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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Ecclesiastes 3

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 3 There Is A Right Time For Everything. There Is Also Transient Beauty In The World and Man Has Everlastingness In His Heart. But There Is Also Injustice, And In The End All Die.

His experiments are now over but he continues to think about all the events and occurrences of life, and how they reveal the meaninglessness of it all, with the occasional glimmer of hope. And he sees that even the man with the open heart towards God is as much caught up in the time-line as everyone else. We know that he is included because of Ecclesiastes 3:9. In Ecclesiastes 2:24 he found enjoyment in his toil. Now the question is, what gain would he have finally from his toil?

So the Preacher’s thoughts move now to the repeated continuity of life. Along the time-line, which is everlasting (Ecclesiastes 3:11), various things are seen as occurring repetitively, each in its time. They come and they go, but they are but temporary. Only time moves on continually leaving man behind, even the godly man.


Verses 1-8

There is a Time for Everything In Its Place (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

‘To everything there is a fixed season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die,

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up 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 stones, and a time to gather stones together,

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing,

A time to seek, and a time to lose,

A time to keep, and a time to throw away,

A time to cause a 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 for war, and a time for peace.’

This list is made up of fourteen contrasting phrases depicting opposites. The fourteen is intended to convey the idea of the divine perfection of the list. It is the perfect seven twofold. It is noteworthy that the first two in the list stress the idea of death, both the death of man and the death of plants. The Preacher is very much aware of the reality of death. But against it he sets the reality of new life. That too he is aware of. We again have illustrated the continual repetition of birth and death. Things are born and they die, and new life replaces them. And all in their time. The time line goes on, with all these activities continually repeating themselves.

But then he goes on to cover the broader aspects of life. So the next five contrast what is the dark side with what is the light side. Killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning and casting stones on to a field to render it useless, are contrasted with healing, building up, laughing, dancing and clearing the field of stones to make it fruitful. He sees both sides of life, the dark and the light. That is what life is like as it goes on its way, a life of contrasting and repetitive experiences, each in its time. Sometimes negative, sometimes positive. But all transient.

Then he deals with the more homely aspects of life - embracing, seeking something lost, keeping things, and accidentally tearing things, in contrast with refraining from embracing, losing something, throwing something away, and repairing something that is torn.

And finally we have three examples which relate to men’s relationships with each other, keeping silence compared with speaking, loving compared with hating, and war compared with peace. The time-line continues on as these experiences occur again and again at different points in time, but all passing.

As can be seen this magnificent overall view, covering many aspects of life, is expressed in contrasts. The point is being made that everything has its time, in a long string of times, and the opposite also has its time. There is a time when one thing happens, there is a time when the opposite happens. There is a time when the good happens, and a time when the not so good happens. Something may be right at one time, when at another time it might be wrong. Each thing has its time. So goes on the continual process of life, constantly repeating itself over time, which is his main point.

It is not necessary however to see here a predetermination of these activities. The time in question is the right time, or the wrong time, in each case, not the predetermined time. It is fixed because it is right for that time. Indeed a man can die before his time (Ecclesiastes 7:17, compare also Ecclesiastes 9:11 where time is related to chance) which is contrary to predetermination. What does come out is that we need to ensure that we do things at the right time, and be careful that we do not do them at the wrong time.


Verse 9-10

Musings On Man’s Work (Ecclesiastes 3:9-10).

Ecclesiastes 3:9

‘What profit has the workman in that in which he labours?

We return here to the question of purposelessness. The workman who labours gains nothing from his labours apart from his wages. Nothing of what he labours on will benefit him. It is thus to him a pointless and empty exercise. And this is even true of the godly man. And yet man has to work hard and long to achieve what he does. Such is the pointlessness of his life. All that is permanent that he gains by his labours is for others.

