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Turn, Turn, Turn

Ecclesiastes 3

Lesson Audio


Veterans of the 1960’s will recall Pete Seeger’s song, Turn, turn, turn. Seeger himself acknowledged that he only wrote six words for the song; the rest came from the King James Version of the first eight verses of this chapter. The best known version was by a group called The Byrds; there is a video of this here. You might also be interested in the article on Wikipedia, which notes that (as the song was a number one hit) this makes Solomon the oldest lyricist to have such an achievement.

A Time for Every Purpose

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: (2) a 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; (4) a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; (5) a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; (6) a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; (7) a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; (8) a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Times of the body

Solomon begins his poetry with the times of the body.

    Time to be born, and to die. As most women can tell you, the time to be born arrives a couple of months after mom is quite good and ready. But it is the nature of the human body that it takes nine months. Death, on the other hand, would never seem convenient. But it often seems a release from pain and suffering. Winston Churchill referred to 1940 and the Battle of Britain as a time when it was equally good to live or to die, a sense of death we have lost.

    Planting and harvest have their own cycle as well – and show us the value of rhythm in life. We demand change; we desire sameness. Only in the recurrent rhythms of life do we find both.

    Killing and healing – most of us find healing appropriate at any time, but consider, if you will, that there are times for killing. If you were a sniper in World War II, would you have hesitated had you found Adolf Hitler in your sights? A similar situation sometimes applies to police officers. Healing, too, has its seasons. Anyone with bronchitis knows the difference between summer and winter.

Times of the world

Likewise, in this world there are times and seasons:

Breaking down and building up (think of cardboard boxes).

Weep and laugh. Sometimes this is difficult for us; sometimes we’re not sure just which to do. Triumph and tragedy, as Kipling said, are imposters and should be treated alike. The right reaction isn’t always obvious.

Construction and demolition – when fire guts the house, tear it down. Then rebuild it.

Get and lose. We work hard to acquire things, and this is not necessarily evil. I’m rather fond of a roof over my head and meals on the table. But sometimes you have to downsize the house and lose the weight.

Keep and cast away. Antiques handed down through the generations are often precious to us – but sometimes you have to clean out the garage.

Tear and sew. In those days you tore your garments as a sign of grief. But when the time of grief is over, somebody had to stitch them back up.

In the world it seems so simple, doesn’t it? But there is another group of times.

Times of the spirit

These three may be the hardest to discern, but perhaps we can give at least an example for them:

A time to speak, and to keep silent. Most of us wish we knew just which was which; have you ever opened your big mouth at the wrong time? Worse, have you ever thought back and said, “I should have said something?”

A time to love and a time to hate: this seems difficult to a Christian, who is to love at all times. But we can at least hate the sin and love the sinner – something we have a lot of practice at, concerning ourselves. Other examples may occur to you.

War and peace. It is a sad fact that it only takes one side to make war; two to make peace. Just what makes a “just war” has been debated for thousands of years – but the concept does exist.

Man’s Ability; God’s Purposes

Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 NASB (9) What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils? (10) I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. (11) He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end. (12) I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; (13) moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor--it is the gift of God. (14) I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. (15) That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.

What profit?

There is a consistent theme in this question: just why are you working so hard? What good is it? Solomon gives two answers:

First, your task is God-given. He has so ordered things that your life is set before you; He will not ask why you had such opportunity, only what you did with the opportunity you had.

Second, it must be acknowledged that work has its rewards at times. “Everything is beautiful” at the appropriate time. Most of us know the glow of accomplishment; we also know that this glow fades with time.

But in this there is a penetrating insight: God has put in man the knowledge of eternity. We know it exists. So we must naturally ask ourselves, “How are my achievements going to be viewed, eternally?” More than that, however, such knowledge prompts us to compare our works with God’s. It is then we realize the truth: his works are so mighty that we cannot even truly determine just how great they are.

That knowledge – that God is mighty beyond our thought – is an important realization about the nature of man. It’s also about God, of course, but I hope you see that it puts man in the place God intended for him.

What shall we do?

Very well, then: man is but dust. What shall we do about it?

Be joyful. The joy of the Lord is my strength - and I should exercise it.

Do good. Isn’t it amazing: when you do good, the challenge of the purpose of life seems to melt into the background. You know that what you did is good, and that seems ample justification for doing it.

Eat and drink – hey, a little partying never hurt anybody (at the right time). Besides, it’s tough to stay alive without eating and drinking.

Take pleasure in your work. It’s God’s gift to you; you might as well enjoy it.

That last is important. Work is not your justification for existing – but it is given to you by God. Even in the garden Adam and Eve were given the task of gardening. Evidently it’s a part of man to work – which is why so many people die six months after retirement.

Why does God…?

This is fairly simple:

Your work fades with time. God’s doesn’t.

You can’t alter what he has done. You can use it – like the laws of physics – but you can’t change it. He is the alpha and the omega.

That contrast should produce at least one result: the fear of God. No matter how mighty you are – and “mighty” might well be defined as “able to change what others have done” – you can’t produce the slightest change in his work. Like the centurion “under authority”, the mightier you are, the more you should recognize God’s might. The result: you should fear the Lord.

It’s interesting to see the observation that God seeks what is past. It’s a way of saying that things keep coming around again in our universe – because God orders it that way. Thus you should listen to wisdom when you hear it, and not reject it because it’s old.

Seen Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 NASB (16) Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. (17) I said to myself, "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man," for a time for every matter and for every deed is there. (18) I said to myself concerning the sons of men, "God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts." (19) For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (20) All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. (21) Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? (22) I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?

Why, we might ask, does God allow wickedness in the places where we have every right to expect righteousness and justice? I can see why there is sinful corruption in a gang of thieves; that’s to be expected. Why does it exist in our court system? It’s a good question: we should expect better of our courts than of our thieves.

One answer is given here: so that you will know that God will judge all of us. Just because you are a judge (or policeman, or minister, or whatever) doesn’t make you immune to judgment. Which, of course, means that you too will face the judgment.

And will there be a judgment? Look at it this way: you die, just like the animals die, for you are an animal. You don’t know – at least by experience – what happens to you after death. For all you know by experience, death is annihilation. Only God knows for sure – and we haven’t reached that revelation yet.

So then, what shall we do? Be content with your lot in life. Be happy in what you do. The rest belongs to God.

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