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The Gospel of Time

Paul Twiss Ecclesiastes 3:1-15


Well, as I was invited to preach on New Year's Eve, I thought what text would be appropriate to close out the year with and even to open up a new year with, and I thought Ecclesiastes 3 might be helpful for us, so please turn there in your Bibles, Ecclesiastes chapter 3. I'm aware that maybe you have a New Year's resolution that you've made, maybe you've set some goals for the year ahead. Often a New Year's resolution is really a decision as to how you're going to spend your time over the next year and Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is a well-known passage that really speaks to the issue of time, so we'll be looking this morning at just the first 15 verses. I'll read from verse 1.

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—

A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear 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 throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
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.

What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils? I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is a gift of God. I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed away.

So reads the Word of the living God.

Well, if you'd been alive in the eighteenth century and if you'd had any interest in science then you would have been aware of the greatest scientific problem of that day, and it was the longitude problem, the longitude problem. It was the greatest scientific problem of that day and it had been the greatest problem for hundreds of years. Simply stated, the longitude problem is man's inability to measure longitude at sea. The measurement of latitude was not an issue. As ships moved around the equator, the lines running parallel, they could quickly calculate where they were, how far they'd been, but as ships moved towards either of the poles, the lines would converge and it would be somewhat difficult to accurately calculate where the ship was. The result of this is that thousands of men lost their lives. Often a captain would miscalculate the position of his ship and then out of nowhere some cliffs or some rocks or land would appear and the vessel would crash and the men would die.

Now, the crux of the longitude problem is essentially one of time. You see, in order to accurately measure longitude you need to know two things, you need to know the time in the home port and the time on board the ship. If you can measure those two things accurately then you can calculate your longitude. But they weren't able to and so for many centuries scientists had sought a solution, and for a long time they believed that the solution lay in the heavens. If they could accurately map out the stars then somehow they could keep time on board, but it wasn't to be. Indeed, it was when a carpenter from the northwest of England designed a clock, the design of which he labored over for 40 years, that the solution to the problem was finally found.

Now, that is not the world we live in today. We can very quickly measure longitude at sea today in a few seconds. Indeed, we live in a world where we can track just about anything. The children consider it their daily responsibility to help mom in her sanctification by misplacing the phone. And so, with some kind of app that I don't really understand, we can locate Laura's iPhone and thwart their efforts. That is the world we live in, but it wasn't always the case. And the longitude problem, apart from being a great issue nautically speaking, it testified to the theology of Ecclesiastes 3.

At its crux it testifies to the fact that man cannot master time. We do not control the ticking of the clock. Much less do we control the timing of the events in our lives. Rather than being lords over time, we are minions at the mercy of time. Seasons come and seasons go and we have no control over them. We have no control over when those seasons begin in our life and when they end. Rather, what we must do is learn that as they come about we are simply to give thanks to the Lord. We are to learn how to skillfully navigate through them in such a way that the Lord is honored and understand that time, every second we have, is a gift from the Lord. Rather than seeking to master the clock, we should submit to the Master of the clock. This is a lesson that we must learn and we must keep on learning.

It is a lesson that would most certainly help us with our time management, that is for sure, but much more than that it is a lesson that relates to a gospel issue. It is at its heart gospel centered, simply because we are representatives of Christ and our response to situations as they come about in our lives, the way in which we respond to things that we would perhaps never have chosen to walk through, the way in which we respond to a particular situation, the timing of which we would not have chosen, reflects, for good or for bad, on the person of Christ. And so, it is imperative for the people of God to learn a robust theology of time. And that is what Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us.

Now, we need to remember that this short passage is part of a bigger argument. We're in the book of Ecclesiastes, written by Solomon, the king of Israel, and you'll remember that he prayed to the Lord for wisdom and the Lord answered abundantly. We're told in the Scriptures there was not a man before or after him who had more wisdom. Tragically, Solomon sought to put that wisdom to work apart from a proper acknowledgment of God. And so, what we see in the book of Ecclesiastes is one endeavor, one pursuit after another on the part of Solomon to find ultimate meaning. He searches for ultimate meaning apart from a proper acknowledgment of the Lord.

So, in chapters 1 and 2 we see are pursuit of pleasure, we see a pursuit of learning, we see a pursuit of work. In and of themselves, not inherently wrong, but when divorced from a proper acknowledgment of God they ultimately only ever yield frustration, frustration and dissatisfaction. When we come to chapter 3, the tone of the book changes somewhat. We see all these searches in chapters 1 and 2 from a desperate man, we get to chapter 3 and the tone is much more reflective. Solomon starts to reflect upon the truths and the realities of life, but again he finds vanity is the answer.

