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Ecclesiastes 3

PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
A Time for Everything Everything Has Its Time Everything Has Its Time, Determined by God A Time for Everything Death
3:1-8 3:1-8 3:1-8 3:1-8 3:1-8
  (1)   (1) (1)
  (2-8)   (2-8) (2-8)
  The God-Given Task      
3:9-11 3:9-11 3:9-15 3:9-13 3:9-11
God Set Eternity in the Heart of Man        
3:12-22 3:12-15     3:12-13
  (12-13)      
  (14-15)   3:14-15 3:14
        3:15
  Injustice Seems to Prevail Human Injustice is Subject to Divine Judgment Injustice in the World
(3:16-4:16)
 
  3:16-22 3:16-22 3:16-22 3:16
  (16)      
  (17)     3:17
  (18-22)     3:18-19
        3:20
        3:21
        3:22

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentarywhich means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

 

BACKGROUND

Although this chapter is usually interpreted as dealing with the timeliness or appropriateness of human actions, in context, it deals with God's sovereignty (cf. Eccl. 2:24-26; 3:14).

 

A. When interpreting the book of Ecclesiastes it is very important that we see it is satire based on two key phrases:

1. "all is vanity" (i.e., transitoriness of human life and effort)

2. "under the sun" (i.e., physical life, earthly life viewed apart from God, i.e., agnostically)

 

B. The central answer to a meaningless and frustrated life is found in

1. faith and obedience (cf. Eccl. 12:13-14)

2. the simple pleasures of life as provided by God (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18; 6:12; 8:15; 9:7)

 

C. Ecclesiastes is one of the books of the Bible that must be interpreted in its totality. Prooftexting this book or missing its tongue-in-cheek world-view will prove to be a hermeneutical disaster.

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 3:1-8
 1There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven–
 2A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
 3A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.
 4A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance.
 5A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
 6A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away.
 7A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak.
 8A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.

3:1 "There is an appointed time for everything" The "appointed time" (lit. "for everything a season") seems to refer to the common events of human life. The "appointed time" does not speak of the advantageous human time, but of the divinely appointed time. The emphasis of this chapter is on divine appointment. It speaks of the mystery of human effort ("under heaven") as it is compared with the sovereignty of God. In Wisdom Literature "appointed time" is often "appropriate time."

NASB"event"
NKJV"purpose"
NRSV, LXX"matter"
TEV"happens"
NJB"occupation"
REB"activity"

The Hebrew word (BDB 343) means "delight" or "pleasure," but here it has the added connotation of activity that brings joy (cf. Eccl. 3:17; 8:6; Prov. 31:13). Enjoy life each day! Smell the roses along the path!

▣ "under heaven" See Special Topic below.

SPECIAL TOPIC: HEAVEN

3:2-8 Almost all English translations see Eccl. 3:2-8 in a poetic structure. Within each line there is a contrast, but the relationship between lines is not completely clear.

3:2 "A time to give birth, and a time to die" There is a series of events which refer to the cycle of human development.

3:2 "A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted" There is a grammatical connection between the efforts of the sinner (2:26, two Qal infinitive constructs) and that of Eccl. 3:2-9 (a series of 27 infinitive constructs).

This speaks of the annual harvest.

3:3 "A time to kill, and a time to heal" Since war is mentioned in Eccl. 3:8 the killing referred to here seems to have another focus. Some have assumed that it refers to capital punishment within the nation of Israel or to the defense of one's home, or person, in the event of an attack.

3:4 "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance" Some believe these lines refer to both funerals and weddings or to other regular social events.

3:5 "A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones" Many have assumed that this is an agricultural metaphor of one removing stones from a field. However, this could be a construction metaphor of using stones for a rock fence or a home. It has been the consensus among Jewish commentators that this has sexual connotations (cf. TEV "making love"). This is stated specifically in the Mishrash. The context of Eccl. 3:5b seems to reinforce this understanding. This would mean that there is time, Levitically speaking, when men could have sexual relations and a time when they could not because of a woman's menstrual cycle or their military commitments.

▣ "A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing" This could refer to (1) sexual love within marriage (cf. Song of Songs 2:6); (2) sexual love outside of marriage (cf. Prov. 5:20); (3) a family's caring love for each other or (4) friends kissing one another on the cheek, which was common in the Near East.

3:6 "A time to search, and a time to give up as lost" The first term "search" (BDB 134, KB 152, Piel infinitive construct) means to seek after something. However, there comes a time in life where it becomes obvious that that something or someone cannot be obtained! One must get on with life!

