Biblical Commentary

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13



The book that we know as Ecclesiastes is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as Qoheleth (sometimes spelled Qohelet or Koheleth).

The first verse ascribes authorship to Qoheleth, “the son of David”—leading many to presume that he is Solomon, who wrote the preceding book, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is classified as a Wisdom book.

The word Ecclesiastes is derived from the Greek word, ekklesia. The Hebrew word, Qoheleth, means a person who is qualified to address a public assembly, and the Greek word, ekklesia, means a public assembly. The early church adopted the word ekklesia to speak of the church, the assembly of believers. However, the emphasis in the book of Ecclesiastes is on the wisdom of the one who is qualified to address the public assembly rather than on the assembly itself.

Although the book is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, it appears to have been written later than Solomon’s time—after Aramaic became the common language—”sometime after the sixth century BC” (Horne, 374). There are several reasons to question Solomonic authorship (Longman, 4-9).

• If the author was really Solomon, why would he use the name Qoheleth instead of his own name, Solomon?

• 1:12 says that Qohelet was the king of Israel, as if Solomon had ceased to be king during his lifetime. However, we have no record of any such event, and 1 Kings 11:42-43 suggests that Solomon reigned until his death.

• Ecclesiastes 4:1-3; 5:8-9; and 10:20 do not sound like something that would come from the pen of a mighty king.

• A number of fictional autobiographies from Mesopotamia attributed authorship to someone other than the real author—often to kings—and some scholars believe that this book follows that model.

• The royal attribution might have been intended to lend authority to the book—a common practice in that time and place—or might have been the result of Solomon’s reputation for wisdom.

This book has a dark or cynical character ­­—although Eaton says that the author established the dark character of life without God in 1:1 -2:13 in order to contrast it with the more meaningful life that is possible with God (2:24 – 3:22) (Eaton, 55).

Qoheleth begins by saying “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). While there is a time for everything (3:1), those times are beyond our understanding. Instead of trying to ascertain the meaning of life, we will do better just to seek happiness and to experience the joys of food, drink, and pleasure, which are gifts from God (3:10-15; 9:7-10).

Furthermore, life has a chaotic quality, so that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11).

Death is the inevitable end—and the great equalizer. The day of death is better than the day of birth (7:1) and no one has “power over the day of death” (8:8). “Neither do (the dead) have any more a reward; for their memory is forgotten” (9:5).


1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

2 a time to be born (Hebrew: yalad),,
and a time to die;

a time to plant,
and a time to pluck up that which 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 (Hebrew: libkot),
and a time to laugh (Hebrew: lishoq);

a time to mourn (Hebrew: sapod),
and a time to dance (Hebrew: raqod);

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.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (v. 1). This verse establishes the theme for verses 1-8. There is a time or season for everything, but (as noted above) these times or seasons are largely unknowable.

This verse doesn’t say that God established these times and seasons, but implies it.

“a time to be born (yalad—give birth), and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (v. 2). Eaton makes the point that yalad in this verse is active rather than passive, and therefore should be translated “to give birth” rather than “to be born” (Eaton, 79; see also Garrett, 297). We should also note that “to give birth” serves as an excellent parallel to “to die” and “to plant,” whereas “to be born” does not.

This verse presents two pairs of opposites (born/die—plant/pluck up)—opposites that parallel each other in some way (“give birth” parallels “to plant” and “to die” parallels “to pluck up what is planted”). It thus serves as the model for each of the succeeding verses through verse 8.

The opposites portrayed in this verse (birth/death—plant/pluck up) and the next verse (kill/heal—break down/build up) contrast constructive (birth/plant) and destructive (death/pluck up) actions.

“a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” (v. 3). For many people today, the idea of taking any human life—or of taking any life—is repulsive. The Hebrew Scriptures, however, see things quite differently. Jewish law prescribes the death penalty for various infractions of the law (Exodus 21:14; 22:20; 35:2,, and Yahweh mandated the killing of the inhabitants of the Promised Land (Joshua 6:17, 21; 8:18, 22; et. al.).

