The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is a head-scratcher. For instance, in Chapter three after the poetic and song-worthy couplets of “for everything there is a season” the writer asks, “What do people really get for all their hard work?” (Ecclesiastes 3:9, NLT) The writer then observes, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NLT) So, what is the teacher of Ecclesiastes saying?
In part, the teacher is reminding us that everything has its own perfect, appropriate, and even moral moment. Which also, by the way, means there are times when these things are also crooked, inappropriate and immoral. The greyness of the teacher’s observation drives us crazy, yet they are wisdom and truth.
But the teacher went one step further. Not only is there a time for everything, but it is beautiful in that time. Not only is it beautiful because it fits the moment but as verse eleven says, because God made it beautiful for that time. For many of the things listed following “for every season,” the beauty is self-evident. For others, it is nearly impossible for us to see.
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet 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, NLT)
I think even the teacher struggled with seeing beauty in some of the things. How can death, killing, war, and hate ever be beautiful? The answer, the teacher proposes, is found in eternity. This doesn’t mean that death, killing, war, and hate are desirable. They’re not. Neither should we use their inclusion to excuse our actions or the actions of others. But there are rare moments in eternity when even these are beautiful in God’s sight. That is a difficult sentence to accept (let alone write).
Here’s the thing, only God sees the whole sweep of history from beginning to end. While God created the desire for eternity in every human heart, we are limited in our view. This desire for eternity is demonstrated in our hunger to leave a legacy, for our lives to matter, for our children to prosper. This eternity is found in our futuristic imaginations, our recollection of history, and a general belief of life after death. But only God is truly eternal and sees how every moment fits together.
So, what is the teacher saying? Perhaps it is best summed up by Paul, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28, NLT) This includes hard work, confrontational moments, disciplining children, making hard life-altering decisions, loss, and death. It doesn’t mean that these moments are good or desirable but God makes them fruitful. Neither the teacher or Paul are saying that death, killing, war, and hate are good, but that they are part of the grand picture of eternity.
The temptation here is to fall into a kind of fatalism where everything is pre-ordained and there’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of events. A let’s all play video games and eat pizza till we die kind of mentality. But that was not the teacher’s conclusion. “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13, NASB95) That’s not living in a fatalistic funk but finding joy, happiness, meaning, and reward in all we do. Work and labor are gift’s of God whether it is the manual labor of a farmer or the office labor of business or the people connecting work of retail – it is a gift of God.
“What do people really get for all their hard work?” the teacher asked. Well, what’s your answer? Is it more than just providing daily bread? Where’s the joy in cleaning the muck from a barn? Or how is happiness found during long hours standing in one place doing the same thing time after time? The teacher struggled with these all these thoughts.
Our work and labor are far more meaningful than just putting a roof over our head and bread on our table. There are emotional rewards and purposes beyond our imagination if our hearts are open to seeing them. No matter how dirty, how mundane, how seemingly pointless the task, there is value and beauty in it. This meaningfulness could be the work itself, or the people we interact with, or the end product we are just a small part of.
Perhaps living on this side history we have an advantage over the teacher of Ecclesiastes. We have a better, although still clouded view, of God’s eternal purposes. For instance, all who follow Jesus are bi-vocational. We have our regular labors but we also work to see His kingdom come and His will be done in the world around us. But let’s not split that distinction too far, for all of our labor is part of God’s kingdom work. That knowledge, however, does grant us a purpose-filled viewpoint the teacher didn’t have.
So, how do we bundle this all up and make sense of it? I believe the Psalmist summed it up best, “This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24, NASB95) No matter what today holds, regardless of the timely events that will unfold, it is also a day to rejoice and be glad in Jesus. “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.”