Ecclesiastes 3: The times they are a'changing
In general in Western society we are money rich and time poor. That is as true for the church as it is for the rest of society – indeed it may be even truer. While the world has just work, family, friends and leisure to use up the fixed resource of time, we add church. It's little wonder that those who are maxed out with normal living find that they are stressed out when it comes to adding the church. Something has to give – and too often does. That's one issue with time – there isn't enough of it.
Another is that at any given time we sometimes struggle to work out what is going on. This is especially true if we are the type of person who is always living in the moment and is unable to set the present in the context of the past and the hope of the future.
Solomon deals with these issues. Last weekwe saw that how we understand time and eternity is fundamental to how we live. Now, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Solomon goes on to explain how we can understand time and the times. It is a beautiful passage that I often read at funerals. Why?
Not because, as some think, this is a depressing passage because it so stresses the sovereignty of God and the helplessness of man. We cannot control time – we cannot control the seasons – no matter what our skills, efforts or riches. So, they say, this is a counsel of despair. It would be, if it were teaching that everything is futile or that God is is some kind of capricious deity – the cosmic chess player moving us around like pieces on a board. But this is not the case. Indeed, this passage is an extraordinarily beautiful summary of the optimistic view of the Christian life.
Everything has a time
There are times and seasons. There are rhythms, and there is a rhythm to life. We instinctively know this and our life demonstrates it. When you have two young children your times have changed. As an empty nester there is a different season in your life. But it's not just in the major events. We all have our biorhythms. I'm a morning person (it must have been the farm upbringing!) I get far more done in the two hours between 6 and 8 am than I can do in the four hours between 2pm and 6pm. And there are seasons. One of the problems with modern life is that we like to think we can change these – that we can live 24/7 lives, 365 days a year –with all our gadgets and artificial stimulants enabling us to overcome the natural rhythms and times. We can have strawberries in and out of season. But ignoring the rhythms and seasons never works. It only results in burnout.
Ancient Near Eastern wisdom taught that real wisdom was in understanding our limits and knowing the times. As the poet/prophet Robert Zimmerman sang 'Come gather round people, wherever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown, ...O you'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changing.' Incidentally, notice again how the Bible has been used to inspire culture. Pete Seeger wrote a beautiful song based on this passage that became one of the surprise iconic songs of the 1960's – the Byrds', Turn, Turn, Turn.
The 14couplets in this Ecclesiastes poem cover every range of human activity. It begins with the two most momentous events in our life – birth and death (verse 2); moves on to three creative and destructive activities (verses 2-3), before dealing with human emotions both public and private (verse 4). Solomon then moves on to friendship and enmity (the stones refer to filling up your neighbour's field with stones or gathering the stones they throw and using them to build something) and a time to say hello and a time to say goodbye (verse 5). The next two are to do with possessions and our resolutions concerning them (verse 6) before we finally return to the various creative and destructive activities of man (verses7-8).
I take great comfort from the fact that our times are in God's hands. It is not fate. And that there is a time for everything. You may be going through a hard time just now – that will change. You may be going through a spiritual springtime – it will turn to summer and perhaps to winter, before it turns to spring and summer again. God is in charge of it all. Our lives are meaningless 'under the sun'. They are not meaningless with The Son. We need to turn (return) to him. In Pete Seeger's paraphrase:
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven.
David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea.