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Ecclesiastes 3:9-15

Context
Man is Ignorant of God’s Timing

3:9 What benefit can a worker 1  gain from his toil? 2 

3:10 I have observed the burden

that God has given to people 3  to keep them occupied.

3:11 God has made everything fit beautifully 4  in its appropriate time,

but 5  he has also placed ignorance 6  in the human heart 7 

so that 8  people 9  cannot discover what God has ordained, 10 

from the beginning to the end 11  of their lives. 12 

Enjoy Life in the Present

3:12 I have concluded 13  that there is nothing better for people 14 

than 15  to be happy and to enjoy

themselves 16  as long as they live,

3:13 and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil,

for these things 17  are a gift from God.

God’s Sovereignty

3:14 I also know that whatever God does will endure forever;

nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it.

God has made it this way, so that men will fear him.

3:15 Whatever exists now has already been, and whatever will be has already been;

for God will seek to do again 18  what has occurred 19  in the past. 20 

1 tn The term הָעוֹשֶׂה (haoseh, article + Qal active participle ms from עָשַׂה, ’asah, “to do”) functions substantively (“the worker”); see BDB 794 s.v. עָשַׂה II.1. This is a figurative description of man (metonymy of association), and plays on the repetition of עָשַׂה (verb: “to do,” noun: “work”) throughout the passage. In the light of God’s orchestration of human affairs, man’s efforts cannot change anything. It refers to man in general with the article functioning in a generic sense (see IBHS 244-45 §13.5.1f; Joüon 2:511 §137.m).

2 sn This rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, expecting a negative answer: “Man gains nothing from his toil!” (see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 949-51). Any advantage that man might gain from his toil is nullified by his ignorance of divine providence.

3 tn Heb “the sons of man.”

4 sn The Hebrew adjective translated beautifully functions as a metonymy of effect (i.e., to appear beautiful) for cause (i.e., to make it fit): “to fit beautifully.” It is used in parallelism with Qoheleth’s term for evaluation: טוֹב (tov, “good”) in 5:17.

