24 September 2010

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." (v.1)


Today's passage is among the best known in the Bible, even if those who recognise it could not always say where it comes from. In addition to lending lyrics to popular songs over the years, it is often read at funerals or on New Years Day.

The book of Ecclesiastes dates to around 250 BC, making it one of the later books of the Hebrew biblical canon (collection of books). The author uses a narrator whom he calls Qohelet (or in English, 'the Teacher') but gives this teacher royal lineage as the 'son of David' and thus sets the text several hundred years earlier.

Verses 2-8 in today's passage list 28 experiences, potentially common to all people at different times of life. The passage recognises the reality of each, in its place, but makes no judgement between them. This means that almost any reader can recognise themselves in the reflections of the teacher Qohelet, which may account for the popularity of this Scripture. It is entirely inclusive in the way it describes the different times of life.

Some of the experiences mentioned refer to particular situations in their original context. For instance, verse 7a refers to the practice of tearing garments at the news of a death, and re-sewing them when mourning is passed; 7b to the practice of keeping silence during the time of mourning. One medieval Jewish source suggests that both pairs in verse 5 (stones and embracing) are direct metaphors for sexual relations - this list anticipates both intimate and communal moments of human life.

Interestingly, the final pair in verse 8b (war and peace) reverse the order of those that precede it, putting 'peace' in the emphasised, final position. Because of that reversal, birth (2a) and peace (8b) act as the beginning and end of this list of the experiences of human life, as if to hold all other conditions within. Readers must make of that poetic device what they will.

To Ponder

Are there any of the 28 experiences you are uncomfortable with, or wish had been left out? Why?

Why do you think this passage is so popular?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.