Notes for a lesson on Ecclesiastes. As with everything, feel free to use, rework, et cetera. The notes are 31 single space pages long, so they will be posted in sections:
LESSON ON ECCLESIASTS 3:1-8
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 (ESV)
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
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;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
I. The Preface to the Poem:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
Like some much in Ecclesiastes, there are translation questions. This happens because (1) much of the language is vernacular: that is, it reads like a transcript of what someone said, not what one would write. Writing tends to be more formal and careful. When speaking, we use words in ways that may not use them when writing. (2) He is also pushing around the way we think.
1. There is a season
This word means an appointed time (see the NET, “For everything there is an appointed time”). It is a very ancient word, however, other than in Ecclesiastes, it only shows up in the Post-Exilic books (Esther, Nehemiah). Thus while it may indicate that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon – it may actually mean the opposite.
2. A time for every matter
a. The word “matter” usually means a “delight”. The translators are not quite sure what to do with this word: “Matter”, ESV & NRSV; “Activity”, NIV 84, NET, HCSB; “Purpose”, NKJV, KJV.
b. Fredricks writes, ““Predominately in the OT hepes reflects a positive emotional state, thus ‘pleasure, delight’. There are instances where, more neutrally, the pursuit of a desire, a ‘preference, choice,’ is meant; for example, Judg. 13:23 [etc]. Both meanings appear in Ecclesiastes: probably ‘pleasure,” is meant in 5:4 and 12:1, 10. However, where the context is hardly positive, the more basic meaning of a preference or choice, whether causing pleasure or not, is the obvious intent. Thus, here in 3:1 and 3:17, ‘choice’ is preferred, since killing, weeping, mourning, hate, war and injustice could hardly be a delight” (Fredricks, 108).
B. What does it mean?
1. The first word means that someone is determining the schedule of events. Who? Does this mean that we humans should determine the right time to do things? Does God determine the times for life?
2. The second word “time” can mean both a “time” which God has scheduled (Eccl. 3:17) and a “time” can “also refer to those decisions for which the person is held accountable as vice-sovereign over God’s world, and which are calculated by human experience and wisdom” (Fredricks, 114). He gives examples of Neh. 2:6 & Eccl. 8:5-6.
3. The Plans of God and Man
a. Who’s in Charge?
The Biblical texts present an interesting combination of human and divine interaction. Human beings have complete volition: they may do what they want to do. And yet, God exercises complete sovereignty over all creation. The place in which the human interacts with the divine presents one of the most difficult areas of theology and philosophy (as in the Incarnation). Consider the following passages:
b. Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps
c. Proverbs 21:1–7 (ESV)
1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. 2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart. 3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. 4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. 5 The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty. 6 The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death. 7 The violence of the wicked will sweep them away, because they refuse to do what is just.
d. Acts 2:22–28 (ESV)
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him, “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
e. Proverbs 21:31 (ESV)
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.
f. What does this mean as a practical matter? Is this just a matter of interesting speculation, or does it affect the way in which we lead our lives?
4. The Commentators
The commentators are all agreed that the point of vv. 1-8 is that God is sovereignly over control of all things:
Time operates under God’s creative fiat. He ordained the sun, moon, and stars in their courses for the purpose of measuring off seasons, months, days, and years (Gen. 1:14). The orderliness of time reflects the Creator’s orderliness (Barrick, Ecclesiastes, 64).
Koheleth is confirming his assertion, made in the last chapter, that wisdom, wealth, success, happiness, etc., are not in man’s hands, that his own efforts can secure none of them—they are distributed at the will of God. He establishes this dictum by entering into details, and showing the ordering of Providence and the supremacy of God in all men’s concerns, the most trivial as well as the most important.
Ecclesiastes, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 59.
II. THE TIMES AND SEASONS OF LIFE. 1. Appointed by and known only to God. As in the material and natural world the Creator hath appointed times and seasons, as, e.g., to the heavenly bodies for their rising and setting (Ps. 104:19), to plants for their growing and decaying (Gen. 8:22; Numb. 13:20; Judg. 15:1; Jer. 1:16; Mark 11:13), and to animals for their instinctive actions (Job 39:1, 2; Jer. 8:7), so in the human and spiritual world has he ordained the same (Acts 17:26; Eph. 1:10; Titus 1:3); and these times and seasons, both in the natural and in the spiritual world, hath God reserved to himself (Acts 1:7). 2. Unavoidable and unalterable by man. As no man can predict the day of his death (Gen. 27:2; Matt. 25:13), any more than know beforehand that of his birth, so neither can he fathom beforehand the incidents that shall happen, or the times when they shall fall out during the course of his life (Prov. 27:1). Nor by any precontriving can he change by so much as a hair’s breadth the place into which each incident is fitted, or the moment when it shall happen.
Learn: 1. The changefulness of human life, and the duty of preparing wisely to meet it. 2. The Divine order that pervades human life, and the propriety of accepting it with meekness. 3. The difficulty (from a human point of view) of living well, since no man can be quite certain that for anything he does he has found the right season. 4. The wisdom of seeking for one’s self the guidance of him in whose hands are times and seasons (Acts 1:7).
Ecclesiastes, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 68.
The main point of this poem is that God has established periods, moments, or times for a wide variety of emotions and activitites. The following verses describe Qohelet’s reaction to these observations. Longman, Ecclesiastes, 118
Within 3:2-8 lie examples of these decisions that must be made by those who are good in God’s eyes, using the wisdom God gives them but realizing that the end of the matter is always the end of one matter is always the beginning of that which will have another end. It is not only the wisdom literature that maintains that there is a meaningful obligation to choose righteousness or the way of wisdom; it is a presupposition of the whole OT’s covenantal relationship between the individual, community and God. Fredricks, 114.
Like the events of nature, all human actions are predetermined by God. All man’s activity is therefore useless – including the search for ultimate truth, which God has hidden from His creatures. Kohelth reverts to his main theme – the only reasonable goal for man is the enjoyment of pleasure, which is the gift of God (Gordis, 154-155).
Time is a common topos in wisdom writings: the right word at the right time was the ideal (Prov 15:23; 25:11). Ben Sira discusses the subject at great length (Sir 3:2–8; 39:16, 21, 34; καιρός occurs about sixty times in the Greek text). Qoheleth comes back again to the question of time in 3:17; 8:5–6, 9, and especially the “falling time” in 9:11–12. The antitheses in vv 2–8 deliberately exclude one another, and every activity is tied to a specific time (K. Galling, ZTK58  1–15).
W. Zimmerli understands 3:1ff. as continuing a theme already present in 2:24–26 (the propitious time). However, the mood and emphasis of 3:1ff. are quite different; time is something determined by God and a mystery to humans who are involved in it.
Roland Murphy, vol. 23A, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 33.
C. Qoheleth’s explanation of the poem are given in vv. 9-15, which we will examine next.
 Kelley ties the matter of God’s sovereignty and control to the matter of God’s beauty. An issue, which we cannot take up here.