The third chapter is a pivotal one in the overall understanding of the book. Out of the Greek skepticism and despair, a school of teleology began which taught and fought against the doubt and agnosticism current in
the life of the Greeks. The teleologists were looking for something that would bring some sort of order, harmony and purpose to life. If all is vanity and emptiness, it eliminates any purpose for life.
The Jewish view, here in Ecclesiastes, is that there is a beginning to the world and there is a goal for all human history as opposed to the circular view of the skeptics, agnostics and atheists. The message of the skeptic was that “what happens now, doesn’t count.” Or, “what happens today counts for only today.” Solomon is saying that the message from God is that there is purpose for all of human history, not just individually, but collectively, for the human race.
The message here is that what happens now, counts forever. It presupposes that there is a forever and that there is Someone, God, who will make certain that everything counts forever. If there is no God, we have no reason to believe that what we suffer or experience in life means anything at all.
In verse one, Solomon states: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die;” (KJV) In this verse, he is introducing “purpose” into the discussion of life. However, he also adds the phrase “under heaven.” The Tanach, a Jewish translation, puts it: “Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven;”.
The word is ‘zaman’ in Hebrew, meaning to ‘fix a time’ or ‘an appointed occasion’. A second word is used, ‘ayth’, a season or a continuation of time. The first could be understood as a ‘moment in time’ and the second word as a ‘continuation’ of time. In other words, there are moments in life that are memorable events in the chronology of life.
Solomon gives several examples following verse one. “A time to be born” and “a time to die.” In between these special events, is a chronology of one’s life and there are specific things that happen between these two poles of life that are of great significance, such as starting kindergarten, graduation, marriage, having children, your occupation, etc. The author is simply saying that all along the chronology of your life, certain events stand out as being important—they have meaning and purpose.
The Greeks would also use two separate words for this passage: “chronos” which means simply, normal, moment by moment, hour by hour passing of time. The wristwatch is technically called a chronometer. It is something that measures chronos, or time. Chronology gives an order of sequences; a chronicle records patterns of movement in history. It denotes a space of time, whether short (Mt 2:7; Lu 4:5), or a succession of times; shorter (Acts 20:18), or longer (Rom 16:25). It is the duration of a period of time.
The second word translated as “time”, is “kairos”, which means a moment in time that is of special significance for time. It is a moment that the chronology beforehand moves toward and then all time subsequent to that moment is defined and conditioned by. We seldom think of time in abstract or technical terms but the critical moments in the chronology of our life define who we are.
One very significant event in the history (chronology) of time is the crucifixion of Christ. We measure and understand time in the Western world with the letters B.C. and A.D. That moment tells us that something of such great importance in history happened in a moment of time that defines everything that comes after it. That is an understanding of the significance of “kairos”.
Broadly speaking, ‘chronos’ expresses the duration of a period, ‘kairos’ stresses it as being marked by special features. In Acts 1:7 “And He said unto them, ‘it is not for you to know the times (chronos) or the seasons (kairos), which the Father hath put in His own power.” It could be said that chronos marks the quantity of time and kairos the quality of time.
The Hebrew view of time is linear, as opposed to the circular view of the humanist. The whole battle between secular humanism and Christianity is the battle between the circle and the line. This battle should bring us to an “either/or” contemplation and consideration of these two opposing philosophical schemes. We must either embrace full orbed(spherical) theism, or we must accept utter nihilism (rejection of social mores and a belief that nothing is worthwhile) the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. He was part of the philosophical roots of the Third Reich.
When examining these two principles of life, and if we are thinking consistently, embracing nihilism and rejecting Christianity is a total cop-out by the people who would have their cake and eat it too. Ponder for a moment the utter folly of nihilism or humanism. Such philosophers teach that man is nothing more than a cosmic accident with no inherent dignity, meaning or purpose in this cosmos (under the sun). He is moving toward total annihilation and his origin and destiny have no significance.
And yet, these people plead for human rights and dignity between the time of being born and dying. While man is alive, they say, he is important, has esteem and dignity and counts for something. However, if his ‘existence’ before birth and his ‘existence’ after death are meaningless, how can they say that their lives are significant? It becomes a total mythology. We must have a view of life that includes the God Who is above the sun and Who brings meaning and purpose to the lives of those whom He created.
The Existentialists, those who do not believe in a Hebrew or Christian God, at least at times are honest enough to say, with Solomon, that “life under the sun” is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. We should take the nihilist seriously because he understands what is at stake. If there is no God, then life truly is one huge cosmic joke; “a tale told by an idiot.”
In verses 9-15 the author begins a discussion of what is within a person as he goes through life and ultimately confronts eternity. Is there an afterlife? Is it attainable to mankind? He again asks the question concerning the worth of all his toil and notes that it is a “burden that has been laid on men (mankind)”.
Solomon once more “pokes a hole” in the canopy that hides the face of God from the people who are “under the sun”. His next statement is amazing given the tenor of the book thus far. He states that “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time”, which, again, puts life on a linear plane and points out that life can be beautiful. The beauty is due to the times, or events, in life that are full of meaning. Some parts of life can be dull but the outstanding events remain, not as just memories, but as life changing occurrences.
In the same verse, he wants to astound us by stating: “He (God) has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” This statement does not end the mystery of life nor does it attempt to answer all of its questions. In further chapters, he examines some of the harshness of life which is shown in the injustices and inequities displayed in the world. He is not declaring that “life is not fair, get used to it,” rather, he is pointing out that there is a God Who does know the beginning (of our lives) from the end and is prepared to see us through it (See Romans 8:18-29 for a New Testament discussion on this).
The next three verses (12-14) are critical to the understanding of the passage. However, the statements made are not to be interpreted as fatalism. They are a marvelous encouragement to the believer that there is a God who cares and wants the best for His people. On the other hand, this is also not an argument for the prosperity gospel or a reason to believe that this is the sum total of the believer’s life. We can live lives of happiness and joy but also be confident that there is a God to turn to in our darkest hours.
The ultimate purpose for God’s intervention in our lives is given verse 14c “God does it, so men will revere him.” We are able to see some of the grandeur of life and its frustrations, but the complete tapestry and its design escapes us. It is impossible for us to stand back and watch God’s masterpiece. We are on a shuttle as God sends the weft (a filling thread or yarn as in weaving) to us and we launch it back to Him, all the while the tapestry of our lives emits a pattern seen only to Him. It is the Weaver’s warp and woof of our lives as God designs it. It is our catechism at work: “The chief end of man is to love God and to enjoy Him forever”. It is not, ultimately, about us, but about God our Maker. “Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12)
Verses 15-22 casts a shadow over everything we do. All of our plans and enterprises are, at best, temporary; nothing is permanent. God’s agenda needs no corrections, amendments or our vote of approval. Solomon “saw something else under the sun.” The book is the journal of one man and his observations of life. It is not a steady progression of the goodness of God, but one of intermittent experiences of the “good” and “bad” of life, some above the sun and some under the sun.
This whole paragraph speaks like Romans 11:22: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” The earthbound man (under the sun), is a captive of a scheme he cannot fracture or even bend. The author of it is God. The only solution for the unbeliever is to succumb to it because he is incriminated by his actions.
In contrast, the man of God can endure life’s experiences without fear because God is faithful. He can observe all the wickedness that takes place without any judgment and he can also endure wickedness against his person without any misgivings about God. We can note this in the lives of thousands of martyrs throughout history and the ongoing persecution of today’s Christians—all for the cause of Christ. In the end, God will judge “every activity”. He has appointed a proper ‘time’ for His judgment—for both the believer and the unbeliever.
We could ask the question: “Why does God delay His judgment? Wouldn’t the present be the right time for justice? Perhaps the answer is that it is not our duty to teach God His business, but to learn about Who and What He is and who and what we are. We would learn much more about ourselves in our understanding of God. He is holy. We are unholy. We learn about God and ourselves, in the Scriptures, but we are quite slow to learn the lessons. Job argued with his friends until God began to speak to him; Jacob argued with God until God confronted him at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-17). The apostle Paul fought the Lord till he met Him on the road to Damascus in Acts chapter nine.
All who would serve the risen Christ must have an encounter with Him at which time a decision is made to follow and serve without doubt and question. Until then, we are the beasts in the verses 18-21. A better wording would be: “I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing (exposing) them to show them that they are but beasts” (verse 18). “Under the sun”, mankind is not sure where he goes or what happens after death.
Then, in verse 22, Solomon once again pokes a hole in the canopy of existence “under the sun” when he concludes: “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” Answer: God can—and He does. We can understand the plan of God but we cannot predict it in the realities of life. The ultimate foe is death, but for the believer, death is no more than a servant to transport us into the presence of God. Whatever comes our way in blessing or sorrow, we can offer it back to God as a sacrifice of praise to Him.