A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
The book of Ecclesiastes is an in-depth presentation of the contrast between the wisdom of the world that leads to eternal death, and the wisdom of the LORD that leads to eternal life. In the first two chapters, we find the writer is frustrated by the deep immersion in a godless lifestyle practiced by virtually everyone in the society he observes. Having a deep personal understanding and knowledge of the wisdom of the LORD and the folly of worldliness all around him, the writer seeks to illustrate that contrast to that godless community in a way that can bring them to repentance and faith. Up to this point, the writer has been describing the futility, or powerlessness, of all that is done “under the sun,” a metaphor for that which is done without the benefit of a relationship with the LORD. Those who do not know the LORD make their decisions without consideration of His plan for His creation. Knowing the LORD involves seeking the LORD’s wisdom when making the decisions of life. As the world seeks itself to find answers, people of faith can seek the LORD, finding His guidance and direction. Solomon illustrates some of that direction.
Ecclesiastes 3:1. To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
With these words, many will first remember Pete Seeger’s rendition of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in his song, “to Everything There Is a Season” that was most commonly called, “Turn, Turn, Turn” and published in an album by that name released by the Byrds in 1965. It was one of the few pop songs that have ever hit the top of the charts using a significant portion of scripture. The popularity of the song made this passage of scripture familiar to an entire generation. Seeger donated half of the profits from the song to an Israeli benefit organization, citing that he “only wrote six of the words.”
With this line, Solomon starts a poem that develops a context of God’s purpose for mankind. That purpose is based upon a relationship with Him that is also exercised in our relationships with one another. People who base their relationships upon a carnal world view maintain those relationships based primarily on the receipt of personal needs and desires. The LORD bases relationships on His love, and the opportunity that He has to bless those who love Him. One who bases their life on the LORD exercises this foundation for relationships. Where the world stands on immediate gratification, desiring and working for that which can be immediately obtained with little or no thought for the future, or the long term consequences of that gratification, the wisdom of God see’s further. Solomon states that the LORD has a plan for mankind, and every purpose of man (purpose under heaven) has its place when it is exercised in the appropriate setting, and taking place under His sovereignty.
The act of faith involves the complete submission of one’s heart to the supreme authority of God, allowing Him to determine our priorities. The world rejects the sovereignty of God, whereas people of faith appreciate and submit themselves to that sovereignty. When we are submitted to Him, we are willing to allow the events in our lives to take place in His time-table so that His purposes may be accomplished rather than our own. In the next few verses we are introduced to God’s time-table as we submit ourselves to His purpose.
Ecclesiastes 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;
Each numbered verse in the poem is actually two independent lines of poetry, with each structured as a typical Hebrew poetic duplet, but with one unusual characteristic: in Hebrew poetry the two clauses of the duplet usually complement each other, together building a single, larger, idea. In this poem the two clauses of the duplet describe opposite sides of a conceptual spectrum, allowing the reader to consider the range of application that stands between them.
Solomon begins with the very foundational events of the human condition: life and death. God has a plan for mankind that involves His unique work in both birth and death. In and of itself, birth is a miracle of God’s design that simply cannot be replicated. God is the One author of life and He is fully and uniquely sovereign over it. The only interaction that man has with the miracle of life is to exercise his worldly bent to sin, as he finds pleasure in killing. However, murder is not God’s plan, but man’s. The act of abortion does not abrogate God’s sovereignty over the miracle of life: it is simply the expression of man’s rebellion against it. Human life starts at conception, and from that moment forward, the forming embryo is a miracle of God’s sovereignty, and a part of His eternal plan.
Likewise, God’s plan for life on this earth includes its timely end. It is appointed unto every person to die, and then face the judgment of the LORD. Actually, the judgment has already been made by the individual who has embraced their desire to reject the LORD or to turn to Him in faith, a decision usually made long before the event of death. The choice of where one will spend eternity is not made by the LORD, it is made by the individual.
Though we read of ancient patriarchs who seemed to have lived for a very long time, the time period that is assigned to each of our lives is quite relative. Whether we live 900 years, or 9 days in utero, God’s plan for a finite life-span cannot be changed. We will never make our selves immortal. Though man, through murder can terminate a life on this earth, only God can breathe His life into the heart of man, and only God can take that life and fulfill it with an eternal reward at death. This is a fundamental part of God’s plan, and is empowered by His complete sovereignty over man.
