A. The Principle: God has a Plan - 3:1-15
1. his observations - vv. 1-8
For all affairs of life, God has an appointed time; the point in history, the length and character and significance of all things is subject to the oversight of divine providence. To illustrate this point, the teacher appeals to 14 pairs of opposites in vv. 2-8.
a. birth and death (first breath and funerals; from womb to tomb)
b. plant and uproot
c. kill and heal
d. tear down and build up
e. weep and laugh
f. mourn and dance
g. scatter and gather
h. embrace and refrain
i. search and give up
j. keep and throw away
k. tear and mend
l. silence and speaking
m. love and hate
n. war and peace
2. his conclusions - vv. 9-10
It is the same as 1:3. Everything in life unfolds under the eye of providence; yes, God has a plan. But so much of it seems senseless and without aim or explanation.
3. his assessment - vv. 11-15
a. Three observations:
First, God has made everything beautiful in its own time and place. We see things only as they occur, but God sees them from the perspective of eternity. We can't see the individual events in their relation to all others. We see the particulars, but God sees the composite. Even the things of vv. 2-8, though seemingly senseless when viewed individually, are subservient to God's overarching plan and thus are for that reason beautiful and useful.
Here is the paradox of human existence: it derives from the fact that whereas God is providential Lord over all things, all things have been subjected to "vanity" because of sin. We live in God's world, but it is a world that is fallen and under the curse. Therefore, the times and seasons and events and experiences and endeavors of mankind are both beautiful and baffling; they are a source of both delight and discouragement; there is joy in what God has ordained for us, but no lasting satisfaction this side of eternity.
Second, God has placed it within us to see the whole, to trace the hand of providence from beginning to end and to understand the sense of the parts as they fit into the complete picture. This is part of the image of God in us. There is a God-implanted, deep-seated drive and compulsive desire to grasp the strategy of heaven. We wonder about our destiny, the fate of others, where life is leading. We have a sharp and nagging thirst within our hearts which God will not allow us to quench until heaven. We long to see the beauty of it all (our aesthetic sense); we search to know the meaning of it all (our philosophical hunger), we want to discern its ultimate purpose in relation to God (our theological curiosity).
"Man has an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in his experience can be integrated to make a whole. He wants to know how the mundane 'down-stairs' realm of ordinary, day-to-day living fits with the 'up-stairs' realm of the hereafter; how the business of living, eating, working, and enjoying can be made to fit with the call to worship, serve, and love the living God" (Kaiser, 66-67).
Third, God won't give us the answer. This does not mean it is wrong for us to ask the question. We must! But it is folly to think we will ever wholly and to our satisfaction find them. God has shown us the goal, but not how it will be reached through all the disparate parts.
b. two words of counsel - vv. 12-15
First, enjoy God's good gifts (vv. 12-13).
Second, God has done it this way so that we would fear him (vv. 14-15). Ignorance forces us to humbly submit, to believe, and to trust God for the outcome. As Hubbard has said, "God has fixed our courses and veiled them in mystery so that we may not take him for granted but may serve him in reverence and honor all our days" (53).
B. The Problem: the Pieces don't seem to Fit - 3:16-4:16
The teacher now points to six facts of life which seem to violate the thesis that God has a plan and that he providentially directs the affairs on earth. That God has a purpose, that all is beautiful in its own time, seems to be denied by so much of what we actually see and experience.
1 Injustice - 3:16-17
2. Death - 3:18-22
3. Oppression - 4:1-3
4. Rivalry - 4:4-6
5. Loneliness - 4:7-12
6. Fleeting Fame - 4:13-16