Ecclesiastes 3:10

‘I have seen the hard exertions which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’

We note that there is almost a repeat of Ecclesiastes 1:16 here. In Ecclesiastes 1:16 he had said, ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’ Now that situation has improved to simply being ‘hard exertions which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’ The improvement presumably arises from the introduction of the godly man who has found joy in his labour. But it still depresses him, for he sees the hard exertions which are required of man as given to him by God. What he observes others as doing (‘men are busy with’) he sees as a God given-task (consider Genesis 3:17-19), but one which apparently leads nowhere (unless, of course, it is performed towards God).


Verses 11-15

God has Given Man a Conception of Everlastingness.

Here he provides something extra to what God has given men to do. While man has to work so hard, nevertheless God has made everything beautiful in its time (‘God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good’ - Genesis 1:29). And at the same time God has set everlastingness in man’s heart (‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him’ - Genesis 1:27). But it has been done in such a way that man is unable to comprehend totally what God has done.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has set everlastingness in their heart, yet in such a way that man cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning, even to the end.’

The thought of time has turned his thoughts to the beauty of the world. He acknowledges that everything is beautiful in its time. God had created beauty (Genesis 1:29), and that beauty continues on as different things arise in their time. But on the basis of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the corollary is that while each thing has its time, and it is a time of beauty, it will in the end wither and decay. Nevertheless it has had its time of beauty. But again that might be seen as the point, its beauty fades in the end. The ceaseless repetition continues. Of what purpose the beauty if it finally fades?

The partial answer comes in that he sees God as having set within man’s heart the awareness of everlastingness. Now here is something very tangible and very different. Man was made in the image of God, and therefore man is aware that God is the everlasting God, that although history repeats itself again and again in the same way, it does so on a time-line that finally continues on everlastingly. Thus he grasps the concept of everlastingness. At last he has found something that is not transient.

But he immediately stresses that this does not mean that man is able to find out God’s ways, or what He has done from the beginning, or will do, even to the end. That is outside man’s cognisance. He cannot fathom God. All he can do is be aware of that everlastingness, and that those who know God are connected to that everlastingness, even though each only has a short span along that unceasing time-line, unless of course man can in some way partake in that everlastingness.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

‘I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and to do good so long as they live. And also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy good in all his labour. It is the gift of God.’

But as men cannot totally search out God’s ways in spite of their sense of everlastingness, the best thing for them to do is to be happy and to do good as long as they live, while being aware of the everlastingness. He is continuing the thought that men must follow the path of the godly (must be pleasing to God - Ecclesiastes 2:26), even though they may still not quite appreciate what they have which is so important. He has failed as yet to recognise that there is an everlasting quality and a special relationship with God in all that they do, and that they are part of everlastingness, in the sense that they are caught up in an undefinable something which is positively everlasting, and not just everlasting continuance. (What elsewhere is called an eternal covenant.)

But he still sees such a man’s happiness as obtained by living a contented life before God, achieved by eating and drinking, in the normal course of this life, what he sees as given to him by God, and by enjoying good in all his labour, accepting it as God’s given task for him, and throwing himself into it. For this is God’s gift to him. (But the Preacher’s positive understanding is still lacking).

Ecclesiastes 3:14-15

‘I know that whatever God does it will be for ever. Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. And God has done it that men should fear before him. That which is has been already, and that which is to be has already been. And God seeks that which is pursued.’

He is now getting closer to the significance of his concept of everlastingness. God is everlasting, and what He does it will be for ever. There at least is something that is perfect. Nothing can be added to it. Nothing can be taken from it. It is not limited by the time-line. It transcends it. (He will in the end work up to the position that man can transcend it too).

‘And God has done it that men should fear before him.’ What has God done? He has done things that are clearly everlasting. Nothing can be added to them. Nothing can be taken from them. Here is meaning and permanence indeed. And the purpose of this is that men might fear before Him, might be in awe of Him, and worship Him. The consequence of this, if only he could see it, was that God was drawing His own into something that was everlasting. (In the end the everlasting covenant. But he never directly puts it in those terms for he is ‘a wise man’, he is thinking of the whole of mankind).

