Ecclesiastes 3. That Wonderful Plan for Your Life

To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness. –Ecclesiastes 2:26

What an amazing variety of things are offered to us every day to help us find the secret of successful living!

Magazine articles by the thousands tell us how to cope with various problems. TV commercials–dozens to a program it seems–bombard us, telling us how to be successful in life, or at least how to look successful even if we really aren’t. Health clubs offer saunas and whirlpool baths to relax us so we can face life with calm assurance. Scores of drugs are available to turn us on, turn us off, or take us out.

All this confirms the universal search for the secret of enjoyment. We spend billions of dollars each day on this quest. It is the same quest that the book of Ecclesiastes tells us about. The greatest experiment ever designed to test approaches to success, enjoyment, and contentment in life is recorded in this 3,000-year-old book.

We have now come to the third chapter, which describes “opposites” in our experience. There is “a time to weep and a time to laugh,” Solomon tells us (verse 4). Throughout this chapter the idea is developed that there is an appropriate time for all of life’s experiences.

Have you ever laughed at the wrong time? I have. I was at a funeral once, and the leader asked all present to stand up on their feet. One of my friends whispered to me, “What else could you stand on?” I broke up, and it was very obviously the wrong time to do so. One of our pastors won a kind of immortality for himself at a theological seminary when, on the day of graduation–that most solemn occasion in educational life–he walked down the aisle dressed in his somber graduation robe, holding a coffee cup in his hand. He is remembered in the annals of the seminary as a man who did not practice the appropriate action at the proper time.

But there is an appropriate time for everything, for the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. That is the argument of Ecclesiastes 3. This is not merely a description of what happens in life; it is a description of what God has deliberately planned for us.

Many of us are familiar with the Four Spiritual Laws, the first of which is, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” When talking with someone about his relationship with God, that is an appropriate place to begin. That is also the plan that is set forth here. All along, Solomon is saying that God longs to bring joy into our lives. Many people think Ecclesiastes is a book of gloom and pessimism because at the level of the writer’s perspective–which, he says, is “under the sun,” appraised through the visible things of life-his findings are gloomy and pessimistic. But that is not the real message of the book. God intends us to have joy, and His program to bring it about includes all these opposites, both pleasant and painful. If you look carefully you will see that these eight opening verses gather around three major divisions that correspond to the divisions of our humanity: body, soul, and spirit. The first four pairs deal with the body:

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

a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build (3:1-3).

Notice how truly those apply to physical life. None of us asked to be born; it was something done to us, apart from our will. None of us asks to die; it is something done to us by God. So we should view this list of opposites as a list of what God thinks we should have. It begins by pairing birth and death as the boundaries of life “under the sun.”

The next pair speaks of the food supply. “A time to plant and a time to uproot.” Everything must come in its appropriate time. If you get it out of sync you are in trouble. Try to plant a crop in the middle of winter when snow is on the ground and it will not grow. Half of the problem of life is that we are constantly trying to run this schedule ourselves, But God has already planned the schedule. There is an appropriate time for everything.

There is “a time to kill and a time to heal.” That may sound strange to us, but the process of dying goes right along with the process of living. Doctors tell us that every seven years all the cells in our bodies–except the brain cells–die. But our bodies do not die. What you are now is not what you were seven years ago, yet you are somehow the same. Man’s physical body is one of the miracles of the universe. According to Psalm 139:14, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

How can we understand that each cell seems to pass on to its replacement cell the memory of the past so that the memory goes back beyond the life of the cell itself? There is “a time to kill and a time to heal.” God brings both to pass.

There is “a time to tear down and a time to build.” Youth is the time for building up. Muscles grow, abilities increase, coordination gets better. Then if you hang on long enough and reach that sixty-fifth milestone, there is a time when everything starts to fall apart–“a time to break down.” Type gets smaller and smaller, steps get higher and higher, trains go faster and faster, people speak in lower and lower tones–“a time to break down.” But that is appropriate. We should not resent it. It is not evil; it is right. God has determined this, and no matter what we may think about it, it is going to continue. That is what this tells us.

Then the Searcher moves into the realm of the soul, with its functions of thinking, feeling, and choosing. He moves into the social areas, and all the interrelationships of life that flow from that. “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4). All these things follow closely, and all are appropriate. No one is going to escape the hurts and sorrows of life, because God chose them for us. The proof of that is in the coming of God’s own Son. He was not handed a beautiful life, everything pleasant and delightful, free from struggle and pain. No. He was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). In a fallen world it is right that there will be times of hurt, of sorrow and weeping.

