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ECCLESIASTES: PART FOUR

 PRESENTED ON 11-02-13

 

         Today we continue our review of Ecclesiastes by looking at a passage that is probably the most well known of any passage in Ecclesiastes and maybe the Bible in general.  It often is quoted in part or in full in speeches and some years ago became the lyrics for a song that make it to #1 on Billboards hit parade list.   The song was called "Turn, Turn, Turn" and was written in the 1950’s by folk singer Pete Seeger.  "Turn, Turn, Turn" is based on the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes Chapter three.  The lyrics were set to music and recorded in 1962 by a folk group called the Limeliters’ and later recorded by Pete Seeger.  Judy Collins recorded it in 1963.  The song became an international hit in 1965 when it was recorded by the rock band the Byrds.  The song is virtually a verbatim rendering of the KJV translation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

        Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:  A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which 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 cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, 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 (KJV).

       It has been said that the reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen all at once.  However, sometimes life feels like everything is happening all at once and at other times it feels like nothing is happening.  Sometimes it feels like only good things are happening and other times it feel like everything bad is happening. 

       Sometimes we wonder why things happen the way they do.  Some believe that everything that happens is predestined by God to happen in the way it happens and since we can’t do anything about what God has foreordained we just have to adapt and stoically go along with the flow of life’s events.  Others believe most of life’s events are fortuitous and happen as the simple result of time and chance and cause and effect.  I discussed this issue in some depth several years in a series of sermons on predestination and free will. 

       There is nothing in Solomon’s dialog in 3:1-8 that would indicate he is teaching that all events are predestined to happen the way they happen.   Solomon appears to simply be making a matter of fact statement that there is a time for certain things to happen in the way that they happen. He is simply observing the stream of life’s events. 

       Solomon begins by looking at the bookends of our earthly existence. There is a time when we are born and there is a time when we die and everything else takes place between these two times.  It is interesting that nearly every other time mentioned in this passage involves a choice. We can decide when to plant or when to uproot or when to kill or when to heal or when to weep or when to laugh or when to mourn or when to dance. We can’t choose the time of our birth and we don’t choose the time of our death unless we take our own life through suicide.  

       In saying there is a time to be born, Solomon is simply reflecting on the fact that after the appropriate gestation period a birth takes place.  When he says there is a time to die, he is reflecting on the fact that certain dynamics come together for all of us at some point in our lives that result in our death. 

       For some, such dynamics involve getting in the way of a bullet in a war, robbery or just walking down the street in a crime infested area of a city.  For others such dynamics may involve an auto accident or some kind of fatal injury. Still for others there may be a sudden heart attack or a prolonged fight with cancer. All such dynamics result in there being a time of death.  Solomon is simply saying there is a time when we are born and a time when we will die.

       Solomon goes on to say there is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.  This is a rather obvious observation.  We plant a crop. We water it, keep it free of weeds and pests, we watch it grow and mature and then we harvest it.  A time of planting is followed by a time of harvesting.  Such time of planting will be dictated by the climate we live in.  In northern climates spring is the time to plant and fall is the time to harvest.  In other climates around the world, planting and subsequent harvesting can be done at various times of the year.  The point here is that the time at which things are done or events occur is often dictated by the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

       Solomon says there is a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time of war, and a time of peace.  Here too Solomon is simply observing that circumstances will dictate when we do certain things.  When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, it was time to go to war and to kill.  After the axis powers in Europe were defeated, it was time to bring healing and peace to a war torn continent.  In both cases, extant circumstances dictated it was time to take certain actions and facilitate certain events.  

       Solomon observes that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  The death of a loved one is a time to weep and mourn.  The wedding of ones children is a time to dance.  These are all matter of fact observations.

       Let’s look at just a few more of Solomon’s observations of the events of life. He says there is a time to keep, and a time to cast away.   We all tend to accumulate a lot of stuff as we go though life.  There is a time of life when we are building our estate.  But then we come to the point where we look at all this stuff and decide maybe it is time to down size and get rid of a lot of our stuff.  Thus in all of our lives there is a time to keep and a time to cast away. 

