As we continue in this series working our way through the book of Ecclesiastes we come, tonight, to chapter 3, and it would be a great help if you could look that up again in the church Bibles - it's on page 470.
Show me, Oh Lord, my life's end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life. (Psalm 39:4)
I don't know if you remember the ice bucket challenge from a few years ago when people all over the world allowed loved ones to throw buckets full of ice cold water over them to raise money for charity. Well, reading Ecclesiastes should be the spiritual equivalent of that cold, sharp shock to the system! If you really listen to what the book is saying you will find yourself made to face up to the often disturbing reality of the world that we live in.
Imagine, if you can, someone walking along the street texting a friend on their phone or playing Pokemon Go. They are so caught up in what they are doing that they don't notice the steps, or lamppost or wall that they are about to walk into. It's a bit like that in life too - we can so easily fail to engage with what really is going on all around us. But Ecclesiastes forces you to face up to the reality of the world that we live in. The world that only exists because of the creative work of our creator God. The world that was made perfect and good, but is now broken and suffering the effects of man's rebellion against his maker.
The main voice in the book belongs to a, frankly, rather intense character who's name is translated here as 'The Teacher'. It basically just means the one who gather people together and speaks to them. But he's not really the kind of person you'd want to invite to your next dinner party - he's quite difficult to listen to. He's can't stop talking about death and you'd certainly want to usher the kids out and into bed as what he has to say is really rather disturbing.
The Teacher's words have been collected together by the author of the book, who introduces him to us because we all need to listen to what he has to say.
Let me suggest a couple of ways Christians try and avoid listening to his uncomfortable words. Christians can be tempted to think that the author of Ecclesiastes is really writing for those who don't believe in God and that his aim is to show them that life without God is meaningless. Obviously, once they find God then that's no longer true. Life finds meaning.
It doesn't take long in the book to see that the phrase 'meaningless' appears everywhere. For example, Ecc 1:2 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
'Ah yes' - we say - 'my friend at work who lives for the weekend needs to hear this'. Maybe he does. But so do those who believe in God. We must not fall into the trap of assuming God is speaking to someone else but not me through this book. As we'll see in tonight's passage, the teacher does believe in God. He's not an atheist. But that does not stop him saying, again, in 3v19: "Everything is meaningless."
That word 'meaningless' is a key theme of the book. We've seen it already and will see it again and again. The original Hebrew word has two means. 1) something that is temporary, fleeting. and 2) something that is enigma, paradox. He is not saying that life has no meaning. He has just observed that life is confusing and disorienting and uncontrollable. That is truth not just for the unbeliever. That is reality for believers too and so we all need to take that on board.
So one way to avoid what he has to say to us is to write his words off as not for me. A second way to avoid actually reading Ecclesiastes. Which is why I don't want to tell you what he says in chapter 3 - I want you to read his words carefully and allow the full force of what he has to say hit you.
The key idea of this chapter is that life in this world is full of frustrating reminders that you are not God. As strange as it may seem, we all do need those reminders because we won't face reality that we are not in control of this world. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. We are finite beings. We die. You are not God! You need to know that.
The first reminder that you are not God is that life is an endless round. And so my first heading is Time Shows That You Are Not God. That is from verses 1-11. We'll look first at the poem found in vv1-8:
1There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
The poem begins with a general statement that there is a right time for everything.
This can be taken in a few ways. Maybe it is saying that the right thing to do depends on the circumstances and so we should remain fluid about what's right and what's wrong. I'm not convinced by that. Let's read on.
2a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
So the pattern is clear. The activities of man described in pairs of opposites. One adds, the other subtracts. One step forward and then another backwards. Something is created and then it is destroyed. Each has their time. Are they good? Bad? We don't know. The rhythm is pleasing but what does it achieve. One ladder up, one snake down and we're still on square one. Let's go on.
4a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
Now we're talking about our emotionals as well as our activities. Neither right or wrong. Each just appropriate each to their season. But who chooses the seasons. Do we ever choose a time of weeping or mourning?
5a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,
On and on life goes. Endlessly to and fro. Back and forward like the pendulum under a grand old clock. Tick Tock. Time, time. But who's really in control. Who decided when it's time for the wind to change direction?
