Explanation for Sense of Vanity and Its Aggravation by Sense of Eternity (3:10-15)

3:10 I have seen the preoccupation that God has given to the children of man to be preoccupied with. 3:11 He makes everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out what God does from the beginning to the end. 3:12 I know that there is nothing good for them except to have enjoyment and to do good in their lifetime. 3:13 And in fact, (in the case of) every man who eats and drinks and sees good in all his toil, it is a gift of God. 3:14 I know that everything God does remains forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. For God so works that men should fear Him. 3:15 Whatever comes to be, has already been; that which will come to be, already has been; for God seeks what has gone by.

The passage before us is one of the most important and perhaps the most profound in Ecclesiastes. It not only answers the vexing questions raised at the end of the last section. It also begins to give us a coherent picture of the meaning of life. As we now proceed to consider its message, let us be reminded of the caution explained at the beginning of the last section. That is, if we do not share Qoheleth’s assumptions about God, for the sake of understanding what he has to say, we need to accept them temporarily.

And, as previously discussed, Qoheleth assumes that God has control over everything that happens and yet human beings have the freedom to choose. So to him, whatever happens in this world, including what human beings experience or "freely" choose to do, is the work of God. That means, when he uses phrases like "what God does" or "God so works," he is simply talking about what we experience or observe, without necessarily implying what we call a "supernatural intervention."

What then does the "preoccupation" that "God have given to the children of man to be preoccupied with" here in 3:10 refer to? We saw in 1:13a that human beings have a God-given preoccupation to make sense of life. In that context this preoccupation was expressed in Qoheleth's intellectual investigation of the meaning of life. Similarly the preoccupation here refers to the human impulse to make sense of life. But we need to consider, in this context, how this preoccupation is expressed in human life.

Note that this passage flows logically from the preceding one (3:1-9), and they form one inseparable thought unit. So the force of the rhetorical question, "What profit has the worker in all his toils" (3:9), which was asked in light of the somber reality embodied in the poem, must be carried over to the reading of this passage, especially 3:10. We can then infer that the preoccupation or impulse referred to in 3:10 is triggered by the sense of vanity evoked by that somber reality: the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life. For when it dawns on us that what we gain in this world will not only be left behind when we die but may also be lost even before we die, we need to come to terms with this realization in order to make sense of life.

In the next verse, when Qoheleth says, "He makes everything appropriate in its time" (3:11), he is referring back to the fourteen pairs of opposite things listed in the poem, such as “a time for war, and a time for peace” (3:8). There he affirmed that each of these things happens according to its appointed time (3:1). Here he adds that it is God who appoints these times, and that He makes each of those things “appropriate in its time.” By this Qoheleth is saying that the triggering of the impulse to make sense of life is by God's design. In other words, God has made this world and sustains it in such a way that human beings are driven to seek for the meaning of life.

We still have not yet considered, in this particular context, how this God-given preoccupation is expressed in our life. But Qoheleth is not yet finished with this subject. He continues in the same verse, saying that God "has also put eternity in their heart." Whatever “eternity” means here, the phrase “eternity in their heart” at least refers to the human ability to transcend the present to look back into the past as well as think about the future. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible even translates the clause as, “moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds.” This meaning makes perfect sense in light of what follows in the rest of the verse: “yet so that man will not find out what God does from the beginning to the end.” For since “what God does” means whatever happens, the verse as a whole is affirming this: God not only makes the opposite things listed in the poem “appropriate in its time,” thus evoking the sense of vanity, He has also given us a sense of past and future, “yet so that” we will not find out what will happen in this world. This profound statement deserves special attention.

The flow of thought is not immediately obvious. To capture it, we need to imagine what it is like to live in a world as pictured in the poem and have the ability to look backward and forward in time. As we look into the past we see that the poem is telling the truth--bad things do happen. So as we think of the future we worry about what might happen, and thus want to find out what will happen. Hence the sense of eternity in our heart aggravates the sense of vanity, and has the effect of prompting us to find out about future events. So in this context this is how the preoccupation to make sense of life is expressed. In fact, in the standard Jewish English translation of the Hebrew Bible, “He also puts eternity in their mind,” is paraphrased (in the margin) as, “He preoccupies man with the attempt to discover the times of future events” (The Jewish Publication Society 1988: 1446).

But this is still not the whole story. The last clause, “yet so that man will not find out what God does from the beginning to the end,” asserts that we will not succeed in what we are being prompted to do, which is, “to find out what God does.” Hence Ecclesiastes teaches that it is God who caused us to desire to know about the future and yet He has also denied us the ability to do so. Why does He do this? How then should human beings respond? And how have human beings responded? As we continue to look at the passage we will answer these questions, but not necessarily in that order.

According to 3:14a, even if we can somehow discover what will happen, we cannot avoid it, as “everything God does remains forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it,” meaning, it cannot be changed. Of course in certain circumstances if we knew what would happen we could do something about it. For instance if we discovered that a massive bomb would soon go off in our office building we could warn as many people as possible as we rush out of it. But by “everything God does” Qoheleth is referring to what actually happens, such as whether we managed to get out of the doomed building in time or not. We can change what could have happened but not what will actually happen.

Why does Qoheleth point out something so obvious? People living in a premodern world practice divination and magic. They use divination to find out what is supposedly fated to happen. Fated events “will actually happen” and thus cannot be avoided by natural means. But they believe that ill-fated events could be nullified through magic, the supposed manipulation of supernatural forces. Qoheleth is here discrediting both divination and magic. His original audience would have understood what he was getting at.

The widespread practice of divination and magic, or their equivalents, attests to the universal human impulse to come to terms with the certainty of death and uncertainties of life. Divination and magic are intended to satisfy our need to know about, and then to escape from, misfortunes that are supposedly fated to befall us. In this way, divination and magic soothe the deep-seated feeling of insecurity that the sense of eternity, coupled with the sense of vanity, evoke in us. This helps to give meaning to life. But Ecclesiastes teaches that this and other man-made means to soothe the sense of insecurity only replace it with a false sense of security. These are human attempts to evade God’s purpose in appointing the events represented in the poem and in putting eternity in our heart. Qoheleth spells out this purpose: “For God so works that men should fear Him” (3:14b).

Before taking a closer look at this purpose, we need to consider what it means to “fear God.” The “fear” of God is not the same as the fear we feel towards criminals. We fear them because they are unjust and would harm us even when we have done no wrong. Mortal beings fear God because He is not only awesome and powerful but will also uphold justice (Job 37: 22-24). This fear is comparable to the fear a citizen should have towards the governing authorities (Prov 24:21). Just as the fear of the police is not felt unless we have committed a crime or are contemplating one, normally we do not feel the fear of God unless we have done wrong, or are considering doing it. For we do not feel the fear when we are already yielding to its intended effect. Like swimming in a stream, we do not feel the force of the flowing stream if we allow it to carry us downstream. Thus the fear of God is wholesome. It usually works through our God-given conscience to restrain us from doing evil and constraint us to do good (Rom 2:14-16). To “fear God” is to be conscientious and thus seek to live an upright life. Hence one need not be a “religious person” to fear God; and a “religious person” may not actually be God-fearing.

exposition of this passage continues on the next page.


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