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Ecclesiastes starts with a series of contrasts, most of which are easy to understand. However one reference is less obvious (at least to me) - the 'stones' in verse 5a:

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
   a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
   a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
   a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
   a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
   a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
   a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
   a time for war, and a time for peace. ESV

Also translated variously as:

A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; NASB


a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them NIV

How should this scattering/throwing/casting activity be understood - and would it have been a reference to something obvious at the time of writing?

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Interesting. Gathering stones might refer to something like the building of altars or monuments, but I can't think of when the appropriate time to destroy such things would be. Maybe destroying pagan altars? Maybe clearing a field of stones? – Jon Ericson Aug 27 '12 at 20:14
Why do all the fields in the west of Ireland have stone walls around them? Usually, there are open gates, and sheep have the run of three or four fields, so why have the walls? Well, because they needed somewhere to put the stones, of course. I wonder whether analogous conditions existed in ancient Israel. – TRiG Oct 28 '13 at 18:31

4 Answers 4

A time to cast stones - youths of Israel scattered during the destruction of the Temple:

(Lamentations 4:1): "The holy stones are scattered."

and a time to gather - them [youths of Israel] from the exile:

(Zechariah 9:16): "And Lord, their God, will save them on that day like the flocks of His people, for crown stones are exalted on His land."

We need to remember that Ecclesiastes (just like the rest of the Hebrew bible) is directed primary to the people of Israel.

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Large Stones were used to mark your property line. A time of gathering stones was the time to sell of land after a large increase in price and a time of scattering stones was a time of buying land because it had fallen too much in price. Deuteronomy 27:17 says, "Cursed is he who moves his neighbors boundary stone."

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Please show your working. How do you know that Israelite peasant farmers traded their land depending on the price it would bring from time to time (a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together)? And why move the stones if you are selling land that would still need to be delineated? – Dick Harfield Feb 28 at 4:49

I'm of the opinion that it is misguided to look for a one to one correspondence between the Eccl reference and some particular set of stones or even type of stone in history. One of the strengths of such non-specific types is their wide applicability. This allows any reader in any age to relate to the stanza.

Having said that there are specific references to stones in scripture being gathered and pulled apart including the building and dismantling of the Herod's temple. "One interpretation but many applications" - Bill Gothard

Mar 13:1 As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples told him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what beautiful buildings!" Mar 13:2 "Do you see these large buildings?" Jesus responded. "Not one stone here will be left on another that will not be torn down."

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Perhaps I cross the boundary into "religio-sci-fantasy" a'la Discovery Channel by eulogizing קהלת son of David as an observant Mathematician.

Perhaps, קהלת/Ecclesiates is a Mathematical-Physics thesis encoded in poetry as a thesis of social-behavioural iteration.

The קהלת/Aggregator/Congregator/Assembler (perhaps, ancient terminology to describe the Mathematician beyond his times) starts by declaring that everything constitutes a zero-sum game.

Zeroes of zero, zero of zeroes, zero sum.

And then he uses the cyclical repetition of daily life and conflicts to illustrate the iteration it takes for the game to achieve equilibrium.

He then says, as any zero-sum-gamer would tell/program the experimental entities - go motivate yourselves to obtain maximum gain for yourselves, be selfish or be thoughtful, be conflicting but it all will iterate as zero-sum states. That all transitional states would finally come to some equilibrium zero-sum states.

He says,

There was no gain under the sun.

In chapter 3, he sets up a transition-state table. As a 2-dimensionally coupled poem. There are two modes of coupling/couplet.

  • each line constructs a pair of antithetical couplet
  • each pair of lines constitutes a parallel couplet.

He begins by explaining his transition-state table that every period and state has an event. And there is a state for every thing under the sun. A period would mean an iteration within a series of iterations.

Actually, it is a state table rather than a state-transition table, because he explains the transitions of the states within the whole book of Ecclesiates.

At the end of setting up the table, he says that the Creator has set up the case/context/concern (mistranslated as travails). Concern as in concern-oriented-programming. And the concern/context has been dispensed to mankind to provide a response.

And in 11:1 he gives the advice on how to resolve state-machine conflicts:

Send your conflict upon the surface of the waters and after many days, you will resolve it (find its resolution).

Perhaps, he is saying, when an iteration is stuck in conflict, send it to the openness and transparency of a fluid trading/market and it will resolve itself. The verse specifically used the verb שלח (send) not שליך (throw/cast). And specified the surface (פני ) of the waters not in/beneath the waters.

To respond to the question

The parallel couplet of the pair antithetical couplets are

A state to cast away stone, a state to gather stones
A state to embrace, at state to ignore embrace.

Which I read as,

A state to deliberately cause divergence,
A state to deliberately cause convergence,
A state to accept convergence,
A state to ignore convergence.

What I mean by convergence, is a state whereby your state-machine needs to collect and synchronise members of the field. Perhaps, a rest state (Sabbath or Jubilee state). And then another state to scatter them again. A state to accept convergence and a state to reject frivolous/unneccesary requests for convergence.

He implies, under localised conditions they do not realise it is but a zero-sum on a global scale(under the sun). Though, a wise man may think to know about it but he would not actually find it happening - as he only has a localised view.

Ecclesiates wholistically

So the wise קהלת/assembler urges the audience of his assembly to try this zero-sum game. To be either cruel or kind, greedy or considerate - every time, every state is but iterates into yet another zero-sum state.

He would be saying

Go on indulge in over-consumption and over-production but that would cause millions of born/unborn humans to perish because it is a zero-sum game. Go on and hoard your riches, but it is still a zero-sum game.

He uses his state-machine to illustrate what he perceives of the world. In 8:14 he says

There is zero-sum constructed on the earth. It involves the righteous as well as the wicked. I reiterate it is but zero-sum.

So, his advice to those who have hoarded too much to cause a pareto/bottleneck conflict, they should give some away like an airplane burdened by too much fuel - otherwise you do not know what evil will befall the earth. Give some away, send them to the waters, to the flux of the market and the bottleneck will unstuck itself after many days.


I simply felt that the stones had to be explained in the whole context of the Assembler's game-theory.

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