Ecclesiastes: “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
Published April 26, 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;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
These words from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes comprise the most well-known passage of the book. Many have heard this biblical poem without even realizing it is from the Bible, thanks in large part to a song called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” composed by Peter Seeger and made popular by The Byrds in 1965 . The lyrics closely follow the KJV rendering of the Biblical text with some minor additions and changes in line order. The song peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which means we can add “hit songwriter” to King Solomon’s long list of accomplishments.
While this is a fascinating example of how the Bible has shaped culture, it also serves as a warning against misinterpreting a passage of Scripture by removing it from its context. Seeger’s song turns Ecclesiastes 3 into an anthem for world peace by concluding with the line, “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” A desire for world peace is noble, but it cannot come apart from the Prince of Peace. Any pursuit of peace apart from Him is for the Byrds. When the Time Poem is understood in light of its surrounding context, the true exhortation is not the pursuit of world peace, but surrender to God’s sovereignty.
The verses that follow the poem (9-15) explore the creator-creature distinction. In other words, they contrast God with man. Verse 9 repeats the programmatic question in 1:3, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” The answer to this question is a resounding “nothing,” illustrated by a detailed account of Solomon’s life in chapter two. Through his labor, Solomon accumulated and accomplished everything humanly possible, but it all was vanity. In contrast to the work of man, which is wearisome and futile for achieving lasting gain, there is the work of God: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him” (3:14). The work of man is a mere vapor with no lasting remembrance (1:11), but the work of God endures forever. He has created the world and everything in it.
God has also established the times and seasons. The reason there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted is because God has appointed these times. This is the true meaning of the phrase, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Some have linked this verse with the process of sanctification—that God is doing a work in us that will eventually result in something beautiful—but this misses the connection with the time poem. God has appointed a time for all activity under the sun, which means human activity is beautiful when done at the proper time, in accordance with the timetables that God has created.
Another popular line from this passage is “He has put eternity into man’s heart,” though many quotations of it stop midsentence, leaving off “yet so that he cannot find out what God has done beginning to end.” The precise meaning of “eternity in man’s heart” is subject to debate, but the emphasis in this passage is on man’s limitations. Man may have a general sense that the times and seasons have been ordered by God, but he is limited in his ability to understand the scope of God’s work. We do not know the future and thus all attempts to control life will fail. God’s is sovereign; mankind is not.
The absolute sovereignty of God, combined with the feebleness of man as illustrated in Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 give a framework for understanding the famous Time Poem in 3:1-8. We should abandon any false notions that we are in control of life and surrender to God’s sovereignty. This leads to rest, contentment, and enjoyment of life (3:12-13) as opposed to frenetic busyness that accompanies the quest for gain. My next post will draw some applications from the Time Poem, but for now, we must start from a place of surrender to God’s sovereignty. He established a time for every matter under heaven.