Part 2 of 5. Find the rest of the studies here.
Time; we watch it dearly in some moments, but neglect to clock it in others. Whatever our attitude towards time, it is inescapable to us. So what did Qoheleth have to say about this reality that we operate in?
(A) Man lives in time as a creature (Ecc 3:1-15)
Qoheleth introduces us to our relationship with time through an amazing poem (Ecc 3:2-8) that comprises of 14 binaries that speak to the great diversity of human experiences under heaven. Qoheleth does not aim to provide moral guidance through these factual observations. Rather, he unapologetically confronts the reader with the sobering truth of our finitude experiences within time.
This might sound similar to the Buddhist precept that all things are empty of intrinsic existence, but the Christian view differs here (Ecc 3:11) by claiming that the sovereign God makes all things beautiful in his time. This often-quoted verse stands out immediately! It tells us that time is not merely cyclical. Instead, time is purposeful and moving towards somewhere “good”. Ultimately, through history, God will make all things beautiful. This is an elevation from God making all things “right”, for the concept of being made “right” refers to the restoration of something broken, but the concept of being made “beautiful” connotes a resultant wonder and amazement that delights the soul.
However, we are reminded in the same verse that we are still living within time. By having “eternity” placed in our hearts, we yearn and clamor for an understanding of the big picture, yet remain incapable of understanding it (Ecc 3:11b). It does not matter how much we beat our chests, read existentialist philosophy, and pour through history books. We cannot understand it. So do not waste your time pursuing it. Instead, be joyful and do good as long as you live! (Ecc 3:12) Eat, drink, and take pleasure in your work; receiving these gifts from God is how we respond to Him (Ecc 3:13).
It is important to note that “joy” here does not refer to mere fun, laughter, and games. It carries the idea of understanding the world in a certain way that allows us to live with peace and contentment; it is to live with a sense of wholeness. We live with this wholeness by perceiving the permanence of God’s work (Ecc 3:14) and the impermanence of ours (Ecc 3:9). God’s work is enduring and irrevocable, while ours is fleeting and subject to change.
This brings us to 2 essential points of consideration: How have you been living your life? Does it reflect the limits of your life? Remember that everything is made beautiful in its time because all things within time will ultimately be held accountable to God!
(B) God judges in time, finally in death (Ecc 3:16-4:3)
Qoheleth quickly brings us back to the picture of life under the sun, and back to the reality that God will judge everything, weigh everything, and bring justice to everything (Ecc 3:16-17). God tests us in time to remind us of our creatureliness (Ecc 3:18), and this testing comes at the point of death (Ecc 3:19)!
Death is pivotal because it is how God makes everything beautiful in His time. It is when the sovereign God who is outside of time judges those who live within it - the surefire way for creatures to know that they are merely creatures! While this motivates us to live life positively (with joy and good works), we also acknowledge that there is great evil and oppression under the sun (Ecc 4:1). Our world is filled with such atrocities that death can even come as a relief to some (Ecc 4:2).
We must pause and consider our mortality because our society tries to keep us from thinking about death. Every advertisement plastered on the sides of shopping malls portrays picture-perfect models in the prime of their youth; the most popular television series largely employ the best looking young people to play central roles; and the carpe diem imperative that permeates our culture is an emphatic call for us to live in the present! But the truth of the matter is that death is not elusive! It does not come in a small, distant way. It comes front and center. It is close and personal. Do not let yourself be fooled; the day will come when you will die!
It is necessary for us to remember our “creatureliness”, for it is impossible to wield a correct perspective about life without first acknowledging that it will end. If we reflect on our lives thus far, every single one of us will be confronted with the sobering truth that we have lived many parts of our lives with “ourselves” at the centerfold. We tend to be self-seeking in our thoughts and self-serving in our actions. All of this is the consequence of having lived life without acknowledging the reality of our impending final judgment. It is a breakaway from Paul’s teaching in Romans 14:7-9 that reminds us how “whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Friends, choose to be intentional considering the direction that your life is headed towards.
(C) Man responds to time with either folly or wisdom (Ecc 4:4-4:16)
Our considerations of our lives within time can lead to two possible responses – folly, or wisdom. The table below details the different responses.
|“…all toil and all skill…come from a man’s envy”
Envy is endemic of the capitalism that we are so acquainted with.
|“…folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (Ecc 4:5)
Sloth leads to self-destructive.
|“better is a handful of quietness” (Ecc 4:6)||Wisdom!
It is better to be content with your limited portion than to find vanity in the “fullness” of your work.
|“…never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and
depriving myself of pleasure?’” (Ecc 4:7-8)
Busying yourself with work and burying yourself with greed might distract you from the loneliness of your existence, but it is ultimately emptiness and sorrow.
|“Two are better than one…” (Ecc 9-12)||Wisdom!
Partnership and servitude tells about how all of us need others to help us. A throwback to Ecc 3:2-8 reminds us that there will come a time when we are down and defeated. We will need someone to lift us up then.
