Ecclesiastes 3 Commentary

Welcome back to the Bible is Art where we explore the literary artistry of the Bible and this week we’re going to explore that great poem in Ecclesiastes 3 about time.

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

-Ecclesiastes 3:2-8

Whenever you have a text this famous and repetitive, in order to understand the depth of the art of the author, you have to pay precise attention to the particularities. What words and phrases and in what order. What words does he choose not to use. What repetitions or omissions, patterns, and breaks in patterns. We need to do this because our familiarity can conceal subtly.

So let’s look at some particularities and then put those together to discover our authors art.

First, there are all sorts of things that are perfect in this poem. There are 7 poetic couplets, totaling 14 lines (2x7). The keyword, time, is used 28 times (7x4). A similar techniques is used in Genesis 1 and I made a video about that I’ve linked in the description..

There is a perfect comprehensiveness. You begin with the extremes of an individual, birth and death, and end with the extremes of a nation, war and peace. And inside this frame you have the whole range of human experience. All of life is in its proper place, good and bad, or is it?

Because the second set of particularities, are all the things that are not perfect, that are off, that are confusing and ambiguous.

For instance in a poem that’s clearly been composed with a thought to Numerical perfection, having variations of the perfect number 7, it’s strange that in total the poem contains 60 words, that is, not perfect number. Furthermore, the whole poem is organized around the central two lines and it’s almost perfectly balanced, almost. There are 25 words before the central couplet and 24 words after. And although most of the couplets are perfectly balanced couplets with 4 words in each line the central couplet has 6 and 5 words.

Now, we know it’s organized around the central two lines not only for the balance of words before and after but also because the main word in each of the lines is repeated only here. Notice, you have a repetition of stones and embracing:

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

Also you have a unique feature here in that the line about stones is the only line with an object. All of the other lines have a time for and then some verb, a time to die or a time to laugh, but here you have a verb with an object, to cast away stones, to gather stones.

But while it’s clear that the author intended this to be the center these two things, casting and gathering stones and embracing and not embracing, don’t seem to be related. So there is a confusion at the center of this poem. But the confusion goes deeper because in all of the rest of the poetic lines it’s clear what they mean but when we come to our central lines it’s not exactly clear what the lying about stones means. We have some guesses, but no certainties.

Let me remind you what the verse says. Now one guess is that it refers to throwing stones on an enemies field to inhibit the growing of crops. And while that might be, the author doesn’t explicitly say that. Also it’s strange that this line has a peculiarly specific character. Many of the other poetic lines are very general features of life, loving, hating, planting, going to war, making peace but this is strangely specific, gathering stones.

And there’s one other feature that I want to draw our attention to. At the center of this poem, there’s a pun in that main word, stone. The Hebrew word is heven which is very close to the Hebrew word hevel, or Vanity the main thematic word in the whole book. So why pun on the main word here? Why have a repetition at the center of a perfect poem that puns on the seemingly opposite of perfection?

Now that we have all of this data in front of us, the perfect things and imperfect things, we can put them together and see the beautiful art of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3.

What do we make of a poem that’s almost perfect but not perfect, a poem that makes almost complete sense but with a confusion at its center.

Solomon composed the poem this way because it is a mirror of life. On the one hand much of life looks beautiful and ordered from the design of the universe to the rhythms of waking, eating, sleeping, and laughing. But at the same time there was also a gnawing confusion, restlessness at the heart of life. A sense that we can’t put it all together that things don’t seem completely congruous. And these feelings can coexist at the same time. And Solomon has constructed the poem to communicate these two sentiments, both the order and the disorder, the intelligence and the confusion, in the same poem.

Just like there is vanity at the heart of this book there is a pun to vanity at the heart of this poem. And not only do the stones sound like vanity but they also share another similarity. 

The action described in this verse has a Sisyphus feel. Whereas with Sisyphus it was rolling a hill up and down the hill here it’s in gathering and casting off a boring, repetitive, seemingly meaningless task. 

In the verses after this poem Solomon comments on this poem and those two same sentiments are communicated. Solomon will say that God made everything beautiful in its time. And he will also say that “he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” That is, he’s made human beings so that they can’t completely understand the beautiful design, there’s a confusion a opaqueness and the center.

So Solomon like, every great artist, matches form to content. The poem is beautiful and ordered, but not completely. And like life, there is a brokenness at its center, like a puzzle missing one piece.  And although we can’t put everything together, we can trust God that there is indeed a design, even if we can’t conceive it. And that my friend is why the Bible is Art.

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