5 tn The word “but” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

6 tn Heb “darkness”; perhaps “eternity” or “the future.” The meaning of the noun עֹלָם (’olam) is debated. It may mean: (1) “ignorance”; (2) time reference: (a) “eternity” or (b) “the future”; or (3) “knowledge” (less likely). The arguments for these options may be summarized: (1) Most suggest that עֹלָם is the defectively written form of עוֹלָם “duration; eternity” (e.g., Eccl 1:4; 2:16; 3:14; 9:6; 12:5); see BDB 762 s.v. III עוֹלָם 2.k. Within this school of interpretation, there are several varieties: (a) BDB 762 s.v. III עוֹלָם 2.k suggests that here it denotes “age [i.e., duration] of the world,” which is attested in postbiblical Hebrew. The term III עֹלָם “eternity” = “world” (Jastrow 1084 s.v. עָלַם III) is used in this sense in postbiblical Hebrew, mostly in reference to the Messianic age, or the world to come (e.g., Tg. Genesis 9:16; Tg. Onq. Exodus 21:6; Tg. Psalms 61:7). For example, “the world (עֹלָם) shall last six thousand years, and after one thousand years it shall be laid waste” (b. Rosh HaShanah 31a) and “the world (עֹלָם) to come” (b. Sotah 10b). The LXX and the Vulgate took the term in this sense. This approach was also adopted by several English translations: “the world” (KJV, Douay, ASV margin). (b) HALOT 799 s.v. עוֹלָם 5 and THAT 2:242 suggest that the term refers to an indefinite, unending future: “eternity future” or “enduring state referring to past and future” (see also BDB 762 s.v. III עוֹלָם 2.i). In this sense, the noun עֹלָם functions as a metonymy of association: “a sense of eternity,” but not in a philosophical sense (see J. Barr, Biblical Words for Time [SBT], 117, n. 4). This approach is supported by three factors: (i) the recurrence of עוֹלָם (“eternity”) in 3:14, (ii) the temporal qualification of the statement in the parallel clause (“from beginning to end”), and (iii) by the ordinary meaning of the noun as “eternity” (HALOT 798–799 s.v. עוֹלָם). The point would be that God has endowed man with an awareness of the extra-temporal significance of himself and his accomplishments (D. R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes,” BKCOT, 984). This is the most frequent approach among English versions: “the timeless” (NAB), “eternity” (RSV, MLB, ASV, NASB, NIV, NJPS), “a sense of time past and time future” (NEB), and “a sense of past and future” (NRSV). (3) Other scholars suggest that עוֹלָם simply refers to the indefinite future: “the future,” that is, things to come (e.g., HALOT 799 s.v. עוֹלָם 2; BDB 762 s.v. III עוֹלָם 2.a; THAT 2:241). The plural עֹלָמִים (’olamim, “things to come”) was used in this sense in Eccl 1:10 (e.g., 1 Kgs 8:13 = 2 Chr 6:2; Pss 61:5; 77:8; 145:13; Dan 9:24; cf. HALOT 799 s.v. עוֹלָם 2). The point would simply be that God has not only ordained all the events that will take place in man’s life (3:1-8), but also preoccupies man with the desire to discover what will happen in the future in terms of the orchestration or timing of these events in his life (3:9-11). This fits well with the description of God’s orchestration of human events in their most appropriate time (3:1-10) and the ignorance of man concerning his future (3:11b). Elsewhere, Qoheleth emphasizes that man cannot learn what the future holds in store for him (e.g., 8:7, 17). This approach is only rarely adopted: “the future” (NJPS margin). (2) The second view is that עֹלָם is not defectively written עוֹלָם (“eternity”) but the segholate noun II עֶלֶם (’elem) that means “dark” (literal) or “ignorance; obscurity; secrecy” (figurative). The related noun תַּעֲלֻמָה (taalumah) means “hidden thing; secret,” and the related verb עָלַם (’alam) means “to hide; to conceal” (BDB 761 s.v. I עָלַם; HALOT 834–35 s.v. עלם). This is related to the Ugaritic noun “dark” and the Akkadian verb “to be black; to be dark” (see HALOT 834-35 s.v. עלם). In postbiblical Hebrew the root II עֶלֶם means (i) “secret” and (ii) “forgetfulness” (Jastrow 1084 s.v. עֶלֶם I). Thus the verse would mean that God has “obscured” man’s knowledge so that he cannot discover certain features of God’s program. This approach is adopted by Moffatt which uses the word “mystery.” Similarly, the term may mean “forgetfulness,” that is, God has plagued man with “forgetfulness” so that he cannot understand what God has done from the beginning to the end (e.g., Eccl 1:11). (3) The third view (Delitzsch) is to relate עֹלָם to a cognate Arabic root meaning “knowledge.” The point would be that God has endowed man with “knowledge,” but not enough for man to discover God’s eternal plan. This approach is only rarely adopted: “knowledge” (YLT).

7 tn Heb “in their heart.” The Hebrew term translated heart functions as a metonymy of association for man’s intellect, emotions, and will (BDB 524–25 s.v. לֵב 3–6, 9). Here, it probably refers to man’s intellectual capacities, as v. 11 suggests.

8 tn The compound preposition מִבְּלִי (mibbÿli, preposition מִן [min] + negative particle בְּלִי [bÿli]) is used as a conjunction here. Elsewhere, it can express cause: “because there is no [or is not]” (e.g., Deut 9:28; 28:55; Isa 5:13; Ezek 34:5; Lam 1:4; Hos 4:6), consequence: “so that there is no [or is not]” (e.g., Ezek 14:5; Jer 2:15; 9:9-11; Zeph 3:6), or simple negation: “without” (e.g., Job 4:11, 20; 6:6; 24:7-8; 31:19). BDB 115 s.v. בְּלִי 3.c.β suggests the negative consequence: “so that not,” while HALOT 133 s.v. בְּלִי 5 suggests the simple negation: “without the possibility of.”

9 tn Heb “man.”

10 tn Heb “the work that God has done.” The phrase אֶת־הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה (’et-hammaasehasher-asah, “the work which he [i.e., God] has done”) is an internal cognate accusative (direct object and verb are from the same root), used for emphasis (see IBHS 167 §10.2.1g). The repetition of the verb עָשַׂה (“to do”) in 3:11 and 3:14 suggests that this phrase refers to God’s foreordination of all the events and timing of human affairs: God has “made” ( = “foreordained”; עָשַׂה) everything appropriate in his sovereign timing (3:11a), and all that God has “done” ( = “foreordained”; עָשַׂה) will come to pass (3:14). Thus, the verb עָשַׂה functions as a metonymy of effect (i.e., God’s actions) for cause (i.e., God’s sovereign foreordination). The temporal clause “from beginning to end” (3:11) supports this nuance.