In particular, the best way for Christians to do this is in the church! The church comprises of people that God has called and woven together in His Spirit. We all need good Christian fellowship.
|“Better was a poor and wise youth than an old
and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice…” (Ecc 13-16)
This story speaks of mobility and progress that seems desirable to most, but ultimately meaningless and without significance.
(D) God gives us time and all should fear him (Ecc 5:1-20)
For all of our talk about time’s delights and constraints, it is fitting for us to remind that the sovereign God who is outside of time is also the giver of time. The sovereignty of God should lead us to revere Him, especially when we come before His holy presence.
However, Qoheleth warns us that it is possible to come before God (Ecc 5:1a) to offer a “sacrifice of fools” (Ecc 5:1b). This “evil” (Ecc 5:1c) is characterized by rashness of words and a disquiet heart (Ecc 5:2), and it is contrasted with drawing near to listen (Ecc 5:1b). These verses do not mean that you should not talk when you go to church. Rather, they drive home the point that in drawing near to God and remembering His awesome sovereignty, we must adopt a posture of brokenness, contrition, and humility! If you do not think hard about Whom you are coming before, if drawing near to the God of time does not humble you, and if you are only fixated with letting your errant thoughts be heard in the presence of the Majestic God, then you are a fool!
How often have we come before God with the heart of a fool? How often have we approached the church’s steeple with reckless indifference? How often have we filtered from Bible study to Bible study without reverence for the very Word that we are studying?
Let us react to God by remembering with the passage of time that He is God, and we are not. Let us respond to God with a holy reverence and fear. And let us remember the promises that we have made to God (Ecc 5:4-7), for our God is faithful and just.
This fear of the Lord motivates us to live life with wisdom and understanding in mind. Ecc 5:8-10 reminds us that the wrongs in our society are normal. We are not to be surprised, and we are not to feel indignation at God for allowing “injustice” to run rampant. Our leaders and rulers will have to account to God. There will be a final justice.
Qoheleth also reminds us that the love of wealth is a dismal futility (Ecc 5:10-17). It is impossible to find satisfaction in it, and all the more difficult to find peace. When death meets us, there is nothing that we have acquired on this earth that we can carry away with us. Just as we came, so shall we go (Ecc 5:16). Although we have been talking about life in its final sense, life still goes on, and we must live it with wisdom in mind, rather than “in darkness with much vexation and sickness and anger.” (Ecc 5:17)
Finally, Qoheleth reminds us again that life under the sun is actually a gift of God (Ecc 5:18-20) through our ability to enjoy and do good, to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in our work. Our lives should be marked by this idea that God is the giver of gifts. Being content, staying faithful, and enjoying hard work should be things that we are good at!
The Christian life should be marked by great joy as seen through a habit of thanksgiving. Do people know you for your thankfulness? For your contentment? For your delight in hard work? Let us strive to make these our habits.
In doing these things under the sun, we also know that we have life above the sun. We must do both – live life with joyful contentment under the sun, but also know what life is like above the sun! We must make it a point to know God in a special and personal way. With that said, these things are often easier said than done. Accomplishing it without God-given wisdom remains a distant pipe dream.
This brings us to consider the wisdom of Qoheleth, who had the presence of mind to present these profound truths in such an articulate manner. If Qoheleth really were Solomon, it would be no surprise that he was able to make these truths known, for Solomon was the wisest King to have ever lived (1 King 3:12). Solomon ruled Israel at its apex, and was both the purveyor and beneficiary of Israel’s greatness. As one who received such favor, such God-given wisdom, and such splendor from God, it is no wonder that we often associate him with the idea of greatness.
However, Matt 11:7-11 reveals a fascinating insight to the nature of true greatness. John the Baptist, who had neither royal robes nor gleaming gold, is described as the greatest among those born of women! It might come as a shock to some that the wisest man who oversaw Israel at its zenith was lesser than the locust-eating Prophet, but that is exactly how the Bible describes John the Baptist!
But that’s not all. The craziest part comes in Matt 11:11b, which tells us that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist! How could it be remotely possible that the least of us in God’s kingdom is greater than the Prophet John, who was greater than Israel’s greatest King and wisest man?
Once again, that is exactly how the Bible describes it in no uncertain terms. The reason why this is possible is because those who live in the kingdom of heaven live above the sun. And until Jesus came down from above the sun, no one truly knew what it was like to live above the sun. The greatest that the least in the kingdom of heaven has is not by virtue of supreme wisdom, but by virtue of the greatest found in Jesus Christ!
Jesus himself fleshed out this profound truth in Matt 13:44 through the parable of the Hidden Treasure. In it, a man finds treasure hidden in a field, covers it up, and then in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. This transaction isn’t done with night-market haggling or miserly calculations. It is done with unabated joy and unspeakable joy! This is because knowing Jesus – the kingdom of heaven – makes you content in all circumstances.
When you know what you truly have in life above the sun, it can cost you everything and you will still be content! But what is far better than mere contentment is pure joy – a joy that fills your heart when you know that the reward is so much greater than the task.
Friends, what is your reward?
O Jesus, to know You, serve You, love You, and be loved by You is my greatest reward.
Written by Joshua Tay. Part 4 of 5. Find the rest of the studies here.