GETTING THE MOST OUT OF LIFE - Pt.2 Approach Life with Humility
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF LIFE
“Approach Life with Humility”
Mohammed Ali was on a plane ready to begin their taxi onto the runway. The stewardess stopped next to him and asked him to buckle his seatbelt. Ali refused. She asked again for him to buckle his seatbelt so they could take off. Ali said no, superman does not need a seatbelt. The stewardess responded, “Superman does not need a plane either, so buckle your seatbelt.”
Humility is Gaining the Proper Perspective –
There is a God and it is not me.
To Approach Life with Humility we must…
UNDERSTAND THE PRINCIPLE OF TIME – V.1-8
There are many things in life that will happen in due time, and I cannot control it.
Whether you act at the proper time, that is up to you.
This means that God has programmed every activity into a gigantic computer, What will be, will be!
It also means that history is filled with cyclical patterns, and these recur with unchangeable regularity.
We are locked into a pattern of behavior which is determined by certain inflexible laws or principles.
But it is not determined our response to the free choices that we are given.
He is a slave to fatalism’s clock and calendar.
KEYS TO REMEMBER ABOUT SEASONS:
1. Do the proper work of the season: (gather? plant? water? reap?)
Proverbs 20:4 - A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.
2. Always be prepared, no matter what the season:
2 Tim. 4:2 - Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.
3. Wait for the season of blessings:
Ezekiel 34:26 - I will bless them and the places surrounding my hill. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing.
4. There is a season of fruit for the righteous:
Psalm 1:3 – He (the righteous) is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
5. God can change your season:
Daniel 2:21a - He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them.
The second thing we need to approach life with humility is to…
UNDERSTAND THAT GOD’S TIMING IS PERFECT, NOT OURS. – V. 9-11
What God reveals to us comes to us in His perfect time and can only be understood if He reveals it to us through His Spirit.
We cannot even begin to grasp all that God has done on our own. – 11b
- Man’s life is a blessing from God (v. 10).
If we believingly accept life as a blessing and thank God for it, we will have a better attitude toward the burdens that come our way.
If we grudgingly accept life as a burden, then we will miss the gifts that come our way.
Outlook helps to determine outcome.
- Man’s life is linked to eternity. (v. 11).
Man was created in the image of God, and was given dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26–28); therefore, he is different from the rest of creation.
He has “eternity [“the world,” KJV] in his heart” and is linked to heaven.
This explains why nobody (including Solomon) can be satisfied with his or her endeavors and achievements, or is able to explain the enigmas of life (1:12–2:11).
God accomplishes His purposes in His time, but it will not be until we enter eternity that we will begin to comprehend His total plan.
UNDERSTAND THAT THE LIFE WE LIVE IS A GIFT FROM GOD – V. 12-15
God gives us good things in life that we are to enjoy. We must also acknowledge that they are a gift from God. Again, not in our control.
Man’s life can be enjoyable now (vv. 12–14).
Solomon is encouraging not pagan hedonism, but rather the practice of enjoying God’s gifts as the fruit of one’s labor, no matter how difficult life may be.
Life appears to be transitory, but whatever God does is forever, so when we live for Him and let Him have His way, life is meaningful and manageable.
Instead of complaining about what we don’t have, let’s enjoy what we do have and thank God for it.
However, we must note that Solomon is not saying, “Don’t worry—be happy!”
He is promoting faith in God, not “faith in faith” or “pie in the sky by and by.”
Faith is only as good as the object of faith, and the greatest object of faith is the Lord. He can be trusted.
How can life be meaningless and monotonous for you when God has made you a part of His eternal plan?
UNDERSTAND THAT LIFE AND DEATH ARE OUT OF OUR CONTROL – V.16-22
Injustices happen that we do not have control over.
Death comes and we do not have control over.
This ties in with verses 16–17 where Solomon witnessed the injustices of his day and wondered why divine judgment was delayed.
He comforted himself with two assurances: God has a time for everything, including judgment (see 8:6, 11); and God is working out His eternal purposes in and through the deeds of men, even the deeds of the wicked.
In the experiences of life, God is testing man.
The word is “manifest” in the KJV.
The Hebrew word means “to sift, to winnow.”
God is revealing what man is really like; He is sifting man.
Notice that he introduces his views with the words, “I said in my heart.” It is not a question of what God revealed to him but of what he concluded in his own mind.
It is his own reasoning under the sun.
Therefore, this is not a passage from which we can build an adequate doctrine of death and the hereafter.
Basically what he is saying is that God tests man through his short life on earth to show him how frail and transient he is—just like animals. He has no advantage over an animal.
As death comes to animals, so it comes to man.
All have one breath, and at the time of death, that breath is cut off.
So life is as empty for man as for the lower orders of creation.
3:20 All share a common end in the grave.
They are both going to the same place—the dust.
This assumes that the body is all there is to human life. But we know that this is not true.
That, after all, is his lot in life, and he might as well cooperate with the inevitable.
He should find satisfaction in accepting what cannot be changed.
But above all, he should enjoy life as it comes to him, because no one can tell him what will happen on earth after he has passed on.
Faith learns to live with seeming inconsistencies and absurdities, for we live by promises and not by explanations.
Solomon calls us to accept life, enjoy it a day at a time, and be satisfied.
We must never be satisfied with ourselves, but we must be satisfied with what God gives to us in this life.
3:1 As a research student of life and of human behavior, Solomon observed that there is a predetermined season for everything and a fixed time for every happening. This means that God has programmed every activity into a gigantic computer, and, as Hispanics say, “Que será, será”: What will be, will be! It also means that history is filled with cyclical patterns, and these recur with unchangeable regularity. So man is locked into a pattern of behavior which is determined by certain inflexible laws or principles. He is a slave to fatalism’s clock and calendar.
In verses 1–8, the Preacher enumerates twenty-eight activities which are probably intended to symbolize the whole round of life. This is suggested by the number twenty-eight, which is the number of the world (four) multiplied by the number of completeness (seven).
The list is made up of opposites. Fourteen are positives and fourteen negatives. In some ways, they seem to cancel out each other so that the net result is zero.
3:2 There is a time to be born. The person himself has no control over this, and even the parents must wait out the nine months which form the normal birth cycle.
There is also a time to die. Man’s allotted span is seventy years, according to Psalm 90:10, but even apart from that, it seems that death is a predetermined appointment that must be kept.
It is true that God foreknows the terminus of our life on earth, but for the Christian this is neither morbid nor fatalistic. We know that we are immortal until our work is done. And though death is a possibility, it is not a certainty. The blessed hope of Christ’s return inspires the believer to look for the Savior rather than the mortician. As the preacher Peter Pell put it so colorfully, “I’m not waiting for the undertaker—I’m waiting for the uppertaker!”
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted. With these words, Solomon seems to cover the entire field of agriculture, linked closely as it is with the seasons of the year (Gen. 8:22). Failure to observe these seasons in planting and harvesting can only spell disaster.
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal. Bible commentators go to great lengths to explain that this cannot refer to murder but only to warfare, capital punishment, or self-defense. But we must remember that Solomon’s observations were based on his knowledge under the sun. Without divine revelation, it seemed to him that life was either a slaughterhouse or a hospital, a battlefield or a first-aid station.
A time to break down, and a time to build up. First the wrecking crew appears to demolish buildings that are outdated and no longer serviceable, then the builders move in to erect modern complexes and rehabilitate the area of blight.
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh. Life seems to alternate between tragedy and comedy. Now it wears the black mask of the tragedian, then the painted face of the clown.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. The funeral procession passes by with its mourners wailing in grief. But before long, these same people are dancing at a wedding reception, quickly removed from their recent sorrow.
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones. Taken at face value, this means that there is a time to clear land for cultivation (Isa. 5:2), then to gather the stones for building houses, walls, or other projects. If we take the words figuratively, as most modern commentators do, there may be a reference to the marriage act. Thus, TEV paraphrases, “The time for having sex and the time for not having it.”
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. In the realm of the affections, there is a time for involvement and a time for withdrawal. There is a time when love is pure and a time when it is illicit.
3:6 A time to gain, and a time to lose. This makes us think of business cycles with their fluctuating profits and losses. First the markets are bullish with income soaring. Then they become bearish, and companies find themselves in the red.
A time to keep, and a time to throw away. Most housewives are familiar with this curious pattern. For months or even years, they stash things away in closets, basements, and attics. Then in a burst of housecleaning zeal, they clear them out and call some local charity to cart the gathered items away.
3:7 A time to tear, and a time to sew. Could Solomon have been thinking of the constant changes in clothing fashions? Some noted fashion designer dictates a new trend, and all over the world, hems are let out or shortened. Today the fashions are daring and attention-getting. Tomorrow they revert to the quaint styles of grandmother’s day.
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. The time to keep silence is when we are criticized unjustly, when we are tempted to criticize others, or to say things that are untrue, unkind, or unedifying. Because Moses spoke unadvisedly with his lips, he was barred from entering the promised land (Num. 20:10; Ps. 106:33).
The time to speak is when some great principle or cause is at stake. Mordecai advised Esther that the time had come for her to speak (Est. 4:13–14). And he could have added, with Dante, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in a time of great moral crisis.”
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate. We must not try to force these words into a Christian context. Solomon was not speaking as a Christian but as a man of the world. It seemed to him that human behavior fluctuated between periods of love and periods of hate.
A time of war, and a time of peace. What is history if it is not the record of cruel, mindless wars, interspersed with short terms of peace?
3:9 The question lingering in Solomon’s mind was, “What lasting gain has the worker for all his toil?” For every constructive activity there is a destructive one. For every plus a minus. The fourteen positive works are cancelled out by fourteen negatives. So the mathematical formula of life is fourteen minus fourteen equals zero. Man has nothing but a zero at the end of it all.
