Ecclesiastes 3 – The Reign of Time, A Glimmer of Hope
A. God and time.
1. (1-8) A time for every purpose.
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.
a. To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: The poetry of this list – describing the different seasons and facets of life – is beautiful. Yet it also casts a dark shadow because it reminds us of the inevitability of trouble and evil, and of the relentless monotony of life.
i. “His ceaseless reiteration of the words, ‘A time… a time… a time,’ are intended to indicate his sense of the monotony of all things, rather than of their variety.” (Morgan)
ii. “The repetition of ‘a time…, and a time…’ begins to be oppressive. 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 all into reverse.” (Kidner)
b. A time to be born, and a time to die… a time to break down, and a time to build up: A bad facet answers each good facet. The Preacher understood that though there are good things in life, the bad things can’t be escaped.
i. “Birth and death, the boundaries of life under the sun, are mentioned first.” (Wright)
ii. A time to kill: Solomon did not tell us there was a time for murder. “Significantly, the Hebrew word used here for ‘to kill,’ is not the word reserved for murder in the sixth commandment, where premeditation seems to be in view.” (Wright)
iii. A time to dance: The English Puritan commentator John Trapp seemed to be wary of this time to dance. “Here is nothing for mixed immodest dancings…. Where there is dancing, there the devil is, saith a Father: and cannot men be merry unless they have the devil for their playfellow? Dancing, saith another, is a circle, whose centre is the devil, but busily blowing up the fire of lust, as in Herod, that old goat.” (Trapp)
iv. A time to cast away stones: In the ancient world they commonly scattered stones on an enemies’ land to hinder farming.
v. The poetic quality of the list shows that even the tragic, dark aspects of life can be artfully – and powerfully – presented.
vi. This list also shows us the need to take full advantage of the time God gives us (Ephesians 5:16, Colossians 4:5). “Many a man loseth his soul, as Saul did his kingdom, by not discerning his time. Esau came too late; so did the foolish virgins. If the gale of grace be over-past, the gate shut, the drawbridge taken up, there is no possibility of entrance.” (Trapp)
2. (9-11) A glimmer of hope in seeing God as the master of time.
What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
a. What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task which the sons of men are to be occupied: The Preacher asked the kind of question he had asked before; but this time he found an answer in the God-given task that God gives to man.
b. He has made everything beautiful in its time: This sense of balance considers the poetic list in the previous section. Solomon thought of the good and bad as they were described and understood that God has made everything beautiful in its time.
c. Also He has put eternity in their hearts: The Preacher understood that man has an awareness and a longing for the eternal, and that God has put this in their hearts. We can say that eternity is in our hearts because we are made in the image of an eternal God.
i. “God made man in his own image; and nothing more surely attests to the greatness of our origin that those faculties of the soul which are capable of yearning for, conceiving, and enjoying the Infinite, the Immortal, and the Divine…. Every appetite in nature and grace has its appropriate satisfaction.” (Meyer)
ii. The well-known missionary and author Don Richardson used the phrase eternity in their hearts to describe the phenomenon of redemptive analogies in most all aboriginal cultures. Almost every culture has traditions, customs, or ways of thinking that reflect basic Biblical truth, and these can be used by missionaries to explain the gospel.
d. Except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end: Though God has given man a longing for and awareness of eternity, God has not revealed very much about His eternal work. This keeps the yearning for eternity alive in the heart of man as a yet-to-be-fulfilled longing.
i. “The Preacher’s vast researches have found nothing in the finite earthly realm which can satisfy the human heart intellectually or practically… This is the nearest he comes to Augustine’s maxim: ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.’” (Eaton)
3. (12-15) What the Preacher knows.
I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor – it is the gift of God.
I know that whatever God does,
It shall be forever.
Nothing can be added to it,
And nothing taken from it.
God does it, that men should fear before Him.
That which is has already been,
And what is to be has already been;
And God requires an account of what is past.
a. I know that nothing is better for them to rejoice, and to do good in their lives… and enjoy the good of all his labor – it is the gift of God: In light of God’s making everything beautiful and in His gift of eternity in their hearts – then it is wise to receive the good things of this life, and to receive them as the gift of God.
i. I know: This “holds out again hope of an enjoyable life from the hand of God… sees such a life as man’s privilege.” (Eaton)
b. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever: Here the Preacher escapes – ever so briefly – his under the sun thinking. It is not the mere mention of God that brings the escape; it is also the knowledge that God is eternal and that this matters to us (God does it, that men should fear before Him).
i. I know: This “shows the security of such a life is its divine guarantor… sees such a life… as God’s purpose.” (Eaton)
ii. Eaton sees three aspects of God’s action highlighted in Ecclesiastes 3:14:
· God’s actions are permanent (it shall be forever).
