Last Wednesday, we turned to The Book of Ecclesiastes, asking the question, ‘What’s It (Life) All About?’ Today we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, chapter 3 with a further question with this theme. ‘With the passing of the years and the seasons and our experiences of life, how do we make sense of it all?’
In the 1960s The Byrds and Pete Seeger with the song Turn, Turn, Turn brought the world’s attention to the words in this chapter in Ecclesiastes.
The chapter begins by focusing on the bookends of life: A time to be born, a time to die… It moves on to creative and destructive events: A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal. And verse 4 highlights our emotions of sorrow and joy: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Verses 5 and 6 speak of property and possessions, and verse 7 touches on the wisdom of speaking up and remaining silent. Verse 8 speaks of personal and wider relationships – love and hate; peace and war.
We sense the rhythm of the poetry, the movement of time as the years and seasons come and go. We are made aware that there is a time for everything: just as it’s not always summer, so it’s not always a time to speak.
But being aware that there is a right time for everything, we feel the challenge: what do we reckon is the meaning and purpose of life? At the end of an enjoyable summer do we begin to see that it’s time for autumn with its colors and even winter with its cold and snow? The seasons are not just random. How then are we to make sense of it all?
Threading through the Book of Ecclesiastes is the question: what are you looking for in life? What are you working for? What do people gain, or profit from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
In chapter 3 the Teacher is asking: Does the movement of time and the variety of experiences mean that life is beautiful or meaningless? Is life meaningful or a burden? He tells us it’s both! Verse 9 repeats the theme: What gain have the workers from their toil? And verses 10 into 11 press the point: I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time.
There’s a beauty about everything in its time – the passing of the seasons, our childhood and teenage years. There’s also a beauty about study and developing our skills; there’s a beauty about being single and a beauty about marriage; there’s a beauty about Thursday afternoon because we know Friday’s coming and a lazy Saturday morning and coffee.
But there is another, deeper layer to our experience of time: Moreover, God has put a sense of eternity into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. God has given us an inner awareness that there is more to life. Philosophers have acknowledged this. Goethe in Faust said: “Everlasting! the end would be despair. No – no end! No end!” And Friedrich Nietzsche who said that God is dead, wrote, “All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity.”
We all sense there is more to life. It’s another facet of the tantalizing questions: What is life really all about? and, What does the future beyond space and time hold out for us?
So, what is Ecclesiastes’ answer? If you can enjoy life, enjoy it. This is a gift from God. But notice God has a purpose in things. Verse 14 says: I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him…
It is here that we find a chilling note: much in life doesn’t seem just: Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well (3:16).
In the places where power and authority should be used for right purposes there is corruption, wickedness and injustice. In some countries corruption is endemic. But one noticeable feature of countries that have been influenced by the Judaeo-Christian ethic, is the built-in checks and balances, systems of regulation and accountability.
Even so, corruption still exists. The Australian group, Midnight Oil, bluntly sang: The fat cats still push the thin cats around. That’s the way the world is.
So, is God doing anything? I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work (3:17). There is injustice now, but one day there will be a day of reckoning.
If the teacher is right about this, if he’s right about what he says about time, the seasons of life, the times of injustice now and the time of justice to come, what is the state of our own relationship with God?
When Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion, two criminals were crucified with him. One cursed Jesus. The other turned to him and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus responded, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’
There are two ways we can stand before God: either without Jesus, or with him at our side as our defense attorney. The practical wisdom of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is simple. We cannot afford the luxury of simply enjoying all that we can in this present time without regard to a future time. The Teacher speaks of a time of justice to come. The day will come when we find time gone.
A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.
You may want to listen to the Getty Music song, Christ Our Hope in Life and Death.
© John G. Mason