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4. Time’s Up (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)

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Timing is everything. You have probably heard this phrase many times. There is a great deal of truth in that statement. The difference between a good joke and a bad one is a person’s sense of timing. An appropriate pause makes a joke…an inappropriate pause can kill the same joke. Timing is essential when dealing with people. You don’t ask for a raise when business is not going well or when things are tense around the office. You don’t try to correct someone who feels threatened by you. You don’t ask for a favor when someone is under a lot of stress or angry. Timing is important in cooking. The juicy hamburger on the grill is raw meat if cooked for too little time and a clump of charcoal if it is cooked too long. Timing is important in medicine. If you catch a problem early you will be able to treat it more effectively. Your timing is important in taking medication. If you take your medicine as directed it will be helpful. If you skip doses it loses its effectiveness. If you take extra doses it can be deadly. Timing is important in finance. When you invest in a particular stock and when you sell the particular stock will make the difference between whether you make money or lose it. Knowing when to borrow and when not to borrow is the key to financial independence. Timing is important in your spiritual life as well. It is critical to live your life with an acute awareness of God’s timing for your life.75

In Eccl 3:1-15, Solomon tells us that life is really a matter of timing, for timing is everything. This should be evident to us. You and I probably have a dozen clocks and four or five calendars in our homes. Many of us carry a timepiece attached to our wrist, and time indicators are built into our cell phones, computer screens, and PDAs.76 Time and timing is everything. If timing is everything, how should we live? In the following fifteen verses, we will discover four concise exhortations on how to live if timing is everything.

1. Expect change (3:1-8).

In this first section, Solomon makes a persuasive case for the brevity of life. As is customary in Ecclesiastes, Solomon begins this section by stating a thesis (3:1). He then proceeds to illustrate and demonstrate his thesis (3:2-8). Solomon’s thesis is this: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven” (3:1). The key word in this section is “time,” and it is used thirty times in 3:1-8. There are three insights worth noting in 3:1. First, Solomon is not going to be making judgments on the topics that follow in 3:2-8, he is merely recording the events that occur “under heaven.” Second, Solomon builds his argument upon the word “appointed.”77 The events of our lives do not randomly happen by chance; God has a purpose behind them. Third, Solomon uses an unusual Hebrew word translated “event.” This word conveys the idea of “delight.”78 By using the word “delight” instead of one of the standard nouns, Solomon implies that there is a good sense that one experiences by fitting into a given event at the right time. In other words, there is a sense of success based on appropriate timing—even if the activity, by its nature, is not delightful.79 Again, timing is everything.

After stating his thesis (3:1), Solomon launches into his poem in 3:2-8. In these seven verses, he makes twenty-eight statements—fourteen negative statements and fourteen positive ones.80 The first pair of contrasts (birth/death) sets the parameters for the events that follow. In 3:2 Solomon writes, “A time to give birth and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.” God appoints both our birthday and the day of our funeral. He knows exactly when they will occur; He always has. There are absolutely no surprises with God. He is so sovereign that there is nothing and no one who can take your life before your God-ordained days are finished. Solomon says this is even true of the plant world: the term of life is fixed.81 Verse 2 certainly starts with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty over time, yet Solomon seems to be saying above all that the time is short. In fact, time is almost up. We are born into this world, and we rather quickly race toward the grave and die. Every eight seconds somebody dies and every three seconds someone is born. Life can seem like a revolving door. The same is true in the plant world. The various seasons of planting and harvest have been set by God. He sets the boundaries and times of the seasons and they come and go so quickly. Timing is everything.

The next two sets present destructive and creative activities: kill/heal, and tear down/build up. In 3:3 Solomon puts it like this: “A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.” “To kill” does not mean to commit murder. Hebrew has a special word for murder that is clearly seen in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not kill.”82 Here, “kill” involves capital punishment or destroying enemies in a just war. Solomon is not making any moral judgments in this context, but since it has come up in our text, I will. The reason why this is necessary is because of the value God places on human life. Human life is so important to God that when a life is taken that life must be avenged, because humans are made in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Fortunately, there is also a time “to heal,” or literally, “to sew,” “to heal a wound.” There is also a time “to tear down” old walls, relationships, or even, metaphorically, nations (Jer 18:7, 9), as well as a time “to build up.”83 The second line may refer to the demolition of houses and their construction; it may also be figurative. In the Old Testament, the words for tearing down and building up are often used with reference to the destruction and building up of a human life.84 In that case, the first line of 3:3 is expanded by the second.