In addition to God’s sovereignty and plan for human life (and contextually the life of all fauna), He is also sovereign over the life and death cycle of plant life (all flora). The ancients were close to the soil: they were agrarian societies that were skilled in the planting and harvesting of all manner of grasses, fruits, vegetables, etc. The timing of planting and harvest is established by the seasons, over which man has no control. Likewise, man cannot create the life that is in the flora. He can only respond to God’s plan and work with it if he wants a harvest. Like human and animal life, all plants go through a birth and death process, and man is dependent upon that process in order to make use of them. Man did not determine this schedule: it is entirely determined by “nature:” the collective set of environmental events that are determined by God alone.
Similar in theology to the first two chapters, Solomon exposes the pride of man, a pride that drives him to believe that he is sovereign over creation, and illustrates that it is truly God who is sovereign. Only God has ultimate power over life and death, and that sovereignty extends to every living thing on earth.
Ecclesiastes 3:3. A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
The Hebrew word that is translated “kill” in this verse is not the same word as that is translated “murder.” There are times and situations where the taking of life is a part of God’s purpose. The Old Testament historical accounts provide plenty of testimony that illustrates such death, and most of these cases it involves the death of one or more people who are so immersed in sin that they are a threat to the lives of others. Essentially, the taking of life is justified only when it is part of God’s plan, and the biblical examples always involve taking a stand against otherwise unstoppable, destructive, evil. Opposing evil may include participation in a just war, or the implementation of capital punishment. It may include the spontaneous taking of life from one who is in the act of committing a capital crime. The sole justification for the termination of life is found in the heart and word of God, as He promises to protect the faithful. It is God who gives life, and unless He is integrally involved with the ending of that life, His sovereignty over that life is denied, and the act of killing is an act of murder.
Just as the LORD is sovereign over the appropriate time and place for the taking of life, He is also sovereign over its restoration. The word that is translated “heal” does not refer to the healing of physical disease or illness, but due to this literary model, to the opposite of death. The word, “death” literally refers to a separation rather than annihilation. Consequently, the opposite of death is the restoration of the separation that comes from death. God is sovereign over both physical healing and spiritual restoration. Man can observe and interact with these events, but he cannot cause them.
Ecclesiastes 3:4. A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
The secular and pagan world view often stands completely opposed to the plan and purpose of God. Clearly having established that this discussion is referring to the sovereignty of God as Solomon contrasts worldly living with godly living, he promotes the application of the wisdom of God when we experience the circumstances of life. God has created us as emotional and intellectual beings, and our response to the circumstances of life is always determined by a balance of our emotion and intellect. There are times when the expression of grief is very necessary and appropriate in order for our “intellect” to process the circumstances surrounding a sorrowful event. Even secular psychology has embraced the concept of a necessary sequence of grief stages. It is generally understood that going through the grief process is important to our health. This is simply because we are created by the LORD as a social creature, placing into our hearts a need for relationship with others and with Him. When faced with sudden separation or the threat of such separation, grief is normal and appropriate. Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. There are several biblical examples of Jesus weeping.
Likewise, laughter is an important part of God’s design for the emotional, physical, and spiritual welfare of one who is created for relationships with others and with Him. Just as there has been a secular cultural taboo against crying (particularly by men), there has been a similar cultural taboo against the expression of laughter, particularly in the faith community, thinking that laughter might not be reverent. Again, as with sorrow, there are many biblical examples of Jesus’ rejoicing.
As one considers Solomon’s words, and his contrast of worldly and godly views, it is instructive to compare these. For example, laughing at the misfortune of others is not a godly response, but rather feeds the natural sadistic tendencies of sinful man. Early slap-stick comedy and modern television shows such as “America’s Funniest Videos” make millions of dollars in advertising as they showcase the physical misfortune of others, obviously referring to the events as “funny” often inserting a laugh track to add to the deception.
In the same manner, giving up one’s control to one’s emotions is also not a godly response to the circumstances around us. The expression of emotion is extremely important, but to be controlled by them adds this to the list of intoxicants that Solomon has already described in the previous chapters.
There are circumstances where the godly response to the events of our lives include sorrow, laughter, mourning, and dancing. Solomon reminds us that our responses should always be consistent with God’s purpose and plan for our lives.
Ecclesiastes 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;
Using another metaphor from agriculture, Solomon refers to the practice of casting and gathering stones. Farmers who wish to cultivate a field would always do well to clear the field of stones. Farmers who live in northern latitudes with cyclical frost are all too familiar with the necessity to pick rocks from the field every spring as they percolate up with the ebbing frost. The biblical context refers to the clearing of a field as a vineyard is being planted. Solomon is describing situations where preparation for an activity necessitates the removal of something that is impeding that activity. The unwise and lazy farmer will not take the time to prepare the field and suffer the consequences of a broken plow, uneven furrows, and a failure of the crop to thrive. The pagan and secular culture that thrives on immediate gratification seeks to take shortcuts in an attempt to gain a goal quickly and without effort. Throughout a thirty-year career as a university professor, I was chronically disappointed in the amount of effort that the great majority of students put into cheating in an effort to gain a grade without casting away stones. A lazy painter will paint over rust, failing to prepare the surface properly. The consequences of a lack of preparation are obvious.
The contrasting metaphor is the gathering of stones. There were only a few situations in ancient culture where stones were gathered, and they almost always had something to do with building. They built their houses and walls of stone. They built their altars of stone. In order to build a structure, the builder needed to have a large selection of stones at hand in order to be able to select the best shape to fit the constantly changing surface of the unfinished structure. The lazy builder will just use the stones that are close-at-hand and will settle for a loose fit that will soon fall.
In this duplet, Solomon is speaking to the godly wisdom of properly preparing for any task. That which is of true value often requires a sacrifice of time, effort, and resources in order to be successfully and appropriately accomplished. This idea directly contradicts the worldly bent to shortcuts and cheating, behaviors that he sees all around him in the Jewish and pagan cultures.
The second duplet mirrors the casting away and gathering of stones as it refers to those things that we cling on to, and those things we let go of. We see a similar casting and gathering metaphor in the two duplets. What are some of the things that we tend to cling on to? Those without the LORD will search for things that they can place their trust into such as a horde of possessions, a big house, a big bank account, or any other of a myriad of substitutes for a relationship with God. Or, people may cling onto worldly principles that are contrary to God’s word. They may cling on to relationships that are ungodly and damaging with the hope of retaining something of seeming value that is found in it. However, like the stones that impede the cultivation of the field, these stones that we so vehemently embrace serve to impede our relationship with God and our relationship with others.
Yet, within the scope of God’s plan for us, there are things that we are to cling to. Paul states this truth when he admonishes the Romans to “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.” The word that is translated “cleave” is similar to the word used by Solomon for “embrace,” and refers to an extremely tight hold. The idea is simple, and is in complete agreement with this duplet: There are things of God that we can fully embrace. Some examples may be His love as we share it with others, the peace that comes from the assurance of salvation and our relationship with God, and the joy we receive as we recognize the blessings that God brings into our lives. Likewise people of faith are empowered to abhor that which is evil as the Holy Spirit illuminates its true nature, leading us to “refrain from embracing.”
Ecclesiastes 3:6. A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
One of the characteristics the natural human condition is a zeal to acquire. The variety of things that we horde is beyond imagination. Advertisers are quite successful in their never-ending barrage of messages that serve to convince people of their need for their products. Shopping is the favorite pastime of many people. Virtually any object that we own has collectors who horde them, whether it be antiques, baseball cards, stamps, dolls, and the list is virtually endless.
For many people, the acquisition of physical property is their primary priority as they work endless hours, neglecting their family, neglecting the LORD, and are consumed by their career. Somehow, they seem to think that they will be happier if they make more money, and buy more things. Many of our homes are filled with far more stuff than we need, and some revert to renting storage spaces to keep from discarding unneeded items.
As Solomon stated in the earlier chapters, human nature does not change. As he observed the culture around him, he notes the same obsession with accumulating. If we appropriate godly wisdom, we will find our priorities changing concerning the accumulation of unneeded items. Solomon notes that there is value in having the things we need, but there is also value in refraining from gathering those things we do not. Likewise, there is wisdom in ridding ourselves of personal belongings that compromise our relationship with others and our relationship with the LORD.
An example of this is when we borrow money to purchase what we really do not need. Once the loan has been taken, we must repay it with money that we did not have in the first place, and the burden of payment often interferes with the proper stewardship of the money we do have. When borrowed money begins to make decisions for us, it has become an idol that we would be better to cast away.
