The problem of Ecclesiastes is four-fold:
life is fleeting: it passes so quickly
life is perplexing: it seems so random and inexplicable
life is wearisome monotony: every day the same
life is unsatisfying: we try to extract from life something that escapes us.
Last week we saw how Solomon first dealt with these harsh realities of life - denial! Surely there can be something I can extract from life. The ultimate conclusion to Solomon’s search was that there is absolutely nothing (no gain) that can be extracted from life, for we do not have it in us to extract lasting joy from our pursuits. The harder we strive the more elusive and fleeting joy becomes to us. We may experience moments of pleasure, but nothing that lasts beyond the experience.
The implications of this reality is that is anyone is to experience true and lasting joy, it must come from something -Someone - outside of himself. If there is nothing under the sun that can truly be gain to us, if this life is to mean anything, that meaning, that purpose, that joy, must come from beyond the sun. And so Solomon’s counsel is that we must learn to receive our food and drink, and even our labour itself, as a gift from the hand of God.
Solomon’s insertion of God into his search is a bit jarring, as up until that point God had been nearly entirely absent from the book of Ecclesiastes. The only reference before 2:24, was in 1:13, in which Solomon paints a picture of a God who stands aloft and disinterested in the affairs of mankind - the God who has assigned to the children of man the unhappy business of life, for them to figure out and toils away in all their striving. This is the God of deism, the God who set the world off and then left us to figure it out. And that’s basically what Solomon set out to do - to figure out the toil and striving of life, without God, or at least without a God who is intimately and personally involved in his creation.
And so Solomon’s answer in verse 2:24 is as much a repudiation of deism as it is of secularism - that it is not enough to believe in a God who wound everything up and let us be, but that there is a God from whom every day, every moment, is offering us wisdom and knowledge and joy from his hand if we are ready to see him, trust him, and receive from him.
As we begin Chapter 3, Solomon is going to press the argument he is making further by describing the activities of this God in our world. This is the key section in the entire book of Ecclesiastes, and it should be clear now that Solomon’s argument is not that everything is meaningless or futile - our striving may be futile, yes, but life itself cannot be, for God is, like a masterful conductor, setting every event and season of all of our lives together for his purpose. This is not the work of an absent, disinterested God, but of a God who is intimately involved in the day-to-day, moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives. And the key idea of this section - the answer Ecclesiastes gives to the problems of the breath and the dish is that: Every Moment of Our Lives is Appointed By God and Therefore, there is beauty to be found in the breath.
Every Moment our Our Lives is Appointed.
Eccl. 3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
Notice that the purpose and intent of which God appoints to our lives is:
meticulous, or detailed. It spans not only seasons of our lives, but drills down into the exact times for every matter, meaning that the providential concern of God is also
comprehensive. There is not part of life, no matter under heaven that is not under God’s care. Nothing escapes him. Nothing surprises him. Nothing happens outside of his intent or as part of his plan.
Solomon sings of the meticulous and comprehensive providential care of God in perhaps one of the most famous pieces of poetry ever written, maybe appropriately called an “Ode to Providence”. The poem begins with setting the boundaries of life - “a time to be born and a time to die” and then drills down into the times and seasons of our lives, and proclaims them all as intentionally set as times to be received from the hand of God.
Again, I don’t think it helps us to to closely dissect this poem, but to let it speak to us with it’s all-encompassing picture of life - only quickly, look at the scope, the poem includes things that we would naturally see as trials and joys ( “a time to mourn, and a time to dance”), some things that are obviously morally complex (“a time to kill, and a time to heal”, “a time for war, and a time for peace”) but also things that we would be more apathetic about (a time to keep, and a time to cast away”, true).
The poem describes these activities, but it does not remark on them. It does not evaluate them as good or bad, wise or foolish, righteous or sinful. Each could be appropriate, but that is not his concern. Solomon merely describes the seasons of life; he does not prescribe what we should do. He does not tell you how to capture the positive things on the list and avoid the negatives. As Daniel Akin humourously says, “Your takeaway from this message is not “I need to go kill someone, and I have a working list ready.” People hear all kinds of things that preachers do not say, so let’s be clear. Ecclesiastes 3 is not a license to kill.” Notice also that there doesn’t seem to be any progression to the set of pairs, almost that they come at random, and again, that seems to be a pretty good description of life. It seems to come at us randomly, but even that appearance of randomness is from God’s hand. Finally, notice that the seasons are ever changing: you may be in a time of mourning now, but it will pass. You may be in a time of dancing now - it will also pass. That’s all part of the habel - the breath - of life, but its a good thing. Change is appointed. This is really important to remember and consider as you face different seasons of life and all the various events that will make up those seasons, both happy and difficult. Each of those moments in your life is appointed.
