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Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 - The Refuge of Providence

Ecclesiastes - Joy At The End of the Tether  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  37:37
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The providence of God is your refuge in a fatalistic world

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Introduction

In the late 1950’s, folk musician Pete Seeger was frustrated with his music publisher. They had sent him a letter complaining that they couldn’t find a market for all the protest songs he had been writing. So, out of frustration, he turned to Ecclesiastes 3 and set the first eight verses to music—in his words, “I was angry… I sat down with a tape recorder and said, ‘I can’t write the kind of songs you want, you gotta go to somebody else. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.’ I pulled out this slip of paper in my pocket and improvised a melody to it in fifteen minutes. And I sent it to [them]. And I got a letter from him the next week that said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I’m looking for!” Within two months, Seeger’s publisher sold the song to the Byrds, who went on to make it famous a decade later (and if you are of a certain age, their opening steel guitar riff and harmonized “Turn, turn, turn” is what was probably going through your head when we read these verses!)
The song became a hit in part because of the growing disillusionment with the war in Vietnam, and the sense of helplessness in the face of the escalating conflict. Seeger’s final lyric, “A time for war / a time for peace / I swear it’s not too late” seemed to cast the song as a message of hope that it was possible to break out of the cycle of war and hatred and killing and come into a time of peace and love and life. And over the years this passage has been used as an encouragement that “there is a better time coming”—that if you are in a time of mourning, don’t worry, there will be a time of dancing to come. If you are in a time of breaking down, there will be a time of building up someday!
But there’s a problem with that, isn’t there? Because you can just as easily read these verses the other way, can’t you? If you are in a time of laughing, be warned that there will be a time of weeping coming too. If you are embracing each other, there will come a time when you will stiff-arm each other as well. This passage can be read just as enthusiastically by pessimists as optimists, can’t it?
And this really does get to the heart of what Solomon is setting up in this chapter. Remember, Solomon is demonstrating that the only joy to be had in this life is joy that is rooted in pleasing God. When you are in a right relationship with the Creator of all things, then you are in a position to enjoy all things. But apart from knowing and pleasing the Creator, you lack the ability to enjoy His creation.
As we’ve noted before, the book of Ecclesiastes is a book full of powerful, lasting and radiant joy in God. Contrary to popular conceptions, Ecclesiastes is an overwhelmingly optimistic book—but in order to show the greatness and supreme promises of joy in this book, Solomon has to demonstrate how hopeless any search for joy is apart from knowing God.
And these eight verses at the beginning of Chapter 3 are a masterful way of doing that. Because if you only consider these things from the perspective of this world (“under heaven”), then all you are left with is a fatalistic worldview. Like another song that became popular in the 1950’s, Doris Day’s song, “Que Sera Sera“Whatever will be, will be / the future’s not ours to see...”
The idea of “fate” is that things just happen because they happen. “It is what it is”. There is no shifting fate, there is no avoiding it—and there is no purpose to it. There is no “why” with fate—the answer to “why” is simply, “Because. It just is.”
A lot of people live their lives that way—some days you laugh, other days you cry. Some days you gather, some days you scatter. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. There’s no rhyme nor reason, there’s no sense in trying to figure out why or how. The best you can hope for is that today is a day when you can rejoice and not mourn. But it could go either way, and there’s no rhyme nor reason to it. Life is random, bleak, and ultimately hopeless.
But Solomon is not presenting a case for the hopelessness of a fatalistic existence in Ecclesiastes—he is presenting a case for powerful, lasting, potent joy in this life. And what he is setting up here in this chapter is that the ground of that joy comes from the fact that God is perfectly, utterly in control of every single thing that happens in the universe—that there is nothing that happens (or can happen) in all of creation apart from God’s direct and complete control.
He makes it clear in verses 9-10 that everything in this poem—life, death, weeping, laughing, dancing, mourning—all of it comes from His hand:
Ecclesiastes 3:9–10 ESV
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
The theological term for God’s utter authority in creation is His sovereignty. When we say that God is sovereign, we mean that He has the authority to exercise His will over all things. But what Solomon is aiming at illustrating here is not just God’s authority to act, but the actual working of God to achieve His purposes. And so I want to begin with a definition of God’s providence that will guide us as we study this passage:
PROVIDENCE: God’s COMPLETE and PERFECT arrangement of all that comes to pass so that He will be GLORIFIED by His people’s ever-increasing JOY in Him
So I want us to work through these verses with that understanding in mind, because I what I believe Solomon is showing in these verses (and what I want to show you today) is that
The providence of God is your REFUGE and HOPE in a FATALISTIC world
Now, as you take a look at the first 8 verses, you will see first of all that these verses cover every aspect of our lives—from birth and death, work and play, gain and loss, war and peace, love and hate—there is a representation here of every aspect of human existence.
And the second thing to notice is that there are fourteen couplets altogether. Remember in Hebrew poetry the number seven is a number of “perfection” or “completion”—and here the number seven is doubled. So the poetic framing of this poem is deliberate: Solomon is saying that

