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Deeper Commentary

Ecc 3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven-
"The time" in view appears to be the day of judgment. Having spoken of how there is a time "to plant... pluck up... kill... heal" etc., we are then told that "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked (at the second coming): for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work" (Ecc. 3:1-8,17). Thus our actions and purposes in every department of life will be examined at "the place of judgment" (Ecc. 3:16). Because all things will in some ways be judged, and are even now, therefore we must fear God and keep His commands (Ecc. 3:1; 12:13,14). However in :9,10, Solomon seems to be saying that God has burdened men with a life whose every aspect [which he now lists] is without profit and vain. And he may be sarcastic (as noted on Ecc. 2:24,26) when he suggests "God" will bring men to judgment for all things in their lives. Or it may be that the whole of this chapter could be a description of how he once thought; he once said in his heart that there would be a future judgment of all things by God (:17). But the contradictions he now sees in the idea of a Divine judgment leads him up to the final conclusion in :22, that because "God" cannot resurrect man to judgment, therefore man may as well get on and enjoy life in a moderate kind of way. Elsewhere Solomon effectively denies any idea of future judgment by God, and so I am inclined to view this chapter as a description of what he once believed, which by the end of the chapter we see he has now jettisoned. 

Ecc 3:2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted-
As noted on :1, the "time" for these things may mean 'a time for judgment' (:17). We are judged for the time of our birth and death in the sense that God takes into account human lifespan. A sinful man may only encounter God's ways later in life, starting at a certain point on the spectrum, God expects him to move a particular distance from there. Others live long lives and heard God's call in childhood; and a further distance of development is perhaps hoped for from them. God Himself planted and then plucked up His people and also other nations (Jer. 12:17; 18:7). There is a time to pull out of projects, to give up. But we will be judged as to how, when and with what motives we do so.

Ecc 3:3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up-
As noted on :2, God Himself breaks down and builds up, kills and heals. We cannot do all these things, but perhaps Solomon has himself in view. Or maybe he is commenting upon the legislation in the law of Moses which required these things to be done. Although in :9 he argues that there is no profit in any of these things.

Ecc 3:4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance-
Solomon speaks elsewhere of the spiritual advantage of going to a funeral to weep and mourn, rather than to a wedding to laugh and dance. And here he seems to be saying that for our attitude to all these things, our behaviour in joy or grief, we will be brought into judgment at some time (:17). 

Ecc 3:5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing-
"Cast away" is "cast", perhaps alluding to stoning people. I suggested on :3,9 that Solomon may have the Mosaic legislations partially in view. He recognizes that there are times when we withdraw from relationships, and times when we form them. And again, there is a time for judgment for all these things (:17).

Ecc 3:6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away-
The opposition between seeking and losing suggests that the losing is effectively the opposite of seeking. The idea is that there is a time to seek, and also a time to accept as lost, and give up seeking. It could be argued that the parables of Lk. 15 imply that God never gives up seeking. But in practical reality, there does come a time to cease dialogue, to accept the loss, as God did with Israel. And there is a time for those inevitable choices to be judged (:17). There is a time when we accept that things are lost, cast away. But when and how we decide that, and from what motives, will have its time for judgment.

Ecc 3:7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak-
In these examples, it is impossibly to define the precise time when we should keep silence compared to speaking out, to unite in relationship or move away in it. And trying to define the precisely correct moment is unwise and inappropriate. But our motives and reasons will have their time for judgment (:17). As noted on :6, many of the examples given seem to be pertinent to human relationships (:8 also).

Ecc 3:8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace-
I observed on :6,7 that Solomon seems to have in view how human relationships begin and at times come to an end. He accepts that relationships sometimes come to an end, and there is even a time for contention. But when, how, with what motives... has its time for judgment (:17).

For Solomon, his "wisdom" was merely knowledge. The promises to David, the hope of the Kingdom, had no personal bite for him. He muses that "there is a time" for everything (Ecc. 3:1-7), as if his nihilism led him conclude that all behaviour is somehow predestined, all is cyclical, nothing is ultimately new, and even God is caught up in this- for "God seeks again that which He has driven away" (Ecc. 3:15). As water goes around the water cycle (Ecc. 1:7), so everything repeats, things just happen to us (Ecc. 3:1-8), there will be no resurrection, no coming back (Ecc. 3:22 RV); and there is therefore no real point in spiritual endeavour (Ecc. 3:9). This attitude reveals a pathetic failure to let the knowledge of God dynamically impact daily life; there's no appreciation of the Spirit, of God's radical life co-joining with human life, of His mind meeting that of man. Leaving knowledge as mere theory, as so much Bible study can too easily remain, is a dangerous thing. And Solomon is the parade example of it.

