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Michael Eaton: This section elucidates the worldview underlying the life portrayed in 2:24-26. Just as 1:2 – 2:23 moved from the pessimistic worldview (1:2-11) to the pessimistic daily life (1:12 – 2:23), so in a chiastic movement the thought of 2:24-26 proceeds from the believer’s life to his worldview (3:1-22). Verses 1-8 lay down the basic postulate; 3:9-15 work out its practical implications.

Tremper Longman: In vv. 1–15 Qohelet acknowledges the order of God’s universe. There are proper times and seasons. Nonetheless, since human beings cannot know these times, the result is frustration. In the light of humanity’s inability to discover the larger picture or significance of God’s creation, Qohelet advocates settling for the lesser pleasures of life. However, not everyone can avail themselves of these diversions, only those whom God so blesses. The implication is that other people, including Qohelet himself, must struggle with depressing reality.

Walter Kaiser: Solomon’s personal experience as king, and the restlessness of nature itself, laid the groundwork for the inescapable conclusion that if enjoyment and happiness were ever going to be within anyone’s reach, they would need to come as direct gifts from God to persons of faith—so Solomon taught by divine revelation. The wicked, meanwhile, were left with the aggravating and empty task of accumulating goods that could soon be converted to other uses by those fearing God as the wicked yielded those things up at their death. The contrast and difference in the outcome of each is very explicit in this memorable section of Ecclesiastes.

Thus, in the next step in his fourfold argument in this book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon boldly argued the thesis that every action of an individual can be traced to its ultimate source, which is an all-embracing plan that is administered by God (3:1). This is a beautiful plan, yet men and women do not and, as a matter of fact, cannot apprehend it because of their prevailing worldliness. So vast, so eternal, and so comprehensive in its inclusions is this plan that mortals are both threatened and exasperated in their attempts to discover it for themselves. Nevertheless, being built by God, and being made in God’s own image, each person possesses a hunger within his or her heart to know the vastness, wholeness, and key details of this plan. Yet it cannot be known until one comes to personally know the living God (3:11). Therefore, each is once again cut off from the very substance for which his or her whole being yearns, just as each likewise searched for happiness and joy in chapters 1 and 2. There must be a divine plan behind all of this!

Douglas Miller: Following the summary conclusion to the royal investigation in 2:24-26, the start of chapter 3 indicates a new unit by the poem in verses 2-8. In the previous section, Qohelet has acknowledged the mysterious and arbitrary actions of the Deity. He now examines God’s relation to timing in the activities of life. Although there are connections to the previous unit, this section (3:1-15) is unified by its attention to the sovereignty of God in determining events. This theme is further developed in the area of judgment (3:16-22). The latter paragraph resumes the issue of fate raised in 2:12-17, and the conclusion regarding pleasure in 3:22 both reinforces 3:13 and echoes 2:24-26.


The focus in chapter 3 is not upon calculated human activity in itself, but upon God’s activity and how humans might best respond to it. The most that humans can do is to respond to the way God acts, including the cycles of life that God has laid out and the events, even the terrible events, that God has allowed to happen.

In summary, Qohelet says,

(1)  humans do not achieve gain for their toil,

(2)  God is the one ultimately in charge,

(3)  human ignorance hinders the ability of persons to act appropriately to the time,

(4)  God will hold humans accountable,

(5)  God’s judgment demonstrates the frailty of human life, and

(6)  the best response is for humans to enjoy their work, their portion, while life shall last.

Without using vapor (hebel), the first half of this unit gathers together the Teacher’s conclusions concerning the insubstantiality of human effort and the difficult circumstances that God has prescribed. In the process, Qohelet emphasizes the permanence of God’s work, which, in the unit’s second part, comes into contrast with the insubstantial vapor (hebel) and dust of the human condition.


