FROM ECCLESIASTES 3:1-8
Read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
People in different parts of the world have radically differing perspectives on time. I’m told that if you are in Greece and someone tells you they’ll meet you at 8pm and they show up at 9:30, they’re not considered late. On the other hand, if you are 30 seconds late for a train in the land of precision watches--Switzerland, there’s a good chance you’ve missed it. In our busy western culture, we tend to look at time as our enemy. There’s never enough of it. Most of our cultural expressions about time tend to express an adversarial relationship with it. We say things like: “Our vacation was too short,” “I haven’t got all day,” “what a waste of time,” “Time is not our friend,” “time is money,” “I’ve got more important things to do with my time” For those of us in the west, time is more often a tyrant that pushes us than a simple measure of minutes and hours. Time or lack of it can be one of your biggest stressors.
This morning, we want to look, not only at what has been called “the world’s most famous poem about time,” but also the most famous passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. Many people in our culture would more readily identify these words from Ecclesiastes chapter three with Pete Seeger’s version of it in the 1960’s hit song by “The Byrds.” The song “Turn, Turn, Turn” uses this text about time as a plea for peace and tolerance. That’s a noble sentiment, but the word “turn” doesn’t once occur in this passage and it’s not even remotely a plea for peace and tolerance or much else for that matter. The real meaning of the passage is two-fold. The first and less significant is looking at it from a human point of view that means—“there is an appropriate time for everything.” This reminds us to be sensitive to timing in all things. Saying the right thing at the wrong time is generally worse than saying nothing at all. Within this context of being timely in our lives, perhaps the truth these verses address that is most often repeated in Scripture regards the appropriate times for us to speak and to remain silent. Proverbs 25:11 says, “11 A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 15:23 says, “23 To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” James 1:26 warns, “26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
Those kinds of wise insights can be drawn from each of these eight verses, but the second and main purpose of this passage becomes clear when you look at this text from God’s perspective. With this God-centered view, these verses repeatedly remind us that in all the possible areas of life God sovereignly controls all of our times and seasons. One commentator summarizes this truth this way: “God does everything at just the right time.” We know this is the main purpose of this text from verse one. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:” The word there translated “season” in the original means a time given by God for a specific activity. God has established a fixed time for all his predetermined purposes in all areas of life. That is--God sovereignly establishes and controls all the seasons and times in our lives for his purposes.
We see an example of this in some of Jesus’ last words before his ascension in Acts chapter one. The apostles are quizzing Jesus about when the final salvation of Israel would occur and he replies in verse seven, “7It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” The implication is that God has authoritatively fixed the times and seasons of what happens and what will happen on a global scale. David reveals that God’s control of times and seasons also extends to our daily, personal lives in Psalm 139. He says to God in verse 16, “16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” The entries in David’s calendar for every day of his life were recorded by God before he was born and the same is true for us. Because God’s sovereign control over time is the main theme of Ecclesiastes chapter three, that’s where we’ll be focusing this morning.
Let’s read the first eight verses again and as we read them, think about them through this God-centered lens. “1 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.” The Preacher first tells us that God has a perfect and pre-set “time [for all] to be born and a time [for all] to die.” We may find it hard to believe either of those assertions at times. As for being born on God’s schedule some will say, “I should have been born in the 1940’s. I would have done much better in that world.” This text assures us that like Queen Esther, every one of us was born “for such a time as this.” God wanted us brought into this world at precisely that moment in history we arrived here. If you, like many North American believers, look to the future with fear and trembling about how your children or grandchildren will endure the rapidly increasing evil in this world, this text allows us to set our heart at ease. Before creation, God pre-set the time for your child or grandchild to be born and his promise is that his grace will be sufficient for them to live faithfully for Jesus in any context. If in the future more grace is required to be faithful to Christ because of increased opposition or persecution, then God will give our descendants the grace to overcome whatever challenges may come. No one is born at the wrong time. No one is born at a time when the difficulties of living for God exceed his grace to overcome them. If a person is born into a context of persecution and even martyrdom, then they were born for just such a time. There is a time to be born and its God’s time.
On the other end of life, when we see a loved one die, sometimes it’s a great challenge to believe the timing is controlled by a good God. When a child dies before she reaches adulthood, or when a father dies while his kids are still young, most would say that is lousy timing. These events force us to admit that we often don’t understand God’s timing about things, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t willfully choose to believe and receive comfort from the fact that—even though we don’t understand all of his purposes, everyone dies at a time pre-set and established by an all-knowing and loving God. God’s timing on death is also hard to accept when we watch a loved one experience prolonged suffering before their death. Many people die too early in our minds but others seem to die too late—enduring far more suffering from an illness or dementia than we would assume is appropriate. Especially in the case of a believer’s illness, we wonder why God would have them linger and suffer so long if he’s going to take them to himself anyway. Why does a loved one die at the same time you’re going through another devastating personal crisis? We have no pat answers to these questions and it tests our faith to believe that God is in that timing. But he is in control and we can either choose to resent him for his timing or by his grace accept it in the knowledge that he knows more than we do and can be trusted.