At least he now draws God into the seemingly meaningless process. That which is has been already, and that which shall be (is to be) has already been. That is the process that he has already despaired of, the continual recurring of things through time. But now there is a new factor. God steps in to the process. God positively seeks what has been pursued or driven away. He positively acts on the process. It is no longer meaningless. It is another step in the solution of his problem.

But he does not try to analyse what those everlasting things are that God does. He recognises that they are beyond his understanding. What matters is that they are there, and that man has some awareness of them.

‘And God seeks that which is pursued.’ The meaning of this phrase is difficult, but that does not prevent us from recognising the fact that it is a clear declaration of God acting within the seeming meaninglessness of things. Perhaps it indicates that as His own put in effort to pursue what has already been or will be, God steps in to have His part in it with them. Or it may signify that what the godly are pursuing is precisely what God is seeking for them.

Alternatively it has been suggested that we could translate, ‘God claims it (or seeks it) as it passes on’. God takes what seems to be the meaningless process of time and gives it meaning by introducing Himself into the situation.

Whatever way we see it, it indicates that God has become active in the situation, a fact which introduces the meaningful.


Verse 16-17

Injustice Is A Blot on God’s Creation (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17).

The consequence of his awareness of everlastingness, and of his subsequent recognition that justice is not being achieved, is that he becomes aware that God is the final judge.

Ecclesiastes 3:16

‘And moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of judgment, that wickedness was there. And in the place of righteousness that wickedness was there.’

The Hebrew is graphic. ‘In the place of judgment, wickedness there!’ Where justice and righteousness should have been prevalent, wickedness had entered. The courts were corrupt. The authorities governing dishonestly and unfairly. So now he sees that there is not only meaninglessness, but also wickedness and injustice. A moral dimension has been introduced. This can only lead on to the thought of God’s judgment.

Ecclesiastes 3:17

‘I said in my heart, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked. For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” ’

As his thoughts were progressing, this terrible fact that he had become aware of shook him out of his complacent reasoning. The scheme of things was disturbed. Wickedness in the place of judgment! Wickedness in the place where right should prevail! God must surely do something about it. And so he is sure that at some stage God must step in and judge both the righteous and the wicked. For there is a time for every purpose and for every work so that there must be a time for this.

Note that the righteous are to be judged as well as the wicked. The judgments of the courts have proved false. So the Preacher is confident that God must, as it were, hear their appeal, He must re-judge the righteous as well as judging the wicked, for he is arguing that He must surely have some way of bringing about final justice. (Compare Ezekiel 18:20-22). Here we have the moral argument for the truth of an afterlife. This again signifies that he sees God as stepping into the advancement of time. (The logical consequence of this must be a judgment beyond the grave for those who died unjustly. But he does not reach that conclusion yet).

Later he will declare that for some who cannot find justice it would be better to be dead, or even to not have been born at all (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3). This may suggest that he does, even at this stage, have an inner sense that for things to be righted justice must in some way be dispensed after death. But he does not discuss the matter. It is not yet fully formulated in his mind. But what he is certain of is that God must judge, and right the wrong.

So the Preacher is now no longer quite so smooth in his philosophy. He has had to recognise that God continues to insist on breaking into things. First he had the recognition of the strange contentment and blessing of the godly (Ecclesiastes 2:24), then the sense of beauty in nature (Ecclesiastes 3:11 a), then the recognition of a sense of everlastingness in man (Ecclesiastes 3:11 b), then the recognition of God’s doing everlasting things (Ecclesiastes 3:14), then the recognition of God’s stepping into the process of time to act (Ecclesiastes 3:15), and now the sense of morality and necessity for His judgment, something that was of such importance to God that it necessitated God Himself stepping in to act in this way. All was now no longer quite so meaningless.


Verses 18-22

Death Is The Great Leveller (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22).

Now we discover the conflict taking place within him. He has had a concept of everlastingness and of the necessity for future judgement. How then does this tie in with the fact that all die, both man and beast?