But there will be other times when it is right to laugh, to be happy and carefree. There is a time of grief and tears–“a time to mourn”–but there is another time to celebrate and to enjoy festive occasions. Jesus celebrated a wedding at Cana of Galilee. He entered into it and even provided part of the feast.

Then there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them” (3:5). There is a time to break things down, and a time to build them up again. This has to do particularly with our social structures, with our relationships to others. There is a time when we need to embrace others, to show our support for them. But there are other times when we should refuse to embrace them, when our support would be misunderstood and would be tantamount to complicity with evil. All those occasions come from the hand of God.

The last six of these opposites relate to the spirit, to the inner decisions, the deep commitments. There is “a time to search [work, marriage, new friends] and a time to give up” (3:6). There comes a time when we should curtail certain friendships, or change our jobs, or move away, and lose what we had in the past. It is proper and appropriate that these times should come.

There is “a time to keep and a time to throw away” (3:6). There are values and standards that must never be surrendered, while there are other limes when we need to throw away things–clean out the attic, the garage, throw away the old clothes.

This can be true of habits and attitudes. Resentments need to be thrown away. Grudges and long-standing hurts need to be forgiven and forgotten.

There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (3:7). There are times when we know something, a piece of gossip perhaps, and we should not say it. We should keep silent. There are other times when we should speak, when something we are keeping secret would deliver someone or bring truth into a situation; there is a time to speak up.

There is “a time to love and a time to hate” (3:8). When is it time to hate? Think of young Abraham Lincoln the first time he saw human beings sold on the slave blocks in New Orleans. He felt hatred rising in his heart. He resolved that if he ever got a chance to smash slavery he would do so. Lincoln’s hatred of slavery was perfectly appropriate. There is “a time to love,” when it is right that we should extend our love to somebody who is hurting, someone who is feeling dejected or rejected, lonely or weak.

There is “a time for war and a time for peace” (3:8). We should remember this as we consider some of the issues before us. When tyranny rides roughshod over the rights of men there is a time when a nation properly makes war. But there is a time when war is absolutely the wrong thing, when no provocation should be allowed to start one, because war can explode into violence far beyond anything demanded by the situation. How much is permitted in that regard is widely debated today.

I point out that all of this is God’s wonderful plan for your life. The problem, of course, is that it is not our plan for our life. If we were given the right to choose, we would have no unpleasantness at all in life, But that would ruin us. God knows that people who are protected from everything invariably end up impossible to live with; they are selfish, cruel, vicious, shallow, unprincipled. God sends these things in order that we might learn. There is a time for everything, the Searcher says.

But more than that… if God has a time for everything, He also has certain unchanging principles which we must take into account in everything, as this next passage declares.

What does the worker gain from his toil? (3:9).

What is “left over” to provide a permanent sense of satisfaction after we extract the momentary pleasure from some pleasurable experience? That is the question which underlies all of the Searcher’s examinations. He has already asked it three times in this book. The answer follows:

I have seen the burden God has laid on men (3:10).

Life itself reveals the secret. The principles behind things can be found by careful, thoughtful examination, something Solomon has been making all along.

Now he gives that answer. He found three things. First:

He has made everything beautiful in its time (3:11).

We have already looked at that. Everything is appropriate and helpful to us, even what appears to be negative. These are not curses and obstacles; they are God’s blessings, deliberately provided by Him.

Even our enemies are a blessing. I received a letter from a businessman friend of mine in Dallas, a very thoughtful man. He gave me his thinking along this line, saying that there were five types of people whom he had learned from in life: “heroes, models, mentors, peers, and friends.” He continued:

I have added another: Enemies. They have a very important place in our lives. Enemies are the opposite bank of our existence. We define our position partly by theirs, as light is the opposite of darkness, of course. They plumb the depth of our Christian maturity, exposing our self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They attack and expose our motives, for seldom do we form an enemy out of a mere mistake of fact or even opinion. Enemies are personal, not positional. Therefore, as a personal matter we are commanded to love them. This command is like a spiritual thermometer stuck into the depths of our feverish little souls, It is interesting that the Jewish historian and sociologist Hart puts this command as the greatest difference between Christianity and all other world religions.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, partly because they are valuable to you. They do something for you that you desperately need. Our problem is that we have such a shallow concept of things. We want everything to be smooth and pleasant. More than that, we want to be in charge, we want to limit the term of hurt or pain. But God will not allow us to take His place and be in charge. There is a rhythm to life that even secular writers recognize. The book Passages speaks of the various experiences we pass through as we grow and mature.

