A Time for Everything

This famous poem has been cited in everything from funerals to rock concerts (UBCS).

Eccle 3:1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

There are various ways of understanding this:-

Taken out of context (as it so often is in the popular mind) the poem offers reassurance that bad times will be balanced out by good times.  Be patient, take your opportunities, work for peace, accept grief as not the whole picture, but as part of a bigger picture.

Some commentators think that the author is simply describing the observed cyclical nature of life.  In other words, he is observing that ‘there is a time for everything’; but not necessarily saying, ‘there is a right time for everything.’

Many, however, think that this means, ‘there is an appointed time…a predetermined season’, and therefore that this passage teaches a doctrine of predestination or even fatalism.  The effect of this passage is to put us in our place, to teach us that despite our vaunted sense of self-determination, we are at the mercy of the different seasons of life, and can have no certainty about how our own efforts will turn out.  We are unable to fathom God’s ways (3:11).

Eaton points out that this passage is by no means purely pessimistic.  Verses 11a, 12–15, after all, ‘stress that the disposal of events which humiliates men may also be the ground of their joy and security.’

‘It was of crucial importance for a wise teacher to know the right time. The Book of Proverbs does not give a list of truths that are always, everywhere appropriate, but a series of principles that are to be applied at the right time. The wise speak the right word at the right time. They know the conditions under which they should answer a fool (Eccle 26:5) and when they should refrain (Eccle 26:4). Qohelet, as a wise man, knows that there are right times for certain activities: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven” (Eccle 3:1). He also is fully aware that God “made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccle 3:11). But he also understands that he cannot share God’s knowledge. As a human being he can never be certain that this is the “right time,” and this lack of knowledge, this lack of certainty, frustrates him to the point that he thinks that life “under the sun” is meaningless. Humans cannot know what will happen to them next, during or after life, “No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him?” (Eccle 10:14). “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?” (Eccle 8:7). This leaves humans at the mercy of “time and chance” (Eccle 9:11). They cannot even know when they are going to die: “Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Eccle 9:12).’ Longman, EDBT)

Eccle 3:2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
Eccle 3:3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
Eccle 3:4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
Eccle 3:5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
Eccle 3:6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
Eccle 3:7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
Eccle 3:8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them – This puzzling may refer to the effects of aggressive destruction, and the reversal of this in a time of peace.  According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, the reference ‘may be erotic’, given the mention of passion and its absence that follows immediately.

Eccle 3:9 What does the worker gain from his toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

According to Eaton, the word translated ‘eternity’ can carry a variety of other meanings: ‘the word’, ‘ignorance’, and ‘darkness’.  But ‘eternity’ is its most common meaning, and this fits the context well: both the scheme of ‘times’ preceding, and the mention of eternal things in v14.

Eternity in the hearts refers to the capacity for something larger and greater than the succession of times that are so uncontrollable. (Time and ‘purpose’/activity in v 1 form a contrast to eternity here). Human beings have a capacity for ‘eternal’ things, something that transcends the immediate situation. This does not bring comprehension of God and his ways; one still cannot understand from beginning to end.’ (NBC)

Eaton’s comment is helpful: ‘‘Eternity’ was important in Israel’s heritage. An eternal life had been lost (Gen. 3:22), an ‘eternal covenant’ inaugurated (Gen. 9:16) by an eternal God (Ps. 90:2). An eternal priesthood (Exod. 40:15) and an eternal kingdom (2 Sam. 7:13) were bestowed by a God eternally merciful (Ps. 111:5), giving his people eternal joy (Isa. 35:10). The eternity of God’s dealings with mankind corresponds to something inside us: we have a capacity for eternal things, are concerned about the future, want to understand ‘from the beginning to the end’, and have a sense of something which transcends our immediate situation. Scripture speaks of our creation in the ‘image’ or ‘glory’ of God (Gen. 1:26f.), a glory which is largely forfeited (Rom. 3:23) yet not obliterated (1 Cor. 11:7; Jas 3:9). Our consciousness of God is part of our nature, and the suppression of it is part of our sin (Rom. 1:18–21).’

Eccle 3:15 Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.

Eccle 3:16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Eccle 3:17 I thought in my heart,

“God will bring to judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time for every deed.”

Eccle 3:18 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
Eccle 3:22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?