The Catalog of Time Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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Before we begin to read, a few more interesting details about the book we are studying. Ecclesiastes is an interesting title for such a book. What does that word mean? Well, the term is an English form of the Greek and Latin words that were used to translate the Hebrew term that is translated “the preacher” in the ESV. We’ve rendered that word, as is common nowadays, as Qohelet, which is the sound of the Hebrew word in English letters. The Hebrew word is related to the term for assembly (qahal) and so may be – no one can say for sure – a term that refers to someone who addresses the assembly of God’s people or, as we would say today, a preacher or teacher of the church. It seems likely that Qohelet refers to an office rather than some particular person, but even that is not certain. Odd, in a way, that a book of the Bible should have a title the meaning of which nobody knows for sure. [Max Rogland, “Notes to Ecclesiastes,” ESV Study Bible, 1193] The Hebrew title of the book is simply the opening words: “The Words of Qohelet.” But it is precisely what Qohelet means that is the question. The word occurs seven times in Ecclesiastes but nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.

I know a number of you own copies of the very fine ESV Study Bible. Some of you will have noticed that the notes on Ecclesiastes were written by our own Dr. Max Rogland, son of Bob and Sharon, who holds a PhD from Leiden University in Holland and is now professor of Old Testament at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Max is a formidable scholar and, for that reason, I’m happy to report that he understands the book in the way in which I have explained it to you so far. As he summarizes the message of Ecclesiastes:

“The theme of Ecclesiastes is the necessity of fearing God in a fallen, and therefore frequently confusing and frustrating world.” [1193]

“According to the basic interpretative approach adopted here, the Preacher is not to be viewed as some kind of skeptical iconoclast but rather as a teacher of orthodoxy, whose musings on God and human existence present a consistent message that is to be viewed as standing within the broad stream of biblical wisdom. …

“At the same time, however, the Preacher is distinctly original and creative in his thought and manner of expression and is not merely restating what other sages have taught. As a genuine wisdom teacher, he has a gift for penetrating observation and for stating things in a profound and challenging manner that spur the listener on to deeper thought and reflection.” [1194]

“One can see the Preacher’s most distinctive contribution from the way he uses the term “find out”… Every human being wants to find out and understand all the ways of God in the world, but he cannot, because he is not God. And yet the faithful do not despair but cling to God, who deserves their trust; they can leave it to him to make sense of it all, while they seek to learn what it means to ‘fear God and keep his commandments,’ even when they cannot see what God is doing. This is true wisdom.” [1194] So far Max Rogland.

We noticed last time, in reading chapter 2, that a strikingly dark description of life – its complexities and its disappointments – suddenly is dropped and replaced by a much sunnier outlook. These rapid changes of perspective – from light to shadow and back again – are typical of Ecclesiastes and sometimes tend to leave the reader’s head spinning. But, then, so does life itself, does it not? In the first eight verses of chapter 3 we have an account of this general reality of the complexity of life, its contradictions, its opposites that we encounter as we live. The paragraph has been called “The Catalog of Times.” [Fox, 193 in R.L. Schultz, “Ecclesiastes,” The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, 587]

Chapter 3:1-8 is undoubtedly the best known text in the book. I recalled in our introduction to Ecclesiastes the famous pop song of the 1960s by The Byrds, the text of which is virtually the KJV text of these eight verses with a refrain added.

As we read you will notice that the couplets are found in pairs, the first and the second having a similar theme. There are fourteen lines all told, so seven pairs; seven, as you remember, is the number of completeness in the Bible. In other words, life in all of its varied states is being described. In each case the terms used amount to polar opposites. All the circumstances of life are described by reference to the polarities, the contrasts, the opposite conditions or states or actions lying at each end of a particular continuum of human experience. What we are being given, then, is a comprehensive portrait of life “under the sun.”

Read: 3:1-8

v.1       The first verse provides a summary of the point now to be elaborated in detail. But, though not explicitly said, in context the statement means that God has a purpose for everything that happens in our lives and so for the interweaving of the happy and the sad, both the difficult trial and the time of peaceful prosperity. As we read elsewhere in the book, God made the one as well as the other. [7:14]

v.4       Now we are contrasting emotions.

v.5       There is much debate and little certainty as to the meaning of “cast away stones” and “gather stones.” It seems obvious that “cast away stones” has a negative meaning, but we don’t know what that meaning is. Some have thought of throwing stones on the fields of an enemy to destroy his agricultural capacity while gathering stones would be to reverse that process. Possible, but no one knows for sure. [cf. Delitzsch, 257-258]

v.7       You can think of any number of modern applications. “A time to tear, and a time to sew.” Kids need to run and play even if that means that mothers may need to sew from time to time. A mother who won’t repair clothes has kids who can’t play! And a child who is afraid of a scraped knee will never have the fun of playing tag!

v.8       Not only love and hate, but their public expressions in war and peace.

It seemed to me right to continue our examination of Ecclesiastes on Easter evening, when I often do other things, because the history of redemption we have been celebrating over these last few days so perfectly corresponds to the text we have read and, indeed, to the great message of this book, which is summarized to some significant extent in these same verses. There is a time to die and a time to rise again. There is a time for suffering and death and, as well, a time for the conquest of death. The public ministry of the Lord Jesus with all of its excitement, its stupendous works of power, its public influence was one thing, the passion week another, the crucifixion still another, and, of course, Easter Sunday still another. They were very different times producing very different states of mind in the disciples. But each had to have its own day and each had to have its own experience and the disciples had to feel the weight of each one for the cumulative effect of them all to be what God intended. Easter wouldn’t be Easter without Good Friday and vice versa. You cannot remove a single one of these times or matters without ruining the whole.

Think, for example, of what is called Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. The Son of God had just been put to death for sin and had been buried. He was dead and so far as the disciples were concerned he was gone. For the disciples this, of course, was a crushing blow, the ruin of all their hopes. And the next day dawned to that same desolation. I’m sure many of you have awakened of a morning to some sad reality, the same sad reality to which you had gone to sleep the previous night. They were afraid. It was no secret that they were Jesus’ followers and that the Lord’s enemies had triumphed over him. Were they next? They huddled together out of sight, sharing their grief and their fears and wondering aloud what to do next. Knowing those men it would not surprise us if a sharp word or two were exchanged as one suggested this course of action and another poured scorn on his idea. No word came from heaven; there were no miracles on Saturday to cheer them or to replenish their faith. Silence! They were, or so it seemed, left to themselves and to their own devices after three years of relying on Jesus for the direction of their lives. Can anyone deny that our lives often seem like that? We find ourselves discouraged, afraid, fighting unsuccessfully against a creeping hopelessness, and all the while we seem to be getting nothing from the Lord. We may know that the Lord died for us yesterday, but what of today? We trust – though sometimes faintly – that there will be miracles for us tomorrow, but what of today? Where is the Lord today?

Ecclesiastes may be said to be a lengthy meditation on such “Saturdays” in our lives. But not just Saturdays; there are plenty of Easter Sundays here as well. It is the presence in our lives of both the cross and the empty tomb that we have in this memorable text that we have read. Such is our life in the world as the children of God: chiaroscuro, that beautiful Italian word that art historians use to describe the alternations of light and shadow in a painting. And out of such varied experiences, so different in character, out of the days of light and the days of shadow, God weaves together the fabric of our lives.

Not till each loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God reveal the pattern
And explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
For the pattern he had planned.

The problem for us is that we can’t see ahead of time either that one such time or another is about to befall us or how the Lord is going to make use of our experiences in the total story of our lives. As we said before, the great limitation of human life is the very limited knowledge we have and must have while we live “under the sun.” We don’t know what things mean. We don’t know how things are going to turn out. For us it seems, as we read in 9:11-12:

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.”

We have said that the perspective of this author is indicated by his use of hebel, “vanity, meaninglessness, or absurdity” and his use, also more than thirty times in the book, of the phrase “under the sun.” From the vantage point of this world and our knowledge, life often seems pointless. But another clue to the book’s meaning is the author’s use of the verb םצא , masah, “to find” or “find out.” Max drew our attention to that in the opening remarks that I made.

