Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

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Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

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Our Lives Are in God’s Hands

We come now to the second major section of the book (Ecclesiastes 3:1–5:20). Once again, to see what Solomon is aiming at, we should consider the section’s conclusion (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). As in the previous section conclusion, we see from the refrain here that people should accept and enjoy God’s gifts in daily living—with the additional statement that a person who does so “will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart” (verse 20). So it would appear that a problem addressed in this section is people dwelling unduly on the days of their lives—lamenting over life’s monotony or negative experiences and trying to comprehend the point of it all.

This sheds light on the beautiful and masterful poem that opens this section concerning the “seasons,” or set times, of the circumstances in life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)—this being the first part of the opening subsection (verses 1-15). The fact that man is subject to his circumstances is often a source of great consternation—especially for those who have not learned to commit themselves to God’s providential care come what may. The poem here is not a digression, but continues Solomon’s exposition of man’s plight during this life—“under the sun” here replaced by “under heaven” (verse 1, as in Ecclesiastes 1:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:3)—and of the way to find happiness.

One commentator explains: “Events and characteristic seasons of time are imposed upon men: no one chooses a time to weep. Equally, the events of life that come our way undermine our confidence that our endeavors will have any permanence. ‘Whatever may be our skill and initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons: not only those of the calendar, but that tide of events which moves us now to one kind of action which seems fitting, now to another which puts it all into reverse.’ We are not sure they will have any total meaning, and we cannot stand outside the events of life and view them ‘from the beginning to the end’ [verse 11]. All this puts mankind in his place, far from being master of his fate and captain of his soul” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Eaton, note on verses 1-15).

The New American Commentary notes on these verses: “Life is composed of joy and sorrow, building and destroying, and living and dying. Each comes at the proper time. This reminds us that we are creatures of time and not yet able to partake of the joys of eternity. No one can be happy who has not come to grips with the reality that life is full of changes and sorrows as well as continuity and joy. We must accept that we are mortal and governed by time” (Garrett).

Some commentators believe the poem here is pessimistic or a protest—bemoaning the fact that we must resign ourselves to fate. Yet this is not the message of the passage at all. Quite the contrary, in the various circumstances, it is still our choice whether to respond to the given situation appropriately. Moreover, accepting that we are not in control of circumstances is meant to bring peace of mind— comfort even, when we realize who is in control and that there is purpose behind it all (verse 1). Notice verse 17, which says that God will judge the righteous and the wicked, there being “a time for every purpose and for every work.” This demonstrates that the times and seasons for events are part of the great plan God is working out (see also verse 10-11, 14). This should not be taken to imply that the various times of the poem in verses 1-8 are all fixed beforehand, with God having fated all the details of people’s lives. Ecclesiastes 9:11 says that time and events, often rendered chance, happen to all. Nevertheless, God remains in ultimate control. Whenever a circumstance proceeds, it is only because He allows it. He could always intervene. And He does where His great plan is concerned—and in answer to people’s prayers. Solomon’s assessment of the times of life in Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 is a hopeful one, as we will see.

“The scope of God’s sovereignty,” notes the Preaching the Word commentary, “is further emphasized in the poem that follows, with its parallel series of related opposites. Each pair forms a merism [or merismus], a figure of speech in which two polarities make up a whole. For example, when the Bible says that God created ‘the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1), it means that God created the entire universe. Similarly, each of the pairs in Ecclesiastes 3 make up a larger whole. Together, birth and death comprise the whole of human existence, weeping and laughing summarize the full range of human emotion, and so on. There is something comprehensive about each pair. There is also something comprehensive about the list as a whole. There are fourteen pairs in all, which is twice the Biblical number (seven) of perfection and completion. Not surprisingly, the pairs themselves seem to take in the whole sweep of human existence, from birth to death, from war to peace (which is where the poem ends), and everything in between” (Ryken, p. 80).

