Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #4 Time and Toil – Ecclesiastes 3

02 Mar

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.

Ponder these quotations from two famous professors: “Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.” That’s from philosopher George Santayana, who taught at Harvard from 1889 to 1912.

“There is no reason to suppose that a man’s life has any more meaning than the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another.” That was written by Joseph Wood Krutch, professor of English at Columbia University from 1937 to 1952.

Both of these men were brilliant in their fields, but most of us would not agree with what they wrote. We believe that something grander is involved in human life than mere transitory existence. We are not like insects. Surely Dr. Krutch knew that insects have life cycles, but men and women have histories. One bee is pretty much like another bee, but people are unique and no two stories are the same. You can write The Life of the Bee, but you can’t write The Life of the Man or The Life of the Woman.

If we as individuals are not unique, then we are not important; if we are not important, then life has no meaning. If life has no meaning, life isn’t worth living. We might as well follow the Epicurean philosophy: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Solomon has presented four arguments proving that life was nothing but grasping broken soap bubbles and chasing after the wind. But he was too wise a man to let his own arguments go unchallenged, so in Ecclesiastes 3-10, he reexamined each of them carefully. His first argument was the monotony of life (1:4-11), and he examined it in Ecclesiastes 3:1-5:9. He discovered four factors that must be considered before you can say that life is monotonous and meaningless.

First, he saw something above man, a God who was in control of time and who balanced life’s experiences (3:1-8). Then he saw something within man that linked him to God—eternity in his heart (3:9-14). Third, Solomon saw something ahead of man—the certainty of death (3:15-22). Finally, he saw something around man—the problems and burdens of life (4:1-5:9).

So, The Preacher asked his listeners to look up, to look within, to look ahead, and to look around, and to take into consideration time, eternity, death, and suffering. These are the four factors God uses to keep our lives from becoming monotonous and meaningless.

Expect change (3:1-8)

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NIV)  “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: {2} a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, {3} a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, {4} a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, {5} a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, {6} a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, {7} a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, {8} a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

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.

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.

We will consider three of these factors in this chapter and the fourth in our next study.

Look up: God orders time (ECCL. 3:1-8)

You don’t have to be a philosopher or a scientist to know that “times and seasons” are a regular part of life, no matter where you live. Were it not for the dependability of God-ordained “natural laws,” both science and daily life would be chaotic, if not impossible. Not only are there times and seasons in this world, but there is also an overruling providence in our lives. From before our birth to the moment of our death, God is accomplishing His divine purposes, even though we may not always understand what He is doing.

In fourteen statements, Solomon affirmed that God is at work in our individual lives, seeking to accomplish His will. All of these events come from God and they are good in their time. The inference is plain: if we cooperate with God’s timing, life will not be meaningless. Everything will be “beautiful in His time” (v. 11), even the most difficult experiences of life. Most of these statements are easy to understand, so we will examine only those that may need special explanation.

Birth and death (v. 2).

Things like abortion, birth control, mercy killing, and surrogate parenthood make it look as though man is in control of birth and death, but Solomon said otherwise. Birth and death are not human accidents; they are divine appointments, for God is in control. (Read Gen. 29:31-30:24 and 33:5; Josh. 24:3; 1 Sam. 1:9-20; Pss. 113:9 and 127; Jer. 1:4-5; Luke 1:5-25; Gal. 1:15 and 4:4.) Psalm 139:13-16 states that God so wove us in the womb that our genetic structure is perfect for the work He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). We may foolishly hasten our death, but we cannot prevent it when our time comes, unless God so wills it (Isa. 38). “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book” (Ps. 139:16, niv).

Planting and plucking (v. 2).

Being an agricultural people, the Jews appreciated the seasons. In fact, their religious calendar was based on the agricultural year (Lev. 23). Men may plow and sow, but only God can give the increase (Ps. 65:9-13). “Plucking” may refer either to reaping or to pulling up unproductive plants. A successful farmer knows that nature works for him only if he works with nature. This is also the secret of a successful life: learn God’s principles and cooperate with them.

Killing and healing (v. 3).

This probably refers, not to war (v. 8) or self-defense, but to the results of sickness and plague in the land (1 Sam. 2:6). God permits some to die while others are healed. This does not imply that we should refuse medical aid, for God can use both means and miracles to accomplish His purposes (Isa. 38).

Casting away stones and gathering stones (v. 5).

Tour guides in Israel will tell you that God gave stones to an angel and told him to distribute them across the world—and he tripped right over Palestine! It is indeed a rocky land and farmers must clear their fields before they can plow and plant. If you wanted to hurt an enemy, you filled up his field with stones (2 Kings 3:19, 25). People also gathered stones for building walls and houses. Stones are neither good nor bad; it all depends on what you do with them. If your enemy fills your land with rocks, don’t throw them back. Build something out of them!

