Four years ago it was my privilege to teach through the book of Ecclesiastes in my Wednesday night class. Before going into that study I naively thought that the book was relatively simple. It didn’t take long for me to discover that it presents a mountain of interpretive challenges. Of particular interest here will be Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
These verses have been sealed in the minds of Baby Boomers who remember the 1965 song by the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This song does not affect our understanding of the text one way or another. Rather, it simply employs the verses of the King James Version in a semi-literal arrangement.
We tend to see this passage as saying that everything happens at a time determined by God. The sovereignty of God is admitted and is not at issue in anything I shall say. God, in his providence, provides a season for all the experiences of life, yet killing, hate and war may not fit your personal agenda! Some of these things are outside our control, like when to be born or when to die (Vs. 2).
If the idea here is that all human activity has its proper time, why are there fourteen antitheses used to make such a generic point? And why did Solomon use the particular opposites that he did? Did Solomon write this in order to give teenagers of the 1960’s something by which to remember him? Did he write this to give us general life lessons to say, “Everything happens according to God’s schedule”? Hardly! Yet, that is true and nobody doubts it. When you consider what Solomon actually said it just proves that nothing ruins a good sermon like a passage in its context!
Are the different activities mentioned in vss. 2-8 human experiences affecting everybody? Or, was Solomon addressing matters of concern to a select group of people at that time in sacred history? It can be demonstrated that these activities, for which there is a special time, are forms of activity which God has employed either for correction or deliverance of his people Israel. There is no thought here of God governing random human activities. Solomon lived during evil days for Israel. God used the wise king as an inspired window to what has and will happen to Israel under God’s direction. Solomon speaks here as a prophet unveiling the past, present and future of the people of God.
In verses 2-8 the wise king describes seasons (times) that God used to bring about positive and negative things into the lives of the people of Israel. All of it was leading up to, including, and following the critical days of Solomon. If we can interpret this section in generic ways, there is no limit to what applications, or misapplications, might come out of it. These fourteen pairs of opposites tell what God did through Israel’s up & down history. We will analyze the following opposites in groups of two each.
The First Group: Birth – death – planting – plucking up what is planted (Vs. 2).
The word “born” is a verb meaning, “to bring forth.” The birth analogy is used of Zion in Isaiah 66:7-9. Could this be a reference to Jesus and the church? Homer Hailey said, “Here is something unparalleled in history, for immediately following the birth of the Man-Child, a nation, its land, and Zion’s children are brought forth. Only the entrance of Christ into the world and the events of Pentecost can be in view here; the Son was exalted, the new nation was established, and Zion’s children began to multiply (Acts 2; 4:4).”[i]
Death does not always mean cessation of physical life (Jas. 2:26). In the Old Testament death symbolized a period when God brought someone low. God brought Israel low, as if to be dead and in need of being revived (Deut. 32:39; Psa. 71:20; 85:6; Hos. 6:1-2. See, Ezekiel 37:1-14). God would revive Israel when they were as good as dead.
God planted Israel as a choice vine (Isa. 5:1-7; Psa. 80:8-11). Then God allowed them to be plucked up (Psa. 80:12-13; Jere. 1:10; 12:14-17). Isn’t it interesting that similar language should be used in Jeremiah 1:10 as in Ecclesiastes 3:2?
The Second Group: Kill – heal – break down – build up (Vs. 3).
God’s corrective dealings with Israel were described as a slaying (Psa. 78:31, 34; Jere. 12:3).
God loved Israel, so as to heal them (Dent. 32:39; Isa. 57:18-19; Hos. 6:1).
In parallel fashion, the image of breaking down follows. Israel was God’s vineyard he had planted, but would break down (Isa. 5:5; Psa. 89:40). This described the broken down condition of Jerusalem’s walls when the captives returned (Neh. 2:13). Jeremiah was God’s prophet, “to pluck up and to break down” (1:10). So too, the verb that is here rendered, “build up” is used to refer to Israel’s spiritual reconstruction (Jere. 24:6; 42:10). Isn’t it interesting how Jeremiah 42:10 incorporates statements in Ecclesiastes 3:2-3?
The Third Group: Weep – laugh – mourn – dance (Vs. 4).
If my approach has any merit, the word, “weep” cannot have reference to literal tears of sadness such as we all experience in the sweep of life’s bitter ways. Solomon was warning of the reality that the Israelites would have a time to weep. The Psalmist applied that to Israel’s weeping in exile when they remembered Zion (Psa. 137:1).
At her fall, Judah was “laughed to scorn” (Ezek. 23:32; Lam. 3:14).
The idea of mourning is also incorporated in the passages linked to laughter (Ezek. 23:33; Lam. 3:15). Isn’t it interesting that Ezekiel and Jeremiah should employ language so similar to that of Ecclesiastes 3:4?
Isaiah prophesied the total downfall of the once great Babylon. It would become a place occupied by wild animals. Of particular interest here is the statement, – “and there wild goats will dance” (Isa. 13:21). Clyde M. Woods wrote, “Under the Persian king Cyrus and later invaders, the city of Babylon was laid waste and left desolate. Today, a forlorn railway stop sign marks the ruins of once mighty Babylon.”[ii]
The Fourth Group: Cast away stones – gather stones – embrace – refrain from embracing (Vs. 5).
Note that this is not casting stones, but casting “away” stones. To cast something away means to reject it, or to throw it away, the way Israel did the precious stone, which was Christ (Psa. 118:22). Like stones they were gathered up by God. God would “cast away,” or reject, his rebellious people (Jere. 33:26; Hos. 9:17).
We typically think of the word “embrace,” as doing so physically and apply this verse that way. It is used of a physical embrace (Gen. 29:13). It is used of embracing wisdom (Prov. 4:8). The patriarchs embraced the promises of God (Heb. 11:13, NKJV). All we really need to ask is, “Did God love Israel?” The answer is yes! (1 Kgs. 10:9; Hos. 11:1)
Jeremiah’s parable of the sash illustrated God putting Israel away – refraining from embracing (Jere. 13:1-11).
The Sixth Group: Seek – lose – keep – cast away (Vs. 6).
Israel was God’s vineyard. He sought justice, but got disobedience (Isa. 5:7).
To “lose” means to perish, destroy, demolish or annihilate – Solomon would lose the kingdom (1 Kgs. 11:34-35).
To “keep” means to watch, observe or guard. God kept watch over Israel (Jere. 31:27-28). God established prophets to keep watch over Israel (Jere. 51:12; Ezek. 3:17).
To “cast away” means to throw, hurl or scatter. This is the same verb used in verse 5. It is used in reference to Israel in 2 Kings 13:23; Psalm 71:9, and Jeremiah 7:15.
The Seventh Group: Tear – sew – keep silence – speak (Vs. 7).
God would tear, or “rend” the kingdom of Israel from Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:29-33).
He would sew it back together: The remnant would be restored to Israel (Isa. 10:20-23; Mic. 5:3).
There was a time when God was silent to Israel; he would not hear even the prayers of Jeremiah on behalf of his people (Jere. 7:16).
“Speak” is a general word for verbal communication. God spoke to Israel through his prophets (Num. 12:6; Deut. 18:18-20; Heb. 1:1).
The Eighth Group: Love – hate – war – peace (Vs. 8).
The interaction involving love and hate, as it affected Israel is given in Malachi 1:2-3. God loved Israel (Hos. 11:1). Israel’s spiritual degeneracy would become such that God hated even their religious expressions (Amos 5:21-23).
War & peace (Josh. 8:1-29; 11:23; 1 Kgs. 14:30; Isa. 57:19).
With Solomon being in the position of the King, as he was, it makes sense that he might give his readers a synopsis of God’s modes of working with Israel. There were seasons of punishment and correction, refreshing and healing. The points in verses 2-8 were not intended to tell us in the 21st century that the varied experiences of life all have their proper time. What I have suggested here does not make for great sermons. It is, on the other hand, a generalized, but descriptive summary of how God has and would deal with his people Israel, as it was made known to Solomon.
[i] A Commentary on Isaiah: With Emphasis on the Messianic Hope (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 524.
[ii] People’s Old Testament Notes: Isaiah (Henderson, TN: Woods Publications, 2002), 67.