The next two pairs in 3:4 express human emotions: weep/laugh and mourn/dance. Solomon writes, “A time to weep and a time to laugh;85 A time to mourn and a time to dance.” Both sorrow and joy are part of life; without one the other is unrecognizable.86 We will encounter negative and positive emotions and experiences throughout this life. This is to be expected. Change occurs constantly. One moment we will be on the mountain peak, the next moment we will be in the valley. During these tumultuous times, it is important for us to both grieve and rejoice. When loved ones pass from this life, I always urge family and friends to grieve. God intends human beings to grieve. Jesus grieved when Lazarus passed and when He Himself was preparing to die, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Grieving is healthy for the human psyche and brings about closure. It is also important for us to laugh and rejoice. It has been said, “If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you grow old.”87 I love this! I’ve always told our church staff that the most important trait in ministry is a sense of humor. (Godliness and character are assumed.) If you don’t have a sense of humor in life and ministry, you will never get out of bed in the morning. You will just hit snooze on your alarm clock and pull the sheets over your head. Eventually, you will wither and die.

Is it possible for you and me to worship God in these differing seasons? Is it possible to find joy in the midst of your sickness, to find dependency upon Him in the midst of your failing health? Is it possible to be close to God in ever-changing circumstances? If you only thank God in seasons of great health and prosperity you will not be thanking God very much, because those seasons ebb and flow like the tide. We are to find joy in the midst of each season and in the transition between them.

In 3:5 we come to a very bizarre set of lines. Solomon writes, “A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.” The phrase “throw stones” is a reference to sexual intercourse, while the phrase “gather stones” means to refrain from sex.88 In the Old Testament, abstinence from sexual intercourse took place in times of mourning.89 Corresponding to this meaning is the mention in the next line of the embrace, which is used as a toned down expression for the same thing. This interpretation ensures the parallelism between all of the lines of the poem.90 And it could indeed be said in this area that timing is everything. Did you hear that, men?

The next two pairs deal with the nature of possessions. Solomon writes, “A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away” (3:6). The latter phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!91 The thought here deals with the fleeting nature of our possessions. We buy clothes and we take clothes to the Goodwill. We buy a new car and sell our clunker. We search for various misplaced possessions and then accept that we will never find them in the mess of our closet or garage.

The next pair seems to suggest a time for mourning and a time to cease mourning. Verse 7 reads, “A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak.”92 In the Old Testament, when people mourned the death of a loved one they tore their clothing and kept silent.93 When the period of mourning was over, ordinary conversations of the day could continue.94 This reminds us that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to talk. It has been well said, “In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.”95 As Christians, we need to be wise in the use of our tongues. It is too easy to say too many careless things. Many of my heroes are those that use their speech wisely. For the past seven years, Lori and I have observed a woman in our congregation by the name of Myra Yu. Myra picks and chooses her words wisely. She is an extremely intelligent woman and possesses a great deal of wisdom, yet she is careful not to speak too much. As a result, her words are golden. Many of us need to learn from people who recognize that timing is everything.

The final lines of this poem occur in 3:8. This set of verses has to do with affections and their consequences. Solomon writes, “A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.” At first glance, these verses can be hard to understand. We all know that there is a time to love. We should be all about love. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). But Solomon also says there is a time to hate. Even Jesus hated. He hated sin. He hated its mastery over human souls. He hated the wake of its destruction. We need to learn how to hate that which is evil without hating the people who are evil. We may hate the act of abortion, but we have compassion on both the aborted and the aborting. We may hate the ravages of alcohol, but we love those who struggle with alcoholism, and we want to do whatever we can to help them.96

The internal parallelism of the previous six verses is in this final line of 3:8. This is probably due to a desire to end on a positive note—peace rather than war. Ironically, this line of Scripture has become rather famous, thanks to a 1965 hippie song penned* by the rock group, The Byrds. This passage is still very important in spite of the words “turn, turn, turn,” which have haunted me all week like a tack hammer to my frontal lobe. With the addition of just six words to the end of Eccl 3:1-8, The Byrds were able to transform these verses into an anti-Vietnam, pro-peace song. Following the last couplet of “a time for war and a time for peace,” The Byrds added the little phrase, “I swear it’s not too late.” Thus, did Ecclesiastes enter the mainstream consciousness of the counter-culture.