David Hubbard: In this poem the motif of changelessness and divine control is applied to the widest possible range of human activities. The literary form comprises fourteen pairs of contrasts. The use of this double seven number helps to convey the idea of completeness. These contrary lines couple basic human experiences and their equally basic opposites. This device is usually called a merism and suggests that the poles that are stated mean to include every similar activity that occurs between them. The pair, for example, “to be born” and “to die” (3:2) embrace each major event, perhaps even each moment, in the human life cycle. The poem is wrapped in an introduction (3:1) and a conclusion (3:9).

The introduction establishes the theme of set or appointed times. “Season” means literally “appointed time” (NASB) as its use (Heb. zemān) elsewhere indicates: in Nehemiah it marks the schedule for the cupbearer’s journey to Jerusalem and his return (2:6); in Esther it pinpoints the calendar for the two-day feast of Purim in celebration of rescue from the genocidal plots of Haman (9:27, 31). “Purpose” in verse 1 means “event,” “activity,” or “matter” (see 8:6 which carries a thought similar to that of 3:1). The breadth of the word (Heb. hēphes, which may also mean “delight” or “pleasure” in 5:4 and 12:1; see also “acceptable” in 12:10) is assured by its parallel use to “everything” in 3:14 and to “work” (“deed” or “task”) in 3:17. It seems to include all the major activities in which human beings engage under the sovereign will of God.

The human component in all of this is made clear in two ways. First, the items in the catalog all involve human participation. They are not activities of the elements like earth, sun, wind, and sea in 1:4–11. Second, the conclusion (3:9) centers in the futility of all the human activity involved in life as summarized in verses 2–8. . .

We live according to God’s determination, announced Koheleth, not ours. We live in time, conscious of it virtually every minute, but it is God’s planned time that dictates our important activities and significant events. . .

Our ignorance of God’s ways—this is the vexing problem. God controls our times, but He has not told us how and why. We walk in the dark, merely submitting to what God has determined, blind to His purposes, lame in our efforts to cooperate.

Walter Kaiser: The Principle: God’s Plan Embraces All of Our Reality

From the perspective of God, it is He who orders all aspects of a person’s life and actions. Even when there is sickness, death, war, and the like, God is in charge of the seasons and times of life. This does not mean God is willing to let a person’s life fall into chaos, for He also makes sure there are times for giving birth, healing, and peace as well. Life is not one of chance or fate, for despite the haphazard appearance of things, God alone is in charge of nature and history. The only persons who would be upset by this are secularists who wish to be their own god over all things. Michael Kelley noted that “The precise quality of man’s rebellion lies in his supreme aspiration to make nature and history serve and glorify man. To accomplish that goal he must have the absolute lordship of time and its content.”

A.  (:1) God’s Appointed Times

There is an appointed time for everything. 

And there is a time for every event under heaven–

B.  (:2-8) Seven Contrasting Seasons – Viewed as Extremes

Seven is number of completeness in Scripture; 14 comparisons

Daniel Akin: The poem reveals the great absurdity of life because each activity cancels the other out. There are 14 pluses and 14 minuses, and that adds up to zero (Begg, “Eternity on My Mind”)! Every birth ends in death, every planted crop is pulled up, every building is eventually condemned, every celebration gives way to a funeral, and every peace gives way to another war. Nothing is gained.

Douglas Miller: It is best simply to recognize these lines as a striking and poetic litany of things that people do, arranged in mutually exclusive couplets. They collectively emphasize the varied experiences of life that pull a person or group in opposite directions. They are representative of everything and every matter (3:1).  . .  there is a sense of thoroughness: the poem represents the totality of human experience. The fact that there are seven pairs of pairs (twenty-eight items total) may also symbolize completeness.

  1. (:2)  Life vs Death

A time to give birth, and a time to die;

                        A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.”

  1. (:3)  Hurting vs Healing (Destruction vs Construction)

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

                        A time to tear down, and a time to build up.”

  1. (:4)  Grief vs Joy

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

                        A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

  1. (:5)  Hugging vs Throwing Stones

A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones;

                        A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing.”

