Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2019
Now that we have heard the first eight verses of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, let’s now listen for the next seven verses as I read from The Message translation. Read Ecclesiastes 3:8-15.
This chapter is a wonderful poetic break in the middle of a book that’s often considered depressing. After all, Ecclesiastes begins by pointing out the vanity of everything, and it’s here we find such wisdom such a living dog is better than a dead lion.
This is not recommended reading if you needed a pick-me-up, but since the book has found itself as a part of both the Jewish and Christian Canons, we have to deal with it. What are we being told here?
Our Lenten series encourages us to slow down, take a deep breath, and reconnect to an unhurried God. How might this passage encourage us to make such connections?
Our reading today begins with a thesis statement: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” If there is a time for everything, maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned about trying to do everything at once. The author, assumed to be Solomon even though his name is not used, then provides us with fourteen pairs of opposites. We experience birth and death, planting and harvestings, and so forth. No values are given to either side. The couplet’s are like the Chinese Yin and Yang, both sides necessary for completeness.
Most of the opening couplets are self-explanatory, but not all. Verse five is traditional translated as a time to throw away stones and gathering stones together. We might wonder why gather stones if you are just going to toss them out. This appears to be related to ancient Israel’s laws around cleanliness and when a husband and wife might have sexual relations. You didn’t expect that, I’m sure. The Message, from which I read this morning, captures this in its translation: “A right time to make love and another to abstain.
Verse seven speaks of a time for tearing and time for mending. Again, what’s up with this? Why rip up clothes only to repair them? This probably refers to the ancient tradition of ripping one’s clothes during periods of mourning and then repairing them once the mourning period is over. There is a time for sadness, grief and mourning, and a time to get on with life.
This list reminds us that, like the seasons, there is a cycle to our lives. If Solomon had lived by the ocean, he might have added the tides. The cycles of life are all around us, but some are experienced more frequently than others. If we accept God’s sovereignty, there is no need for us to constantly be distraught over life’s ebbing and waning. We are freed to enjoy what we can while trusting and having faith that things won’t always be bad.
We can look at this list hoping we might understand life, but there is no wisdom to be discovered in such patterns. While it’s evident that the human experience is a part of each of these couplets, we realize that we have no control over when or how they’re experienced. That’s left up to God. The author of this book often reminds us that we live our lives in God’s domain and “under the sun.” If we think we can ultimately have control over everything, we’re going to be disappointed. We’re not God, as this passage reminds us.
While we don’t discover any secret patterns in the first eight verses, we are given keys to understanding how we should live our lives in such a random world in the second part of our reading. We make the best of it, and we enjoy what we’ve been given.
We can be relieved that even though the patterns of life often seem vain, the author does find meaning in a life centered in God. After searching for meaning in the patterns of life, he comes to the conclusion that God wants us to enjoy life. Verses 12 and 13 reads, “we can never know what God is up to, whether he’s coming or going. I’ve decided that there is nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.”
Tim Keller, writing about marriage provides insight:
“The world goes on and we must live in it. We must take thought for tomorrow. Yet our assurance about God’s future world transforms our attitudes toward all our earthly activities. We should be glad of success, but not overly glad, and saddened by failure, but not too downcast, because our true joy in the future is guaranteed by God. So we are to enjoy but not be “engrossed” in the things of this world.”
The author of Ecclesiastes, who lived long before Christ, doesn’t share the same hope we have—that one day we will live eternally with our Lord. But even without such assurance, he was wise enough to know God wants us to take pleasure in life.
In our series on our need to reconnect to an unhurried God, Ecclesiastes reminds us of two things: let God be God and enjoy what God provides.
In his acknowledgements at the beginning of his book on aging which I read this past week, Parker Palmer, a spiritual author from the Quaker tradition, writes:
We grow old and die in the same way we live our lives. That’s why this book is not about growing old gracefully. My life has been graced, but it certainly hasn’t been graceful—I’ve done more than my share of falling down, getting up, and falling down again. The falling down is due to missteps and gravity. The getting up is due to grace, mediated by people to whom I owe great debts of gratitude.
It’s all about grace, and accepting God’s grace should lead us to gratitude.
There are cycles to our lives. Some things change frequently and we experience them over and over. I find myself more and more constantly following the stars at night, knowing where favorite constellations are at for a particular time of the year. For me, this all began when surf fishing at night on Masonboro Island, where in the fall I watched Tarsus, the seven sisters, Orion and Canis Major with the bright dog star all rise over the ocean. We experience the cycles of the moon, the tides, and the seasons. Likewise, the church year is filled with cycles as we long for Jesus’ coming in Advent, celebrate his birth with Christmas, remember his suffering and death during Holy Week and celebrate his resurrection on Easter and every Sunday morning.
We live life within cycles, but we have little control over when they happen. Of course, some of our cycles in life are only experienced once. We are only a child once. Unless there’s a hiccup in our learning, we only finish the first and second and on to the twelfth grades once… We have a period of working and building a life, then a period of retirement and aging. It’s all a part of how God knit together this world. Instead of fighting against the changes of life, we should graciously accept what loving God provides and trust him to see us through.
We can’t control when the cycles of life happen, but we can control how we respond to them. Receive them as a gift, as grace. Amen.
 Ecclesiastes 1:1, 9:4.
 The author is named as “Qoheleth” which is traditionally translated as “Preacher”, but is identified as the Son of David, king of Jerusalem (See Ecclesiastes 1:1). This fits Solomon, but David had other sons, too.
 Robert Gordis, Koheleth: The Man and his World, a Study of Ecclesiastes (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 230.
 Gordis, 230-231.
 While there have been attempts to link the first eight verses with astrology, it has generally been treated as “far-fetched.” See Gordis, 229.
 William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2000), 40, 42. As for patterns, see Robert Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 22.
 The “under the sun” phrase is used 27 times between Ecclesiastes 1:3 and 9:11. In 4:7, it’s tied with the vanity of life.
 Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 176. Keller is writing about marriage and not directly commenting on Ecclesiastes.
 Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publisher, 2018), ix.