*[Editor's Note: As thankfully brought to our attention by a user, this song was sung by the Byrds--but indeed this song/these additions were penned by Pete Seeger.]

Unfortunately, The Byrds were wrong in their insistence upon peace. As much as we may want peace, there will not be peace until the Prince of Peace brings peace to this world. And ironically, when Jesus does bring peace it will be after the blood bath that is described in Rev 19:11-21. Now I will not weigh in on the various wars that have taken place or are taking place since that is not the point of this passage. However, I will say this: When tyranny runs roughshod over the rights of mankind, war is necessary. We often sit in quiet places when we worship. We worship without fear of infringement from law because someone has fought for the right to be heard and to speak freely, to stand, and if necessary, die for what one believes to be the truth. We love the fact that America has been “the home of the brave and the land of the free” for more than 200 years, yet we often don’t appreciate the need to at times be at war. God is a warrior and war is a part of the Bible. To suggest that war is never to be condoned is a misunderstanding of the Bible. Again, timing is everything. Now I don’t like war. I’m not pro-war. I don’t know anyone who is, but I can’t imagine protesting or complaining while American soldiers are serving our country. My heart is to honor our soldiers and respect the decisions that have been made by our government. It is a mistake to assume that if we were in office all would be well. Nothing could be further from the truth. There will always be war and peace.

[Solomon has urged us to expect change. Now he will encourage us to…]

2. Accept limitations (3:9-11).

Solomon writes, “What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?” This section ends in 3:9 with the same rhetorical question posed in 1:3 (cf. 2:11). This rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, expecting a negative answer: “Mankind gains nothing from his toil!” Any profit or advantage that man might gain from his toil is nullified by his ignorance of divine providence.97 We say to ourselves, “Why should I work so hard when it’s all going to be destroyed? Why get married when you just end up fighting and hurting one another? Why have a child and deal with the stress and disappointment?”98 These are all good questions. Actor Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”99

Solomon continues in 3:10-11 with these words: “I have seen the task which God100 has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate101 in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”102 The word “everything” in 3:11 resumes “everything” in 3:1. The point of 3:11 is that God makes everything, even events that occur through human agency, happen in its proper time. Yet, the tension of this verse is that we don’t always understand His purposes. We ask questions like, “Why was I born this way? Why did my father treat me that way? Why did you take my friend? Why am I missing out on this blessing?” Our problem is that we focus our attention on the wrong thing. We see the fuzzy, ugly cocoon; God plans and sets in motion the butterfly. We see the painful, awful process; He is producing the value of the product. We see today; He is working on forever. We get caught up in the wrapping; He focuses on the gift—the substance down inside. We look at the external; He emphasizes the internal. He makes everything beautiful in its time, including your loss, your hospital experience, your failures, your brokenness, your battles, your fragmented dreams, your lost romance, your heartache, your illness. Yes, even your terminal illness…whatever you’re going through. He makes it beautiful in its time. Without Him, life is purposeless and profitless, miserable and meaningless. With Him, it will ultimately make sense.103

Solomon also says that God has set eternity into the hearts of mankind. Knowing that gives purpose to life. The phrase “eternity in their hearts” means God has placed a big question mark deep in every man’s soul. We should be asking the question: What is the meaning of life? God intended it that way. Anthropological evidence suggests that every culture has a God-given, innate sense of the eternal—that this world is not all there is.104

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Egypt and its tombs and pyramids, study what was required to construct some of those monuments. Some studies revealed that it required the efforts of one hundred thousand workers forty years to build just one of the great pyramids. As you tour the area there, you can’t help but ask why. Why so much effort? Why would somebody put that amount of emphasis on a tomb—on the afterlife? The answer is, the Egyptians understood full well that they would spend a lot more time in the afterlife than they would spend in this life. Granted, some of their conceptions of what would happen in the afterlife were a little skewed. But the point is, they understood to the core of their being that the afterlife was a whole lot more important than this life, and so they prepared for the afterlife during this life. God had placed eternity in their hearts.105

Since all has been predetermined by God, there is purpose and meaning in the events of life. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created being, but by God alone made known through Jesus Christ.” The truth is: we have an eternal itch. We all long to know the eternal significance of what we do. The Bible says this can only be found in Christ.

