A Time for Every Purpose
“For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”—Habakkuk 2:3
A verse by verse study in Ecclesiastes 3
Like any well-regulated business, God’s plan runs on a time schedule. “Due time” and the “appointed time” appear frequently in Scripture. In the New Testament alone, the Greek word kairos, meaning “set time,” appears some 88 times. Jesus berated the Scribes and the Pharisees for their inability to note the significance of time. “He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (Matt. 16:2, 3).
Solomon noted the significance of time in the meditations on his life recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes. The third chapter of this book has been called “An Ode to Time” and is significant to the student of the Bible from the principles involved and for specific lessons in God’s use of time.
A Time for Everything—Verses 1 to 8
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
In fourteen pairs of opposites, the writer brings out that few things are right or wrong in themselves; it is the timing that is vital. In the natural life cycle, birth is meant to come on time after 266 days of gestation. Death, while varying, is spoken of at one’s “appointed time” (Job 14:14). Agriculture has its own cycle of “seed time and harvest” (Gen. 8:22).
In the third contrast there is a departure from two complete opposites. The antithesis of to kill is to make alive. That is the exact comparison that is used when speaking of God, “The LORDkilleth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up” (1 Sam. 2:6). But Solomon is speaking of the art of the possible. The closest that man can come to making alive is healing; he has not the power to resurrect. Under Judaic law, there was a time for killing—both when God commanded the Israelites to go to war against their enemies and when, under the Mosaic commandments, an offense was committed which required capital punishment. There were other times, thankfully, when the time was ripe for healing, not only of physical wounds but of emotional rifts that left deep psychological scars. As king, Solomon found that there were times when he must use severe methods and other times when it was much wise to take a more gentle course.
How often man has found a time to weep and to mourn. This, too, is counterbalanced in life with more joyful times for laughing and dancing. As the Psalmist writes, “When the LORDturned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. . . . They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psa. 126:1, 2, 5, 6).
There were times when stones must be collected and piled into great fortifications against an enemy’s attack. These were balanced by other times when peace permitted the dismantling of these fortifications and casting away the stones. There were other times to gather stones to build an altar to keep an incident in sacred memory; while other events were best forgotten (Phil. 3:13).
Likewise the sweetness of romance finds its place to embrace (Heb. 13:4) but such love was only a tender accent to the continuing business of life (1 Cor. 7:29). The times to gain and maintain temporal possessions must be for a purpose which includes the giving of these assets away to help the less fortunate (compare Prov. 11:25 with Luke 12:16-21).
The rending of garments may well refer to the traditional symbol of repentant grieving (Joel 2:13). Such grieving, has a definite place in one’s life but it is not meant to be permanent. Accepting forgiveness, it is time to sew the garment back together again and walk afresh. “The just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again” (Prov. 24:16). Likewise there is a time both for silence and for speech. It was as appropriate that Jesus be silent “as a sheep before her shearers” is dumb as it was for Esther not to hold her peace but speak out in defense of her people before Ahasuerus (Esth. 4:13, 14).
Likewise with the great emotions of love and hate. While love is the ultimate godlike quality, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8), there also exists a “perfect hatred” (Psa. 139:22) which must burn against all wickedness (Psa. 45:7). It is these emotions that lead to the final contrast of a time for peace and a time for war.
The Christian needs such contrasting experiences in his life. They each form a function in developing within him the beauty of a balanced character. Perhaps this is what the wise man had in mind when he wrote, “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits” (Cant. 4:16).
The Purpose of Evil—Verses 9 to 11
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”
Verse 9 is a repetition of Ecclesiastes 1:13. It forms a theme for Solomon’s meditations. Having lived a life of luxury and pleasure, putting his immense talents to work in magnificent building projects, enlarging the kingdom of Israel to its zenith, he finds no lasting pleasure in any of his accomplishment. “All is vanity” is the plaintive refrain of this book. The only value of the disappointing and superficial experiences of life is in the exercise of learning from them. This conclusion, which opens the book (1:13) and finds its refrain here, provides the final result of this exercise in the last verses of the treatise, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecc. 12:13, 14).
