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"MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 2, 2012"

FROM ECCLESIASTES 3:9-15

This week, we pick up where we left off last week.  We saw from the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes chapter three that the times and seasons of our lives are established and controlled by God.  That’s what the author means when he says, “1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.  The Preacher writes this poem about God’s control over the times and seasons of all areas of life.  It’s according to God’s timing when we are born, die, laugh, grieve, build up and tear down—all the elements of life are under his sovereign reign.  Though at times it may seem as if the timing of certain events in our lives could not possibly be worse, Qohelet assures us that the events of both our personal lives and the events of this world are running on a divinely appointed, pre-set schedule.  The next seven verses of this chapter are our focus today and in many ways, they’re a continuation of this theme of God’s sovereignty over both our lives and events on a global scale.  Qohelet first expresses this theme through a poem, but in verse nine he turns to prose to reflect on what he has written.  Normally, prose is easier to understand than poetry, but these verses of prose are very difficult to understand.  Unless you’re careful to weigh the context of the book up to this point, you will miss the message here.  These verses can easily seem like a series of disconnected verses that don’t make much sense. 

We see that the author is tying this section closely to what he has said previously when he asks in verse nine the question, “What gain has the worker from his toil?”  You may recall the author has asked this question twice before.  In 1:3 he asks this question, 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”  ANSWER—“…all is vanity.”   After two chapters of almost unbroken complaints about the vanity of all things, Qohelet again asks in 2:22—“22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?”  His immediate ANSWER in the next verse is, “23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.  His conclusion is that there is no gain from a person’s toil—it gives us no ultimate satisfaction—it gives no meaning to our lives.  We must remember that these first two negative views are from the perspective of a person without God—a person living “under the sun.”  Here in chapter three he asks the question a third time but the context here is entirely different.  Here, God has entered the equation at the end of chapter two.  The question again is:  What gain has the worker from his toil?”  This time—with God in the equation, the Preacher gives this ANSWER in verse 11speaking of God, “He has made everything beautiful in its time…  How does that answer the question, “What gain has the worker from his toil?  The answer doesn’t seem to be related to the question.  As if, I asked you how you were and you responded by telling me it’s raining in Cleveland.  This is an example of why people have a hard time with Ecclesiastes.  Why would the author reintroduce this question of toil that he has twice brought up before, only this third time to not answer it directly?  In Hebrew prose, if a subject is addressed repeatedly the same way and then it’s mentioned again but addressed differently—the author’s point is bound up in how the subjects are treated differently.  In the larger context of the book, the point here is—When God is in the picture, the question about our toil, or our jobs or work is swallowed up by a larger question and that is--what is GOD doing that controls what we are doing?  By not answering this question about the value of our toil this third time when he has two times answered it negatively, the Preacher is making a point about the distinction between life without God in the picture and life with God in it.  When God is in taken into account, questions of the value and worth of our lives are answered in relationship to God, not us. As we’ll see in the next few verses, what he is communicating here in verse 11as the ANSWER is, “God’s sovereign work in our lives is beautiful and comprehensive.” 

When God is not in the equation, all of what we do is vanity—it gives no ultimate satisfaction to our lives but with God in the picture, the value of our toil (and all things) is found in what God is doing in the midst of our toiling and living.  With that as an introduction, the rest of this text is a set of reflections on the sovereignty of God—his absolute control and reign over all things.  I find three major expressions of God’s sovereignty the author addresses.  The first expression is a summary and expansion of what he has said in his poem earlier about God’s perfect timing.  That is, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”  As we said, in the first eight verses of the chapter we looked at last week, the point is—God sovereignly controls the timing of all things in life.  The implication is that we can trust God with that timing.  Here, the Preacher goes one step further and praises God’s timing saying—it’s beautiful.  Like our use of that word, the Jews mean more than physical beauty here.  God’s timing is—good, pleasing and brilliant. The first expression of God’s sovereign power is: He sovereignly and beautifully times the circumstances of our lives.  As we said last week, at times it seems that God’s timing is mistaken.  We can’t figure out for the life of us why God would want this particular thing in our lives at this particular time or, why he would choose to remove something or someone from our lives at a given time.  It seems wrong to us at times.

Paul in First Corinthians 13:12 explains the crux of the problem when he says, “…Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  Now, we don’t know all, or at times, any of the reasons for God’s timing of the events in our lives, but when we see Jesus, we will fully know them and we will see the beauty of God’s timing.  What this verse tells us is this:  When in glory the saints look back at the span of their earthly lives from God’s perspective and see (for instance) the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job or the contraction of a terminal illness, our response will not simply be, “I get that now—I can see now why that needed to happen then.”  No.  It will instead be—“That was beautiful!  That was the absolute best time for that to have happened, Lord!”  We will be amazed at how perfectly God put the pieces of our lives together in such a way as to give him glory and us, eternal joy.  Now, we grieve and mourn and get frustrated at the timing of certain occurrences in our lives.  In glory, we will clearly see God’s master plan for our lives and we will worship him for the beauty of how he arranged both the good and bad circumstances of our earthly lives.  God’s sovereignly beautiful timing is one expression of his sovereign control.  A second is found in verse 11.  “He has put eternity in man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”  God also shows his reign over us in this: He sovereignly brings into our lives the tension of yearning for a heavenly, transcendent existence as we live in this fallen, time-bound world.  Notice that God has done this to all humanity, not only believers.  But what does it mean for God to have put eternity in the heart of man?  What is this tension between our yearning for a different kind of life in the midst of our present life?

