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For Everything There is a Season

Date: May 19, 2024
Teacher: Brad Hodges
Series: Joy in the Toil
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

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Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

“For Everything There is a Season” - Brad Hodges - 5/19/24

Introduction

I was away last week, and very much missed being with you all on Sunday. I was traveling for work, and had to fly to get where I was going. I fly pretty frequently with my work. But the experience of flying never feels quite normal to me. The whole thing is designed to feel as normal and boring as possible. I think it’s meant to distract us from the utter insanity of what’s really happening. We’re soaring through the air in a metal tube with walls about a millimeter thick, five miles above the ground, at 600 miles per hour. That’s truly insane. No one in their right mind should ever do it. But we all do, and if you’ve traveled much at all, you know that it’s really a very drab experience. Every airport looks exactly the same. Every plane feels exactly the same. You load in like cattle. You sit in your tiny seat, unnaturally close to the complete stranger beside you. You close your eyes and go to your happy place, and listen to the dull roar of the engines until, finally, mercifully, you land in some place a thousand miles away from where you started. It’s terrible, and so dreadfully dull. And yet, whenever you allow yourself to think about it, you’re aware that there is an unimaginable amount going on to make that experience happen. Things that you simply cannot see. Start with the plane itself. A staggering amount of engineering and manufacturing and testing went into the construction of that plane. The whole air travel system is also a wonder. The amount of coordination and planning that keeps the system running is stunning. No single person could ever dream of fully understanding everything that goes into that routine, drab, rather unpleasant experience of flying on an airplane. To the extent that you are aware of what it takes to keep a plane in the air, it’s rather terrifying. But what are you going to do? You are completely at the mercy of the system. You have no control whatsoever over anything that’s happening. When the plane sits at the gate for an hour - and as far as you can tell, nothing is happening - you sit and you wait. When the plane goes bump and makes a strange noise, you shrug your shoulders and trust that it was part of the plan. You have no control. So what do you do? You do all that you can do. You request a window seat and try to enjoy the view. It truly is stunning and wonderful to watch the earth shrink into the distance, the whole world laid out beneath you like a clay model, and then to look out over the top of the clouds and realize that you’re seeing something that for all of human history, until a hundred years ago, man only dreamt of seeing. It’s wonderful.

Ecclesiastes describes all of life as being something like that experience. Last week we looked at chapters one and two. This week we’re in chapter three, which contains this famous poem that we’ve just heard. “For everything there is a season.” I suppose it’s one of the most famous poems in the world. That was true even before The Byrds turned it into a pop song in the 60’s. The meaning of the poem is a bit cryptic, as poetry often is. If you’re like me, you know the poem. You’ve read it in your Bible, and you’ve certainly heard the song. But you may have never really thought about what it means. You may have vaguely assumed that it was prescriptive in some way. It meant something like, “There’s a time when you should plant, and a time when you should harvest. A time when you should mourn, and a time when you should dance. A time when you should keep silent, and a time when you should speak.” I’d like to show you that that’s not what the poem means. Or rather, that’s one way to read it, but it’s only a tertiary meaning, at best. The poem may have something to say to us about what we should do, but only after it has first said something about what is true. Let’s consider it.

The poem consists of fourteen lines. Each line, I’m sure you noticed, is a contrasting pair. But the poem is more important as a whole than the pairs are individually. People have tried to decipher meaning in the specific pairs that were chosen. Some of that might be helpful, but we should start by focusing on the whole. The heading over the poem reads, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” And then the first line is, “A time to be born and a time to die.” This banner over the poem suggests what the poem is about. It’s a poetic description of life under heaven - a summary description of the seasons that make up the time between when you’re born and when you die. With each pair, it’s not that one thing is good and the other bad. Each of the contrasting pairs represents a season of life.

I’d like to suggest that there are at least three different ways of reading of this poem about the the times and seasons of life under heaven, all of which are held out to us by Solomon. All good poems are multidimensional. You could call these three dimensions to the poem. In a sense they are three different perspectives on reality. All three of them are expressed in different ways in Ecclesiastes, and in this passage in chapter three. The three perspectives are the view from under heaven, the view from heaven, and the perspective of faith. First, let’s think about the poem from our perspective, under heaven.

Under Heaven (1-9)

In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John was taken up into heaven in a vision and wrote to us from behind the curtain, so to speak. He was given a vision of God’s plan for the future and of a heavenly reality that is usually invisible to us. Ecclesiastes is not that. We speak sometimes of a veil that separates heaven and earth. Solomon is writing to us very much from this side of the veil. It’s an earthy book, in a sense. One of the most important phrases in the book of Ecclesiastes is “under the sun.” Here in chapter three, Solomon uses the phrase, “under heaven,” but it means the same thing. He uses this phrase, “under the sun” or “under heaven” thirty one times in the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” isn’t a geographical designation. It’s the human realm. I think you could say that it’s the human perspective. It’s even more specific than that. In the Bible the sun is a marker of time, so I think it’s fair to say that “under the sun” also has a time element. “Under the sun” refers to our perspective at this time, in our current situation, which is a world that is infected by sin and death. There is a day coming when there will be no more need for sun or moon, because the glory of God will be our light. At that point, this “under the sun” perspective will change. But for now, we can say that the view from “under the sun” (or “under heaven”) is the human perspective, colored by the effects of sin. This is absolutely critical to understanding Ecclesiastes. Without this distinction, Ecclesiastes is unintelligible. But if you understand the distinction between life “under the sun” and life in heaven, then Ecclesiastes makes a great deal of sense and holds out to us a wealth of godly wisdom.

As we saw last week, Solomon is relentless in exposing the futility of life from our perspective, “under the sun.” Life is an endlessly repeating cycle and there is nothing to be gained from your toil. Nothing that you do will last - it will all be forgotten very shortly. It doesn’t matter how much stuff you collect. Your stuff can’t satisfy you, and in the end you’re going to die just like everyone else. Then all of your stuff is going to be left to someone else, and who knows what they’re going to do with it? Probably an estate sale. It’s all vanity - vaporous - it doesn’t last. Even wisdom can’t satisfy. It’s better to be wise than to be a fool, he says, but all of your human wisdom just makes you more aware of the vanity of life under the sun. Just like the more you know about what it takes to keep a plane in the air, the more there is for you to be nervous about. Besides, in the end, the same thing happens to the wise man as happens to the fool. We all die, and the cycle goes on.

We saw at the end of chapter two where Solomon ultimately lands when faced with the vanity of life under the sun. That’s where we’re headed today as well, but we can’t jump there too quickly. Solomon is brutal in his assessment of our condition here under the sun. For Ecclesiastes to have the effect on us that it is meant to have, that has to land. It ought to sting. If you don’t, at some point in studying Ecclesiastes, throw up your hands and say, “Then what’s the point,” then you aren’t paying attention. That stinging rebuke of life under the sun continues in chapter three, and that’s the first way that we should read Solomon’s poem about time. The point of the poem from this perspective is that time moves on - the seasons of life come and go - completely outside of our control. No amount of toil or wisdom can change them. Any effort to control time is vanity and striving after wind.

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

A time to be born and a time to die.”

It isn’t terribly controversial to acknowledge that your birth was outside of your control, but feel the weight of that. Whether you were born a 15th century Aztec or a 21st century American makes all the difference in the world, from an “under the sun” perspective. The rest is just details, really. We can argue over how much freedom of choice you have in this life, but there’s really no question that when it comes to the single most important factor in determining who you were going to be, you had no input whatsoever.

The flip side is perhaps even harder to swallow, but none of us chooses the circumstances of our death either, despite a herculean effort to make it otherwise. So much of man’s toil is aimed at controlling the time of our death, but it’s no good. Sure, be healthy, take care of yourself. As Solomon said, it’s better to be wise than to be a fool, but don’t kid yourself. There’s a time to be born and a time to die, and there’s not a thing in the world that you can do to control it.

