By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


I am never comfortable understanding Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1. Verses 9 and 10 should answer my question. Have you any thoughts that would clarify it for me?


Background on Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes is a bit of a conundrum.

The New International Version's (NIV) translation of the opening verses aptly captures the theme of the book.

"Meaningless! Meaningless!"
     says the Teacher.
     "Utterly meaningless!
     Everything is meaningless."

Yet despite this desperate outburst, the Teacher spends the rest of the book encouraging his students to seize the moment and enjoy all aspects of God's good creation. He bases much of his "wisdom" on personal observations. But he also uses short sayings, parables, antitheses, and autobiographical narratives to communicate his message.

The Teacher's basic teaching is that life is futile - it cannot be controlled or harnessed. Efforts to do so are no more effective than chasing the wind. "So don't try," he counsels. Instead, acknowledge that God is in control and that His plan includes keeping people in the dark. People can't change what they can't control, and people don't control God.

It's not a message that is especially endearing to people of faith. Many a scholar has wondered how in the world this book made it into the sacred scriptures. The bottom line, however, is that there is a lot of truth in his words. We might not like to admit some of it, but it doesn't make it any less relevant.

The Teacher was willing to ask the hard questions and to challenge the assumptions of conventional wisdom. Life can be very hard sometimes, he acknowledges. But rather than simply offering some superficial statements on life, he gives great thought to how one can live in such a world.

The Teacher's book is not a book about God. He writes about ideas. Much of his work points to the limits of humankind. Any achievement is temporary; everyone will die; no one will ever figure everything out. This is not cause, however, for throwing life away. Instead, he claims that God wants people to be happy. This is God's gift to people. The pursuit of happiness is doing God's will.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven: (NIV)

This verse is followed by examples of fourteen activities, grouped in seven pairs, that have a proper time. The Teacher does not attempt to explain why these activities have a proper time, he just states that they do.

The list begins by contrasting life and death, two very individual and personal events. It ends by contrasting war and peace, two very public actions. The Teacher's goal is to cover every aspect of life – every possible activity. Scholars have studied this list for eons and many have waxed eloquently on the meaning of each pair.

But implicit in the list, however, is the affirmation that God is in charge of everything that happens. There is order; life is not random. This assurance is both dependable and disquieting.

Verses 9 and 10

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. (NIV)

These verses (9-15) provide the Teacher's thoughts on the poem in verses 1-8. The main point of the poem is that everything has its own time and place, and that God is in charge of all events. Yet, the Teacher knows that the world doesn't always seem ordered and joy-filled. The questions in verse 9 might be restated this way - Does it really matter what man does, if God is in control?

In verse 10, the Teacher suggests that part of God's plan is to keep people busy in His work. In later verses, the Teacher maintains that people simply cannot fathom what God has in store or what He is doing. So they should enjoy what they can since this is unfathomable. They should concentrate on being happy and doing good. It is part of God's gift to people that they should be happy doing what they are doing, and maybe that is enough.

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