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There Is a Time for Everything (also, what is "time" or "life"?) - a study of Ecclesiastes 3

Fighting against time is futile.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 3

In this amazing passage, Solomon offers a sweeping view of a human life and tells us that all of the events, good and bad, have a necessary place because God has a plan for history. (We know what it is: to bring Jesus into the world to deal with sin.) When we accept that only God can know the future, we can enjoy the blessings He gives us in the present.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Timing Is Everything (in my case, Bad Timing)

We've all heard the phrase "timing is everything". Set aside the fact that it's an exaggeration and roll with it. I can think of a bunch of things I've said or done over the years that would have been so much better if I had just waited an hour, or a day, or a few months.

So, to get your brain geared for this week's passage, think about times in life when you've had bad timing. If you're not exactly sure what that means, perhaps it would be easier to think of a time when you felt compelled to ask someone "is this a bad time?" (If you're wondering if it's a bad time, it's probably a bad time.) It could be that you've most recently had the experience where you had to tell someone, "I'm sorry, but this is a bad time." That situation works too for our purposes!

For example, I recently asked someone to help me with something at the church only to find out they were in the hospital. That's bad timing! And it's pretty common for me to jump into a conversation thinking it was over only to find out that it wasn't over. Bad timing.

In sit-coms, they play it for laughs. The teenage boy finds the mom cleaning up a huge mess that he made and asks if he can borrow $50. The teenage boy waits until 30 minutes before Thanksgiving dinner to ask if he can go to his friend's house. The teenage boy calls mom and dad when they're finally out on a date night to say that he dumped over his ant farm. (Is it just me, or is it always the teenage boy with bad timing? No, it's also the dad.) The dad interrupts the mom during girl's night out. The dad forgets about the recital and plans a fishing trip. The dad asks if he can go watch the game when the mom has clearly had a bad day.

But let's take that into real life. Have you done something that a sit-com writer would want to use to get some laughs?

(They also do this in dramas, except they don't play it for laughs. Maybe your bad timing had nothing funny about it at all. )

Once you've thought of some examples, it's time to do some analysis:

  • How long did it take you to realize it was bad timing?

  • What made it bad timing?

  • What would have made it better timing?

What I'm hoping we conclude from this exercise is that "there is a time for everything -- but not just any time". If our timing is off, we can create plenty of problems that didn't need to be there.

Don't worry about getting too philosophical just yet -- save that for the passage!

This Week's Big Idea: "Secular Bible" Songs

I love this week's passage from Ecclesiastes 3, but I can't help but think of the song "Turn, Turn, Turn" that was based on it. I love the song, and it's amazing what you can find on the internet. Here's a great quality video of them performing the song in 1966!

So, what's the problem? Why am I making this a "big idea" for the week?

Well, if anyone brings up this song as a way that helped them learn the verses, I think that needs to lead into a teachable moment: any song that influences how we learn the Bible, we need to be aware of who wrote it and why.

Here's a quote from Peter Seeger (who wrote the song in 1959 -- The Byrds didn't write it; one of the members of The Byrds was in the band who Seeger let first record it in 1962) that was on the YouTube page:

"I don't read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I'm amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn't a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically."


This song is almost verbatim from the KJV, except for the order of the words (and the phrase "turn, turn, turn" for which Seeger decided he deserved to keep an additional 5% of the royalties). Seeger quite intentionally organized the song to make it a plea for world peace and tolerance.

That's what we're studying today: what was Solomon's original intent for these words? Does Seeger's song take us closer to or further away from that intent?

Let's find out! But to make this a "big idea", let me talk briefly about the fact that we can all be influenced by the spirituality in songs we listen to, even on secular radio.

The 60s and 70s were ripe for "spiritual" songs in the mainstream. I really, really like a bunch of these (are you old enough to take a nostalgia trip with me?).

Here are two songs I listened to growing up that I just assumed were influenced by Ecclesiastes and had a biblical worldview (I knew just enough about the Bible to be dangerous): "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan (1963!!) and "Teach Your Children Well" by Graham Nash (1970).

