“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1
Penned by Solomon perhaps 3000 years ago, put to music by Pete Seeger in the 1950’s, and The Byrds in 1965, this text from Ecclesiastes holds the distinction of being the most ancient text to become a #1 hit on The Hot 100. You might need that information on Jeopardy someday.
But what does it mean? And what are we to learn from it?
Many interpreters see it as an expression of fatalism, that is, everything that happens has been appointed, and will happen in its time. So there is a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to harvest, etc. Solomon could have been saying that all of our efforts won’t change a thing. Fate.
Kushner called Ecclesiastes “the most dangerous book in the Bible” because Solomon spews a lot of very fatalistic ideas in it. What sounds rather beautiful (a time for all things), and even hopeful (be happy and enjoy yourself as long as you live; 3:12), crashes to the ground of Solomon’s harsh reality. So all of our days may be nothing more than “striving after the wind” (4:4).
Does God want us to embrace this bleak pessimism? I don’t think so. Solomon obviously wrote this book later in life, his low T days. He had lost zest, hope, and balance. He saw everything through the lens of his own disappointment. For him, good and bad followed one another inevitably, and there is nothing we can do about it. He essentially gave up.
Not so for us! We have the full revelation of God through Christ that we are created for joy and abundant life. So what can we learn from the ceaseless changing of times and seasons? Two things.
First, we are to live fully in the present. I’m not sure which delusion is more destructive: the unrealistic expectation that everything will be wonderful all of the time or the unrelenting fear that catastrophe is always around the corner. The truth is, life is a mixture of what we want and what we get. Good and bad, blessing and challenge, life and death are all part of life.
Solomon had virtually unlimited earthly power and a legendary wisdom in his early years, but he was never able to bend life to permanently bend life to his will. He reluctantly realized that in spite of his best efforts, there would be a time to love and a time to hate.
We have the potential for a tremendous freedom of accepting the reality of life. We cannot afford to be stunned into inaction or unbelief when something terrible happens. And we cannot indulge the fantasy of thinking we have arrived at unending sweetness when something good happens. Blessing and challenge follow one another.
Lincoln captured the meaning of this chapter in a speech in 1859. “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
Are you enduring a terrible struggle? It will pass. Perhaps like a kidney stone, but it will pass. God gives us the sacred present. Embracing it means we will neither regret the past nor fear the future. Our expectations will be realistic as we begin to think more and more like Christ. We live fully in the present.
Second, we live fully in “the presence.” God’s abiding presence is the FACT we can rely on. It fulfills our true and deepest longing. God’s presence with you right now, Christ in you always from first to last, is the ONE THING you most desperately need, and, thankfully, can never lose.
Solomon spent a lifetime casting about for something he could cling to. I believe in all of his wisdom he overanalyzed everything and lost sight of the main thing (a paralysis by analysis). He ended his life in gray resignation.
His father, David, had a better creed, one that I claim this week as I face the time to weep or the time to laugh. “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). I now know what I really desire. Thank God for being with me now and always, whatever the times bring.
Dr. Terry Ellis
October 12, 2014