Even from the lips of an atheist, an agnostic, or a person who has put very little thought into religion, one is likely to hear the statement “everything happens for a reason.” The idea of destiny pervades our culture, showing up in everything from astrological predictions that say our fates are governed by the stars to romantic movies in which the message is that the two protagonists are destined to be together. In all of these cases and several others, however, it is an impersonal force of some kind that is supposed to be governing things. Rarely, if ever, is there mention of a personal being who is directing and giving purpose to all things.
As many Christian philosophers and apologists have pointed out, however, impersonal reality cannot give anything meaning and purpose. By definition, purpose is the property of personal design. Only personal, thinking beings can act with purpose; a mere force just is. For example, gravity in itself does not act with intentionality; it is simply there, a given reality that does not make plans or direct things to an appointed goal or end. Things do not have an ultimate purpose merely because we want them to—if there is no creator God directing all things, the idea that everything happens for a reason is mere wishful thinking.
Thus, when we approach a passage such as Ecclesiastes 3, we must keep in mind that the Preacher is operating under a framework that assumes the existence of Israel’s covenant-keeping God who has purposes that He cannot fail to accomplish (Isa. 46:8–11). The statement that there is a time for everything under heaven (Eccl. 3:1) may derive in part from observing the world and seeing that there are appropriate seasons for such things as birth, death, planting, weeping, laughing, and so forth, but the Preacher can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate times for such things only because he knows that God has made these times and is to be feared (12:13–14).
The times and seasons mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 encompass all of life, including its beginning (“a time to be born”) and end (“a time to die”), the agricultural cycle (“a time to plant, and a time to pluck up”), and much more. Life is repetitive in many ways, but it is not an unending circle. There is advancement toward a God-ordained goal, and part of that involves appointed times and seasons that are put in place by the personal Creator. It is not that “everything happens for a reason”; rather, “everything happens for God’s reason.”