The Cycle of Life

“There is a time to be begotten and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.”

(Ecclesiastes 3:2)

Solomon now illustrates his point about the nature of the passage of time based on human events with a series of extremes — one event at the very beginning and one event at the very end of a season of one’s experience. And, thus, with extremes in place, everything in between is implied. And so Solomon goes on with a series of events in the cycle of life.

The initial pair that Solomon chooses is that of life and death — first in the animal world and then in the plant world. What is interesting is his choice of words. For example, while ילד (yalad), or “beget,” can refer to the birthing process, it also can be used to speak about the origins of something’s or someone’s existence. Given God’s commands to protect the life of the unborn (see Exodus 21:20-29), it seems perfectly natural for Solomon to recognize life as beginning at conception and not simply at childbirth — again, a reflection of the totality of a person’s lifespan.

This would parallel with the agricultural imagery he also uses. He does not speak about when a plant sprouts, but when the seed is planted into the ground. And, though our English Bibles sometimes imply that Solomon is paralleling planting with harvesting, a more literal translation is that when the plant is uprooted from the ground, something done at the very end of the season so that the stalks can be tilled under. Again, the fullness of the life-cycle is reflected in his couplets.

What is also interesting about Solomon’s choice of illustrations is that the timing of the first couplet varies from person to person…or perhaps I should say, from couple to couple. Children are brought about in the ordinary way all through the calendar year, but for plants, there are specified seasons in which the seed must be laid into the soil. In most areas of the world, one cannot wait until mid-summer or autumn to plant one’s crops because they will not have long enough in the ground to sprout, mature, and then bear fruit. Similarly, while people die at all times during the calendar year, the time to tear down a field and allow it to go fallow is dictated by the crop and by the climate in which you live. 

And so, while both sets of seasons are very much part of the human experience, what we have here is a pair of one season governed entirely by the experience of people and the other governed by items in the natural order. And for each there is a time and a season.

Why is it so significant for Solomon — and now for us — to explore this notion about time and its passing? The simple answer to that question is that we live within time and God governs time and the times in which we live. While some cycles are predictable (planting and harvesting, for example), there is much in life that is unpredictable (how many beautiful babies have been born into this world who were originally “surprises” to their parents). The first are things we can ordinarily control; the second are in the providence of God. And thus, the lesson for us all is to focus our energies in those areas in which we have some control and learn to trust God in those areas in which we have no control. We exist “in time;” God does all things “in His time.”

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