Posted: 16 Apr 2011 12:00 AM PDT
NOW QOHELETH, THE TEACHER, looks at time (Eccl. 3:1–17). In isolation, verses 2–8 could be taken in several different ways. They might relativize everything: there is a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to love and a time to hate, and so forth. For some this means that no moral distinctions are to be made. Others might hope to shape their own "times." But in the context, it is better to read these verses as a mark of futility for those who live only "under the sun," and a mark of God's sovereignty for those who embrace a broader perspective.
The reader who has followed the book as far as Ecclesiastes 3:8 might well think that the poetical section of Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 is another way of saying, "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (cf. Eccl. 1:2). The seasons pass away and return; so much of what we experience is generated by the situations we face, so few of which we control. The happy person loses a spouse and dissolves in tears; the peaceful nation finds itself at war; the bereft mourner marries again and dances at her wedding. We preach love, and learn of the Holocaust, and insist that justice demands that we hate. And it is all part of the same meaningless fabric: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven" (Eccl. 3:1). This is nothing but "the burden God has laid on men" (Eccl. 3:10).
But the rest of the passage suddenly changes the flavor. The Teacher will not allow us to remain in this miasma. God "has made everything beautiful in its time" (Eccl. 3:11). We see so little of the huge tapestry God is weaving. Qoheleth is not thereby relativizing evil. He of all people knows this is a broken and fallen world. But he insists that, far from meaningless repetition and boring cycles, what takes place "under the sun" can be seen instead as a reflection of God's design, with a "beginning" and an "end" (Eccl. 3:11) to the pattern. We sometimes glimpse the spectacular, kaleidoscopic glory, but our horizon is so small and our trust in God so paltry that such visions are rare. But God "has also set eternity in our hearts." Unlike dogs or chimpanzees, we know we are immersed in eternity, and we long to see more of the pattern than we can; we "cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (Eccl. 3:11). Meanwhile, it is a "gift from God" to eat and labor and find satisfaction in one's own patch, all the while happily aware "that everything God does will endure forever" (Eccl. 3:13–14). The cycles that the unbeliever finds meaningless and despairing incite the believer to faithfulness and worship.
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