Times as Task, Not Timing: Reconsidering Qoheleth’s Catalogue of the Times

In: Vetus Testamentum
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  • 1 Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University3057DurhamEngland
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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.

1 Introduction

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) For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
(2) A time to be born1 and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted,
(3) A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build up,
(4) A time to cry and a time to laugh,
A time for mourning and a time for dancing,
(5) A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
(6) A time to seek and a time to lose,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
(7) A time to tear and a time to sew,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
(8) A time to love and a time to hate,
A time of war and a time of peace.
Eccl 3:1–8

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 עֵת (“time”) would be about timing. Moreover, the infinitive constructs prefixed by – ל seem naturally, both in Hebrew and in their English translations, to convey a sense of what one ought “to do” (just as in English phrases such as “time to wake up!” or “time to go!”). An intuitive reading of the poem on its own, apart from its context in Qoheleth, seems to give credence to this conclusion.4 Second, there are other texts from the wisdom corpus that similarly indicate the rightness or wrongness of a certain action as contingent upon its timeliness (Prov 15:23; Sir 1:23–24; 4:20, 23; 20:7, 20). Third, 3:11a could be read as good support for this understanding: that God “makes everything beautiful in its time” would mean that things go well (“beautifully,” NET) for the one undertaking an action when it is performed “in its [proper] time.”

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” (עֵת) refers to “a time for human action which is predetermined by God, and in accordance with which human beings must act.”7 We are in the realm, then, not of ethical duty, but metaphysical necessity.

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:

(4) A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever the same.
(5) The sun rises, and the sun sets,
and hurrying back to its place, it rises from there again.
(6) Going to the south and circling back down to the north,
turning and turning goes the wind,
and upon its circuits the wind returns.
(7) All the streams go into the sea, but the sea is never filled.
To the very place from which the streams flow18 they return.19
(8) All words are weak,20 one is not able to speak.
An eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is an ear filled with hearing.
(9) That which has been—it is what will be.
And that which has happened—it is what will happen.
And there is nothing new under the sun.
(10) Is there anything of which one can say—“Look here! This is new!”?
It already has been, in the ages which were before us.
(11) There is no remembrance of former people, nor of those who are yet to exist.
There will be no remembrance of them, nor of those who will exist later still.
Eccl 1:4–11

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 (הֹלֵךְ) and a generation comes (בָּא).” This inversion is one indication he is thinking cyclically: he specifically chooses to highlight the moment of the turn or transition, the passing of the torch between two generations, one passing away and the other coming to be.21 This focus sets the stage for what will follow, as Qoheleth draws upon nature’s oscillatory movements in order to emphasize two qualities inherent to the human experience: its cyclical and ateleological character.

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” (שׁוֹאֵף) along the way—and soon repeats the whole process over again. “Its place” (מְקוֹמוֹ) here refers to its starting point, from which it rises again.22 The opening words of v. 6 present an initial ambiguity concerning the subject of the participial actions, “going to the south and turning back to the north,” but the vast majority of modern commentaries and translations rightly regard this as a somewhat crafty way to introduce the wind, rather than a continuation of the sun’s movement in the sky.23 In this case, as with the sun, there is a traverse from one point (from its starting point “to the south”), and then a return to its antipode (“north”). The pair of repeated participles that follow, סוֹבֵב סֹבֵב, have often been rendered, “circling, circling,” though a few commentators have expressed reservations.24 But the point is not so much that the wind is literally traveling in circles. This phrase should be read through the initial use of סבב in 1:6a, where it refers to the “turning back” from a northward direction to a southward direction (cf. Qoheleth’s use of סבב in 2:20 and 7:25 for “I turned”). In light of this, as well as the parallel with the sun and streams (including the parallel use of שׁוב in 1:7), it is not likely Qoheleth is imagining a geometric circle, but something more like parallel tracks in which a 180-degree “U-turn” is undertaken in order to bring back the object to its starting point (see figure below). The movement envisioned is less like a hurricane’s swirl than a boomerang’s forward-and-back reprise, and it is this “turning, (re)turning” that persists unhindered.25

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” (יִתְרוֹן). Hence the movement is confined to endless cycles, perpetual repetition.

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 (אֵין זִכְרוֹן). While at first glance this may seem an outlier to his prior discussion, a connection can be made when we consider that what humans remember of their predecessors are the anomalies—those deeds which stand out as “new” and unique from the unending stream of information. By drawing up the lines to claim that there really are no new distinctions among human behavior, Qoheleth has established a framework in which memory is powerless. The “new” feeds the cultural memory; where nothing is new, nothing is remembered.

