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Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

October 1, 2017 Speaker: Kristopher Schaal Series: Ecclesiastes

Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

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Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

I.  Introduction

Good morning! Please turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, and let’s read that passage together (3:1-15).

Pray

I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the most important passages in Ecclesiastes, particularly because vv. 9-14 bring together many the themes found throughout the book. It’s also a passage that’s dearly loved by many believers, especially because of the poem in vv. 1-8. How many of you would say that the there’s a special place in your heart for this poem? Would you raise your hand? Now, here’s the thing you might not have known about that poem: there are two different ways to take it. Every author or pastor who exposits this poem falls into one of two categories: either he views it in terms of human decisions or in terms of God’s sovereign decrees. (I’ll explain that more in a minute.) Even if you’ve never heard a single sermon or read a commentary on this passage, if you tried at all to understand it, then you took one of those two views, even if you didn’t know it! My goal this morning is not to shatter your world and to say that you’ve thought about this poem all wrong. But I do want you to see why one of those views is better than the other, and I want you to see why it’s so beautiful.

TRANSITION: So let’s talk about the two views.

II.  Two ways to view the poem

View #1 is that this poem is about human decisions. In other words, all of the activities described in this poem are appropriate in their proper times. There is a time for healing, but there’s also a time for killing. There’s a time to laugh, but there’s also a time to weep. So the application of the passage would be to make sure that your actions are always appropriate for the situation. Don’t kill when you should be healing or laugh when you should be mourning.

The problem with that view is that it’s hard to force some of the items in the list into the context of human decision-making. For instance, look at v. 6 (v. 6a). When would it be appropriate for a person to choose to lose something? That’s a hard question to answer! But it gets even more difficult! Look at v. 2 (v. 2a). Is it ever appropriate for a person to choose to die? The Christian worldview would say, “No!” Now, you’re not necessarily obligated to prolong life (as in the case of life support), but you may not choose to take your own life under any circumstances. That choice is to be left up to God. As well, it’s worth noting that nobody chooses to be born, although v. 2 could also be translated “a time to give birth.”

So that leads us to the second view, which is that this poem is about God’s sovereign decrees. You may or may not be familiar with that terminology, but the word “decree” just refers to what God has decided to do in terms of His own sovereign will. Birth, death, war, peace, happy times, sad times, and everything else on this list all takes place within the context of God’s plan for the world. Matthew 10:28 says that a single sparrow does not fall to the ground apart from His will. So the application of the passage is to recognize that even the difficult parts of life are appropriate and beautiful within the context of God’s overarching plan.

That’s an interpretation that actually makes great sense in context. Do you remember how 2:26 ended? God gives the good man wisdom and knowledge and joy. In fact, all of His blessings are ultimately for the enjoyment of righteous. But where does that leave sinners? They spend their whole lives hoarding treasures for the righteous and never find true happiness! What does Solomon think about that? He says it’s vanity and grasping for the wind! He’s sympathetic toward the plight of the ungodly man, upset that this world is so broken, and perhaps even curious as to why God would allow something like this. Those thoughts begin to be answered with this poem. We don’t always understand why God does what He does (after all, what positive purpose could war possibly play in His plan?), and yet we know that every single one of God’s decrees is appropriate. When we finally see the grand tapestry of human history, including all of its darkest moments, we will without hesitation pronounce it “beautiful.”

This interpretation fits perfectly with v. 11, which says, “He makes everything beautiful in its time. It also fits better with vv. 13-15, which re-emphasize the “gift of God” theme from the end of chapter 2 and also strongly assert God’s sovereignty.

Are there any questions or comments about the two views?

TRANSITION: So now that I’ve set the table, so the speak, let’s go back and look at the details. This passage breaks down very easily into two units: there’s the poem in vv. 1-8, and then there’s the application in vv. 9-15. First, let’s take a look at the poem.

III.  The Poem

I’d like to read it again, just because it’s so beautiful. One commentator pointed out that not even the wisest man in the world could write such a masterful poem without God’s help. It is truly a remarkable work, so let’s read it again (vv. 1-8). Okay, what are some things you notice about this poem?

