Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing "Turn, Turn, Turn"
(this is almost as good as the version we heard in worship this morning)
Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8
August 9, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
As we conclude our series on wisdom and our examination of some texts from the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, we look today at Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8. Most dictionaries define wisdom as the ability to discern what is good and right and true, coupled with the ability to judge – to discern – the best course of action, and then to follow it.
In this post-modern era, there is considerable debate about whether things like wisdom, truth, and beauty actually exist, or whether they are human constructs – things we just made up, and ideas that we can remake whenever we want.
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and if you recall, when Jesus was brought before Pilate to be judged, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” The preacher in Ecclesiastes is contemplating these big questions, and part of his thinking is to consider the meaning of time.
Let’s listen for God’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes, beginning in chapter two, verse 18, and continuing on to the beautiful and familiar poem of chapter three, verses one through eight.
Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?
Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.
This also is vanity.
So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.
This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A couple of months ago, Bob gave me a new watch. I’ll show it to you after the service – it is a plain black round face, and all the numbers that would go around the dial are jumbled together at the bottom of the face of the watch.
At the top it says, “Oh, who cares? I’m late anyways!”
Like many people, I struggle sometimes with the passage of time, with running late, or being “on time.” It isn’t that I don’t care, and certainly not that I want to keep people waiting. It is just that in my head, time moves at a different pace than it does in the actual world. Lots of people have that issue – no matter how often we check the clock, we don’t know what time it is, or we don’t give ourselves enough time to get somewhere, or we don’t have enough time to get things done. If we were to post our relationship status with time, we’d say, “it’s complicated.”
The preacher poet in Ecclesiastes, Quoholeth, recognizes this difficulty. But he has observed, as have physicists, poets and philosophers, that time has its own rhythm, turning like a wheel that never touches the road. It “spins, but it does not move.”
What Quoholeth also recognizes is that time is not just a human construct. Quoholeth sees, without the benefit of Newtonian physics, that there are certain laws that govern life. He sees that time is an observable phenomenon, not just something we made up. There is a right time for everything.
Humans invented clocks sometime around 2000 BCE, with sundials and water clocks. We didn’t invent time, we just came up with a way to measure it. But the preacher in Ecclesiastes is more interested in time’s effect on us, and on how time measures us. We’ve confronted the reality that much of our striving, much of our sense of our own importance, is really nothing but vanity.
Now, we turn to look at this wheel of time. Of the fourteen pairs in this poem of times and seasons, only the time to be born and the time to die are outside of our control. Everything else on the list is up to us to decide – is it the right time?
Some of the choices are easier than others – we know when to plant seeds, and when to pick a tomato. We know that funerals are times for weeping and mourning, while weddings, unless you have some emotional issues, are times for celebration and rejoicing. We know we aren’t supposed to start laughing in the middle of a lecture from a teacher or parent, and we know it isn’t appropriate to start weeping in the checkout aisle of Kroger.
Of all the different ways to understand wisdom, this, perhaps, is the most challenging. If there is a time for every purpose under heaven, how are we to know when that is? Is there ever a right time to kill? Is there ever a good time for war? Just exactly when is a good time to hate?
Hardly anyone chooses a time to kill or hate or make war – but in every life people face such realities. Quoholeth’s wisdom about times and purposes is to observe and describe them, the way scientists and anthropologists observe and describe natural phenomenon and cultural customs. He sees the wheel of time turn, turn, turn, and he does not try to stop or change its rotation.
The preacher understands that wisdom sometimes means acceptance; he doesn’t take the changing times and seasons personally, nor does he think that every moment and action is pre-determined. We are not puppets – we have free will. And even with our free will and agency, we are not in charge of everything. We have to let go of our desire to control it all.
When we think of it that way, we also have to let go of beliefs about God that say God is ordaining every moment and determining every purpose. If we don’t, we are left with the impossible dilemma of a loving God who has ordained hatred and killing. God has ultimate freedom, but God is love, and God does not violate God’s own character.
The wheel of time turns, and the wheel has many spokes. Each spoke is one of life’s many experiences – good and bad, joyful and tearful. No life is comprised totally of harvest, of laughter, of dancing and love; every life has times of labor, of sorrow, of mourning, of alienation. Each event and experience comes in its own time, and God can make it beautiful.
The wheel of time turns. We can’t go back, only forward. The wheel of time is turning “dependably, steadily, repeatedly, and completely…” With each turning of a day, a week, a month or year, there are overwhelming joys and sorrows, sweet memories and bitter disappointments, clear paths and confusing journeys. All of these are part of life, to be received as they come and relished if possible.
To live wisely, to tell the time and the turning, we ponder and we protest; we howl with grief and with laughter. We mark and measure the time, and time marks and measures us. We see the wheel turn, turn, turn, and the seasons go round and it is wise to value the gift of whatever time we are given.
To live wisely in the turning of this wheel means knowing what time it is –
whether it is time to throw away stones, or gather stones together.
The order of the universe, the turning of the seasons, is an invitation to wisdom. The rocky way and the lazy river are both gifts, journeys of equal value; possibilities and the limitations are part of the turning.
We learn as much wisdom from the difficult choices and sleepless nights as we do from obvious decisions and bright sunny mornings. In our conflicts and arguments, we learn peacemaking, and how to get along. In grief over death, we learn to appreciate life.
Wisdom comes in the form of life's experiences offered in their various seasons.
As we watch the wheel of time turn, turn, turn,
we learn the wisdom of both wonder and waiting,
until that day when time is no more,
and the seasons are no more,
and there is no more losing or weeping or death or hating,
but only discovery and joy, life and love,
 Brisson, E. Carson, Interpretation, “Between Text and Sermon” July, 2001, p. 294