How can one truth be experienced in ways that seem to contradict one another? While one feels a heavy burden that cannot be lifted, another has comforting security in any circumstance. “For every time there is a season” — God’s sovereign control of time is the truth. Those who have so great a difference in experience are covenant-man and autonomous-man. The Preacher will teach Israel the covenantal nature of time.
The days of our lives
For everything there is a 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 away 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 cast away;
a time to 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.
– Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
As it is, not as it should
For the most part, there are two main ways this text is taught. The “times” are, first, strictly limited to God’s sovereignty, or secondly, a set of moral platitudes that Christians must apply [misapply] to themselves or others (ex: “It’s time to throw away, so clean out the junk in the house.”) The first is correct, although the emphasis or conclusion made from it can lead to error, while the second is a weak shell of the truth.
How we will be looking at this text is: the “times” are sovereignly determined times, of which God is bringing about His purposes through blessings and curses; our conduct ought to be shaped and informed by discerning what time it is. Understanding the playing out of providentially administered judgments will open up exactly what the Preacher wants Israel’s response to be to his message.
The historical setting
These times are not prescriptive, something we need to do at different points in time. The fundamental lesson for Israel is that God sets the schedule for everything. There is no event or action by or in creation that is not ordered by God. These times are not laws to obey, but God’s agenda that we should submit too and trust Him throughout.
Israel was weak, their light to the nations dwindling, and the desire for faith and obedience feigning. It seemed all their neighbors were outstripping them in power and preeminence, and resultantly, the pagan gods were nothing but attractive.
The Preacher’s time was an era of national depression. Occupation by foreigners (Persians or Greeks or Syrians) had led the intelligentsia and the younger generation to doubt Israel’s Messianic calling. What were the Jews to think of God’s control of human history if His promises about “the age” were not fulfilled and it began to look as though the Messiah would never come? How were the Jews to conduct themselves in the face of tyrannical injustice? How were they to act toward the occupying forces on a day-to-day basis? Should they be subservient, or should they let their feelings show? Could they go along with revolutionary movements? Were they to avenge all injustice?
Since no Messianic era seemed to be dawning, since the very meaning of existence was being cast into doubt, since experience showed that it is wiser to compromise and cast in one’s lot with the rising forces of a powerful new empire, the Jews could not help asking themselves whether it still made sense to serve God. What was the right way to live in such a situation? Was it a matter of eating and drinking for tomorrow we die? Were the righteous to quietly waste away because of the social and ethical distress of their nation? Or was there a better way?
- Cornelis Vanderwaal, Search the Scriptures Vol. 4, pp 87.
The Preacher is communicating that their current predicament wasn’t due to God weakening, but history was moving as He charted. The fact that God would use such circumstances for blessing Israel should have moved them to pursue obedience thankfully.
The warning is implicit. You can’t change the events God has established. His rule is inescapable. Seek submission and obedience to His agenda and be blessed. Or buck against it and be swept up in His curses.
For all intents and purposes, this section is a promise that chaos will not reign. There is an orderliness to life: birth and death, war and peace, etc. This is a message of hope for God’s people. Even if their current experience is destruction, war, and abuse, God has appointed times of rebuilding, peace, and health. A point of progressive sanctification (conformity to God’s ethics) is the maturity to live faithfully in all those times.
These “times” are opportunities to practice obedience and submission to His rule, even if it is through stints of tyrants, oppression, trials, injustice, guilt, and a whole host of other things. Let’s dive in and examine a few of these contrasting “times.”
Birth and death
Death is rending into two what should be an organic unit. Man’s body and soul are not designed for separation. Death is extra-creational and post-Fall. Sin brought about death, both of man’s spirit, removing a natural life of joyful obedience before God, and death of the physical body, a limited life on earth.
Despite this death that we deserve because of Adam and our sin, God has allotted time for a blessing — birth! What we have in birth is a natural pushing back of death. Although birth is natural as far as the physical systems God has created, we must remember that conception, development, and birth include God’s direct involvement (Psalm 139:13-14). Those who will be born to parents within the covenant have God as their God (Psalm 22:9-10). It is God who supports Covenant-children before birth (Psalm 71:6).
Furthermore, births inside of the covenant push back God’s curse in the world, as the “seed of the woman” submits to God in faith and obey his commands. Ultimately, this line of the faithful would culminate in the Messiah, Solomonic-wisdom incarnate. Jesus Christ, through His life, death, and resurrection is moving the world to a time when there is only peace, health, and righteousness. In the meantime, we reflect this future by helping the sick (James 5:14), peacemaking (Matthew 5:9), and living righteously (John 15:14).
Both birth and death, spiritual and physical, are determined by God.
Firmly rooted or uprooted
I want to highlight multiple scenarios where the theme of planting and plucking up can apply, and all of them are the prerogative of God’s providence. First, planting and plucking up points to God’s upholding the power or authority of both individuals and nations. Isaiah is comforted that Yahweh will strengthen him with the same hand that created the heavens (Isaiah 51:16). Jeremiah is told that by God putting His words in Jeremiah’s mouth, his authority has been established (planted) above nations and kings. Later in the same book (18:9-10), God says that any nation he plants, if they do not obey His commandments, will be uprooted.
Jeremiah 31:28 is very much along the same lines as Ecclesiastes 3:2. It is speaking of Israel – that God had judged her, watched over her throughout the punishment, and will continue to watch over her when He brings about her restoration. This passage shows that there is a divine orderliness to blessings and curses and that God’s care throughout should lead us to humble submission to His revelation (God’s Word).
Next is judgment, or uprooting (לַעֲק֥וֹר). Zechariah 2:3-4 calls for nations to obey God’s Law so that they wouldn’t receive punishment. He speaks of “uprooting” disobedient Ekron, who maintained a sanctuary dedicated to Baal that was of notoriety. In the Septuagint, the word used in Ecclesiastes is found in Psalm 51:7 and talks of destroying and uprooting those who slander the righteous.
Lastly, when God plants us, it is a gracious thing. Think about Psalm 1, which talks about the man “firmly planted,” or “rooted.” The literal meaning of the word is “transplanted.” When God establishes, strengthens, or equips His people, it is “transplanting” them from shifting sand, weakness, and want. It is the same with salvation, God moves us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light, from death to life, and ultimately takes us from our broken home as sons of Satan and by the Spirit of Adoption (Romans 8:15; the Holy Spirit) makes us co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17).
Thus the establishment, destruction, and salvation of individuals and nations happen according to God’s schedule — for every time there is a season.
Kill & Heal
This first word, “kill,” connotes the general action of ending someone else’s life. It is used to describe the evil plots and actions of men for wicked purposes, and also God’s agents in history fulfilling God’s calling.
Secondly, we have “heal” or the restoration of health. Efficacy of a diet, the food you consume, the medicine you take, etc. are ultimately in the hands of God. This is why even the ability to wake up is a gift worthy of praise.
History is plagued with plagues. However, even where entire populations were decimated, most communities eventually recovered their numbers. In the cases where people groups never came back or ceased to exist, the answer is that God did not see fit to give a “time” to heal. This is true of natural disasters and foreign invaders. There are many secondary causes, but these “times” come when He wills.
Destruction and construction
This is more concrete language than planting and uprooting, but the theme is similar. There are times for building, rebuilding, and destroying. Sometimes done by God directly, or an agent, but all of it brought to fruition by the Lord’s sovereign plan.
These emotions may seem subjective. How can these be specific times we must submit to?
Let’s start with a few simple statements. Emotions are not neutral or evil. In God’s world, emotions are ethical. For example, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) There are times when obedience requires specific emotions, and God’s providence determines it through the emotional response of our brothers and sisters in Christ to their circumstances.
God’s sovereignty: meaning around the clock
Just as it was with Israel, these sequences of “times” teach us three points. First, the world is not ruled by chaos, chance, or humanistic man and his deifying of self and State. Second, God’s promise of salvation in Jesus Christ, and the subsequent blessings for obedience post-salvation, are not overpowered or nullified by anything or anyone else.
Lastly, time is personal, as well as the events that fill it. There is cosmic personalism to everything we experience. Our suffering and joy are pregnant with eschatological significance since God is using it to sanctify us and the world.
The Preacher is urging Israel to take on godly maturity — remaining faithful under challenging circumstances.
The covenant-breaker | His burden heavy
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
- Ecclesiastes 3:9-10
In verse 9, the Preacher speaks to the “toil” that has no gain—specifically, it’s the toil of the ungodly who do not submit to Solomonic-wisdom. The Hebrew word is amâl, which is the same toil categorized as useless or vapor in the first chapter. Remember, the work that is obedient to God is never categorized by amâl anywhere in Scripture. God is sovereign, and the amâl of the ungodly cannot overcome His “times.”
