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TEXT: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
SUBJECT: Ecclesiastes #3: Why Things are the Way They Are
Several years ago, I heard a speech by Francis X. Kelly, then Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. Responding to critics who said the military caused war, and that-if we spent less on men and arms and more on diplomacy and foreign aid-the world would be safer, General Kelly said-
You're welcome to your own opinion; what you're not welcome to is your own facts.
He went on to list the military threats to our country and that it takes more than warm hearts and peaceful intentions to meet them,
I am not going to weigh in on the General's politics or strategy, but only to reflect on the key line of his speech-
You're welcome to your own opinion; what you're not welcome to is your own facts.
Facts are fact, whether you like them or not. You can ignore them, debate them, philosophically disprove them, laugh at them, scream at them, and even pass laws against them if you want to. What you can't do is change them. What President John Adams said about them cannot be improved on-
Facts are stubborn things!
Facts are wonderfully confident and self-possessed. Like my late father, they really don't care what you think about them!
This brings us to Ecclesiastes' most obvious, familiar, and least understood passage. Chapter 3 opens with a fact, v.1; the fact is then supported by a poem, vv.2-8; a conclusion follows in v.9; and then some reflections in vv.10-15.
What the Psalmist asked for in reading the Law goes double for our study of Ecclesiastes-
Open Thou mine eyes,
That I may behold
The Preacher commences with a fact, always a good way to start a sermon-
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under
What does this mean? Pastors, always eager to make God's Word, practical, often turn it into an exhortation: 'Seize the moment!' When a door to do good opens-don't think about it, debate it, or make it a matter of prayer-walk through it! This is very good advice, especially to people like me who think too much and do too little. But, as helpful as the advice is, it is not what the Preacher is getting at here.
V.1 means just what it says: The times and seasons of human life are set by something or Somebody outside of ourselves. Later, he's going to tell us Who fixes the times-but not yet. Before he does that, however, he proves the proposition to anyone stupid enough to say it's not so. He does it in a striking and memorable way, with one of the Bible's great poems.
A POEM THAT PROVES THE FACT
A time to be born,
And a time to die.
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck
What is planted.
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up.
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance.
A time to gather up stones,
And a time to cast away stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep
And a time to throw away.
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak.
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.
The beauty of this poem cannot be gainsaid, but what is its message? Scholars differ on the fine print, but its big idea is open to everyone. Facts are facts! Life is what it is! Things happen with your with permission-or without it! The world does not depend on your wishes.
In some things, we are altogether passive-A time to be born, for example. No woman ever 'conceived' herself and no man ever 'begot' himself. The most significant thing about us-our lives-were begun by powers wholly outside of ourselves. We did not act in our conceptions and births: we were acted upon.
In other things, of course, we do act-laughing, dancing, sewing and planting. But the acts are occasioned by things outside of our control. We plant at a time we did not set. If you plant your tomatoes on Christmas Day, you'll get no yield. You sew on the button because it popped off. You laugh or dance because something funny or joyful happened to you, and not of your own making.
Many things that happen are not only 'without' our will, but 'against' it-A time to die, a time to mourn, a time to weep, a time to lose. We don't want these things to happen-but they do happen! We don't plan for them or schedule them, but there they are-whether we like it or not.
Had the Preacher wanted to, he could have invoked theology or cited Bible verses to prove his point. He doesn't do this, however, because he doesn't need to. He appeals to common sense, to truths known to everyone who's got half a brain in his head. Only the highly educated can miss the facts of life, and only because they're so in love with their theories that-if a thing doesn't fit them-they cannot be.
I knew a Christian Scientist years ago who assured me that sickness and death are not real things. She has since gotten sick and died. Laugh all you want at Reality-it will not be offended. Because Reality always has the last laugh!
In summary: As much as I admire the art, courage and doggedness of William Ernest Henley, his best know poem got it wrong. He was not, you are not, and I am not-
The master of my fate:
The captain of my soul.
The Preacher knows better: Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Life is a vapor; it cannot be understood or predicted, controlled or held on to.
THE RHETORICAL QUESTION
This undeniable fact leads the Preacher to a rhetorical question, a question he knows the answer to only too well, v.9-
What profit has the worker from that in which he labors?
The implied answer: He has no profit. In other words, do all you can to change Reality, and in the end, it stays the same. Exercise, eat right, take your vitamins, go to the doctor, and for all that there remains-
A time to die.
