ecclesiates 3:1-22

ecclesiates 3:1-22

The Tyranny of Time and Eternity

Two of the most incomprehensible terms in the English language are “time” and “eternity.”  Have you ever tried to define these words?  Years ago I conducted a rather thorough search for a workable definition of time.  About the best I could come up with was the following: “Time is the mere abstract possibility of events in durational sequence.”  Now if you take pains to examine that definition and to digest each part of it very carefully, you will probably be forced to admit you don’t understand what time is any better than you did before you heard it. 

And eternity is even harder to define than “time.”  There are some terms that can be defined only negatively (like “bald” or “orphan”), and perhaps eternity is one of those terms–that which is eternal is not limited by time.  But while “time” and “eternity” are difficult to define, we all have a sense of what we are talking about.  Mankind seems to be unique among all living things in that he is both time-bound and eternal.  He lives his life as a vapor, he dies, and his life on earth is finished–all in a few brief years.  Yet the person is not finished, and we can sense that eternal dimension even in this life.  

The author of Ecclesiastes examines this tension between time and eternity as one more thread sticking out of the bottom side of the rug.  If you have not been with us for the first two messages on Ecclesiastes, may I introduce you to an analogy that we will use periodically on our journey through this OT book–that of a tapestry, or a rug.  We only see life from the bottom side, where there are lots of lose threads and mixed colors.  The real beauty of the rug is only hinted at, and we will never see it in its splendor this side of eternity, under the sun.    

In the first chapter the Preacher maintained that the key to life under the sun has been lost and is not to be found in human history, in physical nature, or in human nature.  Since the key has been lost, the best we can do is to get better acquainted with the locksmith.  Last week we took an excursion with the Preacher as he searched for satisfaction and meaning in the experiences of his own life.  He informed us that he could not find ultimate meaning in the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of wisdom, or the pursuit of work.  The only thing that can fill that God-shaped vacuum in every person’s heart is God Himself. 

Now in chapter 3 Solomon explores this new area of enigma that is ours because of our limited perspective from the bottom side of the rug–time and eternity:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil? 1What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

Solomon begins with a summary statement.

There is a time for everything–a time that is both appointed and appropriate. (1-10)

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  This passage teaches that we human beings are both time-bound and eternal.  There is a certain inevitability and circularity to the events of our lives, just as there is to nature–the sun, the wind, the rivers–mentioned in chapter 1.  But at the same time God has put eternity in our hearts.  This dual aspect of our nature often contributes to a sense of futility, lack of permanence, even bewilderment.  To which do we really belong–time or eternity?  

I want to take a stab at putting this sermon in a sentence.  In fact, this passage is so complicated that I’m going to put my sermon in two sentences: God in His providence has set the times of our lives so that we will stand in awe before Him.  Since we cannot control the times, nor understand just how they intersect with eternity, it is best to concentrate on the present: enjoy God’s gifts of food, drink and work.

Now the poem that opens our chapter is one of the best-known in the Bible, if not in all of literature.  But what is its point?  The opening statement that, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” could simply mean that there is an appropriate time for everything, and we must discover it if we are going to live well, or it could mean that there is an appointed time for everything, determined by a sovereign God.  Is it about humans discerning or God determining?

I think it is both.  There is clearly a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the passage, particularly in verse 14: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”   But there is also a call for us to order our lives in line with God’s sovereignty rather than rebelling against it or complaining about it, because, after all, He has made everything beautiful (or suitable) in its time.  

Solomon employs 14 sets of contrasts, using the term “time” 28 times, to convey that there is an appointed time for every conceivable event or activity of mankind.  He starts with the fact that “there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.”  He seems to be saying that the times of birth and death for mankind, animals, and plants are appointed by God and are part of His Sovereign plan.  Martin Luther said, “You cannot live any longer than the Lord has prescribed, nor die any sooner.”  That is the uniform testimony of Scripture, from Psalm 139 to Philippians 1.  That is not fatalism; it’s just reality.  We do not control such things and when we try to, we usually mess things up good.  For example, we are free to plant flowers in the dead of winter, but the appropriate time has been established by God. 

“There is a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up.”  We are not free to kill whenever we want, but God has established appropriate times to kill, as in self-defense, or in time of war, or in capital punishment.  There are also times, however, when healing is the answer.  When WWII was over, our nation reached out to bring healing to our enemies.  

