A Time for Every Matter
Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:1–3:15
A Time for Every Matter
March 2nd, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Stuff Happens
Stuff happens. That's the sanitized version of what has become a very popular perspective when it comes to thinking about life. So popular that people even put the non-sanitized version of that phrase on the bumpers of their cars.
What does the phrase mean? It means that bad things...just happen, for no particular reason. In fact, we might say, according to that viewpoint, life just happens, for no particular reason. As the French put it, "C'est la vie." "That's life!"
If our universe is simply the result of random chemical interactions, the product of blind chance, then yes, randomness and meaninglessness would characterize everything that happens.
In the end, if you believe this, then when the tough times, the painful times come, you simply have to deal with it. It is what it is, nothing more. And nothing more can be said about it. Stuff happens.
But I find hard to believe that anyone could really be satisfied with this outlook. I say that because the very recognition that something is wrong with our circumstances, that things should be some other way, confirms that there is something more than randomness when it comes to the events of our life.
This morning, I believe we will see that point confirmed, and even more so, we will see that point explained to a certain degree by the author of Ecclesiastes. Turn with me this morning to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3. (page 554)
If you were with us in January, then you may remember that we began our study in Ecclesiastes by describing the book as a journal of sorts, a collection of reflections, reflections of a man known simply as the Preacher or the Teacher.
In this book, the Teacher is wrestling with the chaos and the contradictions and the complexity of this thing we call "life". You might recall that the author here sums up his whole investigation with the cynical conclusion we find in 1:2:
Vanityï»¿ of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Or we could translate that as: "Completely pointless" says the Preacher (or Teacher), "Completely pointless! Everything is pointless."
This was the conclusion that the Teacher reached when he looked around at the world, as he experienced the futility of finding meaning in earthly realities like work, and pleasure, and achievement. This experience of futility was simply confirmed for him when he realized that death would one day rob him of everything he had gained under the sun.
II. The Passage: "Whatever God Does Endures Forever" (3:1-15)
But, this morning, listen as we continue with the Teacher on this quest for answers. Listen to how he describes, here is chapter 3, some of the parts of the whole of this thing we call life:
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?
A. Life: A Mixed Bag
Now, at first, this may seem like a prescriptive passage, that is, a passage teaching us about what we should do. It might seem the Teacher is instructing us about the right time, the appropriate time to do each of the things described here.
But if we look carefully at these verses and the context in which we find this passage, not only will we realize that this is not originally a song from the 1960's, but this passage is more descriptive than it is prescriptive.
One of the reasons we know that is because the first two realities of life described in verse 2 are not realities we have any power over in regard to our own life. Therefore our time to be born, and our season to die cannot be prescriptive.
You can see that what we have here are fourteen couplets describing certain opposite realities that characterize almost every human life: birth, death, seedtime and harvest, weeping, laughing, destroying, building, keeping, casting...love and hate.
This is the mixed bag that is life under the sun; human existence. We all know this from experience, don't we? In some sense this is a confirmation that "stuff happens", bad stuff: killing, breaking, mourning, tearing, hate, and war.
But when we go back to the first verse, we realize that this is absolutely not coming from a "stuff happens" perspective. The Teacher tells us that "for everything there is a season". There is a time for every matter that takes place on the earth. And the sense is here that there is an appointed time for these things.
There's nothing random about any of this. That's why the Teacher asks the question he does in verse 9? "What gain has the worker from his toil?"
This should sound familiar to those of us who studied the first two chapters of the book. In the third verse of chapter one the Teacher asks: What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Again in chapter 2, verse 22 he asks, "What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?"
In the first chapter that question is inspired by the reality of the monotony of life; it's life on a treadmill. Nothing seems to change. We never seem to get anywhere. In the second chapter, this question is inspired by the reality of death. Can there be any real gain if death robs us of everything we've worked for in this life?
But here in chapter 3, the same question is inspired by the reality that the realities of life are set according to appointed times. And what is most troubling is that as hard as you work, as far as you run, as high you build that wall, you can never stop the difficult times from coming.
There's a commercial that been airing recently that shows all sorts of people running out of there houses in the dark in their pajamas and robes carrying boards and lids and cookie sheets. They all run to the brow of a hill, hold up their makeshifts shields in order to hold back the rising sun and its light. It's a great picture of futility.
Just like you can't stop Monday morning from coming, you also can't stop the painful realities of life from taking place according to their season.
But if stuff doesn't just happen, if there actually are appointed times, then who is appointing those times, AND what's the point of it all? Look at verse 10:
B. Futility in Finding Meaning
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.
The Teacher tells us in verse 10 that he has seen, he has observed the business of busyness that God has given to human beings. He is familiar with how this mixed bag of experiences called life is actually lived out. So where does he brings us? He brings us God.
But notice what he tells us in verse 11 in light of these observations: He [God] has made everything, the everything for which there is a season (verse 1), he has made everything beautiful in it's time. Now, what does that mean?
Well this word beautiful in the Hebrew is found one other place in Ecclesiastes. Listen to how this Hebrew word is used in chapter 5: Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. (5:18)
You probably noticed that the word beautiful is not in that verse. No, the same Hebrew word is translated "fitting" in this verse. And I think that's the best way to take it in 3:11.
He has made everything fitting in its time. It is beautiful because it is appropriate. One translation puts it this way: God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time.
Even though we might be talking about things like war, and hate, and killing, and tearing, and weeping, and mourning, somehow these things fit into what God is doing. But that only begs the question that all of us should be asking at this point; the question that the Teacher alludes to in the second half of 3:11.
