The Cycle of Life – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

For everything there is a season …

Unlike most of the book, this week’s text in Ecclesiastes is a popular text that is often preached, albeit with a variety of different interpretations and applications. In particular the poem which spans verses 2 through 8 of chapter 3 became popular through Pete Seeger’s hit song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” covered in 1965 by the American folk band, “The Byrds.” It is also a passage often preached in churches on New Year’s Eve as a springboard to teach on making timely resolutions, and how to act appropriately at significant times of one’s life. But this is by no means what the text teaches or implies.

It is quite clear that the theme of this passage is indeed “time;” the word is repeated 28 times over the 14 stanzas of the poem. But while man is the grammatical subject of the poem – as it is man who is born, dies, plants, plucks up, dances and mourns – the human subject plays no role in determining the time of his actions. Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes) makes it very clear that it is God who is the determiner or the times and seasons of life. As much as man would like to be involved in planning out his days, he finds himself a victim, in a sense, of time and the cycle of life.

The poem sounds very much like the poem on the cycles of nature described in chapter 1: “A generation goes, and a generation comes … The sun rises and the sun goes down … The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north … “ (1:4-6). In like manner to these repeated cycles in nature, we observe set times in our lives on earth: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted …” In each case, that which occurs in time is ultimately cancelled by what inevitably occurs at a later time. So, all who are born eventually die; all that is planted is eventually plucked up; silence is cancelled by speech, love by hatred, and war by peace; and in the end there is no net gain to anything under the sun. What is there to celebrate in this consequence?

Yet many celebrate the cycle of life. In Hinduism, for example, there is the concept that karma (causal action in time) is repeated during the cycle of birth and rebirth over numerous life times, which is necessary for the final liberation of the soul. In the Disney movie “The Lion King,” at the poignant birth of the new lion cub Simba, who is destined to replace his father King Mufasa, the anthem rings forth celebrating the “Circle of Life.” According to the song, the circle of life moves us all through despair and hope, faith and love, but rather than no net gain, the song teaches that, “There is more to see than can ever be seen … More to find than can ever be found.” While this is a nice sentiment, and it is rather flattering to think that when our bodies go into the grave that they will be something more important than worm food, Qoheleth teaches that there is really not that much to celebrate in the circle of life. Instead, this popular poem is a lamentation over the fact humanity has no control over the outcome that time (or better the God of time) brings to pass.

Qoheleth’s hope is not found in gaining anything under the sun, but rather in enjoying the beautiful moments that God makes in His time, and looking to that which God places in the hearts of men concerning eternity. God has set the times and seasons of the cycles of life ultimately for us to bow before Him as the Almighty Sovereign King who rules over time and the cycles of life.

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2 thoughts on “The Cycle of Life – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

  1. It appears that the time poem is there to frame the conclusion at the end where Kohelet says “So how can we gain anything from our toil if the seasons of life keep us constantly working. God confines our busy lives within the framework of time but also plants eternity in our hearts. This makes impossible for us to figure out what God is doing from the beginning to the end.” He then repeats a familiar admonition, “I clearly see that there is nothing better under the sun that to be happy and enjoy ourselves during each day of life God gives us. Each of us has been given the opportunity to eat and drink and enjoy life. That is God’s plan for us and we cannot ad to, or subtract from his design. It fits us perfectly for it achieves God’s purpose and causes us to honor him.”
    The time poem is a pathway that leads us to a place to look at the overall picture. Too often we just look at the path and miss the point.

  2. Well said Vance! I appreciate your insight. Its interesting how the time poem become the focus, and is often the subject matter of much preaching apart from the conclusion in verse 9. I agree completely with your observations and will be sharing them this Sunday.

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