Question: "What does it mean that there is a time to kill and a time to heal (Ecclesiastes 3:3)?"
Answer: In Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, King Solomon recognizes that God controls the times and seasons of every human life. Through fourteen juxtaposing statements, Solomon establishes that God is always working out His good purposes, accomplishing His will in each moment of our lives (Romans 8:28). Every occasion between our birth and our death happens at a God-appointed time according to His plan. One of the more challenging couplings to understand is that “there is a time to kill and a time to heal” (Ecclesiastes 3:3).
God’s law plainly states, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). How, then, is there a time to kill? In the original Hebrew, the word translated “to kill” means “to cut down or stab; cause to die; put to death, usually intentionally or knowingly.” Sin brought decay and death into the world, and it wasn’t long before humans became involved in the act of killing (Genesis 4:8).
According to one commentator, a time to kill “probably refers, not to war (v. 8) or self-defense, but to the results of sickness and plague in the land” (Wiersbe, W., Be Satisfied, Victor Books, 1996, p. 45–46). One such instance is noted in 1 Samuel 2:6: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (ESV).
Solomon is not advocating for capital punishment or mercy killing. He could be speaking of killing to defend the innocent, such as by law enforcement, or the act of self-defense. One thing is sure, the author is reflecting on a reality of life—that some people die while others live on and are healed.
It’s impossible to understand why God would allow millions of people to die in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic or any of the other widespread outbreaks of disease that have occurred throughout history. Yet God in His inscrutable sovereignty permits some to perish and others to be healed.
Solomon’s observations are not concerned with the ethical questions surrounding killing and murder. He is merely asserting some central facts of life: “There is a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2); “There is a time to kill and a time to heal” (verse 3). Destruction and death are unavoidable aspects of life (Hebrews 9:27). Thankfully, healing and rebuilding are part of our existence as well.
The word for “to heal” in the original Hebrew means “to provide a cure for or make healthy again (whether physically or spiritually); repair, rebuild.” The prophet Isaiah saw that God would bring Egypt to repentance, healing, and salvation: “So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them” (Isaiah 19:21–22). In this passage, we see the revelation of God’s good purpose in “a time to kill and a time to heal.”
Sometimes, for physical healing to occur, certain bacteria, micro-organisms, or hostile cells, must be killed before the human body can be restored to health. Likewise, spiritual healing often follows a season of brokenness: “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (Hosea 6:1; see also Psalm 147:3). When we cooperate with God, trusting that even the most painful and challenging seasons serve a purpose in His plan, He makes everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
There is a time to kill and a time to heal also parallels a metaphor for the process of sanctification. In the Christian life, we are called to “put to death” the misdeeds of our sinful nature so that we can live a new and wholesome life by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). We are to consider ourselves “dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11, NLT).