11 tn Traditionally, “what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The temporal clause מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד־סוֹף (merosh vÿad-sof, “from the beginning to the end”) is traditionally taken in reference to “eternity” (the traditional understanding of הָעֹלָם [haolam] earlier in the verse; see the note on “ignorance”), e.g., KJV, NEB, NAB, ASV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV. However, if הָעֹלָם simply denotes “the future” (e.g., HALOT 799 s.v. עוֹלָם 2; BDB 762 s.v. III עוֹלָם 2.a; THAT 2:241), this temporal clause would refer to the events God has ordained to transpire in an individual’s life, from beginning to end. This approach is adopted by one English version: “but without man ever guessing, from first to last, all the things that God brings to pass” (NJPS). This would fit well in the context begun in 3:1 with the fourteen merisms encompassing man’s life, starting with “a time to be born” (i.e., from the beginning in 3:11) and concluding with “a time to die” (i.e., to the end in 3:11). This approach is also supported by the admonition of 3:12-13, namely, since no one knows what will happen to him in the future days of his life, Qoheleth recommends that man enjoy each day as a gift from God.

12 tn The phrase “of their lives” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

13 tn Heb “I know.”

14 tn Heb “for them”; the referent (people, i.e., mankind) has been specified in the translation for clarity.

15 tn Qoheleth uses the exceptive particle אִםכִּי (ki…’im, “except”) to identify the only exception to the futility within man’s life (BDB 474 s.v. כִּי 2).

16 tn Heb “to do good.” The phrase לַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹב (laasot tov) functions idiomatically for “to experience [or see] happiness [or joy].” The verb עָשַׂה (’asah) probably denotes “to acquire; to obtain” (BDB 795 s.v. עָשַׂה II.7), and טוֹב (tov) means “good; pleasure; happiness,” e.g., Eccl 2:24; 3:13; 5:17 (BDB 375 s.v. טוֹב 1).

17 tn Heb “for it.” The referent of the 3rd person feminine singular independent person pronoun (“it”) is probably the preceding statement: “to eat, drink, and find satisfaction.” This would be an example of an anacoluthon (GKC 505-6 §167.b). Thus the present translation uses “these things” to indicate the reference back to the preceding.

18 tn The phrase “to do again” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.

19 tn Heb “God will seek that which is driven away.” The meaning of יְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת־נִרְדָּף (yÿvaqqeshet-nirdaf) is difficult to determine: יְבַקֵּשׁ (yÿvaqqesh) is Piel imperfect 3rd person masculine singular from בָּקַשׁ (baqash, “to seek”) and נִרְדָּף (nirdaf) is a Niphal participle 3rd person masculine singular from רָדַף (radaf, “to drive away”). There are several options: (1) God watches over the persecuted: יְבַקֵּשׁ (“seeks”) functions as a metonymy of cause for effect (i.e., to protect), and אֶת־נִרְדָּף (“what is driven away”) refers to “those who are persecuted.” But this does not fit the context. (2) God will call the past to account: יְבַקֵּשׁ functions as a metonymy of cause for effect (i.e., to hold accountable), and אֶת־נִרְדָּף is a metonymy of attribute (i.e., the past). This approach is adopted by several English translations: “God requires that which is past” (KJV), “God will call the past to account” (NIV) and “God summons each event back in its turn” (NEB). (3) God finds what has been lost: יְבַקֵּשׁ functions as a metonymy of cause for effect (i.e., to find), and אֶת־נִרְדָּף refers to what has been lost: “God restores what would otherwise be displaced” (NAB). (4) God repeats what has already occurred: יְבַקֵּשׁ functions as a metonymy of effect (i.e., to repeat), and אֶת־נִרְדָּף is a metonymy (i.e., that which has occurred). This fits the context and provides a tight parallel with the preceding line: “That which is has already been, and that which will be has already been” (3:15a) parallels “God seeks [to repeat] that which has occurred [in the past].” This is the most popular approach among English versions: “God restores that which has past” (Douay), “God seeks again that which is passed away” (ASV), “God seeks what has passed by” (NASB), “God seeks what has been driven away” (RSV), “God seeks out what has passed by” (MLB), “God seeks out what has gone by” (NRSV), and “God is ever bringing back what disappears” (Moffatt).

20 tn The phrase “in the past” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is supplied in the translation for clarity.



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