Daniel Akin: There is a time to cast away and gather stones (Eccl 3:5). The phrase is difficult to understand for modern ears, but most likely stone casting refers to an ancient war practice. For example, 2 Kings 3:19, 25 lays out a war strategy for Israel in which they are to cast stones on their enemies’ fields in order to make them unworkable. It disrupts agriculture. Isaiah 5:2 describes the process of clearing stones from a field before you plant a vineyard.

Douglas Miller: An ancient rabbinic commentary on this verse equates scattering of stones with sexual intercourse and gathering stones with abstinence. The second half of verse 5 would seem to be consistent with this understanding, although the embracing mentioned there need not imply sexual relations.

  1. (:6)  Persistence vs Resignation

A time to search, and a time to give up as lost;

                        A time to keep, and a time to throw away.”

  1. (:7)  Confrontation vs Forbearance (Union)

A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together;

                        A time to be silent, and a time to speak.”

  1. (:8)  Love (Peace) vs Hate (War)

A time love, and a time to hate;

                        A time for war, and a time for peace.”

Application: Use our time wisely in submission to God’s overall plan and His wisdom, even when we cannot understand everything about our particular season of life.  God is in control.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: Like the apostles before Jesus’ ascension, we want to know the fullness of God’s plan. But Ecclesiastes gives the same answer that Jesus gave his apostles on that occasion: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). So let us rejoice in the revelation that we have been given. Let us be wise enough to recognize that our times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15). Let us embrace the beauty of God’s comprehensive control of everything.


A.  (:9-11) Connection to Eternity Can Be Frustrating Right Now

  1. (:9)  Work Seems Futile

What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?”

  1. (:10)  Yet God Desires Responsible Living

I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.”

  1. (:11a)  Life Must be Lived According to God’s Schedule

He has made everything appropriate in its time.”

Van Parunak: He has established a world complex enough that “everything is beautiful in its time.” All the opposites of vv.2-8 fit somewhere, and where they fit, the opposite would be inappropriate. Men sense this; moral dilemmas take their root from it.

Daniel Akin: The word translated “beautiful” or “appropriate” means God made everything good and right, so that everything perfectly fits its own place and time. Bottom line, the phrase sums up the poem to show that God is the One in charge of these times and appointed activities. And it sets up what follows. The overarching point seems to be that God has appointed or ordained all of these things as part of His bigger, hidden plan.

  1. (:11b)  Man Cannot See the End from the Beginning

He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out

the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”

You won’t find dogs leading a frustrated existence; they have no connection to eternity. It does not bother them that they cannot understand the eternal purposes and plan of God.

Van Parunak: He has put eternity [literal meaning of (oLaM] in men’s hearts. Men know that they are meant for more than time, yet the inevitability of death means that they can never grasp that for which they reach.  Thus men long to understand God’s ways, but cannot. This is what drives them on their busyness.

Daniel Akin: We cannot know or see God’s entire plan or fully grasp it, no matter how much we want to. The limit of man’s knowledge is a major theme in Ecclesiastes, and the purpose of exposing that reality is to drive us to faith in God. We know there is more out there, and we want to know our purpose and our destiny. However, we are still dependent creatures who can only know and handle a sliver of what the Creator is really doing. And if we doubt in any way the truth of that statement, we need to be reminded that, mysterious as it may be, when the Son of God set aside His glory and took on human flesh, even He did not know all the times set by God (Matt 24:36). As Matt Chandler points out, we are like a child in the “why stage” (“Ingredients”). When you tell a child in the why stage to do something, he or she can ask “Why?” into infinity, and eventually you have to say in exasperation, “Because I told you so.” In a sense we cannot handle all of the whys of God’s plan, so He tells us, “Even though you cannot know it all, you can trust Me!”

