Ecclesiastes: Life, Death, and Farming
Published May 10, 2023
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.”
In the previous post, we examined Ecclesiastes’ most famous passage in light of its surrounding context. To recap, the Time Poem is primarily about God’s sovereignty. He is Lord over creation and over time, the one who has appointed times and seasons. “Age to age He stands, and time is in His hands” (Chris Tomlin et al.). In this post, we will reflect on the first set of “times” given in verse 2.
“A time to be born, and a time to die.” At the beginning of the poem stands two concepts that encapsulate the full scope of human life: birth and death. The Bible often employs this figure of speech, called a merism, where two ends of a spectrum are used to include everything that lies between. Birth and death are the beginning and end points, and thus the entire timeline is in view. From the very outset of the poem we are taught that our entire lives are in the hand of God. There exists no moment that is exempted from His oversight. He gives life, and He takes it away. “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39).
Birth and death also happen to be the moments of our lives over which we exert the least control. Regarding pregnancy and birth, we often speak figuratively of babies being ready or not ready to “come out” of the womb, but we know that babies do not actually decide when they will be born. There can be no greater example of an event over which we have no control than our own birth. Similarly, we do not control our own deaths. Granted, some people make the tragic decision to end their own lives, but apart from those cases, we do not decide when we die (as an aside, even cases of suicide are not outside of God’s sovereignty). We can certainly mitigate risks of death by taking care of our bodies and avoiding dangerous situations, but these precautions provide no guarantees. Olympic athletes have died in their twenties from heart attacks. Chain smokers have lived to a hundred. Death comes to all, and it often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. We have more influence over our deaths than our births, but we are still not in control. The number of our days is known only to God.
Our births, our deaths, and every moment in between lies in the hand of God. For the believer, this is a tremendous comfort. Such knowledge should lead to a sense of awe. Our hearts should fill with wonder that overflows into praise and worship. It leads to surrender, to forfeiting the delusion that we can control our lives. We surrender control to the one who is already in control.
“A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” The example of events in which we are entirely passive is followed by activities in which we are active participants. Lest anyone misunderstand the implications of God’s sovereignty, throw their hands in the air, and decide that nothing they do matters, Solomon uses an example from the realm of human effort. God determines the time for planting and harvesting, but the farmer must act. God is sovereign over agriculture, but He rarely, if ever, causes domesticated crops to grow apart from the planting and harvesting of human agents. It has been said that God not only ordains the ends, but he ordains the means to accomplish those ends. Any view of God’s sovereignty that advocates for passivity is defective.
Pressing the agricultural example further, there is another lesson to be learned. It is not enough just to act, but our actions must conform to God’s design. Any farmer worth his salt knows not to plant corn in the winter. God has ordained the times for planting and harvesting, and even unbelieving farmers who do not acknowledge Him only find success when they follow His design. How much more so should believers seek to conform their lives to this same design! This includes conforming our actions to God’s moral law revealed in His word as well as recognizing the season in which God has placed us and acting accordingly. One potential application of this principle is to pour God’s truth into the people God has placed in your life during the seasons that He gives you influence—the children under your roof, the friend who confides in you, the unbelieving coworker. Like the wise farmer, we should plant when the planting is good, lest we miss our window of opportunity. Recognize the seasons God has ordained for ministry, plant seeds of Gospel truth in those around you, and trust God to bring about the growth. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6).
Ecclesiastes 3:2 perfectly captures the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Life, death, and every intervening moment are in His hands, yet we are not passive. When the “time to pluck up what is planted comes,” the wise farmer will reap a God-given harvest, but the lazy farmer will be sorely disappointed.