Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Shortly after taking some school exams, one of my nieces held a ″book-burning″ party with her friends, at which they made a bonfire of their revision notes-notes which one hopes they had found useful when preparing for the exams. As today's passage reminds us, there is ″a time to keep and a time to throw away″ (Ecclesiastes 3:6).
Today's text states that everything has its ″time″ and ″season″ (v. 1), and develops this point in 3:2-8 by setting out fourteen antithetical pairs of activities. Some of these pairs contrast a positive with a negative activity (″be born″, ″die″, v. 2; ″weep″, ″laugh″, v. 4). In many cases the activities seem to contradict each other: killing and healing, tearing down and building up (v. 3).
Why does the Teacher set these different activities against each other in this way? Is he suggesting that you must know the right time for each activity if you hope to succeed, because most activities are not appropriate all the time? Perhaps his point is that there is something contradictory about human activities: what one person does another may undo, cancelling out its effect. Perhaps this is another way of suggesting the futility of much human activity (1:3; 2:22), a point to which the Teacher will return in the very next verse (3:9). Maybe the Teacher means to imply that human affairs are often a matter of two steps forward, one step back (or worse than that, see 9:18).
But we could equally well read today's text as a statement of God's providential ordering of the world He has made: see how well everything fits together! All activities, even the most contradictory-seeming, have their place in God's dealings with His creation! That, too, is an idea that the Teacher will soon express, though in a qualified form (3:11).
Taken by itself, today's text can be interpreted in a number of different ways. It forces on us (again) the question: Why do we do the things we do? More particularly, should it worry us that often what we do seems to undo someone else's work, or even our own earlier work? Or can we (sometimes at least) glimpse a larger divine purpose taking shape in the midst of the vast array of seemingly conflicting human activities?
Think of some occasions in your life where you did something that undid or contradicted something you had done earlier. Looking back on the two activities now, do you still find them merely contradictory, or do they make sense as part of a larger whole?
Think of some good reasons for undoing or setting aside another person's or another group's work. Then think of some bad ones. What do you learn from this exercise?