If you are like me, it is difficult to read the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3 without hearing the Byrds’ song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” It is interesting because whether or not people know it, many of the phrases from the chorus of that song are taken right from this passage. The basic idea is that there is a time for everything.
As we read verses 1-8, we get a collage of life: of working and playing, giving and taking, building and tearing down. The message that everything in life has its own time is simple enough to understand. But is there a deeper meaning to the activities and cycles in verses 1-8? Yes, I believe that there are two primary lessons that we can take from this list of activities and the way they are sequenced:
- The world is constantly changing. Therefore we need to be adaptable to our surroundings. This includes our living conditions, relationships with family members alive and passed, and changes in those things that are familiar and within which we take comfort. Familiarity is comfortable, but a reliance on our physical surroundings will ultimately end in disappointment as things and people will always and inevitably change. It is best to put our heaviest focus on God and make it our primary goal to please Him with the activities of our lives. Nostalgia has a powerful pull, but what is at the end of following our past? Where will it lead? People, jobs, material things, and familiar places will all eventually let us down. Why not then take the suggestion of wise Solomon and place the primary trust of our lives in Almighty God?
- With these activities occurring and taking time out of our lives as the days progress, we realize that the day of our death approaches as well. Since it is in the best interest of our eternal soul to satisfy God’s requirements rather than our own, we should put a higher value in spiritual things rather than physical. After all, the results of our spiritual labor will be considered by God as our eternal fate is decided, and not the results of our physical labor.
Verses 9-15 rest on the statements made in the previous verses, and the conclusions taken in the two points above are not altogether different from what we see in verses 9-15, but there are some subtle differences. First, we should recognize that there is goodness in taking pride in, and in enjoying the fruits of our labor. Our best course is to work hard and reap the benefits of our work, but to do it in the proper context, recognizing that God is the author of eternity and should be guiding our steps in this temporary life. After all, verse 11 tells us that God has put eternity in our hearts. This means that we cannot be satisfied by the things of this world; our eternal spirits yearn for something deeper, something that only our Creator can provide. Live well, work hard, and enjoy your pay, yes, but also give thanks to God and work even harder to please Him! Our work should be pleasing to Him and there should also be primary efforts to please Him outside of our vocation, whatever that may be. Pleasing Him needs to be our goal if we are to detect and receive true fulfillment in this life.
As a final point for this section, the contrast is provided that what we do is temporary and passing away, but the work of God endures forever.
Verses 16-22 are interesting in that they make two comparisons. The first comparison is in verses 16 and 17 and here we have the idea that where there ought to be righteousness, there is wickedness. Man, fallen to sin since the garden of Eden, time and again fails to be righteous when given the opportunity. Instead he is selfish and sinful. The resulting condition is judgment, and the righteous will be rewarded as the wicked will be punished.
The second comparison made in verses 18-22 is more specific. This is a comparison made between mankind and the animals. The passage explains how man and animals are the same in that their bodies both return to dust. This fact is a reference to the bigger idea that the efforts we make on earth to improve our physical condition, status, etc., will all vanish and fade away. It may occur during our lifetime, or long after we are gone, but in either case the things of this earth and of this life are temporary. This does not mean that we cannot enjoy them or take time to improve, but our trust ought not to be in physical things, but rather upon the spiritual things of God Almighty.
Another point made between man and animals is the contrast that the animals’ spirit returns to dust while our spirits go upward to God. The eternity in our hearts knows this and we are benefitted when we remember this fact often; we are only here but for a little while, in time we will pass away and meet our Creator on the day of judgment. In the interim, our best course of action, according to wise Solomon, whose wisdom was provided by Almighty God Himself, is to work hard, enjoy the fruits of our labor, but stay spiritually focused on building a home in heaven with our obedience to God and our concentration on spiritual things as the fleeting days pass us by.