In Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, the Teacher (King Solomon) uses fourteen pairs of opposing seasons to illustrate that everything we experience in this life is in the hands of God. To modern readers, the meaning of the eleventh couplet—“a time to tear and a time to mend”—may be obscure, but in biblical times the implication would have been clear. In general, the expression has to do with tearing and mending a garment. More specifically, it refers to times when we receive bad news versus when life is good.
In the original language, the word translated as “tear” means “to separate abruptly or violently, to rip, cut, tear to pieces.” The verb for “mend” refers to “stitching together as in sewing or needlework.”
In ancient days, if a person received terrible news, the custom was to rend one’s garment in an expression of intense grief. When the tragedy resolved, it was customary to mend one’s garment by sewing it back together.
King David ripped his robes when he heard the crushing, albeit exaggerated, news that Absalom had murdered all of his remaining sons (2 Samuel 13:31). When Reuben discovered that his brother Joseph was missing, he tore his clothes in grief (Genesis 37:29). In the New Testament, Paul and Barnabas rent their garments in anguish when they saw that the people of Lystra were about to pay homage to them as deities (Acts 14:14–15).
“A time to mend” is a graphic analogy for the inner healing and recovery that gradually takes place through the process of grieving. The Lord “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). As believers, we can expect to endure times of sorrow and bereavement, but we do not grieve like unbelievers (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
One commentator suggests that “a time to tear” includes a broader application: “It can involve the tearing of a garment into smaller patches to be used to mend another garment. It could even apply to personal relationships. Most of us on occasion have had to sever relationships with long-time friends, painful though this may be. For example, a recovering alcoholic sometimes has to give up his old drinking buddies if he is to recover from his addiction” (Pechawer, L., Poetry and Prophecy, Vol. 3, Standard Publishing, 2008, p. 100).
There are times when relationships must be broken (1 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:7), and there are times when we must get out the symbolic “needle and thread” to patch things up (Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:25; Colossians 3:13). Sometimes we break ties with people, and at other times we make new friends.
“A time to tear” is similarly associated with God’s judgment in the Old Testament. When King Saul rebelled and rejected God’s Word, Samuel the prophet declared, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to someone else—one who is better than you” (1 Samuel 15:28, NLT).
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, the temple veil was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). Through this divine tearing, God in His justice and mercy opened the way for us to experience “a time to mend.” The prophet foretold, “He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NLT). The sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the “one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity” (1 Timothy 2:5, NLT), opened up for us a new and life-giving way to experience restored fellowship with God the Father (Hebrews 10:20).
Mending also represents an everyday, ordinary task. There are times when tragedy will knock us off balance, and there are seasons when our existence will consist of normalcy and routine. “A time to tear and a time to mend” not only reminds us that there are good and bad seasons but also that there are both ordinary and extraordinary times in this life.
We won’t always understand the Lord’s purpose in the diverging cycles of birth and death, joy and sorrow, gain and loss, good and bad, but we can humbly accept that God knows the reasons because He sees the whole picture (Proverbs 16:4). We can trust that He is working out His perfect plan for our good (Romans 8:28).