“[God] 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.” [3:11]

“Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things – which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found.” [7:27-28]

“…then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much many may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” [8:16-17]

We do not understand what is happening in the world or in our lives; and we cannot no matter how hard we try. The one thing we do know is that we should fear God and keep his commandments because the judgment is coming and because God can be counted on to put everything right eventually. And is this not true and is it not a part of true wisdom to embrace those facts and accept life as it must be in this world instead of spending one’s life protesting what he cannot understand, cannot change, being embittered by his disappointments, and failing to enjoy the blessings God has given him because they are mixed with trouble and sorrow.

Think, for example, of the moment described for us in Nehemiah 8. You remember the situation. The Jews had returned to the Holy Land from exile in Babylon and had gathered in Jerusalem to hear Ezra the priest read to them from the Word of God. They gathered on the first day of the seventh month, which is to say on the Feast of Trumpets, one of the Israel’s ancient feast days as appointed in the Law of Moses. From daybreak until noon Ezra read, probably making explanatory comments along the way. Other Levites then instructed the people from the Word that had been read. Perhaps we should think of them as preaching sermons on the texts. But the effect on the people had been discouraging. They were weeping as they heard the Bible being read. No doubt they were upset because the more Ezra read the more obvious it had become to them not only why they had been sent into exile in the first place but as well how much more had to change before they had reformed their lives to make them agreeable to God’s Word. The Word had exposed their sin and that had been very discouraging. But Nehemiah stopped them in their tracks.

“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And the Levites added their two cents: “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.” [Neh. 8:10-11]

And, amazingly, that is just what the people did. They stopped mourning and began to rejoice. They went home to the finest meals they could prepare and shared their food and drink with others and had a memorably happy day. There is a time for weeping, but this wasn’t the time. It was a feast day, not a fast day. And so they were instructed to act accordingly and in obedience to the Lord they did so. There was nothing wrong and there is nothing wrong with weeping over our sins. We ought to weep over our sins. But for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven! It is a fact of life, but it is also a fact we are to reckon with and order our lives by.

I remember reading an anecdote of Martyn Lloyd Jones’ early ministry in Wales. After an evening service he and his assistant had been called to a home to deal with a problem in a family. It was something hard and difficult and required both some sympathy and some straight talking. After a long day in the pulpit it was an exhausting end to the Sabbath. But his assistant, E.T. Rees, remembers that, as they left the house, Lloyd Jones clapped his hands together and said, “Now, some ham and eggs!” It isn’t always that easy, of course, but there is something in that picture that has always seemed very right to me. No Christian can or should live only in gloom; but then no Christian can or should live only in the sunshine either. There is a time for both and wisdom directs us to live accordingly, finding time both for a wearying late night conversation and for ham and eggs!

A wedding day is not the time to resolve some offense that stands between you and the mother of the bride, or between you and the groom! A wedding shower is not the time to talk to others about how messy your divorce was. A funeral or graveside is not the time for practical jokes.  A school lecture is not the time for a nap. But all of those things can and should be done. You get the picture.

But, the emphasis here in Ecclesiastes, I think, falls less on what we do to put both mourning and dancing into our lives and more on the fact that the Lord himself orders the events of our lives and upon the fact that he has seen fit to include times and matters of all kinds. And there is nothing wrong, therefore, with the fact that we must experience very different kinds of circumstances, feel very different emotions, and do very different things in life. Our life is made up of extremes and we are people of extremes. God has made it so. Accepting this is liberating!

