Time and Eternity

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Ecclesiastes 3:1—15

How do you view time? For some, time is linear; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It moves in one direction, like a stream. Others view time as circular; that what’s happening today has already happened, and is destined to happen again. Still others see time as but a mere blip in the age of the universe. For Christians, though, time is best viewed as a gift, given by God and blessed by Him. We read this in Genesis 2:3—

God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he ceased this work of creation. (TLB)

Most of us don’t think of sanctification in terms of time, but we should. If we did, we might take verses like these a little more seriously—

So be careful how you act; these are difficult days. Don’t be fools; be wise: make the most of every opportunity you have for doing good. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to find out and do whatever the Lord wants you to. (Ephesians 5:15—17 TLB)

A time for everything, Ecclesiastes 3:1—15

This book of Ecclesiastes is a book, often written in poetic form, of philosophy, theology, and practicality. At it’s heart, this book is about a man’s search for meaning in life. It was written by Solomon to his son, but it does contain pearls of wisdom that did not originate with the him but were common to Solomon’s time.

It has been observed that in chapter 3, Solomon’s search for meaning takes in the philosophy known as fatalism. Fatalism is a common philosophy found in many world religions. Buddhism is a fatalistic belief system. Platonism is fatalism. Even within Christianity you can find streaks of fatalism; the idea that one has no control over his or her own life. It’s always funny when theologians of this persuasion twist and turn their dangerous philosophy inside out to accommodate the reality of “free will.” In society today fatalism is very popular. There is a horrible notion abroad that “the way things are is the way they will be.” What a depressing way to live!

But there is a more balanced way to view these verses that recognizes God’s sovereignty is actually complimented by man’s freedom and ability to adjust his life to God’s will. One scholar noted:

This passage has a restrained majesty of movement, as though the river of life were two currents flowing between the same banks. There is a current of permission and a stream of prohibition. It is a part of the wisdom of life to know where to catch the flowing tide and not to waste hope and effort on what cannot—at that time at least—be done.

Yes, God has ordained the order. Our job is to find ways to live within that order.

Life and death, verses 1—3

There is a right time for everything: A time to be born; a time to die; a time to plant; a time to harvest; a time to kill; a time to heal; a time to destroy; a time to rebuild. (TLB)

We can see the fatalism in these verses; a sense that there is “a time to get and time to lose.” There is a time you can win playing the stock market, but eventually you will lose. Taking life as it comes is fatalism.

However, the balanced view remembers that God is sovereign; He is in control of all things. What we should notice in these verses is that while God is sovereign, man is responsible to discern the right times for the right actions. It is man’s job to plan his life around the sovereignty of God. When man does that, life is a beautiful thing to behold!

He has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV)

A good New Testament parallel to what the Teacher is saying in these verses would be Ephesians 2:10—

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (HCSB)

In these first three verses of Ecclesiastes 3, we see that God has a program for man’s life and death. It’s His will for babies to be born, and His will that those born will eventually we die. Man needs to understand this. We may think the cycle of life and death is just common sense, but consider the astronomical amount of money many people (Christians included) spend in the last few weeks of life just to find a way to eke out some extra time on earth by postponing the inevitable. This idea is linked to the seasons. Man needs also to understand how to abide by the seasons. Can you see what the Teacher is trying to get across? It’s more than just fatalism; it planning your life around the inescapable facts that (1) your time will come to an end; (2) you have to plan your life (planting and harvesting), as well as your death, within the parameters of God’s will.

But life and death are not only in God’s hands; they’re in ours, too. The Teacher has in mind things like capital punishment and war, for example. Man must have the ability to discern when it is time take a stand and fight and when it is time compromise and heal a bad situation. When does a law breaker deserve life sentence and when does he deserve to die for his crimes? Does he need his mind healed? It’s all up to man, and he needs to learn how to make these decisions within God’s sovereignty.

Relationships, verses 4—8

John Donne understood “no man is an island,” but long before he figured it out, Solomon was telling his son about the importance of healthy human relationships.

A time to cry; a time to laugh; a time to grieve; a time to dance; a time for scattering stones; a time for gathering stones; a time to hug; a time not to hug; a time to find; a time to lose; a time for keeping; a time for throwing away; a time to tear; a time to repair; a time to be quiet; a time to speak up; a time for loving; a time for hating; a time for war; a time for peace. (TLB)

There is an appropriate time for different kinds of behavior, like laughing and dancing or crying and loving. Life is complicated when relationships are put into the mix. Acting, interacting and reacting among others is an art! Navigating and negotiating the convoluted world of emotions and feelings takes skill and if you are a Christian, you want to get it right before you offend too many people.

Deftness is required if we want to be successful in our relationships. This is important because the Bible places a premium on human relationships. In fact, there are those who believe (and they may well be right) that healthy human relationships are at the very core of God’s will for man. And once again, we can pray for direction and illumination, but in the end, it’s to man to figure out how to best live with his fellows.

Eternity in our hearts, Ecclesiastes 3:9—15

Everything is appropriate in its own time. But though God has planted eternity in the hearts of men, even so, many cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. (TLB)

God has a time for everything. This is another way to saying God has a plan. Man, because he is insatiably curious, is desperate to know as much as he can about what that plan is. For those who don’t believe in God, they probably believe in destiny. The same thing holds true: we want to know what the future holds.

This quest for answers is one thing that separates man from the animals. Animals have no sense of time; man does. God has given man a sense of “eternity.” That means many things, but it essentially means man has a desire to “know” and understand. This is an aspect of our creation that makes us like our Creator.

In the days of the Garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam and Eve in person, face to face. He told them what they needed to know. The Fall occurred when they, our first parents, preferred to figure things out themselves; to lean on their own understanding. Essentially they cut themselves off from God, and God left them, more or less, to figure life out for themselves.

Now, we as Christians have the advantage over those who don’t know God. In this fallen world, we are able to come to God in prayer, ask for guidance and direction.

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 TLB)

Solomon was on a mission. He was smart, but he was also dumb at the same time. For a while in his life he left the Lord and sought to discover the meaning of life from life itself. He was disappointed; it was a fruitless mission. He became pessimistic. But not totally so:

So I conclude that, first, there is nothing better for a man than to be happy and to enjoy himself as long as he can; and second, that he should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of his labors, for these are gifts from God. And I know this, that whatever God does is final—nothing can be added or taken from it; God’s purpose in this is that man should fear the all-powerful God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12—14 TLB)

The man who seeks satisfaction from the things of this world is never far from frustration; that’s the feeling of verse 12, which is a warped echo of an earlier declaration:

So what does a man get for all his hard work? Days full of sorrow and grief, and restless, bitter nights. It is all utterly ridiculous. (Ecclesiastes 2:22, 23 TLB)

So you can see the treadmill of Solomon’s reasoning; it makes no sense because life made no sense to him apart from God. Still, he sees the hand of God even in his work. Not only that, in a statement of great faith, the Teacher says that there is a permanence to the work of God. Everything changes, except God—whatever He does is final.

This brings us full circle and to verse 15—

Whatever is has been long ago; and whatever is going to be has been before; God brings to pass again what was in the distant past and disappeared. (TLB)

This is a difficult verse to understand and translate and there are different interpretations of it. The first two statements make it clear that the universe doesn’t change. But that final phrase is curious: “God brings to pass again what was in the distant past and disappeared.” What does Solomon mean? Let’s see how other translations handle it:

  • God seeks what was passed by…

  • God seeks what has been driven away…

Now, some scholars see God’s constant care in His orderly running of the universe in these translations. That makes complete sense; our God is a God of order. However, there may be another meaning. When we consider that the Lord put “eternity in the hearts (or minds) of man,” we realize that man has a sense of his impermanence. People instinctively know they won’t live forever; that one day life will come to an end for them. Then what? What if, in the fine print of God’s plan for the universe, He designed it to point man to Himself? God, through His creation, is able to draw “what was passed by” or “what has been driven away” to Himself.

One great reason for our lack of satisfaction lies in this innate sense of the eternity of the inner self, which no earthly things and doings can fully meet.

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