The Expository Files

 In His Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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 ESV)

My Experience With This Text

When I first studied the book of Ecclesiastes seriously (but apparently slowly and gradually and with some struggle), I remember my first impression about this passage was: this means that things here on earth do not happen, except at the right, divinely ordained time or season. I was, at first impulse, playing closely with a determinism motif.

The first thought was, nothing on earth happens, unless it is time for that event to happen. The more I thought about that interpretation - the more time I spent with it - I had doubts and problems with that viewpoint. Some things happen that should never happen. When my brother in Christ falls into sin, was it time for that to happen; was his sin a function of some sort of timing or fate? Is there really a time to sin? I also thought, some people laugh when they ought not to laugh; or speak at the wrong time. Who among us have not been silent to our shame? So, this rather simplistic, fatalistic interpretation I was compelled to reject. The poem is not telling us to forget our choices, all this stuff will just happen when it is supposed to. No! That’s not it.

Next I considered, maybe there is some structure I should look for here, and in that examination of structure, the meaning will emerge. Perhaps these are couplets and they represent in some strictness, negative and positive. Giving birth is positive – dying is negative. Loving is positive - hating is negative. Laughing is positive – weeping is negative.

Could I be onto something? Maybe not. One great promise of the gospel is, for those in Christ, dying is positive (Phil. 1:21). Mourning can be positive, for Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn,” (Matt. 5:4). My efforts to get a good handle on this passage took me back to think and consider with more care. This poem is not simply a contrast between negative and positive.

Here is a third concept I entertained. I thought, these are just things that happen here on earth, PERIOD. The idea is not, these activities are all pre-determined and they just happen when they are scheduled in heaven. Nor is the theme merely the negative-positive contrast. The inspired writer is simply saying, “this is the way it is!” And, to connect this with the theme of Ecclesiastes: To expect unchanging happiness in a changing world, you set yourself up for disappointment (to paraphrase Matthew Henry).

That would certainly be true, even if it doesn’t capture the full depth of the text. When you look through these events and emotions (from verse 2 through verse 8), as adults, we have observed all 28, many times over. No proof is required. No time needs to be applied to cite illustrations. These things happen! It can certainly be added/concluded, since life is composed of such realities, it is important to have God in your life; to fear God and keep His commandments. All of that is true. Maybe I was getting closer.

But, is there more to be taken from the poem? Should we attend to the opening statement, “…a time for every matter under heaven?” Could “under heaven” hold significance that is vital to everything that follows?

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Verse 1 functions to introduce the couplets. And it is worthy of notice, that instead of the repeated “under the sun” of the Preacher, there is “under heaven.” Seems there is a difference between “under the sun” and “under heaven,” right?

“Under the sun” is used nine times in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, and the context shows the writer referring to life here on earth. “Under heaven,” however, is used only in 1:13 and 2:3. There is a distinct possibility in my mind that “under heaven” has greater scope than simply here on earth.

Think about “under heaven” as a reference to under God’s providential view of the activities on earth. But not just His view. This is His world. He made this place, which includes the function of time, order, cause, effect, consequence, sequence, etc.

God made a world that flows through order or linear time cycles. “In this section the dominant motif is the sovereignty of God. Though humans just determine the appropriate times to act, it is God who is in ultimate control. The Teacher says that the universe has a regularity and pattern about it that is beyond the scope of human control and renders futile all attempts to wrestle against it. He says that the wise person will live life under the shadow of this truth and will understand that God has set a pattern and a flow to the times…The primary focus of the poem is on God and the human response to the activity of God. God is Sovereign over life and humans cannot change that which God sets in motion but must learn to make themselves open to the seasons of life as they come and to enjoy what God gives (3:12,13).” [From STORMS OF LIFE, Donald Givens]

Everything that happens here is allowed to happen by Him, whether it be good or bad. He doesn’t approve of everything that happens, but He allows everything to take place, except for His providential interventions (unrevealed to us). God has ordained that we exist here on earth and that various works, blessings and consequences occur.

Solomon is simply reporting to us that there is this sovereign control of God over time. What happens here is “under heaven” in that sense. Understanding this helps give meaning to earthly existence. It helps me live here with some sense of sanity and balance and confidence, knowing that I cannot manage everything that happens (even if all my fellows cooperated with me as a team). Some things happen here and their opposites or consequences happen. God has set it up that way. Everything that happens is “under heaven.”

If I have this right, as the main idea conveyed through the poem, it is not necessary to subject every phrase or couplet to specific analysis! This is similar to apocalyptic literature like Revelation. Once you see what is depicted (the main idea), it becomes unnecessary and cumbersome to hyper-analyze or assign some specific meaning to every detail.

My understanding of the Time Poem in Ecclesiastes three is: God is in control, and in the mysterious administration of His wise providence - He allows, He permits certain things to happen at certain seasons or times. I understand that, believe that and accept it. This acknowledgment of God’s ownership of time and the way He set this up, helps me to live here with some sense of sanity, balance and confidence in the One who is above time. He is my Father! Why wouldn’t I want to fear God and keep His commandments?

So there are these applications:

Time presents no frustration to God. He knows that all these activities, events and moods will occur. He will accomplish His will in ways unknown to us through the passage of time. In His Time everything happens without ever taking Him by surprise. We have such a Father! This is a liberating truth for the minds of His people. We can never fully understand the mystery of the big picture or fix everything (see Eccl. 1:15). We can live in the hands of the One who made it all and set it all up unto His glory.

This text is reporting to us the wide variety of events that occur here on earth, not recommending that we take up each phrase as an imperative. The main idea is time exists “under heaven,” that is – under God’s providential control and Christ’s power (Col. 1:17). To jump into this passage and claim for yourself some imperative that agrees with your impulse at the moment is to misuse the text. Two examples: (1) To murder someone and defend yourself by claiming the Bible says “there is a time to kill,” or (2) to murder yourself [suicide] and leave on the note, “there is a time to die.” The passage is not intended to give us a series of justifications or excuses. The text is reporting to us that these things happen. God is not surprised. His providential control allows for actions, results, seasons and choices – and these will continue until God brings “every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil,” (Eccl. 12:14).

This text is not written to tell us the right time to do things! There is a storehouse of great wisdom in Proverbs and all through the New Testament to teach us when to do things and when to refrain (see Prov. 26:1-14). This passage is Ecclesiastes doesn’t provide that specification. It is not the intent of the writer here to tell us when to weep and when to laugh, only to make certain we understand that God has set up a world where both occur. The passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. “Thus we see that the Preacher is not saying what people ought to do; he is simply describing the situations they end up in,” (J.A. Loader, in REFLECTING WITH SOLOMON, p.#258).

“This is no prescriptive listing of these opposite activities; rather it is a descriptive inventory of the things that comprise human existence. We mortals spend our time in the ways described by these contrasting activities. The list affirms an overall order to life and the lesson is that we must act responsibly even in the face of life’s uncertainties.” [STORMS OF LIFE, Donald Givens]

Storms of Life, by Donald Givens, Xulon Press
Ecclesiastes, by Craig G. Bartholomew, Baker
The Book of Ecclesiastes, by Tremper Longman III, Eerdmans
Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway
Reflecting With Solomon, Edited by Roy Zuck, Baker

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 19.9; September 2012