Did your soul breathe a sigh of relief when we read those familiar words of Ecclesiastes? Maybe you even found yourself humming the tune to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—the Pete Seger song that The Byrds took to a number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. That was the same year when the first American combat troops landed in Viet Nam and the civil rights march into Selma became known as Bloody Sunday. I imagine the song’s words, taken directly from our Scripture passage, held the same kind of comfort then that they do today. When the world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s reassuring to remember that everything that happens is in God’s hands.
The whole tone of this passage seems so different from the gloomy outlook of most of Ecclesiastes. The sense of futility we’ve heard so often is absent. In its place is a sense of orderliness and dependability. It’s so different in tone that scholars have wondered how to account for the change, and they’ve come up with some theories.
One of theories comes from the possibility that there may have been more than one author, or more than one editor, or both for this book. As I mentioned way back when we started studying Ecclesiastes, we’re not sure who wrote it. Do you remember the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words that the book’s title come from? The Hebrew word “Qohelet” (ko-HEL-et) can mean teacher or preacher, but it also means “someone who collects or assembles things, like sentences or people.” The Greek word “Ekklesia” (ek-le-SEE-a) means a gathering or assembly. So, there is a possibility that this book was a community effort—collected, written, and/or edited by a group of people. Some scholars think that our passage is evidence of that.
It is so different from the rest of the book that you could remove whole thing and not even notice something was missing. So, scholars suggest, maybe, among a group of collectors, writers, and assemblers were one or more who took exception to the tone and direction the book was taking. Maybe they felt that despair wasn’t an appropriate response to the world we live in or, at least, not the only possible response. Maybe they felt that the world wasn’t as random and absurd as the rest of the book suggests, or that it focused way too much on human beings and not enough on God. So, scholars propose, they included a correction of direction—kind of an ancient GPS rerouting when the book when it took a wrong turn.
That would explain why these fifteen verses mention God much more often compared to the rest of the book. God and God’s actions are the focus here, rather than human beings. The way the passage speaks of God is different, too. Here, in the midst of a book driven by the wind of futility and a distant, uninvolved God, we are reassured of God’s care, God’s power, and God’s shalom.
We find this in the second half of the passage—the part that may not be as familiar. We find a God who is the Lord of all, especially the Lord of time. All that was, all that is, and all that will be is God’s creation. Humankind may be able to discover things that seem new, but everything has existed from the beginning. We may think we are powerful enough to destroy what God has created but, although we can (and do) cause tremendous damage, what God has created can’t be undone by us in a permanent way. Because we have been created in God’s image, we have an inkling of past and future, but perceiving time from a divine perspective, and understanding what God has done throughout eternity, is way outside our capabilities. When we try, we are filled with an awe like that expressed by the psalmist who said, “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand.”
I remember the time I felt most acutely both my inability to grasp God’s greatness and the sense of awe that inspired. Some years ago, Marc read in the paper that the University of Michigan was going to host a series of free Friday-night lectures on the origins of the universe. the general public was invited to attend. We thought that might be kind of interesting, and the fact that we could follow up the lecture with dinner at one Ann Arbor’s great restaurants made it sound even better.
When we arrived the first night, the auditorium was packed. The second week, the lecture was moved to a bigger hall and it was still standing room only. We discovered that the speakers were some pretty big-name astrophysicists—giants in their field. These men and women were charming and amusing and fun to listen to, and I didn’t understand a word they said. They talked about things like how the infinite cosmos is expanding, and how invisible “dark matter” might make up almost a quarter of the universe, and how they think “dark energy” is pulling the universe apart even though no one has actually directly detected it yet. They spoke about the past and the future in million-year increments. When it came time for Q&A from the audience, I didn’t even understand the questions, let alone the answers.
But, we kept going back, week after week. Because, while they spoke, the scientists showed these amazing photographs of outer space. I was mesmerized. The speakers’ words became a kind of poetic accompaniment to those stunning pictures of what God has caused to come into being. As Qohelet said, God had put a sense of past and future into my mind, and yet I couldn’t grasp what God has done from the beginning to the end. If, as Qoholet says, God did this so that I would stand in awe before him, it worked.
If all of that is in God’s hands, then surely all that happens in our lives is in God’s hands as well. If the universe operates in ways that are dependable, even if they are outside our understanding, then surely the seasons of our lives are dependable as well. We will have seasons that are sad, or fallow, or uncertain, but we can be sure that we will also have seasons of joy, seasons of growth, and seasons of security.
There will be a time to be born and a time to die. Those are events we know will happen to our bodies. But, for Christians, birth and death are also spiritual events, and God has made a time for them as well. We know that when we give ourselves over into Jesus’ hands, we die to ourselves, in order that we might be born anew. Paul reminds us that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” There is a time for physical birth and death in God’s creation, and there is also a time for dying to our old selves and being born again into eternal life in Christ.
We are given seasons of building and planting and creating. Relationships develop, a home is created, children are born, we devote ourselves to our life’s work and passion. There are also times when we need to dismantle our old ways and start over. Children and grand-children grow up and move away. We retire from the job we spent a lifetime doing, or we find that a change is needed. A loved one dies. The house that was perfect for a young family is no longer safe or convenient. Our lives change, and we find that in order to build or plant or create something new, we have to leave some things behind.
These seasons come and go in our personal lives, and they happen in our lives as a nation, too. As we become more attuned to the problem of racial injustice, and as the virus makes us more aware of economic and social inequities, we see that some things need to be plucked up and broken down, torn up and thrown away. We see that it’s the time to lose old attitudes, old hostilities, and old prejudices. It’s a time for seeking a new perspective and greater understanding. It’s time to kill off all that keeps us from acting on a new vision of what can be—what can be built, what can be planted, what can be gathered and connected to make this world more like God’s kingdom.
Each year, when the orange barrels would go up on the roadways, my Grandma Greenlee used to say that Ohio only has two seasons—destruction and construction. if you’ve ever done a major remodeling project, you know that, before anything new can be built, some demolition has to happen. Often, destruction paves the way for new construction, and demolition makes room for something new and beautiful.
As expected as these seasons are in our lives, the feelings that go with them are predictable, too. We will mourn and weep, but we will also laugh and dance. There will be times when we will stand in silent solidarity in the face of great loss, and there will be times when we will spak words of comfort, encouragement, and courage.
Ecclesiastes ends his list of examples with a final couplet: There is “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” Once again, he is simply stating the truth: that until we are made perfect and God’s kingdom is fulfilled here on earth, these things will be present. But the order he uses is important. Hatred and war are placed in the middle. They have neither the first nor the last word on human life. Love and peace have pride of place in the world that God created and desires.
We can listen to the words of Ecclesiastes as the teacher he is. We can appreciate his insights and his honesty. But we have more reason to believe that all is in God’s hands. Paul’s words to the Colossians are ones that give me the same speechless sense of awe that the scientists’ words and pictures of the universe did. Hear them again: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Did you hear that? The world is not absurd, random, senseless—a chasing after wind. All things hold together, and the One who holds them together is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Everything is in God’s hands. They have been from the very beginning, and before the beginning. They will be forever. That’s good news. But here’s the better news: Jesus Christ, who holds all of creation in his hands, also holds our hands as he walks by our side. Paul reminds us that in Christ, God reconciled all things, including each one of us, to God’s self through Jesus’ blood on the cross. The world may sometimes seem as absurd as Ecclesiastes paints it. But, we have been given a gift that Qoholet didn’t have: a relationship with God through our Savior. With our hands in his, we can walk in trust and confidence through all the seasons of our lives. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young