The Problem of Time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)
A couple of years ago I was part of a team that was helping a struggling church in Toronto. We got to know them, and began to sense that things were moving.
A few days after Christmas I got a message through Facebook:
We have just returned from hospital. A good number of people from church were there to visit – who collapsed this afternoon. It was not a heart attack but rather a catastrophic aneurism of some sort in her brain. The situation is grave. She is on life support and a ventilator and the doctors say they can do nothing for her. Your prayers would be a great help.
A few hours later:
Nan phoned to say that – has passed away.
I remember being stunned. I had just seen her the week before all of this happened. She went far too early, and left a huge void behind.
I’ve been through this before. There are times that I think that my life is pretty much under control, and that I have a good handle on things. Then there are times when I feel like I’ve been sideswiped. I realize in those moments that I have far less control than I normally think, that most of the events of life are really out of my control. And it’s very hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.
Observing Life and Time
That’s exactly what we’re going to see in the passage we have open before us. We’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient Hebrew book written to help us understand how to live in a world that is often beyond our understanding.
Today’s passage is probably the best known passage in the entire book. It was the inspiration for the song Turn, Turn, Turn performed by the Byrds. It’s a poetic masterpiece. The poem simply states its main point, which we find in verse 1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The Teacher then gives 14 examples in pairs that cover every area of life. What the Teacher is doing in this passage is describing life. I know some of you are wondering what some of the lines mean in this poem. What, for instance, does it mean that there is a time to kill (verse 3)? What does it mean that there is a time to hate (verse 8)? The Teacher is not prescribing that we make time in our lives to kill, and time to hate, and so on. He’s taking a look at life and observing that if you look at life as a whole, all of these things show up at one time or another:
- There was a time that you were born; there will also be a time that you die.
- There are times that you plant a tree; there are times that you have to chop a tree down because it’s grown old and no longer bears fruit. You don’t control that time.
- There’s a time that soldiers are at war shooting each other; there’s a time when peace is declared and former enemies stand together at the cenotaph in remembrance.
- There’s a time to build a building; there’s a time when you take down the building in order to make something new.
- There are times to weep, and times to laugh. There are times when it’s very appropriate to weep; there are times when you have to laugh. To cry at the wrong time is just as bad as laughing at the wrong time.
- There’s a time to accumulate possessions; then there’s a time to simplify and to give things away.
There’s an ebb and a flow to what the Teacher tells us, and a balance. It’s actually somewhat of a comforting poem until you begin to think about it. There are actually three things we may not like about this list.
First, I don’t want everything on this list. If you look down the list, I like one side of each pair more than I like the other. I love births; I’m not a big fan of death. I like healing; killing not so much. I love love and I love peace, but I don’t need hatred or war in my life. The Teacher is taking a look at life and saying that life in this world is going to have pretty much everything in this list. This list covers pretty much everything that happens in life, from birth to death and from war to peace.
Second, I don’t get to say what I get on this list. We play games together as a family sometimes. The games vary, but a lot of them have cards. Of course, some cards are better than others. Charlene is the best at shuffling the cards. I tend to forget that when I get a good hand and win. Then it’s my playing skills. But when I get a bad hand it’s because Charlene didn’t shuffle the cards right. There’s that moment when you pick up the cards and turn them over that you realize that you’ve been dealt a hand that you didn’t choose. Some of those cards are not ones that you would have chosen. But they’re your cards. They’re part of your game from that point on. Solomon is saying the same thing in this passage. We would all like to choose some of these things and not others, but you’re probably not going to have as much say as you think. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to end his pastoral prayers in London by saying, “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” Some people thought he was being dour; I think maybe he had been reading Ecclesiastes. Life is shorter and far more uncertain than we think.
There’s a final problem with this list. When you add it all up, it adds up to nothing. Death cancels out birth. Killing cancels healing. War cancels love. There is a time for everything, the Teacher tells us, and these times end up canceling each other out. It’s why the Teacher asks the question he does in verse 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” If everything cancels out, what
Let me summarize the message of the poem: Life is full of lots of things, some of which we like and some of which we don’t. The universe has an ebb and a flow that’s beyond human control. That’s the message of the poem in verses 1-8.
Reflections on Life and Time
That’s the description of life by the Teacher. In the next few verses he’s going to reflect on it. He’s going to give us good news and bad news. The good news is really good, but the bad news is also really bad. Let’s start with the good news.
Here’s the good news: God is in control. Verse 10 and the first part of verse 11 say, “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Have you ever gone on a ride at Wonderland and double-checked that the seatbelt is on? You wouldn’t want to go on some of those rides without being buckled in. This verse is like that seatbelt that will help you get through all the things you’re going to go through in your life, all the things the Teacher has listed in verses 1-8: you may not have control over the events of your life, but God does. As one old catechism puts it, God’s “holy, wise, and powerful” providence governs “all his creatures, and all their actions.” This verse points us to a God who is wise, who sees the end from the beginning, who is never caught by surprise, and who makes everything beautiful in its time. We’re not in control, the Teacher says, but God is. One man, Derek Kidner, writes of the “kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.” God is in control, even if we aren’t. He is the King of time, and he does everything just at the right time. God is always right on time; he’s never too early and he’s never too late. This is very good news for us, especially given the poem we’ve just read.