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

(9) What lasting gain is there for the worker in that which he toils?
(10) I have seen the business that God has given to humans to be busy with. (11) He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has, moreover, set the desire for perpetuity36 in their hearts, yet without any ability for humanity to discover the work that God has done from beginning to end. (12) I realized that there is nothing good for them except to be joyful and to do what is worthwhile in one’s life. (13) Moreover, every person who eats and drinks and sees good in all his toil—this is God’s payment. (14) I know that all that God does—it remains forever; upon it nothing can be added, and from it nothing can be taken away.37 God has acted so that people might fear before him.
(15) Whatever has been—it already was.38
And whatever will be—it already has been.
And God seeks to do what has already been pursued.
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” (הָעוֹשֶׂה) rather than the more generic אָדָם, and this itself is significant for our argument. Why would Qoheleth describe the activities in 3:2–8 as the “toil” of a “worker”? Our answer depends on connecting the use of this word to v. 10. Here too we have just seen the tight parallel between 1:13 and 3:10. The “business” (or “job,” “task”; עִנְיַן) given to humanity is identified as “bad” (רָע) in 1:13, and there is no reason to think it has escaped that characterization two chapters later. In 3:9–10 Qoheleth has thus proceeded from a poem describing twenty-eight human activities to a characterization of the human predicament in terms of the “worker” who “toils” and the “business” given to people “to be busy with.” We may conclude from this prevalence of “business”-oriented language following the poem that 3:9–10 serves to summarize 3:2–8 as something like the “job description” allotted to humankind.

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 מַה־יִּתְרוֹן, not strictly the notion of a determinist, interventionist deity.

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: יִּתְרוֹן (“gain”), חֶסְרוֹן (“loss”), שָׂכָר (“wage, reward”), חֶשְׁבּוֹן (“accounting”), מנה (“count”), חֵלֶק (“share”), עִנְיָן (“task, business”), עָמָל (“toil, labor”).41 Second, Stuart Weeks argues that another such term, מַתַּת, can mean “payment” in a broader sense than its common translation, “gift,” since “the Hebrew probably bears no implication that what is offered has not been earned.”42 Thus the rendering, “this is God’s payment,” in 3:13 would cohere well with the business metaphor we have already seen in 3:9–10. The divine CEO may employ unwitting laborers to carry out his bidding, but they are not unpaid slaves—they are hired servants. They may not reap the desired “lasting gain,” but he does at least grant his employees a wage. Third, as is well known, several other ancient Near Eastern texts present humanity as created to labor for the gods (e.g., Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic, Enki and Ninmah, Song of the Hoe, KAR 4). So it is not unreasonable that Qoheleth would have viewed humanity similarly—at least as God’s “workers,” if not slaves.

Proceeding to 3:14, this verse elicits two main questions: (a) What is the referent for “all that God does” (כָּל־אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים)? (b) What does it mean that it “will be forever” (יִהְיֶה לְעוֹלָם) and that there can be no “adding to it” (עָלָיו אֵין לְהוֹסִיף) nor “subtracting from it” (וּמִמֶּנּוּ אֵין לִגְרֹעַ)? Regarding the first, determinist readings of the book often assume that God’s עשׂה refers to an act of divine determination concerning various human events—God’s “will” or “plan”—which is then subsequently enacted in the human sphere.43 In reference to the activities listed in 3:2–8, then, “there is a time for planting” would mean something like, “God has preordained that Joe will plant at 8:22am on May 7th, 1978,” and innumerable other such instances. As a universalized doctrine, the claim is that God determines every specific activity on the part of every person for all time.44 But, as I suggested earlier, this is far too expansive an idea to import into the poem’s relatively bridled phrasing, especially when a much simpler hypothesis is possible. Apart from the two abstract nouns at the poem’s end, the activities listed in 3:2–8 are comprised of infinitive constructs, the most abstract grammatical form for identifying a verbal activity. All concrete details normally included with a finite verb, such as the subject, tense (timing), mood, and aspect are left completely unstated. On my reading, Qoheleth’s choice of the infinitive construct is fitting since the poem is merely stating that the named activities do inevitably occur, and occur cyclically at that, as part and parcel of the general human “job description” assigned by God. When, how, and by whom specific actions come to be performed are not the questions Qoheleth—nor Qoheleth’s deity—finds relevant. God’s עשׂה, then, is simply the assigning and maintaining of this broad human task. If this is correct, then the poem is hardly an ode to the sort of hard determinism so commonly presumed. What has been determined is not a specific timing, but a general task.

As for the second question, Qoheleth says that “all that God does—it will be forever” (כָּל־אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעוֹלָם,) and the denial that there is any “adding to it” (עָלָיו אֵין לְהוֹסִיף) or “subtracting from it” (וּמִמֶּנּוּ אֵין לִגְרֹעַ) rules out the possibility that any human agent could change what is divinely wrought. But the “it” (הוּא) can be construed in two different ways, according to the two versions of “determinism” on offer. On the common view, it is God’s foreordained decision about a specific future event (such as, again, “Joe will plant at 8:22am on May 7th, 1978”—or the universal collection of all such events across time) that is deemed eternal and immutable. The meaning of 3:14 would be that what God decides with respect to those events remains true forever—it is a settled choice and will definitely happen. But on the reading I am proposing, it is not God’s decision about future actions which is deemed unchangeable, but the actions themselves—the cyclical and therefore ultimately unchanging activities which typify human existence (3:2–8).45 Qoheleth’s use of a verb of action, עשׂה, rather than a verb for deciding, combined with the verb’s imperfect form (יַעֲשֶׂה), argues for the latter option. Qoheleth is saying that what God does, the state of affairs he establishes and maintains (which itself entails human action), remains in place indefinitely. Despite the constant motion and alternations, the lack of forward movement implies a situation that ultimately remains the same. As we will see, the next verse fully supports this reading, whereas it fails to comport with a reading of v. 14 concerned with foreordained decisions.