       Solomon says there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.  Identifying the right time to speak and the right time to keep silent is the challenge.  We often speak when we should remain silent and we remain silent when we need to speak.  This is an area where we could avoid a lot of trouble if we would just be diligent in determining when to speak and when to shut up.  Much human conflict results from failing to recognize when to shut up. 

       On the other hand, a failure to speak up at the right time can be just as bad.  As we all know, there is a great deal of human misconduct that continues to occur in our society and the world at large.  It seems few are willing to speak out and identify such misconduct for what it is.  The practice of political correctness allows for much sin to occur with little resistance.  There is a time to shut up but there is also a time to speak out.   

       Solomon says there is a time to love, and a time to hate.  At first glance this may appear to be a strange statement.  Aren’t we to always love and never to hate?   Does God hate?

       Proverbs 6:16-19: There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,  a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.

       Proverbs 8:13: To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.

       Romans 12:9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

       We are to hate evil.  To hate evil is to totally despise and loath it.  We are to shun evil at all costs. When we see evil we should have a gut reaction of disgust toward it.   When we correctly identify evil, and I stress correctly, we should be willing to speak out against it.  While we should exercise discretion and good sense in how we do this, we should not shrink back and simply ignore evil in an effort to be politically correct. 

       Our seeming fixation on not offending people by questioning or condemning their behavior has become very pervasive in our culture.  The result has been the proliferation and tolerance of evil.  While we must exercise prudence in how we identify evil behavior, we should not ignore it as if it didn’t exist.  As Christians we have an obligation to not only set the proper example by behaving righteously but also making our dissatisfaction with evil apparent. There is a time to love and a time to hate.  While love should be the driving force in our lives, hatred of evil should be present as well. 

       After Solomon completes his list of matter of fact statements about there being a time for the things of life to occur as they do, he then says this: 

      Ecclesiastes 3: 9-10:  What does the worker gain from his toil?  I have seen the burden God has laid on men.

       Here Solomon appears to return to his perspective that all that we do and all that happens to us in this life is very temporal.  It only lasts for a short time and then it comes to an end.  Because of the temporal, fleeting nature of our labors, Solomon virtually sees all this as a burden.  Yet he seems to realize, as we will see, that we should take what God has given us and be happy with it. 

       Throughout Solomon’s dialog, we see him having this conversation with himself.  On the one hand he sees life as a burden of seeking and striving but never achieving ultimate satisfaction.  On the other hand he appears to resign himself to the fact that God has placed man on this earth and provided man with certain attributes and proclivities and we should make the most of what God has given us and be satisfied in doing so.  He realizes we can’t begin to understand the awesomeness of God so we should just sit back and take what God has given us and utilize it to the fullest.

       Proverbs 3:11-15: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.

       Now Solomon appears to switch gears somewhat and returns to his perspective of there being a time for everything including a time when God judges us for what we do.  We cannot determine from his dialog whether he is thinking in terms of judgement while we are in this world or of judgement beyond this physical life.  While Solomon made the statement that God has set eternity in the hearts of men, it is unclear at this point what Solomon understood about eternity.  He gives the impression that to him this life is all there is.  

       Proverbs 3:16-17:  And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice--wickedness was there.  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."

       Since Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” here as he does a number of times throughout his dialog, he may be here thinking in terms of God judging people while yet in this physical life.  There are many Scriptural examples of God doing just that.  We see this in the life of individuals as well as in the case of entire nations.  For example, we see God punishing Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, when he became proud in thinking that it was he who accomplished the greatness of his kingdom rather than giving God the credit.  In the NT in Acts 12 we see God punishing Herod for exulting himself rather than acknowledge God. We are all familiar with the various ways God brought judgement upon Israel and other nations as seen in the OT.  Solomon may simply be saying there are consequences connected with what we do.

       Now we find Solomon making statements that have puzzled many over the years and have let to all sorts of interpretations.

       Ecclesiastes 3:18-20: I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 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. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

       Some have concluded from this passage that man is no different from the animals.  We are all made from the dust of the ground and we all return to the dust.  Solomon says man and animals have the same breath.  Therefore, some conclude there is no difference between man and animals.  Evolutionists will tell you that man is nothing more than an animal that has evolved to the highest level so far possible in the evolutionary process.  What is Solomon saying here?