Let's start with Bob Dylan. He has a complicated and tortured relationship with Christianity, indeed, but according to him, this song has nothing to do with Ecclesiastes. It's a generic protest song (albeit an amazing one). I still think it was influenced by imagery in the Bible, but that's beside the point. And yet, churches (particularly, liberal ones) sang this song in church services in the 60s and 70s.

I love CSN (they were still good even after adding Neil Young). I really thought this was another Ecclesiastes song. Nope. It's just a vaguely uplifting spiritual song. Reading the comments on the YouTube page (always dangerous!), a lot of folk agree with me, being nostalgic for a time when music gave such vaguely uplifting spiritual messages (and wasn't overproduced).

There are actually two different "big ideas" at play here. First is the main one -- when you listen to a song that you think has a spiritual meaning, take the time to learn what the intended meaning is. Don't underestimate the influence music has on your soul! There's a big reason why God wants music to be a part of His worship: it affects us! Music helps us remember, it stirs up emotion, and it's something people can "do" together. If you like to listen to a song, chances are its meaning is going to get into your head. Make sure it's a good meaning.

Second is one I hadn't anticipated -- we should only sing songs in worship that were intended to be worship songs. Not everyone agrees with me, but I'm very convinced of that. Don't sing "Blowin in the Wind" in a worship service. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it or sing it ever, or even that it can't be used as an illustration in a sermon! But it wasn't written as praise to God, and so it should not be used as such. (And if your worship services aren't about worshiping God, then you shouldn't call it a worship service.)

I take that seriously, but even I haven't researched every song I've ever heard in a church service. For example, preparing for this lesson is the first time I learned that "Turn, Turn, Turn" has no biblical intent. I had no idea! I'm pretty sure I've heard that song in a church service somewhere along the way.

Have you ever been surprised by the origin of a song -- something you thought was God-honoring, only to find out that it actually wasn't?

[Blatant Church Promotion Alert: Those songs influenced my "worldview" in high school and college and turned me into a "why can't we all just get along / you be you and I'll be me" person. But then I went to seminary, and I was shown how to develop a biblical worldview. It completely changed my life (for the good).

Well, David Lambert is teaching a worldview class this fall on Wednesday nights at FBC, and he will be spending time on all of the dominant philosophies/ideas floating around in our culture today. One good way of learning how you're being influenced is to learn about the ideas that are influencing you. Come on Wednesday nights!]


Where We Are in Ecclesiastes

Last week, I presented this outline:

Outline of Ecclesiastes:

  1. Everything is futile (1:1-11)

  2. Wisdom is futile (1:12-18)

  3. Pleasures are futile (2:1-11)

  4. Folly is futile (2:12-16)

  5. Toil is futile (2:17-26)

  6. Time is futile (3:1-22)

  7. Relationships are futile (4:1-12)

  8. Advancement is futile (4:13-16)

  9. Vows are futile (5:1-7)

  10. Riches are futile (5:8-6:12)

  11. Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  12. Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)

  13. Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)

  14. Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

  15. Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)

  16. Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)

  17. Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)

Chapters 1 and 2 hammered in the point we talked about last week, namely that from our very limited perspective, everything about life can seem utterly futile. For all of our hard work and toil, it doesn't seem like anyone is getting anywhere, so what's the point in trying?

To kick off this week's study, let me explain what I meant by "time is futile". Please pardon me for using parallelism because it probably gave the wrong impression. Time itself is not futile. Time just is. And that's what I meant by it -- "fighting against time is futile". Time cannot be changed. Time cannot be relitigated. Time cannot be relived. People pass through time once, and that's it. God is in charge of time. He has created time to behave in a certain way, and He has placed certain events to happen in that time.

We can't change that. Trying to change that is futile. (And as we will learn in the passage, it's unnecessary because God has made everything beautiful in its time.)

