God Over All, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of Ecclesiastes.  We are in the first section of chapter 3, which speaks of the rhythms of life, all of which are under God’s control, not ours.

Solomon says…

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.

It is obvious from these verses that we live in a world of changing.  Everything around us, including ourselves, we are changing; but God does not change.

The author of Hebrews says about Jesus:

10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, 12 like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” 

God is always the same and He controls the seasons and the times.  Therefore, we are to pay attention to the seasons and the times.

What Paul says in Ephesians is useful for our understanding of using time correctly:

15 Look carefully then how you walk (that is, “pay attention to how you live),” not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 

Every man is to consider himself as a particular object of God’s providence, under the same care and protection of God as if the world had been made for him alone.  It is not by chance that any man is born at such a time, of such parents, and in such place and condition…Every soul comes into the body at such a time and in such circumstances by the express designment of God, according to some purposes of His will and for some particular ends.  (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 322)

Now, as we look at this poem again, we need to remember that it is a poem about life in a fallen world.

That is not to say that the actions listed here are always or inherently evil.  For example, those who claim that killing, war, and hatred are always evil have not carefully read their Bibles.  As we mentioned last week, the Bible contains regulations for capital punishment, examples of just wars, laws on sacrificing animals, and exhortations to hate what God hates.

But after verse 2 introduces the beginning and end (birth and death), the rest of the poem follows with a summary of everything in between those two times within the context of a fallen world.  Words such as kill, weep, mourn, hate, and war, as well as the reality of death, did not exist before Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  

So we should read this poem, in part, as a sad poem—a reminder of paradise lost.  We also take the promises of Revelation 21:3–4—“ “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”—to cover all the former realities of the curse in play here.

Last week we talked about the contrasts in vv. 2-3, reminders of how life is a series of beginnings and endings.  We like beginnings, don’t we?  Endings are frequently quite sad.

The vital thing is for us to submit to the moment (remember that “time” here in v. 1 is understood to be “opportunities”) and respond appropriately as God guides us through life.

Verse 4 runs the gamut of human emotions.

…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Have you ever laughed at the wrong moment?

Ray Stedman speaks of being at a funeral when he was younger and the leader asked everyone present to stand up on their feet.  One of his friends whispered to him, “What else could you stand on?”  He broke up—wrong place, wrong time.

We’ve all done things like that.

Solomon says, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.”  Sign me up for laughter, I enjoy doing that.  But I don’t like weeping, or the time that produces weeping.

But there is a time to weep, in fact grieving is quite normal and natural and right when we’ve lost someone or something important to us.  Pete Scazzero talks about this in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church.  He notes that we grieve because of losses—losing a loved one, a job, our health, a marriage, a prodigal child.  All of these are appropriate times to grieve.

What God doesn’t want us to do is to reduce the pain in our lives through distractions or addictions.  Scazzero says…

In our culture, addiction has become the most common way to deal with pain.  We watch television for hours to not feel.  We keep busy, running from one activity to another.  We work 70 hours a week, indulge in pornography, overeat, drink, take pills—anything to help us avoid the pain.  Some of us demand that someone or something (a marriage, sexual partner, an ideal family, children, an achievement, a career, or a church) take our pain away.

Jesus told his disciples

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21)

Joy and laughter will be one of the outstanding qualities of heaven, when God “wipes every tear from our eyes.”

It is healthy to laugh, when the moment is right, and it is healthy to grieve when the time comes.

Paul tells us in Romans 12 to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.”  So not only our joys and losses need appropriate responses, but the joys and losses of others.

No one is going to escape the hurts and sorrows of life, because God chose them for us.  The proof of this is seen in the life of God’s own Son, who was called a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

But Jesus also celebrated the wedding at Cana in Galilee.  He entered into the joys and laughter of that moment.

Are we to “stay on an even keel” and not feel these things, or like Jesus to enter into both the griefs and joys of life, when appropriate?

Solomon matches the times of weeping and laughing with the next phrase, “a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

This may just be expressing the same realities—weeping and laughing, with more intense, physical expressions.  Mourning in the Scriptures was attended by tearing one’s clothes and heaping ashes over one’s head.  It involved loud wailing.

Laughter can be expressed by joyous dancing.  Now, I really don’t think Solomon had in mind the kind of dancing we see today at Proms or bars.  It expresses more what David did when the Ark was delivered into Jerusalem.  It is more a spontaneous, physical expression of deep gladness.

Verse 5 is difficult to interpret.  Solomon says, “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.”  It seems out of place in the more relational/emotional expressions in vv. 4 and 5.

