It was at Citadel Bible College when I first heard of Don Richardson through his book Peace Child and later his book Eternity in Their Hearts. Richardson was a missionary to the Sawi Tribes of Dutch New Guinea.
Though the bloodthirsty Sawi prized treachery as the highest virtue, they also had a sacred ritual for reconciling two tribes when they were at war. The chief’s own son would be offered to the other tribe as a “peace child.” Richardson saw this ritual as a parable of the gospel, in which the Chief of all chieftains made peace with the lost tribe of humanity by offering up his only Son.
Based on his experiences with the Sawi, Richardson began to wonder if any other people groups had similar traditions — sacred rituals that served as redemptive analogies for the gospel. He discovered that many people groups — both ancient and modern — have partial knowledge of religious truth, they have a sense of god.
Whether these beliefs come from what God has revealed in creation or from remnants of a faith passed down since Biblical times, they bear witness to God and to the gift of his atoning grace.
According to Richardson, all of these stories prove the truth of something written in Ecclesiastes: God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We are born with the longing for another world — a life with God that is beyond the reach of mortal time.
It is similar to a famous quote from C. S. Lewis…
“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Or, go back further to Augustine, who in his Confessions, said…
We all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, a longing for infinite love and beauty. Only God can fill that emptiness, but we tend to want to take the hunger pains away by filling the hole with substitutes–possessions and wealth, pleasure, power and prestige. We may feel satisfied for a while, but ultimately the restlessness and longing return.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Solomon acknowledges this longing after his famous poem about time in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil–this is God’s gift to man. 14 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. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
Having acknowledged that God is sovereign over time, Solomon returns to the subject of work and asks a question he had asked before “What gain was the worker from his toil?”
Like most of us, Solomon wanted to know what kind of return he would get for his investment of time and effort. He had experienced “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”
Although he acknowledges that work is a God-given gift, he still struggles with whether it is worth it all, as far as what one gains from it.
So “What gain has the worker with his toil?” Many scholars believe that the answer is “None.”
The difficulty with that conclusion is that it goes against the essentially positive message of verse 11, that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.”
So Solomon is answering the question “What gain is there in toil?” Essentially, what Solomon will answer is that even work has its “beautiful” moments, but that God has “put eternity into man’s heart” which makes it difficult to understand everything fully, but that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the (non-working) moments fully.
Some people resent God’s control over time and eternity; they would rather set their own agenda. But the Solomon of Ecclesiastes could see the beauty of God’s sovereignty. Not only is there a time for everything, but God always does things at just the right time. Therefore, the Preacher praised God for his beautiful timing.
Solomon tells us that man’s life is God’s good gift, and that life includes both work and pleasures.
We can either believingly accept life as a gift, and thank God for it or we can grudgingly hold life as a burden, and thus miss the beauty and the gift of each day.
In the Old Testament the word “beautiful” is first a visual word, but eventually means something good, right, beneficial and pleasing.
It is in this sense that God can be said to have beautiful timing. At whatever time he does things, God is always right on time. It may not fit our timing, but his timing is perfect.
From beginning to end, God does everything decently and in order. Derek Kidner thus speaks of “the kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.”
Sometimes we criticize God for being too late, or else too early. Yet often in retrospect we can see that God’s agenda and timing were better all along.
When I was much younger, possibly in middle school, we were scheduled to travel up to Kansas City for the graduation of my uncle from dental school.
We chafed at the length of time it took my mother to get ready to go, putting us an hour or more late. However, as we traveled through Joplin, we could see that a tornado had hit there just a few hours earlier.
Sometimes when God doesn’t do things the way we want him to, or on the schedule we want, something might happen that ends up changing our lives!
Sometimes being in the right place at God’s time instead of at the wrong place on your own schedule can even save your life.
It is all in the timing. Rather than insisting on having everything run according to our own schedule, we need to learn to trust God’s timetable.
Knowing that God is in control does not necessarily mean we always understand or appreciate his timing. Often we do not, and this can be a real frustration for us. So having affirmed the beauty of God’s sovereign authority over time, the Preacher pointed out one of the basic dilemmas of our earthly existence: 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” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
It is a good thing that God puts eternity into our hearts, because it moves us to seek out God and heaven, but it is also a difficult thing, for we are right now caught between time and eternity, between a sin-cursed earth and the glories of heaven.
We were made to live forever (see Genesis 3:22), and thus we have a desperate longing for never-ending life with God. Many of the Bible’s most precious promises offer us everlasting blessing.
One of my favorites is Psalm 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall [chase after] me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
He has kept His promises by giving eternal life to anyone who believes in his Son, who offered his life for our sins before rising from the grave with power over death.
But we still live in a time-bound universe, struggling in the frustrations of our mortality and finitude.
The eternity in our hearts gives us a deep desire to know what God has done from beginning to end. Each of us is born with “a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive . . . to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world . . . and to discern its purpose and destiny” (Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life , Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 66).