Many people of that day regarded illness as a sign of God’s displeasure, and considered it inappropriate to intervene. But Qoheleth says that there is a time to heal (Sibley).

Breaking down (a destructive enterprise) is sometimes a necessary preliminary to building up, and thus can have a constructive character—but some breaking down is simply destructive.

“a time to weep (libkot), and a time to laugh (lishoq); a time to mourn (sapod), and a time to dance” (raqod) (v. 4). Once again, we have two pairs of opposites. These, however, are not destructive/constructive opposites, but are instead emotional opposites—weeping/laughing and mourning/dancing.

Note the similar sounds of the Hebrew words in this verse. The author clearly loves words and the effects that their sounds have on our consciousness.

“a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (v. 5a). There is more than one possible meaning here. The most obvious would be clearing a field of stones (“throw away stones”) to prepare it for agricultural uses and gathering stones together to build a building.

However, the Midrash Rabbah took these phrases to have sexual connotations (a midrash is a rabbinical interpretation of scripture). In this case, “cast away stones” would equate to having sexual relations and “gather stones together” would equate to exercising sexual restraint.

“a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (v. 5b). If verses 5a and 5b are intended to parallel each other, the sexual interpretation of “cast away stones” and “gather stones together” gains credibility from its relationship to verse 5b.

“a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away” (v. 6). Every good investor knows that there is a time to buy and a time to sell. Every good quarterback knows that there is a time to go for the touchdown and a time just to run out the clock. Every good poker player knows that there is a time to hold and a time to fold.

My grandfather, whose experience with the Great Depression made a huge impression on him, saved old nails and screws in an old tin can. He built a rack above his car in the garage to hold pieces of lumber left over from various projects. He was careful to clean his tools so they wouldn’t rust—and to store them in their proper place when they weren’t in use. He never made a lot of money, but he always made enough to add something to his savings every month. In other words, he was careful “to seek” and “to keep.”

But Grandad wasn’t a miser. He bought new cars instead of used. He could always find money to buy his grandchildren an ice cream cone or a candy bar. When there was something special going on in Kansas City, he would take us there and treat us to lunch at a grand cafeteria where desserts were lined up like soldiers on parade. He was a wise man who knew when to save and when to spend—when to hunker down and when to enjoy—when “to seek” and when “to lose”—when “to keep” and when “to cast away.” His wisdom in this respect enriched our lives.

“a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (v. 7). In Biblical times, mourners would tear their garments as a sign of grief. That has led some scholars to believe that the first part of this verse has to do with mourning (“to tear”) and ending the period of mourning (“to sew”—to repair torn garments).

Other scholars question that interpretation—or, at least, counsel against adopting it too dogmatically. One reason is that the second half of this verse seems not to have anything to do with mourning.

However, Job’s friends kept their silence for seven days, “for they saw that (Job’s) grief was very great” (Job 2:13)—so it is quite possible that both parts of this verse have to do with mourning and the cessation of mourning.

“a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (v. 8). Love and hate are personal feelings. War and peace are extensions of those feelings on a national level.

In the second part of this verse, Qoheleth reverses the expected order. If the second half were parallel to the first half, the second half would read, “a time for peace, and a time for war”—but Qoheleth says, “a time for war, and a time for peace.” There are at least two possible reasons for the reversal:

• The first reason would be to place these four qualities in chiastic form, as follows:

A: Love
B: Hate
B’: War
A’: Peace

Chiasmi are a literary form used frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a chiasmus, the movement proceeds in one direction until it reaches a center point and then reverses. In a chiasmus, A parallels A’ and B parallels B’. That is the case in this instance. Love (A) parallels Peace (A’) and Hate (B) parallels War (B’).

However, in a chiastic structure, we typically find the the focus at the center of the chiasmus. If that were the case here, the emphasis would be on hate and war. That hardly seems likely to be the intent.

• The second reason would be to give peace the last word—to emphasize peace rather than war—to end on a high rather than a low note. This seems like the more likely of the two possibilities.