Some believe that this points to the need to remove stones (by gathering them) from a field in order to plant and harvest crops, while scattering stones was an act done by an enemy.  When a tribal area or nation was conquered, the conquering nation would scatter rocks around the field to sterilize it.

When Moab came against Israel in the days of Jehoshaphat, the LORD told Jehoshaphat that He would give the Moabites into their hands “and you shall attack every fortified city and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree and stop up all springs of water and ruin every good piece of land with stones” (2 Kings 3:19).  And v. 25 tells us that they did this.

On the other hand, the Midrash Qoheleth Rabbah explains a time to cast away stones as a metaphor implying the act of marital intercourse, and a time to gather stones as meaning that there is a time for refraining from this act.  This does fit the relational context we see in the rest of vv. 4 and 5.

Paul himself makes this point in 1 Corinthians 7.

2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 

In marriage our bodies belong to each other (of course, first to the Lord) and we are not to deprive one another.  However, “by agreement for a limited time” there are legitimate reasons to abstain.

Of course, these sexual relations were designed by God to take place within the boundaries of marriage (Genesis 2:24).  For all who are not married, God mandates abstinence, as affirmed in the sixth commandment, which prohibits adultery and fornication (pre-marital sex).

The parallelism between the two parts of verse 6 are evident.  With human undertakings, be sufficiently realistic about life to know that some projects may be worth pursuing for possible future benefits, while others should be dropped, no longer being worth the effort.

a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

This verse is why we have garage sales, right?  Instead of being pack rats and hoarders, we need to divest ourselves of things we no longer use or which hinder us from following the Lord’s calling.

We need to realize that changes will happen in our lives.  Instead of trying to hold onto to everything from the past, there are times we need to let go.  Some relationships may need to be let go of.  Definitely some habits and attitudes need to go—especially resentments and grudges.

Let it go!  Let it go!

There is a time to seek friends and a time to lose friends.  God is the only constant.

There is a time to keep things and a time to throw them away.  The Word of God is what we need most.

Verse 7 then says…

a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

The actions in v 7a seem to be independent of v 7b; the context changes from the domestic use of clothes to speech.

Anyone who has sewn knows that there are times, maybe many times, for ripping out stitches and starting over.  Maybe this part of verse 7 is just reminding us to use our heads at work, to apply ourselves to the right task at the right time.

One of the most salient statements of this chapter is that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

Is it fair today to say that people don’t know when to shut up?  That many people think they have a right to spew whatever is on their minds?  People use social media today to say (or generally repeat) things they haven’t thought through or jump in to a conversation without really understanding what the other person is saying.

Solomon says, there is a “time to keep silence.”  Even if everyone is begging you to state your thoughts, just keep your mouth shut.

James tells us to be “quick to hear and slow to speak.”  We need to “keep silence” so that we can listen and so that we don’t say ignorant things.

But believe me, there is “a time to speak” as well.  We do have to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to speak against injustices.  But I think silence comes first to show us the need to take time to really study the issues so that we have something worthwhile.

My father used to say, “It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Proverbs warns us about speaking rashly before we’ve given thought.

Proverbs 21:23 says “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

And Proverbs 15:28 says, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.”

Kent Hughes notes:

The true test of a man’s spirituality is not his ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.

Verse 8 then caps off this poetic understanding of time by saying that there is…

8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

In some contexts the love/hate contrast can be an expression for loving something higher.  Jacob didn’t actually hate Leah, but loved Rachel more.  Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to hate father, mother, brother, sister, wife and child, but to love Him more than them.

Here, however, it is parallel to the war/peace contrast.  There is a time to hate—to hate injustice, to hate people being persecuted or senselessly murdered, to hate innocent pre-born children being murdered.

When Abraham Lincoln first saw human beings being sold on the slave blocks in New Orleans, he felt hatred rising up in his heart.  He resolved that if he ever had the opportunity to do something about it, he wouldn’t hesitate.

It is even hard to actually love someone unless we hate the things that harm them—either things that happen to them or the things that they themselves do.

And there is a time to love, to radically love.  There is a time to put all animosity and fear and hurt aside and love.  That is what the prodigal’s father did for both the son who ran away and the son who stayed home.  He didn’t allow the personal slights and terrible insults cause hatred in his heart, but stirred up his heart to love them in their rebellion.

Unfortunately, in time of war we don’t always love or hate the right things.  But the complexities of war doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, even in the midst of war, to love and do what is good and right.

There is a time for war.  There is a time to stand up for what is right and fight for it.  But there is also a time for peace.

We won’t experience total peace until the Prince of Peace returns to establish His kingdom.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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