E C C L E S I A S T E S 5
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.
K I N G S O L O M O N
Death makes the riddle of life unsolvable. Or so King Solomon seems to have concluded at the end of chapter 2, where we find him sunk in despair. He has examined the nature of human life and found this: that God has given man an unhappy task, to work with blood, sweat and tears at a problem that will not go away, doing work that ultimately undoes itself, and leaving whatever temporary accomplishments to those who come after. And his reaction is natural -- warranted -- totally justifiable were that the whole picture.
The Two Faces of Time
But its not. And at the beginning of chapter 3, God is already beginning to send shafts of light into the darkness of a human mind that is simply incapable of understanding without divine revelation. Solomon experiences this divine revelation as God shows him the two opposite faces of transience. Chapter 3 starts:
1 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.
One the one hand, this beautiful expression of human experience serves to emphasize our reasons for despair. It's a neutralizing situation. We are born, but we die. That adds up to zero. We plant, but we uproot. That adds up to nothing. Every beginning has its end, every doing its undoing -- the frustration that Solomon has been experiencing this whole time. Alexander McLaren, who wrote a lengthy commentary on this passage, puts it this way:
"...his conclusion is, as it always is in the earlier part of this book, that because there is such an endless diversity of possible occupation, and each of them lasts but for a little time, and its opposite has as good a right of existence as itself; therefore, perhaps, it might be as well that a man should do nothing as do all these opposite things which neutralise each other, and the net result of which is nothing. If there be a time to be born and a time to die, nonentity would be the same when all is over. If there be a time to plant and a time to pluck, what is the good of planting? If there be a time for love and a time for hate, why cherish affections which are transient and may be succeeded by their opposites?" (McLaren's Expositions).
This passage seems to also emphasize our bondage to the concept of time. We are chained to a timeline, powerless to separate itself from it. We are on a conveyor belt called Time. It's moving, and there's no getting off. Have you ever felt that you were in a difficult, dark season of life and wished you could go back to a happier, more golden one? Then you too have experienced your complete and total powerlessness to change your place in time.
On the other hand, this passage gives extraordinary hope. It is an affirmation of God's control. A time to be born and a time to die? A time to mourn and a time to dance? A time to love and a time to hate? This lineup of times looks to me like a schedule -- God's schedule. Solomon is here beholding the beautiful truth that just as God has placed us in a cosmic gym to be "worked on" ourselves rather than to "work on" things, God has also bound us to a schedule -- of His own making. Before we get up in arms about being forced into something, let's remember that this schedule has been created by Wisdom Himself, taking all possible factors and outcomes into consideration, with perfect Love. It is the perfect Schedule for our lives. We can rest in the knowledge that every single instant of our lives is perfectly timed, perfectly planned, for our maximum happiness by Love Himself.
We can't predict when things will happen. Life can be sailing along one day, and a cancer diagnosis comes the next. We can kiss our child goodbye and find out their precious life was ended a few minutes afterwards as they turned onto a busy street. We can't predict our successes, so we invest with baited breath. We cannot predict failures, and so for many people, anxiety rules their inner life like an angry tyrant.
The calm reassurance that God is in control and that all things follow His exact timeline is a good one. It gives a sense of peace in the midst of a world that can seem chaotic and unpredictable.
Still, it's not enough. It's given us the how. How do we live in this broken world? -- by faith in God's power and goodness. But it hasn't given us the why. After all, he has been searching for meaning, and so we need an answer on meaning. What's the meaning of it all?
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. Also, 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.
We understand that God has put us here to "be busy" (think Cosmic Gym) and that He has created His own beautiful schedule. But it's not enough. We have eternity placed in our hearts, and the total lack of eternity on this earth doesn't make sense to us. McClaren again puts it well:
"He lives in a world of fleeting change, but he has ‘eternity’ in ‘his heart.’ So between him and his dwelling-place, between him and his occupations, there is a gulf of disproportion. He is subjected to these alternations, and yet bears within him a repressed but immortal consciousness that he belongs to another order of things, which knows no vicissitude and fears no decay" (McLaren's Expositions).
We need to know...the eternity in our hearts pushes us towards demanding an answer. Why are we required to ride this train, to run this rat race, to go through this fake show of "doing things" (hear, WORK) that accomplish nothing?
Was Shakespeare right in his assessment? He writes,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth - William Shakespeare)
This quote is actually spoken by a murderer in Shakespeare's play -- but is the assessment correct? If life "signifies nothing" -- adds up to nothing -- then is not the Author of Life an "idiot" ?
Enter the golden centerpiece of this research project -- Solomon's closest brush with the real, true meaning of reality.
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.
When I was studying this passage, I stared at this centerpiece verse for a long time, trying to make sense of it. Something told me it was the answer, and yet I couldn't understand. Finally, God opened my eyes to see the pure and beautiful contrast here.
Man is of earth, death-infested, passing. Whatever we do is futile, disintegrates.
God is eternal, the source of Life itself. Whatever He does endures forever and is completely perfect.
Man's work amounts to nothing.
God's work will never pass away.
Actually, poor Solomon had a long, difficult journey to an answer that Jesus gave us freely. In a dimly lit room, His disciples surrounding Him, eating up His words, short hours before His arrest and death, Jesus told them "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
I've talked about this in past posts, but this statement doesn't mean we can't do things without Jesus. We can, and most often do. It simply means that without Jesus, our work amounts to nothing. Absolutely nothing.
