What gives life meaning?

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15


Has the COVID-19 pandemic made you question life?

Prior to March we were able to travel overseas, work and catch public transport without a second thought, and definitely without a mask. Getting married, attending parties, going to the beach, going to concerts, sporting events, church, or being with many people at the same time we were able to do without having to worry whether we would be safe or following the rules. Then COVID-19 happened and within a month or two many of the liberties that we took for granted were either taken away from us or decreased. Many people have become anxious and worried about their jobs, their plans or their elderly relatives. So what questions has this brought up for you? Where does your trust lie in this year that is unlike any year that the world has experienced in a least a century?

Many years ago when I finished high school I worked in a supermarket. There was a truck driver who I would see every week and we would have a bit of a chat. Over the course of time I found out that he really enjoyed the Olympics. I mean this guy enjoyed the Olympics so much that it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say that he lived for the Olympics. Let me explain. This man worked hard and apart from the obvious reasons of working to provide shelter, food and clothing, his main goal in life was to attend the Olympic games in whichever country was hosting that year. So every four years he would travel to wherever the Olympic games were and stay for the entire time. Now I haven’t seen this person in over 30 years. But if his purpose was still the Olympic games, then I dare say this year would have been big disappointment with the postponement of the Tokyo games. Perhaps the Olympics don’t mean much to you. So where do you find your meaning in life?

This morning we are looking at Ecclesiastes 3 as it seemed to be a fitting passage as we come to the end of the year that has made many question what life is all about. Ecclesiastes is one of the five books of the Bible that is labelled as wisdom literature. The other books in this category are Proverbs, Psalms, Job and Song of Songs. According to the late JI Packer

“It has been said that the Psalms teach us how to worship; Proverbs, how to behave; Job, how to suffer; Song of Solomon, how to love; and Ecclesiastes, how to live. How? With realism and reverence, with humility and restraint, coolly and contentedly, in wisdom and in joy.” J.I. Packer

I pray as we look at these verses today that this will be true for us.

 God knows us and he has set a time for everything – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Now some would see the book of Ecclesiastes as just being a negative rant about how everything is fleeting, which I believe is the correct translation for the first words in Ecclesiastes 1. Meaningless, meaningless as the NIV states, are ok, but don’t quite capture the idea of not lasting, not being able to be captured like being a vapor. Either way it is a pretty interesting way to start this book of wisdom literature. Think of all of the words that come to mind that perhaps you could substitute. Hopeless, waste of time, pointless. The list could go on and on. It is glass half empty thinking, or what we would call pessimistic. Chapter one and most of chapter two speak of this life as being unsatisfying, fleeting and soon forgotten by all. Yet, in Chapter 2 verses 24-26 meaning is found as God is introduced into the equation of life and chapter three begins on the back of this. Let’s work our way through these verses and come to a few conclusions.

Chapter three of Ecclesiastes begins with these words:

“There is a time for everything,

And a season for every activity under the heavens.” Eccles 3:1

The first verse sets the stage for the entire chapter. We need to remember and acknowledge that this is how God instituted the world to run. God didn’t only give the structure; God is in control of all things and creates and sustains each one of us. Time and seasons are not man-made constructs, but instituted by God. For not only do we read in Genesis 1:1 that

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

We also read in Genesis 1:14 and I am reading from the English Standard Version translation for this verse

“And God said let there by lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.”

Time and indeed the very seasons are God’s. He created them and therefore they serve a good purpose. The next seven verses tell of life on earth according to these times and seasons and broadly encapsulate everything, beginning with well the beginning.

Two Crucial Events

In verse two the writer starts with the biggest part of our human existence.

“a time to be born and a time to die,” Eccles 3:2a

The two inevitable events that everyone who breathes experiences –  Birth and death. This first of fourteen couplets captures the beginning and end of our human activity. These are active words in the Hebrew, as in to give birth. This is happening all around us, all the time and nobody escapes these two bookends of life here on earth. And these don’t happen except by God, who gives us our very breath. As we read in Job 33:4

“The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives life.” Job 33:4

 And our birth and death happen in God’s timing. No one chooses the time of their own birth.

