion that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ cannot apply to events as specific, unique occurrences. World War II, the book of Qohelet, the death of Lincoln—these had not happened before. But in some sense Qohelet would regard their reality as inhering in their realizing of archetypes: war, book, assassination. Only in that way can he deny their newness.” Cf. Jastrow, Gentle Cynic, 122–123: “The variations in the repetition do not affect essentials”; Frydrych, Under the Sun, 119: “The predictability of Qoheleth’s world happens on an abstract phenomenal level, pertaining to issues such as birth and death, joy and sorrow, but does not extend to the lower detailed level of specific human actions and their consequences.” That is why the theme of repetition and cycles does not contradict ideas prominent elsewhere in Qoheleth about life’s unpredictable nature (e.g., 9:11–12; 11:1–6). The precise circumstances may be unknown and unpredictable, but the broader picture and patterns will only repeat themselves. Cf., too, Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 24: “Even the monotonous cycles of nature defy prediction—that they will repeat is sure, but when and how remain obscure.”
See, e.g., the discussion in Augustine, Civ. 12,14.
Those who have particularly highlighted this theme in recent years include Dell, “Cycle,” 183–185; Whybray, “Ecclesiastes 1:5–7”; Carasik, “Qohelet’s Twists and Turns”; Perry, Ecclesiastes, 55–57. On the other hand, the cyclical interpretation of 1:4–7 is challenged in Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism, 46–53.
There are a few readings of Qoheleth’s cyclicality theme, particularly in 1:4–11, that understand him as regarding it positively. For example, Lohfink, Qoheleth, 40, says that the poem implies nothing negative but only “praises the cosmos as glorious and eternal in this image of cyclic return.” Similarly, Dell, “Cycle,” 189, commenting on “the cycle of life as controlled by God” and “the cycles in the natural world,” writes, “There is a positive aspect to the simple description of the interaction with the natural world that cheers the human spirit […]. The author displays […] an appreciation of the circularity of the process.” And Knopf, “Optimism,” suggests that the thrust of Qoheleth’s cyclical language is “the inevitable law and rationale of our world.” (198). But these readings, in fact, miss the point. Readers may deduce that repeating phenomena are orderly, and that order is good. But this is not the conclusion Qoheleth draws from these phenomena. Features of the natural world such as order or consistency are little valued by the sage if they do not result in gain for human beings. Given that Qoheleth frames 1:4–11 in relation to the question concerning gain in 1:3, the poem’s declaration of the world’s gainless, cyclical nature is the direct, negative answer to that question and the passage’s central point.
Other commentators who read 1:3–11 and 3:2–8 (or 3:1–15) as connected and mutually interpretive include Krüger, Qoheleth, 75–76; Enns, Ecclesiastes, 52; McNeile, Ecclesiastes, 15; Gese, “Crisis,” 147–148; Kaiser, “Qoheleth,” 86.
Several scholars have noted the importance of opposites for Qoheleth (either in this pair of passages, or more broadly), e.g., Perry, Ecclesiastes, 84: “What both [1:3–11 and 3:2–8] have in common, at a deeper structural level, is neither the ‘time’ nor the particular desire or khepets […] but the perspective of a totality composed of opposites.” Horton, “Koheleth’s Concept,” finds Qoheleth’s “doctrine of opposites” throughout the book, positing that the sage “assumes that reality occurs in pairs” and “argues for the diverse and contradictory nature of existence” in which “nature provides life and death, war and peace, patience and anger, as well as good luck and misfortune.” Scott, Ecclesiastes, 235, too, summarizes: “Everything has its opposite (cf. 3:1–8), so that man must not count on the continuance of either good or bad fortune.”
See Kaiser, “Qoheleth,” 84: “Only in 1:3–3:15 do we find what is obviously a carefully planned composition.” Michel, Untersuchungen, 1–83, and Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism, 44–76, regard 1:3–3:15 as a kind of overture of Qoheleth’s main ideas. Krüger, Qoheleth, 5, notes that the book’s primary opening unit (1:12–2:26) is flanked by poems (1:3–11; 3:1–9, in his divisions) which both either begin or end with the question concerning “gain” for human beings.
Similarly, Barbour, Story of Israel, 54–76, stresses that in the poem “everything happens” (56): “Qohelet’s times […] are not primarily ‘right’ times, but simply times when something happens” (55). I concur with Barbour that the point is more that all these things happen than precisely when they happen, but our interpretations differ in that Barbour would still plot the events of 3:2–8 along a linear timeline (“they are different points on a temporal continuum […] the variety of human experience as a linear series of times […],” 57), whereas I see them as occurrences on polar ends of the oscillating cycles. Cf. Loader, Polar Structures, 30.
