Ecclesiastes 3:1-22

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“For everything — time,” said Koheleth. The Hebrew word for time (zemán) designates a “specific time,” an “appointed time.” The thought appears to be that everything has its particular time. Koheleth follows this up with the words, “and time for every affair under the heavens” (on earth beneath the skies). The Hebrew term for “time” (‘eth) may denote a “proper time,” a “fit time,” a “seasonable time.” It corresponds to the Greek kairós (LXX), which is used with reference to a limited portion of time and can convey the idea of aptness or suitableness. The thought expressed may be that every affair has its brief, suitable time. (3:1)

The “affair” is part of the ever-changing cyclical earthly scene. Its time cannot last. The Hebrew word for “affair” or “business” (chéphets) may also signify “joy,” “pleasure,” “desire,” or “wish,” and the corresponding Greek term (prágma, LXX) can mean “matter,” “affair,” or “business.” (3:1)

A baby develops in the womb, and the “time” comes for it to be born. In contrast to birth, the “time” eventually comes when old age or sickness leads to death. (3:2)

The kind of crop and its growing season limit the “time” for “planting.” The “time” also comes to “uproot.” Weeds that would interfere with the growth of the planted crop must be pulled. Some plants may need to be uprooted to avoid overcrowding. Whatever becomes useless or fails to bear fruit has to be removed. Harvesting, too, may involve uprooting. Anciently, flax was harvested by being pulled up. (3:2)

There is a “time to kill.” God’s law authorized capital punishment for deliberate murder, decreed that extremely dangerous animals should be put to death, and permitted taking the lives of animals for food. (Genesis 9:3–6; Exodus 21:28, 29) On the other hand, there is a time to heal. An injured or sickly person or animal must be treated to promote healing. (3:3)

There is a “time to tear down.” Buildings weakened by decay or neglect may have to be torn down. The “time” also comes for “building,” erecting new houses and other structures. (3:3)

The loss of a loved one in death is certainly a “time to weep.” But a joyous occasion, such as a wedding, is a “time to laugh.” Both sorrow and joy can be spontaneous expressions of the deep inner self. The “mourning” or “wailing” and “dancing” next mentioned, however, may reflect actions of choice appropriate to sad and happy events. There is a “time” for both. Among the ancients, professional mourners wailed loudly over the deceased. In contrast to such mourning, joyous happenings occasioned dancing. (3:4; Exodus 15:20; 2 Samuel 6:16; Matthew 11:16, 17; Luke 15:25-27, 31, 32)

The words about a “time” for “casting away stones” and a “time” for “gathering stones” have been variously understood. Stones might be rejected as unsuitable for building purposes, whereas other stones are selected for construction work. They could be gathered for erecting monuments and discarded when tearing down such memorials. Conquering armies threw stones into fields to interfere with essential farming operations. (2 Kings 3:19, 25) Gathering stones could involve clearing fields of stones. An ancient Rabbinical view interprets the casting away of stones as signifying sexual intercourse and the gathering as a refraining from such intercourse. This view would link the thought more directly to the words that follow about embracing. The Septuagint, though, employs the word líthos (“stone”), and there is insufficient evidence for departing from the basic meaning. (3:5)

There is a “time to embrace” and a “time” to “refrain” from embracing. Relatives or close friends may embrace or hug one another in expression of their affection. (Genesis 29:13; 33:4; 48:10; Song of Solomon 2:6) Embraces associated with the intimacies of marriage have their time and place. In the case of persons outside the marriage bond, it is a “time” to refrain from such embracing. (Prov. 5:20) Even for marriage mates there is a “time” to abstain from it. (Leviticus 20:18; 1 Corinthians 7:5) Anciently, whenever a mission was urgent, it was not a time for extended greetings, including embracing. (3:5; 2 Kings 4:29; Luke 10:4)

There is a “time” to “seek” or “search.” Shepherds diligently searched for lost sheep. (Luke 15:4) Considerable effort might be put forth to “search” for lost valuables. (Luke 15:8) When the “search” has continued to the point where there is no hope of finding what was lost, the “time” comes “to give up.” The search may also prove to be too risky or dangerous in view of circumstances. It then is a “time” for losing or giving up as lost. The seeking could also involve the proper pursuit of gain. Then, due to unfavorable circumstances beyond one’s control, the “time” may come for losing what was obtained. (3:6)

A “time” exists for “keeping” items that are valuable and useful. When retaining possessions would hinder movement to a place of safety or interfere with one’s well-being, however, it is a “time” for “throwing away.” For example, sailors, to lighten a vessel during a storm, would cast valuable cargo and equipment overboard, thereby increasing the possibility of surviving the disaster. (Acts 27:18, 19) An item may cease to have value or may come to be recognized as harmful. At that point the “time” has come for throwing it away. (3:6; Acts 19:19)