.Even if you never forget sunscreen!
The Preacher is not urging us to live recklessly; he's simply telling us that-whatever we do or don't do-we're not in control of life; life is in control of us.
This is not deduced from a grand theory of his own making and was not come to in a moment, v.10-
I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied.
The Preacher has looked at life under the sun for many years and knows what it is.
Speaking of v.10, this is the first time God's is referred to in the passage. It is only a quick reference, of course, but it hints at what's to come.
THE FIRST REFLECTION
If we don't fix the times and seasons of life, who or what does? The Lord does, v.11a-
He has made everything beautiful in its own time.
I wish the translators had chosen another word. I think the NASB gets it right with appropriate. God has put everything where it is, and where He has put everything is where it belongs. This may not seem true to us, but it is true. Now we rant and rave or doubt and question, but the day will come when we say with our Lord Jesus Christ-
Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight.
God has chosen the right time for everything, and everything is going to happen on His schedule, not yours or mine. This means we have to be patient and live by faith and not by sight-
Wait on the Lord, be of good courage,
And He will strengthen your heat:
Wait, I say, on the Lord.
This is easier said than done, but it is the only way to live consistent with reality.
THE SECOND REFLECTION
The Preacher's next reflection comes from the second half of v.11-
Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
Eternity in their hearts means, made in the likeness and image of God, we have a perspective on past and future the animals don't have. They live in the moment; you'll never see a dog regretting what he did yesterday or a cat anxious for what he'll eat tomorrow. But for all this, we still can't figure things out: life remains a mystery to us-
Do not boast of tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.
Be content with what you are-a human being who cannot understand yesterday or predict tomorrow. And trust the God who does and can.
THE THIRD REFLECTION
The third reflection flows from the second. If we don't know what the future holds, vv.12-13-
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy all the good of his labor-it is the gift of God.
Today is the gift of God and He didn't give it to you so that you could fill it up with fretting and disappointment and the hope something better will come along someday Today is someday; what's come along is just what the Lord wants you to have. Don't wait for life-live it! Don't choke down the hamburger wishing you had steak, enjoy the hamburger!
The Preacher says more than 'It's not wrong to enjoy life'; he says, There is nothing better than to rejoice, do good, and enjoy all the good the Lord gives you.
God is in charge of everything, birth and death, laughing and weeping, war and peace, nothing happens under the sun without His consent. This is what the Preacher has found and what the Bible confirms on every page.
In the beginning, God did not collaborate, He commanded. He exercised absolute sovereignty at the time and He has not given it up. He is the Lord of angels and demons; He controls trees and animals, persons and Empires; time and eternity, earth, heaven, and hell, Psalm 135--
Whatever the Lord pleased,
That He did.
Why is God in control of all things? Silly question! Without Him there is nothing to control. In Christ-Paul says-
All things hold together.
I believe there is a distinction between Creation and Providence, between what God did in the beginning and what He does every day. But the connection between the two is much closer than we think it is. For the world not only came into existence by His Word, but by the same Word, it remains in existence. Things would not only 'go to pieces' without Him; without Him there would be no pieces.
This is why God controls everything, but the Preacher leaves that to the side. What He wants to explore is Why God tells us He controls everything. He knows. V.14b-
God does it that mean should fear before Him.
Because 'fear' has more than one connotation, I think the NRSV makes it clearer-
So that all would stand in awe of Him.
The Lord displays His sovereignty so that we would fall down before His Supreme Majesty, worship Him with reverence, believe His Word, and become His thankful and eager servants.
Is God really in charge of everything? Many of us say He is theoretically, but when things don't go the way we think they should, do we submit to His wisdom and goodness, or do we resent Him and mutter against His Lordship? We'd never admit it, but do we, deep down, think we'd do a better job of ruling the world than He does? Do we trust Him enough to say with our Savior--
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done?
This is the response the Preacher is looking for. He doesn't care about philosophy, what he cares about is fearing God and keeping His commandments!
God is in charge of everything, and this means we can trust Him. We can trust He has forgiven our sins-even when we feel guilty. We can trust He is with us-even when we feel alone. We can trust our children to Him-even when we've made a mess of their upbringing.
Best of all, we can trust Him to come again and set things right-even when the world says He isn't. Let us, therefore, confess the sovereignty of God and stand in awe of Him.
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