In the previous chapter, Solomon details the process of his conversion from being a sinner, always focused on self to be a person who seeks to please God – manifesting wisdom and knowledge and joy. In this converted state, Solomon now reflects on the nature of time itself. These reflections form a useful backdrop, and prepare us for the gospel message of resurrection life through Christ.
1 For everything a moment exists, and a time for every pleasure under the sky: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pull up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break through, and a time to build up; 4 a time to cry, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
Solomon is not so much talking about how the world is designed as he is talking about how we are designed. In us there is an inbuilt understanding that at certain times we feel like planting, at others we feel like uprooting what is planted. It is in our DNA to mourn a tragic loss, or to dance when overwhelmed by joy. Our moments of response are encoded within us.
The reason Solomon brings this observation up is that he is going to argue that this same God has “put a desire for permanence”1 into that time DNA. The negative moments make us long for a time when God will restore his creation to his intended perfection and permanence. Our suffering is a reaction to the adversity we suffer, but it is more than that. It is a kind of envy of our future selves.
Solomon is not saying that we should stoically accept all suffering because there is a place for it. Neither is he saying that all suffering is payment for our sins in a past life. He is saying that suffering is part of reality as it is now. In this fallen, broken world, suffering is part of the mix. Rejoice when you can, trust God when you cannot.
5 a time to fling away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to abstain from embracing; 6 a time to pursue, and a time to destroy; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to be quiet, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
The negative moments make us long for a time when God will restore his creation to his intended perfection and permanence. But the positive moments… Remember that they come as well. Take advantage of your cues from God today to be fully active in worship. Nothing happens by accident. The people you meet, the projects you will work on, everything you see – they are all messages from the LORD. They are reminders that he is there. Every time you experience peace, pleasure, contentment or joy – stop today and give him thanks. You will find that he is much more present in your life than you thought.
9 What payoff does the worker get from his work? 10I have seen the responsibility that God has given to the children of Adam to be busy with. 11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. Also, he has put a desire for permanence into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Popular religious talkers often quote this passage entirely outside its context. They talk about heaven being everyone’s goal because God has placed it subliminally as a target in our hearts. But we have already seen that Solomon’s point was not that we are all longing for heaven. His point was that we are all frustrated that life on earth does not last. What God has placed in our hearts is a desire for our lives to last. The illusion of permanence drives us to work harder and longer. Solomon has been there. Now he urges the next generation – not to stop working, but to live balanced lives, because permanence this side of the resurrection is an illusion.
12 I figured out that there is nothing better for them than to be joyous and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his work – this is God’s gift to man. 14 I figured out 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 his presence. 15 What is, already has been; what is to be, already has been; and God holds us accountable for what we forget.
The collector’s message is not that everything is futile and nothing matters. It is the opposite of that. We are held accountable for our attitudes and actions and our failures to act. Life matters, not because we are immortal, but because God is. We can choose to ignore his existence and authority, but if we do so, we will be held accountable for that choice. God is real, and it is right for us to fear him.
But, fearing God does not entail cowering in his presence, as if he hates us. This God whom we are to fear loves us dearly. The cross tells us that. And, what he expects of us is that we live upright lives, do as much good as possible, and exhibit joy. Yes, joy. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.2 Solomon spent most of his life trying to gain access to that joy. In his later years, he discovered that joy comes from a right relationship with God. That relationship is still there when all the money is gone, and all the work is a memory.
16 Again, I saw under the sun that in the place where justice was expected, there was wickedness, and in the place where righteousness was expected, there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, because there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of Adam that God is testing them that they may understand that they themselves are like animals. 19 Because what is happening to the children of Adam and what is happening to the animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the animals, because everything is impermanent.
Solomon makes two philosophical conclusions about the time we are all living in. These conclusions are somewhat radical in that they oppose some of the basic tenets of popular philosophy and religion. Yet these two philosophical conclusions are essential to understanding the good news revealed in the Bible: the message of deliverance through Christ.
- First, there is no lasting justice or righteousness in this time. Good does not win all the time – in fact, it seldom does. If you dare to look in the places where you would expect justice and righteousness, you will find it conspicuously absent.
- Secondly, there is no immortality. Human beings are separated from the animals by numerous characteristics and abilities, but immortality is not one of them. In that respect, we are the same as the slugs. Remember, it was Satan who suggested to Eve in the Garden of Eden that humans cannot die.3 The Bible teaches that God alone has immortality.4
Now that we have destroyed the basic foundation of most every philosophy and religion on the planet, we are free to see what the collector discovered about reality. This time which we call life is a time of testing. We are being tested to see if we can look beyond this time of injustice and believe in ultimate justice through God’s judgment. We are being tested to see if we can look beyond our present mortality and see God’s deliverance through resurrection.
As we are determined to bring people into the light, we need to avoid confusing them by agreeing that people are basically good, or that everyone will live forever. Those principles deny the reality that Solomon discovered. It is that reality that serves as the appropriate backdrop to the gospel message of deliverance through Christ.
20 We all go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust we all return. 21 Who knows whether the breath of man goes upward and the breath of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I discovered that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, because that is his lot. Who can raise himself so he can see what will be after him?
Two very important questions are raised by the collector when he examines the reality of mortality. Solomon anticipates that the religious will object that humans are different – that when we die our breath goes to God. So he asks “who knows if it is true?” He’s not necessarily denying it. He’s simply stating that no one can prove it. Someone would have to come back from the dead to explain that it happens that way.
His second question builds upon that. He asks “Who can raise himself so he can see what will be after him?” The honest will respond to this question with “no one” as well.
The answers to those two questions will remain the same for centuries … until Jesus. Jesus was not only raised from the dead himself, he offered resurrection life to everyone who believes in him. Solomon prepared us for the gospel by exposing the naked truth of our own mortality and depravity. This is not good news, but it is the bad news that can lead us to seek the good news.
Time, as the collector discovered – is full of good and bad moments, and it always leads to death. We need a Saviour who can not only give us life, but can also restore us to a right relationship with God. Jesus is that Saviour. Time marches on toward his revelation.
- Ecclesiastes 3:11.
- Galatians 5:22-23.
- Genesis 3:4.
- 1 Timothy 6:16.