Ecc 3:9 What profit has he who works in that in which he labours?-
"Profit" is a favourite theme of Solomon. He had an incredibly utilitarian view of life, wanting to see the tangible effect of work in this life. Some of the things in :2-8 may allude to obedience to Mosaic legislation, yet he considers this of no profit; just as Israel later did (Mal. 3:16 perhaps alludes to Solomon's claim that there was no profit in working). I noted on Ecc. 2:17,18 that he ends up hating his life because he hates his works. The parallel between works and life meant that he was a human doing rather than a human being. He saw no ultimate profit in his works and life because he was now going to die. He had no sense at all that the works of the righteous "follow them" (Rev. 14:13), and we shall be given the eternal consequence of our works (Rev. 22:12). He concludes Ecclesiastes by admitting that this is the final truth (Ecc. 12:14), but this was not his personal belief nor how he had lived his life. He finally comes to the right conclusion, and had known it all along on some level, occasionally alluding to in his book of Proverbs; but he did not personalize it. He looked for the result of works in this life and didn't find it, and so he hated life, hated his works, and his heart turned away from God to idols. This is the kind of realization which men facing death often come to, but still they refuse to personalize it. We have all surely encountered this kind of thing. And this is our challenge; to personalize it, and live right now as if we are in God's judgment presence, for things great and small, things public and hidden.     

Ecc 3:10 I have seen the burden which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with-
This "burden" or "travail" is something Solomon laments throughout Ecclesiastes, and considers himself the parade example of it. He seems to complain that God has given this to people. I suggested on :8 that he considers the time for everything to be somehow predestined, and yet complains that for all these things God seeks to judge people (:17). And so he considers this to be a burden God has given to men to afflict them with. And yet the Biblical idea of travail or burden is that God brings these things in order to spiritually develop His people, to do them good in their latter end (s.w. Dt. 8:2,3,16). The travail of Israel in Egypt was to bring a new nation to birth. But Solomon has no sense of ultimate, eternal outcomes; he expects an immediate consequence right now in this life. And so he considers God unreasonable. 

Being "afflicted" was what went on throughout his father David's life (s.w. 1 Kings 2:26; Ps. 132:1). But unlike David, he sees no positive outcome for it.

Ecc 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts, yet so that man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end-
On Ecc. 2:17 I noted that Solomon despised all the 'work that he had worked', because he was obsessed with his own works rather than God's works of salvation by grace. "The work that is worked" is the phrase used for how Israel were to "do your work" for six days and then observe the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12). That provision was to teach them that life is more than works; and the spirit of the Sabbath was to point forward to salvation by grace in Christ. This lesson was totally lost upon Solomon. The history of Israel repeatedly talked of how their salvation was the work which God worked (s.w. Dt. 11:3,7 etc.). But Solomon ignored God's work because he was so obsessed with his own work, briefly passing off the work God worked as beyond understanding (Ecc. 3:11 s.w.), and any grasp upon eternity as therefore having been made too difficult by God. He made the mistake so many make, assuming that God's word and work is a riddle to be solved, with eternal life as the reward for figuring it out. God is not like that, hiding as it were behind the Bible or some doctrinal system which He has established as a code to be broken before He deals with men. He is far more proactive than that in seeking our salvation. And to those who truly love Him, His teachings are plain, as they were to David (Jn. 7:17).

The goodness of God can lead all men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God has set a sense of the eternal in the human heart (Ecc. 3:11 AVmg). An awareness of judgment is alive as a basic instinct in people. God is “not far from every one of us… forasmuch as we are [all] the offspring of God” (Acts 17:27-29- stated in a preaching context), being created in His image. But Solomon passes all this off as too hard for any human being. The truth was that he presented it as too difficult because he didn't actually want eternity as God offers it, in His Kingdom; he wanted an eternal now, enjoying his own titillations of his own flesh. And he considered that it was better never to have existed (Ecc. 4:3). 

