God’s Work, Man’s Work | The Voice 12.25: June 19, 2022

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The Voice

God’s Work, Man’s Work

What benefit can a worker gain from his toil? I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied. God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives. I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God. I also know that whatever God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it. God has made it this way, so that men will fear him (Ecclesiastes 3:9-14).

If life under the sun is futile, absurd, and a chasing after wind, what benefit or value can remain?

The Preacher has set forth many challenging truths in his discourse so far: all of life is futile and absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). Time is more cyclical than linear; what has been done will soon be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11). All pursuits under the sun are like chasing after wind: a never-ending and ultimately futile task (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13). The three main pursuits of mankind cannot deliver on their promises: pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11), wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:14-18, 2:12-17), and labor (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26) all ultimately prove futile and a chasing after wind. A time and a season exist for all things under the sun: yes, those things we enjoy, but also those things we work diligently to avoid (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

The Preacher established such things in order to compel the hearer to consider many of the vain pretenses under which he or she pursues existence. The hearer will naturally find what the Preacher establishes abhorrent; yet such contempt, disgust, and/or hostility stems from the exposure of such pretenses. Humans want their lives to matter and to be full of meaning. In their corruption, and in the face of death, humans are easily tempted to invest in various earthly projects in order to find that meaning and to make their mark on the creation. Who among us wants to believe we will be forgotten within a century, most likely left as an entry with a birth and death date on some future descendant’s family tree?

While the natural human within us wants to resist the Preacher’s message, we do better to heed his wisdom. Yet we can understand why many would find him nihilistic to this point: if life is so meaningless, then why bother? Thus the Preacher would go on to provide exhortation about what can be enjoyed about life and work in Ecclesiastes 3:9-22; and he began by speaking of God’s work and man’s work in this creation.

The pericope (or section) began asking again what benefit a worker can gain from his effort (Ecclesiastes 3:9). To answer it the Preacher made appeal to God and His work: God has given labor to humans to keep them busy (Ecclesiastes 3:10). The Preacher confessed how God made everything beautiful in its own time and way (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has made the creation so that mankind cannot ascertain how God has begun it or how it continues, or even how long they will live (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The text maintains vagary about what God has placed in the human heart: we can read the text, along with the ASV, as saying God has placed eternity in man’s heart, or, along with the NET, as saying God has placed ignorance in man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

We may have a preference regarding which way we want to read the text in Ecclesiastes 3:11, yet either would make for robust theology and reflection. God has made mankind in His own image, and God is eternal (Genesis 1:27, Revelation 1:4). Humans indeed have eternity in their hearts: we have strong intuitions that there is more to living than this life. Cultures throughout time have expected some kind of afterlife for a part of themselves which was not consigned to physical death. Yet even though we might have intuition of eternity, we remain woefully ignorant regarding the spiritual realm and its operations. We do not know how long we will live, let alone how things will turn out for us.

Many decry and lament such ignorance; they believe they would like to know how their lives will turn out. We might understand such a desire for a moment, but upon reflection we can hopefully understand how terrible it would be. Generally we humans want to know things in order to master them; we might imagine we can find out how things will happen so we can make corrections or whatnot. But if we changed some matters of our existence which we would not have otherwise changed, would it not change our trajectory, thus invalidating whatever we were shown would take place? Such is the time traveler’s dilemma: if we could travel back in time in order to change a circumstance or event, then the reality in which we would exist would reflect the changed circumstance; how could we then know the circumstance or event needed changing? We thus cannot master what would happen. To know our end could easily paralyze us into fatalism. We understand and sympathize with the anxiety regarding the unknown regarding the future; yet such an unknown also allows life to have its vitality. Despite what we may think, ignorance regarding our end under the sun remains bliss.

The Preacher confessed how God’s works will endure forever, without addition or elimination; God has made the creation thus to give mankind reason to fear and revere Him (Ecclesiastes 3:14). And God’s gift to mankind is life (Ecclesiastes 3:13). God has not given us the pretensions of the institutions, powers, and principalities over this present darkness; God has not given us the delusions of eternal satisfaction of pleasure, wisdom, or labor. But God has given us the ability to enjoy the creation He has made, to eat and drink, and to find some enjoyment in the work we do (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).

The Preacher again devastates human pretension. No matter how much effort we put into this creation, we cannot add to or take away from it. There is as much created stuff at the end as there was in the beginning; we may have changed its form, eliminated life, built up the things we call “development,” but it is all still made of the basic elements of the creation which God has made. When it is all said and done, God will purge it by fire and reconstitute it all according to His good plan and purpose (Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3:1-13). We remain part of the life cycle of this planet; we have not withdrawn ourselves from it, and we never will. Here the Preacher affirmed, in his own way, what Paul would set forth in Romans 1:18-20: the creation testifies to its Creator. We should fear and revere God because He made it all, we are merely part of the system He created, and we cannot find any lasting form of meaning or purpose outside of Him. If we try to find meaning or purpose in His creation, we give the glory due the Creator to His creation, and He will give us over to such debased thinking, and we will prove miserable (cf. Romans 1:25).

Thus we can strive for what endures forever through what God has done in Christ. But when it comes to life under the sun, we do best to “stop and smell the roses.” The “little things” we can enjoy in life remain the only joys we can fully expect to enjoy. We should enjoy the warmth of the sun and the majesty of what God has made. We should enjoy the taste of the food and drink with which God has blessed us. We should rejoice, cherish, and laugh with our family, friends, and associates with whom we share life. We need to find what we can enjoy in our labor and effort so as to make it worthwhile. The “little things” are ephemeral indeed. Yet so are we! Let us enjoy what God has given us to enjoy in His creation, and may we invest our hopes of eternity in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Work, Man’s Work | The Voice 12.25: June 19, 2022

A Time For Everything | The Voice 12.20: May 15, 2022

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The Voice

A Time For Everything

For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to search, and a time to give something up as lost; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to rip, and a time to sew; a time to keep silent, 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).

Some messages remain entirely non-controversial yet controversial all at the same time.

The Preacher in Jerusalem has set forth his thesis: everything is hevel: a vapor, futile, absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). What has been will be; everything is cyclical; there is nothing new “under the sun”; all work done “under the sun” is a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:3-18). The Preacher knew people would protest such things, and so he explored in greater depth three aspects of life in which people invest great meaning: pleasure, wisdom, and labor, and saw how the end of all remains futile and a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26).

The Preacher then turned to set forth what might seem to be a relatively straightforward reflection on reality: for everything there is a time and a season on earth (Ecclesiastes 3:1). He then provided a series of contrasts: birth and death, planting and uprooting, killing and healing, breaking down and building up, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, tearing down and building up, intimacy and withdrawal, searching and not finding, keeping and throwing away, ripping and sewing, silence and speech, love and hate, war and peace (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8).

How many times have we read this list, affirmed it, and continued our reading without much fanfare? After all, such is life. We were born; we will die. We plant sometimes; sometimes we have to uproot. We live in times of peace; we see times of war. The Preacher spoke accurately.

Yet perhaps we do well to stop for a moment and wonder if the Preacher has something more profound in mind: why did he speak thus, and at this particular moment in his discourse? What purpose might it serve?

While we might confess the reality and truth which the Preacher has spoken in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, we still do not like it. We enjoy birth, planting, healing, building up, laughing, dancing, gathering stones, embracing, discovering, keeping, mending, speaking, loving, and peace. But death, uprooting, killing, breaking down, weeping, mourning, tearing down, withdrawal of intimacy, giving up on a loss, throwing away, tearing apart, silence, hatred, and war? We do not enjoy them as much. We will often go to great lengths to avoid such things!

Such is the controversial nature of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: there is a season for everything on earth and for every purpose under heaven. This is undoubtedly true about the good things; it is equally true about those which we find less than pleasant. We often aspire to a life featuring half of the things the Preacher mentions; nevertheless, life “under the sun” will involve all of them.

We live in a culture which celebrates birth yet fears death: you can announce to the world how a child has been born, and all will rejoice; yet if you speak of how someone has died, others will not know how to handle the situation well, and will seek to avoid you. Who among us would live in active denial regarding the birth of a loved one, and yet how many cannot come to grips with the grief of loss? In terms of the faith, we enjoy planting and building up; yet in order to plant and build up, one must first uproot all which works contrary to the Gospel and tear down every human edifice. Yet how many today prove apprehensive or hostile toward the “deconstruction” many feel compelled to do in order to come to grips with what they have been taught and have experienced in light of what they find revealed in the pages of Scripture? For good reason Jesus considered those who mourned blessed, and pronounced woes on those who laugh (Luke 6:21, 25): He was not attempting to suggest greater virtue in one over the other, but wanted people to think differently about laughter and mourning: those who laugh can only look forward to mourning, but those who mourn can look forward to a time of laughing, since there is a time for everything on earth. For many, the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ring in their ears as the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds from 1965; the song was composed a few years earlier by Pete Seeger, and it was so sung as to be an anti-war protest song (“a time for peace / I swear it’s not too late”). We can understand why many in the middle of the Sixties would wish for peace, and can even appreciate it; yet the time for war would continue.

The Preacher, therefore, did not come out of left field with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. He had established how life is futile and absurd and a striving after wind; pleasure, wisdom, and labor cannot ultimately satisfy us; and life features a time for everything on earth and for every purpose under heaven. We confess its truth while resisting it, because we want only to enjoy the good things in life and avoid all the pain and difficulty. The Preacher would disabuse us of such a notion: life involves everything, death as well as birth, tearing down as well as building up, weeping as well as laughter, war as well as peace. Such truth need not depress or lead to despair; indeed, when we undergo the days of trial and difficulty, suffering that which we would rather avoid, we can remain confident it will remain for a season. Nevertheless, the Preacher, as well as the Lord Jesus, would remind us while we enjoy the good times, the times and seasons which prove less pleasant will come.

It is not for us to determine which time and season in which we exist at any given moment, nor is it for us to determine how long each season or time will last. We would be abusing the text to use it to rationalize, justify, or commend anything because there is a “time” for it; any such exhortation would say much more about the person who would preach it than it would the Preacher or God’s purposes. Instead we do well to consider the Preacher’s wisdom about life under heaven and understand how a time and a season exists for everything, to find enjoyment in what we can, and to endure what is unpleasant in hope for a better season. In all things we do well to put our confidence in God in Christ to be ready for the time when He will return and we can share in the resurrection of life; may we do so in every season and time in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Time For Everything | The Voice 12.20: May 15, 2022