Here, then, is the main idea of 3:11 and how it fits with the absurdity of life described earlier. We perceive and long for better things than this cursed misery, but we cannot see the full picture, and we must lean on God. We are trapped between time and eternity, and we must trust that God uses the details to work out a grander plan.

B.  (:12-13) Contentment Now Comes from Staying Positive and Seeing All Good Things as a Gift from God

  1. Cultivate an Attitude of Rejoicing – Stay Positive

I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice

Van Parunak: Enjoy Life — At the center of the chiasm, we return to the opening theme. Frustration is only appropriate if we limit our gaze to ourselves. God has better for us.

  1. Cultivate Actions that Benefit Others – Do Good

and to do good in one’s lifetime

  1. Cultivate Appreciation for God Supplying Your Needs – Partake Thankfully

moreover, that every man who eats and drinks

  1. Cultivate Awareness of All of God’s Good Gifts – Work Purposefully

sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God.”

Knut Martin Heim: Qoheleth draws three conclusions:

  • first, that the pursuit of happiness is the only appropriate response to the precarious state of affairs just described (v. 12);
  • second, that human capacity for happiness depends on God (v. 13); and,
  • third, that the divine control over human pursuits is permanent, unchangeable and designed for a purpose (v. 14).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: We are completely known by God, but we cannot completely know the plans or purposes of God because we are not God. The mirror before our faces is murky (1 Cor. 13:12), and our window into heaven narrow. What, then, should we do? Under the sunlight of God’s sovereignty, we should be holy and happy. Rejoice in the Lord. Obey Christ’s commands. Do good to others. Eat your roast-beef sandwich. Sip your Scotch. Smile, God loves you. Seriously.

The Purpose of Time: To review, there are three lessons to learn from our text.

  • First, we should embrace the beauty of God’s comprehensive control of everything. Wow!
  • Second, under the sunlight of God’s sovereignty, we should be holy and happy. Amen and amen.
  • Third, because of God’s enduring, complete, and just providence, we should fear God.

C.  (:14-15) Control Must Be Yielded to the Eternal Unchanging Sovereign God

David Thompson: What Solomon knew about God. 3:14-15

Fact #1God’s work is permanent. 3:14a

Solomon knew everything God does is something that stands forever. If we link into something God is doing, it will stand. If your life, if your business, if your ministry is of God, it will have a permanence to it. Everything man does and is, in and of himself, is transitory. Everything God does and is, is eternal. When transitory man happens to link into the eternal plan of God, there is a permanence to it.

Fact #2God’s work is perfect. 3:14b

There is nothing one will ever need to add or to subtract from the perfect work of God. In God’s work, nothing is missing or lacking. It is true of God, it is true of His work and it is true of His Word (Deut. 4:2). Nothing ever needs to be added to the work of God or to the Word of God.

Fact #3 – God’s work is purposeful. 3:15

There is a purpose for everything God sovereignly allows in life and that is to bring a person to the place where he will fear Him. God keeps doing and demonstrating the same kinds of things He has done before in order to bring a man to the point where that man will fear God.

  1. (:14a)  God’s Works Last Forever

I know that everything God does will remain forever;”

  1. (:14b)  God Does Not Need Our Help

there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it

  1. (:14c)  God Wants Men to Fear Him

for God has so worked that men should fear Him.”

Knut Martin Heim: The state of affairs pertaining to the divine order of creation after the fall is specifically designed to provoke and sustain “fear of God”. Life is not meant to be easy, precisely in order to remind human beings that they do not have their lives and the outcomes of their endeavours in their own hands.

  1. (:15)  God Operates Outside of the Constraints of Time

That which is has been already, and that which will be has already

been, for God seeks what has passed by.”

Application: Doug Smith: The works of God are eternal.  Even though life, from our limited perspective, may seem like a repetitive cycle, God has a purpose in it all and He ensures that everything unfolds in accordance with His plan and His will.

We need to fear God and live lives of contentment, appreciating all of God’s good gifts and allowing God to work out His eternal purposes.

