Sermon I had the honor of giving to Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Erie, PA (EPC) on Sunday March 19 2017. I really love the saints in this church, what a delight to spend time these past few Sundays!
We will be reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, verses 1 through 15. Feel free to follow along in your Bibles. I will be using the English Standard Version.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He 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. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
Let’s pray. Our God, because of Your great love, You make everything beautiful in its time. Our life here under the sun is brief, almost a blink. And yet it has incalculable eternal significance and weight. You want us to accept and embrace, through all the seasons of our lives, each time appreciated for what it is, in its joys and its sorrows, knowing it will not last. We know that there is a first and a last to everything, and while we may remember what many of our first things were, we often don’t know when they are happening last, even while we are experiencing them. But You know. You have sent us Your Son to live in this world of seasons and uncertainty, to take upon Himself our sins and sorrows, and to delight with us in our joy. Whatever life brings, You will be there for us in every moment and accompany us, at its end, across the river. You will never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for that and help us to ponder and appreciate those things today. In Jesus’s name, amen.
In late 1999, my mother had finally come home from a rehabilitation center after a long recovery from a botched medical assault on cancer she had in her liver. Thankfully, my wife Kathy and I were able to visit her, though she was very weak. Our son Joshua had just been born a few months earlier, on her birthday, actually. My mother loved babies, and she was the mother of seven. We put Joshua into her arms. She pulled him very close, put the side of her face on his head, and just breathed in very deeply, taking in the scent of his hair. My mother didn’t know, nor did we, that this was the last time she would have that experience. There had been a first time. This was the last.
That is how the seasons and rhythms in our life are. Even with sadness and pain—not just the times of merriment and rejoicing—by God’s grace each is beautiful in its own time, even though it may be awhile before we see that. I know that I never want to lose the image of that moment with my mother that I carry inside me.
Our text today contains a gorgeous poem made famous to millions of Baby Boomers (like me) through the famous 1965 Byrd cover of an older folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Unfortunately, a flourish they added at the end—“a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”—turned it into an anti-war song. However, the message here is nothing like such a hippy cliché. It is far more complex, lovely, profound, spiritually useful, and mature than that. We will get to this poem, but a little later.
If we look at the first verse and then after this poem in verses 9 through 15, we see that the overall thrust here is that God has a plan, that this plan is wise and morally good, and that nothing happens outside of it; God controls it all. We see this in the first verse, a kind of “thesis statement” opening this section: “to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter (or, “purpose”) under heaven.”
As Philip Ryken has pointed out, liberal scholars often portray the God of Ecclesiastes as random, as arbitrary. They view passages like ours’ today as encouraging passive, wounded fatalism. Ryken quotes one such commentary as headlining today’s text like this: “Hopelessness of Struggle Against An Arbitrary God”! This gross misunderstanding is rooted in refusing the Biblical doctrine of the total sovereignty of God, which, in turn, is based upon the old chestnut that no loving God would allow, or cause, so-called “bad things” to happen.
Yet God is totally sovereign over every detail of life while remaining infinitely wise, and being perfectly loving. Not only do events occur in their appropriate time and purpose but, as we are reminded in verse 11, He has made everything, both good things and adversity, “beautiful in its time.”
We are told in verse 15 that, like everything else there is nothing new here. Every good and difficult thing is common in human experience. This echoes the passage we covered two weeks ago in Chapter 1, verses 9 and 10, that there is “nothing new under the sun.” What is past is settled, we can’t change it, and we will experience what our ancestors did, birth and laughter and merriment, and also war and hate and death. But in a rather obscure phrase at the end of verse 15, “God seeks what is driven away,” we find something else. That means, Philip Ryken says, that God redeems our past, He does not just pass judgment on it. Says Ryken, this funny little add-on tells us that “By His grace He will recover and restore what seems, from our vantage point, to be lost forever.” Once again, our God is sovereign, and He is good. Stick by Him, and we will see that—if not sooner, than later.
God wants us to find joy in the simple toils, purposes, rhythms of life, and to strive to be morally upright and concerned with doing good for others. To do this, we must be secure in His overall care for us, and in His wise supervision of all of the affairs of this world, even our past. The writer of Ecclesiastes records this discovery, in verses 12 and 13: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” We should never give into temptation to hate life or to try to escape the world, but rather we must embrace our everyday existence in the ordinary details of life—trusting Him and serving Him in the heights but also the dark valleys of our lives.
It is in our hearts to want to make sense of God’s plans. As we experience life, at different points, that desire to understand why things happen can be overwhelming. How often have we cried out “God, why?” That longing for understanding is not sin. There would be something wrong with us if we did not react, to many things, with that plea, “Oh God, why?” For example, what kind of people would we be if, upon walking into the cancer ward of a children’s hospital for the first time, we did not ask such things? A little girl with a teddy bear in her arms, bald from chemotherapy, IV dripping, odds against her, and we don’t ever think “Dear God, why?”