What God does endures forever. What man does is meaningless. I racked my brains before this passage, trying to determine in my head what it is exactly that God's work in the world is. The answer is simple, powerful, life-changing.
God's work is done in people's hearts. God's work is people's souls. God doesn't care about building buildings. He doesn't care about taxes or infrastructure. He doesn't care about curing cancer or about world empires. He doesn't care about any of those things IN AND OF THEMSELVES. He does care about them, very much so, as they relate to people's souls. This whole world -- this whole cosmic gym -- the whole schedule, the whole human experience is simply a backdrop and a tool for His work in human souls. That's His end goal -- that's the ONLY work that matters and has any eternal meaning whatsoever. Period.
The takeaway is huge.
I am not primarily called to be a teacher, or a politician, or a businessman, or a contractor. I am not called to be a blogger or a mom or a plumber or a researcher. I am created for the sole purpose that God's work be done in me and that God's work be done through me.
The world I see around me, the seasons I go through, every minute experience, good, bad or simply neutral is optimized to create an eternal impact on my soul. None of it matters, not my outfit or the way I spent my day or who I talked to or what I accomplished -- none of it matters except in relation to my soul and the souls of those around me. Every single thing in this life will pass or burn, and so assigning any meaning to it beyond that of how it works upon my soul or the souls of others is absolutely a mistake. It's like an intricate board game, and of course we need the pieces and the tokens and the board itself, but they are just discardable tools that create a system in which we can assess the players. I hope it is more than obvious what a complete and total reversal of the human way of seeing life this truly is.
Not only does this truth require that we radically change the way we see the world around US, but it also radically changes how we see ourselves in relation to others. It should be an unsettling thing to realize that you have two sole purposes in life : getting your soul right with God and allowing God to use you to get the souls of other right with him.
This means you need to cease doing your work, instantly, because it is a complete waste of time. Everything that you have been doing in your own wisdom or power amounts to nothing. It means that instead, you should take a step back and ask God to do His work through you. As I have said in previous posts, it may look very much the same, and yet be extraordinarily different in what it accomplishes eternally. You may start out an accountant pursuing your career and attempting to create a massive enough fund that you can retire early and end up an accountant who God is using daily to work on human souls. From the outside, it may look exactly the same, and yet if God is doing the work the kingdom impact will be huge.
I have a confession to make. For 26 years, I have been leading an extraordinarily ego-centric life. I don't think it looked that way, from the outside, and yet if I am honest with myself, everything -- even my pursuit of God, has come down to me and my own self-glory. Everything I have said or done has somehow been sifted through the measure of how will this benefit me, add to my self-image, or add to how others perceive me. Besides being an unrewarding way to live, it is also a meaningless way. It amounts to nothing.
By the grace of God, He has slowly been opening my eyes to my own selfishness. I write this and I confess this not to self-abase, but because I strongly believe that so many of us fall into the same trap and I am terribly afraid that we reach the end of our lives and see our work burn -- oh yes, our work will be put to the test. Let's look at the passage from 1 Corinthians 3:
11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved,but only as through fire.
If we are not abiding in Christ and allowing the eternal God to do His work in us and through us, our work WILL burn. It's a sobering truth, but is it one we would rather face now, with the thread of our timeline still stretching out before us and the possibility of change still alive, or will we postpone facing the inevitable until we see our work on earth go up in flames and "suffer loss?" I heard a pastor once say that he doesn't know what "suffer loss" means, but he sure doesn't want to find out by experiencing it.
It's time for my ego to bow out. My life needs to stop being about ME, and it needs to start being about God first, then other people. I focused at first on other people, thinking I now have to sacrifice myself to love, support, encourage, and push them closer to God. And yet that's still working on my own. My first and foremost "work" is to abide in Him, allow Him to do His eternal work on my soul. Secondly, subordinately, derivatively, my "work" is to step back and allow Him to work through me. When I first realized this, I used to pray every day "God, love people through me." Now I pray, "God, help me love You with all my heart, soul and might, and my neighbor as myself." Because if we love God, seek God, pursue God -- if we truly treasure Christ -- then the neighbor-love will come naturally. It will be an overflow of God's fullness and His work in us.
These truths are powerful, and I am convinced they are not just for me. We all exist in this "meaningless" world where the only meaning is God's work -- in us or and through us in others. I invite you to take the book of Ecclesiastes and read it's first 3 chapters again, up to this point. Ask God to reveal to you these truths personally, and join me in making this pivotal change. You won't regret it -- a life of self-sacrifice and pursuit of God is guaranteed to be rewarding in this life because you're doing it right. You're playing the game the way it was designed to be played. You're following the God-established rules, so the blurred, senseless lines will clear and rich, fulfilling meaning will emerge.
It is also guaranteed to be rewarding in the next. Just as those whose work will burn will suffer loss, and you can count on it, those whose work will stand the test "will receive a reward." And you can count on it.
But really -- and live this way for awhile and you will understand and feel this more and more -- the most rewarding thing of all is the relationship you will gain with "He who is blessed and the only Sovereign One, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light. No one has ever seen Him, nor can anyone see Him. To Him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen" (1 Timothy 6:16).