There is Beauty to be Found in the Breath
And so, reflecting on the meticulous, comprehensive providence of God, Solomon returns back to the question he has already asked multiple times before: Eccl. 3:9 What gain has the worker from his toil? Yet now, having made this reflection, Solomon’s answer is completely different that anything he has said till now: 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Here is Solomon’s answer after reflecting on the meticulous, comprehensive providence of God: He has made everything beautiful in his time. Now you understand why I named the sermon series Breathtaking - its a play on words. Yes life is habel - it is a breath, and nothing can be extracted from the breath, but look more closely at the breath, and you’ll see that there is beauty in the breath. This Creator has made everything “beautiful” in its time—probably in the sense of “beautifully fitting,” given the emphasis of Ecclesiastes 3:1–8.
Here is part of the answer of Solomon - when we stop striving after life seeking to extract gain from it, we will be able to receive every moment, every breath as a gift from God’s hand and then see the beauty of every moment as it is set into the plan of God. See, the fact that life is a breath, could be seen from one perspective that life is meaningless because it is all going to be over. But from another perspective, the perspective Solomon is urging us to see, the fact that life is short is what makes it meaningful, and the fact that the moments of life are appointing are what make it beautiful. That is beautiful. Life is breathtaking.
This is Solomon’s way of saying a truth that is proclaimed in the New Testament as well, by the apostle Paul, again in Romans 8: “28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Especially to the Christian who loves and knows God, that person sees all things work together for good - what sort of things? Well he goes on to say, things like 5 “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” Those are the things that God reveals to work for good. Those are the things that God makes beautiful in his time. I recently saw a video yesterday, of 10 Beautiful Moments in sport - they were nearly all moments, that you wouldn’t think in themselves were very beautiful, two olympic runners collide into each other, injuring each other, taking each other out of the race, yet there they are, tears streaming down their faces, holding each other up as they hobble across the finish line. Beautiful.
However, it is also difficult and frustrating.There are two ways in which this understanding of God’s providence is frustrating.
We want to see how this all fits together and we can’t: It is frustrating because no matter how much we try to train ourselves to slow down and see the beauty in every moment, there is something in us that knows that these moments must tie together somehow, and we want to see how these moments tie together. And Solomon concedes that this is also by God’s design: Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. So here is the frustration: you know that the seemingly random matters of your life are not random, and you come to trust and believe that God has a plan and intent for every moment, but we can’t figure out what God is doing because we can’t see the end from the beginning.
“The limit of man’s knowledge is a major theme in Ecclesiastes, and the purpose of exposing that reality is to drive us to faith in God. We know there is more out there, and we want to know our purpose and our destiny. However, we are still dependent creatures who can only know and handle a sliver of what the Creator is really doing. And if we doubt in any way the truth of that statement, we need to be reminded that, mysterious as it may be, when the Son of God set aside His glory and took on human flesh, even He did not know all the times set by God (Matt 24:36). As Matt Chandler points out, we are like a child in the “why stage” (“Ingredients”). When you tell a child in the why stage to do something, he or she can ask “Why?” into infinity, and eventually you have to say in exasperation, “Because I told you so.” In a sense we cannot handle all of the whys of God’s plan, so He tells us, “Even though you cannot know it all, you can trust Me!” …
Now some of you may be thinking, as you look from your earthly vantage point, How could what happened to me ever be beautiful? Not that! Not what happened to me. God lovingly tells us we are too close to see the big plan, but we can trust Him. He has us, and He has your pain that seems like a jagged piece of glass, and He says that once you can step back and see the stained-glass window, you will see that it is gorgeous (Chandler, “Ingredients”). Yes, it hurts, but yes, God has you, and you can trust Him. This reality shoots our life through with meaning. God does not abandon one second of our life under the sun (Eswine, Recovering Eden, 134). He fits each part—even the smallest of parts—into the whole. This is the God who turns evil into good. (Akin, Dr. Daniel L.. Exalting Jesus in Ecclesiastes (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (p. 45). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And so again, Solomon counsels us to revel in the beauty and joy of receiving - beauty and joy - those are God’s gifts to us as we live this breath.