[Solomon has said we need to expect change and accept limitations. Now he will tell us to…]

3. Enjoy life (3:12-13).

Solomon says one of the greatest responses to this life is to make the most of it. Not in a hedonistic sense, but in a spiritual sense. We enjoy life by including God in all that we do and being filled with joy. Solomon declares, “I know106 that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.” Biblical faith is a call to joy. Ben Franklin once said, “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.” Timing is everything. Let’s face it, life is stressful. It is filled with all kinds of pressures from people, projects, pursuits, and more. For example, I could get a cold or flu this week. On my way home from church, a car could cross the yellow line and hit me head-on. I may learn that I have some form of cancer. So it makes sense to enjoy this life. Eat ice cream, watch a movie, play in the rain with your kids, take your wife out to a nice dinner. Yes, be a wise steward. There’s no need to be extravagant, but make the most of your days on this earth.

[Not only must we enjoy life, Solomon also says that we must…]

4. Fear God (3:14-15). Solomon closes this passage with these words: “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15 That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.” God’s work is permanent and complete. Everything that He does is awe-inspiring. This is why Solomon says that we should fear God (lit. “fear before Him”). The fear of God is one of the key themes in Ecclesiastes and throughout the Bible. The phrases “fear God” or “fear of the Lord” appear over one hundred times in the Bible. The concept does not refer to paralyzing terror, but rather a commitment of the total being to trust and believing the living God.107 I have been to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the Swiss Alps. On each of these occasions when I have gazed on God’s majestic handiwork, I felt small, fearful, and awestruck. God wants us to stand in awe of who He is and all that He is. When we do so, we will understand just how temporary this life is in contrast with an eternal God.

I talked with Don Prozora this past Friday. Don is a tremendous man of God. One year ago, Don’s son committed suicide. This year his father is dying. On top of this, Don learned that he has tumors on his liver and kidneys. Tomorrow he is having a CT scan to determine if these tumors are benign or cancerous. Yet, through these ordeals, Don continues to trust God. He told me, whatever the outcome he has complete confidence in God. He said, “I feel like I can’t lose.” Don and his wife, Pirjo, have submitted their entire lives to the Lordship of Christ because He has become their all in all—their everything! They understand what it means to fear God.

Today, will you fear God? Will you entrust yourself to Him? Will you depend upon Him for everything? Will you acknowledge that His timing is everything to you?

Scripture References

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Psalm 126:1-3

Isaiah 55:8-9

Acts 2:23

Romans 8:28

Romans 12:9-12

2 Corinthians 4:7-8

Study Questions

1. How does it make me feel to know that God is ultimately in charge of all the events in my life (3:1)? Am I comforted by this reality? If so, how does this truth comfort me? Do I find God’s sovereignty a bit disconcerting? How so?

2. Do I agree with Solomon that God’s plan includes a time for “everything” (3:2-8)—even war, death, mourning, and hate? Why or why not? When have I experienced the ebb and flow of life? Do I find this constant, pendulum-like description of life comforting or discouraging? Why? Am I able to “take life in stride” or do I have extreme highs and lows, dependent upon my circumstances? If the latter, what can I do to be more spiritually consistent?

3. How have I seen 3:11 proven true in my life and the lives of others? Can I sense a longing for the eternal in myself and others? How does this flesh itself out? How has God made “everything appropriate in its time” in my life? What expressions of this have I seen recently?

4. When I think of the gifts God has given me, what or who immediately comes to mind (3:12)? How often do I express my gratitude to God for His many gifts? How frequently do I acknowledge certain people as God’s gifts to me?

5. Do I honestly fear God (3:14-15)? How does this manifest itself in my life? Read Ecclesiastes 5:7; 8:12-13; 12:13-14; Proverbs 1:7; 2 Corinthians 5:9-11; 7:1; Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:13-17; and 1 John 4:13-21. What biblical insights from these passages cause me to have a greater sense of awe and fear of God?

74 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.

75 This illustration comes from Bruce Goettsche, “Timing is Everything” (Exodus 20:11-15):

76 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 48.

