Luck is a poor substitute for a sovereign God.
Think of your life like a baseball diamond. You’re standing on home plate, about to work your way through the three bases. Each of them represents one of the three wisdom books of the Bible. All of scripture contains God’s wisdom in some way, but three in particular especially call you to listen, to look, to think, to reflect, and to apply.
Proverbs. Job. Ecclesiastes.
Let’s say you’re starting off as a young adult, trying to reach first base—the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers a lot of straight-line instruction. It recommends you do certain things like, learn to listen, don’t speak too quickly, don’t gossip, don’t hang out with fools, put safeguards around your sexual conduct. If you practice these, you are less likely to experience negative outcomes.
Let’s look at how this might occur in the workplace. As you practice the wisdom of Proverbs, your employer will like you, and respect you. You’ll probably get promotions. Your fellow employees will respect you. That’s the effect of first base wisdom with the book of Proverbs.
But suppose having arrived there, some of your fellow employees become jealous of you. Worse, their criticisms get the ear of your boss. You’ve done everything right, and you naturally wonder why you aren’t getting the payoff that ought to come from Proverbs wisdom. Proverbs, though, doesn’t guarantee outcomes; it only forecasts likely ones.
It is possible to be a righteous person targeted by evil. The Bible is full of warnings about such possibilities. If this is the case, you’re on your way to second base, the book of Job. You will learn from that book about honesty with God, tears, prayer, and perhaps you will get to know God like you have never known him in your life. Hopefully, like Job, you survive the whole workplace debacle, hold onto your job, and perhaps even get promoted.
But let’s say a couple of years from that time, after the drama disappears, corporate downsizing occurs, and you get laid off. It wasn’t anything personal, just random market forces. Somebody at corporate headquarters looked at paperwork and determined your department was redundant. That person doesn’t even know you, and so there was no animosity involved. At that point, you’ve reached third base, the book of Ecclesiastes, where things just seem to happen, with no rhyme or reason.
There is nothing more maddening in life than when luck appears to be in charge of the universe. The helplessness you feel makes you angry, then frustrated, then depressed. Some folks sink into a committed cynicism. Richard Dawkins, a hostile non-theist, wrote,
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces, and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect, if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
To this observation, the Bible says, “No!” Even Ecclesiastes, the book with the most consistent tone of discouragement, and sarcasm, powerfully testifies how that God has an exacting rule over everything, whether you want to describe it as His allowing things, or commanding them. Regardless of how you see it, He is in charge.
Having asserted this, I won’t wade into any debates about predestination versus free will, since such arguments don’t reflect where Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is going, anyway. I’ll simply proceed with our study, agreeing with the Bible that God is sovereign ruler over the universe. Of course that includes your life.
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
This statement conveys no sense of randomness, and no blind fate. “A time for every matter” means appointment, deliberation, purpose. The things described in the coming verses will happen to us all, but how they happen, and when, are matters particularly tailored to you. For instance,
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
Just as you had a birthday, you’ll have a death day. But birth and death are also experiences you will go through with others. You will bask in the glow of your own children being born, or at least celebrate it with friends, as they have theirs. In each case, it will be glorious. And then one day you’ll get a phone call or text you really don’t want, letting you know that somebody you love has passed away. In all of those moments, you’ll need to remember that none of this is an accident, but an appointed time.
Solomon continues the verse, by saying there will be “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” You may put a lot of sweat into something in order to start it, but then one day it will be obvious it is time to pluck it up, and end it.
The list goes on from this point, describing life in similar sets of paired opposites:
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.
We Christians wonder if every time shouldn’t be a time for peace, for love, for seeking. We would certainly prefer it that way. However, the circumstances of practical life call us into a multitude of emotional experiences, and demand a variety of responses. Like a piano, life has flat white keys, and raised black ones. Both are needed to capture the full range of music. Truly, without them, we would be terribly one-dimensional, not capable of apprehending the fulness of life, and the God who created it.