9 What profit has he who works in that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the burden which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 11 He has made everything beautiful (Hebrew: yapeh) in its time. He has also set eternity (Hebrew: ‘olam) in their hearts (Hebrew: leb—hearts), yet so that man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good (Hebrew: asah tobah—to do good) as long as they live. 13 Also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God.

The first eight verses laid out a series of fourteen observable parallels—such as, there is a time to give birth and a time to die. We have seen those, and know that we can expect to see them again. However, the first eight verses simply laid out those observable parallels without comment. There was no mention of a divine hand at work. There was no attempt to consider meaning or purpose.

Verses 9-15 attempt to correct those omissions. Qoheleth speaks of what he has seen (v. 10) and what he knows (v. 12). His commentary is both negative and positive:

• On the one hand, workers gain little or nothing from their toil (v. 9) and we “can’t find out the work that God has done” (v. 11), so it is best not to worry about the meaning or purpose.

• On the other hand, it is still possible to be happy and to enjoy God’s gifts of food, drink, and pleasure (vv. 12-13).

“What profit has he who works in that in which he labors?” (v. 9). While Qohelet doesn’t answer this question, the implied answer is “None!” (Tucker, 60).

Earlier Qoheleth said that his heart had found pleasure in its toil (2:10), but immediately thereafter he said, “Then I looked at all the works that my hands had worked, and at the labor that I had labored to do; and behold, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was no profit under the sun” (2:11).

There are many workers today who agree with this dismal view of work (i.e., the song, “Take this job and shove it!”), but many of us feel quite differently. We not only earn our bread by working, but we also enjoy the creativity involved in our jobs—and the human relationships—and the sense of fulfillment that we experience when we make the world a little better by doing our work well.

Much depends on the kind of work that we do and the conditions under which we labor, but even more depends on our attitudes and value systems. Some people manage to be happy in the midst of modest circumstances, and others manage to be miserable in the midst of affluence.

“I have seen the burden which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with” (v. 10). The story of the Fall presents work as punishment for sin. Because of sin, God cursed the ground:

“Because you have listened to your wife’s voice,
and have eaten of the tree,
of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground for your sake.
In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will yield thorns and thistles to you;
and you will eat the herb of the field.

By the sweat of your face will you eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

“He has made everything beautiful (yapeh—beautiful or lovely) in its time” (v. 11a). The word “He” refers back to the word “God” in verse 10. It is God who has made everything beautiful in its time.

Surprisingly, Qoheleth opens the heavens and allows a ray of light to shine through here. God has made everything—and has made it beautiful. Once again, this verse hearkens back to the Genesis account—but this time to the creation rather than the Fall. In the creation story, God made everything “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 31). Here, God has made everything beautiful. Our experience of nature verifies that. The heavens are beautiful with their sun, moon, stars, blue skies, and white clouds. The earth is beautiful with its mountains, forests, prairies, deserts, and seas.

“He has also set eternity (‘olam ­­—a long span of time—eternity) in their hearts (leb—hearts), yet so that man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end” (v. 11b). But the dark clouds quickly close again here. Yes, God has given us beauty and a sense of eternity, but he has also blocked our understanding of his purposes, leaving us frustrated rather than fulfilled. We long to understand the seed of eternity that God has planted in our hearts, but God has blocked the light that would be required to allow that seed to grow into maturity. “We feel the need for ourselves and our work to be eternal and yet are grieved to be trapped in time” (Garrett, 298).

“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good (asah tobah—to do good) as long as they live” (v. 12). Qoheleth concludes that the search for meaning is fruitless, so people might as well lower their aim and shoot for something achievable—like happiness—like enjoyment—like doing good things.

A question: Qoheleth says, “I know.” If he truly believes that God has made it impossible for humans to know the things of eternity, how can he have so much confidence in his opinion about how to make the most of life? Perhaps the answer is that most of us tend to have a high opinion of our opinions.

“Also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God” (v. 13). Qoheleth suggests that we enjoy the small pleasures of life—eating and drinking. It is possible to take pleasure even from one’s toil. God has limited our vision of eternal things, but has given us the ability to enjoy these lesser gifts.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan