Eternity in Our Hearts? ...Ecclesiastes 3:11 Revisited

Published: Aug 10, 2009

An Article Review

Recently I read “A Reexamination of ‘Eternity’ in Ecclesiastes 3:11” by Brian P. Gault, which appeared in Bibliotheca Sacra (165, Jan-Mar 2008, pages 39-57). It got me thinking.

How dare he? Mr. Gault is challenging our beloved interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” If you ever read Don Richardson’s Eternity in Their Hearts, a compelling collection of missionary stories about people who were seeking Jesus before missionaries came, you will feel betrayed. Gault is raising questions about a passage that has been a cornerstone in foreign missions. He is like the first one to tell a child that there might not be a tooth fairy. But that is jumping ahead.

I remember two eternity moments in my early years. The first was when I was in third grade and I heard the word infinity for what seemed to be the first time. I was stunned. It was mind-boggling. It kept me awake for a few days just trying to understand it; then I gave up the quest just before it stole my sanity. The second time was soon after that epiphany. During a trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, I was mesmerized by a huge pendulum that was swinging without any human intervention. It needed no gas, no electricity, no push. It was put in motion by the rotation of the earth, and it would keep swinging . . . forever. It was wonderful and frightening. Eternity was, no doubt, embedded in my heart.

But, given this article, maybe just the opposite is true. Those early events, and a number of them since, demonstrate that I am completely incapable of grasping the eternal. Perhaps the ability to be intrigued by the eternal is in my heart, but I certainly don’t have the ability to comprehend it.

Gault isn’t motivated by our odd infatuation with infinity so much as he is interested in a passage that is more complex than we think. Apparently there are no less than ten popular interpretations of the word eternity in this passage. The most common is found in Richardson’s book, where it means “a sense of eternity,” “a longing for eternity,” or “a quest for eternal matters.” This translation would be settled except Ecclesiastes isn’t interested in life after death. Its basic theology is “all come from dust, and to dust all return” (3:20). Its main interest is present life “under the sun” and not our musings about eternity.

The translation Gault prefers is darkness or ignorance rather than eternity, and he is not alone in his choice. To get this he must change the vowels of the Hebrew word, which is permissible because the original text was written only in consonants with vowels being added centuries after the text was completed.

Here is the entire verse (NIV):

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

A paraphrase reflecting Gault’s preferred translation might read like this:

God has made everything appropriate in its time. He has placed darkness in the human heart so that people cannot discover all God has done. (Gault p.53)

This gives a very different conclusion. In times of difficulty, we are tempted to ask, “What is God doing?” or even “How could He have allowed this to happen?” The revised text offers this answer.

While God has created all the “times” of life (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8), each appropriate in its time (v.10), He has obscured humanity’s knowledge, placing darkness in their hearts, so that they cannot discover His divine program (v.11). But why? Because God wants humanity to enjoy the work He has given them (vv.12-13), to trust in His sovereignty and fear Him (v.14). (Gault p.57)

Focus on your task at hand; trust God for the future. That would be the message of the verse, and it fits the message of the larger book. It is simple and wise advice.

Run with this for a bit. Consider what you might do with this translation. For example, it means that our ignorance of the details of God’s plan is not a curse. It is simply the way we were created. In other words, it is a good thing that we are not in on the specifics.

  • This veil or ignorance can bring rest. While we don’t feel the need to explain the death of a ninety-five-year-old saint, we feel compelled to understand why someone dies “before her time.” Or take an even more difficult event – the suicide of a loved one. This certainly begs for an explanation and families can spend the rest of the lives trying to understand what they did to cause the suicide and why God allowed it.

This passage allows us to rest even before our quest for answers begins. Whatever explanations we invent will, no doubt, be wrong or pathetically incomplete, so we might as well start immediately with trusting God.

  • The veil is reason for thanks. Do I really want to know what is going to happen to my kids? If I had such knowledge I would live in fear.
  • The veil teaches me to live as a child before the Father. For example, as a child, I don’t need or want to know the details of how my father is going to get us to the beach. It is more than enough to know that he is going to get us there. So we are free to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Or, in the case of the passage, we can get busy with the task at hand.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore. (Psalm 131)

There it is again: rest. Ah, that’s what it means to be human.

  • The veil teaches us to live by faith. How unimaginable – how inhuman – it would be to rely on what we know. To trust our God, King and Father is the most satisfyingly human thing that we can do. Who would ever opt for an anxiety-ridden life in which we access to the inner working of the cosmos?

So I think Gault gives us a worthy translation that offers practical guidance and teaches humility before the Lord. And it doesn’t force us to toss Richardson’s book and all those other books that adopt the use of the word eternal. The basic idea of “eternity in their hearts” is that there seems to be an awareness of God, albeit uneven, throughout humanity. The textual support for that observation, however, is Romans 1:18-20, not Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Instead, Ecclesiastes 3:11 teaches us that God has lovingly placed— not eternity— but a veil in our hearts. And the result is we can walk by faith today; we can open our eyes and do the next thing. We can do the kingdom work that is in front of us while we rest in the knowledge that our lives are in the hands of a loving Father whose plan is good. It’s enough to make me want to study Ecclesiastes again.

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Ed Welch is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a neuro-psychology specialty from the University of Utah as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Ed has been counseling for over twenty-six years and has written many books and articles on biblical counseling, including best selling titles: When People are Big and God is Small, Addictions: a Banquet in the Grave, Blame it on the Brain, Depression, Running Scared: Fear, Worry and the God of Restand his newest release, a curriculum entitled Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction. His written work and speaking ministry, which is characterized by sound biblical exposition and paired with dynamic practical application, is in great demand by today's modern church. Ed and his wife, Sheri, have two married daughters and two grandchildren. In his spare time, Ed enjoys hanging out with his wife, is the glad owner of a growing guitar collection and competes in the Master's swim event where he placed fourth in the country. Areas of interest/experience: depression and addictions.

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