Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

For believers and nonbelievers alike, the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 is a well-known poem of the Bible. For you baby boomers, you might even be humming that familiar tune of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the 60’s band The Byrd’s who used this entire poem in their song. I remember reading this poem somewhere in my public school days in the English literature textbook; I was probably in elementary or middle school at the time. It was stuck right next to other famous English literature poems, but I didn’t even know that it was from the Bible until later on when I became a Christian. If you read it a few times, it’s not hard to think of why this bit of Bible poetry would be popular when taken out of context; it’s colorful, poetic, symmetrical, contrasting, philosophical, talks about life, sounds deep and wise. But if you were to ask most people, including perhaps most Christians, what this poem is about in the context of which Ecclesiastes was written, I would guess that most people wouldn’t know, I would have shrugged my shoulders at you back then too. “Dunno it sounds cool… sounds deep, real deep.”

Thankfully God doesn’t leave us in the dark here, and as is often the case, Scripture interprets Scripture, and in this case, we don’t have to look too far, just the next few verses.

In fact, if we just read a few verses further, in v.9-15, Qohelet interprets this poem for us. While the poem makes no mention of God, God shows up all over v.9-15 which is a huge development as God has not been mentioned much so far in this book until the end of chapter 2. The Preacher tells us that God is the one in control of all time. In v. 11, he says, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time.” The Hebrew meaning of the word used for ‘beautiful’ connotes a sense of being “fitting” or “appropriate.” God makes everything beautifully fitting and appropriate in its time. And then he says in v. 14, “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” So the Preacher introduces us to the breath-taking and comforting truth that we love as Reformed Christians as the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. That God is in control of all things and all things happen according to the proper time, He has set it. He is completely sovereign over all of life and time and what He does lasts forever.

But if you’re anything like me, it’s a lot easier to intellectually assent to and confess that you hold to this truth of God’s sovereignty than it is to actually really believe it and live life in and under the big, tall, sturdy walls of this doctrine. It’s a lot easier to say you’re a Calvinist than actually being one and living like it. Like you, I say that I believe in God, that He’s good, He’s for me and sovereign, but I still worry about all sorts of things, I worry about today, I worry about the future. I’m fearful of the unknown. I want to take a peek into God’s secret plan for my life, and He won’t show it to me.

And not just that, but even the times and seasons of this life can be confusing and cause a lot of angst and turmoil. For everyone, there is a time to be born and a time to die. Why is it that for some these two realities happen so quickly like those of you have that have painfully experienced losing your children in miscarriage and stillbirth while for someone else, like that 108-year-old lady, Mabel Bell, who finally got to see her Chicago Cubs win the World Series, those realities are further apart? You were in a place of joy and dancing today but suddenly the tragic news you received today has you now in a season of grief and mourning you weren’t ready for. You don’t understand. You don’t get what God is up to. If He has a purpose for this, which you’re told He does, I certainly don’t know it because I do not understand…

So we have that tension here. If I were to title this sermon again, I would call it, “The Tyranny of Time and the Sovereignty of God.” After all the failure of the Preacher to find ultimate meaning in wisdom, pleasure, and work in the first two chapters, you might think we’re head for more of the same here, but I hope that you would see that this passage gives us a lot of hope. The point of this passage and what I hope to show you is that our God is indeed sovereign and He has ordered and set all the times and seasons and to believe and embrace that would cause us to be able to enjoy our lives today and to stand in awe and fear of Him. To get there, this passage is structured in this way. You have the poem about time in v.1-8, the big question in response to that in v.9, the combined experience and insight of what Qohelet knows about God, us, and time in v.10-11, which then lead us to two conclusions in v.12-13 and v.14-15.

Time Poem (v.1-8)

First, let’s look at this poem in v.1-8. It’s a poem rich in imagery all sorts of Hebrew poetic devices are employed here with its structure, its parallelism, the number of lines, etc. It’s worth a good study in and of itself but since we don’t have enough time for all the details. I want to make some key observations about what’s in this poem.

