Can you explain Ecc 3:1-8?


This may be one of the top ten famous passages in the Bible.  It was popularized by the rock group The Byrds in the 60’s.  We have to look at the context of this passage.  Solomon is not discussing deep theology here.  He is presenting what he learned about the meaning of life as a human being–one who checked out pretty much all life has to offer.  Solomon concluded that, when it comes to human activities, it is “meaningless, meaningless.”  He says, to back up his point, that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  In the last verse of chapter two he says that God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness to those who please him, but even these things, apart from God,are meaningless.

Continuing his philosophical reflection on the nature of life “under the sun” (ie speaking of physical, not spiritual things), he notices that the natural rhythm of life includes birth and death, killing and healing, tearing down and building, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, accepting and letting go, loving and hating, silence and speaking and so forth.  What he seems to be saying is that such things are the normal lot of human beings, whether they are righteous or unrighteous.   In the end, if seen from a human perspective, all of these things appear to be meaningless.  Yet, he noted earlier in Ecc 2:24 that it is better to have joy and pleasure than the opposite.

In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 Solomon is not necessarily putting value or judgement on the list of human activities.  He is simply describing life as it is.  Later, of course, he will comment on these things.  I do not think that we should seek any deep spiritual truth in the list of human activities in Ecc 3:1-8, but we should note, with Solomon, that in all things, there seems to be a kind of balance–giving and taking, gaining and losing.  This is part of his reasoning that, in the big picture, human activity, apart from God is “meaningless, meaningless.”

Evidence supporting this interpretation is that after the famous set of opposing things in Ecc 3:1-8, he returns to the same kind of arguments as before.  He notes that work is better than laziness, but even our work, outside of God, is meaningless.   Solomon discusses many items of wisdom in the book.  In some cases he makes moral judgments, but in others he simply notes what all of us learn to be true by our common experiences if we live long enough.

We need to go to the end of the book to see how God intends to use the remarks of Solomon.  He tells us that, given the meaninglessness of simple existence apart from God, we should “Remember our Creator in the days of our youth.” (Ecc 12:1) Only this will give meaning to the seemingly meaningless things of everyday life.  Remember him before the silver cord is severed (in otherwords, before we die.)   Repeating that (apart from God), everything is meaningless, meaningless, Solomon give his conclusion.  “Here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring everything into judgment, including the hidden things, whether good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14).

If we know God and if we make a decision to fear him and obey him, then the meaningless things mentioned earlier acquire meaning.  Wisdom, knowledge and even pleasure become meaningful.  We should look at Ecc 3:1-8 through this lens.  In God, both birth and death gain meaning, as do even planting and uprooting.  Any of these activities (except, I suppose, hating) have meaning when experienced in submission to God.  That is not what Solomon says in so many words in Ecc 3:1-8, but I believe it is what he has in mind.

I hope this helps.

John Oakes

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