Question: "What does it mean that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot (Ecclesiastes 3:2)?"
Answer: In Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, King Solomon introduces a series of fourteen opposing seasons and events in the cycle of life (birth and death, mourning and dancing, war and peace, etc.). “There is a time for everything,” begins Solomon, “and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot” (verses 1–2).
All of the moments in Solomon’s list combine to represent the whole of human activity in its varied expressions. Our lives in this world are a blend of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, harmony and discord, rooting and upheaval. Solomon acknowledges that every moment has its proper place and time appointed by God. From beginning to end, the Lord is in control. He is sovereign. He has a purpose in every season, whether we understand it or not.
The first two pairings—“a time to be born and a time to die” and “a time to plant and a time to uproot”—represent beginnings and endings, new life, and the inevitability of death. Plant life starts with sowing or planting but ends when uprooting occurs. Those who work in the world of agriculture understand that there is a proper time to plant and an appropriate season to harvest.
When a seed is buried in the ground and then nurtured, the potential for germinating life is established. By contrast, to “uproot” is to pull up or tear out by the roots. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the term is used figuratively for the destruction of cities and nations (Zephaniah 2:4; Jeremiah 12:17). The New Living Translation renders “a time to uproot” as “a time to harvest,” whereas the English Standard Version uses “pluck up what is planted.”
Life is full of contrasts. Birthing and planting represent the giving of life. There are occasions when we produce life by giving birth or planting seeds in the ground. Yet, for every person, there is also an appointed time to die (Job 14:5; Hebrews 9:27), just as there are designated agricultural seasons for uprooting and harvesting crops. In a metaphor, the prophet Jeremiah confirms there are times in life “to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).
In the New Testament, Jesus illustrates an important spiritual truth through a similar metaphor of planting and uprooting: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity” (John 12:24–25).
Jesus was speaking about His impending death. Only by sacrificing His life would new life come. His glorification would proceed from His death. Like a kernel of wheat planted in the soil, Jesus would die to give life to a glorious new plant that would bear much fruit. Resurrection life for the many would come through the sacrifice and death of the One (2 Corinthians 5:14–15). Jesus was the grain of wheat that had to fall into the ground and die before becoming fruitful in the Father’s purpose—to provide eternal life for all who would believe in Him (John 3:16).
By the same token, as followers of Christ, it is in dying that we live (Romans 6:4–8; 1 Corinthians 15:36; Galatians 2:20). Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25; see also Mark 8:34–35).
Christ’s teaching helps us understand why God sometimes allows us to experience difficult seasons of upheaval and mourning. For every Christian, there is a time to plant and a time to uproot (Matthew 9:37; Luke 10:2; Psalm 126:5), a time to be born again (John 3:3–7), and a time to die to self (Luke 14:27; Galatians 5:24). We can’t experience the joy of birth or the glorious sprouting of new life that bears abundant fruit unless we pass through times of travail, uprooting, and death.