There is no book, inside or outside the Bible, like Ecclesiastes. The Preacher, likely Solomon, writes Ecclesiastes in order to analyze life under the sun for any lasting meaning, joy, and purpose. His answer is that all of it is a vanity, with no more substance than a breath of air. All who live will die. Most will be forgotten, and of those who are remembered, what gain does that remembrance bring them in the grave? If all of that sounds rather depressing, rest assured that Solomon also points us to the hope that breaks into the bleakness of our lives.
The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with one of the most famous poems of the Bible. This poem muses on the back and forth, give and take nature of time. Good things happen as well as bad things. Some seasons of life are pleasant, while others are bitter. This is simply how life works, and no one is exempt from life’s shifting rhythms of time. The greatest advice that the author can give us, therefore, is to stop battling against the inevitable and start enjoying the lot of life that God has given each of us.
A TIME FOR EVERYTHING // VERSES 1-8
Up to this point, Solomon has described his journey to find meaning through wisdom and knowledge. Despite wisdom and knowledge being very good things, Solomon found that they still left him none the more satisfied with life without Divine interference. Then, since knowledge and wisdom failed him, Solomon sought the opposite: folly. In the previous chapter, the Israelite king described how he partied, spent, and lived grander than any man that has ever lived. Yet when the hangovers wore off, when the elaborate monuments were completed, when he had run out of fantasies, Solomon was just as empty as before. His ardent pursuit of pleasure gave his life no deep sense of purpose or meaning. It was vanity.
The third chapter of Ecclesiastes kicks off with a poem. As a writer of songs and proverbs, it seems only fitting that Solomon would throw a poetic interlude into his mediations. However, in case we get lost in the poetic workings of the next seven verses, Solomon provides the thesis for his poem right from the beginning: everything has its time and place. This statement builds strongly on the thought that a wise person knows when to do or say something. Is laughter good? Yes, we discussed that in the previous chapter. However, is laughter good at a funeral? No, typically laughter is considered rude or disrespectful at a funeral. Why? There is a time and place for everything, and those who are wise will understand when things should be done.
But we must also remember as we read this poem that the Preacher is not commenting on the virtues of the items presented. Many may read “a time for war” and assume that the Bible is therefore endorsing war. Or that the Bible advocates killing under appropriate circumstances. But morality is not the point of these verses. This poem is merely observing the rhythm and flow of life. People are healed, and people are killed. Fact. That’s just the world we live in. William Barrick effectively sums up the message of this poem, which we will continue to address in verses 9-22:
What is the point of this description of time-oriented events? It is that nothing happens haphazardly. No chance, no fate governs the things that happen in the lives of God’s people. He controls all events. (62)
This poem is Hebrew poetry at its finest. We find that the poem spans seven verses, each providing two couplings of opposites, which means fourteen statements total. The number seven is very significant to Jewish thought because it represents completeness or entirety. Thus, Solomon is attempting with a short poem to capture the summation of all events in human life. What a task! The goal of this poem mirrors the goal of Ecclesiastes as a whole. He begins with birth and death, the bookends of human existence. This makes complete sense. Solomon is saying that there was a time for your birth (a.k.a. your birthday) and there will be a specific time for your death. These are two moments which all of humanity will experience, and we have no control over either.
Next, Solomon describes another uncontrollable element: the seasons. The people in Solomon’s kingdom were predominately an agricultural society, and so their lives depended on the weather and seasons. Thus, they would all know which seasons were for planting and which were for harvesting.
God is certainly not telling us to murder in verse 3, and in fact, we do not need to view this phrase as necessarily applying to humans. Every farmer certainly knows that there is a time for painstakingly nursing injured cattle back to health, while a time also comes for putting the animal down.
Similarly, he states that there is a time for breaking down and a time for building up. On the surface, these opposing clauses are likely referring to architecture. There are times for new and fresh buildings and times to condemn old buildings. However, I can also see a figurative interpretation here. In the Christian life, we are called to both rebuke and encourage our brothers and sisters. During a rebuke, we attempt to lovingly tear down idols or fallacies in their life. By encouraging, we build up our spiritual family so that they will be better equipped for future weathering. Is tearing down in love a brother or sister easy or desired? No. Yet, at times, it is very necessary. The wisdom of Christ will guide us as to the correct time for encouragement or rebuke.
Verse 4 tells us that weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing each have their time and place. As mentioned in the funeral scenario above, laughter, though good, can be used incorrectly and in inappropriate circumstances. Even though weeping and mourning seem like negative things, suppose that an esteemed colleague passes away, would we not mourn his passing? Would it not be inconsiderate to merely shrug off the death of a close friend? I do not mourn much for the death of acquaintances, but how could I not weep at the death of a brother? Mourning is a means of honoring those whom we loved and is appropriate in its season.
Casting stones (v. 5) into another farmer’s land was a common method of destroying an enemy’s produce. Likewise, if you were attacked in such a way, you would need to “gather stones” from your own land. There is also a proper season for sex, namely within marriage, and any other time is the wrong time.