Embracing and refraining from embracing (v. 5).

People in the Near East openly show their affections, kissing and hugging when they meet and when they part. So, you could paraphrase this, “A time to say hello and a time to say good-bye.” This might also refer to the relationship of a husband and wife (Lev. 15:19-31; and see 1 Cor. 7:5).

Getting and losing (v. 6).

“A time to search and a time to give it up for lost” is another translation. The next phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!

Tearing and mending (v. 7).

This probably refers to the Jewish practice of tearing one’s garments during a time of grief or repentance (2 Sam. 13:31; Ezra 9:5). God expects us to sorrow during bereavement, but not like unbelievers (1 Thes. 4:13-18). There comes a time when we must get out the needle and thread and start sewing things up!

Loving and hating (v. 8).

Are God’s people allowed to hate? The fact that the next phrase mentions “war and peace” suggests that Solomon may have had the nation primarily in mind. However, there are some things that even Christians ought to hate (2 Chron. 19:2; Ps. 97:10; Prov. 6:16-19; Rev. 2:6, 15).

Life is something like a doctor’s prescription: taken alone, the ingredients might kill you; but properly blended, they bring healing. God is sovereignly in control and has a time and a purpose for everything (Rom. 8:28). This is not fatalism, nor does it rob us of freedom or responsibility. It is the wise providence of a loving Father Who does all things well and promises to make everything work for good. [Solomon has urged us to expect change. Now he will encourage us to…]

Accept limitations (3:9-11).

(Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 NIV)  “What does the worker gain from his toil? {10} I have seen the burden God has laid on men. {11} 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.”

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…]

Enjoy life (3:12-13).

(Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NIV)  “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. {13} That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God.”

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…]

  1. 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.

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?

Look within: eternity is in your heart (ECCL. 3:9-14)

(Ecclesiastes 3:9-14 NIV)  “What does the worker gain from his toil? {10} I have seen the burden God has laid on men. {11} 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. {12} I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. {13} That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God. {14} I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.”

The Preacher adjusted his sights and no longer looked at life only “under the sun.” He brought God into the picture and this gave him a new perspective. In verse 9, he repeated the opening question of 1:3, “Is all this labor really worth it?” In the light of “new evidence,” Solomon gave three answers to the question.

First, man’s life is a gift from God (v. 10). In view of the travail that we experience from day to day, life may seem like a strange gift, but it is God’s gift just the same. We “exercise” ourselves in trying to explain life’s enigmas, but we don’t always succeed. If we believingly accept life as a gift, and thank God for it, we will have a better attitude toward the burdens that come our way. If we grudgingly accept life as a burden, then we will miss the gifts that come our way. Outlook helps to determine outcome.

Second, man’s life is linked to eternity. (v. 11). Man was created in the image of God, and was given dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26-28); therefore, he is different from the rest of creation. He has “eternity [“the world,” kjv] in his heart” and is linked to heaven. This explains why nobody (including Solomon) can be satisfied with his or her endeavors and achievements, or is able to explain the enigmas of life (1:12-2:11). God accomplishes His purposes in His time, but it will not be until we enter eternity that we will begin to comprehend His total plan.

Third, man’s life can be enjoyable now (vv. 12-14). The Preacher hinted at this in 2:24 and was careful to say that this enjoyment of life is the gift of God (see 3:13, 6:2, and 1 Tim. 6:17). “The enjoyment of life” is an important theme in Ecclesiastes and is mentioned in each of the four sections of chapters 3-10. (Review the outline.) Solomon is encouraging not pagan hedonism, but rather the practice of enjoying God’s gifts as the fruit of one’s labor, no matter how difficult life may be. Life appears to be transitory, but whatever God does is forever, so when we live for Him and let Him have His way, life is meaningful and manageable. Instead of complaining about what we don’t have, let’s enjoy what we do have and thank God for it.

When the well-known British Methodist preacher William Sangster learned that he had progressive muscular atrophy and could not get well, he made four resolutions and kept them to the end: (1) I will never complain; (2) I will keep the home bright; (3) I will count my blessings; (4) I will try to turn it to gain. This is the approach to life that Solomon wants us to take.

However, we must note that Solomon is not saying, “Don’t worry—be happy!” He is promoting faith in God, not “faith in faith” or “pie in the sky by and by.” Faith is only as good as the object of faith, and the greatest object of faith is the Lord. He can be trusted.

