Ecclesiastes 3:1–15: Time and Eternity
Isaac Watts’s hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” declares a critical point of Christian theology: our lives are short, but our God is eternal. The hymn declares, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.” In light of this, the hymn reminds us to trust the God who has been help to his people throughout all generations—in ages past, and forward into eternity. Watts’s hymn echoes the themes of Ecclesiastes 3:1–15, where the Preacher explores the ways in which we are creatures trapped in time. We may have a sense of eternity (v. 11), but we cannot escape our time-boundedness. While all of our toil in time cannot gain us anything lasting and during (v. 9), this passage clears away errors about our approach to time in a way that reminds us of the time-related promise that the rest of Scripture bears witness to: God gives Sabbath rest.
1) Was Pete Seeger right to understand Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 as pleading for peace in the world? If not, then what is the point of this poem? How do the pairs of contrasted elements (e.g., birth and death, war and peace) address the totality of human experience? What does the Preacher mean when he says that everything has its time and season? Who is the one who establishes the times and seasons of all things that happen in this world?
2) Why does the Preacher conclude his poem by asking the question in v. 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?”? If everything has its season, what truly can we gain from all of our toil? How is the seasonality and constant change of this world “beautiful in its time” (v. 11)? What does it mean that God has put “eternity” into our hearts (v. 11)? Why is this sense of eternality such a gift, and yet so frustrating within our time-bounded experience?
3) Given the lack of true progress and gain that we can make by all of our toil, why should we “be joyful and…do good” as long as we live, and to “eat and drink and take pleasure” in all our toil (v. 12–13)? If this pleasure cannot give us lasting satisfaction, then how is this God’s gift to man (v. 13)? Also, given our temporality, why is it a comfort to know that whatever God does will endure forever (v. 14)? How does this help us to trust God?
4) In the rat race of life, how does God’s gift of Sabbath give us rest in the midst of our toil? In the midst of a time and season for everything, why is it significant that God has appointed one day in seven for Sabbath rest (Gen. 2:1–3; Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15)? What promises does God make to his people concerning the Sabbath (cf. Ex. 31:12–17; Isa. 58:13–14; Heb. 4:9–13)? How do you treasure the Sabbath rest that God gives you every Lord’s Day as you seek refuge in our eternal God?