Ecclesiastes 3: A Time to Despair?
Ecclesiastes 3 is famous for its opening verses, which inspired a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds. It is one of those annoying ear-worm songs that everyone who knows it already has in their heads. As horrible as it is contagious.
But I digress.
What the writer of Ecclesiastes wants to hammer home in this chapter is the contrast between our perception of time and God’s perception of it. George Athas in his recently released commentary on Ecclesiastes makes two important points about this chapter:
Firstly, this list of things for which there are times and seasons, starting as it does with birth and death, reminds us that the times and seasons are ultimately in God’s hands, not ours. The rest of the chapter reiterates that God’s perspective is eternal, his works are eternal, and he is the one who enacts times of judgement (see 3:14-17).
Secondly, George Athas points out that the idea of planting and being planted (3:2) probably resonated quite strongly with Israelite readers because they knew God’s promise to David that he would plant them as a nation so that they would not be disturbed (2 Sam 7:10), and they knew that their punishment for rebellion was described as being uprooted and scattered (Jer 12:15). Athas adds that Jeremiah was commissioned with very similar words: “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Birth and death, planting and uprooting were very much words that described Israel’s troubled history with God. The Preacher and his readers were most likely in severe poverty under the heavy taxation of their Greek rulers. It was one of those times that seemed to be only mourning and weeping, and none of the laughter and dancing.
Knowing this, the Preacher sets up his reader with his question in 3:9-10. “What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”
We’ve heard this one before. In 1:13, he declares that it is an unhappy business that God has given the children of man to be busy with. In the middle of hard times, we expect his cynicism. We know that he’s supposed to say that work is meaningless and that toil is unhappy. But the Preacher is not a one-track guy. His answer is surprising, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”
In bad times, it is hard to see the beauty/fittingness of things.
We participate in things for the first time, but they’ve been going on forever. We don’t see the past. We don’t know our fate in the future (3:11, 22). We live out only a tiny fragment of the timeline. From a human perspective, our work is fleeting and frail. However, God is not subject to our limitations, and his works are not futile. God’s works extend from the beginning to the end and they last forever (3:11, 14). God is making things beautiful though we might not see it fully. God is seeking what has been driven away.
So what does the Preacher say to a people in the grip of hard times? Is this a time for despair? There is indeed a sense of futility about all that happens under the sun, but from the perspective of heaven, we participate in God’s work (even if only in barely perceptible ways). The times and seasons, even those of death and mourning, belong to God and they will change in time.
In the meanwhile, do what is good in the present (3:12), and keep an eye on your future; God brings everything into judgement in its time (3:17). And be grateful for all that you are able to enjoy when God grants you the vision to enjoy them, whether it is a season of few things or many.