Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun 5.6.18
Ecclesiastes 3, contrary to popular belief, was not written by the 60’s band The Byrds. They did perform a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and its lyrics are taken verbatim from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, but of course King Solomon wrote these words first.
I’m not sure what Peter Seeger was trying to communicate when he plugged these verses into his song, but we can be sure what Solomon was trying to say, and it was this – God is sovereign over everyone and everything. And we’ll see today, that truth is one that makes joy possible in this world.
This morning, as we continue our study of Ecclesiastes, we’ll begin the second part of the book, which starts with chapter 3, verse 1.
But, before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father in heaven, we come to you, by the Holy Spirit, and in the name of your Son Jesus, to ask for help. Help me to preach well. And help all of us to hear well; not just with our ears, but with our minds and hearts. And again, we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 3. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, (which you’re free to take with you if you don’t own a Bible), you will find today’s text on page 356.
Remember, the author of this book is the great King Solomon, (also called The Professor ), writing about 3000 years ago, as an old man, looking back over his life, and sharing with his readers what he’s learned. And at this point, in his first two chapters, he has basically said three things.
- All of life under the sun is vanity.
Those were his opening words and they will persist as a dominating theme. Chapter 1, verse 2: “Vanity of vanities, says the [Professor], vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” In other words, all of life, on this earth, is (and he uses this word 34x) “vanity” – which literally means, life is mist.
Life is fleeting. Life is inscrutable. Life is monotonous. It’s short, puzzling, and tedious – It goes by quickly, its circumstances are inexplicable; it’s the same thing over and over and over. So that was the first thing he said – All of life is vanity.
- Therefore, (because all of life is vanity) true joy cannot be found here.
There’s no enjoyment here. There’s no satisfaction here. No fullness, no peace, no contentment, no meaning, no happiness. In fact, it is not even within man’s power or ability to draw out TRUE SATISFACTION anywhere on this earth. Not in pleasure, not in power, not in work, not in wealth, nowhere.
Solomon tried. 1v13: “I applied my heart to seek and .. search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” But he discovered 1v8: “all things are full of weariness,” and he discovered in 2v11: “.. I considered all .. my hands had done and … behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” And so he hit this rock bottom in 2v17 “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
No true satisfaction here. Temporal, superficial, detached happiness? Maybe. But no deep, lasting, honest joy.
Those are the first two conclusions – All of life is vanity and so true enjoyment cannot be found here BUT, here’s the third thing he said, at the very end of the first section.
- But (there’s more truth) God gives “the one who pleases him” joy.
Here is what he literally said at the end of the first section, in 2:24-26. He starts with a restatement of his first two conclusions – “There is nothing (inherently) good in a person that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? [And now, here’s the third and surprisingly optimistic statement] 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy,…”
Joy! That’s the first mention of joy or happiness or satisfaction in the book. Life is vanity – no enjoyment here… And yet, joy may be found.
To the one who pleases God, God gives “wisdom and knowledge and joy.” The believer, who knows the God above the sun, will be given joy. That’s good news.
Walter Kaiser, in his commentary, said: Men and women definitely do not have it within themselves or in their own innate abilities to extract enjoyment from life or from any of life’s most mundane functions, such as eating, drinking, or enjoying the purchasing power of a paycheck. Only God can give that ability to those who come to Him in belief, even for such basic functions of life, not to mention even higher values. [i]
So, after two depressing chapters, Solomon puts an anchor point for hope here. He’s held our heads underwater for two chapters and now finally pulls us out for air.
Now listen, what Solomon is saying is true – all of life under the sun is vanity, and there’s nothing you can do about that. No lie, no cause, no mission, no relationship, no accomplishment, and no religion can somehow infuse meaning and satisfaction into this life. But, by God’s grace, you can enjoy this vain life. You can find significance and meaning and satisfaction, which is really what this book is about.
Now, 10 more chapters. The Professor is just getting warmed up. 10 more chapters because you and I still have a lot of questions. Questions like: “If life is vain and fleeting and inscrutable and tedious – how can we possibly enjoy it?”
And that is the question he will answer next.
Section 2 (3:1-5:20)
This brings us to the second section of the book. The second part spans chapters 3-5, and in order to understand where the Professor is taking us, let’s begin by jumping ahead and reading the conclusion, which we find at end of Chapter 5, in vv18-20. Here is the conclusion at the end of the section we are going to begin today:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Did you hear all those HAPPY words? “Good,” “enjoyment,” “enjoy,” “rejoice,” “gift,” “joy.” That’s where the Professor is headed in the next three chapters –
For the believer, (the “one who pleases God”), it is good and fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in [all of life], because your life, every meaningful and mundane moment, is a gift from God. Your life is an utterly unique “lot” God has given you, that you must accept and rejoice in.
That’s the conclusion – Now – let’s back up and begin reading his 3-chapter foundation beneath that conclusion. Lord willing, we’ll get through the first 15 verses of chapter three today.
Let’s begin in verse 1:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
Two points today. And here is going to be the point of these first 8 verses – Everything is part of God’s plan.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” “Under heaven” – that’s a new phrase, replacing the usual “under the sun.” Solomon is taking us higher than the sun, to a higher perspective – God’s perspective – And from that vantage point, there is an appointed time and season for everything.