77 The Hebrew word zeman (“appointed”) is used in Ezra 10:14; Neh 2:6; 10:35; 13:31; and Esther 9:27, 31.

78 E.g., 1 Sam 15:22; 18:25; Job 21:21; 22:3; 48:38; Ps 1:2; Prov 31:13; Eccl 5:3; 12:1, 10; Hos 8:8; Mal 1:10; 3:12.

79 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

80 Glenn writes, “The fact that Solomon utilized polar opposites in a multiple of seven and began his list with birth and death is highly significant. The number seven suggests the idea of completeness and the use of polar opposites—a well known poetic device called merism—suggests totality (cf. Ps. 139:2-3).” Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 983.

81 In the OT, Solomon also metaphorically applies the language of planting and uprooting to nations (e.g., Jer 18:7; Zeph 2:4).

82 See Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17.

83 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 63-64.

84 See Gen 16:2; Job 16:14.

85 Elsewhere Solomon writes, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22).

86 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

87 This quote is attributed to Ed Howe in Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 90.

88 Today’s English Version (TEV) renders this line “the time for making love and a time for not making love.”

89 See 2 Sam 12:24; 1 Chron 7:21-23.

90 Although this seems like a logical parallel, it should be noted that none of the other items in the list seem to be figurative. This is a problem with the above interpretation, yet it should also be kept in mind that we are dealing with poetry. Therefore, it should not come as a shock that a euphemism might appear. And since each of the other fourteen pairs are parallel, why would this set be any different? Those that disagree with this view prefer the following possibilities: casting stones to make a field unworkable (as in warfare), or clearing a field of stones to prepare the soil, or the use of stones as counters to record the number of sheep in a flock.

91 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990), Electronic ed.

92 The father in Proverbs continually admonishes his children to pay attention to words of wisdom and instruction (2:1; 3:1; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 7:1, 24), but he also warns against talking too much (17:27) and becoming ensnared by one’s words (6:2). The more we talk, the more likely we are to sin (10:19); the fire of gossip dies out as soon as the talk ceases (26:20). In short, words can contain life or death; it is up to us to choose them carefully (18:21). There is no greater wisdom than knowing the seasons of the tongue—when it is time to speak and when it is time to keep silent (26:4-5). Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.

93 See Gen 37:29; 2 Sam 1:11; 13:31; Ezra 9:5; Lev 10:1-3; 2 Kgs 2:3, 5; Job 2:13.

94 J.A. Loader, “The Grip of Time” in Reflecting with Solomon: Selected Studies on the Book of Ecclesiastes ed. Roy B. Zuck, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 260.

95 Preaching Today citation: Meister Eckhart in Directions for the Contemplative Life. Christianity Today, Vol. 34, no. 3.

96 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.

97 See NET Study Notes.

98 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 47.

99 Preaching Today citation: “Quotable Quotes,” Readers Digest (March 2006); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, KY.

100 Davis notes, “The title Elohim (God) occurs a total of 40 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes (i.e., 8.93 times per 1,000 words). Compared to the remainder of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Ecclesiastes ranks number six in frequency of occurrence.” Only Deuteronomy, Jonah, Psalms, 2 Chronicles, and Ezra have more occurrences. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

101 The word yapheh means “beautiful” when referring to something physical, like human appearance (Gen 39:6), but when referring to actions and states like those listed in 3:1-8 the word “appropriate” conveys the sense more clearly. Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 111 n. 6.

102 Kaiser writes, “This quest is a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive, because man is made in the image of God to appreciate the beauty of creation (on an aesthetic level); to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world (on an academic and philosophical level); and to discern its purpose and destiny (on a theological level)…Man has an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in his experience can be integrated to make a whole.” Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 66. Elsewhere Kaiser states that Eccl 3:11 “summarizes the teacher’s whole argument, and in context (3:10-15) it serves equally well as a summary for the entire wisdom corpus.” Walter C. Kaiser, “Integrating Wisdom Theology into Old Testament Theology: Ecclesiastes 3:10-15,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 206.

103 Charles R. Swindoll, Solomon, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1994), 88.

104 Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2004)

105 Preaching Today citation: Bill Hybels, “Your Ever After: Heaven,” Preaching Today, Tape 34.

106 “I know” does not introduce a conclusion; rather, it begins a premise, an additional piece of information, or a concession. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.

107 Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 67-68.

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