Often when I tell people that I am writing about the seasons, they mention the famous lines from Ecclesiastes, which were transcribed into a song by Pete Seeger and made famous by the Byrds. Sometimes they begin humming the tune or even singing the song. Despite these lines being just about the most well-known seasonal reference there is, at least among my generation, I have not written about them in the book, for a number of reasons.
Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, which many believe arose from the court of King David (along with Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon). By tradition, this book is attributed to Solomon; the writer introduces himself as a ‘son of King David,’ but in the ancient diction in which it is composed, that phrase could plausibly just mean ‘a descendant of King David.’ Many scholars believe there are two voices in Ecclesiastes, the narrator, who provides autobiographical material and framing narrative, and the actual teacher or preacher implied in the title. In general, the preacher discourses at length about the futility and weariness of life on earth, before reconciling all in the book’s final two verses, which insist that loving God and keeping his commandments is our sole duty.
The verses in question are of course Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, the famous ‘To everything there is a season.’ I don’t count it among seasonal references because it’s not talking about actual natural phenomena, but uses the idea of seasons metaphorically: ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance’ (3:4). These are seasons only in poetic terms. I also think that Pete Seeger’s appropriation of the verses, and his changing the ending line, ‘a time for peace,’ adding ‘I swear it’s not too late,’ lends the words a hopeful meaning that is simply not consistent with the message of Ecclesiastes, or with the Old Testament in general.
One of the few seasonally-based references in the text comes in verse 3:2, ‘a time to plant and a time to uproot.’ That is the translation in the New International version of the Bible. In the King James version, upon which Seeger based his song, the words are actually ‘a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.’ This is one of the few places he changes the biblical text, rendering it as ‘a time to reap.’ I’m not sure the original text meant to reap, or to harvest, so much as to destroy what has been planted by uprooting or plucking it up. Ruining an enemy’s crops has always been an important tactic in warfare, and this could very well be what the passage is talking about. I know that sounds terrible, but consider the rest of the text.
There is a time to love and a time to hate; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time for war and a time for peace. It doesn’t say that peace is the natural and preferable state of things, while war is an unfortunate occurrence–it says that there is a time for war. Remember that the ancient Israelites were a warlike, conquering people. The Book of Joshua, for instance, is mostly about wars of conquest in which competing nations were wiped out in veritable orgies of violence. Few people realize that the reason that God made the sun stand still in perhaps the most famous passage in Joshua was so that the Israelites could have an extra long day to slaughter their enemies. King David was a warrior king, famous for slaying ‘his tens of thousands’ (I Samuel 18). War and conquest is so standard a theme in most of the Old Testament that one can grow numb with the thought of the violence being perpetrated.
To take this ethos and try to turn it into a message of hope and peace is laughable. This is especially true when the passage in question comes from a book like Ecclesiastes, which is not about hope, not about peace, but about hopelessness and vanity. Those verses near the end, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man’ (12:13), are the dictum of the jealous, wrathful, vengeful warrior God who animates the entire Old Testament. This is not a book about peace and love, despite Pete Seeger’s best intentions, or those of a whole generation of folk singers who have recorded this song. I will be turning to other texts for inspiration as I write about the seasons.