Ecclesiastes 3
Expositor's Bible Commentary
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
And the Conviction that it is opposed to the Will of God as expressed in the Ordinances of his Providence,

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8This is one help to a wise content with our lot; but he has many more at our service, and notably this, -that an undue devotion to the toils of business is contrary to the will, the design, the providence of God. God, he argues, has fixed a time for every undertaking under heaven, and has made each of them beautiful in its season, but only then. By his kindly ordinances He has sought to divert us from an injurious excess in toil. Our sowing and our reaping, our time of rest and our time for work, the time to save and the time to spend, the time to gain and the time to lose, -all these, with all the fluctuating feelings they excite in us: in short, our whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is under, or should be under, law to Him. It is only when we violate His gracious ordinances, -working when we should be at rest, waking when we should sleep, saving when we should spend, weeping over losses which are real gains, or laughing over gains which will prove to be losses, -that we run into excess, and break up the peaceful order and tranquil flow of the life which He designed for us.

The Quest obstructed by Divine Ordinances.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15The time of birth, for instance, and the time of death, are ordained by a Power over which men have no control; they begin to be, and they cease to be, at hours whose stroke they can neither hasten nor retard. The season for sowing and the season for reaping are fixed with any reference to their wish; they must plant and gather in when the unchangeable laws of nature will permit (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Even those violent deaths, and those narrow escapes from death, which seem most purely fortuitous, are predetermined; as are also the accidents which befall our abodes (Ecclesiastes 3:3). So, again, if only because determined by these accidents, are the feelings with which we regard them, our weeping and our laughter, our mourning and our rejoicing (Ecclesiastes 3:4). If we only clear a plot of ground from stones in order that we may cultivate it, or that we may fence it in with a wall; or if an enemy cast stones over our arable land to unfit it for uses of husbandry-a malignant act frequent in the East-and we have painfully to gather them out again: even this, which seems so purely within the scope of human free will, is also within the scope of the Divine decrees-as are the very embraces we bestow on those dear to us, or withhold from them (Ecclesiastes 3:5). The varying and unstable desires which prompt us to seek this object or that as earnestly as we afterwards carelessly cast it away, and the passions which impel us to rend our garments over our losses, and by and by to sew up the rents not without some little wonder that we should ever have been so deeply moved by that which now sits so lightly on us; these passions and desires, which at one time strike us dumb with grief and so soon after make us voluble with joy, with all our fleeting and easily-moved hates and loves, strifes and reconciliations, move within the circle of law, although they wear so lawless a look, and are obsequious to the fixed canons of Heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:6-8). They travel their cycles; they return in their appointed order. The uniformity of nature is reproduced in the uniform recurrence of the chances and changes of human life; for in this, as in that, God repeats Himself, recalling the past (Ecclesiastes 3:15). The thing that is is that which hath been, and that which will be. Social laws are as constant and as inflexible as natural laws. The social generalisations of modern science-as given, for instance, in Buckle’s "History"-are but a methodical elaboration of the conclusion at which the Preacher here arrives.

Of what use, then, was it for men to "kick against the goads," to attempt to modify immutable ordinances? "Whatever God hath ordained continueth forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing can be taken from it" (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Nay, why should we care to alter or modify the social order? Everything is beautiful and appropriate in its season, from birth to death, from war to peace (Ecclesiastes 3:11). If we cannot find the satisfying Good in the events and affairs of life, that is not because we could devise a happier order for them, but because "God hath put eternity into our hearts" as well as time, and did not intend that we should be satisfied till we attain an eternal good. If only we "understood" that, if only we recognised God’s design for us "from beginning to end," and suffered eternity no less than time to have its due of us, we should not fret ourselves in vain endeavours to change the unchangeable, or to find an enduring good in that which is fugitive and perishable. We should rejoice and do ourselves good all our brief life (Ecclesiastes 3:12); we should eat and drink and take pleasure in our labours (Ecclesiastes 3:13); we should feel that this faculty for innocently enjoying simple pleasures and wholesome toils is "a gift of God": we should conclude that God had ordained that regular cycle and order of events which so often forestalls the wish and endeavour of the moment, in order that we should fear Him in place of relying on ourselves (Ecclesiastes 3:14), and trust our future to Him who so wisely and graciously recalls the past.


