Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Time for Everything

1There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

4a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

6a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

     9What do workers gain from their toil? 10I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 

It seems safe to say that today’s reading from the Old Testament book entitled Ecclesiastes is the only passage from that book ever to serve as the basis for a Top 40 hit song. (That would be the Byrds’ 1965 hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” for younger readers.) It’s probably also safe to say it’s the only part of that book most followers of Jesus would recognize or quote. But aside from its value as source material for the Byrds, there are a couple of things about Ecclesiastes that are worth thinking about.

This book is one of the books in the Old Testament that are collectively known as the “Wisdom Literature.” (Along with Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, and a couple of others) These books might be described as Hebrew religious philosophy. The Hebrew tradition regarded wisdom as a manifestation of God’s presence in the world, and many places in the Old Testament, it’s described as a feminine presence. In fact, Jesus once quoted a Hebrew proverb that says, “Wisdom is known by her children.”

The Greek word for wisdom is sophia, so when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in the second and third centuries before Jesus, it wound up having Sophia as a feminine manifestation of God. In modern times, this has led to controversies when feminist leaders were accused of worshipping ‘the goddess Sophia.’  

But to get back to Ecclesiastes, most people don’t read this book all that much. The truth is that it strikes a lot of people as depressing. The author – traditionally understood to have been King Solomon – laments that all the typical pursuits of human life are vanity. In modern parlance, we’d say they’re “meaningless.”

I wouldn’t advise a steady diet of Ecclesiastes – most of it really is depressing. But it’s good to have it come up in our lectionary once in a while, as it has recently. I say that because this book reminds us that as servants of the Living God and followers of Jesus, “our hope is not in this world.” If we allow ourselves to be focused entirely on the things of this world, things like money and material possessions, earthly pleasures, fame and status among humankind, these things will always let us down. They always will turn out to be vanities in the end.

None of them will really make us happy, and as the saying goes, we can’t take any of them with us when we leave this world.

That doesn’t mean we should reject all the pleasures of life. In fact, Ecclesiastes specifically advises us to enjoy those pleasures gratefully as gifts of God. But a life that’s entirely devoted to pursuit of those pleasures – like a life devoted to amassing material goods and wealth – is ultimately a vain life

Only a life of service to God, of living by the teachings and example of Jesus as we help to bring the heavenly kingdom to fulfillment on earth as it already exists in heaven, holds the promise of true meaning and value. And the occasional reading from Ecclesiastes helps us to stay grounded in that truth.

And it needs to be said that placing our ultimate meaning of our lives in Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the things of this world. Ironically, it might mean we can enjoy them more — receiving them as gifts of God rather than trying to accumulate them as a measure of the success of our lives.

Let’s pray. Lord, protect us from making the acquisition of worldly things – or the indulgence in worldly pleasures – the central purposes of our lives. Move us to enjoy with thanks the blessings we get from you, and to orient our lives toward following Jesus and serving your kingdom. Remind us that these are signs of true and godly wisdom. Amen.

Grace and Peace,