Ecclesiastes: A Time to Weep
Published May 17, 2023
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
The most famous passage in the book of Ecclesiastes, the Time Poem (3:1-8), remains a popular text for funerals. Notably, it was read at the funeral of John F. Kennedy and was reportedly a favorite passage of his. Even unbelievers, while not grasping the true meaning of the poem—God’s absolute sovereignty over times and seasons, and thus all creation—find some comfort in its words. How much more then should the one who truly recognizes God’s sovereignty, who trusts in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, who possesses the hope of eternal life, look to the passage for comfort.
One lesson from this passage that can help Christians during times of grief comes in verse 4: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Throughout my life I have encountered folks who seem to think that mourning the death of a loved one is unspiritual or impious. They have taken comforting verses such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which instructs believers not to grieve as those with no hope, as prohibitions against grief altogether. With tremendous pain in their eyes, they insist that they are not sad, on the basis that their loved one is in heaven.
Another type of person I have frequently encountered grieves to an extent, but cuts “the time to weep” short by trying to move on too quickly. This type of person longs for a new normal, for better times, for times of laughter and dancing (3:4), so they do not properly grieve and thus never really heal from their pain.
Both denying grief and cutting it short lead to disastrous results. Unprocessed grief leads to severe problems down the road, and those who refuse to properly grieve are depriving themselves of a means by which their pain may be healed. I can’t speak for everyone, but often those who insist that they are not sorrowful end up carrying their sorrows for years. In contrast, those who allow themselves a season of “weeping” eventually move on and lead well-adjusted lives.
Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us all that there is a time to weep, and like all of the times and seasons mentioned in the passage, this time is appointed by God. As servants of Jesus, we must not think that we are greater than our master, who himself was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). In fact, the record of one of the most remarkable moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, contains a detail that is no less remarkable than miracle itself: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). These two words, which comprise the shortest verse in our English Bibles, contain enough theological truth to mediate on for a lifetime. The second person of the Trinity, who has eternally existed as God, who has created and actively sustains the universe, became a man and wept human tears. Some have asserted that Jesus wept because of the unbelief of those gathered. A more natural reading of the text suggests both sorrow over the death of his friend and compassion for those in mourning, since Jesus’ weeping comes immediately after observing both others weeping and Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:33-34). None of us are more pious than Jesus, who wept at the time for weeping. As Augustine once said, “Why did Christ weep except to teach us to weep?”
Lastly, Ecclesiastes 3:4 teaches us that weeping is temporary, for there is also a time for laughing and dancing. Ecclesiastes has not been shy in describing the devastating effects of sin in the world. Vanity pervades this life, yet God in His goodness has not allowed vanity to destroy all enjoyment. Seasons of weeping give way to seasons of laughter, and mourning to dancing. This life consists of cycles of joy and sorrow. Perhaps this is designed to remind us that suffering is ultimately temporal and direct our gaze to the New Heavens and the New Earth, where we will experience eternal joy, unmixed with sorrow, in the presence of God.