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The Rhythms of Life


Series: The Topics of God

Category: time

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:9-14

Speaker: Dan Doriani

Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani


Ecclesiates 3

Today we start a series of topics, topics you suggested or requested (and you can propose yours) -- Today is time and the rhythms of life.

1. A biblical view of time

Our view of time

Imagine a world without any clocks… Before people measured time with clocks, before they could divide it into tiny pieces, people viewed time differently. They rose with the sun and stopped working when night fell. Life was marked by dawn, morning, mid-day, afternoon, dusk and night. People didn’t talk about time as a pressure or burden. We all flowed down the river of time, swept along by it. People didn't cry "hurry" all the time.

Time does seem to pass or flow. We think of an event that is coming – a concert, a party. It gets closer and closer, then it's here, then it recedes farther and farther into the distance. But new technology always has the capacity to change our thinking. Clocks created new ideas about time and new attitudes.

Technology has profound impact on the way we live. When everyone traveled by foot, boat or horse, cities had to be compact. Trains and automobiles let people spread out; highways let us spread out more. Today we think and act differently about housing and living space – my garden and my yard versus our park.

Time-pieces have been around for about 25 centuries. The first mechanical clocks were invented around 1300; they told time to the quarter hour. By 1560, clocks had a second hand. Clocks are everywhere now. If you lose your watch, wall clocks, car clocks, computers and cell-phones are beside you – we always know what time it is and what we need to do in the next few hours. Now a free day – a snow day - can seem disorienting. We need time to adjust to a "vacation schedule" where nothing presses.

We don't view time as a river much any more. Now time is precise and life is regimented. We feel the need to be efficient. We get more done but we feel more harried. Time has become a quantity. We live by schedules and appointments. We try to manage time and save time and we suffer under time pressure.

We feel obligated to use all our time well – that's OK! We put an economic value on time. Lawyers seek billable hours. Counselors have fifty minute sessions. Doctors move clients in and out at a certain pace. Time is money.

Leisure doesn't put money in our wallets. A walk in the park doesn't add to the Gross National Product. Does that make it a waste? No, but we may want to use our leisure well and have as much fun as we can.

A new sense of time makes us admire new virtues – speed and efficiency. Question: how was your day today? Answer: Good, I got a lot done. This view of time has strengths but it creates illusions too.

We talk about saving time for this or making time for that, but we can't really save or make time. On the contrary, time makes us, molds us, as we grow older and (we hope) wiser. Time sweeps us along. Psalm 90 says it this way:

“The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:10,12).

How do we learn to number our days "aright" – correctly? It starts with a biblical view of time:

The Bible's basic #1: God created time

The Bible says the Lord is the master of time and everything that happens in it. Events don't just occur. The Lord says, "I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come… My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please" (Isaiah 46:9-10).

"The Lord sets a time" for events – for delivering his people above all. He delivered them from Egypt, from Babylon. (Exodus 9:5, 2 Kings 7:1, Isaiah 60:22). Above all the Father set a time, an "hour," for Jesus to die and rise for our redemption (John 12:23-27 cf 7:30, 17:1, 8:20).

The Lord says, “In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you" (Isaiah 49:8, cf. Psalm 69:13). He makes covenants at his time (Jeremiah 31:31). The Lord is the master of time; he is not bound by it.

How can we say it? Once upon a time, God created time. Once upon a time, there was no time. God's creatures are governed by it; He is not. God exists apart from creation. So God had life "before" there was time. He stands outside of time even while He acts in time. For us, time is like having a body or breathing air. It's our medium for life. In itself, time is good, like the rest of God's creation.

Here the difference between the Creator and the creature looms large. We are limited by time, He is not. Our time on this earth is under his control, not ours. We certainly have no control over his schedule. He acts in the time of his favor.

Basic #2: Time after the fall

Once sin entered world, time could become our enemy. Hear Ecclesiastes 1: “Generations come and go. The sun goes up and down. The wind goes round and round. The streams ceaselessly flow into the sea. Nothing changes, nothing is new, there is no progress” (1:4-11)

Worse, the days are filled with evil (Ephesians 5:16). We want to overcome problems – and we know we may not have enough time. Our time is short – seventy, eighty or ninety years. In many sports, athletes are near the end of their career at thirty. They aren't quite as fast, can't jump quite as high. Physicists make their discoveries early; pop musicians write their hits early.

We know this by the age of twenty-eight and a half. The next birthday is twenty-nine, and thirty is on the horizon - the first hallmark of growing older. From that time, we know our time is short. If we live to be eighty-three, we have a total of just one thousand months of life.

Time can feel like an enemy. We want to savor moments of laughter and love and celebration, to make time slow down, even stop. We want the last ski run, the last laugh over dessert, the rosy sunset, to last forever. But it slips away. We want travails to pass quickly, but in the darkest hour, time slows down.

