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.
What seems like wonderful poetry crashes to earth in verse nine when the Preacher repeats the complaint “What profit is it”? Time to him is a burdensome taskmaster. It all seems like intentional busy work assigned to people with no personal purpose. It is like to avoid idleness and its issues in the military that rocks are painted just to be painted, and on the next day, the command goes out to remove the paint from the rocks or paint them a different color. The Preacher does say there is a purpose for it, but only God knows what it is.
This should then clue us in to how to interpret verse fifteen. The King James begins this verse with a translation that is very pleasant to our ears: “He has made everything beautiful in His time.” Again from a Christian worldview this sounds wonderful and uplifting. We know God’s purpose is to work out everything for good to those who love God and are those whom He has called for His purpose. We even have a praise song “Something Beautiful” which expresses this thought. However, the Hebrew word in this context is better translated “appropriate” and this in God’s sight. The verse continues, according to the New English Translation, to say that “God has placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained.” This means that even though the Preacher affirms the right of God to do as he pleases, everything is meaningless to him because God is in heaven, and he is on earth.