3:7 "A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together" This may refer to one of the mourning practices of the Jews. They would rip the front of their robe at the neckline about five inches (e.g. 1 Sam. 4:12; 2 Sam. 1:2; 13:31; 15:32; 2 Kgs. 18:3;7; Jer. 41:5); when the mourning was over they would sew it up again.

▣ "A time to be silent, and a time to speak" This may also refer to the mourning rites.

3:8 "A time for war, and a time for peace" Most Jewish commentators understand Eccl. 3:1-8 as referring to national Israel (cf. "appointed time" in Ps. 75:2; 102:13). However, it seems that Eccl. 3:9-11 define these verses in light of a personal, rather than corporate, emphasis.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 3:9-11
 9What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils? 10I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. 11He 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.

3:9-10 The term "profit" (BDB 452) is a key concept in Ecclesiastes. See note at Eccl. 1:3. The key question is, "Is there any lasting gain or value in human life, human effort, human wisdom?"

It seems that humanity is driven to perform certain common tasks (cf. Eccl. 1:13; 2:23), tasks even provided by God (cf. "1:13; 2:24; 3:11), but they are unable to understand the purpose or outcome of these tasks. The purpose of these tasks is to show them their dependence on God (cf. Gal. 3:24; Eccl. 3:14,18), which is the opposite of the common experience of the Fall (i.e., independence from God characterized by the recurrent phrase, "under the sun").

3:11

NASB, FB,
NEB"He has made everything appropriate in its time"
NKJV"He has made everything beautiful in its time"
NRSV"He has made everything suitable for its time"
TEV"He has set the right time for everything"
NJB"all that he does is apt for its time"

The key term "appropriate" (BDB 421) means "fair" or "beautiful." In context it describes God's sovereign choices that control human circumstances. This is more corporate than individual (i.e., Jewish commentators see Eccl. 3:1-8 as referring to national Israel).

This again shows the sovereignty of God over human events as well as over time.

NASB, NKJV
NIV"He has also set eternity in their heart"
NRSV, REB"moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds"
TEV"He has given us a desire to know the future"
NJB"but although he has given us an awareness of the passage of time"
LXX"he has also set the whole world (age) in their heart"

The term translated "eternity" (BDB 761) is uncertain. A related Semitic term using the same three consonants means "hidden" or "concealed" (BDB 761). In later Hebrew it referred to creation of the world (LXX).

Some scholars try to make this line balance with previous ones ("appropriate in its time"), meaning God controls human situations and destinies.

Some scholars try to take it with the following line about human's inability to understand God's work, which fits the meaning of the Hebrew trilateral root (cf. Eccl. 12:14).

Qoheleth uses a similar root (BDB 761) several times (i.e., 'olam, see Special Topic at Eccl. 1:4, cf. Eccl. 1:4,10; 2:16; 3:14; 9:6; 12:5) in the sense of time.

Poetry is always difficult to lock down. It is often destroyed by exegesis! Its terms are often rare and used in specialized senses. Its meaning is purposefully vague and thought-provoking. The larger context helps us get the general drift of Qoheleth's thought.

The Jerusalem Bible has a good comment on this verse:

"This phrase, however, is not to be taken in the Christian sense; it means simply: God has given the human heart (mind) awareness of 'duration,' he has endowed him with the power of reflecting on the sequence of events and thus of controlling the present. But, the author adds, this awareness is deceptive; it does not reveal the meaning of life" (p. 983 "b").

Humanity longs to understand life but cannot. It longs to fully understand God but cannot (a purposeful philosophical agnosticism).

▣ "the work which God has done" The noun (BDB 795) is from the same Semitic root as the verb (BDB 793 I, KB 889, Qal perfect). This is often done as a creative writing style.

God's work can be understood in two ways:

1. from eternity

2. throughout an individual's life

 

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 3:12-15
 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; 13moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God. 14I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.

3:12-13 This seems to be a summary statement, like 2:24-26. It suggests that although we cannot understand all of the mysteries of God, we can know God's love by faith and obedience and enjoy the simple pleasures of life provided by God (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9). Since we cannot understand or change the events in our individual lives (i.e. 3:1-8) or in our world we must focus on thanksgiving for those common, simple, daily, but really wonderful, things common to all human societies (but really a gift from God, cf. Eccl. 2:24; 5:19). These are spelled out in Eccl. 3:13: food, drink, and a sense of purpose in one's labor (I would add, from other verses in Ecclesiastes, one's family, cf. Eccl. 9:7-9). All of these are gifts from God. It is possible that the gift is one's faith perspective which trusts in God although one cannot understand one's own existential circumstances. The Fall (cf. Genesis 3) has affected our ability to comprehend ultimate truth (cf. Eccl. 1:18; 8:16-9:12). It must be revealed, not discovered.

