Question: "What does it mean that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:4)?"
Answer: “A time to mourn and a time to dance” is one of fourteen juxtaposed seasons of life observed by King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:1–8. While looking back across his years, Solomon sums every human “activity under the heavens” (verse 1). He concludes that life is an ongoing cycle of beginnings and endings, ups and downs, gains and losses. Solomon has learned that there is a God-appointed time, place, and purpose for every moment and that the Lord is ultimately in control of them all.
In Ecclesiastes 3:4, Solomon focuses on the emotional seasons of human existence, pairing “a time to mourn and a time to dance” with “a time to weep and a time to laugh.” In the original Hebrew, the word translated as “mourn” means “to observe the customs of mourning after the death of a person.” Mourning is the natural process of working through the heartache that follows a significant loss. It is normal and healthy to grieve for a period after a loved one has died. Ultimately, God uses mourning to produce healing.
The term dance is just as direct, meaning “to move in a pattern; usually to musical accompaniment.” With this expressive coupling, Solomon contrasts a funeral gathering and a celebratory feast such as a wedding. Humans weep and mourn at a funeral but laugh and dance at a wedding reception.
Later, in Ecclesiastes 7:2, Solomon explains, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” Here Solomon expresses the wisdom of admitting our own mortality. At a funeral, we are forced to confront the inevitable fate of all humanity—we are all destined to die (Job 30:23; Hebrews 9:27).
God gives us one opportunity—this life on earth—to know Him and receive His gift of salvation. If we live only to party and have fun, we will be ill-prepared for eternity.
Seasons of mourning serve a good purpose—they remind us of our need to put our faith and hope in God: “LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath. . . . We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing. We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it. And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you” (Psalm 39:4–7, NLT).
Mourning is part of the human experience. The Christian life is not only rejoicing and laughter. While seasons of mourning are painful, they provide opportunities for us to see the weight of our sin and the depth of our spiritual bankruptcy. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Only when we truly recognize and feel sorrow over the wretched condition of our hearts can God’s grace and forgiveness be poured out on us. Only then can we say, like the psalmist, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11, NLT).
There is a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time for sorrow and for celebration, for repentance and for refreshing. In the kingdom of God, those who mourn are blessed because they are destined to dance and celebrate at the marriage supper of Lamb (Revelation 19:7–10). They have had their hearts broken by their own sin and the depths of this world’s suffering. Yet they will receive God’s comfort and live with joy forever in the Lord’s presence.