The book of Ecclesiastes was written either by an incredibly wise person who had a deep and profound faith in God, or it was written by somebody who was once a person of faith but who has become an agnostic, and is now riddled with doubt, despair and hopelessness. It is really hard to tell. There are really good arguments on both sides of the fence. And an even better argument is that the book was written by someone of deep faith, but who lost that faith because of some discouraging and difficult circumstances of life. This is, of course, not unusual. It happens. And so much of the book of Ecclesiastes proclaims the message that nothing really matters, either now or in eternity, and that nothing that we can do or accomplish in this world has any lasting significance whatsoever. The author of this book is convinced that life is a waste of time, that everything is hopeless, and that we might as well spend our time doing whatever it is that brings us a little bit of joy, because then we die.
With that kind of hopeless fatalism, it is legitimate to wonder, what message if any is there, in the book of Ecclesiastes that has anything to offer us today? We might even wonder how it is that this book found its way into the Scriptures in the first place.
There is pretty good traditional evidence that King Solomon is the writer of Ecclesiastes. The writer is not identified by name; he simply calls himself the “preacher”, or the “teacher”. But he drops enough hints in the book about being a king, and being rich, and being able to get anything that he wants, when he wants it, that some of us start to think that the writer, if not King Solomon himself, is someone who has a lot in common with King Solomon, or it is, maybe, somebody pretending to be King Solomon, writing in serious stealth mode. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know very much about this book, or even where it came from.
If this book is indeed related to King Solomon somehow, it does, in the end make a bit of sense. In his younger days, Solomon was wise enough to pray for the gift of wisdom. He could have prayed for riches, or a long and happy life, but he simply asked for a wise and discerning heart. And God granted that prayer. To this day, Solomon is known popularly as the wisest and most understanding person who has ever lived. What one of us hasn’t heard of the legendary wisdom of Solomon? What one of us hasn’t heard of Solomon’s plan to slice a brand new baby in half so that each of the two mother’s who claimed it could have their fair share?
But tragically, the man Solomon squandered the gifts that God had given him. As he grew older, instead of honing his gifts and becoming more mature, Solomon slowly eroded himself into a foolish and faithless old man. Lust and greed, which are nearly synonymous, became his masters. In spite of his humble yearning for wisdom, and even in spite of his remarkable ability to demonstrate that wisdom, Solomon often made some pretty stupid choices when it came to his personal life, and especially in his relationship with God. Unfortunately for him, his stupid choices are recorded in the Scriptures so that we can read all about them. Our stupid choices, thankfully, are not quite so well published.
Sadly, Solomon was not content with mere wisdom, and he did not allow his relationship with God to become any kind of source of satisfaction in his life. And so he died a miserable old man, convinced that there was no hope of life beyond the grave. He tells us, a little further along in this book, that humans are no different from animals. Both stop breathing, both die, and both go into the dirt, and both return to it.
Solomon’s lust is legendary. He could not find satisfaction or contentment in one, or two, or even 10 wives. He had over a thousand women at his disposal. Just keeping track of them all was certainly an absolute impossibility, not to mention the moral implications of such behavior. Even in the very different sexual environment of Solomon’s day, Solomon’s wife and concubine count is considered to be beyond excessive.
In addition to Solomon’s legendary lust, his greed is also legendary. He had the money to acquire anything he wanted, and he did. And yet nothing that he acquired with all of that wealth ever gave him any satisfaction. He was always looking for something new and something different. He finally concluded, after a life-time of seeking and never finding, that there was nothing new under the sun. There was nothing that could be had or found that could bring him any joy.
And to further document Solomon’s decline, by the time that he was an old man, he had abandoned his meager faith in God and had begun to seek out newness in the various religions of his various and foreign wives and concubines.
And so when we come to the book of Ecclesiastes, we have to be very careful. Not all of it is the wisdom of God. Some of it is the fractured meanderings of a confused and disillusioned old man who is broken physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Back in 1965, that would be 55 years ago, for those of us who were alive then, the rock group, the “Byrds”, popularized verses one through eight of this passage, in their song called, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
And while these verses have a practical ring of truth to them, unfortunately, in the context of this chapter, they turn out to be examples of the author’s pessimism that he is trapped in a cycle of worldly events that cannot be shaped or manipulated or understood, and over which he has no control. We would all agree that there is great beauty in these verses, and that everything that Solomon says fits very well into the framework of the second verse, “a time to be born and a time to die”, but unlike us, who can find beauty in these words, it is this very structure of life that the author is protesting.
He feels imprisoned by this sequence of times. He interprets these “times” as the desperate lot that all humans must endure, without recourse. For Solomon, these times are thrust upon us, locking us into a difficult pattern of life that cannot be altered. This is fatalism at its worst, and it amounts to divine sabotage in Solomon’s mind. Solomon believes that God has played a terrible trick on humanity, in the same way that Adam and Eve believed it. He says, in verse eleven, “[God] 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.” In other words, God is cruel. It is possible for us to grasp the concept of eternity, of life or of time never ending, Solomon says, but that we are hard pressed to find out what God is up to in the mean-time, when it matters the most to us. Ultimately, human hearts can make no sense of God’s work.
And so we are left alone to fend for ourselves, abandoned and imprisoned by a sequence of times and seasons that we must endure without knowing the how or why. And the only remedy for this malady of depression is to bury ourselves in food and in drink, and to seek out what meager pleasures that we find.
In some respects, we can all agree with the one who wrote this passage. We do not always know the how or the why when certain times and seasons come into our lives. We do not choose to weep, we do not choose to mourn, we do not choose to lose, or to have the fabric of our lives torn away.
But we can choose the manner in which we respond to the times and seasons, both good and bad, that do come into our lives. Prayerful humility goes a long way in connecting us with our God, who does understand all things, especially the states of our hearts.
It seems as though the writer of this passage knows or cares nothing about the love of God. he comprehends a God who controls all things, but he cannot imagine a God who is also filled with love and compassion, for his creatures. A God with no love and no compassion is a frightening God indeed.
Unlike this writer, we ought to know that the times and the seasons of our lives are in the hands of a God who has everything under control, but who also tempers that control with love and with compassion. This helps us to understand that all of the times and seasons of our lives, good or bad, joyful or tearful, are all within God’s realm of loving influence. And so, when hard times seem to have no end, when we are feeling trapped by circumstances over which we have no control, and when times and seasons overwhelm us with feelings or powerlessness, anxiety, loneliness, and lostness, we can be sure that in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, that we are not caught in an endless cycle of times and seasons and seasons and times, but rather that we are embraced in the loving arms of Almighty God who cares for us deeply.