Question: "What does it mean that we have eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11)?"
Answer: Ecclesiastes 3:11 states God has “set eternity in the human heart.” In every human soul is a God-given awareness that there is “something more” than this transient world. And with that awareness of eternity comes a hope that we can one day find a fulfillment not afforded by the “vanity” in this world. Here is a closer look at the verse:
“In the human heart” is an expression representing the mind, soul, or spirit of each person. God places eternity (Hebrew olam) into our heart and soul.
The word translated “eternity” is much debated regarding its translation in this passage. The word olam can be translated as “darkness,” “eternity,” or “the future.” The use of this word could indicate darkness (in the sense of ignorance), contrasting this concept with what follows in verse 11: “Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” It could be that Solomon is contrasting human ignorance with God’s perfect wisdom.
A better possibility, and the one that is the typical interpretation, is that olam refers to God’s placing an eternal longing or sense of eternity in the human heart. Taking this understanding to be the correct one, Ecclesiastes 3:11 affirms the idea that humans operate in a different way than other forms of life. We have a sense of eternity in our lives; we possess an innate knowledge that there is something more to life than what we can see and experience in the here and now.
The larger context of the chapter aids our understanding of verse 11. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under the heavens.” The next seven verses list a series of contrasts: love and hate, scattering and gathering, tearing and mending, weeping and laughter. Then comes verse 11, which begins, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” In other words, life is comprised of opposite experiences in balance; God has appointed each to its season. Each season is to be considered as part of a whole.
Seasons come and go, but does anything in this life truly satisfy? The answer in Ecclesiastes is, no, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). However, through all the ups and downs and vicissitudes of life, we have a glimpse of stability—God has “set eternity in the human heart.” Life is but a vapor (James 4:14), but we know there is something past this life. We have a divinely implanted awareness that the soul lives forever. This world is not our home.