WRESTLING WITH TIME
Week of January 10, 2010
Bible Verses:† Ecclesiastes 3:1-14.
Lesson Focus:† We are finite creatures of time. God, however, controls time. Only He can see time from beginning to end, and we need to stand in awe of Him.
Living in Time: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
† For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: † a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; † a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; † a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; † a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; † a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; † a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; † a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.† [ESV]
Verses 1-8 is a poem about time. Verse 1, which is more general in content, is the heading of the poem and summarizes its content. In each of the verses 2-8 there are poetic lines which consist of two halves, the one half stating the opposite of the other (e.g., born vs. die, plant vs. pluck up). The Preacherís concern is that for all these different activities and events there would appear to be a right time. The poem deals with a major concern of biblical wisdom, namely, what is fitting or appropriate at a particular time. Proverbs 26:1-12 is an excellent example of this: there is an appropriate time to answer a fool and a time not to answer a fool. Wisdom involves knowing the fitting time. Verse 1 states the general principle, which is then fleshed out in the rest of the poem: there is an appropriate season and time for every activity in the creation. This principle rests, as Old Testament wisdom does, on the belief in creation and its orderliness. The Preacherís point in this verse is that the order in creation extends across the whole of it and hence he enumerates the gamut of human life and activities. Verses 2-8 list fourteen pairs of opposites and thereby evoke completeness. The Preacher is concerned with life under the sun. Verses 2-3 deal with beginnings and endings. Verse 2a refers to human life and its limits Ė a time to give birth and thus a time of new life, and a time to die. Verse 2b refers to plant life Ė in agriculture there is a time to plant and a time to pull up what was planted. Verse 3 reverses the order and starts with the endings: a time to kill. Verse 3b extends the metaphor of verse 2b beyond agriculture. To kill, heal, break down, build up could be talking about war and the end of battle when it is time to reconcile and rebuild. Verse 4 deals with emotions: there is a time for grief and a time to celebrate. This is given a more concrete expression in 4b: grief manifested as mourning and celebration manifested as dancing. It is unclear precisely what verse 5 refers to. It could refer to clearing a field of stones in order to gather the stones for building. In parallel to the second line in verse 5, this could mean that the land is cleared for the building of a house, a home, in the context of which embracing and refraining from embracing take place. Embracing can refer to sexual intercourse or the more general showing of affection. Verse 6 probably has to do with possessions. There is a time to seek new ones and a time to let them go, a time to hold onto possessions and a time to get rid of them. The context of verse 7 may be that of mourning Ė a time to tear could refer to the tearing of a garment that signified grief. A time to repair would then refer to the repairing of the garments at the end of the mourning period. Similarly, being silent and speaking might also refer to fitting responses to those in mourning Ė the book of Job provides a good example of how hard it is to know when to keep silent and when to speak. Verse 8 deals with personal emotions (love and hate) and with public correlates to those emotions (war and peace).
These verses raise certain questions. How are we to understand what we see and hear? Do things just happen? Are the facts related or unrelated? Can they be connected meaningfully because they are meaningful in themselves? Or is meaning merely what the human mind imposes upon an intrinsically undefined fact? These questions are about ultimate realities that touch our lives every day. Events in the world around us always seem much bigger than we are. For example, everybody talks about the weather a great deal. Why? Because weather can so easily alter our plans. The elements expose how puny we are, how tenuous our control of our lives really is. Many other circumstances beyond our control arise from time to time. It is very possible to be afraid and to feel very alone in such a world. These are the kinds of questions and doubts to which this passage directs an answer. Merely to state that for everything there is a season is to imply purpose and direction; to assert the controlling power of an intelligent providence; to declare that God is on the throne. The Preacher is certainly not saying that it merely happens that events occur at different times. That would be a statement of the obvious. Neither is he saying that there is a kind of cyclical inevitability to the flow of time. He is not dolefully observing that life goes on according to some rhythm of the spheres. And he is not talking about some human responsibility to live in an ordered and timely way, as if it is in our hands to make something of an otherwise inherently purposeless existence. The Preacherís point is the precise opposite of views like these. God, he says, has made everything beautiful in its time . The sovereignty of God transcends the whole life of humanity in the world. In other words, whatever human agency may be involved in all that happens in our lives, these are in fact the acts of God, in which He unfolds His hitherto secret will for our lives. Even the most free actions of men take place within the all-encompassing embrace of Godís absolute sovereignty. Scripture applies this principle to the most concrete and dire circumstances. Think, then, of the variegated facets of human life. From birth and death , the Preacher ranges across the life experiences of ordinary people, demonstrating to reflective minds that the events that shape our lives are much larger than any pretensions we might have to exercise control over them. The Preacherís poetic couplets amass an argument in support of this thesis. God is speaking in His Word to His people so that they may understand that both their afflictions and their times of blessing fall under the sovereignty and faithfulness of the living God. God has set the times and the seasons for everything under heaven. So, if we are tempted to view events and experiences in exclusively secular, under-the-sun terms, Solomon reminds us that, in fact, these same events and experiences take place under heaven Ė and heaven is the throne of the sovereign God, who makes everything beautiful in its time . Our inability to comprehend the often apparently incomprehensible things happening in our world only proves we are not all-knowing Ė that is, we are not God. The perplexing and dumbfounding events in life must be left for God to interpret to us in His time. Meanwhile we may fix our eyes on Jesus Christ as our Savior, and trust Him as our Lord for every outcome, knowing that He will be with us always to the end of the age [Matt. 28:20].
