The meaning of “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them” (Ecclesiastes 3:5) is probably the most difficult to decipher of all the pairings. A season of scattering stones most likely refers to the Old Testament practice of a conquering army to throw stones on the enemy’s field to render it unproductive. In 2 Kings 3:25, when the Israelites advanced on Moab, they “destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree.”
Soldiers used slingshots to launch stones as weapons of war. King Uzziah invented engines for Israel’s defense towers, enabling his warriors to hurl great stones at their enemies (2 Chronicles 26:11–15). Perhaps the most famous stone-throwing victory in the Bible was when “David prevailed over the Philistines with a sling and a stone” (1 Samuel 17:49–50).
A season of gathering stones might indicate the clearing of fields to cultivate them, as in Isaiah 5:2, or the preparation of highways for the advance of victorious soldiers, as in Isaiah 62:10. In the Bible, stones were collected to build altars (Exodus 20:25), monuments (Genesis 31:45–46), and temples (1 Kings 5:17).
One commentator interprets the scattering and gathering stanza to suggest the harmful distribution of stones to destroy crops and soil versus the useful and profitable arranging of stones, as in building a fence or a memorial to God. Another scholar mentions an ancient practice of tossing stones into a grave at the time of burial as opposed to the arranging of stones to build a house for the living.
The Aramaic version of Ecclesiastes perceived “scattering stones” as tearing down an old building and “gathering stones” as preparing to build a new one. One possible explanation for “scattering stones” and “gathering them” may be a simple allusion to demonstrating hostility versus friendship. This interpretation seems to agree with the associated stanza, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5).
While it may be challenging to pinpoint Solomon’s specific application of “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,” we can be confident of its general connotation. There are appropriate times in life to damage and destroy, to conquer enemies and bring about their ruin. Alternatively, there are proper seasons for clearing out harmful and useless things to cultivate, grow, build, and protect.
Looking back on his life, Solomon had come to understand that God has a good purpose in everything. Whether we demolish an enemy or work to build and protect, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, ESV).