I believe that chapter 3 is a response to chapters 1 and 2. Last week, we talked about how so many things can seem futile. This week, we realized that those things -- however futile they might seem -- are still necessary for life as we know it. Let me pick one line to explain here: "a time to search and a time to give up". Think about it -- if you give up searching without finding, wasn't all of your labor futile? Well, counter-think about it this way: if you never searched at all, wouldn't that be even more futile? And if you never gave up searching, wouldn't that also be even more futile?

Indeed, there is a time for everything, even the things you might believe are futile.


Part 1: Time and Place (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; 3 a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build; 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing; 6 a time to search and a time to count as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak; 8 a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

Wow, I love these verses. Notice that each is in a pair, one that seems more positive than the other, but both are necessary parts of life. I don't think I need to say much about this; read the verses and let Solomon teach you. (Remember that it is poetry -- there will always be debate about the meaning of poetry!)

There is a play on two different understandings of "time":

  • the time of an event, and the time for an event

Again, it's poetic. If you catch that distinction, you'll more easily appreciate what Solomon is saying.

These fourteen pairs (seven pairs of pairs) cover much of human life (not intending to be comprehensive). And God Himself created these "times". It would be futile to fight the fact that everything that has been born must one day die, and everything that has been planted must one day be uprooted. (And so on.) Fighting against all of that as if it were evil sucks all of the joy and meaning out of life. Those pairs are all consequences of the fact that because of Adam's sin, this life is now temporary (death is now a part of life). But God is able to take that which is temporary and give it meaning (think of how much Jesus was able to accomplish in just one short lifetime).

A few textual comments:

  • Verse 2: "to give birth" isn't a good translation because that makes us think of the mother. Rather, this is "to be born" in parallel with "to die".

  • Verse 3: "to kill" is not the Hebrew word used for "to murder"; this is simply the observation that in a fallen world people will be killed.

  • Verse 5: rabbis understood "throw stones" in a sexual sense because it is combined with "to embrace", and that's possible. Also possible is "throw stones = war // gather stones = rebuild".

  • Verse 7: "to tear" almost certainly refers to rending your garment in mourning.

  • Verse 8: remember that Solomon is writing this as the "wise leader of state", and so he acknowledges the reality of hatred and war.

I truly do not believe there are hidden meanings in this poem. It's just an amazing sweep of the reality of life.

Here's your interesting discussion about these verses:

  1. This poem provides us with a picture of human life. Now that Jesus has come, how is the Christian perspective of life supposed to be different? In other words, there are 28 activities on this list -- are they all still equally true of Christians?

  2. The reason for many of these activities is the shortness of life. In heaven, how many of these activities will still be true of us? Why or why not?

If you have board space, make a chart. Have three columns:

1. Solomon's picture of life // 2. Life as a Christian // 3. Life in heaven

List the 28 activities in the first column, and then put a checkmark if that activity should be true of Christians and true in heaven. Keep it moving, though; there's still plenty to talk about in this lesson!


Aside: What Is Life?

You're going to have to pick and chose what you want to cover in the short time you have for Bible study, but one of the resources recommended talking about "life". Here is a brief summary of what the Holman Bible Dictionary says about "life".

Life is "used in the Bible to describe the animating force in both animals and humans (Gen 1:20). Living organisms grow and reproduce according to their kinds. ... This physical, bodily existence is subject to suffering, illness, toil, death, temptation, and sin (Ps 89:47; 103:14-16; 104:23; Rom 5:12-21; 6:21-33). But 'life' as used in the Bible has a much wider application than only physical, bodily existence."

The article describes life in five categories:

  1. "Only God has life in the absolute sense." "No possibility of life exists when God withholds His breath or spirit (Job 34:14-15)."

  2. Life also describes our earthly existence. The Bible warns us that the quality of life is not found in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15) but in wisdom.