The second thing the Searcher learned in his search is:

He has also set eternity in the hearts of men [or literally, “men’s hearts”] (3:11).

There is a quality about humanity that can never be explained by evolution. No animal is restless and dissatisfied when its physical needs have been met. Observe a well-fed dog sleeping before the fire on a cold day. He is with his family, enjoying himself, not worried about anything. Put a man in that position and soon he will feel a sense of restlessness. There is something beyond, something more that he cries out for. This endless search for an answer beyond what we can feel or sense physically or emotionally is what is called here “eternity in the hearts of men.” St. Augustine prayed, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until we learn to rest in Thee.”

Man is the only worshiping animal. What makes us different cannot be explained by evolution. We are different because we long for the face of God. C. S. Lewis said, “Our Heavenly Father has provided many delightful inns for us along our journey, but He takes great care to see that we do not mistake any of them for home.” There is a longing for home, there is a call deep in the human spirit for more than life can provide. This itch that we cannot scratch is also part of God’s plan.

The third thing which the Searcher learned is that mystery yet remains:

… yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end (3:11).

We are growing in our knowledge, but we discover that the more we know, the more we know we do not know. The increase of knowledge only increases the depth of wonder and of delight. In the sovereign wisdom of God we cannot solve all mysteries. As the apostle Paul put it, “we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV); we are looking forward to the day when we shall see face-to-face.

We cannot know all the answers to the conundrums and enigmas of life. The exhortation of Scripture is always to trust the revelation of the Father’s wisdom in areas we cannot understand. Jesus said over and over that the life of faith is like that of a child. A little child in his father’s arms is unaware of many things that his father has learned. But, resting in those arms, he is quite content to let the enigmas unfold as he grows, trusting in the wisdom of his father.

That is the life of faith, and that is how we are to live. In verses 12 through 15 we learn the purpose of God in this remarkable plan. Three things are found here. First:

I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live (3:12).

Everybody agrees with that. That is what the commercials tell us: “Live life with gusto. You only go around once. Seize it now.” All right. The Searcher says so too!

Secondly, he says:

… it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil (3:13, NRSV).

Underline the words, take pleasure. That is what the Searcher finds that man cannot produce. Things in themselves give a momentary–not lasting–pleasure. True enjoyment is the gift of God; it is what God wants. That is what the Searcher has been arguing all along.

How different this picture is from what most people think life is like under the sovereign lordship of a living God! I saw a book on sex the other day entitled Intended for Pleasure. That is true, sex is designed for pleasure. But it is not merely sex that is designed for pleasure–all things are designed for human pleasure! But if you think the thing in question is going to produce lasting pleasure, you will miss it. The secret is that it is only a vibrant relationship with God that produces enjoyment.

We are not in the grasp of a great cosmic joy-killer, as many people seem to view God. God delights in human enjoyment.

The third thing the Searcher says is that it all must be discovered by realizing that God is in charge and He will not bend His plan for anyone.

I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere Him (3:14).

God has sovereignly and independently set up the plan of life in a way that cannot be interfered with. He “does it so that men will revere Him” (3:14).

All through the Bible we read that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Until we recognize and trust the superior wisdom of God we have not begun to fear God. This fear is not abject terror of God, it is respect and honor for Him. If you try to live your life without recognizing God, ultimately you will find yourself (as the Searcher found himself) empty, dissatisfied, and restless, feeling that life is miserable and meaningless. The secret of life is the presence of God Himself.

Most of life’s struggle comes when we want to play God ourselves, when we want to be in charge. That is true even of Christians. When God refuses to go along we sulk and pout and get angry with Him. We throw away our faith and say, “What’s the use? I tried it but it doesn’t work!” What foolishness! God will not surrender His prerogatives: “Nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere Him.”

Solomon says that God will teach this through much repetition.

Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account (3:15).

A better translation of that last phrase is, “God brings back what has already passed away.”