We need to learn this! At New Year’s Eve a woman at a church near here recounted some of the hard things she’s been through in the past year. As she recounted these things she said that these too came from God’s hands. She really got what the Teacher is saying in this passage. There’s a time for everything, even bad things. And none of these things take God by surprise. God is in control of the times, and he’s always on time. God is in control.
But there’s also bad news, and it’s found in the rest of verse 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.” Do you want to know what the bad news is? You are a creature of time who was made for eternity. You, like your dog, are mortal and trapped in time. Unlike your dog, you know there’s more. You were made to ask the bigger questions of life. We want to understand and find the meaning, to solve the mysteries. But we’re trapped. We have to go through life without knowing why. We know God has a purpose, but we don’t have a clue what that purpose is and it drives us crazy because we want to know. Walter Kaiser Jr. says we have “a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive … to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world … and to discern its purpose and destiny.” But we can’t.
Let’s summarize what the Teacher’s said so far. In the poem he’s told us that life has both good and bad, and that we’re not in control. As he’s reflected on this, he’s given us good news and bad news. The good news is that life isn’t random. God is in control. The bad news is that we want to understand. We want to figure it all out. And we can’t.
What This Means
What do we do with this? What do we do with the knowledge that life is out of our control, that we won’t be able to get all of our questions answered? What do we do knowing that life is uncertain, and that we’re going to be dealt cards that we didn’t want in our hand? Two things.
Number one: Enjoy life. This may surprise some of you, but it’s exactly what the Teacher tells us we should be doing. Read verses 12 and 13:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
We can make this even more personal, putting it in the first person and using it as our job description: “There is nothing better than to be joyful and to do good as long as I live, and to eat and drink and take pleasure in all my work – this is God’s gift to me.” If life is uncertain, then everything we have is more precious than we realize, so embrace it and enjoy it as a gift from God. In the 1700s a Presbyterian pastor told his Scottish congregation:
Each generation has its work assigned it by the sovereign Lord; and each person in the generation has his also. And now is our time…Now is our time; let us not neglect usefulness in our generation.
You don’t have forever. You have a very limited period of time. So make the most of it. Turn off the TV and get off Facebook. Don’t waste your life. See every day as a gift from God. Enjoy all that he’s given you. Redeem the time. Gratefully receive everything that God’s given you, enjoy it, and offer it back to God in grateful service. Make the most of this very uncertain life.
Second: honor God. Verses 14 and 15 say:
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. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
Here, the Teacher gets us to do the only thing that makes sense once we understand that we can’t control life, but God can. Honor God. “God’s works steamroller over man’s puny efforts, and nothing substantially new can interrupt the awesome course of events that God has ordained” (Michael Fox). When we understand that God is in control and we are not, we had better bow down before God recognizing that he’s God and we’re not. All we can do is to bow before him in submission and adoration.
Here’s what the Teacher is telling us this morning: The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him. Even though life is uncertain, and even though we want answers that we don’t have, enjoy every day as a gift from God, and honor him with your life.
What does this look like?
Today you’re going home. I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but I guarantee you that you have questions. You may be wondering, as I was, why God allowed someone to die before his or her time. You may have all kinds of questions. Here’s what this passage might mean for you as you go home.
First, if you get this passage, you won’t be surprised when troubles come. You’ll know that there’s a time for everything. You’ll be prepared for both the good and the bad.
Second, you’ll realize that you’re not in control. You never were. This saves a lot of worry. Martin Luther was friends with Philip Melanchton. Melanchton would occasionally worry a bit too much, one time in particular about the situation in Germany. Luther chided him, saying, “Let Philip cease to rule the world.” It’s liberating to know we’re not in control.
Third, you will realize that God is in control, and that it’s your job to honor him. Luther explained, “It is none of our work to steer the course of providence, or direct its motions, but to submit quietly to Him who does.” There is a king who reigns, and that king is not us.
Fourth, you’ll realize that you have questions. God made you that way. But many of your questions won’t be answered, at least for now. But just because you have questions that aren’t answered doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers. We can rest in the knowledge that we were made for more than all of this, that God has placed eternity in our hearts, and that one day we will be free from the problems of time.
Finally, in the meantime, enjoy life. Every day of this uncertain life is a gift from God, so enjoy it. Enjoy every day that he’s given you. The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him.
How much more should this be true of us who know what God has done for us in giving us his Son. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)
So let me close as Lloyd-Jones did with his congregation: “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” And let me add: May you know the love of Jesus Christ, the one who died to give you all things. May you fear God who is in control, even if we aren’t. And may you enjoy every good gift that God has given you to enjoy in this life. Amen.