Knut Martin Heim: This concluding reflection makes three more general affirmations.

  • First, the entire state of affairs explored in verses 1–14 is nothing new.
  • Second, Qoheleth helps his audience to view their own perceptions of novelty – prompted perhaps by the new political circumstances of Ptolemaic rule – in the light of eternity.
  • The final phrase in verse 15 appears opaque to the point of obscurity – and God seeks out what is being pursued – and this is reflected in the various interpretations it has received (Fox 1989: 197; Krüger 2004: 90; Longman 1998: 124). A contextually fitting interpretation is to conclude that nirdāp refers to that which human beings, Qoheleth’s intended audience in particular, are pursuing: happiness. The remainder of the statement then simply affirms, third, that God is concerned for and personally interested in the human quest for happiness.



Knut Martin Heim: After a stylized sketch of the public perversion of justice (v. 16), Qoheleth launches into an extended and highly complex response. Two internal dialogues reaffirm traditional Jewish beliefs in spite of the present circumstances (vv. 17–18) and explore the implications of death for human conduct (vv. 19–21). He then presents a practical conclusion, recommending the active enjoyment of human endeavour (v. 22).

David Hubbard: The flow of 3:16–22 moves something like this:

The observation of injustice                                               v. 16

The declaration of judgment                                               v. 17

The reflections on judgment                                               vv. 18–21

The alternative conclusion on how to live with injustice   v. 22

Daniel Akin: Why am I here? What’s the reason for my existence? Those are gigantic questions. Most people know things like pleasure or possessions or the pursuit of money are not high enough values. Most of us recognize that those aims are too low and inadequate for life. There has to be more to life—something more meaningful—than money and pleasurable experiences. As people ask the question about the meaning of life and come to believe that they are here for a “higher purpose,” many conclude, “I am here to make the world a better place.” People try different routes to accomplish that purpose. Some people go the route of politics. That is the path “cultural Christianity” has chosen. They put their hope in politics. . .

Many people are jaded with politics and think that nothing really changes, so they choose a different route to find meaning in life by changing the world. The second option is grassroots work for social justice. People fight against the system in order to see real change. They work to help the poor, defenseless, and disenfranchised. Many young people—who cannot seem to clean their rooms—desire to clean up the world, and so they gravitate to this path. They get excited, and rightly so, about causes like orphan care, sex trafficking, endangered animals, and the environment. Some work hard to make a difference, but let’s be honest, in most cases there is little actual change. . .

That is Solomon’s point in Ecclesiastes. If this cursed world is all there is, then all of our actions, even actions to promote the common good, are futile. In Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:3 and also 5:8-9, Solomon indicts both politics and justice as ultimately fleeting and meaningless.

Iain Provan: Though these verses are tied to the previous passage by the mention of “a time for every activity” in v.17 and possibly by the opposition of time versus eternity in vv.21–22 (though this is not clear), a new set of concepts is introduced, particularly, injustice and the absurdity of a common destiny for humans and animals. Both are connected to the idea in v.18 of God as the divine test-giver.

A.  (:16) Frustration from Temporal Injustice

Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is

wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.”

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: We may summarize Ecclesiastes 3:16–17 like this: The sight of wickedness in unlikely places should help us to turn in faith and hope to God, who will rightly judge at the right time. What comes next in verses 18–22 may be summarized as follows: The sight of our own mortality should motivate us to work with joy.

Note that both reactions to the realities of wickedness and death are unexpected and ironic. While we would expect to arrive at hopelessness after viewing wickedness in places that we do not expect to find it, instead we are told to hope in God. And while we would expect to arrive at despair after seeing that we die and return to dust just like every animal in the fallen world, instead we are told to rejoice in our God-given work.

B.  (:17-21) Frustration from Apparent Purposelessness – How is Man Different from Beast?

  1. (:17)  Expectation of Accountability

I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked

man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.”