Now, there's no reason to think that, as we embark upon this new section of the book, the attitude of Solomon has changed at all. We still have here a man who is trying to live a secular life. That is, a life without a proper acknowledgment of God. We still have, in chapter 3, a man who is refusing to acknowledge the authority of his Creator. And so, as he reflects, he reflects upon the issue of time and we find a man who is frustrated by the clock.

We can divide the passage into two halves. The first half is verses 1 through 8 and it's a poem, a poem. And then 9 through 15 we see the explanation of that poem. It's helpful to think of this passage like a clock, picture a big grandfather clock. In 1 through 8, as we read this poem, we observe the swinging of the pendulum from one side to the other. We observe the passing of time. And then, in 9 through 15, as Solomon gives us an explanation, a theology of time, we step around the back of the clock as it were. We open up the door and we look inside, and we observe the cogs of the clock turning. And we start to understand how it is that this time works. So, 1 through 8 we might call, the futility of time, we observe the futility of time, and 9 through 15 we would call, the mechanism of futility, the mechanism of futility.

Beginning with the poem, 1 through 8, the futility of time, verse 1 reads, "There's an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven." Now, we can stop there and make at least two observations. Number one, notice the all-encompassing nature of this statement. Solomon says, "There is an appointed time for everything. There is a time for every single event under heaven." But notice, secondly, the absence of any reference to mankind. "There is an appointed time for everything," time has been ordained, every event in life, but not by man. Everything is ordained, but not by man. And this simple truth is what Solomon plays out for us with rhythmic beauty in the next few verses.

Now, as we jump into the poem proper, it's important to realize that this poem is descriptive and not prescriptive. It's observational, it's not instructional. It's funny how many Christians will read this poem and somehow, for some reason, they interpret it as some kind of to do list, something that has to be achieved, we have to check it off in our short time on earth. That interpretation will get you into a lot of trouble, especially when you come to verse 3.

Solomon is simply observing, he's observing. And he observes with 14 pairs of opposites. Again, like the swinging of the pendulum of the grandfather clock, Solomon moves from one extreme to the other. So, we see in verse 2 he moves from birth to the other end of life, namely death, from planting to uprooting, from intentionally harming, that is, killing, in verse 3, to now healing and seeking to prolong life, from tearing down to building up, from crying to laughing, and so on and so forth.

And what we need to understand is that as Solomon moves from one end of the spectrum to the other in every area of life, everything in between is implied. So Solomon moves from birth over across to death and in view, implied, is every other event in between those two. So Solomon is, again, reiterating to us again that every single event in life is ordained, there is a time for it.

He makes the same point a second way when we realize that these 14 pairs of opposites are chosen to reach every sphere of life. So, in verse 2 we think about the physical realm, birth, death, planting, uprooting. In verse 3 warfare is in view, killing, healing, tearing down, that is, tearing down a battlement and building it up again. In verse 4 emotions, both private, weeping and laughing, and public, mourning and dancing. In verse 5 he considers agriculture, throwing stones, that is, the practice of covering a field with rocks so as to prevent any growth and then picking them up again to allow the harvest to grow. Relationships, "A time to embrace and to shun embracing."

In verse 6 we have what you might refer to as the metaphysical realm, talking about possessions, "A time to search and a time to give up what is lost, to keep and to throw away." In verse 7 he's back to the idea of mourning, "A time to tear apart," that is, to tear apart your clothes in mourning, as would be the practice in Israel, "to sew up together again, to be silent in mourning and a time to speak." And then in verse 8 affections, love and hate, and warfare, "a time for war and a time for peace."

And so, in a very skillful and yet subtle way, Solomon probes every sphere of human experience. He examines all of the contours of life and the message is the same, every event is ordained, but you don't get to choose when. What that means for you is that there will be times of mourning in your life, but you don't decide when they are, there will be times of joy in your life, but you don't ordain them. There will be times of grief far greater than you can imagine, but you don't get to pick when that happens. And then, of course, eventually death will come knocking at the door and he won't consult your schedule.

And in case you haven't got the picture, there's yet a third way that Solomon highlights the futility of time. There's a third way in which he highlights man's inability to master the clock and that is simply in the poetic nature of the text. I described it as the ticking of a grandfather clock and that's because that's precisely the literary effect of this poem. Solomon says, there is a time for this and a time for that, a time for this and a time for that, a time for this and a time for that, tick, tock, tick, tock. Even in the writing of the poem, Solomon, in all of his brilliance, is representing the passing of time. Even as you read the poem you get a sense of the sands of time slipping through your hands and you can't get them back. Even in having read the poem out loud, time has passed, and now it will forever be lost.