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.

You plant tomatoes in the Spring and you harvest at the end of summer. No amount of cleverness or toil will change that. The Chinese Communists decided in the 50’s as part of the “Great Leap Forward” that they could devise a new, better way of farming than the way it had been done for generations. Ten million people died in the famine that resulted. You plant when it’s time to plant. You harvest when it’s time to harvest. You aren’t in control.

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

Killing and healing, building up and breaking down, the cycle goes on and on, forever. Everything that is built up eventually breaks down. Nothing lasts. It’s all a vapor.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Solomon took a long look at his own life in the first two chapters and concluded that no amount of hard work can turn your weeping into laughing or your mourning into dancing. Maybe you’d want to quibble and say that living wisely means that there will be more laughing and less weeping than there would be otherwise. But that isn’t really true. Having your eyes open to the world only means that you’re more aware of the vanity of life under the sun. Many of us can attest that as you get older and wiser, your capacity for weeping only increases. And so does your capacity for joy. But those times come to us in ways that we never expected, and certainly didn’t control. A child does something wonderful and we laugh and say, “Where did that come from?” But that same child can break your heart and leave you asking, “What did I do wrong?” The answer in both cases is that you aren’t in control.

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;

Here Solomon seems to be reflecting again on wealth, as he did in chapter two. There is a time for accumulating things, and a time for relinquishing those things. Again, the main point is not about what you ought to do and when. The point is that there are times in life when the money comes in, and times when it goes back out. Eventually it all goes back out. That great estate sale that awaits us all will certainly be a time of casting away. But even in this life, there are seasons for gathering and seasons for spending. When the economy is roaring, it’s a time of gathering for everyone. When the stock market tanks, it’s a time for us to lose. There’s not a thing you can do about it. You gather when it’s time to gather, and cast away when it’s time to cast away.

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

Now we seem to be thinking less about wealth and more about our relationships with each other. Our relationships are also characterized by seasons that come and go, and those are also outside of our control. “A time to tear and a time to sow.” If it were up to you then that person would still be a part of your life. But they aren’t. They’ve been torn away. And nothing that you say seems to matter. This other person, though, just walked in the door last Sunday, and now is a time to sew something new. In either case, it wasn’t your choice.

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

We fancy, perhaps, that people have moved past the point where there might be a time for war. We choose peace, love and understanding. But then Russia starts a territorial war with Ukraine, as if they didn’t get the memo that we don’t do that kind of thing anymore. It reminds us that we don’t have as much control as we thought, and maybe Solomon was right that “what has been is what will be,” and things haven’t really changed after all. These times come to us whether we want them to or not.

Solomon looks at all of this - the coming and going of the seasons of life under heaven - and he throws his hands up and asks, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” It’s a rhetorical question, obviously. The answer is implied, “None at all.” What good is all of this work? No amount of toil can change the coming and going of life. Each of these seasons come to us all. The idea that we have any sort of control in this life is a complete fantasy. Trying to control the winds of time is just that - like trying to shepherd the wind. It will slip through your fingers every time.

If one of the meanings of this poem is that control is an illusion, then that lands especially hard on us today. The pursuit of control is one of the sins of our age. Solomon would be quick to remind us that there is nothing new about man pursuing control, but in our times I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been especially brazen about it. We’ve turned it into a virtue. And perhaps it’s also fair to say that the illusion of control is more enticing and deceptive now than ever before. In a sense it’s more believable in the age of science and reason that mankind has achieved control over nature. There is a great passage in The Abolition of Man where C.S. Lewis talks about man’s desire for control, and the different forms that it has taken over the years. In some ways he’s illustrating Solomon’s point that there is nothing new under the sun. He talks about how magic and science are twins. One was sickly and died, while the other was strong and survived, but they are twins. They were both born of the same impulse, which is the desire to subdue reality to the wishes of men. Control has always been the carrot that the devil uses to entice men to abandon their proper place in relationship to God. “You can be like God. You can be your own lord.” The book of Ecclesiastes shows us what a lie that promise always was.

