“Snowy October morning in Millstone,” by joiseyshowaa (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 (NRSV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
These have to be some of the most famous words in Ecclesiastes.
I would bet the song we heard the choir sing has had a big part in our recognizing this passage.
The Byrds 1965 recording of this song is by far the most familiar – musicians like Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, and even Dolly Parton have performed this song.
A bit of trivia, do you all know who originally wrote the melody and arranged “Turn, Turn, Turn?”
- It was Pete Seeger in the 1950’s.
Pete Seeger made a couple of adjustments and additions to the biblical text:
- He added the “Turn, turn, turn” part, and
- Toward the end, in the line, “A time for love, a time for hate, a time for peace,” he added, “I swear its not too late.”
These additions, especially those six words, “I swear its not too late” change the tone of the passage and reveal Pete Seeger’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3.
“The Teacher” uses pairs of opposites to capture the full experience of human life. The Teacher’s poem captures everything that lies in-between birth and death … the things we don’t have much of a say about, like being born and dying … the things in life we respond to … and the things in life we take initiative for like planting and harvesting … breaking down and building up … even embracing. “The Teacher” continues, after these familiar lines, asking a question something like, “What is the point?” There is all this stuff in our lives … all this stuff that happens to us … all this stuff we do …
9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3.9-15 NRSV).
“The Teacher” seems to come to the realization that the point is to find joy and fulfillment in the midst of all this stuff that comes together to make up our lives – the big stuff … the little stuff … the ordinary stuff … the exciting stuff. Rolf Jacobson (along with other Bible teachers) summarize the point of Ecclesiastes 3, saying, “There is value in finding joy and love [and the presence of God] in the ordinary things of life” (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher).
Pete Seeger’s interpretation, especially with the few words he added and the historical context the song was written and performed in, makes Ecclesiastes 3 sound more like something Israel’s ancient prophets would say … it sounds more like a call to repentance from Isaiah or Jeremiah, “Turn away from this unfaithful stuff you are doing, and turn toward God … turn away from war and turn toward peace … turn, its not too late!”
Pete Seeger’s interpretation is important and challenging and timely, but maybe not the main point “The Teacher” was aiming for.
Looking at this passage and keeping in mind the things in Ecclesiastes that come before and after it, there seem to be two main points that show up:
- There is encouragement to find joy and God’s presence in the ordinary things that make up our lives, and
- as another Bible teacher says it, “THE WISE KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS” (Carson Brisson, Interpretation p. 293).
“The wise know what time it is.”
The wise are aware of the different times … the different seasons of life.
The wise develop a kind of “farsighted” perspective on life. They understand that whatever it is that is happening right now … whatever it is we are experiencing right now isn’t the ultimate experience of life. The wise understand there are low places, high places, and even long-flat-stretches in the journey of life. The wise are aware of the season. The wise are able to match their actions and words to suit the season.
I had the opportunity to see Gary Allan, the country musician, play a concert a long time ago. It was in the middle of a difficult season for my brother – my brother had just broken up with his girlfriend, and I was only at the concert to use her ticket. It was a really difficult season for Gary Allan – the concert was just a few months after Gary Allan’s wife committed suicide. It turned out to be a really sad night. I remember my brother really missing his girlfriend and I remember Gary Allan talking about how much he loved and missed his wife. He played this totally gut wrenching song about his grief and mourning … when someone in the audience shouted out, “Gary, you’re hot! I love you!” It was jarring. I couldn’t see how anyone there could have a dry eye. It was shocking that someone could be so out of tune with the situation … so unaware of the season.
“The wise know what time it is.”
“The Teacher” helps us to recognize the many seasons of life … “The Teacher” reassures us that seasons of life do change. Even more than being aware of the seasons, “The Teacher” helps us to recognize God in the midst of these seasons.
The first church I served as a pastor had a home rehabilitation ministry. There were tons of houses in that town that were in really bad shape. Their owners were struggling just to make payments and didn’t have knowledge or resources to make their homes safe and healthy places to live. The pastor who served the church before me recognized this need. He had a background in construction, lots of friends who had lots of energy, experience, and time for fixing up houses. During that season everything came together – a need, resources, people’s hearts.
They repaired houses.
The ministry grew.
Pretty soon they turned themselves into a legit non-profit-tax-exempt-orgaization with a board and, even, a treasurer. They did lots of good work. They helped lots of people.
The organization moved along at full speed for while … but the season started to change … the guys who had been giving their time and expertise started to get worn out … they grew older and had a harder time doing what they had easily done before … fewer people were financially contributing to their work … the ministry was losing momentum. The season really changed when the pastor moved away.
But, I don’t know that the pastor recognized the changing season.
Before he moved he made the treasurer promise to do everything she could to keep the organization going. But, the need … the resources … the passion … the people … they all drifted apart. The season changed.
The treasurer grew frustrated. She promised to keep the organization going, but it was so difficult. She was trapped in a season.
After a while it became painfully apparent to the treasurer that the season had changed.
She realized the promise she had been asked to keep wasn’t fair.
She saw what time it was and she adjusted to the new season and the new possibilities for ministry God was opening up for her, and for the church.
It is so easy to get trapped in seasons.
God is faithfully moving and working around us. The world is constantly changing around us. We are being changed … stretched … grown by God. The wise recognize the signs of changing seasons and have courage to adjust to the season.
For everything there is a season … a time for every matter under heaven … The assurance that we have … the promise that we have is that even though seasons of our lives change … God is present with us in those seasons … Jesus shows us the lengths God will go to stick with us wherever we are and whatever season we find ourselves in – the low places … the high places … the wide open-expanses … the exceptional … the ordinary … God is with us!
The know what time it is!