By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘To every thing there is a season’ is a famous Biblical quotation. It is found in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. This short book is actually chock-full of oft-quoted lines: the phrases ‘nothing new under the sun’, ‘the sun also rises’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, and ‘vanity of vanities’ also originate in Ecclesiastes.
But ‘to every thing there is a season’ is our focus here. What does this phrase mean, and why is it regarded as a great piece of wisdom?
Thought to have been written between 300 and 200 BC, the Book of Ecclesiastes is an example of biblical ‘wisdom literature’, and is usually attributed to Solomon. But although the author of Ecclesiastes declares himself to be the ‘son of David’, which suggests he could indeed be Solomon, scholars believe that this was merely a conventional ascription and that, in fact, a later author wrote the book.
And, if true, it means that ‘to every thing there is a season’ is, like so many snippets of proverbial wisdom, best attributed to that prolific author ‘Anon.’
In light of the meaninglessness and futility of all human endeavour, he tells us that we should strive to enjoy the simple pleasures found in life: eating and drinking, and taking enjoyment in our work.
‘To every thing there is a season’ comes from a famous passage in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the 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 kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
What does it mean? Well, ‘season’ here means something similar to ‘appointed time’ (which is how the original Hebrew is sometimes rendered into English). The author of Ecclesiastes is reminding us that there is a purpose and order behind everything, and that purpose and that order have been ordained by God.
God decides when things will come into being and when they will die, much as man decides when to plant (in springtime) and when to gather in the harvest (in autumn). These ‘seasons’, the seasons of planting and harvesting, are similar to the ‘season’ that everything has: everything has its time, and that time has been decreed by God.
If this makes Ecclesiastes sound like an intensely pious work, the truth is more surprising. Throughout Ecclesiastes, the author’s advice might be aligned (tentatively) with the ancient Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism: try to accept what you cannot change and control your response to things which should make you angry or unhappy, and strive to attain a moderate amount of pleasure from the simple things life affords you in the present moment.
And ‘to every thing there is a season’ is relevant here, too, since this statement is acknowledging that God, not man, has power over the direction of things. (John Grisham borrowed the phrase ‘a time to kill’ for the title of his debut novel of 1989, later made into a 1996 film directed by Joel Schumacher.)
This passage from Ecclesiastes continues:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
And indeed, the cyclic nature of all things which this passage repeatedly stresses (weeping … laughing; mourning … dancing; getting … and losing) is close to the Stoic view of life and the universe.
The almost mesmerising sway of such syntax, the rhythms of the author’s words following the patterns of his thought, can be felt in everything from Dickens’s ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ to T. S. Eliot’s ‘There will be time, there will be time’ section from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
But as well as the rhythms of such passages, the appeal lies in their quiet resignation, and the author’s willingness to confront his own world-weariness while rejecting complete despair over the futility of all human ambition.