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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 3

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary

Introduction

CHAP. III.

By the necessary change of times, vanity is added to human travail. There is an excellency in God's works: but as for man, God shall judge his works there, and here he shall be like a beast.

Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 3:1. To every thing there is a season There is a fixed season for every thing; nay, all the determinations of man's will under heaven have their proper time. Solomon says of all things in general, that they have an appointed season; or, according to the propriety of the word זמן zeman, a prepared time. This construction of the passage is strongly confirmed by the contents of the annexed list; for, except the first head, namely, the time of our birth and death, every article therein mentioned as having a time depends on the will of men; and the first article itself, as understood by the Chaldee paraphrast, falls more or less within the determination of man's will.

Verse 5

Ecclesiastes 3:5. A time to cast away stones This is differently understood. Calmet says, it may either signify, "a time to cast away stones with a sling, and a time to collect them again into a bag:" or, "A time to cast stones on a field to render it barren, and a time to collect the stones out of a field to render it fertile." See 2 Kings 3:25. Or, "A time to cast away improper, and to collect proper stones for building." See Ecclesiastes 3:3.

Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 3:8. A time to love, &c.— The third proof the proposition laid down in the beginning, and comprised in Ecc 3:1-8 is taken from the endless vicissitude of things in this world, and especially of those which depend on our choice. There is nothing that a man can fix upon, of which it is in his power to say, I will always be in the same mind with respect to it. The most contradictory resolutions have their time with us, and succeed one another, as appears from the annexed list of contrarieties. Thus we do implicitly acknowledge the vanity of those occupations, which are the results of our determinations: for what is changing, but owning that that which you alter either was not, or at least has ceased to be, proper, and of consequence had no permanent goodness in it?

Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 3:9. What profit hath he that worketh, &c.— What remaineth to him that worketh from that upon which he bestoweth his labour? The consequence of the preceding proof is obvious. It is not in the power of men to get by that which is properly their own work, and the result of their choice, any thing that they have a right to call a solid advantage; since they do not know but the time is coming, when that which they look upon shall appear to them in a quite different light. This and the foregoing proof were both taken from the same subject: viz. the occupations of men in this world, or the methods they take in the pursuit of happiness. These were considered, first, in themselves, and with respect to the end proposed: secondly, with respect to the choice which determines us to follow different methods at different times. Now, having done with those proofs, considered as such, our author resumes the subject which had afforded them; viz. the occupations of men in this world, in order to make some new observations on it, and to draw some important consequences from the whole, which are inserted by way of corollaries: and he gives an intimation of his thus resuming that subject, by making use (Ecclesiastes 3:10.) of the very same words wherein he had declared the general purport of his argument, ch. Ecclesiastes 1:13. See the general analysis on ch. Ecclesiastes 1:2.

Verse 11

Ecclesiastes 3:11. Also he hath set the world in their heart He hath even set that eternity in their hearts, without which no man can find out the design of that work which God hath done from beginning to end. The word עלם olam, rendered time in our version, but here eternity, Mr. Desvoeux has fully proved to signify properly an indefinite duration. See page 553. Solomon's first observation is, that God, who set men upon that ungrateful task, purposely that they might find him out, has done nothing but what is fit, though the fitness does not always presently appear. Hence it is that men, who, from the notion of an infinitely perfect Being, are convinced it must be so, even when they are not able to make it out plainly to themselves, entertain a sort of longing for eternity: for they are sensible, that the short space of life is not sufficient for them to find out the ways of their Maker, and cannot but perceive, at least confusedly, that such a life as this does not fully answer the wise designs of the supreme Governor of the world. See Peters on Job, p. 418, &c.

Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 3:14. Whatsoever God doeth Whatsoever God shall do, the same shall be for ever. Desvoeux.

Verse 15

Ecclesiastes 3:15. That which hath been, is now, &c.— The second observation which serves also for a transition to the consequences to be inferred from the whole, and which is contained in Ecc 3:12-15 is, that God directs all the events wherein we are any way concerned, by an unvariable providence. A constant and powerful inducement indeed to fear God!

