By Aaron Wilson
If your church members know any part of Ecclesiastes by heart, there’s a good chance it comes from chapter three, a passage that famously begins, “to every thing there is a season.”
In the 1960s, this chapter of Scripture inspired the lyrics to the hit song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Today, similar verses from Ecclesiastes 3 adorn wall art, are found in titles of well-known books such as John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” and are readily shared by believers and nonbelievers alike on social media.
But despite its popularity, Ecclesiastes 3 may also be one of the most misunderstood sections of the Bible. This is because people often interpret the chapter as containing reassuring news about the balanced nature of the universe. But really, the chapter is more of a lament, one that points to the need for Christ.
Solomon’s Grievance With Life
At its core, Ecclesiastes describes the brutal reality of life under the curse. It’s strange therefore, when people describe chapter 3 as comforting and uplifting when Solomon says in the same book that life is wearisome (1:8), miserable (1:13), and distressing (2:17).
Given these gloomy descriptors, why is Ecclesiastes 3 so popular? Part of it likely comes from the poetic beauty Solomon uses in the first half of the chapter to juxtapose life circumstances. “There’s a time to give birth and a time to die,” he writes, “a time to plant and a time to uproot.”
Solomon goes on to pair other activities such as weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, and war and peace. He then summarizes the list by writing, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time.”
People often quote this chapter of Ecclesiastes at funerals and memorial services. But while it’s true God sovereignly works all things together for the good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28), people who seek to find solace from Ecclesiastes 3 are missing the author’s point.
Solomon didn’t pen the words, “to everything there is a season,” to provide a grateful tribute to a balanced universe—a philosophy that more closely resembles some eastern religions or “the force” from Star Wars than it does Scripture. No, Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes 3 to lodge a complaint he had with a world he saw as meaningless.
Vanity Under the Sun
Solomon begins Ecclesiastes with the blunt statement, “Absolute futility! Everything is futile.” He then spends the next 12 chapters of his book systematically unpacking the meaninglessness of life under the sun.
One of Solomon’s greatest frustrations with the world is the prevalence of death and how it infuses vanity into life’s pursuits and activities. His goal therefore in writing, “there’s a time to die” isn’t to inspire comfort. Instead, he’s declaring death a plague—a fate no person escapes because, under the curse, there’s sadly a time for it.
But Solomon doesn’t stop there. Ecclesiastes 3 documents several other activities brought on by the fall. His list of grievances includes weeping, mourning, the hatred of people, war, and counting things as lost.
Given the reality of such brokenness, Christians should be leery of using the phrase, “there’s a time for everything” as encouragement. Instead, they should read Solomon’s words and respond, “Oh man, there really is a time for sin and suffering in this world. Who can save us from this futile way of living?”
The answer, of course, is Christ.
Two Kings—Two Statements
One of the most beautiful promises in the Bible comes in Revelation 21:4 which speaks of Christ wiping away every tear from the eyes of the saints. John describes this future moment of restoration by writing, “Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.”
This passage is the glorious response to Solomon’s complaint about the fall in Ecclesiastes 3. Israel’s former king can only document the effects of the curse and grieve. The Church’s forever King says, “there will no longer be any curse” and celebrates (Revelation 22:3).
The worldwide problem Solomon painstakingly presents in Ecclesiastes 3 finds its decisive solution in Christ’s gospel—His resurrection serving as a promise of an eternal era where there will no longer be a time or place for sin and suffering.
Point Your People to the Gospel
As you teach Ecclesiastes to your congregation, help them see Solomon is exactly right; there is—in the present state of the world—a season for everything. But also lead your church to understand that real comfort doesn’t come from embracing “balance” or finding one’s place in the “circle of life.”
The gospel isn’t an observation that says, “good or bad—there’s a proper time for everything.” It’s a story of good news that says sin and death will be defeated for all time and that righteousness will reign forever in Christ.
Use this truth to help your people understand the famous lines of Ecclesiastes 3 in light of the good news of Jesus.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.