Previous article in this series: May 1, 2011, p. 346.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven”. Eccl. 3:1
Having pointed us to the transitory character of life and its vanity under the sun, Solomon turns to the seeming pattern of life in the world. The text presents a series of contrasts that embrace the bearing of children and birth, death and dying, planting and rooting up, and killing and healing. The contrasts encompass the circumstances and affairs of life or “purposes under heaven,” both of joy and sorrow, activity and labor, gain and loss. Yet this is not a mere description of the things under heaven, for he is speaking not simply of what comes to pass or happens in the life of the world, but of what God is doing. This is not the heathen doctrine of karma.
All of these affairs of life, both the events themselves and the joy and sorrow in them, are seasons or times set by God and in God’s purpose. They are His works in the life of men. They are, on the one hand, repeated patterns in the unfolding of time under the sun, so that he can say of them, “that which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been” (Eccl. 3:15). Yet they are, on the other hand, “the work that God maketh from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11).
It is God who ordains a time to bear and give birth in human life and a time to die. It is He who ordains the season to plant not only crops, but also the works of men, and the time or season to uproot them. He sets the time to kill and to heal, to break down and build up. He is God, the everlasting sovereign Lord of all. This is the first point Solomon would have us to discern.
It is God who sends the set time of weeping and laughter, of mourning and rejoicing. This is true whether one speaks of the personal life of men, or of the times and seasons of the church, or of men and nations. Our Heidelberg Catechism echoes this passage when it says that “…herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 10, Q.A. 27).
The sovereign, everywhere-present power of God, which is His providence, so embraces the life of man that he cannot escape it. Man would ordain when it is time to get and to lose, to rend and to sow. He would determine in his own wisdom the time of love and hate, of war and earthly peace. But it is not under his hand. The affairs of life come by God’s sovereign appointment.
It is not, however, random. That there is a set time, an appointed time, means that everything comes in its season according to God’s counsel and purpose. God has a purpose and a design, a work that He does, that runs “from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). That design, too, is both from the beginning and end of the world, in the absolute sense of the word, and from the raising up, for a season, of a man and then of casting him down into death.
That counsel and purpose we know from the Word of God, as it stands in Christ from the foundations of the world. It is God’s purpose to glorify Himself in Christ and His church, in the salvation and gathering of His elect. Running through the repeated patterns of life and its times and seasons, there is a straight line, the line of God’s counsel. Solomon does not turn here to the contents of that counsel, as his viewpoint is that which is manifested under the sun. Rather, he speaks of its sovereign efficacy: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it, that men should fear before him” (Eccl. 3:14).
God’s counsel determines the boundaries of man’s life. All things are “of him and through him and to him” (Rom. 11:36). It is unconditional, sovereign, and complete, so that nothing can be “put to it, nor any thing taken from it” (Eccl. 3:14). It leads the history of this world through all the seasons of His sovereign appointment to the final end and consummation. Nothing turns that purpose. No man can hinder it. Nor does any work of man add to or subtract from it. The whole life of the world and the history of creation is so under His almighty power that “whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever” (Eccl. 3:14).
Those works of God shape the life of men in such a way that God “hath made every thing beautiful in his time” (Eccl. 3:11). Man, by contrast, though he labors and toils, exerting and wearying himself in his labor and task, yet finds that the outcome is not in his hands. “What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?” (Eccl. 3:9). What has man really achieved? He has nothing of his own, but vanity. None of it abides. God’s works accomplish their purpose, in His set time, and they are beautiful. They are good, serve His purpose, accomplish His end, and manifest that it is so in their time. They endure. He it is who works all things for good to them that love Him, and judges the works of wicked men.
The sons of men, sons of Adam, who are creatures of the dust and fallen in sin, have their respective tasks or travails given them. Each has his set time, his place in this life. Man spends his strength in the exercise of it. Yet man is always dust, and to dust he returns. He looks for something that endures of all his labor, deceiving himself that it will endure, but it abides not. There is a reason for this. God “also hath set the world in his heart” (Eccl. 3:11). The word “world” is really the word for eternity of time. We may say here that this looks at the passing of time as a stream that flows unto that which is eternal. That such is set in the heart of man, distinguishing him also from the animals, means that he is aware of that flow of time, is aware that there is that which abides and endures but that it is not of man. He knows that there is an eternal end.
Thus man seeks also to find it out, to understand that line as it runs through the repeated pattern of life. He would know from the things that are seen under the sun “the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). But his very place within time and the transitory character of his place make it impossible that he should find it out. That he is bound in time by the hand of God in all his life, which he cannot control, testifies that men should fear before God (Eccl. 3:14). He sees also from that which is past and now present, that repeated pattern, that the works of men have consequences, that there is judgment. He knows that there is a God who “requireth that which is past” (Eccl. 3:15).
The apostle Paul set forth the same thought in his sermon to the heathen in Derbe when the people there would worship him and Barnabas. He says of God as Creator, but also Lord of providence,
Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness, Acts 14:17.
Paul sets forth the same truth in his more extended sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31). He says that God
hath determined the time before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being…, Acts 17:27, 28.
In both these instances there is also an indictment, that man, seeing these things, did not seek after God. The same charge is brought in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse”, Rom. 1:18-20.
The very sovereign providence of God and man’s own life bounded by His will, and the very truth of judgment for that which is past, ought to lead men to fear before God. It should lead man to humble himself under the hand of God and to worship Him. That does not happen by nature. Rather, what it does is leave him without excuse.
Solomon points out another conclusion from this same truth, that with respect to the things of this present life, this truth of God and His works and the set times of man’s life ought to lead him also to a true appreciation of the value of his own labor and what is good in it. “I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God” (Eccl. 3:12, 13). This ought to be the value of the transitory things of a man’s labor and toil. It does not abide. By contrast he says, “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever” (Eccl. 3:14).
Yet, as Solomon has already shown, that is not the outcome in the life of sinful man. “To the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up” (Eccl. 2:26). This truth of God’s sovereign providence and disposition sinful man does not want to confess (also many, in the corruption of the Christian gospel, do not want to hear it). Yet man is confronted by it. Man would sew, and it is God’s time to rend. He would build up, and it is God’s time to break down. He would get and keep, and it is God’s time to lose and cast away. God’s curse rests upon the ground and the life of man so that all his labor is subject to vanity. This striving with the power of God, which man discerns, and to which he can neither add nor take away, belongs to the travail of man’s life in his rebellion against God.
To His people who walk by faith, God gives a spiritual blessing in the midst of the trials of life, for He gives us to see and confess that the set times and seasons of God’s providence come by His Fatherly hand, are for our good, and are the blessings of His care and grace. To that child of God is given the gift, not only of food and drink, but to eat and drink with thanksgiving in the fear of God. To him also is given to hold loosely to the things of this life, for he knows the end of God’s way from His Word, and rather than having all his life and work be made merely subject to vanity, is made by grace fruitful unto every good work.