The fact is that God Himself put that hunger for understanding in our hearts. We see in verse 11: “he has put eternity into man’s heart…” As the liner notes for the New Geneva Bible tell us, the word “eternity” in this context includes not only an innate understanding that our true home is with God, but also a longing to know “what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We want to experience eternity and to understand life’s events in light of an eternal plan. As those liner notes also say, “the heart knows that history is not meaningless.”
Yet the reality is that, this side of eternity, we will never understand completely, and we often will not understand very much. God has simply not revealed these things to us. Looking again at that second sentence in verse 11, we find that while we want to comprehend God’s eternal plan, we “…cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” As Moses instructed the Jewish people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 29 verse 29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
God does not leave us blind, but He does not disclose everything; not even close. However, what He does show us is enough. He has revealed that there is a purpose, that nothing in this life is random or meaningless so long as He is in it. He makes clear to us, in Deuteronomy Chapter 31 verse 6, that He never forgets or forsakes us. Knowing this, He tells us, we must “do good” as He has defined what is good. He has given us all the knowledge we need for “life and godliness,” as Peter encourages us in his second epistle, Chapter 1 verse 3.
Moreover, while we are certainly called to combat sin, heal diseases, end injustice, and otherwise toil to improve our lives and those of others, what God has determined cannot be altered. Verse 14 declares: “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it.” There is no room in this worldview for perfecting either ourselves, or our world, through human planning and effort alone, outside of God’s purposes and submitting ultimately to Him. That is a fool’s game.
All of this almost perfectly parallels venerable old Job’s ultimate affirmation. Recall that he had embarked on a lengthy intellectual quest to understand the reasons for truly terrible things that had happened to him, at times crossing the line by asking God to justify Himself, but without denying the existence, justice, or goodness of God. Then, in Chapter 42 verse 2, in a dramatic moment of revelation, self-humiliation and repentance, he makes this remarkable statement: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
So why would God place this longing in our hearts, to understand His eternal ways and plan, to comprehend the reasons that things happen, if He did not intend to satisfy this yearning? I cannot answer this completely, but I think I can confidently assert two things.
First, in eternity with God our longings for true understanding of God’s purposes will be satisfied. He does intend to quench, completely, our thirst to know, but just not in this life. This does not mean that, in eternity, we will know everything; I am certain we will not. However, we will certainly know a lot more than we ever will in this life, as the Puritan preacher Edward Griffin famously proclaimed in one of his sermons: “The feeblest infant that has gone to heaven probably knows more of God than all the divines on earth.”
Second, if I can indulge in a little sanctified speculation, I think we can answer part of this puzzle—why would God give us a longing to understand what He knows we can never fully understand?—with a question. How often have those longings drawn you to God? How often have they driven you to talk to Him, plead with Him, to search the Scriptures, to bring your sorrows and questions to Him, to wrestle with God and His puzzling ways?
Do you remember old Asaph in Psalm 73? He sought God, with agonized pleas, to understand how the terrible injustices he saw and experienced could be reconciled with the God of the Scriptures. God answered Asaph just enough to give him confidence in His sovereignty, goodness and justice, light that, for example, enabled Asaph to feel sorry for those whom he had been envying. He ended up understanding God’s plan, and His ways, better, though not completely.
In the process, Asaph knew more about God but, far more importantly, he knew God better. As J. I. Packer has said many times, isn’t that better than learning a ton of theological facts? So long as we ultimately return to trusting and obeying, and to embracing the goodness and wisdom of God without knowing all the answers, those quests for understanding, rooted in the inner longings of our hearts, bring us closer to God. I think that is a major reason that God put that hunger there.
This brings us, then, to trusting Him through the events of life, and to that beautiful poem memorialized by The Byrds and many other musicians. We find, in verses 2 through 8, 14 couplets in 7 verses. Philip Ryken says this: “Each pair forms a merism, a figure of speech in which two polarities make up a whole.” Says Ryken again, “There is something comprehensive about each pair.”
Ryken points out, with numerous other commentators, that the 14 pairs, taken as a single poem, are also comprehensive, because they capture the entirety of life. H. C. Leupold says they “cover the widest possible range and thus practically every aspect of human existence.”
In the poem as a whole, as well as in each of the 14 individual pairs, we find balance, wholeness, completeness. We see the banal reductionism of many modern people, who only wish to embrace one side of some of these pairs, to be completely undone. Yes, there is a time to kill. (By the way, the word here is not “murder,” but rather forms of righteous or necessary killing of other human beings.) Yes, there is a time to hate, a time to destroy, it is not all about just loving, or building. Not all wars are righteous, and not every way of conducting oneself in war is acceptable to God. However, this side of eternity, in this fallen world, sometimes there will be peace, but sometimes there has to be war.
