Our days flow by without much change or newness. We live our lives with one thing after another, and what does it all mean? By grace, God in Christ enters our time and makes the times of our lives into God’s good time. Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s strangest books. It is one of the few places in the Bible where ideas of Greek philosophy seem to seep in. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” begins Ecclesiastes (3:1). Life on earth consists of predictable, sequential seasons. There is a time for this and a time for that. The time of our lives works through a cycle. As you know, the Hebrews had a more linear view of time. Time begins with the creation of the world and one day God shall bring things to a conclusion.
Ecclesiastes is often appreciated as beautiful poetry, but when we read it critically, it can sound like rather meaningless and bleak poetry. What does it all amount to? It is not only a rather dismal view of life but also a view of time that is at odds with much of the rest of the scripture. Therefore this is a rather depressing reading. Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes decides that there is nothing better than for us to try to be happy, eating and drinking and trying to take some pleasure in our work.
The book of Revelation (21:1-6) contains a much more typically Jewish view of time. Time will be brought to a grand consummation by the creator of the world. The one who created the heavens and the earth will create a new heaven and earth. The vast, dark, and chaotic sea will be “no more” (21:1). The grand holy city, the new Jerusalem, shall come down out of heaven. There will be no more crying and weeping. The great distance between God and humanity will be overcome and God will dwell with humanity (21:3-4).
As time-bound, time-dominated finite creatures, the theologian Karl Barth said that humanity “has no beyond” (Church Dogmatics, III, 2, p. 632). We are dust, even now, we are rapidly returning to dust. All we have is the moment and we have no beyond. Humanity is momentary. Only God has a beyond. And that means that only God can do something about our human problem with time. When the Word was made flesh in the Incarnation, eternity took time and defeated time’s futility.
We are not redeemed away from time but as Paul says in Galatians, God moves into time, adopts our time, redeems us from time’s ravages, and generates “the fullness of time.” That’s the main reason why the church attempts to help us take time in the name of Jesus by demanding that we follow the church year. From Jews, Christians got the notion that time begins and ends in God’s own good time.
I keep learning about God’s timing (it is His, not mine). I did a funeral once for a man that couldn’t afford a funeral. They had called and asked if I would do the funeral. I have buried many a poor person, so that was never an issue. What ran through my mind was the fact they never attended Hillside, but attended three other churches in Wichita. It is way too small of a community not to know these things. Why Hillside and not one of the other three? I don’t understand God’s timing or reasoning, but I remain faithful.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard was among the first to note that the Jewish and Christian views of time are very different from the pagan. In Christianity the believer seeks not to rise above time or to escape time, but rather to hear the command of God in time, like Abraham heard God calling him on a starry night. Thus the Gospels depict Jesus as an intrusion into time. Time flows along normally until Jesus sets foot on the scene.
The Greeks marveled that time was full of pattern, recurrence, and the eternal return. The first historian, Thucydides, said that the task of the historian was to cut through the flux of time and place and the confusing, odd particularities of human events and find universally recurring patterns. Armed with knowledge of these patterns, the historian could rise above the seemingly senselessness of contemporary events and, because one had uncovered the eternally recurring patterns of history, one could get a grip on history, one could change the course of history. Jews and Christians believe that history tends to plod along in its accustomed ruts – until God shows up. And that intervention of God changes everything.
God doesn’t play very much of a role in the book of Ecclesiastes. Here God is mentioned as the one who gives us our days, and it is said here that God has been busy from the beginning of time, but we can’t figure out just what God does among us. God is the one who has “put past and future” into our minds. God has created us as people who know the passage of time, and yet God has also created us as people with limits: “They cannot know what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
Maybe we need to trust God to order each of our days!