Beyond the Lectionary Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-11
by Lora Copley
Ever been to a Corn Maze? If you look at the maze from the outside, the perimeter, it looks like a harmless old corn field. Very different when you view it from smack in the middle, the inside, trying to find your way. And of course, the view is even more changed if you are in a helicopter above or taking it in through an aerial app like Google Earth. Then you’d see the maze cut into the corn and the whole of the route.
Three different locations lead to three different perspectives.
This idea of three different locations is helpful when interpreting the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 3. In order to appreciate the wisdom of what “the Teacher” presents, we do well to see it from an outside location for a positive perspective, the inside for a negative perspective and up-above for an ultimate perspective.
The Outside. From the outside, just taking the text “as is” -without getting deeper into its context- everything looks pretty safe. Pretty positive. We find ourselves humming the catchy little 1960s folk song by the Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn —with words taken right from this text.
That song and the outside perspective focus on how there are different times for different experiences in our life.
There is a right time to keep searching for more sermon material and there is a time to give up and shoot hoops with your kids. There is a time to embrace and before marriage, there’s a time to keep your hands to yourself. Even in conservative Christian circles, there is a right time to dance.
When we preach the “outside location,” we acknowledge the wisdom of these different times. We challenge the assumption that if we are spiritual enough, we ought to be happy all the time, realizing instead if we’ve lost someone—to divorce or Alzheimer’s or a miscarriage –it is the right time to weep. We acknowledge there is a time to scatter stones (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). And a time to hate (cancer, human trafficking, hypocrisy.)
Often what is so difficult about life is we don’t know which times are which. Say you have a relative who doesn’t know Jesus, when is it the time to speak or the time to be silent? Or a friend has really betrayed you, is it time to uproot the friendship or heal it? The preacher can come up with a list of any number of questions on timing.
The point on the outside location is wisdom affirms the importance of the balance and the discernment of different times and seasons.
The Inside. That is the outside location. But now we walk deeper into this text, and surround ourselves with the context around it. Now the world isn’t so neat and positive.
Internally, the author of Ecclesiastes sets out to understand life. He wants to know, as Peter Kreeft put it: how to “avoid getting all As in all my subjects but end up flunking life?” So he explores every pleasure, every bit of wealth and power, work and social service, even a basic kind of religion. Everything people say makes life meaningful.
He comes up with the conclusion that actor Jim Carrey gave in an interview: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” (Reader’s Digest, March 2006)
That is precisely what the book of Ecclesiastes is all about. All the money and wisdom and service is not the answer.
Even time. In the context of the whole of chapter 3, our text almost sings a dirge, showing that even time itself is meaningless.
How? Well, first of all, the passage presents time as circular; there is no progress. You laugh, then you weep, then you laugh again. You tear down, to build up, to tear down again. The Byrds sang it right—”Turn, Turn, Turn.” Time is a spiraling maze, turning, turning back on itself, leading to nowhere—just endless repetition. The text throws up its hands in verse 9 and says “What do we gain from any of this? What profit?” Meaningless, meaningless—every tick of our clock, every activity under the sun is meaningless. (cf. Ecc 3:15-19)
That phrase “under the sun” is key. It appears 37 times in this small book of Ecclesiastes. It means a world without God in the picture. The author is seeing a world where there is nothing above the sun. The philosophers of our day–Camus, Foucault, Sartre—and the singers of my high school years – Smashing Pumpkins, AIC, Nirvana, –actually do us a favor when they admit what life without God, what life just “under the sun,” is. It is a joke. A sick, bad joke “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The preacher may be squeamish about preaching a brand of nihilism. Who wants to be Pastor Debbie Downer or Rev. Bob Bummer? But the text comes first. And what is clear from Ecclesiastes is that if we live life with God on the periphery, the downer stuff is true. All the time spent on your sermons, on your relationships, your appearance, your pleasure, or your pain, none of it—none of it–counts. Every tick of the clock is empty.
The Up Above. So where does this leave us? Flopping down in the CornMaze of life, under the burden of despair and angst? Verse 10: “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. And then this cleft of hope: Yet He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”
In this verse, Ecclesiastes opens a window in the skies, a window above the sun. And we see God– making everything beautiful in its time. We see God –setting eternity in our hearts.
What does that mean -“eternity set in our hearts“—except that we are made to yearn for something above the sun, something more than our present ticks of the clock and cycles of the seasons?
We are yearning for Someone from above the sun!
John 3:31 says twice “The One who comes from above is above all… In verse 36, we are promised that whoever looks to this “One from above” “has eternal life, but whoever rejects Him will not see life.”
John 8:23 is even more clear. Jesus says “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. If you do not believe that I am He, you will indeed die.”
Apart from a reference above the sun, life merely under the sun is trapped in meaningless cycles until time marches us right into the grave. But “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
That’s it right there. The One from Above is Jesus. He is not only the eternity we yearn for, but He’s the only one who brings meaning to our “hours and days and years and ages.” He’s the one that is the point of Time itself. (Colossians 1:16-17) He entered time and broke its cycle of meaninglessness by doing a completely new thing on the cross and resurrection.
Ecclesiastes 3, seen from its three locations, moves us from common grace to special grace. We’ve seen the positive – that there is time for everything. We’ve seen the negative—that all time, under the sun, is meaningless. And we’ve seen the ultimate—that there is One from Above, who is the eternity we are yearning for. In Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection, we see One who meets us at the bottom and loves us to the skies. It is only when we are in Him, our time is transformed, beautified.
A homiletical P.S. about this last point. Some may wonder if it is warranted to move to Jesus from the stark landscape of Ecclesiastes. Yet John 5:39 is seared also this text: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me!” (cf. also Luke 24:27, 44)
The question then is not whether to proclaim Jesus as the one who is above the sun. The question is rather how to proclaim both the realism of Ecclesiastes and the realism of “a new creation” where we are charged to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is.” Col 3:1.
Dallas Willard has written: “What characterizes most of our local congregations, whether big or little in size, is simple distraction.” He emphasizes the greatest danger for most folks in the sanctuary (especially those behind the pulpit) may not be blatant rebellion as much as living such busy, crowded lives that we practically guarantee we’ll never realize what “above-the-sun, beautiful time” looks like.
John Ortberg cites a USA Today study where experts of various areas of day-to-day life (fitness trainers, dentists, nutritionists, financial coaches, home organizers, sleep scientists, relational psychologists) were asked how much time we ought to spend to get by in- not succeed, just get by-in that area. USA Today added it all up and the bare minimum came out to 35 hrs a day. No wonder we always feel behind!
How does the truths of Ecclesiastes 3 play out in real time? How do we keep our day-planners from reflecting a “chasing after the wind”– especially in a context where we try to cram “35 hrs” in a single day?
Author Steven Covey has a famous illustration about planning around the biggest priorities of our hearts. A jar represents our 24 hour day, and teeny pebbles each of our “have-to” details (duties of household, hygiene, work, relationships, church, finance, recreation, etc). Three or four large stones represent the deepest priorities of our heart: knowing God, deep relationships, doing justice. When we fill our jars with the “have-to” pebbles first, the large stone priorities won’t fit on top. But when first things are put in first, if we schedule for the deepest priorities of our hearts, the other “have-to’s” have a way of fitting in around our true convictions. (There are any number of video clips of this illustration on the web, or better yet, just bring in the objects and show the congregation yourself.)
Ecclesiastes 3 calls us to ruthless courage to realize that without God, all the ticks of our clock are just empty exhaustion. But more than just intellectually assenting to that truth, disciples of the Word are enjoined to lay out our calendars and schedules and give the “One from above” first place, in real time.