Furthermore, God’s work includes both devastation and creation.  Recently we have observed the horrible effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires and floods.  But we will also see new trees sprout after the fire and eventually new towns emerge from the floods.  Some people don’t like to think of God as involved in these natural tragedies, but He must be–if not to actively produce them, at least in allowing them.  What we cannot know are His purposes, and those who profess to, are usually speaking out of ignorance.  At the same time we, too, are involved in demolition and creation.  Buildings are broken down in order to make way for more modern structures.  The cycle adds a certain weariness and futility to life.

“There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”  We wish we could eliminate the former and have only the latter, but we have little control over the times.  We just respond to them. 

“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”   To the original listeners the stones probably spoke of the fact that in wartime the enemies’ fields were covered with stones; in peacetime the rocks had to be cleared before cultivation (see 2 Kings 3:19, 25).  Of course, when dear friends see one another after a long absence, embracing one another is inevitable and very appropriate, but when one has a contagious disease it is not.  This may speak as well of the fact that God has put boundaries around intimacy–telling us when embracing is appropriate and when it is not.

Then “there’s a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep, and a time to cast away.”  The NIV puts it this way, “a time to search and a time to give up.”  What comes to mind here is the gut-wrenching stories we hear from time to time of a lost child.  For the first week hundreds of volunteers comb the countryside, joined by law enforcement task forces.  But eventually the awful truth dawns upon everyone that there is a time to give up the search and just hope and pray. 

Regarding the latter proverb, I think of senior citizens who have to downsize and move to a condo or a retirement center.  A lifetime of possessions needs to be distributed to children or given away.  That, too, can produce a sense of futility.

“A time to tear and a time to sew, a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” In ancient times people would tear their clothes when grieving, but when the mourning was over, they would mend them again.  To be perfectly honest, the other half of this couplet is the issue over which I have the greatest amount of regret as I come to the close of my years as a Lead Pastor.  How often I have spoken (or written letters) and then wished I could take it back.  At other times I have chosen to remain silent but know I should have spoken up.  But how to know which time is which?!?   

“A time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”   Our culture professes not to have a place for hate.  In fact, hate crimes are allegedly worse than all other crimes.  Even some theologians have a hard time thinking that hate could have anything to do with God or His works.  After all, isn’t He a God of love?  But the Scriptures make it perfectly clear that our God of love is also a God of wrath toward sin, and there are times when we, too, need to express God’s hatred of sin.  

Furthermore, no matter how peace-loving a nation may be, there are times when it feels compelled to go to war just in order to maintain peace.  And though God has promised us peace on earth, until the Second Coming of the “Prince of Peace” we know we are now living in wartime.[i]

All of these truths give us a sense that we dance to a tune not of our own making, that nothing we pursue has any permanence.  Our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons of life.[ii]  And this leads to the question in verse 9 (my paraphrase), “What good does it do for us to work our heads off if all the events of our lives are determined for us ahead of time?”  He seems to be asking whether life isn’t just a large kaleidoscope.  Each new scene looks different but maybe it’s just a mechanical illusion, predetermined by the chance turn of a tube.  

So far the Teacher has not been very encouraging.  His poem appears at best neutral, if not downright pessimistic and fatalistic.  But beginning in verse 10 he begins to speak of Who it is who sets these times and why.  

God’s appointments are neither arbitrary nor unreasonable.  (11a)  

They may appear that way to us, but they are actually quite the opposite.  There is a certain reasonableness, even a kind of beauty to this inexorable prison-house of time in which we live.  In verse 11 he says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”  “Beautiful” means “fitting, suitable, and appropriate.”  How desperately we need to realize this and try to mesh our lives with God’s appointments instead of fighting against them, living our lives in accord with His commandments rather than “doing it our way.”  

Let me read a paragraph written by Chuck Swindoll which I was able to share a couple of weeks ago with David Eastman, whose celebration service was held here yesterday: 

Quite frankly, our problem is that we focus our attention on the wrong thing.  We see the fuzzy, ugly cocoon; God plans and sets in motion the butterfly.  We see the painful, awful process; He is producing the value of the product.  We see today; He is working on forever.  We get caught up in the wrapping; He focuses on the gift, the substance down inside.  We look at the external; He emphasizes the internal.  He makes everything beautiful in its time, including your loss, your hospital experience, your failures, your brokenness, your battles, your fragmented dreams, your lost romance, your heartache, your illness.  Yes, even your terminal illness. . .  Whatever you’re going through.  He makes it beautiful in its time.  Without Him, life is purposeless and profitless, miserable and meaningless.  With Him, it will ultimately make sense.[iii]                             

The key word there is “ultimately.”  It is very hard to see beauty while we’re suffering loss, failure, brokenness, fragmented dreams, heartache, or illness–especially terminal illness.  Sadly, there are even many professing Christians who are bitter at the cards they have been dealt, and they lash out in anger at others, even at God, and consider themselves victims.  But the wisest man who ever lived wrote, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”  I cannot prove that to you, friend.  It has to be taken by faith.  It may never look beautiful from the bottom side of the rug.  

Now please understand that the very last thing I want to do this morning is to appear unsympathetic to those who may have lost a child, or have suffered some debilitating illness that causes extreme pain every day, or are going through experiences for which they are unable to find any redeeming value.  

I am not saying to you in a cavalier manner, “All things work together for good, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.”  But what I am saying is that either God’s Word is true or it’s not, including Ecclesiastes 3:11.  And if it’s not, then we’d better close up shop and use our Sunday mornings for something more in tune with reality.  

I have asked for permission  to tell the story of a dear lady in our church.  Some of you will know who I am talking about as soon as I begin.  For the rest I simply assure you that this is a true story.  The mother of four children, she was abandoned by her husband when her oldest was not yet 10.  Her 5 year-old son was molested by a volunteer in an evangelical church, who was posing as a father-figure to him, and he got involved in homosexual activity as a teenager.  He eventually married, but later abandoned his wife and two children to move in with a gay partner.  One of her daughters is a brilliant research Ph.D. but lives in a lesbian relationship and has all but abandoned the rest of her family.  Her other daughter has special needs and has always lived with her mother.  After decades of widowhood she found a Christian man who became a dear partner to her but then died after just a few years of marriage.  Yet this woman is one of the strongest and most faithful believers in this Body.  For decades she has used the tragic experiences of her life to counsel and encourage others–here and around the world.  She doesn’t see the individual tragic events in her life as beautiful in themselves, but she sees God weaving a tapestry, though there are many loose threads.  

Back in the late 70’s Herbert Lockyer was a guest preacher here–at the age of 95.  He wrote a book entitled Dark Threads the Weaver Needs.  On the back is the poem:

         My life is but a weaving

                  Between my Lord and me;

         I cannot choose the colors

                  He worketh steadily.

         Ofttimes He weaveth sorrow

                  And I in foolish pride.

         Forget that He sees the upper.

                  And I the under side.

         Not till the loom is silent

                  And the shuttles cease to fly.

         Shall God unroll the canvas

                  And explain the reason why.

         The dark threads are as needful

                  In the Weaver’s skillful hand.

         As the threads of gold and silver

                  In the pattern He has planned.

A third major truth Solomon shares here in chapter 3 is this:

God has placed eternity in our hearts, yet we cannot get a handle on it.  (11)

If all we knew is that everything happens in its appointed time, we might conclude that we are hardly better off than a cog in a machine.  But we are not cogs–we are humans, and human beings are unique in that they have an eternal dimension.  In verse 11 we read: “He has put eternity into man’s heart.”  What does that mean?  Very simply I believe it means that God has given every human being an awareness that this life, here on earth, under the sun, is not all that there is.  We have a sense of something that transcends our immediate situation.  Augustine expressed it this way: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  

One of the great missionary statesmen of our day, Don Richardson, has written a book entitled Eternity in Their Hearts, in which he demonstrates that every people group on the face of the earth, no matter how primitive or pagan, shows clear evidence of a belief in the immortality of the human soul.  Oh, I know there are certain intellectual agnostics and atheists who have boldly proclaimed that when you’re dead, you’re dead, but I’m convinced that deep down in their hearts they know better.[iv]

There is no doubt that at the time of death many who have never concerned themselves with the hereafter begin to ask questions about eternity, about God, and about the meaning of life.  Nevertheless, despite the fact that God has put eternity in our hearts, we cannot seem to “get a handle on it.”  To know there is something beyond this earthly existence is not equivalent to understanding what it is.  The last phrase of verse 11 says, “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to end.”  

