After thoroughly investigating life (1:12-2:16), Solomon concluded that there is only one thing to do: enjoy the life God has given to you (vv.24-26). Nothing you do lasts forever. Nothing you do really changes how the world turns and how things are going to be. Most of us will be forgotten in a hundred years. No matter how hard you work, or how smart you become, you will eventually die. So instead of kicking against death, enjoy life. Learn to be happy with the life God has given to you.
When Solomon finished giving an account of his search (1:1-2:26), he began the second main section in Ecclesiastes. Solomon has told us that it is useless trying to play God and make our lives be whatever we want them to be. You are not God, you are God’s creature. You are not God – but, there is a God. He decides what happens in the universe. He is sovereign, and it is in God’s sovereignty that Solomon finds the answer of joy. God’s sovereignty leads Solomon to live a life of obedience and joy under God.
The matter of God’s sovereignty is dicey for a multitude of reasons. Unbelievers hate the sovereignty of God, for the same reason that they hate the light that exposes their sin (John 3:20). This hatred manifests itself in outright unbelief or feigned faith. The atheist hates the God of Scripture and doesn’t care if you know it: outright unbelief. The open theist hates the God of Scripture and cares about hiding it: feigned faith.
Believers love the sovereignty of God, though imperfectly. The regenerate spirit adores giving all glory and honor to the Creator, but the fallen flesh despises this. Thus, among God’s people, there are varying degrees of ascent to the breathtaking view of sovereignty we find in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Some Christians consider His sovereignty as an agnostic: God knows what’s going on but He is not involved in it. Other Christians view His sovereignty in terms of ordination and allowance: things happen only because God allows them to happen, but God has not ordained all things which come to pass.
However, there are those Christians, with a flesh utterly wounded and humbled by the Spirit of God, who see and rejoice in the glorious reality revealed in such texts as Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. God is sovereign over all things at every moment, and has decreed all things which come to pass. This is the conviction that I can’t pull my socks over my feet apart from God’s grace, that every time I draw breath I suck in mercy. This is the conviction that compelled Solomon to conclude that joy is found in life itself, not in what fruit may come of it.
A Universal Schedule
First, notice that the universe has a schedule (vv.1-8). Solomon begins chapter three with a traditional poem, much like how he began chapter 1. It is a beautiful poem, often read at funerals and painted on living room walls. It tells us that everything has a time. There is a “season” for every matter. By “matter” Solomon means anything and everything that happens. There is a pine-cone on a tree in South Arkansas which will fall to the ground one day, and that fall is a matter that has a time. You will tie your right shoelace tomorrow, and that tying is a matter that has a time. At the time of writing, my son, Paul, is growing inside my wife’s womb, and his birth is a matter that has a time. When Solomon says, “Everything” in verse 1, he literally means everything.
This is evident in the poem itself (vv.2-8). Solomon covers all the bases: everything has a time. There is “a time to heal” (v.3), which involves biological functions of the body. There is “a time to gather stones together” (v.5), which involves inanimate rocks and the ligaments in your arms. There is “a time to embrace” (v.5), which involves contact with other people. There is “a time for war” (v.8), which involves gunpowder, courage, wet socks, and MRE’s. Everything in the universe is wrapped-up in this list.
Also, notice that all kinds of things have a time. There are happy things in this list, like birth (v.2), health (v.3), laughter (v.4), and love (v.8). There are also sinful things in this list (either sinful in themselves or caused by sin), like death (v.2), weeping (v.4), hate, and war (v.8). There are also things on this list which are not by definition good or bad, like gardening (v.2), construction (v.3), sewing, and silence (v.7). There is no category of events which we can look at and say, “This does not have a time.” There are no untimely matters. Everything has a season.
Notice that Solomon is saying that there is a time in which everything occurs, not that there is a time in which everything should be done. For example, verse 2 says that there is “a time to plant.” This does not mean that there is a time when you should plant, it means that there is a time when you will plant. There is a specific time when you will kneel down in your garden, pierce the earth with your shovel, lay the seed in the dirt, and cover it up. There is a particular moment in which you were to be born and in which you are to die (v.1). There is a specific time in which you are going to tear your favorite pair of jeans and in which your mother will sew them back together (v.7).
The universe is operating according to a schedule. Things happen at a certain time, and that’s not an accident. “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Things may seem random, but they are not random. This is what Solomon means when he writes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The universe is operating according to a schedule. The universe is timely, it isn’t ultimately random.
Timeliness by God’s Design
Second, notice that this schedule is decreed by God (vv.9-15). Now we learn from where the universal schedule comes: God. In verse 9, Solomon asks the same question he started asking in chapter 1: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v.9). As Solomon develops his worldview in Ecclesiastes, this question takes on deeper meaning. Everything is scheduled and no matter how hard you work, you can’t undo this schedule. You can’t break-away from the timeliness of the universe. In the end, there is a business that God has given to everyone to be busy with (v.10). It is our task to do the business, not to kick against it.