In Heaven (10-11a, 14-15)

That’s the hard reality of life under heaven. Man in not in control. But Solomon’s response to his question, “What gain has the worker from his toil,” is a little bit surprising, especially if you think that Ecclesiastes is a hopeless book. Man’s toil doesn’t gain him any control over the times and seasons, but that isn’t the whole story. Solomon does not believe that the world “under the sun” is the only world that there is. Verse 10 says, “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.”

So there is apparently another perspective, a greater reality, that has to be accounted for. Solomon is aware of how things appear from our vantage point, but he is also aware that there are things that are true, even though we can’t see them with our eyes. These are things that can only be seen from God’s perspective. From our perspective it looks like the seasons come and go in an endlessly repeating cycle, with no one in control. But in fact, the seasons of life are given to men by God. And he has made each one beautiful in its time. Beautiful, in this context, has the idea of being beautifully fitting or appropriate. The right thing at the right time. “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.” Solomon’s confession is that the times and seasons of life are not, in fact, random or meaningless. They are given by God. They are a part of a master plan. Solomon has not observed this with his senses, but he knows it to be true. What looks to be an endlessly repeating cycle is actually part of a beautiful plan. If we skip ahead to verse 14, Solomon goes even further on this theme. For a moment, he takes his eyes completely off of the vanity that he has found under the sun, and he directs his eyes fully toward God. He makes a beautiful confession of faith in the sovereignty of God, especially as it relates to time.

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.

What a contrast with what he has been saying about the work of man. Remember what he said about man’s work in chapter two.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

And in verse 16:

For the wise as for the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.

There is nothing to be gained from the work of man’s hands. It will all be forgotten. The work of God’s hands, however, endures forever. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. Man’s work is vaporous and temporary, God’s work is solid and unchangeable. It’s a beautiful confession of faith.

We’ll come back to verse 14. Verse 15 continues the confession. It’s sort of mysterious and lovely.

That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Solomon said something like this already in chapter one, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done.” His point there was just that there’s nothing new under the sun. Life appears from our perspective to be just an endlessly repeating cycle. But in the context of this confession about the sovereignty of God, it takes on a different meaning. The first was a reflection on time from the human perspective - the future looks a lot like the past. Now we have a reflection on time from God’s perspective. “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been.” He seems to be saying that for God, the past, the present, and the future are as one. We have to be careful not to say more than what is intended, but this is important for us to remember. Time doesn’t work the same way for God as it does for us. God is not constrained by time like we are. He doesn’t experience time the way we do. A very common mistake that we make, often without realizing what we’re doing, is to assume that God moves through time along with us, experiencing the unfolding of time, moment by moment, the way we do. We always acknowledge that God knows the future, and even that he has control over the future. But we sometimes think and speak as if God exists in time the same way that we do. That’s a mistake. Don’t do that. We need to go further than just believing that God controls the future. He transcends time entirely. Time is a property of the world that he made. Those are deep and difficult questions. It makes me want to light a pipe and lean back in my chair and do some armchair philosophy. That would also be a mistake. The point in Ecclesiastes is simply that God is not subject to time, he is Lord over time.

Then the end of verse 15 says, “and God seeks what has been driven away.” That’s also a bit of a cryptic line. My understanding is that this is his poetic way of saying that God is the one who can reach back into time and bring the past back to life. Another translation would be, “God seeks out what has been pursued.” It’s perhaps a shepherding image. God seeks out the lost moments of the past like a shepherd seeks a lost sheep. Man seeks out the past as well, but it’s all vain. The past is quickly forgotten. Trying to seek it out and bring it back is like trying to shepherd the wind. But God is the one who is able to shepherd the wind. He controls the coming and going of the times and seasons.

With this perspective in mind, now we can go back and consider the poem again. From this perspective, the poem is not simply about the futility of man’s toil. It’s about the sovereignty of God over all seasons of life.

