I was reading one of the better known passages of the Bible with a mate over two poached eggs in Rhona's Cafe yesterday. Like many of the best known bits of the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is commonly misunderstood. Here it is:
3:1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Often these verses are viewed as a charming poem on the way that there are seasons for everything in life. Therefore we should aim either to do the right thing at the right time or to serenely accept the season of life that you find yourself in. Whether you go for the more active (get your timing right) or passive (accept it's that time) interpretations, they share the idea that it's a poem with a positive feel. The problem with this is the context, content and structure of the poem!
The context in Ecclesiastes is one of repeated emphasis of the futility of life. That life is meaningless. A passing labour under the sun which seems to produce nothing but toil. So the very next verse reads: "9 What do workers gain from their toil?"
The content also seems to contain some strange assertions if this is a positive reflection on the seasons of life: "...a time to kill...a time to hate... a time for war..." As you read through the couplets you're left feeling that these are our inevitable experiences, but not our life choices. And not all of these experiences are things that we should resign ourselves to!
Which is why the poem is structured as it is. With a rhythm that emphasises the monotonous, inevitability of life. Try reading it out loud.
It has the rhythm of the 7:08 to Waterloo clattering over the tracks as it deposits the stern faced commuters at work for another day of trying to make a difference, whilst the world stays the same.
It's the rhythm of the washing machine rotating with another load. Soon to be dried. Put away. Worn. Dirtied. And deposited in the machine again.
It's the rhythm of get up eat breakfast, go to work, come home, do the chores, watch the telly, go to bed, get up again.
It's the rhythm of be born. Grow up. Get educated. Get a job. Get a partner (s)...maybe. Get old. Stop work. Get sick (maybe sooner). Die. And possibly in the process you've had some kids who will do exactly the same thing. And the news never really changes.
In one way "The Lion King" was right. We are all locked into the circle of life. It's just that there's no becoming stars in the sky. And most of us don't live life with such a great backing sound track!
This is the rhythm of life without God. A rhythm there wears people down, or forces them to false optimism in the face of the facts of history. But Ecclesiastes says that there is something more:
"11 He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."
God has ordered each moment of time according to his beautiful purposes. He has sown a question into our hearts that means we ask ourselves: "Is this really all there is?" We can't work out what he is doing today, from our limited perspective in time. But God knows what he is doing. Nothing happens that is outside his control or plan.
That means whatever the monotony of your life today. However much it wears you down. It is not just part of a never ending cycle of meaningless. It is part of the plan of the God who in his Son the Lord Jesus has demonstrated that one day the rhythm will end, the world will be held to account and a new tune will dominate life. Not of monotonous toil, but of eternal perfect love.
Acts 17:31 "For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”