Verse 16

Ecclesiastes 3:16. And moreover, I saw, &c.— Moreover, I observed under the sun the place of judgment; there I saw iniquity: and the place of righteousness; there I saw wickedness.—Ver. 17. Then I concluded in my heart, &c. There is a strong opposition observable in this passage between iniquity and judgment, &c. And farther, the expression, under the sun, seems to be employed by way of opposition to something which is not immediately mentioned: and what can more properly be opposed to a place of judgment under the sun, or in this world, than a place of judgment out of this world? Now such a place is really hinted at, and the opposition thereby completed in the next verse, by the mention of a time appointed by the Almighty to reverse the wrong judgments, passed in this world, both upon the righteous and upon the wicked. We have in these two verses the first corollary: notwithstanding the constant intervention of the Almighty in human affairs, such constant disorders are observable in the administration of justice in this world, that the fate of the innocent and that of the guilty are often, as it were, interchanged. But then, since God hath appointed, as was said before, a proper time for every thing, there must be one for the reversal of wrong sentences passed upon men by wicked judges; and I concluded that God shall, one day or other, take the judgment to himself, and set every thing right. Thus his conduct shall be fully justified in the event.

Verse 18

Ecclesiastes 3:18. That God might manifest, &c.— That I should assert God, and see that they themselves are beasts. Desvoeux.

Verse 21

Ecclesiastes 3:21. Who knoweth the spirit of man, &c.— Who knoweth the breath of the sons of man, whether it ascendeth upward; and the breath of a brute, whether it descendeth downward to the earth? We have, from Ecc 3:18 to the present, the 2nd corollary. The being of a God, his attributes, and supreme sway of his providence, are clearly evinced from the very complication of human affairs, which none but an infinite understanding could ever prevent from falling into an irretrievable confusion. But the higher we rise in our conceptions of that great Being, the lower we must descend in the notions that we have of our own worth and dignity; for our so-much-boasted-of reason, when left to itself, is incapable of ascertaining a difference in men's favour with respect to a future dispensation between themselves, and what they call the brutish part of the creation. "So dark and intricate are the ways of Providence in this world!"—By this interpretation the passage is sufficiently vindicated from any suspicion of the Sadducean heresy. The only point insisted on, and for which no philosopher who is free from prejudice will think it worth his while to quarrel with Solomon, is, that the difference between the fate of brutes and men is not to be known with certainty by the mere light of reason, unassisted by revelation. Now this differs from the heresy above-mentioned as much as the humble confession of one who owns himself to be in the dark, does from the assuming asseveration of another who talks of nothing but full evidence and certainty. See the text fully justified in this light in Desvoeux's Dissertation on the Ecclesiastes, p. 53, 54. We may just observe, that Tremellius renders the beginning of the 18th verse, I said in my heart, according to human reason, &c. See Peters on Job, p. 323.

Verse 22

Ecclesiastes 3:22. Wherefore I perceive, &c.— Lastly, I perceived that there is nothing better in the labour of man, than that he should receive pleasure from it; because this is his portion: for who shall bring him back to enjoy what shall be hereafter? This verse contains the third corollary. Since it is not given to men to see what happens after their death, much less to enjoy it, the portion allotted to them by God Almighty can be nothing else in this world than present enjoyment. Consequently we must look to a future life for that enjoyment which is durable, which is eternal.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, In a variety of particulars he proceeds to confirm the general truth, that to every thing there is a season.

1. There is a time to be born, and a time to die: every one who is born to natural life, must pass through death: What an argument to animate us to a secure, a happy resurrection!

2. A time to plant; either a tree; or an immortal soul, by the ministry of the word; or a nation, by divine Providence; and a time to pluck up that which is planted; either the tree which is past bearing, or fruitless; or the soul, when its work is done, and it is ripe for glory; or when twice dead, and fuel for the flames of hell; or a nation, when the measure of its iniquities is full, Jeremiah 18:7-10.

3. A time to kill; by divine judgments, or the sword of war, or the sentence of the civil magistrate; and a time to heal, when the affairs of a kingdom, which seemed hastening to ruin, are retrieved.

4. A time to break down; the strength of the body, or the prosperity of a family or nation; and a time to build up: When our private affairs seem most desperate, and the church of God reduced to the most abject state, Jehovah can, as of old, revive the stones of his temple, out of the dust, and bring his faithful ones to prosperity and glory.