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

The seasons of life don’t just roll over us in an endlessly repeating cycle. The seasons are given by the God of heaven. Not only that, they are given in a way that is beautiful and fitting. So there is a purpose behind all of this. He has made everything beautiful in its time.

A time to be born and a time to die.

God determined the circumstances of your birth, just as he will the day of your death. The book of Job says that man’s “days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass. We can all nod our heads to that one - that’s pretty obvious. But don’t neglect it. The life and death of man is in God’s hands. It is in his plan. He has done it - nothing can be added to it or taken from it.

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up.

His control extends beyond just human life. All of creation moves according to his plan. The earth yields tomatoes only when God says that it will do so. Jeremiah says that He gives the rain in its season. We plant when God says that it’s planting time. We harvest when he says that it’s harvest time.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance.

We talk about this a lot around here. Yes, we are commanded by God to feel certain ways at certain times, and at the same time we acknowledge that even our emotional responses come from him. That’s why Augustine prayed, “God, Command what you will, and give what you command.” Just like Paul prayed in Romans 15, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.” The sovereignty of God extends even into the supposedly sacred space of our own feelings.

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

We conceded already that times of gathering and times of casting away were beyond our control. There is indeed an invisible hand which controls the rise and fall of world economies. But it’s not the free market, and it isn’t world leaders. It’s the God of heaven. God says in Isaiah, “I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.”

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.

This was one of the themes of our Genesis study. Through all of the human drama, through the tearing and sewing of relationships, through the loving and hating, the war and the peace, God was in control of it all. It was all according to his plan.

So, there are two different perspectives acknowledged in Ecclesiastes. On the one hand is the way that things appear, and in a sense the way that they really are, from our perspective here and now, “under the sun.” It’s vaporous, it doesn’t last, and nothing that you do really changes anything. On the other hand is a confession of a truth that you can’t see with your eyes. God has made everything beautiful in its time, and what he does endures forever. There is a truth about reality that is different from how things appear to us from here.

This clearly creates a tension. Things appear one way from here under the sun, but I know that there is a truth that I don’t have access to through my senses. What am I to do about that? Solomon points to this tension in verse twelve, “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.” God has put eternity into man’s heart. How beautiful and profound is that? It would be one thing if we were just bugs crawling around on the surface of the earth. We scurry around for a while and then we die. We could acknowledge a difference between the bug’s perspective and God’s perspective, and that wouldn’t really be a problem. But that isn’t our situation. God has put eternity into our hearts, so that we long to see from God’s perspective. We want so badly to see behind the veil, to strike through the mask. We want to know why. It’s not enough for me to just go to work and come home to sleep, and then get up and do it again in the morning. I need to know what it’s for. I need to know why it matters. It isn’t enough for me to just like the song or the book or the painting. I need to know what it means. What’s the deeper truth? We have all been given a longing for something more than what we can see.

This is such an important part of human nature and of being made in God’s image. This is what makes us tick. This eternity in our hearts is the reason why we do the things that we do as human beings. This is why we will spend 500 years to build a towering cathedral, and why we sit quietly under a tree to stare at the clouds. It’s why we have Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and why we sing softly to ourselves as we sweep the floor. God has put eternity in our hearts. We are made in the image of God, and we seek the thing from which we came.

But Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom, and wisdom doesn’t just lift us up. It puts us in our proper place. The second half of the sentence isn’t often quoted. God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” That’s bracing. Notice that Solomon does not say, “you need to stop seeing things from the human perspective and start seeing them from God’s perspective. Then you would see how life is not actually full of vanity. You would understand exactly how everything in your life is connected and how it all has meaning.” No, he says that it is not possible for you to see things from God’s perspective. You cannot find out what he has done. This is actually a very important theme in the book of Ecclesiastes. Man “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

Here are some other examples. Chapter 8, verse 17 says,

Then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.