The first thing I want you to notice about this poem is that it emphasizes the word “time.” Time is very important in Ecclesiastes. In fact, one of the main points of comparison between life and vapor is that like vapor, life doesn’t last. The minutes, the hours, the years, the decades fly by; and before we know it, life is over. In some ways, time is frustrating to us. We hate the fact that everything in this world changes and decays. Also, according to v. 11, we live with eternity in our hearts, so we often feel trapped by our limited perspective. We long to burst free so that we can discover God’s eternal purposes! However, this poem reminds us of the other perspective, which is that God does all of His beautiful works in this world within the context of time. So rather than being frustrated that you cannot hold onto the things of life, stop and enjoy His beautiful works as they go by. Do you remember being a child? Hopefully those are happy memories. Maybe you remember playing with friends, or you might have fond memories of your parents and siblings. Maybe you remember not having a care in the world, and just generally running amuck. J You know, even those of us who had a happy childhood probably wouldn’t want to go back to being a child. And that’s probably the way we should view all the seasons of life! Some people say, “Oh, I just loved having young children in the home! I wish so much that I could go back and relive those days!” And that’s not necessarily a wrong feeling to have. But to dwell on that thought would be unhealthy, because it would cause you to miss all of the wonderful things God has for you right now! Did I enjoy the newlywed years of marriage? Of course I did! I look back on pictures from that period in our lives, and I can’t help but smile. But I also really enjoy where I’m at right now! So don’t waste your precious life away longing for the past or trying to relive it. Rather, recognize that those days were beautiful gifts from God, and so are the days you’re in right now. So look for the good things God is doing in your life right now; because pretty soon, these days will be over, as well.[1]

The second thing I want you to notice about this poem is all the contrasts. In each line, we see polar opposites—one more or less “good,” and the other more or less “bad.” Tearing, sewing, keeping silence, speaking, loving, hating, etc. Now, do we need a poem to tell us that loving and laughing are good and appropriate in certain situations? No, we all know that instinctively! But the haunting beauty of this poem lies in the fact that it includes things like war and death in that list. Consider this: if nobody ever died, would the birth of a baby be as joyous of an occasion? Or if there was no such thing as hatred, would our appreciation for genuine love be the same? Those are deep questions that ultimately point back to the much bigger question of why God allows evil in this world. This poem doesn’t attempt to answer that question, but I think it does point to the fact that part of that answer includes the idea that the bad things God allows help us to appreciate the good things He does.

The final thing I want to say about this poem is that Solomon does not concern himself with the morality of the various items mentioned. Is killing sinful? Is hatred sinful? Is it ever right to go to war? These are certainly questions we should ask and answer, but it’s not Solomon’s purpose to do so in this passage. He is simply making the point that all of these times have their appropriate place in God’s overarching plan.

Are there any questions about the poem? We’re not going to look at each verse in detail, so I want to give you the chance to ask anything that may be on your mind before we move on.

TRANSITION: Now, let’s look at how Solomon applied the poem in vv. 9-15

IV.  The application of the Poem

Did you notice that there’ a lot of review in these verses?

First, we see that Solomon reminds us of his programmatic question (v. 9). Now, we’ve discussed some very positive applications of this poem. However, I want you to notice that in Solomon’s mind, all was not chirping birds and sunshine. He’s still troubled by this question, “What profit is man’s work?” Now there’s an aspect of that question that he’s already settled, isn’t there? Solomon already discussed the futility of human effort and concluded that satisfaction is a gift that comes only from God. But that answer actually raises another question. If everything hangs on grace, then why work in the first place? I mean, we’re made to work, and God wants us to work, but why—given that we can never work hard enough to make our lives count? Why would God subject us to a life a futile effort in a world in which only He holds the key?

But it’s not just physical labor that’s the problem, it’s this issue of understanding what life is all about. In v. 10, Solomon reminds us that God gave mankind the task of searching for meaning in life. We know that that’s what he’s talking about because in 1:13, the burdensome task to which Solomon refers is the search for meaning in life or the search for net profit. Solomon wants to discover “what is good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives” (2:3). And we’re going to see moving forward is that this also includes the effort to understand God and His ways.

In v. 12, Solomon reminds us that the best course of action in light of these truths is to rejoice and to do good in your life. (By the way, isn’t that a beautifully simple encapsulation? I was thinking this past week that my prayer for my daughters is that by God’s grace, they would rejoice and do good in their lives.) But Solomon also reminds us in v. 13 that the ability to rejoice and be content (and by extension, the ability to do good) are gifts from God. As 2:25 said, no one can rejoice or be content without Him.

TRANSITION: That brings us to the new material. The new material in vv. 9-15 is found primarily in vv. 11, 14.