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 היה the cyclical nature of the world he had previously conveyed by natural imagery (1:5–7). Now in 3:15, closing out the section which began with twenty-eight concrete examples of human activities, he once again employs היה to construct temporal phrases only slightly modified from those in 1:9–10. The effect, as in 1:9–10, is to equate the events of disparate eras and thereby strike the clear note of cyclicality. In both cases he has clarified and generalized with abstract propositions what had previously come in the form of poetic concreteness: that there is nothing new, that whatever should happen in the future can only reiterate past events. A further connection between the two passages is that 1:9 and 3:15 both begin with מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה, “whatever has been.” In 3:15 this phrase means essentially, “Take any example from the list just provided—whether planting, uprooting, crying, laughing, or any other. Whatever given activity you pick, that same activity (and its opposite, its subversion) has already been done before and will be done again.” The parallels between 1:9 and 3:15 are hardly coincidental, and most commentators recognize them. What is surprising, however, is how little the cyclicality of 3:15 is taken into account with regard to the interpretation of 3:1–15 more broadly. Many commentators betray a certain unease here and either seem to avoid situating the verse within a “proper times” or determinist reading of the wider passage or else do so in too simplistic a manner.46 But the point about cyclicality is more central to Qoheleth’s thought in 3:1–15 than is typically recognized. Any interpretation of the passage must reckon with its implications.

Moving to the latter part of the verse (3:15b), on an initial reading the final clause, וְהָאֱלֹהִים יְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת־נִרְדָּף, seems entirely out of place. Literal translations such as the RSV render the line, “God seeks what has been driven away,” or the like, but that leaves ambiguous its meaning in context. Several ancient versions and older commentaries often find here a reference to God helping those who are on the societal periphery (taking נִרְדָּף as “persecuted”),47 but as Plumptre reports, this “introduces an idea quite foreign to the train of thought.”48 This final line of the unit of 3:1–15 is, in fact, climactic. That is because it coalesces the two strands of cyclicality and determinism in a way that had previously been implied but not yet made explicit.49 What has been “driven away”—or better, “pursued”—is none other than the events of the past. In saying that God “seeks” them, Qoheleth means that God seeks to bring them back around, to repeat them.50 The verse is climactic in that even though the cyclical theme appears as early as 1:4–11, it is only here in 3:15 that Qoheleth explicitly identifies God as its catalyst and sustainer. The world’s cyclical nature is not due merely to impersonal forces; it has been established by God, and he is the one who keeps the circle revolving. Again and again he pushes the “merry-go-round” of human existence around for yet another spin. It is in this way, by means of ordaining and propelling the cycles of time, rather than through the ad hoc control of minute events or human actions, that Qoheleth’s deity exercises his sovereignty.51 Yet in his role as the propagator of cycles, Qoheleth thinks of God as the great “underminer.” Where humans believe themselves to be running along a marathon track headed toward a finish line, God has quietly placed a treadmill under their feet, so that they end up going nowhere, making no progress.

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 יִתְרוֹן, a meaningful telos.52 Human lives are filled with activity, running this way and that, seeking and losing, laughing and crying. Yet, much like the cyclical movements of nature described in 1:5–7, it is activity whose bipolar nature ultimately undermines itself and thus allows no forward progress. This assignment of gainless activity is, for Qoheleth, the “bad business” that God has given humans.

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 יִתְרוֹן, any “profit” or “surplus,” any achievement of something “new.”55 The same applies to the pairs in 3:2–8. We need not assign each action as “desirable” or “undesirable” simpliciter. It is enough that as recurring alternates they can arrive nowhere other than where they started. This lack of positive gain itself is what Qoheleth deems undesirable.

6 Conclusion

Reality, Qoheleth believes, is regulated by its oscillatory nature; this mitigates deep loss, but also withholds “lasting gain” (יִתְרוֹן). Whether or not Qoheleth penned the poem in 3:2–8, his reading of it highlights the lack of gain for the human “worker” carrying out his assigned activities under the divine employer. The poem provides a panoply of the sorts of paired antithetical activities human beings inevitably and repeatedly carry out, in which every “doing” gets “undone.” Thus, despite its common associations, Qoheleth’s Catalogue of the Times is not primarily a poem about timing, about when things ought to or will happen. Rather, it is a poem about value, the value of the human task. Regardless of their timing, all of the activities which typify human lives are self-sabotaged by an equilibrating tendency which undermines any would-be gains, arriving only back at “zero.”


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