Yeah, you know what we’re talking about. Pete Seeger put the words of the first few verses Ecclesiastes 3 to music in 1959 and released the song in 1962 on his album The Bitter and the Sweet. but the song did not become a real international hit until the Byrds covered it in 1965. Here’s a link in the unlikely event you don’t remember how it goes:
Now here’s the bonus question: What other Byrds hit (written by Bob Dylan) was covered in a manner so bad it will leave you rolling on the floor laughing by William Shatner on his 1968 album “The Transformed Man”? It appears along with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” which is also tragically funny.
Now that we’ve more than adequately addressed the pop cultural aspects of our study, we’ll try something more serious. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, in addition to being very famous, is a poem. There is a lot of discussion about whether this poem was written by Qoheleth, or whether it was a popular song/poem at the time that Qoheleth was quoting.
That it is a poem is certain. Poetry is the use of language for its “aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning”. Poetry uses:
idiosyncratic forms and conventions tosuggest differential interpretation to words, or to evoke emotive responses. Devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhythm are sometimes used to achieve musical or incantatory effects. The use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony, and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations.
All of these are true of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
The idiosyncratic form in much of Hebrew poetry was pairs of opposites, in the case of the present text, 7 pairs (remember 7 is a “complete” number in Hebrew Numerology), beginning with a pair that encompasses all the others, birth and death, and ending with the Hebrew word “Shalom”, peace.
How do you interpret the poem? Does it evoke for you Qoheleth’s focus on the rhythms and circles of life? Is it more comforting or more frustrating for you to think of things happening without regard to your input? Is it hopeful or fatalistic? What does it suggest about God?
The reasons some suggest the poem is not the work of Ooheleth is because he undercuts the logic of the poem in the next paragraph. One commentary says:
Although the Preacher agrees that there is a time for everything (otherwise he wouldn’t have included the poem), he nevertheless counteracts this by saying that there is no profit in these things, even if there is a time for them! Our lives are consumed by these various activities (sowing, reaping, loving, fighting, dying), and yet they all constitute travail with which we are exercised for no ultimate profit. The poem is a clever foil for this more sinister truth.
If you think of the poem this way, what does it mean to you in that light?
I believe that verse 11 gives the author’s purpose for using the poem and what follows. Humans are no different than animals in their bodies as Qoheleth notes in verses 18 through 21. We are aware of this more and more every day. Mapping the gnome of the chimpanzee reveals 96% overlap with humans.
Many of the things that Qoheleth looks at as travail are the result of our physical/animal form. The need to eat, sickness, our physical desires, etc. Ultimately we experience the same end “under the sun” as an animal. “As one dies, so dies the other,”says Qoheleth, and again,”humans have no advantage over over animals.”
But this must, in my opinion, be read in relation to Verse 11 where he notes that, unlike animals, the God who made all things beautiful created man with eternity in his heart. We know, and we know we know, that there is more than this. We have known since we were children that the time between our birth and death is not all that exists. We study history and look to the future because we know that what we experience directly, now, is only a tiny sliver of all that is.
And we are frustrated because we cannot hold all of the things that God understands in our minds. We cannot see all his ends, we cannot know all his ways because we are bound by these seasons and encompassed by the brevity of our existence, and because of this we know our life is hebel, a vapor, a frustrating enigma.
Meaning for life must be sought outside of this life.
What do you think? Do you agree with that interpretation (please feel free)?
Here is a link to an excellent and in depth discussion of Chapter 3. I don’t agree with everything the author says, but then, he didn’t ask for my opinion.