Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Sometimes instructors do not present their points in strictly logical sequence. Instead, they deliberately adopt a non-linear presentation, such that it is not immediately clear how their separate points fit together. This seems to be the Teacher's approach. He introduces a topic, considers it for a while, then drops it, only to take it up later from a different perspective (consider, for example, how often the Teacher has broached the topics of toil and wisdom in Ecclesiastes 1-2). This can be frustrating for his readers, but it has the merit of provoking us to deeper reflection as we try to follow him.
Today's passage is a good example of the Teacher's method. It repeats points made earlier: Ecclesiastes 3:9, with its reference to pointless ″toil″, echoes 1:3 and 2:22; the reference in 3:10 to a ″burden″, which God has imposed on humanity recalls 1:13; the advice in 3:12-13 regarding how we should live takes up ideas stated in 2:24-26; the idea that the present repeats the past in 3:15 was already introduced with 1:9. In today's passage, however, the Teacher sets these familiar ideas in a different context. He introduces a new focus on God's activity in the world, drawing a contrast between God's work and human ″toil″.
In God's purposes, everything fits (Ecclesiastes 3:11): God determines the course of events, and knows the right time for everything, for ″He has made everything beautiful in its time″. Further, God has ″set eternity in the human heart″: we glimpse the vastness of His purposes; perhaps we can also sense how our own lives may fit into those purposes. But full understanding eludes us: we cannot grasp God's work ″from beginning to end″.
Human toil is always uncertain: it may bring ″satisfaction″ (v. 13), but it may also be misguided and futile (as observed in much of chapters 1-2). Human toil is provisional: what one person does, another may undo (3:1-8). But what God does will ″endure forever″ (v. 14). This seems to refer both to the stability of the natural world (1:3-7), and to the outworking of God's purposes in history. What God does lasts.
Note how 3:15, while restating from 1:9 the idea that history repeats itself, expands the earlier text with a reference to God's sovereign judgment: ″God will call the past to account.″5 Events may recur many times, but they will not recur forever. History is moving towards its God-appointed goal, and what happens takes place under God's gaze. It matters, then, how we live now: in particular, we must fear God (3:14).
The structure of the Teacher's argument is emerging. There are many puzzles, many frustrations; we cannot fully grasp God's purposes. But it is becoming clear that some paths in life are more in line with those purposes than others. Later chapters will develop these points.
5For the interpretation of this phrase (literally: ″God will seek what is pursued″) as a reference to God's judgment, see Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 90-91.
Christians-who live on the other side of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection-surely have a better grasp of the big picture of God's purposes than the Teacher did. But equally, there remains much that we do not understand. Would you agree that, like the Teacher, we cannot ″fathom what God has done from beginning to end″? How should this affect the way we live?
If you experience the things that Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 speak of (happiness, the opportunity to do good, food and drink, satisfying work), how can you value them as ″the gift of God″?