A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5)?

In Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, King Solomon observes that God has a plan for all people at all times and in every season. Through the ongoing cycles of life—through beginnings and endings, joys and sorrows, highs and lows—God is always with us, working out His good purposes (see Romans 8:28). If we learn to trust Him, we’ll grow to appreciate that the Lord’s timing and intentions are perfect.

“There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,” says Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:5. This couplet is the ninth of fourteen contrasting seasons in which Solomon catalogs and condenses all human activity in its myriad forms.

The word for “embrace” in the original Hebrew means “to grasp or hold (something or someone) tightly in your arms, usually with fondness.” Thus, the focus of this stanza seems to include friendships, family interactions, and sexual relations between husbands and wives.

The same verb for “embrace” is used often in Scripture to describe two people greeting one another. We find it in Genesis 29:13, when Laban enthusiastically welcomes his nephew Jacob, and in Genesis 33:4, when brothers Esau and Jacob have their emotional reunion. In the New Testament, believers regularly embrace and greet one another with “a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12; Romans 16:16; Galatians 2:9; Acts 20:10, 37).

A time to embrace can also be used as a euphemism for sexual unions, as in Song of Solomon 2:6 and Proverbs 5:20. The law detailed specific “times to refrain from embracing” in Leviticus 15. Sexual relations and touching of any kind were expressly forbidden if either the man or the woman had a bodily discharge. A seven-day purification process was required before sexual relations could resume.

With the hope of holding off a dreadful judgment of sin, God called the people of Israel to consecrate themselves in solemn acts of repentance: “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12, NLT). This season of repentance also involved a time to refrain from embracing. The crisis was so devastating that every occasion for joy and personal enjoyment had to be put aside. All the people were to gather in a sacred assembly to mourn and to plead with God for deliverance: “Gather all the people—the elders, the children, and even the babies. Call the bridegroom from his quarters and the bride from her private room” (Joel 2:16, NLT).

The apostle Paul also alludes to a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing in his teaching about principles for marriage: “The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. . . . Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:3–5, NLT).

Christian couples are not to deprive one another sexually except by mutual consent. There is an appropriate “time to refrain from embracing,” but only for an agreed-upon period and purpose—to devote themselves to prayer. Once the dedicated season of prayer is over, Paul urged couples to get back to “embracing” so that Satan could not tempt them into immoral sexual relations.

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