Ecc 3:12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good as long as they live-
As noted on :1, his sense may be that he now knows [so he thinks] that it is better to just enjoy life, because God cannot resurrect to judgment (:22).

Ecc 3:13 Also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labour, is the gift of God-
I have suggested on Ecc. 3:1,17,24 that Solomon is accusing God of being unable to resurrect and judge, and therefore his previous understanding that everything will be brought to judgment was misplaced. Solomon concludes Ecclesiastes however with an admission that this is in fact the case; all in human life will be judged finally. So I take chapter 3 as bravado, which in the face of his final death he has to admit was wrong, although he still fails to repent and accept the personal implications of this. The idea that work is a "gift of God" appears to be deconstructed in the New Testament allusions to this; for they insist that the "gift of God" is the grace of salvation without human works (Eph. 2:8; Rom. 5:15; 6:23; Jn. 4:10). This suggests that as in Ecc. 2:24,26, Solomon uses this idea of "this is the gift of God" wrongly and sarcastically.

Ecc 3:14 I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; and God has done it, that men should fear before Him-
This must be taken in the context of Solomon's denial that God can resurrect to judgment (:22), and his complaint that all the life choices of :2-7 are predestined and so God is burdening man with the idea of judging them (:8). Solomon reasons as if he has no perspective of eternity at all. I suggested on :8 that God is being accused of predestining the behaviour of people and then calling them to judgment. This is what Solomon once believed, but he is mocking that belief. And saying that in this case, then God is just putting men in fear of Him. Human behaviour is irrelevant, Solomon is saying, because nothing can be added nor subtracted from God's permanent actions.  

Ecc 3:15 That which is has been long ago, and that which is to be has been long ago: and God seeks again that which is passed away-
This continues Solomon's accusation that God is unreasonable in demanding judgment for that which is past, because everything is merely cyclical, as Solomon began Ecclesiastes by complaining. The "new song" which his father David loved to sing (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1 etc.) reflected the sense that the movement of the Spirit results in our living in "newness of life". But for Solomon, all was as it were old and boring. He had no sense of the Spirit's renewing work within him.   

Ecc 3:16 Moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of justice, that wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, that wickedness was there-
Solomon may simply mean that there is no justice in this world, and therefore he had been attracted toward the idea that the final judgment is from God, and at a future time (:17). But "the place of justice" is the phrase used of the place to be established under the Mosaic law for justice (Dt. 17:8). Solomon is saying that the Mosaic idea didn't work, because there was wickedness even in the place of justice. He has little to say about the Mosaic law even in Proverbs, apart from appropriating the language of blessing for obedience to obedience to his Proverbs, which he seems to see as a replacement torah. He was specifically disobedient to the commands about trading in horses and marriage to Gentiles. So specifically disobedient that it was as if he wished to as it were trash the Mosaic law and demonstrate it was obsolete or inapplicable to him.   

Ecc 3:17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work-
This could mean that this is what he once said in his heart. The whole of this chapter could be a description of how he once thought, and the contradictions he now sees in the idea of a Divine judgment leads him up to the final conclusion in :22, that because "God" cannot resurrect man to judgment, therefore man may as well get on and enjoy life in a moderate kind of way. 

"Purpose" is the word for "delight". David's "delight" was in God's law (Ps. 1:2 s.w.) and also in the things of the future Kingdom of God (s.w. 2 Sam. 23:5); our "delight" in those things is reflected in our attitudes to God's word. And we shall be finally judged according to our 'delights', our dominant desires (s.w. Ecc. 3:17; 8:6). The Lord Jesus was devoted to sharing Yahweh's "delight" (Is. 53:10). We shall be judged according to what are our dominant desires.

Solomon had previously correctly understood that "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked (at the second coming): for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work... for God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or bad" (Ecc. 3:17; 12:14). Note the emphasis on "every". Even what we have spoken in the ear will be shouted out (Lk. 12:3) -implying others will somehow observe our judgment, cp. Mt. 12:41. If the judgment is merely a yes/no statement which has been worked out taking our whole life into consideration, then this emphasis on every work having a time for consideration and judgment "there" is pointless. However, these verses must be considered in conjunction with those which speak of God's 'forgetting' of bad deeds on account of how people later chose to live. This need not mean that they are erased from God's infinite knowledge; all too often we perceive God's memory as a vast memory bank which can have our sins erased from it. But His knowledge knows no such bounds of human perception; yet He is willing not to hold those things against us, and to therefore count us as having never committed them.