At the fall, the image of God in us was horribly compromised.  Like a mirror that’s been shattered, we still reflect what God is like, but only in very imperfect and distorted ways.  Yet, the remaining remnant of that image in us creates within us a longing for something more than what is found here on this temporal, fallen earth.  Several writers have attempted to explain this longing.  Augustine said it this way: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  C.S Lewis says this longing is like: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.[1]  We sense intuitively that there is something incomplete about what we can experience in this world.  In this life we get only narrow, broken beams of heavenly light.  We hear echoes of the eternal, but we never behold the transcendent reality in its entirety.  We live in a temporary world where we have appetites for things eternal that are never satisfied.  We have a yearning to live and worship on a very different and higher level of existence, but God has for now sovereignly trapped us in this fallen condition and limited our experience of him. 

Again, Lewis explains this tension.  “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud [that is—promising something it cannot deliver]. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”  The Preacher brings out this tension when you read the second half of this statement along with the first.  “…he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”  It’s God who causes this tension of unfulfilled desires within us.  The Preacher tells us that by placing eternity in our hearts, God has implanted a desire within us to know what God has done “from beginning to end.”  But we can’t acquire what our heart longs for.  This God-placed tension may seem cruel to us.  Why would God give us a yearning for something more--the transcendent with no way in this life to reach it?  One answer is--this sovereignly-placed tension reminds the believer that this is not our home—we were made for another world.  We live here as short-term missionaries—as aliens and strangers. The fact that we intuitively know we need something more than this world can give, encourages us to not become too attached to it—knowing there is fullness of joy waiting for us in glory.  This tension heightens our anticipation of heaven.  How does the Preacher handle this tension?  How are we to respond to it?  He says in verses 12-13,  “12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”  The Preacher basically repeats what he said at the end of chapter two.  He says--enjoy God’s blessings that you CAN access in this life and don’t dwell on what you cannot access now.   Don’t spend time fretting about the fact that you have unmet longings in this world—that won’t alleviate them—they’re only a promise of something better to come anyway.  Qohelet tells us to simply enjoy the blessings God has given us. See his blessings as gifts and live in response to them in thanksgiving.  For the believer, those unmet longings will be met in eternity.  For the unbeliever, they will never be met unless they meet Jesus and find their rest in him.

Another expression of God’s sovereignty is in verses 14-15.  The Preacher writes, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”  God’s sovereignty in our lives is seen in this:  He powerfully reminds us that we are not him.  If we wonder why God would need to remind us that we aren’t God, we don’t understand our sinful heart very well.  Every time we knowingly sin, we are expressing our desire to be God because in our sin we’re telling God that our will is better than his will for us—we know better than he does what is good for us and if we know more than God, then we are God.  We may not see our sin that way, but that’s what it is and that is precisely how God sees it.  In the garden, the temptation that put Eve over the edge was the serpent’s lie that, if she ate the fruit, “5 …your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Our desire to be God is manifest in several ways but the Preacher reminds us that–in spite of our best laid plans, God is the One calling the shots in our life and he says, “…whatever he does endures forever.”  That everlasting quality to what God does is in stark contrast to OUR plans that are dependent on one of 1000 possible changes in our circumstances.  This is what James is getting at in 4:13, “13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 

Everything we do is subject to God’s will.  Qohelet describes another aspect of what the Lord does in verse 14, “nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”  One scholar summarizes this verse.  He says, “Qohelet’s point is that what God wants to do will invariably be done, and no human being can hope to alter the course of things by sheer effort.”[2]  No one can edit God’s sovereign plan.  His plan is set and nothing we can do can change that.  Some people are uncomfortable with a God this big--this feels very constricting to them.  They want more control over their destiny—some self-determination!  They want their will, their decisions to be determinative.  This is misguided--God’s absolute sovereignty shouldn’t make us feel constricted.  We’re never freer than when we realize that we’re not running the show.  We mustn’t misunderstand.  Though we are not sovereign over our lives, we are still responsible for the decisions we make.  God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are never separated in Scripture.  There is tension here like what we see in Luke 22:22 where Jesus says of his upcoming crucifixion, “22 For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!”   The Son of Man goes as it has been determined—Jesus was going to the cross—nothing could have stopped God’s sovereign will from being played out.  But at the same time, Jesus pronounces a curse on Judas who betrayed him and on a human level helped put him up there.  He is fully and completely responsible for his actions even in the context of God’s sovereign plan.