3:14 "I know that everything God does will remain forever" Here again is the emphasis on the eternality and sovereignty of God and the transitoriness of human life (e.g., Ps. 103: 14,15; Isa. 40:6-8; 1 Peter 1:24,25).

Ecclesiastes is as much a book about God as it is about humanity. The theology of a fallen world is only hinted at in the phrase "under the sun," but the reality of a mysterious painful, yet pleasurable, world is characterized in "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Our mystery is God's clear, purposeful, knowledgeable and comprehensive plan. Knowledge is not as crucial as trust, faith, and obedience.

Some of the texts which characterize the unknowable but present God are

1. there is a divine plan at work, 1:13; 3:10,18; 7:29; 8:16-17

2. there is a sovereign Lord, 1:15 & 7:13; 3:11,14; 9:1; 12:1

3. there is a daily faith which enables and ennobles, 2:24-26; 3:12,13,22; 5:18-20 (negatively in Eccl. 6:1-6); 9:7-9

4. there is an appropriate awe and respect due to God, 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12,13; 12:13

5. there is/will be a time of evaluation by God of every human being, 3:17; (5:1,4, implied); 11:9; 12:14

 

▣ "for God has so worked that men should fear Him" This reflects the truth of Eccl. 3:10 that God has given us a task that we cannot perform so that we will continue to depend on Him (i.e., "fear Him," cf. Eccl. 5:7; 7:18; 8:12,13, which implies a faith worldview) and not on ourselves.

3:15 "That which is has been already, and that which will be has already been" There are several possibilities of this verse: (1) a reflection on 1:9; (2) it is used in a tongue-in-cheek (i.e., "under the sun," cf. Eccl. 3:16) sense; or (3) it could be related to God's revelation to Moses (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Jer. 26:2).

NASB"for God seeks what is passed by"
NKJV"God requires an account of what is past"
NRSV"God seeks out what has gone by"
TEV"God makes the same thing happen again and again"
NJB"God seeks out anyone who is persecuted"
LXX"God will seek out that which is past"
REB"with God summoning each event back in its turn"
JPSOA"God seeks the pursued"

This is a very difficult Hebrew phrase. Some assume it means "the one who is persecuted" (cf. NJB, JPSOA), while others go with the traditional translation of "what has been driven away" (the verb, BDB 134, KB 152, Piel imperfect, has both meanings). It seems to refer to the general concept of the book of Ecclesiastes that although the experiences of all humans are in a repetitive cycle, there is a divine purpose in this cycle. One day God will judge individual human choices!

The UBS Handbook (p. 108) asserts that this verb in later Hebrew meant "request" or "ask." If so, then God wants His special creation to pursue:

1. action at the appropriate time (cf. Eccl. 3:1-8)

2. daily pleasures (cf. Eccl. 2:24-26; 3:22)

3. eternity (cf. Eccl. 3:11)

4. His activities (cf. Eccl. 3:14)

5. His Law (cf.3:15, Deut. 4:2; 12:32)

 

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 3:16-22
 16Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. 17I said to myself, "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man," for a time for every matter and for every deed is there. 18I said to myself concerning the sons of men, "God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts." 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? 22I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?

3:16 "under the sun" Again, I think that the book of Ecclesiastes (using this phrase) views life from one of two perspectives: (1) what is the meaning of life if there is no God? or (2) what is the meaning of life if there is a God? See note at Eccl. 1:3.

▣ "in the place of justice there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness" This seems to show that the two places where the character of God should have been manifested most clearly in human life are the law courts ("the place of justice," BDB 1048) and the area of worship ("the place of righteousness," BDB 841, see note at Eccl. 1:15). It is possible that these two words are used in parallel and refer to characteristics of God. However, because of the fallenness of humanity and the unfairness of life in a fallen world, righteousness and justice are not found! Power corrupts (cf. Eccl. 4:1; 5:8; 8:9)! Wickedness (BDB 957, cf. noun, 3:16[twice]; 7:25; 8:8; adjective, 3:17; 7:15; 8:10, 13, 14[twice]; 9:2) results!

3:17 "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man" There are two answers given to the questions found in Eccl. 3:16 about wickedness in the place of justice and worship. The first answer is in this verse and states that God will ultimately judge all humans one day (i.e., an appointed time, cf. Eccl. 11:9; 12:4).

Verse 17 has often been interpreted as an affirmation of an afterlife. Although this is rare in Ecclesiastes, it is not completely unique. If it is true that God is a fair God, the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be judged. If it does not happen in this life (sometimes it does, cf. Job 27:13-23), then the only conclusion is that there must be an afterlife (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11-15).