Everything is to be made beautiful, but only in his time. The illustration of the architect fits well. To judge God by his unfinished plan is like judging an architect on the basis of an uncompleted building. The times of trouble and distress are only a shaping part of the glorious eternity that lies ahead. This is the very expression he uses in verse eleven. Almost all other translations correctly render the Hebrew word olam here as “eternity” instead of “world.”
It is in the light of eternity that present trials lose their bitterness. As Paul states it in Romans 8:18, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Or again, in the words of the hymnist:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less years to sing his praise
Than when we first begun.
It is only when man reckons time by his own minute frame of reference instead of in the light of eternity that he cannot find out the works that God made. It is the long range picture that is full of brightness and hope.
Present Accountability—Verses 12 to 15
“I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him. That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.”
These verses are frequently interpreted as a support for the philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry.” We suggest that this is not the case. The entire bent of the book of Ecclesiastes is toward the final conclusion that the whole duty of man is to serve God. This is highly indicative, therefore, that this book is written late in Solomon’s life and reflects a sober review of the errors of his earlier ways.
With that background the word “good” in verse twelve does not refer to the subjective use of that word as to what is pleasing to man but to the objective definition of what is morally good and upright. The following verse is perhaps the Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
The writer states the reason for his conclusion in verse 14 and the summary of his argument in verse 15. His reasoning is that man’s concept of good is based on the short period of his present existence, while God’s definition of good is based on the long range view of eternity. In summary, he relates the past to the present and the future, concluding that God’s judgment of the individual’s future is based on his use of the present and the past.
God’s Judgments—Verses 16 and 17
“And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there. I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.”
Solomon perceives in these verses that our judgment of the results of a good or evil course are based on what produces current prosperity. He is making the same observation as another of God’s prophets, “And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered” (Mal. 3:15).
To gain a proper perspective of what constitutes good and evil requires a longer range picture. It requires faith that ultimately, if not in this life, then in the next, God will produce a final judgment that will overrule the conclusions of man’s warped and iniquitous judgments. This is a conclusion with which the Christian can completely agree “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Of Man and Beast—Verses 18 to 22
“I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?”
Only too frequently some Christians jump to the conclusion that the question of verse 21 is to be answered in the affirmative—that the souls of beasts pass out of existence while the souls of man fly immediately upward to God. This is the exact opposite of Solomon’s point. His emphasis is on the fact that “one thing” befalls both, that both “go unto one place; all [man as well as beast] are of the dust, and all [man as well as beast] turn to dust again.” The emphasis in this passage is not on the resurrection but on the mortality of human life. As death ends current existence for the beast, so death ends current existence for man.
This does not argue that the after-death experiences for man and beast will be the same. Other scriptures show that man will be resurrected while the beasts will not. It is true that death ends all existence for the beast, while it is only a temporary interval in the experiences of man. But that difference is not intrinsic in their nature. The only reason that man will live again while the beast will not is that Christ died for man and not for the beast. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
While the memory of man and a complete record of his present life are kept in the memory of God for implanting in a resurrected body, this is not “the spirit.” “The spirit” is the breath of life which, united with the body, forms a living soul, or living being (Gen. 2:7). This spirit, at death, ceases to be until the resurrection.
So Solomon ends the chapter with his conclusion of his meditations—since man cannot foresee the future, but must believe in it, therefore the best thing for a man to do is to do those works in which he can truly rejoice, works which will stand the test of the judgment seat of God. Thus he rests his argument on faith, the faith that God will know best how to judge and is the only one competent to make the eternal decisions of what is right and what is wrong.
Why God Permits Evil
In this third chapter of Ecclesiastes, therefore, we see the relation of time to the concept of why God permits evil. The Creator has allotted a certain time period (approximately 6000 years) for man to experiment with evil, to do whatever he will “under the sun.” By this he will thoroughly learn the same lesson as did Solomon, “all is vanity.” This will prepare him for a change of dispensation, a new time concept, the concept of eternity, in which to apply the lessons learned.
Truly “this sore travail hath God given to the sons of men, to be exercised therewith.” When the lessons from this “exercise” are fully learned and applied, what a glorious time that will be. Then man will arrive at Solomon’s ultimate conclusion, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl. 12:13, 14).