And so it is with respect to every aspect of life. When I read vv. 3 and 6 I think, for example, of all the great institutions into which Christians poured their heart and their treasure, only later to have to abandon them because they had fallen into the hands of unbelievers. No one loved Princeton Theological Seminary as much as J. Gresham Machen and no one had done any more than he to adorn its reputation with his scholarship. Princeton was not only his place of work, it was his home. In a very real sense, as a Christian, and as a scholar, it had given him his life. It was his second mother. And yet the time came when he had to leave Princeton to establish another school that, in comparison, seemed at the time in every way so much less than Princeton. It hadn’t the ivy-covered walls, the beautiful buildings in which great men had taught for a century, the magnificent library, the international reputation. It met in rented quarters with a few faculty members and a small student body. But there is a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to keep and a time to cast away. Christians who know that are wise and much better prepared for what a godly life will require of them.

I know that some of you will remember Ian Tait, the gifted and godly English pastor who preached here years ago on several occasions; once in his retirement, he filled this pulpit for a month while I was away teaching at Covenant Seminary. Mr. Tait was a natural intellectual, he never had formal theological training, but you would never have known it – a friend of Martyn Lloyd Jones, and a lover of the Puritans before most of us knew anything about the Puritans. He collected their books when no one else wanted them and amassed an impressive library of Puritan works, some of which is now housed in the Ian Tait collection at the Buswell Library at Covenant Theological Seminary. He was a Bunyan expert, living as he did so near Bedfordshire and the places Bunyan made famous in his Pilgrim’s Progress. A substantial portion of his vast collection of works by and about John Bunyan is now housed in the Kresge Library at Covenant College. He was a fascinating preacher, his sermons full of interesting illustrations and details and often interrupted by his going off on some tangent suggested to his mind while he preached, what he would describe as “an aside.” “But that was an aside,” he would say calling himself back to the main point. I remember loving his “asides.”

Mr. Tait was a friend of my family and so I had known him when I was a boy. I visited his home in England for the first time the summer after my graduation from college. And what a home! It was an old English country manor, set within the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside. And when I say it was an old country manor, I mean old. Parts of the house were built in the 14th century. There was a great Cedar of Lebanon in the back garden that is mentioned in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson! The house was once owned by the 17th and 18th century English poet Edward Young, best known for a line in one of his poems, “Procrastination is the thief of time.” It was one of those English “piles” that was added to again and again through the centuries until it was a substantial manor. It was owned by Mr. Tait’s church and used not only as the manse but for ministry. They offered living space to young professional men, most of whom worked in London – engineers, accountants, and the like – and arranged matters so that approximately half of their tenants were Christians and half not at any one time. Through the years a number of those unbelieving men found Christ at Guessens. It was a house designed to be a place of salvation and so it proved to be. Every large English home has a name and the name of this manor was “Guessens.” Laurie O’Ban, when she was still Laurie Payne, lived for a year at Guessens.

Presiding over this great place, over the dining room where dinner was served at night to the men who lived at Guessens and over that large table where the most fascinating conversations took place, was Mr. Tait’s wife Mae. She was a woman of considerable substance herself. Some of you may remember Mr. Tait telling the story of their romance during the dark early days of the Second World War – he was in the RAF – and how they would steal time away to be together. He was a Baptist, she an Anglican and though she became the pastor’s wife, she would never consent to be baptized according to the Baptist practice. She had been baptized as an infant and that was that. Perhaps there was a reason why Mr. Tait so often made his way among Presbyterians!

Upon their retirement they moved to another house, this one gifted to them by an elderly woman of Mr. Tait’s congregation who had been greatly helped by his ministry. It was a Tudor home. I don’t mean that it was built in the Tudor style; I mean it was built when the Tudors were kings of England, that is in the late 15th or early 16th century! Florence and I visited them there once. The hallways were very narrow, the doorways low – people were shorter in those days – the oak darkened through age, a beautiful rose garden in the rear. It was, we thought, exactly where the Taits ought to live! Ian and Mae were a couple that represented to me and Florence the true glory of old England and the very finest of old English Christianity.

