I. The Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?
1-8 Israel would have depended nearly exclusively on farming, and hence on discerning the season for all things under heaven. Planting too soon would have risked losing seed to soggy soil. Planting too late, risked losing crops to frost. Similarly childbirth and construction had optimal seasons. Even today, foundations are laid in the fall, before cold temperatures makes pouring concrete impractical.
9 The Teacher’s question echoes in people outside the church: What difference does it make?
13 This is the answer: “Eat, drink, and enjoy one’s labor, for that is a gift from God!”
E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?
Continuing through the end of the chapter picks up the nihilistic attitude in much of Ecclesiastes.
Stopping after v. 15 leaves open the possibility of a redeeming God.
F. Are there any significant variants in the manuscripts? Why?
- Hebrew manuscripts show unusually few variants/emendations in this passage. This implies that this poem was well known and widely accepted.
- New Jerusalem Bible translates each of the items in vv 2 – 8 as gerunds. Thus v. 2 becomes “a time for giving birth and a time for dying,”emphasizing the actions of those who labor.
- NJB sets vv 14 – 16 as poetry connecting verses 12 – 22.
- The Message translates v. 1 as “There is an opportune time to do things, a right time to …”
II. Literary Study.
A. What is the history of the text? Who wrote it? When? In what social context? What Historical/Religious/Sociological factors influenced its writing?
Verses 1:1 and 12:9-10 ascribe this book to Qoheleth, the Teacher/Preacher, a sage. Language forms and vocabulary indicate it was written within a few decades of 250 BC. Attribution to Solomon follows from desires of honoring Solomon by extrapolating from the term son of David (1:1), an appellation given to others (c.f. Matt. 1:20).
C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms
- Qoheleth developed a unique vocabulary and style to adapt Hebrew to expressing philosophy.
- “Toil” used by Qoheleth interchangeably with “life”, emphasizes hard labor, thus differing from other uses of this verb in the Hebrew Bible.
D. What is the literary style of the text? And how does it affect the reading? What does a poetic form do to the meaning? Lament/Praise/Petition? Any subtle variations in the repetitions? What is emphasized/minimized by the repetition?
- The book acts like a stream of consciousness, making parsing into short readings impractical. Some have deemed the whole book to be poetry and others the whole book as prose, with little agreement among those who find it a mixture of prose and poetry.
- The repetition in verses 3:1-8 and pairing of opposites conveys the range of life, without placing values on either side of the pairs, thus showing that in due time, all things are part of the business of God, and not merely the things we like.
III. Question the text.
C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?
Center of Gravity: Qoheleth seems to be searching for meaning in life and finds only a vapor (vanity). Although he acknowledges God behind all things, he notes that laborers cannot fathom what God has done, nor change one iota of what God has done or will do.
Emotional Center: Uncertainty of the value of our contributions in life.
IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?
W Sibley Towner (The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Book of Ecclesiastes,” Abingdon, 1997) cites a medieval midrash as interpreting verse 5 as two pairs that once behaved as metaphors for sexual relations. He reflects on keeping as paired with throwing away as invoking the virtues of prudence (keeping) and providence (generously throwing away) and brings in Matthew 5:45-46 & 5:48 as exhorting God’s perfection. He writes, “If everything occurs on the God’-given schedule, then this list cannot be weeded.” And a paragraph later states: “One can the hear in this poem a challenge to be wise, to be ethical, to discern when one’s actions are in keeping with God’s time and then act decisively.” He considers the value of a time to die as giving a useful motivator for poetry. He contrasts Qoheleth’s challenge of discernment with the deterministic philosophy of Islam.
John J. Collins (Knox Preaching Guides: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, John Knox Press, 1980) writes “wisdom is not simply the knowledge of what is right or wrong, but rather lies in the timing, since the same thing may be good or bad on different occasions.”