Hoarders need to memorize this verse 6. Solomon speaks about material things here. Trinkets have a way of adding up and becoming overwhelming. However, the Preacher says that there comes a time for seeking things and for keeping them, but there is also a time for things to remain lost or even for us to discard items. Stuff should never become so important that we cannot bear the thought of casting it away.
Have you ever met someone that cannot stop themselves from speaking, even in times when silence is the best option? Such awkward situations are caused by someone not knowing what is appropriate to a certain scenario (I am also sure that we have been that person at least once). That is Solomon’s aim in verse 7. Just last week I spoke with my mother about my brother’s wanderings. She was so distraught over his current actions that she cried the whole time. Over the course of the conversation, I did little more than listen. It was not a time to speak but a time to listen. Similarly, I believe that Solomon is referencing mourning when he says “a time to tear.” It was Jewish custom to tear one’s garments during a time of great mourning or distress; however, there is also a time for sewing those garments and moving on.
Verse 8 is another difficult one with which to reckon. We are typically avid preachers of love and peace, but what about war and hate? Is there really a godly time for war and hatred? We know from Scripture that there is a time for war. Joshua and Judges are filled with war. We are told via numerous prophesies that the end of time will come through God’s “war” on the unrighteous. War, in the Bible, is frequently used as an instrument for God’s wrath. Likewise, we must remember that though God is abounding in love He also experiences hatred. Does this make God unjust? No. In fact, His hatred makes Him just. Would you believe that God was good if He simply overlooked crimes like murder or rape? When faced with terrible injustice, there is a time for the people of God to have a righteous hatred.
THE GOD-GIVEN TASK // VERSES 9-15
Following his poetic interlude, Solomon brings up a similar thought from the last chapter. What purpose can be found in all of a man’s work? In verse 10, you can feel the cynicism. Solomon claims that he has seen everything that God uses to keep mankind busy. He has seen all of the advantages and disadvantages of work, and in the end, it provides no true substance. Jonathan Akin points out that within the previous poem “there are 14 pluses and 14 minuses, and that adds up to zero! Every birth ends in death, every planted crop is pulled up, every building is eventually condemned, every celebration gives way to a funeral, and every peace gives way to another war. Nothing is gained” (40). Since he claims that this comes from the hand of God, we can conclude that God has created everything in such a way that we can only find true satisfaction in Him.
I love verse 11. After looking at the futility of trying to find meaning in one’s work, Solomon turns his focus to God by, first, saying that He makes all things beautiful in their time. This verse should mean so much more after reading the previous poem. In the poem, we saw that “under heaven” life is full of positives and negatives, pros and cons, good and evil. We saw that there is mourning, war, and hate here on earth. Yet now Solomon throws the Divine into the equation. He looked forward to the day when the LORD would make all things good, when there will be no need for war or righteous hatred.
Next, Solomon says that God has placed eternity within our hearts. We are told in the creation story that God created us to be immortal. It was only our sin that caused us to die. Thus, the aftereffects still linger; we still feel as though we are immortal. This is why death seems to be an injustice to us. We have an innate desire to search out eternal things, but we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” God’s ways are higher, deeper, and more profound than we will ever be able to grasp, yet He created us to seek Him out. This endless quest is what Tozer calls the soul’s paradox of love: still pursuing Him after having already found Him. Tozer then quotes St. Bernard in saying: “We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still; we drink of Thee, the Fountainhead and thirst our souls from Thee to fill.”
Time is like the sky. Wherever we look, there it is. Yet, there is a problem. Humanity still has Eden in its veins. We have “eternity” in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Our souls instinctively yearn for a purposed life without end under this time-chained sun. The Preacher teaches us how to speak humanly and honestly about our longing for purpose, the tension we experience, and the reality of handling time with our neighbors. As those who do life with reference to the fear of the Lord, we too have these concerns in common with our neighbors (Eswine, 126).
With this chasing after eternity in mind, Solomon now claims that in this life there is nothing better than being joyful and doing good. Once again we must note that this book is not about the evil of pleasure; instead, Solomon wants his audience to experience lasting joy and pleasure, which can only be found in God. A satisfaction with our work and life is one of God’s greatest gifts, and it must come from God, for there is no other source.
It is also important to remember that this statement is not the same as the nihilistic creed: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Or as a character from a popular television series says, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.” That is hopelessness that desperately hides behind entertainment to numb us from reality. The Preacher’s plea to eat and drink and take pleasure in our toil is form of Paul’s command to glorify God in everything that we do, even eating and drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The aging king further elaborates on God’s actions and sovereignty. Verse 14 mirrors verse 11 in their discussion of eternity. While 11 focused on our desire for eternality, this verse concerns God’s actual perpetuity. We cannot create meaning from what we set our hands to do; whereas, God can only create meaning from His works. Solomon says that God does this so that we might fear Him. The cosmic difference between us and Him should create within us a fearful reverence for the LORD.
