Ecclesiastes 3- Approaching Time Wisely

Ecclesiastes 3

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

 9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

 16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

 

The Byrd’s version of Turn! Turn! Turn!, Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the first half of Ecclesiastes 3, was one of the records I remember my mother and father playing when I was growing up. This is probably the best know piece of Ecclesiastes and its poetic parallelism makes it easier to grasp some sense of rhythm in the contrasts and the seemingly opposing ebb and flow of life and death, happiness and sadness, that which seems good and that which seems evil. This beautiful little poem grasps something of the essence of time which is far different from the way our digital world often thinks about time.

Like many people, I have a schedule that I work out of that maps out my day by hours and minutes, and if I needed to I could measure the precision down to seconds. Chronological time which is mechanically measured by clocks with incredible accuracy is a fixation of the Western world, but it is not that way everywhere. Many cultures the understanding of time is more fluid, transportation is less reliable, schedules are less packed, food takes longer to prepare and many other factors figure into a very different conception of time in many places. Yet, even in these places where the correlation between a watch and time is looser there is still a desire to control time. Yet, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes sees time differently, not measured primarily by what we are able to do but by what is happening to us. We don’t get to choose when we are born or die, when planting and harvest time are. We don’t choose when we fall in love or when we begin to hate someone and most of us don’t occupy an office where we can determine the times of war or peace. Part of wisdom is knowing in which time you are in, embracing the joy of the good times and learning from the difficult times. There is no way to guarantee how the cycle of time will play out in one’s lifetime as it continues to turn, turn, turn, but one can find pleasure in one’s toil.

We are a people of infinite appetites limited by finite time and abilities and placed within a world where our actions frequently are insignificant in the broader movement of seasons. Yet, there is a place for our work under heaven and wisdom can perhaps find joy in the ephemeral. Beginning in verse nine Qohelet (a commonly used way of referring to the author of Ecclesiastes) takes the wisdom and works of mortals and places it within the far wider wisdom and work of God. The wisdom of any person is limited, there is a sense of their current time and some time before and perhaps an intuition of the future, but within the universal scope of time it is infinitesimally small. God is the one who is behind the cycles of time and even though portions of the cycle are painful they can ultimately be beautiful. Yet, between the finite time of humanity and the vast unseen and unending time of the creator, the gift of God is to find joy in the present. God’s work, God’s creation may endure forever but our portion of that is small. Our contributions may be ‘vanity’ and meaninglessness in the larger realm of time but they can still be joyful. Perhaps it is the limits that make the joy more profound, just as happiness without sadness loses its reference and contrast. Perhaps the wisdom of the poem in 3: 2-8 is in placing the opposites in parallel and allowing speech and silence, love and hate, war and peace to dwell together giving meaning to the other and still allowing the wise to know the time they inhabit and the gift of that time.

The flow of time may be beautiful but it is not always just or fair. Too often the places where justice should be are devoid of that justice and the places of righteousness and holiness are often infected by the greed and brokenness of the surrounding world. Ultimately Ecclesiastes leaves the final judgment of these things to God, yet it also is honest that evil things happen to good people and that wicked people often flourish in many ways.

Ecclesiastes, like most of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament does not have a conception of the afterlife that would be familiar to many Christians or groups like the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. Ecclesiastes and most of the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned with the way in which God’s promises occur within the earthly experience of the writer. Ultimately, within this frame, Ecclesiastes is willing to point out the perceived unfairness of the world-that the righteous may not be blessed while the wicked prosper, that wise and foolish the humans will share the mortality of the rest of the animal world, and that our ambitions and achievements are ultimately vanity. Yet, contrary to my initial expectations when looking at the book, Ecclesiastes far from being dismissive of the joy and pleasure of the earthly things embraces them. They may be ephemeral and transitory but so is joy and that doesn’t make it any less precious. Martin Luther almost 500 years ago could grasp the ways in which we need the lesson of Ecclesiastes:

What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures but the depraved affection and desire of us men, who are not content with the creatures of God that we have and with their use but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others. For this is the height of vanity and misery, to cheat oneself of the use of present goods and vainly to be troubled about future ones. (LW 15:8)

In a much different time Brené Brown can write about the culture of scarcity which can transform joy into foreboding joy where there is an inability to embrace the present moment because we are vainly rehearsing tragedies that could happen[1]. Ecclesiastes understands the wisdom of knowing what time one is in and knowing that ultimately one is not in control of the movement of the seasons and times within one’s life. Eating, drinking, enjoying one’s labors in the present time are all gifts of God and are to be enjoyed in their time. Our mortality may indeed serve as a gift to limit our ambitions and to allow us to embrace the present that is placed before us. Qohelet, for all the wisdom he or she possesses, doesn’t know how to describe or quantify what happens after death any more than any of us does. In the midst of the unfairness and unpredictability of life the wisdom they find is in the gratitude for the gifts and challenges, the joy and the tears, the eating and drinking and working in the present. Beyond this is vanity and to be unaware of time in which one lives.

[1] She talks about this in Daring Greatly at the beginning of chapter 4 discussing the Vulnerability Armor we use to attempt to protect ourselves.

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