God’s sovereign work is beyond our grasp, for He prevents us from finding out His plan, or at least the details of it.  Man is like the desperately nearsighted, inching his way along some great tapestry in the attempt to take it all in.  Enough is seen to recognize a work of quality, but the grand design escapes him.   Or, to refer back to our Turkish rug, we see enough on the bottom side to know there is a pattern and to suspect the other side is beautiful, but we can’t grasp the extent of it.

About an hour and a half southwest of St. Louis is a wonderful park called Elephant Rocks State Park, which has these enormous granite rocks that resemble huge elephants.  I have been there a dozen times, starting when I was just a kid.  But in recent years the park has been adapted for the blind.  The signs in front of the huge granite boulders have braille markers which enable the sightless to learn about the age and constitution of the rocks.  But no matter how many signs the sightless may “read” or how many rocks they may feel, they can never gain the perspective of the rocks that a seeing person gets.  And no man can ever see eternity as God sees it, which is “from the beginning to the end.”

So far we have learned that there is a time for everything and that there is an eternity for man.  But because we cannot get a handle on eternity we often feel a sense of futility as we live out our lives in a world of time.  

How do we cope with the tension between time and eternity?   (12-22)

It involves six exhortations, the first two of which I want to deal with together, because they are mentioned together in verse 12: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live.”  

         1.  We should rejoice and be happy.  

         2.  We should do good while we can.    In effect he is saying that since we can’t solve the mysteries of life and can’t even know where our control of life ends and God’s sovereignty begins, the best thing to do is to live joyously and rightly.  Instead of trying to “unscrew the inscrutable” we should obey what we do understand and be happy.  By the way, don’t overlook the phrase at the end of verse 12, “as long as they live.”  In effect he is saying, “Do good in your lifetime, while you can.” Don’t wait until eternity to do good.  It will be too late.  A third exhortation is this:

         3.  We should have an attitude of gratitude.  (13)  Verse 13 says that “everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil–this is God’s gift to man.”  This is the exact same point made last week in 2:24-26, and it’s a point he will make again and again in the book.  So many of us fail to recognize God’s goodness in the ordinary things of life–in the things we do over and over–eating, drinking, working.  It’s not until we lose our job or the capacity to swallow that we understand how much we have lost.  These are gifts from a loving Father.  

         4.  We should acknowledge God’s sovereignty and fear Him.  (14-15)  In verse 14 we have the strongest possible assertion of the sovereignty of God:  “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”   Everything He does is permanent, effective, and complete–never too little, never too late, never too much, never too early.  So what should we do with such truth?  Resist it?  Complain about it?  Massage it?  No, we should accept it and realize that there is a purpose in it.  “God has done it, so that people fear before him.” That’s what it says at the end of verse 14.  

I think the point is that God’s sovereignty should not be viewed as that of a distant authoritarian tyrant pulling strings on puppets.  He is our Father and desires for us to worship Him in awe and reverence.  His control of our times should make us aware of our helplessness and our total dependence on Him.

         5.  We should count on the fact that wrongs will be righted eventually.  (16-17) In verse 16 Solomon describes something that troubles him, namely that there is so much injustice and corruption in this world.  In fact, it is so widespread and takes so many forms that it sometimes brings us almost to the point of despair.  We ask, “Is there any hope for the person who is committed to honesty and integrity?”  We are not the first to ask that question.  Many of the Psalms, particularly Psalm 73, have that as their main theme. 

In Ecclesiastes 3:17 Solomon offers his answer: “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.”  Whenever we’re overwhelmed by the oppressiveness of injustice, we must recognize that wrongs will be righted eventually.  

         6.  We need to come to grips with our own mortality.  (18-21)   The final section of our chapter, from verse 18 to 22, is a very difficult passage and there is considerable difference of opinion as to what it means.  But in my humble opinion the Preacher is simply seeking to tells us that our eternal dimension should not blind us to the fact that we are also earthly time-bound creatures, in many ways no different from animals.  In fact, we are animals (though we are also more than animals).  

When Solomon says that the children of man are “but beasts,” and that “what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other,” I do not believe he is saying there is absolutely no difference between man and animals, but that in respect to mortality we are no different.  Death is the great reveler, and the grim reaper stalks both; our bodies decay just as theirs.  When he says, “All go to one place,” he is speaking of the grave, not heaven; after all, not even all people go to Heaven.  But he acknowledges that there is a certain feeling of futility that attends our common mortality.