In other words, everything is part of God’s plan. He will make this clear in the next verses, where he lists 14 pairs of opposites and uses the word “time” 28 times to make his point crystal clear.
God has a plan, and it encompasses every person, every action, in all times and places. These verses illustrate the comprehensiveness of the plan of God. These aren’t instructions. The point is – God orders all of life. He has determined the point in time for everything, and the length of time for everything (“season”).
Verse 2: 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.
That’s pretty much everything. And all of it is set by God. He began with “a time to be born, and a time to die.” In other words, your days are determined by God.
Since his days are determined,
and the number of his months is with you,
and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass,
There is no such thing, to God, as an untimely death, or a premature death. He knows the first date on your tombstone, and he knows the last. Your life is millions of moments between the date on your birth certificate and the date on your death certificate, and every moment is set. Every moment is planned by God!
Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, said: Whatever may be our skill and initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons: not only those of the calendar, but that tide of events which moves us now to one kind of action which seems fitting, now to another which puts it all into reverse. Obviously we have little say in the situations which move us to weep or laugh, mourn or dance; but our more deliberate acts, too, may be time-conditioned more than we suppose.[ii]
This is the doctrine of the exhaustive sovereignty of God. And that is the doctrine Solomon deals with in this section (which remember – this section is moving toward God gives believers power and ability to accept and enjoy their lot. Keep that in the back of your mind.)
Life is not chance, fate, luck, or karma. Life is according to a plan! That’s why David said in Psalm 31:15:
My times are in your hand…
Listen to this description of the exhaustive sovereignty of God in Isaiah 46:10-11: declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
Philip Ryken said: Some people would prefer a one-dimensional deity. They like to think of God as giving life, but not appointing the time of death. They would rather see God as planting and building than uprooting and tearing down. But God is not either/or. He is both/and, depending on what time it is. [iii]
Everything is part of God’s plan. What is the answer to our second catechism question – God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except by him and through his will.
Nothing. Let me run you through a bunch of verses on this.
What about good and evil events?
I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity, (shalom and ra)
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
What about the most sinful act and evil event ever? The murder of Jesus.
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
What about free acts of men? (I chose what school to attend; where to get a job, etc.) But there was an active hand behind all these things.
The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own;
it is not for man to direct his steps.
What about “chance” or “luck” occurrences?
He covers his hands with the lightning
and commands it to strike the mark.
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
What about the small or insignificant details of our lives?
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
Everything is part of God’s plan!
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
So that’s the point of the first 8 verses, and now we’ll find his second point in vv9-15. Let’s read these verses now, and I’m going to pause throughout and help us track his argument.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? [he’s asked that question before, but he’s going to answer it differently here] 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Pause with me. That’s the second point. Remember the first point? Everything is part of God’s plan. And now here he says “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” So here it is – God’s plan is good. God’s plan is beautiful.
Also, [still in verse 11] he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. God has put eternity in our hearts.
We know there’s more than this temporal life. Men and women know this, not animals. God has only put eternity into man’s heart. We know there’s a God. We know there’s beyond. We know there’s a plan, and we long to know what the plan is. We want to know how this fits into eternity. We long to know how all the details fit together.
“yet,” we’re told, “we cannot find out what God as done from the beginning to end. God’s plan is mysterious. God’s plan is not obvious. God’s plan is infitiley complex. “We scan his works in vain.” But, what’s the point Solomon is making – God’s plan is beautiful.
I don’t think there is a more important text for Christians who are suffering. I don’t think there is something more important to remember when you’re sick or destitute or lonely or depressed – Everything that happens is a part of God’s plan, and his plan is beautiful. In time, brother. In time, sister. You’ll see.
Let’s finish the text. If our job is not to “find out,” or “figure things out,” what is it?
12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
Our job is to be joyful and to do good.
And now finally, a restatement of the exhaustive sovereignty of God, verse 14:
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
In conclusion, let’s put this all together.
All of life is vanity. Therefore, joy cannot be found here. But, by the end of chapter 5, Solomon tells us to enjoy our life. How? How did we go from ‘all of life is vanity’ to ‘enjoy your life?’ Well, we were told at the end of chapter 2 that joy is given to those who please God. Okay, well how is that joy given? We just learned the answer to that question in 3:1-15. Joy is given through knowledge of this truth – Everything is part of God’s plan, and God’s plan is good.
That is the basis for Solomon’s finally found enjoyment of life. That is the basis for our joy. God is exhaustively sovereign. That is the ground beneath Solomon’s argument. That is the foundation of wise joy.
One author wrote this paragraph in his book “Joy at the End of the Tether:” A common illustration of the ways of God and the understanding of man is that of a tapestry on a loom. From the vantage underneath, little is visible but snarls and knots. But above, the beautiful pattern of the work on the loom can be seen. As Solomon has shown, we live out our lives under the loom, and everything we see is vanity. So how can we see the pattern above? The only possible answer is through faith in the sovereign God.[iv]
Every moment planned by God. Not interruptions. Not distractions. Not merely mundane means to a greater end. But moments to be embraced and enjoyed.
[i] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. Coping with Change – Ecclesiastes (Kindle Locations 777-779). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, ed. J. Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 38.
[iii] Ryken, Phil. Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes (Kindle Locations 958-960). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Douglas Wilson, Joy at the End of the Tether: The Inscrutable Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), 41.