       Solomon is certainly correct in saying we are all made from the dust of the ground and to the dust we shall return.  He is simply affirming what is written in Genesis.

       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."

       Solomon is also correct in saying that both man and animals have the same breath.  Solomon uses the Hebrew word ruah for breath.  The Theological Word Book of the OT explains that the basic meaning of ruah is “air in motion.”  Both humans and animals are dependent on air in motion.  We inhale air and we exhale air.  In this respect man and animals are the same.  Both man and animals are dependent on respiration for physical life. 

       However, we should not conclude from this that man and animals are the same in every respect.  Solomon is simply reflecting on the fact that all breathing organisms are made of the dust and return to the dust.  Physical death happens to all air breathing organisms.  Solomon is not here discussing anything more about man and animals and we shouldn’t read anything more into his statement. 

       Solomon would have been very familiar with the Genesis account of God saying He created man in His image, in the image of God.  There is nothing in Scripture saying animals are created in the image of God.  Humans are quite different from the animals in that we are created in the image of God and have been given attributes far superior to that of even the most intelligent animal.  Such superior attributes have not come about through a gradual evolutionary process but were given at the time of mans creation.

       Solomon is simply calling attention to the common death shared by all living organisms and nothing more.  Solomon goes on to ask the question:

       Ecclesiastes 3:21: Who knows if the spirit (ruah) of man rises upward and if the spirit (ruah) of the animal goes down into the earth?"  

       The same Hebrew word ruah which was translated “breath” in verse 19 is translated in verse 21 as spirit.  As already discussed, a basic meaning of ruah is  “moving air.”  However, this is not the only meaning of ruah.  Bullinger, in his Companion Bible, shows ruah having the meaning of “invisible force.”  Ruah is frequently used in Scripture to identify the Spirit of God and in some cases to identify the spirit of man.  Where ruah is used to identify spirit, its meaning is more in line with the idea of invisible force. Sometimes ruah is used to identify the force of ones anger as we will see.  Ruah is also used in Scripture to define the exercise of God’s power which in reality is the exercise of His Spirit.

       Why does Solomon wonder whether the ruah of man rises upward and the ruah of an animal goes down into the earth?  This may simply be a kind of rhetorical question he is asking within the context of his acknowledgement of both man and animals being of the same breath and dying by having their breath leave them.  In once again referring to the death of man, Solomon later says:

       Ecclesiastics 12:7: and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

       Here the same Hebrew word ruah is used.  Here Solomon appears to make a distinction between the physical body that returns to the ground and the ruah that returns to God.  As already discussed, ruah is not limited to identifying the movement of air such as in breath.  Bullinger, in his extensive comments on this word in the Companion Bible, concludes that context must be considered in determining how a writer is using this word. 

       Psalm 139:7: Where can I go from your Spirit (ruah)? Where can I flee from your presence?

       Here ruah is used to express the presence of God which is more in line with the idea of an invisible force and not moving air as is true in the breathing process.  In Genesis 1:2 it is recorded that God’s ruah hovered over the waters.  Here the meaning of ruah appears to denote the power of God being used in the creative process.   So as can be seen, ruah is used in a variety of ways and context is critical in determining how it is being used.  Solomon uses ruah some 22 times in Ecclesiastes and in different ways.

       1:6: The wind (ruah) blows to the south and turns to the north. Here, ruah is being used to describe the movement of air.

       7:9: Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit (ruah), for anger resides in the lap of fools.  Here ruah is being used to reference a frame of mind.

       10:4: If a ruler's anger (ruah) rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.  Here ruah relates to emotional expression.

        It may just be that Solomon is using ruah in 3:21 to designate the loss of breath resulting in physical death and in 12:7 he is using ruah to show that the invisible life force that God gives to us at birth is what returns to God at our death. 

       Solomon concludes this passage of his narrative by once again concluding 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?"

       Ecclesiastes 3:22:  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?

       After bemoaning the fleetingness of life and the fact we all die, Solomon again instructs that we should enjoy what we have and what we do.  At this point in his narrative he is questioning what it is we can know about the future.  As we move through his dialog we will see he has more to say about life after death. 

       We will stop at this point and continue with Chapter 4 next time.

PART FIVE