The Quest Of The Chief Good In Devotion To The Affairs Of Business

Ecclesiastes 3:1 - Ecclesiastes 5:20I. IF the true Good is not to be found in the School where Wisdom utters her voice, nor in the Garden in which Pleasure spreads her lures: may it not be found in the Market, in devotion to Business and Public Affairs? The Preacher will try this experiment also. He gives himself to study and consider it. But at the very outset he discovers that he is in the iron grip of immutable Divine ordinances, by which "seasons" are appointed for every undertaking under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1), ordinances which derange man’s best-laid schemes, and "shape his ends, rough hew them how he will," that no one can do anything to purpose "apart from God," except by conforming to the ordinances, or laws, in which He has expressed His will. {comp. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26}

He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
But above all, in the immortal Cravings which He has quickened in the Soul.

Ecclesiastes 3:11Nay, going to the very root of the matter and expounding its whole philosophy, the Preacher teaches us that wealth, however great and greatly used, cannot satisfy men, since God has "put eternity into their hearts" as well as time: and how should all the kingdoms of a world that must soon pass content those who are to live forever? This saying, "God has put eternity into their hearts," is one of the most profound in the whole book, and one of the most beautiful and suggestive. What it means is that, even if a man would confine his aims and desires within "the bounds and coasts of Time," he cannot do it. The very structure of his nature forbids it. For time, with all that it inherits, sweeps by him like a torrent, so that, if he would secure any lasting good, he must lay hold of that which is eternal. We may well call this world, for all so solid as it looks, "a perishing world"; for, like our own bodies, it is in a perpetual flux, perishing every moment that it may live a little longer, and must soon come to an end. But we, in our true selves, we who dwell inside the body and use its members as the workman uses his tools, how can we find a satisfying good whether in the body or in the world which is akin to it? We want a good as lasting as ourselves. Nothing short of that can be our chief good, or inspire us with a true content.

"Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end:

Each changing place with that which goes before,

In sequent toil all forwards do contend"

And we might as well think to build a stable habitation on the waves which break upon the pebbled shore as to find an enduring good in the sequent minutes which carry us down the stream of time. It is only because we do not understand this "work of God" in putting eternity into our hearts and therefore making it impossible for us to be content with anything less than an eternal good; it is because, plunged in the flesh and its cares and delights, we forget the grandeur of our nature, and are tempted to sell our immortal birthright for a mess of pottage which, however much we enjoy it today, will leave us hungry tomorrow: it is only, I say, because we fail to understand this work of God "from beginning to end," that we ever delude ourselves with the hope of finding in aught the earth yields a good in which we can rest.

And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
And by Human Injustice and Perversity.