Now, think about the irony of this. This section of Ecclesiastes is, perhaps, the most well-known portion of this book. I would venture to say that if you were to walk down the street this afternoon and interact with an unbeliever, quite possibly they know something of this passage. I've heard it quoted in movies and quoted in T.V. shows. And the question is, why is it so well-known? And the answer is, because of its inherent beauty. But its beauty is deceptive. The beauty of the poem subtly draws the reader in, in order to testify to something that is broken. The poem testifies to the futility of time. We can't master it. It is running away from us. And we have no control over the timing of the events in our life.

And so, it is quite ironic that we would speak of keeping time. So often we talk about keeping time; there are few phrases that are so ridiculous in all of the English language. We cannot keep time. If all of the clocks and all the watches on planet Earth were to stop this second, time would keep marching on. It doesn't show us any mercy. It doesn't care for us. The very best we could do is to track time and we can't even do that very well. For hundreds of years we couldn't track time at sea such that thousands of men lost their lives. The most accurate clock in the world today is an atomic clock. It loses time in the range of 1x10-9 seconds per day. What that means is, over the course of a hundred million years that clock will lose one second. The engineers say, look at our great work, marvel at what we've done. To which Solomon replies, you are still losing time, we have no control over the clock.

The testimony, therefore, of mankind's relationship with the clock is that we don't keep it, we don't track it, we are always beaten by it, our schedules are dominated by the tyranny of the urgent, and it always yields frustration. Perhaps the most immediate example of this is the fact that even this morning, perhaps your mind has drifted to whatever else it is you have to do today. Perhaps even this morning your mind has drifted to the other events that have to get done today before the sun sets and there's a fear that maybe there just isn't enough time.

I think, personally, about the fact we arrived here five years ago in California. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember, like yesterday, when we touched down at the airport. I can recall the smell of the airport. I can remember the sounds and what it felt like, and five years just disappears like that. Our daughter, or oldest, was born nine years ago. I remember, like yesterday, driving to the hospital with my wife. I remember the doctor handing me my daughter for the first time, and nine years just vanishes. And we all have those experiences. We can all testify to the sands of time slipping through our fingers. Wherever we look and whatever we consider, the testimony of life is that time wins again.

And so it is for good reason that Solomon exclaims in verse 9, "What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?" Solomon shrugs his shoulders, he throws up his arms, he says, "What profit is there?" Now, when he uses that word profit, he's not asking questions of immediate temporary gratification. Solomon is not asking the question of what's my next paycheck look like. This is an eternally minded question. It's the same question that he asks when he opens this book and it's the same question he asks all the way through this book, which would be, where can meaning be found? Where can meaning be found? Or, to put it more bluntly, what's the point? If time is always slipping away and we can't hold on to it and it will always win, then why bother?

You see, Ecclesiastes is such a helpful book, to confront us with the realities of life. Ecclesiastes is such a helpful book, to confront us with the reality of life outside of the garden. It confronts us with the reality of sin and the fall and brokenness. You see, it was true that mankind dwelt in paradise, it was true that mankind enjoyed life with God without any interruption to perfect communion with Him, but he sinned. And when sin was introduced into the world it affected everything. We were expelled from the garden and now sin seeps into every single aspect of life. I would encourage you not simply to think of sin in the category of the things that men and women do, but understand that sin affects even abstract concepts. Sin affects our joy. Sin affects our laughter. Sin affects our thinking. Sin affects our emotions. And, sin affects the concept of time.

Consider the fact that the pain of life is not simply felt by the content of events but so also by their timing. The pain that we feel in life is often felt because of the timing of events. I've been texting with my friend Sam back in England recently. I sent him the text saying, "I look forward to when sin is gone and the glory of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea." Now, why did I send that particular message? And the answer is because Sam was recently diagnosed with cancer. He's my age, he is married with two young children, and the doctors are talking about months and not years. Which means, most likely, Sam won't grow old with his wife, he won't walk his daughter down the aisle, he won't see his children graduate from college. And the content of that diagnosis is hard enough, but what makes it so particularly hard is its timing. Why now? Why now?

It is true for all of us, the futility of time, the frustration that comes from the continual ticking of the clock and the timing of particular events in our lives that we would not have chosen to walk through, far less would we have chosen their timing. This is the frustration that Solomon feels. As a man who so desperately wants to find meaning and significance in other things in life, all he can conclude when he reflects upon the issue of time is vanity, what's the point?

Well, that leads us to our second section. Having observed the futility of time, we step around the back of the clock as it were and we now look at the mechanism of that futility. From verses 9 through 15 we peer into the inner workings of this clock. We see several cogs moving away and here Solomon gives us an explanation, he gives us a theology of time. He says in verse 10, "I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves."

Now, Solomon is simply drawing out a truth that has been implied in the poem. The first part of which is that we have no control over time, but notice now he also says that the events are ordained and they're ordained by God. He's already hinted at this. If you look back up to verse 1, Solomon uses that phrase "under heaven," "there is a time for every event under heaven." That phrase occurs three times in the book of Ecclesiastes and it is somewhat synonymous with the phrase "under the sun." When you read it you understand that God's involvement is indirectly in view.

And so what Solomon says here in verse 10, that he's already hinted at in verse 1, is that, yes, man has no control over the timing of events in his life, but God does. Now, think through the implications of that one observation. Though the fall, sin, robbed man of the ordained authority and rulership that God had bestowed upon him, though we are no longer able to subject the world to the rulership that God intended, the fall did nothing to impoverish God's control over nature. The fall did nothing to impoverish God's control over the affairs of human history. It did nothing to affect His rule and His reign. God is still King over all things, which includes the ticking of the clock. God still ordains the affairs of man. He chooses the hour at which you will grieve. God chooses the hour when you will mourn. God, and God alone, decides when you will have seasons of joy in your life.

Solomon reiterates this truth in verse 11, he says, "He has made everything appropriate in its time." Some translations translate the word appropriate as beautiful. Now, what Solomon is not doing is declaring some kind of inherent beauty to a fallen creation. Appropriate is a good translation. Solomon is saying that all events are perfectly ordained by God. The timing of the events in your life are perfect. God has not made a mistake. He has not lost control. Though we would see chaos, though we experience tragedy, though we might experience pain, though we see sin abounding, we have to affirm the truth that God has not lost control. He has not lost control over the content nor has He lost control over the timing. What this means is that even if now you can't see this truth being played out, one day you will stand before the Lord and you will look back with increased understanding, increased awareness, and you will proclaim that God's timing was perfect. You will look back and proclaim that the timing of every season in your life was the very best, that it was perfect. "He has made everything appropriate in its time."

Now, in contrast, carrying on in verse 11, in contrast Solomon says, "yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end." The inner workings of the clock testify to the fact that God reigns over history, He reigns over every event, and we swim in the current of time. There is something in our hearts that desires, that yearns for that knowledge, that desires and yearns for even communing with God and an understanding that He has over the timing of the events in our lives, and yet God has established it yet so that we cannot fathom these things.

But Solomon goes further than that, he takes us now to another part of his argument. As we move into verses 12 and 13 we see that he provides a solution. Verse 12 says, "I know that there is nothing better for them then to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is a gift of God." Now, before we consider the content of the solution, let's just think about the way in which Solomon is presenting it. He says, "I know that there is nothing better." This is not Solomon using the superlative. He's not using the phrase "nothing better" in the way that you or I might use it. Solomon is not saying, I found the very best thing, there is nothing else that compares to this; this is not an enthusiastic Solomon.

Perhaps an example would help, if I describe to you the difference between the British and the Americans. When you speak to an American and you ask him, "How was your day?" He would say, "It's awesome, it's great, fantastic." The Brit would say, "It's not bad." You ask the American, "How's the weather?" He says, "It's gloriously sunny." The Brit says, "Well, it's not raining." You ask the American, "How was dinner?" He says, "It was delicious." The Brits says, "Well, it wasn't awful." You see, what he's doing is that the Brit is expressing a positive truth, but in negative language. And that's what Solomon is doing here. In fact, Solomon is being very British. He says, "I know there is nothing better." It's a reluctant admission that there is another way. Having sought meaning apart from God, Solomon now reluctantly, expressing a positive truth in negative language, reluctantly says, there is another way.

And the other way is to accept that the time you have is a gift from God. It is such a small shift in thinking and yet it changes everything. This is a turning point in Solomon's argument. Rather than assume that you have a right to the time that you enjoy, rather than assume that you can master the clock, you accept that every second is a gift from the Lord. Rather than allow your schedule to yield frustration, you quietly submit to the reign of God, you humbly submit to His lordship over your life. And this changes everything.

