Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 3:1-17
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
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. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a woman named Betty who was reading a newspaper, while her husband was engrossed in a magazine. Suddenly, she burst out laughing. “Listen to this,” she said. “There’s a classified ad here where a guy is offering to swap his wife for a season ticket to the stadium.” “Hmmm,” her husband said, not looking up from his magazine. Teasing him, Betty asked, “Would you swap me for a season ticket?” “Absolutely not,” he responded. “How sweet,” Sarah said. “Tell me why not.” “Season’s more than half over,” he shrugged.
Perhaps a little play on Solomon’s notion that “for everything there is a season.” Just because it’s football season doesn’t mean it’s wife-swapping season, no matter how far along in the season it is! Of course, I didn’t grow up in “Packer country” where the two actually might be synonymous. There are some pretty avid fans in this state that might actually trade their wife for a season ticket to see the Packers. And here I thought Nebraska Husker fans were pretty devoted…pale in comparison to Packer fans! Give me a few more years and I might become a “cheesehead” as well.
But Solomon seems to have shifted the overall tone of the wisdom being offered in his book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon has gotten away from offering practical wisdom for day-to-day living as he did in his Proverbs and focuses instead on offering more “big picture” wisdom. He reflects on the various seasons of life, each serving as distinct counterparts to each other. He lifts up one season of life only to lift up its contrasting season: birth/death, planting/harvesting, mourning/dancing, war/peace. For every season there is a contrasting season as if to suggest a cosmic balance and harmony to everything. It’s often hard to see the balancing, harmonizing forces at work in this life, especially when we get caught up in the struggles of daily living. We can get so caught up in our daily labors and maintaining relationships and keeping our bodies alive that we have no time to consider the “big picture” wisdom of life. Solomon understood this all too well and offered practical wisdom to help us in our daily living as reflected by his Proverbs. But towards the end of his life, he could finally understand and convey “big picture” wisdom. Ecclesiastes was written at the end of Solomon’s life when he could finally understand the balancing forces of life. For every season there is an equal and opposite season. No season lasts forever, only long enough for its opposing season to get activated. And no season is more important than any other season. All seasons have equal importance…different purposes but of equal importance. We need all seasons to achieve perfect balance. God holds all things in balance. God exists in balance, three-in-one, all equal yet distinctly apart with different purposes. I’ll leave it at that before I commit some Trinitarian heresy!
Solomon understood the balance of life and it’s hard to tell if it made him cynical or simply pragmatic. He famously cries out, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” as if to minimize the value of life itself. Our struggles, our joys, our pasts, our futures…none of it matters in the grand scheme of things. Life, the act of living, is the same today as it was yesterday and will always be. Some may hear hopelessness and despair in that wisdom. Why even bother living? Nothing new will come of it. We’re just going through the same motions as everyone before us and everyone after us. Sure, the scenery changes, the challenges evolve, but at the core we’re all just trying to live. And for what? For our children? For ourselves? For each other? For our legacies? Why do we just keep fighting to live? Some of us choose not to fight anymore. The hopelessness and despair of Solomon’s words is just too much to justify living. Now then, some of us hear great hope and joy in Solomon’s words. We are just as important as God since time really has no effect on us. If nothing matters then really everything matters! Everything we do, everything we say, everything we think, keeps us alive and that’s all that matters…to simply stay alive. Life, in all its utter banality, in all its sheer repetitiveness, must continue for the truth of God to exist.
And the beauty of it is that we get to choose how we hear Solomon’s wisdom. BOTH ways are true! So how ought we hear his words? Solomon himself answers that question: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” Friends, we ought to take delight in this utterly pointless exercise we call life! Not only take delight but find contentment as well. Find the balance in all things. I’m confident Solomon would have been pleased with Paul’s wisdom from his letter to the Philippians. Recall Paul’s words, “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (4:11-13) There is great strength to be found in contentment. There is great godliness to be found in contentment! As Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” (6:6)
I think for Solomon, contentment was found in balance. I think he achieved contentment with his balancing the seasons of life. We have a great gift in his wisdom! Let us give thanks for it and find the same contentment. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.