I recently built the Millennium Falcon.
For those who don’t know, the Falcon is one of the greatest spaceships a galaxy far, far away has ever seen. Flown by Han Solo and his sidekick Chewbacca in Star Wars, it is capable of entering hyperdrive at just the right time, and while it might look like a beaten-up old wreck, everyone knows that’s part of its enduring charm. And I helped to build it.
The Lego version, that is.
My children and I opened the beautiful box at the start of a glorious holiday in south Devon and poured over the 1,254 pieces of the famous craft, and my eldest son set about piecing it together. It took him a total of nine hours. Patiently, lovingly, brick by brick, section by section, and with growing excitement, he saw the work of his hands create something spectacular. Even his mother agreed it was superb, and she couldn’t tell the Millennium Falcon from the Starship Enterprise.
If you have ever built anything by Lego—or from Ikea—you will know that success is achieved when you work piece by piece, using each one in all the right places in all the right ways and at all the right times. If you’re trying to build a model to match the picture on the box, then going freestyle is usually a recipe for disaster.
As I watched my son work, it occurred to me how life is like a construction exercise. Our lives are made up of so many different pieces—people, events, circumstances, times, places—that are all being locked together to make our individual stories. Sometimes we don’t see the significance of a tiny piece of the story until later on. Often there seems to be a brick missing, and it’s hard to keep going without it. Or there’s tremendous joy and satisfaction as a particular piece clicks into place and crowns a part of our life project.
The difference between real life and Lego construction, however, is that we are not the ones with the instruction blueprint laid out in front of us. God is. We have individual pieces in our hands, and in the Bible God has given us enough explanation to set us building, but only he has the master plan. We are building our lives, and we have an idea of how we want to do it, and how we hope it will turn out, but there is so much about the shape our lives will take that we cannot control.
The Essence of Ecclesiastes 3
In chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes the Preacher introduced his main thesis: death puts an end to our repetitive quest for greatness and gain and instead teaches us that we are simply part of the generation who came after the last one and before the next. But it’s not just that the whole of our lives comes and goes like a vapor. In chapter 2 the Preacher explained that all the pursuits and pleasures to which we give ourselves within our lives also slip through our fingers with little lasting satisfaction.
Now in chapter 3 the Preacher brings together both the big picture (the whole of life) and the individual parts (the seasons of life) and begins to explain why our lack of control over either is the very thing that can give us hope. There are many ways to embrace our frailty, and nearly all of them involve thinking clearly about time. It is part of living well to accept two things: first, we are enclosed within time’s bounds, and, second, God is not. What we do comes and goes, but “whatever God does endures forever” (3:14). We are each building the project of “me,” constructing the edifice of our lives, but as we do so, we are neither architect nor site manager. We are each writing the story of our lives, but we are not the main author.
Ecclesiastes 3 is a very beautiful chapter, with famous words of poetry often read at funerals, even humanist ones. As we will see, however, the beauty of the Preacher’s poetry in verses 1–8 is only half the story; we need the punch of his prose in verses 9–22 if we are actually to find any joy and hope in the poetry.
The Powerful Pattern of His Poetry (vv. 1–8)
Just as the created world has a rhythmic pattern built into it, so too our lives within this world experience their own regularities and cadences that ebb and flow with the rolling years. Ecclesiastes 3 gives us a poem to show this.
The statement in verse 1—there is a time and a season for everything—is fleshed out in verses 2–8 with an artful literary technique that places polar opposites or extreme positions side by side “as a way of embracing everything that lies between them (e.g., north and south, heaven and earth).”1 So with “a time to be born, and a time to die” (v. 2), the whole of life is captured as being something that has a time for its beginning, a time for its end, and a time for everything else that happens between the decisive moments of start and finish.
After stating the big picture of life and death, the rest of the verses move through different experiences of life and all the varied human activities that most of us engage in or encounter at one time or another. There does not seem to be a logical progression or natural connection between one set of extremes and those that come after or before. If there is any structure, it most likely lies in the fact that the list of opposites is made up of twenty-eight items in fourteen pairs; this means the list is comprised of multiples of seven, the number that symbolizes perfection in the Bible.2 It is a skillful way of again emphasizing the totality of things that are contained within any human life. This is a complete summary of the seasons of life.
