Before we even touch Ecclesiastes 3, let’s do a little recap of what we’ve covered so far:
The first two chapters of Ecclesiastes involve some man, “the Teacher,” as he is called, embarking on a mission to teach us how to live proper lives and, in doing so, discover the true meaning of life. This teacher – Solomon, who succeeded his father David as kind of Jerusalem around 930BC – kicked things off by declaring that everything under the sun (toil, wisdom, folly, pleasure, you name it) is meaningless. In saying this, he invokes this sense of “chasing after wind,” blinded by some vapor that totally encapsulates us, surrounding us on all sides and causing us to get lost in a world that makes less sense to us the more we try to decipher it. As natural problem-solvers we try to grab at this vapor – our attempt at finding some sort of meaning in life – but no matter how hard we try to grasp it, it continues to slip through our fingers. And while all of this has a heavy sense of foreboding to it – an oh-so-depressing tone that left even the most powerful man in the world “hating life” (as we read in 2:17) – both chapters ended on a rather uplifting note, the most recent of which reminded us that though things are meaningless, they aren’t inherently bad (to claim such an inherent evil in things of the world would be succumbing to Gnosticism, which we need to steer clear of). Solomon reminds us that everything has meaning, but our meaning should not be found in any of those things. There must be a clear distinction between these two, and that distinction lies on a very thin line that we should clearly define.
So, in summary: instead of finding our meaning in the things of this world such as intelligence, pleasure, or work, we should simply enjoy them… in the world but not of it, recognizing that there is a time and place for each of these earthly things.
This is where we pick up in chapter 3.
Fittingly, Solomon perfectly segues into this chapter by stating the very thing we learned in the last one: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (v.1). Going off this idea of meaninglessness actually being a pathway to satisfaction, Solomon wants to discuss that there are allotted times for everything here on earth. Earthly pursuits such as wisdom and pleasure and toil are good during their allotted times yet unprofitable – meaningless – when pursued otherwise or as one’s chief goal in life. (Also, notice how he mentions “seasons,” which are known to move in recognizable patterns or cycles. Similarly, though we often fail to realize it, our lives are very cyclical, proceeding onwards on a constant path of undulation – highs, lows, highs, lows, highs, lows. Happiness precedes sadness which precedes happiness once again; love precedes fear which then gives way to love once more. Our lives are broken down into seasons, and just as God commands the sun and moon, so He commands over the cycles of our life with omniscient omnipotence.)
For the next seven verses (v.2-8), Solomon begins to list the bare essentials of these aforementioned seasons. First off, everyone is born and everyone dies. Likewise, there is a time for plants to be born (“plant”) and die (“uproot”), reminding us that despite our typical self-involved nature, we should remember that God has even set aside times regarding the lives of every inanimate plant (how much more does he watch over us, who were made in His image? (Gen 1:27, Matt 6:26)). Next, we enter a series of destruction-based brokenness (“kill,” “tear down,” “weep,” “mourn,” “scatter stones”) contrasted by fulfillment through mended brokenness (“heal,” “build”, “laugh,” “dance,”, “gather them”), reminding us that it is through the fires in our life that we can achieve true prosperity or beauty. So yes, when Kevin Bacon reminds us that “There is a time to dance,” you’d best believe it! God, in his all-knowing, all-good power, allotted specific times for every action under the sun, including setting aside times for us to break out and dance in pure joy! Even more fittingly, often this dancing will result when some epiphany of happiness sends us shooting out of our mourning so that not only can we no longer be sad, but we are radiating happiness!
Then, in the second half of verse 5, there is a sudden shift.
SIDE TANGENT: Notice how this list is split evenly in half, with seven pairs beings listed before this shift and seven pairs being listed afterwards. Seven is the number of perfection...
And while I’m on the topic, I want to fangirl over the structure of Ecclesiastes really quick (I’m a writer, so I have to; don’t judge me). Have you noticed that Ecclesiastes is written like a thesis? Chapters 1-2 are written like the hook, the thing that gets you interested in the topic so that you want to read the rest. Next thing you know, chapter 3 is like the main point/thesis statement of the entire paper, and at the end of each chapter he will subtly restate his thesis to remind you where he is ultimately going. And then, kind of like a persuasive essay, at the very end of his paper (ch. 12) he will cleverly *SPOILER ALERT* restate his thesis, adding a challenge to the reader by telling them to include God! That, along with the fact that the book was split into 12 separate chapters (twelve being an extremely important number in the Judeo-Christian belief system) shows how beautifully structure the book is. The chapters in between the thesis and its restatement (ch.4-11) go back to the hook points of ch.1-2 and serve as body paragraphs.
In other words, I think that, through verbal plenary inspiration, Ecclesiastes is God’s thesis statement on the meaning of life, presented as a research paper through Solomon.
Okay, sorry about that. I just had to get that out of my system because it’s amazing. But back to that shift I was talking about in verse 5: Here, we see that mended-ness precedes brokenness (“scatter” precedes “gather,” “tear” precedes “mend,” etc.) – sometimes we must be broken in order to truly be fixe – and that “embracing” precedes some sort of “refrain from embracing,” showing us that though love and its expression is a good thing, in the end we must remember that even in regards to love, there is a time when certain acts or emotions should be suppressed.
In verse 6, we have temporal things listed, reminding us that though there is use in pursuing an act, that doesn’t mean that the act in and of itself will always be good (“search,” “give up,” “keep,” “throw away”). God can both give and take away, so who are we to question His will? (Job 2:10) There are also times set aside for both tearing and mending, speaking and being silence, loving and hating, and, at last, war and peace. God either commands something to happen or permits it to happen so that His sovereign will can take place, and there is a time and place for it all.
One thing I think it is important to take away from this, especially in verse 6, is the realization that “Wait, how are we supposed to know when these times are?” Those first few verses involve things we have no control over, but the “times” listed in v.6-8 are all things we have direct responsibility over initiating. We have no control over when we pursue these times, but how are we to know when God wants us to? Just a little food for thought.
Solomon then reminds us that God never intended for us to pursue earthly things as our chief good in life (v.9-11), that clear distinction between recognizing the meaning of something and finding meaning in something as mentioned earlier. It is for this reason that no earthly thing will every fully satisfy us, because while God made all things beautiful (“good,” Gen 1:31), they were never good in any context out of their given time. As John MacArthur puts it, “Futility lies in the fickle satisfaction of man and his failure to trust the wisdom of sovereign God.” Our hearts can’t be satisfied here on earth because we inherently know that we are eternal, not temporal beings; however, our finite minds are incapable of grasping onto the fullness of our true and eternal selves – we don’t understand eternity – and thus we find it easier to turn to the world – a temporal habitat which we understand a bit better – for satisfaction of meaning. We don’t understand God, so it’s so easy to stray from His path.
NOW LET’S BE HONEST…this is all a bit confusing.
The thing is, it’s supposed to be confusing. If it were easy to wrap our minds around, there wouldn’t be an entire book of the Bible dedicated to it! So stick with me for a bit:
In v.12-13, Solomon echoes his words from 2:24-25 by reminding us to enjoy life while we can. There is no sense living in misery or dreaming endlessly of the future or holding grudges from the past when you have no control over any of it. So instead of finding misery in the meaningless, Solomon is encouraging us to find meaning in the meaningless, to use this life God gave us to find the real meaning of life (which he continually alludes to, the main point of the book). By seeing that this world cannot harm you, you can at last embrace your true nature by living in the present and enjoying life to its fullest. Eating the strawberries. In accepting everything as a gift from God we can, even in a cursed world, find a sort of satisfaction that opens our mind to the true meaning.
And as we discover life’s true meaning, Solomon pinpoints our attention on God in verse 14 (“At lassssst” *cue music*). Once again, we have a “Coincidence? I think not!” moment. You see, everything God does is eternal and complete and nobody can hinder it (if they could He would not be God, who must be sovereign in order to exist). In seeing God’s perfect work, we are inspired to “fear” Him – not in the oh-my-gosh I’m scared sense, but in the fear that results in respect – holding in worship-filled reverence as we at last find life’s true meaning. Apart from God, our works are pitifully inadequate but with Him…this changes everything!
Verse 15 closely mirrors 1:9, discussing the lack of originality in the realm of earthly things – things that seem new have been done before and things to be done in the future will likewise be just as original. Yet Solomon adds something additional here: wickedness abounds everywhere! (v.16) In addition to things being unoriginal and lacking, wickedness is also a prevalent and predictable aspect in life. As Solomon points out, wickedness seems to replace both judgment and justice so that even the innocent are accused and the guilty declared innocent, just as cruel and unusual punishments are inflicted on those underserving while those who are guilty get away scot-free. We live in a world ruled by wickedness, where being righteous is made fun of and to pursue folly (wickedness) is praised.
Considering all this along with the fact that there is a “time for everything,” we realize that this also includes a time for judgment (v.17), something not typically talked about at length in the Christian culture. You see, both righteous and wicked, wise and fool, will be judged in the end as Solomon so clearly points out, thus in the end we do have at least a little motivation [other than Jesus] to live a moral life rather than a foolish one, a righteous one rather than a wicked one.
Next (v.18-20), Solomon points out that, in an earthly sense, humans are no better than animals. Do we not both die in the end? In the end, all earthly flesh shares the same common destiny and it is only in the realm of the eternal where things begin to change. As a result of our sin, we are cursed to return to the dust from which we came (Gen 3:19), so what purpose do we having for living of the world rather than merely in it? Solomon is essentially pointing out that, in trying to find meaning in the world, we are being extremely illogical. (Note that in these verses, Solomon is strictly speaking of our earthly vessels with neither heaven nor hell being considered. He is logically causing the reader to draw their own conclusion in regards to the meaning of life by proving that nothing on earth has true meaning.)
In the final two verses, Solomon continues to point out the pointlessness of being words by such trivial things and once again draws the conclusion he made in chapter 2: people should enjoy their work. This time he reminds us that pretty much summarizes our earthly experience, which shouldn’t be wasted away (God gave it to us for a reason). Death becomes the overshadowing reality of existence, so while we are alive we should truly live – “there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (v.22).
And that’s Ecclesiastes chapter 3.