But then Mae died and Ian’s companion of so many years was gone. Her death took the stuffing out of him. Florence and my daughter Evangeline visited him not so long after her death on one of Covenant High School’s Great Britain trips and could literally see and feel his despondency. A gaping hole had been opened in his life, a raw wound that wouldn’t close. It was during that time and in that state of mind that Mr. Tait began to make preparations for his own death and one part of that preparation was the disposal of what remained of his magnificent library. And to my surprise and delight, he had decided to give it to me. I suppose he thought he might have given it to my father, but he had died some years before; so it was to come to me. I was talking to him by phone periodically in those days as arrangements had to be made to ship the books and so on. On the phone I could hear the listlessness in his voice and virtually feel his depression across the distance. I did my best to cheer him up, but nothing seemed to work. Mike Simpson was brought into these plans as he was to fly to England to help box the books and bring them home. Believe me these books were well worth the price of a round trip air ticket to England just to ensure that they made the trip safely!

Then one morning I called Mr. Tait to confirm some of the arrangements and was met at the other end of the line by a completely different man. I could tell by the sound of his voice that something had happened. The man was not depressed; he was positively giddy. And something had happened. He had fallen in love. He had met a woman at a church meeting, a woman who had never married and had just retired from a lifetime of missionary work in Europe.  Her name was Patricia. It had been love at first sight. Two seventy year olds falling in love at first sight! He told me that they were spending hours at night on the telephone. “Oh, by the way,” he said, “I’ll only be sending half of the books I was intending to send. I think I should keep the rest to use myself for a while.” Life had meaning again and he didn’t want to part from some of his finest books. Her name was Patricia. I’ve never met her; but I don’t like her! She stole my books and there were some fabulous volumes in that part of the library that were virtually on their way to me before she ruined everything!

There is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance! His grief over the death of Mae was the price of his love for her. Does anyone think that grief was inappropriate? I certainly don’t. Doesn’t everyone want a marriage so fine, so full of love, that the death of one of you must break the other’s heart? Of course you do. And you can’t have the one without the other.

I remember reading a piece in The Atlantic some time ago by one Joyce Carol Oates describing the devastation of her soul in the aftermath of the death of Raymond, her husband of 48 years. Others of her friends tried to console her and lift her spirits, but the advice that helped her most was that which came from another heart-broken widow. Says Joyce Oates, “Who but Gail Godwin would tell me, “Suffer, Joyce, Ray was worth it.” [Supplement Fiction, 2010, 82] Good advice I think; don’t you? We are not to suffer as those who have no hope, but we must suffer and for what better than for the loss of someone worth suffering for!

But then, who can fault him for the happiness of new love that came flooding into his soul when least expected and most needed. Was that not the Lord doing precisely what we are taught he will do in Ecclesiastes and throughout the Bible? This is life as God has ordered it. There is nothing we can do about this and nothing we should want to do about it, God being all-wise and all-loving as he is, and our perspective being as limited as it must be. Let God be God and take the good and the bad as it comes. You work at being faithful; God will arrange the circumstances of your life according to his goodness and wisdom. Simple wisdom, but very hard for many to accept and still harder to practice. Hence the strong, relentless argument of Ecclesiastes.

We think of medieval nuns as ascetics, women devoted to self-denial, to eschewing all the pleasures of life, and to beating their bodies and making them their slaves so that they might be wholly and only devoted to Christ. But not every nun took such a severe view of things. One of the most attractive figures of the later medieval period is Teresa of Avila, the Spanish nun and founder of an order of religious women. Teresa was a remarkably gifted woman. Like Luther her writings not only wielded a great religious influence but shaped the development of her country’s literature. She was a combination of furious opposites. She practiced self-denial to a degree far beyond what any of us has attempted, but she was by no means the perfect image of the female saint of the medieval church. Saint Lucy is said to have gouged out her eyes because a suitor admired them. Catherine of Sienna cut off her beautiful long hair. Teresa took a different tack. When a gentleman admired her shapely foot, she simply told him, “Take a good look – this is the last time you’ll ever see it.”

But more to our point, she knew that there was a time for self-denial but there was also a time for good food and drink. Or, as she put it, “There is a time for penance and a time for partridge.” Good, sound, and eminently biblical advice and, whether or not Teresa realized it, pretty much the message of Ecclesiastes. “There is a time for penance and a time for partridge.” [Medwick, Teresa of Avila, xii]