The Searcher here refers to the repetition of life’s lessons. We do not seem to learn very well. I have learned some lessons in life and said, “Lord, I see what you are after. I’ve got it now. You don’t have to bring this one back again.” But down the road I make the same mistake. Some circumstance painfully recalls to mind what I had once seen as a principle of life. I have to humbly come and say, “Lord, I’m a slow learner. Have patience with me.” God says, “I understand. I’m prepared to have patience with you and teach you this over and over again until you get it right.”

Have you found life to be like that? The Searcher tells us that he too had to learn this. That is the Searcher’s thesis. God wants us to learn the secret of enjoyment. That enjoyment will not come from many experiences. Those will bring but momentary pleasure-not the secret of contentment, of continual enjoyment.

A plaque on my bedroom wall, which I read every morning, says:

No thought is worth thinking

that is not the thought of God.

No sight is worth seeing

unless it is seen through His eyes.

No breath is worth breathing

without thanks to the One

Whose very breath it is.

It is this continual recognition of the hand of God in ordinary events that fills the springs of enjoyment and gives lasting pleasure.

Verse 16 of chapter 3 begins a section that runs through chapter 5, in which a series of objections to Solomon’s thesis are examined. One by one Solomon considers the circumstances that seem to challenge his thesis.

Someone may say, “Wait a minute. You say that God has a wonderful plan for my life, that He is a God of justice. But last week I was seeking justice in a courtroom and I found that the cards were stacked against me; all I got was the rawest injustice. How do you square that with this ‘wonderful plan for my life?'” The Searcher takes this up first.

I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment–wickedness was there, in the place of justice–wickedness was there (3:16).

Courtrooms are designed to correct injustice, but they are often filled with wickedness and injustice. Recently I was a witness in a case in which a man’s business was being destroyed by legal maneuverings. Everyone knew this was unjust, but certain legalities prevented anyone from getting hold of the matter to correct it. That kind of injustice can create anger and frustration. People say, “What do you mean, I am to accept that as from the hand of God?”

The Searcher examines this and says there are three things he wants to show us about it. First:

I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed” (3:17).

Though there is present injustice, that is not the end of the story. God may correct it even within time; but if He does not do so in this life, still He has appointed a time when everything will be brought out. The Scriptures speak of a time appointed by God when the hidden motives of the heart will be examined, when “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight” (Luke 12:3), and justice will ultimately prevail. That is what this Searcher declares. Injustice is limited in its scope. It will ultimately be judged.


I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts” (3:18, NASB).

He recognizes there is a beastly quality about all of us that injustice will bring out. What is it about a man that makes him prey upon even his friends or neighbors? On the TV program, The People’s Court, one case concerned a young woman who had become angry with her friend and roommate, whom she had known for years. In her anger she had poured sugar into the gas tank of the woman’s car, destroying the engine. The judge was appalled at the vindictive spirit of this attractive young woman who had acted in such a vicious way.

There is a beastliness about us all. Put in a situation where we are suffering injury, we react with viciousness. God often allows injustice to show us that we all have that quality about us.

We are like animals in other ways, too, the Searcher says.

Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place [not hell–he is talking about the grave]; all come from dust, and to dust all return (3:19-20).

Man is frail, his existence temporary. Like the animals, we do not have very long to live on this earth. Injustice sharpens the realization that we are on an earth where, like animals, we must put up with unpleasant circumstances. We die like an animal and our bodies dissolve like a beast’s. From the human standpoint one cannot detect any difference. So the Searcher says:

Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (3:21).

That really should not be a question as it is stated in this text. It should read this way:

Who knows that the spirit of man rises upward and the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth.

That is something which only revelation can tell us. Experience cannot offer any help at all here. From a human standpoint, a dead man and a dead dog look as if the same thing happened to both of them. But from the divine point of view that is not the case. Though we die like beasts, the spirit of man goes upward while the spirit of the beast goes downward. Later on the Searcher states very positively that at death the spirit of man returns to God who gave it, but the spirit of the beast ends in nothingness. Injustice stems from our beastliness, and God’s plan for life will uncover it through adverse events. Finally, he concludes in verse 22:

I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?

He does not answer that question here; he leaves it hanging. But the answer, of course, is that only God can help us to understand what lies beyond this life. The wonderful thing to extract from this passage is the great truth that God wants us to handle life in such a way that we can rejoice in every circumstance. Recognize that everything comes from a wise Father. Though circumstances bring us pain as well as pleasure, it is His choice for us. Rejoice that in the midst of the pain there is the possibility of pleasure.


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