Each couplet comprehends both human and divine activity, and of course God’s actions are always ultimate and primary. God, in His perfect governance over all of reality, places everything into its right time in the right place. His timing is always good, suitable, and right. Ryken quotes Ralph Wardlaw, from 1821, in pointing out what this poem demonstrates that “God does everything at just the right time”:
“the wise, and regular, and orderly administration of One, who sees the end from the beginning, and to whom there is no unanticipated contingency; and whose omniscient eye, in the midst of what appears to us inextricable confusion, has a thorough and intuitive perception of the endlessly diversified relations and tendencies of all events, and all their circumstances, discerning through the whole the perfection of harmony.”
There is not one particular on either side of any of these 14 pairs that we do not see God specifically authorizing, celebrating, commanding, or doing throughout Scripture. Laughter but also weeping. Keeping but also casting away. Gathering and dispersing. Birth and death, healing and killing, destroying and building. We must accept them as they come, and we must honor God in each. As Job admonished his foolish wife in Chapter 2, verse 10: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble” (New International Version).
I don’t know how many of you have seen Hacksaw Ridge. The hero of this true story, Desmond Doss, could not kill due to his particular Christian convictions and his life experience. Yet there in 1942, he saw the need for killing, for war, if the whole world was not to fall under the dominion of extraordinary evil. So he served as a combat medic, smack in the middle of some of the most ferocious combat of the war, without so much as a knife or club to defend himself. Yet even as he went out to save lives, his own life had to be protected by others who killed, and he not only saved soldiers but, through his contribution, helped them and our country to achieve victory. He saw that too. So he did not see his fellow soldiers as evil for killing in that context, even though he could not do so. Taken together, one sees the balance of Ecclesiastes in this powerful film. Righteous killing and skilled, merciful healing.
Imagine cities with ambulances, but no police and no self-defense. We may not like it, but we need both. This is completeness, and both ultimately serve the same ends, to protect and save human life. There is a time and a place both for one and the other.
We also find this harmony and experience in the life, death and teaching of Jesus Christ. He entered this fallen world with us, and more than any man or woman who ever lived, He experienced, taught and exemplified both sides of each of these 14 couplets. God orchestrated every detail of His birth and death to fulfill a divine plan for the benefit of the human race in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus made reasonable attempts to preserve His life and that of others, as when He quieted the wind and waves as recorded in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 24 through 27, but when the time came to lay His life down, He accepted it as He promised He would in John Chapter 10, verse 18.
We find Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus in John 11 verse 35, and teaching us about the goodness of mourning for the right reasons at the right time in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, verse 4. Yet earlier we find Him refilling wine jars at a wedding in Cana, as recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of John, and we find history concluding amidst rejoicing of the saints and the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelations Chapter 19. He talked about God both planting and rooting out, in Matthew 15, verse 13.
The Jesus of history is the Prince of Peace at war with the forces of Satan, shedding the blood of His enemies. He is the epitome of love, yet there are clearly things that He hates, and in John 2 verses 13 through 16 we find Him driving out profane merchants from His temple with a scourge, turning over their tables and dumping their money onto the ground. He healed many times, but this included healing the servant of, and praising the faith of, a Roman centurion, a soldier—a man who killed— in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 5 through 18. He told us in parables about those He brings in, and those He casts away, for example in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 19, verses 19 through 31, or what He said about sheep and goats at judgment day in Matthew 25, verses 31 through 46.
Day after day he raised His voice to teach the crowds, but before His accusers He was silent, as we see in Mark 14, verse 61. What about both embracing and refraining from embracing? In one remarkable passage in Matthew 15, verses 21 through 28, we find Him initially refusing to have anything to do with a Canaanite women whose daughter was possessed by a demon, but then He lets her approach, she kneels, He grants the healing and praises Her faith. He ordered His disciples to shake the dust off their feet if anyone denied them hospitality or refused to hear them, in Matthew Chapter 10 verse 14. Yet He also let a prostitute wash His feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, even kissing them and anointing them with perfume, as we see in Luke Chapter 7 verses 37 and 38.
Jesus, the Son of God, had a perfect grasp of the times and seasons. He did all things well, and embraced everything from the hand of God in its time. This is evident from His birth to a virgin peasant woman, through His perfect life, His teaching, the death He died in our place, the intricate details and facts of His bodily resurrection, and His ongoing righteous rule. In living those 14 pairs out and teaching them, always trusting the Father, He showed us how to live well, in tune with God, across the various times of our lives. Jesus demonstrated the beauty of each, in its time. A fitting example in every way of God’s perfect planning and wisdom in even the hardest adversities, He can help us to “trust and obey,” even as He did.
Let’s pray. Lord, You have shown us that in our brief but momentous lives, we will experience good things but also adversity. Yet there is no truly good thing in which You do not delight, and there is no adversity that does not have meaning, and through which You will not only carry us, but tell us as much as we need to know to bear it and glorify You through it. We ask you to apply these things to all we will face in the coming week, both good and bad. In Jesus’ name, Amen.