Walter Kaiser: God had instituted human tribunals (“the place of judgment” [v. 16] is a court of law) as places where men could expect to find judicial relief. But when wickedness is offered where justice should be found, that is a matter of utmost seriousness. Similarly, “the place of righteousness” (v. 16) is the house of God, where one would also expect a fair hearing and correction of injustice and evil. Such inequities, when both the law courts and the house of God fail the oppressed, God Himself will rectify in the future judgment, even though their cases appear temporarily to run unattended and to be adjudicated unfairly. Wronging the innocent and clearing the guilty is dangerous business, for all who practice such crookedness and demagoguery will face the Judge of all judges in that final judgment.

  1. (:18-21)  Examination of Ultimate Destiny

I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested

them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’  For the fate of

the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.  As one dies so dies

the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no

advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.  All go to the same place. 

All came from the dust and all return to the dust.  Who knows that the

breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends

downward to the earth?

Walter Kaiser: Death is the great leveler of all living beings. It happens to men as it happens to beasts: both are subject to death. Yet by this very same fact, God shows mortals their frailty in an effort to force them to turn back and search for Himself: to come to the realization that all goods are from His hand, to receive from His hand the ability to enjoy those gifts, and to come to appreciate His sovereign plan.

Tragically, we seldom take to heart as we ought to the reality of death. We moderns are more primitive in our estimate of and regard for the life hereafter than were the men of antiquity. We are insulated from directly facing the grim aspects of death day in and day out; it was not so with those in Solomon’s day. They had no gadgetry to occupy their minds, no gracious living to cause them to forget, no hospitals and rest homes to remove the smell, sound, and sight of death or the death rattles from them. Most people conclude that since “all go to one place” (v. 20), that is, the “grave” (here the idea is not “hell”), that is the end of it. Certainly, both men and beasts are made out of dust, and their bodies return to the dust; but what poor gamblers men and women are if they believe that that is the end of the matter. Verse 21 deliberately adds in the clearest tones possible (despite very little help from some translations or most commentators), “The spirit of man goes upward, but the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth” (emphasis mine). The verbs “to go upward” and “to go downward” are active participles with the article attached to them and not, as some incorrectly insist, the Hebrew sign of the interrogative. As Leupold has accurately rendered this concept, “There are not many who take to heart as they ought to the fact that the spirit of man goeth upward and that the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth.”   The presence of the long “a” in the prefix ha– instead of the short “a” shows that the Hebrew scribes, called the Masoretes, did not regard verse 21 as an interrogative or conditional sentence. Had not Solomon also argued already that unjust judges will face the living God at some point (3:17)? And will not God with consistency press the same facts into service in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”? What would be the point of concluding his book with the ominous warning about the future that “God will bring every deed into judgment” (12:14) if men and women are dead and gone forever once they die? If that were the case, who would care if God reprimanded our worms after we had long ceased to exist? Neither they nor our dust will much care. But such is not Solomon’s thought. Concepts of man’s immortality are as old as Enoch, the seventh from Adam (Jude 14); his body entered the eternal state directly. Even patriarchal Job knew that death was not the end of life. He observed that if you chop down a tree, it often sends out new “shoots” from the old stump (Job 14:7). Likewise, he contested, if you chop down a man so that he dies, there is hope for him that he too will also “shoot” again in new life (Job 14:14; the same root word as in verse 7 is used here, although the fact is obscured in the translations). The same point of view was affirmed by the psalmist in Psalm 49:12-15, where he too argued that “man…is like the beasts that perish. Like sheep they are laid in the grave…But God will redeem my soul/life (Hebrew nephesh) from the power of the grave, for he will receive me”, (NKJV).

C.  (:22) Existential Philosophy is the Best One Can Hope for Under the Sun

And I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his

activities, for that is his lot.  For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”

Application: We have no need to be anxious or cynical because God holds the future in His hands and will establish righteousness.