As to the specifics of the poem, the first pairing of contrasts concerns life’s beginning and ending. Some maintain that what is often rendered “a time to be born” in verse 2 should actually be “a time to bear” or “a time to give birth.” It’s not clear which is meant. The second pairing, on planting and reaping, may also correspond to life and death (especially as two pairings appear to constitute a single verse throughout the poem, and this is the way the verses have been numbered—making seven verses of two pairs each).

Planting and plucking up is also figurative in Scripture of creative and destructive acts respectively—as are the verbs in the next two pairs in verse 3 (kill/heal, break down/build up). Besides their literal meanings, these “may be figuratively used for establishing or undermining” (Tyndale, note on verses 2-3).

The actions mentioned in the poem are often understood in a moral sense. For instance, verse 3 is thought to mean that there is a time when it is right to kill. In Israel’s experience there certainly was a right time—in the cases where God ordered it, whether in war or capital punishment. Christians today are not to engage in war or execute people, being ministers of life and not death (Matthew 26:52; John 18:36; 2 Corinthians 3:6). They are, however, to kill their old sinful ways (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). On the other hand, other commentators contend that these verses in Ecclesiastes 3 are not about proper behavior, considering the “everything” of verse 1 to include immoral acts of others as well. That is to say, there is a season and time for evil—and indeed, God has allotted the present age for this and with great purpose, though He does not approve of it. Still, it seems best to read the verses here as representative of everything that could confront a given individual over the course of a lifetime—rather than as things various people might do or experience. If the reader or hearer of these words is in mind in each verse, then the responses mentioned would seem to be morally permissible at appropriate times.

The next two pairs of the poem, in verse 4, bring in human emotions, “first private (weep…laugh), then public (lament…dance)” (note on verse 4).

“The following two pairs [in verse 5] deal with friendship and enmity. Four major views have been held of to throw stones…to gather stones: (i) The Aramaic Targum of Ecclesiastes saw a reference to scattering stones on an old building and preparing to build a new one…. (ii) Others see a reference to rendering fields unproductive by covering its surface with stones (cf. 2 Kings 3:19, 2 Kings 3:25; Isaiah 5:2). (iii) [A 19th-century commentator] saw here an ‘old Jewish practice…of flinging stones or earth into the grave at the burial’ in the first phrase, and preparations to build a house in the second. (iv) More recent scholars have seen a sexual reference following the Midrashic interpretation (cf. GNB). The first three possibilities have often been rejected on the ground that they ‘leave the second half of the verse [about embracing] without any logical connection’…. But the second half need not have an exclusively ‘passionate meaning’…; possibly it alludes merely to showing friendship or enmity. If so, it is likely that the first pair puts the same point in national or military terms. ‘Gathering stones together’ will refer to preparing the way for a military conqueror (cf. Isaiah 62:10); casting stones will refer to military aggression by ruining an enemy’s fields” (note on Ecclesiastes 3:5).

The next two pairs, in verse 6, concern “possessions and our resolutions concerning them” (note on verse 6). Instead of “a time to gain and a time to lose,” the NIV has “a time to search and a time to give up [as lost].” “Nothing in this world is ours forever” (NAC, note on verse 6).

In the next two pairs, tearing and keeping silent “may allude to mourning and funerals. Mourners tore their clothes, and their comforters kept silent during times of grief, but people were free to repair clothes and freely converse at other times” (note on verse 7). However, with regard to sewing, a seamstress might also “tear” cloth for various reasons, including in the making of quilts. The sense, as with speaking or not speaking, would seem to be doing whatever is appropriate at the time.

The last two pairs of contrasts in the poem, in verse 8, are arranged chiastically (or concentrically, here a-b-b-a): love, hate, war, peace. The two pairs are often differentiated by classing the first as personal feelings and the latter as international conditions. But love and hate can exist on a national level, and war and peace can exist on a personal level. Individually, Christians today must love all people and hate evil. We must war against dark spiritual forces and our own corrupted human nature. Yet the ultimate goal in life is peace. While we do experience times of peace, perfect, lasting peace does not yet exist on the earth. In placing peace last, Solomon transitions back to the point of the book. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means more than the absence of conflict. It includes contentment and fulfillment—what his treatise is pointing people toward.