3:10 Solomon had conducted an exhaustive survey of all the activities, employments, and pursuits that God has given to man to occupy his time. He has just given us a catalog of these in verses 2–8.
3:11 He concluded that God has made everything beautiful in its time, or, better, that there is an appropriate time for each activity. He is not so much thinking here of the beauty of God’s creation as the fact that every action has its own designated time, and that in its time it is eminently fitting.
Also God has put eternity in man’s mind. Though living in a world of time, man has intimations of eternity. Instinctively he thinks of “forever,” and though he cannot understand the concept, he realizes that beyond this life there is the possibility of a shoreless ocean of time.
Yet God’s works and ways are unfathomable to man. There is no way in which we can solve the riddle of creation, providence, or the consummation of the universe, apart from revelation. In spite of the enormous advances of human knowledge, we still see through a glass darkly. Very often we have to confess with a sigh, “How little we know of Him!”
3:12 Because man’s life is governed by certain unalterable laws and because all his activities seem to leave him where he started, Solomon decides that the best policy is to be happy and enjoy life as much as possible.
3:13 He did not mean that life should be an orgy of drunkenness, dissipation, and debauchery, but that it is the gift of God for man to enjoy his food and drink and find what pleasure he can in his daily work.
It is a low view of life, and completely sub-Christian in its outlook, but we must continually remember that Solomon’s viewpoint here was thoroughly earthbound.
3:14 He did accurately perceive that God’s decrees are immutable. What God has decided will stand and man cannot alter it, either by addition or subtraction. It is foolish for creatures to fight against the arrangements of their Creator. Much better to respect Him and submit to His control.
3:15 Current events are merely a replay of what has happened previously, and nothing will happen in the future but what has already been. God arranges everything on a recurring basis so that things will happen over and over again. He brings back again what is past and thus history repeats itself. The expression “God requires an account of what is past” is often used to press home the fact that past sins must be accounted for by unbelievers. While this is true, it is hardly the force of this passage.
Here God is rather seen as recalling past events to form another cycle of history. T. S. Eliot confirms Solomon’s sentiments:
And what is there to conquer ... has already
Once or twice or several times ...
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again.
3:16 Among other things that pained the Preacher were injustice and wickedness. He found crookedness in the law courts where justice should be dispensed and dishonesty in government circles where righteousness should be practiced.
3:17 These inequalities of life led him to believe that there has to be a time when God will judge men, when the wrongs of earth will be made right. Solomon does not say explicitly that this will be in the next life, but it is a foregone conclusion since so many inequities are unrequited in this world. His conclusion mirrors a common emotion in the hearts of righteous people. Decency and fairness demand a time when accounts are settled and when the right is vindicated.
3:18 In the closing verses of chapter 3, the Preacher turns to the subject of death, and sees it as the grim spoilsport, ending all man’s best ambitions, endeavors, and pleasures. He views it exactly as we would if we did not have the Bible to enlighten us.
Notice that he introduces his views with the words, “I said in my heart.” It is not a question of what God revealed to him but of what he concluded in his own mind. It is his own reasoning under the sun. Therefore, this is not a passage from which we can build an adequate doctrine of death and the hereafter. And yet this is precisely what many of the false cults have done. They use these verses to support their erroneous teachings of soul-sleep and the annihilation of the wicked dead. Actually a careful study of the passage will show that Solomon was not advocating either of these views.
Basically what he is saying is that God tests man through his short life on earth to show him how frail and transient he is—just like animals. But is he saying that man is no better than an animal?
3:19 No, the point is not that man is an animal, but that in one respect, he has no advantage over an animal. As death comes to animals, so it comes to man. All have one breath, and at the time of death, that breath is cut off. So life is as empty for man as for the lower orders of creation.
3:20 All share a common end in the grave. They are both going to the same place—the dust. They both came from it; they will both go back to it. Of course, this assumes that the body is all there is to human life. But we know that this is not true. The body is only the tent in which the person lives. But Solomon could not be expected to know the full truth of the future state.
3:21 Solomon’s ignorance as to what happens at the time of death is evident from his question, “Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” This must not be taken as a doctrinal fact. It is human questioning, not divine certainty.
From the NT, we know that the spirit and soul of the believer go to be with Christ at the time of death (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), and his body goes to the grave (Acts 8:2). The spirit and soul of the unbeliever go to Hades, and his body goes to the grave (Luke 16:22b–23). When Christ comes into the air, the bodies of those who have died in faith will be raised in glorified form and reunited with the spirit and soul (Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Thess. 4:16–17). The bodies of the unbelieving dead will be raised at the Great White Throne Judgment, reunited with the spirit and soul, then cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:12–14).
Strictly speaking, animals have body and soul but no spirit. Nothing is said in the Bible concerning life after death for animals.
3:22 From what he knew about death, and also from what he didn’t know, Solomon figures that the best thing a man can do is enjoy his daily activities. That, after all, is his lot in life, and he might as well cooperate with the inevitable. He should find satisfaction in accepting what cannot be changed. But above all, he should enjoy life as it comes to him, because no one can tell him what will happen on earth after he has passed on.
1. Look up: God orders time (Ecc. 3:1–8)
You don’t have to be a philosopher or a scientist to know that “times and seasons” are a regular part of life, no matter where you live. Were it not for the dependability of God-ordained “natural laws,” both science and daily life would be chaotic, if not impossible. Not only are there times and seasons in this world, but there is also an overruling providence in our lives. From before our birth to the moment of our death, God is accomplishing His divine purposes, even though we may not always understand what He is doing.
In fourteen statements, Solomon affirmed that God is at work in our individual lives, seeking to accomplish His will. All of these events come from God and they are good in their time. The inference is plain: if we cooperate with God’s timing, life will not be meaningless. Everything will be “beautiful in His time” (v. 11), even the most difficult experiences of life. Most of these statements are easy to understand, so we will examine only those that may need special explanation.
Birth and death (v. 2). Things like abortion, birth control, mercy killing, and surrogate parenthood make it look as though man is in control of birth and death, but Solomon said otherwise. Birth and death are not human accidents; they are divine appointments, for God is in control. (Read Gen. 29:31–30:24 and 33:5; Josh. 24:3; 1 Sam. 1:9–20; Pss. 113:9 and 127; Jer. 1:4–5; Luke 1:5–25; Gal. 1:15 and 4:4.) Psalm 139:13–16 states that God so wove us in the womb that our genetic structure is perfect for the work He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). We may foolishly hasten our death, but we cannot prevent it when our time comes, unless God so wills it (Isa. 38). “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book” (Ps. 139:16, NIV).
Planting and plucking (v. 2). Being an agricultural people, the Jews appreciated the seasons. In fact, their religious calendar was based on the agricultural year (Lev. 23). Men may plow and sow, but only God can give the increase (Ps. 65:9–13). “Plucking” may refer either to reaping or to pulling up unproductive plants. A successful farmer knows that nature works for him only if he works with nature. This is also the secret of a successful life: learn God’s principles and cooperate with them.
Killing and healing (v. 3). This probably refers, not to war (v. 8) or self-defense, but to the results of sickness and plague in the land (1 Sam. 2:6). God permits some to die while others are healed. This does not imply that we should refuse medical aid, for God can use both means and miracles to accomplish His purposes (Isa. 38).
Casting away stones and gathering stones (v. 5). Tour guides in Israel will tell you that God gave stones to an angel and told him to distribute them across the world—and he tripped right over Palestine! It is indeed a rocky land and farmers must clear their fields before they can plow and plant. If you wanted to hurt an enemy, you filled up his field with stones (2 Kings 3:19, 25). People also gathered stones for building walls and houses. Stones are neither good nor bad; it all depends on what you do with them. If your enemy fills your land with rocks, don’t throw them back. Build something out of them!
Embracing and refraining from embracing (v. 5). People in the Near East openly show their affections, kissing and hugging when they meet and when they part. So, you could paraphrase this, “A time to say hello and a time to say good-bye.” This might also refer to the relationship of a husband and wife (Lev. 15:19–31; and see 1 Cor. 7:5).
Getting and losing (v. 6). “A time to search and a time to give it up for lost” is another translation. The next phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!
Tearing and mending (v. 7). This probably refers to the Jewish practice of tearing one’s garments during a time of grief or repentance (2 Sam. 13:31; Ezra 9:5). God expects us to sorrow during bereavement, but not like unbelievers (1 Thes. 4:13–18). There comes a time when we must get out the needle and thread and start sewing things up!
Loving and hating (v. 8). Are God’s people allowed to hate? The fact that the next phrase mentions “war and peace” suggests that Solomon may have had the nation primarily in mind. However, there are some things that even Christians ought to hate (2 Chron. 19:2; Ps. 97:10; Prov. 6:16–19; Rev. 2:6, 15).
Life is something like a doctor’s prescription: taken alone, the ingredients might kill you; but properly blended, they bring healing. God is sovereignly in control and has a time and a purpose for everything (Rom. 8:28). This is not fatalism, nor does it rob us of freedom or responsibility. It is the wise providence of a loving Father Who does all things well and promises to make everything work for good.
2. Look within: eternity is in your heart (Ecc. 3:9–14)
The Preacher adjusted his sights and no longer looked at life only “under the sun.” He brought God into the picture and this gave him a new perspective. In verse 9, he repeated the opening question of 1:3, “Is all this labor really worth it?” In the light of “new evidence,” Solomon gave three answers to the question.
First, man’s life is a gift from God (v. 10). In view of the travail that we experience from day to day, life may seem like a strange gift, but it is God’s gift just the same. We “exercise” ourselves in trying to explain life’s enigmas, but we don’t always succeed. If we believingly accept life as a gift, and thank God for it, we will have a better attitude toward the burdens that come our way. If we grudgingly accept life as a burden, then we will miss the gifts that come our way. Outlook helps to determine outcome.