7a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
So that is our poem. Lovely at first glance. Cue soft lighting and romantic songs. But is that right? One thing follows another, but I can't direct it, can I? Nor can I stop the change. And what does it all achieve. We've been round and round before. Will peace last forever? Can we get to the point where there will no longer be tears?
The verses following the poem show us I think what it means. There a game of compare and contrast. For those who are human time means hard work that results in nothing:
v9-10. What does the worker gain from his toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
Is this were a film this would be a good moment for a flashback moment to that moment when God judged man's rebellion against him and laid on him a burden with these words in Genesis 3:19: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.'
How does that compare to God? Time shows us that nothing is out of his control. He knows what he is doing and he has a plan behind the apparent randomness of things: He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Now we see it, don't we? To be God is to be all-knowing and all-powerful. To be God is to determine the seasons and times. Can we make the sun rise when we want it to? We can plant a seed in the ground. But can we make it grow and produce a harvest?
Time shows us that he is God and that we are not.
V11 goes on He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Genesis makes it clear God has created us in his image. In that regard we are not like animals. We may not be God but we long for meaning and for significance and for something else. We have a hunger inside us that leaves us screaming – there must be more to life than this. BUT we are not God. We don't have his perspective. We don't see all, we don't see from the beginning to end. So we cannot fathom. We cannot understand. Time leaves us frustrated because it shows up what has always been true: that we are not God.
Death has the same effect. And so my second heading – covering verses 16-20 is Death Shows That You Are Not God.
We see next that everything ends with Death. It's another repeating theme. But it should make us see what we do not want to see: that we are not up there with God, but (as far as death is concerned) down there with the animals. Death also frustrates our desire to sit in God's seat as judges. WE cannot bring justice to those who have died because we are not God. Death shows us that we are not God. But the teacher is right to guess that God can do what he cannot. 'v17 God will bring to judgement both the righteous and the wicked'.
16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice-- wickedness was there. 17 I thought in my heart, "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed." 18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
All around us we are encouraged to think like this: it's my life and I determine my destiny; I'm in control of my life. It's an attractive view isn't it, but even brief reflection helps us see that it cannot be true. I don't have enough information to be in control. I don't have enough influence to be in control. I don't have enough wisdom to be in control.
Just think back 15 years ago. Can you remember your opinions and ideas at that time. When I think of the things I thought, said and did when I was in my mid 20's, I now think many of them were either silly or questionable. Despite being utterly convinced of them at the time. If that is true, it means that what I think now, and how I behave now will be equally as suspect in 15 years time! It plainly ridiculous to think that I am God not a human being. But we do.
The truth is that this is God's world and he's God! I am his creature and he's the Creator. He is infallibly wise, uncompromisingly good and I am none of those things. That is the reality that I need to confront. I live in a world that is broken and under a curse. One day that will be undone – Jesus has come and one day all will be out right.
But we're left with a question are we not. How then should I live in the middle of this world where time and death reduce my life to apparent meaninglessness?
The answer is in the verses we jumped over - vv12-15 and the final verse 22. And we'll look at the under the heading: Live humbly and joyfully under your creator God.
Once we accept that you are not God that is how we should live.
V12: 12I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God. 14I know that everything God does will endure for ever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
"The fact of the world's brokenness … are not meant to bring us to despair but to … humble us; to bring us to the point of recognising that we are finite – sinful creatures before an infinite-holy Creator" [Kendall]
We are to accept and enjoy the life we have as a gift from God - friendship, and work, food and even a sunny day. We are not on the throne. God is infinite and what he does will last for ever. Nothing can stand in his way, nothing will undo his hard work. He may use us in that – but it is not our place to control the universe.
V22: 22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
The call to recongise that he is God and that we are not and so to live humbly and joyfully under his sovereign rule is all over the Bible.
In 1 Peter 4:19, Christians who suffer are told to:
"So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good."
Or James 4:13-15
13 Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'
As it happens I think that song we can earlier sums this up beautifully – and with this I will end:
Come and stand before your maker
Full of wonder, full of fear;
Come behold his power and glory
Yet with confidence draw near,
For the one who holds the heavens
And commands the stars above
Is the God who bends to bless us
With an unrelenting love.