A time for every purpose

Despite its sometimes pessimistic outlook, the book 'Kohelet' teaches that we should not grow too discouraged because of things beyond our comprehension.

Kohelet 390 (photo credit: wikimedia commons)
Kohelet 390
(photo credit: wikimedia commons)
Some of us remember singing along with Pete Seeger, The Byrds or Mary Hopkin, lyrics that proclaimed, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven/A time to be born and a time to die/A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to love and a time to hate/A time of war and a time of peace/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”
However, there are many who, despite familiarity with these lyrics and proverbs such as “There is nothing new under the sun,” are unaware that they are taken from The Book of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew name of the book, Kohelet, derives from the Greek word for convoker, which we translate as “the preacher,” and it is read in every synagogue on Simhat Torah in Israel. Authorship of the book is attributed to King Solomon, attested to by the writer’s self-description as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
Known through the centuries as a wise man, in Kohelet Solomon muses on what he has learnt through observation and reflection. The practical aspect of wisdom is exemplified in the teachings of this book, where the ideal of life is a composite of patience, endurance, discretion, work, help to the distressed and consideration for one’s fellow man.
His words are poetic, among the most beautiful in the Bible, yet some of them convey a sense of futility. Kohelet finds life unsatisfying. Wealth and its pursuit do not bring happiness; and riches are often lost before they can be enjoyed.
“I, THE PREACHER, was king over Israel in Jerusalem,” he writes. “And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven; this difficult job has God given to the sons of man to be. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.… I communed with my own heart saying: Look, I am come to great estate, and I have achieved more wisdom than all that are before me in Jerusalem.… And I gave my heart to know wisdom… for in such wisdom is much grief, and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.…” Many believe that the holy scriptures include nothing grander than Kohelet, because of its impassioned portrayal of human pain and pleasure, failure and success, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The book ends with the advice: “Revere God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
The Byrds’s album title refers to Pete Seeger’s song based on the message of the ‘Book of Ecclesiastes.’ (Album cover) Mary Hopkin also sang ‘a time for war and a time for peace.’ (Wikimedia Commons) King Solomon, also known as ‘Kohelet,’ is known in most cultures for his wisdom. (Wikimedia Commons) According to Kohelet, there is a divine irony in the implantation in man of a drive which he can never satisfy: “I realized too, that whatever God has brought to pass will recur evermore; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it, and God has brought it to pass that men revere Him.” This means that there was piety in the past, thus it will always be so. Conversely, there will also be godlessness and oppressors.
Kohelet is distressed by the spectacle of those driven by an inner demon to amass wealth without pausing to realize that they can’t take it with them once their years in this world are completed.
“Then my thoughts turned to all the fortune my hands had built up, to the wealth I had acquired and won, and oh, it was all futile and the pursuit of wind; there was no real value under the sun.”
yet despite its sometimes pessimistic outlook, Kohelet teaches that we should not grow too discouraged because of things beyond our comprehension: “Wisdom is superior to folly, as light is superior to darkness.”
Dvora Waysman is the author of 13 books, one of which, The Pomegranate Pendant, has been made into a movie called The Golden Pomegranate.