Saturday, November 09, 2019

Time and Chance (9)

The first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3 are among the most famous in all of scripture. Go ahead, name another #1 U.S. single with 3,000 year old lyrics. Even today, I find myself singing them in my head rather than merely reciting them. They so obviously reflect reality that one wonders they even need to be stated, but such is the nature of poetry. If we did not use these words, we would need others instead.

Still, there are probably one or two dusty old hippies around who might be shocked to learn Pete Seeger was not their author.

A Season for Everything

The Preacher continues his discourse:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is 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 cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
Really, what can we say here that has not already been said?

Ebb and Flow

Bear in mind that the Preacher is speaking about things that go on “under heaven” and not about Church Age ethics. He is speaking of the normal ebb and flow of human experience, not the specifics of the Christian walk.

If that seems an unimportant distinction, consider how many perfectly ordinary human experiences the Lord Jesus denied himself in the interest of doing his Father’s will, and how much the apostles suffered in following his footsteps. Christians may or may not get to dance, hate, fight and kill in this life, depending on their circumstances and calling. There is more to the question of what is appropriate for the believer at any given time than there is for the ordinary ‘decent’ man or woman.

With that in view, however, we recognize there is plenty of truth here to which we can relate.

A Few Trivial Observations

There are a few things we may observe about the passage:
  • Life is not all one thing. When Jordan Peterson says, “Life is suffering,” most people realize he is speaking rhetorically. He is occupied with existence in only one of its many aspects. There is plenty of suffering in life, sure, but if we argue that life is all any one particular type of experience, we will shortly find our thesis disproved by unexpected changes in our circumstances. Here, the Preacher points out that life is actually composed of at least fourteen pairs of contrasting things, and surely many more besides, most of which are up to us. No three words in any language are sufficient to accurately summarize the human experience.
  • There are things we can control and things we can’t. The timing of our birth or death is not generally of our choosing, but in between those two events, every activity Solomon lists may either be performed intelligently or else experienced passively, like some mere creature of instinct. It is better to be an agent than an object. To approach this passage as if it is a list of things God imposes on men at the moment of his sovereign choosing is to miss the point, I think, though there are surely times when that is true.
  • Actions of a specific sort. Every choice of which the Preacher speaks is ethical under the right conditions, but that is because he has chosen only a subset of human experiences, not all. Notice there is no “a time to be evil” or “a time for revenge” to be found here, though there is observably plenty of evil in the world and no lack of revenge-taking. We may indeed be compelled to fight or kill in the interest of defending others, but it is not appropriate to seek such opportunities. Weeping and laughing are normal responses to grief and joy, respectively. Apathy, nihilism and hysteria are considerably less useful. They too are not listed here.
  • Discernment is critical to right living. Under the right conditions many things are appropriate; at another time they are not. Consider the number of times people in scripture are rebuked for failing to recognize their situation and respond appropriately: “You are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?” “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.” Right behavior in this world involves discerning the correct time and place for any particular action.
  • The appropriate choice in any given situation may not be the choice we prefer. There are people who would rather die than be forced to take someone else’s life. They may be cowards, would-be martyrs, or ethical theorists untested by real life. Still, taking the knee may not be the best move if you are a father responsible for a family, or a lieutenant responsible for a division of soldiers. Another example: we may prefer to distract ourselves when things get bad, but the word of God commands us to weep with those who weep. One more: many people would prefer to always keep and never cast away, but there are times when it is necessary to leave certain things and people behind in order to devote oneself to a higher cause. When Jesus called James and John, “immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Would anyone argue they were wrong?

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