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Translation Ecclesiastes 3:1

Ecclesiastes 3:1 (BHS/WHM 4.2)

1לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ ס



There are two translation issues in this passage: First, how to translationזְמָ֑ן.   Second, how to translateחֵ֖פֶץ .

Both present some question as to the correct English word.

The first word  זְמָ֑ן, refers to something definitively appointed. Aside from the usage here in Ecclesiastes, the word is used in Esther to refer to the establishment of Purim:

27 the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, Esther 9:27 (ESV)

31 that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther obligated them, and as they had obligated themselves and their offspring, with regard to their fasts and their lamenting. Esther 9:31 (ESV)

It is also found in Nehemiah 2:6, referring to a time set for Nehemiah to depart from the king. 

However, “Franz Delitzch and Daniel Fredricks remind us that the word has an ancient Akkadian cognate, indicating that is an older word than one might at first believe” (Longman, 114). Zeman is considered an indication of a late date for Ecclesiastes, since its other cases all post-exilic. Howveer, the word dates back to 1800 BC in Akk., and is used in an Armana letter, so very possibly it entered Hebr. long before the exile” (Fredricks, 108).

Thus, when used in Ecclesiastes 3:1, the initial translation would be “appointed time.”  However, how is this word to be understood in light of it existing in parallel to the standard word for a moment of time? Is there a particular emphasis that should be laid upon the concept of appointment?  Do the two words cover the same lexical space, or should something distinction be made?

It seems that the concept of appointment/setting cannot be lost from the first of the words.  Moreover, due to the fact that the second word occurs in a phrase that references a particular response (see, below), the parallelism seems to indicate similarity of concept.

The lack of a stated actor behind the appointment in Ecclesiastes 3:1 seems to be an instance of the divine passive.


Second: the translation of לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ presents an interesting challenge:  The translators have rendered this as “every matter” (ESV, NRSV); “every activity” (NIV, NET, HCSB); and “every purpose” (NKJV, KJV 1900).

 The difficulty comes when one compares the wider usage of the word in the OT.  The word seems typically to refer to a subjective response to a circumstance. In many instances, the word is used in a negative  construction to refer to something in which one does not have a strongly positive response:

 Is this man Coniah a despised, broken pot, a vessel no one cares for? Why are he and his children hurled and cast into a land that they do not know? Jeremiah 22:28 (ESV) (אִ֨ם־כְּלִ֔יאֵ֥יןחֵ֖פֶץבּ֑וֹ)

Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel (no one cares for). Hosea 8:8 (ESV)(כִּכְלִ֖יאֵֽין־חֵ֥פֶץבּֽוֹ)

It also occurs positively in things one desires (Mal. 3:12, Pr. 31:13) and famously Psalm 1:2, referring to the “delight” one has in meditation on the law of God.

The word is used in a construction with the word “all” to refer to what one wishes to obtain: 1 Kings 5:25, 9:11, 10:12; 2 Chron 9:12; even the purpose/wish of God: Is. 44:28.

The word is used in parallel to precious stones specifically listed: Is. 54:12; Prov. 3:15. In Proverbs 8:11:

11 for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. Proverbs 8:11 (ESV)

Proverbs 8:11 (BHS/WHM 4.2)

11כִּֽי־טוֹבָ֣ה חָ֭כְמָה מִפְּנִינִ֑ים וְכָל־חֲ֝פָצִ֗ים לֹ֣א יִֽשְׁווּ־בָֽהּ׃

Thus, when one comes to Ecclesiastes, the concept in Ecclesiastes it is difficult understand exactly how to translate the word.  In addition to 3:1, the word is used in 3:17


Ecclesiastes 3:17 (BHS/WHM 4.2)

17אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י אֶת־הַצַּדִּיק֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣רָשָׁ֔ע יִשְׁפֹּ֖ט הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּי־עֵ֣ת **לְכָל־חֵ֔פֶץ** וְעַ֥ל כָּל־הַֽמַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה שָֽׁם׃

I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. Ecclesiastes 3:17 (ESV)


This construction is used with wish/desire/purpose in other OT instances. In 5:3 (Heb; 5:4, Eng.), it is translated with the typical meaning of pleasure/positive response:

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. Ecclesiastes 5:4 (ESV)

In Ecclesiastes 5:7 (Heb; 5:8, Eng.), it is translated again as “matter”:

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. Ecclesiastes 5:8 (ESV)

In 12:1 it is “pleasure”

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; Ecclesiastes 12:1 (ESV)

And in 12:10, as (words of) delight:

The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. Ecclesiastes 12:10 (ESV)

Thus, Ecclesiastes 5:7/8 is the problem text and 3:1 is the ambiguous text. It is possible that 5:7/8 refers to the response of those involved in the oppression:

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at  THE(IR) DELIGHT (IN THE BAD ACTS), for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. Ecclesiastes 5:8 (ESV)

Which would make for a deeply disturbing rendering of the text. Yet, with that single contrary reference, the typical concept of pleasurable response (whether present or anticipated) is the dominant rendering and use. 

“Predominately in the OT hepes reflects a positive emotional state, thus ‘pleasure, delight’. There are instances where, more neutrally, the pursuit of a desire, a ‘preference, choice,’ is meant; for example, Judg. 13:23 [etc]. Both meanings appear in Ecclesiates: probably ‘pleasure,” is meant in 5:4 and 12:1, 10. However, where the context is hardly positive, the more basic meaning of a preference or choice, whether causing pleasure or not, is the obvious intent. Thus, here in 3:1 and 3:17, ‘choice’ is preferred, since killing, weeping, mourning, hate, war and injustice could hardly be a delight” (Fredricks, 108).


For all times are appointed,

and for every delight a time,

            under the heavens.