And chapter 11, verse five says,

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

He says similar things in other places. So the situation is this: things seem from our vantage point to be nothing but vanity and striving after wind, and in a sense they are. On the other hand, God has told us that he is in control and that his plan will endure forever. Not only that, but he has put eternity in our hearts so that we long to see the bigger picture. We want to know the plan. But we can’t see it. Certainly he has told us some important things about his plan. We know what direction we’re all heading. But the details of his plan are hidden from us. It is impossible for us to know the mind of God and to see how our life fits into his plan.

By Faith (11b-13)

So what are we to do? How do we bridge the divide between what we see with our eyes and what we’re told by God to be true? The answer is faith. Faith is here in this passage. Verse 14 says that “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.” Solomon says that the proper response to the sovereignty of God over all of life is to “fear before him.” The fear of God is a familiar theme in scripture. Remember what Solomon means by fear. Fear doesn’t mean terror. In Proverbs, Solomon says that “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” So the fear of the Lord is the opposite of a hardened heart. To fear the Lord means, among other things, having a soft, receptive heart toward God. It’s a posture of receiving what God gives. In other words, it’s a heart of faith.

So there are two responses to the vanity of life that are held out for us to consider in Ecclesiastes. One is the fear of the Lord. That’s the heart of faith, which gladly receives what God has done. The other is the response of the hardened heart. What does the hardened heart do? It grasps for control. The hardened heart can only see the world under the sun, and wants to control it for it’s own gain. There is another well-known poem that illustrates this stiff-necked lust for control that man carries in his heart. It’s very different from Solomon’s poem. The poem is called Invictus, by William Henley. It goes like this:

Out of the night that covers me

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

Ok, so we start with a similarly bleak assessment of life under the sun. Let’s see where he goes from there.

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul.

That’s the response of a fool - a fool whose heart is hardened. But the truth is that it’s the response of every man, woman and child in our natural state of sin. Rarely is it said out load so brazenly, but all sin, in a sense, boils down to a lust for control. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Where does this kind of attitude lead? In Proverbs he said that a hardened heart leads to calamity. Ecclesiastes eight says that:

It will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

That’s one possible response. In fact, it’s the natural response. “Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.” Now consider the response of faith. First of all, faith wants nothing to do with this foolish talk about chance. The first act of faith is to recognize that what appears to be random from our perspective is in fact from God, and is part of his plan. The second act is that, instead of grasping after control, faith gladly receives what God has done. Faith happily and humbly submits to God’s control. What does this faith look like in Ecclesiastes? We have a picture of it. It looks like this:

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.

Be joyful and do good as long as you live. Eat and drink and take pleasure in your toil - this is God’s gift to man. Notice a couple of things. First, Solomon is not saying that for the Christian, all of that stuff about life being a vapor doesn’t apply. No, that’s the human condition after the fall. There is a giant estate sale in your future as well. But he is saying that for the one who humbles himself before God - who fears before him, there is joy to be had in the midst of the toil. The times and seasons of life are given to us by God. No amount of toil can change them. No amount of wisdom can understand them. But there is joy to be had in the midst of the changing times if you receive it all as a gift, in faith. Be joyful and do good as long as you live; also eat and drink and take pleasure in all your toil—this is God's gift to man.

It’s worth pointing out also, maybe especially for you younger folks, that it is not true that the ungodly get to enjoy life and be blissfully happy, while we God-fearers have to swallow the bitter pill that life is actually really serious and hard. No, everyone experiences the fact that life is really hard, and everyone is looking for a way to deal with it. Solomon conducted his own experiment, which he described in the first two chapters, and he found that the promise of happiness that this world offers really is empty. Momentary pleasure, maybe. Satisfying, enduring happiness? No, it can’t deliver.

Joy is possible, but it only comes as a gift. It can’t be grasped. It must received. It’s all a gift. The joy is a gift. The food and the drink are gifts. Even the toil and the changing seasons are gifts. It’s gift, all the way down.