Solomon says, I am not the master of the clock, I am not the master of the time, I am not the master of the seasons of my life. I don't get to control their content, far less do I get to control the timing, the timing of the various seasons of life, but I must accept them, humbly, as a gift from the Lord, and in so doing, then I can rejoice in the midst of them. In so doing then I can live skillfully, navigating through the various seasons of life, living in such a way that the Lord can be truly honored.

Friend, you must affirm God's sovereignty over the timing, the timing of the events in your life. You must delight in the life that He has given you and embrace your lot with humility and contentment. This is the rare jewel of Christian contentment, it is the gospel of time. And if you make that small shift in thinking, then you are no longer frustrated at every passing hour, but you humbly rejoice in the gift of every hour. You navigate through every season, times of blessing, times of morning, with a reference point that is not the ticking of the clock, but is the perfect providence of the Lord.

Now, Solomon goes one step further. He extends his argument one more time. Looking at the inner workings of the clock, he says in verse 14, "I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him." So he tells us that God will remain forever, there is nothing that we can add to His reality, there is nothing we can take from it, and then notice the word for. So often, theology is packed into small words. So often, as you read your Bibles, you need to examine the arguments that are being made by the author of the text and you realize that their argument will hinge upon a small word, an if or a but or a therefore, a so that, and such is the case here, just one letter in the Hebrew text, "for God has so worked that men should fear Him."

So what we understand now is that Solomon is saying yes, man has no control over the timing of the events in his life, that is true. It is also true that God does and He is doing so absolutely perfectly, but more than that, he says, God has set it up this way in order that we would be driven to Him. In the economy of the fall, according to God's wisdom, He has so established the way that time works that every time we are tempted to be frustrated, every time we acknowledge that we have no control over the timing of the events in our lives, we are driven towards the Lord. He has set it up so that we would fear Him. That is where the Lord wants us to be, sat before Him in reverence, bowing humbly in submission to His will.

When we consider the passing of the clock we must then flee to the Lord. The passing of the clock and the inability we have to master it should cause us to recognize our place in the grand scheme of things. It should cause us to recognize that we have no power over this, but God is the Lord of all time. And the very best we can do is to flee to Him. We might ask at this point, how do we fear the Lord? How do we rightly fear the Lord? And the answer is, the gospel. The answer is found in the gospel just as Ecclesiastes is a book that paints an accurate picture of life for us, just as Ecclesiastes is such a helpful book to confront us with the reality of sin in a broken world, so it is also a book that should drive us towards the gospel.

Time and time again we must consider the place of this book in the grand scheme of Scripture and understand that true satisfaction, the satisfaction that Solomon was searching for all along, is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the gospel of Jesus Christ, just as the fall affected everything, the gospel of Jesus Christ affects everything. It affects even our consideration of time. When God caused His Son to break into the futility of time, to live amongst us, to subject Himself to the same world that we live in, yet doing so perfectly without sin, and then opening up His arms that He would be nailed to a cross, paying the price, the penalty for sin, making reconciliation with God for sinful men and women.

And as we are reconciled with God we understand that it changes everything. There are ramifications from the gospel that sit on your life. If you are indeed a child of God then you have to take seriously the imperatives that rest on your life. Included in which is the command to redeem the time. As children of God we must think carefully about how we use our time because it honors Christ. It honors Christ to use our time well and it honors Christ to respond to situations in our life well, situations, the content of which we would not have chosen, the timing of which we would not have chosen.

And as we do so, as we labor and strive to honor Christ, because of the foundation of the gospel of salvation that He has gifted to us, we also think forward to eternity. We think forward to the reality that very soon we will be with Him, no more feeling the passing of the clock in the way that we presently do, no longer frustrated by the passing of every hour, but dwelling with Him forever and ever in eternal ongoing worship. May these realities bear fruit in our lives over the next year. Pray with me.

Our Father, we do give You thanks for the gospel of Jesus Christ and we acknowledge that it changes everything. We see the frustration of Solomon here as he sought to live a life apart from You and when it came to time it was yet more frustration. Please Father, keep us from that error. Help us to acknowledge properly that You are the Lord over all time, that You ordain the events of our lives, You ordain their content and their timing, and Your wisdom is perfect. Help us to prove Your goodness in that. I pray that we would prove Your grace in our response to the situations in our lives. And as people who are centered around the gospel, may we look forward to that day, the day that is coming so soon, when we will dwell with the King forever, ongoing, never ending worship. We give You thanks in Christ's name, amen.