Grace Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020, Pentecost 6A (livestream)
A Time For…Not That
You know the song, especially if you’re of a certain age. It starts with that jangly guitar lick, and then the familiar words: “To everything – turn, turn, turn – there is a season – turn, turn turn – and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Created by Pete Seeger and made famous by the band called The Byrds, it’s a song that not only was quite popular in its time but also has remained almost instantly recognizable even these many years later. And while giving due to the repeated use of the word “vanity” in this book of scripture, this song has made the first eight verses of chapter 3 far and away the most famous part of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Of course, there’s more to the chapter than this, material that Pete Seeger presumably did not find suitable for setting to music. In this case, it’s a good idea to be reminded of what else Qohelet (the teacher/author of this book) has to say here, lest we get too carried away with the poetic beauty of these couplets and fail to understand what they have to say to us or, worse, get it completely wrong.
Qohelet may have created this bit of poetry or else borrowed it from another source, but either way it is a captivating meditation on the inexorable passing of life. Note, though, that it is followed by a section of about seven verses that to a great degree reiterates themes we have already encountered in chapters 1 and 2; the suitability of enjoying what God provides for us and the business or toil that is the lot of humans. There is also a note about how, even though we are not able to apprehend God’s doings, God has allowed that we humans can catch a glimpse of the unfolding of time; we have, as Qohelet puts it, “a sense of past and future.” For all of that, though, our efforts and our strivings do not alter the work of God – “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” Ideally this should provoke a needed sense of awe and reverence before God.
Taken all together, this cautions us not to take those first eight verses as a matter of our choosing. We don’t choose when to be born and we don’t choose when to die. I suppose you could plant a crop in the middle of a Minnesota winter if you wanted to, but it’s not very likely you’d ever have anything to reap for your labor. You don’t generally grieve at the birth of a child nor laugh at someone’s deathbed. These seasons are not then our doing; they are life, and our business is how we respond to and live within these “times.”
It is in verse 16 that the discordant note comes.
“Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.”
The statement comes as a jolt to the reader, and apparently to Qohelet as well. God’s judgment is invoked here, which is not something Qohelet has done so far; even so, Qohelet finds here that such judgment is beyond the scope of our understanding, and will not ultimately change much about our living – the fate of the righteousness is not different in any observable way than the fate of the wicked (remember, Qohelet has no interest in anything beyond earthly life – anything that we cannot see, that is not “under the sun,” so to speak). Indeed, the fate of humans does not seem to differ much from the fate of animals, as far as Qohelet can see. The end is the same; “all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Aside from possibly being another inspiration for popular song (in this case, the song “Dust in the Wind” by the band Kansas), it is, to be blunt, a downer of a note.
But what it does is reinforce something important about verse 16: this wickedness in the place of justice and righteousness is not one of those things for which there is a season, or a “purpose under heaven.” God does not judge all of these other things that have come before Qohelet’s eye, but God judges this, even if such judgment is not necessarily visible to us “under the sun.” Wickedness in the place of judgment and righteousness is not part of life; it breaks life. It denies the good provision of God to the children of God and hoards it in the possession of the wicked; it brings death, it brings hatred, it brings corruption, it brings, frankly, evil.
When wickedness in the place of justice and righteousness is tolerated, it disrupts that order of life. If you were wondering how Qohelet could possibly argue that there was “a time to hate” or even “a time for war,” here it is; what should never have to be the case in fact becomes unavoidable when wickedness is tolerated in the place of justice and righteousness. For that matter, such a time cannot be “a time to keep silence“; it must be “a time to speak.”
At the last of this chapter, Qohelet returns again to a favorite theme: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work.” Now, in the hearing of what has come before, this takes on a new shade of meaning; being greedy for more, seeking to grasp at more beyond the work and the gifts that God provides, becomes a part of wickedness usurping the place of justice and righteousness. It fractures that cycle of living under the sun. There is no season for it, nor any purpose under heaven for it. It breaks us and the life that God gives to us. Hopefully by now we see that this theme of Qohelet’s is no weary resignation, but an urgent summons: live within God’s means.
In fact, that’s our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #14, For the Beauty of the Earth; #30, God Moves in a Mysterious Way
Yeah, that song…