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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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ECCLESIASTES 3

MORE SUPPORT FOR SOLOMON'S THEORY OF THE FUTILITY AND VANITY OF LIFE

Verses 1-15
For everything there is a season, and a time for very purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which 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 rend, 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. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to do good so long as they live. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before him. That which is hath been long ago; and that which is to be hath long ago been: and God seeketh again that which is passed away.

"The works of men are subject in their results to another will (God's) than that of the doer."F1 Therefore, every human project should be initiated and pursued under the perpetual banner, "Deo Volente" (James 4:15).

This amazing list of fourteen opposites must be interpreted in the light of Eccl. 3:9. These opposites are cited for exactly the same purpose and in support of the same conclusion that marked Eccl. 1:1-11. "In Eccl. 1, he contemplated what he called the futility and vanity of life in the light of the repetitive cycle in the natural world; but here he supports the same conclusion by a reference to that fixed order of events (ordained by God) into which all human activity must be fitted."F2 The argument is that no matter what man attempts to do, the final result will be determined by events and conditions over which he has no control whatever. This, of course, is a basic fact of life on earth; and lies behind the apostolic warning that, "Having food and raiment let us be therewith content" (1 Timothy 6:8).

Regarding these fourteen opposites, Scott quoted an ancient saying that, "The works of the Most High ... are in pairs, one the opposite of the other."F3

"These verses indicate that today's positive act will eventually be balanced by tomorrow's negative. As surely as we are born, we must one day die, etc."F4

What actually determines the issues of human life? A countless list of things over which man has no control are, in the final analysis, the true determinators: (1) the age into which one is born; (2) the place of his birth; (3) the ability, wealth, or even the health of his parents; (4) their religion (or lack of it); (5) whether there prevailed war or peace, social, climatic, or geographical conditions; (6) the presence or absence of physical or mental handicaps; and (7) all kinds of accidents which may either enhance or hinder one's efforts to succeed. All such things are determined by the will of God.

"What the author was affirming here is that man's success, wealth, happiness, etc., are not finally in the hands of any man, but that the will of God in every case is a vital and determining factor."F5

What profit hath he in that wherein he laboreth?
(Ecclesiastes 3:9). As frequently in Ecclesiastes, the positive question here is actually a negative statement.F6

Scott described the argument here as; "Since everything must happen at the right moment, according to God's plan, nothing man can do makes any difference."F7 Of course, the argument is false. What man can do makes all the difference between his eternal destiny, either for joy or for sorrow.

I have seen the travail which God hath given unto the sons of men
(Ecclesiastes 3:10). The redeeming element in this pessimistic passage is the mention of God no less than six times in these five verses. In spite of the ridiculous things which Solomon said in these chapters, he was not an unbeliever. He was just a gross sinner, experiencing the inevitable doubts and fears that overwhelm every apostate from his duty.

He hath set eternity in their heart
(Ecclesiastes 3:11). This world-shaking fact is one that no infidel can deny. There is in every human heart a longing for eternal life and the instinctive certainty of it. No matter how primitive any tribe of mankind ever was, that inherent conviction that the Great Spirit lives eternally and that man may indeed hope for another life of eternal joy through His blessing -- that conviction has invariably appeared in worship and sacrifices instinctively offered. As Augustine stated it, Our hearts, Oh God, were made for Thee, and never shall they rest until they rest in Thee.

This eternity which God has set in our hearts is there by Creation, not by evolution. Even the crooked theory of evolution never was foolish enough to postulate the development of some faculty or ability that was useless. This points squarely to Creation as the origin of that eternity which burns in every human heart; and the corollary of that is that God placed it there because it is true, and that he would never have done so had it been impossible for man to attain it through the blessing of his Creator. "It is God who has placed within the inborn constitution of man this capability of conceiving of eternity, and his struggling after the everlasting, this longing after eternal life."F8 "Man can find that Forever, even in the prosaic business of Today, by his gratefully accepting the gifts of God, the wonders of his revelation, and by doing his commandments."F9

Yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even unto the end
(Eccl. 3:11b). The lament here is that man's intelligence is useless in those great areas that most concern him, life, death, the hereafter, eternity, etc.; and the reason for this lies simply in the fact that God's revelation through his Word is the God-appointed means by which man may acquire vital and truthful information in those areas. This limitation frustrates evil men and makes their proud heart despair.F10 The faithful servant of God through Christ has the consolation that, All things work together for good, unto them that are called according to God's purpose; but for the man who is trying to live his life in rebellion against God, no such consolation is available.

I know that whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that man should fear before him
(Ecclesiastes 3:14). In this verse, Solomon comes very near to the ultimate truth with which he finally closed out the book (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Note particularly the fact that the fear of God on man's part is the basic element of true wisdom and that God binds it as a pre-condition of all the blessings he may give to men.


IS MAN ANY MORE THAN A BEAST?

Verses 16-22
And moreover I saw under the sun, in the place of justice, that wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, that wickedness was there. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. I said in my heart, [It is] because of the sons of men, that God may prove them, and that they may see that they themselves are [but as] beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; and man hath no preeminence above the beasts: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast, whether it goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I saw that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him [back] to see what shall be after him?

This terrible paragraph is a favorite of atheists and skeptics and all materialists who hold the view that man is nothing but an animal. Volney, Frederick the Great and Voltaire loved this paragraph.F11 Also the Jehovah's Witnesses base their rejection of the immortality of the soul on this passage. We shall present two opposite views of this paragraph, finding in our own heart a great perplexity as to which is correct.

