God Over All, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

God Over All, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

Well, we’ve seen the Preacher pursue meaning and satisfaction through wisdom, through wine and women, through work, but he doesn’t seem to have found it.  He did, if you remember from last week, come to the conclusion that what was good is to find joy in the little things of life, to enjoy the moment as a gift from God.

In chapter 3 Solomon will deal with the issue of time.  It is true that we have little of it, and that it is really precious when we think about it.  It is also true that sometimes we are not in control of it, but it is in control of us.

But what Solomon does in the first section of Ecclesiastes 3 is speak about the orderliness of time as God has ordained it.  This poem that I’m about to read is famous even among those who don’t know the Bible.

The folk singer Pete Seeger set it to music in the 1950s, with a tune that the Byrds popularized a decade later in their hit single “Turn, Turn, Turn.” But long before it was put to music, the Preacher’s song had struck a responsive chord in the human heart.

The Preacher begins with a summary statement: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Then, by way of explanation, he penned the following lyric:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

There is an attitude that pervades the culture in which we live… “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” (WilliamErnest Henley)… “I am my own boss”… We live in an individualistic, independent culture.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own lives.  When we succeed, we conclude that it is because of our hard work.  Interestingly enough, when we fail, we usually blame everyone else.  It is natural for us to want to feel like we are in control of our own lives.  Solomon assessed this idea of independence and informs us that it is far from reality.

I don’t believe that Solomon is expressing here the total pessimism of fatalism, that no matter what we do or choices we make, we are slaves to time.  Rather, I believe Solomon is expressing the encouragement and comfort of knowing that God is in control of time and all the events of our lives.  Without mentioning God, it is clear that God is in control of seasons and times.

Coming off the positive expression of finding joy in the little things of life at the end of chapter 2, as well the strong affirmation that Ecclesiastes 3:11 gives of God’s timeliness in ordering human events: “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” indicates that the Preacher has reached a more positive appreciation of God’s sovereignty over time and eternity.  Life is not uniformly bad but includes both positive and negative experiences.

Notice first in the summary statement in verse 1 that Solomon declares:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Zack Eswine notes that by using the word “season,” the Preacher “puts the sands of our times within the larger mountains and skies of God’s creation.”

God “made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting” (Psalm 104:19). In fact, “while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:23).

Time, therefore, offers us a repeated rhythm of beginnings and endings, connected to God’s creation.  Eswine goes on to say…

“Learning to receive rather than resist these rhythms, we draw nearer to God and his purposes for the life and lot he has given us.  In short, we enter an already established routine that we did not choose but that shapes how we live.”

“So a farmer has to learn to recognize, submit to, and plan accordingly for the seasons that rotate through their corner of land year upon year.  For example, there are times of year in which the weather and soil conditions are ripe for a tree to bear its fruit (Psalm 1:3).  There are also times of year in which no fruit will come no matter what we do (Mark 11:13).  An unwillingness to recognize and surrender to what time it is within the season that attends us can harm a farmer.” (Recovering Eden, p. 118-119).

Thus, Solomon reminds us in Proverbs…

He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame. (Proverbs 10:5)

The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (Proverbs 20:4)

Therefore, sages like this Preacher teach that the wise farmer is like the ant that “prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Prov. 6:8).  The point is this. In order to have the sustenance his family needs, the farmer has to learn how to humbly surrender to what the time requires when the time requires it.  He may think, feel, or desire otherwise, but the planting season comes and goes, and the plow won’t move without the farmer’s hand.

Times are designated for us and we learn what we need to do to tend to our lot when they arrive.

The standard Greek translation of the OT (Known as the Septuagint) uses the term kairos (time viewed as opportunity) for this passage rather than the term chronos (time considered as duration).  In the divine economy there is a suitable occasion or appropriate opportunity for everything that happens.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 81)

Solomon’s purpose is to underscore that all events are determined by God and are beyond human control (cf. 6:10; Sir 33:13–15).  Everything happens at the time determined for it by God.  This determinism is characteristically biblical (Amos 3:6; Isa 45:7).  Time is filled by an event, and hence the psalmist (31:16) can say, “my times are in your hand.”

It seems that Romans 8:28 was first envisioned by Koheleth a thousand years before it ever occurred to the Apostle Paul.   All things truly do work out for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.   God truly does make EVERYTHING beautiful in its time. 

This perspective, therefore, is far from fatalistic. The Preacher is not saying that God is arbitrary and thus there is nothing we can do about what happens. His point rather is that there is a “fitness” to what happens. According to one old commentator, Ecclesiastes 3 demonstrates

the wise, and regular, and orderly administration of One, who sees the end from the beginning, and to whom there is no unanticipated contingency; and whose omniscient eye, in the midst of what appears to us inextricable confusion, has a thorough and intuitive perception of the endlessly diversified relations and tendencies of all events, and all their circumstances, discerning throughout the whole the perfection of harmony (Ralph Wardlaw, Lectures on the Book of Ecclesiastes (1821), quoted in ibid., p. 49).

The phrase “under heaven” at the end of verse 1 is not the same as “under the sun” throughout the rest of Ecclesiastes.  Instead of picturing life without God (under the sun), “under the heaven” speaks of God’s control over creation.  Later the Preacher will say explicitly that “God is in heaven” (Eccles. 5:2).  So everything that happens in this time-bound universe is under the authority of the God who rules in heaven.

Nothing happens outside the will of God. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism , his “holy, wise, and powerful” providence governs “all his creatures, and all their actions” (A. 11).

The fourteen antitheses in vv. 2-8 present actions that are mutually exclusive; they cannot be done at the same time.

Not surprisingly, the pairs themselves seem to take in the whole sweep of human experience, from birth to death, from war to peace (which is where the poem ends), and everything in between.  In the words of H. C. Leupold, the pairs in Qoheleth’s poem “cover the widest possible range and thus practically every aspect of human life” (Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 83.)

The fact that he mentions them in a multiple of seven and begins his list with birth and death is highly significant.   “The number seven suggests the idea of completeness and the use of polar opposites–a well-known poetical device called merism–suggests totality (cf. Ps 139:2-3).”   So even though every conceivable event of life is not named in these verses from Ecclesiastes 3, the whole of life is definitely in view.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 24)

The Preacher identifies two basic kinds of seasons or times in which we tend to our lots—disquiets and delights.

For those prone to drawing the world in pastels and who see God’s purpose and nearness only in terms of smiles and victories, the Preacher boldly identifies disquieting times too.

These disquieting things traumatize human beings and, as with Job, can wreak havoc on our portion in life and our attempts to discern God’s moment-by-moment joys in our lot.

So you see here…

A time to dieA time to refrain from embracing
A time to pluck up what is plantedA time to lose
A time to killA time to cast away
A time to break downA time to tear
A time to weepA time to be silent
A time to mournA time for war

For those who want to falsely relieve the tension on the other side, who describe the world only with pain and who see the world only in terms of mud, the Preacher counters be describing delightful things. 

A time to be bornA time to embrace
A time to plantA time to seek
A time to healA time to keep
A time to build upA time to sew
A time to laughA time to speak
A time to danceA time to love
A time to gather stones togetherA time for peace

It’s as if the Preacher is saying to us, “As you travel out there in the world, under the sun, remember this about your times!  There are beginnings and endings, goods and evils, we choose and choices that we did not make but must deal with.  We age, we face realities with relationships and necessities with work.  We encounter varying moods and actions.  Such occasions await all of us.” (Recovering Eden, pp. 120-121).

Let’s consider these contrasts and what they mean.

Consider birth and death — the two most momentous experiences in life, and the two appointments that every person must keep.  Both the cradle and the deathbed follow God’s timetable.  He is the one who brings life into the world.  So David praised him by saying, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13; cf. Job 33:4).  God is also the one who appoints the time of death. Man’s “days are determined,” Job said to his Creator, “and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5–6).  The Lord of life also has sovereign power over death.

Psalm 139:16b affirms “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

“You cannot live any longer than the Lord has prescribed,” said Martin Luther, “nor die any sooner.”  The initiation, duration, and termination of our existence are all under his authority.

We should rejoice in life and “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), but we should also take death seriously and number our days to present God with a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

The second contrast is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,” which has a similar connotation as being born and dying.

Try to plant a crop in the middle of winter when snow is on the ground and it will not grow. 

Ray Stedman emphasizes:

Half of the problem of life is that we are constantly trying to run this schedule ourselves.  But God has already planned the schedule.  There is an appropriate time for everything (Is This All There is to Life?, p. 45).

Pay attention to God and His timing.

In the Old Testament, these verbs (planting and plucking) are often used to describe God’s relationship with his people.  God planted his people Israel as a fruitful vineyard (e.g., Isaiah 5:1; Jeremiah 2:21).  But when they turned against him in wild rebellion, God dug up the vine, sending his people into captivity.

He said through the prophet Isaiah, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” (Isaiah 5:5).

Notice that God is involved both in planting and uprooting.  Similarly, there is a time for building up as well as breaking down (at the end of v. 3), and God does them both.  God broke down the Tower of Babel that was built because of human pride (Genesis 11:8–9).  He also built up a house for Israel and a kingdom for David.  

In Psalm 127 David expresses the vanity of someone trying to build, or do anything, when the Lord is not building…

1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. 

Thus, the complete work of God includes both creation and devastation.

Many people prefer a one-dimensional deity.  They like to think of God giving life, but not appointing the time of death.  They would rather see God planting and building than uprooting and tearing down.

But instead of taking him by halves, we must consider his complete character.  

There is a time for him to kill as well as a time for him to heal — in other words, a time for capital punishment (see Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:3–5) as well as for skilled medical care and the healing of a nation’s soul (2 Chronicles 7:14).  This is part of God’s perfection in his sovereign dealings with the human race.  As God said in the days of Moses, “there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

By the way, this is no justification to take vengeance on to off someone who upsets you.  This is no call for road rage.  In fact, the Hebrew word here is not the same word used for “murder” in sixth commandment, where premeditation seems to be in view.

God is not either/or; he is both/and, depending on what time it is.  According to God’s schedule, there is both “a time to love, and a time to hate.”  

Again, many people like to think of God as love without considering the reality of his wrath.  But the hatred of God is one of his perfections.  It is right and good for God to oppose every wicked deed and to bring evil to judgment.

We see this in the Second Commandment, where the holy God tells us that he will hate idolatry to the third and the fourth generation, while at the same time showing love to a thousand generations of people who love him and keep his commandments (see Exodus 20:4–6).

We also see it in Proverbs, where Solomon tells us seven things that the Lord hates: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (6:17–19).

Well, we didn’t get through all of the contrasts today, so I hope you’ll join me next week.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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