In verses 9-15, Solomon proceeds to evaluate and deal with what he has just presented. That there is a dilemma in what he has laid out in his poem is clear from verse 9, which is essentially a restatement of the seemingly hopeless question in Ecclesiastes 1:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:22, asking what benefit one derives from his work in this life. Man and his work are subject to time and circumstances as part of the limitations of mortal life. And note “the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied” (Ecclesiastes 3:10). In the scheme of things as arranged by God, people have the hard task of navigating life according to changing conditions over which they have no real control—including the time of their death.

Yet an optimistic qualification is offered at the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3:11: God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” The Hebrew word rendered “beautiful” could also be translated as “fitting,” as in 5:18 (NKJV), though “beautiful” would work there as well. Some take Ecclesiastes 3:11 to mean that each incident is appropriate at its given time. That could be. Yet the “everything” here, tying back to verse 1, would seem to indicate the whole. Solomon is likely saying that when all is said and done, God’s ordering of circumstances, even negative ones, leads to a beautiful work in the end. We find a New Testament parallel in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This includes circumstances before one’s calling—and the verse here will eventually apply to the human race as a whole. Solomon intends by his qualification to tell us that if we can accept our lives as ultimately the work of God, aiming toward a meaningful and beautiful result, even the difficult parts will be bearable.

But he then presents a counterqualification in the second part of Ecclesiastes 3:11. God has put within people’s hearts a desire for eternity and for comprehending all the reasons for life’s twists and turns—but we can’t figure it out. So we can’t be content with just accepting life as it is. The New American Commentary notes on this verse: “We feel like aliens in the world of time and yearn to be part of eternity. We feel the need for ourselves and our work to be eternal and yet are grieved to be trapped in time. We also desire to understand our place in the universe against the backdrop of eternity. But we cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. That is, we are not able to discern any plan or pattern to all of this. God’s purposes are outside our realm of control or investigation.” As Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” We just cannot grasp all the reasons for everything God brings about or allows to happen. We do not have the broad overview He does, seeing all the interrelations He sees and understanding all His manifold intents in any given circumstance.

We can become unduly focused on all this and end up distressed—a facet of the problem referenced in the conclusion of the current major section (Ecclesiastes 5:20). Or we can embrace the solution Solomon presents in the section conclusion (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20) as well as the subsection conclusion here (Ecclesiastes 3:12-15)—both containing the refrain about eating and drinking and enjoying the good of one’s labor as God’s gift. As in the previous instance of the refrain at the end of the former section (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26), this implies a life of faith in and acceptance of God’s providential care and blessing. The point is certainly not that we should forget our eternal longing through profligate living, as some contend. “To do good” in Ecclesiastes 3:12 refers to engaging in enjoyable pursuits as well as living morally—parallel to being among the “good” in the previous section conclusion (Ecclesiastes 2:26). In fact, doing good is later equated with not sinning and being righteous (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Ecclesiastes 9:2). Some object to the focus of the refrains, deeming them selfishly oriented. But doing good, as the whole of Scripture shows, includes obeying God in helping and serving others. (We will consider more about the notion of selfishness in Ecclesiastes when we come to the current major section’s conclusion in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.)

Note that Solomon began his conclusion to this subsection with “I know” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). He followed with the refrain about enjoying life. Yet he has more to say in regard to coping with life’s changing circumstances. In verse 14, he again begins with “I know,” showing that there is more to his conclusion. He then explains that God’s work will last forever and no one can alter it. This refers back to “the work that God does from beginning to end” in verse 11—to God’s overall plan and purpose, particularly as it unfolds in the circumstances expressed in the poem about the times of life. In essence, Solomon turns the dilemma of the poem on its head! The same poem that can appear to represent a bleak and hopeless entrapment in time is reassessed as representing the surety of the overall direction of life by God—a fact we can have great confidence in. Indeed, God’s work lasting forever and being unalterable is set in sharp contrast to the vapor or vanity of human life.

Yet there are those who view this as a negative. “Some scholars see these verses as depressing and fatalistic. God does whatever he does, and there is nothing we can do about it. In the words of [one commentator]…‘God’s works steamroller over man’s puny efforts, and nothing substantially new can interrupt the awesome course of events God has ordained.’ If we cannot add anything to what God has done or take anything away from it, then there is absolutely nothing that we can do about our situation in life…. [So] is the absolute rule of God a source of hope or encouragement?” (Preaching the Word commentary, Ryken, p. 96).

The answer is right here. Continuing in verse 14, Solomon says God does it—that is, works out His great plan through circumstances far beyond human ability to grasp—so “that men should fear before Him.” It is all intended to humble man and lead him to submit to God and His ways. Yet “even at this point some scholars try to claim that God is trying ‘to frighten people into submission, not to arouse a sense of respectful awe of his power and might.’ The trouble with this interpretation is that the fear of God is one of the most positive concepts in the entire Bible. To fear God is to revere him and to tremble at his mighty power. Both the Psalms and the Proverbs say that such fear of the Lord is the very beginning of wisdom and that anyone who fails to see this is a fool (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7 [and Proverbs 9:10]). In fact, when we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, we will discover that this is the point of the whole book. After saying everything else that he has to say, the Preacher will leave us with this simple instruction: ‘Fear God’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13)” (p. 96).

In Ecclesiastes 3:15, Solomon takes things a step further. The first part of the verse acknowledges that time marches on incessantly and cyclically, just as was stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 to illustrate the brevity and monotony of life against this backdrop. The latter part of Ecclesiastes 3:15 is variously translated, but it seems to mean that God seeks what has been passed by. In context, this could mean that God will ultimately recall and restore the lives that have been left behind by the march of time—the ultimate hope for surpassing the limitations of this life. Or it could refer, as in the NKJV, to God’s recalling of past events for the purpose of judgment. If the latter, this would serve as a warning to those who would respond to the ups and downs of life by living immorally—and as a reinforcement of the point about the fear of God in verse 14. It would also introduce what Solomon presents at the beginning of the next subsection (see verses 16-17). Still, “the language of seeking is so positive that it suggests that God is looking to redeem the past, and not simply to render judgment. By his grace he will recover and restore what seems, from our vantage point, to be lost forever” (p. 97). Either way, the end of this subsection in Ecclesiastes 3:15 points us to the time beyond the toil of this life—to the time of the Kingdom of God—just as the end of the previous major section did in Ecclesiastes 2:26. Embracing life with this focus is the way to happiness in the here and now.

Considering the times of life, the Preaching the Word commentary asks and comments: “Do you believe in the timeliness of God, not just for the world in general but for your own case in particular? Do you trust his timing for the seasons of your own life? People often criticize God for being too late, or else too early. Yet in retrospect we discover that his agenda was better all along. Because a door was closed when we wanted it open, we ended up going a different direction, which turned out to be the right direction all along. We were not ready for the relationship we wanted when we wanted it, but only later. Something happened to change our schedule, and we ended up having an unexpected conversation that changed our whole direction in life, or maybe someone else’s direction. Sometimes being in the right place at God’s time instead of at the wrong place on your own schedule can even save your life…. It is all in the timing. Rather than insisting on having everything run according to our own schedule, we need to learn to trust God’s timetable. Know this: the Savior who was born ‘when the fullness of time had come’ (Galatians 4:4) and died for our sins at just ‘the right time’ (Romans 5:6) has a beautiful sense of timing” (p. 91).