Ecc 3:18 I said in my heart, As for the sons of men, God tests them, so that they may see that they themselves are like animals-
As suggested on :17, this may be Solomon's recollection of how he had previously [correctly] understood things. Although all this leads up to the conclusion in :22; that Solomon no longer considers God able to raise the dead and bring them to judgment. But what he writes here as the restatement of his previous position, when he still believed Divine wisdom, is therefore true. Ecc. 3:18 says that God ‘tests’ man by making him see that he is just an animal; i.e. those who are humble enough to be His true people will realize the truth of this, but those who are not will fail this ‘test’. It is a considerable task to clear our thinking of the influence of humanism. The plain words of Ps. 39:5 are a help: “Man at his best state is but vapour”. “It is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23 N.I.V.).

Having spoken of the coming of judgment, Ecc. 3:18 RV comments: "It is because of the sons of men, that God might manifest them [i.e. to themselves], and that they might see that they themselves are beasts". The purpose of the judgment is for us, to teach us the gripping truth of the mortality of man. This theory we know, as doctrine. But only in the chilling reality of the judgment will we know it in reality. Again and again I repeat: the judgment seat is for our benefit, not God's. "For he [God] needeth not further to consider a man; that he should go before God in judgment" (Job 34:23 RV). Yet man will go before God in judgment- but for our benefit.

Ecc 3:19 For that which happens to the sons of men happens to animals. Even one thing happens to them. As the one dies, so the other dies. Yes, they have all one breath; and man has no advantage over the animals: for all is vanity-
"Advantage" is the word for "profit". He sees poverty as the result of laziness, and profit / plenty coming from hard work (Prov. 14:23; 21:5); but now his advancing years remind him that there is no ultimate profit because death cuts it short, and reveals man as no better than an animal in the way he dies. Solomon fails to appreciate the wider narrative in spiritual life. The good news is for the poor, which group may include the lazy. And works will not save, and God's salvation is what is ultimately required by man. But Solomon had no eternal perspective, because he thought his kingdom was God's. And so as he got older and closer to death, he reasons that the reality of death means that man has no profit or preeminence (s.w. Ecc. 3:19). If he had accepted the Gospel of the future Kingdom of God, he would have focused more upon salvation by grace through faith, and less upon the supremacy of hard work and profit / preeminence in this life.  

I suggested on :17,18 that this is a recapitulation of how Solomon had previously understood things when he still held to God's truth. So despite the wrong things he says at times in Ecclesiastes, I believe these descriptions of the death state are true; and they corroborate other Bible passages which teach the same. For indeed there is no immortal soul nor conscious survival of death. The spirit which animates people is that possessed by animals.

Ecc 3:20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again-
The "all" here refers in the context to both man and animals. As noted on :19, this is summary of how Solomon had correctly understood things; indeed he is here quoting Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Ps. 104:29. There is no inherent immortality in man; in the way he dies, he is as an animal. The division between the righteous and unrighteous is not at death, seeing all go to the same place; rather is it at the resurrection to judgment at the last day. This belief is necessitated by the simple fact that at death, all go to the same place; not some to heaven and some to "hell".

Ecc 3:21 Who knows the spirit of man, whether it goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, whether it goes downward to the earth?-
This is not saying that the spirit of man goes upward to heaven, and the spirit of animals goes downward. "Who knows..." as in :22 means 'It is not the case that...'. The ide is that there is no such distinction; for Solomon has just stated in :20 that man and animals all go to the same place. There is no reincarnation, but death is simply a return to the dust and the life force is retracted by God.

Ecc 3:22 Therefore I saw that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion: for who can bring him to see what will be after him?
It may be that the whole of this chapter could be a description of how he once thought; he once said in his heart that there would be a future judgment of all things by God (:17). But the contradictions he now sees in the idea of a Divine judgment leads him up to this final conclusion in :22, that because "God" cannot resurrect man to judgment, therefore man may as well get on and enjoy life in a moderate kind of way. "Who can..." as in :21 means 'It is not the case that...'.  Elsewhere Solomon effectively denies any idea of future judgment by God, and so I am inclined to view this chapter as a description of what he once believed, which by the end of the chapter we see he has now jettisoned.