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There’s a Chance–Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

You’re probably not going to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In fact, it is almost certain that you won’t win. Think about it. These people have been using all manner of advertisements to sell magazines and, more recently, gather information for big data for years. Do you know anyone who has won even a dollar? Do you know anyone who knows anyone? Right. You’re probably not going to win.

But there is, like Jim Carrey had at the end of Dumb and Dumber, still a chance.

You could win. And he could wind up with Lauren Holly by his side. You’d hate to miss out on winning if you were destined to do so, right? But you’re not going to win.

That seems to be the message that Solomon brings today. He suggests that since we can’t know that we have a better after-death fate than the animals, we should just live for today.

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust. Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

Solomon’s advice in this passage sounds almost identical to what Epicurus taught several hundred years later. Since we can’t tell whether there’s any reward for right living after we die, then we should just focus on today.

Don’t pursue what you can’t see

Is Solomon on the level with these claims? Or is he making provocative statements that we’re supposed to knock down? Let’s do a little thought experiment. My daughter bought some chickens, as I shared recently. These birds are perhaps half grown now. To date, they have not laid any eggs. Soon, Emily will start checking the nest box for eggs, hoping to see some little protein orbs lying there. But why should she check? Since no one can enable her to see what will be in the nest box, why should she look? Isn’t that the sort of logic that Solomon employs?

Let’s consider some of the people who rejected this sort of thinking:

  • Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.–Genesis 15:6
  • By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.–Hebrews 11:7
  • Jesus said [to Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” –John 20:29

Getting in Tune

The paradox of Christian life is that we should live joyfully in the present with full confidence that the future, which we cannot see, will be better. Maybe, on second thought, that isn’t really a paradox. Maybe we are to live joyfully today because of our hope, our confidence, in eternity. It’s not a “chance.” It’s a certainty. Without that hope, I’d have a hard time enjoying my activities and accepting them as my reward. With that hope, I can face today and tomorrow.

Dust to Dust–Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

My mother died a couple of days ago. Actually, she didn’t except for in my overwrought imagination. I called her house around supper time, when I knew she’d be home. After a series of rings, just about the time I expected voicemail to pick up, I heard the sound of a connection. Then a couple of bumps and clicks, as if someone were dropping the phone. And then nothing.

I called out and then listened, to see if I could hear a voice, but no voice ever came. Only a few more bumps and rattles came over the line. After a brief pause, I jumped in my car to check things out, imagining that I would find her incapacitated, an arm outstretched where it had just managed to knock the phone off the hook. I’d love to claim that I was thinking very philosophical thoughts, like today’s text from Koheleth:

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. 20 All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

The reality of human life is that it terminates in human death. We all know that, but we typically don’t like to talk about it. Instead, we use euphemisms and avoidance. T.S. Eliot picked up the truth in The Waste Land:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

We’re all dying with a little patience. No one wants to talk about it, but my three-month-old granddaughter is dying with a little patience. And there lies the ultimate futility of Ecclesiastes. Everything that makes up our lives is pointless, because we’re all dying. Everything we do for other people is pointless, because they’re all dying.

Our death, and the death of every person to appear before or after us on this earth, has been guaranteed since Genesis 3, when Eve and then Adam proved unable to walk by the one off-limits tree in the Garden. God had warned them:

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.

Genesis 2:17

We tend to read that verse as meaning that Adam and Eve should have died the day they ate the fruit, but what it actually means is that the day they ate of it, they were guaranteed that they would eventually die. Before the fruit, no death. After the fruit, certain death–with a little patience.

Getting in Tune

As it turned out, my mother was fine. Apparently it was my phone that was out of sorts. But eventually the end will come for her, just as it will come for me. Everything is futile.

There’s a reason, I think, that older people tend to turn their minds toward eternity and God. The nearer we get to the end of the road, the more we’re inclined to recognize the futility of the things that we pass along the road, the things that we try to make so important.

If we’re going to eventually recognize the futility of living for this life, wouldn’t it be sensible to beat the crowd and start focusing on eternity right away?

When the Judge is Crooked–Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

What happens when a high-schooler publicly insults the assistant principal on social media? When this happened in Judge Mark Ciavarella’s courtroom, the offender was sent to a juvenile detention facility. The problem with this “tough judge” was that he was receiving kick-backs from the owner of the for-profit detention facility. That might be the sort of thing Solomon had in mind when he spoke of “wickedness at the place of judgment”:

I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness. I said to myself, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.” I said to myself, “This happens so that God may test the children of Adam and they may see for themselves that they are like animals.”

Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

Lest we within the church grow too full of ourselves as we look at the corruption in government and justice systems, we need to remember that lots of bad things, not all of them newsworthy, have taken place on the church’s watch. From the unfathomable sin of sexual abuse by a senior pastor to the church member swiping a box of pens from the supply room, the “wickedness at the place of righteousness” is all too real.

Where are the hypocrites?

Hypocrites can be found in courtrooms and church-house for a very simple reason. People go to those places. There’s wickedness everywhere.

  • The climate advocates who fly around on private jets.
  • The free immigration advocates who build walls around their houses.
  • The actors who preach being happy with the simple life in multi-million-dollar roles.
  • The bank that claims to be on your side until you really need their help.

And of course there is hypocritical wickedness in your heart as well. At least I assume there is since there is such stuff in mine. And before you start judging me, we need to remember that the Apostle Paul had the same problem in Romans 7:15:

For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.

Why is everything such a mess?

Turn on the television news–something that I almost never do willingly–and you’re almost sure to see some story of incomprehensible wickedness. Again, it could be a woman being shot when she tried to break up a fight, a bunch of idiot adults brawling at a kids’ baseball game, or vandalism of the World War I memorial in Kansas City.

These stories leave a lot of people shaking their heads and asking a pointless question: What would make people do something like that?

What WOULD make people do something like that?

I called that question pointless because we all know the answer. People do unpleasant stuff because they are sinful. In the verse before the one quoted above, Paul provided a solid answer: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold as a slave to sin.–Romans 7:14. Specifically, we’re slaves to

  • Pride
  • Covetousness
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Greed

That’s five of the “seven deadly sins,” and I’m pretty sure that gluttony and sloth cause some of our public wickedness as well, but they’re just not quite so active.

Just like in Solomon’s day, the flesh is “under the sun.” As long as we are “under the sun” and in the flesh, we’re going to see this wickedness.

Getting in Tune

Rather than shaking our head at the wickedness we see around us, we need to acknowledge what this text says. We are like animals, and similar, although perhaps less visible, wickedness abounds in us.

Your prayer should be that God will more and more reveal your wickedness and help you to overcome it. If millions of Christians were to take that seriously, then the contrast with the Judge Ciavarellas of this world would become more pronounced and perhaps they’d not get away with their wickedness quite so long.

The Future Is Now, and I’m Opposed to It–Ecclesiastes 3:14-15

With all due respect to the long-dead king, he did not live in 2019. He didn’t see self-driving cars and streaming video and Amazon drones. He didn’t have the 24-hour news cycle or blue-tooth or even microwave popcorn. If he had experienced those wonders of the present day, he wouldn’t have said this:

I know that everything God does will last forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. God works so that people will be in awe of him. Whatever is, has already been, and whatever will be, already is. However, God seeks justice for the persecuted.

Ecclesiastes 3:14-15

Honestly, “whatever is, has already been”? That might have been true a thousand years before Christ, when the big changes were new ways to use olives or the development of a new metal alloy every thousand years or so, but we live in the age of technological wonders.

Of course we could go back in time to 1919 when people could say that Solomon “didn’t have automobiles, didn’t have radio, and didn’t have electricity.” It seems that one of the things that has already been is the sense that we’re living in a time when things are brand new.

Opposition to the New

When we reach certain ages, our attitudes toward those perceived new things change. Douglas Adams might not have the precise details right, but there’s insight in what he observed:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

I’m over 35, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to reconcile myself to Teslas and Tweets. But Solomon says they’ve already been around. While we did not have people making snarky and ill-founded comments through their phones before 2006, the spirit of Twitter has been around since well before Solomon’s day.

Don’t Be a Curmudgeon

There’s an advantage we have as Christians who are old enough to remember the 1900s–that’s the whole century, not the first decade! That advantage is that we have perspective. We can see that the changes that are trumpeted as revolutionary and world-changing often simply echo what came before.

Yes, streaming video is a big deal, but the video it streams is similar to what was on cable, which was similar to what was on broadcast, which was similar to what was on movie screens, which was similar to what was on the stage, which was similar to what was shared around campfires long before recorded history.

To make use of that advantage we possess, we need to put the lie to Douglas Adams’ comments. When we find ourselves in opposition to innovations, we need to be sure that we have an actual reason for it. We need to understand those innovations well enough to have a meaningful opinion.