The term “decree” is not present in this passage, and so it is necessary that we justify its use. What we mean by God’s “decree” is twofold. First, He is considered an active participant in the events of time. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (v.11) does not mean God reforms everything to culminate in beauty. Rather, God has made everything – full stop – and He has made everything beautiful in its time. “Beautiful” is an adjective describing how God has made everything (with the qualifier “in its time;” see discussion below). This is in reference to more than simply getting the wheels turning by creating matter and energy. God created everything, yes, but He likewise sustains everything, continually. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). So in everything that transpires on earth, there are at least two causal parties: the creation and the Creator. The rain falls on your umbrella because of gravity, but also because of God. Joseph explained this in Genesis 50, speaking to his brothers about their act of selling him into slavery: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (v.20).
Second, not only is God an active participant in the events of time, but He is also the ultimate participant in these events. In everything that transpires on earth, there are at least two causal parties: the creation and the Creator. The former party constitutes the secondary cause, the latter party constitutes the primary cause. When the rain falls on your umbrella, gravity is the secondary cause of this event. However, God is the primary cause. Joseph’s brothers were the secondary cause of selling him into slavery: they really did it, they meant to do it, and they meant evil by it. However, God was the primary cause of selling Joseph: He also did it, He also meant to do it, but He meant good by it. Two wills and two parties involved, but one event. God’s ultimate participation in the events of time is clear at the end of our passage, which we will study below.
From both God’s active and ultimate participate in the events of time, we derive something (not everything) that constitutes His “decree.” I believe further studying this concept, beyond what our passage permits, would be beyond the scope of this work. Let it be sufficient, for now, to say what Solomon has written, and ultimately what God Himself has revealed, concerning God’s decree.
There are four things about God’s decree that are plain in this text. First, God’s decree is universal. We have already seen this in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Everything is operating according to a schedule, and God has designed the schedule. Therefore, God’s decree is universal. It encompasses all things. Every war, every kiss, every sleepless night, every arrow whizzing through the air, every drop of gasoline that ignites inside a car – everything has a time, and God has decided when this time will be. “All human events, natural or contingent, voluntary or fortuitous, are all of them entirely limited and bounded by Divine Providence.” God’s decree is universal.
“Has God even decreed the evil things which comes to pass?” Certainly, because we have already established that sinful matters are included in the comprehensive language of verses 1-9. “All things… are of God, and there is a season fixed for the accomplishment of everything which God has decreed – a time unalterably determined for the execution of every purpose which He has formed.” This truth is reflected elsewhere in Scripture. Both natural and moral evil find their beginning threads in the decree of God.
Job credited God with the death of his children and the calamity which fell upon his riches: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Yet, in the very next verse, we learn that “in all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (emphasis mine). So God can decree evil without contaminating His decree with evil. It is not evil for God to decree evil. It is not wicked for God to decree wickedness. Job says again in Job 2:10, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (cf. Ruth 1:20-21).
Moses wrote of God’s all-encompassing acts in Deuteronomy 32:39, “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” God told Moses earlier in his life, in Exodus 4:11, “So the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord?’” Human ailments and sicknesses ultimately come from the hand of God.
James clearly believed that all things in life, both good and bad, are from the hand of God. “Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:14-15). The pagan king Nebuchadnezzar confessed, “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth no one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:35). The book of Amos reads, “If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” (3:6). Even seemingly random events are decreed by God: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
God’s decree envelopes even the volition of man – his creaturely will. We have already commented on Genesis 50:20. Joseph said that in the same act of selling him into slavery, there were two wills at work. His brothers had a creaturely will, and they intended evil. God was also at work in that act of evil, and His will was for good. God does not simply use moral evil for His purposes, He has ordained it for His purposes. Scripture says the same thing with regard to the crucifixion of Christ. “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determine before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28). Even the will of man is under the decree of God. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).
Paul summarized the Biblical scope of God’s decree in Ephesians 1:11, when he asserted that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This text does not say that God works in all things, but that God works all things. God is the energizer of all things. Commenting on Ecclesiastes 3:3, Reynolds provides another keen summary of this truth: “There is a providence in the violent deaths of men, directing actions, either sinful or fortuitous, as it pleases him.”
Second, God’s decree is good. Many people, even Christians, are fearful to talk about God’s decree – but Christians, of all people, should know better. God’s decree is not the cold cloud of fatalism, smearing futility on all our efforts. God’s decree is the supreme beautifying force, as Solomon says in verse 11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” God is after beauty. Solomon does not say that everything is beautiful, period. He does not call sin beautiful, nor does he call death and war beautiful, but these things are beautiful in their time. The timeliness of the universe gives it a glorious hue. When you look at any single thing or event, you may or may not be seeing beauty. But when you zoom out and look at that thing in God’s schedule, ugly things suddenly become splendid – beauty comes up from ashes. God’s decree is good.
