Poem to Amplify Sense of Vanity (3:1-8)

Repetition of Theme: “What Profit is There?” (3:9)

3:1 There is a season for everything, and a time for every matter under the heavens:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast stones, and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to search, and a time to give up as lost;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
3:7 A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

3:9 What profit has the worker in all that he toils?

At the end of the previous section, we noted that we could understand Qoheleth better if we would grant him his assumption concerning God. Now to understand this present passage and the rest of the speech, if we do not share his assumptions about God, we need to hear him out as if we do. After all, having understood his message on his terms, we can then reject it if we still have valid reasons to reject his assumptions. Otherwise we will not understand him, and if we reject what we think he is saying, we will not know what it is that we are really rejecting. Mortimer Adler, who was chairman of the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica, in his “classic guide to intelligent reading” warns us of two common mistakes in reading a piece of writing built on dogmatic principles:

The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead to are all dogmatic in the same way (1972: 292).

Qoheleth has presented an appropriate response to the vanity of life in the previous passage. He now returns to the theme of vanity (3:9). He sought to vivify the idea of vanity in our minds through the earlier poem (1:4-8). Using illustrations from his past experiences (1:12-2:23) he sought to recreate the sense of vanity in our hearts. Now through another poem he seeks to amplify this sense of vanity. Why do we say so? We know 3:1-8 is a poem about vanity from the rhetorical question of 3:9, which is basically the same as that of 1:3. Just as “Vanities of vanities; all is vanity” (1:2) is the expected answer to “What profit does man have ...?” (1:3), this poem is the answer to that same question expressed in 3:9. Thus the poem embodies the idea of “Vanities of vanities; all is vanity.” And poetry by design evokes imagination (as in 1:4-8) and most often (as in this case) emotion as well.

This poem is not saying, as is commonly misunderstood, that there is a time permitted for us to do this or that thing listed in the poem. The Hebrew word translated “season” in verse 1 means appointed time (Seow 1997: 159), and the word translated “matter” has the root meaning of “desire” and in this context means “desired or purposed event” (cf. VanGemeren 1997, 2:233-4). The poem is saying that the nature and timing of everything that happens in this world, whether good or bad, such as what is listed in the poem, are appointed by God (3:11-15). He takes for granted that God has sovereign control over everything in this world, including human choices. So every “matter,” including human actions, is either directed or permitted by Him. This is not to say that Qoheleth had a fatalistic view of life, a view that everything is fated or predetermined so that we cannot be held responsible for whatever we do or fail to do.

This passage follows immediately that which introduces for the first time God’s sovereignty (over who may have enjoyment). That very passage also highlights human responsibility (to be good in God’s sight as a condition to having enjoyment). Thus God’s sovereignty is not to the exclusion of human responsibility, which then implies human freedom of choice (cf. Rudman 2001: 33, 149). In fact Qoheleth later admonishes us to be prudent in light of life’s uncertainties (11:1-6). He assumes not only the biblical teaching concerning divine sovereignty but also human responsibility. But how can it be true that God has sovereign control over everything that happens and yet human beings have freedom to choose and thus be beheld responsible for their actions? We cannot understand it. But our inability to comprehend does not mean that it cannot be true. Scientists affirm that light is both wave and particle even though they cannot understand how it can be so. They have to accept the apparent contradictory nature of light to make sense of physical phenomena. The modernist assumption that the human mind can understand and explain everything in the universe has long been obsolete.

Later, based on Qoheleth’s speech taken as a whole, we shall see why and how the paradoxical teaching of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is necessary for making sense of human experience. For now we take note that the sovereign God “makes everything [including misfortunes] appropriate in its time,” for a purpose (3:11). The purpose of misfortunes happening at “appropriate” times in the world or in our life involves evoking in us the sense of vanity. So by reminding us of the misfortunes of life Qoheleth is seeking to further evoke or amplify the sense of vanity in us. Let us now consider how this happens.

The poem presents 14 pairs of opposite things that happen in this world. The first pair, “a time to be born, and a time to die,” affirms the certainty of death. The rest reminds us of the uncertainties of life. As poetry teases our imagination, what is named in the pairs may represent different events beyond the thing itself. For example, “a time to weep” refers not only to weeping itself, but also the different painful events that make us weep. And “a time to dance” does not mean just dancing, but also all sorts of events that cause us to rejoice. So the pairs taken together cover every conceivable event under the heavens (verse 1). The last pair, “a time for war, and a time for peace,” aptly summarizes the poem. The image of war helps us capture the range of the negative experiences represented. For when there is war, people get killed and die and there is weeping and mourning; clothes get torn apart, buildings get torn down; stones are cast and plants are uprooted, adding to the destruction; refugees throw their belongings away and there is no time to search for what is missing; when there is grief people keep silence, they refrain from embracing for cordiality, only for empathy; the war was nurtured by a lack of love, the war then breeds hatred all over.

Qoheleth is saying that whatever fortunate event we experience between birth and death has an unfortunate counterpart that may or may not happen as well. If it happens, it cancels out the profit gained (cf. Crenshaw 1987: 96). The intended effect of the poem is the sense that whatever profit we gain under the sun may be lost even before we die. The image of war is particularly effective in helping us capture the sense of suffering loss. And the certainty of death means that even if we do not lose everything before we die, we will lose them all eventually. So all is vanity and there is no profit under the sun. We have to come to terms not only with the certainty of death but also the uncertainties of life.

The theme of the speech as expressed here is thus more nuanced than the outright declaration in 1:2-3. For it not only affirms, as in 1:2-3, that the ultimate profitlessness of all temporal gains is certain, but also that the immediate futility of all earthly pursuits is possible. This is unsettling even for people who smugly think and feel that they can live with the unpleasant reality that death will finally confiscate all that they have. Hence the sense of vanity evoked by this poem not only strengthens, but is stronger than, that evoked by the illustrations from Qoheleth’s personal experiences. Why does God appoint events such that we experience vanity even before we die? Why does Qoheleth use this reality to unsettle our feelings? As we continue to hear him out, we will find the answers to these vexing questions.