It is painful for broken humans to think about time. Our own death is unfathomable to us. Even total pagans ask, "What happens after the end?" We are afraid and our heads spin. But eternity is inconceivable, too. What does it mean that life will never end, that nothing will ever end? What if we grow weary? How can anything go on and on and on? Again the head begins to spin.

We are prone to certain mistakes about time. In our selfishness, we think time is ours and begin to resent interruptions, requests for help. The clock lets us think we are always starved for time. It is good to treasure or protect time, but time is never really mine. It's something we share in our common life. View interruptions as divine appointments.

The clock also promotes another mistake: That if we managed our time correctly, we would have time for everything. The time management movement can help some of us get our lives under control, but it also creates false expectations and heartache. We cannot manage so that there is time for everything. We are finite, our time is short.

It takes thousands of hours of practice to reach true proficiency at any high order skill: to speak Chinese, play the oboe, or manage a lab. How many skills can we master in a lifetime? Not many. So give up the illusion that you will have time for everything. We are finite creatures. In this life, we should aim to excel at a few things. Choose them wisely.

Basic #3: Time can be redeemed

There is such a thing as "the moment of truth." Paul says, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Galatians 6:10). To paraphrase a bit: "When the right time comes, be ready to do good." Be ready to say a kind or empathic word to someone who has suffered a loss. Be ready to offer help in the hour of need.

In Ephesians 5:16, Paul says we must make "the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil." Don't miss the moment for action. Don't let fear stop you. Fear of what? – Fear of a mistake, fear of opposition, if you take a stand, fear that it will entangle you, fear of taking too long. Seize the moment

"Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5). But we know we can miss it because we are distracted, because the situation seems too big, because we aren't ready to act.

Paul continues: our "conversation [is] always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." Full of grace means we are always ready to present God's goodness, especially in Christ. Salt means it has flavor, it's attractive, easy to take in. Proverbs conveys the same idea: "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."

Clock time – everything measured in minutes – can mislead us. The clock says every second, every minute is the same. The Bible says, "No. There is a moment of opportunity, a moment of truth." There is a big day, a big night, a big play, a big decision. We must be ready for those moments when time slows down, when events come to a climax.

Jesus' death and resurrection form the center of human history – the hour of Jesus. Everything leads up to it or flows from it. And there are central moments in our history. We need to be ready for them. We need to be prepared, focused, ready for the moment of truth and redemption. Jesus was! We should be ready to seize the moment when it arrives. So much for time. Ecclesiastes teaches us about the rhythm of life.

2. Ecclesiastes 3

We love the poetry of Ecclesiastes 3, but the beautiful cadences mask a troubling reality. There is a time for everything – and a time when everything we do is undone. "There is a time to be born and a time to die" (3:2) Is a child born? Its parents will die. The little infant will also die one day.

More ominously, there is "a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build." Notice that here and in other places, the woe is first. "A time to kill" comes first, as if to say evil comes first in our experience. Then there is a time to heal. First we weep, then we laugh. First we mourn, then we dance. First we scatter stones then we gather them (3:3-7). The poem is pretty, but mournful.

And what can we say of the last verse? A time to love and a time to hate? (3:8) Is there a time to hate? Maybe that's not the way things are supposed to be, just the way they are: There are seasons when hate takes over, just as there are seasons when love takes over.

Is there a time for war? America's Declaration of Independence begins, "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another" a new people will take its rightful place among the nations. They meant: It's time for war. War ensued, for almost eight years. Then it was time for peace.

From Derek Kinder:

“Everything we do is undone. Everything that is undone returns. For three years, a random collection of 2,000 Europeans and Americans lived in a compound the size of one city block. They were educators, missionaries, scientists and business leaders. When the Japanese conquered northern China in 1942, they were swept up and dumped in the ruin called Shantung compound. Their wealth, their servants were gone. Now the cream of western civilization had to learn to cook and clean latrines and live ten to a room. And they did it – they built a successful society. And a few cranks could tear it down. A bully demanding more space, an argumentative person who was so determined to fight with everyone that she was finally given a room of her own – and ten people moved to eleven per room. The Witherspoons – without one shred of evidence, loudly declaring, and persuading others to believe that the cooks were stealing meat and sugar. Four people tearing down the peace that a thousand labored to create.”

We think: "All is vanity" - as Ecclesiastes 1 says. Nothing is permanent. We throw ourselves into an activity that offers fulfillment or excitement, but how soon will we do the opposite? And how freely did we choose our actions? Perhaps our choices are no freer than our response to winter and summer, childhood and old age. What we do is often "dictated by the march of time" and events beyond our control.