Longing for the Eternal:† Ecclesiastes 3:9-11.
† What gain has the worker from his toil? † I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. † He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.† [ESV]
The question in verse 9 is a repeat of the first question the Preacher ever asked [1:3]. He is a shrewd judge of human nature. When you tell someone who does not share your faith that God is in control of everything, how do they often react? Donít they say, ĎWell, if thatís so, whereís the sense in us doing anything at all?í They see a tension between Godís sovereignty, as you see it, and human freedom, as they see it. This is a legitimate question. After all, there is so much evidence that people do what they want, often with frightening consequences, that it can seem very strange to say that all of this has happened according to Godís plan from before the creation of the world. So in verses 10-11 the Preacher talks about the human condition. He returns to the thought of 1:13, where he spoke of the burden God had placed upon man, and explains further. He agrees that man has a burden. It is not just that he needs to know about his world and has an insatiable appetite for largely futile study [1:13-18]. No! He has an even deeper need. He needs to know why his toil, indeed his whole life, can be of some profit in a world beyond his personal control. The problem for the under-the-sun generation is that the idea that there is a God who orders all their times and seasons is a more perturbing threat to their self-image than the concept that they are alone in a dying universe.
Against such practical atheism, the Preacher offers three answers. (1) Everything is beautiful. The eye of faith sees the beauty in Godís ordering of the times. The key to this perception is in the redemptive purposes of God for His people. All those aspects of life for which there is a time are seen in relation to the glory of the God who is saving His world from the institutionalized meaninglessness of satanic delusion and human emptiness. The believing church sees the heavenly symmetry of Godís mighty acts in history, though invariably through the retrospective illumination of the Spirit and the Word in the arena of his faithful reflection on the signs of the times. For every believer, the gracious purposes of the Lord shine through the darkest passages of these times and, far from being a source of gloom, these become a fount of encouragement and joy in the Lord. (2) Eternity within. God has put eternity into manís heart. Being aware of our creaturehood carries with it a sense of the reality of the Creator. This is the basis of the ache that men and women feel for something more enduring than this life. The suppression of this consciousness of God is at the core of sin and estrangement from God. (3) This unfathomable life. We cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Even though there is an awareness of eternity in our hearts, we cannot fully grasp its meaning. Indeed, we even resist the pull of eternal and spiritual matters. We look in the opposite direction for satisfaction. We imagine that secular knowledge and carnal pleasure will answer our deepest needs. And it is here that the burden is felt most painfully. The problem of meaning has its only answer in heaven, from the mouth of God. But lost humanity leaves no stone unturned under the sun. We look for answers in the wrong places. How desperately we need to be found by the one whom we do not seek.
Standing in Awe of God:† Ecclesiastes 3:12-14.
† I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; † also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man. † I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. [ESV]
Verse 12 does not mean that we should just forget about our longing for eternity and try to have a good time. I perceived does not introduce a conclusion; rather, it begins a premise, an additional piece of information, or a concession. The Preacher admits that we do not regard the alternatives of life and death, joy and sorrow, and love and hate as indifferent matters. While he urges the reader to accept personal mortality for what it is, he recognizes that life and joy and love are preferred by all. He further acknowledges that the ability to enjoy life Ė both moments of recreation and labor Ė is a gift of God. The paradox is that one cannot genuinely face personal mortality and finitude without first facing Godís immortality and infinite power. The Preacherís point is that anyone who truly believes and trusts in God will joyfully embrace the assurance that God is in charge of the times and seasons and on that basis will gladly and gratefully receive the gifts of His loving and bountiful provision for His believing people. In verse 14, the Preacher observes that the eternal perfection of Godís work overwhelms all human endeavors and mocks human aspirations to become eternally significant. No one can thwart or change Godís will, and His ways are beyond our understanding. This verse may be compared to Genesis 3:5 and 22. There the origin of human suffering and alienation is the desire to be like God. If we were able to know all, to master life, and be like God, we would feel no need for piety. But humanity is far from divine stature. We are altogether contingent beings, and our only appropriate response to this infinite, sovereign God is reverence. The practical fruit of Godís sovereignty will be a worshipping people, exulting in the security of their Savior-God.
Questions for Discussion:
1.†††††††† It has been said that ďtiming is everything.Ē But why is this true? Why is one time better than another to do or say something? What does this passage tell us about the timing of events and human actions? [Focus here on the truth that God is Creator and has established this orderliness in His Creation.]
2.†††††††† It certainly takes great wisdom to know the perfect time to say or do the right thing. But where does this wisdom come from? From within us or outside of us? What does the Preacher say about this?
3.†††††††† Why is verse 11 the key verse for understanding this passage?
4.†††††††† What can you do in order to discover Godís beautiful timing for all of your words and actions? What role does the Spirit and the Word play in this search?
Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker Academic.
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.