Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13 (New King James Version)
3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck 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 cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, 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 of war, and a time of peace.
9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to 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.
In the previous devotional, I mentioned three different perspectives gleaned from three different locations when encountering a corn maze and engaging this passage from the pithy book of Ecclesiastes – a positive perspective from the outside, a more questioning view from the inside, and a transcendent outlook from above. Today’s view of the passage will access its message from an internal perspective, attempting to extract its meaning from the context of Ecclesiastes as a whole. Part of the Bible’s wisdom literature, this particular book is often referred to as “Skeptical Wisdom” or “Dissenting Wisdom”. The author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, is a sage who has lived long and has grown weary of life’s uncertainties and absurdities. “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” the book begins.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun? …
8 All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun …
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Such words are a recurring sentiment throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, with our passage from the third chapter being something of a respite from this jarring perspective. The Hebrew word hevel, which is translated “vanity” or “meaningless” in various translations, is used thirty-eight times within the book. It’s fair to say that the author is not all “kittens and rainbows” in his outlook on life. The Teacher explains that he has set out to investigate and understand life, so that he might live it wisely. He is trying to avoid, as someone once put it: “getting A’s in all my subjects, but ending up flunking life.” So, he explores every avenue for happiness, meaning, and self-gratification available. Everything people say makes life meaningful. The Teacher comes to a conclusion similar to that offered by actor Jim Carrey once in an interview: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
If there’s any point this time of the coronavirus has made obvious, it’s that seeking meaning and happiness by indulging ourselves in the “American lifestyle” is a fruitless and empty endeavor. It can ultimately provide neither satisfaction nor security. Martin Luther once wrote of such misplaced expectations, explaining what Ecclesiastes seeks to address:
What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures [i.e. the things God has created] but the depraved affection and desire of us, who are not content with the [created gifts] 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.
Luther’s description of humanity must be timeless and universal, as it fits our culture as well, perhaps better, than the society of 16th century Europe. What culture, with all its time-saving devices, has ever scurried through its days with more frenzy and less contentment than our own, trying to wring out as many pleasures and experiences, as possible? Ecclesiastes seeks to address such soul-sickness with a reality check. However, the knowledge that life is hevel (fleeting) should not lead us to an empty pessimism. It should lead, instead, to humility and to a proper delight in the gifts of God.
Our present situation has forcibly shed many of the trappings and accessories of our normally, complicated lifestyles. In doing so, it may have given us the chance to appreciate the simple gifts that adorn our days and so often go unnoticed. “He has made everything beautiful in its time … I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” There is now a season to look forward to my daily walk with Michelle. It is a time I can relish phone calls from friends out of the blue (thanks Cynthia, Judi, and others), and to talk often with my dad. There is a time to savor a well-cooked meal, and to fully appreciate the companionship of our dogs. This is a season when I can properly anticipate the opportunity to meet with my brothers and sisters in Christ for our Bible-study and choir gatherings using Zoom. In this time of the coronavirus, I don’t overlook the beauty of the forsythias, azaleas, and dogwoods, nor the good fortune that I have clean water and electricity during this emergency.
Ultimately, the picture of life the Teacher paints is incomplete, lacking the hope and wholeness the Gospel breathes into our lives. However, if we live our life with God on the periphery instead of at the center, the Teacher’s assessment may well be true. And this wise instructor from Ecclesiastes does remind us that, even in the most difficult of times, there is a time for us to work, laugh, be thankful, and delight in the gifts we have from the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Prayer: Gracious Lord, thank you for our daily bread. Amen
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (excerpt)