I. The REACH of God’s providence is COMPLETE (Ecclesiastes 3:1-10)

There is nothing outside of His perfect control. God’s arrangement of everything that comes to pass is total. There is nothing that happens outside of His control, authority and purposes. As. R. C. Sproul was fond of saying, there is not one “maverick molecule” in all of the cosmos that is not under the direct control of God.
Now, this is easy for us to accept in one sense, but virtually impossible for us to process in another sense. We have no problem, for instance, with acknowledging that
He orders all GOODNESS and JOY
We don’t doubt that God is the One who brings us happiness and life and laughter and dancing and love and embracing and peace and healing. But Solomon doesn’t stop there—he also makes it clear that death and mourning and tearing and war and plucking up what is planted also comes from Him. As he writes in Proverbs 16:4:
Proverbs 16:4 ESV
4 The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
And Amos 3:6
Amos 3:6 ESV
6 Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?
And Isaiah 45:7
Isaiah 45:7 ESV
7 I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.
Yes—God orders all goodness and joy—and
He orders all HARDSHIP and LOSS
as well. And we have a hard time processing that—we are ready to give God credit for the good things that happen in life, but somehow we want to distance Him from anything upsetting or painful or tragic. But Solomon says that God has appointed a time for everything—including war and hatred and mourning and tearing and death.
And when you think about it, Christian, this is a source of comfort to you—because it means that there is no such thing as “random, meaningless” suffering in your life! If you reject the truth that God is the one who orders hardship and loss, then you have nothing but the fatalistic “it is what it is” to fall back on. There is no rhyme nor reason for your suffering; you just got caught in the cog wheels of the Universe. You are suffering for nothing—your tears and heartbreak and sadness and pain are all meaningless vanity.
But Solomon doesn’t want you to languish there in that meaninglessness—he says here that there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. The reach of God’s providence is complete, and

II. The TIMING of God’s providence is PERFECT (Ecclesiastes 3:11-13)

Look at verse 11:
Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Solomon says two very profound things here in this verse, and then he goes on in verses 12-13 to unpack the implications of verse 11. First, he says that “God has made everything beautiful in its time”. The Hebrew word underneath the English word “beautiful” has the idea of “appropriate” or “fitting”. Everything that God ordains to come to pass is (somehow) fitting. We can say
There is no WASTED MOTION with God (v. 11a)
He never makes a mistake or blunders into a dead end. He never has to backtrack or clean up a mess or undo something He already did. Everything that comes to pass in this world—from the collision of galaxies at the far edges of the Universe to the subatomic capers of quarks and leptons, from the rise and fall of empires to the breakup of middle school sweethearts, from the outcome of the local school board elections to the vote audit in Maricopa County Arizona —the movements and workings and events of the entire cosmos have been perfectly fitted together so that God’s purposes unfailingly come to pass exactly the way He has planned. The providence of God is complete, and it is perfect.
But Solomon goes on in the rest of verse 11 to acknowledge that we are unable to grasp the perfections of God’s providence on our own: “Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”. We cannot see the sweep and purpose of God’s providential control of all things in our own wisdom:
We cannot know ALL of God’s PURPOSES (v. 11b)
In our own understanding there is no way that we can grasp the totality of what God is doing in our lives, and in the lives of those around us. We have the “knowledge of eternity” in our hearts—we know that there is a greater purpose than what we can understand, but we cannot depend on ourselves to discover it—we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
And what this means for us (among other things) is that we must not be quick to “explain” why we think God has done something, whether joy or hardship. And you understand this if you have ever been on the receiving end of such “explanations”, don’t you? The (often) well-meaning folks who want to “get God off the hook” by explaining why He didn’t have anything to do with a hardship in your life—God love ‘em (as Grandma McGaughey would say), but they don’t know the mind of God!
And that goes for you too, by the way. The temptation that you experience to say, “Well, God let this happen to me because I didn’t go to church last week” or “I got that raise at work because I’ve started doing my daily devotions!” or “God must be angry with me because he let my child get sick”—beloved, you don’t know the mind of God! In every event that takes place, God is doing fifty thousand things—and we are aware of maybe three of them!
So Solomon says what we must simply let God be God:
Ecclesiastes 3:12–13 ESV
12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
Don’t second-guess what He is doing, don’t claim that you know the mind of God and can represent His secret purposes to yourself or others. Solomon says, “Believe me, I’ve tried to suss out what God is doing, and the best I can come up with is that we must leave it to Him. We cannot know all of God’s purposes, but Solomon goes on to say in verses 14-15 that
We can know ENOUGH about God to TRUST His purposes (vv. 14-15)
Ecclesiastes 3:14–15 ESV
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
The key phrase to anchor our understanding is “God has done it so that people fear Him”. The Hebrew word underneath the English translation “fear” has the idea of “regarding with feelings of respect or reverence, to consider hallowed or exalted. In other words, Solomon is saying, God has so arranged all that comes to pass in this world so that He will be reverenced and honored and treasured above all things. And this is good news for you, because His purpose is to be glorified not by terrifying you or dominating you—His purpose is to be glorified in you by your joy in Him.

III. The PURPOSE of God’s providence is GLORY (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)

And so we now come back to the definition with which we began this morning:
The providence of God means God’s complete and perfect arrangement of all that comes to pass so that He will be glorified by His people’s ever-increasing joy in Him:
He will receive ETERNAL PRAISE from His PEOPLE
Solomon says that we might not be able to understand all the infinite complexities of God’s eternal purposes that encompass every single event that comes to pass in this world, but we can know enough—we can know that these things are done so that God’s Name will be magnified and glorified and treasured and honored and rejoiced in for all eternity.
Even when you cannot understand that “hard providences” of God—even when you cannot know why God has appointed a time for heartbreak and suffering and loss and pain into your life, you can know that He is GOOD, and that He has a GOOD PURPOSE for it. And when your heart recoils from that thought, when you say, “I have no idea how God could bring any lasting good out of this! I can see no possible way He can make any of this “beautiful” or “fitting”! Solomon answers, “Right—you cannot know all of God’s good purposes; He has put eternity into your heart, but you cannot comprehend all that He is bringing to pass through this darkness. All you can do is trust that He has a good purpose, and it CANNOT BE THWARTED!
Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
His purpose is to bring glory to His Name—and He aims to glorify Himself through your joy in Him. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him. And He has so ordered all that comes to pass in this world so that He will be glorified—and no heartbreak, no pain, no loss, no sadness or turmoil or disease or danger will stop Him from accomplishing that purpose—His GLORY magnified by your HAPPINESS in Him!
Romans 8:35–39 ESV
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because, you see, God demonstrated that there is no darkness or sin or violence or mourning or sadness that can thwart His good purposes when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to suffer and die at the hands of violent and wicked men. God demonstrates His providential purposes to glorify Himself in the ever-increasing joy of His people by taking the most heinous crime, the most hellish sin in all of history—the murder of the innocent Son of God—and turn it into the greatest act of grace and mercy and life and eternal joy.
Jesus Christ came into this cursed world to experience all of the times and seasons that we do. A time to be born, a time to heal the sick, a time for Him to build up the brokenhearted, a time for Him to scatter money-changers, a time to party with sinners, a time to weep at Lazarus' tomb, a time for Him to seek the lost, a time for Him to die. He took on all of this miserable world's pain and suffering, taking on Himself the curse so that God would IN HIS PROVIDENCE turn the greatest sin in all of history--the murder of the Son of God on the Cross--into the salvation of the world. And because of His taking on that curse, our lives fit into the same pattern, that all of our joys and heartbreaks will fit us for eternal glory with Him.
God’s ultimate purpose of His providential control over all things is for His glory. And so you can rest in the knowledge that God completely and perfectly arranges all that comes to pass so that He will be glorified by your ever-increasing joy in Him: The consummation of God’s providence in this world means that
You will receive ETERNAL JOY in CHRIST (Ephesians 1:7-10)
The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1 that in Christ
Ephesians 1:7–10 ESV
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Did you catch that? What is the mystery of God’s will? His “plan for the fulness of time”? To unite all things in heaven and on earth in Christ! Here is the the ultimate purpose for everything God ordains to come to pass in this world—to bring everything in existence into the knowledge of and reflection of His glory through Jesus!
You don’t have to know the ins and the outs and the whys and wherefores of every move of God’s providence in this world—indeed, you can’t know them all. But what you can know is that all of it will be summed up in your eternal joy in Jesus Christ! That is how you can rest in this futile world—you can rest in the knowledge that God is in control, and His works will endure forever—they cannot fail! Whether in this life you laugh or weep, whether you mourn or dance, whether you keep or cast away, whether you embrace or refrain, whether you live or die, all of it will bring you to Jesus Christ!
Romans 14:8–9 ESV
8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
But this is a promise that can only be made to those who fear God—for you who have come to Him in repentance of your sin and pleading for forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. God in His providence turned the greatest horror of evil in history into the greatest moment of grace and forgiveness and life, that by the death of His innocent Son on the Cross you can have all of your guilt washed away when you call out to Him in faith. The final words of our passage this morning say
Ecclesiastes 3:15 ESV
15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
God “seeks what has been driven away”—if you have been fleeing from Him, if you have been holding out and “stiff-arming” His call to repentance and faith, won’t you see that He has appointed this time for you today? A season not to refrain from embracing Him any longer—today is a time appointed by His hand for you to come to Him—a time to seek Him, a time to heal your guilt and shame, a time to mend your brokenness, a time for peace with Him, a time to be born again. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under Heaven—this is the time for you to come—and welcome!—to Jesus Christ!
BENEDICTION
Hebrews 13:20–21 ESV
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

Why is it difficult for us to acknowledge that God “sets the times” for calamities and pain in our lives? In what ways are you comforted to know that God has complete control over all of the disasters and hardships that come into your life?
Read Ecclesiastes 3:11 again. How does this verse comfort you when you feel at a loss to understand God’s purposes? How does it instruct you when you are tempted to “explain” what you think God is up to (whether to yourself or others?)
How does the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross demonstrate God’s complete control over evil? Pray this week that God would give you the joy of resting in His powerful providence!
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