Time and Work – Ecclesiastes 3

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 3

Seasons and Tasks (3:1–8)

Recall Solomon’s dual teaching given throughout this book: (1) all is vanity—that is, the duration of life is short, the meaning of life is elusive, and the actions of life are repetitive; and (2) we must fear God and enjoy His good gifts in the present. In Eccl. 3:1–8 Solomon touches upon these two themes as he focuses on the repetitive nature things and events in life. As he begins this chapter, Solomon lists 28 activities or events, given in 14 pairs, that are allowed or bestowed by God. It may be tempting to read through this extensive list and to arrive at the conclusion that life is futile; however, this is not Solomon’s intent. Rather, viewed within the larger context of this book, the idea here is not that life is pointless, but that life apart from God is meaningless. We dare not experience any of the pursuits listed in Eccl. 3:1–8 as isolated acts; rather, we joyfully engage in all of these activities as we walk with God.

As we consider Solomon’s list of activities and events in Eccl. 3:1–8, we must not overlook Eccl. 3:1, “There is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” In other words, while each pair of events gives a largely positive and a generally negative activity, Solomon is saying that (1) all things are under God’s purview; (2) all things that occur are just part of life under the sun; and (3) all things are a rationale for which to revere God. Note that in 7 of the 14 pairs a positive activity or event is given first, while in the other half a negative event or activity is stated first within the pair. This even split between the pairings may be on account of man’s tendency to accept desirable gifts more readily from God than ones that are less desirable. Observe the range of activities and events cited by Solomon, as he appeals to life, death, agriculture, emotions, love, economics, and warfare, among a host of other ideas.

Eternity and Rejoicing (3:9–15)

As he continues to ponder the value of work, in Eccl. 3:9 Solomon asks about the value of labor—a question he had already posed at Eccl. 1:3. By way of response, in Eccl. 3:11 Solomon writes, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” The splendor of this teaching seems out-of-place, as this is one of just five specific, positive exhortations in this entire book (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:11–14, 22; 5:18–19; 8:15). Yet, Solomon’s observation here is accurate, for history reveals that in time, God even uses the sins of mankind for His own purposes (cf. Deut. 8:15–17; Rom. 8:28). A second beautiful teaching that Solomon records here is that God “has put eternity in their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). This is like Paul’s later teaching about all men, as he observed “they knew [of] God” (Rom. 1:21). The idea here is that all men have a basic awareness of God, as well as of their own eternal nature.

Judgment and Heritage (3:16–22)

In Eccl. 3:12–15 Solomon positively exhorted his readers to rejoice, to do good, and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. While life is repetitive (cf. Eccl. 3:15), writes Solomon, God is also sovereign and worthy of man’s praise and fear (cf. Eccl. 3:14). As is his pattern in this book, after making a positive observation, Solomon returns to his peculiar and ironic writing style. In Eccl. 3:16 Solomon observes that wickedness is often seen in the place of human judgment. With this remark Solomon may be referring to either (1) a miscarriage of justice, or (2) to those who engage in wickedness, yet escape divine judgment. Either way, writes Solomon, eventually “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every purpose and for every work” (Eccl. 3:17). This is likely meant as an illustration of how God makes “everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:11).

In Eccl. 3:18–22 Solomon compares mankind to animals, as he observes, “What happens to the sons of men also happens to the animals” (Eccl. 3:19). Indeed, if one merely considers the external—that is, the physical nature of man and beast, then Solomon is correct in teaching that “men . . . are like animals” (Eccl. 3:18). Said differently, both man and beast are alive, they both labor, and they both die. Yet, note that in making this observation, Solomon does not consider the eternal destiny of man and beast, for he is merely examining what happens to them under the sun (cf. Eccl. 3:21). In concluding this chapter, Solomon gives his third specific, positive exhortation in this book, writing, “I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage” (Eccl. 3:22). This is a repetition of Solomon’s earlier conclusion given at Eccl. 2:24–26; 3:13.

Application Questions:

  1. What concerns you the most about mankind’s labor in the world: its brevity, its difficulty, its repetitiveness, its futility, its evaluation, or something else?
  2. Which of the events and activities listed in Eccl. 3:1–8 is the easiest and/or the most difficult about which for you to praise God?
  3. Are any of the activities and events listed in Eccl. 3:1–8 inherently sinful? If so, how can God be associated with them?
  4. Before you became a Christian, what were your beliefs about God and the afterlife? Have you witnessed God making everything beautiful in His time?
  5. Does the prosperity of the wicked or the unfair treatment of the just ever cause you to doubt God’s sovereignty (cf. Ps. 73)?

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David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.