"Looked at in this way, the repetition of 'a time… and a time…' begins to be oppressive. Whatever… our skill and initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons" (Derek Kidner).We are governed by the calendar, by the tide of events which push us to one action that seems fitting, now to another that is the reverse. So then, "What does the worker gain from his toil?" (3:9).

"We have little say in the situations which move us to weep or laugh, mourn or dance" (Derek Kidner). Even our deliberate acts may be governed, more than we care to admit, by time or cultural forces. "Who would have imagined" we say, "that I would be here, doing this and seeing it as essential to my life?"

So the peace-loving leader may prepare his nation for war. The magnate disperses his wealth. Friends part in bitter conflict. We swear ourselves to silence and we find that we must speak. It seems that nothing we do is free from this pressure, even dictation, from outside.

Ecclesiastes drives us to ask: What do we accomplish? What can we accomplish? If I think it's time to build or to go fast, you may think it's time to tear down, or at least to go slow. You or I may even build up a program one year and decide it has passed it's time of usefulness five years later.

This, Ecclesiastes says, "is the burden God has laid on men" (3:10). They rage and rebel against the forces, the constraints of history. Others flee from change or deny that it's real. But there is good news.

3:1 “There is a time for everything.”

3:11 The Lord "has made everything beautiful in its time."

Perpetual change unsettles us, but behind the apparent chaos, the frustrating, apparently meaningless changes, God is weaving a pattern out of the apparent chaos. Look at the most difficult statements Ecclesiastes makes:

God makes everything beautiful in its time

Is there a time to hate? Yes. There is a time to hate evil. We hate it when leaders betray their trust. When tyrants aim at ethnic cleansing and create cities of refugees. When wicked men abuse children. Yes, there is a time to hate evil and that revulsion can bring good. It can be part of God's master plan.

Is there a time for war? Yes, when a dictator invades a peace-loving country, there is a time for the men to rise up and defend their families and land.

A time to die? Yes, when a body is worn out, when many friends have gone before, when an aged believer aches to be with the Lord, it is time to die.

The trouble is not perpetual change – a time for this and a time for that. The trouble is that we see only a fragment of God's intricate design. We might prefer changelessness, but "God gives us something better: a dynamic, divine purpose, with [a] beginning and [an] end. Instead of frozen perfection there is the kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening." (Kidner 39) Each is beautiful in its time. Each contributes to the Creator's masterpiece.

What then? Several practical points: First, receive what God does with time. "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other" (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Receive the good and the bad – even the heartaches and the wounds

Second, remember "God is in heaven, you are on earth" (5:14). So do what lies before you. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might" (9:10). "There is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live." How? This is the gift of God "That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil" (3:12-13). When you are done, rest. "Sweet is the sleep of the laborer" (5:12). I want to pause over sleep a moment.

We are all over the map when it comes to sleep. Some sleep too much, some too little. Some fall asleep at the wrong time – during concerts, movies. Others can't fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night. We have principles about sleep: "Go to bed early! Get up early! Sleep eight hours." Are they valid? Is sleep part of the time and rhythm of life under the reign of Christ?

Sleep appears over two hundred times in the Bible. It's normal and assumed that we will sleep at night (Genesis 28:11-16, Deuteronomy. 24:12-13, Job 4:13). It's a misfortune, a sign of trouble when we cannot sleep (Genesis 31:40, Esther 6:1, Daniel 2:1). It's a blessing, a gift from God, to sleep well.

We sleep well when at peace and safe (Proverbs 3:24. Ecclesiastes 5:12, Jeremiah 31:26, Ezekiel 34:25). We can sleep well because God never sleeps: "I can lie down and sleep. I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (Psalm 3:5, 121:3-4). Psalm 4:8 says: "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety."

We can rest peacefully because we know God watches over us and provides for us even as we sleep: Psalm 127:2 says, "In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves." That includes sleep and the ability to lay cares aside.

Do you ever deprive yourself of sleep, staying up at day's end out of guilt, to do things you should have done that day? Are you afraid to put things off another day? God is master of time. If you really wasted time, confess your sins. Ask God for proper discipline the next day. And go to sleep!

There is a time to deny ourselves sleep – just as there is a time to deny ourselves food. The disciples certainly should have stayed awake to keep Jesus company in Gethsemane. But for most of us, it's an act of faith to sleep at night and to rise to serve in the morning. To go to sleep is just one way to say, "I trust you Lord, master of time."

Finally, remember that God put eternity in our heart. We should learn to accept the rhythms of life, but we will always ask what it means. Don’t stop. Keep asking, keep seeking. Keep seeking the Lord. Keep seeking the meaning of it all. Keep yearning for the day when we meet the Lord face to face and the sense of it all is clear enough to satisfy our souls, for he made everything beautiful in its time.