“For everything there is a day and season of its own; for each thing under heaven there’s a time for it alone.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
This is the third post on Ecclesiastes, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Ecclesiastes 3, preceded by a brief reflection.
I love walking in the early morning. Out before sunrise as nature begins to stir, I am buoyed by the words of the Psalmist, “Awake my soul, arise with me, awake O harp and strings; together we will wake the dawn as all creation sings.” (Psalm 57:8) This time of year when it is not too cold, I am greeted by a cacophony of bird sounds – red-bellied woodpeckers tap, tap, tapping for a mate; robins cheerfully chirping as they search for worms; mallard ducks squawking as they fight for mates; tufted tit-mouses calling to one another; and our resident song sparrow practicing its melodic notes as it emerges from winter hiding and perches atop a mugo pine proximate our pond. On warmer days, there are the earthy Springtime smells of thawing ground and vegetation. Looking to the heavens I sometimes see the moon in one of its phases. But the real thrill for me is watching the sunrise (when conditions are right) as it lights up the fading darkness of the night with golds, reds, and oranges.
It is, of course, the sun that is the conductor of all of this – the one that sets the rhythm for the seasons, the flora, the wildlife, and the skies. According to King David, “The sun is like a happy groom who comes to greet the day, or like a youth who runs a race with joy the course to stay. It rises with the morning dawn then sprints across the sky; there’s nothing that escapes its heat when shining from on high.” (Psalm 19:5-6) All life as we know it is dependent on the motion of the earth and its relationship to the sun. In the natural world there is truly an appointed time and season for everything. When we follow these times and rhythms, life goes on as our Creator intended.
For much of my life out-of-doors, I have largely been oblivious to the natural world. Even though I have run or walked outside nearly every day for the past fifty years, for the most part I have ignored the sights and sounds of nature. Sure, I’ve watched the weather to know what to wear, but primarily I have been intent on exercising and making plans for the day ahead. Happily, over the past several years, this has begun to change as I have increasingly embraced the natural rhythms. My walks have become not only exercise, but an occasion to savor the sights and sounds of the natural world and be thankful at the marvel of God’s creation. But, if my years of disregarding the rhythms of nature is unfortunate, how much worse to disregard the rhythms of human affairs?
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 declares that there are indeed rhythms in human activities, which if observed help us to live as God intended. Has any Bible translation improved on the King James version of these verses?
1 To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which 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 get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, 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 of war, and a time of peace.
God sets the season, but it is for us to be aware of his timing and to act appropriately. The opening verse, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” refers to events and situations in life. Fourteen pairs of these events are presented in verses 2-8.
The Teacher is a bit cryptic in how we are to respond to the rhythms of human activities. But in the next five verses, 9-13, he essentially distills the choices open to us down to two: 1) Endure the events and situations in life as a burden; or 2) Embrace them as a gift.
The first choice is to see the events and situations in life as burdensome, as an endless ‘to do” list. We labor, we sweat, we strain and then we die. (see verses 19-21) It is a very grim option the Teacher paints, “What is it that a worker gets – what benefit and gain; for all the daily laboring, and all the sweat and strain? I’ve seen the burdens and the tasks, that God has given to the people living in the world, as something they must do.” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-10) Just give into despair and resentment and muddle our way through life. The problem with this choice is that God wants so much more for us. He tells us that the events and situations in life are beautiful, even though we may never get a full appreciation or understanding of such events. “God’s made all things so beautiful, yet does not let us see – the scope of all that he has done, throughout eternity.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) The phrase, “He has made every thing beautiful in his time,” (KJV) is one of the moving in Scripture, and can fundamentally reorient our hearts and minds to how we respond to life.
This leads to the second choice, which is to celebrate the events and situations in life as gifts from God. “I know there’s nothing better than for people to pursue: Enjoyment in the life they lead, in everything they do. For everyone should like their work, and what they drink and eat; for these are gifts that come from God – the pleasures he bequeaths.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13) According to the Teacher, we are to find pleasure in not just the food and drink we consume, but our work as well. In this context, it seems reasonable to interpret the meaning of ‘work’ broadly. Not just our 9 to 5 jobs, but anything that requires effort on our part. For example, any of the events and situations named in verses 2-8. In contrast, ‘food and drink’ feels like a metonymy of all that is inherently pleasurable. In other words, we are to see all events and situations in life – whether inherently pleasurable (food and drink) or their opposites (work) as gifts to be grateful for.