There is a “time” for “ripping apart.” The Hebrews customarily ripped garments to the point of exposing the breast when experiencing great distress, grief, or shock. (Genesis 37:29, 34; Judges 11:35; Matthew 26:65; Acts 14:14) Once the occasion that prompted the ripping action had passed, the “time” came for mending the tear. A need for new garments also meant that the “time” had come “to sew.” (3:7)

When listening is in order (as when receiving instructions), it is a “time” for keeping quiet. There are occasions, however, when it it is definitely a “time to speak.” A witness to serious wrongdoing was under obligation to present testimony upon hearing the solemn adjuration pronounced by the judges. (Leviticus 5:1) It was also a time to speak up in defense of those falsely accused. (3:7; Proverbs 24:11, 12)

The reference to times for “love” and “hate” and for “war” and “peace” simply indicates that such times exist in human affairs, without any indication as to whether the emotions or actions were right or wrong. For example, Amnon’s erotic love for his half sister Tamar changed to hatred after his raping her. (2 Samuel 13:15) During David’s reign it was often a time for war in stopping foreign aggression and in extending the boundaries of Israel to the divinely ordained limits. By contrast, Solomon’s reign was a time of peace. In the face of enemy threats, rulers had to decide whether it was in the national interest to fight or to sue for peace. (3:8; Luke 14:31, 32)

The “time” for the things Koheleth enumerated is usually imposed by circumstances that are not a matter of deliberate choice. Since much of what happens in human affairs is not under one’s control, Koheleth raised the question, “What gain [does] the worker [have] from his labor?” Though of a wearying or exhausting nature, toil brings no real gain or advantage. This is because of life’s many uncertainties. Whatever is produced simply will not last, and circumstances beyond human control may quickly undo what has been accomplished. So, in itself, the laboring is not the means for attaining happiness. It cannot guarantee a secure future. (3:9)

Koheleth commented that he had seen the “business,” “occupation,” “task,” or “employment” that God has given to humankind (“sons of the man [the earthling]”) in which to “busy” themselves. From the standpoint of personal experience and careful observation, he did indeed “see.” The “business” appears to apply to human labor in general — all of the activity that is essential in order to live. What God has given to humankind, what he has permitted to be the lot of earthlings, has proved to be an empty “occupation.” It produces nothing of truly enduring value. (3:10)

This occupation of sinful earthlings differs markedly from the “work of God.” The Most High has made everything “beautiful,” “apt,” or “appropriate” in its “time.” Whatever he does or allows to take place always occurs when it is appropriate. The “time” is never too early nor too late with reference to the outworking of his purposes. (3:11)

God has also put “eternity” (‘ohlám, time without a specified limit) into the “hearts” of humans. Unlike animals, which are strictly creatures of the present, man alone has a sense of the past, present, and future. Because of possessing a concept of “eternity” in the “heart” (the deep inner self), man is aware of the existence of an indefinite past and an indefinite future. This realization of time stretching endlessly in both directions from the present impresses on man his serious limitation in trying to grasp the whole of God’s work. Humans know only a minute fraction of the whole. Therefore, they can never grasp, fathom, or discover “the work that God has done from beginning to end.” (3:11)

It is impossible for any person or group of persons to discover from fragmentary knowledge some way to determine what God may do or permit in the outworking of his purpose. There is no way for anyone to ascertain how any one occurrence or any combination of events fit into the work of God. The future cannot be predicted with accuracy. (3:11)

In the Scriptures, whatever God may permit is spoken of as his doing, his “work.” This is because he could prevent it from taking place. For example, when Joseph referred to his being sold by his half brothers, he spoke of this as being done by God. (Genesis 45:5-8) The Almighty did use the circumstance of Joseph’s being sold to work out his purpose respecting the Israelites. At the time of the sale, however, there was no way for anyone to know how this event in its “time” would affect future developments and how it fitted into God’s overall purpose. (3:11)

Seemingly, because everything has its time and humans cannot determine just how their fragmentary view fits into the overall picture, Koheleth focused on getting wholesome enjoyment from life. According to a literal reading of the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, he said, “I know that no good [is (included in LXX)] in them except to rejoice and to do good in his life [plural of life in the Hebrew text, but singular in LXX].” (3:12)

The reference to “no good” is commonly considered to mean “nothing better,” or “the only worthwhile thing.” Another significance could be that, through human effort, no permanent good can be attained, leaving the individual only with the possibility of a temporary enjoyment of life. Even this possibility, as expressed in the next verse, depends upon God. (3:12)

Besides getting enjoyment from the results of their “occupation,” “task,” or “business” (3:10), people should also be doing “good.” If, though, Koheleth’s words indicate that “no good” depends upon humankind, the implied thought would be that their enjoying life and doing good are really dependent on God. (3:12)

The “doing of good” may be understood in one of two ways — (1) doing good for others, or (2) doing good for oneself. Those who favor the second meaning base this primarily on the lack of any specific reference to the doing of good for others. It should be noted, though, that earlier in Ecclesiastes mention is made of the one who is good before God. (2:26) The person proving himself to be good before God would certainly be doing positive good for others. Accordingly, there is a basis for concluding that Koheleth’s words may denote a doing of good for others, using resources and assets for the benefit of fellow humans. (3:12)

The third person plural (“they”) probably means people generally, whereas the third person singular (“his”) would then apply to the individual. So Koheleth may be saying that he knew or recognized that the best thing for people to do was to enjoy themselves and individually to do good throughout their whole life (as the Hebrew plural form of “life” might suggest), not just during part of it. (3:12) “I know that there is nothing good for anyone except to be happy and live the best life he can while he is alive.” (REB) “I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime.” (Tanakh) “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” (NIV)

Further developing the idea of enjoyment and its source, Koheleth continued, “And also that every man may eat and drink and see good for all his labor — this [is] God’s gift.” Humans were to enjoy food and drink. The “labor,” the wearisome or exhausting toil, would provide the means for seeing or experiencing “good,” things that are pleasurable. (3:13)

One’s finding joy in life depends on God. This is so because nothing occurs without his direct action or his permission. Therefore, wholesome pleasures — food, drink, or anything else — are his gift. (3:13)

Humans are unable to change anything that God may do or allow to occur. As Koheleth pointed out earlier, everything has its time in the ever-changing cyclical events on earth. With apparent reference to this reality, he said, “I know that all God does shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor taken away from it.” The Hebrew term (‘ohlám) rendered “forever” denotes time without a set limit. Accordingly, as long as the Most High so wills, whatever he does or allows to affect humankind will stand. Any human effort to make a change — any addition or subtraction — will fail. (3:14) Even the mighty ruler of ancient Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had to admit, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35, NIV)

From the human standpoint, what God does (or permits) can neither be altered nor fathomed. This should cause people to have a wholesome fear of the Most High. As Koheleth observed, “God has done [it] so that they [people] should fear before his face [before him].” This fear is no morbid dread; it is a wholesome, reverential awe. (3:14)

Although the work of God (including everything that he allows to occur) is beyond human comprehension and control, there are repetitive cycles — birth and death, planting and harvesting, weeping and laughing, war and peace. Accordingly, the present is a reflection of the past, and the future will be a time for repeating former events. So Koheleth noted, “Whatever is has already been, and whatever will be has already been.” (3:15)

His next words may be variously understood. The Hebrew text reads, “And God seeks what is pursued.” Both the Hebrew term radáph and the corresponding Greek word dióko (LXX) signify “pursue,” “chase,” or “persecute.” Koheleth next mentioned the flawed administration of justice. Therefore, God’s seeking might refer to his seeking the good of those who suffer unjustly. (3:15) “God seeks out anyone who is persecuted.” (NJB)

It may be, however, that the thought is, “God seeks what is chased away.” What has been “chased away” is no more. It has disappeared. So, God could be referred to as seeking it in the sense of causing or allowing it to happen again. Accordingly, what had been chased away is brought back into full view. (3:15) “Whatever is has been already, and whatever is to come has been already, with God summoning each event back in its turn.” (REB) “God does everything over and over again.” (CEV) “God makes the same things happen again and again.” (NCV) “God allows the same things to happen again.” (NLB)

Although there is uncertainty about the exact significance of Koheleth’s statement, the main point is clear. Whereas events in the mundane realm are repetitive and there seems to be nothing new, God is actively involved in developments on earth and, unlike humans, is in control of all events ― past, present, and future. This implies that injustices will eventually be rectified despite appearances to the contrary. (3:15)

“Under the sun” (in the realm of human affairs, on earth beneath the sun), Koheleth saw that wickedness prevailed in the very place where justice should have been administered. He must have observed judges acting with partiality, favoring the rich and influential even when they were clearly in the wrong. Corrupt judges would have been accepting bribes from the guilty ones and then pronounced such persons innocent, letting them escape deserved punishment. As Koheleth added, wickedness existed where righteousness should have been expected. On the basis of false testimony, the righteous were condemned, and the wicked attained their objectives through bribery. (3:16)

Nevertheless, Koheleth expressed confidence in the decision of a higher Judge, one whose judgment will always be just. In his “heart” (in thought or within himself), Koheleth said, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” His reason for reaching this conclusion was that “[there is] a time for every matter and for every work.” (3:17)

The righteous are those who lead upright lives. Their words and actions are governed by a good conscience and what they know to be the divine will. Wicked ones, on the other hand, disregard the voice of conscience and deliberately choose to ignore divine standards. They are a law to themselves. To attain their unworthy ends, they trample on the rights of others and make use of whatever unscrupulous means are at their disposal. (3:17)

Regarding the words “there is” (which are not in the Hebrew text, but may be understood from the context), a footnote in the Tanakh reads, “Shift of a diacritical point yields ‘He has set.’” This would mean that the Most High has set “a time for every matter and for every work.” (3:17) “So I told myself that God has set a time and a place for everything.” (CEV) “God has planned a time for every thing and every action.” (NCV)

The Hebrew term for “time” (‘eth) and the corresponding Greek word kairós (LXX) can denote an “apt,” “proper,” “suitable,” “fit,” or “seasonable” time. The focus seems to be on a comparatively brief but “appropriate time.” Every “matter,” “affair,” or “business” has its time in the ever-changing cyclical realm of human activity, and there is also a time for every “work.” Accordingly, there definitely is a time for God to judge the righteous and the wicked. (3:17)

Koheleth’s words about God’s judgment seem to shed light on his next statement. Regarding the “sons of men” (“sons of the man” or “the earthling”), Koheleth said in his “heart” (in thought or within himself), “God tests them so that they may see that they are beasts.” (3:18)

The Hebrew term rendered “test” (barár) has been defined as meaning “purge out,” “sort,” “separate,” “select,” or “prove.” In the Septuagint, the corresponding Greek word is diakríno, signifying “separate,” “make a distinction,” or “discriminate.” The “selecting,” “separating,” or “proving” may have reference to what God allows humans to experience — problems, uncertainties, trials, failures, successes, and joys — in order to reveal whether they are righteous or wicked and, hence, what their judgment will be. This proving or testing also serves the divine purpose in making humans aware of their helplessness and mortality. In this way they are brought to the realization that they are like beasts in sharing the same end of life. (3:18)

Koheleth commented that humans (“sons of the man”) and beasts share the same eventual outcome or “fate.” “As one dies, so the other dies. All have the same spirit, and man has no advantage over the beast, for all [is] vanity.” The Hebrew word that may be translated “fate” (miqréh) denotes a happening or occurrence that is not controlled or chosen by the one affected and has no apparent originator. It is a chance occurrence or event. With the exception of suicide and murder, death is such an occurrence, befalling both man and beast. (3:19)

Humans and animals have the same spirit (rúach) or life force — an animating life principle that is sustained by breathing. As respects this life force and the inevitability of death, man enjoys no advantage over the animals. At death, all activity ends for both; there simply is no permanence. Therefore, everything is “vanity,” “meaninglessness,” “purposelessness,” or “emptiness.” (3:19)

Man and beast go to the same place, the lifeless elements of the ground. According to Genesis chapter 2, both animals and man were formed out of soil. At death, both return to the dust, the very elements from which they were created. (3:20)

Based on observation, no one can answer the question as to whether the spirit of humans ascends upward and that of the animals downward. The implication of the question, though, is that Koheleth perceived a difference between man and animals as respects future life prospects. Later he said that “the spirit returns to God” (12:7), seemingly expressing the same thought as does the reference to the ascent of the spirit. Because future life prospects rest with God (in the realm above the sun), he alone can restore the life principle. In the case of humans, Koheleth spoke of the ascent of the spirit. The departure of the life force and its coming to be in God’s full control (in relation to the individual’s future life prospects), however, do not require a literal ascent. Likewise the descent of the spirit of animals into the earth is not to be regarded as a literal descent. It suggests, though, that animals have no hope of future life. (3:21)

In view of the inevitability of death, Koheleth “saw” or “recognized” that there was “nothing better [literally, “no good”] than for a man to rejoice in his works.” Since everything in the earthly realm is transitory, the worker, while he is alive, should derive wholesome pleasure from the results of his labor. This would mean finding delight in what he obtains from working — food, drink, and anything else that may appeal to the senses. This, according to Koheleth, is the worker’s “lot” or “portion.” (3:22)

When the individual dies, he ceases to have a share in the continuing cycle of mundane activities. Koheleth fittingly asked, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” Not a single member of the human family can do anything to enable the dead person to see or observe what is going on among people on earth. (3:22)