All this talk of divinely preordained, or appointed times, can lead us to feel we live in a fatalistic universe. Solomon therefore asks the question you want to ask: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v. 9). Why bother with so much work? If God has it all figured out, why save money? Why eat healthy? But then in verse 10, he seems to regroup, answer himself, saying, “I’ve seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” God has assigned something to you and expects you to be busy in it. He does not intend you to be passive. We are supposed to be active, responsible moral agents.
At the same moments as we live and work in God’s assignment, Solomon says, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time” (v. 11). At first, most things don’t look that way. It had no doubt crossed Solomon’s mind that he himself was born of adultery and murder. Society would have branded such a child a bastard. Yet, after the passing of so many years, he sat upon the throne of Israel, writing a book of the Bible. The sovereignty of God, he said, is beautiful, and in time what God appoints is beautiful as well, even if it was not apparently so in the beginning.
Solomon finishes verse 11 by saying, “God has put eternity in a man’s heart.” We know that life is more than just a string of accidents. People who try to prove otherwise are speaking out of personal pain. Something happened to them in their past that they never got over. Now they decry any transcendent purpose or plan.
Still, God has put eternity in their hearts. We may deny it, but we’re all haunted by a sense of something more. Ironically Solomon adds, “yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Even with eternity planted within us, we can’t make sense of everything God does, and how it fits into our lives. You’ll want to know why you needed this or that situation. Why did it have to be part of the schedule for your life? At most, we’ll guess, and mostly, we’ll be wrong. God won’t tell you, either. He doesn’t feel the need to explain Himself to anyone.
12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
Solomon basically advises us not to let frustration over what we don’t know, ruin the gifts of God that we do know. Don’t let bitterness eat up your life. There are people who rehearse all the wrongs done to them in life, and always look for someone to blame. Don’t poison your own well like this.
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.
No one, including you, could have scripted your life better than God. Now some of us are bound to take exception to that claim. Sinners always think they could have done a better job, but their script would have preserved a lot of their own sin, and created a self-centered, un-transformed life. When through the eyes of wisdom we see the things God has done—that is, the few we correctly perceive—we should be filled with reverential awe.
15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
The current things in life have already been decided, as well as those yet to happen in the future. Not only so, God seeks what has been driven away. Experiences you have banished from your personal history as worthless and painful, useless to your story as you see it, God does not forget. He seeks even what we’ve discarded, and makes it serve the overall mosaic of your life.
This reminds us of Romans 8:28, that says, “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good.” Yet we often look at life as one isolated event at a time, and wonder how each could possibly be any good. Such a convoluted approach will yield no answers. Only as things work together like the parts in an engine will they appear to become in any sense, “good.”
And this good is the good according to God’s purpose. Ecclesiastes can only go so far in naming that purpose, because it is an Old Testament book. But the New Testament spells out God’s intention, generally speaking. Romans 8:29 says, “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” All the appointed times and seasons in a believer’s life work together to conform him or her to the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Sometimes a player on a sports team disagrees with his coach. He can’t figure out why the coach called that play, or timeout, or why a certain player was put in the game, or another was benched. Part of the problem is that the player and the coach are in two different places. The player is thinking about his play. The coach is thinking about all things working together to arrive at a goal.
As Christians, we’re not under a great coach, but under the coach. Regardless, we manage to harbor deep resentment toward God for His allowing events to happen in our lives, or for calling certain situations into being. One preacher got so mad over a painful personal experience, that he yelled at God, “I treat my children better than you treat yours!”
We have unqualified trust in our own intellect. But the human brain, at maximum size, is about forty-six ounces. Put into perspective, that’s just a little larger than a Big Gulp at 7-Eleven. And yet, with it we feel confident to question things decided before the foundation of the world that will lead us to a future glory we have no idea how to enter. Truly, our pride borders the satanic.
All of this comes down to trust—a simple item that involves a tremendous learning curve. If we can’t trust God’s perfect wisdom, what is there left to life except a lot of sleepless nights, and crippling regrets?
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