God, of course, can see the beginning, middle and end all together, but we cannot. We see the parade from the street level, with one event coming into view after another. God has a bird’s-eye-view wherein He can see everything at once.
It is this desire that separates us from the animal kingdom. It is this desire to understand the whole that has led to science, philosophy and even theology.
These limitations are what has frustrated the Preacher from the beginning.
He is looking for meaning in life but finds it hard or even impossible to understand. “The human being has ‘eternity’ in his heart — his Creator has made him a thinking being, and he wants to pass beyond his fragmentary knowledge and discern the fuller meaning of the whole pattern — but the Creator will not let the creature be his equal” (John Jarick, quoted in Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes , New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 121).
We want to make sense of this world, but God is the only one who knows everything and how it all fits together and how it all results in a good purpose for us.
What do we do with these frustrations?
One option is to leave God out entirely.
According to filmmaker Woody Allen, “The universe is indifferent . . . so we create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world . . . a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It’s meaningless. But it’s important that we create some sense of meaning, because no perceptible meaning exists for anybody.”
That sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
But there is a better way to respond and that is to follow this Preacher in his consistent conclusions that nothing on earth truly and fully satisfies the human mind or heart. And this proves that we were made for another world, made for something better beyond this world.
Again, C. S. Lewis said “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 120).
“The sweetest thing in all my life,” Lewis wrote in one of his novels, “has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from” (C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, 1956), p. 75).
Elsewhere he describes this longing as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 30–31).
Yes, someday, in eternity, we will be able to understand what God has done in our lives. In the meantime, the Preacher identifies two things we should all be doing—going about our business and trusting God’s sovereignty.
First, we should take whatever time we have been given and use it joyfully in the service of God. In verses 12–13 the Preacher tells us to get busy: “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.”
Back in verse 10 the Preacher had talked about “the business that God has given to the children of man.” Here he tells us how to go about that business — joyfully and energetically, with gratitude to God for the pleasure of serving him.
One good way to understand and apply this verse is to put it in the first person and use it as a job description: “There is nothing better than to be joyful and to do good as long as I live, and to eat and drink and take pleasure in all my work — this is God’s gift to me.”
Be joyful and do good—a lot of good can come of that in our relationships and our work.
The Preacher tells us to be joyful. We may not always be happy about the way things are going in life, but we can always find joy in the grace of our God and the work he has given us to do. No matter how bad our circumstances may be–whether through the natural hardships of life or the harm done to us by others or the painful consequences of our own rebellious sin–in every situation there is always a way for us to glorify God, and this should give us joy. (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 94)
The Preacher also tells us to “do good” — a phrase that should be taken in its moral and ethical sense. To “do good” is to do good works.
We are not saved by good works, of course, but we are saved for good works.
In his grace, God has given every one of us something good to do for him. We do not work because we have nothing better to do, but because God has called us to work for him. We can apply this at home, at school, at work and at church.
We should do all these things as long as we live, working right to the end of our lives. When the Preacher says “as long as they live,” he is remembering what he said back in verse 2, namely, that there is a time for us to die.
As we do good work in our generation, the Preacher gives us permission to celebrate the good things of life — eating and drinking and enjoying the pleasures that God has made for us to enjoy. Of course, it is always a temptation for us to live for earthly pleasure, serving our appetites instead of serving Jesus (see Romans 16:18). The good things in life so easily become our gods, which is absolute vanity, as the Preacher has already told us (see Ecclesiastes 2:1ff.).
But the way to resist this temptation is not by avoiding everything. Rather, we avoid idolatry by gratefully receiving the good things of life as blessings from God. Do not be a user and a taker; be a receiver and a thanker. This is all part of offering back to God what he has given to us in joyful service, while we have the time.
The other thing that the Preacher tells us to do — his second insight — is to let God be God, reverently accepting his sovereignty over time and eternity. He said, “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; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:14–15).
When he says, “whatever God does,” the Preacher may be thinking back to the beginning of the chapter, when he said that there is “a season . . . for everything . . . and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). “Whatever God does” includes everything that God does, at whatever time he does it. He is sovereign over the times and the seasons. Whatever he does will endure: no one can add to it or subtract from it — now until forever.
Notice that the purpose of God’s works, both his timing and his ways, is designed “so that people fear before him.” This fear is “the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10) and will be Solomon’s final conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13.
To fear God doesn’t mean to cower before Him and want to hide from Him, but to desire above all things to please Him.
Martin Luther said, “This is what it means to fear God: to have God in view, to know that He looks at all our works, and to acknowledge Him as the Author of all things” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:55).
The fear of the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom, but also the beginning of joy, of contentment, of an energetic and purposeful life. The things that are outside our control should not cause us to despair but to hope in God, who is sovereign over everything that happens.