Another way to think about it is this. God offers us real joy in this life. But it can’t be had by aiming directly for it. Life is a bit like those hidden image posters that used to be popular in the 90’s. When you first look at it, it’s just a repeating pattern of brushstrokes without any apparent meaning. You can only see the real image by taking your focus off of the brushstrokes and looking past what you see. Life is like that. You can only enjoy the pleasures of life in this world by looking past them in faith. Lewis, again (as always) said it well. He said:

Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.

So, there are two responses to the sovereignty of God. The fool says, “in the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced or cried aloud. Under bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.” The wise man says,

Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord, our maker.

You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.

For the natural man, whose heart is hard and whose head is bloody, but unbowed, the sovereignty of God is a bitter pill. But for the God-fearer, the sovereignty of God is, in fact, the foundation of our joy. What he does endures forever, and what he has done has been given to us as a gift. So be joyful, and do good, as long as you live. Eat and drink and take pleasure in your work. This is God’s gift to you.

Only now, with all of this in place, can we go back to the poem and ask, how should we then live. Solomon says later, in chapter 8, “… the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything …” Since we’ve established, as the first meaning of the poem, that I am not in control, but God is, now we can go back and consider whether the poem might help us to “know the proper time and the just way.” How do I respond to the changing times and seasons, knowing that these seasons of life are for something? They have a purpose. My responsibility is not to understand what that purpose is, but rather to discern what wisdom, humility, and faith require of me as the various seasons of life come and go?

There is a time to plant and a time to harvest. Which season has God put me in right now? That’s an important question. It has implications for everything from finances to relationships. But remember that not only is the harvest a gift, but the planting is a gift as well. Take pleasure in the planting, as much as in the harvesting. This is God’s gift to you.

There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  You probably know which one you’re in, but how are you to respond, knowing that this season was given to you by God? On the one hand, we remember that this season of weeping will be over when God ordains that it be over, and not a moment sooner. That means that the only way out is through. “Who can make straight what he has made crooked?” On the other hand, we remember that this time is for something. It has a purpose. And because God is in control, you can have confidence that this season will pass when his purpose has been accomplished. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And when the time for laughing and dancing comes, do it with exuberance, unencumbered by the cares of the world. This also is a gift.

There a time to cast away, and a time to gather; a time to seek, and a time to lose. When the time comes to gather, receive it with gratitude as a gift. When the time comes to cast away, do it with generosity, knowing that your Father in heaven is in control, and he will provide all that you need.

There’s a time to tear, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. We’ve learned a thing or two about that in recent years. We’ve all experienced the tearing of some old relationships, and the sewing of some new ones. We don’t know why, but it’s not our job to understand why. That’s what God has brought us. It’s our job to receive it with joy and wisdom and humility. You’re in relationships right now that might be stretched to the point of tearing. You’re ready to speak your mind and walk away. There’s a time for that, perhaps. But ask whether you are looking at that person through eyes of faith? Are you receiving that relationship as a gift? If you walked away, could you receive that tear with gratitude as being from the Lord? If not, don’t do it.

So, to recap. There are three perspectives that are demonstrated in this poem about the seasons of life. The first is the view from under heaven, where no amount of man’s toil or wisdom can alter the coming and going of the times. But Solomon acknowledges that God’s perspective from heaven is different from ours. He has made everything beautiful in it’s time, and whatever he does endures forever. He has even put eternity in our hearts, so that we long to see the world from his perspective. But it isn’t possible. He is God and we are not. It is not possible for us to know what he has done from beginning to end. So what is our proper response? It’s the response of faith. Be joyful and do good as long as you live. Eat and drink and take pleasure in your toil. This is God’s gift to man.