How can life be meaningless and monotonous for you when God has made you a part of His eternal plan? You are not an insignificant insect, crawling from one sad annihilation to another. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you are a child of God being prepared for an eternal home (John 14:1-6; 2 Cor. 4). The Puritan pastor Thomas Watson said, “Eternity to the godly is a day that has no sunset; eternity to the wicked is a night that has no sunrise.”

The proper attitude for us is the fear of the Lord (v. 14), which is not the cringing of a slave before a cruel master, but the submission of an obedient child to a loving parent. (See 5:7, 7:18, 8:12-13, and 12:13.) If we fear God, we need not fear anything else for He is in control.

Look ahead: death is coming to all (ECCL. 3:15-22)

(Ecclesiastes 3:15-22 NIV)  “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. {16} And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment–wickedness was there, in the place of justice–wickedness was there. {17} I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.” {18} I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. {19} Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. {20} All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. {21} Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” {22} So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?”

Solomon already mentioned the certainty of death in 2:12-23, and he will bring the subject up several times before he ends his book (4:8; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2-3, 12; 12:7-8). Life, death, time, and eternity: these are the “ingredients” that make up our brief experience in this world, and they must not be ignored.

Verse 15 helps us recall 1:9-11 and gives us the assurance that God is in control of the “cycle of life.” The past seems to repeat itself so that “there is no new thing under the sun” (1:9), but God can break into history and do what He pleases. His many miracles are evidence that the “cycle” is a pattern and not a prison. His own Son broke into human life through a miraculous birth. He then died on a cross and rose again, thus conquering the “life-death cycle.” Because Jesus Christ broke the “vicious circle,” He can make us a part of a new creation that overcomes time and death (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

Solomon added a new thought here: “and God will call the past to account” (v. 15, niv). Scholars have a difficult time agreeing on the translation of this phrase. It literally says “God seeks what hurries along.” Solomon seems to say that time goes by swiftly and gets away from us; but God keeps track of it and will, at the end of time, call into account what we have done with time (12:14). This ties in with verses 16-17 where Solomon witnessed the injustices of his day and wondered why divine judgment was delayed.

“How can God be in control when there is so much evil in our world, with the wicked prospering in their sin and the righteous suffering in their obedience?” Solomon was not the first to raise that question, nor will he be the last. But once again, he comforted himself with two assurances: God has a time for everything, including judgment (see 8:6, 11); and God is working out His eternal purposes in and through the deeds of men, even the deeds of the wicked.

Yes, God will judge when history has run its course, but God is judging now (v. 18). In the experiences of life, God is testing man. (The word is “manifest” in the kjv. The Hebrew word means “to sift, to winnow.”) God is revealing what man is really like; He is sifting man. For, when man leaves God out of his life, he becomes like an animal. (See Ps. 32:9; Prov. 7; 2 Peter 2:19-20.) He lives like a beast and dies like a beast.

We must be careful not to misinterpret verses 19-20 and draw the erroneous conclusion that there is no difference between men and animals. Solomon merely pointed out that men and beasts have two things in common: they both die and their bodies return to the dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). Being made in the image of God, man has a definite advantage over animals as far as life is concerned; but when it comes to the fact of death, man has no special advantage: he too turns to dust. Of course, people who are saved through faith in Christ will one day be resurrected to have glorified bodies suitable for the new heavenly home (1 Cor. 15:35ff).

The Bible says that death occurs when the spirit leaves the body (James 2:26, and see Gen. 35:18 and Luke 8:55). In verse 21, Solomon indicates that men and animals do not have the same experience at death, even though they both turn to dust after death. Man’s spirit goes to God (see 12:7), while the spirit of a beast simply ceases to exist. You find a similar contrast expressed in Psalm 49.

The Preacher closed this section by reminding us again to accept life from God’s hand and enjoy it while we can (v. 22). Nobody knows what the future holds; and even if we did know, we can’t return to life after we have died and start to enjoy it again. (See 6:12, 7:14, 9:3.) Knowing that God is in sovereign control of life (3:1), we can submit to Him and be at peace.

God holds the key of all unknown, And I am glad; If other hands should hold the key, Or if He trusted it to me, I might be sad. I cannot read His future plans, But this I know: I have the smiling of His face, And all the refuge of His grace, While here below. (J. Parker)

Faith learns to live with seeming inconsistencies and absurdities, for we live by promises and not by explanations. We can’t explain life, but we must experience life, either enduring it or enjoying it.

Solomon calls us to accept life, enjoy it a day at a time, and be satisfied. We must never be satisfied with ourselves, but we must be satisfied with what God gives to us in this life. If we grow in character and godliness, and if we live by faith, then we will be able to say with Paul, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11, niv).

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.

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Posted by on March 2, 2021 in Ecclesiastes


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