Ecclesiastes 3:7. A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
To rend something is to tear it apart, rendering it unusable. There are times when destroying something is appropriate, such as is done in reconstruction, remodeling, surgery, and any of a myriad other situations where it is necessary to tear something down before it can be rebuilt. The word used for “rend” is also commonly used to describe the traditional practice of ancient Jews of tearing their clothing as a public expression of grief.
However, the natural human condition also seems to have a bent for destruction simply for no other reason than to find some form of base enjoyment in the act. We like to watch fires, to blow things up, knock things down, etc. Much of gang violence and mob action involves destroying things. Such destruction that fails to serve the purposes of God, and are not led of the Holy Spirit are clearly tools of the evil one as he uses man’s base desires to kill, steal, and destroy. Like many of the points that Solomon is raising in this poem, it is always wise to consider if an act is led of the Holy Spirit, or led of our own base desires. When it is led of the Holy Spirit, it is time to rend.
The act of sewing carries the idea of putting things together, the opposite of rending. The LORD is a LORD of reconciliation, and the Holy Spirit leads people of faith to be reconcilers who defend the defenseless and stand against injustice. It is often through the ministry of reconciliation that people of faith find that they are engaged in Solomon’s time to sew.
The second duplet of this verse may bring to mind the discussion on the vagaries of the tongue that is presented by the writer of the book of James, as he refers to the tongue as a fire. There are also several biblical descriptions of how a fool is exposed by his words. Controlling what we say may be one of the hardest behaviors to bring under the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, Solomon knows the damage, destruction, and broken relationships that come from godless chatter and prideful expression, and reminds us that the Holy Spirit can guide us to discern when it is appropriate for us to remain quiet and when it is appropriate for us to speak.
Ecclesiastes 3:8. A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
Likewise, there is an opportunity for us all to discern the wisdom of the LORD when it comes to the emotions that we tie to our relationships. Hate is another destructive behavior of natural man who is driven by personal pride. Such behavior promotes bigotry and the denigration of others, fails to serve the purposes of God, but rather serves the purposes of the prince of darkness. However, there are times when it is godly to stand against those who would work to destroy the works of God. God would not have us stand idly by while those around us are being killed and abused by godless people. When people choose violence and abuse against others, they also choose for themselves the consequences for those actions, and sometimes justice demands their removal from the situation by any appropriate means, including violence and war.
For example, if an individual were to enter the room where we hold our Bible study class, unaware that I carried a firearm, and started shooting people in the room, I would not hesitate for a moment to use the firearm to dramatically disable the shooter. There is a time for war, and that time is illustrated by this hypothetical case: the cessation of the shooter’s action is an act of love for those whom he is attacking, not an act of hate against him.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-10. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? 10I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
In these few poetic verses, Solomon has describe the bulk of the behaviors that are common to man, and notes that each has the capacity to either bless or curse. Blessing is found when these behaviors are expressed under the discernment and personal authority of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, when he observes the world around him he does not seem to witness this discernment. As he states in the earlier chapters, “What is the profit in what you are doing?” What is ultimately gained when our behaviors are expressed in a carnal, self-serving, and ungodly manner? Solomon notes that there is only one ultimate consequence of this type of behavior: travail. Those who choose to establish their priorities on carnal motives find only suffering, both in this world, and ultimately in their choice of where they will experience eternity. Solomon declares that as they think they are making great gains and profit from their behavior, it is only temporal, short-lived, and carnal. They will have received all of the reward for their behavior on this side of death.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-11. 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.
Sin serves to make the world a very ugly place, and the more we see sin expressed in society, the uglier it gets as peace gives way to violence and conflict, security gives way to insecurity, etc. However, we may be reminded that when the LORD performed His act of creation, He referred to it as good. What God created is a blessing for all to experience and share. Everything in creation is beautiful when observed though the heart of God. It is sin that debases the beauty of God’s work and declares it ugly. However, Solomon notes that God has given to each person the capacity to observe his world and, without a relationship with Him, simply cannot see that beauty. To those who do not have a relationship with God, the world is indeed an ugly place since for them it is within the realm and under the powerless authority of the prince of darkness, satan. Solomon has a close relationship with God, and sees the beauty in everything around him and desires that others would see this too.