· God’s actions are effective and complete (nothing can be added to it).
· God’s actions are totally secure (nothing taken from it).
iii. “All this leads on the part of man to fear, not a craven terror in the face of the monstrous or the unknown, but rather the opposite, reverence and awesome regard for God.” (Eaton)
c. And God requires an account of what is past: Again, this reflects a brief escape from under the sun thinking. If God judges the heart and deeds of man, then everything has meaning.
i. “God has no abortive enterprises or forgotten men. Once again Qoheleth has shown, in passing, that the despair he describes is not his own, and need not be ours.” (Kidner)
B. Injustice is unanswered by death.
1. (16-17) The problem of injustice and an uneasy assurance of solving this problem.
Moreover I saw under the sun:
In the place of judgment,
Wickedness was there;
And in the place of righteousness,
Iniquity was there.
I said in my heart,
“God shall judge the righteous and the wicked,
For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.”
a. I saw under the sun: in the place of judgment, wickedness was there: Solomon looked at the world – the here and now world, apart from considering eternity – and saw that there was great evil and injustice. Instead of fair judgment he found wickedness; instead of righteousness he found iniquity.
i. “One of the greatest problems in understanding the total plan of God is that reward and punishment sometimes seem conspicuously absent.” (Wright)
ii. This is a significant problem under the sun. If man does not have to reckon with eternity; if this life is all there is, then many of the wicked and evil people win and many good and righteous people lose. The idea of karma does not consistently work – at least not in this life.
b. I said in my heart, “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked”: The Preacher said – perhaps hoped – that he knew God would judge the righteous and the wicked, and not only in this life. Because there is a time there for every purpose and for every work, God will judge the deeds of man to see if it fit the proper purpose and work.
2. (18-21) The common fate of animals and humans under the sun.
I said in my heart, “Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.” For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?
a. Concerning the condition of the sons of men… they themselves are like animals: Solomon looked at life among both humans and animals, and also compared their deaths – doing so in under the sun, absent eternity terms. On this basis, he could say that there is little difference in the life and destiny between humans and animals.
i. They themselves are like animals: “The pronoun is repeated emphatically, ‘that they themselves are [like] beasts, they in themselves.’” (Deane)
ii. “In their context these verses say that God makes all sensible people realize that they are as much subject to death as is the animal world.” (Wright)
b. As one dies, so dies the other: The Preacher thought of an animal dying and its body decomposing. Then he thought that by all outward appearance, the same happens to a human body. Therefore, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.
i. “The distinction between man and beast in annulled by death; the former’s boasted superiority, his power of conceiving and planning, his greatness, skill, strength, cunning, all come under the category of vanity, as they cannot ward off the inevitable blow.” (Deane)
ii. This is no argument for the doctrine of annihilationism, the idea that the unrighteous dead simply cease to exist, either immediately or after some time of punishment. It is no argument for two reasons. First, Solomon spoke here as a man unconvinced of eternity and the meaning it brings to life. Second, we believe what 2 Timothy 1:10 says: that Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. The understanding of the afterlife is cloudy and uncertain in the Old Testament, but much clearer in the New Testament.
c. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth: We sense that the Preacher hoped there was a different destiny between people and animals. Yet in his under the sun thinking, there was no real reason to believe it – so, “Who knows”?
i. “What is meant by ‘upward’ and ‘downward’ may be seen by reference to the gnome in Proverbs 15:24, ‘To the wise the way of life goeth upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath.’” (Deane)
ii. “The Teacher is speaking phenomenologically, i.e., as things appear to the senses.” (Wright)
3. (22) Finding peace under the sun.
So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
a. So I perceived: It is true that Solomon perceived this, but he did so on the faulty assumptions of under the sun thinking.
b. Nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works… who can bring him to see what will happen after him: After briefly flirting with a confidence in eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15), the Preacher has returned to his under the sun thinking. Under that premise, nothing is better than for a man to accomplish what he can in this world and try – the best he can – not to trouble himself about what will happen after him.
i. In his under the sun thinking, Solomon has an answer for the question, “What will happen after him?” The answer is, nothing – because death ends it all, and therefore ultimately his life has no more significance or meaning than the life of an animal.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission