Solomon documents his search for meaning by experimenting with different lifestyles and ways of thinking about life. Thus far he has examined and commented on life from the following perspectives:
- The pursuit of sensual pleasure: Enjoyable but not profitable.
- The life lived wisely or foolishly: Both end in death and thus no better than the other.
- The pursuit of meaning through one's activity (work) here on earth. An experiment that yields several insights: a) Inward joy and satisfaction is a gift from God and cannot be produced simply by succeeding at work. b) When we are right with God we derive profit not only from our own work but from everyone else's work as well. This is possible when we make an effort to appreciate another's work instead of envying it or trying to profit from it selfishly.
Solomon now explores the context in which a person's life and work is carried out - the framework of time. Before we study the text regarding time, however, we need to examine the subject of time itself.
What is time?
Definition: A measurable period during which events occur.
Why is time so important?
Time is not important in itself but it measures events that are irretrievable once they pass (i.e. "Cannot stop time").
When did time begin and when will it end?
Concrete events and changes began with creation and thus, so did time. "In the beginning (of time)…" (Genesis 1:1). Time will end when what time measures and the instruments by which time is determined (the planets, stars) will cease to be. This will occur when Jesus returns (II Peter 3:10-11).
Solomon examines the context in which a person's life is lived out and the events that take place throughout the time that a one spends here on earth. He concludes that the events (times) in one's life are cyclical in nature and when examined, are in themselves pointless.
The reference to time and its cyclical nature are established in the first verse of chapter three.
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1
In the following verses he will refer to 14 pairs of opposite events which occur at "appointed" times. The fact that they are mentioned in multiples of seven and that they begin with birth and death is significant. Opposites suggest the entire range of important life experiences along with everything that happens in-between these events (this is a poetic device called Merism).
Even though Solomon does not mention every conceivable event in life, the things he does mention and the way he arranges them are meant to convey the total of life and its experiences in time. Each "time" has its significance and tracks important events, but the sum total of these do not constitute the essential meaning of one's life.
1. Life and Death - vs. 2a
A time to give birth and a time to die;
The beginning and the end of life - the experiences that reduce every life to a common denominator.
2. Renewal and Change - vs. 2b
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
This refers not only to the growing seasons of the farmer and the cycle of preparing, planting and harvest, but also to those seasons in our lifetimes when we are in stages of growth, development, learning, re-thinking old ideas and the consideration of new ones.
3. Destruction and Restoration - vs. 3a
A time to kill and a time to heal;
In that day and time an individual could avenge the killing of a family member (Avenger of Blood - Numbers 35:6-34). Solomon says that there was a time for this type of justice, and at other times, restoration and healing were the order of the day (e.g. Mephilbosheth - Jonathan's son, crippled in both feet, and potential heir and challenger to David's throne). King David, because of an oath to his friend Jonathan, spared Mephilbosheth and provided him with support all of his life.
4. Demolish and Rebuild - vs. 3b
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
The cycle of rebuilding, remodeling and modernizing not only buildings but lives as well.
5. Sorrow and Joy - vs. 4a
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
Life is a continuous cycle of events that create one or the other. Many times we make ourselves miserable because we try to avoid sorrow or see it as an aberration in life and thus learn nothing from it. Solomon, however, says that it is a natural part of life and has its own time and value.
6. Mourn and Dance - vs. 4b
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
Again, the cycle of the various passages life takes us through - birth, death, marriage, divorce, success, failure etc.
7. Select and Reject - vs. 5a
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
This could refer to the process of gathering building materials that are suitable. The idea is that there are moments when we choose our careers, friends, homes etc. and times to reject what is before us. We do not have to go through every open door or take advantage of every seeming opportunity. There is a time to consolidate and stay put as well as a time to start anew.
8. Embrace and Confront - vs. 5b
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
Some moments call for warm relationships and loving interaction while other times bring us into confrontation, rebuke and conflict.
9. Search and Abandon – vs. 6a
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
There needs to be a willingness to acknowledge when there is no longer the possibility of success in a mission, project or search. There is a time to work hard and push ahead, and then a time to say, "This is not going to work; or this is not worth the risk; or there is no longer any chance of success."
10. Keep and Discard - vs. 6b
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
This does not only refer to the "garage sale" mentality but also to our own ideas and circumstances. Paul says that he "..put away childish things" (I Corinthians 13:11-13) referring to the sorting out of what is valuable or useless in our lives. There are times when we need to adjust to new ideas, situations and goals in life, and this usually requires the letting go of attitudes and beliefs that are either no longer true or no longer profitable for our emotional and spiritual development.
11. Grief and Resolution - vs. 7a
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
The tearing apart could refer to the custom "rending" one's clothing done to signify grief and mourning over the loss of loved ones, dignity, health etc. Sewing the torn clothing was a sign that the period of grieving was over. In life, it is normal that we eventually experience both stages. Not to do so restricts our emotional development.
12. Silence and Speaking Out - vs. 7b
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
There are legitimate times to voice our concerns and stand up for what is right; at other times it may be best and loving to remain quiet.
13. Love and Hate - vs. 8a
A time to love and a time to hate;
In life we experience both times of friendship, love, warmth as well as periods of injustice, oppression and prejudice.
14. War and Peace - vs. 8a
A time for war and a time for peace.
Again, this world continues in a cycle of conflicts and wars followed by periods of peace. These were present in Solomon's day and will continue until the end of time. The only difference from one time to the next is the intensity and duration of either period.
The Main Question - vs. 9
What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?
Solomon reviews the whole of man's experience in the context of time and seeks to find out what all of these experiences mean or lead to. The answer (implied) is that there is no profit or point. The sum total of man's experiences measured in the time of his life amount to nothing more than a cycle of events common to all people (e.g. Everybody lives and dies; loves and hates etc.).
The Main Conclusion - vs. 10-11
I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.
If there is no profit to the sum of man's experiences in time then what is the point of it all? The point that Solomon discovers is that meaning can only be found beyond man's experience or point of view. Human experience in time is fully understood only within a divine context, not a human one. In other words, time only makes sense when considered within an eternal framework. Solomon, looking at time within eternity, draws three main conclusions:
1. God has made everything appropriate (beautiful - Hebrew) in its time.
There is order in the seasons as well as in our lives. From the eternal perspective every event and experience in time works for God's purpose and is appropriate because of that reason. Only when we see these events from a limited time perspective do they become chaotic or meaningless. Seen from an eternal viewpoint, however, time (and what takes place in time) finally takes on meaning.
2. God has put eternity into our hearts.
We cannot accept our own finiteness because we have been created in the image of an eternal being. This vision of eternity is what fuels our curiosity about tomorrow or what the distant stars are like. However, none of our discoveries about tomorrow or the universe can ever give meaning to the whole without reference to God.
All the parts of life, when put together, do not equal something meaningful. To have meaning you have to add the part or Person who is outside of time. Our yearning for eternity and eternal life can only be satisfied by discovering the person, the work and the salvation found in Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus says that He is yesterday, today and tomorrow: We only understand eternity and its meaning when we accept Christ, who is both the author of time and beyond time (Colossians 1:15-17).
3. We cannot discover God's total work.
Even though we have a sense of eternity built into our nature, and God reveals His ultimate plan for us (salvation through Christ), we are still and will always be, less than He is. This means that we will never know Him completely and never know all that He has done. This should immediately humble us without reservation forever. This humility, however, will enable us to grasp the full meaning of our own life found and experienced in Jesus Christ (Matthew 8:8-13).