Ecclesiastes 3 invite us to consider the important questions of time and
eternity. St. Augustine devotes 27
pages, Book 11 in my printed edition of his long-form prayer, The
Confessions, to these very themes, “Time and Eternity”.
present. . . . Who will hold the heart
of man, so that it may stand still and see how steadfast eternity, neither
future nor past, decrees times future and those past? (285)
If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does
ask me, I do not know (287).
kinds of philosophical questions. We’re
focused on getting through the day – work, dinner, household chores, music
lessons, sports practice. And, a small
delay – an auto accident stalling traffic, a missing back-to-school form, the
kids needing attention – throws everything off.
We’re so focused on getting through the day that we fail to enjoy it.
obsessed with deadlines – the term paper, the quarterly financials, the
newspaper. We’re so obsessed with
deadlines that we fail to live.
being, if not elsewhere, then elsewhen.
Maybe it is the future: Things go poorly and we wait “for the other shoe
to drop”. Things go well and we can’t
wait to do it again. I have a friend who
tells me that whenever he is eating one meal, he is thinking about the next
one. Maybe it is the past: I wish that
things could be the way they “always” were – a sentimentality that Ecclesiastes
calls “unwise” (7:10). C. S. Lewis, in
his The Last Battle, describes Susan as being in a hurry to get to a certain
age and then, once she reached that age, trying in vain to stay there as long
by Pete Seeger
the “other shoe”. Ecclesiastes, as
cynical as it is about human fate, and while it is certainly not syrupy sweet,
does not drip with bitterness as it contemplates the times and seasons of human
life. Instead, the ancient Teacher
offers wisdom in the form of the rhythm of the seasons. We don’t control when winter comes, though we
can be ready with shovels, salt, and a warm jacket. And, when winter comes, we can treasure the
icicles hanging from the gutters, the sparkle of the snow after hardening over
night, the cadence of scoop-toss down the driveway or walk. Insisting that it is not winter is counter
productive. Living as if it is summer –
turning on the air conditioning in the winter – is just plain stupid.
life. There is a time to be born and a
time to die. There is a time to break
down, and a time to build up. There is a
time to mourn and a time to dance. We
have zero control over those times, those seasons, and when they come into our
lives. But we can learn to dance in
rhythm (Davis, 184). “God has made
everything beautiful in its time” (3:11).
Unfortunately, some of our translations change the word beautiful to
“suitable”, a shift in meaning that removes wonder and focuses instead on
functionality. Functionality is good, but
the wonder must not be overlooked. God
has made everything beautiful in its time.
take pleasure in all their toil. I know
that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor
anything taken from it” (3:13-14).
two interesting things about these verses.
First of all, the work of human beings (which does not last) is placed
along side the work of God (which endures).
Second, the lasting work of God is described in terms familiar in the
Jewish tradition, but not in relation to work.
This phrasing shows up in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 in relation to the
Torah (Davis, 184), the law, the covenant . . . God’s revelation, God’s Word:
“You must neither add anything . . . nor take away anything” and “Do not add to
it or take anything from it”.
gospel describes Jesus as “God made flesh” (John 1:14). These lines from Ecclesiastes suggest that
our work – though in itself it does not endure – our work has the potential of
joining God in making Word into human Flesh, of bringing revelation to
manifestation. We can’t control the
times that come into our lives. We can’t
do work that endures. As Ecclesiastes
points out, there is always someone to come after us and mess it up
(2:18-19). But when we work toward God –
whether it is doing dishes or paving streets – we give flesh to Word.
varies greatly. We have “eternity” and
“a sense of past and future”. Well,
which is it? The ancient Hebrew language
did not have a word that corresponds directly to the English word
“eternity”. This word, ‘olam,
comes closest. It is a word for lots of
time, time beyond calculating. It can
refer to great antiquity – distant past, long dead, ancient hills – or to
indefinite futurity – “for ever”, “everlasting arms”, “without end” (BDB
Hebrew Lexicon). It is used in 3:14,
“I know that whatever God does endures forever.”
locked in time, but eternity is in our hearts.
We need to be, to some degree, outside of time. Augustine points out that measuring time
necessitates being outside of it. How
can you measure the past when it no longer exists? Unless, of course, you are able to step
outside of time by means of memory. And,
how can you anticipate the future when it does not yet exist? Unless, of course, you are able to step
outside of time by means of expectation (The Confessions, Book 11 “Time
and Eternity”, chapters 20-21, 26-28).
locked in time, but eternity is in our hearts.
“God has done this so that we should stand in awe before him” (Ecclesiastes
3:14). The Biblical term for this is
“wait”, “wait on the LORD”. It is not
waiting, as in fidgeting in line at the grocery store behind a person who has 7
more items than are appropriate for the express line. It is waiting as in letting go of time and
practicing trust. It is waiting in the
present, not stuck in the past or the future, because “with you, today is
eternity” (Augustine, 11.13.16, p 287).
It is waiting that makes us conscious, not of how much we have to do and
how little time we have to do it.
No. This waiting makes us
conscious of eternity and the presence of God (see T. S. Eliot, cited in Davis,
185). Only then do we discover that
there is actually enough time for everything that is important in life. Because God has appointed a time, a season,
for every matter.
past and time future
conscious is not to be in time
time can the moment in the rose-garden,
in the arbour where the rain beat,
in the draughty church at smokefall
remembered; involved with past and future.
time is time conquered.
Quartets, cited in Davis, 185)
moments in which eternity overlaps in the present in an intense and personal
way. It is an opportunity for each of us
to say “Yes” to the presence/present of God in Jesus Christ, to renew our
swear it’s not too late
2000. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes,
and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Translated by John K. Ryan.
1960. The Confessions. New York: Image, Doubleday, Bantam.
Is a Season)”