The burden of time
Men have always sought eternity. It’s a history of failures in attempting to control or rise above time — the idol of becoming timeless. Despite no success for both men and nations who toil in their disobedience to accomplish said desire, why do they continue to try?
We see the answer in verse 11. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Time is one of the enormous burdens laid on rebellious humanity. It is an aspect of life that man cannot throw off, no matter how much he tries to break the chains of God (Psalm 2:3). “He has put eternity into man’s heart,” which only increases the weight of this curse. The beautifying of everything, according to God’s time, is often built on the dust from the toils of the wicked, for their treasure goes to the righteous (Proverbs 13:22).
Since the ungodly rebel against His authority, they also reject his revelation. The purpose of everything established in the beginning, and the end to which all things are going, is lost on them.
God is the only Lord of time, and to deny it is to flee reality and deny maturity.
The blessing of time
What is a curse for man outside of God’s covenant is a blessing for those within. God’s control of time is our comfort (Romans 8:28). His judgments are stages in making everything beautiful, which He is doing from the right hand of God now (1 Corinthians 15:24-25) until His glory covers the earth (Habakkuk 2:14).
God’s Gift | Meaning and joy
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
- Ecclesiastes 3:12-15
The Preacher turns his attention to the blessing of time for God’s people. Their toil (a different Hebrew word that connotes a positive meaning) is pleasurable. Why? God’s revelation! This grace explains the created context in which covenant man labors. That revelation is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What does God’s Word reveal to make their labor a joy?
First, covenant-man has the freedom to be “creature.” Covenant man is free to lean into God and ask of him to bring about solutions to problems that are too big for humanity. The crookedness of man, which destroys every social-order where it runs rampant. Man doesn’t need to come up with a way to educate the crookedness away, but can fully trust in the power of the Gospel to make men new and straighten them out.
Second, the “good” they are supposed to do isn’t something man must figure out for himself. God has revealed the good in Scripture. What is sin, what is righteousness, how do we establish justice, etc.? We find our place in God’s sovereign working (Psalm 31:15), worship Him in every “time” He brings (Psalm 34:1), desire the teaching of the Law (Psalm 119:20), and seek His blessing by conforming our “labors” to His commandments (Psalm 106:3; Ephesians 5:5).
Third, time is an opportunity. Covenanted humanity has the curse removed through Jesus Christ. That curse no longer renders the societal and cultural efforts amâl. When we build on the foundation of God’s revelation, the chief cornerstone being Christ, then we representatively do the work of God in time. We “fear” God because all glory belongs to Him, and all our works are His (v.14; Ephesians 2:10). The Preacher’s message reminds us of John Owen’s comment on Hebrews 12:27,
The “things that cannot be moved” are to remain and be established against all opposition whatever. Wherefore, as the heavens and the earth of the idolatrous world were of old shaken and removed, so shall those also of the antichristian world, which at present in many places seem to prevail. All things must give way, whatever may be comprised in the names of heaven and earth here below, unto the gospel, and the kingdom of Christ herein. For if God made way for it by the removal of His own institutions, which He appointed for a season, what else shall hinder its establishment and progress unto the end?
- John Owen, The Works of John Owen Vol. 7, pp 368.
Fourth, there is both comfort and warning in God’s accounting. The last verse is better rendered, “And God requires an account of what is past” (v.15). The works of the wicked may seem impregnable. How can we ever overcome them? By God’s judgment. He will judge those who work contrary to His Law, which is the foundation of a lasting society. What’s the warning? If men in the covenant rebel against their covenantal Lord, then their works will not fall under what “God does,” and so they will meet judgment. In disobedience, God’s people can practice vanity. However, the degree of unconformity to His ethics is the degree to which their labor is wasted. We see this principle in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who do not teach and do God’s Law will be least in the kingdom, but those who do these will be great (Matthew 5:17-20).
A time for building
As God brings about “times” to accomplish His will, we must remember that it is always the time for obedient labor towards the growth of God’s Kingdom. The form, method, or way of applying God’s Law in those “times” may differ, but the goal of obedience is to discern the time (1 Chronicles 12:32) and act accordingly in His providence. For every time there is a season — trust, build, and walk in the hope of God’s promises and providence.
Starting with the next post, the Preacher will focus on the humanistic tendency to try and build moral social-orders. These unbelieving societies were a temptation for Israel to follow after strange gods. The Preacher will begin to peel the veneer off of these attempts.