There are other ancient Jewish texts in which the notion of binary opposites is emphasized, and in some it is spoken of in terms of sequence, one following after the other. See T.Ash. 1:3–4; 5:1–2; Sir 18:25; 33:14–15. The closest parallel to Eccl 3:2–8 may be Sir 34:28–31, which emphasizes that opposite actions undermine each other and result in gainlessness (though Sirach’s concern is particularly with the efficacy of piety).
A few commentators have characterized 3:2–8 as cyclical (often, but not always, connecting it back to 1:4–11), even if this element has not received the strongest accent in their interpretation. Cf. Barton, Ecclesiastes, 98; Jarick, “Hebrew Book of Changes,” 91; Wright, Koheleth, 342; Scott, Ecclesiastes, 221; Hankins, “Internal Infinite,” 46–47; Dell, “Cycle,” 187; Bundvad, Time, 91.
The well-worn scholarly debate concerning that which God has placed into human hearts—
As elsewhere in later biblical Hebrew,
Holmstedt and Jones, “Tripartite Verbless Clauses,” identify the
Schellenberg, Kohelet, 74.
Brown, Ecclesiastes, 45.
See Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism, 34–37, and Dahood, “Canaanite-Phoenician Influence,” 30–52, 191–221, who lists twenty-nine commercial terms used in the book and concludes, “the over-all picture delineated by Ecclesiastes suggests a distinctly commercial environment” (220–221). Cf. Kugel, “Qohelet and Money.”
Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism, 73, referencing Sir 42:7; 1 Kgs 13:7; Prov 25:14; Ezek 46:5, 11.
E.g., Ginsburg, Coheleth, 312, comments on 3:14, “all the affairs of human life alluded to [in 3:1–9], which God has preordained are immutably fixed, that no ingenuity or industry […] can affect it in the slightest degree” and posits that
E.g., Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3:1–15,” 62, believes that 3:14 refers to “the divine act by which God has predisposed everything to happen at certain times and in certain ways,” and that “Qoheleth probably has in mind written decrees, tablets of destiny, on which the events of a human life are inscribed in advance and by which they are divinely predetermined.” Similarly, Ginsburg, Coheleth, 312: “The second lesson which Coheleth learned from the facts described in 1–9 is, that all the affairs of human life alluded to, which God has preordained, are immutably fixed, that no ingenuity or industry, however great, can affect it in the slightest degree” (emphasis original).
Similarly Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 35: “It is worth noting that Qoheleth is speaking of the immutability of the divine deed, not word” (emphasis original).
Rudman’s treatment of the verse (Determinism, 93–94) is one such example, offering little more than that “all is controlled by God.”
See LXX, Targum, Peshitta, Sir 5:3 (possible allusion), Hengstenberg, Ecclesiastes, 111–112.
Plumptre, Ecclesiastes, 134.
So Holmstedt et al., Qoheleth, 134.
So Krüger, Qoheleth, 90; Wright, Koheleth, 345; Barton, Ecclesiastes, 103; Tyler, Ecclesiastes, 90; McNeile, Ecclesiastes, 63; Gordis, Koheleth, 234; Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3:1–15,” 62–63; Pfeiffer, “Peculiar Skepticism,” 107; Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 100. Cf. Vulgate, et Deus instaurat quod abiit (“and God restores what has passed”).
Similarly Fox, Contradictions, 195: “The events God brings to pass steamroller over whatever man can do, so nothing new can interrupt the awesome cycles of events that God has ordained.”
An understanding of
See Loader’s complex chiastic structure in Loader, “Sonnet,” followed by Wright, “For Everything”; Jarick, “Hebrew Book of Changes.”
Horton, “Koheleth’s Concept,” 6, refers here to a “‘principle of cancellation,’ wherein two events take place, but the one cancels the other.” Cf. Frydrych, Under the Sun, 43–46; Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 96.
Similarly Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3:1–15,” 61: “In a word, the basic issue for Qoheleth is whether these actions [in 3:2–8] can have some surplus value (yitrôn, profit) carrying beyond the mere doing of them”; Good, Irony, 185: “Time too cancels out profit […]. Man’s actions add up to nothing, each balanced by one from the other side. Hence, ironically, as man acts responsibly with the deed appropriate to every present moment, he ensures that he does not come out ahead.”