PART 6 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’
IN THIS chapter, the Preacher reflects on the mystery of time in light of a profounder mystery, eternity. There is not a period in the history of thought that philosophers (and later, scientists) have not reflected on the elusive nature of time.
Perhaps what Augustine said about time still holds true. We think we know what time is, but when we are asked to explain it, we realise that we no longer really know what it is. The elusiveness of time is compounded by its tyranny. We sometimes speak as though time is something that we possess. “I have lots of time” and “there’s so much time to kill” are statements that are often and carelessly uttered. But in reality, we do not possess or control time. Rather, time controls us.
Time is full of potential. But nothing is more even handed than time: the Prime Minister of Singapore does not have more time than you and I!
The Preacher begins with an ambiguous statement: “There is a time for everything.” This statement can either mean that there is purpose and direction in life, or that life is a vicious cycle, a colourless repetition of different events. The meaning of the statement is only clarified later in the passage, as we shall see. The Preacher begins with the most basic illustration: life’s beginning and end. Neither our parents nor we are in control of our births. Our parents may think that they are because they have “planned” it. But in reality there are so many factors that are not within their control that our arrival in this world is really out of their hands.
The same is true with our deaths. One of the greatest curses of being the rational creatures that we are is that we know that we are going to die, but we do not know when. We strive to discover meaning, only to be confronted with the meaninglessness of death.
In verse 4, the Preacher turns to two extreme but common human emotions: joy and sorrow. Both have their place in human experience and it is the sorry individual who is unable to distinguish between them. In human relationships, too, there is “a time to embrace and a time to refrain” (v 5) – occasions that warrant the expression of approval, and occasions that require just the opposite response.
In relation to material possessions, the Preacher says that “there is a time to keep and a time to throw away” (v 6b), thereby warning us of two dangers: a “wasting mentality” and a “hoarding mentality”. The first betrays a poor stewardship that is so endemic in our “disposable society”, while the second exposes a possessive attitude which invests too much significance in material things.
Verses 7-8 complete the catalogue by focusing on human relationships, both between individuals and between nations.
All human life is described in these verses! In masterful poetry, the Preacher describes the universal human condition: birth and death, killing and healing, weeping and laughing, refraining from and embracing, keeping silent and speaking out, loving and hating, war and peace.
These multifarious events touch us, encourage us, buffet us, exhilarate us, disappoint and devastate us. They evoke in us the most profound and extreme emotions that soar to the greatest heights as well as plunge to the darkest depths. What we are to make of them depends on our perspective to life.
The perspective that believers should adopt is presented in verses 9-15. In verse 11, the Preacher makes a startling declaration: “God has made everything beautiful in his time.” This truth can only be perceived with the eyes of faith. Seen from the perspective of faith, the apparently dreary and even oppressive march of time is injected with meaning and purpose.
This statement therefore provides the hermeneutical key that unlocks the meaning of the previously ambiguous declaration that “there is a time for everything”. The eyes of faith are able to see the beauty of God’s ordering of the times, and discern God’s purposes even in its darkest passages. This statement echoes David’s confident assertion that “My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:15).
Yet, the Preacher makes it clear that even believers are at times unable to fathom the purposes of God. The qualification in verse 11 – “yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end” – should check all religious triumphalism that claim the ability to discern accurately the mind of God.
Even with eternity in our hearts, we cannot fathom why a young man, full of energy and promise, would be diagnosed with a terminal illness. Or why the lives of a young, newly wed couple would come to a tragic end in a horrific accident during their honeymoon.
Believers, too, are stumped at just how brutal life can be. But believers can look beyond the tragedies and contradictions because they know that everything is in God’s hands, that, in His time, God will make everything beautiful. Faith sees beyond the here and now into the promised future. Faith leads to hope, and hope enables us to see the here and now in proper perspective.
True hope is always realist and never escapist in character. It provides the big picture within which we must situate our present experiences, even the darkest. Such hope is exemplified in Paul who in the face of suffering and pain could exclaim: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18).
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.