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Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 lists 28 events grouped in contrasting pairs which are connected by the phrase עֵ֥ת...וְעֵ֣ת. Each couplet is made up of one event which can considered as positive and another which can be considered as negative. This is most true at the beginning and end of the passage:

a time to be born, and a time to die... (3:2)
...a time for war, and a time for peace. (3:8)

The sequence which begins as positive-negative ends in the reverse order negative-positive. When the couplets are considered together, the combined arrangement begins and ends with positive events and places the two negative events side-by-side:

positive: a time to be born...
negative: and time to die...a time for war
positive: and a time for peace

The 28 statements can be arranged such that a pairing with the "opposite" couplet begins in the same tenor which an initial couplet ends (either positive-negative becomes negative-positive or negative-positive becomes positive-negative) making either 14 or 12 pairs of couplets: enter image description here

The beginning sequence of positive-negative is reversed at the 3rd couplet and the reverse change occurs at the corresponding couplet on the other side of the arrangement.

The "transition point" from beginning positively to beginning negatively was done by creating an "immediate" sequence which places like type events "side-by-side." The same type of disruption occurs on the opposite side at the same point, creating a type of combined "transitional" symmetry in which a complete couplet, either positive-negative or negative-positive mirrors an inverted corresponding complete couplet:

2 and 3: [positive-(negative-negative)-positive]
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; (3:2-3)

3' and 2': [negative-(positive-positive)-negative]
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate (3:7-8)

Is this arrangement taken from an earlier pattern (i.e. the 12 tribes or a 14-day period)?

Is there any significance of this structure? If so, how does it help understand the cyclical nature of things which the passage seems to have as a main idea?

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  • Not a duplicate, but the answers here include some relevant reflections for this question: "What is the meaning of the reference to 'stones' in Ecclesiastes 3?" – Dɑvïd Mar 3 '18 at 19:44
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    I find it interesting that the author is talking about times and seasons, and they themselves place this passage into it's own cycle/season. Looking at your diagram, I am reminded of how the moon waxes and wanes. – Michael May 17 '19 at 0:18
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    I have struggled over this interesting question; but I am sorry, I cannot see any chiastic structure here, no matter which way I examine it. (I am happy to be accused of being dull and having a senior's moment!) – Dottard Nov 6 '20 at 9:23
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Since there has been no answer as of yet, I humbly submit for consideration...

Review

As I always do in my answers, use Bible to interpret Bible. Here are two very pertinent verses from the same Book of Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NASB)

That which has been is that which will be,

And that which has been done is that which will be done.

So there is nothing new under the sun.

...Nothing is new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 (NASB)

9 In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. 10 The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

11 The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

...This was indeed written carefully.

...The conclusion is simple: Fear God, He alone will judge all equally.

Comment

I humbly beg to differ that these are "positive" and "negative". Consider, for example:

Ecclesiastes 3:2 (NASB)

A time to give birth and a time to die;

A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.

...I don't think the harvest is negative, especially considering Jesus teaching treats it in a positive light...

Matthew 9:37 (NASB)

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

...If anything, the lack of workers is the negative, but that's besides Solomon's point in Ecclesiastes.

Summary

  1. If we simply take the harvest example from v3:2, that blows up the entire premise that everything occurs in positive-negative pairs.

  2. Many of these seemingly "negative" examples may only be negative from our broken, incomplete, perhaps even "sinful" perspectives. Death only seems sad on our end, but Heaven surely rejoices in the reunion. Is it positive or negative whether the tide flows in or out? Is the pain of body building a negative thing that body builders seek out for the desirable results? Many would not say so, including myself. While these are extrabiblical examples, consider: Who are we, in our limited knowledge, to judge what 12:14 explicitly says that God alone will judge as good or evil?

I agree that these certainly do appear in pairs. But, "positive-negative"—not always, perhaps never. Maybe Solomon paired things as "complements" rather than "necessary opposites", perhaps even "seemingly opposites" to help us counteract our own ignorance, to see that birth and death are equally as valuable as sowing and reaping, both courtesy 3:2.

This is not to say that these are certainly not negative or positive, but certainly not necessarily, in lieu of the harvest of 3:2. If I were to do a deep Bible study on this passage, I would focus on searching for crossreferenced Biblical perspectives on each in these pairs.

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    You are correct. Contrasting is a better way to describe them, although some like was and peace are more negative/positive. Any thought on the symmetry or the number 14/28? – Revelation Lad Aug 23 '20 at 1:31
  • @RevelationLad I don't even agree that "war" is necessarily negative in the Biblical context, consider Mt 10:34 I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. As for the numbers, it's classic Hebrew poetry, of course! The issue for me is that understanding it will make more sense without the presumption of "negativity"; "complementary" would make more sense, then so would any meaning in the structure. – Jesse Steele Aug 23 '20 at 3:10
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Each of these couplets has two actions which are both inverses of each other. There is not necessarily a meaning for the specific order they are listed in. The point of this passage is to illustrate Qoheleth's belief in preordination. He believes "מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָ֗ה כְּבָר֙ נִקְרָ֣א שְׁמ֔וֹ וְנוֹדָ֖ע אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא אָדָ֑ם וְלֹא־יוּכַ֣ל לָדִ֔ין עִ֥ם שהתקיף [שֶׁתַּקִּ֖יף] מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃" "Whatever happens has already been designated long ago, and it was known that it would happen; man cannot contend what is stronger than him" (Ecclesiastes 6:10). The point of this passage in Ecclesiastes 3 is to say that G-d has designated a time for all these actions and thus for everything. There is just a number of them because when you list something, there is a number of things listed. There is unlikely to be a deeper meaning. As for Qoheleth, while writing his book, he would not have cared about how many there were or a deeper pattern as he would have considered that vanity and pursuit of wind based on his statements throughout the book and more specifically in the first chapter.

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