5. A time to weep and mourn; when our own, our friends, or the church's afflictions, call forth our tears; and a time to laugh and dance, when God, bestowing prosperity on our bodies and souls, and on his Zion, requires us to serve him with gladness of heart.

6. A time to cast away stones; when proud palaces and wicked cities are levelled to the ground; and a time to gather stones together, when God raiseth the poor from the dust, and giveth them cities to dwell in.

7. A time to embrace; with conjugal affection, the wife of our bosom, or with warm affection the friend of our heart: and a time to refrain; by choice, for a season, to give ourselves to prayer, see 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.; or by necessity, when separated from those who are dear to us, through business, or in times of trouble and persecution.

8. A time to get; when God's providence blesses, and we enjoy the most favourable opportunities of enriching ourselves with temporal or spiritual good things; and a time to lose, when unforeseen events deprive us of our worldly substance.

9. A time to keep; when our increasing families call for an increasing provision, or when in peace we are permitted to enjoy our possessions; and a time to cast away, when by God's gift our abundance enables us to supply the wants of the poor; or, for the testimony of a good conscience, we are called upon to suffer the loss of all things.

10. A time to rend; our garments, in token of deep mourning, or in detestation of some atrocious wickedness; and a time to sew, when the cause of our sorrow is removed.

11. A time to keep silence; under afflictive providences, dumb before God, not daring to utter a murmuring word; or in the presence of the wicked, when sometimes it is best to restrain even from God's word, nor cast our pearls before swine: and a time to speak, when duty calls for our boldness in the cause of God and truth, and true prudence dictates the fit season and proper manner.

12. A time to love; when faithful friendship and mutual regard engage our affections; and a time to hate, when those who behave unsuitably forfeit our regard, and oblige us to treat them with distance, and shun their company.

13. A time of war; in a just cause, when a nation's wrongs cannot be otherwise redressed; or during our whole lives, whilst our spiritual warfare lasts; and a time of peace, when the end for which the war was undertaken is answered; or at death, when the faithful believer will enter into eternal rest and peace.

Finally, As the inference from this view of the mutable and changing state of the things in which we are engaged, he concludes the unprofitableness and vanity of all our pursuits.—No possession is sure to us for an hour; and, instead of expecting our happiness in any creature, we should regard these labours rather as a part of the curse denounced on the first man's sin, and that God designs, as the word signifies, to afflict and humble us thereby. Note; (1.) This world is not our rest: it was never designed to be so. Man is born in it to sorrow and trouble, as the sparks fly upwards. (2.) Our curse of labour may be made eventually our mercy, as it prevents us from that idleness which would be highly dangerous to our souls, and serves to excite greater longings after that better world, where there remaineth a rest for the people of God.

2nd, In all the changes and vicissitudes that we meet with in this vain world, God's suffering, permissive, or appointing will must be continually regarded.
1. We must rest assured, that he doth all things well. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: all the variety in nature, and the turns of Providence, however some things may seem to us undesirable, disjointed, useless, or afflictive, yet are connected in the greatest beauty and harmony, and conspire together to advance God's glory, and to promote the good of those who love him. He hath set the world in their heart; expanded the volume of nature for our observation; yet, such is the darkness of our fallen minds, that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. We know at best but in part, and the shallow line of human reason cannot fathom the abyss of his providences. But whatever veil now covers the deep things of God, it will shortly be done away: though we know not now, the faithful shall know hereafter, and for ever admire and adore, the perfection, excellence, and beauty of all his works and ways in creation, providence, and grace, and not a flaw to be found.

2. We must cheerfully acquiesce in our state, whatever it be, and set ourselves diligently to discharge the duties thereof.
[1.] To rejoice in our portion, whether it be less or more, knowing that it exceeds all that we deserve: not sordidly covetous, through fear of future want, to spare what we at present need, but eat and drink what God hath given. And this also must come from his gift, who only can bestow on us the heart to enjoy the good of our labour, without which we may be discontented, unthankful, and pine in the midst of plenty.

[2.] To do good in this life. The time is short, and we should give the greater diligence to improve it; employ the portion which God bestows, in all those works of faith, and labours of love, which our relations in life, the household of faith, and the necessitous in general, call for at our hands; and this is the way to do good to ourselves; for what is thus laid out will turn to our best account hereafter.