Human Enterprise

The rest of verse 2 and then verse 3, as well as the beginning of verse 7 remind us of our Human Enterprise. These are the things that we do in terms of human pursuits both inventive and harmful.

“a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,” Eccles 2b-3

 “a time to tear and a time to mend” Eccles 7a

These verses incorporate work, study, cooking, cleaning, building things including houses. In fact pretty much all of the things that we do when it comes to living our lives. We always do well to remember when we are reading the Bible and especially the OT, that unlike today, three thousand years ago people planted their own fields, they raised their own livestock, they then harvested their own crops and slaughtered their own livestock. They also built their own barns, houses, and everything else. Again these activities are all under God’s control.

Feelings and Emotions

The whole range of feelings and emotions is summed up here in two couplets.

“a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,” Eccles 3:4

Michael Eaton, a commentary writer on the book of Ecclesiastes suggests that the first couplet speaks of private emotions whereas the second couplet points to public emotion. I think that it is helpful to see these couplets as conveying all of the emotions that we feel and present as human beings. The moments leading to these feelings and emotions are sometimes planned for example a wedding, yet they are often not planned, like the death of loved one. These verses also remind us that God knows how we feel and what we think.

Friendship and Hostility

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

“a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” Eccles 3:5

These pairs are looking at friendship and hostility. There are some allusions to an idea of military conflict in the first couplet. To scatter stones could refer to trying to ruin the fields of an enemy perhaps in war. Embracing would seem to be pretty straight forward. Hugging a friend is a sign of things being in their right place. However not hugging someone could be a pretty sure sign that the relationship had changed. That perhaps there has been hurt, there has been a falling out.

Our Possessions

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

“a time to keep and a time to throw away.” Eccles 3:6

We have two couches at home that are nice big, well-made couches. Yet they are now well over twenty years old and are hand me downs from my parents. We really enjoy these couches, yet they are in need of a recovering and that is an expensive proposition. So pretty much yearly Larissa and I have the discussion about whether or not we keep them or throw them away. We are keeping them for another year. Our possessions though won’t last forever. Whether it is a car, or a dishwasher, there is normally a time to keep and a time to discard.

Our Speech

“a time to be silent and a time to speak.”

This couplet incorporates our speech. That which comes out of our mouth. The fact that silence is mentioned first leads me to think straight away of James 1:19 where James reminds believers to be quick to listen and slow to speak. There is a time for both.

Our Affections

“a time to love and a time to hate.” Eccles 3:8a

Our affections are different to our feelings and emotions that we saw in verse 4. Here it would seem that it is our feelings in action that are in view. Loving and hating are strong words that again cover the gambit of our feelings in action.

Our Country / World

“a time for war and a time for peace.”

This last couplet brings into view the community and perhaps even countries as we see that war and peace will happen, and have happened throughout history at different times and seasons. Often without warning.

These first 8 verses of chapter 3 pretty much cover off all of the different aspects of life and remind us that as much as we like to think that we are in control of our lives and everything that happens to us, we are not really in control. We don’t know when we will die, in fact we can’t be sure what will happen for the rest of today, let alone tomorrow. But God does know, he has prepared the times and seasons and is providential in all that happens. As we continue in verses 9-15 we see three things that help us understand life as God intends it. 

  1. Realise God is in Control Eccles. 3:9-12

9What do workers gain from their toil? 10I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.

Here is the question that the Ecclesiastes 3 is asking and the beginning of the answer in verse 11. Now the NIV is perhaps not completely helpful in verse 10. It really makes it sound like God has just dropped a burden on his creatures. The ESV helps us to understand in a clearer way. The ESV renders the Hebrew this way. “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” God has given his creatures a task. It would be easy to miss this. We are to work and do the things that God has given us to do. God has ordained these things, and then as we read in verse 11

11 “He 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.”

