Most of the passages in Ecclesiastes are hardly the stuff of counted-cross-stitch wall hangings. Indeed, I once read the striking observation that had Friedrich Nietzsche merely referred readers to Ecclesiastes at some point early in his writing career, he could well have spared the world much of his nihilistic blatherings! True enough, which is probably why in the run of church history there have been precious few hymns based on Ecclesiastes. The average church hymnal contains at most one or two songs based on this book. Ecclesiastes just does not sing well.
Except, of course, there is one really famous song that emerged from this book. It was released in 1965 by the rock-and-roll group The Byrds under the title “Turn, Turn, Turn.” With the addition of just six words to the end of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, The Byrds were able to transform these verses into an anti-Vietnam, pro-peace song. Following the last couplet of “a time for war and a time for peace,” The Byrds added the little phrase, “I swear it’s not too late.” Thus did Ecclesiastes enter the mainstream consciousness of the counter-culture.
It’s a quirky thing, of course, when atheists, rock bands, and counter-cultural types find more resonance with a biblical book than Christians sometimes do. You are more likely to read Ecclesiastes in a Norton anthology of world literature than you are to run across it in a daily devotional book; you are more likely to hear “Turn, Turn, Turn” on an oldies radio station than an Ecclesiastes hymn on a Christian radio station.
The chapter we’ve read on this New Year’s Day 2012 is a reminder of why we shy away from this book. Ecclesiastes 3 contains lines which are, at best, upsetting. For instance, who among us would send one of our children off to college with the words, “Just remember, Johnny, that the best thing you can do is eat, drink, and be merry! Have fun while you can!” Yet the Teacher expresses similar sentiments in verses 12-13. We don’t have much going for us except what this present moment offers, so carpe diem, seize the day, gather your rosebuds while you may.
What’s going on here? Well, let’s do a quick review of the famous chapter, pausing eventually on especially verses 10 and 11 as the place where the Teacher gives more than just a small hint that even he suspects there is more to us human beings than there is to the average cocker spaniel or wildebeast.
The first eight verses set the stage for this chapter by focusing our minds on time. On one level those couplets about “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to search and a time to give up” are merely a reflection of the way life goes. There are moments when you will cry your eyes out and other times when you will laugh your head off. They are not typically the same moment, however. One comes, the other goes. But these verses are more than that common sense observation. As part of the wisdom tradition, these verses are a call for us to figure out which time is which. The wise one always knows what time it is.
It’s not just that now and again a war comes up and that in between wars there is peace. Wisdom calls us to figure out what is worth fighting for and, hence, when it’s time to go to war and when it’s time to just let certain things slide. Similarly, Ecclesiastes 3:7 is not merely reflecting the obvious fact that sometimes we will be talking and other times we will be quiet. This is instead wisdom’s call for us to discern when we are best off listening in silence as opposed to filling the air with our own speech. There are occasions when you can speak a word which will really help. But there are other occasions when no matter what you say, you will make matters worse. Wisdom can tell the difference.
So those first eight verses set up this chapter in two senses: first, these words bend our thoughts to the entire matter of time; second, these verses also remind us that time is not just what happens around us–time is something to which we pay wise attention so that we can know how to act in various seasons of life. Both ideas are key to the rest of this chapter.
Because the rest of Ecclesiastes 3 is also about time, and specifically about the limited, fleeting, “Phhht” nature of time (“Phhhht” is my translation of the Hebrew hevel often translated “vanity” or “meaningless” in this book). We are quite definitely finite, limited creatures. If we are alive, that means we were born; and if we were born, that means we will die. Period. The entire interval between the delivery room and the cemetery is a kind of “in the meantime” scenario. What will we do with the life we’ve got in this meanwhile phase before we die? In a simple sense the Teacher’s answer is that we enjoy ourselves, find some form of work we find meaningful and which will put bread and wine on the table, and then for heaven’s sake enjoy the bread and wine!
Do what you can with what you’ve got while you’ve got it. If everything comes from God, then these things come from God, too. So indulge a little, laugh when you can, and just try to be satisfied with having enough. Because time defines us. Finitude is, for now, a constitutive element of who we are as humans. It is the denial of time’s limits which represents folly, not acknowledging finitude. The question with which the Teacher is wrestling is this: given the common lot we share with all other animals, is there anything special about humanity? Who are we? Is there anything more to us than to the average cat?
Curiously, today there are at least some people who are more interested in wondering how to make computers more human than they are in figuring out what it means for us to be human in the first place! As Stanley Grenz once pointed out, a central motif of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation was the ongoing attempt by Mr. Data to gain an ever-greater humanity. Mr. Data is a robot, an android. He’s just a metal frame covered with fake skin and filled with circuits and yet was designed to be able to grow, to feel, and so perhaps one day to achieve a kind of humanity. Data’s struggle to become more human occupied a central place in a good many of those Star Trek episodes.
Again, weirdly enough you could probably generate more discussion among some people by asking what would make a robot human than by asking what exactly it is that makes us human! Lest you think this is merely science fiction, you should know that right now in places like MIT scientists are attempting to create androids that could some day be called human in nature. These scientists even have a full-time theological advisor to help the MIT folks with the religious and ethical aspects of their research. According to this theologian, a key question they grapple with is, “Will there come a point in developing a robot when it would be unethical to turn it off? When does a robot gain its own right to life?” But even this theologian seems to have a hard time describing what makes real humans human, much less what could make a robot human. In a recent interview this theological advisor could seem to get no further in defining true humanity than saying that what makes human beings human is their ability to be social.
As definitions go, that’s pretty weak. Ironically some of the same people who worry about the ethics of unplugging a robot simultaneously avoid including death in the definition of what it means to be human. Listen: as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes knows, whatever being human is all about, it includes death. If one day we were to succeed in making a Mr. Data who seemed human in every respect yet who needed only a good battery to keep on living forever without having to die, that very fact would count against Mr. Data’s being human. Death has to be factored into the human equation. (Of course, in the final Star Trek movie, Mr. Data did “go offline” by sacrificing himself for the sake of his crew. Data did not technically die but his demise was regarded as every bit a self-sacrifice as any human heroic could ever be!)
The Teacher knows that and yet senses that even so there is something else. Verse 10 speaks of a “burden” God laid on humanity alone. The very next verse makes yet another comment on time but then suddenly throws in the Hebrew word olam which means “everlasting” or “eternity.” This whole chapter centers on our finite time and yet smack in the middle of it all comes the word “eternity.” And this sense for the eternal is not “up there” in the clouds, it’s right here in the human heart.
We human beings are in time, we’re defined by its limits. But from the midst of time we have a sense for eternity. We have inklings of something more. We hear echoes from a far country. We now and again catch the sound of a few notes to a tune we’ve never really heard in its entirety. And yet we have the feeling that were we one day to hear the whole song played from beginning to end, we’d recognize that melody instantly. We are quite certain there is something more beyond just us, our watches, calendars, day timers, and history books.
There is something else out there–we know it because, the Teacher claims, God has dropped this into our hearts. The Teacher may say in the end that he does not know whether there is a beyond-the-grave difference between animals and us, yet you have the feeling that he thinks he does know. It’s just that he cannot prove it, see it, or lay his hands on it . . . yet.
Ecclesiastes faces us with a stark choice. Time will not stop. We will die. And there are no two ways around it: that death for each of us will either be the end or the beginning. If death has meaning, so does life. If death has no meaning, neither does the life that leads up to it. You cannot coherently claim that life can be rich and meaningful in the short-run even if in the long-run every life will disappear into the cosmic ether, never to be remembered by any God anytime, anywhere, ever. Suppose one evening you watched someone enjoying a delicious steak dinner only to then watch this person die because the steak turned out to be laced with poison. Would you then say, “Well, at least it was a richly good meal along the way. At least it tasted good at the time. That’s something, isn’t it?”
A few years ago one of the artists who helped create a controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts used her NEA grant money for what she called “sculpting in space.” She rented an airplane, bought some cartons of crepe paper, and then threw various colorations of the crepe paper out the airplane from 10,000 feet over the ground. Most people would probably agree that this art form cannot hold a candle to the Mona Lisa or other tangible works of art. But that’s just in the short-run, just for this time while we get to look at a Mona Lisa as opposed to crepe paper fluttering to the earth in a heap. But if in the long-run there is no God to remember or preserve the Mona Lisas of this world–much less the people who paint such things and enjoy such art in the first place–then in the end it’s all crepe paper in a heap. And it is death that focuses this issue for us.
In one of her stories writer Annie Dillard shows a family gathered sadly at the grave of their mother smack in the midst of a very large cemetery. At one point during the graveside committal service the minister intones the familiar words, “Where, O death, is thy sting?” to which one of the mourners, having lifted his eyes to glance around, responds in his head, “Where, O death, is thy sting? It’s just about everywhere, since you ask.”
Viewed from just this side of the grave, there is virtually no way to tell whether the spirits of people rise up to God or just sink into the abyss of time like the animals. Except for that inkling of eternity in us. What we do not yet know, what we cannot yet see, what we cannot yet fathom from the midst of a life hemmed in by time and destined for death: all of that is what makes our eternal sense burdensome instead of only joyful. But by God’s grace we do have this sense! And with our New Testament knowledge of Jesus, of the eternal One who entered our time and space, we have a mighty advance on this sense for the everlasting. We still cannot understand “what God has done from beginning to end,” as verse 11 puts it. But we can handle that a little bit better because of our acquaintance with him who is the Alpha and the Omega of all things.
It is faith that clarifies our eternal sense. Ecclesiastes 3 is not just about the passing of time or the “turn, turn, turn” of life’s cycles. It is also about wisdom, about a wise discerning of time and of how we are to react to the different occasions that come our way. One such occasion is death. But even then, though burdensome in a time when we so grievously miss those who have died, we sense this is not the end of the story. Even grief, someone once noted, is God’s gift to us. The tears we shed over death are God’s way of reminding us that this is not right and that neither is it the last, gasping word on everything.
We still cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. We cannot fathom the death of people we love. As we begin a new calendar year of 2012 this day, we know this year will be no more free of death and tragedy than the year gone by or any period of human history ever. There are no easy answers. There are no sugar-coated aphorisms that make life all better. If nothing else the Book of Ecclesiastes is the Bible’s loud “No” to such pious pollyanna. But we are called to go on in faith, enjoying what we’ve got while we’ve got it, and giving thanks to the God who gives us good things. But with eternity set into our hearts, we are also called to move forward in life listening for that eternal melody from God’s far country, singing along as best we can as we hear snippets of God’s life-affirming music. There is a time for everything but there is also an eternity for everyone. This is not an easy or obvious thing to sense. But we render God our thanks that we sense it at all. Amen.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 Commentary