It is a mistake to extract these verses from the whole chapter (as is often done) and think they can have their real meaning displayed without looking at how the Preacher follows them in verses 9–22. The poetry is setting up a problem that the prose will seek to resolve. At the same time, however, there is a wonderful richness to the poetry that is worth lingering over.
To begin with, note how the poem expresses the beautiful complexity of life. Some of the opposites in the list can be grouped together into a basic pattern of bad times and good times: there is a time for killing and a time for healing, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. But not all seasons have an opposite that is either straightforwardly good or bad: there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain; there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Each of these can be good when done at the right time in the right way. Others seem even more ambiguous to us: there is a time to search and a time to give up. Which one of these is favorable or unfavorable? Again, as with chapter 1, the form of the poem is part of the meaning of its content: life is complex, full of good times, hard times, in-between times, and a whole manner of lifestyle choices and decisions that often require a wisdom that seems to escape us. There is a time for every single one of these things.
Observe as well how the combined effect of the poem puts flesh on the skeleton of a human life. There are seasons in the world that act upon us (war and peace), but almost every pair in the poem involves our connectedness to others between the moments of our birth and death. We are profoundly relational beings, and most of the seasons of our lives are taken up with navigating the different stages of our relationships and the effects they have on us. We dance at a wedding, and we mourn the loss of the one we danced with. We laugh together, and we weep for what the people we used to laugh with have done to us. Without thinking, we reach out and touch, but we instinctively respect a different emotional and physical boundary with someone else. We grow to love some people and come to hate others.
If we were somehow to take the seasons of life out of the web of relationships in which we are enmeshed, our lives would become flat and monotonous. We check our calendars every day, but we don’t set the seasons of life just by the patterns of the sun and the moon. Rather, our times are marked by being a daughter and a sister, becoming a wife and a lover, then a mother and a grandmother, and a widow. These are the seasons God gives. The times he grants are bound to the presence or absence of relationship.3
The Preacher is seeking to give us perspective on each of the items in his patterned opposites, while pointing us to the perplexity of this rhythmically ordered arrangement of time. Life is full of flaws. Killing, tearing down, weeping, mourning, hating, warring: these are the times of life we will experience that show us in the most painful of ways that we live east of Eden and under the curse. More than this, the fact that there is no chronological sequence or discernible purpose to the order of each of these items is itself part of the Preacher’s point that we have no control over any of these things. We make real, responsible decisions every single day, but in reality we each know that the seasons of life are almost completely out of our hands. There is a time for everything, but we are not arranging them on our stopwatch. “Three hours for mirth today, and next week I will have just twenty minutes of sorrow, please. Following that I will embark on an entirely new chapter of life with great success, and in two and a half years I will be happy to move on to something new.” We all know life is not like this. So what can we do about it?
Each of the individual aspects of the curse displayed in this poetry combine to point to one great flaw—and here is where I want to make good on my claim that this beautiful poetry on its own can actually do us more harm than good. For notice how the Preacher follows the poetry immediately in verse 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” This is the most powerful of sucker punches.
There is a time for everything; life is a lyrical arrangement of good and bad, of relational complexity and nuanced subtleties, and at the end of it all, you go in a box in the cold, hard ground. What have you gained after living all the seasons of life? Nothing. You’re dead. You experienced it all, you came and went, and look: you have no lasting gain. It is vital to see that there is nothing in the first eight verses of chapter 3 that could not have been written by an atheist philosopher or the Poet Laureate. Anyone with enough experience can dramatize life in this way and sum it all up with a lilting flow of rhythmical patterns.
It’s why I’ve heard these words at a humanist funeral, but I have yet to hear a celebrant advance to verse 9. Is it possible that it doesn’t much matter whether you read out verses 1–8 at a humanist funeral or a Christian one? For it is still a funeral. Joe Bloggs might have led a varied life in all its richness, but what has he gained now? Nothing. He’s dead. It’s over.
1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, NIV Application Commentary
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 87.
3. Zack Eswine develops these things in characteristically thoughtful ways. See his Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 130–35.
David Gibson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he served as a staff worker for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (part of UCCF) and as an assistant minister at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen. Gibson is also a widely published author of articles and books such as Rich: The Reality of Encountering Jesus and Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth.
Content taken from Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End by David Gibson, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.