The author, Qohelet tells us “there is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” This doubtless has more significance in an agrarian society, but the principle surely applies to more than gardening. We might apply it this way—“God has a time when a family can put down roots and others, when they are quickly plucked up and relocated.” You and your family are very happy in your home, job and community. You’re near family. The kids are in a good school, have good friends and you’re active in a good church. Then one day you get a phone call from your boss who wants you to transfer to a community you’ve barely heard of in another region of the country. Unless we’re in the military or for some other reason can’t easily refuse our boss, our natural inclination is to immediately decline the job transfer. “Life is so good here, why would God want to move us?” The problem with that thinking is that it assumes that God’s agenda for your life is your comfort, what most pleases you. God’s agenda in your life is to make you like his Son. And often, that can require that we move from our current friendly confines to somewhere else as he extracts us from our comfort zones and causes us to trust him in new ways. On the other hand, there are times when you’ve begged God to relocate you away from a job, a community, a church, school for your kids. You’ve repeatedly tried to leave that place but have discovered (much to your chagrin) that God has firmly planted and established you RIGHT THERE! In those instances, we need faith to trust him to “bloom where we’re planted.” Sometimes it takes more faith to stay in a place than it does to leave it. But whether we are planted or uprooted, God’s timing is perfect.
Verse three says there is ‘a time to kill, and a time to heal…” This claim is not unique to Ecclesiastes. In Deuteronomy 32:39 God tells us, “39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Sometimes life ends peacefully and sometimes not so peacefully. There are what we would call “senseless” killings that from our perspective serve absolutely no purpose, but God’s purposes and timing are clear to him if not to us. He’s just as sovereign over “senseless acts” as he is over sensible ones. His purposes are often hidden from us, but we can trust that his sovereign timing is right on. There is “a time to heal” as well. When someone contracts a serious illness—especially as a younger person, our first impulse in most cases is to ask God to heal the individual and sometimes he does through various means. It’s understandable for us to want healing for a loved one, but sometimes it’s not his will to heal. God’s agenda is his glory and our joy and if God can be more glorified and we can experience more joy in eternity by someone dying now than by letting them live another 20 years, then that person will die. Our problem is—when someone we love is sick, we selfishly tend to think more about how the loss of our loved one will impact us now more than how it will bring glory to God.
There’s a time to “break down, and a time to build up.” This can apply to many things. For instance, there’s a time for a person’s reputation to be brought down and a time for it to be restored. In God’s timing, there’s a time for a king, dynasty, a president or a political system to be torn down and a time for them to re-elected or be built up. There’s a time for a person’s career to implode followed by a season of great financial need. And there’s a time for it to explode perhaps followed by a season of wealth—God sets those times in place. There’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” In the Ancient Near Eastern context, weeping and laughing are more private emotional expressions; mourning and dancing are public displays. It’s in God’s time that things come into our lives that make us weep privately and mourn publicly. It’s also under his control of time when things occur causing us to laugh and dance. The text assures us that whether we’re weeping or laughing, mourning or dancing, God is sovereign over the timing of all that incites these strong emotions in us. If you’re in a season of life more marked by laughing or dancing for joy—thank God for whatever enjoyment he has brought into your life. Conversely, if this season brings you weeping or mourning, remember that this too is occurring right on time. God is never early or late in the timing of our lives.
Verse five is difficult. The Preacher says there is “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” Gathering stones together may refer to building or assembling something while casting away stones may be a time for dismantling something. This could fit with “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” When you combine the two, it could mean—there is a time to build relationships and a time to dismantle them. There’s a time to come together and a time to separate. We may not want to enter into a relationship with someone for some reason, but God can and does force the issue sometimes. There are other times when our heart breaks because a relationship is ending, but God is running the clock and he knows what he is doing.
At this point, a word of warning is in order. We mustn’t misapply these truths. The application of these texts affirming God’s sovereign timing in all things is not a license to become fatalistic. “Why bother doing anything? If it’s not in God’s timing, it will never happen! Why should I even try?” That conclusion is not warranted from this passage. We must always remember that the priority is that God be glorified in our lives, not that we exercise any sense of self-determination—as if WE must determine our times and seasons in order for our lives to have meaning. We are to live for the glory of God which means by his grace we do our very best to honor him in all things. That mean--if something we want is NOT in God’s timing for us now, or something we don’t want IS in God’s timing for us now, then we most glorify him by patiently accepting his will and trusting in his grace.
In verse six we see that God controls the timing of when we acquire things and when liquidate them. This is what is meant by “a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” If your company or your income has been down-sized and you’ve been forced to simplify your lives, then that happened on God’s time. Likewise, as we get older and our health fails, if we must surrender our driver’s license or sell our home, then it‘s God’s time to do that and we can trust him with the consequences of those unhappy milestones. Verse seven says there’s “a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” It’s not clear how those couplets are related to one another. As it relates to tearing and sewing, it seems to be related to the domestic or home front. Today, we might say “there is a time for the dish washer or water heater or transmission or furnace to “tear” or break down and a time to repair it.” If your home is like ours, those domestic crises always seem to occur at the most inconvenient and low cash flow times. The timing seems to almost always feel wrong and that’s because our feelings are often controlled by our desire to maintain the comfort of the status quo. But when those domestic crises occur, this text assures us that—even if they’re not on our calendars, they are written on God’s for us.
