What is something that you hope for?
Read Ecclesiastes 3-4
The Teacher is the King of Israel who has set out to test the fruit of life. What is it all about? Who wins in the end? He has done this by observing the world around him (Chapter 1) and the pursuit of pleasure (Chapter 2). His conclusion so far has been that God is the giver of everything and nothing that we do can be called new or forever ours. We do not create. We do not keep. But what this world cannot give us, God gives freely: wisdom and contentment.
- Regarding time: 3:1-8 A time for everything and everything in its time.
- Regarding humanity 3:9-22
- 3:9-15 Humility lesson#1: Eternity in our hearts.
- 3:16-17 God is the only righteous judge
- 3:18-22 Humility lesson#2: No different to animals.
- Regarding community 4:1-16
- 4:1-3 Better off dead!?
- 4:4-12 The relationship between toil and people
- 4:13-16 Nobody ever comes out on top
Regarding time (3:1-8)
This well known poem which was famously set to music back in the 60s, can be seen with two lenses. Lens one is the rose-coloured type: how beautiful is the symmetry of life and how wise is it to recognise the time for this and the time for that. Wisdom helps us to identify which is which and be content with that. But this is not the correct lens to where.
Lens two is the one that reads this poem in the context of Ecclesiastes. What is the Teacher trying to teach us? Meaningless! Everything is misty!
God is sovereign over every time and we are not in control of any of it. Especially the time to die! No amount of toil will put us in control of these things. We are subject to the authority of God. Time is determined by God.
Regarding humanity (3:9-22) 9,15,18
3:9-15 Humility lesson#1: Eternity in our hearts.
“He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” These two clauses summarise Verses 9 to 14. Somehow, God has implanted in our minds the idea of forever, but we have no way of accessing this timeline. It is God’s. He owns it. We are here for a short while to toil and enjoy what beauty is given in its time. We enjoy the gift of life that God gives to us – for our time – and we are given the concept and wonder of eternity but only a temporary role in it. And what’s the point? So that we would learn to fear God.
“Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before;” See Ecclesiastes 6:10 and 1:9. There is nothing new under the sun. We are very constrained as humans.
“…and God will call the past to account.” This has some translation difficulties as you’ll see if you compare different versions. The NIV leads us to hear God as the judge of all events. But the ESV and others, ‘God seeks what has been driven away’ which sits parallel to the first part of Verse 15. That is, God brings about what has already been.
In one sense it doesn’t matter. The judgement of God becomes clear in the following verses and what Verse 15 proclaims is that God sits above the events of time.
3:16-17 God is the only righteous judge
“And I saw something else under the sun…” This refers to the realm of life in this world. The ‘under the sun’ phrase occurs 29 times in the book. 5 times are in Chapters 3 and 4.
“…wickedness was there…” To the Teacher, judgment and justice does not occur with righteousness in this world (under the sun) but wickedness is there.
“God will bring into judgment…” The Teacher believes in a time for judgment from God for all people. We will see in the next section that the Teacher does not know or declare when that will take place. Barry Webb suggests this may be similar to ‘setting eternity in our hearts’ with respect to time. Righteous judgment and justice will occur – but the details are not forthcoming.
3:18-22 Humility lesson#2: No different to animals.
“As for humans, God tests them so that they may see…” We have seen the humility of our power over time and events. And we’ve seen our humility under God as the only righteous judge. Now we will learn that, under the sun, there is no difference between humans and animals. All things being equal, we are no better off than the axolotl.
“Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” As we examine biology, who knows? This is the ‘under the sun’ point of view. Later, in 12:7, the Teacher will declare that our spirit returns to God who gave it. So, there is more to say than what the Teacher says in Verse 21 but external observation gives us no clue. Do animals have spirits? I remain agnostic. The word for spirit is interchangeable with breath. We need not put special significance on a rhetorical question.
“So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work…” Verse 22 caps off this chapter well. There is a time for humanity between ones birth and ones death. All of the toil under the sun is in the sovereign hands of God. Who knows but the Lord what comes after.
Regarding community 4:1-16
4:1-3 Better off dead!?