  3. There is also a unique quality of life found in a relationship with God, which is how we are said to have "life to the full" in Jesus (John 10:10), or with Paul "For me, to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21). OT: "Only the life that lives in obedience to God deserves to be called life in the true sense of the word (Deut 30:15-20; Ezek 3:16-21; 18:1-32)." NT: "We died with Christ and were raised together with Him and the lives of Christians have been hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:1-3)." See also Rom 14:7-9.

  4. Jesus is the bridge between those three categories: "Since Jesus was God incarnate, He made genuine life a reality -- not a distant prospect."

  5. "According to the Bible, all people will have an endless duration of life either in the blessing of God's presence or in the damnation of God's absence (Matt 25:31-46; John 5:28-29). The thing that distinguishes the life of these two groups of people is not its duration but its quality. Eternal life is of a quality like God's life. This kind of life is a true blessing (Luke 18:29-30; 1 John 5:12). The quality of this life is marked by freedom from the power of sin to destroy, by holiness, and by a positive relation with God (Rom 6:20-23)."

"True life is offered to all, but it is received only by those who realize that the source of true life is what God has done in Jesus Christ and does not come from within the individual (Eph 2:8-10)."


Part 2: Enjoy Life (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)

9 What does the worker gain from his struggles? 10 I have seen the task that God has given the children of Adam to keep them occupied. 11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. 13 It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts.

These verses are just as powerful as the poem above. They should make even more sense in the context of what we studied last week:

From our very limited human perspective, all of our activity might seem futile; but from God's eternal perspective, all of our activity has a place in the broad sweep of history. (And in Solomon's day, that history was preparing the world for the coming of Jesus.)

You have probably seen verse 11 as "He has made everything beautiful in its time". The best way to understand it is "He has made everything fit together beautifully in its time" (but that doesn't roll as cleanly off the tongue, which is why our translation settled on "appropriate").

And that should make sense -- all of those activities in the opening poem, some we like, some we don't like, all of them fit together in the tapestry of our life to make it beautiful and worth living and fit into the plan for human history.

But, as my Aside about "life" made clear, true life is found only in God, which is where the next phrase seems to come from, "He has put eternity in their hearts".

There's a big debate about that word for "eternity". The word often means "eternity", but it can also be used to describe "ignorance" (the connection is that the eternal future is unclear to us -- something we are ignorant of). There are two common schools of thought:

  1. God has placed the desire to know the future/to know eternity in our hearts, but we cannot know it and so we will always be searching. -or-

  2. God has placed a veil over our hearts which obscures our knowledges and prevents us from being able to understand God's eternal plans.

Both of them are true, and I actually think that both of them would be valid in the context here. (1), people want to know their future so they can know what will or will not be futile in their activity, but God does not let them know that. (2), people want to have control over their own lives and destinies and eternities, but that is only for God (for example -- Paul called Jesus a "mystery", which we studied in Ephesians 3).

In either case, the point is that we cannot know the future, therefore we must trust God.

Think back over your life. When you trust God, have you been able to find blessing and purpose and meaning in your day-to-day life? For me, at least, when I am able to take a step back from being worried about the future and live in the moment (as they say), I find there is so much I can enjoy about my life. The Bible does not endorse hedonism (although cynical Solomon might have in some moments!), but the Bible also tells us to enjoy God's blessings as we experience them. Our life is a gift. God wants us to enjoy it.


Part 3: God Works (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)

14 I know that everything God does will last forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. God works so that people will be in awe of him. 15 Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is. However, God seeks justice for the persecuted.

This is an interesting stutter-step. I don't think that Solomon was able to escape his limited human perspective, no matter how much he wanted to. Consequently, he still sees God as GOD rather than as Father (which is one of the categories of life we mentioned). So, he's right that humans must be in awe of God (the fear of the Lord) because God holds the future. We ignore God to our own peril! But I can't help but think that something is missing here, namely the experience of mercy, grace, and love that we have with God in Jesus Christ.

So, I guess this is what I'm saying -- from Solomon's perspective, he's absolutely correct. But from what we know today, we would be better off saying that God does not work "so that" people will be in awe of him but rather because "people living in awe of God is a necessary part of them enjoying and living life the way He designed it". To me, that's completely in line with the purpose of the book, but it helps us tie in what we know in Jesus.

Verse 15 is another disputed translation, as you can see:

  • God requireth that which is past (KJV)

  • God seeketh again that which is passed away (ASV)

  • And God looks after what is driven away (CEB)

  • God makes the same thing happen again and again (GNT)

  • God repeats what has passed (HCSB)

  • God seeks what has passed by (NASB)

  • God will call the past to account (NIV)

  • God allows the same things to happen again (NLV)

Those are some significantly different meanings!

If our CSB is correct, then this is a callback to Job -- "when you don't trust the future God has planned for you, know that He will always be right and just in eternal judgment".

The best parallelism with the first part of verse 15, though, would be either the GNT, the NASB, or the NIV. This has a "justice" motif, except it's more the idea that God always responds in the same way (you can't bribe God or get Him to change His mind). You can't expect to wake up tomorrow and be able to breathe water, or fly, or get away with murder. God has made things to work a certain way, and He will not change that. (Note: He does reveal more of His plan, i.e. in Jesus Christ, but that's different than saying that God has changed His plan.)

[Those translations that use "again and again" have fed into some strange ideas about time that I will mention at the end.]

What is your takeaway from this? How does knowing that God has an eternal perspective help you cope with your limited perspective of the events in your life?


Closing Thoughts: Time Is Not a Flat Circle

The recently released Disney show "Loki" ended with a very interesting philosophical construct: a single man manipulating all of time from a single point where time flowed around him in a circle. The episode included a line from philosopher Alan Watts. His larger quote is this:

“The future is a concept—it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as tomorrow. There never will be because time is always now. That’s one of the things we discover when we stop talking to ourselves and stop thinking. We find there is only present, only an eternal now.”

A couple of years ago, the crime drama True Detective included this provocative idea from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (and others), summarized by one of the main characters:

“Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever.”

It's a very pessimistic view that basically says that people never learn from their mistakes and are doomed to repeat the past, and thus they have no power to change the world but only be changed by the world.

It sure seems like the things Solomon has said could be made to fit these ideas:

  • time is meaningless because there is no past or future but only now

  • time is meaningless because you never learn from it.

What other philosophies have you heard about "time"? How do you think they would try to claim verses in Ecclesiastes for themselves?

Have you ever thought about "time"?

Time is one of the most difficult problems in philosophy, but not so for the Bible. Let me summarize the entry for "time" from a book I've told you about (The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology):


Time is neither abstract nor a problem to be solved; time is God's creation within which He brings about His plan of salvation.

Non-biblical religions get caught up in distorted understandings of time such as annihilation and reincarnation and eternal loops. But not the Bible. In the Bible, time has a very clear meaning and purpose:

"History has a beginning in God, it has its center in Christ, and its end in the final consummation and the Last Judgment." - Richard Kroner

Jesus died a "once for all" death and paid a "once for all" sacrifice at a specific moment in the past. That moment was the center of all of time. Everything that happened before Jesus was leading up to Jesus; everything that has happened since points back to Jesus, preparing us for His return.


So, now, this is me stepping back in. Time (from a human experience) must be linear. Jesus died once. And each person must make a choice whether or not to trust Jesus as Savior. And when we die -- once -- we will face a one-time judgment for that decision. And when Jesus returns -- once -- He will inaugurate a kingdom that will never end.

In this life, there are patterns (rhythms and cycles, even) because God created the universe that way. Days, weeks, months, seasons, years. It gives order and purpose to our day-to-day existence.

But time itself is temporary, created by God for the purpose of giving structure to our lives and a history in which Jesus could live. One "day", time will have served its purpose, and God will shift everything into a different experience of time (heaven/eternity). We don't know what that is because we cannot comprehend it (having always existed in a linear "timeline").

Time is linear, but God created time and exists outside of it, so He is not limited by time in any way. Don't worry about any other "explanation" of time.


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