Second, man’s life is linked to eternity. (v. 11). Man was created in the image of God, and was given dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26–28); therefore, he is different from the rest of creation. He has “eternity [“the world,” KJV] in his heart” and is linked to heaven. This explains why nobody (including Solomon) can be satisfied with his or her endeavors and achievements, or is able to explain the enigmas of life (1:12–2:11). God accomplishes His purposes in His time, but it will not be until we enter eternity that we will begin to comprehend His total plan.
Third, man’s life can be enjoyable now (vv. 12–14). The Preacher hinted at this in 2:24 and was careful to say that this enjoyment of life is the gift of God (see 3:13, 6:2, and 1 Tim. 6:17). “The enjoyment of life” is an important theme in Ecclesiastes and is mentioned in each of the four sections of chapters 3–10. (Review the outline.) Solomon is encouraging not pagan hedonism, but rather the practice of enjoying God’s gifts as the fruit of one’s labor, no matter how difficult life may be. Life appears to be transitory, but whatever God does is forever, so when we live for Him and let Him have His way, life is meaningful and manageable. Instead of complaining about what we don’t have, let’s enjoy what we do have and thank God for it.
When the well-known British Methodist preacher William Sangster learned that he had progressive muscular atrophy and could not get well, he made four resolutions and kept them to the end: (1) I will never complain; (2) I will keep the home bright; (3) I will count my blessings; (4) I will try to turn it to gain. This is the approach to life that Solomon wants us to take.
However, we must note that Solomon is not saying, “Don’t worry—be happy!” He is promoting faith in God, not “faith in faith” or “pie in the sky by and by.” Faith is only as good as the object of faith, and the greatest object of faith is the Lord. He can be trusted.
How can life be meaningless and monotonous for you when God has made you a part of His eternal plan? You are not an insignificant insect, crawling from one sad annihilation to another. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you are a child of God being prepared for an eternal home (John 14:1–6; 2 Cor. 4). The Puritan pastor Thomas Watson said, “Eternity to the godly is a day that has no sunset; eternity to the wicked is a night that has no sunrise.”
The proper attitude for us is the fear of the Lord (v. 14), which is not the cringing of a slave before a cruel master, but the submission of an obedient child to a loving parent. (See 5:7, 7:18, 8:12–13, and 12:13.) If we fear God, we need not fear anything else for He is in control.
3. Look ahead: death is coming to all (Ecc. 3:15–22)
Solomon already mentioned the certainty of death in 2:12–23, and he will bring the subject up several times before he ends his book (4:8; 5:15–16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2–3, 12; 12:7–8). Life, death, time, and eternity: these are the “ingredients” that make up our brief experience in this world, and they must not be ignored.
Verse 15 helps us recall 1:9–11 and gives us the assurance that God is in control of the “cycle of life.” The past seems to repeat itself so that “there is no new thing under the sun” (1:9), but God can break into history and do what He pleases. His many miracles are evidence that the “cycle” is a pattern and not a prison. His own Son broke into human life through a miraculous birth. He then died on a cross and rose again, thus conquering the “life-death cycle.” Because Jesus Christ broke the “vicious circle,” He can make us a part of a new creation that overcomes time and death (2 Cor. 5:17–21).
Solomon added a new thought here: “and God will call the past to account” (v. 15, NIV). Scholars have a difficult time agreeing on the translation of this phrase. It literally says “God seeks what hurries along.” Solomon seems to say that time goes by swiftly and gets away from us; but God keeps track of it and will, at the end of time, call into account what we have done with time (12:14).
This ties in with verses 16–17 where Solomon witnessed the injustices of his day and wondered why divine judgment was delayed.
“How can God be in control when there is so much evil in our world, with the wicked prospering in their sin and the righteous suffering in their obedience?”
Solomon was not the first to raise that question, nor will he be the last.
But once again, he comforted himself with two assurances: God has a time for everything, including judgment (see 8:6, 11); and God is working out His eternal purposes in and through the deeds of men, even the deeds of the wicked.
Yes, God will judge when history has run its course, but God is judging now (v. 18).
In the experiences of life, God is testing man. (The word is “manifest” in the KJV. The Hebrew word means “to sift, to winnow.”) God is revealing what man is really like; He is sifting man. For, when man leaves God out of his life, he becomes like an animal. (See Ps. 32:9; Prov. 7; 2 Peter 2:19–20.) He lives like a beast and dies like a beast.
We must be careful not to misinterpret verses 19–20 and draw the erroneous conclusion that there is no difference between men and animals. Solomon merely pointed out that men and beasts have two things in common: they both die and their bodies return to the dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). Being made in the image of God, man has a definite advantage over animals as far as life is concerned; but when it comes to the fact of death, man has no special advantage: he too turns to dust. Of course, people who are saved through faith in Christ will one day be resurrected to have glorified bodies suitable for the new heavenly home (1 Cor. 15:35ff).
The Bible says that death occurs when the spirit leaves the body (James 2:26, and see Gen. 35:18 and Luke 8:55). In verse 21, Solomon indicates that men and animals do not have the same experience at death, even though they both turn to dust after death. Man’s spirit goes to God (see 12:7), while the spirit of a beast simply ceases to exist. You find a similar contrast expressed in Psalm 49.
The Preacher closed this section by reminding us again to accept life from God’s hand and enjoy it while we can (v. 22). Nobody knows what the future holds; and even if we did know, we can’t return to life after we have died and start to enjoy it again. (See 6:12, 7:14, 9:3.) Knowing that God is in sovereign control of life (3:1), we can submit to Him and be at peace.
God holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad;
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if He trusted it to me,
I might be sad.
I cannot read His future plans,
But this I know:
I have the smiling of His face,
And all the refuge of His grace,
While here below.
Faith learns to live with seeming inconsistencies and absurdities, for we live by promises and not by explanations. We can’t explain life, but we must experience life, either enduring it or enjoying it.
Solomon calls us to accept life, enjoy it a day at a time, and be satisfied. We must never be satisfied with ourselves, but we must be satisfied with what God gives to us in this life. If we grow in character and godliness, and if we live by faith, then we will be able to say with Paul, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11, NIV).
Vers. 1–22.—Section 4. In confirmation of the truth that man’s happiness depends upon the will of God, Koheleth proceeds to show how Providence arranges even the minutest concerns; that man can alter nothing, must make the best of things as they are, bear with anomalies, bounding his desires by this present life.
Vers. 1–8.—The providence of God disposes and arranges every detail of man’s life. This proposition is stated first generally, and then worked out in particular by means of antithetical sentences. In Hebrew manuscripts and most printed texts vers. 2–8 are arranged in two parallel columns, so that one “time” always stands under another. A similar arrangement is found in Josh. 12:9, etc., containing the catalogue of the conquered Canaanite kings; and in Esth. 9:7, etc., giving the names of Haman’s ten sons. In the present passage we have fourteen pairs of contrasts, ranging from external circumstances to the inner affections of man’s being.
Ver. 1.—To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. “Season” and “time” are rendered by the LXX. καιρός and χρόνος. The word for “season” (zeman), denotes a fixed, definite portion of time; while eth, “time,” signifies rather the beginning of a period, or is used as a general appellation. The two ideas are sometimes occurrent in the New Testament; e.g. Acts 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:1 (comp. also Dan. 2:21, where the Septuagint has καιροὺς καὶ χρόνους; and Dan. 7:12, where we find the singular καιροῦ καὶ καιροῦ in Theodotion, and χρόου καὶ καιροῦ in the Septuagint). So in Wisd. 8:8, “She [wisdom] foreseeth signs and wonders, and the events of seasons and times (ἐκβάσεις καιρῶν καὶ χρόνων).” Every thing refers especially to men’s movements and actions, and to what concerns them. Purpose; chephets, originally meaning “delight,” “pleasure,” in the later Hebrew came to signify “business,” “thing,” “matter.” The proposition is—In human affairs Providence arranges the moment when everything shall happen, the duration of its operation, and the time appropriate thereto. The view of the writer takes in the whole circumstances of men’s life from its commencement to its close. But the thought is not, as some have opined, that there is naught but uncertainty, fluctuation, and imperfection in human affairs, nor, as Plumptre conceives, “It is wisdom to do the right thing at the right time, that inopportuneness is the bane of life,” for many of the circumstances mentioned, e.g. birth and death, are entirely beyond men’s will and control, and the maxim, Καιρὸν γνῶθι, cannot apply to man in such cases. Koheleth is confirming his assertion, made in the last chapter, that wisdom, wealth, success, happiness, etc., are not in man’s hands, that his own efforts can secure none of them—they are distributed at the will of God. He establishes this dictum by entering into details, and showing the ordering of Providence and the supremacy of God in all men’s concerns, the most trivial as well as the most important. The Vulgate gives a paraphrase, and not a very exact one, Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub cœlo. Koheleth intimates, without attempting to reconcile, the great crux of man’s free-will and God’s decree.