Ecclesiastes 3:12-15. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. 13And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. 14I 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. 15That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
As a result of his contrasting the vanity of worldly living with the blessings and purposes of godly living, he states that the latter is the only good that can come out of man. That is, the only true goodness, the only true purpose that can come out of man is the fruit of a sincere relationship with the LORD, evident in his rejoicing and being continually engaged in godly actions. It is God’s purpose that He would bless His people, and when the “eat and drink” and the “good of his labor” is exercised in a godly way, it is a gift of the LORD that is to be enjoyed.
God’s purpose to bless people in this way is part of His eternal nature. What God has given can never be taken away. Knowing this, one can celebrate their faith in God, and our love for God can grow.
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17. And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there. 17I 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’s short poem and the commentary surrounding it is a reference to the behavior of human individuals as well as the culture as a whole. In verse sixteen Solomon turns for a few moments to his observations of the institutions of man, and in particular, the courts and the Temple.
The courts are intended to be a place where justice is served without prejudice. However, when he observes the Jewish court system he finds that, though it is intended to represent the justice of God, it has become an institution that serves “under the sun,” and by so serving has become carnal and wicked. The courts serve to feed the carnal desires of the rich and powerful, as well as a self-serving resource for those who serve in the courts.
Likewise, the Temple is to be a place where the LORD is worshipped and served without the stain of sin or corruption. It is a place where people should feel safe and accepted, a place where the LORD is celebrated. However, when he observes the Jewish Temple, he finds the same situation that he witnesses in the courts: though it is intended to serve the LORD, it has become a place of iniquity. These are clear and harsh words that serve to expose the Temple leadership as well as those who frequent the Temple, illuminating the blatant hypocrisy of their behavior that has no intention of serving God. They are using the Temple and its organization to promote their own carnal desires, a place where their pride can be openly expressed, and those who they despise can be persecuted and rejected.
When he observes the courts and the Temple in the context of the first eight verses of this chapter, it serves as a testimony against them as each of the behaviors described in the poem are found to be carnal and ungodly. He states simply that, though it would be expected that such carnal behavior would be found outside of the courts and the Temple, that “there is a time there”, referring to the courts and the Temple, where every good purpose and every good work should be found.
Just as the LORD will never fail to judge the wicked outside of the courts and the Temple, He will also not fail to judge those who are living carnally in those institutions that God has ordained for His good purpose.
Ecclesiastes 3:18-21. 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. 19For 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. 20All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Having observed the state of man, Solomon brings the analysis to a resounding conclusion: there is literally no ultimate difference between unregenerate man who chooses to not know God and the beasts of the field who have no capacity to know God. His indictment against those who rebel against the LORD is powerful as he uses a single, yet simple, argument: those who live like beasts will die like beasts. There is no eternal hope for unregenerate man as he has chosen the same path as given to beasts. The only future for these is death.
Solomon is deeply frustrated and deeply troubled by the desperate consequences facing the lost people in the world around him. He states that his deep desire is that the LORD would reveal their “beastly state” to them in a way that would bring repentance. Solomon’s desire is clearly that all people would come to know the LORD as he does, and he is quite aware that, as a single individual, even as the King of Israel, there is very little that he can actually do, other than what he is doing by writing these words.
Ecclesiastes 3:18-21. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? 22Wherefore 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?.
As wise as Solomon may be, even he does not and cannot know the inner heart of a person, or if their profession of faith in God is sincere. Unable to know people’s hearts, and unable to change them, he simply expresses his deep desire that people would come to know the LORD and experience true joy, and true purpose in the works of their lives.
As we consider Solomon’s presentation in this chapter, we all have the opportunity to discern whether the activities and attitudes, together the works of our lives, are vain or empowered. What we do out of selfish and carnal motives is vain, producing no meaningful work. However, that which we do out of a discernment and obedience to the Holy Spirit produces meaningful work that has rich rewards in this life as well as the next. The choice is ours. It is obvious that if Solomon were to be able to communicate with us today, he would encourage us to turn from the vanity of carnal living and turn to the blessings of a LORD-centered life. Actually, Solomon probably had no idea that, when he wrote these words, he would be doing this exact thing.
There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Let us redeem that time for God’s purposes.
 Matthew 6:33, e.g.
 Hebrews 9:27.
 Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-04015-9. Stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance.
 Isaiah 53:3.
 John 11:35; Luke 19:41; Hebrews 5:7.
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 John 10:10.
 James 3:5-6.
 Proverbs 21:20; Ephesians 10:12-14, e.g.
 Matthew 6:2-5, 16, e.g.
 Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.
 Colossians 4:5.