In the pre-dawn quiet of our old house, as my wife and 3 kids sleep, I love nothing more than taking some quiet time with God. Lately I’ve fallen into a good routine of some Old Testament (currently reading Exodus to learn about Moses), some New Testament (currently wrestling with 1st Corinthians and Paul’s theology) and some wisdom literature (currently Ecclesiastes). I spent a lot of time with Proverbs and Psalms this fall for some wisdom (and there are lots of it there) but this morning shook me a bit as I read Ecclesiastes. This is my wife’s favorite book of the bible and I confess, there is much about Ecclesiastes I’ve never really “gotten”. Is it too simplistic? Is it too wise for my simplistic mind?
Ecclesiastes 3 says there is a time for everything…for every event under the sun. This is the list you probably have read before:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Depending on your frame of mind, this list may be tremendously encouraging to know that life will be a series of hills and valleys. Take hope, this passage infers, because God has a plan.
But what about others who are stuck in a bad situation? Who are suffering and enduring great abuse and sadness? Is it encouraging to know this is their “God-appointed time”? Imagine hearing from someone: “Don’t worry about all the pain you are going through right now, it is all part of God’s plan under the sun and it will be over soon.” No that isn’t as encouraging. When we suffer, it hurts. And when we hurt, it is easy to feel far from God.
The secret to understanding this list of God’s appointed times, comes just after the list in 3:11-12. The writer of Ecclesiastes (most think Solomon) writes: “He has set eternity in their hearts.” We will not know why things happen (see 11:b “man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end”) but we can still be sure God is in Heaven and He loves us. There is much to this life that is a mystery. Much to remain unsure about. Much to question. But this much is true: life will be a series of great joys and great trials and through it all there is a God in Heaven who cares deeply about you. Take hope, God has set eternity in your hearts. CS Lewis called this thing “Sehnsucht“, a German word for intense longing. Lewis described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” We long for something deeper than this world offers us, because as Solomon says, God has set eternity in our hearts. When we experience true joy and peace and happiness, it is but a fleeting glimpse of what God has in store for us in the afterlife. We might get confused along the journey about the bumps and bruises, heartaches and pains, but we can be sure- something better awaits.
So how do we respond to this promise of “eternity in our hearts?” Do we just give up on the day to day living? Fly the white flag of concession and go hide in a cave until the end of our life? No, not at all. Solomon finishes Ecclesiastes 3 with this admonition: “there is nothing beter for people than to rejoice and do good in one’s lifetime.” Relax, and be happy, and do good. Simply but very true advice. The writer continues, “Every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor-it is the gift of God.”
Ah, there it is. Good news. The gift of God on a beautiful winter’s day here in Seattle? God loves you, you have eternity in your hearts, so get out there and do some good in your lifetimes. Joy awaits! The Father is on your side.