Ver. 2.—A time to be born, and a time to die. Throughout the succeeding catalogue marked contrasts are exhibited in pairs, beginning with the entrance and close of life, the rest of the list being occupied with events and circumstances which intervene between those two extremities. The words rendered, “a time to be born,” might more naturally mean “a time to bear;” καιρὸς τοῦ τεκεῖν, Septuagint; as the verb is in the infinitive active, which, in this particular verb, is not elsewhere found used in the passive sense, though other verbs are so used sometimes, as in Jer. 25:34. In the first case the catalogue commences with the beginning of life; in the second, with the season of full maturity: “Those who at one time give life to others, at another have themselves to yield to the law of death” (Wright). The contrast points to the passive rendering. There is no question of untimely birth or suicide; in the common order of events birth and death have each their appointed season, which comes to pass without man’s interference, being directed by a higher law. “It is appointed unto men once to die” (Heb. 9:27). Koheleth’s teaching was perverted by sensualists, as we read in Wisd. 2:2, 3, 5. A time to plant. After speaking of human life it is natural to turn to vegetable life, which runs in parallel lines with man’s existence. Thus Job, having intimated the shortness of life and the certainty of death, proceeds to speak of the tree, contrasting its revivifying powers with the hopelessness of man’s decay (Job 14:5, etc.). And … to pluck up that which is planted. This last operation may refer to the transplanting of trees and shrubs, or to the gathering of the fruits of the earth in order to make room for new agricultural works. But having regard to the opposition in all the members of the series, we should rather consider the “plucking up” as equivalent to destroying. If we plant trees, a time comes when we cut them down, and this is their final cause. Some commentators see in this clause an allusion to the settling and uprooting of kingdoms and nations, as Jer. 1:10; 18:9, etc.; but this could not have been the idea in Koheleth’s mind.
Ver. 3.—A time to kill, and a time to heal. The time to kill might refer to war, only that occurs in ver. 8. Some endeavour to limit the notion to severe surgical operations performed with a view of saving life; but the verb harag does not admit of the meaning “to wound” or “cut.” It most probably refers to the execution of criminals, or to the defence of the oppressed; such emergencies and necessities occur providentially without man’s prescience. So sickness is a visitation beyond man’s control, while it calls into exercise the art of healing, which is a gift of God (see Ecclus. 10:10; 38:1, etc.). A time to break down, and a time to build up. The removal of decaying or unsuitable buildings is meant, and the substitution of new and improved structures. A recollection of Solomon’s own extensive architectural works is here introduced.
Ver. 4.—A time to weep, and a time to laugh, grouped naturally with a time to mourn, and a time to dance. The funeral and the wedding, the hired mourners and the guests at the marriage-feast, are set against one another. The first clause intimates the spontaneous manifestation of the feelings of the heart; the second, their formal expression in the performances at funerals and weddings and on other solemn occasions. The contrast is found in the Lord’s allusion to the sulky children in the market-place, who would not join their companions’ play: “We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented” (Matt. 11:17). Dancing sometimes accompanied religious ceremonies, as when David brought up the ark (2 Sam. 6:14, 16).
Ver. 5.—A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. There is no question about building or demolishing houses, as that has been already mentioned in ver. 3. Most commentators see an allusion to the practice of marring an enemy’s fields by casting stones upon them, as the Israelites did when they invaded Moab (2 Kings 3:19, 25). But this must have been a very abnormal proceeding, and could scarcely be cited as a usual occurrence. Nor is the notion more happy that there is an allusion to the custom of flinging stones or earth into the grave at a burial—a Christian, but not an ancient Jewish practice; this, too, leaves the contrasted “gathering” unexplained. Equally inappropriate is the opinion that the punishment of stoning is meant, or some game played with pebbles. It seems most simple to see herein intimated the operation of clearing a vineyard of stones, as mentioned in Isa. 5:2; and of collecting materials for making fences, wine-press, tower, etc., and repairing roads. A time to embrace. Those who explain the preceding clause of the marring and clearing of fields connect the following one with the other by conceiving that “the loving action of embracing stands beside the hostile, purposely injurious, throwing of stones into a field” (Delitzsch). It is plain that there are times when one may give himself up to the delights of love and friendship, and times when such distractions would be incongruous and unseasonable, as on solemn, penitential occasions (Joel 2:16; Exod. 19:15; 1 Cor. 7:5); but the congruity of the two clauses of the couplet is not obvious, unless the objectionable position of stones and their advantageous employment are compared with the character of illicit (Prov. 5:20) and legitimate love.
Ver. 6.—A time to get (seek), and a time to lose. The verb abad, in piel, is used in the sense of “to destroy” (Ch. 7:7), and it is only in late Hebrew that it signifies, as here, “to lose.” The reference is doubtless to property, and has no connection with the last clause of the preceding verse, as Delitzscb would pine. There is a proper and lawful pursuit of wealth, and there is a wise and prudent submission to its inevitable loss. The loss here is occasioned by events over which the owner has no control, differing from that in the next clause, which is voluntary. The wise man knows when to exert his energy in improving his fortune, and when to hold his hand and take failure without useless struggle. Loss, too, is sometimes gain, as when Christ’s departure in the flesh was the prelude and the occasion of the sending of the Comforter (John 16:7); and there are many things of which we know not the real value till they are beyond our grasp. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. Prudence will make fast what it has won, and will endeavour to preserve it unimpaired. But there are occasions when it is wiser to deprive one’s self of some things in order to secure more important ends, as when sailors throw a cargo, etc., overboard in order to save their ship (comp. Jonah 1:5; Acts 27:18, 19, 38). And in higher matters, such as almsgiving, this maxim holds good: “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth. … The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth shall be watered also himself” (Prov. 11:24, 25). Plumptre refers to Christ’s so-called paradox, “Whosoever would (ὃς ἂν θέλῃ) save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25).
Ver. 7.—A time to rend, and a time to sew (καιρὸς τοῦ ῥῆξαι, καὶ καιρὸς τοῦ ῥάψαι). This is usually understood of the rending of garments in token of grief (Gen. 37:29, 34, etc.), and the repairing of the rent then made when the season of mourning was ended. The Talmudists laid down careful rules concerning the extent of the ritual tear, and how long it was to remain unmended, both being regulated by the nearness of the relationship of the deceased person. In this interpretation there are these two difficulties: first, it makes the clause a virtual repetition of ver. 4; and secondly, it is not known for certain that the closing of the rent was a ceremonial custom in the times of Koheleth. Hence Plumptre inclines to take the expression metaphorically of the division of a kingdom by schism, and the restoration of unity, comparing the Prophet Ahijah’s communication to Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:30, 31). But surely this would be a most unlikely allusion to put into Solomon’s mouth; nor can we properly look for such a symbolical representation amid the other realistic examples given in the series. What Koheleth says is this—There are times when it is natural to tear clothes to pieces, whether from grief, or anger, or any other cause, e.g. as being old and worthless, or infected; and there are times when it is equally natural to mend them, and to make them serviceable by timely repairs. Connected with the notion of mourning contributed by this clause, though by no means confined to that notion, it is added, A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. The silence of deep sorrow may be intimated, as when Job’s friends sat by him in sympathizing silence (Job 2:13), and the psalmist cried, “I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred” (Ps. 39:2); and Elisha could not bear to hear his master’s departure mentioned (2 Kings 2:3, 5). There are also occasions when the sorrow of the heart should find utterance, as in David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:17, etc.) and over Abner (2 Sam. 3:33, etc.). But the gnome is of more general application. The young should hold their peace in the presence of their elders (Job 32:4, etc.); silence is often golden: “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: when he shutteth his lips, he is esteemed as prudent” (Prov. 17:28). On the other hand, wise counsel is of infinite value, and must not be with held at the right moment, and “a word in due season, how good is it!” (Prov. 15:23; 25:11). “If thou hast understanding, answer thy neighbour; if not, lay thy hand upon thy mouth” (Ecclus. 5:12; see more, Ecclus. 20:5, etc.).
Ver. 8.—A time to love, and a time to hate. This reminds one of the gloss to which our Lord refers (Matt. 5:43), “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy,” the first member being found in the old Law (Lev. 19:18), the second being a misconception of the spirit which made Israel God’s executioner upon the condemned nations. It was the maxim of Bias, quoted by Aristotle, ‘Rhet.,’ ii. 13, that we should love as if about some day to hate, and hate as if about to love. And Philo imparts a still more selfish tone to the gnome, when he pronounces (‘De Carit.,’ 21, p. 401, Mang.), “It was well said by them of old, that we ought to deal out friendship without absolutely renouncing enmity, and practise enmity as possibly to turn to friendship.” A time of war, and a time of peace. In the previous couplets the infinitive mood of the verb has been used; in this last hemistich substantives are introduced, as being more concise and better fitted to emphasize the close of the catalogue. The first clause referred specially to the private feelings which one is constrained to entertain towards individuals. The second clause has to do with national concerns, and touches on the statesmanship which discovers the necessity or the opportuneness of war and peace, and acts accordingly. In this and in all the other examples adduced, the lesson intended is this—that man is not independent; that under all circumstances and relations he is in the hand of a power mightier than himself, which frames time and seasons according to its own good pleasure. God holds the threads of human life; in some mysterious way directs and controls events; success and failure are dependent upon his will. There are certain laws which regulate the issues of actions and events, and man cannot alter these; his free-will can put them in motion, but they become irresistible when in operation. This is not fatalism; it is the mere statement of a fact in experience. Koheleth never denies man’s liberty, though he is very earnest in asserting God’s sovereignty. The reconciliation of the two is a problem unsolved by him.
Ver. 9.—If thus man, in all his actions and under all circumstances, depends upon time and seasons which are beyond his control, we return to the same desponding question already asked in Ch. 1:3. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? The preceding enumeration leads up to this question, to which the answer is “None.” Since time and tide wait for no man, since man cannot know for certain his opportunity, he cannot reckon on reaping any advantage from his labour.
Vers. 10–15.—There is a plan and system in all the circumstances of man’s life; he feels this instinctively, but he cannot comprehend it. His duty is to make the best of the present, and to recognize the immutability of the law that governs all things.
Ver. 10.—I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it; i.e. to busy themselves therewith (Ch. 1:13). This travail, exercise, or business is the work that has to be done under the conditions prescribed of time and season in face of the difficulty of man’s free action and God’s ordering. We take infinite pains, we entertain ample desires, and strive restlessly to carry them out, but our efforts are controlled by a higher law, and results occur in the way and at the time arranged by Providence. Human labour, though it is appointed by God and is part of man’s heritage imposed upon him by the Fall (Gen. 3:17, etc.), cannot bring contentment or satisfy the spirit’s cravings.
Ver. 11.—He hath made every thing beautiful in his (its) time. “Everything” (eth hacol) does not refer so much to the original creation which God made very good (Gen. 1:31), as to the travail and business mentioned in ver. 10. All parts of this have, in God’s design, a beauty and a harmony, their own season for appearance and development, their work to do in carrying on the majestic march of Providence. Also he hath set the world in their heart. “The world;” eth-haolam, placed (as hacol above) before the verb, with eth, to emphasize the relation. There is some uncertainty in the translation of this word. The LXX. has, Σύμπαντα τὸν αἰῶνα ; Vulgate, Mundum tradidit disputationi eorum. The original meaning is “the hidden,” and it is used generally in the Old Testament of the remote past, and sometimes of the future, as Dan. 4:33, so that the idea conveyed is of unknown duration, whether the glance looks backward or forward, which is equivalent to our word “eternity.” It is only in later Hebrew that the word obtained the signification of “age” (αἰών), or “world” in its relation to time. Commentators who have adopted the latter sense here explain the expression as if it meant that man in himself is a microcosm, a little world, or that the love of the world, the love of life, is naturally implanted in him. But taking the term in the signification found throughout the Bible, we are justified in translating it “eternity.” The pronoun in “their heart” refers to “the sons of men” in the previous verse. God has put into men’s minds a notion of infinity of duration; the beginning and the end of things are alike beyond his grasp; the time to be born and the time to die are equally unknown and uncontrollable. Koheleth is not thinking of that hope of immortality which his words unfold to us with our better knowledge; he is speculating on the innate faculty of looking backward and forward which man possesses, but which is insufficient to solve the problems which present themselves every day. This conception of eternity may be the foundation of great hopes and expectations, but as an explanation of the ways of Providence it fails. So that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end; or, without man being able to penetrate; yet so that he cannot, etc. Man sees only minute parts of the great whole; he cannot comprehend all at one view, cannot understand the law that regulates the time and season of every circumstance in the history of man and the world. He feels that, as there has been an infinite past, there will be an infinite future, which may solve anomalies and demonstrate the harmonious unity of God’s design, and he must be content to wait and hope. Comparison of the past with the present may help to adumbrate the future, but is inadequate to unravel the complicated thread of the world’s history (comp. Ch. 8:16, 17, and 9:1, where a similar thought is expressed).
Ver. 12.—I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice; rather, I knew, perceived, that there was no good for them; i.e. for men. From the facts adduced, Koheleth learned this practical result—that man had nothing in his own power (see on Ch. 2:24) which would conduce to his happiness, but to make the best of life such as he finds it. Vulgate, Cognovi quod non esset melius nisi lætari. To do good in his life; Τοῦ ποιεῖν ἀγαθόν (Septuagint); Facere bene (Vulgate). This has been taken by many in the sense of “doing one’s self good, prospering, enjoying one’s self,” like the Greek εὖ πράττειν, and therefore nearly equivalent to “rejoice” in the former part of the verse. But the expression is best taken here, as when it occurs elsewhere (e.g. Ch. 7:20), in a moral sense, and it thus teaches the great truth that virtue is essential to happiness, that to “trust in the Lord … to depart from evil, and to do good” (Ps. 37:3, 27), will bring peace and content (see in the epilogue, Ch. 12:13, 14). There is no Epicureanism in this verse; the enjoyment spoken of is not licentiousness, but a happy appreciation of the innocent pleasures which the love of God offers to those who live in accordance with the laws of their higher nature.
Ver. 13.—And also that every man should eat and drink … it is the gift of God. This enforces and intensities the statement in the preceding verse; not only the power to “do good,” but even to enjoy what comes in his way (see on Ch. 2:24), man must receive from God. When we pray for our daily bread, we also ask for ability to take, assimilate, and profit by the supports and comforts afforded to us. “It” is better omitted, as “is the gift of God” forms the predicate of the sentence. Ecclus. 11:17, “The gift of the Lord remaineth with the godly, and his favour bringeth prosperity for ever.”
Ver. 14.—I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever. A second thing (see ver. 12) that Koheleth knew, learned from the truths adduced in vers. 1–9, is that behind man’s free action and volition stands the will of God, which orders events with a view to eternity, and that man can alter nothing of this providential arrangement (comp. Isa. 46:10; Ps. 33:11). Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it. We cannot hasten or retard God’s designs; we cannot add to or curtail his plans. Septuagint, “It is impossible to add (οὐκ ἔστι προσθεῖναι) to it, and it is impossible to take away from it” Thus Ecclus. 18:6, “As for the wondrous works of the Lord, it is impossible to lessen or to add to them (οὐκ ἔστιν ἐλαττῶσαι οὐδὲ προσθεῖναι), neither can the ground of them be found out.” God doeth it, that men should fear before him. There is a moral purpose in this disposal of events. Men feel this uniformity and unchangeableness in the working of Providence, and thence learn to cherish a reverential awe for the righteous government of which they are the subjects. It was this feeling which led ancient etymologists to derive Θέος and Deus from δέος, “fear” (comp. Rev. 15:3, 4). This is also a ground of hope and confidence. Amid the jarring and fluctuating circumstances of men God holds the threads, and alters not his purpose. “I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). The Vulgate is not very successful; Non possumus eis quidquam addere, nec auferre, quæ fecit Deus ut timeatur, “We cannot add anything unto, or take anything away from, those things which God hath made that he may be feared.”
Ver. 15.—That which hath been is now; so Septuagint; “That which hath been made, the same remaineth” (Vulgate); better, that which hath been, long ago it is; i.e. was in existence long before. The thought is much the same as in Ch. 1:9, only here it is adduced not to prove the vanity and endless sameness of circumstances, but the orderly and appointed succession of events under the controlling providence of God. That which is to be hath already been. The future will be a reproduction of the past. The laws which regulate things change not; the moral government is exercised by him who “is, and was, and is to come” (Rev. 1:8), and therefore in effect history repeats itself; the same causes produce the same phenomena. God requireth that which is past; literally, God seeketh after that which hath been chased away; Septuagint, “God will seek him who is pursued (τὸν διωκόμενον);” Vulgate, “God reneweth that which is passed (instaurat quod abiit).” The meaning is—God brings back to view, recalls again into being, that which was past and had vanished out of sight and mind. The sentence is an explanation of the preceding clauses, and has nothing to do with the inquisition at the day of judgment. Hengstenberg has followed the Septuagint, Syriac, and Targum, in translating, “God seeks the persecuted,” and seeing herein an allusion to the punishment of the Egyptians for pursuing the Israelites to the Red Sea, or a general statement that God succours the oppressed. But this idea is quite alien to the intention of the passage, and injures the coherence.
Vers. 16–22.—Acknowledging the providential government of God, which controls events and places man’s happiness out of his own power, one is confronted also by the fact that there is much wickedness, much injustice, in the world, which oppose all plans for peaceful enjoyment. Doubtless there shall be a day of retribution for such iniquities; and God allows them now in order to try men and to teach them humility. Meantime man’s duty and happiness consist, as before said, in making the best use of the present and improving the opportunities which God gives him.
Ver. 16.—And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment. Koheleth records his experience of the prevalence of iniquity in high places. The place of judgment (mishpat); where justice is administered. The accentuation allows (cf. Gen. 1:1) this to be regarded as the object of the verb. The Revised Version, with Hitzig, Ginsburg, and others, take מְקוֹם as an adverbial expression equivalent to “in the place.” The former is the simpler construction. “And moreover,” at the commencement of the verse, looks back to ver. 10, “I have seen the travail,” etc. That wickedness (resha) was there. On the judicial seat iniquity sat instead of justice. The place of righteousness (tsedek). “Righteousness” is the peculiar characteristic of the judge himself, as “justice” is of his decisions. That iniquity (resha) was there. The word ought to be translated “wickedness” or “iniquity” in both clauses. The Septuagint takes the abstract for the concrete, and at the end has apparently introduced a clerical error, which has been perpetuated in the Arabic and elsewhere, “And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, there was the ungodly (ἀσεβής); and the place of the righteous, there was the godly (εὐσεβής).” The Complutensian Polyglot reads ἀσεβὴς in both places. It is impossible to harmonize these statements of oppression and injustice here and elsewhere (e.g. Ch. 4:1; 5:8; 8:9, 10) with Solomon’s authorship of the book. It is contrary to fact that such a corrupt state of things existed in his time, and in writing thus he would be uttering a libel against himself. If he was cognizant of such evils in his kingdom, he had nothing to do but to put them down with a high hand. There is nothing to lead to the belief that he is speaking of other countries and other times; he is stating his own personal experience of what goes on around him. It is true that in Solomon’s latter days disaffection secretly prevailed, and the people felt his yoke grievous (1 Kings 12:4); but there is no evidence of the existence of corruption in judicial courts, or of the social and political evils of which he speaks in this book. That he had a prophetical foresight of the disasters that would accompany the reign of his successor, and endeavours herein to provide consolation for the future sufferers, is a pious opinion without historical basis, and cannot be justly used to support the genuineness of the work.