The Teacher describes the injustice that occurs under the sun and declares it as evil. Better than a dead person is one who never entered the world at all. The Teacher speaks wisdom and logic. Whether he feels depressed about it or not is unknown. Life on earth is full of unfairness. He simplifies people into one of two categories, you are either the oppressed or the oppressor. The notion of equity is absent in his view.
4:4-12 The relationship between toil and people
“…all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another.” This is quite stark isn’t it? What drives a person to success, according to the Teacher, is not self motivation or self improvement but the desire to be better than others. Envy is a hurtful motivation that wants another person to fail because they have what you want.
Verse 4 opens a series of observations about how humans relate with one another.
Verses 5-6: Firstly an idle person will fail, but a simple helping will suffice. The other extreme is to be too greedy – the effort is not worth it. Work because you must but don’t over do it!
Verses 7-8: The story of a single man who works and works but is never content. Who does he share the wealth with? Who does he share the toil with? Both of these problems are explored in the verses that follow.
Verses 9-10: Two people in business or partnership have one another’s backs. This is a good thing.
Verse 11: Regarding a marriage, this seems comfortable. (A hot water bottle is nice too).
Verse 12: In battle, teamwork is the better. Two is better than one and three is really good.
NB: Verses 11 and 12 are often joined together but I see no need to do this. The theme or the illustrations are different. When joined together, the inclination is to make the third cord God and so a marriage with God is strong. This is true but I don’t see this jumping out off the page.
4:13-16 Nobody ever comes out on top
These verses are tricky. We have the subject of a young person and a king. Verse 13 seems easy enough to grasp on its own. Then there seems to be a narrative about an upcoming ruler, the youth who rises from poverty and is followed by many. He seems like someone worth supporting, not this old foolish king who no longer heeds warning! But the reality is that this is a repeating narrative. Verse 16 says that there is a long history of youths who were elevated to king. And the story goes that this youth-become-king is eventually rejected as people are not pleased with them. This is the story of rise to power and the conclusion is: meaningless!
Suggested questions for running this study.
Q1. What is pleasing about the poem in Chapter 3 Verses 1-8? Is it a hopeful poem or a hopeless poem? Discuss.
Q2. Looking at Verses 9-15, what are all the things that God has done?
Q3. Verse 22 brings the chapter to a blunt conclusion. What is Chapter 3 teaching us about life under the sun?
Q4. Look at the various wisdoms of Verses 4 to 12. What do they say about human relationships?
Q5. There is mention of judgment in these chapters (see 3:17) but no certainty of when or how. There seems to be a time for everything under heaven but when is the time for righteous judgment? Revelation 20:11 onwards has an answer to that! But let’s turn to Mark 14:17-25. What injustice under the sun is referenced here? Compare Mark 14:21 with Ecclesiastes 4:3 – what is the irony of this comparison?
Life under the sun is filled with toil and tears. A time for everything but all of it is outside the power of humanity. God ordains the years and everything that happens within them. God is greater than all of us and yet there is much injustice in this world. Thanks be to God that there is a time for judgment and the time has been allotted by God. Thanks also be to Christ who underwent the greatest injustice the world has ever seen or known and all so that we can be raised up with him at the end.
Challenge#1 Responding to injustice
What does the gospel teach us about injustice? The most mistreated person in all of history must be God himself. Ecclesiastes reminds us that this life contains many accounts of oppression and injustice but the gospel reminds us that all justice will be served in the end and it will fall on the hands of the perfect and just God. There is a time for justice and the bible reminds us even to leave vengeance to God.
Challenge#2 What time is it?
There is a time for everything under the sun. Half of the things listed in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 are negative things. They are not given to us because of karma but simply because this is the time and the will of God. Not every day we live is a walk in the park. Often it rains. As God works in us, he reminds us that our hope is not for suffering to end quickly but that we will grow from it. Romans 5:3-5.
Challenge#3 What hope do you have?
When you encounter someone suffering depression or hopelessness, is there any wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3 and 4 that you can see useful? One might talk about the changing times and that these moments pass. One might talk about the benefit of friends, that if someone falls down, there are others to help them up. Or we might talk about the expectation of injustice in this world – but that there is an invitation by God to look to the kingdom of God for a new future. Revelation 20:11:21:5