with Tony W. Cartledge
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It’s Always Time
You’ve heard today’s text before. Maybe it was at a funeral, where the reminder that there is “a time to be born, and a time to die” was intended to bring solace and order into a trying time. Perhaps it was in Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the text, which became a hit for the Byrds as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in 1965.
With the Civil Rights movement ringing cultural change and the war in Vietnam sparking widespread unrest, the song came across as a hopeful assurance that, if there’s a time for everything, peace must be on the horizon.
You might be surprised to know that the person responsible for this memorable poem – the only part of Ecclesiastes that many people can recall – found little comfort in his belief that life is so ordered and predictable.
A classic poem(vv. 1-8)
The author of Ecclesiastes, who called himself Qoheleth, does not come across as a happy man. An old tradition identifies the author as Solomon, but David’s son could hardly have written Ecclesiastes (see “The Hardest Question” online to learn why). It is likely that the author was a person of some means, but not the richest man who ever lived, though he pretended to be in a brief royal fiction designed to emphasize his frustration with life (1:12-2:26).
Qoheleth began and ended his writing with a motto most familiar from the King James Version: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity” (1:2, 12:8). The word translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel, which describes a breath or vapor that quickly disappears, as on a cold day.
Qoheleth was not your average wisdom teacher. He wrote beautifully, mostly in a sort of lyric prose that occasionally morphed into poetry. He began his loosely organized teachings with a reflection on the futility of life (1:3-11): generations of people, like seasons of the year, come and go. The sun comes up and goes down, while cycles of wind and weather repeat themselves year after year. All the streams run to the sea, but the sea is never full. People live only to be forgotten, he concluded.
The old sage followed that reflection with a story of a rich and powerful king who could do, have, or try anything he wanted. After various adventures in excess – the sort of things people might expect to make for a happy life – he concluded there was nothing new under the sun and nothing to be gained from human toil, for “all was vanity and a chasing after wind” (2:11).
That pessimistic note brought Qoheleth to the first formal poetry in his book. Whether he composed it himself or quoted previously existing verses is unknown. The poem explores the notion of a time and season for everything (vv. 3-8). It consists of fourteen antithetical pairs arranged into seven couplets in which the first and second lines are related. Each pair includes two things that seem mutually exclusive at any given moment, but all of which are common life experiences.
There is “a time to be born and a time to die,” the poet said, “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (v. 2). Like crops that are sown and later harvested, human life is marked with a beginning and an ending. No one is exempt.
Verse 3 reflects a reality of human culture in which conflict seems inevitable, so that there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” (v. 4). The terms for breaking down and building up are drawn from construction, especially the building or breaking down of protective walls (Isa. 5:5, 49:7, Ps. 80:12). Neither killing people nor destroying good walls is desirable, but in this world, it happens.
Both weeping and laughter have their place and appointed time, often related to mourning and dancing (v. 4). There is much in this world to make us sad or melancholy, but also much to cause rejoicing. Neither puritanical seriousness nor excessive frivolity would fit Qoheleth’s reality, in which both sorrow and gladness have their place.
The imagery of v. 5 has given rise to much speculation. The poet compares times for throwing or gathering stones to “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” Farmers typically cleared stones from a field to prepare for planting (Isa. 5:2), often using them to build a protective wall. A war story in 2 Kings 3:19, 25 reflects a custom of ruining enemies’ fields by throwing stones into them, but neither custom has an apparent connection with human hugs or the lack of them.
Rabbinic interpreters took “throwing stones” as a euphemism for ejaculation during sexual intercourse, and “gathering stones” as a reference to periodic abstinence (Midrash Rabbah Qoheleth 3.5.1). The remainder of the poem avoids metaphors, but this interpretation offers an apt comparison to embracing another, or refraining.
Verse 6 contrasts seeking and losing with keeping and throwing away. On the surface, both relate to personal property. If something has been lost, there is a time to seek it, but also a time to give it up as lost.
As possessions of differing values or usefulness pile up in our homes, we must decide what to keep and what to discard. One might extend the truism to abstractions such as ambition or love: there is a time to go after something (or someone), and a time to let go. That may be beyond the poet’s intent, however.
The opposing pairs of ripping/sewing and silence/speaking (v. 7) may seem unrelated, but it helps to recall that the tearing of one’s garments was a public symbol of mourning (see Gen. 37:29, 34; 2 Sam. 1:11-12; 2 Kgs. 2:11-12; Job 1:20, and others). Clothes were handmade and not easily replaced: when mourning was over, torn clothing would be repaired. Perhaps the poet had in mind the loud ululations and other cries of grief that often accompany mourning: a time would come when weeping would give
way to silence.
The poem concludes with a more obvious pair of antithetical behaviors: “a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace” (v. 8). We would like to live in a world where love and peace thrive, but the cold reality is that there are things that inspire hatred, and there are times when war is not only the lesser of two evils, but what is necessary to preserve the liberty to enjoy peace and love.
An eternal puzzle(vv. 9-15)
While the poet’s ponderings on time and human actions may be assuring to readers, it was no comfort to Qoheleth. God is not mentioned in the poem, but Qoheleth presumed that God had set the world and its realities in place, leaving humans to live in a situation they could not understand.
Human toil (v. 9) could be seen as a reference to the ordinary activities of going through life, “the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with” (v. 10), and Qoheleth wondered what gain or profit anyone could find at the end of it.
While there was a time for everything, it was God who “has made everything suitable for its time,” not humans (v. 11a). As in 1:4-11, where he bemoaned the cyclical nature of life, Qoheleth knew that he might bounce between mourning and dancing or tearing down and building up, but if it was God who determined the times, Qoheleth could see no gain in it.
The real kicker for Qoheleth, however, was that God “has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (v. 11b). The NRSV’s “past and future” translates a word that usually means “eternity,” and the phrase “a sense of” is not in the text, but added for clarity. A more literal translation could be “eternity, too, he has put in their hearts, but so that humans cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.”
Perhaps Qoheleth’s frustration was a belief that God had given humans an innate sense of eternity – of a divine reality beyond one’s days of earthly toil – but had not given them an ability to understand what God is about.
This led the sage to find some comfort in the pleasures of life that he could understand: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (vv. 12-13, see also 2:24, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-10).
Qoheleth’s philosophy was not limited to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but he firmly believed that God intended for humans to enjoy what pleasures they could, even if they could not understand the full meaning of their existence. Trying to comprehend God’s work leads more to awe than to understanding (v. 14), for only God can stand in the present while seeing into the past and the future (v. 15). The human task is to reverence God and appreciate the lives God has given.
This may seem depressing, but Qoheleth was skeptical of the prophets, and lived long before the time of Jesus. If he had known the gospel message of eternal life through Christ that we learn from the New Testament, do you think he would have sung a different tune? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 1, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
Our students go through a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns. For many youth it is hard for them to see past the current situation that they are in. A lot of this can be chalked up to personal experience and time. They haven’t lived through as many seasons of life. The realization that there will be an up after a down and that you don’t always stay on top. As you live with and experience these twists and turns with your youth, remember that words such as “You will live through this.” or “It will all turn around.” while true, aren’t as helpful because they haven’t experienced them. Instead, share stories of when you were low and what happened for you to come out of it. Allow them a glimpse into your life to see that you did come through it. Walk with them through the seasons of their life and share your stories along the way.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13