Ver. 17.—I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked. In view of the injustice that prevails in earthly tribunals, Koheleth takes comfort in the thought that there is retribution in store for every man, when God shall award sentence according to deserts. God is a righteous Judge strong and patient, and his decisions are infallible. Future judgment is here plainly stated, as it is at the final conclusion (Ch. 12:14). They who refuse to credit the writer with belief in this great doctrine resort to the theory of interpolation and alteration in order to account for the language in this and analogous passages. There can be no doubt that the present text has hitherto always been regarded as genuine, and that it does clearly assert future retribution, though not so much as a conclusion firmly established, but rather as a belief which may explain anomalies and afford comfort under trying circumstances. For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. The adverb rendered “there” (שָׁם, sham) is placed emphatically, at the end of the sentence. Thus the Septuagint, “There is a reason for every action, and for every work there (ἐκεῖ).” Many take it to mean “in the other world,” and Plumptre cites Eurip., ‘Med.,’ 1073—
Ἐνδαιμονοῖτον, ἀλλʼ ἐκεῖ τὰ δʼ ἐνθάδε
“All good be with you! but it must be there;
Here it is stolen from you by your sire.”
But it is unexampled to find the elliptical “there,” when no place has been mentioned in the context, and when we are precluded from interpreting the dark word by a significant gesture, as Medea may have pointed downwards in her histrionic despair. Where the words, “that day,” are used in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 10:12; 2 Tim. 1:18, etc.), the context shows plainly to what they refer. Some take the adverb here in the sense of “then.” Thus the Vulgate, Justum et impium judicabit Deus, et tempus omnis rei tunc erit.” But really no time has been mentioned, unless we conceive the writer to have been guilty of a clumsy tautology, expressing by “then” the same idea as “a time for every purpose,” etc. Ewald would understand it of the past; but this is quite arbitrary, and limits the signification of the sentence unnecessarily. It is best, with many modern commentators, to refer the adverb to God, who has just been spoken of in the preceding clause. A similar use is found in Gen. 49:24. With God, apud Deum, in his counsels, there is a time of judgment and retribution for every act of man, when anomalies which have obtained on earth shall be rectified, injustice shall be punished, virtue rewarded. There is no need, with some commentators, to read שָׂם, “he appointed;” the usual reading gives a satisfactory sense.
Ver. 18.—The comfort derived from the thought of the future judgment is clouded by the reflection that man is as powerless as the beast to control his destiny. Concerning the estate of the sons of men; rather, it happens on account of the sons of men. God allows events to take place, disorders to continue, etc., for the ultimate profit of men, though the idea that follows is humiliating and dispiriting. The LXX. has περὶ λαλιᾶς “concerning the speech of the sons of men.” So the Syriac. The word dibrah may indeed bear that meaning, as it is also used for “word” or “matter;” but we cannot conceive that the clause refers solely to words, and the expression in the text signifies merely “for the sake, on account of,” as in Ch. 8:2. That God might manifest them; rather, that God might test them; Ut probaret eos Deus (Vulgate). God allows these things, endures them patiently, and does not at once redress them, for two reasons. The first of these is that they may serve for the probation of men, giving them opportunity of making good or bad use of them. We see the effect of this forbearance on the wicked in Ch. 8:11; it hardens them in impenitence; while it nourishes the faith of the righteous, and helps them to persevere (see Dan. 11:35 and Rev. 22:11). And that they might see that they themselves are beasts. The pronoun is repeated emphatically, “that they themselves are [like] beasts, they in themselves.” This is the second reason. Thus they learn their own powerlessness, if they regard merely their own animal life; apart from their relation to God and hope of the future, they are no better than the lower creatures. Septuagint. “And to show (τοῦ δεῖεξαι) that they are beasts.” So the Vulgate and Syriac. The Masoretic reading adopted in the Anglican Version seems best.
Vers. 19–21 are best regarded as a parenthesis explanatory of vers. 16–18, elucidating man’s impotence in the presence of the anomalies of life. The conclusion in ver. 22 is connected with vers. 16–18. We must acknowledge that there are disorders in the world which we cannot remedy, and which God allows in order to demonstrate our powerlessness; therefore the wisest course is to make the best of present circumstances.
Ver. 19.—For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; literally, chance are the sons of men, and chance are beasts (see on Ch. 2:14); Septuagint, “Yea, and to them cometh the event (συνάντημα) of the sons of men, and the event of the beast.” Koheleth explains in what respect man is on a level with the brute creation. Neither are able to rise superior to the law that controls their natural life. So Solon says to Crœsus (Herod., i. 32), Πᾶν ὲστι ἄνθρωπος συμφορή, “Man is naught but chance;” and Artabanus reminds Xerxes that chances rule men, not men chances (ibid., vii. 49). Even one thing befalleth them. A third time is the ominous word repeated, “One chance is to both of them.” Free-thinkers perverted this dictum into the materialistic language quoted in the Book of Wisdom (2:2): “We are born at haphazard, by chance (αὐτοσχεδίως),” etc. But Koheleth’s contention is, not that there is no law or order in what happens to man, but that neither man nor beast can dispose events at their own will and pleasure; they are conditioned by a force superior to them, which dominates their actions, sufferings, and circumstances of life. As the one dieth, so dieth the other. In the matter of succumbing to the law of death man has no superiority over other creatures. This is an inference drawn from common observation of exterior facts, and touches not any higher question (comp. Ch. 2:14, 15; 9:2, 3). Something similar is found in Ps. 49:20, “Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.” Yea, they have all one breath (ruach). This is the word used in ver. 21 for the vital principle, “the breath of life,” as it is called in Gen. 6:17, where the same word is found. In the earlier record (Gen. 2:7) the term is nishma. Life in all animals is regarded as the gift of God. Says the psalmist, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit (ruach), they are created” (Ps. 104:30). This lower principle presents the same phenomena in men and in brutes Man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; i.e. in regard to suffering and death. This is not bare materialism, or a gloomy deduction from Greek teaching, but must be explained from the writer’s standpoint, which is to emphasize the impotence of man to effect his own happiness. Taking only a limited and phenomenal view of man’s circumstances and destiny, he speaks a general truth which all must acknowledge. Septuagint, “And what hath the man more than the beast? Nothing.” For all is vanity. The distinction between man and beast is annulled by death; the former’s boasted superiority, his power of conceiving and planning, his greatness, skill, strength, cunning, all come under the category of vanity, as they cannot ward off the inevitable blow.
Ver. 20.—All go unto one place. All, men and brutes, are buried in the earth (Ch. 12:7). The author is not thinking of Sheol, the abode of departed spirits, but merely regarding earth as the universal tomb of all creatures. Plumptre quotes Lucretius, ‘De Rer. Nat.,’ v. 260—
“Omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulchrum.”
“The mother and the sepulchre of all.”
Thus Bailey, ‘Festus’—
“The course of nature seems a course of death;
The prize of life’s brief race, to cease to run;
The sole substantial thing, death’s nothingness.”
All are of the dust (Gen. 3:19; Ps. 104:29; 146:4). So Ecclus. 41:10, “All things that are of earth shall turn to earth again.” This is true of the material part of men and brutes alike; the question of the destiny of the immaterial part is touched in the next verse.
Ver. 21.—Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? The statement is here too categorically rendered, though, for dogmatical purposes, the Masorites seem to have punctuated the text with a view to such interpretation. But, as Wright and others point out, the analogy of two other passages (Ch. 2:19 and 6:12), where “who knoweth” occurs, intimates that the phrases which follow are interrogative. So the translation should be, “Who knoweth as regards the spirit (ruach) of the sons of men whether it goeth upward, and as regards the spirit (ruach) of the beast whether it goeth downward under the earth?” Vulgate, Quis novit si spiritus, etc.? Septuagint, Τίς εἶδε πνεῦμα υιῶν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰ ἀναβαίνει αὐτὸ ἄνω; “Who ever saw the spirit of the sons of man, whether it goeth upward?” The Authorized Version, which gives the Masoretic reading, is supposed to harmonize better with the assertion at the end of the book (Ch. 12:7), that the spirit returns to the God who gave it. But there is no formal denial of the immortality of the soul in the present passage as we render it. The question, indeed, is not touched. The author is confirming his previous assertion that, in one point of view, man is not superior to brute. Now he says, looking at the matter merely externally, and taking not into consideration any higher notion, no one knows the destiny of the living powers, whether God deals differently with the spirit of man and of beast. Phenomenally, the principle of life in both is identical, and its cessation is identical; and what becomes of the spirit in either case neither eye nor mind can discover. The distinction which reason or religion assumes, viz. that man’s spirit goes upward and the brute’s downward, is incapable of proof, is quite beyond experience. What is meant by “upward” and “downward” may be seen by reference to the gnome in Prov. 15:24. “To the wise the way of life goeth upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath.” The contrast shows that Sheol is regarded as a place of punishment or annihilation; this is further confirmed by Ps. 49:14, 15, “They are appointed as a flock for Sheol: death shall be their shepherd … their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume. … But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for he shall receive me.” Koheleth neither denies nor affirms in this passage the immortality of the soul; that he believed in it we learn from other expressions; but he is not concerned with parading it here. Commentators quote Lucretius’ sceptical thought (‘De Rer. Nat.,’ i. 113–116)—
“Ignoratur enim quæ sit natura animai,
Nata sit, an contra uascentibus insinuetur,
Et simul intereat nobiscum, morte diremta,
An tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas.”
“We know not what the nature of the soul,
Born in the womb, or at the birth infused,
Whether it dies with us, or wings its way
Unto the gloomy pools of Orcus vast.”
But Koheleth’s inquiry suggests the possibility of a different destiny for the spirits of man and brute, though he does not at this moment make any definite assertion on the subject. Later on he explains the view taken by the believer in Divine revelation (Ch. 12:7).