What God has done is beautiful. Everything God does is beautiful. All that God has purposed in its time is right and as God wanted it, so it can be no other way. God is the ultimate artist. It is not just the amazing sunrises and sunsets. No God’s artistry is seen in everything he does. God is the best artist, the best writer, the most creative and so everything God does appears as beautiful.

God has also put eternity into our hearts. This should not be something that we just breeze past. Eternity in our hearts is connected to the idea in verse 14 of all the God does being eternal or enduring forever. We are God’s image bearers and so having eternity put into our hearts by God makes sense. Eternity in our hearts means that we know there is something more than our 70 years or so on this earth. Many people who aren’t followers of Jesus have tried to solve this problem of their heart longing for eternity through different methods. The Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and would mummify the bodies of the deceased and place food and drink outside the burial chamber in the vein hope that the mummy would pass many varied tests on the way to the afterworld. More recently people have had their bodies put into Cryonic preservation with the hope that one day they would be able to be revived when the technology is realised. These things would not happen without God having put eternity into our hearts. As misplaced as these efforts have been.

The preacher in this passage understands that even though God has put eternity into our heart, that neither he, nor anyone else can understand God’s plan in its entirety. Only God knows the plans he has for us. Yet for us today we know more of Gods plan, for as we read in scripture and indeed celebrated two days ago, God came to earth. Jesus, God own Son was born. He lived a perfect life, died for our sins and was raised so that we too will be raised when he returns in Glory. For us who have put their trust in Jesus the eternity that God has written on our hearts has been realised. God’s plans though are still God’s plans and we only know in part. Only God is in control.

  1. Recognise that all good gifts come from God and enjoy them thankfully – be satisfied.

After we have heard that everything that God has made is beautiful in its time, then it should be no surprise that the good gifts that our Father in heaven provides should be satisfying for us. Verse 12 says:

12 I 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.

How do we find satisfaction. Well in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes this idea was explained more fully. Read with me verses 24-26 of chapter 2.

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Eccles 2:24-26

Rightfully acknowledging that God has provided every good gift enables us to enjoy the gift. Our very life is a gift from God, as is every good gift that we enjoy. They all come from the Father’s hand. The writer makes it clear that without God in view satisfaction can’t be found. Without God all that we do becomes a chasing after the wind. You can’t catch it; you can’t properly enjoy it and it won’t last.

  1. Revere God – Fear him correctly

In verse 14 the preacher finally gives us the answer to the meaning of life. What is this meaning of life. Well let’s read verse 14 & 15 together.

14I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Whatever is has already been,

and what will be has been before;

and God will call the past to account.

So we see that God is eternal as is everything that he does. We see that everything God does is perfect. It needs nothing added and nothing taken from it. So what is the meaning of life? It is to fear God. Now I am not talking about a trembling fear, but a reverence of God, adoration of God, being in awe of God, esteeming God above all else. This is what God wants us to do.

“The fear of God which he recommends (3:14; 5:7; 8:12; 12:13) is not only the beginning of wisdom; it is also the beginning of joy, of contentment and of an energetic and purposeful life. The Preacher wishes to deliver us from a rosy-coloured, self-confident godless life, with its inevitable cynicism and bitterness, and from trusting in wisdom, pleasure, wealth, and human justice or integrity. He wishes to drive us to see that God is there, that he is good and generous, and that only such an outlook makes life coherent and fulfilling.” Michael Eaton – Ecclesiastes TOTC

There is nothing that God doesn’t know about. He knows everything. He sees us all. John 16:33 tells us that Jesus knows that we will have trouble. He knows what kind of trouble. Nothing is hidden from God.

Life has a purpose. To know and trust God and glorify him in everything. That is life’s great purpose.

So while we don’t understand the purpose of COVID-19 fully. We can know that if we have put our trust in Jesus, then no matter what comes along in life we can know joy, peace and security because only in God are these things possible. They cannot be found any other way. Our life has meaning when we put our trust in Jesus. Indeed all other ways are meaningless a chasing after the wind.