Translating Ecclesiastes 3:11

I’ve written an expanded and updated version of this post called Translating Ecclesiastes 3:11 again. This is here for archive purposes only – please go there instead!

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I don’t think I’ll be doing many of these sorts of posts; my Hebrew is nowhere near good enough to do this, but, as I’ve taken the name of my blog from a word in it I thought that I’d better start with a discussion about it.

First of all, a selection of the major Biblical translations of Ecclesiastes 3:11:

NRSV: “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”

NIV (2010)/TNIV: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

NJB: “All that he does is apt for its time; but although he has given us an awareness of the passage of time, we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does.”

The word עלם (‘olem’) describing what God placed in human hearts (NRSV ‘minds’) is disputed (cf. NRSV ‘a sense of past and future’; NIV ‘eternity’). It has a wide semantic range, including ‘darkness’, ‘duration’ (possibly including ‘eternity’), or ‘world’. The phrase describing the consequence of God’s action מבלי אשׁר לא (NRSV ‘yet they cannot find out’) is unique, and could either be negative or positive. This is shown by two academic translations, with Murphy (Word commentary vol.23A 1992:29) suggesting: “he has also placed a sense of duration in their hearts, so that they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done” , while Shields (The end of wisdom 2006:139) suggests: “He has also placed eternity in their hearts, without which people could not discover the work that God has done from beginning to end”.

A footnote to the NIV (2010) suggests that ‘eternity’ could be replaced with ‘ignorance’, so that it reads: “also placed ignorance in the human heart, so that no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

But, whatever it exactly means, it suggests that “God has placed within us something which encourages us to look beyond life under the sun” as Doug Ingram says in his excellent Grove booklet on Ecclesiastes. Doug argues that Ecclesiastes is intentionally ambiguous, which I think rather rules out the NIV’s alternate reading as being rather too stark. Ecclesiastes encourages, I think, humility and a reliance on God, but not despair. This verse has also encouraged scientific enquiry, and I’ll cover that in my next post.

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