Ver. 22—After all, the writer arrives at the conclusion intimated in ver. 12; only here the result is gathered from the acknowledgment of man’s impotence (vers. 16–18), as there from the experience of life. Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, etc.; rather, so, or wherefore I saw that there was nothing, etc. As man is not master of his own lot, cannot order events as he would like, is powerless to control the forces of nature and the providential arrangements of the world, his duty and his happiness consist in enjoying the present, in making the best of life, and availing himself of the bounties which the mercy of God places before him. Thus he will free himself from anxieties and cares, perform present labours, attend to present duties, content himself with the daily round, and not vex his heart with solicitude for the future. There is no Epicureanism here, no recommendation of sensual enjoyment; the author simply advises men to make a thankful use of the blessings which God provides for them. For who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? The Revised Version, by inserting “back”—Who shall bring him back to see?—affixes a meaning to the clause which it need not and does not bear. It is, indeed, commonly interpreted to signify that man knows and can know nothing that happens to him after death—whether he will exist or not, whether he will have cognizance of what passes on earth, or be insensible to all that befalls here. But Koheleth has completed that thought already; his argument now turns to the future in this life. Use the present, for you cannot be sure of the future;—this is his exhortation. So he says (Ch. 6:12), “Who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?” where the expression, “under the sun,” shows that earthly life is meant, not existence after death. Ignorance of the future is a very common topic throughout the book, but it is the terrestrial prospect that is in view. There would be little force in urging the impotence of men’s efforts towards their own happiness by the consideration of their ignorance of what may happen when they are no more; but one may reasonably exhort men to cease to torment themselves with hopes and fears, with labours that may be useless and preparations that may never be needed, by the reflection that they cannot foresee the future, and that, for all they know, the pains which they take may be utterly wasted (cf. Ch. 7:14; 9:3). Thus in this section there is neither scepticism nor Epicureanism. In brief, the sentiment is this—There are injustices and anomalies in the life of men and in the course of this world’s events which man cannot control or alter; these may be righted and compensated hereafter. Meantime, man’s happiness is to make the best of the present, and cheerfully to enjoy what Providence offers, without anxious care for the future.
God’s Enduring Work by Robert Leroe
Overcoming Futility—a sermon series on Ecclesiastes
“God’s Enduring Work” Chapter 3 -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
What do we do with the brief time we’ve been given? In a lifetime, the average American will spend 6 months waiting at stoplights, one year looking for misplaced objects, two years unsuccessfully returning phone calls, 4 years doing housework, and 5 years waiting in line (if you served in the military, make that 6 years!). Benjamin Franklin cautioned, “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.”
Perhaps some of you have heard of Chaos theory, a complex model developed by mathematicians to find the underlying order in seemingly random events. In this chapter, Solomon shows how our lives have structure. To people without faith, time simply rolls onward, with no apparent rhyme or reason; accidents happen, and they are alone in the world. For believers, time is ordered by God’s providence. Events don’t “just happen” by chance; there is “a time for everything” (3:1). God is with us, and is actively involved in our lives.
We’re all familiar with chapter 3, but for a moment (skipping over the best-known passage), let’s focus on the key to this chapter, verse 11: “God has made everything appropriate in its time” (NASB). Some translations use the word “beautiful”. The idea is that of a “beautifully-fitting” structure. God is sovereign, He controls the “times”, yet in spite of this, we often fail to recognize God’s hand at work in the world. We have at best a limited view of all that God is doing. He causes all things to work together for good (Rom 8:28), and our times are in His hand. His timing is perfect. Faith means trusting God, even when our timing disagrees with His. In times of hardship we draw comfort from knowing that God is in control. He has a plan that one day will be made clear.
Thanks partially to folksinger Pete Seeger, verses 1-8 are familiar to us all. The seasons turn, and we see in them a series of opposites. We discover order and design, not only in Creation, but also in the events and cycles of life. Solomon lists things common to us all--a time to plant, a time to build, a time to laugh…and in so doing he unveils life’s structure and complexity. The world has a divinely-regulated, built-in flow. No one can alter God’s design. The original language implies that for everything there is a suitable time and a particular season. Life is not a string of random events. This list of opposites covers 28 events in 14 pairs, multiples of 7 – a number that symbolizes completeness and perfection in the Bible. We can perceive life as meaningless, endless cycles, or understand that the totality of life is regulated by God.
Time is a gift. For a clockmaker time is the essence of his handiwork. For a science-fiction writer it is the fourth dimension. A biologist sees time in the internal clocks that keep plants and animals in sync with nature. For a banker time is money. A philosopher once wrote, "Time is the best teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils." God is outside of the realm of time. He can see the beginning and the end and all points in between. He is sovereign over time and eternity…or as a teenager put it in a Confirmation class, “God does what He thinks is cool.”
We see structure in the timing of the coming of Jesus. He came “in the fullness of time”, and when attempts were unsuccessfully made on His life, it was because “His time was not yet come”. At the completion of His foreordained mission He cried out “It is finished!” God has a plan for us as well. Where we live, who we marry, our work, even our hobbies, fit in with His plan for us. Those who see God’s hand in everything can best leave everything in God’s hand. “History is a story written by the hand of God” (C.S. Lewis). There are no chance encounters in life, only divine appointments. This is a very comforting doctrine, and a warning to those who think that they control their fate.
There is a time for everything, but what do we gain from all our efforts (vs 9)? Whatever we do is profitless if we live apart from God. We’re in the dark until we give our lives to God. And what do we do with the time we’re given? We have time to be peacemakers, but we continue in our conflict; we have time to pray, but we’re distracted by the cares of this world. We have time to be refreshed, but we work to the point of exhaustion. We use time, or time uses us.
Verse 11 (the key verse) goes on to state, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” God has given us a thirst for spiritual things that can only be satisfied when we receive the water that will satisfy our souls forever. Jesus promises in John 4, “The water I give takes away thirst altogether. It becomes a perpetual spring giving eternal life” (4:14). We innately sense that there is more to life than what we see.
Verses 13-14 recommend two things: enjoy life, and fear God. How can we do both? If we revere God, we will have the capacity to enjoy life, especially when we see the pleasures of life as gifts from His hand. My wife and I recently attended an all-Mozart chamber music concert at Jordan Hall in Boston. The brilliant music we heard performed is a reflection of God’s own creativity. I often think after such concerts that music alone is proof that there is a God.
Life is fleeting, transient. But “everything God does will endure forever,” verse 14. The prophet Isaiah writes, “The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever” (40:8). We can accomplish things of eternal value in our brief lifespan. Its been said: “Only one life, will soon be past; only what’s done for God will last.”
Verses 15-17 point out the seeming unfairness of life. There appears to be injustice everywhere we turn, but that’s because we’re missing the “big picture”. People express outrage when a killer or sex offender gets a light sentence. If consequences were limited to this life alone, that would be indeed unfair. The end of life isn’t the end of the story. We will all appear before God’s throne to give an account of our lives. God does not overlook human iniquity. There is an appointed time for accountability and judgment: “God will call the past to account” (15).
Verses 18-21 raise some concern. Solomon is returning to his overall theme, that without God, life is bleak and meaningless. There is a time to die, and if there were no life after death, then there’d be little hope for the future, and it wouldn’t matter how anyone lives. Like animals, we do not have long to live on this earth. Are we no different from animals? From a purely biological viewpoint we can’t detect any difference; both die and return to dust. A child at the Christian School asked me one of those tough questions only children manage to ask: “How do we die?” I explained that our bodies eventually wear out and stop working, the best way I could explain mortality. I added that when we leave our bodies we go to God. Unbelievers can only sink before the brevity of life and their fear of death and extinction.
People talk about “seizing the day” because, if this life is the only life we have, we might as well live for the moment. To fully live we have to resolve the issue of death. It remains the greatest of all evils, until we accept the promise of Scripture and realize that Christ conquered the grave. He died for us, and He takes us home by way of death. Some people obsess over death; some deny it. We’re unable to enjoy life until we’re prepared to die. For believers, death is more than a non-issue; it is a blessing.
Life is fleeting. Who can we live without God? Life is short. Eternity is long. Death is certain. Christ is the Answer. We who trust God live an abundant life that will stretch into eternity. God has set eternity in our hearts because we will live forever.
This morning I want to dispel one of the most widespread myths to ever infect the heart of man. If there was ever a lie that did more damage with more subtlety, I have never heard about it. A person could travel the entire globe and not find a more insidious, yet more innocent looking deception. I have heard it spouted from the mouths of old and young, dark-skinned and light-skinned, those considered wise and those considered fools. This fabrication has no gender gap, no generation gap, no socio-economic gap – it is as pervasive in one social circle as the next.
Anyone have any guesses as to what it might be? Go ahead, someone take a shot at it. It is one of those things that once I say it you’ll think to yourself, “Oh yeah! I should have known that.” Are you curious yet?
This ugly falsehood usually shows up after we, or someone we know has had a sleepless night. After dragging ourselves through the day, weary beyond belief, someone invariably asks, “What are you going to do tonight?” Our bleary-eyed response usually sounds like this, “I’m going to go to bed early and catch up on some sleep.” Or if it happens to be a good friend who is sleep-deprived, we might offer this advice, “Why don’t hit the sack and catch up on your sleep?” Either way, it is wrong-headed. Sleep lost is sleep lost – there is no such thing as catching up on sleep.
Now why do I say that? Because there are two dimensions to sleep that are necessary for the body to feel rested. The first is the quality or depth of the sleep. This dimension we have some measure of influence over. A good mattress, a comfortable, supportive pillow, maybe some music or other “white noise” can impact how well we sleep. We can even use different kinds of equipment – like the masks used to relieve sleep apnea – or medications to help us sleep more soundly.
But the second dimension is one that we cannot impact in any way. We cannot change its nature, nor can we change its measure. It is time. All we can do is use our time wisely to ensure that there is enough left at the end of the day to allow an adequate amount of sleep. Quantity is just as important as quality when it comes to sleep. Every medical advance known to mankind cannot alter this; regardless of how soundly you sleep if you don’t get enough – if you don’t allow enough time – you will be tired.