Ray Stedman gives us this thought on verse 15:
A better translation of that last phrase is, ‘God brings back what has already passed away.’ The Searcher here refers to the repetition of life’s lessons. We do not seem to learn very well. I have learned some lessons in life and said, “Lord, I see what you are after. I’ve got it now. You don’t have to bring this one back again.” But down the road I make the same mistake. Some circumstance painfully recalls to mind what I had once seen as a principle of life. I have to humbly come and say, ‘Lord, I’m a slow learner. Have patience with me.’ God says, ‘I understand. I’m prepared to have patience with you and teach you this over and over again until you get it right.’ (54)
FROM DUST TO DUST // VERSES 16-22
Solomon’s next vanity is the problem with wickedness. The king looks at the justice and righteous systems and finds that wickedness is there. Even today we can see that this statement is true. United States justice systems are established upon the slogan “innocent until proven guilty.” What a noble thought! Our courts are known for trying in the best ways possible to be just, but injustice is still committed. In the very buildings established to bring justice, have we not heard stories of people being wrongfully accused, of those being abused by authority?
And what shall we make of his statement about righteousness? To what could Solomon be referring? I would venture that religious leader scandals hit fairly close to Solomon’s intent. There are two large Wikipedia page lists of both Catholic and evangelical minister scandals. Why does finding a minister with a prostitute create such a vast dissonance within us? It is not the inherent act of prostitution, though it should be. Instead, we are so shocked by such scandals because those men claimed to be godly. They claimed to be righteous but fell short in tremendous fashion. We know that it is wrong to find such wickedness in places where justice and righteousness should be. It deeply disturbs the aging king.
Over the course of this chapter, Solomon has carefully walked the border of cynical and hopefully reliant. In answer to the previous verse’s cynicism, the Preacher now conveys in verse 17 his hope that God will correct everything. Notice that Solomon prefaces his statement with “I said in my heart.” To the ancient Hebrew, the heart was used much as we use it today: as the seat of the emotions, as the depth of one’s being. Thus, he is saying that from the very core of his soul he believes that “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” Despite the wickedness of humanity, God will have the last word. He will judge everyone, and He will judge with perfect justice. He then repeats his refrain that there is a time for everything. We must remember, as Solomon remembered, that wickedness is for but a season. In the end, God’s justice will prevail.
Solomon concludes in verse 18 from the previous two verses that God tests man. By allowing wickedness for a time, God shows us that we are nothing but beasts. This reminds me very much of Paul’s writings. Paul claims in the letter to the Galatians that God gave His people the Mosaic Law not to save us but to show us how great our need to be saved truly is. God gave us His perfect law to show us how imperfect we are and how desperately we need a perfect savior. Solomon makes the same sort of conclusion here. God is testing us, not because He is an angry kid with a magnifying glass, but because He wants us to understand how terribly we need Him. This is fitting when we consider the origin of our sin. Although they were made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were not content with being like God; they wanted to be God. We as humans were given the special privilege of displaying God’s character, but we are not content to just be like Him. All sin, therefore, is a proclamation of our own divinity. By sinning, we declare that we know better than God Himself. This is why death is a consequence of our sin. Death forces us to remember that we are merely creatures, which leads us to Solomon’s thoughts in the next three verses.
We must be careful in our interpretation of verses 19-21 since they represent one of Solomon’s furthest dives into pessimism. In the previous verse, Solomon compares man’s depravity to being like the wild animals. Continuing that theme, he states that man has no advantage of the beasts because we die just like them. I cannot stress this enough Solomon is speaking here from his “under the sun” perspective. From a purely physical and worldly point of view, humans are nothing more than intelligent animals. We look at the brutality of the animal world, but we see far greater brutality within our midst. Animals kill for primal urges, yet people have killed simply for the terror of the act. If anything, we should view ourselves as less than the animals because they act in innocence, but we act with terrible purpose. Thus, from this perspective, Solomon’s words ring true. How could we know if the afterlife for mankind was any better than for animals? Do not our bodies decompose and become dust just like the animals? Solomon is not claiming that animals have souls or that we are equal to animals, but he is showing that this worldly way of thinking is nothing but vanity.
Fortunately, this chapter is ended on a more hopeful note. Verse 22 is meant to hearken back to verse 13. In light of man’s depravity and similarity to the animals, Solomon repeats that there is no better course of action than for us to rejoice in our work. Solomon’s greatest advice is that we should enjoy the gift that God has given to us, which is the ability to enjoy at all. The closing question provides some level of difficulty. Does he mean that the afterlife is in doubt? I do not believe so. We have no reason to believe that Solomon questioned, or completely disbelieved, the existence of an afterlife. Therefore, we must take his question to mean that we have no control over what becomes of us. We have no control over what will happen once we are dead, so why not just enjoy today? We should rejoice in each day that the Father gives us because He does not promise another.
Our Creator is in control and makes known His will for His people. We are not to pour more effort into understanding our frustrating and uncontrollable circumstances. Nor ought we to spend our time comparing our lot in life with another’s. We ought not indulge in retaliation, resentment, bitterness, or disappear into a fantasy world. Reject these reactions to life’s difficult circumstances and intrinsic injustices. Abandon self-pity and despair. Identify the advantage to your disadvantage. Thank God that He uses such circumstances to humble you, to make you more dependent upon Him, and to be thankful for what He has given you to enjoy. Your joy of God’s gifts grows greater in the light of your trials while you live ‘under the sun.’ (Barrick, 70-71)