Solomon offers his conclusion to the tension between time and eternity in the last two verses, and we want to dwell on it for a few moments.  “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?  So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.  Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”  At first glance it sounds like he’s saying that since nobody can know whether our destiny is any different from that of the animals, the best you to do is try to enjoy your work, for who knows what’s coming next?

That really seems to exude skepticism and cynicism.  But I do not believe Solomon is playing the part of a cynic here.  After all, just a few verses earlier he spoke of God setting eternity in the hearts of men and of the fact that there will be a future judgment.  In fact, if you turn over to 12:7, you can see clearly that Solomon expects to go to his eternal home, for he says, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”  That surely doesn’t sound like one who is worried that death might end everything. 

Why then, does he sound so cynical here in chapter 3?  I think the answer is that while Solomon believed in future judgment and in the immortality of the soul, he did not have the same level of assurance and confidence we have.  I think his words in verse 21 should be understood, “Who knows for sure whether the spirit of man goes upward?”  He believed that to be the case, but he wasn’t absolutely certain because OT believers knew relatively little about the afterlife.  It wasn’t until the NT that detailed insight was given concerning heaven and hell and immortality and the resurrection of the body. 

We who stand this side of the Cross know so much more than Solomon.  We know, for example, that men not only have eternity in the hearts but that they will spend eternity either in heaven or in hell. We know that the greatest difference between us and the animals is that Jesus became one of us and died for us that we might have an eternal and personal relationship with God.  We know that history is going to be brought to a climax when one of these days Jesus Christ returns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We know that while this body of ours will return to dust when we die, it will not stay dust.  For when Jesus comes the same thing will happen to our bodies that happened to His.  He rose from the dead in a new immortal resurrection body, never to die again, and He promised us that we too will receive a resurrection body like His glorious body.   

Conclusion:  Let us not exaggerate our differences with Solomon.  We may know more than he knew, but even we don’t know nearly all we would like to know.  We are still creatures of time facing eternity.  The final verse of Ecclesiastes 3 is not heresy but good advice, even for us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.”  Since we are not equipped to predict the future events of our lives, isn’t it wise for us to enjoy what God has given us to do right now?  Why fret and stew and get all stressed out trying to get rich and famous, or trying to figure out what’s coming next, or moping over the cards life has dealt us? Someone has said, “Life is like a coin.  You can spend it any way you want, but you can spend it only once.”  The Bible says very simply, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”   Are you ready?  You can be.  The Apostle Paul writes, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5).  Jesus died for you and rose again to demonstrate that He had conquered death and the forces of hell.  He promises that He will someday raise you up to live with Him for all eternity if you will believe in Him and receive Him as your Lord and Savior.  The tyranny of time and eternity is lessened as we learn to live fully in the present but with eternity’s values in view. 

[i][i] Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, 82

[ii] Derek Kidner, A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, 38.  

[iii] Charles Swindoll, Ecclesiastes

[iv] Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts.  He tells the following story:

“Julian Barnes is frightened.  He knows that he shouldn’t be, but he is.  He can’t help himself.  You see, Julian Barnes is afraid to die.

The famous English writer–the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and other prize-winning novels–formerly called himself an atheist.  Then he claimed to be an agnostic, because in his opinion there is no good reason to think there is a God.  This would further imply that there is no such thing as life after death, and therefore Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is the title of one of his latest books.  

Yet the sober truth is that Julian Barnes is desperately afraid to die.  The New York Times Book Review correctly diagnoses his condition as thanatophobia–the fear of death.  Barnes thinks about death every day and admits that sometimes in the night he is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.”  Awake and utterly alone, he finds himself beating his pillow with a fist and wailing, “Oh no Oh NO OH NO.”                              

Julian’s dreams are even darker.  Sometimes he is buried alive.  Other times he is “chased, surrounded, outnumbered.”  He finds himself “held hostage, wrongly condemned to the firing squad, informed that there is even less time” than he thought.  “The usual stuff,” he calls it.  And perhaps this is the usual stuff, because death is the sum of all our fears–of being alone, of being abandoned, of being condemned.  When you wake up in the middle of the night, what are you afraid of?”