What Time is It?
Many of us “baby boomers” can still remember the song sung by the Byrd’s, “To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn written in the 1960’s in which the poem the Preacher writes here is the prominent text. Pete Seeger, who adopted the words for the lyrics for the song was interested in using it as an antiwar some against the war in Vietnam. After singing the words from Ecclesiastes “A time of war, a time of peace were added the message “I swear it’s not too late”. But is this the meaning of the poem? Or is it being used out of context, as Scripture often is, to plead a cause other than what God intended. Let us now look under the hood to see what this passage really is saying.
We noted in last week’s passage that on the surface it has a positive ring to it, especially for the Christian. It could be seen as a welcome interlude from the weary drone of the preceding verses. By this time, we were needing something to lift us up. However, as we discovered, it wasn’t all joy for the Preacher who excluded himself from those to whom God chose to give joy to. In this, it is a subtle claim that God is unfair. He felt he had worked hard and deserved the joy. But for joy to be a gift, like grace, it can not be earned, or else it is no longer a gift.
We could continue from the end of chapter 2 with an uplifted spirit and take today’s passage in a positive vein. Some of you are now guessing that I am about to turn the tables on your hopes. And you would be right. The poem repeats the word “time” over and over again in verses one through eight. There are fourteen sets of comparisons of opposites related by time. The fancy technical term for this is “merism”. The repeats are almost hypnotic, and this is intentional. We saw in the beginning of the book how the editor summing up the teaching of the Preacher used the cycles of “nature” to indicate endless activity that goes nowhere. Here the fourteen comparisons which is 2 times the number seven, a symbol of completeness as are the merism to indicate the entire dominion of time in every aspect of life.
The Preacher does not say that time is God. Some think that time and space are eternal like God. This view then would either make time God, space God, space and time God, or time, space, and God equal. However time and space are under the dominion of God who has assigned their places. For us, this would seem like good news because we know that God looks after us for good. If God were not sovereign over time and space, then events could happen which were beyond His control. We call this in worldly terms “chance” and in academic terms “contingency”. However, the Preacher has already excluded himself from this worldview by limiting his horizons to under the sun. There is a time and purpose to everything under heaven, which is a Hebrew way of saying “under God”, but as we will find out later in this passage, this purpose is beyond human understanding, and therefore of no use to those whose view is confined to the physical world, or what Kant calls the “Phenomenal” realm.
What seems like wonderful poetry crashes to earth in verse nine when the Preacher repeats the complaint “What profit is it”? Time to him is a burdensome taskmaster. It all seems like intentional busy work assigned to people with no personal purpose. It is like to avoid idleness and its issues in the military that rocks are painted just to be painted, and on the next day, the command goes out to remove the paint from the rocks or paint them a different color. The Preacher does say there is a purpose for it, but only God knows what it is.
This should then clue us in to how to interpret verse fifteen. The King James begins this verse with a translation that is very pleasant to our ears: “He has made everything beautiful in His time.” Again from a Christian worldview this sounds wonderful and uplifting. We know God’s purpose is to work out everything for good to those who love God and are those whom He has called for His purpose. We even have a praise song “Something Beautiful” which expresses this thought. However, the Hebrew word in this context is better translated “appropriate” and this in God’s sight. The verse continues, according to the New English Translation, to say that “God has placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained.” This means that even though the Preacher affirms the right of God to do as he pleases, everything is meaningless to him because God is in heaven, and he is on earth.
Verses twelve and thirteen seem to mean that for since God does whatever He wants to do, to make the best of it. There is an idea here of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die”. Even enjoy your work. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement for life. In modern terms, this is the philosophy of Existentialism. We can think of the author Hemingway who tried to live by this philosophy. He had no use for anything divine. In one of his books he says “Hail nada, mother of nada, nada is with thee” which is an attack of the “Hail Mary”. He lived his life to the fullest. But age started catching up to him. Now his future existence would be hard, so he shot and killed himself. By this philosophy, even if you get to the top of the mountain, there is always the downhill side which weighs on one’s worldview.
Ecclesiastes says this enjoyment is a gift of God. True for the Christian. But for those under the sun, it isn’t much of a gift.
In verse fourteen and fifteen, the Preacher reaffirms God’s sovereignty. Again, for the Christian, this is good. But to those imprisoned under the sun, the world goes around in circles. God has his eternal purpose, and human beings are unable to add or subtract from it. The Preacher says God does this so that the human race will fear him. Verse fifteen ascribes to the created order that which only belongs to God. The Preacher claims that whatever has been, is now, and ever shall be. Everything goes around in endless unchanging circles known only to the unknowable God. We who live in Christ know that only God is unchangeable. He is the only entity that can say “I AM”. By ascribing to the universe the attribute which only belongs to God, he has fallen into the same trap that the Greek philosopher Parmenides did in ascribing eternity to matter and making all knowledge and being static. This is why we must be careful in reading Ecclesiastes to not take doctrines from it without comparing what is said in its rightful context and comparing it to what God says in all of Scripture.
I feel as I have mentioned before in this study, that God’s purpose for this book is to undermine all human attempts to find meaning and purpose without Him. He is the source of all life and meaning. We who know Christ, know Him only because He has revealed Himself to us. Do we know everything about God or even about Jesus? Of course not! But what He has revealed to us is sufficient and true to His character. We find life and purpose by thinking God’s thoughts after Him and joining Him in His works. It is not that we do the works, but that God works out His purpose though us. In this we can rejoice. All that the Preacher could not find in his search has been given to us.
For those under the sun, however, the view is quite different. The Preacher had the view of a God who was out to get him. All the things the person of the world seeks after can never be found because one has to have his or her life centered in Christ in order to find anything. The question is then how we can reorient their thinking so they can see the unified horizon above and below the sun.
What we must not try to do is to build our argument upon the views under the sun as though we could bridge to the view over the sun. Proper theology, witness, and apologetics must begin with God. The Scripture reveals that the sinner hides from God. The Scripture also shows that God is the seeker of the lost. The person who is under the sun cannot see which way to go. We must not think we can place them on the highest mountain of human thought and say, “Can you now see above the sun?” The highest mountain of human culture is still well below the horizon of the sun. If we try to build on this foundation, it will be reduced to Babel.
Instead, we must tear down everything to the ground. The only proper foundation to build life and meaning upon is Jesus Christ. We are making a terrible mistake then if we try to do otherwise. We cannot build a bridge to the unbeliever by complimenting their self-directed attempts to find meaning in life. No, we must rather lead them along their path of thinking and demonstrate the futility of their efforts. In this way, Ecclesiastes is of the utmost help. We will help them realize the folly of their ways and destroy their building. But we don’t leave them in despair any more than we would in showing that all human effort is futile in being saved by works of the Law. What we then have to be able to do is to show them the Christian way. After all, isn’t Jesus the way, the truth, and the life?
This text in Ecclesiastes shows us how the person under the sun views time. He knows time is short for him, and that the world will go on without him. It also shows that the world under the sun seems random and makes no sense. They may admit to a God over them in a generic sense or blind fate, but that is of no value of them because he has been isolated from the universe by Immanuel Kant and modern science. What God there is to them lives in the great unknowable beyond or has to be a creation of their own minds. Either way, this view of God is useless.
We who live in the Son can see the forest for the trees and the trees in the forest. Because our covenant God has saved us through Jesus Christ, we can see things as God sees them, not fully, but sufficiently. We know by faith that the God who has started a good work in us will continue to do so. He will make us beautiful in our time. So we do have a real hope to give to the world. Let us be busy proclaiming God’s good news to all.