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3But not only are our endeavours to find the "good" of our labours thwarted by the gracious, inflexible laws of the just God; they are often baffled by the injustice of ungracious men. In the days of Coheleth, iniquity sat in the seat of justice, wresting all rules of equity to its base private ends (Ecclesiastes 3:16). Unjust judges and rapacious satraps put the fair rewards of labour and skill and integrity in jeopardy, insomuch that if a man by industry and thrift, by a wise observance of Divine laws and by taking occasions as they rose, had acquired affluence, he was too often, in the expressive Eastern phrase, but as a sponge which any petty despot might squeeze. The frightful oppressions of the time were a heavy burden to the Hebrew Preacher. He brooded over them, seeking for aids to faith and comfortable words wherewith to solace the oppressed. For a moment he thought he had lit on the true comfort, "Well, well," he said within himself, "God will judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time for every thing and for every deed with Him" (Ecclesiastes 3:17). Could he have rested in this thought, it would have been "a sovereign balm" to him, or indeed to any other Hebrew; although to us, who have learned to desire the redemption rather than the punishment of the wicked, their redemption through their inevitable punishments, the true comfort would still have been wanting. But he could not rest in it, could not hold it fast, and confesses that he could not. He lays his heart bare before us. We are permitted to trace the fluctuating thoughts and emotions which swept across it. No sooner has he whispered to his heart that God, who is at leisure from Himself and has endless time at his command, will visit the oppressors and avenge the oppressed, than his thoughts take a new turn, and he adds: "And yet God may have sifted the children of men only to shew them that they are no better than the beasts" (Ecclesiastes 3:18): this may be his aim in all the wrongs by which they are tried. Repugnant as the thought is, it nevertheless fascinates him for the instant, and he yields to its wasting and degrading magic. He not only fears, suspects, thinks that man is no better than a beast; he is quite sure of it, and proceeds to argue it out. His argument is very sweeping, very sombre. "A mere chance is man, and the beast a mere chance." Both spring from a mere accident, no one can tell how, and have a blind hazard for a creator; and "both are subject to the same chance," or mischance, throughout their lives, all the decisions of their intelligence and will being overruled by the decrees of an inscrutable fate. Both perish under the same power of death, suffer the same pangs of dissolution, are taken at unawares by the same invisible yet resistless force. The bodies of both spring from the same dust, and moulder back into dust. Nay, "both have the same spirit"; and though vain man sometimes boasts that at death his spirit goeth upward, while that of the beast goeth downward, yet who can prove it? For himself, and in his present mood, Coheleth doubts, and even denies it. He is absolutely convinced that in origin and life and death, in body and spirit and final fate, man is as the beast is, and hath no advantage over the beast (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21). And therefore he falls back on his old conclusion, though now with a sadder heart than ever, that man will do wisely, that, being so blind and having so dark a prospect, he cannot do more wisely than to take what pleasure and enjoy what good he can amid his labours. If he is a beast, as he is a beast, let him at least learn of the beasts that simple, tranquil enjoyment of the good of the passing moment, untroubled by any vexing presage of what is to come, in which it must be allowed that they are greater proficients than he (Ecclesiastes 3:22).

Thus, after rising in the first fifteen verses of this Third Chapter, to an almost Christian height of patience, and resignation, and holy trust in the providence of God, Coheleth is smitten by the injustice and oppressions of man into the depths of a pessimistic materialism.

But now a new question arises. The Preacher’s survey of human life has shaken his faith even in the conclusion which he has announced from the first, viz., that there is nothing better for a man than a quiet content, a busy cheerfulness, a tranquil enjoyment of the fruit of his toils. This at least he has supposed to be possible: but is it? All the activities, industries, tranquillities of life are jeopardised, now by the inflexible ordinances of Heaven, and again by the capricious tyranny of man. To this tyranny his fellow countrymen are now exposed. They groan under its heaviest oppressions. As he turns and once more reflects {Ecclesiastes 4:1} on their unalleviated and unfriended misery, he doubts whether content, or even resignation, can be expected of them. With a tender sympathy that lingers on the details of their unhappy lot, and deepens into a passionate and despairing melancholy, he witnesses their sufferings and "counts the tears" of the oppressed. With the emphasis of a Hebrew and an Oriental, he marks and emphasises the fact that "they had no comforter," that though "their oppressors were violent, yet they had no comforter." For throughout the East, and among the Jews to this day, the manifestation of sympathy with those who suffer is far more common and ceremonious than it is with us. Neighbours and acquaintances are expected to pay long visits of condolence; friends and kinsfolk will travel long distances to pay them. Their respective places and duties in the house of mourning, their dress, words, bearing, precedence, are regulated by an ancient and elaborate etiquette. And, strange as it may seem to us, these visits are regarded not only as gratifying tokens of respect to the dead, but as a singular relief and comfort to the living. To the Preacher and his fellow captives, therefore, it would be a bitter aggravation of their grief that, while suffering under the most cruel oppressions of misfortune, they were compelled to forego the solace of these customary tokens of respect and sympathy. As be pondered their sad and unfriended condition, Coheleth-like Job, when his comforters failed him-is moved to curse his day. The dead, he affirms, are happier than the living, -even the dead who died so long ago that the fate most dreaded in the East had befallen them, and the very memory of them had perished from the earth: while happier than either the dead, who have had to suffer in their time, or than the living, whose doom had still to be borne, were those who had never seen the light, never been born into a world all disordered and out of course (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).

