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2. Labor and divine providence 3:1-4:3
In this section, Solomon expressed his conviction that in view of God’s incomprehensible workings, all human toil is without permanent profit.
As is customary in Ecclesiastes, the writer began this section by stating a thesis (Ecclesiastes 3:1). He then proceeded to illustrate and to prove it true (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8). "Event" (Ecclesiastes 3:1) means human activity that one engages in by deliberate choice. Each of these events has its proper time and duration.
"Qohelet now raises a subject characteristic of ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature-the proper time. After all, it is the wise person who knows the right time to say or to do the right thing (Proverbs 15:23). . . . In the final analysis Qohelet powerfully expresses that everything is frustratingly out of the control of human beings." [Note: Longman, p. 111.]
Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 are a poem in which the preacher listed 14 opposites.
"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. Psalms 139:2-3)." [Note: Donald R. Glenn, "Ecclesiastes," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 983.]
The casting of stones (Ecclesiastes 3:5) probably refers to the ancient custom of destroying a farmer’s field by throwing many stones on it. The gathering of stones describes the clearing of stones from a field. [Note: Hubbard, p. 103.] The fact that there are proper times for expressing love and other times for refraining from love reminds us that there are standards for sex, though this is not the only application.
"Verses 1-8 have an important connection with the theme of the book and relate closely to what precedes and to what follows. Man is to take his life day by day from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13), realizing that God has a fitting time for each thing to be done (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The significance of this section is that man is responsible to discern the right times for the right actions; and when he does the right action according to God’s time, the result is ’beautiful’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11)." [Note: J. S. Wright, "Ecclesiastes," p. 1160. Cf. Ephesians 2:10.]
Another rhetorical question expects another negative response (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 2:11). There is no net gain in one’s toil given Solomon’s perspective.
". . . one thing that elevates us above the animal world, in addition to the God-given sense of eternity [Ecclesiastes 3:11], is the desire to understand the whole. This accounts for all science, philosophy, and human knowledge, as well as theology." [Note: Ibid., p. 1162.]
God’s plan is unfathomable. Nevertheless, God has an appropriate time for every activity (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The meaning is not, "beautiful in its own way," as the song goes. God has also placed within the heart of every person a sense of something eternal and a desire to know the eternal significance of what we do (Ecclesiastes 3:11, "set eternity in their heart"). [Note: Delitzsch, p. 261.]
"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." [Note: Kaiser, p. 66.]
"’Eternity’ to Old Testament people was not timelessness or absence of time. They knew no such realm. It was, rather, extension of time-as far back and as far forward as one could imagine-’time in its wholeness’ (JB), ’sense of time past and future’ (NEB)." [Note: Hubbard, pp. 106-7.]
The idea of a timeless, ideal state is Platonic, not biblical. We cannot grasp fully all of God’s plans. Consequently, because we cannot see the full consequences of our works beyond the grave, our labor lacks ultimate gratification.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 "summarizes the teacher’s whole argument, and in context (Ecclesiastes 3:10-15) it serves equally well as a summary for the entire wisdom corpus." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., "Integrating Wisdom Theology into Old Testament Theology: Ecclesiastes 3:10-15," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, p. 206.]
One writer suggested that the Hebrew word translated "eternity" should be re-pointed (i.e., the vowels should be replaced with other vowels), in which case it means "darkness." [Note: Brian P. Gault, "A Reexamination of ’Eternity’ in Ecclesiastes 3:11," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:657 (January-March 2008):39-57.]
Solomon repeated his former counsel in view of this limited perspective (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:24). "Do good" (Ecclesiastes 3:12) should read "enjoy themselves." We could translate Ecclesiastes 3:13, "If any man eats and drinks and finds satisfaction in all his toil, it is a gift of God." [Note: Christian D. Ginsburg, Song of Songs and Coheleth, pp. 311-12.]
Solomon described God’s plans and our proper response in view of our inability to comprehend them fully. He said we should fear God. This is a common emphasis in all Hebrew wisdom literature.
A phenomenon that makes it most difficult for us to understand God’s ways, and respond to them properly, is the problem of injustice in this life. Solomon believed God would eventually balance the scales of justice (Ecclesiastes 3:17), and that He uses injustice for His own purposes (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Probably Solomon believed judgment would take place on earth (Proverbs 22:22-23), though he did not say this explicitly. God uses injustice to remind us of our finite bestiality, among other things. We behave as beasts and die like them (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20). "The same place" (Ecclesiastes 3:20) is the grave (cf. Ecclesiastes 6:6), not that man’s future is identical to an animal’s. No one can observe any differences between the future of man and animals, but God has revealed these differences. In view of these things, Solomon repeated his counsel (Ecclesiastes 3:22).
"From unjust decisions a transition is now made to the subject of the haughty, unmerciful cruelty of the wide-extended oppressions inflicted by men." [Note: Delitzsch, p. 273.]
God has, of course, enabled us to see what will occur after we die by giving us additional revelation after Solomon’s time. The alternative response to the one Solomon advocated is despair, which reflecting on unjust oppression causes (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent