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

Over the last three weeks we’ve been looking at Ecclesiastes 3 and this poetic statement about God designing life with seasons and opportunities for us.  Let’s read it again and make a few more observations about it…

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 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.

First of all, in noting these contrasts, like birth and death, killing and healing, weeping and laughing, finding and losing, loving and hating, war and peace, Solomon is not recommending a determinism with no moral choices. Materialism tells us we are nothing more than parts of a machine (or computer) with no real choices, while pantheism teaches that it is a mistake to draw moral distinctions.

But we know from Scripture that we are free moral creatures with a conscience that tells us that some things are right and other things are wrong.  This passage is not teaching us that we must just bow to the circumstances and never fight against evils.

Yes, the rhythms of life bring us into situations that we would rather not be in, but we do have a choice as to how we react during in those situations.  We are not robots that have to follow some programming.

I love with Nightbirde, a young singer named Jane Marczewski said on America’s Got Talent this past week…

You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore, before you decide to be happy.

I believe what Solomon is saying is that there are vicissitudes of life that we might not choose to be in, but that in the midst of it we should look for God’s wisdom and God’s grace to respond in a way that pleases God and brings Him glory.

Zack Eswine identifies some other lessons we might draw from this passage, recognizing that it brings up both disquieting and delightful events.  We should not deny the disquieting times for ourselves or for others.

“Some of us would rather not think about what is delightful (glass half empty people).  Others of us avoid what is disquieting.  The Preacher intends to mentor us into a way of being human before God that has a capacity to honestly recognize what is there and the grace to look to God for it and within it no matter what it is” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 121).

If we are theologically unprepared, he says, we are likely to believe that if we or someone we love experiences one of these disquieting things, then God has singled us out, made an exception of us, and he does not love us.

Likewise, if we experience a delightful occasion, we might believe that God is bringing us favorably into his “clique” or on the other hand, tricking us, baiting us, and setting us up for a fall.

But we have to disabuse ourselves of these thoughts, for they are not necessarily true, especially for those of us who have been justified by faith and live under grace.

Living under grace we know that disquieting experiences are brought into our lives for a good purpose and even if they be discipline for sin, they are brought by the loving hand of our heavenly Father for our good.  He loves us even though we are going through disquieting events.  In fact, according to Romans 5 we can rejoice in our sufferings.

Likewise, delightful occasions in our lives come to us (and often even to unbelievers) and we should be always thankful for them, but never lift ourselves up as God’s favorites above others.

We should trust God and be content in the disquieting time and enjoy and thank God for the delightful times.

If we are relationally unprepared, we may believe that if someone else experiences one of these disquieting things or delightful situations, that they must have done something to deserve it or reward it.

Either way, we can self-righteously judge the one who goes through disquiet or secretly covet and envy the delightful experiences of others.  We won’t know how to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” unless we allow ourselves to experience with God the changing rhythms of life.

Likewise, our friends and family may mishandle us.  When we experience one of those disquieting events (death, divorce, financial loss), that we all have sought to avoid all our lives, they sting us with theological sophisms or relational shallowness.

By naming these things the way he does, the Preacher prepares us for these times and how to respond to them.  The act of naming and preparing is a long-standing practice that goes back to the garden.

There and then God told Adam and Eve what they could expect regarding the landscape of their days.  He told them about the land, the animals, their relationship, their work and He told them about two trees and how one was off limits.

Then, after they disobeyed God, He prepared them ahead of time about how their lives would change, how they would now experience the disquieting things in life, like pain in childbirth and difficulties in getting things to grow.

Throughout history God prepared His people by sending prophets to tell them what would happen to them, the disquieting things that would happen if they disobeyed His law.  Jesus told his disciples ahead of time what they could expect in the world.

What are some applications we can take from this text?

First, we need to look for the purpose and nearness of God, we need the grace to relate honestly toward the time dominance of life under the sun.  This word “time” is repeated 28 times in this passage to remind us that everything in life happens in time—time that comes, and time that goes.

Second, we need to grace therefore to relate teachably toward each day we have been given.  In the Garden time was nothing but good, allowing Adam and Eve to walk with God and enjoy His presence.  Time was beautiful.

But now, post-Eden, time “hollers at us with stress.  More often than not, time haunts us, pressures us, makes us feel our shortcomings, and reveals the misuse or boredom of life.  Time still gives room for human decision making but the times in which we choose are no longer pure and the decisions we make are done as in rooms infested with creeping bugs in rooted wood” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 125)

We can agree that “for everything there is a season, and a time for ever matter under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1), yet we still have Eden flowing through our veins, we have “eternity” in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11).  “Our souls instinctively yearn for a purpose life without end under this time-chained sun” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 126).

Jesus lived knowing the times.  How many times did he say, “My time is not yet at hand”?

Jesus was born in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

Herod wanted to know what time the star appeared and infanticide followed (Matt. 2:16-17).

When time was fulfilled, Jesus came preaching (Mark 1:14-15).

Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days, after which Satan waited for an “opportune time” to tempt him again (Luke 4:13).

Demons trembled because their dreaded time had come (Matthew 8:29)

Lazarus faced death, but Jesus waited two more days (John 11:5).

They wanted to arrest Jesus, but his house had not yet come (John 7:30).

The feast awaits, but his hour had not yet come (John 7:8).

When the Passover arrives, Jesus announces, “My time is at hand” (Mark 14:41).

They crucify him, at the third hour He spills His blood (Mark 15:25).

The afternoon quits, for three hours it is dark (Matt. 27:45).

It is finished (John 19:30).

Mary weeps.  Jesus waits three days (John 20:1-16)

Thomas doubts.  Jesus waits another eight days (John 20:26).

For forty days Jesus preaches, then ascends to heaven (Acts 1:11).

Ten days later, the Spirit is outpoured and the church is born.

Purpose, tension and time are gathered up.  One greater than Solomon has made it so.

Our way of relating to God and to our neighbors will have to adjust.  Your schedule will be quite different after you have that first, or second, or third, child.  You will no longer be able to do some of the things you did before.  You are in a different season of life.  Instead of bucking up against the season and bewailing the way it “used to be” we need to learn to adjust to this new season and find new ways of doing things.

To treat someone who is in a time to mourn as if it were a time to dance is insensitive and unwise.  Likewise, doing our work looks different during a time of building up than it does during a time of tearing down.  You treat your teenager differently than you treated her when she was a child.  We need to learn to adjust to the seasons.

Because we are committed to arrange life the way we want it and to avoid that which we do not prefer, many of us remain inflexible and unskilled in this wisdom of seasons.  The Preacher has taught us to name these seasons without denial.  Now he teaches us to yield to them and to adjust our expectations accordingly when they cycle through our lives and the lives of our family and neighbors.  He will teach us more about this in Ecclesiastes 3:9-14.

“The adjustment of seasons challenges old and young alike.  Many of our frustrations rise from our blindness to the change of season or to the pain or joy of them, and we struggle to adjust our expectations” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 130).

How much happier we would be if we would recognize the change in seasons and adjust to it skillfully!

Because we struggle to adjust…

“we try to force others to act or the world to exist within the confines of the handful of seasons that we are most comfortable with.  We try to control others to stay within the seasonal behaviors that we most prefer rather than to learn how to change and to adjust teachably, slowly, and adequately according to the grace of wisdom” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 130).

I like the attitude displayed by Mr. John…

During a Sunday class, the question was asked, “In your time of discouragement, what is your favorite Scripture?”  A young man said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” Psalm 23:1.  A middle age woman said, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” Psalm 46:1.  Another woman said, “In this world you shall have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome this world” John 16:33-35.

Then old Mr. John who was 80 years old, with head of white hair and dark black skin, stood up and said with as much strength as he could muster, “It says, ‘And it came to pass…’ 85 times in the Bible.”  The class started to laugh a little, thinking that old Mr. John’s lack of memory was getting the best of him.

When the snickering stopped, he said, “At 30, I lost my job with six hungry mouths and a wife to feed.  I didn’t know how I would make it.  At 40, my eldest son was killed overseas in the war.  It knocked me down.  At 50, my house burned to the ground.  Nothing was saved out of the house.  At 60, my wife of 40 years got cancer.  It slowly ate away at her.  We cried together many a night on our knees in prayer.  At 65, she died. I still miss her today.

“The agony I went through in each of these situations was unbelievable.  I wondered where was God.  But each time I looked in the bible I saw one of those 85 verses that said, ‘And it came to pass’ I felt that God was telling me, my pain and my circumstances were also going to pass and that God would get me through it.” (From a sermon by Stephen Sheane, The Table of Shewbread, 5/25/2011)

Yes, bad times will come into our lives, but they too shall pass.  Enjoy the good times while you have them, trust God when you do not, while life is rough.

One of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis is The Screwtape Letters, seemingly stolen correspondence between a senior tempter and a junior tempter, interacting on how best to destroy the life of the patient, an Englishman.

Chapter 8 is called the Law of Undulation.

In that chapter Lewis has Uncle Screwtape writing to Wormwood, the junior tempter and talking about the fact that their Enemy, which is God, takes his own children through “peaks and valleys,” what we are identifying here as delightful times and disquieting times.  He says that this is quite natural and normal.

He says…

 As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.  The dryness and dulness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy wants to make of it, and then do the opposite.  Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.  The reason is this.  To us a human is primarily good; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.  But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing.  One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth.  He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.  We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons…

And that is where the troughs come in.  You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment.  But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use.  Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless.  He cannot ravish.  He can only woo.  

He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation.  But He never allows this state of affairs to last long.  Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives.  He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.  It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.  

He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.  Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Enjoy the peaks, trust and obey when you go through the valleys.

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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