In the Wrongs which He permits Men to inflict upon us

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3Because we will not be obsequious to the ordinances of His wisdom, He permits us to meet a new check in the caprice and injustice of man-making even these to praise Him by subserving our good. If we do not suffer the violent oppressions which drew tears from the Preacher’s fellow captives, we nevertheless stand very much at the mercy of our neighbours in so far as our outward haps are concerned. Unwise human laws or an unjust administration of them, or the selfish rapacity of individual men-brokers who rig the market; bankers whose long prayers are a pretence under cloak of which they rob widows and orphans, and sometimes make them; bankrupts for whose wounds the Gazette has a singular power of healing, since they come out of it "sounder" men than they went in: these are only some of the instruments by which the labours of the diligent are shorn of their due reward. And we are to take these checks as correctives, to find in the losses which men inflict the gifts of a gracious God. He permits us to suffer these and the like disasters lest our hearts should be overmuch set on getting gain. He graciously permits us to suffer them that, seeing how often the wicked thrive (in a way and for a time) on the decay of the upright, we may learn that there is something better than wealth, more enduring, more satisfying, and may seek that higher good.

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
To produce a Materialistic Scepticism;

Ecclesiastes 3:18-21(c) The "speculation" in the eye of business men is not commonly of a philosophic cast, and therefore we do not look to find them arguing themselves into the materialism which infected the Hebrew Preacher as he contemplated them and their blind devotion to their idol. They are far, perhaps very far, from thinking that in the body and spirit, in origin and end, man is no better than the beast, a creature of the same accident and subject to "the same chance." But though they do not reason out a conclusion so sombre and depressing, do they not practically acquiesce in it? If it is far from their thoughts, do they not live in its close neighbourhood? Their mind, like the dyer’s hand, is subdued to that it works in. Accustomed to think mainly of material interests, their character is materialised. They are disposed to weigh all things-truth, righteousness, the motives and aims of nobler men-in the scales of the market, and can very hardly believe that they should attach any grave value to aught which will not lend itself to their coarse handling. In their judgment, mental culture, or the graces of moral character, or single-hearted devotion to lofty ends, are not worthy to be compared with a full purse or large possessions. They regard as little better than a fool, of whom it is very kind of them to take a little care, the man who has thrown away what they call "his chances," in order that he may learn wisdom or do good. Giving, perhaps, a cheerful and unforced accord to the current moral maxims and popular creed, they permit neither to rule their conduct. If they do not say, "Man is no better than a beast," they carry themselves as if he were no better, as though he had no instincts or interests above those of the thrifty ant, or the cunning beaver, or the military locust, or the insatiable leech-although they are both surprised and affronted when one is at the pains to translate their deeds into words. Judged by their deeds, they are sceptics and materialists, since they have no vital faith in that which is spiritual and unseen. They have found "the life of their hands," and they are content with it. Give them whatever furnishes the senses, whatever in them holds by sense, and they will cheerfully let all else go. But such a materialism as this is far more injurious, far more likely to be fatal, than that which reflects, and argues, and utters itself in words, and refutes itself by the very powers which it employs. With them the malady has struck inward, and is beyond the reach of cure save by the most searching and drastic remedies.

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