First, let’s look at v. 11 (v. 11). We’ve already talked at length about the first sentence in that verse, so let’s move on to the rest of it. Solomon says, “Also, He has put eternity in their hearts.” That’s a phrase that has been hotly debated. Some people have suggested a different translation for the word “eternity,” like “the world” or “ignorance”; but by all appearances, “eternity” is the best translation! The question is, what does it mean? What do you think? What does it mean that God put eternity into our hearts? I would say it this way: by making mankind in His image, God placed within every human being a sense of the eternal. We know that this world is not all there is. We are sure that something else is out there! We are not like the animals. My dog is not troubled by questions regarding the meaning of life. We could also relate this verse to Romans 1:21, which says that everyone knows there is a God. The question is whether or not they will glorify Him. And so, we have here one of the most profound reflections on what it means to be human in all of Scripture! To be human is to have eternity in your heart. It’s to be made in God’s image.

And by the way, can I digress for a moment and just say that every human being has this sense of the eternal in his heart? There is no place for prejudice, whether racial or otherwise in God’s kingdom. So the next time you are tempted to look down on another human being because of his education level, social standing, skin color, or for any other reason, remember that he has “eternity in his heart” just like you! He is made in God’s image and God loves him, so we better love him, too.

So we see that mankind is made in God’s image. However, being made in God’s image is not the same things as being God! Though made in God’s image, mankind’s understanding is limited. The last part of verse 11 says, “no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” You see, the Bible is clear that there are questions having to do with the nature and purposes of God that we will never understand—not even just because we are sinners, but because we are human, and He is God. But that leaves us in a difficult position, doesn’t it? On the one hand, we have this sense of the eternal that leaves us searching for answers. But on the other hand, we’re just dust, and we cannot fully grasp God’s ways! Why would God put us in this position? Does He just want us to suffer? Does He take pleasure in our misery?

That’s where v. 14 comes in (v. 14). So why does God set eternity in our hearts? So that we will fear Him. After all, how could we possibly relate to an infinite God without an innate sense of the infinite? It would be impossible! That’s why God made man in His image! You are specially equipped for relationship. Not only relationships with other people, but a relationship with the sovereign God of the universe. And what word does Solomon use to encapsulate that relationship? “Fear.” Awe. Respect. Obedience. Admiration. Worship. That is what you were made for! Don’t settle for anything less!

Verse 14 says that whatever God does, it will be forever. You cannot add to it and you cannot diminish from it. That’s a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty! And once again, human pride and self-sufficiency melts away in the face of Almighty God. When He gives a decree, there’s literally no changing it. That’s power! That’s omnipotence! But don’t forget that God’s power is always expressed in appropriate ways. That was the whole point of vv. 1-8! It’s not just that we have a God who is huge, and mighty, and unstoppable; but we have a God who is good and wise, and everything that He does is appropriate. This is the ultimate picture of God—sovereign, wise, and good. Because if you have a good who is sovereign and wise but not good, He may double-cross you. You could never trust Him. And if you have a God who is wise and good but not sovereign, He may have nice intentions, but there is no way of knowing that His intentions will be fulfilled. Someone may mess up His plan! And if you have a God who is sovereign and good but not wise, He may have good intentions and be perfectly capable of carrying those out; however, He may be sincerely misguided. Perhaps He wants to do good; but He isn’t quite sure what to do. The biblical worldview will have none of this! God is not only sovereign, but also wise and good. He is all three at the same time, and it is only because He is all three that we can trust Him!

Well, let’s close with v. 15 (v. 15). The last part of this verse is very, very difficult to translate. In fact, I surveyed nine commentaries on this verse and came up with five radically different translations! However, there is at least some consensus that this phrase should be translated, “God keeps seeking what He has sought before.” Do you remember the poem in chapter 1 about the cycles in the universe? The first part of this verse is almost identical to the first part of v. 9 in that poem. In other words, it appears that what this verse is saying is that the reason that there are cycles in nature and in human history is that God likes it that way! So Solomon goes back and views a previous problem from a much more optimistic vantage point. The cycles and seasons in life, while monotonous if viewed from one vantage point, are also good and lovely if viewed as a part of God’s beneficent rule of the universe.

Are there are any questions on vv. 11, 14?

Conclusion

In conclusion, how do we respond to the dark and difficult aspects of life? We trust that God is in control, and that everything He does is not only just appropriate but beautiful in context. Since we’re human, we can’t fully understand that context. But we accept by faith that our God is sovereign, good, and wise. And as a result of all that, we fear Him.

Prayer

[1] This is not to say that every season of life is equally enjoyable. After all, Solomon said that there’s a time for war, and nobody wants to live through a war! But the point is that everything God does is appropriate in its place.

More in Ecclesiastes

April 22, 2018

Everything Matters

April 15, 2018

Urgency, Sobriety, and Joy

March 25, 2018

Work Boldly