Time – and so, sleep – cannot be managed by cost analysis. Once you get to zero – you’re at zero. You cannot run a deficit one day and use a surplus the next day that you will just shuffle over to make up for what was lacking the before. We like to think we can, but the reality is that once time is lost – and so once sleep is lost – you cannot get it back. You can use time the next day to compensate for the loss, but you will never regain the same amount of time, or sleep – you had the day before. Allocating time to “make up” for lost time means that the time used for “making up” is lost for any other purpose.
Time is one of the great philosophical questions of all time – if I may make such a circular statement. Humankind has been in conniption fits since the dawn of time trying to discover its nature. What is time? How does it move? We know how to tell time, but we can’t affect it. We can’t speed it up or slow it down. We realize it has this irascible characteristic of seeming to fly by when we are in the arms of our lover, but crawl by when the preacher is speaking. So it seems to vary – but this is an illusion in our perception of reality. Time remains constant for all practical purposes.
Solomon, too, tried his hand at understanding time. We met Solomon last week in our first sermon of this series out of Ecclesiastes called The Trouble with Living. He is the son and heir of King David, Israel’s greatest king. Solomon became wise and wealthy beyond all comprehension. As his influence grew, his heart began to stray from his roots. He worshipped foreign gods, had hundreds of wives and thousands of concubines, and began to despair because he could find no satisfaction. So he set out to find the meaning of life under the sun – that is life on earth without hope beyond this life.
Last week we looked how meaningless our lives can be if we have no hope beyond the grave. Life under the sun without an above the sun perspective can be tiresome, repetitive, even boring – maybe downright tedious. The above the sun perspective is essential to infusing life under the sun with meaning and purpose.
Now, Solomon wants to understand how time fits into this meaningless life under the sun. And as he begins to investigate, he notices something profound. Look with me at vv. 1-8 of our text.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Many of us remember the Byrds 1960’s hit Turn, Turn, Turn. To everything/Turn, turn, turn/ there is a season/Turn, turn, turn/ and a time for every purpose under heaven. The song draws its lyrics – obviously – from Solomon’s wisdom written here. The times when the Byrds released this song were turbulent. Political assassinations, Vietnam, fears of nuclear annihilation, the sexual revolution, the birth of the drug culture, racial violence as the birth pangs of the civil rights movement, the birth of existentialism which would eventually lead to post-modernism – these are just a few of the forces that rocked the world during 60’s. The times seemed to be changing faster than a body could adjust, leading to widespread angst and uncertainty for those coming out of the golden age of the 50’s. Turn, Turn, Turn was a song for its times.
And for the most part, the Byrds were faithful to the biblical message. At the very end, however, they just couldn’t resist adding a twist to address the major political and cultural bugaboo of their time – war. A time for love, a time for hate, a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.
Now, on the surface, this seems to be a nice addition to a rather dreary portion of Scripture. As I discussed last week, Ecclesiastes is not a very cheerful book – in fact just the opposite. Solomon seems determined to depress his readers with the utter uselessness of life. We eat, we drink, we sleep, we have babies, we work and work and work and work and work and work and work and then we die. Nothing we do here on earth lasts long. That which outlasts our life falls into the hands of those who will not appreciate all the sweat equity we have paid to gain it. The Byrds at least end with a note of hope – “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
But the ending the Byrds opted for misses the underlying hope that girds this passage. I have to admit, it is subtle, like time itself but it is there if you keep Solomon’s words in context. And the Byrds hope, well it is rather empty – it’s baseless really. “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” It’s like the guy who swears better days are ahead because he’s due. The world has treated him like dirt for too long, eventually the fates have to go in his favor. It’s karma – what goes around comes around, yeng and yang. The universe owes him after all the garbage he has put up with.
While such a mode of thinking may help you get to sleep at night, we all know it is not even close to true. We have all known people – good people – whose lives were put in shambles by some inexplicable accident and from there just spiraled into ruin. People who never recovered from the blows life dealt. We have sat and agonized with them, “Why?” Reality doesn’t allow us to buy into the “What goes around, comes around philosophy” for long. Too often we run into those whose been waiting their turn, suffering in silence, and their break never comes, their ship sinks off the coast, the coffers are empty when their time comes due.
And even more frightening is the realization, “But for the grace of God, there goes I!” As the song by Acapella says, “That could have been me/that could have been me/Pain and the tears, relief unknown/Wondering why I was ever born.” We live day to day, one tragedy away from a life in shambles.
As a pastor, I have seen the pattern way too often. A husband dies and suddenly the stay at home mom finds herself out on the street, her children taken from her by social services and no way out. Despair drives her to drugs, drugs only entrench her deeper in the cycle of ruin. By the time she begins to dig her way out she is so far in the hole, it seems like the stars are aligned against her. Nothing goes right. And folks, we are not that far away from the rut this woman found herself in.
So what is this hope that I said implicitly under girds Solomon’s words – hope so subtle that Solomon himself may not have recognized it was there, at least not in his present state of mind? Well, to begin to glimpse this hope you have to take seriously Solomon’s question in v.9 and ask yourself, “Why is it there?” Look at vv. 9-10.
What does the worker gain from his toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
Remember that in chapter two, Solomon ended by saying that the best a person can hope for is to find satisfaction in his work. If he enjoys the food and drink his labor earns, it is a gift from God. In other words, it is only if you see God’s providential hand at work in your life – that is, gain a perspective from above the sun – can you really appreciate what you have. Otherwise, even the fruit of your labor is tinged with the bitterness of the toil it took to gain it. Once the food and drink are gone, the only reminders of the fruit of your labor is the fruit of your digestion. Not much to be excited about there.
But then Solomon begins by talking about the appointed times in life. Now notice something here. All the appointed times he speaks of - are any of them within the control of mankind? No, not really. All of them enter our life unbidden – some of them are marked by our response; a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. These are our responses to the watershed moments of life, times we cannot predict or bring to pass by our own will.
Solomon lists the times in seven pairs, each time placing one extreme in tension with its opposite. This form of poetry is known as merism, and it represents the whole of something. Just like when we say “from head to toe” we mean the entire person or body. That Solomon uses seven pairs – a number of completeness or perfection in Hebrew culture – indicates that he means that every major moment of life is appointed to us. It has purpose, one beyond our understanding or ability to grasp. And as he reflects on the reality that our life and times are appointed to us he is forced to ask the question, “So of what use is all the work we do?” In other words, if our work cannot change the outcome – if our work cannot add life to us or secure some benefit for us beyond this life, what’s the use?
It is amazing, that even in his deepest despair and attempt to reason his way to meaning in life Solomon still manages to hit upon a rock solid truth of reality. You cannot add a thing to your life – not one second, not one nanosecond. When your day comes, it comes – ready or not. So the question again becomes, what are you working for?
Now, how does this translate into hope? The answer lies in what Solomon says next in vv. 11-14.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
The natural question to ask is “If times are appointed, there must be an appointer. Who does the appointing?” Solomon’s answer is “God, he is one that appoints these times.” But then he gives us something else – the ray of hope. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
That word beautiful – it’s a strange one to use when referring to time, isn’t it? We don’t often think of time as beautiful; more often it seems an enemy. Yet, Solomon says that God makes each appointed time beautiful, in his time. And that is really the key to the hope we find in this passage. You see, what Solomon is telling us is that each moment of life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – God redeems it by infusing with purpose. How? By weaving each one into his eternal purpose, by making each one a thread in the tapestry of redemption.
Have you ever looked at a piece of embroidery? It is one of the most fascinating forms of art. One thread at a time, the person builds a scene by layering colors and complex stitches. It takes extraordinary patience and skill to do well. The best embroidered tapestries seem alive, because of the depth and richness of the picture. But what looks like such an orderly and precise work on the front side when turned over becomes a jumbled mess. The backside is littered with knots and strands of string.
God appoints times in much the same way the embroiderer uses thread. He weaves them together to form an exquisite portrait of grace and redemption. The problem is that from this side of the sun – without an above the sun perspective – all we see are the knots and strands. But if you were to see it from the other side, you’d see how God in Christ has woven the cross through your life and he has used a rich, crimson thread to bind you eternally to his love. And in his time, which is always right, always perfect he reveals to you the work he has been doing in your life. He turns the tapestry over for you see that the times he appoints always arrive on time and make the portrait of his grace most beautiful.
I don’t know what all of you are facing this morning. Maybe some of you are at one of those watershed moments and you are questioning, “Why?” But here’s what I do know. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I know that God is going to take this time that he has appointed to you and he is going to make it beautiful. The key is to trust his timing, to hold faithfully to God’s promise to make all work for the good of those who love him. Receive each moment with the calm assurance that he is going to weave it into the tapestry of his eternal plan and fill this time with purpose. You may have to wait until you step into eternity to see how this moment is beautiful, but we have this promise – in his time, he will make it beautiful. Even those lost hours of sleep.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF LIFE
“Approach Life with Humility”
Humility is Gaining the Proper Perspective –
There is a God and it is not me.
To Approach Life with Humility we must…
UNDERSTAND THE PRINCIPLE OF TIME – V.1-8
UNDERSTAND THAT GOD’S TIMING IS PERFECT, NOT OURS. – V. 9-11
UNDERSTAND THAT THE LIFE WE LIFE IS A GIFT FROM GOD – V. 12-15
UNDERSTAND THAT LIFE AND DEATH ARE OUT OF OUR CONTROL – V.16-22
by Linda Ellis *
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own,
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard;
Are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what's true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we've never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile,
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read
With your life's actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?
© 1996 Linda Ellis
MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (Ec 3:1). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1990). Be satisfied (Ec 3:1). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
The Pulpit Commentary: Ecclesiastes. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.) (58). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.