3:18 This is the second answer to the apparent injustice of Eccl. 3:16 and that is that God is surely testing everything. This is a general truth of the Bible (e.g., Gen. 22:1; Exod. 15:25; 16:4; 20:20; Deut. 8:2, 16; 13:3; Jdgs. 2:22; 2 Chr. 32:31; Matt. 4:1; Heb. 12:5-13).

▣ "in order for them to see that they are but beasts" Again, the purpose is to show humans that without God they are only a highly developed animal (i.e., nephesh, Gen. 1:30). God is seeking to put fallen mankind in such a position where they will recognize the futility of life without the spiritual component (God, judgment, eternity).

3:19 "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same" There is a carryover from Eccl. 3:18 to Eccl. 3:19 in the term "beast" (BDB 96). If one pursues the concept that this physical realm is all that there is, the consequences are quite discouraging. The death of a human is no different from that of an animal (cf. Eccl. 2:14; 6:6;; 7:2; 9:2,3). However, if there is a spiritual realm and if mankind is made in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), then there is ultimate significance (cf. Eccl. 12:7).

Verses 20-22 are an expansion of the question mentioned in Eccl. 3:19. The term "breath" (BDB 924) is interesting because it goes back to Gen. 2:7. It is true that the breath of life, which made Adam a living soul, or nephesh, is used for both the animals and for Adam. However, although humans certainly do have animal characteristics (eat, breathe, reproduce) and are related uniquely to this planet, there is a uniquely spiritual element in mankind.

3:20 "All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust" This truth is initially stated in Gen. 3:19 and developed in Ps. 103:14 and 104:29.

The term "dust" (BDB 779) is also used in Gen. 2:7 in relation to the special creation of mankind. Qoheleth knew the Genesis account of creation and uses its key terms:

1. nephesh

2. dust

 

3:21 "Who knows that" Because of the use of this same phrase in Eccl. 2:19 and 6:12 this is obviously a question. It seems though that the same truth is found in Eccl. 12:7 as an affirmation.

The relationship between the questions in Eccl. 3:21 and 22 has been dealt with in a very creative way by the commentator H. C. Leupold in Exposition of Ecclesiastes, pp. 97-101. He asserts that the two questions are really an interrogative and a regular article, which makes an affirmation. This structure seems to be a better understanding of these two verses. When one consults English translations one finds a question in both Eccl. 3:21 and 22. However, if one compares 12:7 with the question of Eccl. 3:22, they seem to be contradictory. I think that Leupold's technical discussion on the use of the article versus the interrogative is helpful in making Eccl. 3:22 an affirmation instead of a question.

▣ "breath" This term (BDB 924) has a wide semantic range:

1. wind

2. breath

3. spirit

a. God

b. mankind

 

▣ "upward. . .downward" This is a reflection of the ancient worldview that God's abode was up and Sheol was underground. It is often called "the three storied universe" and is used to try and show that the Bible is an irrelevant ancient book. This is phenomenalogical language, language of the five human senses. Smoke of the sacrifices goes "up" to God! Dead bodies (in Jewish culture) are buried (i.e., in the earth). Before we criticize the ancient world for this kind of descriptive language, remember we moderns speak in the same way:

1. the sun "rises"

2. dew "falls"

3. "mother nature"

 

▣ "what will occur after him" This does not necessarily refer specifically to an afterlife in this context, but perhaps to future events in this life.

3:22 This is another summary statement, like 2:24-26 and 3:12-13! This is a recurrent theme (cf. Eccl. 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9). See note at Eccl. 2:24-26

NASB, NRSV"for that is his lot"
NKJV"for that is his heritage"
TEV---------
NJB"such is the lot of a human being"
LXX"for it is his portion"
REB"since that is their lot"

This term (BDB 324) is used often in Ecclesiastes but is translated in several ways (from NASB 1995):

1. "reward" - 2:10; 5:18,19; 9:6

2. "legacy" - 2:21

3. "lot" - 3:22

4. "share" - 9:6

5. "portion" - 11:1

It refers to that which happens to an individual during his earthly life. Sometimes good, sometimes evil, sometimes fair, sometimes unfair—a divine but unknowable plan.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Is this chapter speaking of human actions or divine election?

2. Do verses 2-8 describe the life of all men or only some?

3. How do verses 9-11 relate to verses 2-8?

4. What has God put into man's heart and why is this so frustrating?

5. What are the simple pleasures of life that God gives and why is this such an important truth in the book of Ecclesiastes?

6. How does the phrase "under the sun" affect one's interpretation of this book?

7. Does God really test everyone?

8. Is the fate of men and animals different or are we simply dealing with a cynic?