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.
What does it mean that God has put "eternity" or "forever" in our hearts? I think it means that he has given us a desire to see from an eternal perspective and thus make sense out of the times and seasons of our life. How does my pain fit into what God is doing? How is this struggle appropriate in terms of God's eternal purpose? Why is this happening to me?
Listen to how an article from Psychology Today describes this feature of the human heart:
"Humans have a rocky relationship with randomness. On the one hand, we declare that "stuff happens"--an acknowledgment that bad things sometimes occur for no particular reason. But more often than not, our minds resist randomness, searching for meaning even where none exists.
When University of Tennessee psychologists gave students random, computer-generated analogies, the undergraduates had little trouble coming up with the "logic" behind nonsensical phrases like, Horse is to time as stone is to book. However far-fetched their interpretations, the students nonetheless seemed to believe that their explanations were reasonable..."
One researcher concluded: "One of the basic human characteristics is to try to search for meaning...We use whatever means are available to us to explain randomly occurring events.""
Obviously, this writer and the researchers here believe that much of life is just random. Understandably, that often seems to be the case if our perspective is limited to human answers. But even these researchers acknowledge our desire for "meaning".
But notice how verse 11 ends: 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.
Try as we might, we cannot understand how the pieces of the mosaic come together, even those darkly colored, painful pieces. God has not given us the ability to see that perspective.
All we can do, as the Teacher recommends in verses 12 and 13, as he recommended in the last chapter in 2:24, all we can do is enjoy the good things that God has given us: food and drink; a sense of accomplishment. These are God's gifts to us.
But there's something else here, a reason that God reveals about his place as "The Appointer" of our times and seasons . Verse 14: 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 [or as one translation puts it: God will seek to do again what has occurred in the past.]
We cannot change what God has ordained. That doesn't mean we resign ourselves to "fate" and sit and do nothing. No, it means exactly what we talked about before: we cannot prevent pain, we cannot avoid suffering, we cannot escape death. No, we don't resign ourselves to fate, but we do respond to God with fear.
Not fear that paralyzes, fear that praises; fear that humbles us and drives us to obey God; fear that causes us to trust him, that he is Sovereign over our seasons.
And so in the end the Teachers gives us two appropriate responses in light of all this: enjoy the good that God has given you under the sun; but fear God as well.
III. A Time to Kill, and a Time to Heal
But if we're honest with ourselves, and if we're listening to the Teacher here, we're still left with a dilemma. There is still a hole of sorts in our heart. We are still left with that very restlessness I believe the Teacher could never resolve.
While we are left trembling before the greatness of a God who determines the times and seasons of human life, we are also left wondering if what God has done, if what cannot be undone, if His work in all things will somehow be to our benefit, even beyond our life under the sun.
It's one thing to believe that everything happens for a reason. It's another to believe, to truly believe, it is happening for our good.
Certainly, given the fact that there are so many trials in life, so many painful circumstances and feelings, it would be hard to believe that somehow, all of this will work out for our benefit. That simply seems far-fetched.
Maybe that's why the Teacher is telling us to enjoy what we can in life.
Maybe he's encouraging us to find our good here because he doubts that the "reason for our seasons" can really be anything positive. "Completely pointless! Everything is pointless."
But Ecclesiastes is not the end of the Bible. It is one piece of an unfolding message from God. If we continue forward in God's word we discover that there is eventually a new fullness breathed into the third couplet the Teacher gave us, in 3:3...
A time to kill, and a time to heal.
You see, in the appointed times and seasons of this thing called life, there was one appointment that changed everything.
Listen to how Paul describes it...
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- 8 but God [the God of Ecclesiastes...God] shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified [declared right] by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
There was a time to kill, and a time to heal. The One killed was God's Son, and the ones healed were all those who trust that in the Son's death is our only hope for life. We could say our only hope for real life under the sun, is life under the Son.
It's only because of the cross of Jesus Christ that we can know that the One who Sovereign over all our seasons is appointing a time for every matter in love for those who live Him. Paul goes on in Romans to confirm this:
And we know that for those who love God all things [all of our times and seasons...all of it...all of the realities of life] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
How could it be otherwise in light of Jesus' death. For Paul himself goes on to say:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Even though we might wish, even though we do wish, that some matters would never come up, God's word tells us that there is a time for every matter according to the ordering of a sovereign God, a God who rules. But if we belong to Christ we know that God's time for every matter is for our good according to the ordering of a compassionate God, a God who loves to the point of death.
I know there are seasons and times in your life that you wish never took place. Maybe this morning you are at a place where you are asking "why". Maybe the eternity that God has placed in your heart is searching for some meaning, but you feel like your just hitting a wall.
Maybe your even tempted to subscribe to that "stuff happens" perspective.
Wherever you are, I urge you to look to the cross...at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
You cannot rewrite your life in regard to the struggles to come, in regard to what is unpleasant in your future. But you can give everything you know of yourself to everything you know of a God who can shape our life, every reality, every experience, into something beautiful. Isn't that what you want?
Only in Jesus Christ can we see the fullness of that translation we find in our Bibles: He has made everything beautiful in its time.
There is a time for every matter. There is a time to believe. A time to continue believing that the God whose work endures forever according to Ecclesiastes is the same God whose work is working for the good of those who love him through Jesus Christ.
"Grace happens" That's the perspective we need.