Feb6ThuRaw, honest questions about what it means to be human in the Book of Ecclesiastes. February 6, 2020 by Carla Lindsey
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
We all need advice for getting through life, and the wisdom books in the Bible show that God is interested in all aspects of our lives. In the second of a four-part series, we look at the raw honesty of Ecclesiastes.
Read Part 1 here.
Time is a funny thing. Importance used to be measured by how much gold or land one had, but today, how important we are is often determined by how little time we have. If someone is busy, they must be important. We like to think we are in control of time and can manipulate it.
Time was important to the people of the ancient world, too. In fact, time is a thread found woven throughout Ecclesiastes, one of the “Wisdom” books found in the Bible.
The most famous verses of Ecclesiastes are a poem, in which we find the word “time” no less than 29 times. It’s a beautiful poem, worth re-reading:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
Everything is transient. “There is a season, turn, turn, turn …” (Sorry if you have the Byrds song stuck in your head now!) The rest of Ecclesiastes isn’t so well known, but perhaps it should be. It’s a book that many modern people can relate to. The writer of Ecclesiastes (who may have been King Solomon, but that’s hotly debated) was having a bad day when he wrote it.
The book gives us the thoughts of a wise man, Qoheleth (ko-hel-et)—translated as “the teacher.” He expresses his frustrations with life on earth. He writes about all he has observed under the sun—to him, it seems like there is no point in it all. It feels like people work hard, achieve nothing and then die. He continually asks, “What do people gain?” Indeed, what is the point?
Forty-eight times Qoheleth describes human existence as hebel: “ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless,’ ”(Ecclesiastes 1:2:). Here, hebel is translated “meaningless,” but it can also be translated vanity, emptiness, futility, hollow or pointless. Literally, it means “breath or vapour.”
Times, They Are A-Changing
I also agree with Old Testament scholars Daniel Fredericks and Daniel Estes that “transience” is a helpful translation of hebel: “Transient, transient everything is transient.”
Life just rushes past. It keeps moving, you can’t stop it or grab it. It fluctuates from one extreme to the other—from laughing to weeping, planting to reaping, even loving to hating.
Each, according to the poem, has an appropriate time. The pairs in the poem are intended to cover the range of events and moods that make up a human life.
So what is the point Qoheleth is making about life, by giving us this list? I don’t think that it’s that humans need to do things at their proper time. Rather, it is about timelessness—this idea of transience. “The list is intentionally long because it was the writer’s intention to drive home the idea that the many sides of life are under control of God’s omnipotent rule,” says H.C. Leupold, author of Exploration of Ecclesiastes. “[Human beings] dance to a tune … not of their own making.”
What’s the Point?
Now, accepting this reality can cause frustration. Qoheleth felt powerless. Often, we do, too.
Yet the poem is followed by an explanation in which glimmers of hope are found. Ecclesiastes makes the remarkable statement that God “has made everything beautiful in his time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Yes, God has controlled the frustrating, changeable times. But he also, somehow, made them beautiful. Here are three things to note in this small verse:
First, the verb “he made” is used in Genesis in the creation narrative. It means “brought to pass.” It reminds the reader that God has brought everything about, both in creating the world and the ongoing existence of the world. This means humans “are the recipients, not the shapers of life.” This emphasis on God’s actions also reminds us these verses are not saying that people must be careful to do everything at the right time, but rather, it is God who does everything at the proper time.
Second, “everything” that is good or bad, at one extreme or the other, is in the hands of God.
Third, this “everything” is made beautiful by God. “Beautiful” here means “aesthetic balance” or “beautifully fitting.” It captures the idea that because God is behind life, “there is an elegance about how life works as ‘time’ succeeds ‘time,’ ” according to Old Testament scholar Dr. Iain Provan.
Life is to be Lived
Because of this, Qoheleth goes on to say that life can be enjoyed! Food, fun and doing good are all tokens of this happy life, which Qoheleth encourages the reader to actively pursue. He understands that these moments of enjoyment and satisfaction are a gift from God.
Within this more positive frame, we read that they should be enjoyed “as long as they live.” A sobering reminder that life is temporary, transient. But Ecclesiastes also tells us that God “has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)—another reference to time.
God has placed deep within human beings a sense of time—past, present and future. We have the capacity for eternal things. We are concerned about the future. We can glimpse the eternal, but the frustration comes because we cannot grasp it. We know enough of eternity to be able to compare it to our earthly fleeting, transitory existence— but not enough to understand it.
We like to think that we are in control of time and can manipulate it. Qoheleth accepted the reality that this is not so. He accepted that within human consciousness, God has put a sense of the larger scope of time and this makes us aware of all that we don’t know.
In parts of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth accepts this begrudgingly. And that is OK. After all, his ravings are in the Bible. His questions are included. His frustrations have been copied for hundreds of years for millions to read.
Those compiling the Old Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit didn’t say, “Let’s leave that book out. It’s a bit too raw—we don’t want people questioning God like this!” No. Ecclesiastes has its place in the Old Testament, and I’m glad it does! I relate to it. I find hope in it. It reminds me that life is short, so make the most of it!
And it challenges me to surrender to the One who holds it. Life is transient, so security must be found elsewhere. For those who know God, there is hope in something eternal. Death will come to us all. Life is temporary, but this fleeting and sometimes very frustrating life is not all there is.
Reprinted with permission from War Cry (The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Territory).
Illustration: Ekaterina Zykina/ iStock via Getty Images Plus