Conclusion

One story as we close. Some of you are visual thinkers. Maybe this image will be helpful. On Wednesday evening I was driving south on the M1, which is the main highway that runs north to south through England. I was on my way back to London to fly home the next morning. I was tired and ready to come home, but I had Ecclesiastes on my mind. When I got about 30 minutes from the hotel, traffic suddenly came to a dead stop. We sat there for minute. A minute turned into five minutes. Five minutes turned into ten. Ten turned into thirty. Thirty minutes turned into an hour. No one budged. Where I was sitting, we could just see, a half a mile ahead of us, the blue lights flashing, and we could hear the faint sound of sirens. But we couldn’t see what was happening. It was apparently an accident, but we didn’t know what was going on. In any case, there were no signs that we were going anywhere any time soon. After an hour of staring at the car in front of me, I was very much feeling the vanity of the situation. At this point, people were getting out of their cars and walking around. People kept walking up and straining to see what was happening up ahead. Some of them were standing on the barriers, trying to get a look. “Why is this happening? Why aren’t we moving?” I can be a bit slow sometimes, so it wasn’t till we had been sitting there nearly two hours that the thought occurred to me that this was a pretty good picture of what Solomon is describing. Here we are, ten thousand people, on the most important highway in one of the most important countries in the world, just sitting here, going nowhere. Vanity of vanities. And I have absolutely no control over this situation. I will move when the car in front of me moves, and there not a thing in the world that I can do to make that happen. And here we’re all climbing on things and staring into the distance, straining to see the reason, as if understanding why will somehow make the vanity of this situation bearable. But it’s just out of sight. We can see that there’s a reason up there, but we can’t see what it is, and we have no idea when this will be over. So I was grateful for that realization, and it helped me to be patient in a situation that I normally wouldn’t handle very well. So I thought, “Ok God, I see now why you did this. This makes sense now.” But then it quickly hit me. No! I don’t know why God did this. God didn’t crash those cars and strand these ten thousand people to give me a sermon illustration. I don’t know the reason. Who were those people in the accident? Were they killed? Who are these ten thousand people stranded on the highway? Where are they going? What did they miss by being here? I have no idea why God did this. And I can’t know. It sounds pious to say things like “I can see now what God was doing,” but it lacks the kind of humility that Ecclesiastes shows us. So, with that thought, I turned on the latest issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and I sat back and tried my best to enjoy it (with mixed success, I’ll confess).

Maybe this all raises some questions. For instance, if Solomon’s point is that you can’t see the big picture, then what about this eternity that has been placed in our hearts - this desire to see the reason behind everything that we do? What should we do with that? Is Solomon saying that we will never be able to see the meaning behind our toil, so we should stop trying? We talk a lot around here about our different vocations in life and how God is behind them all, showing his love to the world. Do we need to stop saying that sort of thing, because we really don’t know what God is doing? I don’t think so. But perhaps there is a call to humility for us as believers. There is meaning behind what you do. You can be confident in that, but not because you can see through the veil and understand how your work fits into God’s plan for the world. You can’t. Your work will always appear, to your eyes, like an endlessly repeating cycle that doesn’t gain you much in the end. The other side of the veil is only apprehended by faith. There is meaning behind what you do because it is a gift from God. That is enough. Receive your work for what it is - a gift from him - and that’s all the meaning that you could ever need. If God says that he is working “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” you simply believe him, without understanding how. Yes, there is a mystical connection between heaven and earth. Yes, your work is a mask of God, through which God is working in the world. But you can’t see it with your eyes. You can only know it by faith.

If you are not a Christian, and the vanity of this life weighs heavily on you, then I hope that this idea of the eternity that has been placed in your heart weighs on you as well. The fact that you have a sense of eternity in your heart is a proof, of sorts, that God is real, that you were created by him, and that you were made to be in fellowship with him. But that eternity in your heart does not mean that things are right between you and God. Apart from faith in Christ, they are not, and your troubles in this life are only the beginning. Ecclesiastes ends with these words:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

There is only one man, Jesus Christ, whose toil was not made vain by sin and death. His work does, in fact, endure. Only by believing in him and placing your hope in his toil on your behalf, can you be safe in the judgment that is coming. If that resonates with you, come speak to one of us up front or in the lobby after the service.

For all of us, remember as we go, that the choice is always before us. The choice is between grasping after something that cannot actually be grasped, or receiving what is held out to you as a gift. Receive it, in faith, and give thanks to God.

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