Bible Studies, Christian Life

Is time a cruel mistress?


There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
         a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
     a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
     a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
     a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
     a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
     a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,” says the Teacher in verses 1 to 8. That is really the main point of this passage: to understand what life is like. Life under the sun is governed by times and seasons. Time, time, time! Over and over again. It’s relentless and changing. Nothing lasts. The beautiful but blunt poetry here, written in pairs of lines, almost sounds like the unstoppable “tick, tock, tick, tock” of a clock.

There’s a season for everything, and for some of those seasons we’re glad. We’re glad when the time to kill ends and the time to heal begins. Unfortunately, of course, the reverse is also true: times of laughing give way to times less jovial. However, it is important to recognise here that the whole of Ecclesiastes takes place within the context of understanding what life is like in a fallen world – “under the sun”. And to do so, we need to appreciate that there was once a time when human beings lived without concern for time. The concept of things coming to an end, of death taking over life, never affected them. That was in the Garden of Eden, where man and woman lived eternally in God’s presence. Death, and the time for killing and the time for tearing down – none of that had yet entered the world.

So what we are considering is not life as it was created to be, but life as it is in a fallen world, a world which is governed by both a sense of God’s goodness in creation, and a sense of pain through his curse following our rebellion in Genesis 3. There are times for killing but there are also times for healing.

In the attacks of 9/11, we saw the devastation caused by an act of terror. But, as that came to an end, we saw something else take its place – the rallying together of people to help one another and to rebuild. And it was an extraordinary thing to see. That is God’s common grace to us. In this world we experience both the blessedness of God’s original creation, when everything was very good, and also the cursed state of this creation. Without God, the world has become subject to time, decay and destruction.

Christianity and joy are not enemies! They should go hand in glove. But at the same time, Christians are awake to the realities of injustice and suffering in their times, and indeed should quietly seek to minimise those injustices, whilst recognising that this world is always fallen, and“the poor will always be with us” until Jesus returns. Our ultimate hope for this world and the people in it, is not located in this world. It’s not “under the sun”, but high above.

In the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, we have already seen something of this. In our desperate attempts to cling on to things that we know are temporary, we are faced with a choice. We can either accept life as a “hebel”, as a breath, as a temporary gift from God to be enjoyed. Or we can try to make life a “hebel”, an idol, and suffer the reality of death. We can accept that everything in this life is transient, a breath, a temporary gift to us from God, and can rejoice in it while we have it. Or we can try to hold on to it, and make it into something permanent.

The gospel of Jesus Christ with its promise of future liberation from both the evils of this world and the limitations of finite time allow Christians to accept the world for what it is – a constantly changing mixture of joy and sadness.

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