Summary: How we understand God affects how we see time.
What Time is It?
Many of us “baby boomers” can still remember the song sung by the Byrd’s, “To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn written in the 1960’s in which the poem the Preacher writes here is the prominent text. Pete Seeger, who adopted the words for the lyrics for the song was interested in using it as an antiwar some against the war in Vietnam. After singing the words from Ecclesiastes “A time of war, a time of peace were added the message “I swear it’s not too late”. But is this the meaning of the poem? Or is it being used out of context, as Scripture often is, to plead a cause other than what God intended. Let us now look under the hood to see what this passage really is saying.
We noted in last week’s passage that on the surface it has a positive ring to it, especially for the Christian. It could be seen as a welcome interlude from the weary drone of the preceding verses. By this time, we were needing something to lift us up. However, as we discovered, it wasn’t all joy for the Preacher who excluded himself from those to whom God chose to give joy to. In this, it is a subtle claim that God is unfair. He felt he had worked hard and deserved the joy. But for joy to be a gift, like grace, it can not be earned, or else it is no longer a gift.
We could continue from the end of chapter 2 with an uplifted spirit and take today’s passage in a positive vein. Some of you are now guessing that I am about to turn the tables on your hopes. And you would be right. The poem repeats the word “time” over and over again in verses one through eight. There are fourteen sets of comparisons of opposites related by time. The fancy technical term for this is “merism”. The repeats are almost hypnotic, and this is intentional. We saw in the beginning of the book how the editor summing up the teaching of the Preacher used the cycles of “nature” to indicate endless activity that goes nowhere. Here the fourteen comparisons which is 2 times the number seven, a symbol of completeness as are the merism to indicate the entire dominion of time in every aspect of life.
The Preacher does not say that time is God. Some think that time and space are eternal like God. This view then would either make time God, space God, space and time God, or time, space, and God equal. However time and space are under the dominion of God who has assigned their places. For us, this would seem like good news because we know that God looks after us for good. If God were not sovereign over time and space, then events could happen which were beyond His control. We call this in worldly terms “chance” and in academic terms “contingency”. However, the Preacher has already excluded himself from this worldview by limiting his horizons to under the sun. There is a time and purpose to everything under heaven, which is a Hebrew way of saying “under God”, but as we will find out later in this passage, this purpose is beyond human understanding, and therefore of no use to those whose view is confined to the physical world, or what Kant calls the “Phenomenal” realm.