Ecclesiastes 3:18-19

‘I said in my heart, “Because of the sons of men, that God may put them to the test, and that they may see that they themselves are but as beasts, for that which befalls the sons of men, befalls beasts, even one thing befalls them. As the one dies so does the other die. Yes they all have one breath, and man has no pre-eminence over the beasts. For all is vanity.” ’

The question arises here as to what is the subject of ‘because of the sons of men’. Some see it as referring back to Ecclesiastes 3:16. But the idea of wickedness in the place of justice would not impress on man that he was like the beasts. It might indeed rather emphasise man’s difference from the beasts. What impresses on him the fact that he is like the beasts in context is that he dies like they do. Furthermore what is the point of putting them to the test in judgment if they then all simply die? Thus we are probably to look forward and see the subject as being ‘even one thing befalls them’.

This would then mean that he sees dying like the beasts as being a kind of test to men. In the face of it what will be their reaction to God? What are they going to do in the face of this?

If we are to connect it to Ecclesiastes 3:17-18, and not as a totally new thought, it must be because he automatically assumes that death will be the consequence of the wicked being brought into judgment. To a despotic king, even a good one, the death sentence was a constant consequence of justice. Thus the fact that men are judged and executed demonstrates that they are but like the beasts. But this is not consistent with Ecclesiastes 3:17 where the righteous are also in mind.

‘For that which befalls the sons of men, befalls beasts. Even one thing befalls them. As the one dies so does the other die. Yes, they all have one breath, and man has no pre-eminence over the beasts, for all is vanity.’ He has now come back to his pessimism. All die in the same way, both man and beast. They have similar ‘breath’ (of life - Genesis 2:7; Genesis 7:22) and they lose it in a similar way. So man is no different from the beasts. He experiences the same inevitable end. Thus all is meaningless. This fact is then emphasised.

Some see this likening to the beasts as including (or should we say excluding) the moral dimension. Man behaves like the beasts as well as dying like them. But it is questionable whether this is what The Preacher means. Not all behave like beasts, only the powerful. His concentration is rather on the fact that both die in the same way and become dust.

Ecclesiastes 3:20

‘All go to one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.’

The grave is the destiny of both man and beast. Dust they are and to dust they will return. So again he emphasises that there is no difference between them. Their dead bodies are dealt with in the same way.

Ecclesiastes 3:21

‘Who knows the spirit of man, whether it goes upward, and the spirit of the beast, whether it goes downwards into the earth?’

But again the Preacher has a moment of questioning. Again something challenges him to think. It is only a question, but it reveals the uncertainty in his thinking. Who knows what happens to the ‘spirit’? We should note that whether the breath of life and the spirit are to be seen as the same thing does not matter. What matters here is the possibility that there is something in man, his essential life, which perhaps goes upwards towards God (compare Ecclesiastes 12:7), in contrast to that of the beast. If that were the case the death of the man and the beast may not be the same after all. However, for the present he dismisses the idea. (It is only later that he finally accepts it (Ecclesiastes 12:7), the idea that man will in some undefinable way partake of everlastingness).

Ecclesiastes 3:22

‘So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works. For that is his portion. For who will bring him to see what shall be after him?’

So he concludes that the best thing for man to do is to rejoice in what he does, to enjoy his life and his work, for it has been allotted to him by God, and not be concerned about the distant future. The word is not used, but the idea is that he should live his life by trust in God.

‘What shall be after him.’ It is pointless for a man to worry about what will be after him. This is in contrast with Ecclesiastes 2:18-19. But there the reference was to someone who had spent his life building up his possessions unnecessarily, whereas here he is speaking of one who has lived his life before God without building up excessive possessions and therefore need not worry about the future in this way. Compare Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 10:14.

From our position we might see here that The Preacher has not come to the logical conclusion. He has accepted the everlastingness of God, and His intervention in what goes on in the earth, he has recognised that there should be justice for all, even for those who die before they can receive justice, he has recognised the quality of life enjoyed by God’s true people. But at this stage he fails to accept the logical consequence of it all. Instead he sinks back into pessimism. He cannot at this stage grasp the possibility of resurrection. So he fails to follow through on what he has discovered.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-3.html. 2013.

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