Whenever we encounter the events and situations mentioned in verses 2-8, they are gifts from God and are to be received as such, with hearts of gratitude and not resentment. Henry Nouwen describes how these choices are mutually exclusive. “Gratitude is the opposite of resentment. Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. … Gratitude goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. … The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” (‘The Return of the Prodigal Son,’ 85)
Even death itself (‘a time to die’) can be an opportunity to express gratitude for the gift that was life. When Christian writer and philosopher Dallas Willard died in 2013, his last action was to close his eyes, lift his head, and say ‘thank you’ to God. And when we the living experience the death of someone we have loved, we too have the opportunity to thank God for their life. Even as we grieve (‘a time to mourn), we can gather with others and “mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) For as Jesus tells us, mourning carries with it a special blessing. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
I write these words just two days after my mother-in-law passed away, and several days before her funeral. Olga lived a long and beautiful life. Born in 1915, she died just a month shy of her 108th birthday. She lived the last ten years or so in an assisted living facility where she was served faithfully by countless aides and helpers. She was always grateful for whatever service or kindness they performed. Although she was legally blind and hard of hearing, she never complained even as her world grew smaller and smaller. She delighted in the simple things – meals, music in the evening, and especially calls and visits from her family. Olga truly saw her life as a gift from God. And as we gather to mourn her life, we will choose thankfulness over despair as we know she is with her Lord Jesus.
1 For everything there is a day,
and season of its own;
For each thing under heaven there’s,
a time for it alone.
2 There is a time that one is born,
and time as well to die;
There is a time that one should plant,
and time to use the scythe.
3 There is a time that one must kill,
and time to heal each sore;
There is a time for tearing down,
and time to build once more.
4 There is a time that one must weep,
and time to laugh and smile;
There is a time that one must mourn,
and time to dance a while.
5 There is a time to scatter stones,
and time to pick a lot;
There is a time that one should hug,
and time that one should not.
6 There is a time that one must search,
and time to count as lost;
A time for holding onto things,
and time that they are tossed.
7 There is a time to tear apart,
and time to mend and bind;
There is a time to hold one’s tongue,
and time to speak one’s mind.
8 There is a time to act in love,
and time to hate as well;
There is a time for making war,
and time in peace to dwell.
9 What is it that a worker gets –
what benefit and gain;
For all the daily laboring,
and all the sweat and strain?
10 I’ve seen the burdens and the tasks,
that God has given to –
The people living in the world,
as something they must do.
11 God’s made all things so beautiful,
yet does not let us see –
The scope of all that he has done,
12 I know there’s nothing better than,
for people to pursue:
Enjoyment in the life they lead,
in everything they do.
13 For everyone should like their work,
and what they drink and eat;
For these are gifts that come from God –
the pleasures he bequeaths.
14 What God has done will always last,
indeed this is his aim –
He makes it that it can’t be changed,
so all will fear his name.
15 What is and what will come to pass,
was done in days of yore;
For God will seek to do again,
what has occurred before.
16 There’s one thing else I saw on earth:
In place of what is fair –
There’s wickedness and tyranny,
and evil everywhere.
17 I thought that, “God himself will try,
the righteous and the vile;
For there will be a time to judge,
and bring each deed to trial.”
18 I thought that, “God is testing souls –
the greatest to the least;
So people see that they themselves,
are nothing more than beasts.”
19 The fate of men and animals,
is always just the same;
They live and breathe and die alike,
for everything’s in vain.
20 For animals and humans too,
arose up from the dust;
And in the end it’s dust they’ll be,
returning as they must.
21 Who knows if human spirits rise,
and upwardly are bound;
While spirits of the animals,
go down into the ground?
22 I saw it’s best that one enjoys,
Whatever work they do;
That’s all they have, since none can know,
what comes when life is through.