There’s also “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” We looked at this one from a human perspective, but from God’s perspective, it could be stated, “there’s a time when you will not be able to provide input into a situation and a time when you will be able to do so.” Perhaps you’ve witnessed a situation when some very bad decisions were made by someone you know and some very painful circumstances resulted. Because of what God has done in your life, you could have prevented it if you would have been consulted, but you for some reason not able to provide any input. Trusting God here probably means that the individuals involved didn’t need to learn a pre-emptive lesson from you; they needed to experience the consequences of a bad decision and learn the lessons from that. There are other times when in God’s providence, we ARE given the opportunity to speak into a situation or a relationship and by his grace make a real difference. That’s a result of God’s sovereign timing putting us in the right place, not our own uncanny ability to sniff out problems.
Finally, verse eight tells us there is “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” This applies to different kinds of relationships. Loving and hating apply to individual relationships; making war and peace applies to groups or nations. It may seem that there is never a good time for hating, but God hates things. He hates our sins which he rightly sees as personal rebellion against him. When we are living under the control of the Spirit, we too will hate sin and injustice because it’s always God’s time to do that. There is never a time when hating sin and injustice is wrong. Likewise, war always seems untimely, but all the wars ever fought have been on God’s time. That doesn’t mean that those who started those wars aren’t responsible for their actions, but they were in some way operating under God’s sovereign hand. As it relates to “a time to love,” if you’ve lost your spouse or been burned in a very painful relationship you may swear, as the song says, “I’ll never fall in love again.” You will if it’s God’s time for that.
We see God’s sovereign timing so clearly played out in the life of Jesus. He was born right on time, not too early or too late. Paul says in Galatians 4:4, “4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,” Jesus was born at precisely the right moment in history. Jesus taught like no other man in history—his words liberate those in captivity to sin. But his ministry was always on God’s schedule, not necessarily when it made sense to others. In John chapter seven, Jesus’ brothers come to him and tell him he’s making a big mistake by not leaving sparsely populated Galilee in favor of ministering in Judea where all the people are. John records Jesus’ response in verses 6-7, “6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.” Jesus’ ministry was not controlled by human wisdom, but by the Father’s schedule for him. Also, when it was time for Jesus to remain silent, he did so—even if speaking might have saved his life. When the Sanhedrin questioned him at his trial, Jesus remained silent until he was placed under oath. He was “like a sheep that was led to slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth.” Jesus taught and prayed and answered questions in God’s time, not man’s.
In John’s gospel, we read repeatedly that when Jesus’ life was threatened or he would go to a place where he’d be vulnerable to those who wanted to kill him, John tells us the reason he was not killed. It was because “his time had not yet come” That’s why it’s so dramatic when in chapter 12 in the upper room he says,” 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. [NIV] Jesus is looking at the cross and completely trusts in his Father’s perfect timing.
The application of all this for us is very basic, yet very profound. That is: we must trust in God’s timing for our lives. There are two directions in which this is a challenge. The first is when things occur at what we see to be the wrong time. As we said, people never die on time—it’s almost always either too soon or too late. Other things happen to us and the timing seems completely wrong. In a hymn we sang recently, one of the verses says, “His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower.” When God’s timing seems problematic, the problem is never with God. We can trust that--after the initial bitterness of the trial disappears, a sweet flower of some kind will make its way into our lives. The other direction in which God’s timing may seem lousy is when we think something should be happening NOW, but it hasn’t yet. In these times, God may seem late. Maybe you’ve waited a long time for a baby to be brought into our family, or you wonder why all your friends keep getting married and you haven’t found the right one yet. Perhaps you’re in a terrible job and after months of looking, you simply can’t find a new one—a house won’t sell, a disease won’t heal. God has a purpose for what we call “delay.” Things happen in a time that will bring honor to him. When we struggle with God’s timing, our real struggle is over the question—do I want God to be glorified to the maximum in my life, or do I mostly want control over when and what happen in my life?
If you’re here today and you’ve never placed your trust in Christ—you’ve never grieved over that fact that God hates your sin and you’ve been living in rebellion against God as you try to live life for you—your way—without much if any thought to what your Creator thinks. If you’ve never called out to him and asked for his forgiveness for your rebellion, God has provided a way to forgive you and bring you unspeakable joy. He sent his only Son to hang on a cross and while he was suspended up there, Jesus received from his own Father the wrath that sinners like you and I deserve. Out of his great love for us, he died as a substitute sacrifice for sinners—paying with his own life the penalty we owe God for our sins. He calls all to trust in him and his payment for sin and be saved to eternal life. If you’re wondering about whether this is the right time, wonder no more! The Bible says, “2... Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Come to Christ today—know his forgiveness and joy, know his love and peace, know the promise of eternal life with him. May God grant to all of us the grace to trust in God’s sovereign timing for our lives.
 Ryken, Philip, Ecclesiastes, p. 81.
 Vol. 3: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (458). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
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