We want to try to force God’s hand toward our own ends: A second frustration is that we want to force God’s hands toward the things that we desire. Yet again, this is futile - who are you to think you could add to or take away what God has ordained?
Eccl. 3:14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
God is the active driver of history, we are the dependent passengers in the car he’s driving. And he will not allow us to wrestle the steering wheel from his hands. This is key in Ecclesiastes. That God is sovereign and we are not. That he is the one who sits in the driver seat of our life. It’s interesting because we spoke a lot about God’s providence and severity in the book of Genesis, in view of God’s unfolding plan of redemption in the lives of the Patriarchs, and here in Ecclesiastes the sovereignty and providence comes up again, although here God is sovereign over the parts of life that don’t seem to be moving forward toward anything.
And so in all, we must trust God by setting ourselves under his hand. This is the fear of the Lord spoken of at the end of the book - that we’d see God for who he is and us for who we are, and revere him and trust him.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and it is the key to alleviating the frustrations of life trapped between time in this cursed existence and eternity. There is no use trying to change the past, the present, or the future. God uses all of this tension, frustration, and burden to drive us to Him. It is a sign of God’s goodness. He knows there is no such thing as happiness apart from Him, and He wants us to learn that.
This doesn’t mean that Solomon is suggesting that we be passive - 3:12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
And so, to the person who is living the good life that Solomon is urging us to live, there is an active way to live even while we receive life from God’s hands - three things we can do: 1) be joyful; 2) to do good; 3) to receive all food and drink and labour as gifts to us to take pleasure in. And so, taking joy in the beauty of every moment, we devote ourselves to doing good, receiving all things with gratitude from God’s hand, but not forcing his hand. what does that look like? I think t looks a lot like the life that Jesus lived.
Jesus was a man of joy. Especially in the gospel of John, Jesus shares with his disciples in some of his last words to them that he has experienced profound joy while he lived among them. Jesus actively did good toward others throughout his life and ministry. He didn’t waste moments, but he used moments to love God and love people. Jesus understood the anointed times and seasons of his life, and accepted them from the Father as the Holy Spirit enabled him to discern the Father’s will. That not to say that he wasn’t tempted to force the father’s hand - in fact, it seems that an ongoing temptation for Jesus was to forgo the cross and come immediately into glory without having passed through the season of suffering. Satan at one point tempted him with the rule of all the kingdoms of this world if he should bow down to him. Well Jesus will inherit all the kingdoms of this world, but only as he followed the will of his father through the cross.
And it was through the pain of that hour, the toil of the cross, that God was please to offer salvation to all who would turn to him in faith and repentance.
How Do We See the Beauty?
Pray: when you see the moments slip away, take a moment to pray and ask God to show you the beauty in the moment. If you can’t see it, ask him to show you the beauty in the moment. And if you can’t see it in your circumstance, look around. If you struggle with anxiety, this is a disciple you may need to cultivate. Pausing to pray, to breath and to see the beauty in each breath.
Gratitude: in your prayer, thank God for the moment, thank God for the beauty you are experiencing in the moment. Tell the people around you that you are thankful to God for them. That you love them.
Reflect: Take some time every now and then and reflect on how God has appointed the times and seasons of your life to bring you to a place where you were able to see the beauty.
Appreciate: Tell the people around you that you are thankful to God for them. That you love them. Appreciate each moment - my friends hobby.
Trust: Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you are striving against him and what things you need to give over to Him.
Live Out Acts of Love and Goodness: as an expression of the gift of God in Christ. Having received the gift of God in Christ, our salvation is secured in him. Our forgiveness is granted in Him, our status as his beloved children is guaranteed in him, and so we love and live out acts of goodness, not because we are trying to impress anyone or striving to extract salvation or God’s approval from the breath, but purely because love and goodness are in themselves beautiful and fitting in these moments that God has appointed.
Enjoy: This is similar to appreciate. However, it may need to be said, because Solomon says it - God’s gift to us is that we might enjoy life. Not in an immoral, hedonistic way, but within the boundaries set by God’s word, to God’s glory and pleasure, God gives us times and seasons of life to enjoy - there is a time for dancing!