The Preacher tells us the reason God is in absolute control of the universe is, “so that people fear before him.”  The reason for the absolute, muscular nature of God’s sovereignty in our lives, in our families, in our country and in our world is so, when people realize that God’s sovereignty is absolute in scope, they will live in awe and reverence toward him.  The proper response to God’s absolute control over our lives is not to feel constricted or limited by it. God says the proper response to his sovereign control over all our life is… worship (!)--to live in reverent fear of him.  No matter what happens to me, God is at the helm and I can praise him for that through the good and the bad.  The Preacher continues with a curious statement, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been.”  Back in chapter 1:9, he says much the same thing.  “9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” In that context, the Preacher says this cyclical repetition of the seasons of life are vanity—without meaning.  But that is without God in the equation. 

Here in chapter three, God is at the center of all things and in that context, Qohelet says this seemingly never-ending cycle of repeated seasons is not vanity—meaninglessness.  God is the One spinning these cycles of life—they are his.  Like the seasons of the year and the cycle of birth and death, birth and death, God directs all those times and seasons.  Finally, the Preacher says in this context, “…and God seeks what has been driven away.”  This is a very difficult phrase. In the context, I think it means that when something is driven away from our personal lives or the world’s stage, God can and does retrieve it.  For instance, in our personal lives, we may get busy and stop having family devotions for a season, but God brings back what has been “driven away” and we begin again. God is ultimately the One who brings that back into our lives.  The same can be said of relationships that we have ended—“driven away,” but that he has re-initiated.  On a global scale, in World War One the world surely learned the lesson that you mustn’t show much patience with a man or a nation that announces they are intent on world domination.  That foolish error that cost so much blood and tears would surely never be repeated.  It would be “driven away” for good.  That is, until 1933 when Hitler was democratically elected as a man who had written a book outlining his desires for German re-armament and world domination.  It made no sense for the world not to learn that lesson—especially given the tremendous cost so many paid in the First World War.  Why would that be repeated when we surely sought to “drive away” that foolish mistake for good?  “…God seeks what has been driven away.”  God brings it back onto the scene for his sovereign purposes.  To take it into our world, surely, after World War II we’ve finally learned we must drive away any people, religious extremism or political force that has as its stated aim, world domination!  The nightly news seems to indicate we haven’t.  For his sovereign purposes, God may be seeking what has been driven away.

As we close, let’s ask some questions to reflect on.  First, if you’re a follower of Christ, do you trust and take hope in the truth that someday in glory you’ll see that God has made everything in our lives—even those times of great anguish—beautiful in their time?  We can trust that God’s timing is not only appropriate, but beautiful—even though we can’t possibly see how that could be today as we peer through this glass darkly.  Second, when God reminds us in our hapless attempts to control our lives that we are not God—what’s our response?  Does that make you feel constricted, manipulated, hopeless or frustrated?  God says it should cause us to live in awe and reverence of him.  Is that how you respond to God when he displays his sovereign reign you’re your life?  When you lose whatever control you thought you had over your circumstances, do you fret or do you by faith worship in reverent awe?

When you sense that tension that comes from living in a fallen world with a God-placed eternity in your heart, how do handle that?  Does it cause you to press harder into God—who alone can ultimately meet that longing?  Are you allowing your restless heart to press in and find your rest in God?  Or, are allowing that longing for something more to compel you to search more vigorously for satisfaction in the dry wells of this world?  It’s nothing less than foolish to spend your life chasing after satisfaction in things that will not and cannot satisfy.  When Christ comes into our lives, everything changes.  All our wicked past is transformed.  What was a source of only meaninglessness and shame, now we see was God’s way of preparing us for our life in Christ. In our daily lives, the painful things that come into our lives that at one time we would have seen as examples of lousy timing, we can instead by his grace accept them as God’s good and perfect will for us.  In Christ, we have the promise that when we meet him, all our longings will one day be fully met in him as we live forever in his presence. 

That promise of eternal life with Jesus is possible because God sovereignly sent his Son to the cross for us where Jesus—who could have lived forever because he never sinned--instead chose to die in our place the death we deserved to die.  He purchased the forgiveness of all our sins with the blood he shed—the life he surrendered at the cross.  He offers that forgiveness to anyone who will see the foolishness and repent of trusting in themselves to be right with God, but instead turn to him—trusting in what he’s done for us in dying for us to make us right before a holy God.  If you’ve never placed your trust in Christ, but are instead trusting in your own goodness, know that God considers even our best efforts—filthy rags that could never earn us a spot in heaven.  Trust in him today and know joy and the promise of meeting once and for all you yearning for meaning and satisfaction in life. Wherever we are with Christ, may God grant us the grace to trust in him and his sovereign plan for our lives.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and other Addresses, as quoted in Ryken, Ecclesiastes, p.93.

[2] Seow, Choon-Leong, Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Yale Bible, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 174.

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