(1) This understands Solomon here as saying that a man is no better in any way than an animal, that no one knows whether the soul of man goes up to God when he dies, or if the soul of the beast goes downward. "This is a favorite proof-text for those who deny that man has an immortal spirit that survives physical death."F12 This writer is no apologist for Solomon. Throughout the historical books, we stressed the consummate wickedness of this evil man; but there are some things about the general interpretation of this paragraph that do not fit. Solomon believed in God; he had just stated that God would judge wicked men (Ecclesiastes 3:17); and he could not possibly have meant that God would judge them in this present life. Furthermore, as Grieve noted, "He here combats the idea that man's breath goes back to God who gave it, although he allows that as a fact in 12:7."F13 It raises a question if Solomon actually did, in this passage, contradict what he later said. We seriously doubt it.

(2) Who are these men whom Solomon said were "but as beasts"? Did he say this of all mankind, or merely of those wicked men who were perverting justice in the courts (Ecclesiastes 3:16). We think the words here should be restricted in their application to wicked men, which would be fully in harmony with what the rest of the Bible flatly declares, namely, that an evil man, "Is like the beasts that perish" (Psalms 49:20). The words `sons of men' are not the same as `all mankind.' And the Biblical usage justifies the conclusion that the words here may be used to distinguish them from `sons of God.' Favoring this viewpoint is what F. C. Cook declared to be the proper translation of Eccl. 3:21. The words translated `whether' are not in the Hebrew text.F14 That means that our version, ASV, the RSV, the Septuagint (LXX) and nearly all current translations have `emended the text.' That means that what they have given us is the word of the translators, not the Word of God, which we hold is found only in the Hebrew text. Let us read it correctly:

Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth
(KJV).

"The words `who knoweth' are used here and elsewhere in Scripture as a reference to that which is not fully understood."F15 They do not denote complete ignorance. Speaking of translators and their free-wheeling habit of `emending' God's Word, we should bear continually in mind the fact that the translators of the KING JAMES BIBLE believed that they were translating the Word of God, whereas many current `translators' consider themselves competent to tell us what the Holy Spirit `was trying to say'! This is an important reason why we prefer the alternative understanding of this difficult paragraph.

We should remember, however, that even if the first view of this passage is correct, the message in it would then be most certainly false. It was identified in the text as what Solomon thought in his heart; and like many another thing that Solomon thought in his heart, it was not the teaching of the Holy Spirit; because even the Old Testament reveals that there was a firm conviction among God's people of the resurrection and of life after death. Man is not merely a beast, but he must give an account to God for his behavior as stated in Eccl. 3:17; and that verse is also additional proof of the accuracy of the second view of this paragraph.

IS MAN ONLY AN ANIMAL?

Our wicked society today must face up to this question. Powerful and evil voices are shouting an affirmative answer. When our Supreme Court outlawed prayer in the public schools, while retaining it both in their court, and in the Congress, they yielded to those irresponsible and godless voices.

Every day in 10,000 classrooms, atheistic teachers are telling their gullible students that man is merely an animal, `highly evolved,' of course, but still an animal with no immortal spirit. "The vast majority of these evolutionists have long ago denied the existence of the God of the Bible."F16 Their theory of evolution is itself a blatant and unprovable lie; and the ultimate consequences of any society's accepting it are certain to terminate in the absolute destruction of that society.

If man is only an animal, it is not a sin to commit murder, robbery, mayhem, adultery, or anything else that the unregenerated mind may choose to do. Let the gullible fools who are teaching the theory try to explain the necessary implications of it in any other way. It is not wrong for fishes to eat one another, nor for animals to kill each other. It is not wrong for dogs to kill either cats, other dogs, or any other animal.

If man is but an animal, he is not responsible or in any other manner guilty if he commits murder. Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous criminal lawyers of this century, defended the brutal, senseless sex-murder of a young boy, pleading that, "The conduct of man or the other animals is no more subject to whim or choice than the action of the planets."F17 Is it true? Certainly, if man is merely an animal.

If our stupid and grossly wicked society really wants the explanation of the irresistible tidal wave of violent crimes which are destroying our cities and threatening the collapse of civilization itself, they must find it in this very conception, i.e., that there is no God and that man is merely an animal.

There is only one reason why it's wrong for one man to kill another; and that reason is that every man is created in the image of God; and his destruction is against God Himself. A godless society has no more rights than a society of brown rats. God help our deluded generation to find the way back to sanity before it is too late! Many in our current culture have not yet caught on to the truth which was so bluntly stated by Clarence Darrow; but a whole generation of young criminals have already adopted it.

Oh, but it is against the law to commit murder! How is this so? It is true because the Ten Commandments, given by God Himself, are recognized in 47 of the 48 contiguous states of our beloved nation as the basic law of the land. Let the atheists have their way long enough and they'll remove that, just like they did prayer in the public schools. In fact, by the removal of the death penalty for murder, they have already contradicted the God-commanded execution of capital punishment upon every human being guilty of murder. Yes, God commanded that every murderer should be put to death (Genesis 9:6); and that is not an option, it is a Divine order. God help America to wake up!


Footnotes for Ecclesiastes 3
1: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1989 reprint of the 1878 edition), Eccl., p. 95.
2: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 743.
3: The Anchor Bible Commentary (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972), Vol. 18, p. 221.
4: James Waddey, p. 22.
5: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 9b, p. 59.
6: Peake's Bible Commentary by Arthur S. Peake (Edinburgh: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 413.
7: The Anchor Bible Commentary, op. cit., p. 221.
8: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament, op. cit., p. 96.
9: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 573.
10: James Waddey, p. 23.
11: Ibid., p. 5.
12: Ibid., 25.
13: Peake's Bible Commentary by Arthur S. Peake (Edinburgh: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 413.
14: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament, op. cit., p. 97.
15: Ibid.
16: James Waddey, p. 26.
17: Clarence Darrow, Autobiography, (New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932), p. 76.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ec&chapter=003>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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