  1. “There’s a time to live and a time to die, a time to plant and a time pluck up what is planted…” This poem encompasses all of human life under the sun. Everything between being born and dying are covered here. Not everything in it necessarily applies to every single individual (killing, gathering rocks, etc.), it might even be helpful to think of it in context as a group of people or a nation. I believe its left vague intentionally, but I think we can draw work aspects from it, relational aspects, and maybe even military aspects. But what’s certainly true is that this is meant by the author to cover all of life under the sun in regards to time. In fact, there are seven verses here, each with exactly two pairs making 14 couplets. “Time” ends up being repeated 28 times. With ‘7’ being a number signifying perfection in the Bible and it being doubled here, some scholars even wonder whether this is meant to say that this poem is meant to be the perfect poem about time in the Bible.
  1. Second, with many of its contrasting pairs…we’re reminded that our lives are lived in a fallen world filled with death, mourning, tearing, breaking down, killing, and war. All disquieting things that can traumatize us and wreak havoc on our attempts to try to make sense of the times.
  1. Third, notice that is a “busy” poem. It’s why Qohelet says, “I have seen the business in which God gives to the children of man” and before that, he asks right after this poem, the burning question He’s had this entire time, “What gain does the worker have from his toil?”

This poem is meant to encompass and cover all of life “under the sun.” It says there is a time for everything under heaven. Life begins at birth and ends in death (v.1), there is a time for war and a time for peace (v.8).

Gain? (v.9)

And that leads us right into the second part of this passage starting with v.9…All these things that happen in our lives, we can’t keep them from coming they just come…everything that happens between living and dying and the Preacher returns to this question, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” What gain is there? Life moves us along its seasons, and before we know it, it’s over…What gain is there in all of this?

God Makes Everything Beautiful in It’s Time and Put Eternity in our Hearts (v.10-11)

The Preacher repeats what he said back in 1:13, but doesn’t use “unhappy business” this time but like before in all his quests, he reports on what he has seen, except this time something is different. He gives us a different camera angle than simply what he had personally surveyed. If we were to call that the “life under the sun” angle, he now turn things to the “life beyond the sun” angle, he shows us things from God’s perspective. He says he’s seen this business that God has given to man to be busy with, this business called life, this temporal life full of toil and then he says, “God has made everything beautiful, appropriate, fitting in its time.”

Illustration: I once heard a pastor give an analogy where we see someone making a quilt blanket using a loom. If we were to see the knitter at work, we’d lots of different colored threads being used on this quilt. Try as we might, we can’t seem to make out a coherent picture even though we can tell there are lots of things going on here. ‘Maybe this will be a patchwork quilt with lots of different scenes and symbols!’ you say to yourself. Let’s say that the quilt has now been completed but we can only see if the very back of it. What do we see? A mishmash of colors and textures, ties and knots. Oh! We caught sight of something resembling something familiar on it, and we follow it down the quilt only to realize we still don’t know what’s going on. That can be what it feels like trying to understand the events in our life in this world. Full of intermingling details and colors but we can’t seem to sense of things. But…if the designer and maker of the quilt were to turn that quilt around…Ah yes! Everything makes sense! Here’s a beautiful picture where all the threads, knots, different colored fabrics all run together perfectly to make a full, complete picture that makes sense. That is what it looks to see things from God’s perspective of time.

This is the beautiful doctrine of God’s sovereignty, which as Eph. 1:11 says, “God works all things according to the counsel of his will.” He is timeless and not bound by time, but He is the master weaver of time. It’s fitting and right because God is behind it. It doesn’t mean that we will always understand or even appreciate His timing always but we can know it’s not meaningless…there is great purpose, structure, order, to what God is doing with the happenings and goings of this world and your life because He is in command of all of it!

And then we’re told that God has put “eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” This sounds like something good at first, but then it ends with sounding like the futility and frustration we heard in the previous two chapters when it was said that all is vanity. This is why as beautiful as the poem in v.1-8 sounds, it soon after met with the frustrated question of v.9. There’s a time for this and a time for that but what does it all mean?! Man cannot know, he cannot find out what God is doing! Ah, but it’s not fair! We have this desire and thirst to know, to understand, to make sense of it all! Listen to what OT scholar Derek Kidner says about verse 11:

‘We catch these brilliant moments, bit even apart from the darkness interspersed with them they leave us unsatisfied for lack of any total meaning that we can grasp…We are like the desperately near-sighted, inching their way along some great tapestry or fresco in the attempt to take it in. We see enough to recognize something of its quality, but the grand design escapes us, for we can never stand back far enough to view it as its Creator does, whole and entire, from the beginning to the end,’[1]

Another OT scholar, Walter Kaiser says something similar:

‘This quest is a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive, because people are made in   the image of God and are made to appreciate the beauty of creation (on an aesthetic level); to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world (on an academic and philosophical level); and to discern its purpose and destiny (on a theological level). Therein lies the majesty and madness of the whole thing. Mortals have an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in their experience can be integrated to make a whole. They want to know how the mundane “downstairs” realm of ordinary, day-to-day living fits with the “upstairs” realm of the hereafter; how the business of living, eating, working, and enjoying can be made to fit with the call to worship, serve, and love the living God; and how one can accomplish the integration of the natural sciences. Social sciences, and humanities. But in all the vastness and confusion of so much data, mortals are frustrated by the ‘puzzle’ of selecting any one of the many facets of God’s “good” world as that part of life to which they will totally give themselves instead of beginning with giving themselves totally to God first of all.’[2]

Sounds awfully like what Augustine used to say, doesn’t it? “Our hearts are restless until they can rest in you.” There’s a sense that this can’t all be pointless. Though we live in a sin ruined and wrecked world, there’s whispers and hints everywhere of greater meaning… and there’s a hunger to know…but we can’t, we look at the rhythms of life and the world but they in and of themselves are not enough. Kaiser is right, instead of the frustration of our finite minds, we must give ourselves to the One that knows and controls all things. Oh, let this hunger and frustration teach us we must bow to the fact that only God knows and we know that He is sovereign and good.

Holy and Happy (v.12-13)

Having shown the readers a picture of God and his sovereignty over time. He now makes two conclusions. The first conclusion he makes can be found in v.12-13, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil- this is God’s gift to man.” This is almost identical to the conclusion Qohelet ended the previous section on in Ecc. 2:24-26. His answer to the frustration that inevitably comes in this life, with its toils, painful seasons, futility in trying to figure out this life and this world is… “Because our God is sovereign and in control of the times… be joyful and do good,” Be a holy and happy people. Eat. Drink. Enjoy the good work that God’s given you. As was said in chapter 2, stop trying to find ultimate satisfaction and meaning in your career, only God can give that to you. But He also made us to work and gives us a certain enjoyment in our work so find enjoyment in your work as well as the good things He’s given you.

Trusting and living this way gives us joy in God and also protects us from all sorts of sins. Here’s a poem written in the late 1980s and quoted before by the likes of Chuck Colson, I recently heard it quoted in sermons by Derek Thomas and David Strain:

Present Tense

It was spring, but it was summer I wanted,
The warm days, and the great outdoors.
It was summer, but it was fall I wanted,
The colorful leaves, and the cool, dry air.
It was fall, but it was winter I wanted,
The beautiful snow, and the joy of the holiday season.
It was winter, but it was spring I wanted,
The warmth and the blossoming of nature.
I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted,
The freedom and respect.
I was 20, but it was 30 I wanted,
To be mature, and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was 20 I wanted,
The youth and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-age I wanted,
The presence of mind without limitations.
My life was over, and I never got what I wanted.

-Jason Lehman (only 14 years old when he wrote this)

If you’re sitting here tonight, your life isn’t over yet. But hear the warning here, that you may be found frustrated, bitter, discontent, and angry at God the day when things do come to an end…Maybe things in your life haven’t worked out the way you wanted them to. Something you really wanted but never got. You’re never happy; you can’t seem to have joy, you can’t rejoice with others, you easily get jealous and envious of others that have what you want.

Like this poem says, you may be wishing for your youth back, or you may be wishing you were older and wiser. You may be wishing that it were a different season. A dear sister I spoke to here recently told me she couldn’t wait for winter, she grew up in the North and loves the snow. That’s just so strange to me as someone that grew up here in the South. Some of you know how life in Atlanta comes to a screeching halt when there are just a few inches of snow or ice, and you can see piles of cars on the side of the road. To each his own but hear this passage, our God has set the times. As He would have it, it’s winter here, not spring or summer, but winter here in Atlanta, GA and God made it so that it just dropped 20-30 degrees overnight The Preacher says “be joyful…do good… eat and drink, take pleasure in and appreciate what God has given you to do and enjoy.”

So brothers and sisters, by faith in our sovereign God, enjoy this season. By faith in Him, enjoy this season of life God has you in instead of pining for another. Rejoice in Him. You may not know what life will bring, but God knows, and He knows and loves You. God’s Word to us here in Ecc. 3 is that people who believe and trust in God’s sovereignty are a holy and happy people that can enjoy God’s gifts to them.

A point of clarification: this doesn’t mean we’ll live our best lives now, Joel Osteen has it wrong, our best lives will be in heaven. So we still do live life with the hope of heaven, but our faith in our God, who makes everything beautifully fitting in its time, helps us to know joy now and be able to enjoy and appreciate the life He has given us now. Do you struggle with this or any of what I just mentioned? Then ask God to give you a repentant heart, one that trusts in His goodness and sovereignty, one that trusts in Christ’s death that covers your sins. Ask Him to help you see the season of life He has you in and the good gifts He’s given you to enjoy and use for your joy and His glory in this life.

Fear God, the God of Providence (v.14-15)

Then the Preacher makes another conclusion; again he says he perceived something. V.14-15, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it so that people fear before him. That which is already has been; that which is to be already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.” The Preacher says that because God is in control, He’s purposed all things and orders all things, and the reason for that is so that we would fear Him. That is the right response to God’s sovereignty and providence. You’d be a fool to fight it. You can’t add or take anything away from it, God is the God of all time, who does everything according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11).

This truth could either tuck you in under the covers and give you great peace and security at night or cause you nightmares and deep despair. Why such fear? Because maybe you’re someone that cannot stand the thought that someone else is controlling your destiny, you want the final stamp on it! How dare someone else, be it God Himself, have the final say in your life! That is fatalism!

Well friend, if that is your tonight, I warn you things will not change if you fight against this truth, but rather more and more you will be frustrated, angry, and fearful. If you do not fall into despair now, it will come to you later. You will misuse this life and the good things of food and work as idolatry, and they will enslave you. If that is you tonight and you cannot take joy, if you cannot take peace and comfort from this passage, I ask that you would consider this truth. I ask that you would consider the God of the Scriptures, the God spoken of in Ecclesiastes who is completely sovereign over all that He has made, Creator and Sustainer of all things. He is the One who sent us His Son Jesus to die for our sins, to redeem us back to Him. And the Bible teaches in Galatians 4 “in the fullness of time” God sent his Son to save us.

You see this world is just a world where things happen here and there, random and chaotic. After all that Old Testament prophets spoke of and pointed to, God sent his Son… to come and to live among us, to tabernacle among us, to live a life that you and I should have lived, to die a death that atoned for our sins, and He raised Him from the dead that we too might be raised with Him to life everlasting. He knows what He is doing. So to know Him and know His sovereignty is to know this joy, this peace, and comfort. And if you don’t have that my friend, I ask you to place your faith in Him tonight. Repent of your sins of pride and disobedience and receive Him as your Lord, the One who has saved you from your sins and orders and commands your life.

Conclusion

So this Word calls us to be joyful in Him, and to trust in Him, to fear Him. But if you’re still wondering, why do these bad things happen to me? Even as a believer, is there a rhyme or reason to these things, to that car wreck today, to the things that I don’t look forward to that happens in two months from now? Romans 5:6 tells us this, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” God is always on time. We may struggle with that, but He is always on time. You can believe that. And because He is sovereign, we can rest in Him. We can rest in the One who is in control of all time. And even if you struggle to understand this life, this poem, trying to make sense of it all. We can rest and be secure in the fact that God is control of every single detail in your life, He has made that so and He has purchased you for Himself forever through his Son Jesus, who stepped into time, who suffered in all the ways that we’ve suffered as humans in this fallen world, and He has brought us near to God through His shed blood and who will bring us securely home one day. And so today brothers and sisters, because of Christ let us rest in Him, let us rest in the sovereign God that we know and enjoy the good gifts He’s given us, and fear Him, and worship Him, trusting Him and obeying Him.

[1] Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J.A. Motyer. (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1976), 39.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Coping with Change- Ecclesiastes. (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2013), 101-102.