The lessons drawn from Ecclesiastes are some of the most pivotal in the entire Bible. I say that because it’s a book that speaks to us where we are: in the rubble of “once-Eden.” The Teacher doesn’t make excuses for the life we live “under the sun.” He doesn’t attempt to speak to what should be, rather, he speaks to what is — and in that way, he readies us to speak hopefully about what’s to come.
There’s no denying that we live in an uncomfortable, unstable world, one that’s brimming with unanswered questions and unmet expectations. But Ecclesiastes calls us to enter this discomfiting reality and savor every ounce of grace that’s found there, and then tender that grace to others who are likewise coping with life in “once-Eden.” These lessons in coping and waiting are meant to drive us to the gospel, to the only place where meaning is found. As in the words of the prophet, “Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for him are happy.” (Isa. 30:18)
Ecclesiastes 3 shows our Teacher acknowledging the repetitive rhythms of life “under the sun.” “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven,” he declares. (Eccl. 3:1) In his wisdom, he determined that as his existence is shaped by time, the times are always changing. Seasons are the rules by which life as we know it are governed. All matter is fluid and in constant flux. The planting and the building, the birthing and the dying, the loving and the warring all give profound evidence to the fact that our lives, here, “under the sun” are changeable and unstable. (Eccl. 3:2–8) As quickly as the weather changes, so do our lives. Therefore, it’s utterly futile to look for something solid and abiding in the midst of a life that’s full of such frailty and volatility.
Mankind is so depraved, however, he can’t even see his own depravity. Such is why our Teacher likens men to beasts. (Eccl. 3:18) “For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath.” (Eccl. 3:19) In so doing, he’s not advocating for a lower view of humanity (which opens the door to all manner of other controversies). Rather, he’s recognizing the ruin man has brought on himself. Mankind crippled and exiled himself to “once-Eden” through his inglorious upward fall, (Gen. 3) thereby exchanging divinity for drivel. Like a beast, he seeks for meaning and purpose and pleasure “under the sun,” treating his soul as though it’s expendable. Thus, our Teacher confesses, “People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.” (Eccl. 3:19–20)
Such is the irony of the times, that even though they pulse to the cadence of change, to death’s tempo, where we are is what’s always been. This is the Teacher’s selfsame conundrum. “Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is.” (Eccl. 3:15) As much as what surrounds us changes and varies from age to age, it is all largely the same: mankind is still shirking the notions of goodness and grace emanating from God, and God is still showing them grace anyways.
What the Teacher recognized — and what troubled him so severely — is that he can’t change the times. Everything operates in its due course, according to the Maker’s will. “He has made everything appropriate in its time . . . [and] there is no adding to it.” (Eccl. 3:11, 14) War comes and semblances of peace follow. Laughter gives way to lamentation. Birth yields to death. We stress and strive in these times, scouring for something unchangeable on which we can cling to. But our resistance to the rhythmic meters and seasons of life removes us from every finding God’s purpose for us in these times. “Learning to receive rather than resist these rhythms, we draw nearer to God and his purposes for the life and lot he has given us.” (Eswine, 118) What’s more, God’s good news for us is that our times are in his hands. (Ps. 31:15; 37:23; Job 14:5) This exchange between Frodo and Gandalf speaks exactly to what I think our Teacher is getting at:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Tolkien, 60)
Rather than offering up a secret formula by which we can determine which season we’re in and what our response should rightly be, the Teacher’s admonition is to rejoice in the times we’re in. “I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward.” (Eccl. 3:22) The instability and uncertainty of the future in “once-Eden” humbles us and forces us to sit in the grace of God’s sovereignty, trusting that he’s determined it all before the foundation of the world. “Everything that God does will last forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. God works so that people will be in awe of him.” (Eccl. 3:14)
Sometimes it’s hard, almost impossible to see the Master’s hand in all the rubble. Like our Teacher, we too see injustice and corruption on all sides. “I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness.” (Eccl. 3:16) With every new scandal that rips through the headlines — social, political, ministerial, familial, or otherwise — the “grass is greener” syndrome tightens its grip on our souls, leading us to pine for different times. We want to swap the days we’ve been given with someone else, thinking, “If only I lived in ‘such-and-such’ decade, with ‘such-and-such’ people, I’d be happier.” But like Gandalf’s sage counsel to Frodo, that’s not for us to decide. We can’t determine the times in which we exist.
The only way forward in life here in “once-Eden” comes not by speculating or murmuring, but by faithfully tending our lot. (John 21:22) By being in each time and giving glory to the grace that’s found in all the times. “All that we can do is to give ourselves to tend what we’ve been given.” (Eswine, 138) Life “under the sun” is an enduring lesson to “be still” in the assurance of God’s mysterious and oftentimes veiled sovereignty. (Ps. 46:10; cf. 2 Cor. 6:10; Phil. 4:12–13)
The Teacher’s message, to himself and to us, is to embrace the tension of both life’s disquieting seasons and delightful seasons, because there’s a grace that’s divine that runs through them all. Regardless of the season we’re currently in, God is already there. The gospel’s glorious news is that Emmanuel has come. This life “under the sun” is made glorious in knowing that “God with us” is still with us. In delights and disasters, “the Word became flesh” sits with us in the rubble to mercifully bring us to redemption and restoration. (John 1:14) “Whatever time it is, Jesus is there with us,” says Eswine. (133)
The world is made up of mud and marigolds, felicities and fiascos. And we can’t do anything to change that. “Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is.” (Eccl. 3:15) But through it all, in it all, God is there, and his grace is abundant. “The grace for the present moment is inexhaustible and always ready.” (Bridges, 50) The unrest of life “under the sun” invariably proves that there’s no rest to be found there. Accordingly, albeit imperfectly, our Teacher wisely and rightly foreshadows the true and better Wise One, the Man of mingled sorrows and joys, who imparted his life through his death to make those who were dead come alive. He points us to the Righteous Judge who’s already appointed the time when perfect justice will be dispensed. (Eccl. 3:17; Acts 17:31) The weary citizens of “once-Eden” are made to find their respite in the “God of the persecuted.” (Eccl. 3:15) Those wrecked by the course of fractured, fallen life have the Redeemer’s attention at all times, in all seasons.
The same God we see in the sun is still there behind the clouds, and his ear is still bent towards the oppressed and broken-hearted. In Christ, we have a God who’s experienced all our seasons, weathered all our times, and died for all our shortcomings. Jesus has come for all the times that we resisted the disquiet or muffled the delight. He has come to “once-Eden” to recover and reclaim all that was lost.
Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009).
Zack Eswine, Rediscovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2014).
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).