Third, God’s decree is unsearchable. The second half of verse 11 teaches us that God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (v.11b). The implication is that man wants to find out what God has done, but he can’t. For man to have eternity in his heart is for him to possess a longing for the infinite. Man naturally seeks glory after glory – an adventure in which animals do not partake. We long to behold majesty and are motivated by such visions. Yet God has put eternity into our hearts in such a way that prevents us from knowing eternity. In other words: we long for the infinite, but we are not infinite. We long for glory after glory, but we do not possess the capacity to fulfill this longing.
“What God has done from the beginning to the end” refers to all God is doing from the beginning to the end of time and space. The dilemma, therefore, pertains to the ins-and-outs of God’s eternal decree, what He has willed to accomplish. We are unable to know the depths of God’s decree, and this is a cause for angst because we would very much like to be acquainted with these depths. God has made everything beautiful in its time, but we can’t understand how all things end up beautiful. We can’t see how everything fits together, in the end – how everything in history ends up acting like threads in a beautiful tapestry. We have to satisfy ourselves with the “fringes” (Job 26:14 NASB). “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
You don’t know how all things become beautiful in the decree of God. You are made in the image of God, and so God has placed eternity in your heart. However, you are a mere creature, and you cannot know the sum of God’s work, from beginning to end. As John Piper once noted, God is doing 10,000 things in your life at this very moment, and you may be aware of 2 or 3 of these matters. This is something only the eye of faith can see. So your job is not to play God. Your job is to “be joyful and to do good as long as [you] live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). Your job is to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all [your] toil” (v.13). This is God’s gift to you. “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). You do not have the gift of decreeing what comes to pass, you have the gift of life. So live life well. God’s decree is unsearchable.
Fourth, God’s decree is sovereign. It is one thing to say that God has decided on a schedule for all of the universe, but it is quite another thing to say that God’s decree always comes to pass. Solomon says, “Whatever God does endures forever” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). God’s decree does not rust, it is never lost or forgotten, and it does not run out of style. God’s decree is eternal and “nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” Not only does it endure, but it also does not change. God has decreed a schedule for history, for His glory and our good (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11), and this schedule will be kept without exception until history has run its course. God’s decree is unchanging and enduring because God Himself is immutable and absolutely independent, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Some might think they can undo God’s decree. They might consider themselves innovative, but even man’s brightest ideas are mere repetitions of something that has come before: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). And what you think should happen is not usually what God wants to happen: “God seeks what has been driven away.” Abraham thought that Ishmael would be the chosen covenant child, but God wanted Isaac, the second born son. Israel thought that Saul would make a great king because he was tall and handsome, but God wanted David, the shepherd. The Disciples wanted a Messiah to overthrow the Romans, but God wanted a Messiah to die on a cross. You drive away something that you think isn’t important, and that’s the very thing God decides to work through. The point is that God’s decree is sovereign, it comes to pass regardless of how much a man hates God or how highly he considers his own agenda. Man cannot escape God’s decree. “When His set time for working comes, not all the power in the universe can stay His hand.”
The sovereignty of God’s decree should not compel us to sin. Most of us have thought, or know someone to have thought, that if God has decided everything that will happen in history, then my will is irrelevant. If I give myself to vices and sins, then God must have ordained it to be so. This is an inappropriate application of the sovereignty of God’s decree, and always betrays a lack of understanding of what His decree actually means. God is the primary cause of all things, but we are secondary causes – which means we are true causes and our actions have true meaning. The proper, logical response is given in verse 14, “God has done it, so that people fear before him.” If God’s decree cannot be avoided, then you should be convinced to obey Him, not run from Him. God’s sovereignty should compel us to be holy.
God’s decree is universal, good, unsearchable, and sovereign. Our response to this decree should not be to hate or run from God. Our response should be to fear God and enjoy the time on earth He has given us. God’s decree beautifies history, and as His people, it is all for our good. “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). So eat and drink, and be happy under God. Enjoy life, because your God is sovereign.
One Eye on the Map
The first section of Ecclesiastes (chs. 1-2) is about Solomon trying to find fruit in fruitlessness, to escape the futility of life. The second section of Ecclesiastes, is about the decree of God (chs. 3-8). In the first part (3:1-15), which we have just studied, Solomon explains the eternal decree of God. In the next seven parts (parts 2-7), Solomon will address various parts of life through the lens of God’s eternal decree. He will address people (3:16-22), evil (4:1-16), worship (5:1-7), wealth (5:8-6:12), wisdom (7:1-14), righteousness (7:15-8:13), and general life (8:14-17). The third and final section of Ecclesiastes is about wisdom in a vain world: how to live under God’s decree and under the curse of Adam (chs. 9-12).
It is important to keep one eye on this map of Ecclesiastes, because it will be tempting to draw improper conclusions from solitary verses. For example, if we read the passage we just studied (3:1-15) and went no further, we might conclude that the Christian life is easy: just accept that God is God and you are not, and everything will be simple and easy. This is not the case. There are hard questions to answer, difficult dilemmas to wade through, and tough trials to survive. When we read 3:1-15 in light of why Solomon is saying what he is saying, we realize he is not giving us immediate escape from suffering, but rather teaching us how to live in a fallen world.