[3.] To submit entirely to the divine disposals, and that because necessity is laid upon us. Whatever God doeth, it shall be for ever: to quarrel with his dispensation, is but to kick against the pricks. His determinations cannot be reversed or altered: nor should we wish it, if we knew the wisdom and goodness of all his works and ways. Nothing can be put to it, for his work is perfect; nor any thing taken from it; there is nothing superfluous, or unnecessary, but the whole complete in excellence; so that it is our highest interest, as well as duty, to say, Thy will be done.

[4.] To fear God; all his dispensations of providence and grace being designed to affect our souls with greater reverence of his majesty, to engage us to trust him in every emergency, to fear offending, to be solicitous to please him, and to quicken us in the more diligent use of every means of grace, that we may be enabled for all he doth command, and prepared for whatever he hath prepared for us.

[5.] To acknowledge the steadiness and uniformity of the divine government. The ordinances of heaven, the sun, moon, and stars, perform the same revolutions; the events of providence are exactly similar; that which hath been, is now. Nor may we think the world fuller of crosses or of sin than formerly: that which is to be, hath already been: the same changes will still mark the rolling years; and God requireth that which is past, repeats what he had done before. Let us not, therefore, think our lot hard, or our trials uncommon: in adversity, hope for such a change as Job experienced; in prosperity, rejoice with trembling; and in every state remember the solemn account of our behaviour in it, which we must one day make. This is wisdom.

3rdly, A wicked as well as vain world is this in which we live, and, because of wickedness, made subject to vanity. Left destitute of the fear of God, the whole would be a scene of misery and wretchedness; and it had been preferable to have been a beast, rather than a man.
1. The world is full of oppression: even in the seat of judgment, where righteousness should influence every decree, iniquity often reigns. This Solomon had remarked in his observations on other nations, and perhaps, notwithstanding all his care, could not expel from his own dominions.
2. However judgment may be perverted by men, there is a day coming, when all shall be revised, and justice ministered to every man according to truth; when God will vindicate the cause of the righteous, and condemn the wicked; and the unjust judges must be called to a terrible account for their unrighteous decrees. The time is advancing; it is near: let such as are oppressed with wrong patiently wait for it: the eternal Judge standeth before the door.

3. God, in all his dispensations towards the sons of men in their present state, designs to manifest them; either to separate them, the righteous from the wicked, or, that they might clear God, as the word may be rendered, whose ways are all equal, but ours unequal; (for we have only ourselves to blame;) or, to shew us what a creature man is when left to himself, even like the beasts, stupid, untractable, cruel, and brutish in his appetites. Men and beasts are liable to the same disorders, accidents, and calamities, and are supported by the same providential care. They have the same animal life, preserved by the breath which passes through their nostrils; they lie down together in the dust; (and man, alike subject to vanity, knows no pre-eminence there;) the same putrid corpses, and returning to the same earth from whence they came. Nor is there any visible difference after death concerning their spirits; for, though by the light of revelation we are told that man is immortal; that his soul returns to God to be judged, and receive his eternal doom; yet, who knoweth this? It is not the object of our senses; and I question, whether the reason of fallen man would ever have come to the knowledge of his own immortality, unassisted by traditionary revelation or the scriptures: certain it is, however, that multitudes consider not the difference; they live and die as the beasts that perish.

4. The conclusion that he draws from these observations is, that, since such is man's present state of wretchedness and vanity, his highest wisdom is to make the best use he can of what he now possesses, for that is his portion; and since he must quickly leave the earth, and all the things therein, and knows not how his successors may prove, he should wisely lay out his substance as is most comfortable to himself, most to God's glory, and most beneficial to mankind. The whole may teach us, (1.) A very humbling lesson of our present state, and how little reason we have to be proud of any bodily accomplishments, when the putrid carcase of a beast shall be shortly just as amiable. (2.) Since it is in our souls that the great difference lies, to make the concerns of them our greatest care. It is a trivial consideration how we fare in time; the grand object is, to secure our well-being in eternity.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/ecclesiastes-3.html. 1801-1803.
 
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