Otherwise, we wind up like the old folks in the church, wagging our heads and complaining that “They don’t sing any of the good-old gospel hymns any more.” Of course that just means that the church doesn’t sing the songs that were popular when they were young and thought everything was new and exciting.

Getting in Tune

In Revelation 13:8 we hear Jesus described as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He is the Alpha and Omega. Yes, humans cleverly “invent” things that the creative powers of God have made possible, but try inventing matter or gravity. The sooner we recognize that God is more significant than the most riveting season of Fortnite, the more we will recognize the true place of innovation in this world.

Give Us Our Daily Tortillas!–Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

At the end of the school year, my employer is decent enough to pay out my nine-month contract in one giant lump sum. Effectively, that means that on May 31, I get the six paychecks that would normally come from that date until August 15. Effectively, that means that I, right now, have a very large sum of money in my checking account just aching to be spent.

The way I have it figured, we can eat dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant for about $25. That means that $1,000 will see us through 40 meals at La Fuente. Assuming that we might miss a day here or there, $2,000 would pretty well feed us on tacos al pastor and whatever it is Penny eats for the entire summer. Talk about rejoicing and enjoying the good life! Solomon could have been talking about us:

I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts. 

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

Was Koheleth really talking about a daily serving of enchiladas or am I perhaps missing the point? I ask, because that second verse seems to run straight against the teaching of Jesus. In Luke 12, He relates the Parable of the Rich Fool. You might remember that a farmer has a huge crop and determines to store it up and coast on his wealth.

Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”

Luke 12:19

Those two verses sound pretty similar, but what Solomon praises, Jesus condemns. Is this another one of those contradictions that prove the Bible untrue?

To answer that question, let’s read those two passages carefully to see if they truly do run in complete opposition to each other. What precisely does Ecclesiastes say? “It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats . . . ” If I take this verse to heart, then I’m recognizing that the money in my bank account is a gift of God. On the other hand, the Rich Fool doesn’t acknowledge God at all. He behaves as if he’s rich simply because of his own efforts.

What should we do with the gift of God? The Parable of the Talents makes that very clear. We have a responsibility to wisely use the gifts that God gives us. We shouldn’t bury them in the ground or bury them in our own flesh.

Does this mean that Ecclesiastes has it wrong? Are we mistaken to eat, drink, and enjoy our efforts? Of course not. Jesus’ teaching is not a call to complete self-denial. He dined and celebrated with people during his ministry. He went to that wedding at Cana. I can’t imagine Jesus sitting back and clucking in disapproval at people having a moderate good time: “Did you make sure that meat was humanely raised and locally sourced? And by the way, you should only eat a portion about the size of a deck of cards!” I could be wrong, but that sort of thing seems like substituting one form of legalism for another.

To balance these two stories, we simply have to enjoy the good things that God has provided without forgetting that it was Him that provided them. That’s an easy concept to grasp. I wish it were easier to put into practice.

Tale of Two Levines–Ecclesiastes 3:9-11

Yesterday on Facebook, my (soon-to-be) former pastor shared a graphic from a preacher named Luke Levine. Essentially, the post trumpeted the power of social media as a communication tool and questioned Christians who would waste it on themselves rather than using it to spread the gospel. In trying to locate that image, I searched “Luke Levine social media” and was greeted, mostly, with images of a shirtless Adam Levine during Maroon 5’s Super Bowl performance. It seemed oddly appropriate.

What does the worker gain from his struggles? I have seen the task that God has given the children of Adam to keep them occupied. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-11

What do we gain from our struggles? If you’re Adam Levine at the peak of your band’s popularity, you gain a ton of money. If you’re an ordinary person, you gain enough money to pay your bills. I know that Jesus tells us not to worry about food and clothes, but he certainly doesn’t tell us to quit our jobs or fail to plant our fields. Work is a good thing, an appropriate thing, something the Torah says we should do six days out of seven.

Work is a good thing but it is a limited thing. I even enjoy listening to Maroon 5 (provided that I don’t pay too close of attention to the lyrics), but if Adam Levine and company believe that they’re accomplishing anything more than earning a bunch of money, then they’re sorely mistaken.

I know, you have some music that you grew up hearing and still love. Bachman-Turner Overdrive was playing on Spotify for me this morning. That music makes people happy. The food you cook makes people happy. The clothes you sell make people happy. The air conditioner you repair makes people happy. Happiness is good, isn’t it?

While we attend to the necessary things of the flesh, we have to remember eternity

In general, happiness is good so long as it isn’t based on something destructive, but happiness or mere survival are very temporary things. You don’t starve to death this month, which is good, but that doesn’t mean you won’t die in 40 years. Happiness and survival will come to an end.

But God has put eternity in our hearts. He has let us know that we’re meant for something bigger and more important than what is “under the sun.” He’s hardwired us to recognize that there’s something more than what we do when we go about our average day.

I would hazard to guess that even this Luke Levine guy spends more time dealing with matters of a temporal nature than of a spiritual nature. That’s the way it is when we inhabit this flesh. Even the greatest prayer warriors need to keep themselves clothed and fed and housed and hydrated.

The problem comes when we believe that this temporal and temporary stuff is all there is or is the most important part of what is. Solomon has spent a good deal of time systematically claiming that everything “under the sun” is pointless. But he didn’t say it wasn’t necessary.

While we attend to the necessary things of the flesh, we have to remember eternity, whether with our music, our social media, or something else.

Turn, Turn, Turn–Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Out in our yard, you’ll find an enclosure, four foot by two foot, housing a small family of rabbits, momma and her six kittens. Just to let you know how true it is that rabbits breed like rabbits, the mother was born sometime in December of last year making her almost precisely six months old. Her first litter is about a month old now. Momma has been kept isolated from our lone buck because she was ready to get pregnant some 72 hours after giving birth. Once she weans this bunch, we’ll get them together again.

The kittens–you’d probably just call them bunnies–are adorable. Having been handled a good bit over the past few weeks, they’re growing quite accustomed to our approach. I enjoy them. Penny enjoys them. Bo the poodle is fascinated by them, but I’m not completely sure of his intentions. Everybody seems to love these little rabbits.

And in a couple of months, we will “process” them. That’s a euphemism for killing them, skinning them, and then preparing the meat for eating. We aim to give these rabbits a good life, but when the time comes, when they’ve reached their optimal size, we’ll thank them and end their lives without a second thought.

Some of you are thinking me a monster now. How can I murder those cute little bunnies? Shouldn’t we just focus our existence around the warm and fuzzy things of life, pushing away the grim ugliness, the conflict and destruction, at every opportunity? The answer to that is an emphatic “no.” Look at Solomon’s poem:

There is an occasion for everything,
and a time for every activity under heaven:
a time to give birth and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to tear down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance;
a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing;
a time to search and a time to count as lost;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to be silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

At least since sin entered human experience in the Garden, death and destruction have been necessary adjuncts to all the life and progress that humans can enjoy. Until sin is eliminated from our experience, an achievement that humans will never accomplish on our own, it will be our task to ensure that the destructive does not overwhelm the constructive. If we think we can eliminate the “bad” things, then we’ll be overrun by bunnies or by something else that will make this world just as unlivable as living under the boot of unfettered oppression.

So, with the Byrds, we just need to turn to the various activities at appropriate times.

A Time for Everything, but Especially…–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

It’s pretty much impossible for me to read Ecclesiastes 3 without hearing the Byrds singing. If you’re so inclined, you can click “play” and listen as you read on. (Or just listen. After all, it’s your time.)

I’d like to focus not on “a time to cast away stones,” which I know is the part of that passage that holds the greatest meaning for you, but on that first half of verse 2. “A time to give birth, and a time to die.” We tend to emphasize the first part of that pairing without acknowledging the inevitable second part. The moment we are born, we start dying. That’s a simple truth of mortal existence, but who wants to talk about the time for that particular event under heaven?

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and I would not be one to argue for accepting an early exit from this life. It’s easy for me, at age 52, to say, “I’ll be ready to go when I hit 90,” but I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel differently when I’m blowing out 89 candles on a cake.

There is, however, a difference between being ready and eager to die on the one hand and being open to the fact that death will one day arrive. Knowing that death will immediately put me into the presence of Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:8 makes clear, does not incline me to take an early trip in that direction.

Knowing that death will come one day should sober us to use each day that we have in a manner worthy of the God who gave us that day. Knowing that the first death will not be followed by the second death but instead by an eternity in a glorified resurrection body allows me to live those days I do have without fear.

What prompted the Byrds to record “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or Pete Seeger to write it? I’m not sure. Pete passed from this mortal coil in 2014, and I won’t speculate on his eternal fate. What I can state with confidence is that we all had a time to be born and will all have a time to die. Living with the hope of Christ makes the latter fact far less ominous.